When art and controversy meet: iPad-mounted tortoise edition


Cai Guo-Qiang’s exhibition has pushed the buttons of animal activists. (Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via AP)

The Aspen Art Museum will open its $45 million facility on Saturday with the help of a buzzy installation: a pen full of live tortoises with iPads attached to their shells. Because, art. Apparently.

Condemnation of contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Moving Ghost Town Tortoises” exhibit has predictably come fast and furious. There is a Change.org petition to kill the exhibit (and have the iPads removed from the tortoises), and animal activists have taken to the museum’s Facebook page to voice their displeasure. There is even talk of boycotts.

The exhibition in question features three African Sulcata tortoises, adorably named Big Bertha, Gracie Pink Star and Whale Wanderer. The tortoises roam a large rooftop pen designed to meet their habitat needs, the museum says. There’s just one teeny wrinkle: two iPads mounted to each of their backs. The devices will play footage from nearby ghost towns that the iPads recorded at an earlier date. While mounted to the tortoises.

“Forgotten stories of the once prosperous ghost towns are retold from the tortoises’ perspective,” the museum says in the exhibition’s description.

It appeared that the iPads have been mounted on the animals using something akin to nuts and bolts. And the anger from animal activists prompted the museum to come up with an explanation.

In a statement, the museum said that the devices are actually glued to the animals’ backs using a “noninvasive” silicone/epoxy material:

The silicone/epoxy material is noninvasive and removes easily and cleanly without damaging the tortoise’s shell. It is common practice to use this particular adhesive to attach research-tracking devices in the wild. It is the most benign method to track animals in the wild. In this instance, it is used to temporarily attach the bolts that hold the mounting system. The mounting system is designed purposely to keep the iPads at a distance from their shell and does not impede their growth.

Beyond that, the animals can carry more than 150 extra pounds during mating, the museum said — suggesting that the added weight of about three pounds’ worth of iPads (plus the weight of the mounting apparatus) is probably not detrimental to their health.

As a contemporary art museum, the statement added, ” it is not the museum’s practice to censor artists.”

(AP Photo/The Denver Post, Kathryn Scott Osler)
(Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Associated Press)

Lisbeth Oden, who launched the Change.org petition earlier this week, noted that the tortoise’s shell is considered its “ribcage” and that the animals react to stimuli when they are touched or tapped.

On the other hand, as the museum points out, scientists have used various mounted cameras to monitor tortoises in the wild. For example, this National Geographic feature shows Galapagos tortoises with cameras glued to their shells.

The three tortoises in the exhibit were rescued from a breeder in Arizona, who, according to the museum, kept 18 of them in a small pen. When the exhibit is completed on Oct. 5, they will be released to conservancies and educational facilities.

One can certainly make the argument that invasive or not, the use of an animal in an art exhibition is out of line and on its face constitutes cruelty.

“I normally don’t stick my nose out in public like this — by any sense of the imagination,” said Oden in an interview with the Aspen Daily News. “But to me this is just flat-out animal abuse.”

But since when has the avant-garde been known to yield to the conventions of the outside world?

Abby Phillip is a general assignment national reporter for the Washington Post. She can be reached at abby.phillip@washpost.com. On Twitter: @abbydphillip
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