Finding Nemo, belly up

By Jennifer Nitson
Ashland Daily Tidings

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 existence.

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 university officials.

"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 at?"

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 installation.

"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 fish alive."

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 short.

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 long.

"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 years.'

"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 exhibit sends.

"I want Professor Busse to replace the live fish with plastic fish or take down the live animal exhibit," Rosen said.

She suggested that Miles Inada, chair of the art department, should work to ban live animals in SOU art exhibits.

"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 story."

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