Interview with Do Ho Suh
The Artling had the opportunity to speak to internationally-acclaimed artist Do Ho Suh while he was in Singapore working on his residency at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI). We found out more about his new body of work and his plans for the upcoming year.
You’ve just completed a second artist residency at STPI, can you tell us more about your approach to your works this time around?
This is my second residency at STPI, I already had an exhibition in 2011. The idea of using thread for the drawing came when I did the first residency, literally the first visit. I had three weeks here, and for two weeks we were just exploring different things, and I actually didn’t know where my work was going to go. They [the STPI staff] suggested many different things. And the idea of using thread came up because I’ve used fabric in a lot of my other works.
That’s how it started, and it worked really well. We have ended up actually doing a lot of thread drawings since then. The scale & the complexity of the image has increased this time though. The images got more complex, as well as the color, and it has evolved quite a bit in my mind. And the way they also saw the drawing has been changed, or advanced in a way.
All of a sudden, I have tons of ideas for making thread drawings. It’s been quite successful in many ways for STPI and me, with the thread drawings. I’ve come several times for this residency. Sometimes I can stay longer, like three weeks, or sometimes it’s 3 days or 5 days. I try to accomplish as much as possible during my residency. We’ve been working day and night.
Imagery-wise, I had an archive of images from my drawing that have been sitting in my sketchbook.
From how far back?
From way, way back. It was kind of doodling, and never realized as a work of art. They turned into the thread drawings. The thread and the way the thread reacts to the water and the wet paper, creates a very peculiar quality of line and appearance. The drawings that I made in the sketchbooks over the years, they are very simple line drawings, and I realized they would work well with this particular technique.
But those thread drawings are often technical drawings for my larger scale installation work. Most of them are sort of accents on my thoughts or interest in very profound philosophical questions that I had at the moment.
Do Ho Suh, Myselves, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist & STPI. © Do Ho Suh
What kind of philosophical questions?
Like for this piece – I was thinking about how we are all interconnected and also the idea of reincarnation and karma. I was thinking about people I would meet or I have met throughout my life. If you believe in reincarnation then the people that you know and that you meet in your present life, you knew them before. For different reasons, and they all reincarnate. Not always 100% but a lot of them are reincarnated in the same area.
Hindus believe that you get to know roughly 3,000 people in your lifetime. I’m very intrigued by the fact that they came up with this number – how did they do that? If you read the Hindu literature or philosophy, they often come up with very specific numbers. But then, the strange thing was… I started to collect the signatures from family, relatives, friends, and also – I think it goes back maybe 20 years ago – I had guestbooks for my exhibitions. I asked the audience who visited my exhibition to sign it, so they were somehow connected to me through my work, even though I hadn’t met them.
I started to work with these signatures, and incidentally, there were 3,000 signatures. These are all coincidences, it wasn’t done on purpose. Sometimes these people in your life help you to get somewhere, but at the same time you can have a problem with them. Whether it’s good or bad, you feel connected to these people, and sometimes it’s kind of tangled in human relationships. That’s what life is all about. So I’m trying to visualize and think about the rather difficult questions, and that’s what my sketch is about.
I use the word ‘entangled,’ when you think about it, they are entangled threads. A web of relationships.
Yes, it’s a perfect way to express the idea of ‘inter-connectedness'…
Exactly. A lot of accidents happen as you work on the thread, when it goes onto the paper as well. That works perfectly with this idea. I’ve been using a lot of linear elements in the drawings, lots of lines. For these drawings, the lines are either progressing and suggests a direction that goes up or is coming down. It’s a figure but it’s kind of botanical like a tree so it grows. That suggests a sort of progression of life.
It also suggests the life before me, which is the heritage, the history, the culture and the knowledge that has been passed on to me from generation to generation which you cannot visualize. You can’t see it, and you always think you’re an independent person or being. But I try to show things that aren’t really visible. This is the human relationship I try to visualize with the lines.
My question has always been how can I make invisibility visible. That is an overarching interest of mine, I’m a visual artist so I have to make something visually.
Various other themes come in, that generates these images. At the STPI residency, I have made a few architectural pieces, but most of them are figurative.
A lot of your works created during your residency do seem far more figurative than the rest of your works, is there a reason for this change?
Yes. As you go and as you develop different techniques and vocabularies, you just try to make it differently. Unlike a painting… Well that’s what I like about drawing – if you paint on the canvas, you can always scrape off and go over it – but with drawing it’s only the one layer. And thread drawing is almost like that. You put a lot of effort into it, but once it’s on the paper, you can’t change it.
The sewing stage is quite different from when it’s transferred to the paper. When the thread is transferred to the paper, the thread comes together. It’s hard to prevent, and I know what’s going to happen to some degree.
Do you anticipate it and adjust your schematic drawings? Or do you want it to be by chance?
Yes, I try to control the thickness of the line. But this sort of loop, you can’t control on the sewing machine. Once it’s transferred to paper, it also looks different as it’s darker when it’s soaked in the water. When it’s completely dry, it gets lighter. So you have several layers that you have to predict how the work changes.
Sometimes it works, and sometimes it brings happy accidents. A lot of times it looks different from what you anticipated. So with the same image I try to do what I originally wanted to do, but sometimes the happy accidents can lead to some other directions.
We’ve been very productive. I’m very excited about the next exhibition, it’s going to be quite different. A lot of the new body of work, and the scale is much bigger and the images are going to be much more complex.
Detail view of Suh’s work in progress. Image courtesy of the artist & STPI. © Do Ho Suh
What makes you work with fabric and thread in so many of your works?
It came from the necessity, I have to say that I didn’t have any particular reason that I liked using fabric. It was more of a conceptual decision to use the fabric in order to create something three-dimensionally.
It was a conceptual decision to make transportable, translucent architectural space. That has a reference to clothing. Fabric works really well for so many reasons.
Thread I haven’t given that much thought, because I just automatically use it. Like I said, STPI people saw it and they are coming from a different angle, so they sort of separated fabric and the thread and suggested that I work on that.
Sometimes you work on such a material for such a long time, you don’t really think about it and then realize that you use the material all the time.
Can we talk about your new paper works?
This is the new body of works created at STPI. I have been wrapping space with fabric, and for several years I have also been doing wrapping of space with paper and actually rubbing it.
Those fabric and rubbing pieces are my personal spaces that I’ve lived in, either Korea, New York or London. But I’ve been to Singapore, and in particular STPI, many times already and stayed in the same apartment upstairs, so it’s familiar. Slowly I’ve started to see the space differently and it really became part of my life and part of my existence.
You spend so much time here and make works that are part of you. So I think my last visit I decided to do something like this in the STPI space, so these are the objects that are coming out of the wall in the studio and the objects that you may touch every day in order to get in and out of the space.
I’ve been doing this with my New York apartment and my Korean house, and it’s called the “Specimen Series”. It’s not the entire space, it’s just small elements. As the title explains, it’s a kind of scientific approach – like a pseudo-science as if I go out in the field and collect insects. And then you name it, and you collect insects and make a specimen. There’s a formula on the label, when and where it was collected and by whom.
This space is a shared space, it’s not just my own studio. There are so many artists that come and go, and everyday many times a day they touch these things – to flip a switch, to turn the lights on. There are probably many layers of history on the surface of these objects. I want to bring these invisible connections or memories that these daily objects possess.
How do you usually do the ‘rubbing’ of the objects? Is it while the paper is still molded onto the shape?
Yes, these are just test samples. I’ve been using pencils and crayons for my other rubbings, but we’re trying to use the spices from local markets. You can almost smell it. The light switch is a light switch, it could be the same anywhere. It’s a gesture to bring a local element to the work. At the end of the residency, hopefully I can have this sort of collection of objects. And for me, it is a sort of gateway to visualize the space without being here. It’s almost the same as my desire to carry my spaces with me.
Do Ho Suh, Flowers, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist & STPI. © Do Ho Suh
You’ve moved around a lot… Do you feel rooted to any particular place, after being in New York for so long but also growing up in Seoul?
Yes, it’s interesting because it’s been 5 years since I moved to London from New York. I’d been living in New York for nearly 20 years. The move was not based on my career, it was for personal reasons. It was quite difficult, I’m still not completely comfortable. But having family and children makes everything so different. I feel like London is my home, but whenever I go back to New York, the minute I arrive in my neighborhood in New York City it’s so instant.
You remember it?
No, it’s not so much remembering… I don’t know how you feel about it, but when you go somewhere you have to pack and mentally prepare yourself to go to different places. I’ve been travelling to so many places throughout my life. Still, you have to shift your gear when you go somewhere else. For example, if I go to Paris, I have a little anxiety. Most of the time it’s a good thing, but you have to be mentally prepared for it. But New York, it doesn’t happen. Even Seoul, because it changes so fast, it feels quite foreign and it takes a few days to adjust. But in New York….
That’s the beauty of New York – no matter how much it changes the sense of it is the same, isn’t it?
Yes! I don’t know what it is. The people are the same, they’re so neurotic. And you start to see the differences. There is a certain thing that New York offers you, they are a very welcoming city to strangers and guests.
Because of having my family in London, I feel London is sort of the traditional notion of home in my mind. Getting married and having a child, it coincided with my move to London. It’s a lot of change, but still I hardly go out beyond where we live. My studio is in the same building as my apartment. I was actually thinking about that the other night.
I was completely new to London, and my daughter was born. And by pushing her pram, we both started to explore and learn the neighborhood at the same time. So that might be an interesting idea for my next project as well. It has taken me much longer for me than I expected to get familiar with the surroundings.
I have experienced London in a different way than I did in New York. New York was right after grad school, where my career started and I was in my 30s. It was a different time and place. But London is for family, so I see the space in a different way. Also through the eyes of my children.
Have you created anything of your London home yet?
Well I finally found a corner or part of my studio and apartment that I find interesting enough to turn into fabric architecture. It’s not the entire space, more a fragment of it. It’s kind of like an entrance area, it’s not like a lobby – I mean, it’s a small apartment – so it’s like an entrance area. I decided to call it ‘Hub’ – so you go in and you can go to the living room, the bathroom, the utility room or upstairs. It’s a small space, you feel isolated, but every wall is actually a door. I’ve been interested in these spaces, like doors, staircases and things like that.
It’s less obvious than the other elements that I have worked with before, but after living in the space for five years I start to see that. They’re slightly different configurations, even though the studio and the flat are in the same building. The entrance of the space, so that’s going to turn into the fabric of the piece.
For smaller projects, it started as a play or some kind of device that I used to play with my daughters: that might be something interesting to turn into a work of art. My life is slowly guiding to a new body of work.
Do you have any projects coming up?
I constantly have exhibitions and projects, and I have a couple of museum exhibitions this year. I have a solo show in Cleveland coming up, and I have quite a large group show in Lyon, France. And then early next year I have another museum exhibition in Cincinnati. I may come back here [to STPI] in late June or July. I’m leaving tomorrow after two weeks here. I just saw some of the works that we’ve made during this residency in frames. They look really different in frames than before. I am very excited for the rest of the works.