The Guggenheim Bilbao Will Show Two Controversial Animal Works That Were Pulled From Its Chinese Art Survey in New York

A lightning rod for controversy in New York, the museum's survey of contemporary Chinese art opens in Spain next month.

The Guggenheim, Bilbao. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Last fall, New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum withdrew three controversial artworks featuring animals from a Chinese art survey after receiving threats of violence. Now, two of those works will be included in the exhibition when it travels to the Guggenheim’s satellite location in Bilbao, Spain in May, the museum has confirmed.

In September 2017, the Guggenheim decided to pull Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003), Huang Yong Ping’s Theater of the World (1993), and Xu Bing‘s A Case Study of Transference (1994) from its “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World” exhibition. The museum cited “explicit and repeated threats of violence” as a factor in the decision to remove the works from the survey. The move embroiled the museum in an intense public debate over issues ranging from animal rights to art censorship.

When the show travels to Bilbao next month, it will include two of the three works at the center of the controversy (one of which has been modified). (In the New York version of the show, the full works were replaced by a wood and metal structure devoid of living creatures, an empty frame, and a paused title frame of Sun and Peng’s film, as well as accompanying artist statements).

Huang Yong Ping's Theater of the World. Photo courtesy of the Guggenheim.

Huang Yong Ping’s Theater of the World (1993). Photo courtesy of the Guggenheim.

Huang Yong Ping’s Theater of the World (1993), a cage in which insects, snakes, and lizards fight for survival, will be on view in full. And the full film of Xu Bing’s work A Case Study of Transference (1994), will be exhibited. (In the original performance, the artist placed two live breeding pigs—a male boar stamped in ink with gibberish in Roman characters, and a sow stamped with illegible, invented Chinese characters intended as a humorous cultural allegory).

Meanwhile, the work that garnered perhaps the most vocal criticism will not be part of the Spain exhibition. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003), a video featuring American Pit Bull Terriers running towards each other aggressively on treadmills, will be swapped out for an alternative work by the artist duo. The replacement work, a video based on an installation titled Freedom (2009), does not involve animals; rather, a hanging high-pressure hose intermittently shoots blasts of water, causing it to strike violently against the floor and walls.

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’, Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other. The Guggenheim has been asked to remove the video, which features eight pit bulls on treadmills, from an upcoming exhibition. Courtesy of Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, Beijing, Les Moulins, Habana.

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’, Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003). The Guggenheim has been asked to remove the video, which features eight pit bulls on treadmills, from an upcoming exhibition. Courtesy of Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, Beijing, Les Moulins, Habana.

In a statement to artnet News, a spokeswoman of the Guggenheim Bilbao said the museum is in compliance with local laws and has consulted animal experts ahead of the staging of the exhibition:

The Guggenheim Bilbao has taken thoughtful steps in accordance with regional laws regarding the presentation of the live insects and reptiles that are part of the piece “Theater of the World.” These steps included working closely with the artist as well as with regional experts to determine the types of reptiles and insects and how they would be sourced and cared for. Trained professionals will oversee the care of the reptiles throughout the run of the exhibition. The museum has also incorporated didactic materials throughout the galleries and is providing specific wall texts and audio-guide entries for “Theater of the World and A Case Study of Transference.”

After the survey concludes in Spain, it will travel to San Francisco’s SFMOMA. In an email, a representative for the museum told artnet News that curators have yet to finalize the selection of included works and that a decision will be made in the coming weeks.


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