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Thursday, 19 March 2015

Mad Dogs, Bad Dogs, Sad Dogs



    John Divola, Dogs Chasing my Car in the Desert, 1996-98

A few weeks back, there was something on the blog about Moriyama's Stray Dog being the best dog picture, to which a few people screamed 'no, it's not, it's Koudelka's black dog', a ravish half-beast, half demon, drooling tail-chasing shadow of a mutt.

The best dog picture might be up for grabs but there is absolutely no doubt about what the best dog series is. It's John Divola's 'Dogs Chasing my Car in the Desert'. These are dog-like-dogs doing what the title says; they chase John Divola's car in the desert. They're horrible dogs, all muscle and teeth and craziness. But they're energetic, literal, of a place and funny. These desert dogs would watch Divola's car drive past on the way in and then get up ready to chase his car on the way out. They knew he wasn't going anywhere, that he was heading into a dead end. They knew he'd be back. Smart and lazy they got their fun where they could find it. And that's written into the pictures; they may be mad-eyed, snarling brutes of a thing, but these dogs are having a good time. All thanks to John Divola.

So it was lovely to read this interview in Saint Lucy yesterday, and to read about the breadth of Divola's practice, The writer Durant says there is '...appropriation, performance, site-specificity, and architectural interventions a la Gordon Matta Clarke, interest in semiotics'. A lot of this work (like the Zuma series where he paints up the interior of a deserted house) resemembles work that could have been made in the last few years, or at least touches on the same interventionist concerns.

And it's work that comes from a moment where there was a liberty in how he made his work; he says, ' I was also in a context where nobody cared; there was nothing at stake. It was very liberating for me, I felt like I had great freedom.'

This freedom is a kind of freedom from the tyranny of seeing too much and hearing too much and reading too much (it's the kind of tyranny that, to paraphrase Soth, comes from sitting at a computer and thinking that everything has been photographed. Get out into the world and that is no longer the case.) Seeing too much can weigh you down, reading too much theory can weigh you down. 'The beauty of photography is that is pulls you not only literally out into the world, but pulls your consciousness into a mode of observation that is really rewarding, almost addicting.' says Divola.

That pulling can be joyful and fun. I think we agonise far too much about photography in all its forms, rather than enjoying it for what it is and relishing that addictive delight in the image, the book, the wall. We spend too much time nit-picking and looking for holes in work and sometimes forget that we are actually making fools of ourselves with our bad grace and bullying tones, and that all we are doing is creating barriers of expression both for ourselves and for others. And sometimes there is a partiality and selectivity to our critical thinking that is most unbecoming.

But when we put the focus on the energy, the dynamism, the pleasure of the work, then more uplifting elements come into play, and photography becomes about creativity, art and life, not about the dark austerities of photography's shadowlands. And then we have more freedom to experiment, make mistakes and create something new. We'll still make rubbish but we'll have a better time making it and because less energy is wasted on those things that sap our will, ultimately better, more interesting and more exciting work will emerge. Ahh, sweeping generalisations. Don't you love them! This is what Divola said about Isolated Houses (the project into which Dogs Chasing Cars is woven)

'But I was old enough by that point that I just didn’t care. I loved being out there, it was the most enjoyable body of work I have ever done.  You are out on some dirt road, the car window is open and the wind is blowing, its beautiful and no one is bothering you, the doing of that body of work was just so fantastic. I gave myself permission to do it even though I didn’t think it was particularly cutting edge.'

There's enjoyment and fun in there and a sense of just getting things done and not thinking about it too much. I detect a sense of glee in those chasing dog pictures too. Glee on the part of Divola. He shot them with one hand on the camera, one on the wheel and you can imagine him teasing the dogs as he accelerates and coasts, accelerates and coasts, winding the dogs up as he goes. That might be why they look so mad. Or maybe that's a desert dog thing. I don't know. 

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