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Martin Sturm in Conversation with Peng Hung-Chih
Sturm: In an interview you recently gave to an art magazine, you were described as a "dog artist" and you ironically answered that you "don't mind people checking to see if I have a tail on my bottom". How did it come about that "dogs" have become the main theme of your work?
Peng: Thinking about this series of works now, it could be interesting to go back to some childhood experiences. I was bitten by a dog when I was around five years old, on my way to look for my mother. In addition, my father's only old brother was also bitten by a dog and then died of hydrophobia. There used to be so many packs of street dogs in Taipei city, and sometimes they attacked people. They were like hunters in this urban jungle. In the name of modernity, the government killed thousands of dogs every year. I guess their souls must float in the sky. Three years ago, I met my friend Asako and was very impressed by her way of living alone with three adopted dogs. Her bed just looked more like a dog's bed. She treated herself more like a dog than a human being to create a situation of equality in this animal household. When we later became studio mates and closest friends, her three dogs and newcomer dogs started to participate my arts. I like to gaze exclusively at one single object repeatedly to remember things. In my studio, I just like to look at these dogs all the time. I see it as a practice of learning. I try to project myself into these dogs, but unfortunately I have never had a chance to have a psychological trip like being a dog for two hours and then coming back. Ironically, making dog works gave me a new identity as a dog artist, which I didn't expect. Later on, I did not really mind any more, because this absurdity could also apply to our being in this modern or so-called post-modern society. My friends always tell me, when they see dogs on the street they see my works and me.
Sturm: Now, looking at the new work that you realized during your residency at the O.K Center, this aspect of "dog" and "mankind" becomes a bit more supernatural. Your idea was to create a "dog god", reflecting "eastern" and "western" mythology and their different forms of representation. Your starting point for the project is Greek sculptures. As a young, contemporary Taiwanese artist with a totally different cultural background, where does this interest come from?
Peng: The Greek is the origin of European culture. For those historical reasons, I practiced Greek copies for almost seven years at art collage.
Sturm: So it is a very western-oriented art education system in Taiwan?
Peng: Our system is a reproduction of the Japanese one, and the Japanese one is a reproduction of the western one. Personally, I don't want to be preoccupied by these culturally colonized reproductions, but I see it as a possible platform for meeting the west. Actually, we were all brought up and live in a western society, or should I say in a capitalistic society, and this cultural reproduction came along with it.
Sturm: What is your focus on and interest in these sculptures? What do they represent for you?
Peng: Unlike other ancient peoples, the Greeks used their body to create gods. They are an ideal combination of human flesh and art. They are powerful. They can hang everything in the sky, even the ocean, just by pointing a finger. They have many similarities with supermen showing their magic on TV. Both are shaped by the visible materials, human flesh.
Sturm: There is no such tradition in Chinese cultural history?
Peng: In ancient Asia, we did not make our gods by using our own images. From my cultural background, figures referring to the concept of the supernatural cannot be naked, and they were not usually shaped by using the male human body as a model. I guess thinking about and looking at Greek sculptures really drew me up and down, forward and backward, made me enlightened and confused. Because of these complicated emotional and rational aspects, when facing Greek sculptures, I feel that they are distant and close at the same time.
Sturm: But why do you dress them as dogs?
Peng: The first reason for dressing them like dogs is to write the word backward: "god" will be the "dog". This word games gives the relationship between god, human and dog a strong hierarchy. Or it has to do with the myth that says that dog is somehow closer to god. The second reason is that the dressed dogs and the Greek sculptures all look like supermen, and this gives me an understanding that the ancient and the modern writers have the same longing to make a superior mankind. The difference is that the Greeks weren't really interested playing this game of the duality of good and evil. The third reason is that even though they have been dressed, we can still see their muscles clearly, and the Greek gods are still watching us behind the mask. And finally, in some cases the modern superman may not only be represented by human images, but also animal images. Humans do not place only themselves at the center of the world anymore, because of their fear and an awareness of the future to come, where we may only be surrounded by pets, not animals.
Sturm: Why did you choose the Laocoon group?
Peng: I think I choose things by intuition first, then the rational part comes in to start a dialogue to debate and make things clearer. The Laocoon group is marked by dramatic gesture, and this was so difficult to draw when I was in school. It is good to show those muscles expressing the action and the tragedy of fate. Behind the dress, the ancients are watching us, and Laocoon and his son are perfect for this. That is what they did in the Trojan War and they should do it again now. I feel sad, and the dressed Laocoon group makes me even sadder. They have the same faces as Little Danny. I guess they all have to work hard and persist where they are. And they are all looking at us.