A very miniscule portion of my heart has an equally miniscule portion of sympathy for Huang Yong Ping. When the artist swept into Vancouver in early April as his first retrospective opened at the Vancouver Art Gallery, chances are he had no idea that a fierce ethical and artistic debate was about to unfurl around his exhibition.
“House of Oracles” opened over two months ago, boasting more than forty works, predominantly large-scale installations. From a massive python, to a life-size elephant made of animal skins, the presence (and use) of non-human animals within the exhibition was promptly noted, observed, and taken into considerable account.
Within days of opening night, extensive attention was being directed at one specific installation in Ping’s retrospective: Theater of the World, a work involving the appropriation and use of several species of insects and reptiles. A visitor attending the show contacted the SPCA, several officials assessed the situation, and the organization subsequently presented the V.A.G. with a series of written requests; things to be done that would improve the living conditions of all beings in Theater of the World. Further SPCA requests called for the removal of all tarantulas and scorpions; however, the Gallery chose to “maintain the integrity of the artwork”, and remove the piece rather than comply with further requests.
Following the death of four animals in the exhibit, debates and conflicting opinions of the public and the media culminated with Theatre of the World: A Public Forum. Organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery, the event boasted an impressive list of panel members: Craig Daniell, Chief Executive Officer of the BCSPCA, Carol Gigliotti, Former Director of the Centre for Art and Technology and ECIAD teacher, Jason Gratl, President of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, Ian Mulgrew, Legal Reporter & Columnist for The Vancouver Sun, Hsingyuan Tsan, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of UBC’s Art History Department, Anand Pandian, Assistant Professor of UBC’s Institute of Asian History, and Daina Augaitis, Associate Director and Chief Curator of the Vancouver Art Gallery. I attended this forum, not only due to my initial interest in the exhibition, but also because of the ever-pressing question decorating the concluding paragraph of the forum advertisement: Can artists’ rights be balanced with animal rights?
According to numerous panel members, the answer was a concrete ‘no’. Chief Curator Daina Augaitis kicked off the event by re-emphasizing the infamous reptile specialist, so carefully selected and hired by the V.A.G. prior to the opening. My personal favourite was Jason Gratl, who kept spewing nonsensical words that provoked discomfort, confusion and disbelief from numerous audience members. Gratl regarded the use of animals as symbols a positive thing, chuckled at the attention given to a malnourished tarantula, and basically offered no more than lackluster statements backed by his obvious immaturity and lack of consideration for animal life. The resounding opinion in the room was evident: artists’ rights should take precedent. Many panel members thought the SPCA actions had compromised the work, the artist, and the idea of artistic freedom as a whole.
Animal rights vs.artistic freedom is a familiar debate, evidenced by the case of an infamous cat named Kensington. In 2001, a 21-year-old Toronto art student named Jesse Power enlisted the help of two friends on a film project he was creating for school. Within the fifteen minute clip, Power and his cronies hang the cat from the ceiling with a cord, slit its throat, kick, beat, disembowel, and eventually decapitate the animal. Power entered the piece in the Toronto Film Festival, which decided not to pull the film as they felt viewers should have the opportunity to explore what would motivate such unnecessary cruelty. Power claims he made his film “in the name of art”.
The line between animal rights and artistic freedom is hazy and unclear. Shrouded within the creation of binaries, the comparison time and time again only reveals the animals that society values, those we don’t, what we consider our pets, our food, our clothes, and what we consider to be nothing at all. Hundreds of activists stood outside the courtroom the day Power was sentenced, in the name of cruelty and injustice, while the animals of Theater of the World couldn’t even pull in a packed house at the forum.
Case in point: if Ping had thrown a handful of humans into a dome and provided them with insufficient nutrition and living space, human rights activists would be storming the steps of the V.A.G. into the wee morning hours. However, we are situated in an anthropocentric society, where the majority regards animal appropriation, objectification, and maltreatment in art as acceptable practices.
Is this what art is becoming, a practice that requires the deliberate harming of living beings ( human and non-human animals)? The repercussions of this disturbing trend will unfold not only in the present, but into the future.
One of Jason Gratl’s concluding statements I recall was “the art gallery is a sacred space”, words spoken in defense of Ping’s artistic freedom. Just because we regard a space as sacred does not mean we turn away from immoral practices that occur within them. The house, the church, the theatre and the art gallery are all sacred spaces. However, to excuse Ping’s unjust practices behind a mere title not only excuses his actions, but permits others to do the same.
Before the art world begins to produce carbon copies of Jesse Power and Huang Yong Ping, who think animals are at their disposal, the art community has to call for a re-awakening, and a re-assessment of the term artistic freedom, and its validity. We must fully examine what artistic freedom is: a term for humans, created by humans, and blatantly void of consideration for other species.
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Zoe Peled is a writer in Vancouver Canada.