The controversy over the Guggenheim’s ‘Art and China after 1989’ show highlights animal rights activists as one of art’s most ‘engaged’ audiences
In his 2015 book Deconstructing Contemporary Chinese Art, the scholar Paul Gladston asks the artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu whether they consider there to be a difference in response to their works from Chinese and Western audiences. Sun – whose work with Peng since the late 1990s has often involved acts of violence against both living and dead animals, as well as human babies – replies that criticism from ‘moralists’ is part of the game: ‘I am not concerned with the different views of Chinese and Western audiences, rather, with their similarities. I am concerned with whether the viewer is able to break their existing moral boundaries when looking at our work. What is the function of morality?’
This question was put to the test in ‘Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World’, a major survey exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim Museum which opened on 6 October. Among the works originally included in the exhibition was a 2003 documentation video of a performance-installation by Sun and Peng, titled Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other. In the seven-minute video, which was filmed at a museum in Beijing, four sets of pit bulls, trained as fighting dogs, are tethered to treadmills. The dogs run on the treadmills, facing each other and panting at increasing speeds, but never actually touch. The artists have remarked that their decision to use these dogs mirror the regulated sporting events of humans, such as the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Their argument is that certain conventions – intense training for human athletic competitions, for instance – are simply accepted, that their moral valence remains unquestioned.
Following a preview of the exhibition published in the New York Times on 20 September, the museum was flooded with demands that Sun and Peng’s video be taken down, along with Xu Bing’s A Case Study of Transference (1994), and the eponymous Huang Yong Ping piece, Theater of the World (1993). Each of these works involved in some form or another, the use of live animals in the initial iteration of the work: pigs stamped with letters in Xu’s case, and in Theater of the World, a dome in which insects and reptiles devour each other over the course of the exhibition’s run. Each of these works also emerged from a period of avant-garde experimentation in China during the 1990s in which artists challenged the Chinese government’s attempt to construct a kind of social unity via a return to traditional Confucian principles of deference, which went hand in hand with a reactionary authoritarian turn to rectify the social unrest that had resulted from decades of rapid modernization from the 1960s to 1980s. The Guggenheim’s exhibition, as curator Alexandra Munroe notes, is intended to capture the period immediately following this transition – between the Tiananmen Massacre and the Beijing Olympics – to convey to audiences how Chinese conceptual artists conveyed their ‘awareness of being…global citizen[s].’
In response to the demands that works be taken down, the Guggenheim initially stood firm, issuing a statement that described the works as ‘intentionally challenging and provocative.’ Yet ultimately the museum pulled the three works from the exhibition prior to its public opening. The decision to remove these works was made, as the Guggenheim’s statement on 25 September sets out, following ‘explicit and repeated threats of violence.’
The decision reflects the increasing influence of animal rights activism within the context of contemporary art. Ironically, in their fervent injunctions against the use of animals in artistic practice, groups such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and other, more militant groups such as the Animal Liberation Front, have become some of contemporary art’s most prominent audiences, demonstrating a specialism in areas of contemporary practice perhaps greater than some curators and patrons. Activists’ willingness to boldly proclaim what art is, and what it isn’t (for example, photographer Sophie Gamand’s #TortureIsNotArt campaign), demonstrates a bravery that disaffected critics often dare not display.
The ‘awareness’ of such campaigns, however, does not extend to substantive engagement with the social and political contexts of the artworks they decry, and this is, in fact, the key to their activism. By capitalizing on the affective dimensions of these works, such groups are able to mobilize quickly and efficiently thanks to the ease of internet activism: at the latest count, over 792,680 people have signed a Change.org petition to remove the offending works from the Guggenheim. It would be astonishing for any institution, even one as sprawling as the Guggenheim, to attract as large an audience for a single show.
Part of animal rights activists’ ability to organize so efficiently lies in their simple, or at least single-minded, argument: animals are off limits for any type of mistreatment, however that is interpreted. In recent years, this has meant sustained and fervent protests over exhibitions ranging from Hermann Nitsch (whose performances often incorporate animal carcasses, entrails and blood) at Mexico City’s Museo Jumex in 2015, to live horses used in a restaging of Jannis Kounellis’s famed Untitled (12 Horses) (1969) at Gavin Brown’s enterprise in New York (also in 2015). Whereas recent strands of contemporary art theory simply speculate on animal-human relations in an increasingly technology-centred, ‘posthuman’ era, animal activists take direct action, calling for an end to exploitative practices against living beings who cannot consent. In a 2007 essay reflecting on the rise of animal activism as a forceful ethical check to artistic practice, the curator and critic Massimiliano Gioni wondered tongue-in-cheek whether ‘one is left to hope for the rise of an artist who will demand that the status of humans be elevated to that of animals.’ But levelling the playing field between humans and non-humans seems to be a case more suited to intellectual introspection than practical action.
There is little point in arguing against the proposition that empathy toward animals is a categorical good. Engagement with the concerns of animals necessarily reflects an ethical concern that institutions rarely consider, let alone prioritize. Yet there is also an uncomfortable, underlying point here: that it is easier to displace our outrage against animal abuse onto institutions who purportedly endorse such abuse, rather than sympathize with the larger issues of political suppression of those within our own species. This is a moral argument too, which lies behind the Guggenheim’s suggestion that the violent and extreme nature of conceptual art in 1990s China was a reaction to a political environment in which freedom of expression was repressed to similar extremes. In response to this, the Guggenheim has positioned itself, rather neatly (as many cultural institutions try to) as a place in which the elements of a ‘just’ society – the freedom for a 'multiplicity of voices' to express themselves – can be enacted.
For all of its claims towards promoting freedom of artistic expression, the Guggenheim is an institution embedded in delicate areas of cultural geopolitics (consider its global franchise model across Venice, Bilbao and Abu Dhabi, not to mention several failed proposals in Rio, Tokyo, and Guadalajara, among others). Its current stance as a bastion of morality and freedom of expression rings slightly hollow, when one recalls the overwhelming opposition to its encroachment in Helsinki and reports of labour abuses in the construction of its Abu Dhabi outpost. Likewise, the militant tone of animal rights activists – PETA President Ingrid Newkirk described viewers of Sun and Peng’s Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other as ‘sick individuals whose twisted whims the Guggenheim should refuse to cater to’ – suggests that their ability to mobilize the public on the basis of an appeal to empathy for animals belies their refusal to grapple with the realities of human life and human suffering.
As advocacy groups, PETA and its cohorts are just playing their part. The Guggenheim’s mission, in contrast, is more nebulous and as a result, subject to much more scrutiny. It has been rightly criticized for failing to live up to one of its key tasks: to provide the proper context and history for its ‘Art and China after 1989’ exhibition. Advocating for ‘freedom of expression’ is both self-aggrandizing and moralistic; seeming to justify the institution’s ever-expansive (and expensive) goals. By extolling its muddled visions for cultural influence, the Guggenheim has lost sight of its curatorial remit.
A battle between two cries of moral outrage is ultimately a battle between paper tigers: each is no more a threat to the other than in their respective posturing. But animal activists’ remarkable ability to mobilize audiences is, in some ways, a refreshing wake-up call to the empty virtue-signalling of recent politically ‘engaged’ art that so often reduces the real concerns of marginalized people to tokenizing acceptance. And as the Guggenheim debacle indicates, when animal advocacy groups begin to levy real threats of violence against members of cultural institutions, the paper tiger shows its teeth have bite.
Main image: Huang Yong Ping, Theater of the World, 1993-2005, metal, wood, insects, reptiles, 66 x 295 x 175 cm, installation view of the exhibition ‘House of Oracles’, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, US, 2005. Courtesy: the artist and kamel mennour Paris/London; Photograph: Gene Pittman, Guggenheim Collection