Jump to the content zone at the center

‘Who’s Hung Tung?’ unveils a self-taught artist’s life

By Yali Chen

Who’s Hung Tung?

He was said to be a gifted artist with psychic powers in Taiwan during the seventies. Local people in modern society, however, are unfamiliar with him and his achievements.

In an effort to unveil Hung’s life, Cheng Chia-yin, the director of the Taipei-based drama troupe Puppet and Its Double, have launched the project “Who’s Hung Tung?” as one of the many varied programs in the 2011 Taipei Arts Festival.

In this photo taken August 11, 2011, a member of the Puppet and Its Double (front row) holds a tricycle during a rehearsal for “Who’s Hung Tung?” (Photo Courtesy of The Puppet and Its Double)Now entering its 13th year, the month-long art event will run until September 4 at the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, within a ten-minute walk from the Sun Yatsen Memorial Hall MRT Station. One of the country’s oldest arts festivals, it is presenting seven programs including three local productions and four international ones.

“This project combines a drama, a documentary and an exhibition. We have tried to explore the rise and fall of this currently unknown artist’s life,” Cheng said.

Born in 1920 in a fishermen’s village near the Nankunshen Temple in Tainan’s Beimen Township, Hung lost his parents in childhood. He was raised by relatives but was unable to go to school because of their poverty.

To support himself, little Hung had to do a few odd jobs and work as a spirit medium in a Taoist temple.

He was also reported to cry his heart out many times since he could not visit his parents’ graves.

“Hung’s illiteracy made him unable to read dead people’s names and dates of birth and death on tombstones,” Cheng said, adding that neighbors always saw him holding lighted incense sticks.

On his 50th birthday in 1970, Hung suddenly had a strong desire to paint and begged his wife for approval. Two years later, this self-taught artist showcased his creations in front of the Nankunshen Temple.

His mysterious style and bold colors grabbed the attention of the public in the 1970s. In 1972 he began receiving extensive coverage in newspapers and art magazines, and became the subject of heated debates.

Most significantly, The Artist magazine organized a solo exhibition of his works at the American Cultural Center in Taipei on March 13, 1976. The exhibition put him into the spotlight, and he became a household name overnight in Taiwan.

Tens of thousands of people from around the island flocked to the center to appreciate his paintings. The mania for his works swiftly swept across the country.

After becoming well-known, Hung received constant requests from friends and strangers for paintings. But the requests soon became a burden, forcing him to begin isolating himself in his later life.

The overnight fame also did not turn Hung into a rich man, since he refused to sell his paintings.

“No one could buy his works because he regarded them as his family members, and he and his family could not be separated,” Cheng notes.

Hung locked himself away and descended into loneliness. In 1986 his wife passed away and the media coverage began to ebb away. One year later he died in his sleep, alone in his workshop, leaving behind more than 300 paintings.

In this image from August 11, 2011, two members of the Puppet and Its Double perform during a rehearsal for “Who’s Hung Tung?” (Photo Courtesy of the Puppet and Its Double)Hung’s art seemed to polarize the local people. Those who appreciated his artistic style saw him as a genius, while those who didn’t viewed him as a weird fool.

In the 1970s, Taiwan was still very conservative, and the idea that an illiterate person could start painting without any formal art training was considered quite shocking. Besides, Hung was said to use his right and left hands, toes, and even penis to draw on sheets of paper.

“Hung took inspiration from Taiwanese opera, puppet shows, temple fairs, temple sculptures and ritualized performance troupes,” the 39-year-old director said. “His paintings have a Taiwanese touch.”

The recurring elements in his pieces, she added, include faces with varied colors and expressions of human beings and birds. Despite his illiteracy, the painter loved using hieroglyphic signs in his creations.

Whenever he was invited to display his works, Hung would always say “the time is not yet right,” but after his death it seems to be a case of “the time has come.”

In September 1987 the American Cultural Center in Taipei held a retrospective exhibition of this artist’s works. Ten years later his son Hung Shih-bao staged an exhibition in his memory at the Tainan Municipal Cultural Center, and his creations won international recognition in a display in New York City.

An exhibition of the self-taught artist’s paintings, entitled “The Imaginary Dreamland of Hung Tung,” went on display in Taoyuan on April 30, 2010. The showcase was organized by the Taoyuan County Government Cultural Affairs Bureau. With 116 pieces, it was the biggest-ever exhibition of Hung’s artworks, making the event a big deal with his fans and the wider Taiwan fine art community.

During the 1990s his paintings represented Taiwan on the world stage, featuring in exhibitions in the US, Germany, France and Belgium.

Taiwan today can accept this kind of artist, but the younger generation does not know Hung and his artworks. The power of his creations travels through time, space and generations, and his paintings connect with every soul that sees them. An elderly person might find symbols and representations of Taiwan’s traditional cultures in his paintings, whereas a young person might discover interesting elements that are already familiar to them from comic books.

During his lifetime he went through unpleasant situations in which his fellow villagers saw him as an incomprehensible fool, and he also enjoyed great acclaim as the art world acknowledged him as an accomplished painter.

“Like a jigsaw puzzle, our production is comprised of 15 interesting segments. We have tried to show varied aspects of the artist’s life and paintings through these pieces,” Cheng says.

This August 11, 2011, photo shows members of the Puppet and Its Double wearing masks during a rehearsal for “Who’s Hung Tung?.” (Photo Courtesy of the Puppet and Its Double)Hung has been dead for twenty-four years, but looking back on his life the younger generation can see that he left behind so much more than the over 300 wonderful paintings he created.

The goal of their project, Cheng adds, is to help youngsters step into the world of Hung’s art. She also hopes that young performers and audiences can immerse themselves in the artist’s imagination and gain a better understanding of his life.

For more information on the festival and the production of “Who’s Hung Tung?” go to http://eng.taipeifestival.org.tw/