I’ve only been to Korea once, when I was young, maybe ten or eleven. I don’t remember anything about it except that we went to an amusement park called Lotte World, where my dad and I took a lot of selfies on our new iPad while waiting in line for rides. I can’t find those photos anywhere now. One of us broke the iPad a few years later, so they are probably lost somewhere in cyberspace.
This makes me sad because, like everyone else in the digital age, I remember my life through photographs. Last year, around the same time I decided I was a lesbian, I chopped off all my hair. Sometimes when I have trouble falling asleep now, I scroll through my phone and look at old photos of myself from when I had long hair. Not because I miss having long hair, but because the idea that I once looked like that feels so foreign to me that I find some odd fascination in being confronted with, as Roland Barthes says of the photograph, “a certainty that such a thing had existed.”
I thought a lot about Barthes recently after I saw Do Ho Suh’s The Perfect Home II at the Brooklyn Museum. On the weekends they let you inside the installation for 5 minutes at a time, and so I waited in line on a Sunday for 45 minutes to walk through it. Made entirely of hand-sewn translucent fabric, the work is a full-scale replica of the first apartment Suh moved to in New York after completing his MFA at Yale in 1997.
Suh’s piece reminded me of how Barthes describes a Charles Clifford photograph of a house – “Alhambra” – in Camera Lucida. While looking at the photograph, Barthes is overcome by the uncanny feeling that he has been there before. He describes what he calls a “longing to inhabit” the photograph: “it is fantasmatic, deriving from a kind of second sight which seems to bear me forward to a utopian time, or carry me back to somewhere in myself…it is as if I were certain of having been there or of going there.”
The Perfect Home II strikes me as being about the longing to inhabit. While walking through the installation, I could not help but feel profoundly sad. Melancholia permeates the work’s formal qualities; the experience of being surrounded entirely by translucent fabric is ethereal, ghostly, haunting. I felt as if the walls would collapse around me if I even breathed too loudly. The work is a structure of feeling, in the most literal sense: systematic, atmospheric, everywhere and nowhere all at once.
Though Suh came up with the idea for this piece while still living in the apartment, the project didn’t become possible until 2016, when his landlord passed away and he was forced to vacate the space. After moving all of his belongings out, Suh began the long, painstaking process of what he has called “rubbing/loving”: rubbing every surface of the apartment first with colored pencil, then with pastel, and finally with his fingers. “I literally had to caress every surface with my fingertips, and I started to wear off my fingertips,” he describes. “I was actually giving up my own body to the architecture.”
The affection of Suh’s labor is rendered visible in the work’s detail; it is in the jaggedness of the edges, the slight variations in line lengths, the movement of Suh’s hand, where the work trembles most with longing. One cannot help but see him bent over an electrical socket, rubbing his fingers over the holes, trying desperately to engrain the memory of his home into his body.
This feeling of desperation stays with me. It makes me think about my girlfriend. Sometimes we play a game where I rub my nose furiously all over her body, from her ears down to her ankles. In this scenario, I am a puppy (she loves puppies), and the game ends with her laughing hysterically and me lying on top of her, fully out of breath. It is a sweet, silly game. But I often hope that if I rub hard enough, her body will press itself into my nose and leave a mark of some sort – a crease, a bump, an indentation, anything. And so the game, for me, is also a (failed) wish: that one day if my memory cannot conjure her touch, perhaps my body will. This is the despair of memory: we want it to leave a mark of certainty. But it rarely does.
We remember things because we have since lost them; we long for things because they remain out of our reach. I feel sad that Do Ho Suh will never be able to return to this home he has loved and labored for so deeply. Maybe somebody else lives there now, maybe it has undergone reconstruction, maybe it has been demolished and replaced with a luxury apartment building or a new coffee shop. Either way, I want to tell him: it loves you back.
I cried inside the installation; probably because Suh too is Korean, this work enacted for me a very Korean and diasporic kind of longing, a longing to inhabit that particular “home” where I cannot really be certain of having been, but nevertheless feel as if I were certain of having been there or of going there. I am not naive enough to believe anymore that Korea “loves me back”; diaspora’s inevitable wound is, of course, estrangement. But Korea remains that place I long desperately and impossibly to inhabit, that place I cannot help but return to when I think of Suh’s wok.
To long for something is to love knowing you will receive nothing in return. In this way, I think longing’s impossibility makes it the deepest kind of love. This is a masochist vision, perhaps. But in the face of impossibility, it feels good, I think, to love by longing for somewhere or someone at all.
All photographs: Do Ho Suh (Korean, born 1962). The Perfect Home II, 2003. Translucent nylon, 110 × 240 × 516 in. (279.4 × 609.6 × 1310.6 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Lawrence B. Benenson, 2017.46 © Do Ho Suh. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul. (Photos: Brooklyn Museum)