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Besides Ourselves - Alter Egos in the Work of Hung-Chih Peng

By Sara Lookofsky


In Hung-Chih Peng’s work, we do not see eye-to-eye with our own species. We are continually placed face-to-face with beings possessing eyes but unable to speak in the human tongue. Plastic toys “made in Taiwan,” gods and, in particular, dogs-in every case these creatures seem so familiar and proximate, inviting feelings of close emotional connectivity. But in the end, they are mute, silent alter egos onto which we humans are left to project an unstable conception of our own selves.


Alter ego, another self, commonly refers to an intimate friend or a constant companion; best friends, identical twins and soul mates are often portrayed as two of the same despite inhabiting separate bodies. The dog, the most oft-recurring figure in Peng’s work, is indeed stereotypically characterized as humanity’s constant companion. But the alter ego is also commonly used to denote another side of oneself or a second self. Gaining prominence in the early 1800’s when schizophrenia was first diagnosed, the latter application of this term describes an identity radically different from what was perceived to be “the real self.” Thus, the figure of the alter ego represents both sameness and difference; two beings intimately connected as well as two distinct sides of one. The more fraught, irreconcilable identity in the second definition of alter ego is also felt in Peng’s work as the self, here, is never a stable core but always constantly subject to redefinition in relation to others. When faced with the alter ego, we at once see ourselves mirrored, but also become deeply aware of the other’s fundamental unknowability—we are led to ponder what this other being facing us, thinks, feels and knows. When looking at another, these questions in turn come our way, as the alter ego stares right back…
TOYS> Throughout Peng’s work, animals and animal-shaped objects take up positions that could be interpreted as human predicaments. In Migration (1997), Peng placed cheap mechanical frogs, commonly found in toy stores and junk shops, in small water compartments connected to one another by narrow aluminum ducts. In their small confined spaces, the frogs swim tirelessly, continuously bumping against the barriers that surround them. The small creatures in this piece, one of several using plastic toys made in the artist’s home country of Taiwan, can easily be read as proxies for our own kind. Their innocent little programmed bodies invite us to feel their frustration, but, at the same time, their anonymous uniformity leaves us at the water’s edge. Little Danny (2001), a giant dog entirely composed of a multitude of “Little Danny” mechanical toy pups, makes tangible the contradictions of collectivity versus individuality, uniformity and singularity. When up close to the colossal canine, the gallery visitor cannot help but zero in on one little barking specimen and, almost in a willful act of self-deception, see this one as different from all the rest.


As if following up on the impulse to access a four-legged being’s emotional life, many of Peng’s sculptures take the form of prosthetic devices and interactive statues that literally allow the viewer to see with another creature’s eyes. In One-eye-ball (1999), a part-Darth-Vader-part-canine mask allows the viewer to appreciate the world at dog-level. A long trunk with a camera at its tip extends from this sci-fi visor, sending a direct feed to an LCD monitor. But the device hardly provides an in-depth understanding of life from another specie’s point of view. Instead, it causes the hooded spectator to cautiously advance, the new perspective almost requiring her/him to relearn the basics of interacting with and perceiving one’s surroundings. The piece acknowledges that, while identification is always a visual activity, seeing is not being. As we inch forward with our long, trunked mask, we become acutely aware of the differences that separate our species from theirs. In Face to Face (2000), the head of every dog sculpture contains a crevice featuring a screen, which invites spectators to sink their faces into the sculpture’s mouth or cranium to view videos shot from a canine perspective. Seeing only movement but not motivation, the spectator is compelled to fill in the blanks, automatically attributing friendship, distress, hatred and other such human emotions to the comparably limited register of barks, waddles and wags. 

GODS> Shifting away from the animal register, but maintaining similar preoccupations, Peng has also pondered what relationship the figure of the god bears to the human subject. The projects God Pound (2006) and Misfortune Gods (2006) both involved recycling small god statues that became especially popular during a gambling craze in Taiwan in the 1980s. After failing to successfully divine a winning number, many of these were abused and abandoned at recycling centers, much like how dogs are sent to pounds when unable to fulfill humans’ inflated expectations. In these works that contemplate the human nature of religion, we are reminded that gods ultimately also are the product of people’s projections.

In psychoanalysis, alter ego has been used to refer to the representation of an other complicit in the subject’s narcissism—when another can only be understood as a doubling of the self. Faced, as we are in Peng’s artworks, with a variety of beings caught up in situations that remind us of our own, we are continually tempted to narcissistically understand these beings as possessing our human characteristics. However, we are only given a limited range of signifiers with which to engage, leaving all attempts at complete identification frustratingly unsatisfied.  By proximating ourselves to other creatures, we are consistently reminded of our profound alterity. Identification as well as identity is always marked by difference.

DOGS> This point seems to be intricately illustrated in a series of works featuring mongrels. To Dress Up at Home (2001) is a video in which two dogs from a pound were taken out of their confines, only to return to visit their former inmates dressed in new clothes: the “pedigree” costumes of a Collie and a Dalmatian. As a human spectator, one is tempted to read this interaction as a parable of class and race relations. The dogs are subjected to the superficiality of the human world, their identities dependent on one-dimensional veneers. But is this indeed the case? One cannot help but wonder what determines these dogs’ reactions to one another. Only set apart by the codes of classification by which people categorize other species, namely purebreds from mutts, the dogs’ interactions end up reflecting mainly on human relations. In the series of works entitled Canine Monk (2007), Peng’s own dog literally steps in his artist-owner’s place as creative subject. In the videos, the dog inscribes text from Buddhist, Taoist, Hindi, Islamic, Christian and other religious scriptures on the wall. Once the human subject is removed, these texts become defamiliarized. Sentences such as “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” become particularly estranged. Questions are raised that are not normally pondered: who is the writing subject and to whom are these scriptures addressed? When articulated via the mouth of the dog, the words, strangely, seem all the more human.

Peng is not the first artist to conveniently position an alter ego in his place. An avian creature named Loplop appeared regularly in the collages and paintings of surrealist artist Max Ernst. In the twenties and thirties, the taking of an animalistic alter ego was clearly a continuation of common preoccupations of Dadaist and surrealist practices in which artists persistently attempted to replace willed creativity with streams of the unconscious. 1 Loplop is the ego’s other, an inversion of the self, able to act out the artist’s unconscious drives. The bird steps in his creator’s place as a forceful, artistic alter ego—but he remains intimately bound by his master, called upon only to act out what his creator could not express on his own.

According to the lore perpetuated by the artist himself, Max Ernst claimed to have as a child confounded the image of the human being with that of a bird. This confusion happened when his pet bird died around the same time that his little sister was born. Although only probably in part true, if at all, this story would yield quite a psychoanalytic case study. Jacques Lacan’s “Mirror Stage” describes the moment at which the child sees her/his own reflection. The mirrored image appears as a whole entity, which contrasts the fragmented movements and undefined boundaries between self and other experienced by the infant up to that point. Also, the mirrored image both is and is not the self, thus resulting in a profound sense of splitting. This account is largely a visual one, as the sense of “I” that emerges with the reflection is bound up with a “mirage” of control, an image of an “ideal-I.”  This narrative is most often read abstractly as an account of subject formation, of how the child learns to understand her/his place in the world in relation to others. It can also be used to describe the coming into being of the alter ego. Thus, in some artistic precedents, the animal alter ego is as an “ideal-I” vision—a character defined expressly by the artist-individual’s limits.

Hung-Chih Peng’s father’s only brother died of rabies, contracted from a stray dog’s bite, after the Second World War in Taiwan. This led his father to keep his family away from dogs, although it was only much later that the reason for which dogs had been held in contempt was revealed to the artist. While this story might also yield a compelling subject for a psychoanalyst’s reading of Peng’s work—the human-dog relationship as representing the artist’s traumatic “primal scene” in the Freudian sense—I will refrain from making such an attempt here. Suffice it to say that Peng’s dog, and the other alter-egos, as I have named his artistic subjects here, is much different from Max Ernst’s Loplop. Loplop emerges from experimentation with the human psyche, out of a fascination with the unconscious and with the aspiration to make art a medium where drives can be freely expressed. In contrast, often employing his real-life canine companion, Yukie, in his work, Peng’s creatures are always quieter, more subdued actors drawn from a very tangible world. They are not strong, recurring characters; instead their role in the works always remains ambiguous. The dog is a stand-in for any and all dogs and is never positioned in positive or negative terms. Like all the rest in his catalogue of characters, Peng’s dogs step into the works as actors without a defined voice, with all their multifaceted connotations left intact. Is the dog a stupid creature, an inferior organism, a loyal friend or a mute but wise spirit? It never becomes entirely clear and the works invite us to keep on guessing. Drawing inspiration from Taoist and  Buddhist philosophy, Peng continually strives to unsettle the dualisms of thought that often dominate human’s understanding of the world. His aim: To achieve a new starting point from which new conversations can flourish.

Peng’s alter egos do not reflect an idiosyncratic artistic vision. They are never singular, stable characters that act as stand-ins for the artist’s persona. Displacing the artist-subject as central figure altogether, the artist manages to shift his focus from the psychic to the social and from the personal to a more collective view. His work even allows for a departure from an anthropocentric perspective altogether, thereby permitting other non-human subjectivities to emerge. But in the end, Peng’s alter egos are always precisely that; other selves. The ensemble of creatures that are cast in his pieces never appear in “natural” environments or habitats. All are beings that cannot be understood as anything but “domesticated,” always appearing in relationship to humans. Hung-Chih Peng's work repeatedly engenders the temporary removal of the human subject from the equation, thereby perhaps allowing us to imagine what life might look like from another’s point of view.

 

 

1Ernst, like many of his contemporaries, was interested in case studies of schizophrenia and in the “art of the insane.”

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