Do Ho Suh. Un-built art and the impossibility of permanence
A conversation with Do Ho Suh on the mutability of his work, its relation to architecture and the implications of collaborative art.

Working across a multiplicity of media, Do Ho Suh is constantly testing the possibilities of scale, materiality, and identity. Interested in the interactions between body and art, memory and space, his art explores, plays and subverts pre-established boundaries. In this interview, which coincides with Artland—a work he co-created with his children, currently exhibited at Buk-Seoul Museum of Art—Do Ho Suh shares his thoughts on place and displacement, the contrast between Western rigidity and Eastern flexibility, cultural colonisation, imperialism, the importance of continuous experimentation and what it means to do away with individuality in the art world.


KOOZ KoozArch focuses on the un-built in architecture. Our first question tackles, precisely, the architectural component in your work. What is architecture for you? Is it a medium, a device, a trigger, a container, a shell?

DHS That’s a good question—I actually wanted to be an architect at one point, but I didn’t have the math grades! That said, my practice is about the body. It’s about the relationship between the body and the built environment, about what architecture is a stand-in for as well as how it moulds our interspatial and relational experiences; clothing as architecture if you like. Interestingly, I don’t see it as a shell or container so much as a passage or portal. Memory amalgamates in these spaces and memories shape our perceptions of them. Yet, they’re not stagnant. They’re not foreclosed environments in my work. They’re transportable, breathable and mutable.

I often think about the Western obsession with perspective, with the rendering of weight, light and shadow, in terms of art history.


KOOZ The impermanence and lightness of your art-architectural pieces or fragments is countered by the permanence of the built world, the heaviness of brick and mortar. Can you explain the process behind this material transition, between the heaviness of the existing built world and the almost im-material, foldable matter of your art?

DHS Well, the first thing I’d say is that I associate the permanence and heaviness you mention, which I see as a rigidity, with the West. East Asian architecture is traditionally a lot more porous—we integrate paper into the walls of our buildings, you feel the environment very keenly from within a traditional structure, it’s a more symbiotic relationship. Building practices have modernised, of course, but there is a philosophical commitment to flexibility that manifests in other ways. I often think about the Western obsession with perspective, with the rendering of weight, light and shadow, in terms of art history. Traditional East Asian art isn’t absorbed with those ideas—it’s more about reflecting a worldview or embracing the differences between the two and three dimensional. It’s a very different approach and one that I think has historically been demeaned by the West.

As a Buddhist, I don’t believe that anything exists in a state of permanence.

I do spend a lot of time thinking about site specificity, though, which you’re touching on with this question. How and whether the site is moveable and where memory actually resides. I’m conscious that we’re living in an increasingly homogenous, globalised society and that, in a way, there is a lot less specificity. It’s important to say that that’s not a judgment, it’s an observation. It is not that my work is about nostalgia, about striving for a place-based locus of memory. For me, it’s a broader philosophical concern with movement, how we move through the world. As a Buddhist, I don’t believe that anything exists in a state of permanence.


KOOZ To follow up on this question, can you tell us how your experience of cultural displacement in the West shaped your understanding, feelings and even the meanings you associate to the built environment? How did it translate in your “un-built art”?

DHS I love that term—un-built art—because it speaks to my interest in using the built environment to communicate something about memory and subjectivity, over and above an urge to replicate architecture with precision. The feelings of displacement I experienced when I moved to the US in the early 90’s were more a sense of dislocation than a shock—I’ve often talked about the US pop-culture I was exposed to growing up because of the army bases located in Seoul—but it did clarify a lot of my feelings about place. It made me interrogate what the word “home” actually relates to and also reflect on the impact of modernism in both the East and West.

When I moved to the US, to start my studies at RISD, I felt the need to make sense of the changes to my physical environment through movement and touch, so I began to measure my new living and working spaces. I also became acutely aware of the architectural imposition of imperialism. I felt this everywhere, from the apparently “heroic” male statues that populated civic squares, to the organisation of major museums and their confusing displays of “foreign” objects devoid of context, as well as the relegation of non-Western art to the peripheries of the buildings. This was particularly painful because, due to our violent history of colonisation—which engendered widespread destruction and cultural displacement—there’s a dearth of Korean artefacts. At the moment, I’m following the conversations about the restitution of artefacts with great interest. It’s a fascinating conversation that goes to the heart of an imperialist mentality, which is a very hard one for a lot of people to shake.

I love that term—un-built art—because it speaks to my interest in using the built environment to communicate something about memory and subjectivity.


KOOZ We are fascinated by your interest in two seemingly opposite dimensions: the ordinary and the monumental. Both are connected to identity-formation (collective and self). We would be grateful if you could expand on the relevance of identity in your work and how you tackle it from this multi-scalar perspective.

DHS I’m not actually interested in monumentality for monumentality’s sake. I’ve never strived for spectacle, if that makes sense. Instead, I’m always commenting on, or working with, something from life. So with the very large fabric installations, I knew it was important to recreate them at a 1:1 scale. Otherwise, you would have a completely different bodily relationship to them. The scale was determined by the conditions of the individual sites. I do like to play with scale when thinking about a collective consciousness or power, though. Public Figures (1998) has these tiny multitudes or crowds that support an empty pedestal. It’s a play on the usual scale and dynamics of memorialisation. If installed outside, I ideally like the figures to be integrated into the environment—it’s a literal translation of “grass roots”. In Korea, where there is a long history of oppression, we have a term, “mincho”, for the general public or the oppressed people, which translates as “public grass” because it never dies, it continually renews itself. So the small scale of the figures is actually a sort of anti-individualist ode. There is strength in multiplicity. I think we’re all bound and connected to one another in some ways, which I express visually in my Karma works. I see those connections as ordinary and everyday in many respects.

I’m not actually interested in monumentality for monumentality’s sake. I’ve never strived for spectacle, if that makes sense.

KOOZ It is also very interesting to notice the relationship of your artworks within the spaces of museums or galleries. Which associations do you seek to establish between these institutional interiors and the interiors/interiority of your exhibited work? What role does the movement of visitors’ bodies play in the conception and installation of your artworks?

DHS The body is essential. Most of my work is activated by the visitors’ presence within it, their movement through the piece. I like manipulating site lines when it comes to interiority/exteriority. So I often position work through which you can see an exterior view—a window or opening into another gallery and other artwork.

I love playing with the museum’s architecture as well—its angles and functionality. One of my first exhibitions was at the Korean Cultural Center in Los Angeles. I installed a silk version of the hanok house that I grew up in. I wanted it to create a shelter, to cloth the space over the staircase. I also did a piece at Columbia University called Red Conjunction, whereby I bisected a busy corridor area with a translucent red fabric curtain. It was an extremely interesting work from a social perspective—there was a sense of deep spatial confusion created by this porous fabric’s imposition on the architecture. I love Felix Gonzalez-Torres and he was an influence.

Most of my work is activated by the visitors’ presence within it, their movement through the piece.


KOOZ The fact that you always respect the true scale and placement of the objects that you replicate, reconstruct or create, conveys simultaneously a sense of familiarity and uneasiness, your work has been oftentimes described as “ghostly”. What are your expectations in terms of visitors’ personal experience of your art?

DHS I enjoy playing with the uncanny in the work, yes—the sense of normal domesticity subverted. However, I never like to impose ideas about what a visitor might bring to the work. It’s my ambition to provide a discursive space but not to dictate, so I’m very relaxed about what people might feel—what memories or associations might be jogged or interactions encouraged. It’s incredibly meaningful and fulfilling when people do have strong reactions, though. Although I draw on my personal biography and experience, I’m really trying to grasp something universal, so it’s fantastic when people feel invigorated, confused, inspired—any response is good.

Artland is a fantastical realm that my two daughters dreamt up. Nothing compares to the child’s mind.

KOOZ We would like to conclude with a question on Artland, the imaginary world. What prompted this shift of focus from the deep personal dimension of memory to a collective, artistic co-creation that focuses on flora, fauna and alternative realities?

DHS Artland is a fantastical realm that my two daughters dreamt up—they’ve been working on it for over seven years now so it’s constantly in motion, and now it includes all sorts of appendages and new species, which the children of Seoul have added. I love that sense of fluidity and movement. A lot of my work aims for that but it’s hard to achieve.

Nothing compares to the child’s mind. I was very interested in approaches to world-building during the pandemic—physically and in the digital realm—and it really propelled my interest in presenting our Artland project.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve always been interested in doing away with the idea of the artist as an individual who operates alone, so this exhibition is quite experimental. My practice has always been collaborative—I could not make my works alone, it would be impossible. I also discuss all my ideas with my studio team and we work through the problems and aesthetics with a sort of playful ambition. It’s a group effort. I wanted to reflect that in Artland, which is why I worked to expand the “artist name” from just Do Ho Suh to Do Ho Suh and Children. I don’t think we really have the language to think beyond the individual yet, so it’s an interesting area.

'Artland' is at SeMA, Buk-Seoul Museum of Art, Seoul, Korea until 23rd March 2023.


Do Ho Suh (Seoul, Korea, 1962) works across diverse media—including drawing, film and sculpture—to confront questions of memory, psychic space and displacement. His work is featured in collections worldwide including MoMA, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul and Tate, London. He was the recipient of the 2017 Ho-Am Prize and represented Korea at the Venice Biennale in 2001 and at the Architecture Biennale in 2018. Recent solo shows have been presented at: MCA Sydney (2022), LACMA, Los Angeles (2019); V&A, London (2019); Museum Voorlinden, Voorlinden (2019) and Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington (2018).

Francesca Romana Forlini is an architect, Ph.D, editor, writer and educator whose research is located at the intersection of feminism, cultural sociology and architectural history and theory. She is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the New York Institute of Technology and Parsons The New School in New York. She worked as chief editor at KoozArch, where she is currently a contributor. She is a Fulbrighter ed alumna of Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) and the RCA.

08 Feb 2023
Reading time
12 minutes
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