Entering Do-Ho Suh's recent show, the viewer was greeted by a rectangular puddle of tiny plastic people made from a translucent material and cast in bright green and candy-floss pink (Doormat: Welcome, 2000). Arrayed in orderly ranks, they spelt out the word 'Welcome' in that dippy, anachronistic script characteristic of doormats. What fun, to be met by these hordes of candy people, although the warmth and fuzziness turned a little chilly with the recollection of North Korea's mass celebrations of Communism (remember Madeleine Albright framed against shifting human billboards, hundreds of thousands of people turning cards in rigorous precision?).
Inside the gallery more than 180,000 small figurines were packed closely together, holding up a large gridded glass floor, (Floor, 1997-2000). Getting down on bent knees to get a closer look, you could see their small flat hands pressed against the underside of the glass, while their uplifted faces were impassive to the point of placidity. The floor felt surprisingly solid, a testimony to either collective action or the efficiency of tyranny. These male and female figures, dressed individually and of different ethnicities, were arranged willy nilly, in various gradations of beige, sand, tan, brown and putty. In the calculation of whether their was a celebratory ritual, survival technique, or oppressive imposition, one has to figure in the illusion of numb, dumb, eyeless masses, their broad, squat bodies like parts of one great animal. There were just too many of them for any individual to be privileged over another - each one was significant only in its purpose - to hold up the floor.
Who Am We? (2000) is wallpaper made from a pattern of tiny ovals, which, on close inspection, turned out to be thousands of photographic portraits. In this show of increasingly individuated figures in the guise of the domestic (welcome mat, flooring, wallpaper), this final piece entirely defeats any attempt to disentangle individuality, as the portraits are too minuscule to parse personality or character.
Suh was born and raised in Korea and currently lives in the United States. Commentators tend to mention this fact early on, to introduce a discussion of the 'Asian-ness' of his art, which plainly needs to be addressed. Suh's work is often interpreted solely in light of his ethnicity, and its apparently transparent qualities certainly allows us to cop an easy feel - it's simple to use it to spin a reading about Asian authoritarian political systems, or invisible minorities and cultural dis-placement, or the sacrifice of individuality for the collective good. Also clear are Suh's references to the Asian stereotypes of self-abnegation and conformity, and the popular conception of the anonymous multitudes of which Asia is supposedly composed. In response, Suh, clearly delivers the goods, not only on Korean identity but also on the individual, whatever their ethnic flavour and stripe, within totalitarian regimes or other repressive social orders.
Leaving behind pure content analysis, Suh's art also takes on the late Modernist stand-bys of the grid and of accumulation, which he imbues with distinctly un-Modernist social phenomena. Another reading, one that more subtly butts up against Formalism, (Minimalism in particular), is that Suh matches content with form: the politically singular and multiple paralleled by floor-filling accumulation and repetitive coverage of walls. Partly because of its promise of more, the artist plays on the multiple's perfection - if there is one singularity, then there are also thousands. The tiny figures and portrait sitters must have quirks, crushes, solitary joys, suffer from flights of fancy and bouts of prolonged melancholia. Do their lives unravel or meander? Did she grow into the woman she hoped/wanted/promised to be, will he become the leathery old geezer his dad became? Suh floats out, with exquisite politeness, suspicions about how 'one' works with 'many', retrieving the singular and specific while fashioning legions and hosts and swarms.