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June 1, 2014 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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An interview with Seung Yul Oh

It seemed like a good idea at the time. An opportunity for an artist to talk about his work while engulfed by it. Or, rather, an opportunity to try and prove myself kooky and fun. I am neither. And trying can only lead to ruin. Or, in this case, a recording rendered inaudible by me attempting, for twenty minutes, to steady myself atop a room-sized inflatable mattress.

I am, however, drawn to novelty. Which, funnily enough, is what Korean born, Auckland based Seung Yul Oh deals in. MOAMOA is Oh’s first major solo show at City Gallery, organised in conjunction with Dunedin Art Gallery, and features a range of work produced in the last decade. ‘Moamoa’ translated from Korean, roughly means ‘to gather together’. Oh considers the exhibition to be a collection of disparate objects in dialogue with each other, and with the space they’re located in.

‘I have very multidimensional practices, I started with drawings and paintings and photography, then installations and sculptures… There are quite a variety of things [in the show] that doesn’t necessarily link together. It seems like a group show.’

The objects, however, share an undeniable interest in the bodily. A translucent PVC balloon hangs from the ceiling, bulging and squeezing around pillars and banisters, like pulled skin. Hyperrealistic bowls of ramen, three metres tall, made of glistening resin, invite at once hunger and unrest. The ongoing project The Ability to Blow Themselves Up is an example of Oh’s interest in creating works that demand a direct engagement, that invite as much as they repel – as balloons, blown up beyond capacity, explode in participants’ faces. The work also engages with a particular ephemerality consistent with Oh’s large scale sculptures. It demonstrates a body of work refuses to be still, that evolves and regenerates with each iteration:

‘I had an offer from both Dunedin Public Art Gallery and City Gallery to create a conjoint exhibition that would travel from one place to the other. I was really attracted to how an exhibition can fit into another space, to explore two different spaces and how they may change the same work, to reform it.’

I asked if he came across any challenges recontextualising the exhibition in City Gallery:

‘Not really… It’s been well planned with the two curators… [Now] we’re installing works here with great technicians, we’re sort of figuring it out as we go and making it happen. I really like teamwork. I wouldn’t be able to do this without the help of these people.’

This restlessness is present as much in his ethic as it is in his output, shortly after the exhibition opens, he is heading back to Korea to install two new projects, and in October he will stage a show at Auckland’s Starkwhite Gallery, ‘I really like to just carry on, and I’m curious to see what I can come up with.’

Oh first moved to New Zealand when he was 15, a decade and a half later, his time is divided between Seoul and Auckland:

‘It made sense for me to go back and be amongst other Koreans and, be able to communicate and share the culture with other Korean artists, Korean friends. Korea’s becoming a lot more international too, so the dynamic is like Auckland, but there are a lot more things going on, and it’s busier, so it really helps me to solidly my thoughts and ideas by absorbing more surroundings – rediscovering, reminding myself who I am and where I’m from. But obviously it’s always nice to be here. It’s where I started.’

Something interesting takes place in City Gallery’s promotional material for the show. They frame him, initially, as an artist succeeding in a commercial context. The show’s press release quotes an article from The Guardian, calling him ‘one of the rising stars of the Asian art market.’ He laughs when I repeat this, ‘That’s quite funny, isn’t it?’

One of the works in the show, Periphery – made up of yellow and white inflatable pillars, metres tall – was featured in last year’s Hong Kong Art Basel:

‘The project was curated by Yuko Hasegawa, from Japan, the whole project was called Encounters. I treated it more as a project in a public context than an art fair. I didn’t want to think too much about the commercial, about it as a commodity. I was thinking of the fact that there would be hundreds of thousands of people. I was thinking more of what they can take from it, the experience.’

The political potential in Oh’s work lies not in its investment in polemics. He says hasn’t until recently been interested the economic or political situation in Korea, nor here. He laughs again, and tells me he’s more interested in things that maybe ‘aren’t that important.’ Rather, it’s in the objects’ insistence on their own whimsy, the way in which they deliberately upset what an ‘art market’ is and who it exists for, their demand for an immediate, tactile response. It’s in the way works are built, torn down, and rebuilt somewhere else; pulling, squashing, in need of regular reinflation during their display period. It’s in the way things at once fit and don’t.

 

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