At the end of the exhibition “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World” there is a small room that sits at the top of the Guggenheim’s ramped white rotunda. The room is marked “Coda,” and visitors arrive to it after viewing artwork by artists spanning more than two decades of practice. There are only three works in the room: an installation by Gu Dexin, an ink painting by Yang Jiechang, and a video piece by the couple Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. Of the nearly 150 works included in the show, the last piece, titled Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other, has attracted by far the most attention. It seems possible that without the inclusion of this piece, the show might not have been the subject of significant public outrage.

Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other documents a performance held in 2003, where eight dogs identified as “American pitbulls” were escorted by private limousine into an art space in Beijing and placed on treadmills facing one another. They were strapped in place, able only to run forward. After the New York Times published a preview of the exhibition, pet owners and animal-rights activists immediately took notice and began circulating petitions and social-media campaigns calling for the removal of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s piece, as well two others involving animals, by Xu Bing and Huang Yong Ping. A petition accusing the museum of displaying animal torture as art racked up more than 750,000 signatures, and the museum seemed caught off-guard by the intensity of the criticism. Only five days after the Times preview appeared, the Guggenheim announced they would not display the three works as originally intended, citing “concern for the safety of its staff, visitors, and participating artists.” For Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other, this means the screen of the television is frozen on the video’s title card in a compromise decision to physically include the work, but not the parts that were offensive. Animal-welfare activists were disappointed that the museum had not conceded that the works amounted to animal torture, and critics elsewhere noted that the manner in which the museum responded to the controversy closed off the possibility of any substantive engagement around questions of violence, animals, and the display of art. Read more