Corgis are difficult to overlook and distinctive enough not to be mistaken for anything else: They bear the head of a large dog on the body of a much smaller one, and their impossible proportions are an attribute that makes them highly charming. They are too much dog for too little body (large head!), but simultaneously do not hide the fact that despite everything they are also very small creatures, which sometimes nip your ankles when you do not get a move on. A less attractive characteristic of this breed.
The world’s most famous corgi owner is the Queen: In evening dress or while taking tea, in the drawing room and in the garden, wherever she goes she is surrounded by a small troupe of dogs, something evidenced on many official photographs. In the course of her life she is said to have owned over 30 corgis, but following the death of her last companion a corgi ban was introduced, because as the Queen got older the dogs became something the Queen of Great Britain might fall over. There is a tradition of keeping corgis amongst the British royals: They have been kept for over seven decades, and one generation followed the next. They are Pembroke Welsh Corgis, not Cardigan Welsh Corgis. A Pembroke called Clément was also companion to Michel Houellebecq, until the dog died in 2011. animals
There are numerous photos showing the intimate connection between Michel and Clément; Houellebecq and his wife also appeared together on the website of their dog breeder. In 2013, as part of a solo exhibition “Rester vivant” in Palais de Tokyo, the owner devoted a special room to his deceased Pembroke Corgi with glass display cases on red tartan that the Queen might also find to her liking. In the display case was a collection of items related to Clément – cuddly toys and chewy balls, and at the center a portrait photo – assembled in the style of an attractive collection of curios. The installation was complemented by watercolors Houellebecq’s then wife painted of Clément. But what did this room in the middle of the extensive exhibition complex have to do with political art?
Arguably the most stupid but also the most attractive quote about Michel Houellebecq – because it provides a deep insight of the man – comes from Moritz Bleibtreu, who said: “Man, all your stories are told from the perspective of people born on the dark side of life, but for over 15 years you have lived on the sunny side, and got an advance of over €1 million for your latest novel.”¹ Fair enough, if money were actually a reason for finding something less reprehensible, but a professional actor should at least have heard of the difference between author and work, the author and his characters. And that brings us back to the fundamental characteristic of the “Salle Clément”: After all, here, in contrast to his books, the artist appears, devoid of all irony, to be one with his protagonist, dog owner Michel Houellebecq.
Houellebecq evokes at best a lack of understanding and at worst hatred, even before he has said anything specific.
His books about human trafficking, and euthanasia, about man’s corruptibility, about neurobiology and Islam are celebrated and hated: He is hated. The classic blame-the-messenger principle: The guy says dirty things, so he must be dirty himself.
If nobody wants to hear what has been discussed and perhaps even warned against for years, all that remains is escapism. Woody Allen once said religion was a form of escapism he could not relate to² – on this point at least Houellebecq would arguably agree with him on a personal level. But he might conceivably contradict him with regard to it as a social phenomenon. Allen likes sports for example, watching, of course, not playing. But pets are also a good option when you are fed up: Withdrawing into your private life, your own clod of earth, definitely works better with children or pets than without them. It is no longer absolutely necessary to find some justification for retreating into your private life, and out of the public eye. But what about the famous credo that everything private is also political? And in times when both spheres tend to intermingle is the idea not obsolete anyhow?
Salle Clément: A memorial
The corgi room could also be interpreted as the cynical interim announcement of a disappointed person, or as nihilism: “Fuck art”, it can’t change anything anyhow. And it most certainly cannot make any contribution to world peace; dedicated people, committed artists presumably only make things worse – which is not such an absurd interpretation, if you follow the dialectics of history just a little.
The question of what the author and here the artist want to say to us is superfluous given that he has already provided an explanation. You can accuse or at least try to accuse Michel Houellebecq of many things. But you cannot accuse him of following a secret agenda that he painstakingly hides behind enigmatic stories and images. Houellebecq usually says quite precisely what he would like, or what he thinks. And in doing so he deviates both from his characters and his art. This apparently seems to be the most difficult thing for others to accept about him: simply to believe him. So what does Michel Houellebecq say about “Salle Clément”? “C’est la seule salle autobiographique, et la seule totalement émouvante” – it is the only autobiographical room in the entire exhibition, and the only one that is completely moving: “C’est un mémorial.”³
Does that make “Salle Clément” with its devotional objects to Michel Houellebecq’s honey-colored Pembroke Corgi a concession to everyone he has antagonized? Mais, non! Precisely by revealing himself to be a soft-hearted dog lover, a devoted man and his devoted animal, his honesty can no longer be doubted. For all that Monsieur Houellebecq is an admonisher, a caustic and critical man, he is not a malicious agitator, nor an apologist, who lets himself be used to promote some political party or the like. And last but not least he is not a private individual who is more interested in many things other than the bigotry of leftist intellectuals in France or everywhere else in the Western world. But this private liberty, for example with this corgi, means something to him. That is the tragic aspect, the scale of personal loss of the artist, and makes everything else that happens outside the “Salle Clément” even more painful.
Katharina Cichosch studied Visual Art and is a freelance writer for print and online media. The opportunity to write simultaneously about short-legged dogs and a piece by Michel Houellebecq appealed to her just as much as the fact that the curator Matthias Ulrich is showing Houellebecq’s work in the PEACE exhibition independently of the usual political art in the “We-all-agree” vein.