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中文原文 Original Chinese Text

 

Hou Han-Ru
Interview by Hung-Chih Peng

 

Peng: What is the reason for selecting Canine Monk  for the Istanbul Biennial?

Hou: The main reason has to do with Istanbul itself. For over two thousand years, the city has possessed a certain element, a kind of continuous co-existence, collision and melding of different cultures and especially different religions, which sometimes even led to extremely brutal violence and war. In the geopolitics of today’s world, Istanbul is still a center of conflict. Furthermore, this year’s biennial focuses on the globalized war that we currently face. Differing from traditional wars in which militaries faced off against each other, globalized wars are a complicated mix of politics, economics and societies, with religion also playing a major role. Of course your work does not completely discuss the topic of religion, but rather the authority behind religion, the goals of this kind of interest group. Particularly in the Middle East, religion is extremely important. You could also say that many struggles for economic profit are concluded in the form of religion.

Peng: Istanbul has always been a city in the Middle East that is closer to the West. Yet right before you agreed to this exhibition, the government changed hands.

Hou: Everyone looks at Islam in a secular country in a superficial manner, but I think that actually it is much more complicated than that. First of all, it is an old-style Modernist regime, a kind of ideal that is slowly losing its effectiveness in reality. The non-Western modernist Republic of Turkey runs into difficulties at every corner. It is a top-down power structure, and the growth in the power of society is leading to questions being raised about the government.
Another issue is that Turkey’s originally Westernized thinking needs to find an alternative reference system as non-Western governments and economies grow in strength. This reference system could use a variety of methods for expression, with the most convenient being the rediscovering of traditional culture, including Islam. Therefore this Islamic regime seems to have some Islamic flavor, which would echo the social call for bottom-up power.
At the same time, another interesting aspect is that the interests this new regime represent are not in fact social interests, but rather is something only cloaked in religion; it still represents a globalized capital, so-called ‘free-market’ capitalism, and market economies. This new government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an is actually the most pro-business regime, similar to that of Italy under Silvio Berlusconi or even Greece. Basically, it is closest to a kind of globalized capitalism; after gaining power through democracy, it gave Turkish society both economic freedom and political dictatorship. This combination is a global tendency, and is particularly noticeable in Istanbul. For example, the Atat?rk Cultural Center of this biennial used a new, fancier design, as the building was to be demolished. The interior of the building also changed from an idealistic management to a free capitalist consumer mode, which adopts the banner of freedom as its cause. The less than noble aspect of this is the gentrification of architecture and buildings (changing dilapidated districts into middle-class communities), which is simply one system excluding another system. This is a also worldwide phenomenon which involves the replacing of public space with private space. To a large extent, this year’s biennial wants to touch on this issue from every possible angle.

Peng: Could you talk about the need for political issues in many biennials nowadays?

Hou: There is definitely a need! Political topics are a key part of contemporary art, with biennials granting even more freedom to this need. Within a simple corridor, politics can obviously be weakened. But as a local cultural event, a biennial can provide a much broader platform. In addition, as a commercial event, it can give greater space for expression to more intellectual people, or those that are more invested in social issues. Another important point is that today’s art is a global phenomenon. Due to globalization, many criterion established by the West are no longer able to be widely accepted; each location now produces a new vernacular and new requirements based on its own needs. These requirements also reflect to a great extent why they want to hold this kind of cultural event. On one hand it is to pour itself into the world stage, but I think even more important is that they want to find a kind of identification with their location. So this is a political issue, showing that these countries must deal with cultural power issues once they have entered the stage of modernization.

Peng: So Middle Eastern artists are receiving a great deal of attention lately, correct?

Hou: I think in the last few years this is true! Middle Eastern contemporary art has only undergone a short period of development, but Turkey has of course had a relatively longer period. Yet looking closer, you will see that countries in the Middle East, with their numerous traditions, were influenced by Modernism during their colonial and semi-colonial eras. It is inevitable that these countries be brought into the global information network in today’s so-called Information Age.

Peng: Does this so-called global information have its own standards? Have these standards already been established?

Hou: I don’t think there are any obvious standards. Of course Al Jazeera is a clear example, as it actually follows the BBC model, yet differs greatly in terms of content. Their programming includes a great deal of local Middle Eastern coverage, and even more interestingly, it provides a more open and fairer platform than CNN or BBC, one with less propaganda. In this case, who is actually more modern? Perhaps it is Al Jazeera, as they conform more to the ideals of humanism. Therefore, in terms of art, new biennials represent freedom to a large extent; their creativity and vitality actually far exceeds that of some long-established biennials of the West.

Peng: Are religious issues becoming more serious?

Hou: That depends. Actually, one really interesting thing is that the 20th century was a century without religion, or in which region hoped to eliminate religion. A major part of modernity is secularism. After many years of modernization, people began thinking more about material objects, as a main part of secularism is the spirit of so-called materialism. It uses pure material objects to replace spirit and faith; one important aspect of this is how democratic governments are replacing religious governments. In fact, religion itself is not even something abstract or spiritual, but rather is an institution – it still faces issues of authority. Today, many people use this resurgence of religion to reach political goals. When facing challenges in this structure from the 20th century, many people search for this kind of alternative thinking; it is unavoidable that religious conflicts turn into a major issue.

Peng: Religion has become a tool; the power resulting from the combination of religion and nationalism cannot be ignored.

Hou: Of course religion is a tool. In fact, the secularism that we think of only really exists in a few places around the world, such as in Europe or in communist countries. In actuality, the US is an extremely religious country that uses religion as a source of political power, or as an excuse to achieve political goals. What is odd about the US is that a modern democracy, but religion is what holds it together.

Peng: While the current global biennial system is centered around European biennials, the US seems to be outside of the system.

Hou: Actually, American culture is an extremely-self made one. As America accepted standards from countries around the world when it was founded, all kinds of values could be incorporated into the culture. However, what is contradictory is that the US formed its own new nationality, so it continuously wanted to prove the existence of this new nation via any possible issue. It therefore must often reaffirm itself; as a result, it has ‘American values’ and ‘American dreams’ – you don’t see these in other places. America is a very abstract community, and in order to achieve this kind of community, it must unify many things. America is an incredible unifying machine when it comes to values, but this unified community, the source of its values, is formed by taking European traditions and making them more abstract; America was formed through an American version of European religion and capitalism.
In addition, the US is a society created through the striving of individuals. The value of the individual is actually placed above that of the public. It accepts a kind of equality under an individual’s accomplishments, not individual accomplishments under equality. In other words, cultural and artistic values are also decided by the power of the individual. Biennials display the nation as a whole, and are most convenient way for a non-Western country without an infrastructure to conduct such a display. It is a kind of appeal to one’s own position following modernization and the acceptance of global values. This kind of appeal is very different than that seen in the US – a kind of appeal for collectivism, it requires the support of the public and society, whereas support for American art culture lies in the confirmation of individual values, so it is inherently difficult for US biennials to meet all of the conditions of a biennial. This touches on the question ‘what is public space? What is private space?” The US is basically a society created from private spaces; public society is in actuality privatized public society. Societies outside of the US consist of private individuals doing things in a public space.

Peng: China is also a very large country; how would you compare the two?

Hou: There are certain things in China and America that are very similar. China is also an extremely pragmatic society. In addition, China has been heavily influenced by America over the last century.
When the Republic of China was founded, two major sources were used for reference – Europe’s humanism and modernization, and America’s political and economic systems. Later, the Communist Party adopted Soviet ideals, but after the reform and opening up of China, the first thing the country studied was the US, as China could not avoid dealing with the strongest economy in the world. In addition, the country’s modernization process was heavily influenced by many overseas Chinese, most of whom were in North America. The national policies in China were also formed mostly due to the competition and confrontation with the US. Therefore, for the artistic market, China did not refer to Europe, but instead watched what New York was doing. This is very interesting, as China and the US are now the same in that they often mix art with the art market; the standards of art have now been replaced by the standards of the art market to a very large degree. China’s problem lies here.

Peng: So how do you see Taiwan?

Hou: Actually, Taiwan is a product of America’s security umbrella. One good thing about Taiwan is that it did not erase traditional culture and the middle class, as China did. The revolutionary Communist Party and Kuomintang (KMT) have some similarities, and co-existed for many years. However, in the end, I think one main reason they separated was that the Communist Party represented the reality of the agrarian society in China, while Taiwan or the original KMT represented the fragile urban middle class of China. Their world views were fundamentally different; farmers were more pragmatic, and in fact to a certain degree were more similar to American culture. What is interesting about Taiwan is that it has been heavily influenced by the US, and is basically an urban society, with a legacy of Shanghai-like cities. The level of Taiwan’s economy was higher than that of China, and it interacted closely with the West and with an intellectual class. In addition, Taiwan can choose what they want. From this point of view, Taiwan is more similar to the US in some ways, but less similar in others.

Peng: Can you sense China in Taiwan?

Hou: Of course, in the Chinese culture or traditional Chinese society that has been preserved here. China basically agrarian with communism added to it. Actually when I go to Taiwan it feels like I’ve traveled to the China you read about in books.

Peng: Could you talk about the prospects of Chinese art? Do you regard it as an imaginary world?

Hou: Prospects are a hard thing to define. I think China needs good art, it needs a lot of time, and it needs a fundamental change in values. How the society can give some space to this intellectual class, give some space to cultural values, is a very important issue. One thing that is very important in my vision for Chinese art does not involve just art, but rather the entire structure of society – how to let this society have more possibility, how to let certain things not directly involved with power or profit continue to exist. Once this has been achieved, art will naturally follow.

Peng: Is there hope?

Hou: I don’t know. There is always hope.

Peng: What conditions could create this kind of situation, so that it is not influenced by power or profit?

Hou: I think a democratic and politically open society is necessary – this is not an issue of economics. The politics must be able to tolerate existence of ‘others,’ the existence of ‘different;’ this is the most important thing.

Peng: A question I thought of earlier was about the relationship between contemporary art and democratic societies. It seems that contemporary art is a product of democratic nations, but now this is no longer certain. Is that correct?

Hou: It is no longer certain. However, it can represent looking at the bright side, that all societies yearn for democracy. But actually democracy isn’t an abstract concept, but rather something established on the values of fairness and diversity. In other words, how one can be able to respect others, while maintaining their own position and letting other voices be heard – that is what democracy is. It is not people casting ballots, or saying I do or do not conform to the definition of freedom. Freedom is a concept that cannot be clearly explained.

Peng: So America isn’t necessarily democratic and free?

Hou: Of course not necessarily. In actuality, it is democracy and freedom in form.

Peng: Finally, would you criticize my works for me?

Hou: How do you criticize this? There is no way to criticize it. I think what I like about your work is the gathering of dogs, that kind of game, that kind of rather weird phenomenon. There are also some things that cannot be explained. There has always been an intimate relationship between religion and society, so in this series where religion and dogs are writing scripture, I feel that it is a major turning point;  from something more ‘spectacular,’ a more material expression, something that surprises people, to content that is more challenging. Therefore, these works pique people’s interest no matter what you do. Criticism is out of the question; I just hope that because these works might have already become a series more or less, that whatever you do next is even more interesting. In terms of depth and power, I think that new video works push possibilities. I remember you also did a piece about disabled people and money (Taking Money Project), but the next step in your development…

Peng: Some people say seeing this work that it’s very unexpected, as if it was not my work. But I feel that this piece and the later pieces might be more related.

Hou:  Does this imply a relationship between body and political power?

Peng: I like a kind of conflict in which there is a large difference between the two sides. I feel that modern society is a large conflict, which I hope to show.

Hou: So your later works involved strange phenomena from the Iraq war. But where was your final location? Do you feel that you are a Taiwanese artist? Or more of an individual artist?

Peng: I feel that I am more of an individual artist. I don’t say I belong to one place in particular. Actually I don’t like artists using nationality to classify themselves.
I want to explore Iraq issues or Middle Eastern issues. Perhaps I have a more reasonable foothold towards this issue as an Asian artist, a more impartial viewpoint.

Hou: It seems you’ve become interested in Asian religion recently, such as Buddhism and Daoism.

Peng: I really like Daoism, especially the idea that people can become more than human, they can become immortals, a process for which practices were invented. I’m also very interested in Christianity, which is the source of Western civilization. There is a concept of revenge in Christianity, which is unimaginable in Eastern religions. When you think of revenge, you create an enemy.

Hou: Actually Istanbul is a product of revenge, since various religions have been replacing each other there. In the end, do you think your works are like Daoist pills of immortality, that being an artist feels like being a Daoist magician of sorts?

Peng: I hope so. When an artist follows his path, is it the artist making the decisions to do so ahead of time, and then following up on them? Or does he play it by ear? I think I’m more of a ‘play it by ear’ artist.

 

3:00pm, March 11, 2008 at the San Francisco Art Institute

 

中文原文 Original Chinese Text

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