The life of artist Hung Tung (洪通) is the stuff of legend. Orphaned at the age of four, he was illiterate and spent most of his life earning a meager living by working odd jobs. He started to paint at 50, was quickly discovered by the media, and rocketed to fame in the 1970s. Some hailed him as a genius; others said he was a lunatic. Forty years later, many people don’t even know his name.
The Puppet & Its Double Theater (無獨有偶工作室劇團) is reviving the eccentric painter’s story with Who’s Hung Tung (洪通計劃), a theatrical production commissioned by the Taipei Arts Festival (台北藝術節) that pays tribute to Hung and renowned musician Lee Tai-hsiang (李泰祥).
To learn about the artist firsthand, actors, theater designers and other members of the troupe visited Hung’s old home in today’s Kunjiang Village (鯤江村), Greater Tainan, to conduct research and interview his relatives, friends and neighbors. Company director Cheng Chia-yin (鄭嘉音) says that what they learned about Hung didn’t set the story straight.
Some say the artist once worked at Taoist temples as a spirit medium, or dangki as they are known in Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese), and was possessed by deities when he painted. Others claim Hung used his own penis as a painting tool. The painter was often spotted practicing the monkey fist (猴拳), a martial arts move, or singing Taiwanese operas in the middle of crop fields, but he was mostly perceived as a loner who escaped fame by locking himself in his hut. He died in 1987.
“Different people say different things, so we find it very difficult to present Hung with a single, linear story,” Cheng told the Taipei Times. “We chose to approach him from various angles and incorporate multiple perspectives.”
WHAT: Who’s Hung Tung (洪通計劃)
WHEN: Tonight, tomorrow and Sunday at 7:30pm
WHERE: Warehouse 1, Songshan Cultural and Creative Park (松山文創園區1號倉庫), 133 Guangfu S Rd, Taipei City (台北市光復南路133號)
ADMISSION: Tickets are NT$660, available through NTCH ticketing outlets or at www.artsticket.com.tw
As a result, Who’s Hung Tung is more of a creative search for the artist than a straight biography. Composed of 15 segments, the 80-minute performance contains recurrent themes, images and characters such as Bird-Man, who Cheng says was inspired by Hung’s wish to become a bird. There are sections that depict anecdotes about the painter or revisit different opinions about his folk-themed work. The strange creatures, human heads, and fauna and flora on Hung’s rich canvases are transferred to the stage as puppets, figures and masks that the performers use to convey their reflections on the painter and his art.
The vignette-like structure also reflects the way the work was collectively developed by all of the participating artists, Cheng says. For example, the actors spent days playing with objects and materials to explore their potential as props. Items commonly found at temple fairs, such as bamboo and offering plates, feature prominently because Taoist mysticism is believed to have had a strong influence on Hung’s aesthetic vocabulary.
“We visited the temple near Hung’s old home,” Cheng says. “When Taoist rituals take place it fills with incense smoke and the deafening sound of gongs and drums. It’s a lot like his paintings, which overflow with excessiveness and abundance.”
The production is in Mandarin and Hoklo, with English programs available at the door.
Letter to the editor:
Your story today about artist Hung Tung said that he started to paint at the age of 50 and was "quickly discovered by the media and rocketed to fame in the 1970s." As I recall it, he labored in obscurity for some time and only came to media attention after the U.S. Information Service gave him a one-man show. Many in the art establishment were shocked that such a primitive artist (he was often compared to "Grandma Moses" in the U.S.) could receive such recognition. After gaining fame, the eccentric Hung agreed only reluctantly to offer any of his works for sale.