Never at any time in history have more people been displaced, uprooted, obliged to learn a new language and a new set of values. It’s not only those refugees from war and persecution, but millions who have taken themselves to another part of the world to find a different, hopefully better, life.
South Korean artist, Do Ho Suh (b.1962), has spent his entire career meditating on the meaning of “home” while living for long periods in New York and London. His exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art tracks these migrations in prints, drawings, videos and large-scale sculptural installations. It’s a body of work that makes no pressing demands on the viewer’s attention but the longer one looks the more one appreciates the depth and power of Suh’s reflections.
His work is unusually personal, but there’s an extraordinary intimacy about even the largest, room-sized pieces. Every one of us should be able to identify with Suh’s themes. He looks at the way an individual identity is constructed, piece by piece, by the clothes we wear and the rooms we inhabit, in our family, our school, or – in Korea – through national service. He shows how familiar objects, fixtures and furniture become bound up with our notions of who we are, and how we live.
Suh also explores the ephemeral nature of these things, as we pass through the stages of life. He goes from being a child at home with his family, to a student living in a rented apartment in a foreign country, to a married man and father, resident in yet another land. At the same time, we trace his evolution from obscurity to international fame.
There’s a humbleness about this work, and a lingering anxiety. Curator, Rachel Kent – who left the MCA over a year ago but keeps coming back for unfinished business – calls it a “sense of the precarious”. It’s as if Suh is terrified about losing any small piece of the past. For decades he has meticulously documented all the spaces in which he has lived and worked, preserving memories against the decay wrought by passing time.
It’s something that any of us could have done had we the same presence of mind. Looking at My Home/s (Vertical) (2014-19), Suh’s composite video of rooms in Seoul, New York and London, it’s easy to imagine our own version. How many spaces have we lived and worked in, from the childhood home to the present day? What memories would be revived by looking at images of these rooms, or walking through facsimiles of them?
South Korea is a remarkable country. One of the poorest places in the world in the 1950s, it rose swiftly until it became a permanent fixture in the top ten global economies. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953 it has lived in a stand-off with its Northern counterpart. The combination of rapid economic growth and constant insecurity can hardly fail to have an impact upon people’s psyches.
The Koreans have also become great diasporists, who bring their own culture to new lands. In the United States they have funded departments of Korean studies at unversities, and Korean art at wellknown museums.
There are prices to be paid for these rapid advances. One of them is the degree of regimentation and conformity demanded of ordinary people. Suh acknowledges this in a work called Uni-Form/s, Self-Portrait/s (My 39 Years)(2006), which consists of a clothing rack, on which he has hung all the uniforms he had to wear, from his earliest school days to his time in the army. With each new ‘skin’ came a new, pre-determined identity.
The irony is that the military-style school uniforms are heavily influenced by Japanese models, a legacy of the period when Korea was under its neighbour’s yoke. Although the wounds of this time have never properly healed, it’s surprising how much Japanese influence has been internalised into local society and culture.
When he went to study in the United States in the early 1990s, Suh had to reasess his understanding of the world, an experience he describes as “receiving a new set of eyes”. He has preserved his rented apartment from those days in a suite of translucent fabric sculptures – a toilet, a wash basin, a stove, a medicine cabinet. In later years he would make extensive rubbings of his New York studio, recording the actual dimensions of the space on giant sheets of paper.
One of most impressive aspects of this show is Suh’s readiness to move from the smallest drawings, such as A Perfect Home (1999) – which resembles a child’s drawing of a house, standing at the halfway point of a bridge stretching between Korea and America – to the voluminous installation, Staircase-III (2010), which occupies an entire gallery. The staircase, made from red fabric, drops down from a false ceiling made from the same material. We stand at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at an imaginary room, noting the careful detail of the balustrades glimpsed at the top
It’s not a stairway to Heaven but a ladder to a private memory chamber. We’re invited to peer upwards from the floor, but never ascend.
The major work in the exhibition sees six separate rooms (or ‘hubs’) made from different coloured fabrics, linked together as one long passage, allowing us to travel between different homes, cities and time periods as we walk from one end of the installation to the other. The lure is so seductive that even though every bit of the installation is visible from the outside, you’ll find a long queue of viewers lined up, eager to experience the bodily sensation of being within the space
A constant preoccupation for Suh is that trope, beloved of the ancient Greeks, of the One and the Many. His most astonishing installation consists of a room with a pale brown speckled wallpaper and a flat, glassy platform for a floor. It’s only when one gets close that the wallpaper – Who Am We? (Multicoloured) (2000) – resolves itself into thousands of tiny faces, while the floor (Floor (1997-2000), is revealed as a ceiling held up by thousands of miniscule figures.
The same figures recur in Public Figures – Model (2000), a short, animated video and a sculpture. We watch a bronze statue of a great man decompose into a swarm of tiny figures who slide down the plinth, pick it up and move it through the park. It’s a double-edged comment on the nature of political fame, born of public adulation which is returned by the oppressions of state power.
Suh’s most recently finished piece is probably the highlight of the show. The Rubbing/Loving Project: Seoul Home (2013-22), is a full-scale graphite rubbing of the exterior of Suh’s childhood home, a house built in the traditional Korean style by his artist father. Suh has worked on this project on and off for nine years, only finishing in August. The task was so hands-on he wore away his own fingerprints making the rubbings.
The scale and duration of this project is a testament to Suh’s determination, but there’s something touching about his efforts to preserve his father’s legacy, which was itself a reassertion of the value of a traditional Korean culture. The work embodies nostalgia for a lost childhood, but also for a set of values that have been overwritten by the globalising activities of the modern era. It’s a reminder that for everything that is gained in terms of progress and prosperity, something else is lost. It’s the same with a nation and with an individual life. When we forget our sense of home, Suh seems to say, we lose the very heart of our identity, the thing that sets us apart from the crowd.
Do Ho Suh
Museum of Contemporary Art,
4 November 2022 – 26 February 2023
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 November, 2022