SAINT-JEAN PIED-DE-PORT, France — The shed is enormous: concrete, peak-roofed, strung with cobwebs across the ceiling like animistic spirits floating above our heads. From a wall of windows across the length of the building, an almost tangible luminescence glimmers across the backs of the pigs pacing in their pens or digging their pink, fleshy snouts into their troughs.
This is where the sows go to get pregnant. They’re here in this barn for a single day, where black-gloved farm workers take care of that bit of business, initiating a cycle that will end with the slaughter of their offspring.
The backs of the pigs are marked in pearlescent strokes of green, blue, or pink oil crayon. The colors are records of inoculations and other health matters, but the luster of bristle and pigment seems to turn the animals into snorting, squealing works of art.
This farm in the foothills of the Pyrenees, located in the Basque ethnic region overlapping the French-Spanish border, is where the artist Elaine Tin Nyo is now engaged in the final, most intensive stage of This Little Piggy, her major project documenting life and death in the food chain.
Arriving a year ago in Saint-Jean Pied-de-Port with initial support from a Creative Capital grant, Tin Nyo set out to create a detailed record of the life of one pig from the birthing pen to the abattoir. It’s the journey of a moralist — not one who adjudicates an ethical path for others, but who explicates the thorny intersections of history, economy, tradition, and survival. As she has written in a statement about her practice: “My food projects are always made with an awareness of the dark reality lurking behind each meal.”
The darkness of that reality may seem remote while traveling through the region’s sunny, rolling countryside dotted with stone farm buildings and traditional white stucco residences trimmed in “Basque Rouge” — a kind of bloody maroon — and yet memories can still burn with the events of the violent separatist movement, led by the Iparretarrak (or “the Northerners”), that started in the 1970s and continued until the turn of the century.
Most of this recent violence took place across the Spanish border, but not far from Saint-Jean Pied-de-Port is the Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees, where Basque guerrillas slaughtered the troops led by Roland, Charlemagne’s general (and nephew), in 778, as recounted in the 11th-century epic poem The Song of Roland.
The Basques have retained their language (the local signage is bilingual) as well as a measure of political independence within the French State, and they take their traditions very seriously, one of them being ham. Tin Nyo describes the Jambon de Bayonne (named for the Basque port city on the Bay of Biscay) as the “emblematic ham of France,” which, as historical ironies seem to go, is produced by a people who inhabited the region long before it was ever claimed by France.
I first encountered Tin Nyo’s work when I was a press observer at a Creative Capital retreat in 2013, where she presented the outline of her project. Since then I’ve kept tabs on her progress, and during a recent trip to Europe I took a couple of days to visit the scene of the action.
The first stop was the insemination shed, followed by a visit to the nursery, where sows suckle their new piglets — which are born walking and with a full set of teeth — in well-heated pens. This is where, on the advice of the pig farmer, Tin Nyo “adopted” not one but four pigs (from which at least one would be chosen for Ibaiama, the premium brand of ham), whose lives she would memorialize in photographs and video. No intervention on the part of the artist was made, other than a separate set of ear tags.
The farmer with whom Tin Nyo is collaborating has been converting what was once an industrial pig farm into an organic, artisanal enterprise by significantly reducing the amount of livestock it houses. For that reason, when the pigs have reached a certain level of maturity, they are sent to leased land on one of several family farms within 40 kilometers. In these circumstances, they are allowed to root and wallow to their hearts’ content on a wide expanse of grass and mud, retreating into a cool, roomy outbuilding to eat their slurry of water and grain.
It was here that we found the four pigs whose lives are being recorded in This Little Piggy. Before making her visit, Tin Nyo suited up in wrist-to-ankle coveralls and knee-high rubber boots. The pigs are habitually covered in mud — they enjoy the feel of it on their skin — and consequently any encounter is bound to be an earthy one. After setting up her camera, she hopped the fence surrounding the pigs’ domain, stood amid the grass and mud, and waited.
It was lunchtime, which can really be anytime, but be that as it may, the pigs were clustered in the feeding shed. But after a few minutes, one after another took notice of the artist standing on their land and came out to greet her.
This is where there seemed to be an intuitive, almost transcendent interaction between the artist and her charges. Speaking softly to the pigs, Tin Nyo bent down and stroked their heads and backs, at times rhythmically patting them up and down their spines, a kind of swine-massage that calmed them into virtual silence.
Tin Nyo knows that these are not pets; she is constantly aware of their fate, which I assume can feel at times like an awful form of prescience — a burden even — that pits affection against observation. Her physical contact with the pigs is evidence that her involvement is far from clinical, but it never spills over into sentimentality or an anthropomorphic reading of the animals’ relationship with her. Watching her in the field, I sensed the precariousness of her emotional tightrope: at one end is her decision to name the pigs rather than allowing them to remain as anonymous heads of livestock, and at the other end is their slaughter, which she will witness but not record.
The moralism that Tin Nyo explores can only be described as fatalistic. The Basques developed their methods for raising, slaughtering, and curing pigs for the sake of sheer survival. In the summer and fall they would hunt small game; in the winter they would eat ham preserved in salt from an ancient spring. Their skills as pig farmers and shepherds contributed not only to their livelihoods, but to their political independence and unique culture as well. Today those survival skills, as so often happens, have evolved into an art (and one that produces a specialty item served in high-end restaurants throughout France).
Tin Nyo, rather than forcing judgment, is forcing an engagement with the wages of survival against the desire for pleasure, and our unwillingness to tease them apart — just as we incorporate our iPhones into every corner of our lives while the conditions under which their materials are mined and manufactured remain background noise at best.
Next month the pigs will be slaughtered and this phase of the project will come to an end. Tin Nyo is a native of Myanmar, where her family endured political persecution and permanent exile after the coup d’état that brought a military junta to power. She remains clear-eyed about her own history, as she does about the fate of the pigs. It’s a vision in which nothing is attempted, labored over, or loved without anticipating its sudden end.