I (very) recently came across the work of Do-Ho Suh, an artist whose sculptures filled with hundreds of tiny figures pressing up and out at the world conjure up images of pressure and conformity, but also collective space and solidarity.

Do-Ho Suh "Public Figures"

Suh’s Korean origins are a major theme in his work – in particular he returns to the effects of compulsory military service on both an individual and a nation. A giant chain mail suit of armour that seeps out into a carpet: each link under foot is a dogtag, and all there is inside the suit is a mirror. His self portrait is a line of suits, each rigidly neat. Nostalgia for something hated, the memory of having been dehumanised, the trauma of militarisation across generations.

Other works explore the existence of a foreigner, and that thorny issue of where you consider “home” to be after half a lifetime spent as an im/emigrant. But its his works that make use of the tiny figures that have really captured my imagination. There is an obvious reference to communist propaganda iconography, but he’s doing more than shoot at that particular pop-culture fish in a, like, totally ironic barrow.

The figures stand shoulder to shoulder, arms raised high, backs and legs bent under the same weight. Literally holding up the viewer in some cases; in my favourite piece holding up the plinth rather than sitting on top of it. Their faces could be expressionless – or they could be relaxed. Other sets of figures glow, gently melting into sensual pools of light. Somehow they don’t seem to imply repression so much as solidarity, warmth. Suh himself has said he sees them as expressions of the crowd, as a comment on collective and personal space.

And yet… their tiny stature, the sense that they are a collective version of Atlas doomed to stand holding the world for eternity… There is no doubt these are also images of repression, of the endlessly replaceable little people who make world go round but are oh so easily trampled under foot. But is it repression through forced solidarity (collective dehumanisation), or solidarity as a means of pushing back against (resisting) repression? I can’t decide. And I think that’s really the point.

Detail from "Public Figures"

I feel I can’t leave it without mentioning Antony Gormley, given that I already talked about both his “One and Other” plinth piece, and his “Fields” project which makes use of thousands of tiny blobby figures. But I’m actually finding the similarity between the two artists quiet irritating. I always appreciated Gormley’s work, but seeing Suh’s subtle, multi-layered and frankly far more interesting sculptures, I’m starting to find Gormley a little smug. Perhaps its wrong to put two artists next to each other like this. But if we do, say for the plinths, what do we get? Much as I like the idea of selecting people to “become” art on camera and be broadcast live around the world, I can’t help but love the concept of the people taking up the plinth above their heads and carrying it off.

Advertisements