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The herpetology of Huang

In an exhibition of artworks made using nontraditional materials including dust, expired packaged food, bamboo, an airplane fuselage, snakeskin, a pith helmet, and molded sand, add these to the list of Huang Yong Ping’s artistic media: White-spotted geckos Armadillo lizards African giant millipedes African emperor scorpions Madagascar hissing cockroaches South American pink-toed tarantulas Ball pythons […]

Delles at his store in St. Paul. Photo: Cameron Wittig

In an exhibition of artworks made using nontraditional materials including dust, expired packaged food, bamboo, an airplane fuselage, snakeskin, a pith helmet, and molded sand, add these to the list of Huang Yong Ping’s artistic media:

White-spotted geckos

Armadillo lizards

African giant millipedes

African emperor scorpions

Madagascar hissing cockroaches

South American pink-toed tarantulas

Ball pythons

2 albino rat snakes (aka “Bubblegum rat snakes”)

Blood red legged tarantula

Feeder crickets

To fulfill Huang’s vision–especially the works Theater of the World (a panopticon/coliseum inhabited by insects, amphibians, and reptiles) and The Wise Man Learns from the Spider How to Spin a Web (which includes a light fixture that casts the shadow of a spider on the desk beneath it)–the Walker brought in Bruce Delles, 27-year owner of Twin Cities Reptiles in St. Paul. On-call 24/7 for the exhibition, he cares for the creatures daily, bringing in water and food for all species, including gelatinized food for the vegetarians and as many as 500 crickets per week for the others. The snakes are another matter: because snakes generally only eat once every 7 to 10 days in captivity–and they eat mice–he rotates eight snakes in and out of the sculpture, bringing four back to his store to be fed in a private setting.

Inspired in part by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s notion of the panopticon, a surveillance model whereby the watched can never see the watcher, the sculpture is indeed a place where gallery viewers can see the predator-prey relationship played out. But Delles says these interactions aren’t always as thrilling, or gory, as the Discovery Channel might suggest. “It gives people who go there and look at [Huang’s work] with an open mind the realization that, yes, they are predator and prey and they can cohabitate together–the lion sleeping with the lamb. Most animals don’t kill for the sheer pleasure of killing. It’s either defense or obtaining prey.”

For more on Delles’ involvement with the exhibtion, look for the January/February issue of Walker, available in mid-December.


  • La Dauphine says:

    Thanks for the introduction to this artist! I wasn’t familiar with him (her?) but the Bridge piece looks really interesting. I would be interested to see if their able to ‘keep the peace’ throughout the entire exhibition.

  • Holly says:

    In the exhibit, “Theater of the World”, animals are placed together in the same cage to coexist and also possibly to kill eachother (which has already confrimed to have happened). How is this different from placing two dogs in an arena or two roosters in an arena to fight eachother, hurt eachother and die? This seems like animal cruelty to me. How is the life of a gecko or lizard, etc. different than a life of a dog or rooster? How is this humane?

  • Jen says:

    “Theater of the World” isn’t an exhibit but one piece within a larger exhibition called “House of Oracles.”

    How is this humane? Good question. Maybe you should see the sculpture and then come back and let us know what you think. It seems like what’s going on is no different from what happens at pet stores (like this guy’s) every day, and it’s what goes on in nature all the time. Which might be one point the artist is making… or allowing to be made. Why is it that people seem more interested in protesting at museums but not zoos or pet stores–or in front of the White House?

  • Holly says:

    You assumed incorrrectly–I have seen the exhibit. And as far as natural goes–this is not natural. The animals would not be placed in the same cage in a pet store and vertainly not in the wild. Zoos and pet stores are not stupid enough to place animals that will kill eachother in the same cage. I hope you are not employed by the Walker–I would assume they wouldn’t have someone who uses your logic as a representative.

  • Jen says:

    Deep breaths, Holly. I’m referring to the natural order of predation, not the specific encounters between these specific creatures. I’m not a Walker employee, so chill a minute…

  • Peter says:

    Well Holly, did you know that as part of the Theater of the World piece, Ping makes special notice of the fact that the mother scorpion eats her young? Did you know that this happens in the wild? I define that as natural. And the animals are put together in zoos and pet stores. Have you ever heard of lizards eating crickets as food? I doubt that they would undo millions of years of evolution to become vegetarians to meet Holly’s “humane” standards. Would these standards involve taking all meat away from lions too, because it’s inhumane for them to eat it? No, because then they would die. And that’s not humane. So let’s be thankful for Ping’s genious and appreciate his portrayal of natural selection and the food chain, and not make erroneous claims of animal cruelty.

  • Andrea says:

    This is nothing but plain and simple animal abuse. Although it is the natural order of things, the natural order of things happens in big areas where the prey has a chance. Not where they have four walls so that they can’t even go anywhere. This is sick and wrong! I will be contacting everyone I know to protest this inhumane treatment of animals.

  • Julie says:

    Why are the reptiles being fed gelatinized food? If you are studing the harsh realities of nature wouldn’t the proper fresh veggies be more appropriate?

  • Cory says:

    ART??? This is not art? This doesn’t even make sense. If this is about nature, someone please let me know when a ball python would ever encounter a ratsnake or armidillo lizard. No pet shop in their right mind would mix species such as this nor would any zoo, in the U.S. anyway. I’m no animal rights activist, I think peta should stand for people eating tasty animals. I do however see this as nothing but animal abuse. I hope the humane society or someone shuts this down. If this was mixing cats dogs and gerbils I’m sure they would be all over it, but sadly I doubt they will for reptiles.

  • Elena says:

    I am a strong advocate of nature and letting all things natural play out as they should. However, keeping different and perhaps hostile species in a cage together for an extended period of time is not natural, any way you try to look at it. And comparing this to pet stores doesn’t play because pet stores are notorious for their carelessness and ignorance (same with zoos). This is not art, it is amusement. As for the reptile store owner, the reptile store I go to sells fresh food for vegetarians, why doesn’t he? I have a feeling he’s the only reptile owner they could find willing to go along with this.

  • Mary says:

    Whew. I’m all for experimental art, but this is just horrific to the animals. I saw one comment about this is what happens in nature- WHERE in this exhibit is anything that resembles the habitat of ANY of the animals enclosed? In addition, many of the species included would never encounter one another “in nature”, and furthermore, in nature there aren’t artificial walls prohibiting escape and constricting space, and in nature you have more “habitat” than bare floor and glass walls.

    I’m not anywhere close to an animal rights activist, but this is just blatant mistreatment. Whether it is willful or out of sheer ignorance it is still mistreatment. The artist really ought to read up on the care/requirements of the species he wants to use in his art, and then “create” accordingly.

  • Drew says:

    There are people dying every day in the war in Iraq. There are thousands of homeless in this country, millions worldwide, struggling to find a morsel of food for their families. There are still thousands in New Orleans trying to put back together the shattered pieces of their lives after the hurricane. And given all of these problems, what draws the ire of so many people here? The fact that some crickets are being eaten by snakes and geckos in an art installation. I think that officially makes all of you the biggest idiots on Earth. Congratulations! If only you could all put as much passion into addressing the real problems that we’re all facing every day. Oh wait! I just saw someone step on an ant. Someone better call the President!

  • Michelle says:

    Why is it that whenever attention is drawn to cruel treatment of animals there is always one person who tries to trivialize it by saying that with all of the other problems in the world it is “idiotic” to care about the welfare of non-human living beings? It is amazing to me that in the minds and hearts of some, there is no room for compassionate treatment of all creatures, and care for one species must exclude that of others. Yes, we all care about the horros in Iraq, the devestation of New Orleans, and the suffering of millions in our country and around the world, but it is also true that housing incompatible species together with the chance that they will destroy each other (not just lizards eating bugs, but lizards and snakes fighting each other as well) for the sake of performance art is animal cruelty. End of story. Anyone who thinks this is art is kidding themselves and strikes me as a pseudo-intellectual poseur. I would like to think that being a Veterinarian would give me some authority on the topic of animal cruelty – AND THIS IS IT!

  • Drew says:

    Actually, being a veterinarian (it’s lower-case, honey – you’re not the President) doesn’t any more qualify you to be an authority on animal cruelty than anyone else. Case in point – I know for a fact that the Walker has had both Minneapolis Animal Control and the Humane Society give clearance to this exhibition, and they have no problems with it. THOSE organizations are authorities on animal cruelty, not you. You, Michelle, are an overly-sensitive, whiny, knee-jerk, wannabe autocrat. And you’re wrong – you do trivialize human suffering when you spend your time on chat boards whining about the treatment of bugs in an art exhibit when you (and the few others like you) could be putting equal energy into such organizations as Amnesty International. You also make a bad name for people like myself who actually care about REAL animal cruelty when you cry wolf over inane pseudo cases like the Walker exhibit. And finally, I’m glad that I live in a society in which the majority of people don’t get outraged over something as tedious as this “problem,” but instead support such inalienable rights as free speech and free expression. Get a life.

  • Scott says:

    Its sad that people cant make a point without resulting to name calling and sarcastic comments. Perhaps its because they really dont have a point? Hey Drew, sound like anyone you know?

    I agree with the other rational people that this is in no way art and should be ended.

  • Drew says:

    Hey Scott, the word “can’t” is spelled with an apostrophe. And I actually made SEVERAL points while being sarcastic in my last post. That’s more than you did with yours. Oh, and people who think that they are in any way qualified to judge what is art and what is not are not rational. In fact, I think that might be the opposite of being rational. You’re stupid. (You’re right – I can’t make a point without name calling!).

  • Morgan says:

    Drew: everyone is qualified to say what is art and what is not. Rationality is besides the point. One of the great things about art, in my mind, is that it dodges any sort of easy definition. A masterpiece in my book may be little more than scribbling to another. Yeah, we’ve got the critics and curators of the world that can make a case for an artist or an artwork, but it’s that element of personal liberty that makes art so appealing.

    I’ve spent some time in the Huang exhibition, and I agree with folks here, it’s a really challenging set of works. I see the argument that the creatures seen in “Theater of the World” would never be in such close, contained proximity in a natural setting. The animals can’t consent. But I’m torn about the pet store environment, too: those animals are displayed and bartered for with no consent either, and they are just as stressed out by it. Why does it become acceptable when each creature is relegated to their separate cage? Is it OK because they can’t eat or attack each other? Is that where the line is crossed between animal unfairness and animal cruelty?

    Huang’s piece is about far more expansive issues, like international relations. But the comments here have shown that there is an opportunity for dialogue on a number of different levels. The piece reminds me of Joseph Beuys 1974 work, “Coyote, I like America and America likes me,” in which he was wrapped in felt and stayed in a room with a live coyote for five days. At what point does it become unacceptable for the artist’s inclusion of an unwitting world in their art?

  • Elena says:

    The assumption that anyone who cares about animals doesn’t care about the “important” things in the world is bewildering to me. We are not one dimensional. It amuses me that the people who trivialize the concerns of others are concerned about trivial things such as capitalizing veterinarian and the apostrophe in can’t. Why the hostility over a person’s opinion? Art is art and everyone sees it differently. I myself don’t see the Master in Picasso, but I’m not going to get mean and nasty with someone who does. I can’t accept that this exhibit is art, but I’m not going to condemn anyone who does.

  • barbara amir says:

    This exhibit is disgusting-it is sheer animal cruelty and dubious “art”. It should never have been allowed. Shame on all involved. Barbara

  • j says:

    wow. well at least this has gotten the attention that it deserves regardless of your opinion. my personal opinion is that i do NOT agree with the exhibit. before you get all angry just think about what i just said… my opinion. not yours. yes i have suggested to the walker that they do not have future exhibits with animals. perhaps a good suggestion to replace this exhibit, would be to take some of the people who have commented on this comment board, and put them in a cage and see what happens. i will be by in the morning to feed and water you. on another note, holly- the animals and i thank you.

  • First, thanks for your comments. The Walker created its blogs to provide both an opportunity for our committed visitors to learn more about the Walker’s programs, the artists it presents, and some of the intentions of our efforts, as well as to get your feedback. Clearly, this thread makes it clear that passionate people are taking the time to become more engaged.

    On behalf of the Walker I want to clarify a few things about Huang Yong Ping’s artwork entitled Theater of the World, which includes live animals. I hope that an explanation will help put into context some of the concerns expressed by individuals who have posted their opinions.

    Theater of the World contains 19 insects and reptiles, including spiders, scorpions, crickets, cockroaches, millipedes, lizards, toads, and small snakes, housed in a turtle-shaped table. The form of the turtle in combination with Python, the gigantic wood serpent suspended over it, allude to Xuanwu (Dark Warrior), a Chinese mythological hybrid of turtle and snake believed to be the guardian of the North. As a whole, the work functions as a metaphor for the conflicts among different peoples and cultures-in short, human existence itself. The piece also makes a reference to gu, a magical poison said to have been made in southern China by holding various animals in a pot for one year, any animals that emerge are believed to have magical powers.

    Prior to working with Huang to mount the artwork, the Walker consulted with a Twin Cities expert on reptiles, who also provided the full range of animals living in the artwork. The animals are provided with food and water on a regular basis-some of them are vegetarian, many eat crickets, and the snakes are fed off-site as they require more time to eat and digest their meals. The feeding of these animals is carefully monitored and does not differ significantly from what would occur in nature, in a zoo, or if the animals were being kept as household pets.

    In addition, the Walker has consulted with the Animal Humane Society and Minneapolis Animal Control (which provided us with an exhibition permit for the non-native breeds in the exhibition). These organizations both reviewed the artwork and deemed that it was humane and respectful of the animals involved.

    We certainly understand and respect the range of viewpoints that have been expressed in some of your comments. However, we must argue strongly that Theater of the World is both an artwork, as an artist created it to express his aesthetics and his understanding of the world, and that the institution has carefully considered the ethics of the work itself.

  • Sara says:

    Walker Art Center,

    I’m wondering why you did not consult the Minnesota Herpetological Society for this. The Animal Humane Society does not deal with reptiles long term; they hand them over to the Herpetological Society. The Minneapolis Animal Control often does the same, after they hold them for whatever time is required legally. The Minnesota Herpetological Society is a rich organization filled with experts in every sort of reptile, amphibian, and even invertebrates.

    If you would have contacted the MHS, I’m sure MOST members would not have supported this piece. Though Bruce Dells says that they “CAN cohabitate together”, does that mean that we SHOULD allow that?

    Reptiles of the SAME species can severely injure each other if they are territorial, angry, or fearful. Putting separate species in the same container can yield the same results.

  • Paul Schmelzer says:

    Hi Sara,

    In addition to his 27 years experience owning Twin Cities Reptile, Bruce Delles was a founding member of the Minnesota Herpetological Society (begun in 1981), so we’re confident of his expertise. We’ve also partnered with that organization’s host, the Bell Museum of Natural History, for programs related to this exhibition (although not specifically Theater of the World). Thanks for your thoughts, and please know that we took the preparation for House of Oracles seriously and with the same diligence with which we approach the ongoing ethical care for the creatures within it.

  • Liz says:

    I would like to see an exhibit where mr. ping is put in a large aquarium, with a couple alligators, at least 40 piranhas, some water moccasins, no place to hide, no protective gear and no food. I think it would be a more accurate depiction of the ideas behind Theatre of the world.

  • j says:

    Liz- I agree, but don’t forget to throw that “expert” animal reptile dealer who is selling these poor animals, who is only interested in selling animals for profits, who feeds his vegetarian animals gelatin, who obviously isn’t ethical or moral in character, etc. in with him.

    Now there’s a piece of art I’d be interested in.

    BTW- it turns out that the humane society is not backing this exhibit up as “humane and respectful,” in fact they say that that was a misquote- as they were misinformed that there would be animals FIGHTING FOR THEIR LIVES on display and allowed to suffer and DIE! The officer that did the inspection only stated that the exhibit case met code requirements.

    And not that I was a patron of Bruce’s store, but I will certainly tell everyone I know that may consider shopping at Twin City Reptiles to boycott that unsensitive jerk’s store.

    Yours passionately,

    Another Veterinarian

  • I have several questions:

    1. Will the Walker publish a complete inventory of the animals, living and dead, used to create this exhibit, and where they were procured and how they were killed. This includes the pieces such as the elephant and tiger that were fabricated specifically for this exhibit out of cow, rabbit and, I believe, cat, as well as the hundreds? thousands? of bats hung from the aircraft facsimile.

    2. How many is too many?

    3. In recent years the following “artistic expressions” involvling animals occurred. Which ones would the Walker have NOT approved on ethical grounds and (if any) why not:

    a. Toronto- a video tape of a cat tortured to death to be exhibited as performance art

    b. University of California- a chicken beheaded with a hachet in art class

    c. live fish displayed in a blender with fully operational power switch available to museum guests

    A few comments:

    According to Walker comments above, “Minneapolis Animal Control (which provided us with an exhibition permit for the non-native breeds in the exhibition). These organizations both reviewed the artwork and deemed that it was humane and respectful of the animals involved.”

    I spoke with the animal control officer who inspected the “Theater” exhibit and she never “deemed that it was humane and respectful of the animals involved”, she only inspected it for code compliance. Further, had she been aware that the species might prey upon each other she would not have issed the permit and she was unaware of the extensive

    use of dead animals used elsewhere in the exhibit.

    Censorship is the supression of ideas. Animals are not ideas they are as real as we are.

    No act of self expression is worth the life or liberty of another.

  • Paul Schmelzer says:

    Hi J,

    I’d like to see the citation about the misquoting of the Humane Society. Is there a link or a publication?


  • Y. says:

    The Walker is enjoying all this controversy. If the Walker is so desperate for patrons that it needs to sign on controversial “ artists” that torture animals, then it’s either in dire straights, or their curator is a media hog working under the principle that bad publicity is better than no publicity. Is Huang Ping the best the Walker can do? How sad for Minneapolis to have such a mediocre art facility.

    My suggestion is to NOT visit this exhibit, tell your friends to boycott the Walker. Or take a kindergarten class to the free areas every day, make sure each child uses their public bathroom several times, flushes frequently, and washes their hands under running water for the recommended 80 seconds, brown bag their lunches and snacks and stuff the Walker’s wastebaskets with the resulting garbage, let the kids exclaim in loud, shrill voices how disgusting they think the exhibit is, using those cute epithets only children use. But whatever you do, don’t spend a penny there!

  • Ann Follett says:

    I agree with Mary:

    Censorship is the suppression of ideas.

    Animals are not ideas.

    I am saddened that the Walker has jumped onto the “Animals as Art” bandwagon. I challenge each of us as artists, arts administrators, arts patrons and audiences to communicate and support artistic expression in ways that do not enslave those who cannot make choices or speak for themselves. ( animal or human).

  • CL says:

    ok let me get this straight….

    White-spotted geckos

    Armadillo lizards

    African giant millipedes

    African emperor scorpions

    Madagascar hissing cockroaches

    South American pink-toed tarantulas

    Ball pythons

    2 albino rat snakes (aka “Bubblegum rat snakes”)

    Blood red legged tarantula

    Feeder crickets

    All these animals.. together??? How is this HUMANE?!?!?! How is this NATURAL??? I agree, there is just no way in H3LL that all these animals would co exist together (willingly) in nature! There is NO WAY OUT! In the wild, a RAT or other small animal being chased by a snake, has somewhere to hide. WTF is wrong with people??

  • Paul Schmelzer says:

    Actually, none of these animals are together at the moment. The show closed a week ago. If you’d like to see it, CL, visit MASSMoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, in mid-March. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

  • CVA says:

    If an artist were to use my body for his art, would it be censorship if I were to ask him to stop because it hurt me? These animals couldn’t ask Ping or WAC to stop, so humans did so for them, and their requests were ignored and labeled censorship.

  • paul says:

    CVA, I’m confused: when did the Walker label anything censorship?

  • Andy says:

    I live in Minneapolis and saw Theater of the World, three times. I found it profound and moving, and not nearly as gruesome as the commenters here have suggested (have they really seen it?). Truth is, it can be boring at times. Well fed creatures chill, starved ones are anxious and active, especially when new crickets are introduced. Frankly, I think animal-rights activists haven’t a leg to stand on here; given what appears to be humane treatment and an un-glorified, respectful presentation, such activists might be better served by protesting zoos, PetSmart, Sea World, and any other place live animals are fed to other creatures. Or is the real problem that an art museum is presenting the kind of predator/prey scenario that plays out in pet stores daily? Which I don’t get: such killing is “entertainment” whether it’s feeding a pet iguana or for the sake of art, isn’t it?

    Thanks for the best show in a long time, Walker.

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