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By Bronwyn Mahoney
“Art Asia Pacific“, Issue 33, Review P93
The Chinese title of Peng Hung-chih's solo show, Gou Dong Xi literally translates as Dogs East West, but the sense is more 'dogs everywhere'. Dong xi also means 'stuff', something material. So, the English title is Dog Matters, or should that be 'Dogs Matter'?
Interested in positions of viewing, positions of people, and human/animal relationships, Peng's self-curated exhibition at Taipei's IT Park Gallery brought these ideas together, showing amaturity in theme and form. Theatrical in its presentation Gou Dong Xi's eleven works - sculptures, videos, photographs - used tropes of stage design, filmmaking and costume to provoke thought on how we see, what we see, who we see and who sees us.
On entry visitors were confronted with an eight foot puppy made up of 660 wind-up Little Danny dogs, which began yapping and turning their heads as someone entered the room. Do the viewer's footsteps control the triggers, or is it the artist controlling them? Filling almost the entire space, the shock brought some visitors to tears, crying in fright, but most laughed. Described by the artist as a 'mechanical spirit', Little Danny humorously plays with ideas of reality, but also of where we look. In its overwhelming size and noise, with the cacophony of tinny barking, it defies taking in the whole in a moment. The small dogs coalesce into one, but on closer inspection each mass-produced Danny is somehow individual.
Climbing the next flight of stairs, the sound mixed with the muffled barking of five pearlesque, fibreglass dogs, each frozen in various states of dogness, each with its own personality - even for dogs we cannot escape that so very human word. One has his mouth invitingly open; another is curled on a grey rug, while one leans his forepaws and stares out the window. Another is caught mid-flight, and one just stands, the sentinel.
Each also presents, if you bow, kneel, stride or lay, a vision, shot from the perspective of Yuki, one of the eight dogs resident at the artist's studio. With a camera strapped to his head, Yuki ran, fought, swam, walked and ate. To see the action, visitors had to position themselves with the sculpture. The open-mouthed dog was the most successful, the most complete, with the video of Yuki eating repulsive and engaging, making the viewer the most 'part' of the action. Some of the other videos are more like watching a human idea of we believe a dog may dream, especially the beach scene.
Peng's photographs are like film stills, their large size and gloss reminiscent of publicity shots. Taken at a local pound, this public theatre brought together costumed dog 'actors' with dogs trapped in cages, we guess awaiting death or another form of salvation. The photos require a doubletake, for what at first glance seems to be dogs being dogs - butt-sniffing, mounting, fighting - are in fact actors in a story. We do
not know if the pound dogs see the actors any differently. Sight is one of humanity's paramount senses, but for dogs, smell is far more important. Can costume and artifice really change one dog's idea of another? By dressing dogs up, by speaking of them in our own terms, humans have for the most part, removed any fear of dogs. As a race we have anthropomorphised these animals, beyond mere domestication. Clothing is human, and Peng draws dogs and people closer together by adulterating the former with the vestiges of the latter. Dogs and humans have one of the closest cross-species relationships. People see human behaviour in dogs, but even if we are put into their eyes, or they are dressed up, the true nature is still the driving force. Peng brings this tohis audience, an awareness of their own nature, and the true nature of dogs.
Peng's examination of viewing and control, of the viewer viewing, of their being viewed, being part of, the completion, of the work, has been ongoing. His interest in working with dogs and dog imagery has developed since returning to Taipei in 1998, after completing his MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute. His 'vision' is about recreating vision, fracturing and repositioning our eyes, our bodies and thoughts.
Psychology, film and art criticism all have variously theorized vision and control -- the auteur, the scopophile, the gaze -- but none or all of these could be easily applied to Peng's work. Peng makes inclusive works, able to be layered with theory, but not requiring it for a level of understanding. Peng believes there is a judgement in his work, but it is not always clear. Many viewers don't get past the humour, but there is more of his work in the viewing of the viewers than perhaps there is inside Little Danny's mechanical spirit, the sculpted dog bodies or the costumes.