Do ho Suh and the Korean Sublime

By Christine Chung

Take me Home

We all have a strong relationship with home. Our first home is what we inherit from our parents—whether they are poor or rich or somewhere in between, they give us a home that is not just a place to live, but a place that becomes part of our soul. This first sense of home sustains us. It represents stability, safety and a sense of belonging. On the other hand, we’re always leaving our homes. We grow up, we want to discover world, travel, get away from our parents and so we leave everything that we know. But then, as soon as that happens, we feel homesick. The push and pull of our relationship to home, whether we live in hut or mansion, is fundamental part of our identity.

The problem of home is problematic for Koreans, because Korea is changing so fast that even a little time away can seem like decades of change. This has caused a lot of confusion in the culture and led to a sense of artistic confusion as well. After the war, Korea changed a lot and especially in terms of what we might call its conception of home. For many years, and the four imperial palaces still stand as a testament, the Korean home was a two-story wooden house. This ideal is the bases for many Korean virtues, especially its notion of the family and the greater family of the country. When Korea confronts the West and Japan, this notion of home and family radically changes. Korea becomes a major urban culture and player in the world and by doing so upends most of its traditional ideas of home, including women’s roles, idealized housing, etc. Many Korean artists obliquely deal with this problem, but Do ho Suh is the one Korean artist who has made the idea of home central to his artistic practice. His ongoing installation, “Home within Home” began in 2008 and has chronicled this particular Korean’s, as well as Korea’s, chaotic and changing notions of home.

It's Reflecting
The first thing that you have to talk about when you talk about Suh is that his pieces are made of fabric and yet they have all the force and solidity of rock. It’s a tremendous effect and the interplay between structure and light is stunning. It’s not quite an illusion, because you’re always aware of the substance or quality of what you’re looking at and yet it feels as if everything is what it is and more. His pieces are at once solid and made of nothing, concrete and silk and somehow all at once.

The first piece of “Home Within Home” is Reflection. It greets visitors as they enter the show. Its silky blue bricks replicate the entrance to the bedroom of Suh’s childhood home in South Korea, a traditional Korean Hanok. Also, it’s upside down or right side up if you’re looking at the top reflection. The upper arch of the bottom reflection (if it were right side up) is Tiffany blue and stands at about twelve feet off the ground. You can either look up at the piece from the ground or look down at the piece from the second floor of the museum. Needless to say, as in all of Suh’s work, the detailing and ornamentation, is amazing.

That's a perfect Reflection
Reflection is a perfect mirror image. Seeing it reminded me of the door to my bedroom at my home, even though it looks nothing like Suh’s. It’s just that the piece makes you feel nostalgic and especially if you are Korean. It has something to do with the piece being a perfect reflection of itself and the way it forces us to see those reflecting doors, the entrance into the exhibition, as a way of entering the past and the future at once. Ultimately the reason Suh needs this double image of an entrance is that he realizes that we are always thinking in two ways, about what’s happened in the past, in our childhood, and what will happen in the future, which is, of course beyond our grasp. What’s disconcerting is that in the end it all feels like an illusion, as ghost like as the fabric Suh uses.

As he says, "I was initially interested in the gate as an element that didn't really belong to anywhere, it is right on the border. Being on the border is the way I personally feel, as I travel a lot, living in New York, London, Japan and Seoul " And that’s what happens when you look at the piece. Where’s the beginning and where’s the end? Is the past first or upside down or right side up on top of the future? Suh makes it impossible to tell and yet you still feel nostalgic and excited about the future. It’s the Korean dilemma and a very human concern.

What happened here?
Suh's Fallen Star 1/5 is one of the most stunning pieces in “Home within Home.” In it Suh reflects on what it felt like to live in the United States and yet still yearn for his past in Korea. He does this by constructing an unbelievable narrative for his dream sculpture. He imagines that a tornado lifted his Korean house and transported him to the United States. Fallen Star 1/5 captures the sense of dislocation in one beautiful and striking image: a Hanok, a traditional Korean house, wedged into the side of an American townhouse. It is amazing to look at. It is twenty-five feet tall, mammoth in the gallery and remarkable in its accuracy. Fallen Star 1/5 expresses what he felt as a foreign student living in the United States. It’s an architectural mash-up as a metaphor for cultural dislocation. However, it would be wrong to simply interpret this as a violent culture clash. Instead, Suh talks of it as being a “soft landing.”

We’re so used to talking about the clash of civilizations. Countries fight, they go to war, but here Suh is expressing a new reality. We are all away from home all the time and we are already acclimated to places we’ve never been. This is why he prefers ‘soft landing’ as evidenced by the silky turquoise parachute just off to the side of the Hanok. He doesn’t minimize the violence of the meeting, after all the house is wedged into the side of the apartment, and yet both structures hold. The Hanok wasn’t dropped from the sky, it floated down to earth and Suh’s two homes met. As an international Suh lives nomadically from urban capitol to urban capitol and so he clearly has felt the pull and allure of a real home or any home. In Fallen Star 1/5 Suh’s Hanok and his American townhouse are his identity, his past and future and everything else in between. The moment of the crashing of those homes is the merging of his complete self.

In Fallen Star 1/5 you also get to see the inside of Suh’s American townhouse in incredible detail. You feel you have access to his entire life. The townhouse is three floors and each floor has a different interior design. There is an amazing amount of detail, from fully furnished living rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens on each floor. The town house is bi-sected, like a Damien Hirst cow, and that allows you to literally be right inside it. Accordingly, I can feel that Suh was trying to bring out the liveliness of life through these details. You get a well-stocked refrigerator just as it is and a messy closet with coats and shoes. There are even memos on the refrigerator door and an oven with half a turkey inside. There are cupboards with dishes and cups, tiny glass and wine bottle on the table, and another kitchen on different floor, set the newspapers and catalogue strewn on coffee table. In the third floor, there is a messy bedroom, clothes strewn on the bedroom floor and band posters hanging on the walls—perhaps it is a teenager’s room.

In Fallen Star 1/5 and Reflection Suh signals that his mind is the subject of his work and that his mind is a product of the places that he has lived. All the pieces in “Home within Home” are about home and the complexity of finding and understanding it. Shu is an international Korean, a fairly common identity now, but one that was unheard of as recently as fifty years ago. As I said at the start, Korea is a rapidly changing country and that many Korean artists have tentatively addressed these problems, but Suh is the only one to truly tell us what home means.

He's at home
©Christine Chung and the CCA Arts Review

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