In much of the developed world, dogs are pets, cherished as members of the family or as symbolic protectors, and often bred, groomed and held up as signs of social status. Historically in art, and particularly in portrait painting, thoroughbred canines figure prominently – alongside material commodities – as signifiers of wealth, fidelity and elite sportsmanship. Elsewhere dogs do not have the same heritage; they are treated as pests and health hazards. Stan Denniston’s video installation Los soñadores (The Dreamers, all works 2010) comprises portraits of dogs living on Havana’s streets. The work plays with tensions between purity and filth, between domestication and the raw instinct to survive, between private ownership and public responsibility. These animals are not cute and cannot be comfortably inserted into Cuban tourist-board narratives about vintage cars and charming architecture.
Nine old television sets were scattered around the floor of Olga Korper Gallery, each showing a tightly focused shot of a different raggedy dog at rest, apparently not noticing the sounds of traffic and the movement of passers-by. Compared to contemporary flat-screens, these monitors – with their well-worn knobs and dials – were assertively sculptural. The canines on their screens are friendless mongrels. Similarly, the cracked pavements surrounding these subjects are scattered with weeds and refuse, which contribute symbolically to the notion that Cuba’s system of beliefs is, like the dogs, somewhat weathered and worn out. At one point, however, the dogs suddenly wake up, en masse, and rise to their feet. Denniston presents this moment in slow motion, instilling an intensity and gravitas to this basic motion; they are being prodded to move on, displaced perhaps as wandering refugees – or they are being compelled to awaken to the influence of another culture, instead of only focusing on survival.
Denniston represses the tendency to romanticize these notions, adopting an uncompromising realism that is reminiscent of Martha Rosler’s similarly repetitive treatment of deserted streets in The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1974–5) – a non-sentimentalizing and compelling means of treating social problems such as poverty and alienation. This realism is enriched by a series of four photocollages (‘Dreamers Storyboard’), each a gridded arrangement of stills derived from the videos. The images unsparingly focus on details of the animals’ abused and scarred bodies, on gestures such as a single paw raised in supplication and on unflattering shots from behind, homeless and groggy hind legs stumbling along. Some do have alert ears, and seem ready to spring into action, if only they were called upon to participate. Without too much pathos, Denniston provides his destitute subjects with a surprisingly rich semantic life.
First published in Issue 133