Transparent Walls: The Work of Do Ho Suh
Editors note: Last Friday, February 10th, the celebrated South Korean artist, Do Ho Suh, opened his latest exhibition at Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA), Wisconsin. The Edge Effects editorial board asked Alexandra Lakind, Eunhee Park, Meghan Kelly, and Kyungso Min—four graduate students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, each of whom study topics related to those raised by Do Ho Suh—to share their reflections.
The Do Ho Suh exhibition at MMoCA, named after the artist, investigates complex and transportable ideas of ‘home,’ displacement, and memory with a collection of remnants; drawings, glass-cased ‘specimen’ exhibits, and a spectacular signature piece—a transparent life-sized copy of the New York apartment that Suh once lived in. These homes become transportable, multi-scale spaces, pinned together not only with Suh’s past, but also our own. During a powerful hour long artist’s talk on Friday night, Suh spoke of leaving Seoul, and his longing to find ‘home,’ once he felt he no longer had one. “I try to understand my life through movement,” he said, “I bring my home to your home, and your home becomes mine… the native culture of ‘past,’ to the immigrant culture of the present.” Suh’s work, both at MMoCA and beyond, exists in a kind of liminal place; a psychological fringe where memories and places feel plastic, physical and global at once.
In 2005, a developer bought St. Ann’s Church in Manhattan and announced plans to build a new dorm for New York University (NYU). Following protests from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, NYU promised to take seriously the community’s demands to preserve this historic building. They worked with the developer to incorporate the church into the new building’s design. In the end, the church was demolished except for the front façade. What is left of the past is a trace. When I lived near this neighborhood, the dorm struck me as symbolic. As entities like NYU expand globally, the distinctiveness of the urban spaces they reshape fades, rendering vestiges precious. In keeping this fragment of St. Ann’s, NYU’s gesture was both literally and metaphorically a front. I was captivated by this edifice of homage—the architectural clashing of past and present.
I was reminded of St. Ann’s at MMoCA. In Do Ho Suh’s exhibit, the literal use of threads and traces to preserve the built structures of his own past evoked a powerful resonance for me. His structures are empty and translucent. No one lives inside, and a ghostly quality traverses the space. A red stairway (also depicted in his stitched pieces) memorializes a friend who has died. The structure, still extant, leads nowhere. Many of the drawings reference blueprints, drafts, and replicable plans. The color reminded me of non-photo blue, evoking a pre-inked design, which offers the possibility of transience: a blueprint to be transplanted and realized anywhere. Like much of this installation, the pieces on paper are placeless.
Aside from general clues like radiators suggesting cast iron and steam heat, the pieces are shown removed from context: objects encased in glass, images on white backgrounds, and structures with nothing inside. Everything in this exhibition feels as though it could be untethered and relocated. The lines in ink and thread on paper become symbols in Suh’s exhibit, and seem to exist apart from context or geography. Like shipping containers, these pieces are compartmentalized. Many of the drawings and paintings show depictions of people carrying around large empty structures that appear to be emanating from the head: a memory becomes the blueprint to be reiterated, shaping future notions of home. This, like St. Ann’s Church in Manhattan, is an exhibit of ghosts, a collection of traces this global traveler remembers and recreates.
Bathed in a warm light, the sheer fabric walls of this installation simultaneously define interior spaces, while also revealing their surroundings. That luminous border between inside and outside, coupled with the impermanent nature of cloth, suggests that “home” is a fragile and ephemeral concept for Suh due to his peripatetic life. Like Suh, I am a native South Korean who relocated to the United States, so his poignant longing for home, evident in this haunting piece, resonated in a profound way for me. His installation inspired me to reflect on my own transnational life experiences, connecting my past and present selves.
Cloth-versions of appliances, closets and fixtures from the artist’s domestic life grace the spare interior spaces; the pink, yellow and blue fabrics that they are made from lend them an air of fantasy, like a dream world of bygone memories. Suh chose to depict domestic items that are commonplace, even mundane. They create a comforting familiarity, forging a close bond between the artist and his audience. So close, in fact, that upon entering this replica of Suh’s apartment a torrent of my own memories of home flooded me. The further I walked the more those shared feelings intensified until, suddenly, deep inside this glowing fabric house, I felt a visceral morphing as if the house itself were becoming Suh’s body. Artist and home seemed to merge into one, just like in his drawings that show spare images of himself with house shapes overlying his head and heart or bound to his body with myriad cables and cords.
If artist and home are one-and-the-same, literally tied together, then Suh’s poignant longing for home suggests a similar longing for self, and for a stable identity, however elusive those things may be. Suh’s ongoing search for home and self also finds echoes in other drawings, which depict him trying desperately to climb one flight of stairs after another, without success. It seems that Suh is trapped in a surreal labyrinthine world of unending staircases, unable to ever ascend and reach his beloved home. These stairs remind me of the stairs in a traditional Korean home (hanok) that connect the kitchen with the rest of the house. Traditionally, housewives had to go up and down those stairs many times a day as they went about their tasks, so, for me those stairs represent our mothers’ endless toil, which they willingly endured to lovingly care for their families. Dwellings in Seoul, New York and London seem worlds apart, so I appreciate that Do Ho Suh invites us into his amazing fabric houses—so evocative of the longing we all have for hearth and home—and that through the power of his work I, along with other museum visitors, can feel “right at home” anywhere.
As a cartographer, I was captivated by Suh’s use of scale, detail, and representation in Apartment A, Unit 2. The role of the mapmaker, conventionally speaking, is to simplify, abstract, and distill reality without losing the essence and legibility of the place being mapped. Scale is the driver behind how much is lost or generalized in an effort to clarify meaning and interpretation. As the story (or joke) goes, there was once a map with a 1:1 scale. The map is scrutinized because it is too close to reality, it blocked out the sun, and there was no place to put it. Apartment A, Unit 2 is just that, a 1:1, three-dimensional map of Suh’s apartment. For me, Suh’s juxtaposition of scale, detail, and abstraction was incredible. Suh toggles intricate and meticulous detail—flowers painted on the radiator, electrical outlets, and the inside of a freezer, to name a few—with fantastical abstraction. The mapped apartment is simultaneously familiar and tangible in its detail, and dreamlike with his use of abstracting materials and hue. The question for cartographers is then, can abstraction and detail coexist without forfeiting one or the other? Using Suh’s work as a guide, maybe we can.
In this exhibition Suh also approached borders in a way that I found applicable to mapmaking. Borders are inextricably linked to cartography as their symbolization is often explored and problematized in maps. They are also multi-scalar, ranging from geopolitical borders to borders of the home or even the body. Mapmakers create symbols and embed meaning to all such borders with visual variables—a cartographer’s toolbox for creating map symbols. Borders are traditionally depicted as homogenous, black lines. Suh, along with critical cartographers and other artists, explores borders and their symbolization in alterative ways. Suh, for example, created Apartment A, Unit 2, including its walls (or borders), from transparent and colored fabric. Before entering, I walked around the installation. As you look through the apartment from the outside, the transparency of the apartments walls change as the fabric becomes layered with external and internal walls and home furnishings. From the outside looking in, the walls are heterogeneous and continuously varied. From the inside, the walls become more or less transparent as you move through the installation. For me, this fluctuating “thickness” of fabric presents an evocative and accurate depiction of borders as complex and continuously evolving. Furthermore, transparency, particularly three-dimensional transparency, and thickness are two visual variables infrequently used by cartographers in their border symbols. Suh’s work is fantastic, and inspires me to think of scale, detail, and border representation in new ways!
In this exhibition, Suh invites viewers to navigate the usually intimate and private sphere of home as a transnational subject. By embracing a wide range of media, textures, scales, dimensions, and techniques, his homes narrate stories like jig-saw pieces that we can rearrange for ourselves; avenues that we can weave together and walk down with other people, places, histories, cultures and ideas. In the storyboard-like drawing and the video from his Bridging Home (2010), a public installation presented at the Liverpool Biennial 2010, I witness a somewhat bizarre juxtaposition of the West and the East; he literally drops his childhood hanok residence into a small alleyway between four-story concrete buildings in Duke Street, Liverpool, England. The colorful threads of animated houses and a man carrying a parachute/home further lead me to encounter my own floating and nomadic subjectivity just like the artist and other viewers in the gallery. These images attach and detach us from our own memories of specific places and events repeatedly.
Suh’s two life-sized replicas of his apartment in New York heighten such feelings and experiences most dramatically. They provoke conflicting desires in us towards settlement and unsettlement, a dual need for belonging, and non-belonging. Through a series of time-consuming, detail-oriented actions, such as stitching room-sized fabrics or making pencil on paper rubbings of all of the walls of an apartment interior, Suh converts his entire apartment into foldable and portable objects, whose subtle materiality accompanies inevitable fragility and temporality. Although the artist allows us to sneak into his personal spaces, what we actually see is completely emptied rooms; mere traces of architectural structures, whose real existences cannot be carried or transplanted. What most compellingly arrested my attention amongst the ironies and tensions that permeate these projects, was a sort of performative potential. I first saw Suh’s fabric sculpture of his New York home in Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul, South Korea, five years ago before I move to the United States. At that time, this piece had only one apartment unit, used as his studio, along with a corridor and a staircase. With the fragments of those spaces embedded on papers hung on the neighboring walls, the second unit, his living space, was included to the later version currently on view in Madison. I felt that these newly added sections allude to the ways in which the artist—and myself— continuously develops his bodily and affective relationships with his own home. In Suh’s practices, the idea of home is reestablished as the origin of expanding, layering, and deconstructing/reconstructing our engagement with the world.
Suh’s multi-media exploration of home operates on fluctuating boundaries between presence and absence, openness and closeness, the material and the immaterial, the real and the imagined. The private space of home, once belong to one person, is now vacated for us to draw and fill with our own memories and imagination. We are guided and encouraged to rethink and reshape our own sense of belonging, and our relationships with “others.” Or more precisely, the traces of others and their movements.
Do Ho Suh is showing at MMoCA through May 4th, 2017. With special thanks to Erika Monroe-Kane and Leah Kolb at MMoCA for making this article possible.
Featured image: Installation view, Do Ho Suh, MOCA Cleveland, 2015. ©Do Ho Suh, Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Photo: Jerry Birchfield. ©MOCA Cleveland. Image used with kind permission of MMoCA, Madison.
Meghan Kelly is a cartographer and graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Department of Geography. Her research intersects critical cartography, visual storytelling, and feminist theory. She is specifically interested in the relationships between maps and border representations as expressions of mobility and lived experience. Meghan is a co-organizer for Maptime Madison and examples of her cartographic work can be found here. Contact.
Alexandra Lakind is pursuing a joint Ph.D. at University of Wisconsin-Madison in Education & Environmental Studies with cross-field appropriation from Science and Technology Studies and Cultural Studies. She is interested in cooperative environments that moderate pressures born out of our market-driven society. Through implicit and explicit, academic and performative routes, her work aims to recognize and foster supportive communities prepared to process unanswerable dilemmas together. Contact.
Kyungso Min is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studying contemporary art histories and theories, with an emphasis on East Asian new media art. The ideas of translation, boundaries, and communities constitute the foundation for her research on transnational communication and post-national belonging in East Asian art. She is particularly interested in the ways in which technologically-mediated modes of interaction create collective spectatorship and relational situations. Contact.
Eunhee Park is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison specializing in the cultural history of family, gender, and society in South Korea during the 1960s through the 1980s. Her dissertation examines the increasing financial agency that urban women acquired through innovative economic strategies, including grassroots interpersonal networks. She hopes to illuminate the role of society and culture in economic development and family-based financial history. Contact.