We have long thought of pigs as dirty, stupid creatures, prone to excess and capable of evil acts (sows sometimes eat their young). Yet, humanity has a complex history of close codependence with them, and a tendency to admire and celebrate certain species and breeds. In her exhibition ‘Death to Pigs’, Ydessa Hendeles presents a series of photographs, artefacts and a video to form a set of complex and contradictory perceptions about how and why swine serve as a metaphor for negative human qualities and marginalized social groups.
The show opens with Nose (2015), a collection of photographs of antique toys of diverse origins: a sterling-silver, key-wind clockwork bell in the form of standing pig (British, 1912); a walking toy covered in pigskin, with glass eyes and serrated wheels (French, c.1890); and a terracotta sow plucked from a Nativity scene (Italian, 18th century). Shot against a blank ground, these figures have been stripped of the nostalgic charm that might ordinarily be ascribed to such keepsakes. Showing alternate profile views, Hendeles’s detailed works seem to have been created to aid physiognomic analysis and archival processing. Such imagery spurs speculation about notions of use and value, particularly in relation to developing a comparative understanding (or ideology) of difference – between species, races and breeds. Also telling here is the presence of mechanical keys, implying that these trinkets, not unlike human beings, may be programmed or trained: we just need to wind them up and watch.
Sometimes, pigs are winners. In Hendeles’s assemblage Prize (2015), hung from steel chains at one end of the gallery, a British naïve school oil painting (c.1860) depicts a farmer with his prized pig. The animal frowns, oblivious to the picturesque surroundings and the honour bestowed upon him. Its expression of displeasure may be intended to convey that these characters are locked in a cycle of animal husbandry which will ultimately culminate in the animal’s death. This untimely demise is reiterated by the artist’s inclusion of an anatomical teaching model of a domestic sow (German, c.1930), set upon a child’s wooden table directly below the picture. Nearby, Mother (2015) includes several photographs – six of the same pig model and one of a ceramic figurine (c.1894) – depicting a scene from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), in which Alice tenderly holds a pig that had once been an unwanted and cruelly mistreated human baby. The photograph of the model includes numbered and diagrammatic data about musculature, organs, bones and other tissues. Here, the animal ceases to be a vessel for sympathy: it now yields bacon and other cuts of pork.
In the assemblage Three Little Pigs (2015), a tiny bronze pig contentedly snoozing on its side is accompanied by a seven-inch LCD screen housed in a steel box, which the viewer must open with a key. Inside, a button triggers sounds of a heartbeat and a cantor reciting a Jewish liturgical song, while a murky death scene plays onscreen: a trio of pigs in a cage struggle to break free as they are lowered into the darkness. Their prison is a gas chamber: they asphyxiate over the course of seconds, which feel like years.
As in all of her projects to date, Hendeles is here a teller of tales, but she is never an indoctrinator. She invites us to wander through installations that, by means of their juxtapositions, force us to re-examine the mythologies we develop around animals and cultural artefacts. Her aim is not to elaborate on the original contexts of these objects and images, but to combine them in ways that encourage a certain interpretive agency, a mode of viewership that is prone to unexpected insights.