500 Words by Do Ho Suh
As told to Julian Rose
Do Ho Suh is an artist based between London, New York, and Seoul who is known for his intensive work with architecture’s experiential, mnemonic, and psychological dimensions, engagements that often take the form of full-scale fabric re-creations of the spaces in which he has lived. Here, he discusses rubbing/loving, 2016, a large-scale piece that began with a painstaking process of wrapping all of the surfaces of his former apartment with white paper—including walls and cabinets, light switches and door handles, as well as his house key in its lock. Suh then used colored pencils and pastels to create rubbings on the sheets, in a process that discloses and memorializes all of the home’s details. After documenting the entire process, Suh vacated the apartment and has placed all the paper fragments in storage while he explores the possibility of exhibiting the reassembled work.
I FOUND THE APARTMENT ON WEST TWENTY-SECOND STREET before I even moved to New York. It was in the spring of 1997, a couple of months before my graduation from Yale. A friend of a friend was moving out and offered to put me in touch with the landlord, who lived in the building. It’s a typical New York townhouse, and he was renting out the ground floor. This was a year or two before all the SoHo galleries had started moving to Chelsea, and it wasn’t quite an art neighborhood yet. I remember the landlord was excited about the fact that I was an artist—although he also joked that he was worried I couldn’t afford the rent—and we became good friends. It is amazing how quickly the neighborhood changed after that.
I had already conceived my first fabric architecture piece while I was in grad school—I made a small-scale version of my studio in muslin. But that was just a test, because I was already thinking of much larger spaces. Soon after moving to New York, I was invited to participate in an exhibition in Seoul. Its theme was the home, so I decided to make my new apartment in fabric. I needed precise measurements of the space in order to create the pattern for the fabric, I made rubbings with graphite on paper of some of the walls, and then traced the patterns from those sheets of paper. That was the moment I got the idea for this current project—oh, maybe I could do a rubbing of my entire space! But it was cluttered with so much stuff. It wasn’t practical at the time.
In a sense, this project didn’t become possible until I had to vacate the space. When my landlord passed away this past year, the building was sold and I had to move out. I decided that the last piece I would make in the space would be a rubbing of all the interiors in the entire building. It has been interesting to think of the rubbings as an end in themselves, rather than the first step in creating a pattern for a fabric architecture piece. I knew from the beginning that my fabric architecture pieces aren’t 100 percent accurate. People think they are really precise—and really, really anal! But of course I’m not actually trying to exactly replicate a physical structure in fabric. It’s more about capturing enough visual and physical information to evoke a sense of the space as I experienced it. And the translation of the architecture into fabric is exhausting—taking measurements, creating the pattern, sewing the finished piece. There is a lot of removal from the original content, and here I wanted to have something more immediate, something that more directly captured the different layers of the space.
These layers aren’t only physical—there’s an emotional connection to a place, an accumulation of memories. I’ve always thought about architecture as clothing, or clothing as architecture. Clothing is the smallest, most intimate inhabitable space that you can actually carry. Architecture is an expansion of that. After living in this apartment for some time, I realized that it gave me a sense of protection that was quite physical. It became a kind of skin, and I felt so comfortable that I was almost not even aware of the space around me any more. Eventually, I even started to experience this space as entering inside of me, as if it had shifted from a skin to something like an internal organ. At that point, I didn’t really see the space at all—the apartment became about the orientation of my things, my movement, and my routine inside.
That’s how your house gets inside of you—it’s more than just space, and it’s not even space and time, because I think the notion of space and time as separate is a very Western idea. Time and space are always together, and they are usually collapsed into each other. That’s why the process of rubbing seemed so appropriate. It brings up a lot of memories, and it’s also very physical. As I moved upstairs, I changed the material of the rubbing from colored pencil to pastel, which I had to use my fingertips to apply. I literally had to caress every surface with my fingertips, and I started to wear off my fingerprints. I was actually giving up my own body to the architecture. The project became a spiritual quest. As I spent twenty years of my time in that space, my farewell to the house took two years. It was an extended ritual to commemorate my time in that house and my friendship with the landlord before finally departing.