Miranda July is a filmmaker, artist, and writer. July’s collection of stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and has been published in twenty-three countries. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Harper’s, and The New Yorker; It Chooses You was her first book of non-fiction. She wrote, directed and starred in The Future and Me and You and Everyone We Know—winner of the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a Special Jury Prize at Sundance. July’s participatory art works include the website *Learning to Love You...
Drawing upon Eastern philosophy and contemporary social issues as a conceptual basis, Cai Guo-Qiang’s work creates a direct exchange between viewers and the larger universe around them cultivating a site-specific approach to culture and history. For Moving Ghost Town, Guo-Qiang has created an environment where three African Sulcata tortoises roam freely on a section of natural turf similar to local grasslands. With iPads mounted to their backs, the tortoises feature video footage of three local ghost towns, which were filmed by the creatures themselves. Forgotten stories of the once prosperous ghost towns are retold from the tortoises’ perspective.
The Aspen Art Museum is a contemporary art museum that provides a platform for artists to present their artistic vision with a freedom of expression. That free expression can take many forms, and it is not the Museum’s practice to censor artists. Cai Guo-Qiang’s installation features three African Sulcata Tortoises which were rescued from a breeder where they were living in an over-crowded enclosure. The three are being closely monitored, cared for, checked by a local veterinarian at regular intervals, and are being exhibited in consultation with the Turtle Conservancy. Following the end of the exhibition on October 5, the tortoises will find new homes in conservation and educational facilities selected in collaboration with the Turtle Conservancy.
The African “Sulcata” tortoises in Moving Ghost Town were bred and raised in captivity and today are all aged in their mid-twenties. Each was rescued from a breeder in Arizona. This exhibition helped facilitate the removal of the three tortoises from an uncomfortable environment.
At the close of Moving Ghost Town, Big Bertha, Gracie Pink Star, and Whale Wanderer will be placed in new homes in reputable and humane facilities in consultation with the Turtle Conservancy.
The AAM tortoise habitat is an insulated enclosure equipped with a heating pad. The temperature of the enclosure within the installation is monitored constantly. When the temperature gets cooler, the tortoises self-regulate by lying in the sun or on the heating pad in the enclosure. Weekly visits by the museum’s local veterinarian, along with constant monitoring by museum staff, ensure that Big Bertha, Gracie Pink Star, and Whale Wanderer have remained healthy and comfortable throughout.
If at any time during the course of the exhibition it is deemed that environmental conditions are less than ideal, or if there are any factors that present risks in maintaining the tortoises’ complete health or safety, they will be immediately removed from the exhibition and transitioned to new homes.
Following consultation with the project’s experts, lightweight mounting brackets have been temporarily attached with silicone adhesive to the shells of the individual tortoises. The adhesive is non-invasive, humane, and removes easily and cleanly without any damage to the tortoises’ shells. The mounts and iPads are a smaller version of those commonly used by scientists and researchers in attaching research-tracking devices to animals in the wild. Each unit, with iPads attached, weighs less than 3 pounds. By comparison, tortoises’ thick, sturdy legs accommodate their own weight and upwards of 150 extra pounds during mating. Lastly, it is important to note that the iPads are attached to the mounts only during public exhibition viewing hours and are removed at all other times.
Prior to the installation of the exhibition, the three tortoises within Moving Ghost Town roamed freely through three area ghost towns under the supervision of artist Cai Guo-Qiang, filming their journeys on the iPads mounted on their shells. As they wandered in and out of buildings and through forests and fields, they captured the sites themselves—and possibly a few ghost stories as well.
In Chinese symbolism, tortoises represent creation, time, longevity, and wisdom; they are associated with the North direction—that of death and rebirth. According to Daoist and Confucian classics, such as The Book of Ritual, tortoises are seen as “supernatural spirits.” Auspicious and powerful symbols, tortoises—along with the objects they carry—in Chinese culture play important roles. For example, in ancient mythology, Yu the Great saved the Chinese people from torrential floods by relying on tortoises to carry mud on their backs. For centuries, commemorative steles resting on tortoise figures have been used in emperor’s mausoleums, conveying both artistic significance and ritual solemnity. Cai Guo-Qiang believes tortoises should be greatly venerated as agents of history and benediction.
Although nine is considered the luckiest number, the tortoises’ spatial needs required there be fewer. The artist included three—also a lucky number as it closely resembles the Chinese character for “birth.” From an Eastern philosophical perspective, Moving Ghost Town takes a contemporary approach of telling the story of Aspen’s rise and fall, while encouraging visitors to reflect on the past.
Artist Cai Guo-Qiang has long been deeply engaged in representing narratives of humanitarian efforts and the ethical treatment of animals. His 2014 exhibition The Ninth Wave, for example, portrayed animals as suffering protagonists in response to a recent environmental disaster in China which found 16,000 pigs floating dead in the Huangpu River. The Ninth Wave represents an ark that was then floated on the river in question.
“The positive side of this installation is that these tortoises are rescues and can be used to educate the public by raising public awareness to the fact that African Spurred Tortoises (Centrochelys sulcata) are inappropriate as pets for most people. Although they are very cute when small, they grow to a very large size (over two feet long and more than 125 pounds), requiring appropriately large enclosures. They also live a very long time, at least as long as a human. Once these tortoises are a few years old, they can no longer be cared for by most people who buy them and become disposable pets. This message is timely, as it coincides with the release of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, which is sure to increase demand for pet tortoises just as the demand for Clown Fish skyrocketed after Finding Nemo came out. We hope that this will convince people that, in general, turtles and tortoises are very challenging pets that bring great responsibility, as they can often outlive their owners. Buying a tortoise means adding it to your estate plan.”
Cai Guo-Qiang’s installation Moving Ghost Town consists of three African Sulcata Tortoises named Big Bertha, Gracie Pink Star, and Whale Wanderer. Friendly, good-natured, and adaptable, the African Sulcata Tortoise is the third-largest species of tortoise and a popular pet.
Working closely with local veterinarian Dr. Liz Kremzier on health concerns and with the internationally acclaimed Turtle Conservancy on husbandry issues, the Aspen Art Museum arranged for the transport of the tortoises to Aspen and constructed a habitat that promotes and safeguards sustained health and comfort. The ideal temperature for the tortoises is 85–105ºF during the day. The tortoise habitat provides a variety of temperatures to give the tortoises the option of where they want to be, including lots of natural sunlight, radiant heating panels, and heated rocks. The tortoises are very strong and active and when the temperature gets too cold for them, they will self-regulate by lying in the sun or on the heating pad in their enclosure. Unfiltered natural sunlight is the ideal scenario for the tortoises and fifteen minutes of natural sunlight is equivalent to more than eight hours of indoor incandescent light. The habitat allows the tortoises plenty of space to roam and explore. African Sulcata Tortoises eat a diet of vegetables, grasses, and herbaceous plants, and trained museum staff members provide the tortoises with a salad of mixed greens and vegetables every day.
Each of the three tortoises carries an iPad in the installation, showcasing footage of their experience in Colorado. The iPad adds negligible weight for the tortoise to support: their thick, sturdy legs accommodate their own weight and, during mating, upwards of 150 extra pounds. The use of the iPad and its mounting method is a reduced version of the method employed by scientists and researchers who study the animals in the wild. The silicone material is noninvasive and removes easily and cleanly without damaging the tortoise’s shell. It is common practice to use this particular silicone to attach research tracking devices in the wild. It is the most benign method to track animals in the wild. The mounting system is designed purposely to keep the iPads at a distance from their shell and does not impede their growth.
Weekly visits by the museum’s local veterinarian along with constant monitoring by the museum staff will ensure that Big Bertha, Gracie Pink Star, and Whale Wanderer remain healthy and comfortable. At the close of the exhibition, they will find new homes in conservation and educational facilities selected in consultation with the Turtle Conservancy.
The African Sulcata Tortoise is native to the southern edge of the Sahara, from Senegal east through Mali, Niger, Chad, the Sudan, and Ethiopia. The tortoise population is rapidly disappearing, and the animals are endangered in the wild. However, removing turtles and tortoises from the wild has not only endangered the existence of the animals in their native habitat, but has also resulted in overbreeding of the African Sulcata Tortoise in captivity. Contrary to popular belief, breeding tortoises does not help the wild population but actually hurts the species. These tortoises were rescued from a breeder in Arizona who kept eighteen tortoises in a space smaller than the AAM habitat and actively promoted their sale. This exhibition helped facilitate the removal of three tortoises from a breeder.