Adelaide writer Anthony Nocera speaks with artist David Capra about making art with his dachshund, Teena, and the anxiety that bridges the human/dachshund experience.
My best friend’s anxiety and me: In conversation with artist David Capra
“So, you’ve fucked your ankle?” Mum asks.
“Yeah,” I say.
Perspectives: Shaping the world through visual culture
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“Is it elevated?”
“Ice on it?”
“And it still hurts?”
“Yes, but it’s getting be-“
“Oh, fuck me,” mum yells. “Oh, Jesus Christ.”
“It’s this dog. This fucken dog.”
I can hear the bell of our family sausage dog, Kransky, and his chubby little paws and chunky nails tick, tick, ticking on the pavers in Mum’s backyard.
“Yes, you,” she says to Kransky, “I’m talking about you.”
“Mum, what did he do?”
“No, don’t tilt your head at me,” she says, still talking to the dog despite the fact that we had been on the phone for 15 whole minutes up until this point.
“No, don’t tilt your head. No, don’t be cute! KRANSKY, STOP BEING CUTE!”
“Mum, can you talk to the dog later?”
“What makes you so special that you can’t wait? I’m having a conversation with Kransky.”
Kransky’s bell is jingling again, as he runs around, probably weaving through mum’s legs.
“Yes, I’m talking about you. No, no, don’t jump up for pats. No, no – you’re out of control.”
“Mum, you called me.”
“Anthony, this dog is out of control,” she says, probably to both of us. Me and the dog. Me and Kransky.
“Yes, you are. But you’re very cute. And you’re very long, aren’t you?”
“What did he do?” I ask.
“He’s shit behind the car again. I don’t know what it is, these last few weeks he’s started shitting behind the car and pissing on every pot in the backyard.”
“Didn’t he used to go on the lawn?” I ask.
“Yeah… I think he’s decided that’s where he likes to lounge in the sun.”
“I guess he needs a dedicated lounging space… he’s very busy.”
“He is,” mum says. “He chased three birds today,” and then she turns to Kransky, “and you scared them off because you’re ferocious.”
I laugh, “He’s anxious.”
Kransky has doggy anxiety and can’t handle being around large groups of people, especially ones he doesn’t know. Or birds. He can’t stand birds. Whenever he’s around them, his hackles go up and he barks uncontrollably. He never snaps or bites. He’s a gentle dog, a good one. He just barks. He likes his space, our Kransky. For lounging and otherwise.
“How’s your ankle?” Mum asks, turning her attention back to me.
“Good, I say, “good – better.”
The night before, I went to the emergency room because I couldn’t walk on my ankle after a few days of tenderness. It ballooned up to double its size, maybe triple, and went bright red. I remember I was laying on the bed next to Jamie, my boyfriend, and I went to get up to go to the bathroom and realised I couldn’t put any weight on it.
As I hopped back to the bed, lunging for the towel rack in the bathroom and breaking it, I said, “This might be broken, I think I need to go to hospital.”
Jamie turned to me and said, “Well, we haven’t had dinner yet, can we have dinner?”
After I anxiously barked at him and hobbled to the car he said, “Wow, you’re swollen. Your ankle is fat. It looks like Kransky’s.”
Like Kransky, I have anxiety. Of the human, not doggy variety. It’s been severe lately, as work has ramped up and as the world has slowly returned to normal-but-not.
For me, anxiousness comes in waves, peaks and valleys, highs and lows, longs and shorts. I’ll be fine for a long stretch of time and then, slowly, I’ll start to fade and the wheels will fall off and I’ll just stop functioning properly, maybe roll my ankle so severely that I think it’s broken and the doctor will ask me “Were you drunk?” and I’ll say “No, I don’t drink,” and she’ll say, “Oh… that’s disappointing.”
“Yeah,” I say.
“It’s pretty severe but you’ll be okay.”
“I’m probably overreacted by coming here.”
“No,” she says, “it could’ve been a fracture. But it’s not. Your body just failed for a second, I guess.”
“Yes,” I say. But I think to myself, ‘But the seconds have been… I don’t know, longer lately.’
I’ve been realising my limits, like Kransky has been realising his. With his long body and short legs and fat ankles, there are just things he can’t do – jump up on the couch, handle large groups of people or birds on his small patch of lawn out the back, or, perhaps most glaringly, manage a convenient and acceptable place to shit.
But we love him, not despite his limitations but because of them, and I wonder if maybe my limitations are getting in the way lately too.
Over the last few months, my back has been seizing up more (hackles), I’ve been shouting at my boyfriend more (barking), my ankles have been swelling (chubby feet). I can feel myself getting more and more anxious, more and more fatigued, more and more worn out.
“So what are you saying to me?” Mum says into the phone, Kransky’s bell jingling in the background. “That you’re a dog?”
“No, I don’t know…”
“Because you’re not a dog. You’re not even cute like a dog.”
“You’re more like a cat, if anything. Cats are arseholes.”
She laughs, “Look, it’s fine, it’s fine. I don’t think it’s an issue,” and then she pauses for a moment. “If you start shitting behind the car, then it becomes issue. Call me then.”
“What if I piss on every pot in the backyard?”
Mum laughed, “you’re fine,” she said, “don’t worry, you’re fine.”
Like me, performance artist David Capra is uniquely obsessed by his dachshund, Teena.
For over a decade he’s been creating art with her and beside her, and with members of the community, to create transformative and healing experiences, or, at least, experiences that inspire immense joy.
David loves Teena, is frustrated by her, celebrates her and is baffled by her. He uses his beautiful little brown and tan dachshund to, in his own unique way, explore the contemporary condition.
Like me and Kransky, Teena is an incredibly anxious being (with chubby ankles and feet, no less).
Ahead of David’s artist talk this week, as part of ACE Open’s Perspectives series, we speak about his work, the current overwhelming sense of collective anxiety, and, of course, we talk about Teena.
Anthony Nocera: It strikes me that you and Teena are true equals in your artistic practice. Can you tell us about your relationship with her?
David Capra: I guess Teena and I… it’s like any collaboration. If we’re working towards something, we have to be mindful that we’re not spending too much time with each other. Like, the day after a big project, we occupy different ends of the house and don’t really talk to each other… which is quite normal in any collaborative experience.
But also I have to work extra hard to get a sense of what Teena would be comfortable with and not. And I guess I’ve gotten more of an idea now as the years go by.
AN: I know you’ve written about the dachshund’s place in art. What do you think it is about sausage dogs that is so arresting? Why do so many people connect with these animals?
DC: I think, firstly, it must have to do with the fact that it seems to tickle people’s sense of humour. The form of the dog is quite exceptional, like it has quite a beautiful silhouette. It’s confident. It has a broad chest and then it has little feet and elephant ears and platypus paws and this small little tail as well. It’s all very lyrical. For me… I started off in painting and then performing and dance, and I was really interested in the form of the sausage dog as a dancer.
And I think also the personality of the breed. They know what they want and they’re confident, and I think whenever you’re around confidence it brushes off on you. It has a lot to do with me making bolder choices, I think, because Teena is at my side.
AN: In a TED talk you gave, you talked about how a sausage dog can be political in art. You said, ‘with their long bodies they can twist the way you see the world around you’. I’d love to hear more about that.
DC: I think mainly what that is about is catching people off-guard, I think that dogs are… they do have a sensibility. It’s like humour, I feel like Teena is a walking humorous effigy and people seem to soften around her. Then they might be more open to what you have to say or open to the absurd. People are less likely to close themselves off because it’s ‘art’.
A lot of people’s relationship to contemporary art is one that is… well, sometimes there’s no relationship at all. Or people are left feeling cold by it. The dog helps people engage.
AN: That’s what so interesting about your work. There’s this sense of incredible joy and humour that’s very beautiful. You created a piece called Teena’s Bathtime, which is about anxiety. Now more than ever, we’re living in an incredibly anxious time. Could you tell us about that piece and what you learned about anxiety?
DC: That work was accidental in the way it came about. I photographed Teena with this big looming camera and she was really quite anxious throughout the process and it made me understand that Teena is a very cautious dog.
I think that work really opened up my eyes to the potential of having real experiences in museums and galleries. Often it feels like there’s lots of smoke and mirrors, and I never was entertained by that. I did always try and purposefully introduce humour. I feel like those spaces can be quite serious and anxiety-inducing and sort of take away humanity at times. So, I just wanted to inject more compassion into that space.
I also work in mental health myself, I look after a studio for artists that identify with a disability, it’s called Little Orange. There is a mental health component to managing that space and I feel like the work created in spaces where artists feel safe is often more real and their work stays with you, because they’re based on something other than just to, maybe, make money.
AN: You tend to stage your work in mainstream spaces, and there seems to be a really interesting discussion of class running through your work. You seem to be bridging a certain class divide between the artistic spaces and the public in your art. I’d love to hear how you think art functions in a mainstream space and why that’s important now more than ever?
DC: I think there’s something rather domestic and pedestrian about what Teena and I do. It’s just me and a dog and we live in the suburbs. I grew up in and still live in Western Sydney, in Fairfield. That’s been a big part of my relationship to the world. And then going into the city to learn art was a very isolating experience. It was all very foreign to me.
So, I think it was just natural for me to step out of that space and into somewhere more comfortable for me. More familiar. In some ways I feel like I’m siding with, or creating work for, those who don’t have a lot of experience with art. Or feel, for whatever reason, like they don’t understand it or are puzzled by it. I feel like that’s more of an interesting space and interaction.
I feel an obligation or responsibility to make the concept of what a performance artist is, for instance, understood and within reach. I really think that when life and art meet… and people have a tendency to separate the two, but when they do meet, something really special happens. Or not special, it’s very ordinary. But that’s a really wonderful thing.
I think that meeting is amazing.
AN: I’m really interested in your take on anxiety. We’re living in a time of massive collective anxiety and dachshunds are a very anxious breed. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this moment as someone who has explored these ideas so comprehensively in your work.
DC: I was part of a film called Happy Sad Man, which has been in cinemas all over the country. It looks at five men who are managing their internal worlds, and Teena and I are included in that film. Being part of it has really opened up a big dialogue with a huge range of people about these issues.
My friend who works in the mental health sector said that it’s been really interesting for a lot of her clients, the people that live with anxiety or mental-health-related issues. For them to look out into the world and see their internal world and internal life reflected in the exterior. The everyday person is now confronted with anxiety, maybe for the first time.
In some ways, I think, this experience is bringing people together. People are leaning on empathy to understand each other. And people seem to… Well, it feels like people are being more kind to each other as we all work through everything.
AN: Personally, I’ve been less kind to people in this time of anxiety. I’ve very much had the attitude of saying ‘Yeah, join the club… Welcome to every day’. I just haven’t been feeling sorry for people. But I understand not everyone is as vindictive as me.
DC: Yeah, but you live with it all the time.
It feels like the relationship between you and Teena sustains you as much as it sustains her. Why, or how, has Teena captured your heart?
DC: It’s a hard thing to put in words. Sometimes it’s difficult to work with something that is so close to you. That you live with, that you bring home… she also represents my work to me. And I’ve had to try really hard, at times, to switch that off. The working brain. The forward planning when it comes to our projects.
I just like the feel of her ears, the velvety paws. That she will kind of like to snuggle under my armpit. She’s got all of these strange things she likes to do but then sometimes she’ll not. She can be quite… she can really let me know when she wants to be left alone. And I’ve learned to respect that.
I think she’s very consistent. And that’s something I really value in people and in animals. Just being there. Holding space.
David Capra is speaking as part of the series Perspectives: Shaping the world through visual culture, an initiative developed by ACE Open, Guildhouse and The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre, University of South Australia.
This annual series of thought-provoking lectures invites leading artists, makers and thinkers to Adelaide to engage with the compelling ideas currently shaping our world.
Register online to access David’s online broadcast, which will be live from Thursday, 12 November at 6pm.