zaterdag 1 december 2012
Like an Animal Paradis Charlotte Dumas Photography
In one of his writings the artist Jimmie Durham relates about the event of death of a certain man named Dhotsua, a Cherokee who fought against expanding oil companies. "I am very proud of us," says the dying man to his cousin, to which the latter responds: "Do you mean us the warrior society or us Cherokee?" No, he answers, "I mean us mammals". These were his last words. Let us linger with these words for a moment, as to reconsider our own and fairly absurd human condition. Picture a city that is bustling with the energy of crowds moving from one location to another, entering and leaving offices, shopping, hailing cabs, speeding up to arrive in time for a fire; an accident; a cat in a tree. Behind walls, the more intimate moments of individuals of these crowds take place. Some may be found on a sofa delving into childhood traumas in search for the kernel of their sorrows, whereas others gently make love to one another on a soft surface. Somewhere else candles are blown out in celebration of a birthday. If this doesn't sound absurd to you, remember that, in Dhotsua's view, the crowds made up by these individuals are hordes of mammals. One of them is travelling to the outskirts of the city to spend time at an animal shelter, where this mammal will photograph another mammal, the pit bull terrier-for the purpose of having its picture taken. One would only need to imagine a situation of any other mammal being given a camera to see the absurdity of this picture.
This is undeniably a very simplified way to look at the human habit of producing art and undermines our unique concerns with representation, but at the same time it is as basic and true (and perhaps absurd) as the Cherokee-or mammal-that fights for its territory. Where should we draw a line between what pertains to the animal and what pertains to us? Or to put it differently, where does our culture, the human habitat, begin? To answer any question of such kind, one should inevitably look for the boundaries and limits of human life, and more particularly, for its ending. All mortal beings are subject to death, but we are the only living beings on this planet that have turned death itself into a subject, if not concern. That in itself is perhaps the most absurd of habits that constitute the human condition. Both photographer, Charlotte Dumas, and the photographed pit bull in the animal shelter, pertain to this vast category of mortal beings. Dogs die, just like us and in that sense we (mammals) are alike. But the dog dies incapable of speaking and will leave this world without the comfort of any last words. I will recall a few memorable ones: "The play is over! Applaud!" (Caesar Augustus); "I'm bored with it all" (Winston Churchill); "I guess this thing is going to get me" (Harry Houdini). The animal-dog, wolf, horse, tiger, rabbit, deer, etc.-responds to this in silence, I assume, and dies with a simple and sheer last breath. Perhaps it dies arrested in fear, for having been caught as prey, or it finds itself at peace with it. It could be slowly starving to death or, who knows, just glances indifferently at the earthly surroundings it is about to leave behind. All of this, of course, is speculation: we can never really tell what the animal has to endure in its final moments.
If language provides us with a glimpse of our end, if it entails the idea (romantic; melancholic; painful; obsessive, but always mere ideas) of what "the end" must be like, then it also confines us to death in what can only be a morbid alliance. One could go as far as to say that, because of the destructive presence of death in language, everything said is an anticipation and therefore already part of the few last words that we will leave to this world. We think and speak, and therefore we die, in the end. Or at least we can think (and only think) what it will be like-to cease to exist. Even if the animal were unable to do so, that doesn't mean that it won't speak, to us. Why does photographer Charlotte Dumas invest her time in the portrayal of other mammals? Because the portrait says it all: against a blue backdrop that fades into a deep black, the eye of a pit bull-sturdy dog and the kind of which I wouldn't want to fool around with were he unleashed-looks into the camera. (Untitled (King), 2009) Its eye watches us suspiciously, as if he knows, senses it-the absurdity. Does the dog suspect my presence as a beholder of its image? Can it tell that I am returning its gaze with equal wariness? Pit bulls have every right to be suspicious of humans: we were its creator, after all. Perhaps this dog, which has no words for this, knows and shares this awful secret with the one that points the camera. As cultural historian John Berger puts it: "The animal has secrets which, unlike the secrets of caves, mountains, seas, are specifically addressed to man." Perhaps it was the pit bull, then, that conjured my memories of other secrets, such as that of the fictional creature of Dr. Frankenstein's monster: when the monster learns to read, hence, civilizing himself a little more, his master's diary notes will reveal to him that he in fact will never be human and remain always the monster that his master brought to life. Would the camera lens offer a reflection of such a kind? The dog will not speak nor read, so he must find things out instinctively. Maybe he knows in the way a tiger knows when it smells its prey: it senses that the smell belongs to a small or a large animal, one that runs fast, one that easily surrenders or one that is of equal strength. I cannot tell for sure, maybe this is my imagination that fills in the blanks, the silence of the animal.
© Copyright 2009 Moosje Goosen & D'Jonge Hond