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”

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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.”

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