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                                                                        On Multiple Interpretations: Do-Ho Suh

 

the itinerant: Seoul home/LA home     i. 
the homebody: Perfect Home    ii.
the modern mnemosyne: Reflection     iii.
the ghost-storyteller: Staircase      iv.

 

Survey the work of contemporary artist Do Ho Suh and one finds within his oeuvre a cast of characters befitting the modern condition concerning space and how one navigates their narrative within such prescribed conditions.  This paper will serve to journey in discourse through four major translucent fabric installations of Suh’s: Seoul Home/LA Home (1999), Perfect Home (2002), Reflection (2004), and Staircase (2004) in order to illustrate the myriad role that Suh reveals through each. It is in looking through these malleable filters of the itinerant, the homebody, the modern mnemosyne, and the ghost-storyteller, that we as viewers begin to fill the emptiness these works occupy.

 

                                                                                the itinerant: Seoul home/LA home      i. 

“It’s like a suitcase – you keep adding something to it every time you travel.”
Do Ho Suh

It has been suggested that modernity breaks down protective barriers of the small, traditional community and replaces them with more impersonal organizations.  If true, the individual is left to feel more alone and vulnerable, without the sense of security provided through more traditional frameworks.  Sociologist Anthony Giddens posits that a person with a reasonably stable sense of self-identity has a feeling of biographical continuity, which she is able to grasp reflexively and, to a greater or lesser degree, communicate to other people.  That person also, through early trust relations, has established a protective cocoon, which filters out many of the day-to-day dangers that in principle threaten the integrity of the self.  

This protective, subjective cocoon can be seen as a barrier to the outside world that makes possible the sustained Umwelt.  Erving Goffman, a sociologist and writer, describes the Umwelt in his book Interaction Ritual:

The phenomenal notion of the Umwelt is a core of (accomplished)
normalcy with which individuals and groups surround themselves.
The Umwelt is a moving world of normalcy, which the individual takes
around from situation to situation, although this feat depends on others
who confirm, or take part in, reproducing that world.

Jakob Johann von Uexküll, an Estonian biologist, founded the notion of the Umwelt.  The German word Umwelt means “environment” or “surrounding world;” the term however, is usually translated as “subjective universe.”   Like a shell, this subjective universe travels with you wherever you go.  However it may be originally developed and shaped by past experiences, this shell is continually evolving. This Umwelt can also be described as a moving core of normalcy with which individuals and groups surround themselves, which the individual takes around from situation to situation.

Suh’s Seoul Home/LA Home (1999) is a portable testament to this notion of a moving core of normalcy (see fig. 1).  The voluminous canopy, this tent-like structure in translucent celadon silk hangs suspended like a dream or ghost of a house.   The work becomes a portable portrait of the traditional Korean house in which Do Ho Suh was raised. Suh’s move from Korea to the United States was described as disorienting and displacing, therefore his need to build this traveling home space was a way to keep not only the memories, but the shell housing the memories available to him at all times.
We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection. Suh mentions that upon his arrival to the United States, he experienced everything by going through different spaces. and that he experienced space through, and as, the movement of displacement and works out of this feeling of displacement to create intrinsically transportable and translatable space. The long title (the final exhibition title was Seoul Home/LA Home/New York Home/Baltimore Home/London Home/Seattle Home/LA Home) references the seemingly never-ending travels of Suh as international citizen.  Working as a modern diasporic artist, Suh is free to travel between several places, and maintains two homes, New York City and Seoul.  Diaspora (from diaspeirein, meaning to scatter) indicates a relationship with not only the place from exile or exit but indicates a new relationship to the future places of inhabitance.  Therefore diaspora not only encompasses movements of people but also includes their experiences; one must not view a diasporic artist in a vacuum but realize that he/she has gathered multiple worldviews made up of experiences and memories of at least two cultures.

Suh came to the US in his late 20s after completing his BFA and MFA in Oriental Painting at Seoul University and later received his MFA from Yale University.  The move was his first “major separation from [his] family and [his] country, Korea.” This cultural disparity created the need for Suh to construct Seoul Home/LA Home; feeling homesick and nostalgic for his home and family in Korea, the work (his first translucent sculpture) acted like a security blanket, traveling with him wherever he went, and it literally was brought to its first exhibition in two suitcases.  If we think of the house as ordinarily considered the ultimate form of protective, intimate space, Suh shows it to be something transitory and without roots.

Yi-Fu Tuan is a Chinese-American geographer who tells us that space is fundamentally given by the ability to move. Hence space can be variously experienced as the relative location of objects or places, or as the distances and expanses that separate or link places. Suh’s home suggests portable housing for today’s jet-setting urban Bedouins, and gives playful and provocative expression to the modern condition of being at home anywhere while feeling at home nowhere.

As a whole, Suh’s installations capture the notion of a transportive space that nevertheless remains distinct and site-specific – metaphors for the ways in which one must navigate cultural displacement and determine one’s specific identity in an increasingly global world. His homey, tent like structures act as perfect metaphors for our modern era increasingly easy global migration.

Raised in a traditional Korean household, perhaps Suh had an awareness to the historical lineage of Korean travelers.  The hwarang, or flower boys of Silla, were groups traveling storytellers that originated from farm families. The eighteenth century brought a turning point in Korean orally transmitted literature; farmers suffered double tax burdens, which led to farmer’s riots, and a major change occurred inside the farm structure itself with regards to methods of rice planting. Farmers leaving the farm couldn’t find employment, subsequently leading to an increase in vagabonds that became traveling entertainers known as p’ansori singers.   The hwarang originated as p’ansori singers, traveling from town to town spreading their stories which were songs of everyday experiences, based on rationality. Later forming out of the hwarang, the mujari, or Korean gypsies came into being.  The mujari were not known as storytellers, they simply lived migrantly without a centralized sense of home. Suh’s Seoul Home/LA Home feels similar in that it is the home that travels, as opposed to the traveler leaving one’s home behind. And so as with most cultures, there has also been a rich history of travel and storytelling within Korea.  Suh doesn’t (necessarily) fit within this lineage, however he is a modern traveling storyteller.  While Suh was not forced to travel, the choice was his own; however the feeling of movement, travel, and perhaps subsequent isolation remains a crucial schema in his work. And while Suh’s stories are not oral, they are visual stories with personal and reflexive narratives.

 

                                                                                         the homebody: Perfect Home    ii.

“Recreating past homes appears to be cathartic, allowing him to release some of his attachment to them.”

The Perfect Home (2002) is a combination of two previous works of Suh’s: Seoul home/LA Home and 348 West 22nd St, Apt. A, NY, NY 10011 (see fig. 2).  Both were built independently and later joined together to create what Suh called his Perfect Home.  Investigating the notions of personal space, The Perfect Home recreated on a 1:1 scale his Manhattan studio apartment (348 West 22nd St) , adjacent hallways and stairways and his family’s Korean home (Seoul Home/LA Home). Viewers can enter the space and walk through the apartment, observe the fireplace and bookshelves, the stove, refrigerator, and sink, the light switches, sockets, doorknobs, and locks, conjuring perhaps the vulnerability of private space (see fig. 2.1).  The effect is uncanny and all that is missing is “the stuff of everyday life.”   The color-coded sections – Suh’s apartment is ice blue, the corridor pink, the stairs greenish white, and the Seoul home light green – emphasize how the separate architectural and phenomenological spaces form a new idealized space.

History has been predicated on the sustenance of a group’s oral history.  In ancient society, with fewer books and consumer goods, people essentially relied on internal memory.  In such early human societies, records, stories, individual life histories and community histories were oral.   People’s memories were thus their most valued treasures and had to be trained and preserved.  Ancient philosophers developed mnemonics, the art and practice of aiding and improving memory, which traces its roots to Ancient Greece.  The principle facet to the art of memory is the method of loci (method of places).  The method of loci requires the individual to remember a real or imaginary place (such as a house) and to ‘place’ items to be remembered inside this space, within this environment, so that they can be sequentially associated and recalled with ease at a later time by mentally walking through the space.   Later during the Renaissance, memory theatres came into fashion.  Originally called “houses of the mind” the method of loci now became literal, physical structures.  The memory theatre’s main focus was to create a corporeal looking from the viewer, so that at once “the beholder can perceive with his eyes everything that is otherwise hidden from the depths of the human mind.” Physically the first space we inhabit is our mother’s womb.  However, given no memory of the womb space, we normally would consider our childhood home to be our first inhabited space.  Consequently, the house we were born in becomes the standard for values which remain in us after the house is physically gone.   Therefore, our childhood home may be our spatial standard, which furthermore can be translated as a method of loci or even as our own individual memory theatre for all future places we inhabit.

In Seoul, Korea, Suh was raised in a traditional scholar’s house, a Hanoak, built by an elderly carpenter who had worked for the Korean royal family.  It was a copy of a house called Yeon Kyung Dang, built in 1828 by King Sunjo, because “the King wanted to experience what it would be like to live a civilian life.”   Growing up in a space so interjected with history, importance, and significance, one could say that Suh has serious attachment issues with domestic space.  His father (Se-ok Suh) is a traditional Korean scholar artist, versed in poetry, calligraphy, painting and gardening.  Suh states that his father, who is a huge influence on him, was “pretty much the last sort of scholarly painter in Korea - a renaissance man who masters these as part of his virtue.”

The Hanoak, or traditional Korean home, can be broken down into discussions of transparency, intimacy and layers.  To understand the functionality of the Korean home we must first discuss the Korean climate, which is hot and humid in summer and chilly in the winter. Therefore Hanoak inhabitants live in close contact with the elements.  The necessity of a Korean heated floor came out of this intimacy with nature. The Korean heated floor (or ondol) consists of thin stone slabs propped on vertical stones to leave a void beneath, and hot gases from a wood fire lit in a chamber tucked under one side are sucked through underneath to a low flue at the other side.  On top the slabs are covered with oiled mulberry paper to leave a perfectly smooth surface. The heated floor was used for not only walking, but sitting, eating and sleeping. Due to this life on the floor, rooms could be smaller and more intimate; the Korean tradition of shoe removal serves as a chance to pause, reflect, respect and slow down the pace of life.  Therefore this direct contact with surfaces within the Hanoak creates an appreciation to textures underfoot, raising awareness to an appreciation to visual textures or objects within the home; in connecting tactility with visuality the space may be experienced fully.

During the warm Korean summers, cross ventilation in the Hanoak allows for summer breezes; flimsy removable walls and sliding screens encourage airflows. In the absence of glass, rice paper is traditionally glued to a wood grill, and natural light reveals the gridded pattern.  This transparency creates a very public home, where movable walls do not feel secure and the boundaries between outside and inside are blurred. But we might look with envy at the traditional Korean house for its layering of insideness and outsideness, allowing life to retreat to a heated indoors in the worst conditions, but opening up layer by layer with sliding screen and folding door until it becomes a well-ventilated living space in the summer heat under its parasol roof. The most highly protected indoor space is the most 'cultural': delicately lined with paper on all sides and with a papered suspended ceiling. And perhaps relating the Hanoak to an ideal storyteller, Walther Benjamin describes how a narrative can achieve “that slow piling up, one on top of the other, of thin, transparent layers which constitutes the most appropriate image of the way in which the perfect narrative is revealed through the layers of various retellings.”

Suh’s Perfect Home contains this successful narrative by effectively allowing all three of these to happen simultaneously (transparency, intimacy, and layers).  Using gossamer silk and nylon, the transparent structure rests weightless in the gallery space – as if there but only partially there

There is no way you can make something that is transparent without physical substance, so I am borrowing material that renders the idea of transparency…I think that the idea of transparency came from my background, education, and experience – I lived in a traditional Korean-style house with traditional paintings.

Suh maintains an intimate relationship with each work he produces; he starts the process by physically measuring each space he is to recreate.  For Perfect Home, this meant measuring not only his family’s Hanoak, but also his New York City apartment, hallway and stairwell.  If one can imagine Suh bending over, kneeling down, reaching above to measure each corner, floorboard, light switch, etc one can start to understand the intimate relationship Suh not only has with the physical space, but with the psychological nature of each space as well.  Thus he is not only interested in the tangible space, but also in an intangible metaphorical space.

If we are to transcend our memories of all the houses in which we have found shelter, above and beyond all the houses we have dreamed we lived in, we might start to isolate an intimate, concrete essence that would be a justification of the uncommon value of all of our images of protected intimacy.   Suh’s Perfect Home is a deliberate attempt to isolate and idealize phenomenological domestic spaces, interjecting his translucent architecture with past memories and experiences.

 

                                                                          the modern mnemosyne: Reflection     iii.

“This process of ‘reaching back to one’s early experiences,’ is part of a reflexive mobilizing of self-identity; it is not solely confined to life’s crises, but is a general feature of late modern social activity.”

The self of modernity is reflexive and individuated; the emphasis on self-reflection and individuation are clearly related to the need to find a foothold in this plural and differentiated world.   Thus, a main concern for someone living in modernity is the question of self-identity.  Oppositional from previous traditional societies, individual identity is not taken as given, but must be obtained and continually developed through reflexive activity, to come to an understanding of ‘who one is.’ Giddens posits that the peculiar feature of self-identity is that the continuity involved is interpreted reflexively by the individual in terms of her or his own biography; a person’s self-identity is thus to be found in her or his capacity to keep a particular narrative going.

As reflexive human beings, our self-identity is constructed through moments remembered from our past; thus, how we project ourselves in the present is a construct of our past memories.  What has happened to us in the past determines what we take out of our daily encounters in life; memories are records of how we have experienced events, not replicas of the events themselves.  This preexisting knowledge powerfully influences how we encode and store new memories, thus contributing to the nature, texture, and quality of what we will recall of the moment.

Reflection (2004), a replica of the gate between the Suh family main house and Suh’s childhood bedroom in Seoul, Korea, turns his practice further towards structures of transition via self-reflection (see fig. 3).  Suh believes the Korean gate was intentionally designed low so that those entering or leaving had to bow their heads in respect.  Therefore Suh views it not only as a gate, or more importantly the memory of the gate, but also as a personal space for contemplation and reflection; he wants viewers to meditate on how one remembers images and space. “It’s a very common design, and they’re always a bit small, so even though I was a child I had to duck.  My interpretation is that the size was intentional, that because you had to duck it made you become aware of your own body, almost like a meditation.”   For such an intimate gesture the gates hover in reflection more than 21 ft tall (a truly overpowering corporal presence) making one wonder if in making fabric reproductions of spaces charged with personal memories – what does he gain in the process of translation? And what do we as viewers gain from this subjective self-portrait?

This localization of our memories to a specific space and time helps construct our reflexive self-identity.  Bachelard writes that “to localize a memory in time is merely a matter for the biographer and only corresponds to a sort of external history, for external use, to be communicated to others.”   Thus, we project our present ideas and images of spaces based on previous spatial encounters.  So how does an artist, one working already within a visual framework, create work within this context?  More interestingly, how does a late modern, self-reflexive artist represent inhabited spaces? Do artists retreat to memories of childhood and homes due to the isolation of late modern society?

Memory creates the chain of tradition that transmits an event from generation to generation, and effective storytellers build on the narrative over time. While Suh’s work is about memory, they are not created from memory.  Suh revisits the sites he is to build in fabric and faithfully maps them with a laser measure.   However, during this methodological process of intimately measuring the space for reproduction, he uncovers emotional subjectivity. Suh states: “While I’m measuring the space I use my tactile senses to disclose little marks here and there, and these bring a lot of memories.”

Thanks to the house, a great many of our memories are housed, and if the
house is a bit elaborate, if it has a cellar and a garret, nooks and corridors,
our memories have refuges that are all the more clearly delineated…In the
theatre of the past that is constituted by memory, the stage setting
maintains the characters in their dominant roles.  At times we think we
know ourselves in time, when all we know is a sequence of fixations
in the spaces of the being’s stability…This is what space is for.
           
Through Reflection we find these references to the self-reflexive individual and longing for times passed. Perhaps making this piece was an active gesture to overcome a sense of separation and nostalgia. But what does Suh want us to see through these gates?  Does the simple poetic gesture, executed to perfection, allow viewers to project themselves into Suh’s environment, or does Suh’s personal reference serve to tether the work into a self-reflexive cycle that others cannot penetrate?  Clearly the blue is melancholic; one feels loss and simultaneous joy over the gate hanging suspended in reflection overhead.  We can physically experience a subjective spatial encounter, which in turn will affect our future projections of space, and Suh’s gates will (ideally) be forever engrained in our memories. Suh’s biggest critic however is he who cannot connect to this very personal origin, left feeling outside of his circle of experience.

 

                                                                                    the ghost-storyteller: Staircase      iv.

“But the unconscious cannot be civilized. It takes a candle when it goes to the cellar.”
Gaston Bachelard

A red stairwell hangs from the ceiling, suspended, as weightless and perhaps simultaneously burdened. The work by Do Ho Suh titled Staircase (2004), while based on the staircase between Suh’s apartment and that of his landlord at the time, is the most open to narrative interpretation (see fig. 4). Corridors and staircases, the transitory areas between living spaces, hold particular interest for Suh; he sees them as metaphors for his state-of-being, the in-between spaces that are neither here nor there. Gray areas symbolize the modern diasporic condition of feeling an in between-ness. As if an archetype waiting to be assigned its history, Suh’s stairwell posits one within the basement, with neither the possibility to climb or descend.  Left in this motionless suspension the anticipation mounts; the tensions are evident, even when missing the protagonist one fills in the imaginative narrative played out on the staircase.  As if you were seeing a holographic apparition from your memory, it feels familiar but also only half there.   The intense red translucent silk feels menacing, perhaps evoking blood or negative connotations of forgotten and neglected spaces.  He who lives below – the acknowledgement of another’s presence is evident, however we are left with no figures, no narratives…only red.

This ambiguity or anonymity is important to Suh when telling a (visual) story.  Storytelling is a capacity; it is a way of thinking that is subjective and based on personal experience.  For Suh, Staircase represents the ambiguous boundaries between personal and public space.Suh tells us his personal stories through objects; however porous and flighty they may be, he embeds them with memory and emotional significance.  While storytelling has a long oral tradition, Suh retrofits his narrative installations into this oral mold through the use of personal interjection, while at the same time leaving the space (literally) open and empty allowing others to enter.

Suh has awareness to the necessity of viewer/audience participation that is historically essential to storytelling.  The audience being able to participate mentally in the narrative and later share that experience or narrative with others is the livelihood of the storyteller’s capacity.  According to Walther Benjamin, there are historically two types of storytellers:  1.  He who travels from home, providing stories from afar, and 2.  He who stays at home, providing local folklore.   However it is the best storyteller who combines both. Benjamin might say the prototype is the man who finds his ways around the world without becoming too involved in it. Suh provides this much needed neutrality of telling in order to distance himself from the viewer.  He is not biased, he only presents the information (in this case the installation) in order to allow viewers to interpret for themselves and fill in the mental gaps.

The psychological connections among the events are not forced on the reader. It is up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.

Therefore Suh transforms his narrative beyond visual information into unconscious, psychological submersion.  One is able to go beyond the sterile and measured red stairwell directly into the irrational ghost story narrative.  The ghost tale functions as narration characterized by slow emergence of the menace.  This is also the kind of narrative where tensions become evident before the characters even enter the scene.   Can we not, therefore, imagine the action played out on the stairs without revealing the relationship?  The imagery already exits in our minds.  And, just like a ghost story, Suh’s Staircase provides that slow piling up of thin transparent layers in which the perfect narrative is revealed through various retellings.

The dramatic appeal of Staircase haunts the viewer.  While historical storytelling was community based, (late) modern storytelling has become more individually based, leading to perhaps isolated experiences.  This isolation is evident in Staircase through dramatizing and extending the anticipation through this literal and figurative suspension. The etymology of “suspense” suggests the holding power Staircase has on the viewer, just as in a ghost story.  We are “dangled below” or “held between” until being brought up to a point of stability, which may or may not ever occur. Staircase has been exhibited internationally in multiple venues, yet it continuously maintains its strong physical and psychological presence over viewers.  Just like a nightmare, you can’t get it out of your head.

                                                                                                                               post script

And what of the literal emptiness in Suh’s work?  The Korean idea of emptiness implies a complete value in itself. When one considers space not only as defined by walls, but incorporates the interaction between the walls and spatial emptiness, the act of emptying preserves the subject’s state of existence. Two different meanings of emptiness within the context of traditional Korean architecture are comparable to similar Eastern theologies. The idea of sunyata, or emptiness in Buddhism teaches that emptiness in itself is a complete state, understood as the truth of nature and the cosmos. Once emptied, there is no need to fill, since the most ideal state has been reached. Similarly, the Taoist belief expressed in the idea of the wu-wei (non-action) defines emptiness as a condition for better filling.  We might ask then why Suh provides us with shells, malleable walls with only spatial emptiness.  Does he believe this expresses the true and complete state of his work?  Or he is establishing an opportunity to fill?  The later may be true; if Suh’s works start externally as empty, suspended sculptures, then the viewer is able  to mentally fill and thus complete the work.  Therefore a a nomadic Korean home might feel welcoming to a traveler, an empty New York City apartment might be mentally filled with one’s own personal furnishings, a Korean gate might be filled with another’s memory of a gateway, or a red stairwell might be enough to bring back a nightmare.

                                                                                                                         Bibliography:

 

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Richard, Frances. “The Art of Do Ho Suh: Home in the World.” Artforum
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Schacter, Daniel L.  Searching for Memory:  The Brain, The Mind, and The Past.  New
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                                                                                                                   Works Discussed:

 

 

do ho suh 1
Figure 1
Seoul Home/LA Home, 1999
Gossamer silk and stainless steel tube
Dimensions variable

 

do ho suh 2
Figure 2
The Perfect Home, 2002
Translucent nylon and stainless steel tube
Dimensions variable

do ho suh 3
Figure 2.1
The Perfect Home, 2002
Detail

do ho suh 4
Figure 3
Reflection, 2004
Translucent nylon and stainless steel tube
Dimensions variable

do ho suh 5
Figure 4
Staircase, 2004
Translucent nylon
Dimensions variable

 

 

(Giddens 1991, 54)

(Giddens 1991, 128)

(von Uexküll 1957, 5-80)

(Richards 2002, 115)

(Richards 2002, 116)

(Nelson 2006, 296-297)

(Malhotra 2001, 52)

(Malhotra 2001, 53)

(Tuan 1977, 12)

(Van Siclen 2003, 27)

(Momin 2003, 69)

(Shin-Yong 1974, 45)

(McGuirk 2008, 112)

(Vincent 2003, 159)

(Bourtchouladze 202,1-2)

(Bourtchouladze 2002, 3)

(Bourtchouladze 2002, 6)

(Bachelard 1969, 4)

Do Ho Suh as told to Penelope Green in 2007

(McGuirk 2008, 110)

(Jones 2004)

(Jones 2004)

(Benjamin 1936, 160)

(Csaszar 2005, 36)

(Bachelard 1969, 3)

(Giddens 1991, 33)

(Quicke 1996, 365)

(Quicke 1996, 366)

(Giddens 1991, 54)

(Schacter 1996, 6)

(From Lehmann Maupin press release, Do Ho Suh: Part Two, Reflection, November 29, 2007 –
     February 2, 2008)

Do Ho Suh as told to Penelope Green, 2003

(Bachelard 1969, 9)

(Benjamin 1936, 154)

(McGuirk 2008, 112)

Do Ho Suh as told to Justin McGuirk, 112

(Bachelard 1969, 8)

(McGuirk 2008, 10)

(Benjamin 1936, 144)

(Benjamin 1936, 148)

(Dove 1989, 100)

(Benjamin 1936, 150)

(Dove 1989, 1)

(Jae 2005, 17)

(Jae 2005, 20)