Neither Here nor There
Do-Ho Suh dreamed he was sunbathing outside his parents’ home. “I was wearing sunglasses and drinking a lemonade, and I heard my parents talking inside of the house,” recounts the sculptor (whose name is pronounced dough-hoe sue). “My dog was running around all the plants and trees.” Then the dream changed. “It was kind of zooming out slowly,” he says. “My self looked smaller, and I started to see the entire house — a bird’s-eye view kind of thing.” It dawned on Suh that the house was located on a bridge spanning the Pacific Ocean — from Korea, where he was born, to the United States, where he now resides part time. “It was the closest place that you could go to both Korea and the U.S.,” he says.
As he describes the dream, Suh is standing in the main gallery of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. More specifically, he’s standing in the middle of Do-Ho Suh: The Perfect Home, a sculptural installation that is a physical manifestation of his dream. Using silk and nylon fabric, Suh has re-created parts of his childhood home in Korea and his current apartment in New York City on a 1-1 scale, joining the two with a fabric corridor. Like the bridge in his dream, the corridor — a facsimile of the hallway outside his American apartment — links the two places he calls home.
Suh, who was born in Seoul in 1962, earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in painting from Seoul National University. In 1991 he enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design and, after completing his studies there, earned a master’s from Yale in 1997. Since then, Suh has divided his time between Korea and New York City; the duality of home is a staple theme of his work.
The Perfect Home, which the artist describes as his way of “dealing with displacement,” has been pitched like a tent in the Kemper, suspended by wires from the high ceiling. The piece consists of three structural elements constructed entirely of silk and nylon: the dusty pink hallway, the blue-gray New York apartment, and the white Seoul home. From outside, The Perfect Home looks like an odd concoction of gauzy tents, a multicultural camporee. The structures’ layered translucent pink, white, and blue fabrics blend to create new shades, and the ethereal nylon and silk swing gently to and fro in the wake of passersby. Though the artwork is hands-off, the museum provides a swatch of fabric to satisfy touchy-feely curiosity. It’s only natural that visitors strolling through Suh’s work would want to touch something so tactilely satisfying — a fact he might consider taking advantage of in future installations.
Viewers enter The Perfect Home through the front door of Suh’s New York apartment building. A radiator sits a short distance away down the hallway on the right; beyond that is the door to the apartment. The entrance to the Seoul home is a bit farther down on the left. Suh has chosen to reproduce the New York apartment without furniture, the way he saw it when he moved in. Within its gauzy confines, the main space features a bricked-in fireplace, a pair of folding closet doors and two windows — again, all constructed of translucent fabric. There’s a kitchen, complete with sink, and a bathroom. With no structural support, the kitchen faucet and the showerhead droop downward comically, like flowers wilted in a summer heat wave.
The Seoul home is simple and clean, with a single beam extending the length of the high ceiling, and latticed windows. The light and airy material gives the structure the nostalgic, dreamy feel of a fading childhood memory.
Suh created the Seoul home first, he says, as a way to bring his past from Korea to his new home. “It’s about carrying my childhood house or space with me everywhere I go,” he explains. “The fabric was my choice because it’s light, so you can fold it and pack it in your suitcase and carry it along with you. Literally, when I first made that piece, I packed it in two suitcases and carried it from Korea to L.A.”
From the outline of bricks and tiles to the screws in the door hinges and plumbing in the bathroom, the entire piece is rendered in extraordinary detail. A team of seamstresses in Korea did all the sewing based on precise dimensions provided by the artist. It took Suh a week to assemble The Perfect Home in Kansas City. Although these rooms have been displayed in other locations — an alternate version of the Seoul home traveled from L.A. to New York, Baltimore, London and Seattle — this installation marks the first occasion they’ve been shown together. “When I was invited here, I just thought this was the perfect space for my piece,” Suh says of the Kemper.
He has taken pains to render the work to scale. “Each culture has different dimensions and different ways of articulating space. If you change that scale or proportion, that becomes nothing,” Suh says. “Your body in relationship to the architecture is a very specific thing. It’s very culturally loaded.”
A quick glance down the corridor proves the artist’s point: The entry to the Korean building drops a foot and a half lower than that of the New York apartment. (The Perfect Home evokes other scale distinctions as well. The Kemper’s expansive main gallery swallows Suh’s cramped New York apartment; not all Americans have the same room to spread out that Kansas Citians enjoy.)
Though the corridor itself was the final element of the installation, it was by no means an afterthought, Suh says as he stands in his fabric foyer. “From the beginning, I have been interested in transitional spaces like corridors and staircases and entrances to buildings — spaces that you use to go to somewhere else. Basically nonspace.
“Life in general is like going through different passages. These are all places or spaces that you move through. Actually, where I am now is neither this space nor that one. Maybe here, somewhere in between,” he adds, meaning the hallway. “Without this, I cannot really connect these two spaces.”
Suh gestures toward the far wall of the Seoul home. A museum bench and the stark white gallery wall are visible through the translucent material, but Suh is looking somewhere far beyond that. “That’s the south. It’s built on a hill,” he says, describing the view from the windows in Korea. “I see a pine tree. It’s beautiful. Particularly this view is very, very beautiful.”