Rubbing/Loving: Do Ho Suh at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia

The playful portrayal of architectural forms that characterises the work of Korean artist Do Ho Suh already enjoys global recognition. His emotionally charged sculptures and installations, which he often creates with the help of light, soft materials such as polyester fabric and mulberry paper, reveal a specific crafting technique, a particular way of dealing with implements, that is personal and sensuous. Examples include rubbing the papered walls of a replica of his childhood home in Seoul using his fingertips and stitching large pieces of fabric together by hand. But apart from Suh’s renowned treatment of textures and shapes, what is particularly evident in his new exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) is his social awareness, a sensitivity perhaps most clearly expressed in his engagement with the age-old ‘structure versus agency’ debate.

Suh’s approach to the relationship between the individual and the collective, or between intimacy and the social, has been widely discussed in art blogs and magazines. Yet while most commentators focus on identifying the different aesthetic categories Suh mobilises, I believe that behind his creativity lies a powerful social analysis that has been much less examined. Although he is praised for his exploration of identity and individuality, Suh can be better read as a structuralist artist—one who not only acknowledges physical and social structures but attempts to remain within their forms. Suh’s structuralism does not underestimate agency, however. Instead, it provides a complex, layered representation of structures in which agency occurs in a more self-reflexive way.

As this text unfolds, I also maintain that Suh’s deconstructive intent, while nuanced, risks too much when presented in a primarily vivid, colourful and therefore consumable form. His immanent critique of architectural structures, in other words, unfortunately misses the chance to comprehend and reflect the totality of capitalist socialisation—what György Lukács, among other Marxist theorists, has called ‘mimesis’.

Image 1. Do Ho Suh, Rubbing/Loving Project: Seoul Home, 2013-2022 (Image by Christian Caiconte)

What strikes one immediately in the MCA exhibition is how prominent the notion of structure is in Suh’s art objects. I was prepared to spend some time contemplating the proposals of a well-known representative of Korean ‘anti-monumentalism’, but what greeted me instead was an inspiring obeisance to all that is durable, permanent and stabilising in life. On the first floor, for example, lay a one-to-one scale reproduction of Suh’s family home in Seoul (Image 1). The artwork is part of his Rubbing/Loving projects, painstaking endeavours in which he rubs pencil marks on paper sheets attached to the exteriors of buildings or the inner surfaces of rooms. The aim, he says, is to document the information of the spaces he once inhabited.

In the case of the replica of Suh’s childhood home, which he began in 2013, one can see the memories of his formative years imprinted materially on mulberry paper using only graphite and his fingertips. In an exercise of memorialisation, then, Suh has fabricated a sort of religious offering to a part of his past—a past, it should be noted, permeated by the figure of his father. What an ingenious synthesis it is for representing that sometimes painful longing for the original home! By slowly and carefully rubbing his family home, Suh loves it once more—now, however, with a sense of how impossible it is to perfectly recreate such vanished intimacy. I agree with the guest curator of the MCA exhibition, Rachel Kent, when she says that time and duration are not only important but central components of Suh’s oeuvre.

According to Suh, having to move between living spaces and countries subjects him to ‘constant recalibration’. One could argue that this permanent state of change, this restlessness, provides the ‘substance’ of his artistic mastery. It would be problematic, however, to read the artistic form given to this experience of recalibration in celebratory terms—as, say, a joyful demonstration of free agency. In Suh’s words, the act of peeling the traced paper from the covered walls is reminiscent of the skinning of an animal, which necessarily involves notions of pain and death. Transmuting heavy and well-delimited objects into a foldable and transportable version of them would therefore seem, for Suh, to be an open process of reconciliation.

Suh recognises that he is subject to the spaces he occupies. The architectural compositions that have stabilised his life threaten to disappear (they will eventually ‘die’); thus he laboriously replicates them in order to pack them up and display them elsewhere. Here we are dealing with a form of practice that is not to be confused with that form of agency that stands for undisturbed action and consciousness. Rather, this practice is highly comprehending of other bodies, human or non-human; it is a practice-cum-ritual that is much more accustomed to slowness and repetition than to novelty and contingency. The dynamic of rubbing, skinning and rebuilding that make up Suh’s aesthetic ‘agency’ ultimately allows for the slow emergence of an artistic self—a particularity that is deeply cognisant of historical experience, and of universality.

Image 2. Do Ho Suh, Basin, Apartment A, 348 West 22nd Street, New York, NY 10011, USA, 2015 (Image by Christian Caiconte)

The MCA exhibition starts, unusually, on the third floor, where Suh’s smaller artworks are located. Here, colourful reproductions of quotidian objects offer an expansion of, or introduction to, the schema that dominates the first floor. One room, for example, showcases a collection of household objects stitched in blue-coloured fabric, including a toilet, a basin (Image 2), a medicine cabinet and a stove. They are ‘specimens’ (Specimen is the name of this series of artworks): scale replicas of items once contained in the New York apartment that Suh occupied for eighteen years. The apartment was both home and studio: his ‘first and last place’, as he puts it, in that city. Again we see Suh’s struggle to understand what life as ceaseless movement means, and how to make sense of painful spatial irregularity.

It is here, in this dark room filled with blue objects, that Suh’s symbolic system is brought most fully into focus. Here the evanescent quality of diasporic living is boiled down to a variety of commodities traversed by a single structuring concept. Each of these products is, of course, physically different from the others, and also unique according to its constant domestic use. But they all equally belong to a definite system, a definite organisation of diverse objects, situations and experiences. By artistically reproducing these objects in ‘ghostly’ materials, Suh appears to be trying to rescue some permanence from them, shielding their organisational form from their actual impermanence in a creative way.

In 2013, Suh’s aesthetic practice led to him being named The Wall Street Journal’s Art Innovator of the Year. Although in many respects Suh is deserving of such a title, one must be careful to specify where exactly his innovation resides. If the analysis considers the art innovator to be an embodiment of newness—that is, basically as an individual who manages to surprise with something new—then it will miss the preponderance of the old, of what ‘has already been’, in Suh’s art. Similarly, an assessment of Suh’s career on the basis of a rough description of the ‘balance’ between the ego and its social context in his art would be unsatisfactory, as argued above. In my view, Suh is an innovator precisely because he challenges the very idea of innovation, an idea that in his hands takes the radical form of a new disposition towards the past—a new relationship with (rather than a revolt against) a fragmented past. For example, in contrasting individual and communal identity as we see in Image 3, Suh starts with an ode to the latter, not the former. His particular artistic identity acquires presence, and gains conceptual weight, by recognising the relevance of the mediations imposed by architecture, history and community.

Image 3. Do Ho Suh, Uni-Form/s: Self-Portrait/s (My 39 Years), 2006 (Image by Christian Caiconte)

***

In critical social theory there is no rubbing or embroidery, but there is something conceived of as the difficult apprehension of the development of society in thought. The addition of the word ‘immanent’ to this practice would represent the aspiration to keep thought as close as possible to the movement of society. That said, would it be too far-fetched to maintain that there is a striking resemblance between the method of immanent critique and Suh’s art?

In a sense, it is no coincidence that the aesthetic concept of mimesis, introduced earlier, is of special interest in the domain of Marxist aesthetics. Even Sohn-Rethel, who concerned himself mostly with issues of epistemology and methodology, set as the basis of his reasoning the essential historical problem of the division between head and hand in the production of knowledge in capitalism. The integration of both aspects in a single epistemological framework thus becomes analytically desirable, even if the theoretician/artist of society knows very well that subjecting the head to the empirical chores of the hand is a time-intensive undertaking, and one almost forbidden in a social system dominated by the imperatives of productivity and efficiency.

Curiously, the most popular works in Suh’s exhibition have been the most colourful ones. Walking through and around them, attendees (including me) enthusiastically posed next to them and took photos from a distance. Such bodily displays of sympathy are surely an integral dimension of the act of appreciating installation art. The wall notes for these vivid installations, however, contained an interpretation of just this activity: they described Suh’s intention to provide these large reproductions with movement made possible by the viewers themselves. Labels for the artworks in the Hub series (Image 4), for example, indicated that Suh’s spaces were ‘realised as fluid, to be moved through with one’s body’. The label to the installation Staircase-III (Image 5) quoted Suh directly: ‘fabric architectural pieces dealing with one-to-one space are about the body, and about using your body to experience space’.

But this body-assisted deconstructive narrative is unconvincing. I prefer to think that the structure made up of Suh’s multiple aesthetic techniques and symbols does not ‘bow down’ to the public but rather requires from it an appropriate attitude. Let us explain the two key elements of this attitude. First, most of Suh’s art calls for the avoidance of immediate enjoyment; the minute details of objects, rooms and buildings highlighted by the rubbing of surfaces or sewing of fabrics cannot be grasped primarily through arbitrary stimulation of the senses. The indispensable attention needed to capture intersections, fissures and gaps necessarily ties the mind to time—and to a fairly extended amount of time. Second, given their highly mediated nature, Suh’s art pieces mandate a sustained reflection on the state of affairs in contemporary society.

This is, needless to say, also intrinsically intertwined with the current condition of our own personal lives. Hence these two elements challenge the thesis that Suh’s installations are defined by the use of the audience’s bodies to achieve their fluidity or manipulability. In this view there is little room for that ‘gentle gesture of rubbing’, that repetitive act that speaks of a different form of experiencing space and time. How can this problematic thesis, then, be part of Suh’s own discourse? I can offer a succinct answer based on Suh’s decision to use stunningly bright colours and visibly lightweight, ‘airy’ materials: this is the point where his artistic practice reveals the co-optation of capital, the secret coercion of society’s objective compulsion to produce surplus value.

As the Korean-born philosopher Byung-Chul Han would say, a work of art’s rush to stimulate and immediately amaze quickly leads to its de-mystification—to the loss of what makes it unique in the eyes of the observer. Standing in front of pop-coloured art, the observer has no mystery to unearth through contemplation at a distance; all content is already there, presented in the most banal way possible in order to trigger a quick succession of photos, maybe one or two recordings, and then a final ‘Wow!’. Left only with a fleeting feeling of satisfaction, observers soon become bored, compelling them to continue consuming other, similar artworks. As Han sees it, this form of relating to the ‘aesthetics of the smooth’, this historically specific performance, is already presupposed in the famous sculptures of Jeff Koons, which could explain their cultural appeal:

In Jeff Koons’s work … there exists no disaster, no injury, no ruptures, also no seams. Everything flows in soft and smooth transitions. Everything appears rounded, polished, smoothed out. Jeff Koons’s art is dedicated to smooth surfaces and their immediate effect. It does not ask to be interpreted, to be deciphered or to be reflected upon. It is an art in the age of Like.

Suh’s Hub series and Staircase-III also deliver a confusing message. In them, the examination of social dilemmas is drowned out in the gratuitous cheerfulness of the polyester cloth he uses. There his analysis fails to appear intact at the sensory level of sight, for this level has already been reserved for the instantaneous stimulation of bodies through colour. In Suh’s celebration of easy bodily experience, then, he is apparently unaware (or perhaps he is not) of the fact that such physical movement, this determinate use of art, is ultimately subjected to capital. A leisurely generation of a dialogue with the artist’s (and society’s) history is simply not possible due to this subjection of body and mind to consumption. But does this mean we should relinquish the categories of body and colour as proxies of motion or change? Is there perhaps an alternative access to motion—a different form of engagement with it that does not succumb to the homogenising process of profit-making?

A good start, I believe, would be to strive to evade the fetishism of pure materiality—that is, the idea that there is some concrete, ‘real’ body that can be disconnected at will from the determinations of its social context. In its purity and autonomy, in other words, this ‘fluid body’ is not dynamic at all, but only a highly static idealisation. The defence of the alleged existence of this realm of thought-free substances is actually careless in our present time. Take, for example, the pervasiveness of the BeReal form of expression, or the ChatGPT form of communication: the use of these digital platforms is also supposedly unaffected by ‘unproductive’ subjectivities, ideologies or dogmas. But the facticity of their use is nonetheless an abstraction, and, in its indifference to the richness of the hesitating body or the ambivalent mind, a most violent one. In this regard, let us repeat once again one of the maxims of Marx’s revolutionary epistemology, in the words of value-form theorist Moishe Postone: ‘[for Marx] use-value is not outside of the forms; it’s not an ontological substratum beneath the forms’.

Thus, in Suh’s artistic elaborations the new gradually emerges from a radical and immanent way of approaching the structure of his life, as well as the structure of capitalist society, even if, as discussed above, his aesthetics is not immune to the influence of global capitalist tendencies in art consumption and production. On the Australian website ArtsHub, national visual arts editor Gina Fairley notes pointedly that exhibitions today seem eager to propose a fashionable ‘interactive immersion’ for visitors. As a result, she says, ‘we are almost starting to teeter into a zone of entertainment rather than genuine connection’. But I also follow Fairley’s view that Suh’s colourful installations are not completely subsumed under the prerequisite of rapid stimulation. On the contrary, far from simply entertaining his audience, Suh assembles a collection of art objects that testify to his complexity as an individual. Some of these objects transgress established forms of critique, while others make questionable concessions to the identity-autonomy-contingency discourse so ubiquitous today.

Overall, then, Suh does invite us to rethink the relationship between structure and agency, and in a novel way that neither romanticises the disadvantaged position of the subjects of capitalism nor absolutises the structure that these same subjects have constituted. Moreover, while his work may not neatly embody that higher aesthetic attitude that Lukács speculated on as the mimetic reflection of social reality, it nevertheless aptly illuminates crucial historical transformations rarely addressed elsewhere with such resolution. It is my hope that these considerations contribute to a renewed interest in research on the structural dynamic of capitalism, especially in the present art-intellectual setting in which mere reference to ideas of structure or form is met with disdain and haste.

About the author

Christian Caiconte

Christian Caiconte teaches political economy at the University of Sydney, where he graduated with a PhD on the social and cultural constitution of Korea’s developmental era (1960s–1980s). His research currently focuses on new forms of labour and subjectivity in East Asia, with a particular focus on Korea.

More articles by Christian Caiconte

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