Walking the streets of downtown Cincinnati, it is easy to miss Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Center (CAC)—especially to those on the lookout for the free-flowing parametrically derived forms. The CAC is something different. Boxy and monolithic, its gallery volumes give way to a generous interior lobby that is surprisingly porous. Views up through the six floors of galleries are pierced by a continuous thread of stair runs. It was here in the lobby that an inspired Do Ho Suh met with curator Steven Matijcio, embarking on a two-year journey that has led to Passage, a landmark survey of the Korean artist’s work.
Suh’s work is a deeply personal exploration, mapping identity, memory, and his reflections on the idea of home. The artist—living transnationally among Seoul, New York, and London—produces work that strides between the intimate space of the individual and collective networks that bind us together. Passage contains a remarkable range of media: Six new pieces are dispersed alongside drawings, videos, architectural models, and Suh’s iconic, highly detailed “transportable fabric” sculptures.
While it is easy to become seduced by the quality of objects resulting from various mapping techniques aimed at documenting abstract memories and emotions, the most compelling aspect of the exhibition is not Suh’s artwork. Rather, it is the ways in which Suh’s virtually constructed spaces seem to haunt Hadid’s architecture. Traversing the galleries through a continuous staircase system allows Suh to take the visitor on a path through his personal history. Ghostlike forms float in the background behind the CAC’s powerful massing. Suh’s videos mutate from a solitary screen along a vast gallery wall to an immersive projection, which literally envelops the viewer. At the terminus to the exhibit, a dead-end corridor invites potentially lost visitors to reflect on their understanding of home.
A significant example of the dialogue between Suh and Hadid is how Suh’s fabric sculpture Reflection is revealed to visitors. We first stumble upon the sculpture almost accidentally. Turning a corner, a blue archway modeled after Suh’s childhood home hangs upside-down overhead—its ornate roof tiling and decorative wall patterning conveniently at eye level. A fabric ground plane conceals the remainder of the sculpture, which is revealed only upon leaving the gallery. Here, we finally see the entirety of the piece. A doubling of the image consumes nearly the entire volume of the gallery below. A changing of perspective, enabled by Hadid’s architecture, reveals new views into Suh’s world. Continuing to exit the galleries, one must walk through the hallway of Suh’s New York stairwell, as if leaving his apartment before continuing down Hadid’s stairwell. Suh’s works in these cases have been carefully arranged to heighten the reveal through a careful juxtaposition within Hadid’s circulation system. Walking through the CAC is temporarily no longer about experiencing Hadid’s space, it is about experiencing Suh’s.
Another key moment occurs on the upper floor where limitless virtual space is explored. The stair, leading to the upper level of the exhibition, begins in a dark space enclosed in fabric where models of vernacular houses from Suh’s life have been grafted into foreign contexts. Exiting the room, the viewer is presented with a series of multicolored fabric rooms, becoming narrower and narrower, until dead-ending in a video area where a camera steadily moves, drone-like, through the streets of Korea. A sense of discomfort arises. First presented with loose hand drawings, Suh’s work has a mechanistically precise quality deeper into the exhibition. When this initial fuzziness gives way to precision, our senses heighten as we try to process the details. It’s as if Suh’s memories are becoming clearer as we proceed—or as if the separation between virtual and physical is not so distinct.
At times, Suh’s work feels uneasy and foreign in Hadid’s building, while at other points along his “passage,” the work feels strangely made for her space: “magically site-specific” in the words of Matijcio. Perhaps this is a result of aesthetic differences in their projects. Suh’s use of color as an organizational strategy—a mapping tool to communicate geographical information—activates Hadid’s muted museum palette. Hadid’s broad, sweeping architectural gestures play nicely with Suh’s borderline obsessive attention to detail. Both are motivated by a utopian ideal: The museum as a central meeting place open to the city, and the search for humanity’s deeper collective unity.
Compelling art exhibitions are able to ground the viewer and offer an immersive engagement with the subject matter, while allowing space for moments of self-reflection and imagination. This is where Passage succeeds. By pairing Suh’s work with the fundamental diagram of the building, Hadid’s CAC has been suddenly activated and transformed. The dialogue produced by these two architectures—one embedded into the city, the other momentary and fleeting elevates both the work of the architect and the work of the artist to an excitingly synergistic level. When it all comes down on September 11, 2016, perhaps the real question will be how Hadid’s galleries will feel once the nebulous images of Suh’s past have vanished.