New controversy has arisen around the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s decision not to exhibit artworks featuring live animals in its upcoming show “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World.”
“When an art institution cannot exercise its right for freedom of speech, that is tragic for a modern society,” Ai Weiwei told the New York Times. “Pressuring museums to pull down artwork shows a narrow understanding about not only animal rights but also human rights.”
Opening October 6, the exhibition originally included three works that symbolically address oppression in China. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other, 2003, is a video of a performance featuring eight American pit bulls on treadmills that are trying to fight one another, though restraints prevent them from doing so. Xu Bing’s video A Case Study of Transference, 1994, is a video of two pigs copulating in front of spectators. The show’s signature work, Huang Yong Ping’s Theater of the World, 1993, for which it was named, would have involved bringing hundreds of live insects and reptiles into the museum.
Activists had gathered at the museum over the weekend to protest the exhibition, claiming it supports animal cruelty. A petition calling for the removal of the works, which now has more than 700,000 signatures, states: “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.”
When the museum announced that it was going to remove the works from the exhibition, it cited “explicit and repeated threats of violence” that were made against the institution and stated that it decided to prioritize “the safety of its staff, visitors, and participating artists” over its original curatorial vision.
Tom Eccles, executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, told the New York Times that the move was a “chilling effect,” which may set an example for other institutions. Transmedia designer Mohini Dutta added, “It’s sad, but not surprising that a populist institution like the Guggenheim caved, instead of using it as an opportunity to have a larger dialogue about consent, living props, and uncomfortable art.”
Meanwhile, Ingrid Newkirk, the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, praised the decision. “China has no laws protecting animals, so withdrawing these pieces may help the country and its artists recognize that animals are not props and that they deserve respect,” she said.