241 Things

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241 Things

Have you ever wondered what goes through a dog’s mind? I know I have, especially for two particular dogs I’ve had in my life. They were my best friends and I will always remember them.

Growing up, I didn’t have any friends and my parents thought it would be a good idea to get a dog for the family. We adopted a nine year old shepherd from the animal shelter named Tosca. This old girl became my best friend. I even like to think she saw herself as my guardian and me as her pup. But seeing her age she only lived for a couple of years. And one day while I was petting her noticed that her nipples were bleeding. I ran upstairs to tell my mother, she said we had to go the veterinarian to check her out. Her voice sounded reassuring and her facial expression didn’t change, so I thought everything was going to be okay. But I cried all the way to the veterinarian anyway, I was so scared because I knew something was wrong.

My hunch proved true when we arrived. The vet told us she had breast cancer. I remember thinking “that isn’t so bad, cancer can be cured right?” But things wouldn’t be that easy, it would have meant a lot of medical attention and she was already very old. Besides, my parents didn’t have the money or time to take care of her. At that moment I couldn’t comprehend any of this, I was so angry that they were putting her to sleep.

She was my best friend! They knew that, right? She can’t leave me yet!

That night of one of my dear friends died. I held her andshe licked away my tears comforting me. It should have been the other way around.

Until this day I am still wondering what went through her mind. Did she know she was ill? Did she understand what was happening to her? I blamed myself because I was the one who discovered her bleeding nipples. I thought that if I hadn’t anything she would have lived at least one more day.. Then I would have had the chance to say goodbye to her, to give her the best day of her life.

When she passed away, Tosca left a huge gap. I felt alone again when I came home. I missed her presence. I missed talking to someone. My mom vowed to never take a pet again, she couldn’t take the emotional drain it took to see an animal die. But I just couldn’t handle the silence. The house was so empty without her. I started looking around for a new dog, a new friend. I convinced my parents and I found a program that transfers stray dogs from Spain to the Netherlands. That’s where I saw Jimmy.

Everything you can think of was arranged by the organisation, his passport, flight, vaccines, you name it. I only had to pick him up from the airport and pay of course. When the moment was there, my mom and I drove to the Airport Schiphol and awaited him. I was so anxious and nervous. “What if he doesn’t like me, of what if I don’t like him!?” I even had nightmares about it. My mom assured me it would be fine, and gave me a bag of treats that I could give to him. We went to the assigned gate and saw more people waiting for their adopted pets. I panicked and didn’t want people to take my future friend so I made sign with his name on it. Nothing could go wrong now.

I kept wondering what kind of dog he was and if we could get along well. The first thing I knew for sure was that Jim was really good at giving paws. It was the first thing he did after he got out of the cage. I gave him a treat every time he did. But he kept doing it, so I ended up giving him the whole bag of treats. For me it was love at first sight.

In the end he became my best friend, where I went he went with me. He was the first one I saw in the morning and the last one I said goodnight, we were inseparable. He was just nine months old when I got him and I taught him everything I could teach him on my own. He understood me like no one else could and I loved him. But I grew older, made friends, started dating, got a job and started studying. I still tried to take care of him the best I could, took him wherever I went if it was possible and my parents would sometimes even look after him. On top of that I started living on my own and it became impossible to take care of him, I felt immense guilt when I left him alone at home and I didn’t have enough time for him anymore.

A couple of months ago, I had to give my best friend away.

He lives with a couple on the countryside now, it sounds ideal but I wonder if he agrees. I will never know if he’s happy there or if he’ll miss me. I threw a goodbye party the day before he got picked up by his new owners. I thought that would make things easier and it would give me a chance to say goodbye. But he had no idea what was happening and just went happily along with it. How do you say goodbye to someone that doesn’t know he’s leaving? Sometimes I wonder how things would have been if I knew what he thought. Did he bother being alone, did he wanted to stay with me? Would he have said goodbye?

Felix Gonzalez-Torres: When people ask me, “Who is your public?” I say honestly, without skipping a beat, “Ross.” The public was Ross. The rest of the people just come to the work.

Ross Lalock was Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ partner. When the doctor diagnosed Ross with HIV, he assessed his ideal weight to be at175 pounds. Portrait of Ross is precisely that: 175 pounds of candy collected into a mound. By the invitation to take one of the candies, the viewer becomes part of the work and becomes more than simply a viewer. Every morning, the mound is replenished until it’s back at its ideal weight.

These candies are not only a representation of Ross’s weight, but also one of his struggle against the illness. HIV emaciates its patient, but the weight of the soul remains the same and allows for the patient to carry on, day after day.

Each day, the work risks being reduced to absence as the mound dwindles to nothing and no candies are left, in which case the viewer would be responsible for the lack of an artwork. And every day, Gonzalez-Torres plays this game with his audience, allowing them to decide the form of his work. With his work, art becomes fluid and in movement, but also in constant risk of disappearing.

A black and white photo of an empty bed with two pillows. A slept in bed. This is the artist’s own bed. The image was exhibited at the Projects Gallery at the MOMA, as well as on twenty-four billboards around the city of New York: Second Avenue and East 97th Street in Manhattan and Third Avenue and East 137th Street in the Bronx. None of these places were related to the art world of museums, galleries, and collectors. The number, twenty-four, relates to the date on which Ross died.

With Gonzalez-Torres’ sparse and tranquil photograph, the barrage of images that overwhelm New York pedestrians was temporarily paused. No text was supplied to explain the text. And there was no intention, as other billboards typically have, to lure the passerby into buying something. It was nothing more than a photograph of an empty bed with two pillows and a crumpled sheet. An image of private space manifesting itself within public space.

Gonzalez-Torres’ decision to refrain from showing Ross’ image can be seen as a political act. Typically for that time, depictions of AIDS denoted a discerning breach between the homosexuals and the heterosexuals. The sick homosexuals and the healthy heterosexuals. Gonzalez-Torres refuses to depict Ross. With his billboard, Untitled, he depicts the invisibility of the gay community. But he refuses to place himself in opposition to the dominant population, as Robert Mapplethorpe was doing. Gonzalez-Torres invites the viewer, regardless of their sexual preference.

Gonzalez-Torres: Go to a meeting and infiltrate and then once you are inside, try to have an effect. I want to be a spy, too. I do want to be the one who resem­bles something else [….] We have to restructure our strategies [….] I don’t want to be the enemy anymore. The enemy is too easy to dismiss and to attack.

But Gonzalez-Torres also uses other strategies to include absence in his work. By allowing the viewer to take a part of his work, he plays with the role of the artist and the role of art. The role of the artist as designer, the role of the artwork as form. His work displays and art that is not static, but susceptible to constant change.

Gonzalez-Torres: Go to a meeting and infiltrate and then once you are inside, try to have an effect. I want to be a spy, too. I do want to be the one who resem­bles something else [….] We have to restructure our strategies [….] I don’t want to be the enemy anymore. The enemy is too easy to dismiss and to attack.

To what extent is it his work?

Gonzalez-Torres:Perhaps between public and private, between personal and social, between fear of loss and the joy loving, of growing, changing, of always becoming more, of losing oneself slowly and the being replenished all over again from scratch. I need the viewer, I need the public interaction. Without the public these works are nothing. I need the public to complete the work. I ask the public to help me, to take responsibility, to become part of my work.

The hunt is a symbol of the desire for the One. The hunter appropriates the power to love, to experience total bliss in the ritual. But no matter how beautiful and seductive the game is, the hunt is tragic. Sandor Marai sees his wife as prey, Petrarca regards love as a tasty poison and also for Leonardo da Vinci pleasure and grief are intertwined. Whatever is hunted or seduced, ambivalence always reigns.

A real hunter has a gun. Not a pistol, but a big, long object that kills: a rabbit, a deer, a hare. A hunter is a murderer. The hunt evokes images of a kennel of dogs, hunter’s garments, the scent of forests and wet leaves. A drop hanging from his nose.

This came to mind when I looked at a white dildo-like thing, with a cute pair of antlers at the top that resembles twigs. The white, elongated sculpture has a seam that runs crosswise, which makes it resemble a toy: I was once in the possession of a plastic doll with a crosswise seam. The white renders the sculpture innocent, the shape reminds of a female body with a Bambi-like head. The art work is called Deer Squirrel and is made by New York artist Robert Beck (1959). On the internet one can find a picture of another of Beck’s works, material: gunpowder on paper. A white sheet with gunpowder, black powder in a circle as if a shot has been fired. Bambi, the hunted deer, shot by the hunter.

The book Portraits of a Marriage by the Hungarian author Sandor Marai contains a wonderful scene in which the narrator and protagonist sneaks up to the woman he desires. He approaches her as if she were a prey and, later, reminisces the scene to explore his motifs: ‘It is very possible that at that point I still had the hope, deep, very deep inside my heart, that somewhere in the world there would be a body that could harmonise completely with mine, and with the help of which, I could transform the thirst of desire and the saturation of satisfaction into a mild quiet – corresponding to the dream people call ‘happiness.’ The mistake of this thought was that happiness as such does not exist, but I did not know that by then.’

It basically comes down to the protagonist’s pursuit of ‘happiness’ and whether it exists or not, it is clear that it is a temporary state and not a remaining constant. Happiness is like life, it passes. Love, in all its shapes, demands exactly the opposite: something infinite, forever, like the soft murmur of a PC when we write something. In other words: as long as we live, we have the duty to love. It is because of this that love, seduction, is always paired with desire for death, the fixed stasis of a moment with the wish to efface oneself and to coalesce. The hunt – evidently linked to murder – is a symbol of this desire for the One. The hunted object is, in a sense, always innocent and the hunter appropriates the power to love, to experience total bliss in the ritual: aiming the gun, the silence in the forest, slinking past crackling leaves, a beautiful hit. Finally, a corpse always remains, until the next hunt. Seduction, true seduction, is surely accompanied with play and flirtation, in which all innocence has been put aside and one is no longer a deer, but perhaps a squirrel, cheerfully jumping up and down, ostentatiously, from branch to branch. Or like in New York, the city that Beck comes from, a rat who scrounges around waste bins to find a meal – ‘tailed rats’ is the nickname for rats over there.

Ah, that sweet seduction, the lovely game of flirting. The French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) painted many pictures of women in lace dresses making advances on men in wigs. One of them depicts a woman on a swing, below whom is a reclining young gent who can see under her skirts as she lifts her leg and lobs her left shoe to him. The images of this French Rococo Painter who lived at the time of Louis XIV, the Sun King, now seem gaudy to us. The French Revolution forced him to give up his career in painting; he spent his last years doing administrative jobs and finally died in obscurity. His love life I have not studied, but his paintings show the appeal of forbidden, secret pleasures. The ritual of the hunt is also marked by the forbidden, because it is in silence –in secret- that the hunter approaches the prey to avoid being discovered and the bounty escaping. No matter how beautiful or seductive the game might be, the hunt remains a tragic affair. The killing is cold, sometimes repulsive, sometimes necessary. It is always the shot that matters. A hit or not?

Fragonard's The Swing

The famous philosopher Petrarch (1303-1374) wrote the following on love: ‘Despite myself I love, forced by faith to sadness and tears.’ He adds that love is ‘a hell that fools make into their paradise’, a ‘tasty poison’, ‘an attractive torment’, and ‘a death that has the look of life.’ Put differently, pleasure and grief are inextricably interwoven, like Siamese twins.

Petrarch (1304-1374)

Leonardo da Vinci made an allegorical drawing that shows two men who share torso and legs. They represent Grief and Pleasure. The one man is old and wears a twig from an oak tree, the other is young and has reed in his hand, carelessly dropping some golden coins. Da Vinci provided the following commentary: ‘They are depicted with their backs to each other for they are each other’s opposite, but sprout from the same trunk for they share the same origin. (...) Pleasure has been depicted with some reed in his right hand, insignificant and weak, that can cause nasty wounds.’

Da Vinci's drawing

The pursuit of pleasure or the sublimation of love in the mind by chasing dreams, that is what matters to Da Vinci. The latter is bigger, more intense that physical lust: the dream of the One is linked to wishes and fantasies that always end in grief. Whatever is hunted (a girl, a young boy, an older one) ambivalence always reigns here, as a swing that arouses in us an alternation of fear (this is too high, I might fall) and joy (I’m flying). Up and down, from heaven onto earth – ouch, what a desire.