The greatest artists have the audacity to portray as beautiful something that is, on the surface, quite banal.
This is what makes responses to their work vary from “this is breathtaking” to “this is not art”. The collection about cultural displacement in Do Ho Suh’s latest exhibition, Passage/s, at the Victoria Miro gallery sits comfortably into the former category, especially in an increasingly globalised age.
The South Korea born artist tells the story of his peripatetic life journey from Seoul to New York to London by reusing the shapes in and of the homes that he lived in. Rather than putting an explicit focus on the glaringly obvious aspects that come with migration, such as language, national identity – or a lack of it – and geopolitics, he instead brings attention to the impersonal everyday objects such as facades of buildings, light bulbs and kitchen sinks.
Suh’s recurring motif throughout the exhibition, is that “[he sees] life as a passageway, with no fixed beginning or destination. We tend to focus on the destination all the time and forget about the in-between spaces”. Every item in the collection recreates an object that most people would find and familiarise themselves with in a new home. These objects exist in every home, but they do not make a home. Despite the apparent randomness of the items he has chosen to replicate, it is clear that there is a calculated reason why he chose to focus on light fixtures rather than photo frames. Suh’s decision makes the theme of the in-between space, in lieu of the destination, even louder.
One of the gallery walls is laced with delicate, white polyester in the shape of light switches, an electricity box and other objects that occupy a space in a home. The phantom white shines a light on the ghostly nature of these objects. The dainty shapes bring to mind the countless times they have probably been touched or dealt with in a home, yet they aren’t the things that stay in the memories that we take away to a new place.
Suh’s themes of migration and shifting identities are especially relevant today because of a world that is becoming rapidly globalised by the day. The refugee crisis will have produced millions of people who are living through the emotions and sentiments that Suh experienced at a point in time, and has now loaded onto these objects.
The large, compressed drawings in the first gallery room draw parallels between architectural space, clothing and the body – these exhibits are products of Suh’s introduction to a process that uses gelatin tissue, immersed in water and fused with paper.
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The sheer, delicate fabric in shapes that are normally solid and tough enforces the whimsical nature of Suh’s dream-like collection of Hubs. The bright-coloured units eerily capture the romanticism that we place on the past. Whether that is a ‘happy’ but heavily distorted childhood memory associated with the house where you grew up, or the selective, idealised memories we keep of loved ones who are no longer with us. Walking through the 25-metre, one-to-one scale architectural works and catching a glance of the door handle made of translucent material captures the space of limbo between a sense of displacement and the gratitude that someone like Suh would feel in a new home away from home.
Two immersive videos invite the viewer to see the the places where Suh has lived, from his perspective. One alternates between scenes in London and scenes in Seoul. The London images are captured in such a way that the most recognisable locations are displayed in the way a fresh pair of eyes will have first seen them.
Even though Suh emphasises the focus on the in-between spaces rather than the destination, it seems that he does touch on the idea of a destination as a state of being in the clips of his daughter in the immersive videos. Her melodic chatter and singing, in both Korean and very good English, represent the ultimate destination of the people who are a product of two cultures. A state that fuses many cultures, but by the same token, does not belong to any one culture.
The seemingly unending line outside the Victoria Miro gallery for Suh’s exhibition is a testament to the reach of his practice. Not only are viewers embracing Suh’s collection as a multi-faceted work of art, but the power of his vision has made anyone seeing it wonder “how did I not see the beauty in this before?”
Do Ho Suh is on at the Victoria Miro gallery, Wharf Road, until March 18. Photography Thierry Bal