Issue 55 November-December 2000 RSS

Dogs in Space


Bojan Sarcevic

Three dogs are alone in a church. While the organ plays a pious cascade, what looks like a Dalmatian snuffles around the aisle, irritated. A Sheepdog leans up against the closed door. As the final cadences of the organ reverberate among the arches, a mongrel sneezes and sniffs its own anus before strolling out of view to the clicking of its claws.

The Dalmatian stands still for a while, then breaks the uneasy silence by barking and nervously wagging its tail, until it sits down, well-behaved, as if an absent master had told it to do so.

Nothing much happens in Bojan Sarcevic’s video It Seems that an Animal Is in the World as Water in the Water (1999), and that’s the point. Left to themselves, the dogs’ activities are about as spectacular as those of the protagonists of the TV surveillance show Big Brother, where the highlights of the day consist of candidate X picking her nose or candidate Y shaving his chest hair. This, in fact, does have an arresting effect as you are drawn to focus on random details.

Big Brother is a Dutch invention, and Sarcevic’s piece is set in an Amsterdam church. As coincidental as that may be, there is a shared undercurrent that springs from the cultural history of Dutch colonial capitalism, with its peculiar, predominantly Calvinist, work ethic which allows for the monitoring and assimilation of pleasure rather than a stigmatising of it. The dogs can sniff and bark as long as they like, but they remain within strict confines.

Within the genre of Dutch architectural painting, it’s striking how hard it is to find one church interior that doesn’t include dogs. In Hendrick van Vliet’s The Old Church at Delft with the Tomb of Admiral Maerten Tromp (1658), for example, people stand around casually, as if they were in a market square; dogs wander amongst them; children play on the floor; and a man chats with a workman who is carving a tomb in the nave. Here, the church is less a place of devotional awe than active participation - even the prospect of mortality seems calculable, as dogs mate under God’s roof. Sarcevic’s work lays bare the abstract mechanism that has emerged from this economy of controlling the uncontrollable (death, desire, ‘the natural’) by allowing it to dwell in an assigned, confined space.

This economy of subdivision has been thoroughly confused in the recent piece Worker’s Favourite Clothes Worn while S/He Worked (1999-2000). The artist asked car mechanics and bakers to go to work sporting the same Agnes B. trousers or glitzy skirt for two weeks, inevitably staining them with oil and flour. Rather than compiling anecdotes or making a fashion show for the resulting exhibition at Gesellschaft für aktuelle Kunst, Bremen, the artist presented the garments on tables like forensic evidence. As much of the street-style clothing worn by New Economy employees looks like an attempt to invest workwear with the insignia of leisure, the staining of fashionable clothes with the traces of the old economy turns the relationship around, letting ‘work’ bleed visibly into ‘leisure’.

In the video piece Irrigation-Fertilisation (1999), the camera stays focused on the lower legs of a mechanic walking around a metal shop. At first, it seems as if the water dripping down his trousers comes from a coolant while he drills or grinds. But it becomes apparent that the water is leaking from his shoes, as if his body is losing all its fluids in a steady stream. However, the mechanic seems to be none the worse for this as he lounges from machine to machine, turning them on and off at random, while leaving fleeting Pollock-like puddles and spills on the concrete floor, the patterns quickly subsumed in the constant flow.

The trick is obvious - Sarcevic must have put a hose down the worker’s trousers - but that doesn’t explain away the uncanny effect produced by the video. When Freud wrote about the uncanny, he looked at E. T. A. Hoffmann’s story ‘The Sandman’ (1817). Today, what strikes a chord is not so much the Oedipal struggle that Freud detected in the poor hero - the student Nathaniel, dreaming of his eyes being ripped out by the Sandman - but the idea of his professor’s automaton, the mechanical bride Olympia who Nathaniel falls in love with. Though her features appear perfectly human, Nathaniel’s fellow students construe that something is not quite right with Olympia, that her dance steps are too exact, that when singing she hits the notes too precisely. But this doesn’t dent Nathaniel’s ardour: through his magic looking-glass, her soulless eyes come to life. Like Kafka, Hoffmann was a bureaucrat; with the allegory of the looking-glass, he anticipated the effect of the media on technology and it’s ability to sexualise the purely functional. As in Sarcevic’s piece, the ‘illusion’ of the mechanical, as seen through the medium, has a factual psychic reality.

In another story by Hoffmann, ‘The Deserted House’ (1817), the narrator, Theodor, is drawn to an apparently abandoned house amidst the buildings on the most splendid street of the city. The windows are bricked up on the ground floor and screened with cardboard on the upper floors; the door is without a handle. A friend claims the house only seems deserted because it is used as a warehouse by the confectioner next door. Yet, it turns out that a mad old countess is living there in seclusion. To cut a long story short, she casts a spell on Theodor, making him fall in love with the phantom of her youth, a phantom that disintegrates when he finally enters the house. The taciturn nature of the house seems to symbolise the impossibility of an unrestrained sexual relationship within a strict social order, and its decaying state resonates with male anxiety about coming too close to the forbidden object of love hidden within.

At ‘Manifesta 2’, Sarcevic made a piece in a wing of Luxembourg’s Musée National d’Histoire et d’Art (Untitled, 1998). Upon entering, it was as if you had taken a wrong turn into an abandoned section of the building. But some of the details looked too purposeful for that: a plaster-wall sealed off the back, a false ceiling was lowered in one part, and, most disturbingly, every single crack in the walls and window-frames had been filled in with small pegs of toilet paper, as if to hermetically seal the space from some poisonous gas, or vermin. Again, like Theodor’s friend, you could have tried to find a perfectly natural reason for the alterations, but none of them would have explained away their subtle, yet paranoid meticulousness.

Both in Hoffmann’s tale and Sarcevic’s installation, the ‘ordinary’ world is kept at bay. With Hoffmann, the hermetic space of the house still contains beauty, even if it is false, or only to be longed for; in Sarcevic’s case, the romanticism is gone and the space remains empty. Sarcevic was compelled to leave his hometown of Sarajevo at the beginning of the war in Bosnia, yet it would be far-fetched to read the world that is kept at bay in Untitled as representing the atrocities of war. However, what seems to reside behind the cracks is the history of Modernism. ‘The Sandman’ and ‘The Deserted House’ were published in Hoffmann’s Nightpieces of 1817, a couple of years after the nightmares of the Napoleonic Wars throughout Europe, one year before Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and two years before Goya began his ‘Black Paintings’ (1819-23), including the famous Saturn Devouring one of his Sons (c. 1820). Sarcevic grapples with the dark aftermath of Modernity, which keeps desire locked in and the cracks eagerly stuffed.

Jörg Heiser

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Issue 55, November-December 2000

by Jörg Heiser

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