There are 70 white mice in individual boxes set like tiles on the floor of a gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In clear plexiglass cages, designed to be stepped upon, they peer up underfoot in an exhibition exploring phobia.
To Natasha Millikan, a self-described mouse expert who squatted on the checkered floor on Sunday afternoon, her head pressed into her hands as around her mice shivered, chewed bits of wood or slept beneath her boots, it was an exploration of torture.
“Mice are prey,” she said into her cellphone, to the artist, Joseph Grazi, whom the gallery owner had called at her request after she arrived from Jersey City to protest the show. “They have the instinct to be terrified from anything up above them, any shadow. So at this point, these guys are just shutting down.”
Mr. Grazi disagreed. The animals, so-called feeder mice, he said, had been destined to be eaten by reptiles. Here in the shallow tiles beneath gallery-goers feet, they were well-fed and happy.
“You can’t understand how they feel,” Ms. Millikan, who runs a Facebook group, Rats and Mice are Awesome, with 43,000 members, replied. “Because you’re a predator!
The interaction was the result of a campaign that has emerged since animal activists took notice of the monthlong exhibit, “Prehysteria,” which opened on Oct. 19. And it has sent the four-year-old space, Castle Fitzjohns Gallery, into the same cross hairs of controversy recently trained on more venerable institutions: This fall, the Guggenheim pulled exhibits involving live animals, including lizards and insects, from an installation called “Theater of the World” by the Chinese conceptual artist Huang Yong Ping, where the penned animals vied for survival.
The gallery has been inundated with negative online comments, as well as haranguing phone calls from as far away as Europe. The owner, Vincent Harrison, said the public response had revealed the challenges of weighing criticism against artistic repression, not to mention the well-being of a bunch of rodents.
“Bothering people, causing conflicting emotions, to me is part of my job as an artist,” Mr. Grazi said. He said he often calls out what he sees as the hypocrisy of treating, say, an eagle better than a chicken in his art. “Everywhere I walk there is some barbaric rat trap, or some sign that says, ‘We are currently poisoning rats,’ but nobody cares because they are out of sight, out of mind,” he added. “Here the only problem is that they are the opposite: They are in sight, in mind.”
Mr. Grazi, 33, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, created the mouse-tiled floor installation, called “The Social Network,” as a commentary on the isolation endemic in social media. Arranged like a chessboard, each tile is roughly a square foot and contains a tiny dish of water, a stick, some food pellets and a little white mouse with red eyes sitting on black sand.
On Sunday afternoon, children jumped from square to square, playing hopscotch atop the mice, as the structure creaked.
In their little boxes, the mice did mice things, chewing wood or sitting stock-still in tightly knotted poufs. They scrabbled at the clear ceiling, gnawed at the air holes drilled in the top of each box, and tried to shove pink, whiskered noses through the ports.
The mice are all available for adoption, and three have been adopted. Those who are not claimed will be fed to Mr. Grazi’s pet ball python, Mr. Clip.
In September, the Guggenheim announced the live animals would not be shown, out of “concern for the safety of its staff, visitors and participating artists,” and said that it was “dismayed” at the attack on freedom of expression. Mr. Grazi said he would consider modifying the piece if he were concerned about animal welfare, but never shutting it down. This week, he will add little hideaways to the terrariums, so the mice have a place to duck into and hide from the shadows above, he said.
That did little to satisfy Nicole Hall, an animal activist who lives in Hell’s Kitchen and arrived at the gallery on Sunday to voice her distaste.
“I don’t think that living beings should be considered as art,” said Ms. Hall, 47, who works at a rabbit rescue center in Connecticut. “Hundreds of years ago, Africans, people from other countries were actually art installations,” said Ms. Hall. “Now, as we have moved away from that, we look back at that and say, ‘How hideous were we?’”
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