Artist Do Ho Suh Explores the Meaning of Home
From three-dimensional fabric sculptures of his parents' house in Korea to an intimate drawing of his New York studio, WSJ. Magazine's Art Innovator of 2013 investigates the idea of home—and what it means to belong in the 21st century. By Julie L. Belcove.
After Korean-born artist Do Ho Suh moved to London a few years ago to be with his wife, he missed his adopted home of New York. He kept a 500-square-foot live-in studio there, in a former sailors' dorm in Chelsea, and began to contemplate ways of memorializing it. Many of Suh's most famed sculptures had reimagined his homes—in translucent fabric or resin, or as a painstakingly detailed, oversize dollhouse—from his childhood in Seoul and his young adulthood in the United States. This time, though, he wanted to make a drawing. Except Suh was not content to sit in a chair with a pad and pencil and render what he saw. Instead, he covered every inch of the interior—walls, floors, ceiling, refrigerator, window air conditioner—with paper, then rubbed with a blue-colored pencil, the way a child might preserve the memory of a leaf in the fall.
"Rubbing is a different interpretation of space. It's quite sensuous—very physical and quite sexual," says Suh, wearing a T-shirt and shorts on a late summer day in his London studio. "You have to very carefully caress the surface and try to understand what's there."
That dictum could easily apply to the entirety of Suh's oeuvre, which has explored the varying meanings of space, from the smallest territory we occupy—our clothing—to our homes and homelands. Issues of memory, history, displacement, identity and the body all come into play. In an age of exponentially increasing globalization, Suh's consideration of what it means to belong strikes a nerve. His almost uncanny ability to hit these major touchstones of our time—and do it with the lyricism of a poet—has made him one of the most internationally in-demand artists of his generation.
Suh has fashioned a monumental emperor's robe from thousands of soldiers' dog tags and precariously perched a fully furnished house on the edge of a roof seven stories up. He has used his personal history of wearing uniforms—from schoolboy to soldier—as the basis for a self-portrait, and set an army of tiny figurines under a glass floor, inviting viewers to walk on the artwork without necessarily even realizing it. In Suh's mind, it all has the same origin: "Everything starts from an idea of personal space—what is the dimension of personal space," says Suh. "What makes a person a person, and when does a person become a group? What is interpersonal space—space between people?"