Late Monday evening, the Guggenheim Museum surrendered to activists and animal lovers around the country, making the decision to pull three works from a highly anticipated art exhibition that many say showcased, even celebrated, animal abuse.
The exhibition, “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World,” is planned for a three-month showing beginning October 6 at the Manhattan museum.
Until Monday’s decision, the exhibition included several works that struck a serious chord with animal rights activists and advocates around the country for their portrayal of abuse.
In one such work entitled “Dogs Which Cannot Touch Each Other,” artists Peng Yu and Sun Yuan tethered four pairs of American pit bulls to eight wooden treadmills for a live exhibit. The dogs faced off against one another, running “at” each other but prevented from touching one another, which is a stressful and frustrating experience for animals trained to fight. The dogs get wearier and wearier, their muscles more and more prominent, and their mouths increasingly salivate. At this live 2003 “performance” in China, a video was recorded, complete with close-up shots of the dogs’ frantic, foaming faces. The 7-minute video was scheduled to be on display at the Guggenheim during the exhibit, it has since been pulled.
In another example, artist Xu Bing stamped characters all over the bodies of two pigs, a boar and a sow, who were put on display, mating, in a museum exhibit in Beijing in 1994. The Guggenheim planned to feature the video of that “performance” as well. That work, entitled ““A Case Study in Transference,” was also pulled after pushback from animal advocates.
And the third installation pulled, Huang Yong Ping’s “Theater of the World,” was to feature live animals (reptiles, amphibians, insects) trapped inside a glass enclosure for attendee viewing. According to a NY Times article, “During the three-month exhibition some creatures will be devoured; others may die of fatigue. The big ones will survive. From time to time, a New York City pet shop will replenish the menagerie with new bugs.”
The American Kennel Club made a public statement in opposition of the upcoming exhibition, saying, “Dog fighting is unacceptable and should not be displayed in any manner and certainly not as art. Depictions of animal cruelty are not art. Using live dogs in depictions of animal cruelty is not art, nor is it healthy for the dogs involved. It creates a perilous, damaging and stressful environment. Dogs are our sacred companions and as advocates for them and their protection, we strongly urge the Guggenheim to reconsider including this piece as part of their exhibition.”
On Monday, the President of PETA wrote in a letter to the Director of the Guggenheim that, “people who find entertainment in watching animals try to fight each other are sick individuals whose twisted whims the Guggenheim should refuse to cater to. PETA has seen dogs after they have been forced to fight—mangled, bloody, soaked with urine and saliva, unable to walk and barely able to stand …. Dogfighting is reprehensible, and it’s up to each of us to do what we can to stop it. The Guggenheim can do its part by simply refusing to display exhibitions that encourage such abuse to animals.”
And to a Change.org petition addressed to decision-makers at the Guggenheim, that over the weekend garnered more than 370,000 signatures, said the exhibition was set to feature several distinct instances of unmistakable cruelty to animals in the name of art.
While animal rights activists and advocates are thrilled that the works are being removed from the exhibition, they are dismayed that the Guggenheim pulled the installations – not because of their portrayal of animal abuse, but out of fear for the safety of the museum’s staff, visitors, and artists.
In a statement posted to their website, the Guggenheim said, “although these works have been exhibited in museums in Asia, Europe and the United States, the Guggenheim regrets that explicit and repeated threats of violence have made our decision necessary. As an arts institution committed to presenting a multiplicity of voices, we are dismayed that we must withhold works of art. Freedom of expression has always been and will remain a paramount value of the Guggenheim.”
Although many of the exhibits have been shown around the world, this is not the first time they have faced criticism from animal rights’ groups. In 2007, Huang Yong Ping, who created “Theater of the World,” withdrew the installation from a Vancouver art show after activists demanded he remove certain animals from the exhibit.
The remaining exhibition will begin its 3-month showing at the Guggenheim on October 6, 2017.