Do Ho Suh: The Story Behind The Korean Artist's Haunting Sculptures
On paper, Apartment A at 348 West 22nd Street is indistinguishable from thousands of other flats in New York. There’s one long corridor linking a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and living room. Two huge bay windows in the lounge are a clear highlight, while estate agents would surely gloss over the poky, windowless kitchen.
But seen in person, Apartment A is unlike any home you’ve ever visited. It’s not made of bricks and mortar but ghostly sheets of translucent polyester. In a matter of hours, one person could fold up all the rooms and squeeze the entire house into a suitcase.
“You can bring it with you wherever you go,” explains Do Ho Suh, gesturing at the wafer-thin fabric hanging in New York’s Brooklyn Museum. “These days people move around so many times. I’ve lived in so many places, but now I long for homes I’ve left behind. I like the idea that I can transport them and carry them with me.”
This longing underpins much of the South Korean sculptor and installation artist’s work, whether he’s making postcard-sized drawings on paper or life-sized fabric sculptures of buildings. “My work has always been about my homes,” says Suh. “Or about the house my father built, the house I grew up in.”
These might seem to be specific, personal references, but Suh rebuilds his past homes as spaces to explore universal ideas. “What has always fascinated me about Do Ho Suh is that lots of people who are not interested in art really relate to his work,” explains Rachel Lehmann, co-founder of the gallery Lehmann Maupin, which has represented Suh since 1997. “He translates big ideas into something that can be understood by everyone. Lots of people share the same longing for a perfect home. Lots of people are longing for a house, a place, a country, a culture, a political system—whatever is home to them.”
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Suh was only a child when he started thinking about the multiple meanings of home. He was born in 1962 in Seoul, the son of renowned artist Suh Se Ok and Chung Minza, a passionate advocate for Korean culture and heritage.
“We lived in a traditional Korean house, which even in the ’70s was a very unusual experience because everybody really fancied Western-style high-rise apartment complexes,” recalls Suh. “When I left home, there was a big wooden gate and it made this very impressive screeching sound. It was a huge gate, maybe 10 times bigger than a normal door. Every day when I stepped out of the traditional house, it was like stepping into a totally different world. So my feeling of being displaced from one world to another started even before I left Korea.”
Since then, Suh has displaced himself again and again. In 1991, he moved to the US, where he lived and worked until 2010, when he moved to the UK with his British wife. It was in the US, in his last year of university, that he made his first piece of “fabric architecture,” using his studio space as the first mould. “I didn’t know how to sew back then, but I bought a second-hand sewing machine and learned sewing through the project,” recalls Suh. “I was hoping this would turn into a bigger project, but I didn’t know if it was going to work.”
Suh's experiments with fabric did work, and the project has since become bigger than he could ever have expected. He first recreated his childhood home in traditional Korean silk organza, then rebuilt his New York apartment using brightly coloured polyester. Both homes have since been exhibited around the world, enthralling audiences in Sweden, Japan, Denmark and the US in 2018 alone. Where possible, many museums encourage visitors to walk through Suh’s sculptures, an experience both captivating and uncanny.
Suh’s buildings are soft where they should be solid, see-through where they should be opaque, and weightless where they should be heavy, but all the details of a house are in place. There’s a spyhole in the front door, wood panelling around the fireplace and a showerhead sagging over the bath. It’s easy to imagine one of the doors creaking shut with a push, or the oven clattering open at the pull of the handle.
“Children have tried to climb up the staircases in my sculptures many times,” Suh says. On other occasions, people walking through his installations have found themselves overcome with emotion. Sometimes people cry. “These sculptures tug at your subconscious,” says Lehmann. “Wrapped up in the idea of home is so much. These works are about memory, about culture, about history, about the dreams we have for ourselves and our families.”
Looked at from another angle, Suh's sculptures are also about the blurry division between public and private space, as well as the differences in how we behave when we’re alone versus when we’re being watched. “The walls are translucent, so you’re observed when you’re inside, but you can also be part of an audience and observe everyone else,” Suh points out.
This tension between the public and the private, and the individual and the group, is a thread that runs through much of Suh’s work. For his first exhibition at Lehmann Maupin, in 1998, he covered the gallery’s floor in hundreds of tiny action figurines that had their arms raised, then lay a sheet of glass on top of the Lilliputian crowd. Walking over the sculpture, visitors were literally being held up by the crowd beneath their feet. Every individual figurine mattered, but each would have been useless without the strength of the group.
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Many of Suh’s drawings feature similar imagery, with dozens of people often drawn using a single unbroken line. “I try to see myself in the bigger context, I see myself as being part of a larger collective, so that’s why you see these recurring images of people,” explains Suh. “As I get older, I’ve been thinking more and more about how you affect other people, and how other people affect you.”
For Lehmann, there’s an undercurrent to this imagery that’s often overlooked. “It doesn’t come up very often when people talk about Do Ho, but he’s a political artist,” Lehmann says. “These ideas—about individualism, about being part of a group, about how we don’t exist without people around us—are political ideas. It’s not related to Communism or Marxism or the Republicans and Trump. But for me, the most interesting artists explore political ideas without making you sense their political message.”
All these ideas are feeding into new sculptures that Suh is making, including a new body of work inspired by Apartment A in New York, where he lived for almost 20 years. Suh’s landlord, Arthur, a widower suffering from Alzheimer’s who Suh grew close to, died in 2016. But before Arthur’s children sold the house, Suh moved back in and plastered the inside of the Chelsea townhouse in paper, then covered his fingers in pastel and rubbed the walls, recording every detail of the surfaces.
Suh sees these rubbings as a final act of love for the house itself and a commemoration of his friendship with Arthur. He worked on the project with such fervour that he ended up rubbing away his fingerprints.
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The house has been sold and Suh no longer has access to it. “But I’ve been reconstructing the space with my rubbings,” Suh reveals. “It’s a four-storey building, so I’m just doing it little by little. I make [the rooms] out of foam and then I wrap them in the rubbings. I have no plans to show it at the moment. I’m doing it for myself for now.”
He’s also building an installation inspired by his childhood home in Seoul. “We have a lot of magpies in Korea and they make a huge mess when they’re making their nest,” says Suh. “It makes my father so upset because he’s an obsessive gardener. He used to pick up all the branches out of his garden every day to make his garden absolutely pristine. He’s been ill this year, so I’ve started picking up the branches [when I visit] instead. Then I was thinking about how the magpies pick up branches, and how [my father] picks up branches, and about how I was staying in the house he built, so I’ve started collecting branches wherever I go. I’m now using my childhood house as a mould and covering it in twigs.”
Eventually, Suh plans to have a life-sized sculpture of his childhood home made out of twigs he’s collected from around the world. He hopes it will be ready for a large-scale exhibition being planned for next year by a major North American museum.
While Suh has spent much of his career looking back at his childhood and the places he’s lived, he’s now spending more of his time looking into the future. He has two daughters, both under the age of 10, though they’re already directly involved in his art. They’re helping Suh collect branches for his coming sculpture and Suh is making a video work from recordings from a GoPro camera strapped to their pram.
“My children are a great inspiration,” he says. “Before, everything was about two generations—my parents and me. Now there are three generations. I’m inspired by being a father. But maybe it’s not so different. Fatherhood, childhood, karma, home—it’s all connected.”
To see Do Ho Suh’s works during Art Basel in Hong Kong, visit Lehmann Maupin’s booth, 1C21, at the Convention and Exhibition Centre
- PhotographyChris Sorensen