It seems fitting that in early September, artist Do Ho Suh has work on view in Seoul, the city where he was born and raised — at the fair Frieze Seoul from Saturday through Monday, and in a show at the Buk-Seoul Museum of Art, on view until March — as well as in a former hometown, New York City, at his longtime gallery, Lehmann Maupin.
It highlights not only the international nature of the art world, but also the subject of much of Suh’s work: the memories of places he has lived and how those places are activated by — and stored in — architecture and objects.
As Brooklyn Museum contemporary art curator Eugenie Tsai put it, “His work speaks to the nomadic life.”
Suh, one of the most prominent Korean artists working today, made his name with large, distinctive works made out of fabric that depict spaces he has lived in, sometimes at their original scale, as well as similarly constructed appliances (a stove, a radiator) and household items.
These works have been exhibited around the world, at the Brooklyn Museum — where in 2019 Tsai showed “The Perfect Home II” (2003) — and elsewhere, where they are often surrounded by rapt viewers.
Whatever else he does, “People say, ‘Oh, I came to see the fabric pieces,’” said Suh, 60, smiling slightly on a video call from his home in London. After years of toggling between New York and London, he settled in the latter city to raise a family.
Suh initially tried working with silk to make the fabric pieces. But it was expensive, so he went instead with a polyester thread that has a diaphanous quality, as well as a link to his culture.
“I picked a fabric that is used to make a traditional Korean costume for summer that looks like organza,” Suh said. “Transparency was very important.”
The contrast between the size of some of the works and their light and airy appearance is part of their fascination. “They’re about scale, but not about dominance,” Tsai said.
Cleveland-area collector Scott Mueller owns several of Suh’s works. The fabric pieces “have a ghostlike quality,” he said. “It’s like visions of your past.”
For his art-filled property, Mueller has also commissioned Suh to construct “Magpie’s Nest,” a version of Suh’s childhood home built out of twigs. “It’ll be one hell of a birdhouse,” Mueller added.
The specific details of Suh’s installations serve only to make them more universal.
“Everyone comes from somewhere,” said Miyoung Lee, a New York collector who is also a friend of Suh’s. “You don’t need the same exact background to make a connection with his work.”
Lee, a trustee of the Whitney Museum of American Art, owns 10 works by Suh. She noted that the largest one — “Seoul Home/L.A. Home: Bathroom” (1999) — a life-size fabric piece, is not easy to show at home; she has not yet displayed it herself but has lent it to museums.
Lehmann Maupin’s New York show of Suh’s work, on view from Sept. 8 to Oct. 29, includes a new fabric work called “Jet Lag,” for which Suh rendered household objects from various homes and countries, grouped along a wall.
“It was not just a random aesthetic composition,” he said. “I respected the original height and placement of the object.”
He added that “Jet Lag” was of its time. “It came out of my pandemic lockdown,” he said. “I paid more attention to these little details.”
Suh makes work in many different media, and the New York exhibition also features more recent ventures into new techniques.
Two “robot drawings” are a collaboration between Suh and his computer — a nod toward artificial intelligence — which he called “a back-and-forth between the machine and a human.”
Another work, “Inverted Monument,” looks like an upside-down statue trapped inside a semitransparent pedestal, and is made of extruded thermoplastic polyester threads. Suh said the technique was “radically different for me.”
It, too, reflects recent history. “The Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd’s murder case prompted me to think about memorialization,” Suh said, noting that he has been depicting monuments since the 1990s.
A concurrent movement in Britain to topple or replace statues of historic figures who were slave traders or colonizers gave Suh the idea to scan several monuments; the figure inside his work is a composite.
“In my mind, the pedestal is actually more problematic than the individual figure, because that’s the structure that sets up this hierarchy,” he said.
Suh is the son of a highly regarded painter, Suh Se Ok (1929-2020). “My upbringing was very artistic,” Suh said. His father was known for taking the tradition of ink painting and employing it in new ways that were considered revolutionary.
After receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees of fine arts in South Korea, Suh moved to the United States and got both degrees again, at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Yale School of Art.
The moves among cities and residences were dislocations that he turned into art. Having been used to what he called the “permeability of Korean architecture” — especially the way spaces can be reconfigured, and the less clear distinction between inside and outside — Suh had to adjust to the formidable buildings of New England.
“There was a discomfort that I was experiencing,” Suh said, which included having to navigate a language barrier, and the difference between the metric system he was used to and the imperial system. He started carrying around a tape measure with both systems on it.
While he was studying at RISD and living in Providence, Suh also began to make rubbings of walls and other details, a method he would apply to later dwellings. “I was adjusting myself to this new environment,” he said.
Given Suh’s lineage, perhaps it is no surprise that he is passing the torch to his daughters, who are 9 and 11. They collaborated with him on the Buk-Seoul Museum exhibition, “Do Ho Suh and Children: Artland.”
It began when he gave modeling clay to his daughter as a gift. “Since then, we have been making a sort of imaginary world,” he said of the candy-colored fantasy ecosystem. “My daughters call it Artland, and it has been growing like crazy.”
Children who visit the exhibition are invited to add to the installation. The unpredictability of that did not seem to faze Suh, who has made a career out of making the awkward transitions of life somehow poetic.
He added, “We really don’t know where it’s going to go.” — NYT