Tuesday, 14 April 2015

If the room fits?

Light airy two-floored New York style apartment available for immediate viewing in Bristol. ‘348 West 22nd Street’ currently installed in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery offers all the architectural spec of lofty contemporary living in the heart of the city. The room is fully portable, when you decide to move the entire space folds flat in two suitcases. Did we also mention its walls are entirely made of red and green silken, translucent fabric?!
The artwork, created by Korean born Do Ho Suh is a scale version of the corridor, ground floor and staircase of the artist’s New York apartment. Everything from the mouldings around the doors, pipes, stair balusters, light switches and wall alarms have been intrinsically recreated so as to produce what the artist describes as the building’s ‘perfect fit’ in which the details and architecture of the interior are as tailored a match to the actual size, scale and shape of the original space as possible, almost like a second skin. Held together and supported by a thin skeletal framework this fabric clone appears more solid like some ghostly tent or architectural human-sized fish tank.  Visitors are invited to experience this work both by walking around it and through it (all the while somehow expected to resist the temptation to attempt to ascend the red cloth stairs or touch the walls, pipes and doors to the watchful eyes of the gallery attendants)!
It was fine, I and the others viewing at the same time managed to behave ourselves and so like those I’d watched before me, I too became part of the work immersing myself into this physical yet imagined environment. The attention to detail and precision in which the space had been recreated was incredibly impressive and highlighted the forms and shapes within the interior that go relatively unnoticed in the familiarity of our everyday lived experiences. When was the last time you noticed the moulding around your doors for example (other than when you’re having to sand or paint them)? All these touches are small but are all there for reasons often either spatial or structural. It was weird how solid, how sharp and crisp it all appeared despite being made of fabric which again, pays testament to the skill involved in literally tailoring the work, Suh undertaking classes in clothing and pattern making whilst studying in America. Occasionally there was the odd slip that gave away the perfected illusion, an end of thread or slightly sagging light switch which are joyful reminders of the delicateness and ‘hand-made’ feel of the structure or sort of alluding to an imagined sense of weight that the real building would have. Initially those aspects of the work reminded me of Claes Oldenburg’s hard and soft sculptures where the artist made toilets and other household objects out of fabric or cardboard. Similarly to Suh they challenged the viewer’s perception to notice the form(s) of these objects in the absence of their functionality.

All the while, I knew the name Do Ho Suh sounded familiar, but I didn’t realise until afterwards that I’d come across one of the artists’ earlier works four years ago, 'Bridging Home’, a Korean Hanok house wedged in the gap between 84 and 86 Duke Street as part of the 2010 Liverpool Biennial. That piece also dealt with the reoccurring theme in Suh’s work of physical and cultural displacement which he himself experienced having grown up in a Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897) style hanok house at a time when Korea was tearing down such buildings. Later Suh moved to the states to study where he experienced a similar feeling of culture shock, separation and ‘entering an entirely different world’. ‘Bridging Home’ in Liverpool was hard to miss and the message of a cultural wedge or displacement was pretty obvious whereas the one currently in Bristol much subtler and worked on the feeling of a more bodily physical displacement than a cultural one in the sense of how we inhabit/interact within space in relation to our body. Making the Bristol piece from cloth and tailoring it to fit the building is derived from the way in which clothing is tailored as a way of both protecting and adornment of the body. Creating a form of clothing for the building this way acts as both protection, trace of the original and generates a metaphorical connection between body and building; perhaps in Suh’s case, how our sense of self and identity are formed by the space we inhabit. The New York apartment is an ethereal new space, but a protected one at the same time as the netted fabric made it feel quite virtual, as though a computer generated diagram made life size, all the time creating a sense of otherness or confinement; terms all of which, I feel,  would find themselves well fitted with ideas of displacement. In this way, by being associated with clothing and the softness and tactility of materials used Suh’s New York apartment feels gentler than that of his contemporary, Rachel Whiteread whose concrete casts of the interiors of entire buildings in the 1990s feel far more imposing, masculine and are literally impregnable. I mention it because it demonstrates how two artists can have similar ideas but using such different materials really adds influence how the work is perceived.
There are examples of complete Suh flats which would have been a different interpretation again. Whilst the one in Bristol is just the corridor and stairs, it signifies the important transitionary space between the different rooms of the apartment which makes it again quite relevant to the idea of displacement as it is the one part of any building where one finds themselves in limbo, between the upstairs or downstairs, the entrance or the outside. Its both the nothing space , the uncertain of its purpose space, yet a crucially  vital important one for connecting the living spaces together! For those reasons less may be more in this instance but it is also why its definitely worth a look in.....
Visitors to Bristol’s Museum and Art Gallery will be able to experience ‘348 West 22nd Street: Corridor/ground floor/plus staircase’ from now until the 27th September 2015.  

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