Almanac of Contemporary Aesthetics


Delving into a wide range of modern industries—from automotive and robotic science, to plastic surgery and aviation—Yngve Holen’s practice investigates the post-human entanglement between bodies and objects of consumer culture. In a series of works dedicated to the food industry, the Norwegian-German artist spotlights meat as a product of nature as much as a design object, negotiating the boundary between exploitation and seduction.

Philip MaughanDo you remember when food started appearing in your work?
Yngve HolenI’m not sure if it was the first time, but I did a solo show at Autocenter in Berlin where I made these sculptures about cleanliness. The title of the show was “Sensitive to Detergent,” and it was about overreacting towards nature. That was my metaphor. It was site-specific in that I started with the car and worked with washing machine drums as stand-ins for wheels. I wanted to incorporate roadkill in the drums, but roadkill is difficult. Not only do you have to find it, but it’s also hairy and impossible to 3D-scan. In the end, it was easier to just go to the supermarket and buy chicken. I scanned supermarket chickens and 3D-printed them.
The guy at the printer told me the print material was dishwasher-proof and non-toxic. It was supposedly lebensmittelecht (food safe) material. The whole sculpture ended up being something you could clean like you would a car—white plinth, chrome washing machine drum, clean 3D-print, and the title, “Sensitive to Detergent.” It was about being a little bit allergic to nature and wanting to push it away. Later I started making more of these sculptures.
At one point, I remember I bought twenty standard supermarket chickens and then drove over the plastic-packed chickens to individualize them. It’s not something I’m so proud of now, but I drove over them with an SUV and then scanned them. I think most of the objects I’m dealing with are mass-produced, but they’re always objects made for us to imagine there’s just one of them—like, you get only one washing machine, you know? I’d somehow like to break that consumer one-person view.
PMThere’s something about the way we humans arrange our environment, and our environment arranges us in turn, that is comparable to the domestication traits we see in non-human animals. Whether alive, dead, or fabricated, a supermarket chicken is a design object. In the 1940s, there was a competition called “The Chicken of Tomorrow,” organized by the supermarket chain A&P and the US Department of Agriculture. The initiative sourced and scaled the Arbor Acre, a breed farmed worldwide due to its high feed-to-food ratio. Of all the birds alive right now, three-quarters are for poultry, grown to be eaten. Their bones mummify after being thrown into landfills forming a geological layer that will be detectable billions of years from now. This is a pretty radical disjuncture from the “natural” order of things—a rearrangement of objects like the ones highlighted using industrial and domestic objects in your work.
YHThe title of my recent show in Beijing was “Foreign Object Debris,” which is a term from aviation that refers to something left inside the plane from production that shouldn’t be there—like a metal hammer with the potential to destroy the whole system. I liked it for the show because the exhibition was set up like a POV consumer experience where it’s all about my food, my house, my toys, my wheels. I also liked the title as I was taking everyday objects out of the system and displaying them differently.
PMIt’s like how we often hear our bodies are being contaminated with metals and microplastics, when these things aren’t necessarily dangerous. We need certain inorganic substances to function—zinc, copper, iron—and have been getting them from things like cooking tools or thali trays or even deliberately supplementing them for a long time. There’s a legendary stat from the scientist Vaclav Smil where he claims that more than half of the nitrogen that makes up the muscles, organs, and tissues in your body was made in a fertilizer factory.
Food is a strange conceptual category because it’s always both matter and symbol, nature and culture, and there’s so much anxiety around eating for precisely this reason. Food collapses the boundary between inside and outside. We have to reckon with what we do to our environment when we eat, because we bring it into our bodies. This is why vaccines are so controversial. They become part of us. How did the work progress after you’d finished maiming chickens?
YHAfter working with all this supermarket meat, either small meats or meat that was chopped into small portions, I wanted to go one scale up. Not to the whole cow, but a half or a quarter. I wanted to understand the rules for how it’s distributed. I wanted to get into a slaughterhouse.
PMWhich is really hard, right?
YHYes. This was during the first wave of COVID when slaughterhouses were epicenters because there are always several people working around a carcass and so it’s cold and easy for the virus to spread. And then they have to work fast and therefore close to each other while butchering the meat. Meat is too cheap and so the workforce often comes from low-cost countries. It’s not the middle class standing there, cutting the meat. It’s a poorly paid job, and these people are also often on a short work permit. They live in small barracks, they live very close, and in this whole system, of course, is where the virus would spread. Gaining access to a slaughterhouse was not so much in the work, but it was an interesting obstacle at that time.
In the end, we got into a cutting plant in Hamburg. But this was a sort of high-end connection through the restaurant Grill Royal in Berlin. It’s upper-echelon meat so I guess the production pressure is not the same as it would be at, say, Tönnies or somewhere like that. My idea was to make half a cow in carbon fiber. I wanted to make an organic form using this very bro racing aesthetic. I wanted to mix the car industry with the meat industry.
Yngve Holen SM DSC9332
PMScanning and modeling is a way to open up a realm that would be otherwise invisible.
It’s a way to get inside the factory. Whether it’s making consumer goods or food—both are opaque. COVID was a moment of revelation because we saw the human costs on which these industries run. We also had the culling of minks for the fashion industry in Denmark.
It’s the loss of a deluded innocence like the so-called horse meat scandal, if you remember that.
YHI remember the headline when I first read about it in Germany was “Dead Animals on Interrail,” pointing towards the non-transparent transport routes of the meat, traveling all over Europe.

After working with all this supermarket meat, either small meats or meat that was chopped into small portions, I wanted to go one scale up. Not to the whole cow, but a half or a quarter. I wanted to understand the rules for how it’s distributed. I wanted to get into a slaughterhouse.

PMOne of the components the scientists found in these “beef lasagnas” was shavings of skin that had been swept from a factory floor. That was something that immediately came to mind when I saw your carpet Exhaust, (2021). The perverse thing was that the logistics were so astonishing—though being used for this bizarre outcome. As humans, we rely on our food supply as an indicator of broader systemic health. So long as we perceive a satisfying outcome, a whole manner of strange things can be going on beneath the surface.
YHEverything is quiet until it stops functioning. When the VW diesel scandal happened, there were suddenly all of these Porsche Cayennes waiting at the hub ready to be shipped, thousands of Cayennes stuck at the port, and you got this amazing aerial view. I kind of wish it would be possible to make works like that. It’s in these images that you actually see the scale of things, instead of asking yourself at the hotel after reading their eco sign, whether you should throw your towel down or use it another day to save the climate, as if that was really a choice.
PMMeat can offer a similar sort of jolt, though, because it’s unusually resistant to being repackaged as metaphor. It’s one way of confronting the symbolic power of food, but things like Soylent are good for that as well. I think part of the reason they offend people so much is because they break down what we eat to its molecular properties and people don’t want to be reminded of this. They want whole, not molecular. It also stands against how people think we ought to eat, but very often there’s a disjunction between what we like to project and what the material world suggests we desire.
YHI don’t think any of the work I’ve done is about what you eat or how you eat specifically. It’s more the idea of a scale failure, a failure to grasp scale. The carpet came out from a byproduct of the scanning process for the carbon fiber meat piece. With the 3D scan there came a UV map, a photographic recording of the surface of this carcass, a square image which just looked so crazy. And that’s basically the carpet. I blew it up to ten by ten meters the first time, later twelve by twelve meters, and now this time it’s fourteen by fourteen meters. What I think is really successful about the carpet, in terms of how I perceive it, is that it’s just half a cow blown up and printed on a carpet, but it manages to replicate a slaughterhouse.
It’s infinite in a way.
Yngve Holen SM DSC9311 B
PMIt’s like the gates of hell opening underneath you.
YHIt kind of felt like that doing it. It’s uncomfortable. It has this coziness, a seduction, rich colors, and at the same time, it’s so gory. It’s like you’re walking on the carpet, it’s soft, but you also walk on gore.
PMWe are reminded of our own meatiness.
YHYeah. Sometimes people say it’s too beautiful. They ask why I would make something so nice of something that’s so disgusting. But I think that’s the interesting part about this carpet. The first time I presented this carpet, I also showed these Lego chimera warriors that were scanned and then cast in bronze. I scaled them a little bit, keeping them in the range of toys but at the same time making their weapons more real and threatening. They’re from this discontinued Lego series and show “Legends of Chima” that features two tribes—a fire tribe and an ice tribe. I was interested in what kind of narratives we teach our children through toys and thought this was so crazy, as the tribes fight each other for a sparse resource called Chi. When they win it, they put it in their chest, get high, and use this celebratory highness to race each other with Speedorz.
The bronze chimera warriors and the carpet together made a good room. You had these mono material bronze warriors that looked like they’d dropped their UV map into a hell on the floor. It took it away from just being about the meat industry to being about the fight for an exploitation of resources.
PMThe way we communicate the food system begins in children’s books where the farmer has a handful of animals and they’re all friends, which is obviously a fantasy. What’s interesting is that even as adults, we’re surrounded by fake representations of food because advertising and marketing are just like the farm and the happy animals. We lie to children, but I think we lie to ourselves as well. Even just the idea that food is grown in a way that we recognize as “farming,” as opposed to some of the more industrial processes, which are often safer and can be less environmentally demanding. We want the idea of a farmer with their dirty hands in the soil because it makes us feel better—never mind that those hands belong to a Romanian who has been bussed into Germany and is only allowed to stay to do the job and must then go home again.
YHExactly. There are other works I’ve done indirectly in relation to beef. I published ETOPS 3, which was about the rainforest. While there are interviews in there with famous chefs, talking about biodiversity, there are also interviews about how the forest is systematically burned down in order to create farmland. And it’s not only beef that is the problem, it’s also the rising demand for soy and palm oil. I just thought about this magazine some days ago as I read that a new threat to the rainforest was now also an insane growing demand for large SUV leather interiors—which was somehow a graspable image for me. I just scrolled the Oslo streets with my eyes, and all these new supposedly eco-friendly multi-ton-weighing EV SUV panzers driving around potentially also have a few acres of personal rainforest in them. I would like to make a fake leather interior printed with the meat files. It might look bad, but it might also look quite good.
PMYeah, the cascades between something like meat and cars, you just wouldn’t expect them to exist, but they exist all over the place. Because of African Swine Fever—which has been causing havoc since 2018 and has meant death for one in four pigs—there are now more Oak trees in Polish forests. Because the fever affects both wild and farmed pigs, the wild ones aren’t eating so many acorns from the forest floor, and the change is visible from space.
YHThis goes back to what we talked about earlier—this idea of complete cleanliness or complete control of what goes in and what goes out. It doesn’t exist. And that’s the same thing I was left with after doing the rainforest ETOPS, this crazy idea that the rainforest is pristine and we need to save it by cutting human access to it. There has always been foraging. A smart foraging would take care of the biodiversity.
PMThe problem isn’t necessarily cultivation or transformation. This is something that humans do. We moved around the world transforming it, though the ways in which we did this varied depending on the time and place. I think much of the damage comes from being stuck with a handful of specific farming methods that were exported and scaled extremely quickly. In the rush to industrialization we ran roughshod over all of these different ideas, all of these people, all of the ecosystems as though one size fits all. It doesn’t.
YHYeah. This is a weird anecdote, and I don’t know if it makes sense to tell it, and I don’t want to be judgemental here cause I don’t know the life stories of these two people, but I remember being in Graz in Austria on the tram. I was sitting in the tram and there was this one elderly lady. She was standing there. She’s kind of like, I would say, mountain equipment; sporty, old but like, fit, I don’t know. When the door opens, this other lady comes in super-sti, just moving in. Same age but clearly not in good shape. And this fit lady just says to me, “Yeah look there, that’s the meat eaters.” I thought it was a snarky comment, but it hit me.
I don’t know if this is something we should print, but this was something that stuck with me. I grew up between Norway and Germany, and meat has always been quite expensive in Norway. So in my upbringing it was there, but it’s a special thing, or a celebratory thing, and you eat less meat and you mix it with a lot of vegetables. Or you eat fish. In Germany, this industrial nation, there’s so much meat on everything. There’s a meat salad, and a lot of pig meat. The amount of meat I would eat when I went to my grandparents, compared to Norway, was so much. It’s definitely too much.
PMIt’s more complex than a straightforward question of indulgence. We are seduced and nour- ished by it—which is a hard thing to object to.
I still think “people should just eat less meat” or “people should just be vegan” isn’t satisfactory at this point, because things like government subsidies for meat, bogus certification, corruption, lobbying etc. have little to do with consumer choice. It may sound naive, but I think technology has an important role to play. We didn’t stop mistreating horses because we decided it was a bad thing to do—we did it because the combus- tion engine changed the game. I hope something similar will happen with beef—not necessarily to abolish it, but to out-compete it in deliciousness. There’s a serendipitous overlap between your work and 3D-printed food and cellular agriculture. Today you’re scanning chickens, but in the future, with the cultivation of fungi, plant, or animal cells, the scan itself will be the finished product, and you can program it to be fabricated, textured, and flavored any way you want. It can be made to resemble a traditional steak if you like, or it could be something completely different.
K yngve ig

Yngve Holen (b. 1982) is an artist who lives between Oslo and Berlin. In spring 2022, KALEIDOSCOPE presented “Neuroeconomics” at Spazio Maiocchi in Milan, an exhibition furthering the artist’s decade-long exploration of the post-human entanglement between bodies and objects of consumer culture.

Philip Maughan is a writer, editor, and researcher based between London and Berlin.


Privacy Policy Read