Play is a dirty word.
From 1995 to 1998, west coast photographer John Divola worked on a series of photographs of isolated houses in the desert in the Morongo Valley in Southern California. In his introduction to Dogs Chasing My Car in the Desert he writes, “As I meandered through the desert, a dog would occasionally chase my car . . . .Sometime in 1996 I began to bring along a 35mm camera . . .” Of the artwork for which he is now internationally recognized, David Shrigley said: “I didn't think of my drawings as Fine Art until quite a long time after art school. . .” As Shrigley found application for his drawing style in the established fine art domain, John Waters broke from the popular medium of movies to the gallery setting with “Director’s Cut,” a collection of “re-directions” or “little movies,” photographs taken of films as they played on his television screen, which he then reworked into shortened footage rife with his own commentary. Divola’s photographs of dogs were taken on the way to his scheduled shoots; Shrigley did not initially consider his drawings publishable. Waters’s “re-directions” were pet projects devoted to a private interaction with pre-existing film imagery: “I took my ‘little movie’ photographs for years without telling anybody.”
The projects referenced here, Dogs Chasing My Car in the Desert, The Book of Shrigley, and Director’s Cut, could be said to amount to no more than photos of dogs, doodling and a re-mixing of antiquated movies. Yet the works yield insights into the nature of our existence and the rituals we employ to engage with and interpret our world, be it immediate, assimilated, or simulated. Divola, Shrigley and Waters articulate varying degrees of self-consciousness within the act of observation, of seeing, of visual communication not simply between artist and art viewer, but between the artist and his subject. Waters confesses, “I never watch a movie I love a second time around because I’m always afraid I’ll be disappointed.” Shrigley says, “I have always kept a notebook to make drawings in ever since I was a child. I never really thought of it as art, it was more like keeping a diary.” Divola writes: “Contemplating a dog chasing a car invites any number of metaphors and juxtapositions: culture and nature, the domestic and the wild, love and hate, joy and fear, the heroic and the idiotic.”
The self-awareness that each artist attaches to his project is held in check by a force of spontaneity engendered by an engagement with a living other, an intuitive process, or the development of a virtual field. Dogs Chasing My Car in the Desert, The Book of Shrigley, and Director’s Cut embody forms of play: abandon, absurdity, irreverence, wickedness, wantonness, feral-ness. While depicting playfulness, they also constitute in and of themselves playful acts.
In the case of each of the three artists whose work is mentioned here, none considered these particular projects central to their focus at the time of their inception. These were peripheral projects, ancillaries to intended projects, to the work “at hand”.