Update: The Guggenheim has decided against showing three controversial art installations after extreme Internet backlash.
The museum released a statement on Sept. 25 that reads, “Out of concern for the safety of its staff, visitors, and participating artists, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has decided against showing the art works ‘Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other’ (2003), ‘Theater of the World’ (1993), and ‘A Case Study of Transference’ (1994) in its upcoming exhibition ‘Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World.’ 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. 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.”
The Animal rights group NYCLASS (New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets) also released a statement on the cancellation of parts of the Guggenheim’s exhibition:
“NYCLASS is thrilled that the Guggenheim Museum has decided to cancel the cruel exhibits in ‘Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World.’ The planned exhibits would have trapped live reptiles under glass so the public could watch them be killed, and would have furthered the false stigma that pit bulls are violent killers through depictions of dog fighting. The power of activism was undeniable in this victory — NYCLASS and other animal advocates protested outside the museum, placed a high volume of calls and emails to the museum, and promoted an online petition that received over half a million signatures in just a few days. We hope that other art institutions and museums take note of the fact that there is little public tolerance for art that harms animals.”
Earlier this week, a seven-minute video within the larger art exhibit “Art and China After 1989” received massive backlash before it was even shown to the U.S. public.
The piece, set for a three-month presentation at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum starting Oct. 6, is titled “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other.” The video installment features four sets of dogs who resemble pit bulls, strapped to treadmills and exhaustively charging at each other. The clip, first shown in Beijing in 2003, was created by controversial husband-and-wife artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu.
New York’s PIX 11 News reports that the dog video, which is part of 150 different art pieces, is generating so much controversy that many animal activist groups, and even some artists, are either actively protesting the exhibition or currently planning to protest it.
Sophie Gamand, a popular artist and photographer who features dogs in her work, has launched the hashtags #TortureIsNotArt and #GuggenheimTortureIsNotArt on social media in criticism of the museum’s decision to show the video. She has also created a petition on Change.org.
#TortureIsNotArt!!! Please repost and let’s make some 🥊 (UPDATE: petition linked in my bio!). This WTF moment is brought to you by the @guggenheim. They are about to open an exhibit on Chinese contemporary art, and according to the @nytimes, one of their pieces is a seven-minute video (from 2003) with eight dogs on treadmills, facing each other, “one of (the artists’) less radical pieces”. I haven’t been able to see the video, but read several descriptions. Apparently the dogs (claimed to be pit bulls but the photos I saw showed a variety of mixes, including a female who had clearly been bred recently) are harnessed onto treadmills, then a cardboard barrier is lifted and the dogs face each other, “attempt to attack the ones they face, but they manage only to activate the treadmills, on which they run nonstop”. NY Times wrote: “The camera closes in on the animals as they face each other, running at high speed. The dogs are prevented from touching one another, a frustrating experience for animals trained to fight. The dogs get wearier and wearier, their muscles more and more prominent, and their mouths increasingly salivate”. 👉👉👉 Please, join my #TortureIsNotArt #GuggenheimTortureIsNotArt campaign (make sure to tag @Guggenheim), and help spread the message that we don’t want to see living creatures being tortured for entertainment. 👉👉👉 contact the Guggenheim Museum: 212 423 3500, email email@example.com. 👉👉👉 sign the petition in my bio . The piece is from 2003, so most likely none of these dogs are still alive. I don’t know if they were fighting dogs, so it bugs me that NY Times goes straight to that assumption just because they are “pit bulls”, but that’s the least of my worries. I am pretty open-minded, and being an artist I understand the importance of expression, pushing boundaries, etc. Since yesterday I have tried to “see their side”, before posting this. But I have come to the conclusion that if you cannot spread your message without torturing living creatures, you’ve missed the point of creation entirely. In a way, I hope this is a publicity stunt from the Guggenheim… and we are about to give them publicity. 👎🙌 (check my Facebook post for links)
While Gamand admits she hasn’t viewed the video yet herself, she takes issue with the New York Times’ description of it as frustrated dogs tethered to the treadmills, getting “wearier and wearier, their muscles more and more prominent, and their mouths increasingly salivate.”
Gamand tells PIX 11 News, “Art, you know, has the power to provoke and challenge and push boundaries, and that’s amazing and we need to protect that … but we also need to hold ourselves and our institutions accountable for the work that’s being disseminated and the message that’s being put out there.”
The ASPCA agrees. In a statement to PIX 11 News, the animal welfare organization’s president said, “[The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] opposes the use of animals in art if such practices produce pain, injury or distress to the animals … The video perpetuates the false stereotype that pit bulls are only purposeful as vicious dog fighting instruments, not as what they are at their core: affectionate and loyal animals who crave our attention and deserve safe and loving homes.”
The Guggenheim, meanwhile, released a statement on Sept. 21 defending its decision to host the artwork. In part, the release says, “Contrary to some reports, no fighting occurred in the original performance and the presentation at the Guggenheim is in video format only; it is not a live event … 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.”
In addition to the dog video, the Huffington Post reports that another exhibit within “Art and China After 1989” called “Theater of the World” by Huang Yong Ping that was under fire for its use of “hundreds of live reptiles and insects [that] devour each other over the course of the show.”
Additionally, a video of mating pigs covered in ink faced backlash as well.