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Fur, Fin & Feather in the Art Museum

The interweb has been all abuzz recently with the news that The Guggenheim Museum has decided to pull three works involving live animals from its upcoming show, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, opening  6 October in New York, “out of concern for the safety of its staff, visitors and participating artists”. The three works in question, which employ live animals either in their production or in their exhibition, are Peng Yu and Sun Yuan‘s Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other, 2003; Xu Bing‘s A Case Study in Transference, 1994 and Huang Yong Ping‘s Theatre of the World, 1993, from which the exhibition takes its name.

Huang Yong Ping, Theatre of the World, 1993. Image credit: The Guggenheim Museum.

In what is arguably the most provocative of the three, Huang’s Theatre of the World was to have been placed at the entrance to the show, where visitors would encounter a caged arena in which lizards, millipedes, crickets, cockroaches, grasshoppers and beetles battle, devour each other, or expire from exhaustion.

The other two works that were pulled do not bring live animals into the gallery but document past performances in which live animals were used. In a video of Peng Yu and Sun Yuan’s 2003 performance Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other in Beijing, restrained fighting dogs try to attack one another while harnessed to treadmills and Xu Bing’s A Case Study of Transference features a boar and a sow mating, both stamped with the artist’s trademark gibberish of fake Chinese characters mixed with Roman letters.

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other, a seven-minute video with eight American pit bulls on eight treadmills. Image credit: Galleria Continua
Xu Bing, A Case Study of Transference, 1994. Image credit: Xu Bing

While our focus here at Plural is on Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art, we cannot ignore altogether what’s happening out there in the larger world and this issue has received so much interest, even from the Singapore mainstream press, not to mention some fairly fervid discussions on social media among the local artistic community, that we couldn’t fail to examine it and try to put it in context, especially in terms of what it means for artists and the community at large here in this part of the world.

“Art is continually haunted by the animal”

Deleuze & Guattari

The history of animals in art goes almost as far back as the history of man himself, to the cave paintings of the Palaeolithic period. There is, however, a significant difference between the classical representation of animals in art – where animals are merely man-made depictions, in painting or sculpture, of the real thing – and the use of real animals in contemporary art.

Raden Saleh, Wounded Lion, c.1839. Image credit: National Gallery Singapore
Raden Saleh, Boschbrand (Forest Fire), 1849. Image credit: National Gallery Singapore

The New York Times’ Sarah Boxer, in an article written almost 20 years ago asked, “Why have real animals – clothed, splattered, slaughtered and hatching – become players in the art world? These days it seems that every contemporary art exhibition must have its animal, dead or alive.” The animal’s presence in the contemporary art museum or gallery is almost always problematic and uncomfortable, prompting a complex and difficult negotiation between art and animal advocacy, the recent furore at the Guggenheim being only the latest of many conflagrations.

The history of the use of animals in art is said to have begun with Surrealism, when Salvador Dali used live snails, crawling over two mannequins inside a car while rain fell from the ceiling, in his work Rainy Taxi in 1938. Other significant artistic encounters with animals, to name only two among many, include Jannis Kounellis’ Untitled (12 Horses), 1969 and Joseph Beuys’ Coyote: I like America and America Likes Me, 1974. No other contemporary artist, however, has been more closely associated with dead animals than British artist Damien Hirst, whose most famous dead-animal-in-formaldehyde work is probably The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991 for which he commissioned the killing of a tiger shark and then displayed it in a glass tank filled with formaldehyde.

Another of Damien Hirst’s works featuring an animal corpse, This Little Piggy Went to Market, This Little Piggy Stayed At Home, 1996, featured a pig on a rail, sliced lengthwise so viewers could see its insides, from snout to tail. Image credit: Damien Hirst

But why use real animals, living or dead, to create art? The reasons are as myriad and individual as the artworks and the artists themselves. In some cases, the animal’s role is shaped by the peculiar qualities that make it unique. Dali, it has been suggested, chose to use snails for their soft, slimy bodies that recall the essence of human mucus tissue and therefore sexuality. To others, the animal may be regarded simply as another material to be used in a work of art – like pigments or a simple found object that could become part of any artistic composition – the living creature allowing access to a new form of representation, beyond that of a two-dimensional painting or the fixed, unchanging form of a sculpture. The obvious problem, of course, is that, unlike other types of artistic material, the animal is a sentient being whose involvement and presence in the artwork is almost never of its own choosing.

Eduardo Kac, GFP Bunny, 2000. Image credit: Eduardo Kac

Yet to take the view that the animal has no place in the gallery or museum, or that something that is shocking or unpleasant to watch is not art, is a little too easy and fails to take into account the diversity and complexity of contemporary artistic practice. It is also, in some ways, a rather hypocritical view, as few of us can claim to have never killed a cockroach, watched an animal perform at a zoo or circus, eaten an animal or benefitted from the use of animals in scientific and medical research. As one scientist said in defence of artist Eduardo Kac who, by means of genetic manipulation, created an albino rabbit (named Alba) that glows bright green when illuminated with blue light, “How did I and my fellow scientists become anointed to do things that should be prohibited to artists? Because we are contributing to the understanding of things? So are artists.”

In examining the ethics of the artist’s relationship and engagement with, and his/her use of animals in art, is there a middle ground between the extreme views on each side of the animal rights issue? An alternative to a blanket acceptance of animal exploitation, on one end of the spectrum, and radical animal liberation on the other?

Art historian Giovanni Aloi suggests that, “One key question artists should pose when considering the presence of an animal in works of art is: do I really need one, or can I get the core of my argument across without such presence?” In his book, Art and Animals, he says, of Huang Yong Ping’s Theatre of the World, that it ” … points to a relative poverty of ideas in the communication of complex concepts, for which the artist could have simply found more sophisticated and imaginative alternatives.”

It may be that it is the artists themselves who are best placed to devise new forms of responsible action that sidestep a rigid, rule-bound and unduly moralistic notion of ethics. Artist Mark Dion’s Some Notes Towards a Manifesto for Artists Working With or About the Living World, conceived as a work of art in its own right and published in a catalogue for the Greenhouse Effect exhibition held at the Serpentine Gallery in 2000 is one such example. The acceptance of such moves, however, “... will call for a trust in the integrity of the artist and a reluctance to be outraged too quickly when the animal takes unexpected or controversial forms.”


Note: I was not able to explore many other aspects of this fascinating (and often polarizing) issue, due to the need to keep this article to a digestible length. Look out for Part II of Fur, Fin & Feather in the Art Museum, coming out very soon!




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