Tollund Man is a naturally mummified corpse dating from the fourth century BC found in a Danish bog in 1950. During the time between Tollund Man’s immersion and retrieval from the mire, his skin and woollen hat (that’s all he’s wearing) have attained a uniform, glossy, leathery texture; his baggy body appears deflated and flattened, the skin collapsing around the bones, as if time has pressed out one of his three dimensions. Overall he looks a bit empty. But from the contents of his stomach, scientists discovered that his last meal was porridge, and from the contents of the porridge, they concluded that he was killed (as part of a ritual sacrifice) in late winter or early spring. His fingerprints, meanwhile, are the oldest on record. Beyond its record-breaking status, that last detail feels like a weird celebration of Tollund Man’s physical longevity (by replacing his hat with a more contemporary marker of identity). Any further significance remains mysterious.
What a peat bog has done for Tollund Man – preserved, emptied and flattened – Do Ho Suh has done for the significant architectural spaces that he has occupied during his life. That life has incorporated a childhood in Seoul, a postgraduate education in the US (at the Rhode Island School of Design and at Yale University), and then an apartment and studio in New York, a studio in Berlin and his current base in London. And various (ongoing) hoppings back and forth between those locations as well. The perfect global citizen, you might think. Particularly if you’re looking at the connections and inter-dependencies articulated in a drawing like My Homes/Staircase 2 (2012), in which axonometric projections and elevations of the various spaces in which the artist has lived unfold vertically around a continuous flight of stairs twisting back and forth, from space to space, as if to create a single strand of DNA formed of the individual nucleotidic architectures.
What really links these reconstructed spaces is the one thing in this ghostly construction that isn’t there at all: the person of the artist himself
That’s not to say that Suh’s work is all a slavish expression of the seamless connectivity that was prerequisite for membership of the transnational capitalist class during the decades following 1989. In fact, the artist, who represented Korea at the 49th Venice Biennale, in 2001, recalls how in the US he was “pigeonholed as a Korean artist. Critics looked for any element that would fit. Even though there was nothing I could do, I resisted it.” And perhaps it’s simply an unpleasant truth that, in general, people look for difference rather than similarity in order to organise the world around them (that thinking certainly forms a foundation for populist politics today). Fallen Star – 1/5th Scale (2008–9) is a sculpture featuring the scaled, lifelike model of the artist’s childhood home (a single-storey structure built in the style of a traditional Korean hanuk) crashed, like some angry meteorite, into the side of a detailed reconstruction of the mansion block (and its contents) in which Suh lived while in Rhode Island. If it’s a portrait of Suh’s life as a student (and armed with Suh’s biography, we’re certainly steered towards seeing it as such), it represents both a union of and a clash between buildings that serve the same purpose but that are iconographically and organisationally different.
Suh began to make obsessive, beautiful 1:1 recreations of architectural spaces during the late 1990s. Composed of planes of translucent monochrome fabric (generally polyester) supported by a simple network of steel pipes – “My architecture pieces are all basically outlines,” the artist says – their ghostly presence is suggestive of some sort of archive of spatial memories prepared for the flatpack-furniture generation (for whom furniture, like dwelling, is transferrable and temporary). No more so than in the latest iteration of this strand of Suh’s output, on view as part of the artist’s current solo exhibition Passage/s at Victoria Miro’s Wharf Road gallery in London. The work is a fusion of nine interstitial spaces (corridors, entrances, etc, each a separate work created between 2015 and 2016) recorded in one of six fabric colours, according to the details and proportions of buildings in London, Seoul, Berlin and New York, and then stitched together to form the architectural equivalent (one big corridor) of a transverse colon. As you enter this tunnel, you can almost feel the will of each of these nonspaces to move you on, as if the work is in peristalsis, digesting you before excreting you out the other end. And yet, at the same time, you’re distracted, held up by the architectural detail of each space and the potential cultural significances of the differences (ornateness of detailing, variations in height, generosity of space) between one and the next. Which is itself ironic, given that a shared architectural function is what ostensibly links all these spaces in the first place. And amidst this push and pull, you become conscious of the fact that what really links these reconstructed spaces isn’t stitches or Velcro, but rather the one thing in this ghostly construction that isn’t there at all: the person of the artist himself. In a curious way, the work conceals as much as it so evidently and eloquently reveals in its obsessive detailing of everything from doorknobs to doorframes.
The procedure was clearly erotic for Suh, but at the same time it had the effect of wiping clean every single fingerprint from the space he once called home
In 1989, two years before Suh travelled from Korea to America to begin his studies, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama was boldly announcing ‘the end of history’ (in an essay of the same title – with added question mark – published in The National Interest). Revelling in the new world opened up by the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Fukuyama breathlessly opined: ‘What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.’ In the current age of radical nationalism and state protectionism, it seems obvious that that fabled universalism – the anytime, anyplace, anywhere of global capitalism and neoliberal democracy – didn’t quite work out as Fukuyama and others on his ideological trajectory envisioned. In an intriguing way, Suh’s architectural installations might be said to exploit the benefits and reveal the flaws of this universalising plan. For in these works, while it may be possible to trace a life lived in various places (successively or at once), we lose any sense of what that life was actually like (did he eat porridge in spring?), of who the person living that life is and was. Where Victor Hugo, back in the nineteenth century, characterised Quasimodo’s relationship to the Cathedral of Notre Dame as being like that of a turtle to its carapace, in that the hunch- back’s misshapen form was perfectly suited to the misshapen hiding places into which he pressed his body, Suh compares his fabric work to clothing (going further to point out that Korean clothing is flat – space folded around a body – while Western clothing expresses volume); his spaces offer less evidence of a relation between habitat and inhabitant (he’s ‘dressing’ it rather than it dressing him). In its place is a desire to illustrate the implied presence of a series of emotional connections that motivate the labour involved in the artist’s painstaking recreations of space. Fallen Star took two and a half years, and the artist has spent the past three years working on his Rubbing/Loving Project, which involved covering every interior surface of a building – 348 West 22nd Street in New York, which housed his apartment for two decades and which has recently been sold – in paper and then taking its impression by rubbing it with pastels and coloured pencil. The procedure was clearly erotic for Suh, but at the same time it had the effect of wiping clean every single fingerprint from the space he once called home. It’s exactly that contradiction – between a sense of intimacy and anonymity – that provides a part of the thrill of Suh’s work. And it’s that hinting at an essential but ultimately insubstantial emotional connection that makes the artist’s penchant for trans- lucent fabric renditions of space – its ghostly presence – so fitting. It’s as if Hugo’s hunchback formula has been updated and complicated: today place tells us everything and nothing about the man. (That’s not to say, of course, that Suh’s work doesn’t open itself up wide to a discussion of identity politics, clashes of cultures, the impact of globalised capital or the psychological import of place.)
Among Suh’s more recent projects is a series of works on paper produced at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute. Among them is Main Entrance, 348 West 22nd Street, New York, NY 10011, USA (2016). Made of gelatin tissue (from which the gelatin is later dissolved and the threads merged with the paper) and sewn in the same way as Suh’s installations, the lifesize image looks flattened and crumpled into the cotton paper: caught somewhere between two and three dimensions. Much like Tollund Man in his bog.
Do Ho Suh: Passage/s is on view at Victoria Miro, Wharf Road, London, through 18 March, after which it will travel to Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong, in an exhibition lasting from 20 March through 13 May
From the March 2017 issue of ArtReview