Set to open on October 6, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World will be a major exhibition of contemporary Chinese art at the Guggenheim in New York City.
The timeframe of consideration is “arguably the most transformative period of modern Chinese and recent world history,” the Guggenheim’s website explains, and the exhibition will be “the largest show of this subject ever mounted in North America.”
Naturally, the Guggenheim expected to garner significant press for a showcase of this magnitude—but the museum is facing allegations of support for animal abuse instead.
The institution has been placed under pressure to omit a seven-minute video installation by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. Titled Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other, the work was filmed in 2003 during a Beijing performance in which pit bulls were paired off and placed face to face on treadmills—close enough to try and rip each other apart, but not close enough to actually attack their opponent.
While an online petition requesting the video’s removal from the show has subsequently received over 435,000 supporting signatures (as of September 25), the museum is defending its decision to exhibit the work regardless.
In a statement released on September 21, the Guggenheim recognized that the video did indeed have the potential to upset some viewers, but maintained that: “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.”
Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other is not the only work under scrutiny. In fact, an installation titled Theater of the World (1993) by Huang Yong Ping may be even more upsetting to animal-rights enthusiasts. The piece consists of an enclosed arena containing live crickets, beetles, millipedes, cockroaches, grasshoppers, stag beetles, geckos, and lizards. Visitors are invited to hover over the glass and watch these organisms eat and destroy one another.
“Teeming with life and littered with carcasses, this gritty scene brings the viewer into an immediate encounter with the violent yet matter-of-fact play of powerful forces over weaker ones,” the Guggenheim describes. “Huang’s visual brutality foreshadows an underlying sense of visceral realism and realpolitik that is present in much of the most interesting work of this period.”
Ultimately, the museum views these controversial artworks as “intentionally challenging and provocative”—paramount qualities that any memorable work of art should possess. Art is supposed to evoke a reaction, and freedom of expression is imperative to the process. But an artist’s right to create at any cost, even when the cost is life itself, is another story.