The Material Who Walked Away

Anno 2008

According to artist Jan Håfström, art is what we call “an incomprehensible encounter between a material and an idea” (DN chat 1/10-08). Håfström also makes a valuation: “In a good work of art, the material is always present, as a fact. But at the same time, it does not exist. It is completely engrossed in the idea. This shift between the spiritual and the physical is part of considering a work of art.”

A trivial or ingenious definition of the art concept? Either way, I will make use of the definition; first to say that in this sense of a ’good work of art’, this exhibition is a good, perhaps even brilliant, exhibition. Next, I would like to say that in this sense of good art, this exhibition is problematic. The problematic aspect is what I perceive Lisa Strömbäck’s exhibition is endeavouring to highlight: the relationship between the subject and the object (the artist and her material) and the moment when one of two subjects is transformed into an object (the moment when the other is transformed into a thing).

The artist works with a material. Which material? There is a difference between physical objects; things on the one hand, beings on the other. What is a creature signified as an ’animal’? What happens when creatures signified as ’animals’ make up the artistic material? The degree of consciousness of the being, the ability to feel joy and unease, or pain, i.e. abilities qualifying it for moral status, is put at risk. The creature is in danger of becoming a thing; it doesn’t have to become a thing, but it may become a thing. A thing is something that cannot feel feelings; a thing has no interest in how it is treated. It doesn’t matter for a dumpling of clay or a palette of oil paints if I kick the dumpling or palette, there is no one there who can suffer from the treatment. This is a difference within the category of ’material’ that is rarely discussed in art contexts despite the on going use of beings as artistic material. Think Damien Hirst, Nathalia Edenmont, Guillermo Vargas, Marco Evaristti and more.

In Lisa Strömbäck’s art work New Friends, the material does not constitute clay or oil paints, but film and camera. And what we are here to talk about: living beings. The material is a fact, something natural. To employ Håfström: It exists, at the same time it does not exist, it becomes engrossed in the idea. In The First Command, two creatures are interacting. The activity is that the dog creature, at the request of the human being, is urged to again and again look into the eyes of the human being and meet his gaze; an obviously unpleasant social encounter for the dog. (In this context, in preschools/kindergartens, to be forced to look into the eyes of the educator is a not uncommon punishment, same goes for some dog training courses.) The creature in the human category is eagerly seeking to look the dog in the eye thus creating discomfort for the dog creature who is responding by attempting to get away from the situation. The dog creature suffers or is anxious (whining, circling around), the human is anxious or enjoying the act (notice the excited toes).

Anyone who remembers the pseudo-sadistic games of childhood playing with those who were younger? Anyone who remembers what it was like to be the one who was deceived by the older children? What it was like to be the one watching; and the one leading the game on? And the moment when trust collapsed as the younger one transformed, from adoring subject to internally blushing object: ‘I thought they wanted to be with me almost like one of them, but all they wanted was to play me as a toy.’ Now, why is it perfectly thinkable to make such an analogy? Between human experiences, and a human interpretation of an interaction between a dog and a human being? Creatures such as social mammals, dogs, or humans, possess virtually identical central nervous systems, which is why psychological research has used and uses dog creatures to stipulate psychological models and theories that are then transmitted to humans.

The relevance of these scientific experiments, and the exploitation of other animals that these experiments entails, can and should be discussed, but it still implies that we can be said to be well-equipped in argument when we, before The First Command, empathise with the dog who gets confused, briefly looks into the camera, suffers and turns into a thing. Swallowed up as a sentient being. Its existence as a subject in a relationship with another subject has been fucked up, to express oneself contemporary. We have considered a shift, from spiritual sensual being with an experiential essence in the world, to a physical object, a material for an idea. Can similar illuminating art be created without exploiting the real material, the living dog? Can art investigate exploitation without exploiting? I think so. In any case, I wish that art, like research, would take on such a challenge. That art sees itself as an ethically responsible subject in relation to other sentient beings. And seeks to complicate and make things more challenging – also in relation to the creation process, method, and material.

In In Memory of All Those Who Work Without Ever Getting a Reward, the dog creature trusts that the communication works as usual. But the moment the dog understands that the structure of the agreement – if you do this (nicely wait), I will do this (give the reward), and both will be content – has been broken, why then the dog walks away with distaste for the humiliating game (and for the sausage reward). And by this, simultaneously, the dog proves that it is more than a bundle of instincts. Do you have to be a dog to understand such an experience? I don’t think so. I believe that it is possible to transfer the game, as I just did in the childhood example, to human beings and that we will get similar spectrum of conditions, experiences, and reactions. The interaction in the two works mentioned was, the way I see it, a meeting between the one who is deceiving, and the one who is deceived and cannot do much about it. It was an encounter between the one who is in danger of consuming the material, and the one who understands and resists their material status by leaving the stage.

What do we call that which was chipped away at, and if the act is repeated, is in danger of being consumed? “Friendship”, according to Francesco Alberoni in his classic Friendship, “is a movement in which one first creates superiority and then refrains from being superior. That is why friendship is often an averted antagonism. Friendship is thus a meeting between two individuals who decide to stand on the same plane, who recognize each other as sovereign without any longer asking who is superior and who is inferior. It is an equalizing act.” Let us say that the human being, in the artwork In Memory, after a while informs the dog creature that it is ok to take the sausage reward. Then such an equalizing moment takes place. A moment that strengthens trust and agreement and thus renews friendship.

Anthropologist and psychologist Barbara Smuts says, in the book The Lives of Animals by J. M. Coetzee, about ’persons’ regardless of whether we can attribute human qualities to them or not and calls it the dictates of intersubjectivity: “If they relate to us as individuals and we relate to them as individuals, it is possible for us to have a personal relationship. If either party fails to consider the social subjectivity of the other, such a relationship is excluded. Trust does not define friendship by itself, even if it is an important element. Friendship requires some degree of reciprocity, a little give-and-take.” But is not such talk of friendship with dog people, self-deception? Hypocrisy? I hear Strömbeck say through her works. Can the gentlemanly human be anything but a pretend friend of the slave dog? After all, in general, dog people in human societies are a kind of slave populations. The colonizer humanity has divided the colonized, controls their reproduction, sells their cubs. This may be ethically wrong, but is there an alternative? Are what people call ’dogs’ not just about cosmetics? Toys for company’s sake because inside the Dog’s good-natured mask lurk the clichés of the Wolf?

Considering people’s gender, the dichotomy woman/man, we recognize that it is something we learn from the environment and culture to ’act’, so that one may in analogy also talk about dogs learning from humans to act ’dog’, to behave as people around them expect them to. Like other enslaved/domesticated animals, ’dogs’ have acquired a biological category (canis lupus familiaris) and a socially constructed expectation of behaviour, what one might call artus (by analogy with gender). Most clearly, this social creation has been illustrated by researchers in experiments (recounted in Time 1993) where cats were raised as dogs and dogs were raised as cats. And yes, they became the way they were treated. The dog became a ’cat’, and the cat became a ’dog’.

In addition to the fact that humans themselves shape both the behaviour and the image of dogs, the relationship of slave – master has long hidden that also dogs in freedom are cultural beings. Dog packs behave differently depending on the environment. Therefore, when we talk about dogs in freedom, we must decide whether we are talking about outcast dog packs in Sofia in Bulgaria as here in the exhibition, about the dogs in the Chinese village of Que in Yang Fudong’s work East of Que Village (which can be seen at Bonniers konsthall until 21/12) or about free family dogs in India or wild dogs in Australia etcetera. And further more, if we are talking about dogs that live resourcefully or under constant threats and lack of food? And about what kind of dynamics have evolved in harmony or at odds with the environment of these dog cultures? And perhaps of the case, as has been found in recent wolf research, that cultures may differ; harmony characterizes one pack, tyranny another, circulation a third, and rigid division of responsibilities a fourth.

How can we understand the conditions of the dogs in the work Hierarchy? Does it resemble any historical situation that people can recognize? Would the dogs acted differently if, since they were small, they had always been served this mountain of food? One thing is certain: lack of resources or sudden abundance brings out the paltryness of us social mammals: This is mine not yours, don’t come here! What the work Hierarchy can’t tell you, is how dogs ’really’ are. Just as images of destitute people or human war scenes show human nature no more than other more positive images, so the film does not show the ’nature’ of dogs more than other more idyllic images would. Violent images show what has happened, but it only shows one image, and it does not show what is possible, simultaneously or in the future. Because such stories would require endless amounts of film and colour.

An owned dog is a dog that in an instant can turn into a dead thing by being disposed of, euthanized, executed. Friendship should not be possible. However, we know that friendship is possible. That it is created. Subjects recognize subjects and seek equalizing agreements, in individual relationships between individuals from these different social mammal species. Such friendship requires freedom, volunteerism, choice. And it demands, in Alberoni’s words, that “friendship permits one to leave”. Strömbeck’s exhibition shows this possibility of equalizing subjectship. But above all, it shows how fragile this friendship is. How this web of trusting acts — the ecosystem of friendship — through the actions we are being served, may be about to collapse.

In this way, Strömbeck’s artworks can also be seen as emblematic for how humanity plays with and breaks the agreement with other animals and nature; when man overuses the earth’s resources; and use dogs in a therapy process today displacing the killing of Animals which is part of the recurrent over-consumption (the food industry’s fifty billion animals per year globally and the reduction in the number of wild animals in species populations to nearly half between 1970-2000, source WWF).

The art of socializing, human or other living being, is a deep thing. Friendships which are in danger of being consumed are a deep thing; trust is a deep thing. The friend who was taken for granted may be on their way to leave. Our part of a new agreement could be to open the door, let the friend go and, hopefully, see them return.

Lecture 11th October 2008 at Uppsala Art Museum, Uppsala, Sweden

Previously published as essay in the collection When Culture Becomes Nature (2013) p. 285

Photo: LG

In Swedish

© Arimneste Anima Museum #20