Only a few of us can travel in space like Neil Armstrong or Yuri Gagarin, but we all travel through myriad spaces in everyday life.
Think about it — in our homes, we move from room to room via hallways, staircases, doors and foyers. Outside, we travel through the same environments at work, but also use escalators, elevators, sidewalks, crosswalks, parks, public plazas and more.
It’s so common, we rarely even think about it. But the South Korea-born, London-based artist Do Ho Suh thinks about it very much. He approaches public and private spaces with the same sense of exploration that an astronaut devotes to the moon.
You’ll be able to see what he’s discovered when the exhibition Passage opens at the Contemporary Arts Center on Friday. It continues through Sept. 11. Using colorful fabric, he has constructed soft, allusive versions of spaces he has known in his 53 years of living and traveling throughout the world. The show features four major fabric sculptural installations, including a stand-out (and stand-up) three-story staircase called “348 W. 22nd St.”
It also has other objects, including three video installations, two rubbing installations and 23 drawings, rubbings and works on paper.
“I’ve been interested in so-called transitional space since my arrival to the United States,” says Suh, talking via Facetime from Singapore, where he recently had a show of new work. “That includes the staircases, corridors, gates and doorways — the space that doesn’t come across as being its own but exists to connect the more important spaces. But the more important spaces don’t exist without the spaces in between.
“And as I travel now for my work in airports and bus terminals, those (transitional) spaces have become more important,” he continues. “It’s not just destinations that are important, it’s the spaces that connect my home with the destination.
“And I realize in some ways life is a journey through a series of spaces. You spend most of your time in this world getting somewhere. So these transitional spaces become more and more important to me.”
The artist, whose own father was a successful painter in Seoul, came to the U.S. with his first wife in 1991 to attend Rhode Island School of Design. (He had already studied art in Korea.) He went on to receive an MFA at Yale and also to live in New York and Berlin. He has lived in London since 2010, now with his second wife and two young daughters.
“The experience of leaving my home country, Korea, for the U.S. was one of the most difficult, and I go back into the experience over and over again,” he says. “The seed was planted in Korea but was nurtured in the States by the experience of displacement and the education I had.”
He also learned, in U.S. art schools, new skills for making art. He wasn’t confined by anything; he could make sculpture out of material as translucently fragile as silk and polyester. The material matched the wistfulness.
“If I could create the space with smoke, it would be the perfect material,” he says.
His first major fabric sculpture was a version of his family home in Korea. When he showed it at a New York gallery, suspended from the ceiling, his brother came to the opening and was perplexed.
“He said, ‘It’s so strange,’ because he knew everything of that house,” Suh says. “It was a private home and having all these strangers now gathered inside was the height of an exposing experience for both of us. Our private space became public.”
The newly configured fabric piece in the CAC show is called “Hub.”
“I have recently been making the fabric version of spaces like a lobby or an entrance when you enter your apartment,” he says. “I isolated those spaces from previous homes, or any space where I have lived and stayed, and put them into fabric.
“Those are relatively small. And then I connected those different units into one long corridor space. These are multiple spaces from different parts of the world all coming together into one long piece. Audiences can enter the space and they can go in and out of the piece.”
At the ends of that long corridor will be video projections. One will continue the theme of interconnected corridors, filmed from the point-of-view of an unseen person.
“They’re from all different places and stitched together on the computer,” he says. “In other words, the video is another way to show the corridor piece in fabric.”
At the other end will be images shot from cameras that Suh had placed on his youngest daughter’s stroller. The piece, then, considers the possibility of pleasure being inherent in the act of travel, whether or not there’s a destination.
“My daughter was on the pram while I was filming and exploring the neighborhood in London,” he says. “In the film you hear just voices and conversation, like baby talk and maybe singing and laughing, and you see the scenes of London and where we live.”
Incidentally, there is a Do Ho Suh piece in the lobby of 21c Museum Hotel, just next door to the CAC. Called “Floor Module Table, 1997-2000,” it serves as the principal check-in spot for arriving guests. Busy getting their keys and going to their rooms, many may not even look down at the glass-top object to see the thousands of multi-colored, miniature figurines of humans whose outreached hands seem to be holding up the glass.
“It was meant to be walked on,” Suh says. “The owner of the hotel bought the piece and transformed it into a table. It explores the idea of boundaries between personal space, collective space and public space.”
And that consistently has been a major concern for the artist.
PASSAGE opens Friday at the Contemporary Arts Center. Do Ho Suh will speak to members at 7 p.m., followed by a public opening at 8 p.m. More info: contemporaryartscenter.org.