Aaron Kreisler looks beyond the gags in this survey of an artist and his dogs at the Christchurch Art Gallery.
“The dog really must love him, it’s so incredibly patient…”, a woman says to her daughter, punctuating a screening of Coin toss (1972). In a collection of short single-take videos, American artist William Wegman participates in absurdist performances with his best friend, a Weimaraner dog. The dog is aptly named Man Ray, after the 20th century dada and surrealist artist. This darkened video space, at the tail end of William Wegman: Being Human, provides a playful insight into Wegman’s career and the unique relationship he has with his subject matter, the Weimaraner dog – as model, companion, soul mate and muse. His early videos also provide an important backstory to this touring survey. We can see on screen that from the outset Wegman sought set-ups with just one or two props, a studio and a camera. His photographs and videos employ visual and verbal gags that speak directly to his audiences.
In the 1970s and 80s, Wegman quickly made a name for himself through his canine works, particularly the photographic portraits, which appeared in magazines and galleries. But Wegman and his dogs also became public figures, appearing in segments on Sesame Street and The David Letterman Show. Wegman was also invited to create the influential music video ‘Blue Monday ’88’ for New Order (a collaborative piece he made with acclaimed experimental filmmaker Robert Breer). While Wegman’s creative output has clear allegiances to conceptual and performance art, he has always tested the margins between popular culture and the art world. But this survey – the first and only New Zealand exhibition of Wegman’s work – is really a study of a basic human trait: humour.
The various sections of this show – ‘People Like Us’, ‘Hallucinations’, ‘Tales’, ‘Masquerade’, ‘Sit!’, ‘Colour Fields’, ‘Cubism’ and ‘Vogue’ – provide a whole smorgasbord of creative treatments of the artist’s best friend. Being Human also captures the unique relationship that has formed between Wegman and his subjects. Man Ray died in 1982, and was succeeded by Fay Ray, then later her offspring, who are the main protagonists in this exhibition, which largely spans the last 30 years. Certain thematic groupings or set-ups elicit an immediate response: one of the enjoyable aspects is the sound of spontaneous laughter echoing through the gallery.
I found myself drawn to the ‘dumb’ one-liner portraits, like Slow Guitar (1987) and Dog Walker (1990), in which the Weimaraner performs mundane tasks. The dogs’ awkward enacting of human behaviours or qualities are also represented through a series of repeated tropes, hands, legs, wigs, and an assortment of attire. In Seated Figure (1996), a dolled up Weimaraner in a blonde wig leans forward on her bespoke armchair and looks out dully at the audience, as if waiting for a response to be thrown back like a stick. This peculiar photographic scene, set in a tightly cropped lurid red space, is given an extra twist: the faintest glimpse of brunette (human) hair appears behind the dog’s wig. The Weimaraner is being propped up by a person, just behind the scene. The pretence between sitter and support, human and animal, slips ever so slightly. And it’s in this flawed instant that the photograph starts to do something more interesting than a simple dress-up routine. Wegman’s obsession with dogs is macabre, sometimes even strangely hokey and slightly mawkish – perhaps that’s the popular appeal?
The punch line finally hits home. In Seated Figure, the singularity of Wegman’s set-up and the absurdity of the deadpan Weimaraner sitter is a send up of the value and seriousness of the portrait genre itself. However, like all forms of humour, the joke starts to wear thin the more it is delivered. It’s hard to shake a ‘best in show’ syndrome as you move through Being Human. The dilemma of a solo show of this scale and nature is that the gag can only last so long. The nuanced variation in these portraits is not necessarily enough to prevent viewer fatigue. This is further compounded by the thematic wall texts which spin an elaborate tale. The texts place the dog’s perspective centre stage and mythologise the history of the Weimaraner breed, but in the process tend to send up the whole artifice already at play in the photographs. A straighter delivery may have allowed the works and the artist’s unique relationship with his subject to simply speak for itself.
Sitting in the video room at the end of the show, I watched Wegman asking: “Do you want to go out? Do you want to go to the beach? Do you want to see Judy? Man Ray? … Man Ray?”, and was struck by the magnetism between artist and dog – their relationship was so simple and unaffected. And maybe it was at the start of his career, in these original short ad-length clips, that man and beast best found a way of working together that was simpatico but also moving enough to keep us as an audience engaged – sometimes animal attraction is enough.
William Wegman: Being Human runs until 28 July at Christchurch Art Gallery. This exhibition has been produced by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, Minneapolis/New York/Paris/Lausanne, in collaboration with the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.
For more listings of current art exhibitions across Aotearoa go to ArtNow.NZ
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.