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‘The Pig That Therefore I Am’: Visual art and animal activism

Miru Kim’s photography series 'The Pig That Therefore I Am' illuminates the hidden animal practices from which everyday consumers are distanced, just as animal rights activists attempt to expose animal practices to a larger audience. Kim’s work, along with several others, mirrors the work of animal rights activists as they bring to light typically invisible animal practices, subvert typical power relations regarding 'the gaze', and shift symbolic boundaries between humans and animals.

ELIZABETH CHERRY: How does visual art affect the work of social movements? In her photography series “The Pig That Therefore I Am,” artist Miru Kim photographs her nude body alongside pigs in factory farms and in farm sanctuaries. Kim explains the intention of her photographs is to explore the linkages between inner and outer worlds through an exploration of skin, but we can also understand her work as interrogating industrial animal agriculture practices and, ultimately, the human–animal divide… Kim’s work, and several other visual artists’ work, mirrors the work of animal rights activists as they bring to light typically invisible animal practices, subvert typical power relations regarding “the gaze,” and shift symbolic boundaries between humans and animals.

To better understand my arguments in this article, I recommend readers first view Kim’s exhibit, which is available in its entirety on her website ( I reference several of her photographs in this article to illustrate my argument… I show how visual art depicting animals, especially photographs of pigs on industrialized factory farms, challenges the invisibility of modern animal practices. Just as 19th-century abbatoirs became banned from Paris’s city center, so too the 21st-century hog farm is hidden from everyday citizens and consumers. However, these animal practices are under constant surveillance by farmers, all but one of whom refused to allow Kim access to their hog farms…

Kim makes visible these previously invisible animal practices through her photography. In doing so, she also evokes a complicated version of the gaze. Thus while Kim’s photography attacks the human–animal boundary, it may also reinscribe other power dynamics… Visual art plays a role in the symbolic reversals and boundary work of activists. Animal practices help create and sustain the human–animal and nature–culture divides. Colonizers previously used animal practices to racialize and dehumanize particular cultural groups. But in contemporary, postcolonial times, dominant groups use the animal practices of oppressed cultural groups to racialize and differentiate those groups… Kim’s work inversely posits “civilized first-world” animal practices as cruel and inhuman.

By making the invisible visible, and by highlighting symbolic boundaries between humans and animals,… visual art plays a significant role in viewers’ initial awareness of and potential mobilization into the animal rights movement… Visual art has long been a tool for, and a target of, the animal rights movement. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have critiqued Tom Otterness, an artist who, in 1977, took a shelter dog, tied him to a fence, and shot and killed him for a film called Shot Dog Film. Instead, animal rights organizations often endorse artists who create work explicitly for animal rights purposes. For example, Farm Sanctuary sells copies of Sue Coe’s art books in their web store. In his book Artist|Animal, art historian Steve Baker analyzes the work of three visual artists who declare they make art explicitly for animal rights purposes: Sue Coe, Britta Jaschinski, and Angela Singer. However, these artists know that their art is one part of many messages people receive about animal issues and that their messages may not always come across the first time: “Do many of them get the animal rights message? Some do, some don’t,” Singer says. These artists question the extent to which their explicitly pro-animal rights messages reach their audiences…

Miru Kim’s photography series “The Pig That Therefore I Am” demonstrates several ways in which visual art plays a role in the animal rights movement. In her photographs inside factory farms, Kim illuminates the hidden animal practices from which everyday consumers are distanced, just as animal rights activists attempt to expose animal practices to a larger audience. Kim’s photographs also encourage viewers to contemplate the similarities between pigs and humans, thus blurring the boundaries between pigs and humans, as animal rights activists attempt to do in their work…

Animal rights activists and scholars see anthropomorphism as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can bring humans closer to nonhuman animals. In Kim’s photographs, one sees the close physical proximity of Kim’s body and pigs’ bodies, and in her artist’s statement, one reads her explanation of wanting to explore the physiological and ontological similarities between humans and pigs. In doing so, Kim deftly avoids anthropomorphizing animals as she does not attribute human form, activities and attributes, or intentionality to pigs. But on the other hand, as Tyler notes, the danger of expressing interest in human–animal similarities is that one erases what is unique and special about humans—as well as animals. Kim’s work effectively avoids this as she wonders aloud about the extent to which her and the pigs’ experiences and bodies can comingle. Kim gets as physically close as possible to the pigs, she explores the internal similarities through the externality of skin, but she will never fully understand the pig’s point of view, nor the pig hers.

Another concern is that of animal agency. To what extent are the pigs partners in her exploration versus objects of her exploration? With visual depictions of nonhuman animals, it is more common to see animal agency attributed in a disingenuous or self-serving way, such as when meat producers use animals as spokespeople for their products, giving the impression that animals agentically offer their bodies for food. Rather, Kim runs into a dilemma similar to animal rights activists who claim to be the “voice for the voiceless.” Animals have a voice, but they speak a different language than us. Kim’s work attempts to move into the more corporeal animal world, emphasizing our similarities in order to break down the human–animal divide.

Perhaps the largest concern for the relationship between visual art and activism would be intentionality, or in this case, the extent to which the artist supports the movement using her or his art. In her artist’s statement, Kim does not mention any desire to engage in animal rights activism. The closest she comes to this is citing the numbers of pigs slaughtered each year in the United States. In her artist talk, Kim clarified to the audience that “I’m not interested in being very political in my work,” and stated that animal rights activists already have horrible images of factory farms. In her introductory letter to hog farmers, which she read at her artist talk, and which she described in an interview, Kim said, “I had to prove that I was not an animal rights activist.” She emphasized that her objective was to beautify spaces typically not considered beautiful by placing the human figure in harsh and unpleasant scenery. She said she became interested in hog farms because urban dwellers have negative images of hog farms, or they simply ignore their existence … This differs greatly from the other artists analyzed in this article, Sue Coe, Isa Leshko, and Dan Piraro, all of whom avowedly support animal rights.

Although Kim broaches similar subjects as Sue Coe, whose drawings depict animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses, Coe is explicitly creating art for animal rights purposes. To the same extent that viewers can react negatively to morally shocking advertisements from animal rights organizations such as PETA, perhaps art that implicitly supports animal rights, such as Kim’s, could work as a complement to art that explicitly supports animal rights, such as Coe’s. We see this in Marie Darrieussecq’s novel Pig Tales: A Novel of Lust and Transformation, where the protagonist engages in a Kafkaesque transformation from a woman into a sow. In this transformation, human readers are compelled to take the point of view of a pig with its first-person perspective. In her analysis of audience reactions to the popular films Plague Dogs and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Loy found the films were “effective in making animal advocacy issues visible by placing them in people’s consciousness.”

By questioning anthropocentrism and human dominance over animals in a popular film format, the films effectively encouraged audiences to consider animal rights issues such as animal experimentation. Thus regardless of artists’ intentions for their work, art that implicitly considers animal issues from an animal rights perspective seems effective in introducing such issues to their audiences. Future research could explore this phenomenon in more detail, as social movements scholars seek to better understand the variables that lead to social movement success. Future research could also compare Kim’s work with the works of other artists working with similar subjects, such as British performance artist Kira O’Reilly and her piece “Falling Asleep with a Pig”…

Kim’s boundary transgression as a wholly positive notion, one that allows humans to become closer to nonhuman animals, with an end goal of mutual understanding and ending human domination over animals. However, this boundary shifting can work to two different ends. On the one hand, it can help activists encourage others to take animals into more consideration… On the other hand, it can permit people to also shift boundaries between animals and machines, allowing for even further human dominance over animals through processes such as biotechnology. Ruth Harrison originally referred to animals in factory farms as “animal machines,” harkening back to Marx’s depiction of factory workers as cogs in a machine. But now, scientists are developing cyborg insects and rats to engage in military reconnaissance and search and rescue missions. SOURCE…


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