On Home/At Home | Sarah Neutkens


On Home/At Home

Do Ho Suh, Who Am We?,
Detail, 1999


Notes on creating a home in art
during times of crisis

Written by
Sarah Neutkens




On Home/At Home

In times of global crisis it may easily be taken for granted that one can reside in and retreat to a safe place called ‘home’, a construction consisting of a certain combination of people, habits or places that creates a sense of safety and security. SEA Foundation, as a home for contemporary art, also fits this definition of a safe home: reflecting, connecting and experimenting – for artistic or personal purposes – can freely be done by its inhabitants and visitors. 

However, having a home to safely return to in these times of crisis cannot be taken for granted by everyone. Migrants, for example, often experience feelings of homesickness. They have exchanged the security of their motherland for a new habitat and often feel a persistent longing for a return to their safe – or, frequently, unsafe – home country. Even if the motherland cannot offer safety and security, it might still be the only place where migrants feel at home.

The notion of ‘home’ or the absence of a home is something artists try to interpret, formulate and shape. But how do migrant artists deal with concepts of identity, homesickness and space?

Exploring personal and public space

Let us look at a work of the Korean artist Do Ho Suh (1962). Suh left his home country South-Korea and moved to the United States in the nineties. Three concepts are central to Suh’s work: space, identity and a sense of loss or homesickness. Two of these concepts, identity and loss, can be found specifically pronounced in Suh’s Who Am We? (1999). Who Am We? is an installation that consists of offset-printed wallpaper of varying dimensions. The work is essentially site-specific in a sense that it can only be applied to a wall, which implies that it is limited to the dimensions of the wall it is applied to: the work depends on the physical space it is presented in/on. The concept of site-specificity implies that a work is essentially created to be presented in one specific location. The artist has taken into account the surroundings of the artwork, so that the work has become dependent on its surroundings and, because of the artwork being there, the surroundings have become dependent on the work.

There is, however, something remarkable about Who Am We?: the pieces of printed wallpaper can be rolled up to be transported, wherever, whenever. When being transported the artwork only takes up a fraction of the space the installed artwork occupies, denying the site-specificity of the artwork. This undermines the concept of strict site-specificity, making the work both site-specific and non-site-specific at the same time. Here we see an analogy with the position of the migrant and his or her movable personal space. The migrant has the ability to claim his or her own personal space anywhere in the world (the space the installed artwork occupies on the wall) but is at the same time completely mobile, not taking up any static space (when rolled up the wallpaper is not the eventual work of art, it’s not yet limited to a fixed physical space, it merely holds the promise to become the artwork). Suh thus examines the relationship between personal and public space: how much space does an individual claim? What limits the individual’s personal or public space? Does a migrant occupy his or her own space, or does he or she always remain in between spaces? 

With a work like Who Am We? Suh expresses the fluid identity of the migrant. That is, however, not the only aspect of identity Suh explores: the interaction between collective and personal identity also plays a major role in his work. 

On the wallpaper of Who Am We? thousands of photos are printed: scanned photos depicting students of the high school Suh attended in his youth. From a distance, the photos are barely discernible, which creates the impression of a homogenous mass. Upon closer inspection, we notice that every face, every picture, is unique. We become aware of a certain physical relationship between us and the photos: over a hundred small faces likely fit within the perimeter of one observer’s body. The individuals depicted on the wallpaper hardly seem to be human anymore, but take the shape of a grid composed of small pixels. We can ask ourselves certain questions: how many people fit within the perimeter of my body? What is my physical relationship to these people in the pictures? Does the artwork transcend a physical relationship between the observer and the artwork, and hence the artist? 

Suh not only explores the space a migrant claims and occupies in Who Am We?, he also investigates the connection between the individual and society he or she lives in and how difficult it can be to remain a unique individual in a collective society like South-Korea. With Who Am We? Suh reflects on identity and space and on the status of migrants in their home country and in the country they left behind.

Housing oneself

In a time of severe crisis, the individual can suddenly lose parts of the social structure he or she has gotten accustomed to: the individual has to reflect on his or her own personal space in relation to public space, just like a migrant has to. It is important to note that, even though we are currently partly stuck in a lock-down situation – both physically and mentally – there will always be a place like home in art. Creating art is not only a way to give meaning and shape to an existing sense of home or the absence of this sense of home, as Lily Markiewicz states in her 2007 essay ‘No Place – Like Home’, but it can also temporarily create a virtual, conceptual or even physical space in which the artist can live. Markiewicz calls this phenomenon ‘housing oneself’. The feeling of being stuck in between two worlds or being locked-down can be addressed by creating a (temporary) personal space within a work of art. 

This idea of ‘housing oneself’ is exactly what is needed in times of crisis and it is also one of the central concepts of SEA Foundation, as a home for contemporary art.