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The Pig That Therefore I Am

Life among swine in our interview with the artist Miru Kim on the eve of her solo show

by Anna Carnick in Culture on 15 March 2011

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Photographer Miru Kim's newest exhibition "The Pig That Therefore I Am" opens next week at NYC's Doosan Gallery. For her latest series, the Korean-born, New York-based artist juxtaposes her own nude body with those of about 300 pigs, exploring the spaces and similarities between humans and animals. Other themes take on the importance of touch in our development and understanding of the world—both the literal and metaphorical connective capabilities of skin—the evolution of pigs' roles, and our relationship to them culturally, particularly since the Industrial Revolution.

By placing herself in their grunting midst, she also examines her existence as an artist—one who wishes to offer up her own skin for others to "see, hear and feel through art, music and poetry. I put my flayed skin on display in the form of a photo."

Kim first came into the spotlight a few years ago with her Naked City Spleen series, which stunningly contrasted her nude figure with the grandness of urban ruins and industrial icons around the globe, such as atop New York's Washington Bridge, inside the crumbling Detroit theater, in the catacombs in France and more.

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Her latest series is, according to Kim, a return to her artistic roots. We had the chance to speak with Kim on the eve of her much-anticipated show.

How exactly was the new series born?

I've been interested in pigs since college when I was a premedical student—we had to dissect a fetal pig to learn about human anatomy. It came to me as a shock that pigs were so physically similar to humans. When I decided to go to art school instead of medical school, I started making paintings of animals, and I found photos of industrial hog farms. Until then I had no idea where most pork comes from. It came as a shock that these huge industrial farms are so hidden and forgotten from people's daily lives while they are regularly ingesting these animal products.

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Then I had an assignment in graduate school to make Photoshop montages, so I experimented with cutting out images of factory farm pigs and pasting them onto urban environments, especially subway tunnels. Then I thought, why not put a live figure instead of making fake images? That's when I started photographing myself in tunnels and abandoned factories, which grew into Naked City Spleen. After this series was established, I decided to go back to pigs, and since I was originally a "stand-in" for an image of a pig, I decided to photograph myself and pigs.

Where exactly was the pig farm, and when did you shoot?

They were upstate New York and Iowa and Missouri. I cannot talk about exact locations because of political and legal reasons. I can say that it was close to impossible to get access to these places. This project really taught me first hand, 'If you are really determined, everything is possible.' It was that difficult. Even just getting the addresses of farms was difficult. I received letters from the department of agriculture in some states saying that I could be a threat to national security, and they could not disclose any information. The pork producer associations were very defensive as well. They did not respond well to my emails and letters and calls. After two months of constant requests, I finally got in touch with some farms and managed to shoot last year in the spring.

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Describe your state of mind while shooting the series. Was it all as you expected?

Pig eyes are remarkable. I find them more human-like than domestic pets like cats and dogs. Eye contact with them was shocking and mysterious, because their looks … were so strange and yet so familiar. The absence of human language between the pig's gaze and mine became almost insignificant when I spent hours in the pens naked. I started to distinguish some different grunts of theirs and feel their emotions on a very physical level because I had temporarily let my guard down as a civilized and rational human being.

There would always be two or three (or more) curious pigs in the group surrounding me, and they would sometimes bite very hard. No pig had the intention of hurting me however. I could tell because I've seen pigs fight and I know they could have killed me in seconds if they wanted to. When they were nibbling on me too much or biting too hard, I would turn to them and express my annoyance just like another pig would, and they shrink back. It was very surprising that a 300-pound animal with so much more strength then I would shrink back at my grunt and hand gestures. With some pigs I had face-to-face interactions that were very gentle. It was apparent that they could somehow read my emotions as well, because the calmer I was the gentler the pigs were.

Have you shown the pig farm owners the images?

They saw them in my camera. One farmer said that he doesn't understand art these days and that someone he knew in art school started shooting photos of his own excrement in the toilet, which he thought was ridiculous. But on the other hand, he said, what I was doing had beauty in it and that he could understand some artistic value although he couldn't tell exactly what it was.

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The new series seems incredibly intimate, especially compared to the grandness of Naked City Spleen. How do you see yourself evolving as an artist?

This series is more about body and the philosophical idea of what it is to be human in relation to animals. In my previous series, the human figure represents a fictional character of a poetic narrative, so the figure is more prominent and singular. In the pig series, the human figure becomes immersed amongst other beings, and the performance aspect becomes even more important. "I" in the title "The Pig That Therefore I Am" not only represents "the artist," but also the philosophical idea of the human being in a larger sense. For me, it's very important to question the dualistic thinking that comes from Descartes' infamous cogito ergo sum. I say that it's not the thinking and reasoning that makes "I" exist. My body is full of life force, or qi, and I could feel the existence of myself more then ever when I lay next to these pigs and mingled with them with my skin.

With the new series, I'm tending more towards philosophical ideas and I feel that this is only the beginning in my artistic career. I want to do more performance work and experiment with other media like video, painting, and installation.

"The Pig That Therefore I Am" opens 24 March and runs through 23 April 2010 at the Doosan Gallery NYC.

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