Everything that matters happens in an office these days. To survive in today’s world, one can’t help but burn with curiosity about why some rise to the top while others gets stuck at the bottom box of the organizational chart. The Office, Mad Men or The Devil Wears Prada all hit this nerve with verve. But what’s been missing for me is that spunkier imagery and wilder narrative that video art can get away with. Cao Fei fills this void in spades with her 2002 video “Rabid Dogs” on view at the Asia Soceity. By casting a pack of dogs as a metaphor for office workers, she gives a fresh and playful take on the herd mentality that lurks wherever monitors flicker upon neutral colored desks. It also just feels good to laugh about the office.
In the video, men and women masquerade as dogs in a big office. They act out the various scenarios of office politics with a canine twist. They fight, flirt, pea, eat, and sleep at their desks. On the one side, they come off as so human with charming facial expressions that shine through their campy dog makeup. But careful attention to body language keeps the dog joke fresh as they crawl around on all fours, eat from dog dishes and even hump nastily at one point. The eight minutes are organized into these shorter vignettes, which are digestible on a short attention span and create the sense of a quick pace.
Burberry’s checkerboard pattern is the fur coat of each dog. The quirk of fate is that these tan and black boxes are no longer in vogue. No one wears them out anymore. To add insult to injury, the boxes are not even being recycled and re-appropriated ironically in the New York’s grungier corners. This pattern is becoming the bell bottoms of the Bush years. It’s really charming the way that a piece from 2002 can already feel so dated.
The Burberry design also serves as a funny reminder of the silliness of office fashion. Just like dogs strolling down the sidewalk with those special albeit unnecessary outfits, humans can go to such wild lengths to look presentable and posh to people that we will never know personally or intimately. On the flip side, old and cheap jeans can greet our friends as mom complains about stains on a t-shirt.
Pop culture usually bestows one personality trait on animals: the wise owl, the lazy hippopotamus, or the menacing shark. Meanwhile, dogs are more bi-polar. On the one hand, dogs can be the loyal, fuzzy, warm companions of Lassie re-runs, and on the other hand, dogs can become frightening and fatal beasts that defend homes and aide cops. Cao Fei’s video seizes upon how dogs can be so tender or so ferocious.
As Cao Fei’s artist’s statement teases out, humans like dogs that must decide every day when to obey and when to lash out:
We love whips; we need to bite; we dare not bark. We work tamely, faithfully and patiently like dogs. We can be summoned or dismissed at the bidding of our master and understand his intentions clearly at once. We are surely a miserable pack of dogs and we are willing to act as beasts that are locked in the trap of modernization. When will we be daring enough to bite our master, to take off the masks, to strip off the furs and be a real pack of rabid dogs?
To cast some wider observations, office politics is not a common theme for video art. It ought to be mulled over more — many of us log more time at our desks than anywhere else in the world. To get lofty, “The Office” is a major dimension of modernized human experience without precise parallels in earlier epochs. In the earlier days of the industrial revolution, work took place in factories creating physical objects for sale. These days, much more work is about processing information at a desk and managing relationships with people that aren’t your friends even though you interact with them nearly every day. Cao Fei is smart to hone in on the office because it sets our time apart.
Reading through the artist’s clips, it was disappointing to read how often Cao Fei’s work is framed by the China question. Despite the reviews’ politically correct language, their underlying content still racializes the artist. It is not Cao Fei’s only goal to illustrate the predicaments of modern China. If that was her singular aim, then her work would be filled with so many inside jokes about Chinese culture that it would feel totally inaccessible to outsiders. Cao Fei speaks to wider questions – like office dynamics – that spill across borders.
Cao Fei deserves more admiration for her clever brain that cooks up visual metaphors with staying power. “Rabid Dogs” remains a playful and evocative take on the uncivilized and beastly moments of office politics. It’s not every day that a video from 8 years ago is still impressive enough to re-present at a museum. So many video artists produce milk that expires and curdles after only a few weeks in the art world. It is remarkable to appreciate an artist whose videos remain relevant and age gracefully over the years like a fine bottle of red wine.
“Rabid Dogs” is part of the Go Figure: Five Contemporary Videos, on view through August 15 at the Asia Society.