Published Friday, November 10, 2000

Chickens exit museum but show goes on

Mary Abbe / Star Tribune

Concerned chicken lovers, relax. Scout and Mabel, the pet chickens displayed last month at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, have gone home. Beside their empty cage sits a video monitor on which their owner, artist Mark Knierim, explains that he removed the birds after getting what he perceived as threats from animal rights activists.

The birds' presence in the museum set off alarm bells among animal activists around the country -- most of whom seemed to equate the chickens' comparatively spacious museum habitat with the cramped chicken cages used in factory farms. The protests not only prompted Knierim to remove the birds, but injected a hot-button controversy into the normally quiet precincts of a museum. In the end, animal-rights activists claimed victory while the artists felt their work had been twisted to political ends by a special-interest group.

Mark Knierim holds one of his chickens.

"I understand the purpose of radical action, but I think that it's misused in this case," said Robert Lawrence, a Minneapolis College of Art and Design professor who collaborated on the project and felt that he and Knierim had been forced into self-censorship.

Protesters from Amherst, Mass., Baltimore, Cincinnati and Los Angeles protesters assailed the museum with more than 70 e-mails, letters and phone calls objecting to the "inhumane conditions" and "cruel treatment" accorded the birds. The preponderance of distant sources, repetition of key phrases and distorted description of the birds' quarters suggested that most writers had not seen the show.

One writer, alluding to previous art controversies, said she loved the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and "didn't even blink" at Andres Serrano's infamous photo of a crucifix in urine. But, she wrote, she was appalled by the chicken display because birds are living creatures. She suggested that the museum "Free the chickens. Cage the curators."

The birds were part of a larger project, "An Acre of Art," that includes a long wood-and-tin table holding a trough of corn kernels; three video monitors showing views of the sky, cornfields, DNA codes and close-ups of chickens line one wall. Visitors also are invited to tour a one-acre plot near Monticello, Minn., where the artists grew the corn, and to check out the project's Web site:

Both artists have rural backgrounds -- Knierim grew up near Appleton, Minn., and Lawrence in the New Jersey countryside. They have watched with dismay as the family-farm landscapes of their childhood have been consumed by corporate agriculture and factory farms. Still, they insist that they intended no specific message in "Acre." "It's a subtle intention," Knierim said. "Just to make people stop and think about agriculture and where things come from."


There's also a long tradition of chickens in art -- especially the paintings of Iowa artist Grant Wood, which the artists alluded to in the chickens' coop.

The front of the coop is edged in a gold-leaf frame, like a painting. A brass nameplate says the title is "Landscape" and the artists are "Scout and Mabel, American, b. 2000." Even the cage's placement is calculated. Like most objects in the museum, it is hung with its center 58 inches above the floor, optimal for human viewing.

"These chickens really would look right back at you," said Stewart Turnquist, show coordinator. "If you're in a zoo or other habitat, [animals] are not usually at that eye-to-eye level where there's cognizance of another living creature."

No such subtleties mattered to the protesters, if they were even aware of them. What they squawked about was the coop itself, which they repeatedly compared to the cages that hens occupy in egg factories and broiler farms (where birds are grown for meat). For laying hens, those cages typically are 20 inches wide by 18 inches deep and 14 inches high, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. And one cage houses seven or eight birds.

Scout and Mabel, by comparison, shared a veritable Biltmore coop: a cage 14 feet long, 1½ feet deep and 3½ feet high. They had a sawdust-covered plywood floor, heat lamp, perch and plenty of fresh food and water daily. When I saw them there, they were happily clucking and strutting about without any signs of the "fear behavior" protesters cited.

"I agree that what those animals were going through was nothing compared to what animals go through before turning into food on our plates, but it's still wrong and sends an immoral message that these animals are there for our use," said Bruce Friedrich, spokesman for the Virginia-based PETA, which objected to the exhibition.

Karen Davis, founding president of United Poultry Concerns, Inc. a nonprofit watchdog organization based in Machipongo, Va., agreed, insisting that the show is more meaningful without the birds. She sparked the largest wave of protests when she sent an "action alert" to her organization's 10,000 members.

"That's what we strive for, agriculture without animals," Davis said. "Empty cages and no animals having to sit there and rot for cuisine. Now the exhibition really does mean something -- empty cages. That's the best use of land that there could be."

What: Landscape-themed installation by Mark Knierim and Robert Lawrence.

When: Thru Nov. 19.

Where: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Av. S., Mpls.

Tickets: Free. 612-870-3131. Web site:

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