A Curtain Closes on the Theatre of the World

A controversial exhibit pits animal rights vs artistic freedom

Fuse Magazine Review, February 2008

Alexandra Phillips

Beneath a massive coiling serpent skeleton a screened enclosure in the shape of a turtle shell sits silently on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Now empty of its animal contents, the work caused a storm of debate not heard in Vancouver since 1990 when performance artist Rick Gibson threatened to crush a rat. The debate revealed deeply polarized opinion on the value and limits of artistic freedom and the relation of humans to the natural world.

The work in question: Theatre of the World forms part of Huang Yong Ping’s spectacular touring retrospective: House of Oracles. The Chinese born Ping, now resident in Paris, presented a selection of works assembled by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Ranging from installations drawing parallels between the incarceration of big game animals in zoos and the subjugation of migrants, to an extraordinary, room-sized model of a Chinese colonial-era bank as a decaying castle of sand, the exhibit includes Ping’s most controversial work: Bat Project 1V, an actual cockpit of an American EP-3 plane whose fuselage has been reconstructed in bamboo. Visitors are invited to tour the desiccated bat-encrusted interior of the fuselage where tables are filled with letters of protest documenting the work’s suppression in two Chinese exhibitions. Bat Project 1V was inspired by the collision of an American spy plane with a Chinese military plane over Chinese territory in 1991. Chinese officials had suppressed exhibition of Ping’s work to avoid drawing further attention to this incident and exacerbating diplomatic tensions between the countries.

Speaking on a panel, Chief Curator Daina Augaitus maintained that Ping’s provocative work presents a deeply moving critique of the operations of power, destabilizing “standardized ideas about knowledge, subjectivity, and history.” Mourning the closure of Theatre of the World, Augaitus was clearly perplexed as to why the work should cause so much controversy in Vancouver when it had been exhibited without objection elsewhere. The controversy over this work may reveal as much about the cultural climate of Vancouver, birthplace of three environmental movements, as it does about the contents of the art.

Inspired by ancient Chinese tradition and Dadaist games of chance, Ping’s work also draws from the Confucian wisdom contained within the pages of the book of divination: the I Ching: specifically “Gu” the 18th hexagram representing “Decay.” Gu prescribes the making of a magical potion consisting of five venomous animals. With a view to drawing parallels between human and animal behaviour using animals as metaphors for human societies, the artist followed Gu’s prescription, placing a selection of cockroaches, millipedes, tarantulas, scorpions, snakes, lizards, and toads in his screened enclosure following consultation with a reptile specialist hired by the gallery. While each of the animals was afforded a small retreat on the enclosure’s perimeter, the exhibit’s open, central arena appeared designed to invite a confrontation between creatures renowned for their aggression and toxicity.

No sooner had the work gone on display then a complaint was received by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The SPCA’s investigation, conducted in cooperation with the gallery, ordered changes made to the exhibit to afford the animals more heat and individual shelter; the vet had determined that the only reason the animals had not attacked each other was that they were too cold to move. A subsequent inspection and meeting with the gallery staff resulted in a second, legally binding order requiring the removal of the tarantulas and scorpions which the Society had determined were in distress. At this point the artist intervened, and bitterly citing the violation of his freedom of expression, removed all the animals. In their place he asked that all official documents related to the closure of his work be posted beside the empty exhibit.

Perhaps misunderstanding its role in Canadian society Ping complained that the SPCA had “completely ignored the ideas and unique concepts” in his work, that it had dwelled instead “on the many doctrines and details (of the provincial legislation) in the name of ‘animal protection,” and that the order had “violently interfered with the rights of an artwork to be freely exhibited in an art museum.” “Their objective,” he wrote, “is to mold the artwork into…something which might resemble a zoo or a pet shop…” He noted that “this is a reflection of today’s political, economic, and social pressures that transform people into coveted pets and pampered, self-loving objects…One key aspect in Theatre of the World is to challenge this current, pet-oriented, and pampered view of the world, and to object to such indulgences.”

In his statement the artist acknowledges that the anticipated antagonism among caged animals was intended as a philosophical counterweight to what he sees as the excessive self-indulgence of modern life. But as an allegory of power among nations the work oversimplifies the human condition. Scores of cultures function cooperatively in close proximity, and the array of laws, treaties, conventions and customs that facilitate this in no way resembles the instinctual behaviour of animals. Such allegories, the substance of fairy tales and fables where animals take on human roles, shed no more light on the human condition than disappointment with the persistence of violence among some human societies.

Accommodating Ping’s request, the gallery’s interim Head of Public Programs Marie Lopez related that in addition to the flood of commentary from the local, national, and international media, it had been a challenge “to keep up with the demand for paper and pencils” on the comment wall of the closed exhibit. Transcending the simplistic binary of “animals in art: good” versus “animals in art: bad” opinion had ranged from the view that the work exhibited “misplaced social commentary,” that it had “demonstrated personal and cultural hypocrisy,” as well as “power and how it is shared, shifted, and abused.” The work raised additional questions of “voice, agency, humanity, and art.”

Following the uproar, the gallery convened a discussion panel to explore the issues in depth. Opinion ranged from the instrumental view that the human use of animals and the privileging of human values (including freedom of artistic expression) is the natural order, to the opposing view that animals possess inherent rights, regardless of their relative appeal or utility to humans.

Into this latter category fell Emily Carr Associate Professor Carol Gigliotti who argued that animals deserve to be considered as sentient beings and subjects in their own right, not displayed as “resources, objects, metaphors, or ideas” in the service of art production. Gigliotti argued that using animals as art supplies undermines whatever metaphorical value such use might have. Ultimately, argues Gigliotti, such display communicates that animal life exists for human purposes, thereby reinforcing the relations of power and domination, which, she noted, Ping so ironically critiques among humans in much of his work.

Citing the persecution of artists whose work criticizes the use of animals in science and biotechnology such as Steve Kurtz of the Critical Art Ensemble, Gigliotti described the dichotomy between artistic freedom and animal rights as a false one; freedom of expression is often denied those artists who dare to challenge the status quo represented by the biotech industry, while it is extended to artists such as Eduardo Kac, whose use of animals appears to validate these procedures within the rubric of creativity. Kurtz’s work, which critiques “biocolonialism” and the genetic modification of organisms (a huge moneymaker for agribusiness giants like Monsanto), was considered sufficiently suspicious for him to be prosecuted by the FBI under the Patriot Act. Conversely, Eduardo Kac is celebrated for having genetically manipulated the genes of a rabbit with the DNA of flourescent marine life to create a rabbit: “Alba” the GFP Bunny, that glows in the dark.

By contrast, the instrumentalists regard the use of animals as a given. For them such use is deeply ingrained in human culture as we have consumed animals for food, relied on them for labour and companionship, and anthropomorphized them to reveal human values embedded in art and mythology. Both Jason Gratl, President of the BC Civil Liberties Association and Daina Augaitus, felt that the closure of the piece deprived the public of a valuable opportunity for critical social self-examination They maintained that artists are frequently harbingers of a future as yet unknown, and that their voices consequently deserve full expression in spite of the sometimes troubling stories they may tell.

The privileging of humanity over other species is not unique to Western thought but it stands in contrast to the worldviews of many indigenous peoples who see humans, dependent on all other species for survival, occupying a more humble place in creation (Brody, Davis, Eagle). Although this view does not preclude the killing of animals, such consumption has historically taken place within carefully circumscribed conditions.

The privileging of humanity also shares an historical parallel with outdated notions of cultural evolution and the pre-modern “Chain of Being” in which European men occupied the apex while women, children, and darker-skinned people appeared in descending order beneath them. Like the Chain of Being the evolutionary value ladder between humans and animals ranks animals in relationship to their appeal (pets) or utility (farm animals) to humans. It should be noted that the SPCA makes no such value distinctions among species; the standards of treatment are equal for all animals according to law. In spite of Vancouver Sun reporter Ian Mulgrew’s view that closing an art exhibit over concern for such insignificant creatures as lizards and millipedes makes a mockery of Vancouver’s world class aspirations (Mulgrew 2007), the closure of the orca and land mammal exhibits in Stanley Park, as well as Theatre of The World, may indicate a movement of public sentiment away from the exhibition of animals and this hierarchy of value.

Nevertheless, UBC Assistant Professor of Anthropology Anand Pandian, editor of Race, Nature, and the Politics of Difference, saw Theatre of the World as a deeply moving critique against the violence that pervades colonialism and its offspring: modernity. For him the work symbolized the global suffering of millions of animals; it was a “theatre of our world” in which the overlooked history of animal rights activism was also embedded in relations of domination and class struggle against subject peoples whose relations with animals have often been used to define them as barbaric and uncivilized.

And here, like the mythical, perhaps venomous snake that devours its own tail, the circle of debate completes itself because this same history of colonial subjugation once found expression in the public display of living humans. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries such displays were commonly used to justify colonial expansion as a moral, social, and philosophical good in fairs and expositions from Liepzig to Chicago. Writing about the Hamatsa performances of his Kwakiutl parishioners at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the Rev. Alfred J. Hall praised the way the US government was “proudly exhibiting civilized bands from their industrial schools,” while from Canada “came only this display of paganism, chosen by Dr. Boaz because the most degraded he could find in the Dominion (Hall quoted in Cole 130).” So enormous was the Chicago exhibition that the North American natives including Kwakiutls, Apaches, Penebscots, Iroquois and Navahos barely made an impression alongside the “280 Egyptians and Sudanese in a Cairo street, 147 Indonesians in a Javanese village, 58 Eskimos from Labrador, a party of bare-breasted Dahomans in a West African setting, Malays, Samoans, Fijians, Japanese, Chinese, as well as an Irish village with both Donegaal and Blarney castles (Cole 128).”

That the exhibition of living humans is no longer acceptable signals a shift in consciousness away from objectification among human beings and recognition that notions of cultural evolution and superiority are a myth. Contemporary audiences would no more accept the display of a “Hottentot Venus” for educational purposes than they would circus acts featuring deformed individuals for entertainment. In the wake of decolonization, the display of humans as “types” is inconceivable, but the condition of voiceless animals remains one of domination by humans, and their use as artist’s supplies raises the question in light of this history of exhibition: do animals remain the colonial Other for the Empire of Man?

While committed to exhibiting art in the vanguard of ideas, the Vancouver Art Gallery should draw the line at displaying work that engages animal cruelty. The abiding question is whether the Art Gallery can justify an exhibit which approximated the deadly combat of pitbulls. Comparing the work to the Roman Coliseum one visitor characterized the work as “gladiatorial,” a far cry from the official text which asserted Theatre of the World was an allegory of the dynamics of power evoking “issues of ecology and environmental sustainability.” Accommodating the minimal conditions for survival of animals not normally found together in the wild, animals whose nature would lead inevitably to confrontation, does not relieve the institution of responsibility for the consequences of these hostile encounters. Whatever insights might have been imparted by this display, the message that many would have carried away is that, in the view of the Gallery, the lives of these animals were expendable in the service of art. Ultimately such notions serve neither art nor society at large. This controversy underlines the need for a radical creativity that embraces dignity and respect for all species as a progressive value for our times.


Brody, Hugh. Beyond Eden Hunters, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2000.

Cole, Douglas. Captured Heritage The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1985.

Davis, Wade. Light at the Edge of the World a Journey Through the Realms of Vanishing Cultures. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2001.

Eagle, Splashing. Personal interview. Vancouver: May, 2006.

Mulgrew, Ian. The Vancouver Sun, 9 April, 2007.

Stocking, George W. Jr., ed., Objects and Others Essays on Museums and Material Cultures. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.