The Guggenheim Museum’s new exhibit “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” will open tomorrow after a prolonged, intense firestorm that led to the removal of three of its original works. At a media preview on Thursday, Richard Armstrong, the museum’s director, addressed the controversy, saying that the museum received threats that forced them to contact the police.
The exhibition charts the evolution and globalization of contemporary Chinese art. Three of the pieces, including a video by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu entitled “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other,” used animals to symbolically depict oppression in China, and were protested vociferously by organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. On Sept. 25, the museum decided to pull the three works, which also included a video of two pigs mating and an installation that involved live insects and reptiles under an overhead lamp.
“It was not only the quantity of people’s reactions, but there were a number of them that bordered on ominously threatening, or beyond that. We were obliged to consult with the police,” Mr. Armstrong said in an interview at the Guggenheim. “There wasn’t possibility for further debate.”
“Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other” has faced pushback since its original performance in 2003 in Beijing, and Mr. Armstrong said he had expected criticism at the onset of the project. But he said he was forced to change course because of the threats leveled at his employees. “I think one thing we weren’t prepared for, or were surprised by, was the ferocity of the reaction,” Mr. Armstrong said. “The issue ultimately became one of safety.”
In turn, the museum faced criticism from artists and free speech activists for pulling the artworks. Mr. Armstrong said the museum will asses the controversy in programming going forward. “We do hope we’re going to make a series of programs in the course of the exhibition that bring together different points of view about what could, should and might have happened,” he said.
Mr. Armstrong still defended the original inclusion of the three pieces of artwork. “We had reasons for choosing every one of the artworks included in this exhibition,” he said in prepared remarks to the press. “We believe that every one of them has something important to tell us.”