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Snuffed Animals: The Ethics of Working With Living Animals in Contemporary Art

Snuffed Animals: The Ethics of Working With Living Animals in Contemporary Art

Artists who pushed the limits of art.

In 2008 the San Francisco Art Institute closed an exhibition earlier than planned. On display was a video piece by Adel Abdessemed, that showed six animals being brutally killed with a large hammer. Protests against the work were so vast that the exhibition was stopped after a week. Even staff members of the San Francisco Art Institute were threatened by animal rights organizations. Although the artist had just filmed the atrocities at a Mexican farm, viewers of the video questioned what his role was in the violence against animals.

Artists working with living animals often arouse great outrage from organizations that defend animal rights. Despite protests and media attention, it seems that artists are still allowed to go a little bit further than other people in society. This is comes from the idea that art has some autonomy; we assume the artist has an artistic intention. This gives art a special place within society. However, artists who use living animals in their artistic practice are often regarded as immoral. Is this immoral aspect used by the artist with an ethical goal or is it just provocation?

Goldfish puree

That works of art making use of living animals are provocative has been proven again and again. Hermann Nitsch risked prison with his bloody rituals; Eduardo Kac bred a green glowing rabbit and Damien Hirst ordered a rare shark for his widely known work ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. One of the most infamous examples is the piece entitled: Helena, made by Marco Evaristti. For his exposition, Evarissti put several goldfish in food processors, which were then plugged in. Just one push on the yellow button would create goldfish soup. Within the next few days, about 16 goldfish were crushed. The protests by animal rights organizations were large, they included a few surviving goldfish being stolen from the blenders. After two days the museum decided to pull the plug on the exhibit.

The moral dilemma Evaristti questioned here is clear. We, the audience, have power over the lives of a few goldfish. Do we let them live, or reduce them to goldfish puree? Do we need to make use of all the possibilities we have? Usually, when being in a museum, we are not even allowed to touch the artwork. Evaristti did not aim to encourage the useless killing of goldfish. He aimed to pose a moral dilemma; an experiment involving human nature. Evaristti and the museum director were summoned to pay a fine, but were eventually acquitted.

Save the Pets

However, complaints about immoral artwork can get more serious. Recently Dutch artist Tinkebell, known around the world for once having had her cat made into a handbag, had to appear in court to defend one of her works of art. In her work Save the Pets (2008), hundreds of hamsters were put in transparent plastic balls, which are produced by the pet industry. In a living room setting, she let the hamsters roll around in the gallery for three weeks. She based her work on short films she had seen on YouTube of pet owners using the plastic balls to watch their hamsters rolling around in their house. Formally accused of animal abuse, she was called to appear in court.

Tinkebell, using her provocative work to raise attention for animal welfare, won the case. However, the same animal rights organizations she aimed to support are the ones that sued her. This is one of the difficulties of trying to raise attention for a case through provocative art. Many people have problems with the viewing of art as something else than just real life; artists such as Tinkebell are therefore often dismissed as sensational and attention seeking people.

Tattooed pigs

Most people tend to care about animal welfare. However, throughout Western history animals have always been regarded as subordinate to humans. Only in the last century, philosophers like Levinas and Derrida started thinking about the relations between humans and animals in different ways. Today our ethics have changed in favor of animals, but deciding where to draw the line when it comes to animal cruelty remains difficult. One such reason could be because we do not value each animal equally. Belgian artist Jan Fabre didn’t encounter much resistance while using millions of shiny beetles for his art, whereas Wim Delvoye’s tattooing of pigs was met with disdain. Most of us simply do not grant a spider and a cow the same amount of respect.

Despite this complicated relationship between humans and animals, we tend to feel aversion to artwork that shows us cruelty towards animals, whether this is implicit or explicit. Should we accept an work of art that contradicts our moral? Art is made from an artistic intention and therefore also requires an artistic attitude from the spectator. Because of the autonomy of art, moral borders are stretched; when we as spectators see an art performance, we know we do not have to intervene, because it is art we are seeing, and not a scene in the street. But it is only natural that provocative art generates an inner resistance.

A good immoral work is not one that is just shocking; the shock effect rarely lasts. A good immoral work provides ongoing food for thought. By confronting us with topics we would rather avoid or ignore, artists encourage us to think about these uncomfortable subjects. Through our own morality we can recognize the artwork as immoral and gather knowledge from it. But despite the autonomy of art, moral borders do not cease to exist. It is the responsibility of the artist to decide how far he or she can go in using animals. At the same time, the spectator also has a responsibility; when we watch a goldfish swim around in a food processor, it does not mean we have to push the button.


Rianne Groen MA
Rianne Groen is an art historian and independent curator. After receiving her BA in Art History, she finished her MA in Modern and Contemporary Art at Utrecht University in April 2010. Currently she lives and works in London, where she is studying as part of the professional MA course Curating the Contemporary at London Metropolitan University in collaboration with the Whitechapel Gallery.

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