Bloody Animals!
-Reinterpreting Acts of Sacrificial Violence against Animals as Part of Contemporary Chinese Artistic Practice
〞〞Paul Gladston

During the late nineteen nineties two contemporary Chinese artists, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, received widespread critical attention both in China and the West for works of art involving the appropriation of living animals, animal bodies and body parts. These works include two now notorious installations, Sun Yuan*s Sea Animals Inside Wall (1998) and Peng Yu*s Curtain (1999), in which numerous animals were made to suffer what would appear to have been unnecessarily lingering and traumatic deaths. In the case of Sea Animals Inside Wall over fifty sea creatures, including lobsters, fish and horseshoe crabs were embedded head or tail first into specially constructed partition walls where they were left to die as a result of slow suffocation, while Curtain was made up of a writhing mass of lobsters, bullfrogs, snakes and eels impaled on hooks attached to a row of hanging steel wires. According to published statements made by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, the intended effect of these works was twofold: first, to present the viewer with highly visceral metaphors for human conflict and the supposedly ineffectual struggle of the individual against the determining constraints of their immediate environment (metaphors that are clearly open to interpretation as critical both in relation to the circumstances surrounding mainland China*s recent revolutionary past and the inherent fatalism of traditional Chinese culture); and second, to engender an infinite sense of spirituality beyond the limits of human imagination and cognition.

Until relatively recently, acts of violence against animals broadly comparable to those conducted by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu were, of course, a highly visible and widely accepted aspect of public life in the West. Animal baiting, for example, continued to take place legally in England up until 1835 and in other Western countries well beyond that date. Indeed, in Spain and parts of South America the highly ritualized and often protracted public spectacle of bullfighting to the death is still conducted within the law. Since the latter part of the eighteenth century, however, there has been increasingly widespread ethical concern throughout the Western world with regard to the welfare of animals (one that runs alongside a growing sensitivity towards bodily suffering endured by humans).? As a result, extreme instrumental violence against animals is now limited by law to the processing of animal bodies as a source of food and raw materials as well as their use as part of scientific experimentation, both of which take place under regulated conditions well away from the public gaze.? From a contemporary Western cultural perspective it is therefore extremely difficult to reflect upon works of art involving conspicuous acts of violence against animals, such as those conducted by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, without an apparently natural sense of shock and revulsion.
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Within contemporary mainland China there are also moral and legal prohibitions against the violent treatment of animals. These include continuing ethical constraints on sacrificial violence which stem from a long-standing 每 though often unfulfilled - Confucian and Taoist desire to exert political power through symbolic gestures rather than excessive forms of blood-letting? as well as legal restrictions developed under communist rule during the nineteen fifties designed to protect animals from various forms of exploitation and mistreatment. However, while these prohibitions are well established they do not extend definitively to the injury or slaughter of animals by their owners.? Consequently, despite vigorous attempts in recent years to enforce restrictions on public cruelty towards animals in developed urban areas, such acts remain a widely accepted and often highly visible aspect of everyday life, not least with regard to the selling, preparation and consumption of food. In mainland China it is, for example, usual to find large numbers of living animals confined to restricted spaces in the seafood section of modern supermarkets. While this practice stems rationally from a desire to assure freshness, it is also one that habitually results in numerous highly visible and drawn out deaths, both because of the cramped conditions in which the animals are held and because they are sold expressly to be taken home alive out of water.

Violence against animals in the context of contemporary Chinese artistic practice would therefore appear to invite two markedly divergent cultural points of view: one that, as a matter of course, regards the public spectacle of violence against animals as both alien and repugnant, and another that is in the habit of passing over such displays with a degree of quotidian indifference. Against the backdrop of this seemingly irreconcilable cultural dialectic, it is therefore easy to see why many Western commentators have sought to condemn works of art by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu involving public acts of violence against living animals as a highly unwelcome transgression of acceptable moral limits. By the same token, it is also easy to see why the artists themselves may well have had little or no compunction in carrying out such acts.

It would, however, be a mistake to categorize Chinese and Western attitudes towards works of art by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu involving the violent treatment of living animals simply according to this prevailing cultural dialectic. As Betti-Sue Hertz, the curator of contemporary art at the San Diego Museum of Art has indicated, while these works are open to interpretation from a rationalizing, post-Enlightenment Western perspective as ※overly provocative, disturbing or disgusting§, they can also be perceived from within the ambit of contemporary Western culture 每 with its abiding Romantic disposition towards the overcoming of limits 每 as deliberate acts of transgression in which, as Hertz puts it, ※experimentation and freedom and the absolute expression of the desiring, physical and daring body is in full tilt.§? As Georges Bataille points out on numerous occasions throughout his writing, within the Western Judaeo-Christian tradition all forms of violence are expressly forbidden as a consequence of the supposed obviation of all further sacrificial acts by Christ*s passion and crucifixion. As a direct consequence of which, ritual sacrifice is understood to have given way to the Eucharist as a periodic act of communion with God supposedly involving the transubstantiation of Christ*s already sacrificed body and blood into the form of sacramental bread and wine (an action that is intended to be read 每 in relation to Roman Catholic theology, at least - as the mystical presentation of God on Earth rather than as a sacrificial act or a symbol of sacrifice). In principle, if not in practice, Judaeo-Christian morality can therefore be understood to have drawn definitive lines aimed at the maintenance of a stable, non-conflicting social order based an absolute repudiation of violence. According to Bataille, the very strength of this repudiation has, however, made violence 每 both sacrificial and sexual - a persistent source of dread within Western Judaeo-Christian culture; that is to say an excluded term (※accursed share§) whose outright otherness inspires powerful contradictory feelings of revulsion and desire. In Bataille*s view, acts of sacrificial violence consequently amount to a destructive expenditure without limit with the potential both to exceed and to subvert 每 through a highly eroticized consummation of desire - what he would have us see as the unduly repressive (unpleasurable) constraints of the Western Judaeo-Christian tradition (something which Bataille famously illustrates with reference to a photograph of a Chinese man whose public flaying alive as a criminal has seemingly engendered within him an ecstatic state of transcendence).? The ritualized public killings of animals carried out by the Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu are thus open to interpretation from a Western cultural point of view not only as an immoral and, therefore, highly repugnant act, but also as a performative rejoinder to the arbitrariness of prevailing discursive restrictions on personal freedom and bodily pleasure (the latter arguably responding, as Bataille himself contends following the writings of Friedrich Nietszche, to a higher calling of the individual will to power beyond the limitations of conventional morality).

In being open to interpretation in this way, it is therefore also possible to situate the work of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu in relation to an already existing body of Western avant-garde artworks involving actual acts of sacrificial violence against animals. Artworks of this sort are in practice extremely rare. Nevertheless, a genealogy of their sporadic enactment can be traced back to works such as the performance Hesteofringen or The Horse Sacrifice (1970) by the Danish artist Bj?rn N?rgaard, during which a horse was ritualistically slaughtered before being dismembered and its various body parts preserved in glass jars in protest at what the artist himself described at the time as ※the mentality of violence, the war in Vietnam, racial discrimination and other applicable issues one can think of.§? Later examples include Damien Hirst*s periodically restaged and somewhat less full-blooded installation One Thousand Years (1990) where over the years countless flies have been subjected to systematic slaughter as the result of their exposure to an insect-o-cutor (a device commonly used in restaurants and food stores to attract and kill insects by means of electrocution). Also of note here are a number of Western avant-garde artworks involving simulated acts of sacrificial violence or violence against dead animals. Take, for example, a series of performances by the Vienna Actionist Hermann Nitsch including 48th Action (1974) during which the entrails and blood of a slaughtered lamb were ritualistically poured over a naked man in an attempt to achieve what the art historian Rose Lee Goldberg has described as an act of ※purification and redemption through suffering.§?

In support of these readings, it is also important to note that the now notorious exhibition Fuck Off 每 Uncooperative Stance held at the Eastlink Gallery in Shanghai in 2000, in which a number of works by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu involving the display of animal bodies and animal body parts were exhibited, was closed down by the Chinese authorities after only four days purportedly on the grounds that it had the potential to promote social disharmony or unrest.? Though it is by no means clear to what extent existing Chinese moral and/or legal prohibitions against the cruel treatment of animals played a part in this act of censure 每 not least because works of art by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu involving animals were shown alongside others works, some of them by Peng Yu herself, that made highly incendiary use of actual human bodies and/or body parts 每 it is nevertheless possible to see the overall spectacle presented by Fuck Off as having offered a direct challenge to an &official* Chinese sense of ethical propriety or decency. Furthermore, both this challenge and that which the exhibition undoubtedly presented to traditional Western Judaeo-Christian mores was something that appears to have been explicitly sought by its curators Feng Boyi and Ai Wei Wei, who in the introduction to the catalogue accompanying Fuck Off assert their unwillingness to cooperate ※with any system of power discourse§.? Against this background, it is consequently possible to view artworks by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu involving spectacular acts of violence against animals not simply as a contribution to the self-consciously staged excess of Fuck Off, but also as part of a deliberate (deconstructive) double-negation of the arbitrarily applied limits of both Chinese and Western morality; one that arguably highlights 每 by way of contrast between prevailing Western and Chinese cultural attitudes towards the public killing of animals - the material actuality of the discursive limitations still incumbent on the supposedly liberated activities of the Western avant-gardes.

At the same time it is also possible to draw here upon arguments put forward by the social anthropologist Eric Gans that aestheticized acts of ritualistic sacrifice have now evolved, as Dawn Perlmutter has put it, ※from a necessary feature of social organization to a psychological element of the human condition§; that is to say a situation wherein there is now shift from a state of rational (occultist) belief in the potential efficacy of sacrificial acts to one in which such acts are to be seen as wholly redundant.? On this account the violent acts conducted by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu against animals are made open to interpretation against the grain of Bataillean notions of subversive excess either as a form of knowing simulation, or as a belated and ineffectual anachronism 每 the former conferring a confirmatory sense of inclusion within the uncertain purview of Western postmodernism/post-structuralism and the latter an arguably orientalizing sense of exclusion.

The difficulty with these interpretative positions, however, is that they can all be understood to have been informed principally by Western prohibitions on acts of public violence against animals and, therefore, to proceed on the basis of a response to sharply defined ethical values that, as has already been stated, have only limited currency as part of everyday life within present-day mainland China. Consequently, in standing apart from any specific consideration of the local socio-cultural circumstances that allow extreme acts of public violence against animals to take place as part of everyday life in mainland China, they can also be understood to restrict the interpretation of such acts as part of contemporary Chinese art by reducing their staging to little more than a convenient abstraction. In order to clear the ground for a closer critical attention to the circumstances which have made extreme acts of public violence against animals both possible and desirable within the context of contemporary Chinese art, it is therefore arguably necessary to look beyond Western Judaeo-Christian and post-Enlightenment concerns over the morality of such acts towards the particular discursive conditions that have pertained historically in China with regard to the sacrificial use of animals.

As Herbert Plutschow has indicated, it is possible to trace a continuous culture of ritualistic sacrifice in China back to the earliest manifestations of the state during the Shang (c.1766-1122 BCE) and Chou (c.1122-256 BCE) dynasties.? According to Plutschow there is copious archeological evidence that blood sacrifice was conducted throughout this period of Chinese antiquity as ※a state unifying, ritual action in search of sacrificial supply.§ The main sources of this evidence are oracle bones which were inscribed, burned and subsequently read as a means of determining the choice between libations and human or animal sacrifice. Sacrificial animals included dogs as guides for the spirits to help during hunts, as well as sheep, oxen and pigs. In this context human sacrifice would appear to have been a relatively late development belonging only to agrarian high cultures with a sufficient excess of material productivity and supply. Indeed, from the tenth century BCE onwards actual human sacrifice appears to have been replaced by that of substitute figures made of wood or clay.

According to surviving oracle bone inscriptions, during the Shang and Chou dynasties sacrificial blood-letting was addressed specifically to royal ancestors who were believed to control the weather and the welfare (peace and harmony) of the state. As Plutschow tells us:

The Blood of the sacrifice was supposed to end drought, flooding, and other natural calamities believed to originate from dissatisfied ancestors, or, to obtain from them the climatic conditions necessary for agriculture and human survival. Sacrifice was also offered as a prayer for victory in war.

Sacrifice was therefore understood to involve an ※intrinsic system of reciprocity§ between the king*s worldly authority and the ancestor*s transcendent spiritual power. According to Plutschow instead of establishing their own moral order, earthly rulers consequently ※had to abide by the ethical standards established by the mythical founders.§ The king thus became a paternalistic focus for the carrying out of successful sacrificial rites and the maintenance of cosmic and temporal order. Indeed, as long as he maintained this order his success in doing so was seen as ※the blessing the king*s divine ancestors bestowed upon the state.§

As Plutschow goes on to relate, because of his position as a direct focus for state sacrificial rites the king inevitably became highly vulnerable to insurrection during a major sacrificial crisis in which the continuity of production and supply was interrupted. Such kings in being perceived as having neglected their proper rites thereby became ※the system*s outsiders eligible for sacrifice.§ Any such act of regicidal sacrifice would have been understood to ※absorb all impurities and potential for violence and shift the control of the natural forces to a new, legitimate representative of the center.§ According to Plutschow it was therefore ※not the break of taboo which engendered the new order, as we observe it in ancient Judaic Myth, but a legitimate re-establishment of taboo.§

The perceived importance of ritual sacrifice and the precarious nature of the king*s role in relation to it also led towards an official discouraging of ordinary people or freelance shamans from carrying out sacrificial acts to state deities. Unofficial practices such as these were opposed by early Taoists on the grounds that they had the potential to bring about cosmic disharmony and excessive acts of earthly violence. First Taoists and then early Confucians consequently set out to establish a state controlled ※shamanistic bureaucracy§ that would emphasize healing and longevity as benefits of the state. Under this regime actual acts of ritualistic bodily sacrifice were replaced by the use of language and symbolic petitioning as the preferred form of sacrificial rite with the emphasis shifting, as Plutschow indicates, from ※the deities to the human sphere and to the aesthetic/ethical ※performance§ of ritual.§ As such, this shift in emphasis can therefore be understood to inform a long-standing 每 though historically imperfect 每 Taoist-Confucian desire to exert political power through symbolic gestures rather than acts of violence.

In the wake of this opposition to unofficial acts of sacrifice, from the Han dynasty (206 BCE 每 8CE and 25-220CE) to the end of imperial rule during the early years of the twentieth century all religion was subordinated under the state with the emperor as ※high priest of the nation§. In this context symbolic state sacrifice nevertheless remained as a supposed focus for the maintenance of harmony between the domains of heaven and earth with the earth being perceived in somewhat occultist terms as a microcosm of the celestial macrocosm. In fulfilling this role, sacrifice therefore continued to be thought of as a means of ensuring social order, balance between man and nature and the abundance of the natural harvest. As a result, while all forms of sacrifice were effectively eclipsed in the West by the sacrament of the Eucharist during the early stages of Christianity, in China symbolic sacrifice remained crucial to the conjunction of spiritual and material life. Indeed, this divergence of position is one that can be understood to find concrete expression in relation to the divergent visual cultures of China and the West. Consider here, for example, marked contrasts between the intended function of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing as a site of ritual state sacrifice in more or less continual use from the early fifteenth century up until the early twentieth century and that of Masaccio*s painting the Trinity which, amongst other things, can be understand to stand as an assertion of the growing importance of the sacrament of the Eucharist to the European Catholic Church at the time of its making in around 1427.

Also important to note here is that while actual bodily sacrifice no longer played a central role in imperial state ritual from the Han dynasty onwards it nevertheless continued as a marginalized though still significant adjunct to those rites. For example, calves were habitually slaughtered, washed and shaved in royal kitchen blocks at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing before being burned on top of purpose built pinewood and reed stoves as an aromatic welcoming gift to the ※God of Heaven§ at the outset of otherwise highly symbolic sacrificial rites.? This nuance arguably explains, in part at least, the position which persists in China with regard to the continuing visibility of violence against animals 每 visible animal sacrifice having become maginalized rather than being made into an outright taboo as is the case in the West.

What is arguably also significant here is that through imperial sacrificial rites state ideology persisted in emerging directly from the centre. As Plutschow puts it, the outcome of state sacrificial rites continued to give ※the emperor or any other claimant the ideological justification for authority, rebellion and war, and by the same token, for the establishment of a new and ※corrected§ order.§ In other words, sacrifice can be understood to have continued as a vehicle for the shifting of the legitimacy of power from an unsuccessful to a successful political centre without the breaking of overall taboos on excessive violence. Somewhat paradoxically, the state therefore remained tied to an official acceptance of the necessity of periodic acts of controlled violence as means of maintaining long-term social order.

According to Plutschow this is something that should not, however, be seen to end with the dissolution of imperial sacrificial rites following the end of dynastic rule at the beginning of the twentieth century. Rather, modern China can be understood, he argues, to ※carry on the historical burden of its violent ※ritual§ past [#] and this, despite the non-violent, non-metaphysical Confucian ideology that has dominated much of China*s state ideology.§ For evidence of this one arguably need look no further than high-profile events such as the Tiananmen killings of 1989 and the more recent quelling of the Tibetan riots in 2008, both of which saw the Chinese government willing to commit &limited* acts of violence as a &necessary* sacrifice towards longer term social and economic stability. In addition to which, it is also possible to look towards more quotidian acts of governance. Consider here, for example, a district government information poster sited in Chong Wen in Bejing during 2008 in which images of the Temple of Heaven and the fruits of harvest were used in support of statements that ※The public should pay attention to food safety§ and that ※Each household should enjoy a healthy life together§.

To return to the question of the interpretation of acts of violence against animals in the work of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, it is therefore arguably possible to view those acts not simply as willful attempts to transgress established ethical and legal limits, after the manner of the Western avant-gardes and post avant-gardes, but also as a self-consciously unofficial acting out of highly aestheticized sacrificial rites. On the one hand this might be viewed as a deliberate courting of disorder after the manner of the shamanistic sacrifices deplored in antiquity by Chinese Taoists and Confucians, and as such as a locally inflected variation on the comparably troublesome actions of the Western avant-garde. On the other hand, however, it may also be interpreted in the light of China*s sacrificial traditions as a bid to supplement and indeed legitimately usurp the power of China*s political centre. What is arguably posited here is a conspicuous failure of that centre to maintain both cosmic and social harmony in the face of China*s now precipitous social economic and cultural transformation and the resulting need to establish a new, socio-political order. Such actions do not, however, fundamentally question by their very nature the legitimacy of ritual sacrifice as focus for power. Rather, sacrifice may be interpreted in this context as that which it has always been in relation to Chinese society and culture: a ritualized act deployed as an expedient in the service of harmony and the maintenance of taboos against excessive and uncontrolled violence. To which extent Sun Yuan and Peng Yu work involving sacrificial violence against animals can be perceived as highly conventional in its aims.

For a contemporary Western audience such considerations may, of course, seem entirely academic. If sacrificial ritual is as Gans has suggested no longer a necessary feature of social organization but instead a merely psychological element of the present human condition, then the violent acts conducted by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu are to be viewed as little more than cultural wind in sails. However, for those lodged within the Chinese habitus this purported decline in the efficacy of sacrifice may not be so clear cut. Although all cultural identity may be viewed from a &sophisticated* post-structuralist Western cultural perspective as nothing more than a construct without categorical ontological standing or durability, it is nevertheless something that continues to be lived as &real* at an unconscious level by those immersed within it. For Sun Yuan and Peng Yu to conduct the actual and bloody sacrifice of animals in public is, perhaps, then something more than an empty gesture or simulacrum. In the context of contemporary mainland China with its persistent indebtedness to an extended history of ritualistic sacrifice, it is arguably the marker of a persistent form of vernacular power struggle. Moreover, its invocation of sacrifice is one that can be interpreted as decidedly at odds with Bataillean notions of sacrifice as a route to individual liberation.