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MOCAtv: William Wegman & His Weimaraner Dogs

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In Partnership with MOCAtv: MOCAtv is a new, contemporary art video channel, developed as a digital extension of the education and exhibition programming of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

The Weimaraner is a dog that has become synonymous with artist William Wegman. Long before his work became a household presence, Wegman began his practice of making still photographs and experimental videos -- sometimes with the aid of his dogs Man Ray and Fay Ray. In the early videos, Wegman would perform tasks such as posing coyly in a sarong while holding up his elbows to create the illusion of having breasts, or dribbling milk out of his mouth for Man Ray to lap up behind him. These gestural tasks were in loose conversation with contemporaries like, Skip Arnold, Bruce Nauman, and Peter Campus -- artists who were exploring the body, formal composition, and expression in the early ages of video art.

Perhaps the best-known video of Man Ray and Fay Ray is one in which the two dogs follow a ball held by Wegman's off-screen hand. Their behavior is utterly familiar, yet the framing and isolation of the activity makes it uncanny: each dog has an individual character, but still responds to the stimuli predictably in tune with the other. This work calls into question the human element in performance art: if many performance artists perform based on explicit direction, could we not consider Man Ray and Fay Ray to be performance artists, too? Through these simply constructed works, Wegman reveals the mannerisms behind manners, the impulse behind action, and brings us to consider ideas about cognition and propriety. Thrust into the frame of conceptual art, the Weimaraner's actions put into relief the very performance of human.

Working with man's best friend gives Wegman's work an inherent, perhaps instinctive charm, one that has led to the artist's creation of iconic film shorts for Sesame Street, Saturday Night Live, and most recently the Colbert Show. Part of the humor to Wegman's work is that the dogs' heads are positioned over the bodies of human actors, creating a hybrid being whose head, whose "soul," is motivated by instinctual desires that are quite different, and often counterproductive, to the rote tasks that the body performs. The universality and humanity of this humor is one of the reasons why Wegman is one of the few artists to have achieved such widespread success and acclaim across audiences both young and old, niche and mainstream.

In other bodies of work, Wegman explores parallel themes of nature, transcendentalism and the didactic tools people create to understand the natural world. This past summer, Bowdoin College Museum of Art was home to a comprehensive exhibition of the artist's work, largely drawn from his rarely-seen personal collection of drawings, photographs, video, collages, and nature books. "Hello Nature" featured over 100 works that were all produced or inspired by the state of Maine, Wegman's summer home for the last three decades. Literally taken from out-of-doors and from inside the artist's personal life, these works coalesce into a perhaps quieter and sublimated reflection on the same recurring issues of human nature that were expressed in the early videos.

Some of these rarely seen videos will be broadcast this week on the Museum of Contemporary Art's online channel, MOCAtv. Inside his upstate New York studio, William Wegman describes how he came to working with his dogs and the process behind three rarely seen videos: "Spelling Lesson" (1974), "Ordinary Deck" (1997), and Installed "Guitar" (1998). Produced by filmmaker and art documentarian Peter Kirby, the interview is the latest video in the West Coast Video Artist series, an original lineup of interviews and rarely seen works by seminal West Coast video artists - only available on MOCAtv.

Here is William Wegman in his own words:

The first year, I made a video in Santa Monica, and I was showing it at Pomona College. We borrowed a deck to play it on, and the person who brought the deck back recorded over a whole year of my work! So the first two years of video, just no one has ever seen it more than once.

But then I settled in with a machine that I got at White Front made by Sony, sold by General Electric. It was reel-to-reel, half-inch and that became what I later called, "Reel 1." I ended up making a total of 10 reels over a 30 year period.

Dogs were something, I had a dog growing up, but my first wife, Gail really wanted a dog, so the deal was when we moved to California we would get a dog. We ended up getting a Weimaraner at six weeks of age, which now I know you shouldn't do. You should wait until the dog is eight weeks at least, otherwise they don't think that they're dogs. So that became Man Ray.

He followed me wherever I went. When I went to my little studio, a couple blocks away, he would come. I was doing video pieces then and I would set things up and he would sometimes get in the way. I would try to get keep him out, but he refused. In fact, he would emit this high-pitched whine, when I wasn't using him. Occasionally, I had to tie him up because he would just mess everything up.

He had a real relationship with language with Man Ray. Some of my pieces were about teaching and children, in a way. You talk to a dog almost by using sign language, and so that was one idea. But the other was these early primers in education, were almost how you would talk to a dog, like, "Bring me the...," "Sit. Stay. Roll Over." They pay close, close attention and they can get sort of confused by doing so, by trying so hard. And when you see this video, you see how he was a little upset because he could tell that I am a little concerned. I'm not yelling at him, but I was speaking to him in a very serious way. As though we're discussing something, and it's got some key words that are driving him completely crazy. "What are we doing?" "When are we going to go there?"

So, I get this dog who I name Fay Ray as a sort of sequel to Man Ray, and she had a litter in 1989 or 8 or 90, 7, and one of them became my dog. I named her Batty because she looked like a little bat. All of Fay's puppies were premature. It's almost like I had gotten Man Ray at 6 weeks, these puppies were really young. And I think by having them almost be like a month premature, they were a week premature, I became even more attached to them, and vice versa because I had to hold Batty to nurse. I had to almost be like the mother myself. I became very attached to this dog, who got used to being around me all the time, but was very blasé, where Fay was really excited about working; whether it's video or film or being in a photograph, like "Wow! We're doing this!" She was almost narcoleptic. She would practically fall asleep. But she was always around me.

I remember when I started to paint, and she would come and look at me brushing at what she thought was a wall. I was working on these big things. She'd look and she was pretty interested in it, and then she would go and lie down. So to make this little work, I decided I was like a, like a construction worker or something like that, and I pretended to install some sheetrock to a wall.

All my work I just do it once. I didn't rehearse that. If it doesn't work out, you'll just never see it. You don't even know that I tried to do it. Before I was working on "Spelling Lesson," I was on top of those tables in my underpants doing some dancing with my legs, my hairy legs. It was absurd. You'll never see that. It looked kind of like something Vito Acconci might have done, but not me. So, things, sometimes when I work, things take a sharp turn.

Making videos, films, for Sesame Street with my dogs as human characters, and how I would do that is that I would put them on an elevated platform, like a stool that I had made for them to be a certain height. And the actors would stick their hands through sweaters or jackets. I would cut out the back, and so they would stick their hands through. And I would give these dog creatures almost like mythological characteristics, or like cartoons, like mice with hands or whatever. So it became kind of intriguing. And I thought that I would switch that up by putting myself on, but having my main actor, who always worked with the dogs, do my hands.

William Wegman, 'Untitled,' 1993. | Courtesy William Wegman Studio.
William Wegman, 'Ray,' 2006. | Courtesy William Wegman Studio.

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