Cai Guo-Qiang, "Moving Ghost Town" (2014) (via

Cai Guo-Qiang, “Moving Ghost Town” (2014) (all images via

The new Shigeru Ban–designed Aspen Art Museum will open with a 24-hour event this Saturday, but not everyone in town is happy. According to the Aspen Daily News, a local resident named Lisabeth Oden started a petition yesterday in protest of one of the planned artworks for the opening: Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Moving Ghost Town.” The project involves three African Sulcata tortoises wandering around the new rooftop sculpture garden with iPads strapped to their shells; Cai previously unleashed the tablet-laden tortoises in ghost towns around the surrounding valley, and the footage recorded on those jaunts will play on the iPads at the museum opening.


Cai Guo-Qiang, “Moving Ghost Town” (2014)

Or it won’t, if the protestors can gain enough momentum. Thus far the online petition, which explains the high sensitivity of tortoises’ shells, has garnered 575 signatures. “I normally don’t stick my nose out in public like this — by any sense of the imagination,” Oden told the Daily News. “But to me this is just flat-out animal abuse.”

This isn’t the first we’ve seen of a contemporary Chinese artist apparently abusing animals for the sake of art; the Rubell Family Collection‘s recently closed exhibition 28 Chinese featured a work by artist Li Ming, “Songs of the Artist” (2011), which includes an upsetting video of a group of ducks tied together with ropes. (Although it should be noted that Chinese artists by no means have a monopoly on artistic animal abuse.) Cai’s “Moving Ghost Town,” which was actually commissioned by the Aspen museum, might be some kind of reference to Joris-Karl Huysmans’s famous 1884 Decadent novel À rebours (Against the Grain). In that book, Duke Jean des Esseintes has gemstones set into a tortoise’s shell and “the extra weight on the creature’s back causes its death.” Not a good precedent (albeit a fictional one). Perhaps Cai should stick to stuffed animals.

h/t Artnet News

Update, 8/6, 6:03pm ET: A spokesperson for the Aspen Art Museum has reached out to Hyperallergic with a statement:

The Aspen Art Museum is a contemporary art museum that provides a platform for artists to present their artistic vision with a freedom of expression. That free expression can take many forms, and it is not the Museum’s practice to censor artists. Cai Guo-Qiang’s installation features three African Sulcata Tortoises which were rescued from a breeder where they were living in an over-crowded enclosure and being over bred. The three are being closely monitored, cared for, checked by a local veterinarian at regular intervals, and are being exhibited in consultation with the Turtle Conservancy. Following the end of the exhibition on October 5, the tortoises will find new homes in conservation and educational facilities selected in collaboration with the Turtle Conservancy.

They also sent a statement from a local veterinarian, Dr. Elizabeth Kremzier:

I have worked with the staff from the Aspen Art Museum since the initial planning phase of the Cai Guo-Qiang project. Without question, the welfare of the Tortoises has taken the highest priority in every stage of this exhibit. The environmental and nutritional needs of the animals have been met and are monitored closely. Environmental enrichment has been provided, and every attempt has been made to minimize stress on the animals. In my opinion, the tortoises have adapted well to their new habitat, and the I-pads have not interfered in any way with their natural behavior.

The museum added that a statement from the Turtle Conservancy will follow.

Update, 8/6 11:11pm ET: We’ve received the following absurd statement from the Turtle Conservancy, by way of the museum:

We at the Turtle Conservancy believe that Cai Guo-Qiang’s installation raises public awareness of the fact that African Spurred Tortoises (Centrochelys sulcata) are completely inappropriate as pets for most people. Although they are very attractive when small, they grow to a very large size (over two feet long and more than 125 pounds) requiring very large and expensive enclosures. They also live a very long time, at least as long as a human. Once these tortoises are a few years old, they can no longer be cared for by most of those who buy them and become disposable pets. This message is timely as it coincides with the release of the new “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie which is sure to increase demand for pet tortoises. We hope that Cai’s exhibition will convince people that, in general, turtles and tortoises are very challenging pets that bring great responsibility as they can often outlive their owners.

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...

One reply on “Cai Guo-Qiang Turns Tortoises into Art, Raising Animal-Rights Concerns [UPDATED]”

  1. So what your are saying is great the turtles have been rescued but why bother put the iPads on their back , what a useless bunch of non important information why wasn’t the show about rescuing the turtles instead of the ego of this artist?

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