Finding Nemo, belly
By Jennifer Nitson
It's a slow day at the Schneider Museum of Art
on the Southern Oregon University campus, though not as slow
as most thanks to an installation called Heaven and Earth,
2003 by artist and adjunct SOU professor Shawn Busse.
Though Busse's work may have attracted some
patrons on its artistic merits alone, the spike in museum
attendance has been attributed primarily to protesters'
allegations of goldfish torture.
"We've had more students coming in because of
the protests," said Chelsea Ohlgren, an SOU sociology major
who works at the museum. Ohlgren said that some students had
indicated that they were previously unaware of the museum's
Soon after Busse's piece was installed on May
2, animal rights activist Barbara Rosen happened upon the
display. On concrete pillars are poised nine half-gallon
fishbowls, each containing black pebbles, plastic ferns, and
goldfish swimming in clear water - except some of the fish
were not swimming that day. They had gone belly up, and
floated motionlessly in their bowls. Overwhelmed with emotion,
Rosen left the museum and cried.
"To me it's frivolous," Rosen said. "I love
art. I've seen every art exhibit there. When art causes living
creatures to suffer, that's where I draw the line. Freedom of
expression ends right there as far as I'm concerned."
Calling attention to what she deems negligence
and mistreatment of animals, Rosen has spent the last couple
of weeks on campus holding a hand-painted sign which reads:
"Stop the Animal Torture." Told by museum officials she could
not protest or be photographed in the museum, Rosen stands
daily in front of SOU's Stevenson Union. She has gathered more
than 120 signatures on a petition to ban the use of live
animals in campus art exhibits and intends to present it to
"I want them to set a policy that live animals
will not be trapped in art exhibits on campus," she said. "A
lot of people say, 'These are only fish.' Just because an
animal has scales instead of fur like your dog or cat it
doesn't mean that it doesn't have the capacity to feel pain,
love, fear - like dogs and cats can."
An SOU custodian, David McAlaster, was also
spurred to action by the sight of dead goldfish.
"I've seen several (dead fish) out front, one
of which apparently jumped out of the bowl and onto the cement
and apparently expired there," McAlaster said. "I thought,
'Gee, all these deaths.' That really bothered me a lot. Is an
art exhibit worth that? All these lives lost?"
McAlaster has been protesting on the streets
near the university, avoiding campus property in order to
preserve his part-time employment at SOU.
Rosen and McAlaster have so far failed to get
others to actively join their protest, but they have managed
to get SOU students into the museum.
When students Gabriel Kelsey-Yoder and Michael
Boyer wandered in after seeing a sign referring to "fish
death" not all nine fishbowls were occupied.
"I didn't get why there were only two fish,"
Boyer said. "I wasn't sure if that was the way it was supposed
to be or if they all died or if they were murdered by the
artist" as part of the exhibit.
Kelsey-Yoder wondered why Busse had not
maintained the fish population.
"If an artist wants pride in his work, don't
you think he'd want it to last?" Kelsey-Yoder questioned. "If
those last two fish die, what left is there to look
Though Busse said that one interpretation of
Heaven and Earth, 2003 - with its chunks of concrete hanging
from thin wires suspended over the fishbowls - may include the
concept of the imminent threat and danger inherent in modern
life, fish death is not an intended feature of the
"My goal was never to cause the fish to die or
cause them harm," Busse said.
Following the deaths of an undisclosed number
of goldfish bought from Medford pet stores, and a lengthy
conversation with McAlaster, Busse has taken steps to improve
the fish survival rate.
"I've definitely adapted the piece," he said.
"I've also done a lot of behind the scenes stuff to keep the
Busse's strategy includes putting the fish in
an aerated, filtered tank in the museum's back room once a
week while he cleans the fishbowls and replaces the water; and
using a special solution which is supposed to help the little
captives adapt to the new water.
His heart may be in the right place, but
according to goldfish care tips obtained from Peggy Schmaltz,
owner of Nui Kai Pets in Medford, his efforts fall
If such fish are not kept in an aerated and
filtered tank, their water needs to be changed daily in order
to ensure enough oxygen, Schmaltz said.
In Busse's defense, Schneider Museum interim
director Mary Gardiner contends that these fish are sold as
"feeder fish" and they are not generally expected to live
"Death is a natural part of the process with
these animals," Gardiner said.
Indisputable as this may be, Schmaltz
maintains that with proper care, goldfish can live "for
"Because they're inexpensive, people think
they're throwaway fish," Schmaltz said. "They're still fish
and need to be cared for properly. They can live in bowls as
long as the water is changed."
Changing the water more frequently, or
otherwise lengthening the lifespan of the goldfish in Heaven
and Earth, 2003, will not be enough for the protesters.
"It's not just the fish that are dying or
suffering now," Rosen said. " It's the whole message that the
fish relayed. As a professor, Busse is helping to set trends
in the community. I'm concerned about the message his exhibit
sends young people and the whole community that animals are
nothing but art objects and that their feelings and well-being
are no more important than a bucket of paint or a canvas to
paint on … Young people will be influenced to treat animals
more callously in general. That's the dangerous message this
"I want Professor Busse to replace the live
fish with plastic fish or take down the live animal exhibit,"
She suggested that Miles Inada, chair of the
art department, should work to ban live animals in SOU art
"He of all people should feel empathy for
these fish because his father was locked up - his family, his
relatives were locked up in an internment camp in World War
II. Some of these Japanese-Americans died, partially from the
trauma, much like some of these fish have died."
"I think she has a point," Inada said. "I
certainly respect her right to make that point."
Still, Inada has no intention of adjusting
SOU's policies regarding exhibit contents.
"I certainly wouldn't have done it myself. I
think it's an issue that each artist has to address
themselves. If the artist was to deliberately harm animals or
he was sitting there eating goldfish, it would be a different