Review: The Perfect Home II by Do Ho Suh

On the night of January 17th, the Brooklyn Museum coupled a tour of Do Ho Suh’s installation The Perfect Home II with a literary salon on Go Home!, a collection of works by Asian American writers on the impossibility of “going home.” Suh’s translucent fabric apartment, hand-stitched with chalk pink manatee blue, and faint jade nylon, glowed beneath the dome ceiling of the museum. The installation is a hauntingly precise 1:1 replica of his former home on 348 West 22nd St. Suh, one of South Korea’s most famous contemporary artists, is internationally renowned for these immersive, life-size installations of fabric houses. One: Do Ho Suh is his second major exhibition in the East Coast, following Almost Home at the Smithsonian American Art Museum last summer.

Standing in front of the Perfect Home II, viewers faced an open doorway affixed to one of the windowed walls of the blue living room. From here they could see a green layer of fabric floating above the entire apartment, representing the second floor. The doorway led to a long hallway, which opened to an empty living room, kitchen and bathroom. The apartment was empty of furnishings, but full of meticulous details like the inner panels of the fireplace, and the accordion shape of the iron boiler. Features like the refrigerator handles, the electrical sockets above the toilet, and the bare plumbing under the bathroom sink were rendered so precisely that they appeared touchable. Before viewers reached the end of the hallway, lined with water pipes and light fixtures, they could peer up a jade staircase to the invisible upstairs. Wherever they were in the apartment, they could always look through the fabric to the white walls of the museum.

At the start of her tour, senior curator Eugene Tsai set up a perfect transition from Suh’s work to the literary salon by beginning with a story—that of Suh’s former home on 348 West 22nd street. Born in Seoul to the Korean traditional painter Suh Se Ok, Suh moved to the United States in 1991 to make an artistic home of his own. He studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and Yale, then moved to New York City. Suh struggled at first to land the Chelsea apartment: the landlord feared a struggling artist would not be able to keep up with rent. But the two ended up developing a close friendship, and Suh lived there for nineteen years until he passed way. Suh’s years at 348 West 22nd were formative. During this period he grew into an internationally renowned artist, representing South Korea at the 2001 Venice Biennale with large-scale sculptures about the tensions between individuals and socialization. Then came Suh’s famous series of immersive “homes”: massive installations with titles like Home within home within home within home within home, and Seoul Home/L.A. Home/New York Home/Baltimore Home/London Home/Seattle Home.

In these works, Suh tackled the idea of home in a variety of ways. In Home within home within home within home, he hung a fabric replica of his family home in Seoul—a traditional giwa home modeled after Korean palaces—from the ceiling of a larger replica of his former home in Providence, Rhode Island, creating a sort of double-home. In a series of model homes called Fallen Star, he attached a fully-furnished cottage and garden into the corner of a seven-story building on the UCSD campus such that it appeared to have fallen from the sky; the house floor was angled on the precipice so crookedly that viewers had to fold themselves to move around inside. In his Bridging Home series, he crushed a giwa house so that it hovered, wedged between two buildings in downtown London. In Passage(s), he recreated hallways from his former studios and homes in New York, London, Seoul, and Berlin and stitched them together into a colorful, 25m-long fabric hallway. In Rubbing/Loving, he covered every surface of his Chelsea apartment— air conditioners, mantles, railings, toilet—with paper and rubbed every inch with colored pencils and pastels. Suh made all of his ‘house’ installations with the most transportable materials as possible, so that he could carry them in a suitcase from one exhibit to the next. Art critics lauded Suh for exploring themes of psychological and physical displacement, homesickness, and questions of belonging.

Inside The Perfect Home II was the same meticulous detail that marks Suh’s other homes. The outline of two nails on the frame of a stubby light switch; the precise nearness of the kitchen vent to the ceiling light;the exact curvature of the round speaker on the intercom. During the tour, Tsai mentioned Suh created multiple versions of 348 West 22nd street (hence, this was the second Perfect Home) with increasingly bright colors, swapping the haunting grey of the manatee blue of the apartment on display with a vivid cobalt. What made this home the ‘Perfect’ one, unlike the one Suh actually inhabited, seemed to be that he could transform it. Suh had to move out when his landlord passed away, but with this fabric replica, he could steep it in as many colors as he wanted, just as he rubbed, smashed, dropped, doubled, and parceled all his other built homes.

A few galleries over, after the tour, the literary salon began, featuring Go Home! editor Rowan Hisayo Buchanan and writers Jason Koo, Alice Sola Kim, and T Kirra Madden.

Rowan explained her choice to title the collection with the racial slur, “Go home!”: she wanted to highlight both its impossible demand for members of the Asian diaspora and the variety of meanings the idea of going home carries. For some, the phrase triggers the feeling of not having a home to go to; for others, the desire to escape home. It can also mean going to an immaterial memory or a feeling, a place that exists only in time.

Each writer began with a celebration of Suh’s installation, marveling at its ethereal atmosphere. Then they read stories written with an equally meticulous attention to detail that Suh stitched into nylon. Jason Koo read from Bon Chul Koo and the Hall of Fame, a poem about a road trip he took as a teenager with his Korean immigrant father to Cleveland’s Baseball Hall of Fame. Fiction writer Alice Sola Kim read from Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying, a story about three wayward teenagers navigating coolness, dark magic, and how Koreans—“we/they”— roll. T Kira Madden read from her forthcoming memoir Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, based on her rocky childhood with her Chinese-Hawaiian mother and white father.

Each reading was powerful in different ways: Jason Koo’s verses were poignant and nuanced, Alice Sola Kim’s teenagers had stunning voices, and T Kira Madden’s prose was hauntingly tender. But all the writers also articulated a profound sense of feeling not at home. Of feeling not at home with a father whose silence is “more of a father than my own father”; of feeling not at home in a major American museum where racist employees patrol “us Asians with a camera.” Of feeling at home only in moments, like when biting into freshly microwaved egg rolls when mom’s not yet home and homework is long done. Of feeling more at home with an imaginary doll than with absent and unstable parents. Home, in these writers’ stories, was not a literal place, but an internal feeling that was hard to come by, if it ever arrived.

When Rowan Hisayo Buchanan followed the reading with questions for the writers, she related their work back to Suh’s installation. Which home would you want to turn into a fabric installation? How does home appear in your writing? What rituals help make you feel at home? The three writers’ answers aligned with the writing they’d just read. Jason Koo described not feeling fully at home even in his Brooklyn apartment of many, many years. Alice Sola Kim stated that she simply didn’t have a place she would replicate as Suh had. T Kira Madden described home as tied to people she loves, rather than any physical place. All three writers said they wanted to write about homes underrepresented in contemporary American literature, farther from grassy suburbs and closer to highways and other “in-between places.”

In effect, the writers described the negative space of feeling psychically not at home as a space to live, in and of itself: a home of its own. Alice Sola Kim joked at one point that every day is like Halloween in my soul, but her uncanny expression distilled what all the writers articulated throughout the salon: the conviction that a lifelong feeling of never being quite “at home” can be a kind of home: one to take ownership of, and create from. This message powerfully resists the racist demand that Asian Americans—and members of many other diasporas—“go back to where you came from.” As Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote in his forward to Go Home!, “we say that we are already at home.”

Critics have written much about how Suh’s work goes beyond the “East/West binary” and explores issues of global mass migration. While Suh has never identified himself with such political issues, he has consistently talked about homesickness, cultural displacement and (be)longing in terms reminiscent of the negative space described by writers in the Go Home! collection: “I’m not in one place—just in between, definitely… I think this notion—home—is something that you can infinitely repeat…I think home is something you carry along with your life… I just want to carry that with me, you know, all the time.”

Suh’s repeated efforts to carry home—by hand-stitching, coloring and then re-coloring, papering, rubbing, smashing, wedging, doubling, parceling and so ceaselessly re-inventing his former homes—does not feel far from the Go Home! writers’ resistance toward home as a fixed place. Rather, Suh, and writers like Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Jason Koo, Alice Sola Kim, and T Kirra Madden seem united in creating portals to spaces, physical and literary, where home can stay a felt thing.

 

About the author

Julie Moon is an MFA student in nonfiction and literary translation. Her work can be found at juliemoon.info.

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