Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Korean artist Do Ho Suh reconsiders the meaning of "home" with incredibly detailed sculptures of mundane yet highly personal household items.
A phalanx manned with dozens of empty uniforms. An armored dress hammered out of hundreds of dog tags. A foundation supported by thousands of toy figurines. The work of Korean artist Do Ho Suh takes the individual and molds it into the collective—and vice versa.
With work in London's Tate, Seoul's Leeum, and Tokyo's Mori Art Museum, Suh is one of the best-known artists working in the world today. His sculpture and installation art appear in virtually every important collection in the U.S., from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to the Walker Art Center to the Museum of Modern Art. His methods and materials are eminently contemporary, though his themes trend toward the modern and existential.
Suh's got an exhibit on view right now at the the Austin Contemporary in Austin, Texas. "Do Ho Suh," a modest retrospective exhibit, showcases some of the artist's sculptures and installations that deal specifically with the built environment. One gallery in particular is a real slobber-knocker.
With 348 West 22nd Street, Suh has faithfully recreated his Chelsea apartment and studio using transparent nylon and little else. The piece is actually three works in one installation: Apartment A, Corridor and Staircase, and Unit 2, the last of which can be seen for the first time, according to the museum.
The main installation could easily be any apartment in New York, albeit a nice one—a single-floor space in a walkup building, complete with with a living room, a bedroom, a kitchen, and a bathroom. What's incredible is that you can tease out so much detail from material that is fundamentally immaterial, from the caulk in the bathroom tile to the style of lamps suspended over the sink. (Note: I haven't yet seen the completed 348 West 22nd Street suite.)
At first glance, the apartment installation and Suh's other sculptures look like they could be the products of two different artists. There are a few ways of looking at his work: The trained eye might see the sculptural sensibility of the Rhode Island School of Design, where Suh got his bachelor's degree (he has a master's from Yale). The also artist served a mandatory term in the South Korean military, according to PBS's Art 21 profile, and the experience is imprinted in sculptures such as Some/One (2001)—the coat made of dog tags.
It's easy to read a hint of existential despair in a sculptural piece that asks viewers to walk across a floor being held up by thousands of little multi-colored figures. It's not impossible to detect a similar theme in Suh's ghostly apartments.
The artist's Specimen series, for example, which are also on view at the Contemporary Austin, are fabric recreations of various appliances. The pieces are so utterly exact that you can find the pilot light in the see-through stove. The lighting and display of these works unmistakably recalls the vitrines of Jeff Koons—like Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Two Dr J Silver Series, Spalding NBA Tip-Off) (1985), for example, or New Shelton Wet/Dry Doubledecker (1981). Yet unlike Koons's fetishistic pieces, which he presents as objects of intense desire, Suh gives us specimens: an anonymous stove, a plain, old radiator.
There's something profound about painstakingly recreating so many anonymous features indistinguishable from any other apartment in Manhattan—or in Brooklyn, or Philadelphia, or Boston. In that sense, Suh reveals something that housing done to us. Our housing makes us feel, well, at home. Yet our homes are also the most convenient unit for turning us into anonymous numbers and trends: households, as the Census-taker counts us.
That's not so different from the statue made of dog tags or the room filled with empty uniforms. (Or the pavilion made of chain links shaped like people, as shown in Net-Work at the Contemporary Austin's Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria across town.) Housing is a more powerful anonymizing force than the military, in a sense, even it as it is key to our material, mental, and even spiritual wellbeing.
Le Corbusier called the house a "machine for living." With his work, Suh is trying to suss out the ghosts in that machine.