We Who Cannot Touch Each Other

By Jorja Rose '18

Artwork by Valeria Sibrian '21

Artwork by Valeria Sibrian '21

When I first saw the petition opposing the Guggenheim Museum’s exhibition, “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” something didn’t sit right with me. Perhaps it was the incendiary quality of the photo that appeared in the petition’s Facebook shares, an image of two pitbulls, tethered to harnesses, salivating while looking hungrily at one another. Perhaps it was the vagueness of the language, urging me to sign for “cruelty-free” exhibits. I started Googling.

As I learned, the petition named three pieces for removal. The one that garnered the most controversy, “Dogs that Cannot Touch Each Other,” was filmed by artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu at a Beijing museum in 2003. In the seven-minute video, eight dogs harnessed to non-motorized treadmills attempt to lunge at one another, but, as the title suggests, cannot actually touch. They sprint in place, they drool, they bark, they grow exhausted. Unlike the petition implies for the first paragraph and a half (and really, who scans any more than that?), the dogs aren’t and never will be at the Guggenheim. This seems to be a point of confusion: I talked to multiple Bennington friends who signed the petition thinking the Guggenheim was hosting live dogfighting or something like it. It makes me wonder how many of the petition’s nearly 800,000 signatures came from people who were similarly misinformed.

The other two pieces did not feature beloved household pets. Xu Bing’s “A Case Study of Transference,” also a video, shows two pigs coupling. The title piece, “Theatre of the World” by Huang Yong Ping, was the only one with plans for live animals. The artist designed a huge boxed arena to be filled with bugs, snakes, and lizards, all of whom would devour or be devoured over the course of the exhibit.  

Whether you find these pieces gruesome, compelling, or both, you won’t be able to see them at the Guggenheim anymore. On September 25, nearly two weeks before the exhibition opened this past Friday, the museum announced it was pulling these works. In a public statement, the institution cites “explicit and repeated threats of violence” as its reason for doing so.  

Surely, if we wanted to help large groups of distressed animals, we would pick puppy mills, slaughterhouses, pounds, or circuses as our ground zero. But as a Vogue piece on the topic points out, “In an age where outrage is manifold and easy to tweet, the true sign of powerlessness comes when we stop waging wars that are just, but resort only to wars against those who can’t win.” The author, Mary Wang, speaks not of the Guggenheim, but of the Chinese artists whose work the museum displays.  

Accusations of savagery toward animals become easily racialized. Chainsmokers band member Alex Pall faced backlash for a joke he made during a recent interview about not wanting to bring his dog on tour with him to China––the suggestion being that she might get eaten.  

PETA president Ingrid Newkirk hit a similar note when she stated about the Guggenheim controversy, “Withdrawing these pieces may help (China) and its artists recognize that animals are not props and that they deserve respect.” Not only does she aim to civilize Chinese artists, but, in doing so, she denies the animal cruelty that transpires every day in the United States.

If this kind of art has no place in the Guggenheim, then how do we account for all the other violences implicit in high art, the kind that PETA never bothers to protest? What do we do with the racism, the objectification of female bodies and the underpaid labor within the art industry? How do we respond to the mistreatment of, well, humans?  

Ai Weiwei, who curated the films and whose work appears in the show, pushed back against the removal of pieces from “Art and China.” “When an art institution cannot exercise its right for freedom of speech, that is tragic for a modern society,” he told the New York Times. Ai, whose artwork critiques censorship in China’s authoritarian state, points to a central irony. An exhibit curated to place work by Chinese artists beyond the censorship of their origin country has become censored in new and different ways.

At the trustee luncheon I attended last Friday in the Deane Carriage Barn, Priscilla Alexander, ‘58, told me how much it disturbed her that Americans are giving more willingly to those affected by the Las Vegas shooting than to victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Checking up on this, I found that a single GoFundMe started by a Las Vegas local has raised $8.5 million after a week, while Red Cross has only been able to raise $9 million since the hurricane struck in mid-September. To put things into perspective, care for people’s injuries after last week’s shooting will cost, at most, $50 million. Hurricane Maria, on the other hand, wreaked an estimated $90 billion in damage.  

A different matter entirely, but the feeling of incongruence persists. Why do we pick up some issues while we put others down? Why do we open ourselves to feeling the distress of certain others, while some brutalities we maintain at arm’s length?

The removal of “Dogs that Cannot Touch Each Other” didn’t require any deinstallation.  Rather, the museum staff flipped a switch. What remains of the artwork now is a black screen and a projector that’s emitting no light. There’s not even a change in mass, nothing really removed, nothing effectively reversed.  

After all that, the video didn’t disappear. It’s just that we don’t have to look at it anymore.