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A brief history of animal welfare violations in the art world


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Three pieces from Guggenheim's Art and China after 1989: Theatre of the World exhibit add to the ever-growing list of art crimes against the animal kingdom.

In 2003, artists Peng Yu and Sun Yang filmed four pairs of pit bulls assembled on non-motorised treadmills, which were then encouraged to run at each other for their seven-minute long performance piece.

Strong opposition from the public who condemned thepromotion of cruelty against innocent beings’ in an online petition, which garnered close to 800,000 signatures, has resulted in the video footage being removed from the Guggenheim’s China exhibit prior to its opening on October 6th, along with two other condemned pieces.

The museum reluctantly withdrew the piece, along with a piece which involved the mating of two pigs, and another menagerie of insects devouring each other within an enclosure.

Guggenheim issued a statement, stating that: "Out of concern for the safety of its staff, visitors, and participating artists, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has decided against showing the artworks Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003), Theater of the World (1993), and A Case Study of Transference (1994) in its upcoming exhibition Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World."

The China exhibit is a collection of artists’ work representing a period beginning with the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, in which student protestors were massacred by the military. The artists whose pieces were omitted used footage of animals to represent the violence and power struggles in the post-Mao period of 1989 – 2000, when the Chinese government overruled basic human rights, including freedom of expression. The museum was reluctant to re-censor the Chinese artists whose voices their exhibit sought to resurrect from less liberal times.

"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," a spokesperson said. 

Pieces from the exhibit represent how China burst onto the global scene as it joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001, and began adopting more liberal ideas. The artists are keen to dissociate themselves with the label of being ‘just’ Chinese, believing that it is defunct in the now global and diversified nation.

However, ‘freedom of expression’ as a human right should not be upheld at the expense of the rights of animals. It is only right that artworks, where the animal's well-being is in doubt, must not be shown, as an animal cannot consent to be used in an art show. The artists assure us that the dogs were not used to fight before or during the piece. Yet much of the criticism attacks the fact that the piece provokes feelings of aggressive frustration in the dogs, and that it perpetuates the image of pit bulls as fighting animals.

This controversy comes in a long line of animal violations in the art world. As modern liberal societies enable more artists to express themselves almost without limit, in the jostle for attention it seems an increasing number are turning to controversy in order to make headlines and a claim to fame at any cost. Although China particularly has come under the spotlight for its blasé attitude to animal welfare, animal abuse in art is a global issue.   

Since 1989, ‘fine art’ and particularly ‘performance art’ has a controversial history of treating animals as objects and disregarding their rights and dignity as living beings.



Perhaps the most famous art piece which amassed both the largest profit and the most widespread and vehement criticism was Damien Hirst’s series of artworks involving animal corpses suspended in formaldehyde. These pieces involved the bodies of dead animals killed ‘in the name of art’, and contributed to the £111 million profit Hirst made in this two-day auction in Sotheby.

Hirst’s piece The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) involved the killing of two endangered species of shark so that their gradually rotting corpses could act as a constant reminder of our own mortality.

Hirst commented that "you kill things to look at them", and also admitted that "I don’t quite know what they’re about." He clearly cannot justify his actions, nor explain the artistic thought process behind this cruelty. 


In the year 2000, two art pieces gained notoriety through their use of animals to explore the human psyche.

Eduardo Kac (pronounced ‘cats’) created the GFP Bunny; a living rabbit named Alba who was genetically modified with a gene found in jellyfish to make her fluorescent green. Created in the INRA research laboratory in France, Alba is a form of transgenic art – which Kac describes as "a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering to transfer natural or synthetic genes to an organism, to create unique living beings."

The interaction of the ‘living being’ with the outside world as Kac’s pet and the public's debate and criticism, which he continues to track on his website, is what the piece is all about, as an exploration of human nature in the face of this real-life animal Frankenstein. 

Also in the year 2000, Chilean artist Marco Evarisitti caused a stir with his exhibit Helena & El Pescador, in which goldfish were displayed in blenders, giving visitors the option to turn them on. Displayed in the Trapholt Museum, Denmark, the exhibit was designed to test which of Evaristti’s claimed three types of people: the Sadist, the Voyeur, and the Moralist; a visitor was, depending on whether they chose to blend, observe, or intervene, in the exhibit.

Philosopher Peter Singer noted how, even without the obvious violence implicit in Evaristti’s ‘art’ piece, the confining of the animals in little containers –  like the use of the non-motorised treadmill in Yuan and Peng’s pitbull piece – is reminiscent of torture methods which have been used in prisons.

Singer also acknowledged that "when you give people the option of turning the blender on, you raise the question of the power we do have over animals," like Kac’s rabbit as a demonstration of the power we have through use of science, to determine the life of other living beings.  

Following a torrent of criticism against the use of living creatures in the exhibit, the goldfish were replaced with dead fish preserved in gelatine.



In 2004, Netherlands artist Tinkebell turned her own cat into a handbag to highlight the hypocrisy of using some animals for consumption whilst keeping others as beloved pets, in her piece My Dearest Cat Pikeltje.


Conceptual neo-dadaistic artistic couple Ondrej Brody and Kristofer Paetau created the work Dog Carpets – a display of dead dogs made into rugs likening to more familiar versions made out of hunted animals such as bears. The Scandinavian artists stated that the piece aims to highlight the hypocrisy of 'pet culture’ and to "question the special status that dogs and cats have in western society."

Also in 2007, Guillermo Vargas (better known as Habacuc) also used a dog in his piece You Are What You Read. He wrote the name of this exhibit in dog biscuits glued to a wall, and orchestrated the public starvation of a stray dog tied nearby. His intention was "not to cause any type of infliction on the poor, innocent creature, but rather to illustrate a point. Dogs starve and die of illness each year in the streets and no one pays them a second thought." He stated that the dog "was a very sick creature and would have died in the streets anyway." 

With the exception of Kac’s GFP Bunny, the examined pieces use the slaughter of animals to show that this very act is morally corrupt. By their own ridiculous rhetoric, they are not justifiable.

From Hirst’s ‘I don’t quite know what they’re about’ pieces, to Tinkebell’s handbag, these exhibits are reminders of what should not be repeated in any form; especially not for commercial art. It is not only animals who are paying the price for this ‘art’ with their dignity and their lives, but art as the most human of expressions is cheapened by the inhumanity of exploiting animals for shock-factor fame.  

Animal rights activists, notably PETA and the nascent society JAAG (Justice for Animals Arts Guild), which emerged in response to animal cruelty in the modern art world, are working hard to combat this, and ensure that artists find more creative ways to criticise animal cruelty, rather than crudely imitating the very acts which they seek to condemn. 


For more information, visit the PETA or JAAG websites. 

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