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.
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.
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.
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.
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.