Adventures Close to Home: Do Ho Suh at Lehmann Maupin
Do Ho Suh: Drawings at Lehamnn Maupin
September 11 through October 25, 2014
540 West 26th Street & 201 Chrystie Street
New York, 212 255 2923
To refer to Do Ho Suh’s works on paper as “drawings” is not quite right. Yes, paper and sometimes pencil are involved, but in his employ these materials alchemically morph into sculpture, while the tools of sculpture — blueprints and string — flatten into two dimensions. This refusal to conform to the dictates of medium and space is gentle — a question rather than an edict. The artist’s thoughtful investigations into personal, communal and historical conceptions of home and memory have always been similarly untethered by gravity and undaunted by scale.
The artist’s oeuvre is gathered for the first time into an English-language monograph, with essays by Clara Kim, Elizabeth A.T. Smith, and Rochelle Steiner, and published in conjunction with dual exhibitions at Lehmann Maupin’s 26th street and Chrystie street locations. The catalogue and shows are focused around Suh’s drawing: renderings and sketches of projects, poignantly wavery thread on paper, and the labor-intensive “Rubbing/Loving” series.
Throughout his work, Suh has recreated the physical environs of the various homes he’s lived in, reinterpreting the house he grew up in (a traditional Korean hanok); his first apartment in the US, in Providence, Rhode Island; and many more after that. They are reincarnated in translucent organdy-like fabric, suspended from the ceiling or as a tiny cottage crashing into the space between industrial buildings in Liverpool or a rooftop at UC San Diego. Sometimes, as in the series of colored-pencil-on-paper “Self-Portraits,” on view in the Chrystie Street gallery, the homes literally emerge from the head or the heart of the artist, bifurcating the chest cavity or sprouting from the frontal lobe — the meaning of place exemplified as biological organic extension of self.
Suh’s telling of his story of immigration and transience — of leaving home and finding a new or many new ones — invokes universal human histories. We all have left home to make our way, only to carry vestiges with us by design or by accident. This conjuring of collective experience is never more literal than in the “Rubbing/Loving” project, where the artist covers interior and exterior walls of homes with vellum and painstakingly rubs graphite or colored pencil over the surfaces, creating textured tracings of the walls, floors, tiles, light switches, radiators, toilet seats and all. In videos displayed at both galleries, we see the artist and his assistants at work, sometimes blindfolded, crouched in bathtubs, and perched on ladders, shoulder to shoulder, or alone in the rain, rubbing, rubbing, rubbing silently with dirty hands in an unsettlingly compulsive ritual. These projects began with the 2012 Gwangju Biennial, where Suh exhibited three rubbings from housing in the old part of the city as a reference to the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, news of which was censored by the government. The blindfold is not a punishment but rather an exercise in disciplined sensory integration — if we can’t see then we can feel and hear and discern together.
At the Chrystie street gallery we see the fruits of these efforts reconfigured in wooden structures: small, freestanding rooms lined with the rubbings made on the other side of the world. The rhythmic scraping sounds of their making are piped in — strange white noise not immediately connectable to the structures themselves. The effect is disconcerting though not altogether unpleasant, allowing the viewer a sense of participation in the making of the work — one can imagine even farther back to a life in the tiny room, living, working, looking out the opaque window through the gallery wall to the city of Gwangju.
In the 26th street gallery is a ghostly recreation of the artist’s former apartment at 348 West 22nd street, the open wall facing the street, and blueprint-like rubbings of walls and floor, covering the walls and floor. The apartment space is smaller than the gallery, but mapped out it expands to fill the room, inviting many more visitors than would comfortably fit in the small studio apartment. Apparently the artist took advantage of a gap between tenants to return to his old home with his team of assistants, capturing every mundane detail so that gallery goers might see what he saw every day, to share his space with him for a little while.
Suh’s themes of togetherness and shared past, present, and future recur movingly in his thread and watercolor drawings. Figures sprout other figures from their bodies, continuously mirroring or trailing as colorful ghost shadows. The lines swirl and waver from one body to another and beyond, as though eddying in currents or blown by the wind — hinting at a force beyond the picture, beyond the dimension, beyond our, or these, selves. Many of the works on paper have the word “Karma” in the title, though as expertly explained by Rochelle Steiner in her catalogue essay, “Do Ho Suh’s Karmic Journey,” it is karma not only in the colloquial shorthand definition of cosmic justice but also in a greater sense of the interconnectedness of all times and all people.
The “Drawings” book adeptly traces Suh’s exploration of these connections — person and place, group and individual, inside and outside. We see the evolution of the “Bridge Project,” a never-to-be-realized “perfect home,” situated equidistant from New York and Seoul on an impossible bridge that spans the continental U.S. and the Pacific Ocean, connecting both cities. In every depiction, smoke drifts upward from the tiny chimney. This is not just an unfeasible house — it is an unfeasible home. Another recurring ideal is the legged or many-legged peripatetic house, evoking an oft-quoted desire of the artist to carry his home with him like a snail, though, unlike a snail, in Suh’s depiction he has many helpers.
Suh’s work rewards mindfulness, inviting the viewer to contemplation. Standing in the Chrystie street show, my mind wanders to my own experience of space: of this gallery space and my memories here, and of other spaces in other times throughout my life where I similarly paused, knowing that seemingly fleeting moment would stay with me. We all carry our past places with us, perhaps just not as consciously as Suh.