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Do Dogs Wear Clothes? On Peng Hung-chih

Manray Hsu

In the last years of the Tang Dynasty, the great Chan master Zhao Zhou formulated the koan, "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" It is told that pupils asked him, "Do dogs have Buddha nature?", to which he is said to have replied, "No, they do not have Buddha nature." As pupils later asked him the same question, he is said to have replied, "Yes, dogs have Buddha nature." This story later became one of the three most famous koans of Chinese Chan, because this question cannot simply be answered with "yes" or "no". Indeed, the answer cannot even be that dogs both have and do not have Buddha nature, nor that they neither have it nor do not have it, because according to Buddhist understanding, these koans can only be solved on a plane beyond every rational thinking. What this question is intended to provoke is not a simple answer, but rather breaking through thinking according to reason. What it is intended to achieve is that we directly experience the Buddhist teaching of "truth is nothing but emptiness" in concrete action.

How did the people of the Tang Dynasty even come up with asking a question like this? Which koan must we formulate, if we want to pose the question of truth in order to break through dominant knowledge, reason? In our modern world of imitation that goes beyond reality, simulates it, restructures it and pours it into media images, the question of actual truth naturally appears to be a bit old-fashioned. Let us look at this question from a different perspective: the existence of the dog is a very old fact, but we modern human beings are the first to begin caring for the dog - although dogs have ironically always been mankind's best friend. Whether they wear clothes or not is a very serious question for us human beings. People who are of the opinion that they do not wear clothes could argue that dogs have fur (at least this applies to most dogs), and this fur has a protective, warming function, but is not to be equated with wearing clothes, because fur does not fulfill all the diverse functions that clothes fulfill. For those who think that dogs do wear clothes, fur and clothing are equal: both transport feelings and meaning, and both equally fulfill the important symbolic function of a status symbol.

The core of this discussion obviously lies in the following question: are fur and clothing ultimately appearance or reality? Naturally, we could answer this question with a definition. In our time, however, the problem is probably more that appearance and reality have become very difficult to distinguish. We live in a mediatized world, reality only becomes reality through media representation. Every reality is imitated and simulated. Under this influence, the naked reality of traditional art begins to topple; through these artistic mechanisms of representation, the naked body is directly exposed, becoming "invisible" clothing under mounds of the most diverse symbols. For this reason, the question of whether dogs wear clothing is not only a question of the definition of clothing, but rather a question of the contradictoriness of our reality.

The artist Peng Hung-chih has created a series of works revolving around the exterior of a dog. Many figures from classical western art history are clothed in dog fur and given the head of a dog. For an exhibition at the O.K Center, he prepared a copy of the famous Hellenistic figure group Laokoon. He put a Dalmatian costume on Laokoon, so that he mutated into a dog. The naked body originally sculpted from marble (the copy consists of paper mach?) with its massive muscles and protruding veins, the face painfully distorted in a fighting, tormented pose, was covered with rough Dalmatian fur from plastic and given a head that seems to come straight from a cartoon. This figure is contrasted with the two sons entwined by giant snakes - in the original appearance of the sculpture, without dog's garb, making their shy, questioning facial expression appear comical and ridiculous.

In western art history, the figure group "Laokoon" assumes an outstanding position. According to the saga, the seer was killed by snakes sent by the god of the sea during the final phase of the Trojan war, because he wanted to reveal a plot that the Greeks had contrived: when the Greeks pretended to leave Troy and left a wooden horse behind on the shore, Laokoon warned against bringing it into the city and even hurled his lance against it. Through his death, this priest, loyally devoted to his country, was transformed into a tragic hero on the altar of power. Peng Hung-chih makes use of the means of the grotesque and puts Laokoon into the garb of a dog (the external appearance of a dog?), in order to entice the viewer with black humor to the following train of thought: do these dog's clothes now actually reveal or cover up the upright, truthful character of Laokoon?

As we live in a mediatized visual culture, this work confronts us with the question of the relationship between art and truth. Regardless of whether it is a matter of copies or increasingly exact representations, our visual culture attempts to highlight the most genuine, most essential traits of things, so that the exterior, the surface uncovers the deeper meaning. It is certainly possible that the power of art to penetrate the surface will one day be completely replaced by the laws of media exposure. The problem, with which we find ourselves confronted today, lies not only in the question of whether art has become part of the media, but rather whether exhibiting art can transcend the laws of everyday observation or elude them and transform the meaning of a work into a process, in which the viewer actively enters into an experimental, free process of experiencing life. Truth is not simply just discovered, but is instead constructed, in order to answer the different questions about existence and the meaning of mankind. When Laokoon, who is so prominent in western art history, is transformed into a Dalmatian, what this involves is an expression of "ruffian philosophy" and "dog philosophy", a Dadaist artifice that uses the superficiality of a toy or cartoon, a superficiality not to be surpassed in form and material quality, in order to raise questions about the relationship between truth and art. "Do dogs wear clothes?" is the Chan Buddhist koan of the modern human being.

In recent years, dogs have been the identifying feature of Peng Hung-chih's works. In addition to "Laokoon" and the artist's workroom, the works "Little Danny", "Face to Face" and "One Black One White" are shown in the exhibition at the O.K. These pieces have already been exhibited in various versions in Taipei, Japan and Korea. The main actors are real dogs or toy dogs respectively.

Before Peng became involved with dogs in his works, he worked primarily with cheap toys manufactured as mass goods in Taiwan, e.g. Donald Duck figures, frogs, mastiffs or diverse dolls.

"Cultural Stomach", for example, is the first work following his return from America (1997). For this, Peng arranged several waterways made of elongated, silver-colored sheets of iron, which overlap but are not connected to one another. In addition to a few water plants, the small pools at the end of the waterways each contain a silver toy frog. These simple, battery-driven frogs swim around in the pools and constantly bump into the edges: there is no way out for them. Since they do not give up, though, and only stop when their batteries run out, the result is an existentialist, impotent "no exit" feeling. In the way he clings to life, man resembles a gambler, who constantly stakes his life and senses an inexplicable feeling of passion, although he knows there is no way out, and he must go on and on and on ...

There are several reasons why Peng places cheap toys at the center of his works. In his book "Contemporary Installation Art of Taiwan, 1991 - 2001", Yao Ruizhong writes in this context: "He purposely takes objects with a low market value as the starting point for his works and partly also leaves them in their original state, in order to make it clear that these things undergo a substantial alienation as soon as they land in the commercial consumer market." Secondly, these toys usually originate in mainstream popular culture and are transformed in the course of the copy process into independent cultural symbols and passive objects of human affection. For a large portion of modern people, especially for teenagers as they grow up, they play a role as conversation partners that should not be underestimated. Perhaps there is already no longer such a close relationship, but like best friends, they help one to find one's own place in the world. Thirdly, these toys are usually "Made in Taiwan" and have entered into the everyday life of most people under the influence of unavoidable globalization. Thus these cheap toys are permanently and inseparably linked with the image of Taiwan in the world. It is also for this reason that Peng, as an artist born and raised in Taiwan, seems to identify with these products in an especially intimate way.

Before Peng set off into the world of dogs, he tried to find possibilities for experiencing the world from the view of dogs. One result of this search was "One Eye Ball" (1999). In this work, he mounted LCD displays approximately the size of eyeglasses in a helmet and connected them through a trunk-like tube with a camera the size of a pinhead attached to the end of this trunk. The trunk reached to just below the knee of the viewer, in other words to just the height, where a dog's eyes would normally be. As soon as you put on the helmet, you see on the display what the camera records through the "dog eye". You can control the camera by hand or by moving the body and thus view the world from various perspectives. When viewers learn to deal with this new medium - an extension of their sensory organs   - and adjust to it, they experience - as Marshall McLuhan already pointed out - a feeling of dizziness: it is as though they have to newly adapt all the nerves of their body to this situation, in order to experience the sensory perception conveyed by this new medium with its low-control and high-tech feeling. Thus the intention of this work does not consist solely in its implicit message: it is not intended to turn the hierarchical relationship between mankind and dog upside down, but rather to allow the viewer to experience the world directly from a "lower" standpoint. In other words, it intends to let you see your own image in the mirror and, beyond that, to activate all sensory functions and illustrate the predominance of visual perception in modern culture.

At almost the same time, Peng Hung-chih began attaching a pinhead-sized camera to the head of a dog, to enable people to see the world from a dog's perspective. "Siao-Pai" (1999) is the first work in this series. In fact, it is not only a matter of showing the world from the perspective of a dog (we will leave aside the epistemological question of how the world perceived with the eyes of a dog can be represented, because that is not what the work primarily involves). In fact, the so-called "dog's perspective" simulates the dog's field of vision, which means that the camera is able to follow the dog's attention and movements and record things accordingly. At the beginning of the video, the dog's owner does everything possible to attract the animal's attention. In the background we hear him constantly calling "Siao-Pai, Siao-Pai. Isn't that what you love best?" The pictures alternate sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, sometimes the movement seems to be frozen. What entices viewers is that they sometimes recognize a content in the pictures the camera records, but sometimes they simply have to guess what it is that attracts the dog's attention, what he sees or thinks. Here the so-called content of the pictures produces different, highly ambivalent meanings. Content can be anything that the camera captures, but it can also refer to the intention of the photographer. Of course, this ambivalence is also present in pictures taken by human beings, but it is much more strongly expressed in scenes recorded by a dog, because people can better guess the intention behind certain pictures due to their capacity for empathy and the scenic language based on a common visual experience. In comparison, the empathy between humans and dogs is not especially well developed (although, if we think of the relationship human - rat or with other creatures, then the discrepancy is naturally even greater). In any case, the language of pictures is still a very alien world for a dog - at least it still is today. (When will it be possible for dogs to obtain a camera and capture that which appears important to them in pictures?) Therefore, Siao-Pai naturally does not know that he is capturing something in pictures. In other words, the aforementioned "intention of the filmer" practically does not exist in these images. Thus the intention that we think we can guess is basically Siao-Pai's intention as "the one taking action" and not Siao-Pai's intention as "photographer". What is particularly interesting here is that if we want to recognize Siao-Pai's intention as actor, then a relatively certain way to do so is by observing what he is just doing or which expression he assumes. If we have spent some time with the dog and are familiar with him, this is a relatively simple matter. Here, though, since the camera is just mounted on the dog's head and we cannot see the dog himself, we are confronted with the second level of meaning: what is Siao-Pai doing now, what is he thinking now, what expression does he have? And consequently the first level of meaning must change accordingly: what relationship is there between what the lens depicts and the intention of the "actor" guiding the camera?

When a staircase appears in the scene, for example, and somewhere in the background we hear the dog's master (who has just arrived at the stairs below) calling "Siao-Pai", then we as viewers can guess by observing the movement of the picture that Siao-Pai is just considering whether he should go down the stairs or not - but we do not know what Siao-Pai actually does. In short: the picture "hesitates" for a moment, then goes down the stairs onto the street, and goes along the sidewalk. In between, we also hear more dogs barking. We slowly realize that we are less interested in the "content" of the scenes than in the situation that Siao-Pai is in now: we gradually learn to observe the world from Siao-Pai's "perspective" and to develop a narrative structure for him. The perspective of these scenes differs from that of a film director, though, but also from that of an actor in a film: it is the completely new perspective of an Other and it calls for us to learn completely new methods of perceiving and reading. Only then does understanding become possible. This new perception, this new reading conjoins our photographic function (e.g. the control of depth, focus, sound, etc.), the surroundings, to which the content of the picture refers, and our knowledge of the world of dogs, in this case particularly of Siao-Pai's character, etc.

When a video camera is attached to moving things, a bicycle for example, and when the intervention of a human as "filmer" is highly reduced or removed altogether, thus stressing the randomness of the content of the scenes or certain regularities, then these are important experiments for the development of video art. If the video camera is attached to the body of a dog and the shots follow the dog's movements, then this allows us to recognize the surroundings and the world of a dog from a completely different perspective. This also changes our emotional relationship to the dog, simply because we can assume the standpoint of the dog and thus identify with it.

In addition to Siao-Pai, Peng Hung-chih also had a number of other dogs make videos: playing on the beach in the water, taking a walk along the street, eating, playing with other dogs. In these videos, the dog's master is always there, too, and the videos that show the emotional relationships between human and dog seem to be love stories, in a certain sense, told from the view of the dog.

However, Peng does not simply show these videos in a normal cinema, but rather attaches them to the bodies of five life-sized silver-colored dogs made of fiberglass, which assume different positions: they sit, lie, crouch, stand and raise their front legs. The videos are shown on small screens that are attached to the head or inside the mouth of the dogs, and viewers have to sit on the dog, lie down next to the dog, embrace him or stick their head in his mouth - in other words, assume several suggestive or improper positions - in order to be able to see the video at all. This naturally has something to do with the aforementioned "love scenes". This installation of five dogs forms "Face to Face" (2001).

The feelings of affection between dog and master: everyone that loves dogs probably knows that dogs understand very well how to use absolute devotion to make their masters submissive. (For people who don't like dogs, this is probably difficult to comprehend.) They manage to look at you just at the moment when you really didn't want to pay attention to them, with such a heart-warming gaze and absolute honesty, that you simply have no choice but to reconsider. Or they keep nudging you, until there is nothing else you can do, but just give in. Yet they can also wag their tails so hard with pure joy and beg for your favor, until they have finally won your heart and you find yourself loyally devoted to the service of your dog. Scientists even presume the following thesis: since dogs belong by nature to the animals that collect refuse and therefore like to eat things from the floor that have been thrown away, over the course of the over ten thousand-year-old love story between mankind and dogs, it was not man that tamed the dog, but rather the dog that tamed man.

However, Peng Hung-chih not only had dogs "film" videos, he also took the camera in hand himself to record the world of dogs. These works have several special characteristics: 1. The artist slips into the role of the master or observer and films from an objective position; 2. the filmed object is the dog or the relationship between dogs, i.e. the socio-ecology of the dog; 3. the video is presented in the style of a documentary film, featuring dynamic, but also static passages; 4. the intention of filming is the same as with a fable, the aim is to make fun of circumstances from human life. With regard to this last point, these works differ substantially from the video works of the series "Face to Face": with the latter, the aim is primarily to reverse the "dog perspective" and the "observer perspective", in order to attain a rearrangement of the relationship between human and dogs through this conspiratorial reversal, for which reason the metaphorical proportion is not particularly high.

These works include, first of all, "Dressing Up" (2001). Here the artist visits a dog pound, takes two dogs away and brings them back to the pound after some time, then visits these still unhappy friends later. The artists costumes the dogs, however, as in a theater, and puts blinders on them - a reference to the fable alluded to with the Chinese saying "to return home in silk garments". In the video, we see how a group of dogs encircles these two strange creatures in their brand-new garments, curiously looking them over. However, we cannot tell whether they still remember the two dogs or not. Suddenly, a dog locked in a cage and one of the dogs "returned home in silk garments" begin to bark at one another through the bars. The camera is between the two dogs, as though they belong to two contrary worlds. At first we think the dogs are barking angrily at one another, but after two or three minutes we slowly realize that this is a dialogue that could go on forever. From the loud barking and the simple pictures left and right, we can recognize, although with some difficulty, what the dialogue is about. Here, though, the artist makes fun of the psychology of the viewers, which is another of the particular characteristics of this series: 5.

Through the ambiguity and the simplicity of the shots (and through the [Chinese] title of the works), he entices the viewers to project their own moral judgment onto what is happening, thus achieving the result intended by the fable. In fact, however, this projection merely reveals the "dark side of the human soul" (as Yoa Ruizhong phrased it). The viewer can, for example, quite unconsciously interpret this scene that is difficult to understand as an expression of jealousy, as a fight for territory, as a maneuver to save face, as an expression of vanity or stubbornness on both sides.

"One Black One White" (2001) is a short documentary video about two dogs (one white, one black) being fed together. Even though it actually just shows an episode from the everyday life of the dogs, the artist arranges the furnishings in the scene as though on a stage. In the beginning, we just see a room reminiscent of a stage, and two small dogs are led onto this stage by their master. Now there is a bowl of dog food on the left, and the black dogs starts eating. Then there is another bowl of dog food on the right, and the white dog begins eating. The master leaves the picture. The white dog goes over to the black dog (on the left) and sticks his nose in the other's bowl. The black dog turns around, goes over to the right and starts eating dog food from that bowl. At that moment, the white dog comes back, and as soon as the black dog has eaten two bites, he goes back to the other side. After it has gone back and forth like this several times, both dogs are full and both slowly disappear from the picture as though exiting the stage. This work, which is also reminiscent of a fable, plays with the viewers' psychological projections as well, so that this simple, ambiguous documentary film allows for a whole string of possible interpretations: A bitter struggle for dominance among people? A battle of envy and jealousy? The one-sidedness of human relationships? Or a love-hate relationship between two dogs? Or simply a game that they do not tire of? Regardless of which psychological projection comes into effect here, the simple story is already a highly successful black comedy.

Peng Hung-chih poses the following question: "The characteristic traits of dogs that are accessible to our observations, are they actually traits that are innate to dogs, or are they traits that humans effect in dogs? I have seen so many human traits among dogs - jealousy, power behavior, etc. Sometimes I think that the culture of modern human beings has degenerated so far that people have forgotten what really constitutes human beings." If one assumes that many of the dog's traits have developed through living together with human beings over such a long period of time, and that human projections come into effect in them, then a dog from a cartoon and a toy dog are basically nothing other than the concrete embodiment of these human projections. Man is like god: in his own image he creates the most diverse cartoon and toy dogs. On the one hand, he perfectly imitates the role of an omnipotent, omniscient god; on the other hand, he moves farther away from the Freudian principle of reality, constructing instead an embodiment of himself according to the pure principle of pleasure. From cartoon dogs like Goofy to the toy Dalmatians or the electronic versions of dogs - they all follow this same psychological logic. And as far as the dog as man's best friend is concerned, they assume absolute precedence that no other cartoon or toy figure can take away from them. They come closest to the imitation of the images that mankind has of itself.

"Little Danny" is Peng's largest installation in recent years. For this work, he attached over 3000 15-centimeter big toy dogs - all of them "Made in Taiwan" - to the body of an almost 4.5 meter high "Little Danny"; they form its "clothing", its exterior. These little toy dogs have a small electronic drive system, so that they can move their bodies and bark. The artist connected all of them to a central control system. This control system, reminiscent of a central nervous system, is connected with a movement sensor in the exhibition hall. Every time a visitor approaches "Little Danny", the sensors are activated and a deafening barking concert begins. In the high-ceilinged, expansive exhibition hall of the O.K Center, this results in the impression that the visitor dives into a fictive world: you stand before the giant body of "Little Danny", from which several thousand little dachshunds impertinently bark down at you. At a closer look, it appears to the visitor that each dog has its own special features. They wag their tails and seem to beg for attention and are not at all as helpless and timid as they first appeared. The visitor feels flattered and unconsciously begins to smile.

This installation touches on questions of human existence, which is increasingly subjected to a tendency toward uniformity, collectivization and fictiveness, as it is characteristic for the system of our modern culture, politics, economics and society. From the humans that have mutated into digits in "Matrix" to the small, structural connections of the "multitude" resisting the system in the book "Empire", we are slowly recognizing which role art can play in revealing the mechanisms of the system and in resistance against the system. Laotze described the relationship between human beings and Tao with the following words: "Heaven and earth are not kind. To them, human beings are like straw sacrificial dogs." If we relate this description to the situation of the modern human being, it may seem quite apt and also quite frightening at the same time. Yet for this reason as well, the question of how we can break through the system, how we can escape the compulsion to collectivization, is an extremely urgent one.

中文版 Chinese Version