October 14, 2016 – extended until February 12, 2017
FORUM 041: K49814 – Atmen ohne Pause (Breathing without pause)

The Münchner Stadtmuseum’s 41st FORUM contemporary photography exhibition features “Atmen ohne Pause” (Breathing without pause), a sensitive and powerful work that tackles the highly charged theme of industrial animal slaughter. This collection of images by the photographer and political activist, who works under the pseudonym K49814, documents processes that take place out of the public eye. Her gentle black-and-white images, unlike some well-known photos that seek to shock the viewer, shun any kind of sensationalism.

“Atmen ohne Pause” occupies a fascinating space where both the artist’s aesthetic sense and political agenda exert their influence. This exhibition, which primarily comprises photographs but also includes other formats such as a sound installation, looks at a variety of animals during different stages of the factory farming process. Black-and-white prints portray scenes that can, at times, convey the impression of cryptic still lifes: a sea of small, round, metal discs strewn across a dark background initially leaves the viewer puzzled until the photograph title reveals them to be a collection of ear tags from slaughtered animals. At the end of a day in the slaughterhouse, all that remains is this pile of numbers providing an abstract testimony to the killing that has just taken place. Another photograph shows what looks like pale cloth carelessly tossed onto a surface covered in tire tracks. Once again, it is the title that prompts the viewer to look again and see that it is in fact cowhide.

K49814: 11,000 ear tags from a day at the slaughterhouse, 2012 © K49814
K49814: Cowhide, 2013 © K49814
K49814: Isolated sow in the slaughterhouse, 2013 © K49814
K49814: Resting cow, 2011 © K49814

The exhibition juxtaposes images of dead or mutilated animals with pictures of animals that have not been harmed. Their faces, the principal feature through which people identify with animals, are never fully revealed. One example is “Ruhende Kuh” (Resting Cow): the photo brings the observer right up close to the animal so that every single eyelash and even the fine patterning of the cow’s hide is revealed close up. However, the picture it does not let us remain in our comfort zone and depict a creature that is whole and intact – it has been cropped to leave merely a fragment of the beast. The photographer doesn’t make it easy for the viewer. Her photos, in the best possible sense, do not try to shock or lecture, but raise questions about empathy, reflection and responsibility. The peaceful sound of a cow breathing, that can be heard by visitors inside the exhibition room, brings home the presence and loss of the animal with particular force. The theme of this documentary work is condensed into this act of breathing, an act that is both fundamental and fragile in equal measure.

K49814 does not see herself first and foremost as a photographer. To her, the medium of photography is just one possible way to tackle political themes. In fact, this is this self-taught photographer and activist’s first photographic work. All her images are the product of years of intensive work that have taken the artist to the places of factory farming and industrial slaughter.

K49814’s provocative photography lies between visual poetry and graphic imagery. She employs a controversial approach to tackle and fuel discussion about the relationship and similarities between people and animals and the fundamental question of who or what can be a subject and what constitutes its right to life.

A selection of K49814’s photographs was published in 2014 by the Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, in “K49814: Atmen ohne Pause”, a book which also features written contributions by K49814 and Paul Ziche.