Lin May Saeed

1 I Lin May Saeed, Teneen Albaher Relief / Sea Dragon Relief IV (V2), 2018 Styrofoam, steel, acrylic paint 37 x 52 x 17 cm, Photo: Wolfgang Günzel, courtesy Jacky Strenz, Frankfurt and the artist

In Paradise, the Snowflakes Fall Slowly. A Dialogue with Renée Sintenis

For twenty years now, Berlin-based artist Lin May Saeed has been working on animal life and the relationships between animals and human beings. With a thoroughly artistic approach, a great deal of empathy, and a broad knowledge of fairy tales and fables, but also with humour, she tells old and new tales of the subjection and liberation of animals and their life together with human beings. With her sculptures, reliefs, metal works, spatially expansive silhouettes, and drawings, the German-Iraqi artist creates a new iconography of solidarity and coexistence between species. For her first solo museum exhibition in Germany at Georg Kolbe Museum, Lin May Saeed enters into an artistic dialogue with works by Renée Sintenis (1888—1965). During her time, this key sculptor of Berlin modernism also sought a language and way of representing the essence and aura of animal creatures and celebrated her breakthrough in the 1920s with small format animal sculptures: Saeed selected several of these works for this exhibition.


2 I Lin May Saeed, Mureen / Lion School, 2016 Styrofoam, acrylic paint, steel, plaster, wood, The New Institute

The relief plays an important role in Lin May Saeed’s works. This intermediate art form between sculpture and painting, surface and space can be found throughout her entire oeuvre. The relief ›Mureenb/Lion School‹ is divided into two levels. The upper one shows a lioness who holds a conversation in Arabic with the lioness on the level below with the poetic sentence »In paradise, the snowflakes flow slowly« and was the inspiration for the title of the exhibition. The artist repeatedly uses Arabic writing in her works as a reference to the family of her father, who came from Iraq. In its division, the work recalls ancient forms and representations, as for example the Uruk Vase, one of the earliest artworks using reliefs from old Mesopotamia, dating back to the 4th century BCE. The Sumerian cities of Ur, Uruk und Eridu were located on the edges of the Hamar Marshes, cradles of human civilization and the inspiration for tales of the paradisical Garden of Eden. In a collaboration with the Vorderasiatisches Museum, the collection of which contains the Uruk Vase, the Georg Kolbe Museum will be holding tours on the subject right before Pergamon-Museum closes for the years to come.

3 I Lin May Saeed, Pangolin, 2020 Styrofoam, steel, plaster, acrylic paint, wood 136 x 106 x 37 cm, Photo: The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, USA, courtesy Jacky Strenz, Frankfurt and the artist

Lin May Saeed was working on her pangolin sculpture at the end of 2019; it was to be presented at an exhibition in the U.S. in 2020. The pangolin is one of the most hunted and thus endangered animals and came to unfortunate fame during the course of the coronavirus pandemic. The sculpture is made of Styrofoam, an artificial material that is not biodegradable and Lin May Saeed’s preferred material in her work. In the distant future, bronze or marble won’t provide testimony of human creation as sculptural material, since they decay. Styrofoam, in contrast, remains intact and not only serves the artist as a warning about the impact of humanity on the environment, but also represents an emancipatory material that is easy to work on without great physical force. The narrow boxes in which her sculptures are hung for transportation and storage, recall cages, which then can be retooled into pedestals for exhibition purposes.

4 I Lin May Saeed, Bee Relief / The Liberation of Animal from their Cages VII, 2018 Relief, styrofoam, acrylic paint, steel, transparent paper, wood 135 x 179,5 x 22 cm, private collection

In her work, Lin May Saeed explores the deep-seated conflict in the power relations between human beings and animals. But with empathy and empathetic actions, she brings hope to this conflict. Lin May Saeed thus creates an almost utopian future space of coexistence between the species in our increasingly unstable reality of the Anthropocene. ›Bee Relief‹ is part of her long-term series on the liberation of animals: here a human being is represented, who goes down on their knees in a kind of prayer after the act of liberation. The well-being of bees is an important indicator when it comes to the state of the environment. Bees react to the most minimal changes in their environment and the worldwide collapse of bee populations that began a few decades ago is a key warning in this direction.

5 I Lin May Saeed, Seven Sleepers, 2020 Sculpture group with 7 figures, 215 x 450 x 100 cm, installation photo: The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, USA, courtesy Jacky Strenz, Frankfurt and the artist

The group sculpture ›Seven Sleepers‹ was originally created as a site-specific work for Lin May Saeed’s exhibition at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The seven figures have human but also non-human traits. In the second figure from the left, a dog can be recognized, and its pose reflects the posture of Renée Sintenis’ sculpture ›Trümmerhund‹ (Dog in the Ruins) from 1946. The scene refers to the story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, which has its origins in both the Christian and Islamic traditions: it tells the story of seven men who sleep in a cave for centuries to avoid religious persecution. If the tale already contains intercultural and interreligious content, the artist now adds an inter-species perspective, by not depicting the dog separately as suggested by the version of the story in the Koran, but as an integral part of the Seven Sleepers.


6 I Lin May Saeed, Cambrian Relief, 2016, courtesy Jacky Strenz, Frankfurt/Main and the artist

The relief shows animals from the Cambrian period, a period of geological history 500 million years ago. This period is also known as the Cambrian Explosion, because enormous evolutionary progress took place during this relatively brief period, resulting in most of the major animal phyla known today. Mild temperatures and a high oxygen content in the water provided optimal living conditions. Life emerged around deep-sea vents also known as ›black smokers‹, volcanic phenomena in the ocean that can build up into narrow columns and release hot water, as depicted on the righthand side of the picture. Also visible are the primitive animals Anomalocaris, Opabinia, Wiwaxia or the prickly animals Lin May Saeed makes using metal, the Halucigenia. The written panels refer to learning aids and displays used in schools and natural museums. But instead of being in German or Latin, they are written in Arabic, which positions the artist herself as a learner, since she first learned Arabic as an adult.


7 I Lin May Saeed, Invoice, 2009, courtesy Jacky Strenz, Frankfurt/Main and the artist

Over the past century, the social image of the animal has changed dramatically. The animal liberation movement, which emerged in the 1970s and influences May Saeed’s approach, massive species extinction, or the roles of industrialized animal farming in the advancement of climate change, make clear the new relevance and urgency in our perception and our approach to other living things. Here, Lin May Saeed has created an artificial invoice purportedly issued to her by Nestlé for her water use in the year 2029. In it, she is charged for her use of fictitious Nestlé products for the month of March, satirizing the actual products of the global food conglomerate, such as its ›Pure Life‹ bottled water. Nestlé has long been embroiled in controversy for its aggressive and damaging water extraction practices and their impact on the communities and environments where this takes place. The 2012 documentary ›Bottled Life‹ drew attention to this highly-profitable business model.

8 I The Liberation of Animals from their Cages XXI/Lobster, 2018 Steel, lacquer 194 x 110 cm x 8 cm, Photo: Andy Keate, courtesy Jacky Strenz, Frankfurt/Main and the artist

The steel door ›Liberation of Animals from their Cages XXI / Lobster‹ is from 2018 and also forms part of Lin May Saeed’s ongoing liberation series. Unlike other scenes from the series where animals are freed by human allies, the lobster has tools to free itself, cutting the metal grid with its shears. The lobster resembles Anomalocaris, the predator from the ›Cambrian Relief‹, though the iconography of the lobster today is defined by the fact that it is seen as a delicacy of a bourgeois lifestyle. The work is also a sort of a smooth transition from the previous exhibition at the museum about the actress and Berlin legend Tilla Durieux, who played an iconic role in the one-person play ›Langusten‹.

9 I Lin May Saeed, Zenon im Boot, 2005, courtesy Jacky Strenz, Frankfurt/Main and the artist

The oldest work in the exhibition depicts the Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea, who is best known for his writings on paradoxes. The most famous of these, the paradox of motion, proposes that no movement is possible. Zeno argues that a moving object can never reach its goal in a finite period of time, since there are an infinite number of points along the way. While it is a theoretically sound proposition, it is today considered disproved. In this work, Zeno is rendered as something of a paradox himself. Zeno lies in a shell-like rowboat, wearing a bikini, with a cat balancing on their knee. Although appearing to be male, the bikini and the way the figure is posed like a classical female model unsettles binary gender assignments. Lin May Saeed describes Zeno as »more of a troublemaker than a philosopher«, and is a subject she has often depicted. For her, Zeno would serve as an ideal patron saint for figurative sculpture, as sculptures too must infinitely stand still.


10 I Hawr al-Hammar/Hammar Marshes, 2020 Cardboard, paper, wood, fluorescent lights 260 x 508 x 50 cm, Photo: The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, USA, courtesy Jacky Strenz, Frankfurt/Main and the artist

Located in Southern Iraq, the Hammar Marshes, or Hawr al-Hammar Ḥammār (هور الحمّار) in Arabic, are one of the world’s most important wetland systems and are widely thought to have been the cradle of Mesopotamia, and thus human civilization, as well as the inspiration for the biblical narrative of the Garden of Eden. Despite their idyllic appearance in this silhouette, the marshes have long been a site of conflict. They were drained by the Iraqi government in the 1990s in an attempt to flush out rebel opposition. Since the early 2000s, attempts have been made to revive this unique eco-system, which has been a listed UNESCO world heritage site since 2016. In this silhouette work, the marshlands are shown almost overflowing with water, with the cattle, birds, and fish having returned. The traditional architecture, built by inhabitants using local straw, stand strong in the landscape, highlighting the area as site of cohabitation and cooperation between human and non-human animals. Lin May Saeed was highly influenced by pioneering animation filmmaker Lotte Reiniger (1899—1981), who used silhouettes as her central aesthetic language.

11 I Renée Sintenis Knieendes Reh, 1915 7.6 cm, Photo: Markus Hilbich Georg Kolbe Museum, Inventar Nr: P 187

Renée Sintenis (born in Glatz, 1888–died in West Berlin, 1965) was one of the most famous and successful Berlin sculptors during the Weimar Republic. In 1915, she exhibited her work for the first time at the Berlin Secession and in the 1920s was omnipresent in Berlin’s art world and society. In 1931, she was one of the first women inducted into the Prussian Academy of Arts. In 1934, she was forced to resign by the Nazis and after the war was named one of the first women professors at Berlin’s Hochschule der Künste. Sintenis was known for her animal sculptures: the Berlinale Bear, still awarded each year at the film festival, is based on her design. Georg Kolbe Museum houses part of her estate and important works by the artist, and parts of her photograph archive. The Kneeling Deer from the collection of Georg Kolbe Museum was chosen by Lin May Saeed for the exhibition.