The Art of Animal Liberation

by Emily Watlington
Art in America
6 October 2020

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.

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Cover Image: Lin May Saeed, Seven Sleepers, 2020, polystyrene foam, acrylic paint, steel, jute, fabric, paper, plants, glass, water, cotton cord, wood, cardboard, 15 feet wide.