(illustration by the author)

Last night, the Guggenheim Museum announced that it would exclude three works from its forthcoming historical survey of contemporary Chinese art, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, following outcry from animal rights activists. The works in question — “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other” (2003) by Peng Yu and Sun Yuan, “Theater of the World” (1993) by Huang Yong Ping, and “A Case Study of Transference” (1994) by Xu Bing — had been the focus of a Change.org petition launched last week. As of this writing, more than 600,000 people have signed it, making it the site’s most popular petition in the US this week.

“Although these works have been exhibited in museums in Asia, Europe, and the United States, the Guggenheim regrets that explicit and repeated threats of violence have made our decision necessary,” the Guggenheim’s statement reads. “As an arts institution committed to presenting a multiplicity of voices, we are dismayed that we must withhold works of art. Freedom of expression has always been and will remain a paramount value of the Guggenheim.”

Huang Yong Ping, "Theater of the World" (1993) (original image © Huang Yong Ping; illustration by the author)

(illustration by the author)

The Guggenheim also explained in their statement that the removal was “Out of concern for the safety of its staff, visitors and participating artists … ,” which suggests that possible violence was anticipated. This claim was also made against Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.) protests in 2014, and Guggenheim officials at the time told Hyperallergic they were concerned about possible damage. No damage or harm during those protests ever occurred.

Yesterday, a letter from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) President Ingrid E. Newkirk to Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and Museum President Richard Armstrong echoed calls for the removal of “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other” — a video of a 2003 performance in which four pairs of pit bulls were set on adjacent treadmills and restrained by harnesses while they ran at each other — and “Theater of the World.” Today, Newkirk issued a statement in response to the Guggenheim’s decision.

“We thank the Guggenheim for withdrawing these vile acts of cruelty masked as creativity, because abusing animals should never be taken lightly and the museum is not a circus but a temple of fine art,” Newkirk wrote. “China has no laws protecting animals, so withdrawing these pieces may help the country and its artists recognize that animals are not props and that they deserve respect.”

“Theater of the World,” which gives the Guggenheim exhibition its title, involves a sculptural enclosure filled with insects and reptiles that live and die inside the artwork over the course of the show’s run. The piece was included in Huang’s traveling retrospective House of Oracles (2006–08) organized by the Walker Art Center, and presented without incident at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, MASS MoCA, and elsewhere. However, it was shut down just 10 days into the exhibition’s run at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) in April 2007.

“It is extremely disappointing that a major exhibition of this important artist’s work has been overshadowed by competing concerns,” Daina Augaitis, VAG’s chief curator and associate said at the time. “We did as much as we could to comply with the recommendations of the [British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals], but at a certain point they required more than what the artist was willing to do. We remain committed to the artist’s voice and ideas.”

Art and China After 1989, which was curated by the Guggenheim’s senior curator of Asian art, Alexandra Munroe, along with guest co-curators Philip Tinari, the director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, and Hou Hanru, the artistic director of MAXXI in Rome, will open as scheduled on October 6.

Update, 3:30pm: Asked by Hyperallergic if the decision to pull the three works had been spurred by any specific threat, a Guggenheim spokesperson said:

The Guggenheim Museum does not discuss the specifics of security matters, nor do we wish to give these threats additional circulation. The Guggenheim has been the subject of and initiator of petitions in the past, but the tone in both the petition comments, the social media postings, calls and emails was markedly different from what we’ve seen before and required us to take the threats very seriously.

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...