Controversial Xu Bing Work Enters the Guggenheim Museum’s Collection

Call it the Art Boomerang.

On the eve of the opening last October of its major fall exhibition, “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World,” the Guggenheim Museum pulled three works after an outpouring of protest from animal-rights activists. Now, one of those works, Xu Bing’s “A Case Study of Transference,” is coming back to the museum, this time as a valued part of its permanent collection, purchased with funds provided by an anonymous donor. The website ARTnews first reported the gift.

The controversial work is a video documentation of a 1994 performance in which two pigs, one imprinted with nonsensical English words and one stamped with fanciful Chinese characters, copulate before a live audience. It is a satirical take on the collision of East and West.

Instead of showing the video, the museum displayed a blank monitor with a wall label explaining, “For Xu, who, like many intellectuals of his generation, had spent time on a farm during the Cultural Revolution and was familiar with animal husbandry, the performance was a literal and visceral critique of Chinese artists’ desire for enlightenment through Western cultural ‘transference.’”

“Xu Bing’s ‘A Case Study of Transference’ is recognized as an iconic work of conceptual and performance art from China during this period and is now part of the exhibition history,” said Sarah Eaton, a spokeswoman for the Guggenheim, who told The New York Times that the museum might show the work there in the future.

It could also be shown elsewhere sometime soon. “Art and China After 1989” will travel to the Guggenheim Bilbao from May 11 to Sept. 23, 2018, and to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from Nov. 10, 2018, to Feb. 24, 2019, although neither institution has finalized its checklist yet.

The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi already owns another work that was altered for the exhibition, Huang Yong Ping’s “Theater of the World” (1993), an empty cage that was intended to be filled with live insects, lizards and snakes that would ostensibly feed off each other during the course of the three-month show. In response to the museum’s intervention, the artist scribbled a note of protest in Chinese on an airsickness bag on his flight to New York from Paris where he lives. This work, titled “Vomit Bag” (2017), was displayed in a vitrine at the show and is also under consideration for entering the Guggenheim’s permanent collection.

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