No Country for Canine: Extension of Human Will

中文版​

 

CHU Feng-Yi

 

I. Contemporary Thinking of De-anthropocentrism

 

An expression found in any language, “dogs are man’s best friends” is an idea familiar to almost everyone, like a truth existing before the fall of Tower of Babel and shared by people of ancient societies. Yet upon reflection, is it good or bad for dogs to “become man’s best friend”? Examining from this angle Wu Chuan-Lun’s solo exhibition No Country for Canine in 2019, one finds the title seems to disclose the answer. As stated in the statement, “Starting in the 19th century, due to the liberation of animal power after the Industrial Revolution, dogs were raised for play and company rather than for labor as the primary function… Meanwhile, the pursuit of singularity in terms of breed led to an attentiveness toward blood and symbolism of names and eventually came to partly conform with scientific and political thought at that time”. In other words, domesticated and bred by man for tens of thousands years, dog -the animal closest to man- gradually lost the ability to survive alone in the wild and became “extended from our will to civilization” stated in the statement. This is the subject of the last video in the exhibition, A Craftwork Canine, which more directly reveals the series’ theme: like ceramics, dog breeds are artificially shaped and their births, names, evolutions and even disappearances are closely related to ideas, values, faiths of society at the time and the evolution of man’s will. But from another perspective, 83% of wildlife has disappeared since the birth of human civilization. Did dogs escape the fate of extinction for being man’s best friends? This required a Faustian price. On the following evolution path, the species deviated from the mechanism of natural selection, moved toward practical and recreational ends for man and became subordinated to human spirit as an extension of it. Seen from the exhibition statement or tendencies of A Craftwork Canine and Grafrath: A Schäferhund Story, two video works in the show, the artist neither appreciates nor esteems man’s power to replace natural selection and dominate species evolution but rather proposes a somewhat sad reflection. Such concern and thought on man’s power to change species and the world might be seen as the real subject of No Country for Canine. Therefore, the show actually shall be examined in a larger historical context: the wave of “de-anthropocentrist” reflection that attracts much attention recently. If the wave did not start with concern and debates on global warming when the millennium began, it peaks in discussions about Anthropocene in recent years. Seen from this angle, the reflection of this show also manifests man’s will to civilization in our era and represents synchronicity of such zeitgeist.

 

II. Nationalism and State Authoritarianism

 

“Extended from our will to civilization” brings home the idea of No Country for Canine series. As for the concept of “will to civilization”, it approximates to the “zeitgeist” termed by Germany Romanticist, Johann Gottfried Herder, meaning the overall tendency of culture, scholarship, science, spirit and politics of a group (like nation or community) in a certain period; the overall aura, morals, social beliefs and trends of thought of an epoch. Obviously, in terms of the content, one specific will to civilization (zeitgeist) discussed in No Country for Canine is “nationalism” in our era. In Domestication of Nations - Canaan Dog (Bedouin Sheepdog), Georgian Shepherd, Catalan Sheepdog, Wu Chuan-Lun demonstrates the construction of three dog breeds into symbols of national identity through the play of nationalism of three regions. Purebred - Four Shepherd Dogs relates how Germany Shepherd Dogs were further divided into four breeds for geopolitical reasons and man’s need to differentiate for identity construction. When Collecting Becomes Breeding – Taiwan and When Collecting Becomes Breeding – Europe, these collection display differences between ceramic shepherd dogs made in Taiwan and Europe. In When Collecting Becomes Breeding - Taiwan traces Taiwan’s past political, economic and social situations. Those ceramic from Taiwan are mostly coin banks which might relate to the past policy promoting saving; the dogs are mostly upright and sitting, presumably for capitalizing the kiln space and facilitating ring toss games at night market booths. The image of “shepherd dog” also bears certain historic traces: the first Germany Shepherd Dogs in Taiwan were probably introduced by Japan government in good terms with Germany at the time. At the Second World War’s end, the Kuomingtang took over the colonial rule and most military dogs. Germany Shepherd Dogs having served military and police purposes also obtained an image of authority, status and wealthiness, becoming popular among a public that accepted an authoritarian system. In short, whether the construction of Germany Shepherd Dog breed or Taiwanese shepherd dog-shaped coin banks and their popularity were all affected by nationalism, authoritarianism and values of the era, as being extended from such will to civilization and representative of the zeitgeist.

 

III. Conceptual Transformation: Zeitgeist in Contemporary Art

 

A more interesting aspect might be the creative process of the works of No Country for Canine. If dog breeds are compared to ceramics and extended from our will to civilization, ceramics or, more generally, art-making is also extended from and representative of the will to civilization. Such extension can be material and technical: ranging from ancient mural paintings, animal bone accessories, use of natural paint, carpentry, costumes to the invention of bronze ware and corresponding handicrafts and even pottery, art-making is a response to material usage and technical evolution of an era. Such extension is also societal and discursive: from praising the religious sublime, showing a political community’s identity and emotion or community status and wealth to seeking material and formal transfiguration in the context of modernism, art-making is never just about personal recreation or catharsis but rather manifests a contemporary community’s collective will and spirit. Similarly, contemporary art also revolves a will to civilization or manifestation of zeitgeist[1], which I term as “conceptual transformation.” If pre-modernist works seek to represent objects as the ways they present themselves, artistic representation in the modernist context undergoes the first transformation. As was elaborated by Arthur Danto, such transformation is formal: flatness, the consciousness of brushstroke, and the rectangular shape that replaces perspective, foreshortening and chiaroscuro, becoming the features of modernist progression. In modernism, simulating representation only plays a secondary role; the art of painting becomes “the object of representation”,[2] However, as for contemporary art, its development leads to the second artistic transformation which is conceptual and discursive. With its expression no longer emphasizing the formal transformation, artistic representation, the representation of art shifting its focus back on artistic objects and media, exploring and analysing their given signs and imageries in certain societies and cultures. The analyzed ideas, signs and imageries are drawn by artists as creative elements and used to produce final artworks, achieving the “conceptual transformation”. Such “conceptual transformation” can be perceived in works in No Country for Canine. The most evident example is Formation Deformation Dogformation. Neither attempting to represent dogs’ appearances nor representing with “transformed art forms and techniques”, Wu Chuan-Lun starts from social imagery and concepts of the treated object (dog), transforming the representation of objects. This work relates to at least two social imageries: first, the constructedness of dog breeds (reflected in the evolution of body types); second, imageries like “educating”, “discipline”, “reform”, etc. in concepts of “dog agility training”. Taking the two imageries as elements, Wu represents the objects anew through drawing and sculpture (ceramic), diversely transforming ceramic shepherd dogs’ bodies following the traces of their movements in agility training. The choice of ceramic as material certainly also conforms with the attempt of the series (early Taiwanese ceramic shepherd dogs coin banks) and it subject: “Like ceramics, dogs are artificial shaped”. Consisting of documentation, Those Officially Called As, Commonly Known As (Or Not Being Called As), Used For (Or Not Used For) Guarding, Herding Or Driving Livestock—Sheep, Goat, Cattle, Reindeer, Alpaca; Registered (Or Not Registered) With The FCI, Only Recognized (Or Not Recognized) By Local Kennel Clubs; Ever[1]Exist, Rare, Extinct Or Modern-Mixed Pasture Dog Breeds, Their Nationality And Appellation Written In The Language Of The Country, And Their Geographic Origin, Possible Consanguinity And Naming History is another example of conceptual transformation in contemporary art. Documentation exposition per se is actually a way to represent objects with texts or files. Objects of painting and sculpting usually carry an objectiveness allowing for direct observation and measurement with the senses (sight) whereas objects (or events) represented by documents and files are more conceptual and exist more subjectively through collective memories like knowledge, history or folk tales. Similarly, documentation or archive representation can also attempt to approach some reality of objects (or events). But this piece by Wu aims at something else. In deliberately naming with a long, detailed and rather functional description (regarding use value) and analyzing on the base of nationality, he aims to reveal the constructedness in conventional archive management and knowledge classification. In other words, the work revolves representing the nature and concept that “all documents are constructed”. “Conceptual transformation” also reoccurs in his past works in addition to No Country for Canine. Like in Museum of Taxidermy (2009 – 2013), he uses 3D computer graphic to make contrasts between “taxidermized images” beyond the frames and “visualized taxidermies” within the frames. Representing “conventional taxidermy display, the work further explores relations among ideas of taxidermy, image capture, exhibition, representation, etc. In JTC (2012 – 2017), he uses ceramic, a symbol of refined culture, to represent common pot plants seen in Taiwan contained in blue barrel for industrial raw materials or wastes, which is also a transformation based on conceptual contradiction (refined culture vs. grassroots life). As for Angle-Fortune (2016 – 2017), it represents stone piles by the valley near Baekdamsa Temple in Korea through 3D scanning, archiving documentation and paper sculpture; pre-modern religious rites and faiths are transformed and represented with modern scientific ideas of measure.

 

IV. No Country for Canine: Four Wills of the Times

 

Analysis with ideas of will to civilization or zeitgeist facilitates understanding of people’s faiths, values, morals, cultures, political ideas and artistic expressions of different times and societies. No Country for Canine clearly reveals how will to civilization and zeitgeist shape various activities of man, including breeding (and extinction) of species and art[1]making. No Country for Canine at least approaches four clearly recognizable wills of the times: nationalism by the late 19th century, state authoritarianism in the early 20th century, contemporary art transformation in the late 20th century and, in the early 21st century, Anthropocene reflection on man’s role and consequence of man’s actions. Wu Chuan-Lun likens No Country for Canine to a session of ring toss often seen in Taiwanese night markets; the target to be ringed is the tiny peg at the intersection of “the animal that cannot make a voice (dog), artificial object (ceramic) shaped after them, and the history of producer (man)”. I think he successfully and precisely rings the peg as well as the aforementioned wills to civilization qualified as marks of modern human historical development.

 

[1] By definition, “zeitgeistis “community sensitive.” Applying it to analyze “contemporary art” means regarding such art as a unique existence developed in the West's art history context, which involves any professional familiar with this context and makes art or discourses in it, despite of his/her region and nationality.

[2] 2 Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art : Contemporary Art and the Pale of History. Princeton University Press, 1998.

 
 
 

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