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Pig tales

This post is also available in: German

Going beyond ‘from nose to tail’: In his project ‘Animal on Stage’ Viennese artist Johannes Rass takes us through all steps of the incarnation of a pig, the process from a living being to a piece of meat. Together with film director Daniel Leskowscheck we followed his reconstruction of a thought construction, facing the essential question: Can we look our food in the face?

Disclaimer: The following descriptions and pictures show a slaughtering as well as the gutting, preparation and reassembling of a pig in all clarity. This may be disturbing for some readers. We want to offer those who want to take a closer look the opportunity to deal with the topic by sharing our experience. However, we cannot rule out a certain subjective colouring of the narratives. The entire pig was processed and consumed as part of the project.

Act I: Under deconstruction

It’s a surprisingly crisp morning in May. The air is soaked with the freshness of last night’s rain. With every step, the wet ground sticks to the soles of our shoes. After a short drive we are in the outskirts of Vienna, where Oliver Geißbüchler’s farm is located on a hill. All around us, the landscape is brimming with spring-like, rich green. Some birds are chirping, hidden in leafy treetops. I take a deep breath, fill my lungs with the humid air. The time has come: We are here with artist Johannes Rass, film director Daniel Leskowscheck and his camera crew to experience the death of an animal.

Act I, Scene I: The End.

The door to the stable opens. Enter Pig.

A curiously twitching snout, bright eyes. It looks so innocent, the prototype of a young pig: baby pink and clean. Oliver steps out of the stable, into the drizzling rain. Photographer Johnny and I have asked to accompany him, or rather the pig on its last path. Oliver’s hand is hovering over the lower back of the animal, rhythmically drumming his fingertips on its skin. The pig is walking in front of us freely. “It’s relaxed”, Oliver reassures us. So much so that it stops to nibble on a bit of grass in the driveway. We stay back a bit, so we don’t stress the animal as it trots up the final curve of the hill to the slaughter room, right past the camera crew cowering under umbrellas without paying them any attention. As it reaches the entrance to the slaughter room, it starts sniffing the ground. Can it tell that a few minutes ago another animal lay here, died here? It continues to sniff without showing any reaction. Oliver steps aside, reaches for a type of tongs which looks like a pair of hedge trimmers. It’s about to happen. “There is a lot of life inside the animal. It takes a while until it leaves its body”, I recall Johannes’ words from our car ride to the farm.

The pig raises its eyes for a moment before Oliver grabs its head with the pliers. It immediately becomes stiff, tilting to the side as if in slow motion, while also stretching its legs away from its body with a strange, almost noble elegance. I can see the electric current rushing through its body in waves. Like an orgasm, I think, simultaneously surprised by the association. Is that why it’s called la petite morte, the little death?

The pig doesn’t quiver, every fiber of the body is tense. Its eyes are glowing ruby red. Or am I mistaken? I draw my breath in sharply. Eventually, the limbs lose their rigidity, the legs slowly swaying towards the ground. Oliver gently lets the stunned animal down, puts the pliers aside. Only now does it start twitching, the ears trembling, a front leg scraping in the air, a rear trotter kicking. It looks as if it’s about to start running, grunting audibly. All body parts are in motion, uncoordinated and clumsy.

Oliver is standing next to the stunned pig again, holding a knife. In a single smooth movement he cuts through the main artery, holding the foreleg and pushing a small bucket closer to catch the dark blood. The pig grunts and trembles again. But why can I suddenly hear a creek? There’s a short moment of bewilderment before I realize that the gushing blood is pouring into the bucket. Seemingly guided by the eternal metronome of the birds’ chirping, Oliver lifts the front leg of the pig, pumping the black blood out of the cut on the neck. The pig has gone calm. 

Only now do I realize that I’ve been holding Johnny’s elbow all this time. To support him while taking pictures? Or rather myself? His gaze is questioning, I nod. We remain silent. The whole thing didn’t take five minutes.

Fade.

 Act I, Scene II: Dances with pigs

The curtains open. We are at the back of the slaughter room. Diffused lighting.

The front trotters crossed as if in reverence, the pig is lying on its back in a metal troth. Milky steam is rising from this silver coffin as Oliver bathes the pale body with boiling hot water. He is turning the body using chains, running them along its body. There is the clunking sound of metal hitting metal, the chains rattle. Swish, swish, swish! In this first step, the skin and hair are removed. Oliver is getting rid of the last remainders using bell-shaped razors. The water in the troth is wallowing. He’s not wearing any gloves, I realize. As if they were dancing, Oliver grabs hold of the front trotter of the pig, waxen and dull against his own sun-tanned skin.

The hind legs suspended on meat hooks, the pig is pulled out of the troth, its head dangling above the ground. It is swaying gently, the dark red puddle growing underneath it like a sinister shadow. Oliver scorches it from top to bottom using a kind of blow torch. Water is still evaporating from its pale skin. Shining in through the window, the dull light of the rainy day wraps this baptism of fire and water in a monochromatic mist.

How much life is there left in the animal? Is it still circulating in its cells? Is it still pumping through its pores? The scent gives away what my eyes cannot perceive: I notice the smell of sausage, of meat. Realization hits me and for the first time in my life, I notice the difference, I can clearly discern how the scent of animal and death are intertwined to something I’m familiar with. Only this time, I can clearly differentiate between both elements within the scent profile for ‘meat’. I might not have seen the moment of death, but I can smell its presence.

Oliver cuts open the abdomen of the animal with a few blows from his axe, revealing it’s red anatomy. With a few skilled tugs he pulls out the blueish intestines, picking the organs out of the corpse as if it were a wardrobe. The skin flaps like a sail in the wind. A few more blows with the axe and the animal has been split in two. There are no more secrets underneath the skin now, no inner or outer life. Just two symmetrical halves of what used to be a pig not so long ago.

Fade.

II. Act: Pig in a poke

A few weeks later on Johannes Rass’ roof top terrace. Viennese artist in his early thirties, from a good family. He places two espresso cups on the table. Every now and then, a few bees fly over from the basil which is growing wild in one of the pots.

II. Act, II. Scene: Pig, pork or animal on stage?

Johannes takes a sip from the cup.

Mia: So when did you actually decide that you wanted to become an artist?

Johannes Rass: My father has always had a knack for collecting paintings and sculptures. I’ve always appreciated that but didn’t actually articulate it for myself. It all started when I came back to Austria from my job in Switzerland and felt bored. At that time, a friend and I both had the idea of putting the pieces of an animal back together again.

Mia: How did that come to be?

Johannes Rass: It started as a silly joke, a long time ago, around the time when I took my Matura (Austrian equivalent to A-Levels). We were sitting together and having some drinks. Oliver had just started his training as a butcher and naturally, we were fascinated, since it’s unusual for an 18 year old to choose that kind of career. He told us about the slaughter and we fooled around, saying: ‘Imagine you take an animal apart, cook the pieces and then put it back together again’. The idea amused us.

Mia: Nevertheless, it took you some years to actually put that idea into practice. What triggered you into doing it?

Johannes Rass: I remember this decisive moment when said friend and I were standing next to a couple in the supermarket. The man wanted to cook something specific but not only did he pick the wrong cut, he also chose the wrong animal. That was crazy! He wanted beef but took a piece of pork, convinced he had gotten what he wanted in the first place.

Mia: Because there are merely anonymous, random slabs of meat at the supermarket counter.

Johannes Rass: Yes, we only get these anonymous packages nowadays and nobody knows what it actually is. There is no more connection whatsoever between the cut and the meat, animal, muscle.

Mia: What was it like when you first put your idea into practice?

Johannes Rass: I realized I needed a frame, so we bought a chicken from the supermarket to experiment. We made the frames from wire and kept fine-tuning until it worked. Then we visited Oliver, slaughtered a chicken and the following day we were back in a kitchen in Vienna, putting it together again.

Mia: How much has the Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch influenced this project?

Johannes Rass: Not at all, actually. The initial idea wasn’t related to art at all: We were just fooling around. I remember asking myself: Is this even art? Do I fit the definition of art with this project? Interestingly, I only started to get involved with art, after I realized that I was getting a lot of response from the artistic scene. Only then, I asked myself: What should I do next? Where does this lead to?

Mia: In other words, ‘Animal on Stage’ is the origin of your artistic activity, your awakening?

Johannes Rass: Actually, it is, in the sense that I’ve found myself in art. I’m not someone who merely plays with food as a project. Instead, I’m creating art.

Mia: Which meaning does the title of the work, ‘Animal on Stage’, have for you?

Johannes Rass: While I was working on the project with the chicken, I wrote an awful lot and that’s when the term ‘Animal on Stage’ first appeared. The animal becomes the stage because I take it as something nude and raw and turn it into something else. It’s about the act of preparation and the effort we put into transforming something, which already exists, into something superior, better and more tasty.

Mia: The way I understood it was that you were alluding to the staging. But to you, the animal isn’t on stage, the animal is in fact the stage.

Johannes Rass: The animal is the stage and in a broader sense I also give the animal a stage. After all, this is a step that usually doesn’t occur: Normally, you take the animal, slaughter it and it is no longer perceived as an animal.

Mia: It is objectified.

Johannes Rass: Exactly, it turns into an object, into meat, an anonymous product. When you go out for dinner and order a Schnitzel, there is not much left of the connection to the initial animal. So, we had this beautiful idea of keeping the process and the deconstruction, but to also reconstruct the animal, to put it up on a stage and to present it to you as an animal again. That’s why I opted for the classic style of product photography for presenting something that no longer exists in that sense.

Mia: Which intensifies the contrast. After all, in the end you are confronted with the completed image of the animal, a living being – or at least, what used to be one.

Johannes Rass: We present it as something styled, staged, to make it more explicit. That is the concept of ‘Animal on Stage’. While I was writing about the preparation, a sentence came up, which started with ‘I turn you into the stage floor’. It refers to the act of preparation, adding something, for example, herbs, seasoning it with salt, crumbing, taking it and improving it. This, the stage floor, is the base, that foundation which I turn into something more.

Mia: This process also takes place on two levels: The culinary preparation on the one hand, and the staging on the other, once we take a step back. In that case, the animal represents the stage floor for your artistic creativity.

Johannes Rass: The first part of the staging, the process of cooking, highlights the absurdity of preparing the meat in order for us to indulge in it. This pleasurable aspect of meat is also essential for the project because I don’t want to take the position of saying eating meat is a bad thing. It’s not my goal to turn this project into a polemic or to politicize it. I want to present it by saying ‘look at it as it is and you can make of it whatever you want’.

Mia: I believe you can follow through with the analogy, saying the animal, your project, simultaneously is the stage or screen for the projections of ideologies. You draw back the curtain, confronting individuals with their own narratives.

Johannes Rass: Exactly. That’s what fascinates me, I find the reactions and opinions regarding it amusing.

Mia: In which way?

Johannes Rass: I find it very intriguing. I’ve always been fascinated by, let’s call it, challenging situations and human constellations. When I realize I’m getting to the core of something, I like to take a closer look.

Act I, Scene II: Frankenswine

Mia: Would you regard that as provocation?


Johannes Rass: Not necessarily. Mere provocation is not satisfying or amusing to me. It makes me feel like I’m putting myself in the limelight, whereas I find the reactions more interesting. For example, there was this one mind-boggling situation. When we presented the project at Marco Simonis’ in front of an audience for the first time, there was a lady standing two metres away from the pig. The absurd thing was that, immediately after we had finished speaking, she asked: “Is it real?” At first, I didn’t understand what she meant until I realized she didn’t recognize it was a real pig. She was convinced the pig was made of plastic and we were only pretending. I honestly never had anticipated that kind of reaction.

Mia: Interesting. So, you are basically going two processes of alienation with the pig, since it turns into a piece of art. The pig, the subject, turns into an object, first by being made into meat, the porc, and then becoming an object of art.

Johannes Rass: Yes, and I was stunned. I really didn’t think it would be so abstract that one can no longer recognize it even when one stands directly in front of it.

Mia: How much did you have to familiarize yourself with the topic of animal welfare and slaughter in this context?

Johannes Rass: I learnt a lot from Oliver, who isn’t just a butcher but also visited an agricultural school from Lower Austria. The process of learning started with the photographs of the chicken. Back then, I didn’t expect it to prove difficult to get one. But you can’t get a chicken out of the production chain. When you go to a big farm, which produces poultry, the process runs automatically, so nobody can take it out – or wants to do so. Of course, nobody wants to show what the chicken looks like before it gets slaughtered. The animal is a literal monster, a huge ball of meat that can no longer move. The problem is that chicken for meat production are completely overbred: They grow so fast, their organism can’t keep up with it. They no longer get satiated and one has to pay attention not to overfeed them. If they get older than they should, some of them can’t walk anymore or there circulation fails them. They simply die.

Mia: Is it important to you to be present at the slaughter?

Johannes Rass: I don’t like this kind of voyeurism, or rather, I see it was something very dangerous. It was essential for me to avoid any staging of the slaughter during the filming. The slaughter is necessary for us to start the project, hence it is part of it.

Mia: What are the reactions outside the art scene regarding the project?

Johannes Rass: Everyone who deals with this topic on a professional level, farmers and vets, is open to the concept and supports the project, since they know which reality we are dealing with. They know, what is going wrong. The consumer isn’t aware of this. Responsible consumers would like to know about it but it’s not that easy to get this kind of information. If I didn’t have Oliver, I wouldn’t know these things myself. This leads us to the point, that a lot is influenced by trade because the industry is not interested in spreading this information. They know about the grievances and the absurdity of it all. For example, big pig farmers, who own thousands of pigs, keep a few pigs following organic rules for their own use. They themselves don’t eat the meat they produce.

Fade.

III. Akt: Behind the scenes

‘I use cooking as a metaphor for culture. Eating means killing and devouring a living being, whether it is an animal or a plant. When we directly eat the slaughtered animal or the picked salad, we are called savages. However, when we marinate the animal in order to later prepare it with some French herbs and some white wine, then we have executed an exquisite cultural act, equally founded on brutality and death.’ (Manuel Vázquez Montalbán)

There are moments in life which make you question how you got there in the first place. For me one of these moments happened in the middle of a dining hall, blinded by the spotlight. I’m holding half a pig’s head in my hands. I can simultaneously see the yellowish row of teeth and the hollows inside the skull, feel the waxen skin of the cheek on the outside. The smell of meat is overwhelming. It briefly comes back to life in front of my inner eye: The quivering snout of the animal just a few days prior, as it stepped out of the stable, tender and full of life. This monster in my hands has nothing in common with it. Disgust and revulsion make my stomach turn. I simply cannot look at it.

And yet, the whole point of the project was about precisely that for me: Taking a close look. For years, I’ve wanted to witness a slaughter and to see for myself, if I could face this reality. For someone, who is fascinated by food, the stories and narratives surrounding it, you can’t avoid the topic of death. Someone like me who eats meat, shouldn’t avoid it.

“I don’t think I can eat it”, I confess to Johnny in one of our breaks from filming. The last step of the project, the grand finale when the sculpture is finished, is the feast. We are going to eat our pig. But I feel that something in me has changed.

The first day of shooting in the kitchen simply flew by, since Johannes had asked me to help him with the preparation of the meat. While the day of the slaughter was fully centered around the act of killing and we were silent, respectful spectators, I was able to lose myself in the details on set: The kitchen, the lighting, the make-up, the different takes and perspectives, the repetition, the timing of every moment, the silence and concentration of all present, our choreography. I felt comfortable marinating the slabs of meat, our outtakes were followed by outbursts of laughter. The theatrical and staged paired with the familiar act of cooking made my heart beat faster. That was artsy, but also artificial.

Putting together the animal on stage, that, which had been a pig, one half raw, the other cooked, now that is another story. The grease is dripping, thorns made of steel plunging into the fibres of the meat. The more this monstrosity takes on form, the more I realize that the pig was more than the sum of its body parts.

Once the animal on stage is completed, the entire crew and guests for the feast gather around it. In the broad daylight and without the dimming curtains it looks more real and surreal at the same time. We’ve reached the end of our journey. While I’m still struggling with myself, asking myself whether I can eat the animal on stage, an unexpected scene unfolds: Some of the guests are taking selfies, kissing the animal on stage on the snout, someone bites off its tail. This ludic drive irritates me. I’m sad this is how the pig ends, as entertainment. That’s not what it died for. But what did it die for after all? To be eaten? And if I don’t eat it, will this sacrifice have been in vain?

I know the meat will taste incredibly good. After all, I’ve seen for myself how the animals are raised on Oliver’s farm. While we accompanied it on its last walk to the slaughter, the pig didn’t show any indications for fear or stress, none of the reactions you see in the countless videos by animal rights activists of shrieking, pitiful animals, battered and trembling, being dragged to their butcher. The entire slaughter, cleaning and cutting up of the pieces took Oliver less than an hour. That seemed like a short amount of time to me; all the more concerning and scary hence the comparison with big farms, where up to 250 [sic!] animals are killed per hour. Don’t I always claim these responsible small farmers need to be supported, along with this way of animal husbandry and respectful slaughter? So why do I feel this inner struggle, resistance?

So, I bring myself to try the pork, our pig. It tastes fantastic, but something is new: I taste a different note, the smell, which I identified as the transition from animal to meat at the slaughter. This impression will repeat itself a few days later at a superb four hands dinner in The Thirsty Heart. Since then, the flavour of death is present for me.

Thanks to the project of ‘Animal on Stage’, I’ve started questioning my personal narrative regarding meat. During the course of writing, I caught myself wanting to write about ‘our’ pig, using ‘paw’ instead of ‘trotters’. I would like to think of myself as a responsible consumer, who eats meat seldomly, buys it on even rarer occasions and out of principle never at the supermarket. But do I really know, where my meat comes from? Is it simply more comfortable to give the responsibility to the butcher or restaurant? Is it easier to order a meat dish at the restaurant because the meat disappears, turning into a mere component of something bigger? Since my encounter with the animal on stage, I’ve also started asking at restaurants: ‘Where do you get your meat from?’ Regardless of their answer and while scanning the menu, I ask myself more often than not, whether another pig’s tale will end on my plate or not.

Animal on Stage

Animal on Stage "Saehrimnir I", © Johannes Rass / Fabian Gasperl (photographer) 2018.

Reconstruction of a thought construction

Words: Mia Schlichtling

Images: Johnny What Photography

For further information please consult:

Johannes Rass

Daniel Leskowscheck

Oliver Geißbüchler

Special thanks to the entire crew:

Director auf Photography: Jakob Grill

2nd Unit DOP, Assistant of Camera: Manuel Leitner

Gaffer: Simon Valderrama
Grip: Konstantin Weilinger, Max Hofko

Assistant of Production: Lukas Nistelberger

MUA: Petra Plisch

Score: Paul Plut

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