Essay by Chris Sharp
What makes Nina Beier’s Tragedy (2011) a tragedy, or rather, why is it titled as such? After all, what happens here is not strictly speaking tragic: the artist invites dog owners to bring their canine companions to come and play dead on an outsized persian carpet for a period of time. They are not dead. They are merely playing dead. Nor does the so-called tragic content of their performance conform to the traditional, Aristotelian terms of tragedy (essentially: the hubris-fueled fall of a hero from grace). In fact, to call this work a tragedy borders on malapropism, or a kind of misnomer. However, one suspects that this is, to a large extent, the proverbial point.
As usual, the Danish, Berlin-based artist Nina Beier manages to sketch out a series of virtually indomitable paradoxes with a few deft strokes. Dog, carpet, tragedy. Glancing at the work, you might not initially glean the vast, unbridgeable gap between the elements (dog and title), and think, “Right, tragedy, got it.” But linger a moment and the mind rapidly begins to reel. What is ostensibly a memento mori, or more literally speaking a still life, or even better in French, a nature mort (dead nature), is but a specious reminder of death. ‘A specious reminder’ in the sense that not only is the dog not dead, but dogs, as is well known, do not die, since they do not know, as far as we know, that they can die. Of course, this does not mean they do not cease to exist, but their deaths are not anticipated by the anguish of death nor succeeded by the ceremony that acknowledges it. Thus is the fact of making them “play dead” but an egregious, self-indulgent anthropomorphism– one which, incidentally, becomes symbolic of the will to anthropomorphize tout court. However, the specious quality of this reminder, and what is more, its genuine and paradoxical pathos does not necessarily issue from there, but from somewhere altogether more grotesque. Curiously enough, this work, and the alleged nature of its tragedy, is strongly evocative of Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991). Beier’s Tragedy at once confirms, complicates and undermines Hirst’s three-dimensional philosophical proposition, and in doing so discloses the quaint and charming fiction of a dog playing dead as the prodigious, mind-bending anomaly it really is. If as Hirst proposes, living human beings are effectively incapable of grasping death, fully comprehending it, even in the overwhelming face of it, then what is happening when we train a dog to play dead? Which is to say, what are our motivations when we oblige the animal to submit to an ‘activity‘ that not only is it incapable of understanding, but of which furthermore, we ourselves cannot properly grasp. Such an invitation seems to presume a hierarchy of comprehension, but that hierarchy is essentially specious, in that it is all but equally shared. If it is not shared, it is so in its conception; where the dog cannot conceive of death, the human can, but without, of course, being able to intellectually follow it through to the end. In this sense, a dog playing dead functions all at once as a wish fulfillment, a betrayal of human incomprehension, and finally a flawed and perfect metaphor for human death– all of which is embodied not in the fact that the dog plays dead, but that it gets up after playing dead, that it can stop playing dead, that death is an act, that death can end, turn on and off, like a thought. This would seem to be the secret behind the dog playing dead: our childish wish to see death contravened, thwarted, eluded. But when all is said and done, it, whether we like it or not, already always is. We could be said to be fictionalizing what we already half-consciously know to be a fiction (which is actually a truth). And yet this changes nothing, for, as we all already know, dogs and humans still continue to die. And maybe that is the real tragedy here, replete with its own fundamental act of hubris– the will to and subsequent incapacity to understand that which is inevitable.
Nina Beier @ Art | 43 | Basel