13 Years Later: Guest artist Legend Hou Junming gives us an exclusive on his series God Hates You
The allure of religion and folklore? They now seem very distant and strange to me, given my current sensibilities; that was twenty years ago, after all. To be honest, I would have to say that I detest folklore now. Or perhaps that's too extreme, but at best they don't move me any more, I am indifferent to them. Why? At twenty, to be that fascinated by and even shocked by religion and folklore, but then at fifty to be indifferent, without the slightest desire to seek them out, to understand more?
Personal reasons aside, the attraction that religion and folklore held for me then was probably related to the cultural and political situations at the time. When I was twenty, martial law had just been lifted in Taiwan and everything was in flux. Under martial law there had been press censorship and the White Terror, opposition to authority was prohibited, and freedom of expression unheard of. We weren't even allowed to speak Taiwanese dialects under the regime's education system; one careless slip of the mother tongue in school and we'd be punished. Those who couldn't speak proper standard Chinese in public settings were uncouth, uneducated, second-rate, and made fun of. Local culture was considered crass, vulgar, something to be suppressed and vilified. With the end of martial law, however, there was something like an explosive release of primitive energy. It was truly astounding. In addition to the rediscovery, re-examination and representation of local culture, there were throughout the streets of Taiwan civil and student movements addressing all kinds of issues, even outright political opposition, as if the red-hot energies of the populace had burst forth at last.
This uncontrollable outpouring manifested itself in daily life in various forms: in corporate promotional performances [primarily organised by property firms and banks to attract investors and tenants], in striptease girls dancing in the decorated vans that appeared at weddings and funerals, even in the lottery. I had just finished my training in "modern" art at school and coming face to face with this myriad of "postmodern" social phenomena was incredibly exciting. I felt the thrill of liberation, especially when I left the "elite" culture of Taipei and returned to southern Taiwan. Even though I was going back to my hometown, it felt like I had left the country and arrived at some foreign land. To me, a new member of society and a fresh art school graduate, what was my native culture seemed instead something exotic and strangely novel.
And so I threw myself headlong into the pursuit of the religious and the folkloric. Every day, when I learned of yet another temple event, I'd rush off at once to see it. To maintain mobility, when I had to go far out into the countryside, I'd send my motorcycle along first and then use it to get around. I ran around all of Taiwan, even to the outlying islands and the villages high up in the mountains... for nearly two years I observed and assembled material from afield.
In religion and folklore I saw the attitude of the common man towards life and existence: his raw desire and fears, expressed in rough, powerful aesthetic forms.
At rural funerals, for instance, a picture of Hell would always be displayed. There are many old people in these areas so funerals are not uncommon. Taking over an entire road, the mourning family would build an open tent with an altar and conduct the funeral rites. The picture of Hell would be hung on both sides of the tent, so you couldn't walk by the ceremony without seeing it. This was a long time ago, though, and no one displays such horrific things any more.
The fun thing about the Hell pictures was that they employed extremely violent imagery to threaten believers into practising self-restraint and shunning evil. To my non-believer's eyes, however, the images convey a frisson of immorality and seem to incite violence instead. There is yet another element at play, which may be compared to how a powerful country massacres a weaker one in the name of peace, plundering its resources and satisfying, without regard for anyone or anything, its thirst for the pleasure of shedding blood.
Likewise, these Hell pictures are nothing more than an attempt to justify all kinds of inhumane torture in the name of promoting virtuous action. To convict men of crimes, then to punish and torture them, and then to display such torture as a morally instructive image—this probably functions as "psychological massage" in a repressive, closed traditional society. Those who paid for, those who made, and even those who simply look at this abusive depiction of Hell have participated in communal violence. They smuggle in their own unspeakable malice and desire, that the world may be a more peaceful place (or perhaps more chaotic?).
Anyone who uses the name of God to threaten others, to accuse others of crimes and claim that Hell awaits them after death, is an agent of violence. It is the violence of the Pharisee, of the hypocrite.
Before creating God Hates You
, I once spent a month in Hong Kong creating a work called Crime and Punishment
in Hong Kong. This was before 1997, when the territory was returned to the mainland. In the upper margin of this piece, in the most visible place possible, I wrote: You have done wrong
. In some earlier works too, Dog Man Woman, Body Split, Divine Rod, and Coward
, where I dealt with the sexual struggles between men and women, my title was Sinners in the Garden of Paradise
. Even my earliest engravings Pictures for the Penitent
fit this general theme: Hell is other people, Hell is also oneself. Life itself is already so full of suffering, but even when we are enjoying ourselves we are filled with guilt. We should not enjoy the pleasures of the flesh, we should not...
Especially now, under the influence of businesses and corporations, there are even more things we should not do. Thanks to the media's insistent advertisements, we are moulded into the bodies we ought to have, the sound lives we ought to lead, and when we are unable to meet these fabricated standards, we are assailed by guilt and feel we have failed our own happy lives, our wives and children...
So when I proclaimed that You have done wrong
in my work, I just wanted to give shape and voice to those ever-present judges in our lives: God wants to judge us, our neighbours want to judge us, and even we want to judge ourselves at every single step of the way. It is not in death alone that Hell awaits us; at every moment of our lives we may lapse into the Hell of this modern world.
As children we blame ourselves for not doing well enough at school, as adults we blame ourselves for not being attractive enough, for not working hard enough, in old age we are still blaming ourselves for not doing enough as parents. Forget the seven deadly sins, we bear seven thousand seven hundred and seventy-seven million sins.
I may be a graphic artist, but in my work I use a lot of text. Just as folk culture is considered vulgar in the context of elite culture, images with narrative intent are looked down on as secondary "illustrations" in the context of modernism or traditional Chinese aesthetics. As a young artist I found such sterile academic neuroses very repellent, and so I purposely used large amounts of text in my works, in order to violate the notion of the "ineffable", that overblown, pseudo-mystical artistic imperative. After so many years, I finally realised that the characters I used earlier in my career had an even deeper meaning: A great artist ought to become a medium or a sorcerer; whether he creates with images or text, his works ought to contain talismanic power. By which I mean that his art has the power to "summon", to bring about the exchange and fusion of energy.
When I make an engraving, because the inspiration came from religion and folklore, I recreate the lines of a traditional talisman in the form of the work. When creating the simple image of, say, a mandala, I consciously let myself become a kind of spiritual medium and construct the image in quietude, with calm, steady breaths. So even if these images come from an intensely personal source, from my own spiritual imagery, I still believe that they can resonate with the internal worlds of like-minded strangers.
To return to what I mentioned at the start, I am indifferent to religion and folklore now. One cause for this is that the development of tourism has commercialised these notions and robbed them of their ancient, unmediated power to move people. Another cause is a change in temperament; I find that I have grown more withdrawn, less willing to endure large crowds, moreover an acute case of tinnitus makes it impossible for me to bear the din of voices and firecrackers bursting at temple events. In recent years, I notice too that the criticisms embedded in my works have become less biting, whereas once I used to lash out with tooth and claw.
There is a pleasantry that I often quote: an unmarried man is an animal, a married one a vegetable, and a man with children a mineral.
On the topic of sex, I'd say that:
Sex before thirty is tourism, filled with endless surprises and stimulation.
Sex after thirty is a service industry; it's no longer just about your own needs, you also have to please the customer.
Sex in middle age is medical insurance, and sex in old age is...? Let's wait until I'm old.
No matter what sex turns into, I hope that I'll always have the ability to accurately represent my experience of it.
Sex with God? Uh, maybe some other time.