A conversation about the Korean-born artist's show at MMOCA. | By Erica Motz and Scott Gordon
"Home started to exist for me when I no longer had it," artist Do Ho Suh has said.
With immigration, displacement, national identity, culture, and difference becoming signifiers of our globalized world, "home" may take on new meanings for those who cross geographical and cultural borders. Suh has been working with these themes since he left Korea to study and work in the United States in the 1990s. He has given shape to homesickness by recreating the places he's lived in with scale models of fabric and steel wire, he's packed up a miniature version of his parents' home on a flatbed truck and carted it across oceans, and he's catalogued an entire building by wrapping every surface in paper, then rubbing its shape in colored pencil and peeling the impressions away. His exhibit, Do Ho Suh, runs through May 14 at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Tone Madison writers Scott Gordon and Erica Motz share their thoughts below.
Scott: Hey Erica, if there's one thing that ties this show together for me, it's Suh's choice of materials. Looking at photos of his full-scale walk-in apartment model or replicas of household appliances, you could be forgiven for thinking they're made of translucent plastic. But they're actually polyester fabric, and up close these pieces are a bit more textured and less sleek than I expected. Sections of wall and pipe meet at seams that look like the fabric equivalent of half-erased pencil smudges in a drawing that's still being cleaned up. The drawings in the back of the gallery are made with thread embedded in cotton paper. I think Suh uses this material to put us somewhere between the crisp rationality of architectural drawings and the intimate, invasive experience of coming into someone's personal space for the first time. My favorite piece in fact is a thread drawing called "Blueprint": It shows a three-quarter profile building front in the impersonal blue of a building plan, but behind it is a sprawling tangle of dozens of multicolored threads. These threads at one point form a vaguely human shape, evoking the messy and mutable life that inhabits solid and defined structures. But you've paid more attention to Suh's work than I have. What am I missing here as a newcomer?
Erica: Hi Scott, I think the choice of material is really central to this work. From a distance, the apartment replica is so precise that it looks like it could have been constructed out of colored blocks. But, like you said, when you're inside the structure, the polyester fabric reveals itself to have a gauzy, ethereal quality. As a viewer, I felt like I was being permitted to wander around in Suh's memory of the space. All of his many structural "homes" are made with materials that possess similar qualities (see: "Home Within Home," and "Seoul Home"), and in his lecture on the opening night of the exhibit, he noted that the material choice was inspired by the draping of silk in Korean homes.
The best part about seeing Suh speak in person in February and having the opportunity to view a full exhibition, which included not only the fabric sculptures but drawings, too, was realizing how much good humor goes into creating this work. At his lecture, Suh spoke about how recreating one's home out of fabric means you never have to feel homesick, because, "like a snail," you can fold up your home and carry it on your back. There are certainly pieces he's done in the past that have been whimsical, like "Fallen Star," but the architectural precision of the exhibit's centerpiece could reasonably lead viewers to overlook the more amusing and endearing elements. This comes out for me most in the drawings, like "Blueprint." I saw these drawings as self-portraits of the artist as he searches for his home, whether by creating it out of his imagination, attempting to transport his entire house with him snail style, or in some cases just feeling aimless and homesick: feeling, in other words, like a "Fart In The Wind," the title of another thread drawing in this show.
Scott: People might not be looking for humor in this exhibit, but once you pick up on it, you see Suh's work in a pretty different light. That's especially true in the video/installation piece "Secret Garden." It imagines moving a piece of Suh's childhood home from Korea to New York City, via a flatbed with a flame-painted semi cab. (In the video, the truck somehow makes it across the Bering Strait—a playful detail that's easy to miss.) Whether it's subtle or overt, I think the humor is pretty crucial to the sense of intimacy Suh is trying to create with his work.
There's another short video in the main gallery that sums up Suh's career and shows some work not included in the MMOCA show. I couldn't help but feel that one of his "Staircase" pieces would have made a nice addition here. They've got the same material approach as the apartment model, but hang from the ceiling, depicting the staircase as a sort of weird spout suspended in midair. It would make for a nice contrast with the ease and accessibility of the apartment. Where else should people look if they want to learn more about Suh's work?
Erica: At MMoCA, we see the ground floor of the New York apartment building with a staircase leading up to nowhere. In other installations of this particular work, second and third stories are added on or even installed on their own, disconnected from the first floor. These floors are still inaccessible, but add a visually stunning dimensionality to the piece. The space available at MMoCA may have barred the inclusion of these appendages, but I think that the addition of one of the inverted "Staircase" pieces might have had a similar impact here.
I actually first heard about Do Ho Suh in my high school art history class; we watched a video about him from the PBS Art:21 series and everyone in the class was in awe. Art:21 has featured Suh a number of times over the past 15 or so years, but this segment is particularly illuminating—it profiles a wide range of Suh's work and discussions about the influence of private vs. public life and Korean vs. American society in his art. He also shares how he learned his sewing techniques from women who practice traditional Korean crafts for his first fabric-draping piece, "Seoul Home/LA Home." Interested readers can also check the MMoCA events calendar—the exhibit has so far hosted talks from architect and architecture historian Professor Arijit Sen, design studies Professor Jung-Hye Shin, and art historian Michael Jay McClure, but there are still a few more chances for guided gallery talks, plus a Kids' Arts Adventures event.