There’s a little stir up in Vancouver right now over an artwork by Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping at Vancouver Art Gallery. The piece is a container shaped like a turtle’s shell. In it are tarantulas, scorpions, crickets, millipedes, and lizards. The environment is bare, and the intervention nil. The animals are fed, but otherwise left to their own devices in their little microcosm. It’s called Theater of the World (1993).
This is far from the first time an animal has been seen in an art gallery. Just recently, the Vancouver Art Gallery itself showed Brian Jungen’s closed-off room containing birds resting on products from IKEA. Probably the most famous example is from 1974, when German artist Joseph Beuys sat in a gallery for three days with a coyote. Theater of the World is not Huang’s only piece with a live animal; another one involves a lone tarantula.
There’s something necessarily unsettling about animals in a gallery or a museum. They’re serving at the pleasure of humans. But the artists who use this device purposefully invoke its taboos.
I couldn’t find an image of Huang’s Theater of the World on the Vancouver Art Gallery’s web site, but here’s what the piece looked like when it was installed previously at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which organized the traveling Huang retrospective:
In Vancouver, The Globe and Mail reports that animal activists have complained about Theater of the World on principle. But to me their view sounds like a prognostication based more on the bloodshed and devastation happening in the human world, rather than an understanding of the artist’s intent or the actual conditions in the gallery.
“It’s pretty clear that the intention is that the observer is intended to witness potential conflict between the animals, which frankly I think is kind of sick,” Mr. Fricker [of the Humane Society] said.
(The Globe and Mail also calls Vancouver “an animal-loving city”—is the implication that residents of other cities are coldhearted bastards?)
I haven’t seen the piece yet. To test Fricker’s hypothesis that it is nothing but a voyeuristic bloodbath, I called the Walker to find out exactly what happened inside the cage in Minneapolis. Did the animals kill each other? Was it like a Shakespeare play in the end, with no one left standing? When an animal was killed, was it removed for reasons of decorum or left as a tough testament to the authenticity of the artificial ecosystem? Did people torch the place? If the microcosm was a symbol for the world, which animal came closest to behaving like the United States?
Doryun Chong helped to organize the show at the Walker and is curating the international tour. (The 40-work show closes in Vancouver Sept. 16 and goes after that to Beijing.) He admitted that while the show has many works, Theater of the World was transfixing for viewers. “It’s kind of a showstopper,” he said. “You would see people going around the exhibition and they would just stop and congregate around it. And we had people coming back to see the exhibition because they were interested in seeing what was going on in Theater of the World.”
Hearing about Chong’s experience with the piece is fascinating. He learned that crickets are very resourceful—some mysteriously escaped from the piece, probably when the snakes were being removed to be fed or when water was refilled. He learned that hissing cockroaches and African millipedes are antisocial. They congregated in their own corners and hardly moved. Scorpions were the Americans of the bunch. They went after tarantulas. Most of the aggression was limited to the early part of the exhibition, when the animals were acclimating.
Chong saw a scorpion molting, its exoskeleton splitting open. It didn’t survive the process.
When the animals got killed or died, they were left alone, not removed. Some disappeared, having been eaten. Some died naturally, “and I couldn’t exactly tell what happened,” Chong said. “There were a lot of things that happened in there that I couldn’t understand how it happened.”
Chong said the fights were fascinating, but also a little scary. It sounded like the same could be said of the entire installation, of not knowing what would happen, of the mixture of artificiality and human control with alien animal instincts and natural orders.
The Walker got a complaint on its blog, and that blog commenter contacted the Humane Society and Animal Control shortly before the show closed; representatives from those organizations visited the show and approved the conditions. “On the one hand, I can understand the outrage, but human interventions are always interrupting ecological systems, and always creating new ecological balances, disruptions, and microcosms. We put animals to human use all the time,” Chong said.
Before the show began, curators met with Bruce, the owner of the local exotic pet store, in order to procure the animals. The artist based his list of animals on an ancient recipe from southern China for a magical potion—created by putting five venomous creatures (centipede, snake, scorpion, toad, and lizard) into a pot and leaving them there for a year. Huang also wanted locusts and spiders; he ended up with crickets and tarantulas.
The museum asked Bruce to be on-call constantly during the exhibition and to check in twice a week. For his part, he told the museum that he’d only feel comfortable providing animals if they all came from the same ecological region so that they weren’t entirely alien to one another. All the animals at the Walker came from Africa.
On the Walker’s blog (unfortunately, the Vancouver Art Gallery does not have a blog), Bruce issued a call for people to resist anthropomorphizing so much: “It gives people who go there and look at [Huang’s work] with an open mind the realization that, yes, they are predator and prey and they can cohabitate together—the lion sleeping with the lamb. Most animals don’t kill for the sheer pleasure of killing. It’s either defense or obtaining prey.”
Theater of the World just opened a week ago in Vancouver. The Vancouver Province reported Sunday that the museum was missing two toads. I called the museum, and spokesman Andrew Riley was cagey as hell (pun intended), probably tired of dealing with dim accusations regarding animal rights but coming off as defensive. He couldn’t say what was going on with any of the animals. For that I’d need to speak with chief curator Daina Augaitis. I waited all day. Unfortunately, she never called. At the very least, I can’t wait to hear more, and to see the show. Huang is one of the most radical artists to come out of China in recent years, and the Vancouver Art Gallery was smart to take the show.