Being a Pig
“Pig” is a strange word. Fairly matter-of-fact, peace-loving people, provided they don’t work on a farm or in the meat industry, rarely use it. Naming an art exhibition after this animal is unusual, to say the least. Yet animals are a popular subject in art. nützlich – süss – museal. Das fotografierte Tier (Useful – Adorable – A Museum Piece. The Photographed Animal) was the title of an exhibition at the Museum Folkwang, Essen in 2005; Tiere. Respekt – Harmonie – Unterwerfung (Animals. Respect – Harmony – Subjugation) an exhibition at the Museum für Kunst & Gewerbe in Hamburg in 2017. The accompanying publications, each of them overview works of several hundred pages, each feature precisely three images of pigs – including toys and dead, eviscerated animal carcases. It would be possible to find countless further instances of their absence. One of the rare, and additionally high-profile, exceptions is the Haus für Schweine und Menschen (House for Pigs and People) installed for documenta X by Rosemarie Trockel and Carsten Höller in 1997. All in all, the relationship between art and pigs seems to be rather complicated. Pigs often symbolise moral depravity and evil, and serve as a caricature of greedy, gluttonous enemies. This was in show in detail at documenta fifteen in 2022.¹ But even in those places where the consumption of pork and the use of the nearly 200 porcine products – from apple juice and lipstick to blood thinners² – is not forbidden by religion, the very word is evidently tainted with shame.
We Germans call someone a “pig” when our modesty boundaries are shifted or violated, when the emotions run away with us. Then, too, it becomes apparent that this animal, which has been increasingly ousted from our everyday lives over the last 150 years, leads a life of its own under a thin veneer of civilised self-control. It is obviously just waiting to be brought out into the light of day. Once the word is out, uttered, something pig-related comes to mind: a childhood experience, something seen, read or heard, or a phrase.
The pig exists in novels, stories, fairy tales, dreams, children’s books and childhood memories and not least in neat little pictures on which it advertises to be eaten. Or we encounter it in pictures of shocking livestock farms, secretly documented by animal rights activists – pictures from which we avert our gaze as quickly as possible: conditions as befitting the grimmest tales of Brothers Grimm. But in German “having a pig” also means being lucky. Keeping a pig was, and sometimes still is, possible even in constrained conditions. Meat smoked and salted was and still is a wonderful resource in times of need. Lard was considered a healing rub, and greasy rind is still good for leather expected to last for generations.
And the deeper I delve into this topic, the more omnipresent “invisible” pigs become and the less I understand their low everyday visibility: as if there were two parallel worlds, linked only by portions, slices, chunks and bites. So where have they gone, these “whole hogs”, as living beings treated by us with due respect? Why am I met with incredulity and laughter when I talk about it in the run-up to this project?
In March 2020, with the first lockdown just coming into effect, the press reported that LFD-Holding,³ the German market leader in piglet production and pig fattening, had been sold to Terra Grundwerte AG, a public limited company based in Switzerland and founded a few months earlier.⁴ One of the oldest farms of the widely branched corporate group is located on the outskirts of my home village of Gladau in Saxony-Anhalt. In 1971/72, the “first factory in East Germany for the industrial production of pork” was built there, initially for 12,500 animals, doubling in size only five years later. While ZBE Mast Gladau, as it was officially called, blossomed into a showcase enterprise, we watched from close range the pollution of the soil and water with liquid manure and the degradation of the surrounding countryside. In 1987, when a child was born in our household, an official letter informed us that water from the well was no longer suitable for babies and small children due to the high nitrate contamination.
Decades later, the farm, which now had seven times the number of livestock originally planned, was absorbed into the LFD holding company. Shortly before its sale to the Swiss company, its balance sheet showed a value of almost EUR 24.5 million⁵ in “livestock assets” alone and excluding such tangible assets as land. The fattening farm, meanwhile employing barely anyone from Gladau, now also belonged to the Swiss investor.
As I mentioned, we were in lockdown. Excluding the hospitals, the world seemed to have come to standstill. The brutal working conditions in the meat industry became unexpectedly newsworthy. Weren’t they linked to the just mentioned newspaper story about the sale of a German market leader to a newly founded Swiss company?
The relocation of a company’s headquarters abroad automatically leads to issues relating to labour law. The local legal system does not necessarily require a foreign holding company to have a works council.⁶ And aren’t reduced tax revenues, empty public coffers, the underfunded health system, etc. also consequences of such transactions? Distributional injustice correlates with processes of concentration in agribusiness, with the dependence of rural agriculture on the financial, food and energy industries and their interlinkages. Underlying all this are issues of animal ethics and sustainability.
Bread and meat, the food and energy industries, urbanisation and compete for the same resource: the soil – an ecosystem, habitat and reservoir – whose health is essential for the future of us all.⁷ Whom do we trust to manage it with the necessary respect?
So a project inspired by such a newspaper story could just as well be called Soil Awareness. But the topic of “pigs” is right on our doorsteps, in our shopping baskets, and in the air. In 2022, more than seven million boars, sows and piglets were counted in Lower Saxony. This German land, followed by North Rhine-Westphalia, is Germany’s leader in terms of pork production.⁸ The hinterland of the Sprengel Museum Hannover is particularly affected by the debate on transformation processes in agriculture and the quest for new approaches.
Can the means of art be used to lend impetus to the conversations needed between the farm and society?
Is it possible to put a positive spin on a term like “pig consciousness”, to introduce it as a synonym for attention and mindfulness towards those complex ethical, ecological, economic and social relations that this animal is capable of symbolising?
Reflecting on the present and future of art photography, Jean-François Chevrier wrote in 2020: “The only way out [to avoid the risk of descending into kitsch] is to maintain a commitment to realism that operates through observation, description and reportage [...] when one realises an intention, an attitude or a project”.⁹
In view of the fatigue induced by the flood of “pretty” image data vying for our attention every second, it is necessary to accept Chevrier’s demand for a “commitment to realism”. But this cannot be achieved by reportage or documentary photography alone. In 1930, Bertolt Brecht wrote: “The situation is made so complicated by the fact that less than ever does a simple ‘reproduction of reality’ say anything about reality. [...] ‘Something’ does indeed have to be ‘built up’, something ‘artificial’, something ‘staged’. So it is actually art that is equally necessary.”¹⁰
This is where the project PIG CONSCIOUSNESS takes its cue. It tests the interplay of different artistic practices in socio-analytical processes and discussions. It goes without saying that the recording and playback systems used here are not developed initially for critical contemporary debates. They emerge in industries that, like others, feed on growth, processes of global concentration, resource depletion and distributional injustices. The warlike conflicts accompanying the global interest in rare earths are inscribed in the production and circulation of digital images. Equipped with tools of this kind, an analytical view from the outside is impossible. The recent exhibition Mining Photography: The Ecological Footprint of Image Production¹¹ shown in Hamburg and Vienna made this abundantly clear.
The English term “ocular witness” has been deliberately chosen. It is introduced here as a designation of witnessing that expands the now seemingly archaic idea of eye-witnessing to include the witnessing of imaging processes. Inscribed in it is the awareness that exhibition venues are dependent on funds generated in markets whose ethical standards are rarely transparent. There is no “outside” to this resource-depleting capitalism. The art world cannot offer this either. The question remains as to what it can offer nonetheless.
Positions, Works, Contexts
ocular witness: PIG CONSCIOUSNESS is a multi-voice research and exhibition project using the means of art. Mindful of the risk of using this animal again, the relationship of humankind to itself and to the world is up for discussion here on the basis of its relationship to the pig. Since the capacity of art is to pose questions in poetic persistence or to be this question itself, answers should not be expected.
ocular witness: PIG CONSCIOUSNESS cannot even begin to fully explore the complex of themes that opens up here, even in view of diverse cultural frames of reference. The project is therefore limited to a few key aspects. Participants were invited with a view to embedding possible themes in previous work contexts. In addition, some of those involved contribute relevant previous experience – as biologists, food and meat sellers, sociologists, cooks, or teachers on the landscape and bees. In view of the origins of the labour force in the meat industry and the most important exporting nations, viewpoints from Eastern Europe and Asia are explicitly included. The majority of the works presented here have been produced specifically for this project. As for the final interplay, this was mostly preceded by a request to work on a specific aspect of the topic.
¹ As, for instance, in the works of the Taring Padi group at documenta fifteen, Kassel 2022.
² Christien Meindertsma, PIG 05049. Tracing and charting all the products made from a single commercial pig, Rotterdam 2008. The publication commended with the Dutch Design Award provides an encyclopedic review of 185 products derived from the pig, each depicted on a double-page spread.
³ Eckehard Niemann, “Die verschwiegene Agrarindustrialisierung. Über die Zunahme von Grossagrariern und Agrarfabriken”, in: Kritischer Agrarbericht 2010, p. 46–50, https://kritischer-agrarbericht.de/fileadmin/Daten-KAB/KAB-2010/Niemann.pdf (retrieved: 1.5.2022).
⁴ Amelie Ruhsamer, LFD-Holding, “Verkauf an Investor abgewickelt”, in: Agrar Heute, 20.3.2020, https://www.agrarheute.com/tier/schwein/lfd-holding-verkauf-investor-abgewickelt-566432 (retrieved: 1.5.2023).
⁵ “Konzernabschluss zum Geschäftsjahr vom 1. Januar 2020 bis zum 31. Dezember 2020 der LFD Holding GmbH, Genthin”, in: Bundesanzeiger, 7.7.2022, https://www.unternehmensregister.de/ureg/result.html;jsessionid=8162132F9B27B8DE4E0918F2BA20707B.web01-1 (retrieved: 3.1.2023).
⁶ “Wie Firmen die Mitbestimmung aushebeln”, in: Böckler Impuls 06/2016, https://www.boeckler.de/de/boecklerimpuls-wie-firmen-die-mitbestimmung-aushebeln-7572.htm (retrieved: 25.4.2023), with thanks to Christoph Trautvetter, Netzwerk Steuergerechtigkeit (https://www.netzwerk-steuergerechtigkeit.de/).
⁸ https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/28795/umfrage/schweinebestand-in-deutschland/ (retrieved:5.5.2023).
⁹ Jean-François Chevrier, untitled (statement to mark the 150th issue of Camera Austria), in: Camera Austria International, 40th year, issue 150/51, 2020, p. 69.
¹⁰ Bertolt Brecht, “Der Dreigroschenprozess. Ein soziologisches Experiment”, 1930, in: ders., Werke. Grosse kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe, edited by Werner Hecht inter alia, vol. 21, Berlin 1992, pp. 448–515, here p. 469. With thanks to Stefan Siegel for the reference in Keinerlei Ansicht? Industriefotografie und Kulturindustrie bei Bertolt Brecht, https://journals.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/index.php/kb/article/download/91662/86347 (retrieved: 1.5.2023).
¹¹ The exhibition was on show at the Museum für Kunst & Gewerbe in Hamburg from 15 July to 31 October 2022 and at the Kunsthaus Wien from 9 March to 29 May 2023.