UPPER EAST SIDE, Manhattan — "Unmistakable cruelty against animals in the name of art" is how a petition drive describes an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum slated to open early next month.
At issue against the exhibition, titled "Art and China After 1989," is its depictions and use of animals.
The exhibition is made up of 150 different pieces, at least three of which feature either live animals or videos of past presentations that involved live animals. One of those videos in particular, involving a group of pit bull dogs, is generating so much controversy that a number of animal activist groups are planning to protest the exhibition's opening.
One New York-based artist has launched #TortureIsNotArt, which has been shared, commented on or otherwise reacted to thousands of times on social media.
"Art,you know, has the power to provoke and challenge and push boundaries, and that's amazing and we need to protect that," said photographer Sophie Gamand, "but we also need to hold ourselves and our institutions accountable for the work that's being disseminated and the message that's being put out there."
Gamand is critical of the exhibition curated by the Guggenheim, a world-renowned institution, and set to tour to other prominent museums after its three-month run. For her part, however, Gamand has gained a worldwide reputation herself for her photographs of dogs, which have led to hundreds of animal adoptions.
She is particularly critical of one installation in the exhibition, titled "Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other." In the 2003 installation, eight dogs were harnessed onto manual treadmills and prohibited, despite their unceasing efforts, from coming into contact with one another, for extended periods of time. A 7-minute video of the installation will be shown as part of the Guggenheim exhibition.
Gamand calls it, "Staged acts of cruelty."
"Torture is not art," she continued in an interview with PIX11 News. "It should never be. It should never be exhibited as some kind of entertainment or something that's meaningful."
Gamand is also promoting a change.org petition against the use of animals in the exhibit. The petition had about 5,000 signatures at 8:00 Friday morning. By the end of the workday Friday, the numbers had grown 10 times to more than 50,000, and growing, along with comments expressing outrage.
While some dog owners and dog lovers who spoke with PIX11 News at a dog park in Brooklyn didn't express great enthusiasm about the exhibit, which will have an admission fee of $25, they pointed out two things: one, that the main installment in question strongly runs counter to dogs' instinct and demeanor.
"Dogs travel in packs for a reason," one dog owner said. "They are very social creatures."
Second, they withheld judgment until they can learn more about "Art and China After 1989."
"I'd have to see it to see if it was torture to me," said another dog park goer.
Arguably, that's what the Guggenheim is seeking. It issued a statement that read, in part, "We recognize that the work may be upsetting. The curators of the exhibition hope that viewers will consider why the artists produced it and what they may be saying about the social conditions of globalization and the complex nature of the world we share."
Late Friday afternoon, Matt Bershadker, president and CEO of the ASPCA made his own comment about the exhibition.
"The ASPCA opposes the use of animals in art if such practices produce pain, injury or distress to the animals," his statement said, in part. "The video perpetuates the false stereotype that pit bulls are only purposeful as vicious dog fighting instruments, not as what they are at their core: affectionate and loyal animals who crave our attention and deserve safe and loving homes. This increases the obstacles standing in the way of their adoption, and endangers their lives.
"Because of these reasons," the ASPCA statement went on,"we believe the Guggenheim Museum should not have included this depiction of cruelty in the exhibit.”