10 Controversial Works of Art Using Live Animals


If you salivate at the sight of bacon, would you be OK with watching a squirming pig being tattooed? If the thought of eating animal flesh sickens you, do you hate the very idea of using live animals in art, or can you justify it if the art is good? Do you feel more sympathy for a horse, a dog, or a goldfish? Some calls are easier to make than others, but there’s a bit of an ethical grey area when it comes to live animals in art. Check out our brief survey of works and the creatures that made them possible, and find your own gradient of sensitivity. Where do you stand?

Photo credit: Martha Cooper

Miru Kim, I Like Pigs and Pigs Like Me at Art Basel Miami

Artist Miru Kim spent 104 hours in a glass-encased hog pit inside of the Primary Flight Gallery at Art Basel 2012 for her performance I Like Pigs and Pigs Like Me. The makeshift pen was livestreamed as Kim imagined the life of a pig, mingling her flesh with the animals’. Nude and on all fours, she interacted with her companions, feeding, hugging, scratching, and rolling around with them. Though the two pigs were reportedly headed to a no-kill farm after the exhibit, an animal activist alleged they were sick and abandoned.

Photo credit: Wim Delvoye

Wim Delvoye’s pigs at Art Farm Cina, Beijing

“Instead of producing art I wanted to harvest it,” explains Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, inking these pigs with Louis Vuitton logos and Russian prison tattoo-inspired designs on Yang Zhen’s Art Farm China in 2011. Though the pigs were under anaesthetic while tattooed, they are being held down in the unsettling photographs of the sessions. There are also heartwarming photos of them happily rummaging around a green forest afterward, where they “snuffle the undergrowth” and roll around in wild muck. Sure, that’s better than awaiting death in a slaughterhouse. But in the end, some of these guys are getting stuffed and some have their skin peeled to be stretched over canvases for sale.

Banksy’s elephant at Barely Legal

For his 2006 Los Angeles solo debut, world famous street artist Banksy had an elephant painted to match his installation’s wallpaper to symbolize world poverty, a vastly ignored global issue. Tai, the elephant, was literally the elephant in the room, surrounded by flashing cameras, teeming crowds, and an atmosphere celebrity hype. Even though the paint was non-toxic, Los Angeles’ Animal Services Department reportedly regretted granting Banksy the permit for the gimmicky piece, deeming it illegal and asking Tai to be scrubbed down and repainted with children’s face paint.

Photo credit: Museo Madre

Jannis Kounellis, Horses, Galleria L’Attico, Rome

Greek-born Jannis Kounellis was a pioneer of the anti-establishment, anti-elitist Arte Povera movement — he chose street theater over museum shows; art, dirt, fire, and discarded metal over traditional art materials. In 1969, he tied twelve horses to the walls of a gallery in Rome, transforming the sterile space into something to be confronted and encountered. Ta-da! The viewer’s environment had been drastically transformed. The horses’ environment was too. We wonder what they thought about that.

Photo credit: Girish Shahane for the Hindustan Times

Naveen Thomas

Earlier this year, an installation piece at India’s National Academy of Fine Art gallery ruffled a few feathers when Bangalore-based artist Naveen Thomas placed a bunch of pigeons in a room rigged with copper wires and radio transistors. As the birds hopped and scampered around, they set off the copper sensors, altering the white noise that filled the room. Conceptually, pigeons making noise music is amazing. However, animal sympathizers insist that the white noise hurts the birds’ hearing and homing abilities. The artist wasn’t too concerned: “I find it interesting to hear how the sound fluctuates every time a bird sits on the copper wire… I’m treating the birds better than they were treated where they had come from. I would even use a monkey if I could.” Please don’t.

Photo credit: The Kansas City Star

Amber Hansen

Artist Amber Hansen’s 2012 Chicken Run was the spectacle that never was, so we have no gory picture for you to ponder over. Instead, imagine this: Lawrence, Kansas. Five chickens are clucking in a public coop where visitors can get close to them, get to know them, and see them as real live beasts. Then, they watch them get slaughtered, cooked, and served. Then, they eat them. The Story of Chickens: A Revolution was meant to demonstrate that meat isn’t just food, but it was banned on charges of animal cruelty. Meanwhile, more discrete rituals of mass meat production continue.

Image credit: Paxmachina, ANIMAL

Elizabeth Demaray, Corpor Esurit

At first Elizabeth Demaray’s Corpor Esurit installation sounds horrifying: Lots and lots of ants sequestered into two chambers, one for their colony to nest in and the other, down a plexiglass tube, filled with McDonald’s food products that they’re forced to gorge on… Only, not really. Ants usually eat seeds, fruit, and plant material, and so they did — nibbling on apples, the seeds on the buns, and the insides of chicken nuggets, which are mostly corn anyway. The ants are fine. There was no outstanding death rate. That’s a relief. What would we feel had they not been fine or not been ants?

Photo credit: Denise Bellon

Salvador Dalí, The Rainy Taxi

Salvador Dalí “tortured” some insects too. Here’s a test for any proud animal lover. These are live snails crawling over the face of a rotting mannequin inside a car in the lobby of the International Exposition of Surrealism at the Galerie Beaux-Arts in 1938. They feed on nearby lettuce. They drink water raining down through pipes above. And yet, they are live animals, displaced from their habitat and used for the purpose of entertainment. Is this wrong?

Photo credit: Marco Evaristti

Marco Evaristti, Helena

In 2000, provocative artist Marco Evaristti installed ten blenders filled with water and live goldfish at the Trapholt Art Museum in Denmark to challenge the ethics of his audience. In Helena, “the audience members became arbiters over life and death in a situation where it was crystal clear what would happen if they pressed the button.” Two buttons were pushed, but the courts decided that the deaths were not prolonged and so, not inhumane. Does that sound comforting? Would you push the button?

Photo credit: Wikipedia, DaWire

Guillermo Vargas, Exposition No. 1.

For the 2008 Honduras Biennial, artist Guillermo Vargas paid children to capture an unfortunate street hound, chain it to a wall and, seemingly, allow it to starve to near death until it allegedly escaped. An enraged internet media storm erupted. The artist was removed from the 2008 Honduras Biennial and charged with animal cruelty. Or that was the initial story. On the wall, the signage “Eres Lo Que Lees” (“You Are What You Read”) was written in dog food. Apparently, the dog was only tied up for three hours a day and was fed regularly. The artist manipulated the media firestorm himself. He pointed out that no visitor tried to free or feed the dog; he drew a parallel to a recent death of a burglar who was mauled by dogs as the police stood by and watched, to point out the hypocrisy in the media. That’s clever and reassuring, but doesn’t the image of this dog, tethered, tattered and scared still tug at your heartstrings?