After Guggenheim removes animal-related pieces from 'Art and China,' what's left? More questions

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When can a museum exhibition be defined by what is absent, rather than what is present?

When it’s “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Just before the exhibition opened this month, the Guggenheim removed three pieces of art including a Huang Yong Ping installation that served as the exhibition’s centerpiece and its subtitle.

The museum had received thousands of phone calls, emails and letters from animal rights activists, including PETA and the ASPCA, protesting what they call the abuse of animals in some of the works. (Huang’s “Theater of the World” was to have live insects and the reptiles trapped in a survival-of-the-fittest habitat.) “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 President Ingrid E. Newkirk wrote to museum Director Richard Armstrong. A petition charged that “the exhibit will feature several distinct instances of unmistakable cruelty against animals in the name of art” — and has garnered more than 800,000 signatures.

The Guggenheim quickly announced it was removing the works in question and issued a news release that said: "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.” When contacted later, the museum declined to elaborate. (Neither the PETA letter not the petition threatened violence.)

The removal of the three works has raised accusations of censorship.

Since opening day, the public discussion about “Art and China” has been as much about this issue as it has been about the art. In consultation with the artists, the Guggenheim decided to present the framework of each missing work, almost as an object lesson.

“We saw the potential to turn the absence into a presence,” said Alexandra Munroe, the museum's senior curator for Asian art and lead curator of the exhibition, which was co-curated by Philip Tinari and Hou Hanru. “We saw this could be an opportunity to reflect on the themes of globalism, to reflect on our own times.” Munroe said the museum acknowledged “the questions that an institution has to face in presenting works from a very other culture. The whole purpose of this exhibition is to present other sensibilities, other conditions.”

“Theater of the World” sits in the middle of a room near the beginning of the exhibition. The faceted box, now empty, is covered with a mesh top through which one would have seen insects and reptiles. When asked how he felt about his work being removed from the exhibition, Huang said: “Read my statement. I think that says it all.”

The artist’s statement chastises those who protested the work sight unseen. “It is said that more than 700,000 people are opposed to this work that involves living animals,” he wrote, “but how many of those people have really looked at and understood this work? Modern society (news media, online media) has engendered a new servility that makes people parrot each other.”

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