You look in disbelief. Are you really seeing what you think you are? It is a woman, nose to snout, skin to skin, nude, with hundreds of 500-pound pigs grown in an industrial farming barn. Yet there is a strange beauty about the scene, a sense of oneness between the pigs and the woman. The sight is spectacularly surreal; it's something that seems impossible – but why? Apart from the nudity, it is the conditions the pigs are kept in that jar. The realization that they are sentient beings – animals, yes, but not so different from ourselves.
Perhaps the sense of oneness is at the heart of what artist Miru Kim is doing by placing herself in the midst of the pigs, in her series, "The Pig That Therefore I Am". It's a reminder that we share many things: we and other animals bleed, feel, even have similar body parts. That questioning of how we treat these animals even as we use them to sustain ourselves is necessary.
Discussing the pigs' conditions Miru told us: "These industrial environments are so desensitizing in that you, even if you are an animal lover, become complaisantly accepting of the fact that the live beings are only raw materials for mass commodity production. This needs some serious questioning."
How better to get a sense of the animal than through skin. Skin is a medium; it encloses us and is the barrier to the outside world.
The pig that therefore I am
As Miru puts it: "Through the sensations of skin on skin, living bodies in the external world are formed, in relation to the self. When two bodies come in contact–each of them touching and being touched at the same time–the souls meet and interweave on the skin, and the subject and the object become one."
More than a barrier, the point at which the skin meets the world is a merging point. You can't consciously feel the world without its stimuli touching skin first to send signals to your brain. Pigs have skin too; in fact it is so like humans skin that it is often used for skin grafts when taking a graft from the person's own body is impossible.
Pig collagen is used in collagen extracts, and porcine heart valves are used to replace human ones. One day in the near future it is likely that there will be a possibility of xenotransplantation – inter-species transplants of organs – and the pig is the animal most likely to be used for such procedures as it is so close to us biologically.
This closeness between humans and pigs is not so unusual when you start to think about it. As suggested, our skin is almost the same, and touching it, being near it while nude yourself, blurs and extinguishes the barriers.
As Miru says: "As I lay down next to a sow weighing five hundred pounds, I felt the warmth travel from the soft underbelly of the animal into my bare right thigh. Two bodies mingled momentarily, in the skin on skin contact. I could no longer reason whether I was feeling the pig's abdomen on my thigh, or the pig was feeling my thigh on her abdomen. The line between the subject and the object were obscured, and two souls mingled on the plane of contact."
Pigs have been important to us for millennia as food. In Central Asia and China it is believed that domestication occurred independently, but both approximately 10,000 years ago. Archaeology has shown that the earliest Chinese character for "home" was a pig with a roof over it. In Anglo-Saxon society we also saw the importance of an animal as part of the home, with the "chicken in every pot" metaphor.
Pigs used to be respected as integral parts of our lives but now are often forgotten, just seen as saran-wrapped pieces in the grocer's fridge that bear little relation to the actual animal itself. Many don't want to think about the fact that such products even came from an animal, let alone about how that animal was raised.
Somehow, in 200 years, we have lost that relationship in which animals may have been destined to be food but were nonetheless treated as beings important to us. Rene Descartes, the famous philosopher, described pigs and other animals as moving machines unable to reason or even feel pain. However, for most at least there was a modicum of understanding that they were animals! Yet now, as Miru points out in her artist's statement: "The 17th century model of animals as machines has been remarkably surpassed in the last century: animals as profit-generating raw materials for commodity production in mass quantities."
Talking about her unique experience, Miru says: "I walked along the corridor of the standard-sized barn containing about twenty-four hundred hogs. Soon they came back up to the fence and started to poke their noses in curiosity. They had seen a new visitor and proceeded to examine her. Pig eyes are remarkable. They see right into the eyes of a human being. When they were looking at me, exposed before them, surrounded by them, I could not read their gazes, but they were somehow shockingly familiar. There was no language to bridge that disparity – the mysterious gap between the gaze of a pig and that of mine. But when I mingled with them with my skin, the gap momentarily closed in, as if I had forgotten my own language. My words were lost, and I felt the swinish grunts resonate inside me."
Industrial meat production is simply growing pigs as if they were beans in a greenhouse. They are not allowed to go outside, and with the use of farrowing crates, which thank goodness have been banned in the UK, they are given very little room to move around at all (and gain weight more quickly that way). Heat is maintained at a temperature that stops them having to use energy to keep warm, and rations are put out in metered doses until the pigs are ready for the slaughterhouse.
Have you ever thought of the conditions your food was kept in before slaughter? Yet, there is some hope. Rejecting the raw material, commodity production model of 'farming', there are some farmers, individualists, who keep their animals as happy as possible, allowing them to forage and otherwise live a good pig's life. The animals' ultimate fate might be the same, but they have a happy life with the best of care, as opposed to the conditions of the industrial meat growing barns. Often antibiotic-free meat can be a clue as to the type of farming used to rear the animals with antibiotics needing to be used preemptively in the barns because in such close quarters disease can spread like wildfire.
We are a population of 7 billion people, and 1.2 billion pigs are slaughtered every year. It used to be an intimate relationship between human and pig, with either the homeowner slaughtering the pig in the fall himself or the same being done by the small farmer, who cared for his animals and knew them by their grunts – sending them to market, knowing he had done the best he could for his animals during their life. Now it's a factory line process. There is no connection between food animals and the people who eat them or raise them.
Miru's work isn't meant to give a definitive statement, rather it's meant to raise questions. As she told use: "The images are meant to be poetic and open-ended for many interpretations. I would like for my images to evoke a visceral reaction from the viewers about the spaces (and creatures) that are usually forgotten from their daily lives."
"I went into these massive industrial hog farms and really felt with my entire body and skin how these environments were. The naked figure (I) in the photos gives an emotional focal point that directly relates to the viewer’s body. I am throwing a question for people to think about, rather than giving an answer or a definitive message. Where does your breakfast sausage come from? Have you interacted with a pig? What happened to our connection with animals in the last two hundred years?" asks Miru.
Miru raises excellent questions, all deserving of thought. These images bring us closer to what we eat and how we get it, raising much needed awareness.
You can visit the Miru Kim's website here. Or, if you're in New York City between March 24th and April 23rd, 2011, you can see her work at the Doosan Gallery, 533 West 25th Street. There is an opening reception on the 24th march from 6:30 to 8:00 pm.