One night in May 1980, in Gwang-ju, Korea, the city was occupied by the army and martial law was declared. Every possible means of exiting the city was blocked. It was the beginning of a massacre. Hundreds of demonstrators longing for democracy were killed and thousands of innocent citizens were wounded. It was, however, reported as a riot caused by extreme communists to manipulate public opinion through the most influential newspapers. The rest of the world remained unaware and/or unconcerned.
Drawings, an exhibition of the work of renowned Korean artist Do Ho Suh, held at Lehmann Maupin, is a record of these days. May 18 is a collective trauma not only for Gwang-ju but also for all Koreans. Do Ho Suh calmly reveals the wounds through his unique large-scale rubbings. In fact, he fills two freestanding room structures with the rubbings from two actual rooms, respectively: an employee sleeping room from an 80 year old Gwang-ju movie theater and a dormitory room from Gwangju Catholic University. They are ordinary places that have been through the tragedy just like the ordinary people in Gwang-ju. He does not reveal anything verbally or textually about the horrors of that event. He just shows his pencil rubbings from the original structures with some recorded noise from the uprising. It is quite significant that this work was first commissioned by the Gwang-ju Biennale in 2012.
The title of his project is Rubbing/Loving. Both words are pronounced in the same way in Korean. For Suh rubbing is an action that embraces all the personal, cultural, and historic features of a space, a form of loving and a form of loving respect for those who made sacrifices. The colors of the rubbings are a type of balm for the lingering wounds Korean society experienced due to the horrors of May 18. It is a sort of caress. By rubbing the rooms he physically and emotionally touches the tragedy of Gwang-ju and reproduces it in New York, 2014, as if to remark on the fact that the ‘First World’ simply missed this tragedy the first time.
Another part of the exhibition is a video documentary that shows the process of making the rubbings. In this video he and his assistants cover their eyes with bandages while they work. It shows the situation in Gwang-ju during those days, when the city was completely isolated from the outside world, including fellow Koreans. Outsiders had no way to hear about Gwang-ju and the only news they learned from the mass media was that there was a riot by extreme communists. Suh’s blindness is a strong metaphor for the ability of repressive governments to literally keep people blind. Perhaps Suh is saying that even a people meant to be blind to the truth can, however, discover and document what really happened and meaningfully share this information. Of course he also knows that he cannot understand what exactly happened there – he cannot completely feel the true horror. He is just dimly rubbing -or loving- the wound caused by those days.
On the way out from the exhibition I found a rubbing of a suit of armor made with serial number chains from drafted soldiers. These soldiers are other victims of this tragedy. Those who were driven to suppress the uprising, not knowing anything, were actually our sons and brothers. They were anonymized with serial numbers, forced to wear body armor and mobilized to unwanted massacre. We are all perpetrators, and, at the same time, victims.
Do Ho Suh: Drawings at Lehmann Maupin
Sep 11 – Oct 25, 2014
540 West 26th Street and 201 Christie Street.
Article by Ban Lee