Dog Days of Summer

Rhonda Lieberman at the first dOGUMENTA


Last Sunday my dog Rulo and I caught the final afternoon of dOGUMENTA, a three-day event promoted as “America’s first art show for dogs,” organized by NYC-based art critic Jessica Dawson and Mica Scalin, a creative development consultant and partner at Another Limited Rebellion, an art and innovation studio.

It was a slick operation, as one would expect in a highly branded environment like the Waterfront Plaza at Brookfield Place, a luxury retail and housing development on the North Cove Marina. Dog-friendly art aficionados might recall Brian Jungen’s elaborate Dog Run designed for Documenta 13 in 2012, in Kassel, where lucky pups romped in the idyllic Karlsaue Park on structures riffing on Mies’s modernism.

In contrast to that more aesthetic scenario, dOGUMENTA had the vaguely cheesy vibe of an arty attraction where canine and human visitors were subtly hustled along a course of ten dog-friendly installations from entrance tent to exit tent, where reps from TD Bank offered dogs water, a bag of treats, TD Bank collapsible water bowls, and a “thank you for stopping by.” It’s the public-art quandary du jour: how not to throw out the aesthetic baby with the bathwater of audience engagement and crowd control. I’m not sure dOGUMENTA managed to do that. But it was fun, and I celebrate interspecies communion.

For humans, handouts provided user-friendly blurbs explaining each piece and its appeal to dogs. (I had debated whether to schlep the dog, in a taxi, but I’m so glad I did. Sans dog at this event, I’d feel like a childless lurker at a playground.)

Patrolling the scene, Dawson was a woman with a mission and a shtick, which she regaled me with as I took out my notebook:

She had been experiencing overload, as one does in the art world if one actually reads the ocean of press releases in one’s inbox. It gets harder and harder to see (or even want to see!) the work. Enter rescue-pup Rocky, a Morkie, through whom Dawson rebirthed her engagement with Art and was seized with evangelical fervor to “give back to the canine community.”

I recalled Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not of seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

It was like that for Dawson and the Morkie.

Gallery-going with Rocky, “life and art were one,” she enthused. With a Carl Andre, for instance, “he just went and sat on it, vibrating with pleasure. He doesn’t have the inhibitions like we do. I just admired the way he went straight up to the work, his fearlessness. We can learn from Rocky—this dog has something to teach me about looking: art and life were one.”

(I silently empathized how tedious it is to hit one’s mark with the press every time while she pressed on.)

“[You know] on Twenty-Second Street that Beuys piece––we see it all the time but we don’t see it anymore. Rocky has been there a hundred times—every time we walk by, the Joseph Beuys piece is fresh. He takes it in as sculpture-in-the-round, and, yes, he pees, and that’s a kind of art criticism—marking—like I’m buying it at auction: ‘It’s mine.’ You and I, we see a Jeff Koons and roll our eyes”— Ha! Her too?—“but for Rocky, Koons is always new, always fresh. This is how Rocky inspired me and now it’s time to give back to the canine community!”

She gestured at Eric Hibit’s Harmony in Blue and Yellow (Balls in Suspension): “Colors dogs can see—they can’t see red.” And at the Paul Vinet Fountain, where dogs are invited to pee, “with their natural interest in mark making,” a riff on Warhol’s “Oxidation” paintings. And at “the olfactory aspect” of Dana Sherwood’s piece, with dog patisserie on pedestals, “which introduces the tension between owner and pet, who’s allowed to eat and when.”

In galleries, Dawson would lift up Rocky to see art at (human) eye-level. Happily, here all pieces were doggy height. The curator credited “Rocky’s input on studio visits (where) he was hand-in-paw with us.” When he sat on a pink miniature sofa in Graham Caldwell’s studio, “That is it, we said, that’s the piece.”

As the recipient of her ardent talking points, I felt like I was being “marked.” No doubt subliminally, since everything vaguely smelled of pee. (Bonus for the dogs!) Promotional crassness was alleviated by the ebullient pups and their humans, frantically dogumenting their pet at the event, which, like all art these days, was a collective photo shoot for social media.

#Image 2#

Charlotte, a brown “lab mix, mostly hound,” enjoyed Sherwood’s food sculptures shaped like “Victorian-era tiered” confectionary. “Hungry little critter,” chuckled her dad. “She’s a chubby.” While other dogs were diffident, perhaps questioning the work, Charlotte was busy chomping away chunks.

“Is this her first art exhibition?” I was impressed.

“She’s eating it up!”

Apollo, a dashing black dog with red sunglasses, proudly strutted through the space off-leash, which wasn’t allowed, but he was so charismatic he pulled it off. I later saw him promenading on the stunning marina, charming everyone, with the Statue of Liberty in the distance and gleaming white boats bobbing in the dock: “This is rich Wall Street money,” a gentleman in a caftan explained to his family, observing the scene from a park bench.

The joyfulness of dOGUMENTA was indeed in how people shared the works—or just life—with their pups and, yes, like the awakened Dawson, tuned into canine joie de vivre. Doggos are social beasts: They love to paw-ticipate. And people love to document it all to “share,” busily snapping away so we can mark the internet like a vast virtual fire hydrant.

Rulo was just happy to hang out. (I had to place him on the Vinet piece to get that shot.) He was most taken with a Westie named Scotty. He waggled and gave him the old ear sniff, which meant his intentions were serious. Whenever we crossed paths, I felt like we were creeping on that dog because I knew . . . (he wasn’t the only dog cruising dOGUMENTA).

After Scotty, he really dug our time with performance artist/reiki master Kathryn Cornelius. Her installation Sit, Stay, Heal featured cushions, fluffy fleece throws, and reiki-charged stones in a large bowl of water: It was a meditation area bordered by branches gathered “from upstate, with her arms, like a dog would” (per Dawson).

“It’s like Burning Man. Awesome!” cooed a basic with vocal fry and a Yorkie named Jax.

Along with Bronte, a moppy type (named for the novelist), Bruce, a rat terrier, and their mothers, Rulo and I participated in a human-canine energy session led by Cornelius, radiant in a white jumpsuit and oozing positive vibes. I ran a crystal along Rulo’s chakras, massaged him with lavender oil, and chanted intentional, soothing words to clear our auras. By the end of the session, even in the blazing sun, in the hectic bowels of the Financial District, Rulo was completely blissed out. Until that point, he was more engaged with the general scene than any particular piece. Then I realized he simply prefers performance art.

Or OMG, is my dog a closet Burner?