Mindy Yan Miller speaks about her work The Restraint of Animals at Remai Modern in 2022.
Mindy Yan Miller speaks about her work The Restraint of Livestock at Remai Modern in 2022.

Mindy Yan Miller on The Restraint of Livestock

Remai Modern’s exhibition In the Middle of Everywhere: Artists on the Great Plains have features a unique installation titled The Restraint of Livestock. Comprised of two rows of cow hides draped over steel bars, Mindy Yan Miller’s installation disrupts the openness of the room, encouraging visitors to walk in between the hides.

The hides retain the outline of the animal but have been carefully cut in strips, disrupting the experience of cows as living beings. The distinct scent and texture offers a sensual encounter, while prompting visitors to consider their relationship with an animal that has a prominent role in the mythos, ecosystem and economy of the plains.

We asked Yan Miller to reflect on this work. Read on to learn about her journey into this subject matter and how she works with this particular material.

Mindy Yan Miller, The Restraint of Livestock, 2022, installation view. Cow hide, steel bars. Photo: Carey Shaw

My artistic practice is rooted in materiality, somatic experience, repetition and an engagement with space. At the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design I was trained to work with ready-mades — things that already exist and carry meaning with them. Rather than using materials to create art, I make art to reveal the materials. Starting from the things themselves, I try to understand what they are, how they are produced, utilized and become intertwined with us. My process is labour-intensive, perhaps even ritualistic. Careful crafting, and a sense of responsibility towards my materials is important for me. I touch them and they touch me back — literally — like with the skin and hair of the cowhides sticking to me.

When I lived in Eastern Canada I frequently worked with masses of discarded clothing and human hair and produced monumental yet ephemeral installations revolving around the body, labour, absence and loss. When I moved to North Battleford in 2010, I was affected by my new surroundings. I had never lived in such a small and rurally located city. Most people I met seemed to come from a farm or be connected to farming through their parents or grandparents. On the radio I heard news with animals such as cows being referred to as products. It seemed like a natural progression for me to move from working with the human body to the bodies of animals. I started with a veg-tan kit from Tandy Leather — the kind where you tool the leather and lace together a wallet. I never finished the wallet. I was more interested in how the leather was decorated and saw the fecund floral and foliage ornamentation typical of traditional western leatherwear as an obfuscation of the industrialization of farming animals.

A detail shot of The Restraint of Livestock by Mindy Yan Miller, in conversation with works by Marcy Friesen. Photo: Carey Shaw

Working with skins, my first and biggest aesthetic challenge was to determine the precise materials and range of manipulations that would give the final work its best opportunity to manifest the animals and our relations with them. I am working with farmed animals, not wild animals. Their hides are sold as floor coverings. Having family in the furniture business, I decided to look towards how cowhides are used in interior design as my starting point. My background is in fibres and I have experience working with pattern and as a fabric designer. How could I utilize this experience and the formal language of design to draw attention to where the cowhide comes from and to open a space for us to think about the animals that feed and clothe us and our relationship to them?

The cowhides are by-products of a meat and dairy industry that presumes man’s dominion over beasts of the earth and treats animals as products. The intent of my work is to both reflect and exceed these conditions. Having been a vegetarian for more than 40 years, the process of working with these skins serves as an act of reparation. With each piece, I wish to evoke or at least point to the animals’ spirit. As a counterpoint I often do so by working mechanically and on grids, to contrast and highlight the organic carnality of the skins. My process is entirely reductive. I shave, slice and sometimes punch the hides — I am both re-enactor and witness.

With The Restraint of Livestock, titled after an article of the same name by renowned animal behaviourist and autism activist Temple Grandin, ten cut and shaved cowhides are woven, strip-by-strip, skin-side to skin-side, onto two long steel pipes to create a suspended funnel-shaped corridor. My main desire with this installation was to have people walk through the work as if they were going through a cow chute and experience it viscerally and perhaps to consider issues and impulses that have always been crucial for me: the relationships between making, ethics, the environment, sentient beings and material form.

A visitor walks through The Restraint of Livestock by Mindy Yan Miller. Photo: Carey Shaw

In the Middle of Everywhere: Artists on the Great Plains is on view at Remai Modern until March 12, 2023.

About the Artist

Mindy Yan Miller’s installations, sculpture and performative pieces investigate labour, identity, loss and commodification. Using primarily a material- and medium-based practice, Yan Miller often works with large masses of found or ready-made materials including used clothing, human hair, Coke cans and, most recently, cowhide. Yan Miller has an MFA from NSCAD, Halifax and divides her time between Saskatoon and Montreal, where she teaches fibres and material practices at Concordia University.