Protests Surround Cai Guo-Qiang’s Tortoise Abuse at Aspen Art Museum

Why does the art world keep torturing animals?

Tortoises with their iPad mounts.
Photo: Courtesy Cai Guo-Qiang.

As the Aspen Art Museum prepares to host a 24-hour opening for its new building, animal activists are protesting one aspect of the festivities: as reported by Aspen Daily News, the museum plans to have a brigade of tortoises wandering around its rooftop sculpture garden, each with a pair of iPads mounted to its shell.

The tortoises are part of one of the museum’s inaugural exhibitions, “Cai Guo-Qiang: Moving Ghost Town.” As they wander underfoot in the garden, the animals will serve as a roving video displays thanks to specially designed iPad mounts. The three African Sulcata tortoises, previously enlisted as Cai‘s cameramen, will be showing off footage they recorded with the iPads while exploring the Colorado’s abandoned ghost town fields and cabins.

Aspen native Lisabeth Odén is protesting the project, and created a petition on Tuesday afternoon that has already attracted close to 400 signatures. “I normally don’t stick my nose out in public like this—by any sense of the imagination,” she told the Daily News. “But to me this is just flat-out animal abuse.”

Odén has worked to rehabilitate tortoises in Florida, and is concerned that Cai’s project could damage the animal’s sensitive shells. “These creatures were not designed to carry 2-pound iPads,” she explained. “I can see them doing this in some rural town in some third-world country, but not here.”

Cai also helped celebrate the institution’s members’ opening last weekend with the less-controversial Black Lightning, his daytime pyrotechnic display (see artnet News report). This weekend’s party, which starts at 5 p.m. Saturday and marks the opening of the museum’s new Shigeru Ban-designed building, will also include live music, gallery tours, sunrise yoga, a “silent” dance party, and film screenings.


Cai Guo-Qiang’s tortoise iPad rig.

“Is there no end to what abuse this museum will do?” asked petition-signer Ricki Newman, of Newburgh, Indiana. “First, it takes over a whole section of town with a design that is controversial at best, then pollutes the air with smoke to announce its grand opening, now abuse animals too?” (As reported by artnet News, the building’s construction company recently received a court summons for construction violations.)

Even if the tortoises’ shells are strong enough for the iPads, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) cruelty casework director Stephanie Bell still believes the artwork is “the height of disrespect.” PETA plans on contacting the museum about their concerns.

“The only message that this artist in conveying from our interpretation is that nature is here for our manipulation, and of course we disagree with that,” Bell added. “We hope that people will choose not to support the exhibit because of the cruelty concerns.”

As petition-signer Karen DiBenedetto, of Scottsdale, Arizona, put it, “This is just so wrong in so many ways!”

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