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Through Pathways and Passages: Do Ho Suh

Do Ho Suh confidently transcends a multitude of disciplines through his art, while also talking about the concept of transcendence itself. Since his career began, his work has presented itself almost like a small autobiography – revealing something previously unknown about the artist’s life and journey.

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With a diverse oeuvre, it is Suh’s ability to create architecture using colourful, ethereally translucent fabrics what he is most widely recognised for – a process that typically sees him begin by taking precise measurements of a living space, converting the measurements into patterns, and finally working with Korea’s master seamstresses to sew them all together. Like all good artists and architects, his attention to detail is second to none – with plug sockets, fireplaces, doors and even light switches included in the final piece. Despite now being known as one of South Korea’s greatest contemporary artists, Do Ho Suh’s life and career could’ve taken a very different path. Born in Seoul in 1962, to mother Jeong Min-ja and famous painter father Suh Se-ok, young Do Ho Suh had his sights set on becoming a marine biologist. But when he didn’t get the grades to qualify for a university degree in the subject, he instead turned to art and enrolled on the Asian brush painting course at the Seoul National University. In accordance with South Korean law, he was drafted for compulsory military service, and when he was finished, just short of two years later, he moved to the US, where he received a bachelors degree in painting from Rhode Island School, and eventually a masters degree in sculpture from Yale University.
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One of his early works, ‘High School Uniform’ (1997), saw some 300 headless mannequins dressed in black and white jackets and shirts, based on those of high school students in Seoul. He combined the installation with a wallpaper project entitled ‘Who Am We?’ (1996), scanning around 37,000 portraits of schoolboys from his Korean high school yearbooks, but reducing their size so that they’re barely visible or distinguishable. When he was chosen to represent the Korean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2001, he drew upon his experience in the military for his piece, ‘Some/One’, creating a monumental coat of arms formed largely from silver dog tags. Later, in 2010, he cast a fishing net made up of tiny human figures with their arms and legs outstretched, named Net-Worth, as a nod to the collective experience of cultural displacement, while 2012 was the year he precariously perched a 30-tonne house on the roof of the Engineering School at the University of California in San Diego for a piece titled ‘Fallen Star’. The work, which was even given its own fake address of 72 Blue Heron Way, was centred around exploring notions of the home – something he since obsessively explored through means of installation, painting and even film.
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His need to question the meaning of the self and the home, as well as the concept of boundaries, remains as evident in his work now as it did at the start of his career. But his fascination with transience perhaps comes with no surprise, given his own itinerant existence. “Leaving Korea to go the U.S. was the most difficult, and yet the most important experience in my life,” he wrote in the catalogue for his 2016 exhibition, Passage, at the Cincinatti Art Centre. “The experience of leaving home is what made me think and become aware for the first time of the notion of home as such. It could therefore be said that ‘home’ started to exist for me once I no longer had it.” This manifesto is particularly evident in Do Ho Suh’s 2017 show, The Passage/s, which saw the artist create a sequence of colourful passageways representing the different places he had occupied throughout his life, and installing them to span the length of London’s Victoria Miro gallery. The installation itself was centred around a large blue section named ‘Hub’, but featured nine other spaces including a replica of his childhood home in South Korea. On the gallery’s walls hung pieces from his Rubbing/Loved project, which he completed over the course of three years, by lining every surface of his New York apartment interior with paper and taking a rubbing using coloured pencils and pastels.
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Of the many wonderful things about Do Ho Suh’s work, the most captivating is his ability to make you feel at home in a space that you’ve never even visited. Despite having now created well over a dozen of the colourful, ghostly models, each one reveals something new about the artist himself, but the domesticity of each piece creates a feeling of familiarity and home for us as viewers, whether it be a traditional Korean hanok, or a New York City apartment. Text: Alice Morby (Top to bottom): Do Ho Suh, Staircase III (2003-2011), Tate: purchased with funds provided by the Asia Pacific Ac- quisitions Committee 2011 © Do Ho Suh | Photo: Antoine van Kaam (1) - Do Ho Suh, Installation view, Passage/s, 2017 © Do Ho Suh | Courtesy the artist and Bildmuseet, Sweden Photo: Mikael Lundgren (2) - Do Ho Suh, Hub, 310 Union Wharf, 23 Wenlock Road, London N1 7ST, UK, 2015 Polyester fabric, stainless steel © Do Ho Suh | Courte- sy the artist, Lehmann Maupin and Victoria Miro (3) - Do Ho Suh, Installation View, Voorlinden 2019 © Do Ho Suh | Courtesy the artist and Voorlinden, Netherlands Photo: Antoine van Kaam (4) - Do Ho Suh, Wielandstr. 18, 12159 Berlin, 2011 Polyester fabric and metal armature © Do Ho Suh | Courtesy the artist, Lehmann Maupin and Victo- ria Miro (5) - Do Ho Suh, Seoul Home/Seoul Home/Kanazawa Home, 2012 Silk and metal armature © Do Ho Suh | Courtesy the artist, Lehmann Maupin and Victoria Miro (6) - Do Ho Suh, 348 West 22nd Street, Apt. A, Corridor and Staircase, New York NY 10011, USA, 2012 Polyester fabric and metal armature © Do Ho Suh | Courtesy the artist, Lehmann Maupin and Victoria Miro (7) - Do Ho Suh, Bathtub, Apartment A, 348 West 22nd Street, New York, NY 10011, USA, 2013 Polyester fabric, stainless steel wire and glass display case with LED lighting © Do Ho Suh | Courtesy the artist, Lehmann Maupin and Victoria Miro (8) - Do Ho Suh, Hub, 260-7 Sungbook-Dong, Sungbook-Ku, Seoul, Korea, 2017 Polyester fabric and stainless steel armature © Do Ho Suh | Courtesy the artist, Lehmann Maupin and Victoria Miro (9)