Hirshhorn Museum Postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko Project After Parkland Shooting
The institution has delayed showing the work for fear of giving offense, but their U-turn sends a muddled message.
Krzysztof Wodiczko, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC, 1988. © Krzysztof Wodiczko. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York
Generating far more public attention than it would have had it stuck with its original plan, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., announced late yesterday that, in the wake of Wednesday's tragic shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, it had changed its mind about restaging the outdoor projection of Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC (1988) by Polish, New York- and Cambridge, Massachusetts-based artist Krzysztof Wodiczko.
The three-story-high, 68-foot-wide work was slated to appear from February 13 to 15 on the museum's cylindrical façade, as part of Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, an exhibition exploring the collision of art and marketing that opened on Valentine’s Day. In sepia tones suggesting a certain historicity, the projection depicts four microphones flanked by two hands. One of the hands aims a pistol at the audience. The other holds a lit candle, of the sort held at a post-massacre vigil. About the hypothetical shooter/mourner in the work, we know only that he has white skin; he’s in a smart suit, judging by his cufflinks; and he’s married, judging by a gold band on his left ring finger. Hence, presumably some manner of upstanding dude in an authoritative position, not your run-of-the-mill, gun-wielding assailant, but a double-talking politician trying to have it both ways at the same time, perhaps.
The three-day 2018 run of Wodiczko’s Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC was cut short and indefinitely postponed, as it would seem the museum presumes it attracts an audience that can’t handle bearing symbolic witness to a firearm (as though the collective cultural imaginary has never seen such a thing before) following the 30th mass shooting of this year alone (defining a mass shooting as one that results in more than four people dead). The two hands in Wodiczko’s piece imply, in addition to class, race, and gender, some manner of debate. The microphones, of course, suggest that there’s something to be said here, two incompatible sides. Gun violence, after all, is nothing new. Nor, obviously, is the seemingly interminable debate regarding gun control. The large scale of Wodiczko’s projection clearly suggests the monumental importance of its subject.
Prior to the exhibition’s opening and hence prior to the Florida shootings, Hirshhorn chief curator Stéphane Aquin stated, with no particular urgency, that Wodiczko’s Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC speaks to “policies of life and policies of death, of firings [of guns], of greivings [ sic.], of communities coming together in various ways.” And so, he concluded, “Wodiczko’s work still is relevant today, as much as it is a seminal piece of art history. Gun, candle, microphones, media, culture, sway people one way or the other. Thirty years after, we’ve lost and forgotten about the original context… But it’s still relevant. People will relate to this work in various ways, depending on how they perceive these symbols.”
The removal of Wodiczko’s Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC is, in a sense, nothing new. The Hirshhorn has a Pavlovian history of jumping the gun to eliminate controversy. In 2010, the institution removed David Wojnarowicz’s Fire In My Belly, a super-8 film that offended the Catholic League and Congressional Republicans with black-and-white footage of ants crawling on a crucifix, as commentary on the AIDS epidemic, from Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. Even the Hirshhorn’s director, Melissa Chiu, had her Wikipedia page whitewashed in 2015 by her husband, Benjamin Genocchio, the former director of the Armory Fair who was relieved of his position due to sexual harassment allegations. The deleted information there had to do with the fact that Hirshhorn curator-at-large Gianni Jetzer—organizer of the exhibition including the Wodiczko projection—not only operates out of New York City but that he also serves as curator for Art Basel, posing conflicts of interest for a federally funded, D.C.-based institution.
Information and images travel much faster now than when the Hirshhorn was founded, a time when cable TV qualified as cutting-edge technology. Then, as now, however, it may be worth considering that the public can handle (and will notice) more than the institution gives it credit for, and that by taking down an artwork in 2018, it’s only bound to go viral and garner more scrutiny than if they’d just left it alone.