At first glance, it seems we might be witnessing the pages of some couture magazine sprung to life — or, rather, larger-than-life. But instead of the usual cadre of long-limbed, smoky-eyed women lounging in decadently furnished rooms, we encounter images of male power, vanity and eroticism. Using amplified detail, Dog, by Swedish video artist Annika Larsson, explores issues of dominance and submission, control and conformity.
Here’s the scene: Two men — one young, one middle-aged — meet against the backdrop of an enormous, gray-clouded sky. The figures loom large against this sky-canvas, and the effect seems a little like the inflated reptiles in old Japanese monster movies. The young man, who wears a dark suit, pale-blue shirt and thick, collarlike gold chain with padlock, waits expectantly as the older man approaches, leading an immaculately groomed brown dog by a silver chain. The middle-aged man wears an impeccable, expensive-looking gray suit, crisp and sterile as the blank sky that bears down on them. His shirt, like the young man’s, is pale blue and is set off with a matching silk tie — and he wears glossy black gloves that leave the base of his hands exposed. A silver watch chain drapes at his breast. As he approaches, he shows no sign of acknowledging the younger man’s presence, keeping his back turned, his face reflecting an attitude not unlike the studied nonexpression of fashion models.
What ensues is a quarter-hour or so of tensely charged interaction between the two men and the dog. As in fashion photography, exquisite attention is paid to detail. The video moves at a languid pace so that every motion, facial expression and object can be savored and absorbed. The camera pauses for an extended gaze at each of the disparate objects — the luster of the dog’s short brown fur, a shiny black glove, gleaming silver chains, the golden padlock at the young man’s neck. You get the sense that something important is taking place, and you are drawn in.
Underscoring the video’s precise and decelerated movement is a pulsing, electronic sound track composed by Tobias Bernstrup (pictured below). The music works to direct the viewer’s attention, stopping and resuming at relevant points in the piece.
Apart from their compelling surface beauty, the featured objects contain some innately disturbing qualities: the fascist, militaristic connotations of the gloved hands, the dog, the metal chains, the uniformlike stiffness of the men’s suits. Erotic undercurrents flow through the exchange as well. There are S&M references in the leather and chains, and harnessed sexual virility symbolized by the male dog. Plus, the figures’ carefully meted approach, acknowledgement and interaction carry the weighty feel of a kind of courtship.
Heightening the tension, discomfort and sense of ambiguity, Larsson’s close-ups expose the subjects’ physical flaws and characteristics. We’re confronted on multiple occasions by views of the young man’s flushed and blotchy complexion, his watery eyes and strangely pained expression. In the closing scene, the older man waxes near-sinister as his mouth slowly stretches into a lurid, yellow-toothed grin.
Dog doesn’t abandon humor — the images often come off exaggerated and weirdly comic. For example, in the video’s final moments, the older man offers his subservient companion (the younger man, who is also the “dog”) a treat. The absurd humor works well here, because the piece is, after all, a study in opposing forces: dominance and submission, physical flaws and sterile perfection, animal energies and “civilizing” constraints, youth and age, identity and conformity. All the manifold poses and guises of power.
Dog will be at Cranbrook Art Museum (39221 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills) through Nov. 17. Tobias Bernstrup, performance and video artist, presents his own work Saturday, Nov. 9, 7:30 p.m. in the museum’s deSalle Auditorium. Call 1-877-GO-CRANBROOK.E-mail Christina Kallery at email@example.com