The Guggenheim, the artist, and the impact of government and activism on the medium!

Whether you’re a fan of artwork or not, and unless you’ve been living in complete isolation, and possibly under a rock, then you’ve more than likely heard of the Guggenheim!  A place where artists have generally been allowed quite a bit of flexibility and freedom in their approach to a medium that for thousands of years been the most thought-provoking method of expression.  Now it seems, the modern world has caught up to the Guggenheim, and the artists that bring their work to the floor.

Recently, the traveling exhibit “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World”, was set to open at the Guggenheim.  An exhibit that has been featured, in one form or another around the world for several years, it is now being featured in the United States, at one of the premier art gallery institutions.  The works in the exhibit are intriguing at the least and absolutely repugnant at the worst.  Many have been called into question as “legitimate art” for several years, and in a country like the United States that values “mans best friend” as a near-sacred animal, one of the pieces is downright taboo.  But this begs several questions; where did this exhibit come from?  How was it envisioned?  What leads to the development of this style of artistic interpretation? Why were certain works pulled from the exhibit that was to be featured at the Guggenheim?

Let us examine, shall we?

It is important to note that China has been, and will continue to be, a totalitarian communist government.  Though it is on the world stage economically, academically, and athletically, there is still much censoring of creative expression.  This particularly impacts artists, writers, and anyone that does not blend in with the generally accepted message of the government.  The Tiananmen Square protests were the climax of several decades of political and social unrest within China.  In the aftermath, many artists left the country to pursue their idealistic ambitions.  While many returned, they would eventually leave again.  From 1989 to 2008, the period that the Guggenheim exhibit will explore, the country experienced a crushed democratic experiment to a rebirth at the Beijing Olympic games.  This is reflected in the artwork in some extreme ways.  It is meant to examine the brutality of the world, idealistically, spiritually, and violently.

While the exhibit is going to be shown, with works from over seventy different artists,  several pieces have been withdrawn for animal cruelty and general PR concerns.  These “concerns” have been mostly in the form of generic hate mail and tame complaints about the abhorrence people find in such a display.  Others have been quite violent in their remarks and have caused the Guggenheim the need to issue an official statement on the matter, seen below:

“Three works will not be presented as originally planned. Out of concerns for the safety of visitors, staff, and participating artists after ongoing and persistent threats of violence in reaction to the incorporation of live animals in the creation of the works, the Guggenheim has decided against including Huang Yong Ping’s two-part installation Theater of the World (1993) and The Bridge (1995) with live animals, and the video documentation of historic events in Xu Bing’s A Case Study of Transference (1994) and Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003).”

Of all the works referenced, the piece “Dogs that Cannot Touch Each Other”  has drawn the most visceral reaction from the public and is the apparent catalyst for the ire that the Guggenheim has had to endure over the past several weeks.

The piece is a video of several pairs of American Pitbulls strapped to treadmills that face each other and run continuously at one another but are unable to touch.  The video is available on YouTube should you wish to view it.  Do be warned, it is EXTREMELY DISTURBING.

While many of us cringe at the mere idea of animals being used this way, it is not the only piece pulled for backlash.  The other pieces would’ve featured multiple animals and insects either being eaten or dying from general causality of exhibition fatigue, and a New York pet store had been on contract to replenish those pieces as needed.

To answer the question of how artworks of this nature come to be, we can look at the strife caused to the citizenry of China prior to 1989 and since then the global vision dilemma of the nation.  The dogs and the other pieces that are so incendiary to us in the United States are designed to represent the idea of a country at odds with itself politically, socially, and artistically.  Ironically this particular piece was first done in a live venue in Beijing in 2003.

In an era where the east and west are experiencing modern, contemporary art creation differently, the sphere finds itself at odds with what is considered art, and what is considered deranged esoteric shock value.  In the case of the Guggenheim, for the sake of the other artists, and to allow the exhibit to move forward without a large scale PR disaster, the decision was made to remove those specific pieces that are designed to shed light on how some in this era of Chinese artists have decided to express their vision of how the past has impacted them and China as a whole.

How do we allow artists to express themselves, and bring unique, interesting pieces and exhibits to the United States, and at the same time respecting the sentiments of the public ?  At what point do we cross the censorship barrier?  Better yet, when does art stop being art?  Do we draw a line in the sand, or do we open the door for non-stop exploration into the medium and display the results as they are?  The Guggenheim has made its decision based on public backlash.  What are your thoughts?

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