The body of work that makes up ‘I dropped a stick at the side of the road’ started with a cat, or more precisely, with the absence of a cat. On a trip to Porto last July, Raphael Linsi found the artist friends he was visiting in a state of emergency. Their beloved pet, Penha, was missing, and they were frantically searching for her. It was a side to the couple, who he describes as “sensitive but tough”, that Linsi had never seen before, and it sparked in him an interest in looking at the human/domestic animal relationship: a relationship which began somewhere between 15,000 and 50,000 years ago with the domestication of wolves. On a return visit to the city, he arrived with a video camera and spent extended periods of time with Penha, hoping to develop a bond with her. The attempt was largely unfruitful. Penha more-or-less ignored Linsi, seemingly indifferent to her key role in his artistic research.
There is an obvious absurdity to trying to make a cat love you. One that reminds me in passing of the works of the Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader, in particularly his repeated efforts to defy gravity in Falling I (where he films himself falling off a roof) and Falling II (riding a bicycle into a canal). What links Jan Ader and Linsi and makes their attempts intriguing is not the silliness of their activities but the seriousness with which they partake in them.
More success was to be had in Berlin with Omar, the pet of another of Linsi’s friends. That Omar is a dog should come as no surprise to any dog owners reading this. The war between canine and feline owners, largely conducted these days via Internet memes, is based on the premise that dogs are either loyal and loving, or stupid and gullible. By the same logic cats are either intelligent and self-reliant or pretentious, unfeeling assholes depending on to whom you talk to. Whatever the truth, Omar was more susceptible to Linsi’s charms and their interspecies alliance was the starting point for the seven works in this exhibition.
While in Porto Linsi was resigned to sitting inside the apartment and waiting for Penha to return, in Berlin he began to take Omar for walks. As dogs will often do, Omar sniffed or picked up certain objects that he was attracted to. The relationship between canines and human waste is more meaningful than one may originally think: it is a widely held belief that domesticated dogs came in to being due to opportunistic wolves who fed from the trash produced by human settlements. Fascinated by this tale of co-evolution, Linsi began to work Omar's finds into his research, tracking the walks with the GPS on his phone and noting the original positions of each of the objects that Omar found before taking them home. These readymades are the first pieces that one encounters upon entering the exhibition. The mundane objects, including a table tennis bat, sticks of varying lengths and lots of food wrappers, are displayed like museum exhibits in two specially made vitrines titled Dog walk I (Torstrasse) (both works 2016) and the slightly larger Dog walk II (Volkspark Reheberge).
Linsi calls the process that created these works “the dog as curator”. While it would be easy to see this as an ironic comment, if we choose to take this seriously as a concept it acknowledges the specific physiology of canines and their ability to ‘curate’ through smell. It is not just that dogs have a better sense of smell than us (a beagle’s nose has 300 receptor sites compared with human being’s six million), but that they ‘see’ in odors. In short, dogs do not have to exhale in order to breathe in more air but can “continually refresh what they smell, without interruption, the way humans keep ‘shifting their gaze to get another look.’ *1 The book from which I’m quoting, Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog, asks us to forget our human-centric idea of knowledge and to attempt to see the world from the position of our pets, and in many ways Linsi’s vitrine works ask the same thing of us.
Linsi was also interested in the environmental factors that inadvertently affected Omar’s decisions. For instance, when it rained fewer objects were picked up and when it was very hot the opposite is true. There were also civic factors at play. Certain areas in Berlin, for example, are full of litter, but when Linsi took another dog for a walk in wealthy Switzerland he realized that there simply wasn’t much trash for the animal to find.
Public order is also an aspect of Architecture for Animals (2017), located in the second room of Oslo10. Two heaps of leaves sit directly on the floor of the exhibition space no different from the piles made in public parks across the world by city workers. Linsi’s interest is in the fact that the desire by humans for orderliness creates spaces that are adapted by reptiles, insects and small mammals alike and used as temporary shelter. Although this could be seen as culture (human) imposing on nature (animal). In her 2003 essay The Companion Species Manifesto Donna Haraway argues against what she calls “The story of Wilderness before the fall into Culture2,” stating, “flexibility and opportunism are the name of the game for both species, who shape each other throughout the ongoing story of co-evolution”.
A third pile on the floor Untitled (2017) is responsible for the intense smell in the exhibition space. It too is the result of a wish for order, but of a different nature. Linsi has been working with washing detergent as a medium for a number of years now. Whereas previously he has used the detergent to create paintings, for this iteration he has dispensed with the canvas to make a clearer his interest in the use of the material and its biological, psychological and environmental implications. As Roland Barthes has said, advertising campaigns for commercial soap powders and detergents “call into play vanity (and) a social concern with appearances3”, which we now know is at the cost of our environment as well as our own health.
The last two works, fixed on adjoining walls, couldn’t be more different in both size and stature. One is a deflated ball, printed with the words Il sole (the sun), which Linsi found while on a run. Once used for team games, Ball (2016) was most likely passed onto a dog and then broken. The ball, rather like the stick of the exhibitions title, is an object that is endlessly lost, found and lost again in public parks by multiple species. The second, a 2.8 x 3.2 meter heart Heart (2017) has been fabricated from reinforced steel. Standing in stark contrast to the ephemeral and often perishable nature of the other pieces in the exhibition, this reinforced steel sculpture could potentially last thirty-five times longer than the average human lifetime.
– Chloe Stead
*1Taken from the New York Times review of Alexandra Horowitz’ Inside of a Dog. See http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/13/books/review/Schine-t.html
*2Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto, 2003
*3Roland Barthes, Soap-powders and Detergents, in ed. Mythologies, 1957
The exhibiton is generously supported by Kunstkredit Basel-Stadt.