Viewing an artwork can elicit love at first sight. For me, that happened in 2010 when I was introduced to the work of Korean born artist Do Ho Suh by the amazing artist and professor Lisa Kjaer. As a recent transplant to New York City, from London, by way of Florida, after my birth in Germany, I felt a certain connection to anyone who had experienced displacement in its many forms. I had then, and have now, a special relationship to "home" and often explore this notion of place in my personal work (and thoughts.) I am inspired by the many artists who have made work about home, and especially by Do Ho Suh, who takes on the complexity of a place woven into our identity so gracefully- and with actual thread.
For this blog post, I revisited a term paper I wrote about artists who make work about home while studying under professor Kjaer at The City College of New York in 2010. For the fun of self-publishing something I worked pretty hard on at the time, I'm going to post the portion covering Suh's work here:
Dropping one hundred and forty-nine inches from a ceiling, an edifice of sea green silk hovers over an empty space below.1 The structure is fragile, but resolute. Sturdily sewn together are four silk walls and a rooftop hovering above open space. This void becomes the wormhole by which we enter artist Do-Ho Suh’s family home in Seoul, Korea.
When creating this work, Seoul Home, 1999 (image above), Suh, who currently lives and works in New York City, had his childhood home in mind. Spending sleepless nights in his apartment in New York, Suh found himself longing for the peace and tranquility of his family’s traditional Korean home.2 Was it the space he longed for or its location…presumably far removed from the noises and distractions found in the city?? Was it companionship? In this case, the company of his parents. Was it the cultural familiarities of the home? Its layout, materials and utilities? The ultimate question is, what exactly is home? How can it be represented? What are we longing for when we long for home? Shelter? Comfort? Safety?
A notion worth exploring, home is something that each person individually seeks to reconcile. It has ever-changing functions and facilities and represents a myriad of ideals. It is a place that serves as a commune, a congregational space for families, couples and friends and a unit within a larger community. It can be as comforting as it can be calamitous, as constricting as it can be liberating. It is a functional space, a necessary place and, ideally, a safe space. What home means to each person is a personal experience based on his or her particular conditions, culture, and upbringing.
As globalization increases, and populations continue to shift freely, the idea of home will inevitably remain under constant re-evaluation. In an essay written in conjunction with “Home and Away,” an exhibition that explored the work of displaced artists, writer Joan Kee wrote “one of the challenges for artists living in this global configuration is to maintain a sense of self that is linked to a place of origin, while critically assessing the mobility and movement characteristic of our time.”3 Because so many artists personally experience dislocation, the theme of home has inevitably found its way into their oeuvres. For Do Ho Suh, these sculptures are metaphors for a complex combination of hopes, dreams, memories, needs or desires, evoking a visceral response as they offer up perfected, functional, or memorialized versions of a place all of us have an incredibly personal, if not complicated relationship with.
Do-Ho Suh’s Seoul Home is simple, but poignant. As the silken apparition of Suh’s old home hangs from a gallery ceiling, the air is filled with a sort of desperate desire for the real thing. Suh was born and raised and Korea and moved to the States in his adult years to pursue art.4 He became interested in the cultural differences between Korea and the U.S. and began to reference Korean culture and society in his work. His sculptural work often deals with his personal identity and the relationship people have with their surroundings, both in public and private. Because Suh travels frequently between New York and Seoul, he is constantly experiencing the difficult readjustment to these contrasting worlds. When he conceived the idea to create Seoul Home, Suh was dealing with issues of longing and cultural displacement.5 There is a saying in Korea that you “walk the house” when you move. “Walk the house” literally means to disassemble your home and bring it with you when you relocate. Suh wanted to do this with his home in Seoul. He wanted to deal with his personal experience of longing by finding a way to actually transport the tranquility and comfort associated with his home in Seoul.6
Suh’s conclusion was to create a lightweight, completely transportable, exact replica of his family’s home. To do his, Suh first measured every square inch of the house. He then learned traditional Korean methods of sewing and recreated the shell of the home entirely from silk. During the process of measuring, Suh encountered markings he had made as a child in the floorboards and walls.7 The connection of the material space with his memories solidified the idea that home acts as a vessel for our identities and essentially becomes a part of us. Suh concluded that the notion of home is something you can repeat infinitely, something that is malleable and that depends solely on individual perception.8
By creating this replica of his Seoul home, Suh challenged the ideas of what home is. For him, this portable replica became a metaphor for the stability and comfort of home. He made home something that is constant, something that can represented, if not functional, and brought that to the public sphere. This work identifies with many people who live globally and deal with issues of alienation and displacement as they work out their position geographically and culturally.
2 Art 21 : Art in the Ttwenty-First Century. (New York:Harry N. Abrams, 2003), 54.
3 Bruce Grenville, Home and Away, Deanna Ferguson, ed. (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 2003),9.
5 Art 21 : Art in the Ttwenty-First Century. (New York:Harry N. Abrams, 2003), 48.
6 Ibid., 54.