Culture clash has a rich history as motivation for art-making. In his first New York solo exhibition, the 39-year-old Korean-American artist SunTek Chung, who lives in Virginia, considered the East-West divide, using religious and cultural icons in humorous and provocative sculptures and photographs (all works 2009).
In the main gallery, a bronze head of Buddha, about the size of a large refrigerator, lay on its side atop a small version (about 10 feet across) of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. The spiral was made of scores of pale orange conch shells, and its tail extended to the gallery wall. Sculpted bone and muscle visible in Buddha’s neck made it appear as though the head had been savagely removed, rather than neatly severed. Titled The Road is Shorter Than You Think, the piece implied that Buddhism has been torn from its roots and thrown upon Western culture, an uneasy fit.
In the large (43-by-72-inch) photograph Equivalence, two men in gray business suits, one Asian and one seemingly Middle Eastern, with matching beards and samurai-style coifs, sit side by side on a desk. The bodies of both men are entangled in a welter of office equipment—desk phones, binder clips, Rolodexes—as if they are being devoured by or actually turning into clerical supplies, while bamboo wind chimes affixed to their backs look like angels’ wings. Each has a suicide bomb attached to his waist. They stare at each other, fingers on the detonators. Around them white metal filing cabinets are flying about in disarray. Chung suggests an equivalence between suicide bombers and samurai, while equating the office with a chaotic heaven that the winged warriors are about to blow to smithereens.
In Me and You, You and Me, on display in the back room, the theme of reaching across a divide took on a hilarious twist. Two 5-foot-high concrete cubes, almost touching at their corners, dominated the room. Sitting on each block was an approximately 20-inch-high, traditionally naturalistic bronze bust: Kim Jong-Il, Supreme Leader of North Korea, faced South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. They were very close, heads coquettishly inclined, and looked about to kiss. Kim Jong-Il has his tongue out, hungry for more than a dry peck on the lips. Chung skewers official portraiture, while hinting that these two opposed nations, seemingly as immovable as the concrete blocks, could be reconciled by one carnal act.
Photo: SunTek Chung: The Road is Shorter Than You Think, 2009, bronze and mixed mediums; at Collette Blanchard.