Growing up in Mao’s China during the 1960s, the conceptual artist Xu Bing was aware of how easily words can be manipulated. “New words would be revised again and abolished, and old words would be reinstated,” the artist said in the catalogue for his solo exhibition “Xu Bing: A Retrospective” at Taipei Fine Arts Museum in 2014. “Words are something you can play with.”
In 1994, Xu created a piece of live theater focusing on the instability of language. Taking a page from George Orwell’s dystopian novel Animal Farm, he introduced two breeding pigs into a square enclosure filled with books in different languages. The pigs were stamped with characters simulating written script: those on the male pig resembling English; those on the female pig, Chinese.
In short order, nature took its course. In front of a rolling camera and a squirming human audience, the two animals proceeded to rut flagrantly.
The work, titled A Case Study of Transference, was “about the love affair between two cultures”, Xu told The Independent newspaper in 1997. It was also about the shifting meanings of language in action, the mutual dependencies fostered by cultural geopolitics, and—ahem—the intercourse of ideas.
But any readings of the work were recently shut down. Scheduled for inclusion in one the largest ever exhibitions of contemporary art from China to be staged in America, “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World” at the Guggenheim (until 7 January), the video was removed from display, along with two other works featuring animals, after “persistent threats of violence” were leveled at the museum by animal rights groups.
The Guggenheim chose to represent the work (which is easily available on YouTube) with a blank monitor and a wall label which reads: “Due to explicit and repeated threats of violence in reaction to the incorporation of live animals in the creation of this work, the Guggenheim is not presenting it as originally planned. Freedom of expression has always been and will remain a central value of the Guggenheim, but so is the physical safety of its visitors and staff. We deeply regret that, in this case, those values were in irreconcilable conflict.”
The voluntary censorship of work after protests from insistent and aggressive pressure groups is a recent, if alarming, trend among America’s museums. In this instance, Xu’s video about the slipperiness of language proves especially enlightening, particularly when forced to fade to black.