In his final days, Do Ho Suh’s New York landlord had lost so much of his memory that he sometimes couldn’t even remember his son’s name. But during one of their last conversations, the psychotherapist came alive again for a couple hours, as though the South Korean-born artist had stitched together a sense of home and memory through dialogue, much in the way that his fabric creations inhabit a sense of space from various locations across the world. Memory does indeed speak when walking through the vibrantly coloured passageways, painstakingly hand sewn in a 1:1 scale with details like radiators, water pipes and door hardware rendered with an engineer’s precision.
The immersive experience presented at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC, is incredibly idiosyncratic – a trip down Suh’s memory lane – but it also feels familiar, raising perennial questions about identity, the definition of home and what part of ourselves we leave behind long after we’ve packed our bags and spirited away. “It is very specific to me, because I’m the one who spent time there, so it’s kind of a device to evoke my experience in this space,” Suh said in an interview with the gallery, where ethereal renderings of corridors and other in-between spaces of his past homes in New York (pale pink), Berlin (green) and Seoul (cerulean blue) are currently on view. He continues: “There are so many stories that come with that space and experience, so it’s about preserving my memories of that space. At some point, you have to move out and go somewhere. It’s just I want to carry that with me.”
All it takes is for Suh to put up two walls to form a corner and top it off with a ceiling for the memories to come flowing back. “It’s about making my home transportable and also by measuring the space and the details of the room or house, it is kind of a ritual to completely understand what’s in the space,” he notes. The work’s uncanny ability to collapse space and time has become especially prescient in a transient time of mass migration and ever-polarised geopolitical borders. Yet this global citizen who splits time between three cities – Seoul, London and New York – is quick to admit that the meaning of home is plural; it is a shifting definition that changes with every relocation. In My Homes (2014), for example, the structures as growing feet, wandering or parachuting in a whimsical stitched “drawing” created using gelatin tissue that dissolves as it fuses with paper in water.
When he first started exploring fabric sculptures, Suh used traditional silk organza, which was quickly eschewed for “cheaper” and more readily available polyester used in Korean summer wear. Old blends with new as ancient sewing techniques are combined with advanced three-dimensional modelling and mapping technologies. He has called the earlier versions of his elaborate sculptures “suitcase homes” because they could easily be folded into a bag. But now that his work has grown more ambitious, the metallic supporting structures of Hubs on view make for a much more complex installation process.
In the Specimens series, suh also draws attention to individual household objects usually taken for granted, stitching up the same semi-transparent fabric to recreate circuit breakers, sinks or even a toilet seat. “You sit on your toilet multiple times a day, and then you live there 20 years. I think there is some sort of emotional connection and energy there,” he notes.
After his landlord’s death, Suh was forced to leave the New York apartment in which he had lived for much of the past 20 years because Arthur’s children were selling the house. But he had one last, almost devotional act up his sleeve. In a desperate effort to preserve memories of time spent there, Suh wrapped nearly the entire interior with white paper. Anything and everything was covered, from the walls and floors to doorknobs and bathtubs. He then rubbed every exposed surface with coloured pencils in the tiny ground-level apartment, resorting to powdery pastels for the upstairs floors, caressing the surface with his increasingly worn fingertips to reveal bumps, imperfections or even the grain of the wood.
He notes: “That was physically and emotionally more intense than the fabric pieces. By that rubbing gesture, you get the instant reminiscence of the moment when you were there,” he recalled. “I was literally caressing the entire surface. So, it is a gesture also of loving.”
Do Ho Suh: Almost Home, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, runs until 5 August. For more information, click here.
1.Do Ho Suh Wieland Strasse, 18, 12159 Berlin, Germany–3 Corridors 2011 Polyester fabric and stainless steel armature 92 3/8 x 44 3/4 x 136 3/4 inches Collection of the artist.