In just over a week, the Guggenheim will open a highly divisive show called “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” which has been derided in recent days by critics appalled by its use of animals.
The issue stems primarily from a video called “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other,” a seven-minute installation from artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu that depicts four pairs of pit bulls trying fruitlessly to attack one another from wooden treadmills. The piece actually featured live dogs when it debuted in 2003 in Beijing, but animal rights supporters are no less upset by the video version. A Change.org petition has reached nearly 500,000 signatures, and PETA today sent a letter to the museum’s director, Richard Armstrong, beseeching him to rethink the exhibit. It reads:
People who find entertainment in watching animals try to fight each other are sick individuals whose twisted whims the Guggenheim should refuse to cater to. PETA has seen dogs after they have been forced to fight—mangled, bloody, soaked with urine and saliva, unable to walk and barely able to stand, and covered with cuts, bruises, and scars. The “losers” of these disgusting fights are often killed by their handlers. Dogfighting is reprehensible, and it’s up to each of us to do what we can to stop it. The Guggenheim can do its part by simply refusing to display exhibitions that encourage such abuse to animals.
Also slammed by PETA is a piece entitled “Theater of the World,” by Huang Yong Ping, which will feature live insects and reptiles that will, as The Dodo puts it, “fight and eat each other through the duration of the show.” A spokesperson told the Huffington Post that “the insects were sourced in consultation with local experts; all are non-venomous. The reptiles have been selected and are cared for by trained professionals, including regular observation by a veterinarian.”
The museum has not responded PETA’s letter, though on Thursday it did double down on its decision to proceed with the show as planned, writing in a statement:
Reflecting the artistic and political context of its time and place, “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other” is an intentionally challenging and provocative artwork that seeks to examine and critique systems of power and control.
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.
Yuan and Yu have a history of creating inflammatory works, including one in which a tiger was kept inside an enclosure at a gallery. Still, the artists have justified their projects, with Yeng having written in the past:
“Were the dogs being abused? The answer should be no. These dogs are naturally pugnacious.”