The Sculptures of Donghun SUNG - Transcending, Embracing and Deriving from Contradiction and Disparity

Jul 10, 2015 8:25AM

Donghun SUNG Solo Exhibition

June 12th - July 12th 2015

Savina Museum of Contemporary Art 

Supported by Arts Council Korea (ARKO) 

                      Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism,

                      Korea Arts Management Service   

Written by Kho Chung-Hwan, Art critic

Korean-English Translation is supported by Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and Korea Arts Management Service.

Translated by Ewha Research Institute for Translation Studies  

Eirōneia, the ancient Greek from which the term “irony” was derived, connotes a paradox as well as disguise. The term originated from the dialectical method of Socrates, through which feigned ignorance is used to expose the actual ignorance disguised behind feigned erudition. Here, disguise exists in two opposing forms: the disguise of ignorance aimed at making someone else realize their ignorance; and the disguise of intellect aimed at concealing one’s own ignorance. The disguise in pursuit of authenticity contrasts with the disguise to deceive oneself and others. This reveals the disguise and paradox behind the dialectical method of Socrates. Paradoxically, ignorance is not exposed through the medium of knowledge, but instead through ignorance. The aforementioned themes of disguise and paradox emerged during an age of rhetoric (the art of discourse, or “having a way with words,” in modern colloquial terms) as a methodology unique to Socrates to teach the authenticity of words (which originally served as the symbol of logos, i.e. reason), or his attitude toward words.


As such, two contrasting types of disguise (doxa, words used to manipulate others, and episteme, words that express authenticity) coexist in this world, and it is difficult to distinguish one from the other. At least on the surface, both claim to be the truth, and this is all the more so in superficial times such as these, which are obsessed with the politics of image. No longer is anyone interested in looking underneath the surface, let alone in pursuing authenticity. Why would anyone bear a sense of curiosity or interest in what lies beyond the surface? The surface will suffice, anything beyond is unnecessary. All that is required is to let the mind drift in the flood of images, to go wherever the currents lead. Because images conceal reality, it is easy to make falsehoods appear to be the truth, but difficult to make the truth appear as it is. Even if one overcomes the difficulty to prove the authenticity of a subject, the contention at hand is often long since passed, and the truth no longer matters. At a time when falsehoods appear as captivating as the computer screen and the truth is as mundane as a simple light bulb, who among us adheres to the outmoded discussion of the truth?


The way Donghun SUNG presents Eirōneia as the theme of his sculptures, therefore, may seem out of the blue, which nonetheless adds to the meaningful semblance of his work. Is it not an idea somewhat befitting Don Quixote, the likely alter ego and avatar of SUNG? Is it not an attitude befitting SUNG, who, in this desolate (better yet, vulgar) age where truth is ever neglected except to shroud falsity, strives to break through the surface tore mind us of the significance of authenticity? Retrospectively, Don Quixote is perhaps the perfect symbol for the one and only genuine voice of reason that breaks through at a time divested of all reason. Eirōneia, disguise and paradox, and Don Quixote, so to speak, composed the axis of support behind SUNG’s mentality from the beginning, while his sculptures were products of the quest to find the pretext to strengthen that axis.


Therefore SUNG feigns ignorance and disguises himself as Don Quixote. Such pretense and disguise is for the purpose of the paradox, which is a blade brandished toward society and art. It is somewhat easier to excuse society, where falsity is disguised as the truth and found in the same boat as the truth; however, the state of art is a different matter. Especially now that the world of art is filled with nothing but discourse since the advent of conceptual art, what merit could there be in authenticity? Everywhere, there are near replicas of uncanny familiarity to the point of inducing a sense of déjà vu, and now that self-imitation is no longer an alien concept, what merit could there be in discussing the aesthetic identity or originality of an artist?


During the early days of his career as a sculptor (around 1990), the artist became determined that a certain unthinking ethos when making sculptures was his means of survival, and determined to free himself from thought, to go wherever his senses would take him. One could say that such insight is only possible from studying all forms of art in the world, or from someone who has endured through all the hardships that life can offer in order to become well-versed in his art, but in SUNG’s case the process was quite unexpected and all the more meaningful because it had happened so early on in his career. And in this way, variance and mutation (the displacement of objects that refer to the surrealist concept of an unusual combination or unexpected relationship; or to use more contemporary and popular terminology, ideas connoting the acts of fusion or consilience; or under a more intellectual guise, Gilles Deleuze’s concept of rhizome? rootless words? meaning that can neither be recalled nor summoned? meaning that multiplies further into bottomless, endless meanings? meaning that disseminates differences?) settled as strategies unique to his art. In fact, looking back, SUNG’s resolve was a form of feigned ignorance at a time when the reality of the art world was filled with mere concepts and discourse, while his sculptures, as his answer to the call of the senses, became the causal source of his originality, and paradoxically became the trigger that led to his acquiring of authenticity by surrendering to it.


This is how the artist constructed his own fake kingdom, whose citizenry he introduces through his exhibitions. His fake kingdom was built in order to satirize and criticize society and the art world, which are the true fake kingdoms where fakery is rampant and the fake pretends to be real, thereby rendering what is fake and real indistinguishable. Therefore his fake kingdom is paradoxical in that it is in fact the real kingdom, while the so-called real kingdom is being exposed as the fake kingdom. This is also in line with how Don Quixote, who seems as if he has lost all sense of reason, is instead revealed as the one and only true voice of reason. Don Quixote is perhaps a symbol of the paradox of reason, or paradoxical reason, which prevents him from losing his mind even though he wants to. And the methodology that SUNG employs to translate that paradox of reason, or paradoxical reason, into sculpture is through variance and mutation.


The concepts of variance and mutation appear in the form of random, indiscriminant combinations of all sorts of disparate materials, and the unexpected relationships that are formed as a result. In the beginning, these combinations and relationships evidently appeared in iron and cement, and gradually added leather and clear glass beads, debris from a plane wreck and iron sludge extracted from a blast furnace, and more recently, ceramics including blue-and-white porcelain and celadon, as well as various religious icons (figures of gods). SUNG tries not to modify the original properties of materials as much as possible, instead endeavoring to emphasize their material characteristics, which results in the tendency of his work to allude to or elaborate upon a meaningful narrative. For instance, leather is an implicit symbol of eroticism; clear glass beads conjure fantasy through the medium of light; plane wreck debris contrast the bright side of civilization(technological advancement) with its dark side (endless waste); porcelain is used as a medium to summon tradition; while sculptures of gods imbue his sculptures with a mythical light.

As such, the properties of the materials alone are mind-bogglingly distant from allowing the association of his art with any sense of probability or consistency. Tradition and the contemporary, the past and future, reality and fantasy, civilization and nature, technology and trash coexist as if it were a natural state of being. SUNG’s sculptures resemble modern variations of baroque art, in that they accomplish harmony through disharmony and concord through discord, and in more elaborate terms, they are reminiscent of Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of grotesque realism, in that they expose the distorted portrait concealed by the flawless reality (to be precise, a reality that only appears to be flawless). Furthermore, they are not entirely dissociated with the ontological allegory, where the contradiction within the coincidental and indiscriminate coexistence and combination of all sorts of disparate things is embraced as part of reality or life itself. And conversely, they may be a paradoxical expression of the critical awareness of reality that suppresses contradiction (which perhaps symbolizes the indiscriminate and healthy outpour of vitality).


Through such processes, the artist sculpted a cloud man riding a rhinoceros. The man is another incarnation of Don Quixote and another form of a self-portrait. Don Quixote rides a horse in the Western canon, but appears on an ox in SUNG’s work. As in the classic Chinese artwork Ten Ox-herding Pictures, oxen in Eastern civilizations traditionally symbolize the progress of the search for the “true self” (the Buddhist notion of paramātman); however, even if that were not the case, oxen can be viewed as a natural manifestation of a distinctly familiar sentiment. This piece may have exchanged the ox for the rhinoceros, which may be the self-portrait of the artist as he journeys upon his own path without looking back, silently and steadily.


The ox is ridden by the cloud man. The cloud-shaped head of the man represents nomadism of the mind. Few materials may be suitable to express the nomadism of the mind, other than the cloud (although nomadism is occasionally represented by deer). Clouds move constantly, never anchoring anywhere at any time. That is how an amorphous feature creates all forms and a shape without any ultimate shape is able to transform into any form. As such, the cloud represents an existence of endless change, a constantly shifting universe, objects of a transient and flowing nature, and life that cannot be seized, like the shifting clouds or the flowing water. What does it mean to say that life flows? It means that life cannot be given significance. Signification relies on the premise of fixed and decisive forms, whereas life is obstinate in rejecting any kind of fixed and decisive form. The cloud man riding the rhinoceros is perhaps a symbol showing this allegory of life.


Compared to works using other materials, his so-called “self-portrait” (strictly speaking, self-statue) more directly reflects the artist’s self-consciousness. Viewed from this perspective, the work shows a figure holding a broken sword and riddled with holes all over the body. The sword is broken and blunt, but it remains a sword. The statue may be a reflection of a lethargic or scarred sense of reality, or perhaps a symbol of the sole and genuine form of reason, just as Don Quixote is a symbol of reason in the era of the paralysis of reason. As such, the artist’s self-portrait displays his ontological self-consciousness, through which SUNG aims to criticize social reality. A case in point is The Black Wailing, produced in retrospection of South Korea’s Sewol ferry disaster in 2014, which is herein swallowed by a shark (in reality, by the sea, ignorance and perhaps indifference). As wild as the currents that swept the ferry, the body of the shark is decorated with around 300 blue-and-white porcelain beads, which represents the number of victims. SUNG conveys a sense of healing and consolation by drawing delicate pictures of flowers, butterflies and fish as if presenting surrealistic dramatizations, modernistic reinterpretations of traditional paintings of flowers and birds, or depictions of utopia through the medium of nature.


The noteworthy works among his recent sculptures are a series of chairs and tables with the themes of fire, water and rock. A remarkable aspect is that these sculptures display works using iron sludge almost entirely intact in the original form, which is representative of his time in Taiwan. Several years ago, he was provided 50tons of iron sludge and manufacturing support from the Dongho Steel Art Foundation, which served as an opportunity for SUNG to attempt his own method of formal experiments. Iron sludge from a blast furnace is generally not recycled due to the lack of appropriate processing methods, which SUNG nonetheless discovered through countless formal experiments and proceeded to incorporate into his artwork. The artist made the chairs and tables using metal byproducts in the raw form, which appear to have captured the form of erupting and flowing lava in contrast to the original material of ironwork. Hailed across the world as a truly unique work, this sculpture was only made possible at the hands of Donghun SUNG.


The artist made the chair of fire, chair of water, and chair (and table) of rock, to which the chair of air might also be added. To elaborate, SUNG introduces the four universal elements of earth (rock or soil), water, fire and air (an essential element for metal sculpture as with all entities, as the requirement for breathing, or vitality), as the principle behind his sculptures. It is likely that the artist wished to use the basic elements, from which all beings may have originated, in order to reinterpret the cyclical principles of the creation and extinction of beings, as well as the fundamental mechanisms behind beings through which disparate objects intertwine in coincidence and indiscrimination. This may be seen as the opportunity through which SUNG’s work with materials transcends the boundaries of ontological self-consciousness, as represented by Don Quixote, and expand their scope into the material, mythological, and original dimensions. To elaborate, as frequent motifs also used in his previous works, chairs and tables represent power. In his recent works, however, they represent the forgotten and suppressed in civilized society, by conveying the power imbued by materials (matter) and aspirations towards the original form of nature and perhaps a primal sense of energy (life).


SUNG has ended his five-year stay in Taiwan, and is now preparing for his time in India. If his time in Taiwan is represented through works made of iron sludge, the period in India will open up a new chapter to produce works with motifs featuring figures of gods. India is a country that absorbs all civilizations around the world as its own; where all gods coexist; where all divergent, hybrid, or mutated forms stand in harmony with its own identity without conflict; where craftsmen of the highest caliber in the world pursue their art; and where the boundary between life and death are demolished to blend reason and contradiction. SUNG’s time as a citizen of the world in such a country foreshadows his likely endeavor to create unprecedented works of the grandest scale. This is a premonition of the most pleasant kind.