I'VE BEEN AWAY from home for a long time,” says Korean artist Do Ho Suh. While he's referring to his busy travel schedule, it's a fitting introduction to someone who has been obsessed with ideas of migration and home for years. From the hanok (traditional Korean house) in Seoul where he was raised to his apartment block in Providence, Rhode Island, where he attended university, Suh has devoted his career to replicating his various abodes.
When we meet at Hong Kong's Lehmann Maupin gallery before his opening, the 51-year-old Suh arrives jetlagged and unshaven, still reeling from his whirlwind journey. In the span of a week he's received The Wall Street Journal's Art Innovator of the Year award in New York, inaugurated a museum in Seoul and participated in a Biennale project in Gwangju.
“The party at Moma [for the Journal's awards] was crazy, the setting was almost like the Oscars,” says Suh, his eyes widening behind his rimless glasses. “You had this row of photographers and you have to pass by on, what do you call that? The red carpet. I've never seen so many models and celebrities.”
It's hard to imagine the unassuming artist – dressed in a blue check shirt, jeans and sneakers – rubbing shoulders with partygoers such as the duo from Daft Punk and Gisele Bündchen, but for all his modesty Suh is a superstar in his own right. One of Korea's most internationally recognised artists, he's built a reputation for his poetic installations that articulate feelings of being uprooted and dis-placed in a globalised world. Among his most memorable works is Fallen Star 1/5, a doll house-sized sculpture showing his childhood home attached to a parachute crashing into the facade of his newly adopted home in Providence. Inspired by a fairy-tale-like story that Suh invented, the work captures his feelings of being “dropped from the sky” upon arriving in the United States.
The son of Se-Ok Suh, a celebrated abstract painter, Suh grew up in an unconventional household in Seoul. While the city was developing and his peers were living in modernised buildings, his father modelled their family home after a scholar's house built by King Soonjo in the 1820s. Collecting lumber salvaged from the grounds of the king's demolished palace, Suh's father hired the chief carpenter of the royal family to build the home.
“It was completely backwards, but I was extremely proud of what my father was trying to do – he was so eccentric,” says Suh. Indeed, watching his father resurrect a building from the past left a lasting impression. “Something was probably triggered on a subconscious level,” he says. “It registered somehow and it's probably where my work started.”
A seed may have been planted but it took years to germinate. After earning a bachelor's and master's degree in traditional Korean painting and completing a mandatory stint in the army, Suh moved to the US to do a further college degree at the Rhode Island School of Design. Unable to get into the classes he wanted, he ended up in the sculpture department, where one of his first assignments was to use clothing to address the human condition. In response, Suh gathered hundreds of army dog tags and fastened them together to create a metal jacket.
“Everything started from there,” he recalls. “My work began from my own body and it grew and became architecture.” Soon Suh was creating delicate fabric works that he described as “clothing for space.”
One his first major installations was a replica of his childhood home which Suh rendered in green fabric and hung from the ceiling of a gallery. “I was living outside Korea so anything about the country was based on memory, so my first Korean home was suspended in the air – you could see it but not really touch it,” he explains. More than just exploring the physicality of his home, “it was actually the intangibility of the space, the time that you spent in the space, the memories,” that he sought to convey through the ethereal fabric.
Suh went on to complete his fourth degree, an MFA at Yale, before moving to New York. Struggling to support himself, he began working as a freelance carpenter building props and sets for fashion photographers.
“That was the most difficult time in my life, actually,” he recalls, “I didn't even have a studio so I wasn't making any art, so that was quite depressing. When you're struggling you may want to give up being an artist but I had the totally opposite response. I thought somehow this is what I want to do. This is almost written. It's destiny.”
His conviction paid off. It wasn't long before his career soared. Just four years after graduating he was selected to represent Korea at the 2001 Venice Biennale. Expanding on his first metal-jacket installation, he created Some/One, a majestic metal gown fashioned from dog tags. Unfurling across a room, it coated the ground in a carpet of metal. The piece was a commentary on the individual versus the collective, a theme that would recur in works like Cause and Effect (a massive tornado installation made of stacked figures) and Net-work (a fishing net made of interlinked bodies installed on a Japanese beach).
Suh's most powerful pieces, however, have always been centred on the idea of home. In 2012, he replicated an entire cottage from Providence and perched it over the edge of the rooftop of a seven-storey building in San Diego. Although the cottage's interior was homely and lived-in, stepping inside the precariously tilted structure was an unsettling experience. This year, Suh created his largest fabric work yet, an installation of his Providence apartment with his childhood home dangling inside. Visitors were invited to wander inside the delicate structure, built perfectly to scale at Seoul's new National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.
For his debut exhibition in Hong Kong, Suh took a more intimate approach by exposing the contents of his Manhattan home, where he lived from 1997 to 2001. “My career started in New York, my adulthood started there so I'm still quite attached,” he says. Using red and blue translucent fabric, he created lifesize sculptures of his bathtub, toilet and refrigerator among other domestic objects from his flat. Meticulously constructed, the forms rest in glass vitrines positioned according to the floor plan of his home. Painting the gallery walls pitch black, Suh lit each object with bright white light, turning them into what look like luminescent 3-D x-ray scans.
Since moving to London a few years ago, Suh has been invited to design an actual building in Hampstead, the upscale northern neighbourhood that was once a hub for writers, artists and intellectuals. A home with three rooms, the project is inspired by the residences of psychologist Sigmund Freud, poet John Keats and painter Piet Mondrian, who all lived nearby. “It's actually a replica of each of their houses, where each of their homes is a room,” he says. “It'll be like a bed and breakfast where people can pay and stay, so it's not my home but it's someone's home.”
I ask what the word “home” means to Suh, but he bats away the question: “I cannot give you a straight answer. I'm sorry. I think if I could, I would stop making work.” I try again. A while ago, Suh described himself as a snail that wants to carry his home with him all the time. Is this still true? Is it the driving force of his practice? He pauses before replying.
“At the very beginning I was literally doing that, but it's a metaphor in a way.” Now, Suh is questioning whether creating work about home is an act of memorialising it or an attempt at erasure. “Because in psychological terms if you want to resolve any issue you have to think it through. Maybe that's what I'm doing,” he muses, “Maybe it's not that I want to remember home but that I just want to leave it completely.”