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Some people who want to remember the places they’ve been collect souvenirsrefrigerator magnets, tchotchkes, or other pocket-sized signifiers of place; others create albums full of photos taken on whatever cameras were available during their stay. Not so for Do Ho Suh, whose ability to recall and reproduce places makes him perhaps the most compelling architectural artist alive.

Suh’s exhibition, “Almost Home,” which opens today at Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), explores the intersections of space, time, and memory as they relate to the most intimate places he has inhabited. Details rendered perfectly in hand-stitched, translucent fabrics lend an air of absolute authenticity to his “Specimens,” which are ethereal takes on quotidian household objects such as doorknobs, thermostats, circuit breaker boxes, and radiators. These articles—some hardware, some appliances, each more exquisite than the last—line the walls of the exhibition, categorized by the places where Suh lived and observed them.

Doorknob, Wieland Strasse, 18, 12159 Berlin, Germany, 2016, © Do Ho Suh
Photo courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, by Taegsu Jeon

“My own personal experience of trans-cultural displacement is what motivates my inquiry into the motion of space,” Suh says at the exhibition’s opening lecture. He speaks of his upbringing in Seoul, in a house that was itself a replica of a scholar’s cottage; and of his immigration to the United States at the age of 29, in 1991. He studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, and earned his graduate degree at Yale, before settling in New York, where he lived for 20 years. In those two decades, he began to do rubbings of his dwelling, putting to paper the imprints of the space in which his daughters would learn to crawl as patterns to be cut, stitched, and reassembled into full-scale cloth replicas of that apartment.

These larger-scaled works are what Suh calls “Hubs,” and one that combines his lived spatial experiences on three continents into a single memory corridor anchors the SAAM show. Curator Sarah Newman describes Suh’s work as transcending biography; he transforms memories of his homes into habitable spaces that are site-specific despite having been removed from their respective sites.

Photo courtesy SAAM, by Gene Young
Flowing in a spectrum from red and pink (New York) to green (Berlin) to blue (Seoul), the taut polyester sheets become diaphanous, full-scale walls embellished with stitched occupancy notices and seemingly operable fire doors that simultaneously read as chromatic solids and butterfly-wing ephemera. In other venues, his works have soared higher or spread wider; constrained as this “Hub” is by the granite columns of the former Patent Office, Suh had to settle for a linear approach along the spine of the gallery; the side vaults host his “Specimens.” Still, as you encounter his filigreed forms and inspect them, you can almost imagine wrapping your palm around one of the doorknobs and being transported into Suh’s body at another point in time. The work is hauntingly familiar while an earnest expression of his deeply personal spatial experiences.

“I take the site-specific piece out of its site, fold and pack it in a suitcase, and expose it in another larger and unrelated location,” Suh says. “That specificity becomes highly translatable and transportable—I could carry my home with me wherever I go, like a snail that carries a shell.”

The exhibition Do Ho Suh: Almost Home runs through August 5, 2018, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.