Thursday, November 14, 2013

'Agnetha Sjögren: The Story' at Curious Duke Gallery

My Angel
Sometimes it feels like artists don't know how to have fun.  Gallery after gallery is stuffed full of painfully serious works about the nature of loneliness, symbolic acts of torture and your bog-standard crushing misery of existence.  Not here though! Sjögren's The Story is a tour through the artist's life through the medium of model dogs wrapped in various coverings; each with a name, backstory and even a personalised passport.  

The most common type of wrapping are vintage comic-books, so we see dogs covered in panels from Tintin, Batman, Modesty Blaise and The Phantom.  Others are dressed up as Prada handbags, sprinkled with gold dust, wrapped in designer fabrics, embossed with Union Jacks or dressed in intricate patterned leather to give the effect of chocolate. It's refreshingly upbeat stuff and I found it next to impossible to keep a smile from my face as I moved from dog to dog, each one teaching me a little more about the artist.

With such tight focus on dogs, it's a bizarre twist that Sjögren doesn't like dogs very much at all.  Through the work she explains that she seeks to create her ideal dog; in her words, a dog that doesn't "eat, bark, jump, bite, drool or need to go out for a poop.  They sit and stand nicely all day long." In some respects the subtraction of all these doggy attributes defeats the point.  After all, if it's not jumping up and licking your face, barking stupidly at nothing and shitting all over the rug is it really capturing the 'dogness' of a dog?  Somehow, even without all this, it does, and I'd go so far as to say that with this work Sjögren has captured something of the core of why they're man's best friend.


Unlike a person (or, for that matter, a cat) a dog will never judge you.  They unconditionally love their owner, and exist in a constant state of complete emotional nakedness.  They're so transparent in their feelings that they have a big wagging sign showing their exact mood stuck on top of their arse.  So, in choosing dogs as a canvas for her experiences she mirrors this openness, the essential honesty of the dog underlining her own.

It's theorised that dogs don't have the same perception of time as we do, they live in a series of infinities - always entirely in the present moment.  So, when we're there, we're there forever, and when we're away we're  gone forever.  Using them as a canvas to capture moments in time,  to convey a certain smell or sensation is therefore entirely appropriate. So even though Sjögren doesn't dogs very much, she definitely understands them.

The photographs and original dogs on display work as interesting design pieces in their own right, recalling Pascal Knapp's CowParade and Marc Spits' Elephant Parade, two very similar public art exhibitions where models of animals are given to local artists, schools and businesses etc to decorate and place around a city. Those exhibitions tend to function as street furniture; objects with the aim of looking neat and brightening up the place.  These dogs are similar, the difference being the addition of the individual and the continuity between the dogs; the descriptions alongside the work absolutely crucial to fully appreciate it.

Tant Gul
So, My Angel, while aesthetically pleasing in its own right, gains new gravity when we learn that it's composed of old bookmarks from the artist's childhood, some scavenged from generations of her family.  In Tintin Bang, we're told that "time spent reading them as a child took me away on adventures in my imaginary land."  The atmosphere is one of dreamy, half-remembered childhood, times when the fortitude of superheroes and brave secret agents felt like that most important thing in the world.  The most touching is Chocolate, decked out in embossed brown leather, looking good enough to eat - Sjögren explaining that this dog captures the smell of her grandmother's secret hot chocolate recipe.

Each dog has been constructed with careful attention to detail; particularly in the way the comic panels wind down around the dog, with special care taken as to which panels fall over the dog's paws, eyes and heart.  So we see "a perfect family" over one dog's heart, or Tintin descending a long rope down a dog's leg.  Special care has also been paid to the dog's arse something special being placed on each one.  On My Angel, there's a butterfly and wide-eyed cherubs staring out at you - a playful and clever touch that I appreciated.  Many of the dogs were only on display as photographs and was slightly frustrating knowing that they have these clever touches all over them that were hidden from them

I was a bit trepidatious that this exhibition was going to be overly saccharine.  The art I usually see is along the lines of people cutting their arms open with razorblades and gravely intoning about the death of the soul, so cute dogs with designs plastered over them is a swerve into fluffy loveliness. The height of this sweetness was a display around a little fireplace with Christmas baubles hanging over it, dogs of various designs gathered around, their leads resting on the floor.  

This powers into the realm of kitsch with reckless abandon, and when Sjögren told me she had a background in designing the layout of shop windows a piece of the puzzle fell into place. Given the focus on the artist's personal experiences this art could very easily be dismissed as a touch solipsistic and if you're even more uncharitable, the dog focus could be read as a bit commercially minded.  But frankly I don't care, this stuff was a welcome break from much of the art I've seen lately, which is all-too-often cold, conceptual and abstract to the point of unfriendliness.  Here there's an aura of happiness and innocence that I was powerless to resist.  The longer I looked, the more I could feel an oddly festive spirit unfurling inside me.

Cute?  Yup.  Kitsch? Almost certainly. Shallow? Arguably. Warm-hearted and playful? Definitely.

'Agnetha Sjögren: The Story' is at Curious Duke Gallery, 207 Whitecross Street, EC1Y 8QP until 6th December - open Monday to Friday 11:30 - 18:30, Saturday 12:00 - 16:00.

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