In the first instalment of Fur, Fin & Feather in the Art Museum published a few weeks ago, I began what could only be a brief preliminary exploration of the issue of contemporary artists’ use of real animals in their works of art. The article took, as a starting point, the controversy surrounding three works from the Guggenheim Museum‘s blockbuster exhibition of Chinese contemporary art, Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World , which involved live animals and which eventually had to be withdrawn due to concerns about the safety and security of the museum’s staff and visitors. (Note: Based on the feedback and comments received, it appears that the Guggenheim controversy continues to be of considerable interest to many of you. If so, perhaps you might like to tune in to this podcast, released recently, in which two of the show’s curators, Philip Tinari and Alexandra Munroe, respond to the controversy.)
Personally, I admit that I found the three works in the Guggenheim show disturbing and uncomfortable to view (yes, I clicked on the link and watched the video of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other – did you?). Some commentators have argued that the works cannot be separated from the unique circumstances, context and time period in which they were created and that their inclusion in the show was important and necessary, given the scope and intent of the exhibition. Noting that Sun Yuan and Peng Yu are part of a group of Chinese artists who work in a genre of installation and performance art that is notable for its brutality and macabre spectacle, Ben Davis, in his commentary on the controversy, said: “Critics, both inside and outside of China, have often read the nihilistic extremes of Chinese performance and performance-installation from this period as morbid symptoms of a society wrenched by stunning change combined with a lack of any sense of political control.” The period in which many of the works were created, post-Tiananmen and into the new millennium, was one in which artists were dealing with and responding, not only to massive and rapid social change, but also to horrific trauma.
It is also, I think, important to consider the drastically different socioeconomic and cultural conditions in China, still largely rural until relatively recently, and the conditions in developed, highly urbanized countries like the United States. Scholar and researcher Meiling Cheng, who has written extensively about live art and performance art in China, suggests that these radical differences require us to be “cautious in applying Euro-American values such as animal rights or eco-consciousness to China.” While, in rural countries, people live in close proximity to animals and livestock and hence enjoy a more direct human-animal relationship, there is also less “preciousness” in their attitudes towards animals, which are raised primarily for food or as beasts of burden.
In the United States, on the other hand, feelings and attitudes about animal rights are largely shaped by the fact that often the only encounters people have with live animals are as adorable domestic pets. Most urbanized city dwellers are shielded by the industrial food production system from the brutal reality of animal husbandry and slaughter. This ambivalent relationship is further complicated by the tendency to anthropomorphize animals – to attribute human emotions and intelligence to them.
Is this apparently callous and indifferent attitude toward animal life somehow specific to Chinese culture? In considering the controversy surrounding these works, U and I started to think about Southeast Asian contemporary artists and were relatively hard-pressed to find many artists who work with live animals. Those that do seem to create works that are quite different from the ones made by Chinese contemporary artists, exhibiting a concern and respect for the animal much more in line with the attitudes of the West.
Thai artist Maitree Siriboon, for example, pays tribute to the humble buffalo, once so ubiquitous in the Thai countryside and on whose back Thailand’s rice-farming industry was built. In his photographic series Save Thai Buffalo, he paints masterpieces from the Western artistic canon onto an albino buffalo, careful to use natural colours from India that are used to decorate sacred cows.
Indonesian artist Edwin Dolly Roseno Kurniawan laments the senseless and unnecessary deaths of the caged singing birds in Yogyakarta’s bird markets, collecting their discarded carcasses, arranging them in tableaux with flowers and perfume, and paying tribute to them in his stunning photographic series, Seri Kematian Para Pelantun, seen at Art Jog 2017.
Dogs feature prominently in many of Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook‘s lyrical and meditative video and photography works – most of them live with her, having been rescued by her from the streets of Chiangmai.
Like China, urbanization in Southeast Asia, while rapid and fast-growing, is a relatively recent phenomenon. The rural way of life is still very much a reality in many parts of Southeast Asia. Many countries in the region have also experienced political upheavals, wars, violence and trauma. Why, then, has the attitude of Southeast Asian contemporary artists towards animals been so different?
One possible reason could be the fact that while China has, since the advent of Communism, been largely atheist, the Eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as Islam and Christianity, are widely practised in many parts of Southeast Asia. These religions have a profound impact on the attitudes of humans towards animals. Hindus and Buddhists believe strongly in the concept of non-injury to all living beings and are against the unnecessary destruction of life. While Muslims and Christians believe that God gave man dominion over animals and hence that animals may be killed for food and used for human benefit, the humane treatment of animals is also equated with righteousness and godliness.
It should, however, be pointed out that there has been, in China, a growing change in attitudes towards animal rights, with an increasing number of Chinese counting themselves part of the animal-rights movement. As the Chinese population becomes more urbanized and affluent, a greater number of households own pets. The context for performance art in general, and Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s artistic practice specifically, has also shifted and it has been noted that Sun Yuan and Peng Yu have not staged major works featuring live animals in the last decade.
There is no turning back from the incursion of live animals into our galleries and museums. The hope, however, is that contemporary art and artists can find productive and humane ways to work with the animal, so as to create new encounters and opportunities for engagement and reflection that provoke fresh perspectives on the place of the animal in our world.