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On Valentine’s Day, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden had planned to project a piece onto the exterior of its building, night two of the artwork’s three-evening run. Krzysztof Wodiczko’s projection, which first appeared on the museum 30 years ago, was to serve as the flag to celebrate the opening of the Hirshhorn’s new survey, Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s.
Wodiczko’s work—“Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC, 1988–2000”—skewers the political ruling class. The 68-foot-tall photo projection shows a faceless figure at a press podium. While the politico can’t be seen behind the cluster of microphones, his cuffed arms extend forward beyond the lectern, in balled fists that span the side of the museum building. In his left hand the man holds a candle; in his right, a revolver.
After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a former student was charged with using an AR-15 assault rifle to kill 17 people and injure at least 14 more, the museum cancelled its suddenly topical projection. Just before sundown, the Hirshhorn announced that it would postpone the remaining nights until a later date. The decision was later amended to include the artist’s approval. “To me, the silence feels most respectful,” said Wodiczko, in a statement provided by the Hirshhorn. “In this case, not showing the projection shows respect and sensitivity to the people who suffer from this great tragedy.”
But something unexpected happened after the massacre in Parkland. The survivors did not observe even a moment of silence. Through press interviews and social media, these traumatized teens are telling anyone who will listen that they aren’t accepting any more thoughts and prayers. They are politicizing their own tragedy: Working with organizers from the Women’s March, students from the Broward County high school have called for nationwide school walkouts, a meeting with state leaders in Tallahassee, and a march on Washington on March 24 to protest congressional inaction.
Young survivors of the nation’s latest mass shooting are blaming the silence of their betters for the horror and grief they are now processing. For their part, the adults at the Hirshhorn (and the Smithsonian Institution) must now speak up. Whether the Hirshhorn leadership acted out of an abundance of caution and sensitivity, or under pressure from the Castle, the museum can’t escape the politics of the artwork—or the gravity of the gun debate. One typical response in the Hirshhorn’s mentions on Twitter: “Out of respect for the sensitive feelings of the NRA, Krzysztof Wodiczko will turn off his projector—lest anyone think art MEANS something.”
In the aftermath of the Parkland massacre, survivors are organizing demonstrations at a scale and speed that might have proven unthinkable before the Trump era. Before, the museum’s decision to lay low might have skirted controversy, or at least avoided making waves in the gun debate. (This is to say nothing of the uncomfortable idea of hiding art away whenever it matters.) But the victims of the Parkland shooting are saying, rightly, that silence is political, offensive, and dangerous. (In the Brand New exhibit on view at the Hirshhorn, a 1987 neon from the early AIDS crisis spells it out: SILENCE = DEATH.)
Robin Bell says that the Hirshhorn should restore the Wodiczko projection as soon as possible. In fact, he didn’t wait for the museum to act. The D.C.–based artist, who has built a national name for his own light projections—anti-Trump puns and slogans he shines on the façades of the Trump International Hotel, the Environmental Protection Agency headquarters, et al.—projected an image of Wodiczko’s original onto a storefront wall in his Mount Pleasant neighborhood the night of February 15. Bell considered projecting it onto the Hirshhorn itself (and has the means to do it), but he felt that would be disrespectful to the artist and museum. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Lelong, New York.
“I wanted to give [the Hirshhorn] a healthy prod,” Bell says. “Or, if they’re feeling pressure to have stopped it, to let them know, hey, there’s a lot of people who think you shouldn’t have stopped it.” He says that he has reached out to Wodiczko about projecting the piece somewhere else or using the image for projects still underway.
Bell is reviving the role played by artist Rockne Krebs back in 1989, when the Corcoran Gallery of Art canceled a photography exhibit by Robert Mapplethorpe. Krebs projected works from the planned show onto the façade of the Corcoran to protest the decision by Christina Orr-Cahall, the museum’s director, to bow to political pressure from the notorious Senator Jesse Helms. (In fact, when Helms learned of the museum’s decision, he protested: His office called Orr-Cahall to express his displeasure that the museum had ruined a perfectly good opportunity for grandstanding.)
While the Hirshhorn won’t say who made the decision to pull Wodiczko’s piece, if the Smithsonian indeed intervened, it would not be the first time. In December 2010, then-Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough ordered the National Portrait Gallery to remove “A Fire in My Belly” (1986–87), a video by David Wojnarowicz, after a conservative organization founded by activist Brent Bozell ginned up a manufactured controversy. The Smithsonian rebuked Clough in 2011 and instituted new guidelines to prevent censorship. However, those rules have sometimes resulted in preemptive restrictions instead.
Two years ago, for example, the Smithsonian pressed several artists for changes to artworks to avoid touching off even a purely hypothetical controversy. Over Memorial Day weekend in 2016, the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center hosted a pop-up show on intersectionality at the Arts and Industries Building. Gregg Deal, a Native American artist, has said that the Smithsonian’s Office of Public Affairs asked him whether he intended to use the Washington professional football team in his work, according to a story that appeared in The Huffington Post. Further, the Castle asked that his work be vetted by Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian. For the same show, the Castle reportedly rejected multiple proposals by Anida Yoeu Ali, a Muslim artist, for a performance in which she would appear in a glittery red chador. To earn final approval for the performance, she has said she had to sign a contract swearing that she would not speak.
It’s easy to see how Smithsonian (or Hirshhorn) leaders might get spooked about how Republicans might respond to Wodiczko’s piece. The left hand holds a candle (and wears a wedding ring), offering up purity and platitudes, even as the other hand points a Smith and Wesson revolver at the viewer. The man’s French cuffs and cufflinks (and white skin tone) signal official power. So does the Lerner Room, the Hirshhorn’s premiere event space, whose windows peer out just over the cluster of mics in Wodiczko’s projection. The placement is a subtle implication of art’s role in crafting cultural narratives (and the role that power plays in building museums).
The Hirshhorn turned Wodiczko’s subtext into text by withdrawing his artwork to avoid making a relevant point in an important conversation. With that decision, the Hirshhorn backed itself into a corner. It underscored the interpretation that the piece condemns the people in power who facilitate mass gun violence—a point that will only be emphasized by whichever date the Hirshhorn chooses to restore the projection. If it can only happen on a date that’s not too soon to discuss a mass shooting in America, then it might never happen.
The best time for Wodiczko’s projection—if not every day through May 13—might be the last week of March. That’s when Paul and Molly Ruppert, longtime arts supporters and the owners of a string of businesses in Petworth, are planning to host artworks and projects protesting gun violence at their Upshur Street NW businesses, including the Petworth Citizen Reading Room, Upshur Books, and the windows of Slim’s Diner. “Artists in D.C. are ready to add their protest to what we see as the emerging involvement and leadership of high school and college students,” Molly Ruppert says.
Nobody expects the Hirshhorn to comment on gun legislation or host a protest on the National Mall. But the museum must stand up for artworks that make claims about divisive issues. (The museum was hosting a panel on the First Amendment the night they suspended Wodiczko’s projection.) Political or provocative art may draw the ire of partisans, but to withdraw from the debate is to take a partisan position—so neutrality isn’t an option. It’s also not a concern for the Hirshhorn. The museum’s mission is to support its artworks and artists and their right to speak up about the world. Even, especially, when that speech is inconvenient.