There is nothing homey about Do Ho Suh’s houses. Like a child taking apart the pieces of a favorite toy, the artist dissects the nostalgia surrounding the idea of home, his diaphanous sculptures more like specimens in a lab (in fact some are called Specimens) than fond, hazy recollections. For an artist, it’s dangerous territory, because these works seem to underline the temporality of objects, the fact that as much as we often feel otherwise, no wall or radiator or medicine cabinet can be imbued with memories. At the same time, these are immensely beautiful and desirable pieces of art, finely crafted and immaculately presented. In Austin, a town of many transplants and temporary residents (students), it’s an especially germane avenue of investigation.
The lower floor of the Contemporary is occupied by an installation of backlit fabric sculptures. A toilet and a refrigerator are among the filmy apparitions, each mundane detail stitched with painstaking accuracy. The stiff armatures that hold them are barely visible, belying the flimsiness of the material. It’s pristine and untouchable yet vaguely familiar, a bit like stumbling into someone else’s dream. In a rare moment of levity, the artist has also included a model of a traditional Korean home and garden mounted on a tiny 18-wheeler complete with painted flames on the cab. This piece corresponds to a video animation of the same sculpture traveling cross-continent from Korea to Manhattan. In a sort of choose-your-own-adventure moment, there are two separate endings to this film. When the house and garden finally park in New York City, they either bloom and flourish or wither and decay. I can only assume that this is Do Ho Suh’s way of rewriting his own history. The artist has often cited his early days in New York as the impetus for his ‘house’ imagery, but in the video we see that his moment of artistic blossoming could have easily gone in another direction.
The second floor contains a massive installation rimmed by the artist’s drawings, and although I spent half of the time walking through with heart in my throat (holding on to a tiny tot who loves to run full-bore through impossibly delicate art installations), it was here that I finally found a window into Do Hoh Suh’s thoughts. The petri-dish presentation from the lower floor falls away, and we can enter the artist’s rooms. Each section of the house is rendered in a different color, and in some places the multiple layers build something close to opacity. It’s a far more slippery image, much closer to the built-on-sand quality of actual memory. The drawings reveal an artist whose thoughts are far less linear as well. In some he uses expressive thread or collage, while others are almost mathematical in precision. Here it’s possible to connect to the artist’s sense of longing, and to understand why he’s spent a career turning it over like an endlessly fascinating prism.