Terror campaign by animal rights groups forces closure of exhibition

The show attracted no protests when it was seen in France but was cancelled by curators in Glasgow earlier this year

NEW YORK. A campaign of terror waged by animal rights extremists forced the closure of an exhibition at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in late March. The Algerian, Paris-based artist Adel Abdessemed and SFAI curator Hou Hanru received repeated death threats directed at them and their

families because of an exhibition which included a video installation showing the killing of six animals.

Hou Hanru told The Art Newspaper: “We knew that there would be some controversy, but we didn’t expect it to escalate into an organised campaign. We received telephone and email messages saying, ‘We are coming to kill your kids, we are coming to rape your wife and burn your house’.” Mr Hanru said his photograph was posted on animal rights blogs.

The same installation provoked no protests when it was shown at the Centre National d’art Contemporain de Grenoble in France from February through April this year. However a subsequent display of the work at the Common Guild in Glasgow, originally scheduled to take place from 11 April to 7 June, was cancelled because of concerns for the safety of visitors and staff.

Abdessemed shot the videos in Mexico, documenting traditional methods of food production. The accompanying texts in the galleries made the artist’s role in the killings ambiguous. Questions about where and why the animals were killed were left unanswered. The animals—a pig, goat, deer, ox, horse and sheep—were killed with blows to the head with a sledgehammer that were shown on six separate monitors.

Following the opening of the exhibition on 19 March, the animal rights group In Defense of Animals sent out an “action alert” email to 30,000 of its members. This stated that “this sick exhibit is Abdessemed’s and the Institute’s self-serving attempt to pass off the brutal abuse and killing of animals as legitimate artistic creation.” The organisation urged its members to send letters demanding

that the Institute “remove the snuff video” immediately from the gallery.

Chris Bratton, president of the SFAI, said: “This was an automated email campaign orchestrated largely by In Defense of Animals. While they would deny any responsibility for the death threats, some of the very language that was used in their form letter was picked up in the threats.” He said that extremists were also receiving information from websites including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Animal Liberation Front. According to Mr Bratton, the school received over 8,000 emails that were targeted at the artist, curator and staff and in some cases the detailed threats named specific family members of employees of the institution.

The show was temporarily shut down on 26 March one week after it opened, and preparations were made by SFAI officials to hold a public forum to discuss the exhibition on 31 March. Three days later the school announced that it was cancelling the forum and permanently closing the exhibition, citing the safety and security of its 650 students and 200 faculty and staff. Abdessemed’s US dealer David Zwirner, whose staff also received intimidating messages, told The Art Newspaper: “We thought the forum would be a slightly painful discussion about a very controversial work of art, but when we called up to find out about this we were told that it had been cancelled due to bomb threats.” School administrators are working with state and local law enforcement and according to an SFAI spokesperson, “one perpetrator has been identified.”

Okwui Enwezor, dean of academic affairs at SFAI, said the school stands by the exhibition: “I don’t think that this one exhibition will change the way in which we intend to do work here.” He also said that the sponsors of the show including the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Peter Norton Family Foundation had sent letters in support of the exhibition.

Mr Zwirner said: “When we produced this piece with Abdessemed, I felt that this is an important work as a political statement to make people realise what’s going on out there during this violent time with the war.” He added: “The difference is these animals were killed to be consumed as food.” According to David Zwirner gallery director Bellatrix Hubert, the video is also about global violence and how different cultures view death.

When asked if he intends to show the videos in his New York gallery, Mr Zwirner said, “The controversy in San Francisco makes me believe that maybe it is not possible to show this work in the US because the animal activists are so radical. I would hate for Abdessemed to be reduced to this one work, and that’s what I’m afraid would happen, but the decision is pending.”

Charmaine Picard

o For comment by SFAI president Chris Bratton, p38

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