Welcome to my crazy garden

Making work that will be remembered in 10 years' time may seem like a big ask, but Seung Yul Oh's multimedia installations are meeting that challenge head on.

When I visited young Auckland artist Seung Yul Oh’s studio there was an old mattress, which looked like a giant tattered paperback, wedged between the branches of a tree on the roadside.

Oh”s studio and loft living space is in a light industrial building at the end of a leafy Mt Eden driveway and the mattress could have been arranged by the 24-year-old artist himself as an eloquent public statement about his practice. With two prestigious awards—the Goldwater in 2003 and the Waikato National Art Award in 2004, not to mention a major exhibition in February this year at Auckland’s Starkwhite under his belt—this Elam graduate seems destined for art stardom.

Like the mattress wedged so nonchalantly in its tree, Oh’s art works on an intuitive level, transforming everyday objects and materials into something unexpected. He compels us to take a second look and smile—or sometimes shudder with revulsion. For instance, his Rooftop Puddle series, 2005, included in Compelled—Annual New Artists Show at Artspace last year, resembled a conglomeration of intestines, bowels, sausages and worms made from foam and plaster that looked as if they were about to melt all over the floor.

Transformation is the key to his art. For him the bottom line is to digest daily objects and experience, making art that provokes an emotional response. “I’m working on a level just below the rational part of the brain that wants everything to make sense,” he says. “The best art is something you’ll remember in 10 years’ time.”

Seeing an object made from blue buckets and clumps of dismembered mop fibres on the floor of his studio, you realise how much fun Oh is having. “I like to see art as entertainment,” he says. “It has to have a sense of the unexpected.”

The bucket object could be a child’s toy, a Muppet-like creature or a surreal prop in a strange play. His fascination with ‘creatures’ and internal body organs (he once made a work titled Gall Bladder, which was inspired by the shape of a rocky headland at Whatipu on Auckland’s west coast) brings to mind the way children reanimate eggshells by drawing eyes on them and attaching matchstick legs.

Oh was born in Seoul and moved to New Zealand in 1997 when he was 15. He has lived in Auckland ever since. “My father had friends living in New Zealand and I had always wanted to move.”

As a child he remembers painting and drawing on his bedroom wall but the idea to become a professional artist came later while he was studying fifth-form art at Edgewater College and then crystallised in his sixth-form year at Pakuranga College. In 1999 he studied art and design at AUT and then enrolled at Elam in 2000. Interestingly, he says his casual, quick and low-tech approach is a typical Korean trait. “My work is made quickly like Korean buildings and bridges, which are always collapsing because they are badly made!”

Both his parents went to art school and his father used to be a sculptor; his mother a painter. Perhaps because of them Oh is passionate about craft and almost compulsively driven to experiment with materials.

“I don’t really have one big idea but I’m interested in humans’ ability to create certain things—buildings, machines, food … anything. I”m really open to the potential of my ability. By practically and physically making those things, I learn and study and move on to the next thing.”

A prolific artist, he first became known for his callisthenic, calligraphic paintings, which look as if they don’t quite know where they’re going. Peopled with cartoon-like figures and squelchy organic forms, they”re more closely aligned with drawing than painting.

“I’m very open to accidents and things changing along the way.”

The painting on plywood that won the Waikato National Art Award took its unlikely title from the side of a shampoo bottle and his recent Starkwhite exhibition had an equally bizarre title. CHEW CHEW Tongue was inspired by a Duke Ellington tune—Chew Chew Bubblegum. The title of a show at Special Gallery in 2004, Sniffing Onioned Armpit, is equally irreverent. All signal Oh’s love of pop culture and his playful approach to art making. Despite their hasty, improvised feel, the paintings are highly detailed, drawing the viewer into labyrinthine spaces where strange characters play out indecipherable dramas.

“They could be in a situation I want to experience,” explains Oh, who once told artist Dan Arps that he sees his own production in terms of eating and excreting.

While completing his masters in painting at Elam last year, Oh staged several exhibitions at Peter’s Garage—literally a garage in Karangahape Road. “I wanted to exhibit in a space that was outside the gallery system,” he explains.

One of these multimedia exhibitions impressed former Auckland Art Gallery curator Robert Leonard, who mentioned Oh’s name to John McCormack of Starkwhite in Karangahape Road. This led to an invitation to exhibit at the gallery and Oh says Starkwhite’s support has led to new opportunities.

In CHEW CHEW Tongue Oh took a highly experimental approach to Starkwhite”s large downstairs space. “It’s such an awesome space and I almost treated the space like a studio during the show. I brought in new work and took it away from the gallery—like moving house when you orient things in a new space to see how they will work.”

The room was divided in two when Oh wrapped glossy black plastic around two columns in the centre. On one side were large, slick Modernist sculptures and on the other round, organic paintings and small, hairy, blobby floor-based works.

Oh likens the structure of the installation, which combined contrasting shapes and surfaces—large and small, rough and smooth, internal and external, geometric and organic—to a large rock with intricate crystals growing from it. “The process of decision-making is constant—it never ends. I found making the highly finished objects in CHEW CHEW Tongue was quite a new challenge,” he says.

The highlight of the exhibition was the rippling wall of black plastic activated by light and air moving across its surface. Resembling an intensely optical painting, it reflected watery horizontal bands of light from the room and the street. Like the prosaic roadside mattress, this everyday object was transformed into something eerie and beautiful that stopped you in your tracks for a second look. It may well have been an artwork we will remember in 10 years” time.

Also part of the installation was a large plywood box from which came a discordant electronic soundtrack that sounded like a heartbeat. “I wanted to make it (the box) breathe and become a living thing through some kind of sound or vibration,” explains Oh.

The sheer variety of works and approaches in CHEW CHEW Tongue made it seem as if Oh was skipping lightly through different genres, challenging viewers to pin him down and categorise his work. Perhaps he was looking back over his shoulder and laughing … catch me if you can!

Not surprisingly he admires contemporary German artist Carsten Holler, whose work is laced with pop culture and one-liners and often involves audience participation. Meanwhile Oh likens his own work to a crazy garden with lots of different plants in it. “I”m interested in variety rather than repetition.”

One thing is for certain—that garden will be a place many people will want to visit.

Seung Yul Oh will exhibit work in a group show at Auckland Art Gallery in July 2006.

Virginia Were

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