Spectators before the concept

Introducing Memento Mori, an online selection of his portraits of dogs, the Taiwanese photographer Yun-Fei Tou writes,

“These portraits are taken on the very day in which the dogs depicted is about to be put down or mercifully killed in public pounds run by governmental agencies in Taiwan. Utilizing the classic portrait style that originated in the early 19th century with the birth of photography as an art form, these photographs offer the viewer a chance to look attentively into a bleak future.

“The purpose of this project is to arouse people’s awareness of animals rights. People should view animal rights as a moral issue rather than appealing to emotional affection. As Peter Singer wrote in his Animal Liberation, ‘The portrayal of those who protest against cruelty to animals as sentimental, emotional “animal-lovers” has had the effect of excluding the entire issue of our treatment of nonhumans from serious political and moral discussion.’”


Tou’s gallery as a whole is a work of Conceptual art which operates in the normative Conceptual way — that is, by asking us to read the artwork as if it were a text commenting on its own caption. Most of the space  occupied by this image, for instance,


is occupied by, yes, a photograph of a dog — a dog bathed and brushed and healthy-looking, well lighted in a pose before a seamless background. Below the photograph, however, is a literary space occupied by the photograph’s caption. This reads, in Chinese and English, “2011/08/01, 11:38am, Taiwanese Public Shelter, Time until Euthanized: 29 Minutes.”

Oh wow. (Those are reported to have been the last words of Steve Jobs.) Or, as internet commentator Jesus Diaz puts it, “What really fucks me up is to look into their eyes knowing they didn’t know what was coming up next.”


Jesus, the idea you’re trying to express is called dramatic irony. It’s sort of an old idea, as in Gray’s Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.

But yes, it’s powerful still. It works for you and me with the dogs, and it even works just as well with people — for instance, with the Cambodian and Vietnamese people in the Khmer Rouge’s Prison S-21 who were briefly passed before the camera of photographer Nhem Ein before they were led out of his studio to be killed.


On the other hand, YouTube is full of proudly posted videos of animals being tortured and the website of the Daily News is equally full of excited indignation about the fun awfulness of it all, so I wonder what goes into whatever fucking up may ensue as a result of contemplating Yun-Fei Tou’s oeuvre. Consider, as a thought experiment utilizing the materials and methods of fucking, an employer somewhere in the United Arab Emirates weeping before her soap opera, then rising from the couch to hit her Filipina slave.

Or consider how the voices rise and quaver and crack in university humanities departments like mine, all over the United States, when some member of the faculty stands up in all compassion and demands that the Jews of Israel just . . .

you know . . .

go away.

How righteous they can be, the tears of spectators in the presence of a concept.