WILLIAMSTOWN -- Pity the poor pangolin, in these desperately troubling times. It might not shoulder quite the blame of its tiny bat cousin for the coronavirus calamity still very much in progress (PSA: WEAR A MASK). But as a harbinger of our current doomsday scenario, its bad PR has gone from miserable to apocalyptic. (Researchers believe the original SARS virus was pangolin-borne.) So what does Lin May Saeed mean to say with her white-as-snow polystyrene pangolin sculpture, poised helpless and forlorn at the Clark Art Institute’s brand-new survey of her work? I don’t know, but it conjured up more sympathy than antipathy from me. If we’d been more broadly inclined to see it (and the bat, of course) as a sensitive creature able to experience fear, love, and pain — rather than, say, lunch — maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess? And I don’t mean this as an indictment of the carnivorous preferences of non-Western cultures; as the main consumer of the 70 billion food animals slaughtered on the planet every year, we in the United States are in no position to judge.
In any case, the sympathetic pangolin is hardly the first hint of whose side Saeed is on. The show opens with a set of drawings of the animal kingdom from the Clark’s European collection (Dürer, Snyders, Delacroix) that hit just the tone you expect: If not predatory or heroic, then destined for the dinner table. Saeed, with her wildly inventive bas-relief technique — a lot of hand-carved polystyrene, tinted with inks and paint — proposes a third way: A kind of interspecies solidarity, with the hope of salvation for all.
I admit, it sounds a bit nutty. But if you’ve got a better idea, feel free to speak up. The wreckage of human dominance piles up, bigger and uglier all the time. Saeed’s animal kingdoms have the warm, handcrafted glow of a cartoon utopia. At least one is gorgeous: The ravishing “Panther Relief,” from 2017, with various felines prowling a peaceful cityscape swallowed by overgrowth. “Hawr al-Hammar/Hammar Marshes,” from 2020, feels like a precursor, even though Saeed created it later; its marshes are all but swamped by the sea, with only animal heads visible above the water. In Saeed’s vision of the future, there’s room for redemption; though the way things are going, that clock’s running out.
She practices what she preaches. In his notes for the catalog, curator Robert Wiesenberger recounts a visit to the artist’s Berlin studio, which she shares with a pair of enormous bunnies. He makes the point that Saeed doesn’t see them as pets but as roommates. “Saeed doesn’t own [them],” he writes, “distancing herself from the question of captivity. Rather, they live with her.”
Saeed, whose father emigrated from Iraq and whose mother is German-Jewish, might, in Germany, have been destined for a less-than-typical life. Otherness, Wiesenberger told me, comes naturally to Saeed, a second-generation hybrid of immigrant and native-born German in a country where tolerance is famously frictive (just like here). Why wouldn’t she choose animals, when humanity is complicated at best? And at worst — well, look around.
Even so, Saeed’s works are deeply fantastical meditations of hope. It takes a deep well of optimism to draw something positive from the bottomless history of human abuse of the animal kingdom — her work is steeped in research, from the philosophies of animal ethics to the history of the animal liberation movement, as well as animal depictions throughout art history — but there’s also spare beauty in her intricate, humble compositions.
One of the totemic tales that binds Saeed to a larger history is St. Jerome and the Lion, in which the holy man brings about interspecies solidarity by plucking a thorn from the great cat’s paw when it yields its attack, too injured to swallow him whole. (They lived happily ever after, according to early-Christian legend: “(H)e abode ever after as a tame beast with them.”) An earlier piece here captures the story literally as an iron-welded gate (unpredictable, Saeed is; more reason to like her). It’s a slightly hackneyed metaphor, maybe, but the idea of a shopworn tale becoming a portal waiting to swing open to a different kind of interspecies engagement fits the artist’s gently endearing agenda. Her work is about possibility, not condemnation, the hope that a balance can be reset.
A brand-new piece, made just for this show, is the fullest expression of her seductively sympathetic worldview: A group of figures, arrayed Last Supper-like, on a dark plinth. She calls it “Seven Sleepers,” a cluster of semi-humans and animals cobbled together on blackened earth. They have the look of a council of wise and ancient idols; among them are howling creatures and bones polished bare. What have we awakened, you might wonder, to bring about such judgment? Really, do we need to ask? A better question, and one Saeed seems to be asking: Isn’t it well past time to align ourselves with the natural order, to be found worthy?
Lin May Saeed: “Arrival of the Animals.” Through Oct. 25. Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown. 413-458 2303, www.clarkart.edu