Guggenheim, Bowing to Animal-Rights Activists, Pulls Works From Show
By MATTHEW HAAGSEPT. 25, 2017
Photo Huang Yong Ping’s “Theater of the World,” which features live insects and reptiles. Credit Huang Yong Ping/Guggenheim Abu Dhabi
Facing an avalanche of criticism, the Guggenheim surrendered late Monday and said it would remove three major works from a highly anticipated exhibition of art by Chinese conceptual artists, including the signature piece of the show, which opens next month.
The museum, in Manhattan, made the decision after it had come under unrelenting pressure from animal-rights supporters and critics over works in the exhibition, “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World.” Protesters marched outside the museum over the weekend, and an online petition demanding “cruelty-free exhibits” at the Guggenheim had been signed by more than half a million people as of Monday night.
The three works, which all involve animals, are “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other,” “Theater of the World” and “A Case Study of Transference.” The pieces were among about 150 works selected for the show, mostly experimental art and many of them shocking, intended to challenge authority and use animals, in video, to call attention to the violence of humankind.
The museum planned to show a video of “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other,” in which four pairs of dogs try to fight one another but struggle to touch because they are on nonmotorized treadmills, and a video of “A Case Study of Transference,” which shows two pigs having sex before an audience. But “Theater of the World” was the signature work of the show and was going to feature hundreds of live insects and reptiles milling under an overhead lamp.
Xu Bing’s “A Case Study of Transference,” 1994. The artwork originally featured live pigs, but the Guggenheim was going to use a video of the Beijing performance. Credit Xu Bing
The museum said the works were being removed “out of concern for the safety of its staff, visitors and participating artists.”
“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,” it said in a statement posted on its website. “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.”
Criticism of the show grew quickly online, on social media and on animal-rights websites, with the initial focus on “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other.” The museum tried to quell the backlash last Thursday, releasing a statement acknowledging that the work was difficult to view but encouraging patrons to consider what the piece “may be saying about the social conditions of globalization and the complex nature of the world we share.”
A spokeswoman for the museum said Thursday that “it was not a question that it would stay in the exhibition.”
But the criticism only grew over the weekend. On Monday, the president of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said that only “sick individuals” could enjoy watching “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other,” and the American Kennel Club said that dogfighting “should not be displayed in any manner and certainly not as art.”
Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other,” a seven-minute video with eight American pit bulls on eight treadmills. Credit Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, Beijing, Les Moulins, Habana
Two works removed by the Guggenheim have come under previous criticism.
Huang Yong Ping, who created “Theater of the World,” withdrew it from a show in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2007 rather than comply with a request from an animal rights group to remove scorpions and tarantulas from it.
Mr. Huang said by telephone from Paris that he had no comment on the Guggenheim’s action. He said the museum had not informed him about the decision to withdraw his piece.
“I am hearing about this for the first time,” he said.
Peng Yu, who created “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other” with her husband, Sun Yuan, denied her art was animal cruelty.
“These dogs are naturally pugnacious,” Ms. Peng said in an interview last year.
Reached in Beijing on Tuesday, Ms. Peng blamed the controversy on a recent article about the exhibition. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” she said, adding that the dogs were examined by veterinarians before and after they were used in the performance.
The Guggenheim originally agreed to include the third piece, “A Case Study of Transference,” but only as a video of a Beijing performance. The boar and sow are stamped with gibberish composed of nonsensical English words and invented Chinese characters — intended to make patrons consider the relationship between the West and China.
Jane Perlez and Zoe Moe contributed from Beijing.
Follow Matthew Haag on Twitter: @matthewhaag.
A version of this article appears in print on September 26, 2017, on Page A25 of the New York edition with the headline: Guggenheim, Bowing to Animal-Rights Activists, Pulls Works From Coming Show. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe