Dog day afternoon
Canine art is the latest in English eccentricity. In the first ever dog-as-artist exhibition, Kali the golden labrador reveals her 'sculpture' . And for a nation of dog-lovers, the joke's on you.
Tuesday 04 March 1997
The dog's first solo exhibition - the first by any canine, for that matter - caused the sort of stir you might expect from a happening intended to bait people who love dogs more than artists: the BBC sent a television crew, as did two of the big American and Canadian TV networks.
About 100 people crowded in the ground floor gallery in Old Nichol Street, in London's artist quarter. Spotlit in Perspex cases on white plinths were a dismembered pink plastic nail brush and a grey cordless BT telephone handset (some play on dog-and-bone rhyming slang, surely), both displaying Kali's characteristic dentations.
On the wall: three plastic dustpans, yellow, blue and red, chewed beyond repair, a gnawed textbook on the sculptor Brancusi and an audio cassette with corners missing. Prices? Hundreds of pounds - to anyone willing to negotiate.
Kali's first appearance at the opening was on closed-circuit television, snoozing in her favourite armchair in the room next door. A personal appearance, it was feared, might overwhelm the precocious two-year-old. But she ventured in, sporting a new flea-collar, to discover the truth about gallery openings: the wine-bibbing throng faces inwards, backs to the artworks, chattering loudly and trying to avoid catching the artist's eye.
Friendly by nature, Kali pressed her nose against leg after leg without getting a response and was then chased by a cameraman and crew brandishing bright lights. Over-excited, she was led away, tail between her legs.
A woman reporter from Montreal, Murphy Cobbing, confided to me the angle she was after: "English eccentricity at its best." But she was having difficulty finding any English to make fun of. The crowd was mainly French, Italian, Russian and Czech, arty young emigres living and working in London. Even Kali's owner, a woman artist, is Italian. She shares the gallery with a Russian artist. So where was the English joke?
Kali's agent, Anthony Rendall, a car rental employee who is French, came clean: "It's an English joke, all right. You have to allow us foreigners to crack one good English joke in our lives."
No wonder Kali got her nose put out of joint: foreigners prefer artists to dogs. Rendall's opinion of the Brits: "You love your dogs more than any other creature under the sun. On the other hand, you distrust contemporary artists intensely. Given this context, you will understand that Kali's offerings were intended for a British public."
And, while mocking your average Brit, why not mock the British contemporary art scene as well? "London has been branded by the media as the art capital of the world," said Rendall. "Any new name with a new angle gets immediate exposure." Judging by the as-if-scripted quotes from the assembled foreigners, the in-joke had been doing the rounds. The brother of Kali's owner, Giovanni Brighi, 31, portfolio manager at a bank, said: "Everyone should have Kali's relaxed, Buddhist attitude to life. She never struggles to create her art. She is at peace with herself."
Not quite true, as it happens. His sister, who declined to give her name on the grounds that it would distract attention from the artist, admitted she had been concerned that Kali's destructiveness was abnormal. "I've been told that labradors usually stop chewing things up when they are six or eight months old, but she's two-and-a-half and still at it. Now I take the view that she should be allowed to express herself artistically in the way she chooses."
I did manage to ascertain that the name Kali - that of the Vedic goddess of destruction - had not been dreamt up just for the show. But by the end of the evening, after four dozen bottles of wine had been drunk, nothing seemed real. Even the dog - much-loved British breed, playmate of rosy- cheeked children - seemed suspect. Do not labradors come from Newfoundland? Is an alien dog steeped in Eastern culture and owned by foreigners to be trusted? Cave canem, as the Romans used to sayn
Kali Sculpture is at 5, Old Nichol Street, Shoreditch, London E2 to Sun, noon-7pm daily (0171-739 4652)
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