Animal Rights Groups Bug Out Over Artist’s Installation

Canada China

In Canada this spring, following sustained outcry from local animal rights activists, the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) caved in to legal pressures and altered renowned Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping’s mixed-media installation Theater of the World (1993), included in the 40-piece touring retrospective “House of Oracles.” The installation consists of a large wooden sculpture of a python suspended over a small turtle-shaped arena filled with live venomous creatures including tarantulas, snakes, lizards and millipedes.

Huang’s works often employ aspects of Chinese folklore to take provocative stances on contemporary issues; in the case of Theater, the creatures reference a passage from the Daois classic The Book of Changes, in which similar animals are placed together in a pot for a year. Huagn ssees the work as a metaphor for power dynamics between different cultures, but the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BCSPCA) charged that the structure was built to cruelly promote conflict among its inhabitants.

Although VAG consulted with reptile experts to minimize predation when selecting the species an made several concessions to the BCSPCA by adding food, water and shelter to the piece, the compromises could not preclude a BCSPCA veterinarian’s final demand that all arachnids be removed from the work. Threatened with up to six months in jail, a CND 2,000 (USD 1,800) fine and a lifetime ban on owning animals, VAG’s curators were left with little choice.

Feeling that the removal of the spiders and scorpions would irreparably alter Theater’s integrity, Huang decided to withdraw all animals from the work and leave the structure empty as a new commentary. VAG chief curator Daina Augaitis told ArtAsiaPacific, “Huang was upset by the events but also keen to consider other ways to keep the piece alive. AS a result all related official papers have been put on display as a means of ‘protest.’” It is unclear whether this most recent incident will affect Theater’s display when “House of Oracles” travels to Beijing following its run at Vancouver.