“The assumption that art operates in a moral and social vacuum is snobbish"
Lin May Saeed on Art and Activism
Lin May Saeed's works are all about the human-animal relationship. But instead of depicting animals’ suffering and death, the artist creates "works of hope". They are works in which animals regain their dignity, offering a gesture of reconciliation. In this interview, Saeed describes how art and activism come together – and why she thinks everyone’s going to be vegan in a few years.
As an artist and activist, you advocate for a peaceful coexistence of humans and animals on earth. What would this coexistence ideally look like?
We would have a different concept of freedom – in that human freedom would end where animal freedom begins. For me, an ideal situation means ending the use of animals. This means protecting farm animals as well as protecting wildlife and plant habitats. I don't have a crystal ball, but I expect that in 40 years, hardly anyone will eat meat and veganism will be the norm. Although the reasons for this will probably vary.
What kind of reasons are you thinking about?
Certainly, the most important reason, which goes beyond the life of the individual animal, is the pursuit of climate justice and the protection of the environment. Ethical, religious reasons or health aspects may also play a role. Perhaps meat will also no longer be eaten because it has become too expensive.
How long have you been vegan?
For 25 years.
“The assumption that art operates in a moral and social vacuum is snobbish" is a quote on your website. Art always opens up a space of meaning. How do art and politics come together in your work - if at all?
I am a sculptor who explores the human-animal relationship. My perspective on this subject influences my artistic practice, which is fundamentally conceptual. My way of working in the studio is predominantly affective and processual. From the beginning, I was influenced by conversations with animal liberation activists, by a study of animal rights literature and current debates on the topic.
Do you have any examples?
I appreciate the writing that appears in the magazine Tierbefreiung for its leftist, emancipatory choice of terminology alone has political implications – starting with the commonly used term "animal." "Animal“ is an auxiliary term that is toxic. It defines the divide between our species and all other living things. Nature and wildlife are perceived as one, and on the other side of the divide are humans and the creatures they have domesticated. Why is this so? The issue of how we can overcome this divide is of great concern to me.
Your reliefs often seem very peaceful and harmonious, almost like a return to paradise. I would describe them as quiet and reserved rather than as loud and offensive. To what extent does art convey your will to change?
That's a good question, and it touches the core of what I deal with in my work every day. What would be the alternative to peaceful images? I rarely reproduce the real, structural form of violence in which animals live and die behind closed doors. But I have respect for the artists who do. I would describe the kinder part of my artistic practice as works of hope. I have been working on the series The Liberation of Animals from their Cages since 2006
The illuminated silhouette “The Liberation of animals from their cages IV” is part of a series Lin May Saeed has been working on since 2006. The motif takes as its theme the animal liberation movement that emerged in the mid-1970s. The work is based on preliminary drawings transferred to paper and then cut out and supplemented with colorful transparent paper.
There are also other works you make, like Bee Relief II and your silhouettes.
What I show in my reliefs, among other things, is an alternative form of coexistence between humans and animals, as you have just described. In addition, I am working on a series of charts that deal with specific topics - such as the Neolithic Revolution or food basics. It is a constant balancing of different approaches, whether it means using different materials or different forms of address. All the techniques I work in, are based on drawings.
The silhouettes, for example, are enlarged and backlit drawings that - processed with a variety of colorful paper - become part of a spatial installation. The procedure is similar to the production of St. Martin's lanterns, whereby the silhouettes are tapestry-like formats. In 1920’s Berlin, there lived an artist who worked with silhouettes. Her name was Lotte Reiniger and I am a big fan of her work. She created the first full-length animated film using silhouette techniques, among other things.
In your work, you often refer to fables or historical stories. Where does this fascination come from?
I like the idea that stories and fables can be used to imagine a kind of time travel with a focus on the human-animal relationship. And I believe that looking into the past can help us to think about our common future.
I would describe the kinder part of my artistic practice as works of hope.
On your website you quote the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest stories. What can we learn from it?
The Epic of Gilgamesh is about the divide between man and nature. What captivates me about it is the beginning of the story. The first character described is Enkidu. Not knowing he's human, he eats grass and drinks from a watering hole with the gazelles. And all of a sudden there's this shift in consciousness, this turning point, when he becomes aware of his separation from the animals, perceives them as alien - and they him. This moment of separation, or alienation, occupies me very much and has already flowed into several of my works.
In reliefs, Lin May Saeed often depicts encounters between different species, here a cultural landscape with bees and a human figure reminiscent of a beekeeper - or rather an astronaut? The semi-plastic “Bee Relief” is a carving and bricolage of styrofoam, paper and wood, which was then painted. When working with polystyrene, the first thing for Lin May Saeed is to work on it until the material responds, until the process takes on a life of its own at a certain moment.
I had to smile a bit when I read one of your texts with the title: "Riding attempts with fatal outcome." It describes what would happen if a human were to sit on the back of a lion, an ostrich or a deer. How do you keep your sense of humour in the face of all the suffering that happens to animals at the hands of humans?
Sometimes it's just fun to take fictional situations, such as this story, and to turn them on their head. I love slapstick, and the Tom and Jerry principle!
"Animal“ is an auxiliary term that is toxic. It defines the divide between our species and all other living things.
You make your reliefs out of Styrofoam. Why this material?
I discovered Styrofoam as a material for my artistic practice in college. The fact that Styrofoam is a man-made petroleum-based plastic seemed to make sense because it says something about the present. Since I work figuratively, life-size was important so that the viewer is at eye level with an animal – or human figure. The light weight of the material makes it possible to work on a larger scale.
About half of the material I use, I get from construction sites or from leftovers. Processing the material follows its own laws, but in the meantime I appreciate it very much, also because of the independence it has given me.
What does this independence have to do with sculpture in concrete terms?
Sculpture is male-dominated, also because it involves three dimensional, usually heavy objects. The decision to use Styrofoam was a kind of self-empowerment for me. An important moment of commitment to the material was to no longer hide the Styrofoam under a layer of plaster or something similar.
There are many artists and art movements that use found materials, how do you see your role in this context?
When working with found materials, the process is different from working with, say, canvas on stretcher bars. Canvas is demarcated and secured terrain that has produced gestures of, say, Bad Painting. Bad Painting on a polystyrene board or a carved relief, on the other hand, would not make sense. The point of working with Styrofoam is to keep at it until the material responds, so to speak, and the process takes on a life of its own at a certain moment. It's about dedication to the working process, so that the Styrofoam can become something else.
Does the choice of material also have something to do with the subject of your art, explicitly with animals?
There is an additional reason why I like working with Styrofoam. Most animals have fur, feathers, scales or an exoskeleton, and depicting that sculpturally is a challenge. Every living thing moves almost constantly, and motion blur and vividness go together. Likewise, there is a blurriness when working with Styrofoam because of the materiality. Styrofoam is, first of all, block material and on closer inspection it has a smallest visible unit, namely small spheres. The fact that the naked eye can see the smallest unit I feel has a poetic quality. I like to imagine that they are atoms. I look for the productive interplay of these two blurs, the granularity of the material and the living things that emerge from it. And perhaps most crucially: I understand my works not as objects, but as subjects.
There is something fragile about Styrofoam.
Yes. That's very important.
The decision to use Styrofoam was a kind of self-empowerment for me.
In addition to your own work, you have chosen a work by Sue Coe. She documents the work in slaughterhouses, visually as well as textually. What connects you with her?
I first heard of Sue Coe in the early 2000s, through a British activist. I really appreciate her work. She was the first animal rights artist – she researches and draws in slaughterhouses and is also present when animals are slaughtered.
In her drawings and paintings, graphic artist Sue Coe directs her gaze directly and blatantly toward the effects of social inequality and structural violence against animals, portraying both people and animals as individuals. She herself describes her artistic work with the words: "I make vegans." The painting "Horse Slaughterhouse" is based on drawings and notes made during her many years of research in slaughterhouses. And despite the cruelty, suffering and violence she depicts here, her paintings do not pass judgement on the slaughterhouse workers.
Has her work influenced your work in any way?
I think every animal rights artist will relate to her in some way. Empathy and artistic engagement come together in her work. What's also impressive about it is that she pays respect to the slaughterhouse workers in the process and portrays them sensitively as well. There is no resentment or condemnation in her work.
Animals are often called a plague. You picked out a work by photographer and biologist Jochen Lempert that shows a pigeon named "Martha". What is the story behind it?
The photo was taken in Florence, where Jochen Lempert photographed a pigeon and named it "Martha", in reference to the last specimen of an American migratory pigeon species, which unfortunately died out at the beginning of the 20th century. This last pigeon of its kind lived in a zoo in Cincinnati.
My first contact with the work of Jochen Lempert took place many years ago in a Cologne gallery, at a solo exhibition of his photographs. At that time, I was very much preoccupied with the question of how I could bring together my interest in the human-animal relationship and artistic work. What struck me about Jochen Lempert's photographs from the beginning was how he focuses his attention on a wide variety of creatures, including urban pigeons, and the smallest creatures, such as flies. There is no hierarchy of species in his artistic practice, no division of fauna into so-called beneficial and pests.
The photographer Jochen Lempert, born in 1958, photographs nature and animals with the eye of an artist and studied biologist. Analog and in black and white, he takes photographs on research trips in landscapes and urban environments, and in natural history collections. What struck Lin May Saeed about Jochen Lempert's photographs is how he avoids hierarchizing species, or dividing fauna into so-called beneficial and pests.
You also chose a work by the artist duo Hörner Antlfinger, what makes it so special?
It is a sculpture called KRAMFORS, named after a leather sofa model from Ikea, which Ute Hörner and Matthias Antlfinger used for their work of the same name. They stripped the leather, sewed a life-size calf figure out of it, and in turn placed it on the naked sofa. Basically, it's a kind of resurrection. I find it touching how the wish that animals should not have to die for humans is embodied here in this sculpture. That's the most important thing for me about this work. The preoccupation with a cultural phenomenon like Ikea, even if it's not the primary focus of the work, I also find compelling.
I also think there is something very loving and witty about this work. On her website you can watch a video of how the parrots in the studio accompany the creation of the work.
Yes, this makes visible how personal the work is, and it makes the creative process very transparent.
In their installations, videos and sculptures, Ute Hörner and Mathias Antlfinger explore the relationship between humans, animals and technologies. Their cross-species and space-based narratives explore interacting systems - individuals and computers, cities and their inhabitants, animals that are loved and animals that are used. The sculpture “KRAMFORS” shows a reclining calf. The skin of the sculpture was sewn from the leather of an IKEA sofa whose naked frame serves as the sculpture’s base.
There is no hierarchy of species in his artistic practice, no division of fauna into so-called beneficial and pests.
Apart from the artists mentioned above, is there a particular figure or work that has left a lasting impression on you?
All women who stand up for animals, such as Jill Robinson, the founder of Animals Asia. The organizers of Together against the animal industry, as well as the educational initiative Mensch Tier Bildung. People who have founded living farms for liberated farm animals.
Finally, could you answer this question for me: To me this is personal, because...
I quote a thought by Corinne Pelluchon: "The desire to pass on an intact world changes everything." The recipients to whom I want to leave an intact world are landscapes with animals and people.
Lin May Saeed, The Liberation of Animals from their Cages IV, 2008, Cardboard, transparent paper, wood, fluorescent lights, 245 x 600 x 50 cm; 96,45 x 236,22 x 19,68 inches, Courtesy: the artist and Jacky Strenz
Lin May Saeed, Bee Relief / The Liberation of Animals from their Cages VII, 2018, Styrofoam, acrylic paint, steel, transparent paper, wood, 135 x 179,5 x 22 cm; 53,1 x 70,6 x 8,6 inches, Courtesy: the artist and Jacky Strenz
Sue Coe, Horse Slaughterhouse, 1992 © Sue Coe, Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York
Jochen Lempert, Martha, 2004 © Jochen Lempert/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021
Hörner/Antlfinger, Kramfors, 2012, Installation, stripped-down IKEA-sofa, foam, plywood, metal, video, 4:30 min, HD, colour, mute, sewing patterns (90 cm x 420 cm)