Disco doc does the hustle
By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Mike Gordon
Disco may be dead, but not the Disco Doc. Rodney Chang, the irrepressible Kalihi dentist who once had a live DJ spinning vinyl records in his waiting room while he worked on root canals, is re-inventing himself yet again.
The 62-year-old Chang is about to open Hawai'i's first gallery devoted to digital, or computer-generated, art.
There's no simple way to describe Chang, who's more fun than Donna Summer singing "Last Dance" in a disco full of laughing gas. Wonderfully eclectic, he's not shy about his ability to integrate seemingly unrelated activities, like running and disco, into a life of art.
"For the fortunate, there exists a mental plane above eccentricity," he said. "I am stringing a lei of different elements that holds together, and this makes life so fun and rewarding."
Chang, who first studied art during night courses while attending dental school by day, started creating art on his computer in 1985. He considers himself one of the founders of that style. The gallery is a dream he's had for some time. He calls it "a crusade."
"To launch a digital gallery in Honolulu is a local effort on an international basis to promote digital art as a movement, as part of the digital culture," he said. "It is an ism of art, an internet wave of digital artists, and I am the leader."
As is obvious from his style of conversation, Chang is a man of passionate enthusiasms. Before he fell in love with technology, Chang was a painter, printmaker, photographer and sculptor. In 1997, he founded a virtual museum online.
But the alter ego to his alter egos lived on the disco dance floor. He loved the music so much that he felt it was the best way to calm nervous patients in his offices. Between 1979 and 1996, his waiting room was the disco that pushed dental floss.
"I copped out in '96," he said. "The patients were aging, and so was I. But they were wondering how long could I keep it up. Disco had gone out."
So he replaced all that with decor he described as normal: a computer painting of a smart bomb explosion; a bronze rabbit in rubber slippers; black ceramic tile; "shocking red" cushioned chairs; an art piece of glued, glass cartridges topped with a patch of artificial grass and two clay figures making out.
"Instead of big Pioneer speakers blasting it out, we have monitors blasting disco videos," he said. "It makes me comfortable working. But I am getting stink-eye from the Farrington students I take. They want hip-hop."
But people change.
When he turned 60, Chang replaced dancing with running after holding a private birthday party at his longtime haunt, Rumours Nightclub. Ever since, he has run a marathon every three months. Often, he has a camera with him so he can document the runners and the race.
"It's like a safari," he said.
During the same period, he published three works of science fiction, with a fourth scheduled for release later this year. They're set in Roswell, N.M., the UFO capital of the world.
"I started writing novels when I started running more," he said. "I do 15-milers and the ideas would pop into my mind — all the plots, sub-themes — while I was running. The legs are running and the heart and lungs are going, but what is the brain doing? I take breaks at bus stops so I can sit down and write before I forget something."
The new gallery will showcase nine of his own favorite digital works when it opens. He has thousands more, even after throwing away hundreds of them last year when he could no longer afford to store them at a Halawa warehouse.
"I was kind of depressed," he said. "I called the Academy of Arts, the governor and the mayor. They all told me they didn't have any storage space. I got a truck, and we took it to the city dump. That hurt."
If he is successful with his new gallery, he will give his beloved art form some credibility.
"Hopefully most people will be shocked at how far along hardware and software has come to enable guys like me to simulate photorealistic landscapes," he said. "If I can't fool you into thinking this is a painting, then my work fails."
The gallery will have a hardwood floor, and that's no accident.
"I went to Rumours two weeks ago, not having danced for two years, and I was better than ever," Chang said. "You know why? I was conditioned to run 20 miles. I had stronger legs. The legs were saying, 'Gosh darn it, we're back on the floor. Thank you. We thought it was over.' "
Reach Mike Gordon at email@example.com.