Oct 09 2017

Guggenheim Exhibition Opens with Three Artworks Neutered

by Don J. Cohn

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s “Art and China after 1989: The Theater of the World” exhibition opened on October 6 minus three artworks. The arrangement was a response to threats toward the museum stemming from the use of animals during those artworks’ creation. Photo by David Heald. Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

At a media event on October 5 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, preceding the opening of “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World,” museum director Richard Armstrong restated the museum’s published position on the controversial self-censorship of three works in the show: Xu Bing’s A Case Study of Transference (1994), a video of a pair of fornicating pigs; Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003), a video of eight harness-restrained attack dogs attempting to attack one another; and Huang Yongping’s room-sized installation, Theater of the World (1993), which is centered around a cage filled with a variety of live insects and lizards that are supposed to gobble up each other in the course of the exhibition, a work that riffs on the idea of survival of the fittest, as well as Republican Chinese writer Lu Xun’s cynical take on the cannibalistic, dog-eat-dog nature of Chinese society. Armstrong said that the threats expressed, though with no source revealed, could potentially endanger museum staff and visitors. In response to these threats, Huang’s empty insect cage remained in situ in the museum, accompanied by an Air France paper bag with an artist statement about the controversy written on it. The monitor assigned to the struggling dogs showed only the title of Sun and Peng’s work, sans video. These arrangements amounted to a passive yet potent commitment to freedom of artistic expression, though the opportunity for public debate has been wasted.

The absence of the mammals and insects did not significantly weaken the impact of the show, which contained enough viscerality and violence to fulfill the promise in the show’s title, “Art and China” (not “Art in China” or “Chinese Art”). Armstrong’s introduction was followed by a presentation by Guggenheim curator Alexandra Munroe, who emphasized the importance of the People’s Republic’s colossal economy and key role in globalization, while clarifying that the show is “not a survey of post-1989 art in China,” but rather a trove of 147 conceptual and experimental artworks by 71 artists and collectives “dating from the end of the Cold War to the 2008 Beijing Olympics,” each carefully selected by Munroe, MAXXI artistic director Hou Hanru and Ullens Center for Contemporary Art director Philip Tinari. As a result of this meeting of minds, the show is free of Yin Jun’s fatheaded, crying young Maos and high-priced iconic canvases such as Zhang Xiaogang’s “Bloodlines” series (1993– ).

It was curious to discover that a video of a live chicken being washed by a pair of human hands with soap and water, shown on a small monitor placed on the floor in an inconspicuous position on the Guggenheim’s spiral gallery, was apparently not cited by animal activists, who might have shouted, “Fowl play!”

Don J. Cohn is ArtAsiaPacific’s senior editor.

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