Animal Cruelty at the Vancouver Art Gallery
The House of Oracles: A Huang Yong Ping Retrospective has been keeping me up at night.
What started as a rumor that the Vancouver Art Gallery was exhibiting a piece of work that involved putting different species of reptiles, amphibians, scorpions, tarantulas, millipedes, cockroaches and other insects in an enclosure together has been confirmed. Let me clarify why it was a rumor. Vancouver has a reputation for being staunchly against animal cruelty and no-one would believe that a large public institution like the VAG would dare to do something like this.
I did some preliminary research to find out more about this particular work titled "Theatre of the World" and the findings were disturbing to say the least. The controversy is outlined quite well at: http://blogs.walkerart.org/visualarts/?p=14#comments. I wrote to the curators and asked them to remove the piece on the grounds that it was cruel and disgusting treatment of animals. While waiting for their response I reported them to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).
Perhaps I reacted so strongly because I have had reptiles, amphibians, and spiders (also spyders) as pets to varying degrees of success as a child. Having lost many of them to unintentional negligence, I understand how sensitive they are to their environments but also the rudimentary fact that amphibians and reptiles often have drastically different habitats and different species of omnivores could never cohabitate peacefully. The fact that the VAG denies the intention of intentionally causing conflict amongst the animals is complete malarkey. After talking with them it became apparent that the herpetologist they contracted was either corrupt or incompetant and that the curators felt no compassion for the animals as living beings.
The curators invited me for a private tour and discussion about the ethical issues and value of the work which was very insightful and contributed to my appreciation for the other works in the show. However, the inherent wrongness of intentionally putting animals from different ecosystems in the same habitat with the hope/intention of creating conflict among them for the purpose of 'art' inhibited any purposeful interaction with the work. In short, I was turned off.
Not only do I take issue with the inhumane and thoughtless combination of animals for the purpose of creating a public spectacle but I also object to the message the work articulates within the larger context of the House of Oracles show. Quoting from a recent newspaper article interviewing the Phillipe Vergne the "allegorical microcosm of power dynamics" and "metaphor for the conflicts among different peoples and different cultures" to me translates into a thinly veiled racist conception of "human existence itself" with different groups represented as different species from several continents. Just as the social sciences in the 19th century sought to prove that some races were different species, i.e. not human, to justify slavery, colonialism and other forms of exploitation, this work seeks to frame inter-cultural human relations as a veritable maelstrom of all against all where according to the tenets of social Darwinism only strongest survive. This statement flies in the faces of the ideal of multiculturalism that Canada prides itself on.
The attempt by curators Augaitis and Vergne to naturalize the idea of using live animals in contemporary art in today's paper, impels me to object to the disservice they have done to the memory of the great artist Joseph Beuys and his seminal piece of 1974 "Coyote (I like America and America Likes Me)." The impetus behind the work of Beuys was to shamanistically heal the pathological drive to war in the world, specifically commenting on the American aggression during the Vietnam War. Ping on the other hand, calls into question the very possibility of harmonious existence in the world through his metaphor of claustrophobic existence among different species (or is that races Mr. Ping?), by placing incompatible animals in a confined space to reference among other things, Gu, a Chinese poison made of venomous animals who have devoured each other. Poison kills, and so does the VAG, apparently.
The tension between Beuys and the coyote existed as a singular event surviving as an art work for exhibition in video form unlike "Theatre of the World" which is staged live and constantly for an audience. As footage of "Coyote" plays it becomes obvious to the viewer that the only one at risk is Bueys, who must fend off the increasingly hungry coyote. More importantly the coyote only had to contend with Beuys, while the creatures in Ping's work are on show for countless viewers undoubtedly intensifying their already heightened stress levels brought on by competing for territory with the other predatory animals. Which brings me to my final point, that the artistic merit of the work and an otherwise exceptional show is denied to the viewer by the unethical treatment of living things used as a means to questionable ideological ends. This is easily remedied by doing as the French did, when this piece was exhibited in Paris in 1994. Protests succeeded in replacing the live animals with art- that is representations of the animals.
Luckily the City of Vancouver has recently passed some by-laws regarding the display of exotic animals and in addition to the pressure of local animal rights groups shall prompt the VAG to reconsider "Theatre of the World." Animal Cruelty as Art in Vancouver? Not on my watch, I say.
Issues of censorship were discussed with the curator, and I stated that I was not into censorsing artists and it was with some trepidation that I am taking a stand against this work. However, we both agreed that there were limits to what should be shown although these thresholds are different for everyone. He seemed to respect my disagreement with the work, but stated he would not take "Theater of the World" down. Ah, the joys of the post-modern condition. Who needs a soul when you have the eternal ambiguation of meaning to hide behind....
I thought I would include a photograph of myself with my dog, Muffin for anyone who needs to ask why I am occupying myself with such a 'trivial' matter. READ: All living things need to be treated with compassion and respect, not just the cute mammalian ones. If a parent caught their child doing what the VAG is they would sit down the youngster for a talk, not stand there robotically nodding saying "mmm......how post-modern."
To paraphrase Blake: I will not cease from mental fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand... Til the VAG stops torturing animals, in Vancouver's green and pleasant land.