Every time I think about how we’ve based our entertainment on the torture and disgrace of others, especially of animals, I wonder why we're still here. Animals have always been a crucial part of our development as a species. We all know about how certain creatures are considered sacred for some cultures, while in others they’re just used for consumption or as tools to work. It’s true that for the past decades there’s been a huge shift in perspective regarding how we see animals and how people show more respect towards them. Now, animals are being acknowledged as living creatures with rights. However, there’s still much to do, because many still believe it’s okay to use them for our own selfish benefit, including our stupid ways of entertainment, or in this case, as a “form of art.”
When I started reading about the exhibition I’m going to talk about, I had to corroborate the opening date, since I really couldn’t believe this was actually something that’s going to take place this year. The Guggenheim exhibition Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World will open in New York next October, and among the near to 150 pieces that will be exhibited, there are at least three that include animals. The point of the exhibition, according to the New York Times, is to show an insight into contemporary art, made from 1989 (date of the Tiananmen student protest repressed by the army) to these days. In other words, to show how art was connected to the violent repression many artists endured and that pushed some to exile. Now, this sounds good, and I couldn’t agree more with the fact that art can be one of the best tools to protest and expose injustice. But for me showing this repression by hurting an animal isn’t the way. It would be just like protesting against a murderer by murdering someone else.
One of the pieces is a collaboration from Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, a couple that has created controversial art since the late eighties, and let me tell you, this isn't the first time they've used animals. As the New York Times puts it, this is actually the less controversial piece of this duo. For this exhibition, they’re presenting their 2003 piece “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other,” in which four pairs of pit bulls are put into individual treadmills facing the other. The dogs immediately get anxious and angry, and try to attack the other, but they're not able to reach them, so they become even more aggressive. While doing so, the camera makes close-ups to their face to highlight the dogs' anxiety. In their official website, they claim that in the piece “the artists allowed us to look beyond the cruel reality of pit bull fighting, and revealed an existing potential for violence and confrontation.” I mean yes, they’re revealing the violence involved in dog fighting, but as I said, they’re also promoting violence by doing so. It’s as ironic as saying, "let me tell show you how disgusting and terrible murders are by killing someone before your eyes."
Another piece is “Theater of the World” by Huang Yong Ping. Shown for the first time in 1993, it presents a huge box covered by a transparent dome shaped like the back of a turtle with several insects and reptiles put there to fight each other and see which are the strongest species in the group. According to the article in the New York Times and The Dodo, a pet shop in New York will be replenishing the box when needed. Huang is one of the many artists and intellectuals that fled the country, and his piece supposedly intends to show how the world works through oppression and the survival of the strongest one. But then again, for me this is kind of contradictory.
Many activists and artists have started a campaign against the museum and the exhibition on social media with the hashtags #TortureIsNotArt and #GuggenheimTortureIsNotArt. The Guggenheim responded by stating that they’re an art 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." So, here’s where the debate starts, is banning these “artistic demonstrations” a way of repression? Where is the line drawn? Is animal torture, when presented as freedom of expression, valid? It’s a matter to seriously reflect on, and probably there lies the essence of what these artists claim to express.
If you’re interested in controversial art, take a look at these: