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Dead goldfish spark art museum protests

ASHLAND ' A Southern Oregon University art installation's unintentional fish kill is drawing a protest and visitors investigating a potential spectacle.

SOU adjunct professor and artist Shawn Busse's showing of Heaven and Earth, 2003 at the Schneider Museum of Art features nine half-gallon fishbowls poised on concrete pillars underneath chunks of concrete hanging by thin wires. Each fishbowl contains black pebbles, plastic ferns and a single goldfish.

Soon after Busse's work opened on May 2, animal rights activist Barbara Rosen happened on the display.

Some of the fish ' originally sold as food for larger aquarium fish ' were floating belly up in their bowls. Overwhelmed with emotion, Rosen left the museum and cried.

— To me it's frivolous, she 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.

Although Busse said one interpretation of Heaven and Earth, 2003 could include the imminent threat and danger inherent in modern life, dead fish are not an intended feature of the installation.

My goal was never to cause the fish to die or cause them harm, Busse said.

Rosen has spent each day of the last couple of weeks at the Stevenson Union, holding a hand-painted sign that reads: Stop the Animal Torture. She's also gathered more than a hundred signatures to ban the use of live animals in campus art exhibits.

A lot of people say, 'These are only fish,' she said. 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, also was inspired to action by the sight of dead goldfish. McAlaster has been protesting on the streets near the university, avoiding campus property to preserve his part-time campus job.

The protests have brought students into the museum.

Chelsea Ohlgren, an SOU sociology major who works at the museum, said some of the students didn't even know the museum was there.

Busse said he 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 puts 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.

Peggy Schmaltz, owner of Nui Kai Pets in Medford, said such fish should be kept in an aerated and filtered tank, or their water should be changed daily to supply oxygen.

In Busse's defense, Schneider Museum interim director Mary Gardiner noted, the fish are sold as feeder fish and are not expected to live long.

Death is a natural part of the process with these animals, Gardiner said.

Schmaltz said goldfish can live for years with proper care.

No matter what care the fish get now, Rosen says it won't be enough.

It's not just the fish that are dying or suffering now, Rosen said. 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.

I want Professor Busse to replace the live fish with plastic fish or take down the live animal exhibit, Rosen said, suggesting that Miles Inada, chairman of the art department, should work to ban live animals in SOU art exhibits.

I think she has a point, Inada said. I certainly respect her right to make that point.

Inada said he has no intention of adjusting SOU's policies on exhibit contents.

Jennifer Nitson is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach her at 482-3456.