Can there be anything unsettling about an ordinary scene of animals playing with each other? Looking at the endless stream of accounts on Instagram and TikTok dedicated exclusively to cat and dog content – primarily showing situations both familiar and humourous – one can easily be lulled into the safe sense of domesticity that these videos represent, and particularly into a sense that animals living within our world is the most normal thing there is.
An approach to the depiction of dogs that explores and subverts this phenomenon is employed by London-based artist Mariia Annenkova, who recently obtained her BA in Fine Arts at Goldsmiths (2022). In her latest series of paintings, ‘Intra-Species Park’ (2022), she used screenshots from videos found on social media as reference images, focusing on scenes of two dogs of a similar breed playing. Recently she has shown two paintings from this series in a group exhibition, ‘Your Heart to a Dog to Tear’, organised in November 2022 by the artist-led collective PANG! Projects.
Although Masha favours tones reminiscent of ice cream — sherbet oranges, bubblegum blues, and pistachio greens — the formal and thematic undertones of her paintings do not possess the same sugary quality. There is an ongoing ambiguity between what might be perceived in one moment as animal play, and in the next as a brutal fight. This is especially evident in The Pit Bull’s Play. This uncertainty around what is happening on the canvas’s surface ultimately leaves us puzzled, left to think over the feelings these paintings actually evoke.
As formulated by Sigmund Freud in his eponymous essay ‘Das Unheimliche’ (1919), the concept of uncanny, aptly describes the ambiguity lying at the centre of Masha’s pieces. Uncanny, according to Freud, carries a fundamental duality by referring to an object that is painfully familiar to us and literally homely (the word Unheimlich in German is a negation of Heimlich, homely, which implies the homelike, cosy, familiar), but on the other hand, appears unsettling or even frightening.
This sense of uncanniness ultimately results in a human tendency to project qualities onto their pets, as they appear to be the living creatures situated in the closest proximity to us, thus acting, as John Berger put it, as a kind of a mirror to a darker part of human nature that is otherwise never reflected. (Berger, 2009) In tapping into this vulnerability, Masha ultimately shows that what may appear to us as an act of aggression, in the end, serves as just another form of communication.
One may leave the exhibition space unsure of what evoked these feelings of unease. Every day we see dogs playing in parks, on the streets, in coffee shops, happily sniffing other animals they meet in passing while their owners patiently wait for their oat flat whites. Perhaps the decision to point out the otherness of animals in such familiar situations is an accurate rendering of reality. After all, it is in this everyday life, and not in the realities of wild animals, that it is easier for us to realise that those who live in the closest proximity to us are radically different.