by Mary Paterson, 2005
Shari Hatt, a photo-based artist from Halifax, Nova Scotia, is the first artist to be selected for the Canada Council for the Arts British Residency Programme. Her exhibition at SPACE is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and The Canadian High Commission, and features the photographic series Dogs (1999), Black Dogs, Series 1 (2001-2002), Black Dogs, Series 2 (2001-2003) as well as some of Hatt’s work in progress. It is the first opportunity to see Shari Hatt’s work in the UK, in an exhibition that explores ambiguity surrounding issues of identity, consciousness and self.
The exhibition space at SPACE Studios is transformed into three distinct sites. A selection of the series Dogs lines two bright yellow walls, the animals’ characterful faces presented to us like a canine hall of fame. Hatt’s photographs conform to every humanist portrait tradition — symmetrically framed head and shoulders, eyes staring straight out at the viewer, exquisite focus and attention to detail — and the temptation to humanise the dogs is immense. There’s the long eared, large eyed Goldilocks gazing plaintively from her frame, or the lopsided mongrel looking out at us like the village idiot.
The photographs are also deliciously tactile in their simplicity. Against luscious green drapery, the dogs’ fur seems as soft and luxurious as a Renaissance veil; their big, dark eyes swallow you in their mysterious depth. Attractive in both their physical and personal presence, Dogs presents strikingly individual portraits.
In the largest exhibition room this characterisation takes a more sinister turn. The gallery is painted dark grey, with a huge, unlit mass of shadow in the centre. In opposite corners of the space are the two series of Black Dogs: black dogs shot against a black background, and black and brown dogs on a black ground. Spot lit, they loom out of the dark of the rest of the gallery. The effect of the monochrome (or near monochrome) format highlights the physical delicacy of the images — soft, velveteen fur curls out from the immeasurable recession of black ground, and dewy noses peep out of their frames. In the dark atmosphere, too, the dogs’ eyes are all the more compelling. A mongrel with brown eyes stares desperately from his corner, instantly gripping as a focus for light, colour, and, apparently, consciousness.
Here, in the more intimate atmosphere of the grey gallery, the issue of the dogs’ characters becomes increasingly problematic. The yellow space, with its different breeds, colours and sizes of dog, lets us play light-heartedly with anthropomorphism and the imposition of personalities on strangers or celebrities (don’t we do it every day with Heat magazine?). But the darker space invites more personal engagement with these ‘portraits’, along with the complexities this entails. The fact that many of the black or black and brown breeds are the types of large dog most people are a little scared of both adds to and diminishes the feelings of unease. A large, meaty Rottweiler stares simply out of one picture, his soft brown jowls apparently arranged in a smile. Any relief you might feel at seeing such a friendly Rottweiler is immediately countered: the realisation comes that it isn’t human, and its ‘expressions’ cannot be read.
Here the desire to identify with these attractive, portrait-format images is opposed by the desire to be distinct from them, to reassert the separation between species. Are the dogs transgressing human/animal boundaries by confronting us in this way? Or are we transgressing, as we find ourselves intimately drawn to the animals? In the Project Room, containing some of Hatt’s ongoing work, this uncertainty is highlighted once more.
The room contains three large photographs of hunters with their quarry. These are found images from Hatt’s native Canada and they show men proudly displaying their kill to the lens. One man spreads the wings of a huge, limp eagle in front of his Schwarzeneger t-shirt; two other men hold up the bleeding body of a slaughtered deer. The sight of these grinning humans starring in their own documentary of gruesome victory is a shock. Whatever your views on hunting, the modern human detritus next to awesome, naked nature immediately questions the relationship of power between our species and others, and questions the extent of consciousness we inhabit or attribute to others.
In fact, with their eyes taped over, we have less to engage with in these men than in the Dogs. In her commentary, Hatt points to the ritual of hunting as male bonding. “[For these men]…hunting is not seen as a humanitarian way to deal with an overpopulation of wildlife, nor is it hunting for survival, it is mastery over one’s crummy circumstances”. They have become the animals – driven by instinct and competition, and stripped of individuality – while the dogs have become individuals.
The head-and-shoulders portrait format was originally developed to emphasise the power of the intellect over that of the body, and it is striking how effective it is even when the subject flies in the face of that conclusion. Conversely, it is striking how strong a sense of otherness is created by taping over the hunters’ eyes, or in one case omitting a head altogether. And as the hunters dismiss any safe distinctions between human as self and animal as other, they add a new twist to the three Dogs series. With which do we identify most strongly? With which can we identify at all?
In fact, we objectify both the animals and the humans. We can only ever guess at the true identity of either; the personalities staring at us from their familiar formats or the anonymous figures caught in silent celebration. Hatt questions the way we attach significance to other beings, and in doing so evokes issues surrounding the nature of personality, individuality and, ultimately, how we construct ourselves.
Mary Paterson is a freelance curator and writer based in London, England