Floating around on internet right now, and surely making its way into people’s conversations, is the 7-minute video to be shown at the New York Guggenheim exhibit Art and China after 1989. The footage is captured from the 2003 performance piece/art (I struggle to connect those words to this, but that will come…) Dogs that Cannot Touch Each Other. Known as one of the “less radical pieces” from Sun Yuan and Peng Yu who are Chinese artists whom derive their materials and subjects from live animals, and dead human and nonhuman animals. Known as the “bad couple of China’s art” they have other piece such as Curtain Walls where they impale living sea creatures attached to a wire, I think 1500 of them, and another one called Aquatic Wall where they essentially build a wall with niches, put individual fish in the holes and watch them suffocate.
They are known for, and celebrate “animal violence” as their medium of expression
In an interview they are referred to as producing art “involving spectacular acts of violence” in order to challenge “established moral boundaries”.
Dogs that Cannot Touch Each Other involves 8 American Pitbull’s and individual handlers. In the gallery setting, these 8 unnamed dogs were tethered to a cage-like structure fixed on a treadmill. Positioned in 4 pairs, with the removal of the clapboard, the pitbull’s would run towards each other, never successfully reaching another due to short leashes. Watching clips of the video shows handlers encouraging the dogs to run faster, to run harder and to celebrate their reactivity.
Taken from the original abstract posted on the artists website:
“With treadmills, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu fundamentally changed the rules of pit bull fighting. The result was a contest of the spirit, unlike the vicious physical dog fights in the past. By invalidating the assault, the confrontation and animal instincts of the pitbull terriers in an art gallery setting, the artists allowed us to look beyond the cruel reality of pit bull fighting, and revealed an existing potential for violence and confrontation”.
This ‘performance piece’ was apart of a three-piece exhibit (including a tiger and free combat boxers) by the couple that was to “challenge socially accepted rules and norms and what happens when we change them”. Clinging to the fact that they choose American Pitbull’s as the breed to use as they “contain within them the potential for deadly attacks” and reading this along the lines of Guggenheim’s defence that this piece will be incorporated because it is a comment “about the social conditions of globalization and the complex nature of the world we share” is really, really troubling. Perhaps in Yuan and Yu’s other heinous works you could throw some words about critiquing globalization and whatnot, but event that would be a stretch because they take living, breathing sea creatures and put hooks in their torso’s (Curtain, 1990) or put fish in niche’s in a wall to watch them suffocate (Aquatic Wall, 1998) but I don’t think so. Repeating from above, the artists are celebrated and celebrate themselves for “involving spectacular acts of violence against living animals” in order to challenge “established moral boundaries”. Which is another head scratch moment for me. As someone very embedded in the politics of animals, it seems that sanctioned violence remains in place.
Returning to the performance and consequential documentation of it, I have to sit with the later rumination by the artists in an interview when asked about this particular piece. The interviewee asks, “During the last decade you have continue to incorporate animals into your work but without the use of violence”…. they respond “Where is the soft spot in all of this? Were the dogs being abused? The answer should be no. These dogs are naturally pugnacious”.
Pugnacious is a word that should never be cemented to a creature. It means in all its glory: inclined to quarrel, fight readily, fond of fighting, belligerent, aggressive, hostile. Deeming these animals pugnacious exempts them from conversations of cruelty? Reminds me so much of Judith Butler’s work and the like of ungrievable lives, precarious lives. Or even in a recent comment on a CBC article, Dr. Golinko is quoted as saying “he’s not sure anyone would miss pit bulls if they disappeared. Maybe for a little bit, but probably not”. Pitbull’s are burdened by this association of disposable/precarious life already and for me, this is what the Guggenheim Museum has failed to tap into. And also, how the heck did the interviewee not see this ‘art’ as riddled with violence? Just because you are not letting the animals attack each other directly, or killing them through taking away basic-life necessities like air, Dogs that Cannot Touch Each Other, is coated in situations of violence and trauma-inducing memory making for the dogs and also leaving an indelible mark in participants minds.
Our petitions, low-ratings of the Museum’s Facebook page and consequential bad reviews, Yelp reviews, tweets and other uses of social media to bring awareness and challenge to this exhibit are about two things. The first being that animals are not materials for artists to make use of. They are sentient, living, breathing, intentional, social and empathetic creatures. And secondly, the point I want to stress, is that pitbull’s are not pugnacious creatures. The intentions behind this piece was to remove pitbull’s from the “physical dog fights” with human accomplices, and instead in the imaginations of Yuan and Yu, put pitbull’s in a setting, particularly an art gallery an otherwise ‘neutral space’, and see what happens. So as the duo state that this was to challenge social norms, we have to ask what social norms are they seeking to challenge? Mulling over this, and trying to make sense of what I am able to read and watch, it seems that they were challenging the ‘socially accepted’ argument that pitbull’s are not inherently dangerous. Instead they say: look, pitbull’s are dangerous in dog fighting rings but they are also dangerous in neutral settings. Yet, their argument was proven in a vacuum of decontextualization and by the embellishments of treadmills, unfamiliarity, probably questionable acquisition of the animals, clapboards, cheering of the audience, forcible face-to-face positions, encouragement from handlers to run faster and harder. The dogs performed their role but only by the embellishments and discourse accompaning this act of violence (“art”).
September 25th, 2017 at 10pm the Guggenheim Museum posted a second statement regarding three pieces in the Art and China exhibit:
“Out of concern for the safety of its staff, visitors, and participating artists, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has decided against showing the art works 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. 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. 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.
September 25, 2017″
However, Carol J. Adams (you know…sexual politics of meat) wrote back a snapback on Guggenheim’s Facebook post, I wouldn’t dare try to paraphrase:
“And so, like the federal government in its passage of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, you contribute to the idea that protestors against the use of animals in art are to be feared? Why does “freedom of expression” allow for the denial of freedom to other living beings? What the Guggenheim should do now is invite animal scholars, artists who don’t and never will use live animals, and others inside the Guggenheim for a conversation with staff and the public to talk about the art of protest, the use of animals by artists, and ways for the Guggenheim not to reinforce stereotypes of animal activists. You have reduced our freedom of expression to concerns for safety and that is truly a dishonest and disingenuous end run to the issues being raised. ”
I added my two cents, encouraging the Museum to also invite pitbull-type dog advocates aa this is conversation of animals used in the art world, however, it is also a conversation about the stigmatization of pitbull type dogs. As the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum continued last night to endorse this as art, I encourage them to read the original intentions behind Yuan and Yu’s “Dogs that cannot touch each other”. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum wrote in their first statement that this ‘art’ was to comment on globalization and critique states of power. But if you spend a few minutes reading the original artist statement like I have highlighted in this post, the artists wanted to demonstrate the “existing potential for violence and confrontation” in pitbull’s. Removing them from organized pitbull fights with human accomplices, this piece was supposed to prove their pugnacious demeanour. This cannot be lost in all of this mess. As we are both challenging using animals as metaphors, as materials in torture disguised as art and the miseducation of a breed/type of dog that is already so under attack.
As a common mark in animal writing, I am sitting at my desk as Eleanor, an AmStaff, sits on the couch soaking in the unusual warmth of a late-September in Montreal. Clementine (Pit/Lab mix) is in my bedroom with Burzum. Things that crop up like this ‘art work’ contribute or really, de-stabilize and take away from our daily ability to get on with our lives in this universe. I am so happy about the pushback and successful challenges to this, but it is one of many that we have to navigate every single day and I just hope that on social media this serves as a platform to fight the stigma, but surely like a sticky-fly trap, some folks have found their evidence for believing in the ‘inherent’ nature of these dogs that happen to look a certain way.