Museum exhibition

Lin May Saeed: Arrival of the Animals

The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, USA
21 July - 25 October 2020

For the past fifteen years, Lin May Saeed (b. 1973, Germany) has focused on the lives of animals and human-animal relations. With empathy and wit, she tells stories, both ancient and modern, of animal subjugation, liberation, and cohabitation with humans, working toward a new iconography of interspecies solidarity.

Animals have arrived in the moral consciousness of many at the very moment of their mass extinction. The exhibition’s subtitle is borrowed from a short story of the same name by Elias Canetti. Saeed, whose roots are German-Jewish and Iraqi, appreciates Canetti’s writing for exposing power structures both within and between species. Many of Saeed’s animals arrive to reoccupy spaces that were once theirs; in other words, they return.

To imagine these worlds, Saeed often combines traditional artistic formats, such as the sculptural relief, with nontraditional materials, such as expanded polystyrene foam, better known as Styrofoam. This petroleum-based, non-biodegradable plastic is easy for the artist to find, usually secondhand, and to work, without assistance. For Saeed, Styrofoam is a reminder of humans’ environmental impact and a material ripe for transformation.

Saeed’s first museum solo exhibition surveys her drawings on and with paper as well as sculptures in Styrofoam, steel, and bronze. It is accompanied by the artist’s first monograph, published by the Clark and distributed by Yale University Press, which includes studio and installation photography, two interpretive essays, Saeed’s own writings, and a previously untranslated text on animality and otherness.

Lin May Saeed: Arrival of the Animals is organized by the Clark Art Institute and curated by Robert Wiesenberger, associate curator of contemporary projects. Lin May Saeed’s work is courtesy of the artist; Jacky Strenz, Frankfurt; and Nicolas Krupp, Basel. Major support for Lin May Saeed: Arrival of the Animals is provided by Denise Littlefield Sobel. Additional funding is generously provided by Katherine and Frank Martucci.

For more information please visit The Clark Art Institute.

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Lin May Saeed at The Clark

Contemporary Art Daily, 14 October 2020

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The Art of Animal Liberation

by Emily Watlington, Art in America*

When I first visited Lin May Saeed’s Berlin apartment/studio two years ago, the Iraqi-German artist and animal liberation activist was in the process of carving a polystyrene sculpture as two large rabbit roommates hopped around, enjoying the nontoxic snow-like flakes that were falling to the floor. That sculpture was Girl with Cat (2019), which depicts a young woman kneeling next to her feline companion, whose large, slender body resembles those of the cats found in hieroglyphs and ancient statuettes. Saeed told me that the work was inspired by the late German activist and sociologist Birgit Mütherich, whose 2003 essay, “The Social Construction of the Other: On the Sociological Question of the Animal,” reveals that the cat-worshipping ancient Egyptians had no word for “animal.” For the sculpture’s debut at the Jacky Strenz gallery in Frankfurt last year, Saeed, who in 2001 graduated from the Kunstakademie in the nearby town of Düsseldorf, had an excerpt from Mütherich’s essay translated into English; the translated piece hung adjacent to Girl with Cat. In the essay, Mütherich critiques certain sensibilities captured in everyday language, and though she wrote it in German, her critique applies to English too. We misuse the term “animal” as though it’s the antonym to “human,” Mütherich argued, when actually, “animal” describes the taxonomic kingdom to which all animate, multicelled species belong, so the word should engender kinship. Today, many animal advocates use the term “nonhuman animal,” a way of proudly claiming that we, too, are animals.

Presenting vignettes from different times and places—often, the European and Arabic contexts with which she is most familiar—Saeed’s sculptures show that our relationships with animals are not static, but ever-changing; that they are as social as they are “natural.” In June, when most museums around the country were closed due to COVID-19, I visited Saeed’s midcareer survey, “Arrival of the Animals,” at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where it remains on view through October 25. No other potential virus hosts were present. The works, which had been shipped from Saeed’s studio just days before Europe locked down, landed across the Atlantic in a rare moment when our everyday mistreatment of other animals was being discussed, if indirectly, in mainstream media. This past spring, the United States faced a crisis at meat processing facilities, as COVID-19 spread rapidly among workers there. Meanwhile, the fragility of our status as the planet’s dominant species was becoming painfully apparent.

Some scientists claim that the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was the result of trafficking in pangolins, an endangered scaly mammal that lives in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In an astonishing coincidence, Saeed’s polystyrene Pangolin (2020), roughly life-size and perched atop a wooden structure, was among the works she shipped out, before this theory was developed. Pangolins are coveted for their meat and scales, but they can’t be domesticated, making them the most trafficked mammal in the world. Their scales have been used to make armor and traditional Chinese medicine. In a pre-coronavirus context, the sculpture would have highlighted how another culture’s abuse of animals often seems more clearly troubling than our own. It’s easy for Westerners to feel repulsed by East Asian delicacies, like expensive cocktails made from endangered pangolin blood, without looking critically at our own violent habits. That Saeed was inadvertently extremely topical while addressing an issue and a species previously considered fringe says a great deal about the relevance of animal rights to our daily lives.

THE FIRST AND FINAL galleries in Saeed’s four-room survey are dark, enclosed in curtains, and cave-like. The setup recalls the earliest art, made in caves and depicting, mostly, nonhuman animals. In the Paleolithic era, humans were not exactly at the top of the food chain. Though Homo habilis would sometimes trick, capture, and eat large mammals, humans were also often meat themselves. In cave paintings, humans are marginal, faceless stick figures, while other mammals are rendered in greater detail.

The first of Saeed’s “caves” features not Paleolithic art but depictions of animals from the Clark’s collection. Created between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, all are by European artists. Saeed and the exhibition’s curator, Robert Wiesenberger, selected small, humble works by some of art history’s most renowned masters, including Albrecht Dürer and Eugène Delacroix. Together, the pictures set up a repertoire of animal imagery, but unlike Saeed’s sculptures, most of these works are not really about animals. Rather, animals stand in as metaphors for human beings and human desires. For example, in an 1851 etching by the Orientalist artist Théodore Chassériau, we see two Arab women draped in luxurious fabrics and lounging with a gazelle: Chassériau likens the gracefulness of the women to that of the animal. Bonheur’s drawing of a lioness is an exception. The artist believed that animals have souls, and took care to render an individual, rather than a generic, creature.

Exiting the first “cave,” visitors confront Saeed’s sculpture St. Jerome and the Lion (2016), which takes the form of a metal gate. The artist bent and welded black steel strips to create the contours of a lion and a monk. The “drawing” is enclosed in a rectangular steel frame that features a handle and hinges. Another rendering of the titular theme also hangs inside the “cave”: a 1511 woodcut by Albrecht Dürer. While Dürer’s rendition shows the saint in his study, translating the Bible into Latin while a lion casually snoozes at his feet, Saeed shows the moment they met. According to the story, other people ran away from the lion in fear, but Jerome saw vulnerability in even the king of beasts, and decided to help him—knowing full well he was risking his life. Jerome removed a thorn from the lion’s paw, and in turn, the lion remained ever grateful, opting to spend the rest of his life by the hermit-saint’s side. The work is part of Saeed’s ongoing series “The Liberation of Animals from Their Cages.” Its form suggests a triumphant flinging open of the gates as one kind of liberation, while its subject focuses on the liberatory potential within more mundane acts of care.

SAEED’S WORKS USUALLY tell a story―though she prefers the term “fable”—and often borrows the tales from Abrahamic scriptures, history, protests, myths, and dreams, leaving the implications open to interpretation. Because she constantly revisits the theme of human-animal relations, there’s no mistaking where Saeed stands. Still, she approaches her subject with empathy and grace: her work is not self-righteous, and it does not preach. Humans aren’t shown harming animals overtly in her work. In Cleaner (2006/2020), a life-size human figure in a hazmat suit with a yellow watering can for a face sits on the ground and holds a polystyrene animal that appears to be covered in oil. Here we see a human helper, though the specter of the humans (or corporations) who caused the damage haunts the work. Saeed doesn’t present statistics or expose the horrid realities of animals in captivity. Most people either already know these, or have chosen to ignore them.

Seven Sleepers (2020)—her largest work to date at nearly fifteen feet wide, and the show’s grand finale—illustrates the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. The story, told both by Christians and in the Qur’an, dates back to the third century CE, when a group of young Christians was persecuted by the Roman Emperor Decius. They retreated to a cave, where they prayed and prayed, then fell asleep. When they finally awoke and emerged some three hundred years later, Christianity was no longer persecuted, but had become the Roman Empire’s state religion. Some say that a dog waited at the cave’s mouth and guarded the men. Others say the dog was one of the seven. So who protected whom? In Saeed’s sculpture, there are seven figures total. All are polystyrene, and some have cloth outfits that drape beyond the dark plinth and onto the ground. One of the seven is a dog—Saeed chose the version in which the canine was a protagonist, where the care and protection were reciprocal.

If we compare Seven Sleepers with some of her more overtly activist works, we see the many forms that protest and refusal can take. Saeed doesn’t privilege active interventions over passive approaches, like waiting, sleeping, or praying. Her small copper-and-steel Documentation model of 8 hour long car blockade in front of Europe’s largest poultry slaughtering factory in Wietze/Germany (2015, not on view) illustrates a 2014 intervention in which two women handcuffed themselves to a weight that they dropped through a hole in the floor of their car, blocking the entrance to a slaughterhouse. Rather than surveying her work in chronological order, Wiesenberger chose to ease visitors into Saeed’s more confrontational works, which are few and far between, both in her oeuvre and in the show. Her painting Aynoor (2020), positioned near the end, shows a cow looking at shoes, gloves, and handbags. Though rendered in a sketch-like black outline, these accessories are presumably leather. At first glance, this work is not subtle, especially for Saeed. But in Arabic, its title refers to a name that means “virtuous woman.” In Europe, Aynoor is a brand of halal sausages. Most major religions have rules stipulating if and how meat can be consumed; eating animals without regard for how they are slaughtered has become common only relatively recently. But more to the point, Aynoor alludes to what thinkers like Mütherich and Carol J. Adams (author of The Sexual Politics of Meat) describe as the twinned oppression of animals and women. These authors cite wide-ranging evidence, from the misogynistic phrase “a piece of meat,” to Spinoza’s remark in his 1677 Ethics that advocacy against animal slaughter is based on “superstition and womanish pity.”

Saeed typically alludes to animal mistreatment in subtle ways, evoking more than just pity or rage. In Calf (2018), a polystyrene bovine sculpture is placed not on a pedestal, but atop a wooden frame that’s almost a skeleton of the plywood crates in which sculptures are typically shipped. To some, the setup might evoke the tight quarters in which cattle are kept on factory farms. Yet the creature’s placement on top, rather than inside, the structure suggests a golden calf, which was an object of worship in many ancient societies.

SAEED’S USE OF polystyrene foam helps convey her work’s simultaneous conviction and humility. Styrofoam (the material’s brand name) is nonbiodegradable; it lasts forever, yet it also crumbles easily. Saeed told me that she began working with the material for practical reasons—her studio is on the third floor of a building with no elevator, so it’s difficult to transport heavy sculptures in and out. Some of her sculptures—like Calf—are monumental in size. Yet at the same time, they exude a certain fragility. Their rendering is a bit crude—some figures are cartoonish, some reliefs are chunky—yet somehow, all are elegant. Often, Saeed reclaims large chunks of Styrofoam from Berlin’s numerous building sites. She sometimes paints her work’s surfaces, usually with a rather dry brush. Polystyrene foam is commonly used to make models, which is fitting, as her work often models alternatives to abusive human-animal relations that have been normalized.

“Arrival of the Animals” extends outside the Clark’s walls, and into nature. Saeed’s Thaealab (2017)―transliterated Arabic for “fox”―is displayed on the museum’s gorgeous rural campus. The fox was modeled first in Styrofoam, then cast in bronze and coated in white lacquer. Thaealab can withstand the elements, yet its surface is almost indistinguishable from those of the more fragile works inside. Saeed first made Thaealab when curator Chus Martínez invited her to create a work for Cologne’s sculpture park. She felt that nature didn’t really need art, so she tried to make something useful for the animals who lived there. She lined the spine of Thaealab with hazelnuts that squirrels and crows enjoyed, and were replenished daily. But on view atop a wooded hill in the Berkshires, the hazelnuts presented a problem. Apparently, they attract bears, which tempted fate. So at the Clark, the sculpture is shown filbert-free. The absent nuts are a poignant reminder that humans are still vulnerable to other species, even if most of us no longer live near big beasts. In his 1980 essay “Why Look at Animals?,” John Berger argued that this disconnect made animal art all the more urgent. Since today we are alienated from the creatures whose flesh we often wear and consume, it’s easy to ignore our complicity in harming them. Simply looking at animals helps remind us that they are sentient beings.

Many socially engaged artists have found themselves frustrated by art’s limitations. It’s not the best tool for effecting immediate and tangible change. So they turn to social practice and community organizing, or they endeavor, like journalists and documentary filmmakers, to expose shocking truths. But with her sculptures exploring animal and human relations, Saeed does what artists do best: she provides a new visual language and new conceptual framework. In her widely read 2004 book, Hope in the Dark, activist historian Rebecca Solnit argues that “revolution takes place first in the imagination,” that “politics arises out of the spread of ideas and the shape of imaginations.” Saeed is playing the long, paradigm-shifting game, but she’s also seen some results in her lifetime. I happen to know personally at least three people who became vegetarians after encountering her work.

Amid a meat-processing controversy in the United States—the coronavirus has exacerbated dismal working conditions at slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants—we find ourselves in the midst of what has the potential to be another shift in thinking about, and relating to, animals. In April, the poultry company Tyson took out a full-page ad in several newspapers, stating that “the food supply chain is vulnerable.” Indeed, Wendy’s took a hiatus from selling burgers, and plant-based meat alternatives saw record sales growth. Meanwhile, plenty of pigs were gassed or shot instead of slaughtered and consumed. This meat quandary has brought home the reality that climate activists have long pointed out: the volume of meat consumed by people in industrialized nations is unsustainable. Meat and dairy farming accounts for more CO2 emissions than cars, planes, trains, and buses combined. Meanwhile, workers struggle to keep up with the pace of assembly lines meant to fill enormous demand, fast and cheaply. And that’s to say nothing of the industry’s obvious mistreatment of nonhuman animals. Saeed’s work is not, overtly, about personal habits or diet. The artist does express concern, though, for environmental destruction by frequently depicting, for instance, the Hammar Marshes. That storied area in Iraq, believed by many to be the site of the Garden of Eden, is now drying up. The time is nigh to heed Saeed’s transformative rethinking of the fundamentals of human-animal relations. It’s not just about swapping the ground beef in your burger for a lump of tofu, but rethinking rich alternatives, from the ground, or garden, up. Who knows? Maybe when we finally leave our quarantine caves, such a “radical” idea could become the new norm.

*read original Art in America article, 6 October 2020

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Lin May Saeed’s Styrofoam Animals Exemplify Beautiful Reuse

by David D'Arcy, Observer*

On a terrace of the Clark Art Institute’s hillside Lunder Center galleries stands a creature in white-painted bronze with the name Thaelab, or fox in Arabic. With two back legs fused together, and a tail that points to the left, the sculpture is the outdoor component of “Arrival of the Animals,” Lin May Saeed’s new show at the reopened Clark Art Institute.

“This piece is normally shown with hazelnuts on its back, because Lin doesn’t think public sculpture is enough on its own, and she wants some of the local wildlife,” explained the show’s curator, Robert Wiesenberger, “but it turns out that bears love hazelnuts.”

Most museum visitor services departments don’t monitor bear appetites on a 24-hour camera. “We’ve never confronted this problem before, so unfortunately we’re not showing it with hazelnuts,” he said.

At the Clark’s 140 acres in Williamstown, Mass., three hours’ drive from New York City, creatures of all sorts are still coming. With distancing guidelines, six humans at a time can visit Saeed’s’ first museum exhibition that runs through October 25.

Saeed, 47, who lives in Berlin, works in multiple styles and multiple media. You can take the show’s title at its word. It’s about animals reclaiming the landscape. As you enter the show, a “cave” rimmed with transparent curtains shows a selection of animal images from the Clark’s collection—tigers in a drawing by Eugene Delacroix, an etching of St. Jerome and a lion by Albrecht Dürer. There’s also a gruesome 1854 print by Felix Bracquemond of moles killed by farmers hanging from a tree like trophies of war.

The first works by Saeed that we see are painting-sized “gates” welded in steel frames, one of a bull with a toreador under its feet that looks like a wire drawing imagined by Alexander Calder. Another plays on a Christian motif, with a young St. Jerome pulling a splinter out of a lion’s paw, all inside a frame that seems designed for stained glass.

Next comes a revelation. Several walls of painted sculptural reliefs are of a whitish or light-colored material. There’s a scene of ship—an outline in found metal—in a storm at sea.

In another, a dark panther is in the foreground, with the towers of an empty city in shady detail in the distance behind it. It’s a swampy post-apocalyptic vision, as if humans had been washed away in a sludge that’s a new animal habitat. The city is in the Middle East. No coincidence. Saeed’s father left Iraq for Germany in the 1960s. The frieze’s expressive material—with surprising texture, shape and shadows—turns out to be Styrofoam, mostly scrounged from someone’s garbage or from construction trash piles.

“I think it’s a good thing when you can make something different out of something that is complete and utter trash. That’s a genuine transformation,” Saeed states in the show’s catalogue. “Carving a relief out of a beautiful piece of fruitwood makes no sense. Having ugliness as your starting point is far more interesting.”

So is Styrofoam the new plaster, only cheaper? It’s enough of an achievement that Saeed gets effects in this material that you could get from limestone, yet Styrofoam is within anyone’s budget.

“For her the history of sculpture is a man’s world. It’s about macho brawn, and you can’t work at scale unless you have money and resources and assistants,” said Wiesenberger.

Styrofoam presents a paradox for the artist. It’s a throwaway material that’s not biodegradable, although anyone who has held hot food in Styrofoam (or stepped on a coffee cup) knows that it comes apart. The future of Saeed’s reliefs, like the future of the fragile world she depicts, is all the more uncertain.

If that sense of uncertainty weren’t enough, in the center of that room, on a pedestal built like a shipping crate, is a sculpted pangolin (also in Styrofoam), the highly-trafficked animal that made news for possible links to the spread of COVID-19.

The exquisite work belies its origins in polystyrene foam. The crate is a reminder that these animals are smuggled as widely as the virus has spread.

Lin May Saeed’s show still sounds an alarm for a calm, wooded place like the Clark. Sterling Clark of Manhattan chose to put a museum of his collection here, in part, because it was thought to lie beyond the range of a nuclear blast that might target New York City. Masks, distancing and limits on visitors in the galleries show that fears of the virus have spread beyond that radius.

Mr. Clark was also known for his love of horses. “Lin would sooner find beauty in a pangolin, which takes a special kind of love,” said Wiesenberger, who noted that Saeed works alone.

Lin May Saeed, COVID-grounded in Berlin, has not seen her retrospective. She oversaw the lighting, with Wiesenberger, on Skype.

On email, she imagined what the setting might look like: “Wild animals cross the area, there is no exclusion here.” Except for the hazelnuts.

*read original Observer article, 29 July 2020

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At the Clark, an artist’s irresistible vision of interspecies harmony

by Murray Whyte, Boston Globe*

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Pity the poor pangolin, in these desperately troubling times. It might not shoulder quite the blame of its tiny bat cousin for the coronavirus calamity still very much in progress (PSA: WEAR A MASK). But as a harbinger of our current doomsday scenario, its bad PR has gone from miserable to apocalyptic. (Researchers believe the original SARS virus was pangolin-borne.) So what does Lin May Saeed mean to say with her white-as-snow polystyrene pangolin sculpture, poised helpless and forlorn at the Clark Art Institute’s brand-new survey of her work? I don’t know, but it conjured up more sympathy than antipathy from me. If we’d been more broadly inclined to see it (and the bat, of course) as a sensitive creature able to experience fear, love, and pain — rather than, say, lunch — maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess? And I don’t mean this as an indictment of the carnivorous preferences of non-Western cultures; as the main consumer of the 70 billion food animals slaughtered on the planet every year, we in the United States are in no position to judge.

In any case, the sympathetic pangolin is hardly the first hint of whose side Saeed is on. The show opens with a set of drawings of the animal kingdom from the Clark’s European collection (Dürer, Snyders, Delacroix) that hit just the tone you expect: If not predatory or heroic, then destined for the dinner table. Saeed, with her wildly inventive bas-relief technique — a lot of hand-carved polystyrene, tinted with inks and paint — proposes a third way: A kind of interspecies solidarity, with the hope of salvation for all.

I admit, it sounds a bit nutty. But if you’ve got a better idea, feel free to speak up. The wreckage of human dominance piles up, bigger and uglier all the time. Saeed’s animal kingdoms have the warm, handcrafted glow of a cartoon utopia. At least one is gorgeous: The ravishing “Panther Relief,” from 2017, with various felines prowling a peaceful cityscape swallowed by overgrowth. “Hawr al-Hammar/Hammar Marshes,” from 2020, feels like a precursor, even though Saeed created it later; its marshes are all but swamped by the sea, with only animal heads visible above the water. In Saeed’s vision of the future, there’s room for redemption; though the way things are going, that clock’s running out.

She practices what she preaches. In his notes for the catalog, curator Robert Wiesenberger recounts a visit to the artist’s Berlin studio, which she shares with a pair of enormous bunnies. He makes the point that Saeed doesn’t see them as pets but as roommates. “Saeed doesn’t own [them],” he writes, “distancing herself from the question of captivity. Rather, they live with her.”

Saeed, whose father emigrated from Iraq and whose mother is German-Jewish, might, in Germany, have been destined for a less-than-typical life. Otherness, Wiesenberger told me, comes naturally to Saeed, a second-generation hybrid of immigrant and native-born German in a country where tolerance is famously frictive (just like here). Why wouldn’t she choose animals, when humanity is complicated at best? And at worst — well, look around.

Even so, Saeed’s works are deeply fantastical meditations of hope. It takes a deep well of optimism to draw something positive from the bottomless history of human abuse of the animal kingdom — her work is steeped in research, from the philosophies of animal ethics to the history of the animal liberation movement, as well as animal depictions throughout art history — but there’s also spare beauty in her intricate, humble compositions.

One of the totemic tales that binds Saeed to a larger history is St. Jerome and the Lion, in which the holy man brings about interspecies solidarity by plucking a thorn from the great cat’s paw when it yields its attack, too injured to swallow him whole. (They lived happily ever after, according to early-Christian legend: “(H)e abode ever after as a tame beast with them.”) An earlier piece here captures the story literally as an iron-welded gate (unpredictable, Saeed is; more reason to like her). It’s a slightly hackneyed metaphor, maybe, but the idea of a shopworn tale becoming a portal waiting to swing open to a different kind of interspecies engagement fits the artist’s gently endearing agenda. Her work is about possibility, not condemnation, the hope that a balance can be reset.

A brand-new piece, made just for this show, is the fullest expression of her seductively sympathetic worldview: A group of figures, arrayed Last Supper-like, on a dark plinth. She calls it “Seven Sleepers,” a cluster of semi-humans and animals cobbled together on blackened earth. They have the look of a council of wise and ancient idols; among them are howling creatures and bones polished bare. What have we awakened, you might wonder, to bring about such judgment? Really, do we need to ask? A better question, and one Saeed seems to be asking: Isn’t it well past time to align ourselves with the natural order, to be found worthy?

*read original Boston Globe article, 23 July 2020

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Lin May Saeed: Arrival of the Animals

by Holly Bushman, Brooklyn Rail*

Is this a time in which we can earnestly view artworks which center nonhuman experience? In this moment of social and political precarity, in which protests demanding resolute action against the systemic murder of Black Americans are ongoing amidst a dehumanizing global pandemic, can we engage with a practice that asks for a critical reappraisal of interspecies relationships? Lin May Saeed has been intimately concerned with animal-human interactions for the past 15 years, and her works illustrate scenes of animal liberation, cohabitation, and subjectivity. Employing distinctive iconography, and drawing on various media, Saeed creates works that cast animals—lions and panthers, bees and water buffalo, calves and a pangolin—as protagonists, graceful and tenacious in the face of violence and habitat devastation. Their potency lies not in the request that we look momentarily beyond human experience, but in a deeper, more urgent appeal to understand ourselves as part of a connected whole. Saeed’s is an empathetic practice, one which cautions against solipsism while demonstrating its dangers on varying registers.

Arrival of the Animals, on view at the Clark’s Lunder Center in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is Saeed’s first solo museum show. The exhibition, curated by Robert Wiesenberger, takes its name from a short story by the Nobel-prize winning Austrian British author Elias Canetti. Like Canetti’s works of literature, Saeed’s practice is at once deeply psychological and disconcerting, and draws on imagery from history and mythology to illustrate encounters between animals and humans. The artist is perhaps best known for her reliefs and sculptural works crafted out of polystyrene foam (commonly referred to as Styrofoam), while welded steel “gates” and works on paper also populate the gallery’s walls. Each of the 21 pieces presented here retains a stark sense of narrative, in which animals are drawn and painted with an earnest vitality usually reserved for biblical prophets or mythological heroes.

In Panther Relief (2017), a large lunette of carved and painted Styrofoam and wood, the titular feline floats in a murky pool. Delicately etched reeds and water plants occupy the foreground, while a scene of industrial detritus recedes into the distance: crumbling façades and fallow fields, a rash of barbed wire and an abandoned cityscape. In spite of the destruction, Saeed’s message is prescient rather than cautionary. At home among the ruins of this post-human scene are deer, dogs, birds, and other ambiguous fauna which appear at ease alongside the relics of our self-absorbed projects of modernity. What we’ve forced out will return, Saeed seems to tell us, and will bring with it a vibrance we can’t anticipate.

Saeed’s polystyrene works are occasionally compared to Huma Bhabha’s, a pertinent association given both artists’ interest in subjectivity. Yet where Bhabha’s figurative sculptures examine human experience, Saeed’s encourage a discernment about our relationships to our nonhuman counterparts. Her use of Styrofoam raises a freighted paradox: she is clearly concerned with the ways in which humans and animals coexist, and frequently (as in War [2006] and Aynoor [2020]) casts mankind as the antagonist, highlighting the estrangement between species and bluntly illustrating the human capacity for violence. Yet violence feels implicit in the choice of Styrofoam, which is commonly associated with waste and pollution, an artifact of the damage humans have inflicted on animal habitats. The material, crafted from petroleum, takes at least 500 years to decompose (in some conditions, it is estimated to last over a million years).

To be reminded of the violence of most human-animal relationships is sobering; to be confronted with the longevity of that violence is almost incomprehensible. In her delicately crafted works Saeed shows us that temporality in the climate-controlled gallery space cannot, in fact, be divorced from the passage of time in the landfill. The harm we inflict on animal life, whether knowingly or inadvertently, is not presented as an abstraction. Rather, it is illustrated here by means both literal and metaphorical. Walking through the Lunder Center I was reminded of Eva Hesse’s latex works, which exemplify the transience of some industrial materials. But where Hesse’s geometric forms have browned and withered, Saeed’s Styrofoam will likely retain their shape and color for millennia. They will endure, like the fauna in her reliefs, in spite of humanity, in spite of our projects of ecological dominance and our gross neglect of the world around us.

Saeed’s steel gates provide a counterpoint to her Styrofoam works. They are solid, sturdy, and (perhaps most curiously) functional objects, complete with hinges and latches, which appear decommissioned when hung on the gallery wall. While much of Saeed’s work has a graphic quality, the three gates on view (Toreador Gate [2019], St. Jerome and the Lion [2016], and The Liberation of Animals from Their Cages XXIII/Djamil Gate [2020]) are completely, almost bluntly, pictorial. They distill the artist’s project into dark lines and curves, each featuring a scene of emancipation: a bull runs over its human captor, a masked figure clips a rope tethering a camel to a post; the robed St. Jerome plucks a thorn out of the lion’s paw. If Saeed’s practice emanates from the idea of liberation, these three objects in particular suggest the way forward. The humans featured here are either integral to or overwhelmed by animal liberation. It is a question asked of the viewer, one which both elicits and instructs our capacity for empathy.

*read original Brooklyn Rail article, Jul-Aug 2020

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