Monday, December 5, 2011

Looking at Do Ho Suh with David Brin - 5

Rachel Whiteread, One Hundred Spaces (1995); David explaining Do Ho Suh's Home Within Home prototype (2011)
(Return to Part 4)
After having seen the Richard Serra and Nick Cave shows, David and Cheryl and I then walked a couple blocks north to see an the two installations of two over-size doll houses colliding in two very different ways by the Korean artist Do Ho Suh at the Lehmann Maupin Gallery. Of the three shows I took the Brins to see, this last one is where I had the most fun, because it was there that David grabbed the reigns from me and his story telling took over. Not long after we had entered the show I was no longer explaining the work to David, he was explaining the work to me and Cheryl and complete strangers; whatever I had hoped might happened when I invited the Brins to look at art with me, this was better.

When we walked in I was sketching out what I knew about the artist (very little) and the art (not much more). I told them what an impression having seen Suh's 1999 Seoul Home had made on me (enormous). That that first tent-like installation had recreated the interior of a small room in a traditional Korean home out of diaphanous green silk with square flats of fabric standing in for window panes, and delicately pleated parts describing the three-dimensional shapes of moldings and trim parts. And together we looked at his most recent show and pieced together what had happened, not just over the intervening 12 years, but the preceding years as well. It was a great story.
Rachel Whiteread, Ghost (1990); Do Ho Suh, Seoul Home (1999)

If I was a better tour guide, I would have researched all the shows I wanted to take the Brins to weeks in advance, but as it is I'm not a tour guide, I'm a sculptor. Rather than find out facts I could list I spent my time thinking about how I could convey the ways I look at art. And part of what I hoped to communicate to David was the very different ways sculpture and literature are 'read.'

One of Suh's isometric drawings on display at Lehmann Maupin, showed a series of rooms impossibly linked together in a stack. I am guessing they are all rooms from places Suh has lived over the years. Although forever separated by geography and time, each room appeared to have proximity to a stairwell as a common trait. In Suh's mind those stairwells were enough to linked them into a single paradoxical tower. Looking at art is a lot like that. Unlike my experience of literature - where an author reveals information to the reader as a string of words - looking at objects is an non-linear experience. There are no narrative threads, no causes, effect, beginnings or endings; everything happens at once and has to be decoded in spiraling towers of head scratching.
Bruce Nauman, A Cast of the Space Under My Chair (1968); Do Ho Suh, Fallen Star 1/5 (2008)

Suh's show was dominated by an enormous 1:5 scale doll house-like model of a traditional Korean home that has crash landed and lodged itself into the corner of a much larger and boxier town house. Trailing from the Korean home was a silk doppelgänger: a deflated 1:5 scale of his Seoul Home, repurposed as a collapsed parachute strewn across the gallery floor as if the model of Suh's childhood home had, like Dorthy's childhood home, only just fallen out of the sky and crashed on top of the artist's first adult adventure: art school.

The only prior knowledge I had about the piece, called Fallen Star, was that the larger of the two "dream homes" was a recreation of an actual building in Providence RI. I told the Brins I thought Suh might have gone to RISD; turns out it was a good guess (he did his undergraduate work there). Before we went too far piecing together whatever else I could remember with what we could see in the rooms, I also wanted to explain associations the work made to other art. I did my best to explain to the Brins how the colliding doll houses related back to the abstract materiality of the Richard Serras we had just seen. I did so by stacking art like Suh stacked stairwells.
Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (2001); Do Ho Suh, Staircase (2003)

I told the sort of stories that are told art students. I explained that 20 years before Suh had made a tent of his family home he could pack in a suitcase, the British sculptor Rachel Whiteread had transforming a small room in a victorian townhouse into a monumental cube by casting it in chalky white plaster. Whiteread's piece, called Ghost, is clearly echoed by the even more spectral Seoul House - and both, meanwhile, echoe an infamous morbid 1962 cube titled Die by the Modernist architect Tony Smith. Die set the terms for the artwork that would come to be known as Minimalism.

In 1966 Art Forum Magazine published a series of influential essays on Minimalist art by the sculptor Robert Morris called Notes on Sculpture. Morris explained that, “the better work takes relationship out of the work and makes them a function of space, light and the viewer’s field of vision.” Morris quoted a short Q&A with Smith on the subject of Die:
Q: Why didn't you make it larger so that it would loom over the observer?
A: I was not making a monument
Q: Then why didn't you make it smaller so that the observer could see over the top?
A: I was not making an object
Tony Smith, Die (1962): Richard Serra, House of Cards (1969)

So Die set, not only the baseline for the look of the "better work" (in terms of lacking internal relationships), it also set the terms for 'killing' the romantic relationship between art and artist as well (aka "death of the author"). Smith had famously ordered Die made over the phone. He called a commercial steel fabricator and told them he wanted a cube 6' X 6' X 6' - then hung up. As Robert Smithson, one of Tony Smith's many admirers (and contemporaries of Serra) would observe: "These procedures baffle art-lovers. They either wonder where the ‘art’ went or where the ‘work’ went, or both.

Die is to the artworld of the last half century, something like a trauma - a scar that artists as varied as  Janine AntoniPaul McCarthy, Ronie HornTerra Donovan, and Brian Jungen have all revisited in one way or another. Most famously, Richard Serra's career-making 1969 installation, One Tone Prop (aka House of Cards) was nothing but four, one-inch-thick, plates of lead, presumably weighing 500 lbs each, precariously leaning against one another exactly like a house of cards. I explained that that ethic, of using gravity itself had, over Serra's long career, grown to be the room filling installations massive 2" thick, 13.5' tall Corten steel canyons we'd just walked through.
Willem de Kooning, Untitled, (1949); Kazimir Malevich lying in State beneath his painting Black Square (1913)

While Ghost obviously refers back to Die, it does so at a remove. Whiteread was a reworking of the trickster Bruce Nauman's 1968 Cast of the Space Under My Chair. Nauman's flat-footed minimalist-like object that Answered the heroic challenge thrown by the Modernist painter Willem de Kooning that a painter doesn't paint a chair he paints the space around the chair. And Die itself was an absolutist statement akin Kazimir Malevich's 1913 death-of-painting painting Black Square. But rather than making the "last painting" of sculpture, Smith's cube the first painting of sculpture. 

I did not think to explain this to David and Cheryl (but I wish I had); that the reason so many artists have revisited Die is that the work marks a very strange transformation in the way art is viewed. That after the war, Modernists artists and theorist (with the generous support of Cold Warriors) had successfully pushed a very particular ethic of looking at paintings: serious audiences, of serious art (they were serious times) learned to value painting, not as a window for into an illusionary space, but as paint on canvas, right there in the room they were hanging in. With Die, and the other "better work" that came to be known as Minimalism, that attention, that the Modernists had reseved for painting alone was extended to objects.
Janine Antoni, Gnaw, (1996); Brian Jungen, Untitled (2001)

Because the Modernists painters had often appealed to ideas of universal or transcendent beauty, Smith's cube was often interpreted as an expression of some sort of ideal as well. Whatever Smith's original intentions were, as an art student I was told that the importance of House of Cards was that it was a 'more contingent' reworking of Die. That reading - that a newer work changed the meaning of an older work - for better or worse, is the lesson art students are taught about their place in art history. As early as 1967 Robert Smithson righteously complained against the "dated notion" of "art as a criticism of earlier art" - that is not at all what I think is being taught, or (as a former art student myself) what I was trying to convey to my guests. The memory palace I was working to construct with them (and now you) is closer to Smithson's own notion of art: "What is needed is an esthetic method that brings together anthropology and linguistics in terms of "buildings."

I have no doubt that the lesson Whiteread was taught when she was study art at the Slade, and that Suh was taught at RISD and Yale, was that their work could change the meaning of the past. If I had told David and Cheryl those things I might have gotten into the feminist critique of minimalism, and how important I feel it was to understanding Whiteread's Ghost and therefore Suh's Seoul House. Feminism isn't important because Whiteread is a woman (after all Suh isn't), its important because the powerful tools it provided for revising history. I should have explained how, unlike Serra, the elements of Die Whiteread and Suh made contingent were the story that floats over Die - the stories of the piece's scale, the phone call, and, perhaps most importantly, the story of Die's sinister title. 
Tara Donovan Pins (2003); Roni Horn, Pink Tons (2008)

Because the titles of both Ghost and Seoul House weren't just echoes, but more accurately, puns on Die, its important to remembering that Die was itself a pun from the begining: as in dice, tool and die, and as in death. In her essay, Minimalism and The Rhetoric of Power, the feminist art historian Anna Chave, dug into final aspect of Smith's title:
The blackness sealed state, and human scale of Smith's cube helped reinforce this reading of the title, which - considering that the command is directed at the viewer - renders the work a gruesome gesture: a bleak crypt presented to the viewer with succinct instructions to perish. "Six feet has a suggestion of being cooked. Six-foot box. Six-foot under," wrote Smith, who related Die also to a passage by Herodotus about a chapel found in the enclosure of a temple: a "most wonderful thing... made of a single stone, the length and height of which were the same, each wall being forty cubits square, and the whole a single block!" - a description of a rather mausoleum-like structure.
I did explained to David and Cheryl that when I first saw the installation of Home Within Home, I was taken aback and excited to see Seoul Home transformed into a house-shaped parachute trailing away from the 1:5 scale doll house-like model of what I assumed was Suh's family home, crashed into what I assumed was a 1:5 scale model of Suh's first American home. As much as I loved Seoul Home, I had not been a big fan of a lot of Suh's later work and I was happy (but still flabbergasted) to see him jettisoning the materialism that had raised both Serra and Whiteread to super-star heights. I was happy because Serra's fidelity to gravity, and Whiteread's to cast voids had also weighed both artists down in recent years. Walking into Suh's show had been like witnessing a fox slip the trap.
Marcel Duchamp, Trebuchet (1917); Do Ho Suh, Fallen Star 1/5 (2008)

David, meanwhile, went to work reading the art, not as the material tale I had been telling, but as literature: "Look" he told us, "he is struggling to reconcile his Korean identity with his new American self!" He pitched the culture clash as tradition vs modernity. We began to hunt for clues furnishing the rooms of the two collided homes - a miniature sewing machine, tiny rolls of green silk fabric and spindles red thread. We wondered about how the smaller translucent honeycombed 'prototype' had been made (my bet was 3D lithography using lasers and phenolic resin - but I really have no idea). We oohed and awed at the weird fidelity of the Specimen Series. We argued among ourselves and asked our fellow gallery goers their opinions. 

Together we did what you're supposed to do with great art, we told great stories about it. Together we built memory palaces out of sublties of manufacture, accidents and peculiarities of context; along with half-remembered facts about related objects spread out over years of going to shows and reading about art, all connect and make ill shaped towers - memory palaces that hang above the-thing-itself like parachutes. . Doing so with an author who has made world creation his life's work made for one of the best times this sculptor has ever had looking at art.
Do Ho Suh, Paratrooper II (2005): Robert Smithson, aerial artist


  1. Do Ho Suh sort of lost me when I found out that he was fantastically, incredibly wealthy and that this money smooths over the art career he decided he wanted. Sure he makes okay work, but think about the better work that poorer people would make if they had his parent's deep pockets.

  2. I don't share bias. Its hard enough finding great art. Why make it harder by asking artists and art to pass a litmus test. If you had told me that Suh was anti-Semitic racist and his work reflected his attitudes (Ezra Pound) I would feel very differently. But I don't hate rich people for being rich, life is to short.

  3. There are aspects of his background where his "rich" informs his art: Life sized recreations of the places he lives and lived take on a different meaning when the originals are revealed as luxurious, claims to be an everyman ring false when you are financially in the top brackets.

  4. He is an amazing artist despite his wealth.