Exhibition Project
Becoming Animal, Becoming Human
Animal Perspectives
Eija-Liisa Ahtila

Dogs play a rather important role in Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s work. The 2005 video “The Hour of Prayer,” for example, is a sad and beautiful declaration of love for her deceased dog, Luca; in “Okay,” from 1993, a woman speaks of her desire to become a dog. In the eight-part photo series, “Dog Bites,” created concurrently with “Okay”, this fantasy is realized. A naked woman is captured imitating dogs in various poses. The artist has explicitly denied rumors that she is the model in the pictures. Nevertheless, according to the commentary Ahtila provided to “Dog Bites,” in a certain way she is this woman, since in the act of taking these photographs she transfers her own posture, history and attitudes onto those of her model. In the end, anyway, the model is the one actually emphasized in the photos and Ahtila merely takes them. The status of model and author is thereby obscured, they become one – as generally in processes of becoming, fixed identities as starting and end points are obsolete.

In each picture, the naked woman is seen filling the space of the frame: Scratching herself, panting. Additionally, there are poses which ironically suggest the other transformation processes: The woman “gives her paw,” thus acting like a dog which is, conversely, imitating a human greeting and, indeed, usually on the command and at the whim of its “master.” In another photograph, the female creature lifts her hind leg just like male dogs do while urinating, thus mimicking male territorial behavior. The performance captured in the photograph contains more than a simple performative analogization of woman-bitch, but alongside this becoming animal is also becoming man and becoming human. In so doing, Athila subverts Deleuze and Guattari’s becoming animal concept, which always signifies a becoming minority as well. On the other hand, the female nature of the protagonist, emphasized by her nudity, implies the preliminary stage of becoming woman, mandatory for Deleuze and Guattari, for all becoming processes and reaffirms the cliché of woman’s closeness to nature and, therefore, to animals.

It bears mention, too, that the femininity and unspecified identity of the person portrayed clearly differentiate this work from – at least at first glance –comparable works like Maurizios Cattelan’s photograph “Me as dog,” Oleg Kulik’s performances as a dog, or the older performances of Salome or Valie Export, each of whom leads a partner on a leash. To be sure, however, Ahtila’s photo series also refers back to these forebears which – motivated in part by emancipatory impulses, either feminist or anti-speciesist – introduce the dog as the artist’s alter ego.

In the broader context of Ahtila’s human drama, “Dog Bites” can undoubtedly be read as the personification of a psychotic state, which manifests itself as a cliché of dogness and lived “female” hysteria.

Jessica Ullrich

Dog bites, 1992 - 97, 8 color photographs

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