Written by Mara Holt Skov
In this untitled transparent glass bowl, Korean artist Do-Ho Suh has offered up a delicate yet powerful statement about gesture and generosity. Embedded in the base of the bowl is what first appears to be a complex topography of rises and depressions that we soon recognize as the ghosted relief of the artist’s cupped hands. It is as if they were brought together to cradle the fragile vessel itself, but also to hold its contents and to offer it up to us, his audience.
Though this piece exhibits all the classic qualities of great works of craft—sincere intention, beautiful materials, and captivating form—it also has much to teach us about how to animate an object through interaction, or the suggestion thereof.
As a teacher of design students, the absent hands are particularly interesting to me because I believe that Suh has employed the ancient medium of glass to reflect one of the most important aspects of contemporary design today: interaction. Whether the artist recognized it as such, this piece is inherently an interactive object. Though it has no push buttons or touch sensitive screen, Suh’s bowl requires the hand to complete it. Because of this, it has much to teach designers about intention and engagement, about presence and absence, about sincerity and empathy.
Interaction is the rising design discipline of our present moment. The term refers to the realm of computer and machine interfaces in which we control every aspect of our world by tapping, typing, expanding, and swiping, all with the tips of our fingers. Though these seemingly effortless actions enable us to perform what would have been considered magical acts even a decade ago, the gestures of interaction design have deep roots that stretch well back into human prehistory. In his essay “What is Design,” Japanese designer Kenya Hara reminds us: “When our ancestors began to walk erect, for the first time both of their hands were free. Putting these free hands together would make a vessel…as we ladle water with our hands from a mountain stream, so did they…the original form of a vessel…functions precisely because it holds emptiness.”
Suh’s bowl is a vessel that functions because it holds emptiness as Hara suggests all vessels do. In fact, it is doubly empty—the belly of the bowl and the impression of the artist’s hands in the base are both voids to be filled. But this emptiness is not the emptiness of despair; it is the emptiness of possibility, an emptiness that is inherently hopeful.
Suh’s vessel is to my mind a perfect response to our contemporary condition, in which so much of what we experience is offered up as fleeting images accessed with our fingertips through glossy glass surfaces. Now more than ever, we need fully-formed, three-dimensional objects such as this that we can engage to remind us that we are human, and to connect us with the gestures of our distant past.
Though we know that human hands, (and intelligence), are behind nearly everything we make, we rarely see the marks made by those hands. Suh’s bowl reaches out to us as a formally simple yet conceptually complex reminder that the hand is present in everything we make, even when the hand is not.
Mara Holt Skov is an adjunct professor at the California College of the Arts and an independent curator based in San Francisco, CA. Previously, Mara and her husband, designer Steven Skov Holt, curated Manuf®actured, an exhibition and Chronicle Books publication, for the Museum of Contemporary Craft.
Image: Do-Ho Suh, Untitled (Glass Bowl), 2004, Hand-blown glass, 6.5 x 9.5 inches diameter; Courtesy of the Reed College Art Collection, Gift of the Peter Norton Family
Photo: Micah Fischer, ‘13