We’re gunning for an interview with every artist listed in our Top 100, but this particular one will hold a special place in my personal vault. Miru Kim’s Naked City Spleen series is probably the most audacious of all the art I’ve come across on the inter-tubes. Plus she’s legit enough to have had her own TED talk but she still took the time to give really thorough answers to our questions. Her newest series, The Pig That Therefore I Am, is fascinating in all its aspects, from its visual shock to the thoughts that guided the experiment. Hit the jump as we pick her magnificent brain.
In Miru’s Pig series, she visits an industrial-sized pig farm (not a very easy thing to gain access to) and had photos taken of her interacting with the pigs in their own pens. In her previous series, Naked City Spleen, she took pictures of herself nude to strip her character of all historical and cultural context, giving a sense of timelessness to the forgotten ruins she explores. Her nudity in the latest work draws more attention to the similarities between humanity and swine.
Why pigs? What made you choose them as a subject?
I have been fascinated with pigs ever since college years 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’ digestive system is closer to ours than that of any other animals. Their anatomy is very close to human anatomy. Then I started to look at the relationship between pigs and humans, historical and cultural. Pigs carry so many connotations in different cultures (forbidden in some religions). They also have skin that is closer to human skin, so for visual effects I wanted to photograph “white” pigs (the pink ones are called white pigs), to create an uncanny feeling of proximity between the human and the pig.
How long did spend in the pig pens? Were you at all frightened by them? Pigs can grow to massive sizes and I’m sure their teeth are nothing to be laughed at. What was it like wallowing in their filth with them? Could you compare it to any other experience you’ve had, maybe during your urban exploration adventures?
It was very scary at first. Sometimes they get rowdy and I had to run out of the pen many times. I got bitten also, but luckily only got some bruises. They could have shredded me to pieces in seconds if they wanted to, but they didn’t because, perhaps, they knew that I was not trying to harm them and also that I was as naked and vulnerable as they were. At first, I was timid about where I moved about in the pens. After a while, I started to understand more immediately if a pig was agitated or more laid-back. The filth, which was incredibly concentrated (drastically different from their natural state), was very difficult to bear. The pens have slats on the floor, below which the manure is collected and flushed out to what they call “lagoons,” but the ordure is still caked on the floor, which they are forced to sleep on. Often they try to push their feces out of the pens into the hallways. I had to get into a mind zone where I could forget about what I was stepping and lying on. After the shoots I would pour white vinegar all over me and even used peroxide and toothpaste on my feet. The smells stick to everything that was inside the barns. It’s an intense experience that an average city dweller cannot imagine. The longest shoot I had was about six hours, and the next day I was coughing due to the feces dust inside the barns.
The strange paradox is that I, in my daily life, am quite afraid of dirt and germs. I grew up that way in a very sanitary and neat household. There may be a connection between my previous series and this current series in that I am breaking away from my own character that can be confining in every day life. For example, I grew up as a very timid child, so I would get scared (and still do) to do anything dangerous or forbidden. Breaking away from those extreme fears and taking the initial plunge into doing something difficult that I have the desire to do is a very cathartic and meditative experience.
Your The Pig Therefore I Am series reminded me of this quote by Winston Churchill: “I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.” Thoughts?
Yes, I believe they look at you differently than cats or dogs. I like that quote a lot, because I have experienced being on the equal level with pigs, literally speaking. They were very curious about me. Despite their despicable living arrangement, they weren’t aggressive towards me. They seemed to be wondering if I was also a pig or not. Their eyes are almost as expressive as human eyes, and I found that the most striking feature.
One farmer told me that he was amazed how relatively gentle they were with me because they would bite him very hard often, and really go at the rubber boots (normally worn inside the barns). I tried to put myself in the pigs’ point of view. They had never and would never see a human being on their level, mingling with them, as naked as they were.
What do you think of humanity’s place in the animal kingdom? We are so quick to accentuate the difference between man and beast while we are also obsessed with animals that seem like humans.
In the Western tradition, humans have placed themselves on the top (certainly men), as it is written in the Bible that God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26). This is inherently problematic for me, because this was also written by a man (well, many would argue with that). I tend more towards the Buddhist perspective that all living beings are connected in a circular way via life force, or qi.
Pigs are similar to humans in so many ways, especially in how their flesh reminds us of our nakedness. Any other similarities that stand out to you, besides anatomy?
They are social animals like humans. I noticed that there are dominant characters in groups. They get into fights (although maybe not as much as humans would if they were in the same kind of environment), and also care for each other. Some are more curious than others, and some are more tranquil than others.
You were quoted in the Esquire article as claiming that your Naked City Spleen series wasn’t trying to say express anything in particular. Would you say the same about the Pig Therefore I Am series or is there some sort of idea that you are trying to get across to your audience?
I meant to say that I want to leave the images open-ended for different interpretations. I would say that I keep all my images “poetic” for that reason. However, I write along with my photography, and you can read them on my website. I try to express a more philosophical idea than a political one. The poetic narratives that I’m interested in have a different kind of power to move people than political works. It’s only my personal choice on the kind of art I want to create.
“Everything begins and ends with the mud.” I really liked that line in your series’ statement. Could you elaborate further on this idea?
I did a performance work in Poland for a biennale last September. It was a 6-hour performance in the basement of an abandoned concert hall. I covered myself with cold mud taken from a local pig farm, in front of a video loop of myself interacting with pigs. This action could be seen only through a small hole on a bolted-shut door. It was about my subconscious connection to earth, and the life cycle that happens through the soil. Pigs eat the grains that spring from the soil, and then the grains are digested, giving nourishment to the pigs body, and then the waste matter is secreted onto the soil, which becomes more fertile for more grains. I feel that, with the industrialization and urbanization, people (certainly in developed countries) have lost this kind of direct connection to the soil over the last two centuries. I am also interested in the idea of mud being a combination of two important elements, water and soil. Mud for me is also an analogy of body and soul mingled together rather than separated in a dualistic way.
The idea of skin as a symbol of the boundary between the subjective experience and objective reality delighted me. Is there a story behind where you got this theme?
I became obsessed with the idea of skin about two years ago, after thinking more in depth about people’s relationship to nudity, because of the Naked City Spleen series. Then I started to read about the cultural history and philosophical ideas of skin, and I discovered this wonderful thinker, Michel Serres, and his book on the five senses. The sense of touch is very important for him and I began to expand the ideas of human touch to animals.
Does it ever strike you as funny that you are one of the very few people that has walked around in public naked?
I am not sure about that, because I am never seen naked in public… When I do my shoot it’s only one or two people maximum that see me because I bring them along to desolate places for help with pressing the shutter button, or driving. In the case of the new project, I guess there were thousands of pigs watching me, but only a couple of human beings. Do pigs count as a “public”?
Your art seems to be much more self-aware than usual in terms of the philosophies and ideas it addresses. Any specific thinkers/texts that inspire your work?
These are a few of them:
The Book of Skin by Steven Connor
The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies by Michel Serres
The Animal That Therefore I Am by Jacques Derrida
Why Look at Animals? by John Berger
The Lives of Animals by J. M. Coetzee
Do you keep up with news about Korea? If so, anything that you’ve found particularly interesting recently?
Yes. Naturally, I have been following the news on the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak of livestock in South Korea. 3.3 million pigs have been buried so far, in the last three months. The damages come to about 2.7 billion dollars. This event has brought a lot of attention to the problems in factory farming. People in Korea (well, the world in general) will perhaps become well aware of these problems and move towards organic and free-range farming.
Do you have any idea of what your next project will be about? Or maybe some news to share with your audience besides the showing at Doosan gallery?
There are some projects in mind, but none that I am ready to talk about. I may have another show late this year but I’m still working on it. My focus now is shifting towards performance and writing.