What to Know About the Controversy Surrounding the Chinese Art Exhibit Coming to the Guggenheim

As questions of animal cruelty, artistic freedom swirl, three major works were pulled from “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World”

Could New York be the Gotham we prize without the Guggenheim? Jean-Christophe BENOIST/Wikimedia Commons

Last week, the Guggenheim museum in New York City was moving ahead with its plans to launch a major exhibition of contemporary Chinese art. Then came the protestors, a petition and, according to museum officials, disconcerting threats of violence. The outrage, reports Laurel Wamsley of NPR, stemmed from three works involving live animals, which critics lambasted as cruel. In the face of mounting pressure, the Guggenheim announced this week that it would be pulling the contentious pieces from the exhibition.

"Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World," as the exhibit is titled, explores the evocative, experimental movement of Chinese art that emerged from the shadow of the Cold War. When the show launches on October 6, it will run without three major planned works—including one that inspired the exhibit’s name.

"Theater of the World," the titular work by Huang Yong Ping, features a large domed structure filled with hundreds of insects and reptiles—many of which are at risk of getting eaten as visitors look on. "A Case Study of Transference" by Xu Bing, which has also been removed, consists of footage of two pigs mating in front of an audience. The pigs’ skin had been stamped with a “gibberish” mix of Roman and Chinese characters, according to Travis M. Andrews of the Chicago Tribune.

The most controversial work was Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s "Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other." Staged at a Beijing museum in 2003, it featured four pairs of pit bulls tied to treadmills. As they run furiously towards each other, the dogs try to attack, but they cannot touch. The Guggenheim had planned to display a seven-minute video of the original show.

Last week, a Change.org petition condemned the Guggenheim for featuring “several distinct instances of unmistakable cruelty against animals in the name of art,” and called on the museum to “pull the pieces employing these cruel methods from your upcoming show.” The petition garnered more than 720,000 signatures.

Responding to the particularly fervent criticism concentrated on "Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other," the Guggenheim published a statement last Thursday saying that while it recognized that “the work may be upsetting,” it would not remove the piece from the exhibition.

“'Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other' is an intentionally challenging and provocative artwork that seeks to examine and critique systems of power and control,” the statement read. “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.”

In spite of the museum’s plea, passions continued to flare. On Saturday, protestors gathered outside the museum. On Monday, Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), released on open letter calling on Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong to pull the controversial pieces.

“These animals experience every emotion that you, I, and our beloved dogs and cats do,” Newkirk wrote. “They’re emotionally complex and highly intelligent living beings, not props. The animals in these exhibits are not willing participants, and no one should force sentient beings into stressful situations for ‘art’ or ‘sport.’”

Also on Monday, the Guggenheim announced that it had revoked its earlier decision to keep the artworks in place. The pieces would no longer be featured in the exhibition, the museum said—not because the Guggenheim objected to the content of the works, but because it had been subjected to “explicit and repeated threats of violence" and was concerned for "the safety of its staff, visitors, and participating artists."

The controversy did not end there. As Robin Pogrebin and Sopan Deb of the New York Times report, some artists have spoken out against the Guggenheim’s decision to pull the controversial works, voicing concerns about threats to artistic expression and free speech.

Prominant Chinese artist and free speech advocate Ai Weiwei, who co-curated the exhibition's 10-week documentary film series with documentary filmmaker Wang Fen, spoke with Pogrebin and Deb about his concerns. “When an art institution cannot exercise its right for freedom of speech, that is tragic for a modern society,” he says. “Pressuring museums to pull down artwork shows a narrow understanding about not only animal rights but also human rights.”

In its statement, the Guggenheim expressed a similar sense of exasperation. “As an arts institution committed to presenting a multiplicity of voices, we are dismayed that we must withhold works of art,” it said. “Freedom of expression has always been and will remain a paramount value of the Guggenheim.”

Before the backlash began, curator Alexandra Munroe, who organized the show, sat down with Andrew Goldstein of artnet News. In a two-part interview, she said that the museum expected to receive pushback, but curators felt "prepared." However, she also acknowledged that the reception to "Theater of the World" had been "[t]ough" since it first premiered in 1993.

"In Vancouver, the museum ended up shutting it down because the public outcry was rather intense. We are taking every precaution to avert that," she told Goldstein. But in spite of the work’s difficult history, she said, the Guggenheim decided to open the show with “Theater of the World” because "[i]t introduces the visitor to a kind of visceral realism that is evident in so much of the most important work in this show."

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