Being in the doghouse is not always a bad thing

by Mio Yamada and Danielle Demetriou

Special To The Japan Times

Joseph Kosuth, an American artist famous for conceptual, text-centric works, just put one of his good friends — Joni Waka — in the doghouse.

Joni didn’t do anything to upset Kosuth. Quite the contrary. “The Dog House” is Joni’s new home. It is also a public art installation, designed by Kosuth as a thank-you to his friend, whose continuing support of the arts in Japan has made him a well-known figure on the local and international art scene.

At 38 sq. meters, and just a short walk from Shibuya Station, Tokyo, “The Dog House” is a major tribute to Bacon, Joni’s Hungarian-born, vegetarian Irish Wolfhound who passed away in the summer of 2008, and who, at 2 meters long and 1.5 meters tall, was himself quite a celebrity in Tokyo.

“Joseph, by chance, was in Japan when Bacon died,” said Joni, who is also often known as Johnnie Walker and who named his beloved dog after Francis Bacon. Touched by Joni’s grief and filled with his own remorse, Kosuth, who says he had an affinity with Bacon, volunteered to design a memorial in the form of a building.

Covered with neon signs of well-known quotes related to dogs — an amusing appropriation of texts — “The Dog House’s” exterior is registered as an official Shibuya public park open to the public. Its interior — two loft spaces (one for Joni and the another for an artist in residence), separated by a long central living room showcasing more of Kosuth’s quotes — is open by appointment only.

“The neon elements were created in such a soft and subtle way, with extreme care to Japanese sensitivities, that the neighborhood is proud of this iconic building,” said Joni when asked what it was like to live inside an artwork. “The interior feels like walking through heaven.”

The Japan Times asked Joseph Kosuth a few questions about this unusual labor of love, which is not only humorous and poignant but also a practical manifestation of humankind’s affection for man’s best friend.

How did this idea come about?

I was in Japan with my daughters Noema and Klio, and Joni was kindly showing us around in the way that only he can. His Irish Wolfhound, Bacon, was with us in the back and, because it was summer, we intended to stop at the beach. While we were there Joni decided to take Bacon for a walk in the woods and we decided to meet up back at the beach in two hours, since Joni was throwing a dinner party that evening in honor of my daughters’ first visit to Japan.

However, when Joni returned, he was without Bacon. We asked where he was and Joni said that he had run into a friend who lived nearby, and he took Bacon for the weekend. Joni was in a very quiet, really somber mood, but when I asked him if he was OK, he said, yes, he was fine. It was only later that we found out that Bacon had died from a heart attack, likely from the exertion of his run in the woods in the heat. Joni had buried him in the forest, with his own hands.

I asked him later why he hadn’t told us, and he said that he was afraid it would upset my daughters and he wanted them to enjoy the dinner party he had planned for them. He suppressed his own grief for the benefit of my daughters. Such is his kindness and generosity for others.

So, the 21 quotes, which are all dog-related, are as much a tribute to Bacon as to Joni himself. Is there any particular significance of the context of those quotes?

My use of quotations and other appropriated texts and cultural material is based on the understanding that my claim of authorship is for the surplus meaning that the juxtapositioning of the texts in combination with the context provides. We all work with words created by others, every writer knows this, and we use them to generate our own meaning using these words of others.

In my case, I also work with sentences, paragraphs, pages and sometimes even books and libraries written by others. But for over 40 years I have managed to use them to create a meaning of my own, one that reflects my location in time and moment in history, and which articulates the cultural discourse that my work is part of.

The texts you use have taken many forms in previous works, and here you have chosen neon signage — what’s the appeal of neon?

I first used neon in 1965 when I wanted to make works which were tautologies and I needed a material that had many qualities that I could “unpack” and describe. “Neon, electrical, light, English, glass, letters white, eight,” for example, was a typical work that “unpacked” the elements in the work. But also I began to use neon all those years ago because of its history as signage on the street — it didn’t have a “fine art” aspect to it. It was a kind of public media. I like the tension between serious “content” and purpose, and its prior, rather dumb history as beer signage.

What ideas do you hope to convey via “The Dog House” installations?

It is a demonstration of a work process, my work process. Through being an atypical project for me on the one hand, it’s also a classic work of mine on the other. It is both one large art work and a simple dwelling. In this way it reminds me of a favorite quote of Marcel Duchamp, who, when asked what the difference was between architecture and sculpture, said only one word: “plumbing.”

As the first Kosuth-designed building, what were the challenges of being involved in a project such as this?

The physical form and construction of the structure of the house was really a collaborative effort that included Joni, the Suzuwa Construction Company’s architect Ryu Shimizu, and German architect Claudia Hertrich, a friend of Joni’s and myself.

My concern was with the general shape and effect of the house as a base for the work I was planning, of course. The result was perfect, and we have the “doghouse.” I needed to do this work.

Are there any uniquely Japanese aspects of “The Dog House”?

Well, yes, how it is made and the materials it is made with. (Suzuwa Construction Company has a long history of making public bathhouses, so it used traditional Japanese joint carpentry as well as rare woods, including hinoki or Japanese Cypress and Zelkova). It is also a cross between a Western doghouse, as one knows them from American cartoons, and the simple serenity of Japanese architecture. And, of course, half of the quotes are in Japanese.

How was this an unusual project for you as an artist?

The project for me always had as its objective a way of honoring Joni Waka for his contribution through the support of artists. He is internationally recognized as the person to meet when you come to Tokyo, as he opens doors and connects people that would never meet nor accomplish what they do without his assistance.

In any case, to know Joni is to also know his love for his dogs, as they really have been an extension of his personality and presence. As Joni is more of a verb than a noun, it made most sense to make his de facto monument his home and the center of his activities.

Finally, can you tell us about some of your current or future projects?

I have several projects ongoing. I am doing the permanent work on the façade of the four towers of the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris, to be finished in the next year. My large installation which was on view three years ago in Paris is being installed permanently at the Louvre in October; my work on Samuel Beckett will be featured in the “Happy Days” Beckett Festival in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland in August and I will do a permanent room in the Hermitage Museum in St.Petersburg as well as participate in the Shanghai Biennale.

Anyone can view the exterior of “The Dog House” at 17-9 Uguisudani-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. To request a viewing of its interiors, e-mail: arttokyo@me.com.