Tired clichés often compare an art fair to an animal pen, or a slaughterhouse, or whatnot, but this year at Frieze New York there is actually a real live farm animal underneath the giant white tent on Randall’s Island. Just steps away from art that sells in the millions is a donkey in a booth, and there’s a long line to see him.
The donkey is part of Frieze Projects, which has restaged Maurizio Cattelan’s first show in the United States, “Warning! Enter at Your Own Risk. Do Not Touch, Do Not Feed, No Smoking, No Photographs, No Dogs, Thank You,” which was held at Daniel Newburg Gallery in SoHo in 1994. After proposing a slew of ideas that his dealer roundly rejected—including one that would involve knocking down the wall that separated the gallery from its neighbor, David Zwirner Gallery—Cattelan gave up and just put a donkey underneath a chandelier.
The installation lasted a day before it was shut down.
“I only know one, maybe two people who saw it in person, so we wanted to restage it,” said Cecilia Alemani, the curator of Frieze Projects, as she stalked the aisles of the fair. It was also a pretty big get for the fair: this is Cattelan’s first commissioned work since his Guggenheim retrospective in 2011, after which he “retired.”
The reason given for evicting the donkey the first time around was that he was braying too much and making a mess. If it gets shut down this time, the reason won’t be as quaint—animal rights activists have already started to protest the installation, on the grounds that it constitutes cruelty against donkeys. Donny Moss, an activist who writes for the animal rights website Their Turn, is leading the charge to protest the fair, enraging the pro-animal commentariat. Their Turn also protested the restaging, at Gavin Brown’s enterprise last year, of Jannis Kounellis’ Untitled (12 Horses), which consisted of 12 horses living in the gallery for a few days.
“Animals are not art exhibits,” Moss told ARTnews in an email. “If we wouldn’t use a toddler in an art installation, then why should we use a donkey, who would be every bit as confused and out of place in an indoor exhibition hall? The art world should reject animal exploitation for profit and realize that our false sense of superiority over other animals does not give us license to do whatever we want with them.”
He added that he wasn’t currently at the fair, but on his Facebook page he’s encouraged like-minded followers to “disrupt” the installation, and mentioned that he had passes for people who wanted to show up and protest.
There was no sign of any angry donkey advocates during Wednesday’s VIP preview. In fact, it’s looking like Cattelan’s four-legged installation is the hit of the fair: minutes after the doors swung open, there was already a long line to watch the guy chill in his little pen and eat grass. David Peloza, a trainer from All Tame Animals who was watching over the booth, said that the donkey is not being harmed in any way, and actually has some plush environs to relax in.
“He gets a break every two hours, he’s got all this grass back here to graze on, he goes home at night,” said Peloza. “Really, he’s got a pretty good gig!”
Peloza explained that this here was no ordinary donkey—he is Sir Gabriel, a pretty famous figure in the trained-animal world. He’s been in a few commercials, and appears often in productions at the Metropolitan Opera, including La Bohème and The Barber of Seville.
“He spends most of the year in Potomac, Maryland, but also has a place in upstate New York, near Monticello, and when he’s in the city, his apartment is near Riverdale,” said Peloza, completely straight-faced.
(A reporter attempted to interview Sir Gabriel, but he appeared to decline to comment.)
Sir Gabriel was munching on his food—”some Bermuda grass, with a little alfalfa mixed in there, because grains make him too excited,” explained Peloza—when curator Hans Ulrich Obrist came in with a hefty entourage.
“Oh look at him, look at him!” Obrist said, holding up his phone for a picture as the animal trotted up to him. “He’s getting close, it’s so scary!”
Then, Sir Gabriel began to defecate wildly, the pellets falling onto the hay-covered booth, causing Obrist to jerk back.
“He’s a real wild animal,” he said.