World of Interiors

In the House With Do-Ho Suh

Some sculpture gathers no dust. Do-Ho Suh might put things on a pedestal—even as he questions the whole notion of a pedestal—but he's just as likely to build a wall or a floor. Often his work doesn't take up space so much as create one. For The Perfect Home II, his current project at Lehmann Maupin (540 West 26th Street, through July 11), Suh presents a full-scale nylon replica of his ground-floor Chelsea apartment. Walk in and note the soft radiators, the gently sagging stove, the stitches outlining each brick in the fireplace wall. Suh calls it "a custom-made costume for the space."

It's a tent. It's transparent. It's been growing. First came the silver-blue nylon version of his tiny apartment, looking as it did when Suh moved in—a single room with kitchenette and bathroom, stripped of any belongings. He exhibited that three years ago in his native Seoul. For a show in Japan a year later, he added the hallway, duplicated in pink nylon right down to the overhead pipes, door hinges, and light switches. For the current show, he tacked on a celadon nylon stairway leading to the floor above. He thinks he's finished with the interior now, but has become enamored of the strip of land just outside his windows, complete with trash cans and a little fence: his "view."

Whether he adds that to the piece or not, Suh has managed to mint a fresh paradox, what he calls "the transportable site-specific piece." He's the un-Serra, and not just for wielding gossamer instead of steel. During the controversy over his Tilted Arc, Richard Serra argued that the piece was site-specific and would have no meaning if moved elsewhere. Suh's work only has meaning if it is moved elsewhere.

A custom-made costume for the space: the artist in The Perfect Home II
photo: Robin Holland
A custom-made costume for the space: the artist in The Perfect Home II

In 1999, Suh made an exact replica of his parents' traditional Korean house out of pale green silk. A large, fragile piece always suspended from the ceiling, Seoul Home/L.A. Home/New York Home/Baltimore Home (seen in P.S.1's 2000 "Greater New York" survey) acquires the name of each city in which it's displayed. "It's like a suitcase," the artist has said. "You keep adding something to it every time you travel." And in so many ways, the piece is about displacement.

Early in the 19th century, the king of Korea ordered a civilian-style residence built in his palace complex so he could experience the life of ordinary people. Suh's father not only made a replica of that house, but when the palace complex was demolished in the 1970s, he collected some of the discarded lumber and incorporated it. "My house is a copy of that copy," says Suh, who created his diaphanous floating version to address the sense of longing and nostalgia he felt when he came to this country in 1991.

Here to study Western painting, he'd already earned both a B.F.A. and an M.F.A. in Oriental painting at Seoul National University. His father, Se-Ok Suh, is, he says, "a huge figure in Korean painting," who bridges the traditional and the contemporary, marrying minimalism to calligraphy. "It was very natural for me to be a painter," young Suh explains. Then, at the Rhode Island School of Design, he happened to take sculpture as one of his non-major electives, and it changed his life. For one thing, it allowed him to address issues of personal space, which had struck him immediately as the biggest difference between East and West.

Suh recalls his first New York apartment, on 113th Street across from a fire station, where he lived before making his way to RISD. Constantly awakened by sirens, he began to fantasize about transporting his old room to New York. Eventually, this led to Seoul Home, which he can carry in two suitcases.

"In the summer in Korea," he explains, "you put up a mosquito net. It's like a tent. In your room. And you open all the windows and doors. So it's like a space within a space, and it's translucent. The traditional architecture is also very porous, with a lot of layers. Basically, we don't have that many walls. It's all shoji screen, the screen that's papered with rice paper. So you can hear the sounds [around you]. You feel like you're camping.

"When I first came to the States, I really felt that I was just dropped from the sky. Like you're suddenly living in somebody else's body, so you don't know how long your arms are. You have to find a new relationship to your surroundings, to the architecture, because the way the building is built is totally culturally determined."

Once he got to RISD, Suh says, "I literally started to just measure the space around me, without knowing what I would do with those measurements." He did his first site-specific installation in the corridor outside his studio, taking a birch rod the same diameter as the hallway pipes, and bending it into a loop held in place by its own tension. He thinks coming to this country made him more sensitive to these liminal spaces, the passageways where you're neither here nor there. He says that in The Perfect Home II, the hallway is actually more important than the apartment, "because I feel like I'm in that kind of space—between one culture or the other."

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