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© David Heald/The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York
© David Heald/The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

The Guggenheim Agrees to Pull Controversial Artworks From Forthcoming Show

Picture of Rachel Gould
Art & Design Editor
Updated: 16 October 2017

On Monday night, following a wave of public scrutiny, threats, and petitions, the Guggenheim Museum released a statement agreeing, regrettably, to pull three controversial artworks from the upcoming show, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World.

A landmark survey of contemporary Chinese art from 1989 through 2008, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World will open next Friday, October 6—but not as originally intended.

As “the largest show of this subject ever mounted in North America,” the Guggenheim explains, the highly-anticipated exhibition maps Chinese art during what was “arguably the most transformative period of modern Chinese and recent world history.” Unfortunately, however, heated allegations that the museum is supporting animal cruelty by including three particular artworks is eclipsing what should have been positive press.

Huang Yong Ping, Theater of the World, 1993 | © Huang Yong Ping Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

Huang Yong Ping, Theater of the World, 1993 | © Huang Yong Ping Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

The three artworks of concern include a seven-minute video titled Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003) by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu; Theater of the World (1993) by Huang Yong Ping, and A Case Study of Transference (1994) by Xu Bing.

The first is live footage of a performance in Beijing, in which American pit bulls were poised face to face to destroy one another, but constrained by ropes that tied them to unmotorized treadmills, couldn’t actually attack. Theater of the World (1993) is an enclosed installation housing live insects, reptiles, and amphibians, who will attack and eat one another over the course of the exhibition.

Finally, A Case Study of Transference is a video documenting Xu Bing tattooing Chinese and Roman characters on two live pigs. On September 20, the artist told The New York Times that “animals are completely uncivilized and Chinese characters are the expression of supreme civilization.”

In an initial statement released on September 21, the museum recognized the upsetting nature of these artworks, but at the time, refused to remove them for their provocation and sacrifice the right to freedom of expression. But on Monday, September 25, the Guggenheim released a new statement announcing their intention to pull the three contentious artworks from the show—though only due to force.

It seems the museum felt backed into a corner. “Although these works have been exhibited in museums in Asia, Europe, and the United States,” the statement reads, “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.”

This time, it seems the fight for animal welfare won out.