Guggenheim pulls dogs and insects from show after protest

The museum has removed three artworks – film of pit bulls on treadmills and a house where reptiles and insects devour each other – after threats of violence

New York’s Guggenheim has been forced to remove three controversial artworks from an upcoming show called Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World after it was heavily criticised for its inclusion of three artworks titled “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other” (2003), “Theater of the World (1993)”, and “A Case Study of Transference” (1994).

The pulled works have been cited as “instances of unmistakable cruelty against animals in the name of art” by a petition that called for the museum to “do what you know in your heart is right”. The petition has so far received over 620k signatures. However, yesterday afternoon, the Guggenheim released its own statement announcing that the three artworks would be culled from the show, set to open in just over a week, due to “explicit and repeated threats of violence”. The statement also remarked that the museum was “dismayed that we must withhold works of art”, and added that “Freedom of expression has always been and will remain a paramount value of the Guggenheim”.

“Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other” (2003) is a short film created in 2003 by Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. Over the duration of seven minutes, eight pit bull terriers run on treadmills placed slightly out of reach of one another. Filmed in Beijing almost 15 years ago, it was one in a three-part series which also included a tiger and combat boxers.

At the time, the artists stated that by restraining the animals – thereby stopping them from attacking one another – they had “fundamentally changed the rules of pit bull fighting”. They explained, “The result was a contest of the spirit, unlike the vicious physical dogfights in the past. By invalidating the assault, confrontation and animal instincts of the pit bull terriers in an art gallery setting, the artists allowed us to look beyond the cruel reality of pit bull fighting, and revealed an existing potential for violence and confrontation.”

“Theatre of the World” (2003), by Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping, has also been removed. Inspired by the ancient Chinese divination text, I Ching, as well as the preparation for Gu – whereby five venomous creatures are placed into a pot for one year and then turned into a “magical potion”.

The artwork is made up of several species reptiles and insects housed in a space. Living side-by-side, the assumption is that, eventually, the creatures will devour one another. Coincidentally it’s not the first time that “Theatre of the World” (2003) has caused controversy. In 2007, the artist was ordered to remove all the reptiles and insects from the installation, on show at the time at House of Oracles: A Huang Yong Ping Retrospective at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The gallery released a statement that explained that the work’s intention was to explore “the dynamics of power in society.”

The third, “A Case Study of Transference” (1994), by Chinese artist Xu Bing, was initially performed in Beijing and featured a boar and a sow, each tattooed in a mixture of nonsensical English and Chinese and placed in an enclosure that was strewn with books. Audience members were encouraged to watch on to see if the pigs’ abilities to mate would be at all impacted by the audience’s gaze. It is claimed that the performance raised questions over the relationship between China and the West, as well as notions of power imbalance, violence, and “the complicity involved in any ‘cultural transference’”.