SOFT LIGHT
with DO HO SUH

A globetrotting artist on the aura of buildings

Interview: EMILY KING
Photography: LOLA & PANI

Emily King: Light is a key element in your fabric works and I wondered, when you are installing one of these pieces, if you accept the light that’s in the room, or if you try to control it in a particular way.

Do Ho Suh: That is a really good question. I try not to alter the light. My preference is natural light, light from a skylight. That type of soft, broad, ambient light reveals the transparency of the fabric very nicely. You can see some of the fabric there on the wall.

EK: Ah, so that’s the actual fabric you use? Can I touch it?

DHS: Of course. The green one is a silk organza and the salmon piece is polyester. Silk is the usual fabric for traditional Korean dress, for special occasions, but it is relatively expensive, so polyester is a substitute.

EK: The artificial fabric doesn’t shine in the same way.

DHS: It’s custom made and I tried to replicate the complexity of the texture of silk, but, with silk, if you have artificial light, especially spotlight, it reflects and actually becomes quite opaque. You can lose the transparency – I work with the idea of memory, and transparency is very important in that. So sometimes polyester is easier to deal with in terms of lighting.

EK: I always imagine light as a means of revealing things. For me it’s counterintuitive to think that, in some cases, it can actually conceal.

DHS: It’s a really fine balance. I obscure what is behind the fabric, but not too much. Light plays a huge role in defining the space.

EK: Where do you buy your fabric? Given your models of buildings and spaces are 1:1 scale, you must need quite a bit!

DHS: I work with a Korean textile company. Originally, I just bought it from the market, but the factories making these things began to disappear because fewer people wanted to wear traditional Korean dress. Then I found a company who could make it for me, so I ordered in bulk.

EK: Do you have a lot in reserve?

DHS: Yes, I have rolls of plain white fabric, and whenever I need it, I send it to be dyed.

EK: How do you choose the colours?

DHS: It started with this green, which is the colour of the wallpaper in a traditional house, but only for the ceiling – the walls are all white. Then, it became a kind of colour coding for the different rooms.

EK: Do you have a rule for when you use polyester and when you use silk?

DHS: When I am recreating traditional Korean architectural spaces such as my childhood house, I use silk; for other spaces, I use polyester. There are various reasons for this: The Korean house is not just about my childhood; it’s also about Korean heritage and history. Living in a traditional building is a very rare experience in Korea these days.

Staircase-V, 2008, one of Do Ho Suh’s famed fabric works capturing the ghostly outlines of buildings. Image courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul.

EK: Have they mostly been destroyed?

DHS: Yes, Korean people prefer Western-style buildings. Traditional architecture is coming back, but there’s still only a very small fraction of the population who are interested. It’s become a kind of luxury thing, so the cost of the fabric relates to that.

EK: What kind of light do you get inside a Korean house?

DHS: The traditional houses have paper instead of glass. When it comes to the light, it’s very unique, because you get a very warm light through the thin rice paper. What I like about traditional Korean architecture is its permeability. You can control the light by opening and closing a combination of the sliding and folding doors. The house that I stay in when I am in Seoul has three layers of doors, so you can make the room really dark, but you can also open it up. The light comes through and so does the sound, and I think that creates a different relationship with nature. You hear things very clearly through a thin layer of paper, so you feel like you are in nature. And, though you can’t see out, you can see shadows on the screens in the evening and that relates to motifs in traditional painting. Living in this type of architecture, you get to understand where these art forms came from.

EK: The house in Seoul belongs to your parents? Are they artists?

DHS: My father is one of the first generation of post-war contemporary Korean artists, so he is a bridge between pre-war and post-war Korean art. A lot of the art of the generation before his was heavily influenced by the Japanese occupation, but he is trying to break away from that. Even though he uses traditional ink and brush on rice paper, his images are very minimal and contemporary. He provided me with a great environment in my childhood, and now it’s all coming back in my work. People used to ask me, “Where is your home?” Now, having my family here, I feel centred in London, but in terms of work I keep going back to the house where I grew up. I am starting to see different dimensions and layers; I am discovering new meaning. That’s probably how memory works. And the next generation, my daughters’ generation, are building their own memories while they spend their time in that space. It’s not just about their generation; it’s also that they are half-Korean, so they bring another cultural dimension.

EK: When I was at the Venice architecture biennale this year, I saw the film you made, looking at the interiors of flats in the Robin Hood Gardens estate that were about to be demolished. To me, it seemed quite different from the rest of your work.

DHS: That was a really interesting project. I’d been documenting rooms in my own work, so I used the same technique.

EK: What kinds of rooms?

DHS: Those of my family, relatives, friends – people in my life. I use a still camera, not a video. The camera moves along a track, taking thousands of pictures. Then we stitch the images together on the computer. It’s basically animation, but it looks like a film.

EK: Why do you use that method?

DHS: It has the aesthetic of interior architectural photography. It’s very rigorous, very high-resolution; everything is in focus.

EK: That’s so interesting. When I watched the film, I sensed there was something uncanny about it, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

DHS: It was a really meaningful project for me. Before that, my work had always been about personal experience, so this was new territory. Robin Hood Gardens is in east London, not far from here, so, while it was remote in some ways, at the same time its demolition raised very immediate issues. And there was an urgency: I only had a couple of months to put it together as the building was literally coming down as we were filming.

EK: It must have been emotional.

DHS: It was the kind of project where I constantly questioned what I was doing. At the opening in Venice, several Korean journalists wanted to talk to me about gentrification in Seoul after seeing the film. That was an interesting moment – a very London-specific project raising global questions.

EK: This studio is an amazing space. The window is huge, and it faces west, right? You must get the most wonderful sunsets.

DHS: Yes, west is this way. We get very strong light in the afternoon – really, really beautiful. I think it’s rare to have this type of light in London. New York and Seoul are very similar, season-wise, and both have a very crisp, bright light. Well, that used to be especially true in Seoul, but not so much now.

EK: Really, why?

DHS: Because of the air pollution. We don’t see beautiful, clear skies any more. It’s going to be a very difficult place to live in the next 30 years unless they do something about it. It’s a no brainer. But every city has a different quality of light, and I really do miss the light in New York.

EK: There’s no equivalent in London to crossing one of the avenues with the sun streaming up from the south.

DHS: I moved here eight years ago, but it has taken me a lot longer to get used to the weather here than I thought it would. It’s actually the dampness, I think. When you check the temperature it’s not that bad, but you feel cold. It gets into your bones.