While teaching at the Rice University School of Architecture in the mid-1990s, Chinese-American architect Yung Ho Chang, AIA, shared an aspect of his life that unsettled him: Although he grew up in China, Chang attended university and graduate school in the United States, making him the product of two cultures. By the time he considered establishing his own architecture firm in Beijing, he said that although he identified with both nations, he felt that he belonged to neither. Chang’s mixed-identity phenomenon has become more common today as young professionals study and work abroad in increasing numbers. While that experience can offer many benefits, such as elevated cultural sensitivity and more career opportunities, it can also obfuscate the nature of one’s individuality and connections to a particular place.
For Korean artist Do Ho Suh, a similar multinational experience has transformed his attitude towards the notion of home. Suh was born in Seoul in 1962 and relocated to Providence, R.I., in 1991 to study art at the Rhode Island School of Design. “Leaving Korea to go the U.S. was the most difficult, and yet the most important experience in my life,” he wrote in the catalog for his current exhibition, “Do Ho Suh: Passage,” at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), in Cincinnati. “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.”
Suh has forged a career based on interrogating the idea of home, in addition to related concepts of personal identity, culture, and the constructed environment. Now a celebrated artist, he has exhibited solo shows at venues including: the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, in Seoul; the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan; and the Daadgalerie, in Berlin. "Passage," which runs through Sept. 11, includes a variety of Suh's models, drawings, and films, with the most impressive pieces being life-sized interpretations of objects and environments. For these, Suh utilizes two approaches, both of which involve tremendous effort and painstaking attention to detail. One entails a rubbing method akin to recording embossed reliefs, and the other consists of reconstruction in translucent fabric.
The former approach is represented by Suh's 2014 "Rubbing/Loving Project," which features large-scale depictions of the interiors of two historically significant sites: The Company Housing of Gwangju Theater and Gwangju Catholic Lifelong Institute are named after their respective locations in Gwangju, South Korea, and were significant to the Gwangju Uprising, which began on May 18, 1980, and in which Korean students at Chonnam National University, in Gwangju, were attacked when they demonstrated against the authoritarian local government. Part memorial, part forensic study, these works bear the signature marks of the artist. Wearing a blindfold and ceremonial robe, Suh drew in pencil on paper adhered to the walls of rooms in the respective buildings, eventually covering the entire surface. "Rubbing is a different interpretation of space. It's quite sensuous—very physical and quite sexual," Suh told The Wall Street Journal in November 2013. "You have to very carefully caress the surface and try to understand what's there."
The physical dimensions of the Gwangju spaces are recreated faithfully in the gallery at the CAC using wood studs and plywood as structural backing for support. The manual rendering of each architectural detail—from window frames to strike plates—elevates the importance of what otherwise appear to be generic interiors. The resulting dark gray hue also lends a somber, even grim, atmosphere to the spaces.
If the Gwangju rooms emanate a palpable gravitas, the five other life-sized installations at the CAC seem impossibly ethereal. A collection of Suh's constructions made of translucent fabric includes a set of household appliances (shown above), a mechanical room, a traditional Korean gate, a hallway, and a multistory stairwell. Meanwhile, the artist's “Specimen Series” includes typical home appliances, such as a stove, radiator, toilet, and sink, all crafted in meticulous detail using diaphanous polyester. The devices’ ghostly appearances are enhanced by their placement above illuminated platforms. In the small “Boiler Room,” Suh recreates piping, conduit, mechanical apparatus, and a concrete masonry unit enclosure at a surprisingly intricate level. “Reflection” consists of a reconstructed masonry gateway and its vertically mirrored image, which are both suspended above the gallery floor. The exquisitely detailed structure in blue textile pays homage to Suh’s family home in Korea, itself a reconstruction of a historically significant Yi Dynasty building.
The remaining two “Passage” fabric installations can be occupied. The “Wielandstr. 18, 12159 Berlin, Germany - 3 Corridors” embodies the exhibition's title, articulating an extended hallway in colorful textiles with doorways and side passages—including a fire extinguisher, light switches, and exit signage. The three-story “348 West 22nd Street, New York, NY 10011, USA - Apartment A, Corridors and Staircases” is the most impressive structure in the exhibition, given its lofty height and structural detail. This full-scale commemoration of the climb to Suh’s former apartment, in Chelsea, New York, includes a bi-color textile rendition of a wooden stair and balustrade, walls and openings, and even sprinklers and light fixtures. The building’s structure is absent, allowing viewers to appreciate the floor plates, stair undercarriage, and plenum as voids. As with Suh’s other fabric installations, a metal-wire skeleton provides structural support and is cleverly painted to match the textile panels attached to it. In this way, the structure nearly vanishes while foregrounding its ephemeral skin.
What most intrigues me about Suh’s works is the uncanny relationship between the precision of representation and the transformation of atmosphere. Such fanatical attention to architectural detail might be expected in the process of making an exact replica—and regarding physical dimensions, this appears to be the case. Yet the obvious transliteration into a light-transmitting material creates an elusive experience: One can physically inhabit the installations, but their sheer layers and gossamer edges blur in a gauzy visage. This phenomenon evokes Louis Kahn’s oft-cited description of the measurable and immeasurable in architecture: “The design, the making of things, is a measurable act. In fact at that point, you are like physical nature itself because in physical nature everything is measurable. … But what is unmeasurable is the psychic spirit. The psyche is expressed by feeling and also thought and I believe will always be unmeasurable.”
The experiential potency of Suh’s architectural remembrances springs from their ability to channel this "unmeasurable" quality effectively. A visitor can occupy these spaces and feel their intimate presence, yet the insubstantial constructions are composed of almost nothing—the extreme minimum of materials required to recreate these environments. Like the transient life Suh has led in multiple cities, these installations are as exhilarating in their intricate memorializing of a temporarily rooted existence as they are disquieting in their spectral manifestation of it. Perhaps after the original constructions are gone, Suh’s recreations will live on—the apparitional artifacts of lost architectural memories.