As the horizon of globalization expands, the notion of “home” becomes increasingly subjective. Open to myriad definitions, the modern-day hearth begs the question: precisely what does a home mean in our global age? Do-Ho Suh takes on this very question in his installation at MOCA Cleveland, an experience that encapsulates Suh’s œuvre as a whole: art that explores notions of “global identity, space, nomadism, memory, displacement, and the meaning of home.”
Exacting in his memories, Suh recreates the domestic spaces he has lived in: a childhood home in traditional Korean hanok style, a house in Rhode Island where he lived as a student, and his current apartment in New York. He constructs these renditions out of monochrome polyester and steel tubes. The result is a mnemonic trigger; they become architectural exoskeletons that speak through translucence. Yet their spectral force is pierced by the banality of daily life: tracing the sheer walls, Suh has stitched out replica inspection certificates and power boxes left ajar. The effect is like a jolt from a lucid dream.
Amidst the museum’s whitewashed walls stand out the filmy beams, ceilings, corridors, and stairs. The scene resembles a holographic architectural drawing, owing to its perfect, translucent form and clearly drawn structures. The vitreosity of the material evokes feelings of vague remembrance, or the heightened nostalgia that occurs when something escapes one’s tenure.
Yet the element of nostalgia is not a tender one: the homes are left “broom clean,” bereft of personal keepsakes and furniture. This suggests all living quarters are suspended in a state of architectural latency, as if inhabitation is ephemeral. Suh depicts the sense of belonging to a home as antediluvian; it is called into question and overturned.
The installation invites reflection on what it means to live in a space, and the extent to which one can claim ownership of material things. A principal tenant of this premise is mass-production, which Suh illustrates through blatant commercialization of household items. He stitches Phillips brand labels on replica bulbs, the Medeco label on door locks, and the Underwriters Laboratory label on the door of his circuit breaker panels. Such accents underscore the anomaly of a home, the insurmountable question. In this light, our modern day homes do not really belong to us; they are mere constituents of a manufactured society. And despite our greatest efforts to adorn our homes with personal mementos, they remain cipher in their structure.
Like a Nietzschean call to the notion of selfperception, Suh reveals our inability to see the world as made up of social constructs — that our sense of home is a concept, a human invention necessitated by our need for security and comfort, and nothing more. Going further, Suh illustrates that our sense of belonging, even our identity, is ultimately empty and fabricated — as void as the rooms he reproduces. Beyond the diaphanous walls of this installation are two more shows.
Specimen Series is a collection of household items that echo like an afterthought to his ghostly rooms. Assembling again his essential materials – polyester fabric with stainless steel – and displaying the items in LED lit display cases, Suh transforms these makeshift appliances into luminous facsimiles we are all familiar with. These radiators, ovens, refrigerators, and bathtubs are Dadaist as they recall Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and Jeff Koons’ Hoover convertibles. Yet despite their conceptual frankness, they remain phantasmal in their encased luster.
His New York apartment is not his first subject for the Rubbing/Loving project. Debuting in the Gwangju Biennale, this city was the site of a democratic protest where hundreds of civilians died. Seeing how the news media and government roguishly censored the tragedy, Suh wanted to expose the incident as a salute to the lives lost, an imprint of their stolen identities on South Korean history.
With a team of blindfolded assistants, Suh covered a dormitory room at Gwangju Catholic Lifelong Institute in vellum paper and rubbed the entire surface with colored pencils. The act of exploring a space without sight was essential for this project as it symbolized the attempt to make sense of a massacre that was mostly erased by the media. What rubbings will we make of ourselves? What memories do we choose to imprint and erase? Such are the questions we are left to ask when looking up his newest works.
Despite the bare and sardonic adaptation of his homes, Suh remains relentless in capturing the elusive sense of belonging. However wistful his quest, his work is not in vain. The show invites the viewers to reflect on the age, an era that upends traditional notions of time, space, and place. Or one that erases the very structures of our identity like the transparent, mass-produced structures of Suh’s projections.
In Suh’s presence our understanding of home, and therein our identity, undergoes a transmutation from the real to the virtual. We can feel our identity, as it crosses this threshold, escape us as we are pushed to contextualize our certainties to the oscillations of a changing world. Suh does not answer our most personal investigations; he presents them with stark clarity so that we can find our personal tenor of a home along the way.