There’s still a little over a week left before the Guggenheim Museum in New York opens its survey show “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” but already the show has been the subject of several statements from activists decrying works in the show for that their use of live animals, either in their presentation or production. Two new statements have been released in recent days: one from the American Kennel Club regarding the Peng Yu and Sun Yuan video Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003), and another from Stephen F. Eisenman, an art history professor at Northwestern University, that addresses the ethics of exhibiting that work and two others, by Xu Bing and Huang Yong Ping.
The statements follow a Change.org petition from last week protesting the Peng and Sun work, Xu Bing’s A Case Study in Transference (1993/94), and Huang Yong Ping’s Theater of the World (1993), all of which currently incorporate or have incorporated live animals. “Guggenheim – tell the world what you stand for: bold, controversial art that breaks barriers and challenges social norms, which does NOT include the promotion of cruelty against innocent beings,” the petition’s writer, Stephanie Lewis, concludes. At this time of writing, the petition has over 450,000 signatures.
Of the works in question, Peng and Sun’s video has proven most controversial. The seven-minute video documents a 2003 performance at a Beijing museum in which four pairs of pit bulls were placed on treadmills. Facing each other at opposite ends of the room, the dogs were made to run at another. While the performance is not being restaged for the Guggenheim show (a blockbuster survey of Chinese art since 1989 that was curated by Alexandra Munroe with Hou Hanru and Philip Tinari), the video has become a talking point for such animal rights groups as the American Kennel Club, which has made the following statement:
The American Kennel Club is deeply concerned about the “Dogs [That] Cannot Touch Each Other” video that is a part of the upcoming “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” exhibit at the Guggenheim. 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.
In a statement from September 21, the Guggenheim wrote, “We recognize that the work may be upsetting. The curators of the exhibition hope that viewers will consider why the artists produced it and what they may be saying about the social conditions of globalization and the complex nature of the world we share.” Asked for a response to the American Kennel Club’s statement, the Guggenheim referred back to its earlier statement.
Xu Bing’s A Case Study in Transference (1994), a series of photographs documenting a performance in which the artist temporarily tattooed text onto pigs, and Huang Yong Ping’s Theater of the World (1993) have also been controversial. But this is not the first time the Huang work—which the Guggenheim does, indeed, plan to restage for its show—has been met with a hostile response. The installation takes the form of a see-through octagonal cage that viewers can peer into. Inside the cage are live amphibians, insects, and reptiles that, over the course of the show’s run, will prey on each other. In 2007, a version of the work at a Vancouver Art Gallery retrospective for Huang included scorpions, tarantulas, lizards, and cockroaches, and similarly became a talking point in the art world. The museum ultimately decided to remove the animals from the work, but left behind the cage structure, “to maintain the integrity of the work,” the Vancouver Art Gallery wrote in a statement.
In an open letter to Munroe, Eisenman, who has written two books on the ethics of making art with animals, urges the Guggenheim to reconsider showing all three works. He cites a 2011 College Art Association statement about art and animal rights that notes “No work of art should, in the course of its creation, cause physical or psychological pain, suffering, or distress to an animal.” Eisenman’s letter follows below.
Dear Dr. Munroe,
As the author of The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animals Rights (Reaction: 2014), The Ghosts of Our Meat (DAP, 2014) and numerous scholarly articles on related subjects, I think I have some expertise in the artistic use and representation of animals. For that reason, I hope you will consider my perspective on the controversy surrounding your forthcoming exhibition, Art and China after 1989.
1. Artworks that participate in or enable the abuse of living human subjects are complicit in that cruelty. The same is manifestly true of artworks that enable cruelty to animals.
2. The exhibition of recorded acts of animal cruelty — for example, artists confining dogs in cages or placing them on treadmills and encouraging aggression — is cruelty in the second degree. The artist and museum profit from the display of an earlier act of cruelty and the audience becomes partner to it.
3. While animal cruelty outside the museum is orders of magnitude greater than inside it, artworks presented in respected arenas such as the Guggenheim have great legitimizing force. To enshrine actual cruelty (not a mere imaginative representation of it) is to accept and even promote it.
4. Performances and images of human cruelty toward animals may be found as far away in time and space as ancient Mesopotamia and as near as the grocery store or restaurant near you. To reproduce or re-enact that cruelty in an art museum is not just wanton, it is trite.
5. The forthcoming presentation of works by Peng Su, Sun Yuan, Xu Bing and perhaps others at the Guggenheim is a clear violation of policy approved by the College Art Association concerning the use of animals in artworks and exhibitions. If the exhibition proceeds as planned, the Guggenheim would thereby be liable to sanction by the largest organization of art professionals in the world.
For these five reasons, I would ask you to remove from Art in China or any other forthcoming exhibition, works that include live animals subject to harm, or the video reproduction of artworks that injured or abused animals.
I have copied this letter to dozens of artists, art professionals and animal rights activists. The views expressed in this letter however are purely my own.
Stephen F. Eisenman