A new sculpture just off the National Mall is not a grand ode to a singular figure, nor does the piece feature the image of one person or recognize a specific historic occasion. It isn’t a monument to the individual—it’s a monument to the collective. The imposing structure, a work by South Korean artist Do Ho Suh titled Public Figures, stands nearly ten feet high, measures seven feet wide and nine feet long, and made its grand debut this weekend. Made from jesmonite, aluminum and polyester resin, the sculpture flips the concept of the statue upside down, as the artist emphasizes what’s beneath the pedestal base rather than what’s on top.

The piece consists of an empty pedestal, the place where a statue of a figure would usually appear, held up by dozens of small figures underneath it.

The work, stationed outside of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art in its Freer Plaza, will inspire passers-by to consider questions about the relationship between the parts and the whole and push them to ask who is chosen to be memorialized with monuments and statues.

Many monuments, especially those in Washington, D.C., are erected to honor a historic person or event. A recent audit from Monument Lab, a public art and history nonprofit, examined over 48,000 conventional monuments in the United States and found that “the commemorative landscape is dominated by monuments to figures who would be considered white, male and wealthy in our common understandings today,” and also that “violence is the most dominant subject of commemoration across the nation.”

“Given the larger national discussion around memorials and monuments, and their particular historical context and our rethinking of those histories, this work and the form of this work made particular sense,” says Carol Huh, the museum’s associate curator of contemporary Asian art. “Having that void on top of the pedestal hopefully will prompt some imagination and thinking about what goes on top of these pedestals.”

Do Ho Suh's "Public Figures" at the National Museum of Asian Art
Do Ho Suh's Public Figures features an empty pedestal held up by many small figures. Donny Bajohr

When Suh, who was born in South Korea in 1962, began work on Public Figures in 1998, he had been living in the United States for nearly a decade. In that time, he observed how the architecture of public monuments was entrenched in honoring the power structure and grand narratives. Suh wanted to move beyond the pedestal model of memorialization.

“In fact, I want to undermine the pedestal entirely,” he says in a statement provided by the museum. Public Figures displaces “the single, heroic individual by extracting the figure from on top of the pedestal and installing it below, reducing its size and anonymizing and multiplying it. When the viewer looks up, they encounter a void. As they look down, the stone of the pedestal gives way to many figures—a mass of people that both support and resist the weight of the pedestal.”

Public Figures is the first new sculpture to be displayed in front of the building in over three decades. Huh says that following the de-installation of a previous sculpture in 2016, the space has remained empty, waiting to be re-energized with another sculptural installation. An original prototype of the sculpture by Suh was exhibited in New York in 1998, but the version unveiled in Washington was commissioned specifically for the museum.

Suh is known for his fabric sculptures, room-size installations and large scale works that incorporate smaller figures, Huh says, and he takes time to understand the characteristics of a site. For Public Figures, that included helping select the type of grass used around the sculpture in the public plaza, and the horticulturalists at Smithsonian Gardens collaborated on plant design. Around the sculpture will be a band of mondo grass and then turf grass, as well as a perimeter planting bed with accent shrubs and perennial grasses.

“The grass is also conceptually important,” Suh says. “In Korea, we have a term, ‘mincho,’ which refers to the general public or oppressed people, it translates literally as ‘public grass’ because it never dies, it continually renews itself. There is extraordinary strength in collectivity.”

"Public Figures" 3
Public Figures, Do Ho Suh, jesmonite, aluminum and polyester resin sculpture, 1998-2023 Colleen Dugan / © Do Ho Suh, 2024. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Seoul, and London / National Museum of Asian Art

For Huh, the scene evokes a sense of resilience.

“Putting this massive weight on top of a seemingly large mass of unnamed individual figures on top of grass that will always spring back gives me kind of a hopeful note, an optimistic note or kind of productive note,” she says.

The physical location of the sculpture is also important to Suh. “Conceptually, the exterior of the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art is the perfect location for this work, and I am so excited about its placement in Washington,” he says. “It feels so powerful to have a work that challenges monumental orthodoxies in such a prestigious location, at an intersection of Eastern art and Western museum practice.”

Public Figures had been on the museum’s radar for more than a decade, Huh says, and the National Museum of Asian Art has featured other artwork by Suh over the years. In 2004, Suh’s Staircase-IV, which showcased steps made from red nylon fabric, was included in the “Perspectives” series of exhibitions.

The museum hosts public festivals and events for visitors throughout the year at the Freer Plaza, and having Public Figures at the center can evoke a sense of collaboration and a collective approach, says Nicole Dowd, the head of public programs at the National Museum of Asian Art.

Dowd says she’s a “big fan” of Suh, and the sculpture speaks to her own personal learnings about Korean culture and the ideas around collectivism, gathering and identity.

“I myself am a Korean adoptee,” Dowd says. “So, I grew up in this country, but there is something really evocative of his work, like ideas of home and a kind of longing.”

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