The gaggle of rough-hewn creatures standing in the main hall of the Georg Kolbe Museum are a perfect dissection of the relationship between animal and human. There’s a pangolin (most hunted), a bovine calf (most farmed) and a buck-toothed hyena (loss of habitat). Side by side, standing on their own thin wooden containers, these mostly white animal sculptures come across like characters from a children’s book. But what sets them apart is how free they are from human cliche: neither romanticised nor glorified, they seem to hover in their own naive neutrality.
We’re left with unwanted insights into the paradoxes of inherited behaviours, and the unrelenting presence of human violence
The artist who made them, Lin May Saeed, a lifelong vegan who once blocked a chicken processing factory by locking her hand to a block of concrete, has devoted her entire art practice to animals. Yet this exhibition is no moralistic rant – rather it’s a reflective, piercing and multi-layered examination of the disjointed power relations between humans and animals. Most intriguing are her wall reliefs: tight emotional scenes that dream of a time of harmonious interspecies coexistence. In one, she scratches the raw organs of a hyena onto its geometric body to emphasise its equality with its human companion. In another, a beekeeper appears to pray before a liberated swarm of bees. Surrounding them is a colourful array of (presumably unfertilised) crops.
Despite the horrors inflicted on land animals (globally at least 80 billion animals are slaughtered for food each year), the exhibition is oddly optimistic. Downstairs many of the works are plain cute and joyous, the artist playfully enjoying the wondrous variety of fungi, plants and other forms of natural life. What makes them most stand out is that the sculptures are so pitted and awkward; at times, it looks like they’ve been hacked into shape with a pickaxe. That’s down to Saeed’s material of choice, non-biodegradable plastics, to draw attention to the throwaway brutality of human behaviour. In the refined setting of this Charlottenburg museum, these luminous plastics give the works an ethereal quality, as though they would break apart at the slightest touch.
Across the city at the Berlinische Galerie in Kreuzberg, the artist Nasan Tur’s exhibition Hunted focuses on the human drive to kill animals. Spread out like roadkill across the concrete floor of the double-height hall lie the lifeless bodies of a real baby fawn, an eagle and a small fox. It’s a surprise to see such intimate works in such a grandiose space, even more so when you discover, after watching an accompanying video work, that they’ve been killed for target practice.
In the same video, professional hunters talk about their experiences of hunting. During uninterrupted monologues, they speak of the moments when they’ve been overcome by an insatiable compulsion to kill. It’s an unsettling, unpleasant watch, the camera drifting over their legs and torso, never once revealing their faces. At one point, a hunter claims that this bloodlust is merely a primal desire to accumulate meat – yet the vast hanging silhouettes of animal puppets made from human hand shadows allude to a more unnerving conclusion: killing animals reinforces a sense of being human.
Hunting, with its animalistic drive, is perhaps the perfect metaphor for exploring how human beings relate (or fail to relate) to animals. Whereas Saeed’s exhibition provides some vague utopian hope, Tur’s exhibition offers little. Nothing is served up conveniently on a (meat) platter, no sentimental pleas for humans to understand themselves as part of a connected whole. Instead we’re left with unwanted insights into the paradoxes of inherited behaviours, and the unrelenting presence of human violence.
- Lin May Saeed: The Snow Falls Slowly in Paradise, Georg Kolbe Museum, Charlottenburg, through Feb 25, 2024, details.
- Nasan Tur: Hunted, Berlinische Galerie, through Apr 1, 2024, details.