Amy Ching-Yan Lam’s Looty Goes to Heaven
Histories of dog breeding, racist genetic theory, and British colonial extraction form the backdrop to this work of speculative fiction.
Looty Goes to Heaven
(Eastside Projects, 2022)
The dog whistle was invented in 1876 by Francis Galton, a Victorian-era statistician and sociologist who was studying the hearing ranges of humans and various animal species. A tool to compel obedience and promote “correct” behavior, these whistles emit a high-frequency noise, known to be inaudible to humans yet significantly noisy to our animal counterparts, particularly dogs and domesticated cats. In 1883, however, Galton invented something else; as an early advocate for a movement that promoted selective breeding in humans to weed out so-called “undesirable” qualities, he was also the first person to use the term eugenics.
The entwined histories of dog breeding, racist genetic theory, and British colonial extraction form the backdrop to artist Amy Ching-Yan Lam’s work of speculative fiction, Looty Goes to Heaven. The titular character is a small Pekingese dog, gifted by British troops to Queen Victoria in 1860 after she was taken from the Summer Palace in Beijing during the end of the second Opium War. Renamed Looty by the British, in honor of her provenance, she appears in an 1865 photograph included by Lam in the appendix of her book—soft ears framing her square face, a sleepy puddle of fur on an imposing ornamental chair. In the narrative developed by the Toronto-based artist, provided in English and Traditional Chinese, Looty has died and stands on the threshold to heaven, having been asked to account for the story of her life. “It seemed very unfair that she had to determine at this moment what her account would be when so many other things had been determined for her,” Lam writes. For one, she could not say with any confidence what her true name was: it certainly wasn’t Looty, nor was it Flower Bud, the name she had carried during her previous life at the palace, where “all the dogs were to be named after beautiful, precious things.”
Within the small publication—written and distributed in conjunction with Lam’s 2022 exhibition of the same name at Eastside Projects in Birmingham, UK—Looty’s narrative unfolds in two ways: through both Lam’s approach to speculative fiction, and the artist’s accompanying timeline, which charts Birmingham’s deep connections to the histories of British tea manufacturing, professional dog breeding (as the home of the annual Crufts Dog Show), as well as the city’s legacy as Galton’s birthplace. The wide, interconnected scope of Lam’s research anchors the specificity of Looty’s voice, as the toy dog navigates those very same historical forces: the heavy burdens of her different lives under imperial rule. Both surreal and frank, Lam’s style of narration illuminates the particular in-between quality of Looty’s position on the edge of the afterlife, where she waits, debating whether to move forward into heaven or return to Earth for a small form of revenge. The precision of Lam’s humor also creates opportunities for Looty’s resistance against her captors, whether through the oozing “slurry of sugar, liver, and tea” the Pekingese caused by disrupting a genteel luncheon between the queen, princess, and their royal consorts, or through the author’s description of Looty’s nicknames for her owners, such as Stinky Wind (the Emperor), named as such for his particularly odorous farts. Throughout Looty Goes to Heaven, Lam’s shared backgrounds in poetry and comedic performance and film work (through, notably, her former collective Life of a Craphead) makes her narrative style a unique one: the story of Looty’s life is equal parts silly, mournful, loving, and deeply anticolonial.
As Lam’s research in the publication explains, Francis Galton also briefly owned a Pekingese. Named Wee Ling, the puppy was gifted to him by his protégé, who was using eugenicist principles in an attempt to produce an albino breed of the toy dog. Wee Ling, however, was infertile and by Galton’s account, bad-tempered—he did not remain long in the household. (Had Looty known Wee Ling, she may have also encouraged him to find a new name for himself, to reject the orientalizing nonsense with which he had been titled.) In spending time with the many threads (and names) of Looty’s life, I also find myself thinking back to Galton’s other invention. These days, a phrase like “dog whistle” often also connotes a certain form of political rhetoric, where seemingly innocuous language signals to more extreme ideologies without arousing suspicion (think of a phrase like “family values.”) At the gates of heaven, Looty also chafes against the names she has been given, the larger values—of imperial conquest, of exoticism—her small body has been called to represent, regardless of her choice. As Lam aptly describes: “Looty wondered if being renamed had changed something inside her, because she felt different, like something had been lodged inside her, some kind of pointy irritant that shifted uncomfortably with movement.” Standing on the threshold of what comes after, I can only hope she found what she needed—that Looty’s true name was waiting for her on the other side.