William Wegman: His First Dog was a Genius.
The Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu’s first international touring exhibition since the record-breaking Ron Mueck show in 2011, opens in April. American photographer and conceptual artist, William Wegman’s, Being Human, surveys 30 years of photographs of his internationally renowned Weimaraner dogs - Man Ray, Fay Ray and her litter of pups. Like Mueck, Wegman has been well received internationally by prestigious galleries like the Smithsonian and also through popular culture in television shows like Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live.
His arresting, yet deadpan images of his Weimaraners have their origins in his work from the late 1960s when performance art, video and photography challenged given ideas about the exclusivity of the experience of art in public gallery spaces. A graduate from The University of Illinois he remembers the 60s as the era in which the camera became a preferred option for many emerging artists. ‘The camera was a way to make video and photo pieces that weren’t like anything else that I had seen. They were sort of a whole new territory. You could have a photograph or a work in a magazine or a book. That was as good as being on a museum wall.’
‘I was a young artist in my early 20s and photography was a new thing. I was learning it, actually being taught by some of my students. I had a position in Long Beach Wisconsin and some of my students taught me how to print and develop. That really had an amazing effect. Video was also available and I figured out a way to use it. It was really mesmerising. It really spoke to me and transformed me. I started that way - and on the way I got a dog.’
By good fortune, Weimaraners are a breed that thrives on human company and Wegman’s first Weimaraner, Man Ray, featured in his early video work and photography, setting a high benchmark, he says, for his work over the next 5 decades.
‘There was just me and him in my studio usually. He saw me trying to figure out how to use this camera. He was kind of fascinated with that, maybe in a way that a hunter would be with his hunting dog checking out the gun or whatever it was.’
Filming Man Ray’s performances, Wegman ‘fine-tuned’ his approach, (see: Two Dogs and a Ball, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxsypEOXpik), distancing his work from the conceptual provocations of artists like Joseph Beuys. Wegman says that he wanted his works to be more ordinary and really bland. ‘Some of my heroes were the Canadians, Bob and Ray who did radio in the 1950s. They were droll and deadpan and I used that as a strategy. It was really appealing to reach audiences that weren’t grounded in whoever the critics were talking about.’
‘My first dog, Man Ray was a genius and I was severe in my editing and that created a cathedral of work that was quite intimidating - even to myself. I had this dog that was so attached to me so, weirdly creative and also kind of spooky and grey - and not kind of cute. That was also an important factor. I never dressed Man Ray as people or characters, that was my second dog, Fay Ray, where I just let all hell fall out, and part of that reasoning was the Polaroid camera that I had to fill that 24 x 20 inch frame. My first photographs were always black and white and they were not big, but the new ones, I just let my guard down and draw up my manifesto from one week to the next into all these new territories.’
Fay Ray also had puppies and Wegman says that was also significant to his work. ‘It really exploded. It went into all kinds of areas that I couldn’t have predicted from that conceptual art period.’
‘She had 8 puppies and I worked very closely with 3 to develop all different kinds of work. The fact that they were grey and you could do anything with them. The fact that they wanted to do it was pretty interesting too.’
Wegman comments that the subjects of his photographs ‘are always in a state of becoming. Look at what they are now; they are in a family. Oh now they are another kind of animal. They can be transformed into all these things. It seemed like mythology to me, like Egyptian Gods with human bodies and beaks and so forth.’
‘I was always weary of dressing the dogs up as people, so I avoided that with the first dog and always felt a little squeamish about that - whether that was a thing to do or not? Then I decided that it is okay . I was thinking about the act of photographing the dogs and how calm they get when I am working with them. How mesmerised and happy they get. Which is so rewarding, the fact that they crave doing it in a very serious way, not in a goofy-dog way, but in a profound way.’
William Wegman, Being Human
Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu
Cnr Worcester Boulevard and Montreal Street,
6 April – 28 July
1. William Wegman, Constructivism, 2014, pigment print, credit @William Wegman, courtesy of the artist
2. William Wegman, Cursive Display, 2013, pigment print, credit @William Wegman, courtesy of the artist