- Rainey Knudson
Rice Gallery: Y. David Chung (369 words)
In 1992, Thelma Golden commissioned the installation Turtle Boat Head from the artist Y. David Chung for the Whitney Museum. The work was presented the following year at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT, where Kim Davenport was the associate curator.
When Davenport moved to Houston to become the director of Rice Gallery, she wanted to present Chung's work to a new audience. Thus Turtle Boat Head became just the second installation in Rice Gallery's history, before Davenport had decided to dedicate the Gallery's mission exclusively to site-specific installation art. Chung would go on to exhibit many times in Houston, but as was often the case, his show at Rice Gallery was his first one in town.
In the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, when tensions between African Americans and Korean merchants boiled over, Turtle Boat Head was a humanizing view of a recent Korean immigrant, now the owner of an inner-city convenience store. Through the fictional shopkeeper’s eyes, Chung examined the sometimes awkward meshing of cultures that characterize life in urban America, and the American dream of home.
The title referred to a pivotal moment in Korean history when, in 1592, Admiral Yi-Sun-sin defeated the invading Japanese armada using the first ironclad warships, which were designed in the image of huge fire-breathing turtles (notably, centuries before our own Civil War ironclads). The ships appeared in Chung’s wall-size charcoal murals, which married the graphic style of comic books to the grandiose scale of history painting.
Central to the installation was a structure representing a typical inner-city convenience store, including a Plexiglas partition that mimicked the bulletproof glass used to protect cashiers. Through this divider, visitors could watch a video that glimpsed into the daydreams of the Korean shopkeeper in "a kind of Joycean stream-of-consciousness," as Owen McNally wrote in the Hartford Courant at the time. This video, a moving work of art in its own right, won numerous awards at festivals across the country. It strung together meandering thoughts that shifted from routine transactions to scenes of war, displacement, urban hardship, and suburban fantasies.
(Turtle Boat Head is included in One Thing Well, a forthcoming book about Rice Gallery's program of site-specific installation art, published fall 2021.)