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The South Korean artist Do Ho Suh is celebrating the opening of the first exhibition in Europe to explore his drawing practice. Do Ho Suh: Tracing Time, at National Galleries Scotland (NGS): Modern One in Edinburgh, is his first institutional show in the UK since 2002, and includes over 100 works many of which have not been shown before.

Suh, 62, who has been based in London since 2010, is best known for his architectural “hubs”, detailed life-size reconstructions of parts of his former homes made from translucent fabric. He tells The Art Newspaper he has only recently realised the importance of drawing in his 30-year practice: “That type of realisation comes with age, I guess.”

Installation view of Do Ho Suh’s Staircases (2019)

The drawing exhibition approach proposed by Stephanie Straine, the senior curator in Modern and contemporary art at NGS, was “perfect timing”. “The desire to show all these works in a bigger exhibition context was brewing, so I accepted without any hesitation.”

The exhibition brings together works from the last 25 years, from large-scale “thread drawings” to tiny ink sketches from his pocket-size sketchbooks. These he regards as so private that even his team have not seen them. After being hand-carried to Edinburgh by two of his staff, they were kept in a locked cabinet until being placed in a sealed display case for the show.

Do Ho Suh’s Self-Portrait (2014)

“I did feel a bit vulnerable to share those drawings,” he says. “Maybe I was too protective about it, but it feels like the sketchbooks contain everything in my life, they are like a diary, there are so many personal notes inside.”

Suh grew up in Seoul and studied traditional Korean painting before moving to the United States to study sculpture and installation at the Rhode Island School of Design and at Yale. He came to international attention when he represented South Korea at the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001.

In a key early work, Seoul Home (1999) he made a life-size replica in fabric of the traditional Korean ‘hanok’ house in which he grew up. The themes of his work have remained consistent: cultural displacement, memory and home, the relationships between architecture and the body and between the individual and the collective.

Small houses are a recurring motif in his sculpture: they were wedged between two tall buildings for the 2010 Liverpool Biennial, balanced on a footbridge for Art Night London in 2018, and perched at an angle on the top of the Jacobs School of Engineering at the University of California, San Diego.

Do Ho Suh’s Hub, 3rd Floor, Union Wharf, 23 Wenlock Road, London N1 7ST, UK (2016)

While he uses drawing to work out the engineering challenges associated with projects like these, it is also a key place for the raw expression of ideas, often in a whimsical or humorous way. “Most of [the drawings] are questioning very profound things like how can I make things out of nothingness? Or what are the minimum and maximum dimensions of personal space? Or when does personal space become collective space? You cannot directly translate them into the sculptural pieces, but they are very deeply related. They capture the essence of my thoughts.”

Straine says works on paper trace a line through Suh’s practice, the drawings, the (previously unseen) rubbings he made mapping the interior of his home in New York, the paper casts of his school uniforms. She said: “In the West, we still ascribe a hierarchy to media and associate drawing with preliminary work. But it can be the source, the realisation and the resolution as well. For Suh, it’s a thinking space and a space to allow collaboration to take place.”

A key moment in Suh’s practice occurred on a residency at STPI Creative Workshop and Gallery (formerly Singapore Tyler Print Institute) in 2009. “My first residency was for three weeks and I couldn’t come up with any ideas, I was wasting my time! One of the staff suggested to me to make a drawing out of thread, so out of desperation I started to make a drawing. It was totally unexpected, it really unleashed something.”

Do Ho Suh’s Karma (2015)

He has continued to return to STPI, evolving a process of making thread drawings by sewing on to gelatine sheets and then dissolving the gelatine in a water bath so the stitching becomes embedded in paper pulp. He says the spontaneity of the work is a welcome contrast to the precision required for his sculptures and installations.

“I need to manipulate the thread with the water. You don’t have total control. In my sculptural and installation pieces, there is a lot of engineering, a level of precision, there’s less room for chance. That’s why I think painting will never die out, because the medium allows you to explore and be open to chances. Ultimately, I think that’s at the core of art making.”

Do Ho Suh: Tracing Time, National Galleries Scotland: Modern One until 1 September

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