City Paper is not for tourists
Eerie, shimmering structures rendered in ghostly fabric are Do Ho Suh’s signature. Two versions are on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the artist’s East Coast debut. His “Hubs” include hallways and corridors from homes in three places where he’s lived (in Seoul, Berlin, and New York), depicted at scale in walk-through installations built in translucent fabric. So fine are the details in Suh’s recreated living quarters that it’s almost possible to read the signature on the inspection notice hanging in the hallway of the artist’s New York home, even though it’s all just stitching. Suh’s “Specimens,” on the other hand, are features separated from the whole—all the valves, switches, locks, and sockets that make up the domestic infrastructure of our lives.
Pragmatic yet ethereal, the work in Do Ho Suh: Almost Home is about isolation. The artist dissolves out all the qualities that make a house a home and highlights instead the features that make a home a building. He’s abstracted his own dwelling to the point that place becomes little more than a line in space. Whereas a blueprint stands in as a model for a home, Suh has made the model the thing itself, a map that coincides with the territory. His “Hubs” are blueprints realized as architecture.
Suh goes even further in his eliminationist pursuit of line and form by promoting some spaces over others. Missing from the “Hubs” are the spokes—bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchens, and other lived-in spaces. Suh’s focus on the interstitial passageways within or through or around his apartments is another way that the artist has subtracted himself (or any other occupants) from these homes. Devoid of sentimental markers (like books or tchotchkes), his apartment reconstructions may be stripped of any nostalgia, but they are built with abundant care. The spaces hum with detail.
While this work is bound to strike some viewers as minimalist, it isn’t: Suh’s installations don’t follow a logic or rule, exactly, and his works tell us little about their own production. His closest kin in fine art may be Thomas Demand, an artist who makes exacting photographs by recreating scenes with paper construction and photographing them. Rachel Whiteread, an artist who casts negative space in plaster or metal or other materials, is a more distant cousin: The stairs that rise in Suh’s “348 West 22nd Street, Apartment A, Unit 2” (2011–2015) resemble one of her haunting impressions of the void. And Suh’s fabric sculptures of a radiator, fire extinguisher, and microwave—encased in pristine glass vitrines and lit by LEDs—flick at Jeff Koons’ readymades of basketballs and vacuum cleaners.
Yet Suh’s art is closer to craft than any post-minimalist tradition. It’s not his materials so much as his methods. The artist combines traditional Korean sewing styles with new technologies for modeling and mapping space to build his fabric frames. They look effortless, but they’re not at all simple. Aside from a few drawings in the show, virtually every work on view involves the same strategy. It’s almost like a filter—as if Suh clicked a button and rendered his home in wireframes.
Beyond the wow-factor of Suh’s deceptively simple practice, the work runs thin in places. The primary installation, which has the feel of a carnival attraction—like a haunted house or mirror maze—assembles three separate homes delineated by different colors. There’s no apparent reason why they’re assembled together or installed in this centipede fashion. One of his drawings, “My Homes–2” (2012), features rooms drawn from different perspectives and also laid out along linear paths, so it’s a thing for Suh. More accessible are Suh’s individual “Specimen” sculptures, including “Doorknob, Wieland Strasse, 18, 12159 Berlin, Germany” (2016), which benefit from the repetition on view.
Suh has thrown everything but the kitchen sink on the walls at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Really, the show belongs at the Renwick Gallery, the museum formerly devoted to craft; Almost Home would even be an acceptable example of the spectacles that that museum insists on showing. But with the Renwick lost to an exhibition devoted to the art of Burning Man, American Art will have to do. The space doesn’t do the show any favors—a problem for work that practically demands the sterility of an anodyne white cube—but the larger problems with Almost Home may be conceptual.
F St NW & 8th St NW. Free. (202) 633-1000. americanart.si.edu.