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Look up Reagan's dog joke and decide why it's not as funny

I


All knowledge, the totality of all questions and all answers, is contained in the dog. 

—Franz Kafka


For lacking a better, fresher game, let's start by addressing the dog in the room, which is the last and least noticeable (and therefore, by definition, most haunting), animate object one can possibly be attracted to.


A dog, a canine being, pseudo-alive, rests by one of the many white doors in this humble space, carrying out only the (un)natural task of breathing, constantly and quietly. One understands—right away or after a surprised pause, or even after a gentle, incredulous touch—that it is but a machine, a counterfeit, a fake dog that is nothing other than a hardened blanket over an electric device that sustains its life — if there were life to begin with, that is. Most telling even before appreciating the mechanism at work here, is of course the apparent fact that the dog is tailless, acaudate; limbless, apodal; and, most pertinently perhaps, headless, acephalic. Perhaps one names her Adam. Or Louis XVI.


To be sure, it is not obvious from a first glance that Adam (what an ugly name) is but a torso, a furry trunk, and is not itself (David E. Johnson on imagination, in Kant's Dog: "The operation that makes it possible to see and name, to know or to recognize, a dog as a dog, makes it impossible that the dog will ever be one."); an onlooker has to fail in the attempt to look for the head or the tail before she can comfortably or uncomfortably conclude that no, the dog really does not come with a head, or anything else for that matter. It is a strange being that consists of the minimal appearance of a dog — a furry, barely noticeable curl that is more or less about the size of a stray (yet healthy, telling from the rich hair) dog.


Finally catching a glimpse of this dog-machine, we take the time to think about it, compensating for the fact that it is rather impossible for us to truly experience or comprehend it. It is, first of all, not an object of taxidermy or plastination. As Jane C. Desmond defines the following concept in Displaying Death and Animating Life, it is not even an object of antitaxidermy (effectively and compellingly rendering it an impossible word for our own purposes and appropriations), a practice that makes absent "the skins that are the essence of taxidermic work on animals."


Desmond explains that, making sure that on display are plastinates—human corpses without skins—is how Dr. Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds exhibitions have become morally acceptable and "the most visited touring exhibits of all time." Another remarkable aspect of the dead men show Desmond also examines, is its strategy to genericise human bodies—this of course comes with the fact that all of the bodies are shown with no skins on, radically naked. 


Our lazy gingerbread animal is immediately recognisable—in other words, sufficiently or even overwhelmingly generic—exactly because it is curled up in fur. Fur, or pelt, marks the essence of this dog. The last point from the book worth comparing here may sound banal in Desmond's context, but is quite something in our case: The animal has to be dead—no matter for how long it had lived—before taxidermy or plastination can begin. The practice concerns a postmortem time. Our breathing, sleeping dog that falls asleep as the evening blushes—a post-time—is not dead in the first place, but life-less, from head to tail.


Also talking about taxidermy—we selfishly emphasise the life-likeness, realist principle (some'd even use the ugly, overused concept of uncanny valley) of taxidermy or its other—Giovanni Aloi in Speculative Taxidermy points out that it "has the ability to grasp the viewer’s attention in an artworld that is most regularly too distracted by shock tactics, sleek surfaces, and vacuous narcissism." Which are, one is tempted to say, all the qualities Adam does not possess. We read in Aloi's beautiful book once again the famous passage from "a certain Chinese encyclopaedia" ("The encyclopedia divides animals into the following categories: a) belonging to the Emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) sucking pigs, e) sirens, f) fabulous, g) stray dogs, h) included in the present classification, i) frenzied, j) innumerable, k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, l) et cetera, m) having just broken the water pitcher, n) that from a long way off look like flies.") that singles out our unassuming stray dog (is Adam stray though? I hope so and hope not) in a separate category, and a number of eye-opening examples with which Adam could be compared, such as Steve Bishop's It's Hard to Make A Stand (2009), a horse whose invisible head is that of a dog (again, the head of a dog is of cardinal importance elsewhere), or Nicolas Galanin's Inert (2009), a wolf whose "flattened inside of the hide" directly in contact with the ground makes an unequivocal declaration of its death, differing itself from Adam, who sleeps and breathes comfortably on a mat that separates itself from the cold ground.


II


I never sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death.

—Nas


But sleep is the cousin of death. Is it not? That's the problem with Adam, if it is problematic at all (regrettably, we are not leaving this poor thing alone, it will be where the first clumsy, greedy cut insinuates itself): its quiet, un-disturbing and undisturbed existence is suspended between life and death. The Wallace Collection in London is at the moment staging a lovely, crowd-pleasing exhibition of Portraits of Dogs from Gainsborough to Hockney, making available a good selection of representations of dogs—from presenting the real thing then, we retire into representation. I hope they are highlighting Jean-Honoré Fragonard's or Jean Baptiste Greuze's dogs.


Here is a celebrated, goofy representation of a dog (that may not be in Wallace Collection's current show): futurist Giacomo Balla's Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912). Close to and is in fact partly inspired by Eadweard Muybridge's chronophotography we revisited some months ago, Balla's painting depicts a cute little black dachshund who has "not four legs, but twenty," skittering excitedly forward. Although Balla as many of his peers was fascinated probably less by life than by speed itself, the "universal dynamism" that he emphasised in painting (again, after the invention of chronophotography; the timeline makes it funny in hindsight) is inseparable from life—or machine, for that matter. As they put it in Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto:


The gesture that we want to reproduce will no longer be a moment in the universal dynamism which has been stopped, but the dynamic sensation itself, perpetuated as such. 

Indeed, all things move, all things run, all things are rapidly changing. A profile is never motionless before our eyes, but constantly appears and disappears. On account of the persistency of an image upon the retina, moving objects constantly multiply themselves, change shape, succeeding one another, like rapid vibrations, in the space which they traverse. Thus a running horse has not four legs, but twenty, and their movements are triangular.


In stark and amusing contrast, the dog-machine that Liao Chien-Chung built in 2016 (A grown dog now! Is she too old?) was almost motion-less, uninterested in its immediate surroundings, and in expressing joy, excitement, anger or fear—displaying freezing tension is Francis Bacon's Man with Dog (1953) which was allegedly inspired by Balla's work—but is only concerned with maintaining a basic vital sign. How does this acephalic dog breathe, in fact? And, is it more important than the fact that it is rendered motion-less, and emotion-less, since it is also limbless, and tailless?


III


Privatization begins with the emission of a phenomenon that expands. Then a whole country is tied up by appropriating all the trans mitters. Yes, the media replace the motors, proof that noises are not by products. Space is full of loudspeakers. The system of sound traverses the differences, from West to East. Everywhere, all the time, his master's voice, for the one become a dog. 

—Michel Serres


When people talk about dogs, they talk about loyalty, faithfulness, fidelity and vigilance. This is the basis upon which Patricia Simons reveals in Puppy Love: Fragonard's Dogs and Donuts Jean-Honoré Fragonard's perversion in paintings such as Young Girl in Her Bed, Making Her Dog Dance (c. 1768–1775). Some six years after her exhibition Days are Dogs at Pailais de Tokyo, Camille Henrot also and again speaks of dogs on the occasion of her exhibition Sweet Days of Discipline at LOK Kunstmuseum, St. Gallen: "Dogs in and of themselves are a very direct representation of dependency and the ambivalence between caregiver and receiver." Later in the same interview, on a different but related subject: "I became interested in the body posture of someone guarding, attending to others, and waiting for their duty to end. There's often an exhaustion and a tenderness to it, too." Well, Adam, aren't you somehow embarrassed as you are, perfectly at ease, shying away from all your strengths, your post, and your responsibilities?


Unlike the "golden-coated, slender, elegant hunting hounds" called tjesm that the ancient Egyptians placed exceptionally in their society and hearts—Michael Rice dedicated the affectionate book Swifter than an Arrow (the last chapter of which is beautifully titled Tail-End) to the extraordinary dog—our Adam is most common, breed-unspecified, un-vigilant, foot-in-mouth, headless, literally and figuratively. She has fallen asleep and is not aware of it. Speaking of the fate of our own species and further complicating Adam for us, however, Bataille in The Sacred Conspiracy emphasises exhaustion, renounces reason, and declares the significance of becoming acephalic in relation to the universe:


Human life is exhausted from serving as the head of, or the reason for, the universe. To the extent that it becomes this head and this reason, to the extent that it becomes necessary to the universe, it accepts servitude.

…Man has escaped from his head just as the condemned man has escaped from his prison. He has found beyond himself not God, who is the prohibition against crime, but a being who is unaware of prohibition. Beyond what I am, I meet a being who makes me laugh because he is headless; this fills me with dread because he is made of innocence and crime…


In Adam we discern Bataille's human wish to escape from exhaustion, reason, and servitude. I feel Adam more or less along these lines, although it is unable for her to wield weapons or flames like Bataille's monstrous being, as defenceless as she is: "[Sh]e is not me but [s]he is more than me: [her] stomach is the labyrinth in which [s]he has lost himself, loses me with [her], and in which I discover myself as [her], in other words as a monster." But just to reiterate, for the last time, rather unlike Bataille's and André Masson's depiction, Adam, who is herself anti-uroboric, is marked by a rather distinct lack: the lack of a tail, a language, a sign. Good night Adam, let the parasites in.

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