As a senior at Bennington College and a multimedia performance artist, I have been exploring potential ways to engage with the climate crisis in the arts without succumbing to the danger of creating all too reductive and didactic pieces. One September afternoon, while doing some research for my upcoming senior show – a dance piece about our alienation from nature – I read that an exciting exhibition was showing in the neighboring town. It was Lin May Saeed’s Arrival of the Animals at The Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Seeing the exhibition, I was captivated by the depth and clarity of her call to animal liberation.
Lin May Saeed is a German sculptor, painter, and visual artist whose work has been exhibited in Germany, Switzerland, Mexico, and the U.S. Through her art, she embeds the issue of animal rights and human-animal coexistence into a deeper frame of how we, humans, treat our environment and each other. Inspired by historical events, mythological and spiritual sources such as the Quran and the Bible, contemporary events and present-day urban spaces, Saeed creates a microcosm of the human-animal imaginary. Through problematizing human greediness and cruelty, which lead us to gobble up natural resources with no end and abuse our “animal brothers,” we arrive at imagining a peaceful state of coexistence between humans and their environment.
A text excerpt from Saeed’s website illustrates the human cruelty problematized in her work:
Hello to you all, how do you live?
We live in small groups, have no fixed partnerships.
Build widely branching tunnel systems,
in which our young are born, naked and blind.
We still reproduce when imprisoned.
I live solitary. Sleep in a shallow hollow.
My offspring are born with fur and open eyes.
I have never been domesticated.
We don’t quite know.
Until we have found out, we wage wars.
What follows is the first part of a two-part interview with the artist about the ecological implications of her dedication to animal liberation, and her vision for the climate should animals “arrive” and take back their territories from human-made destruction.
Can you tell me more about the origins of your art? How did you come to make work about animal liberation? What made you turn to the topic of injustices towards animals, and their arrival to reclaim the world from humans?
My first idea after graduating from high school was to study stage design. After I had already worked for some time at the theatre in my hometown, Wiesbaden, Germany, in several theatre and opera productions, I went to the Düsseldorf Art Academy to study stage design. In my first year at the Academy, I discovered sculpture, basically by accident. At the same time, I started to deal with issues around animal rights and became active against animal abuse, starting with the topic of fur. Despite my great love for theatre and opera, it became clear that these performative art forms were centered around man: there are no animals in theatre.
In contemporary visual arts, the topic of human-animal relations was not so welcome either, but at least it was possible to make work about it, since in a field like sculpture I could choose my own themes. I was astonished by the works of artists concerned with animal rights at the time, but they often revealed the everyday horror of slaughterhouses and experimental laboratories and I could not imagine depicting cruelty against animals and manifesting it pictorially. Also, animal rights as a positive notion is an abstract concept and I couldn’t imagine what it would look like.
The injustices towards animals mentioned in your question, especially in their systemic institutionalized forms, were of great concern to me. After initial sculptural attempts in this direction, I found that I would rather use my work to imagine what the ideal treatment of animals might look like. During this time there was also a shift in language: the animal rights movement changed its name to the animal liberation movement. This change opened up a new space of thought for me, and I got an idea about the form in which I could make an artistic contribution. It allowed me to think of images of the liberation of animals.
What role do animals play in your work, and what kind of creatures are they? I noticed that they are both anthropomorphic with their own will and power, but also symbolic of a larger world order. What do animals mean to you?
That is a good question! I face a puzzle when I look at animals. They are so much like “the Other,” especially in man-made, predominantly mono-speciesist urban environments. When I try to grasp the space between me and an animal, something opens up like a journey through time; the space stretches. Being so close to animals, such as those with whom I share my studio, feels fantastic. These are rabbits saved from slaughter, and they rarely appear directly in my work. They are just too perfect, too Disney-like. However, I make observations on them, such as symmetries and perspective foreshortening, which flow into my work.
About the Seven Sleepers cave installation at the end of your exhibition at The Clark: Is this optimism for the future? What is the significance of sleep and dreaming in your work? Is climate change a nightmare, and climate utopia a sweet dream?
The narrative of the Seven Sleepers defies plausible interpretation, and the fact that it could not be made subservient to any ideology is perhaps the reason why it has remained largely unknown to Christian-influenced culture. I first learned about the legend when visiting the Seven Sleepers cave close to Amman, Jordan. The fact that the legend is mentioned in the Quran, but not in the Bible, piqued my interest. Also, one of the Seven Sleepers was a dog. These two aspects seem to make it a story that is both trans-religious and trans-species. The blurring of the narrative in the legend made it easier to deal with it sculpturally. This stretched moment of sleep seems to articulate waiting, powerlessness, non-violence, and perhaps a form of silent protest. Sleep seems to me to be an everyday, or rather an all-night “being in another world.” I am less interested in analyzing dreams than in the very opacity of sleep. Dreams are a cross-species phenomenon, as animals also dream. That alone would be enough of a reason for me to not eat animals.
Thank you, Lin.
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In the second part of this interview, we discuss mythical and urban spaces and interspecies utopias, Lin May’s views on animal liberation as part of a larger climate imaginary, and the importance of material sustainability in the arts.
(Top image: Seven Sleepers 2020. Styrofoam, acrylic paint, steel, jute, fabric, paper, plants, glass, water, cotton cord, wood, and cardboard. Overall: 84 5/8 x 177 1/8 x 39 3/8 in. (215 x 450 x 100 cm))
Biborka Beres is a senior student at Bennington College in Vermont, studying dance, drama, and philosophy. Her interests and works lie at the intersection of socio-political change and the performing arts. In her interviews for Artists & Climate Change, she is continuing her process of exploring how the arts can create models, practices, and imaginary worlds which allow humans to coexist peacefully with nature and with each other.