Black Fu Dogs
by Matthew Offenbacher
Jeffry Mitchell’s pair of Black Fu Dogs (2007) crouch on low pedestals with a few inches between them, roughly identical, bilaterally symmetrical, stoneware glazed a brilliant and shiny black. Their bodies are densely encrusted with floral, human and animal forms. I can make out flowers, ears, elephant heads and trunks, balls and cocks; holes which look like eyes, ears, mouths, assholes; tubes bent into tree limbs, pretzels, bows. Their presence is both playful and menacing, charming and grotesque, teddy bear and Darth Vadar. Fu Dogs—otherwise known as lions of Buddha or auspicious lions—magically protect sacred sites. Variations are found all over the world, flanking stairs that lead to temples, palaces, and emperors’ tombs, or (in their contemporary mode) restaurants, libraries, and homes of wealthy people. So what are Jeff’s Fu Dogs guarding?
Their uncanny doubling makes me think of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ 1991 Untitled (Perfect Lovers). Two clocks, the kind you’d find in an office or kitchen, hang side-by-side, just touching, on a wall painted light blue. They start with the same time but slowly move out of sync during an exhibition—clockworks being imperfect and battery life unpredictable—until one, and then the other, stops entirely. Like the Perfect Lovers, the Black Fu Dogs will likely separate someday; one will be lost, or sold separately, or broken. This is the inevitable and melancholy fate of ceramic pairs, like the nineteenth-century shepherd lamp sitting by my bedside, long separated from his shepherdess.
Gonzales-Torres is celebrated for bringing humanism to some of the most astringent forms of minimalism. His work and Jeff’s share some of the same big themes—the fragility of love, the vulnerability of relationships, the treachery of time. Jeff’s achievement is to also insist on the central role of sex. Love is carnal as well as spiritual, and loss is not just time passing, but bodies coming together and apart.Karsten Harries, in the first of three lectures published by the Catholic University Press, tells the history of modern art as a progressive emancipation from non-aesthetic concerns. Art long served religious, social, allegorical and political ends. A few hundred years ago, however, art began to primarily serve art. The aesthetic replaced the sacred. Modernism, “light without love” as he puts it, sought a beauty which “delivers us from that sense of contingency and arbitrariness that is so much part of our life”. This drive for autonomous beauty came at a great cost. Cleaving art from life requires stopping time, or at least believing time could be stopped. By denying the passage of time, modern art excluded all that accompanies such an understanding: vulnerability, a fear of death, a desire for redemption.
But beauty need not be thought against time, where to think beauty against time is also to divorce light from love. Such thinking presupposes that “spirit of revenge” in which Nietzsche located the deepest source of human self-alienation. For we cannot affirm ourselves except as embodied selves, that is to say, as vulnerable and mortal, to be overtaken by time. If we cannot make our peace with time, we also will not be able to make our peace with all that binds us into time; with our bodies, our sexuality, with a beauty that is linked to love. It is the spirit of revenge that bids us think beauty against time and separate light from love.
A gap has opened between what we desire art to do, and what it actually does. This is one of the great problems of contemporary art. How do we make art more true to lived experience?
One approach has been to reject aesthetics, and seek beauty in ideas, exchanges, bodies, situations. This can only work, however, by relinquishing some measure of control over objects—and the seductive, magical, moral properties they possess. The opposing approach produces objects so spectacular and audacious, they map the shape of modern alienation. These super-aesthetic objects, however, constantly risk becoming what they critique; by flaunting the “spirit of revenge” they end up denying the body, and denying that love is anything more than self-interest.
The power of Jeff’s approach is the ease with which he rejects this split. The Black Fu Dogs are embodied and vulnerable, spectacular and audacious. They guard a radically simple idea in their sexiness: beauty is the way your body is with other bodies in time.