Gupoom: Seung Yul Oh and the Moment of Explosion

It was one of his first works, but it’s also always one of his next. Seung Yul Oh started his cumulative video project The Ability to Blow Themselves Up as a student at Elam School of Fine Arts in the early 2000s, and has consistently added to it ever since. Oh’s practice has morphed and developed considerably over the intervening decade. The Ability to Blow Themselves Up captures all of these shifts despite the fact that its central premise—the filming of participants blowing up a balloon until the point of explosion—has never changed.

The video project in its entirety now operates like a retrospective, revealing the various phases of Oh’s practice. Early iterations co-opted fellow students and lecturers as subjects, were often filmed in dingy studio settings, and exhibited in even worse ones.[1] There is a subsequent shift to a broader pool of seemingly more circumspect yet better lit participants as galleries and collections embrace and facilitate the project, as Oh’s work ‘becomes public’. Then the reach becomes even wider, with participants drawn from the bustling streets and galleries of Seoul. The different locations, languages and cultures now embedded within this project signify Oh’s growing profile and presence in Asia, as a key figure in the cultural traffic between Korea and New Zealand. Wherever Oh goes, exploding balloons seem to follow. When awarded the Harriet Friedlander Residency by the Arts Foundation of New Zealand in 2010, Oh fittingly changed the tone of the ceremony by leading the seated, formally dressed audience through a collective balloon-blowing experience.

The Ability to Blow Themselves Up has become one of the most highly visible and regularly exhibited works of recent New Zealand art.[2] Its hypnotic 14-second repeated loops, quick cuts, and exploding-balloons-as-gunshot soundscape also constitute a constant presence in a practice which otherwise moves restlessly across media, forms, and contexts. Yet far from providing a stabilising element, the video amplifies all the nervous energies and controlled chaos that characterises Oh’s art. It ignites a series of possibilities centered around testing the relationships between audience and artwork, artist and artwork, and artwork and space that shape Oh’s entire practice. His work constantly intervenes in and unsettles the terms of these relationships, to set up a very particular form of embodied experience—one encapsulated in that deceptively simple act of filming people as they blow up a balloon until it explodes in their face.

Oh’s description of his practice as ‘a conversation with materials’[3] reaches beyond his own intuitive acts of making. This is a conversation Oh urges his audience to partake in, even be subsumed by. The video captures, and is essentially about, that highly charged moment when the audience meets the artwork and the artwork meets its audience in ways impossible to predict or control. In its material form at least, the work is made and unmade within the space of a few seconds, dependent entirely on the energy and lung capacity of its participants. The explosion itself is of far less importance than the shared experience of Oh’s participants, who, rather than being cast as passive observers of the art object, are made both subject to and part of its acts of creation and destruction. This moment of encounter, which Oh’s practice constantly asserts, is where the power, excitement, and danger of art resides for both artist and audience.

This enmeshing of the audience within the video’s own processes of creation and destruction replays in different ways throughout Oh’s art. He constantly rethinks and refigures the role which the audience can play in relation to the work, how each may embrace the other. It is an ongoing concern, which, when too narrowly defined as ‘participation’, can threaten to downplay Oh’s specific exploration of different modes of encounter, making, and materials. Oh’s industrially made ‘hard’ sculptures, for example, may lack the loud participatory call of his soft sculptural installations, which beckon the audience into a direct mode of engagement. Yet they offer a different set of possibilities for encounter and exchange, played out through minimalist form which always carries a trace of its historical standoff with the audience.

PokPo (2010), an impossibly oversized fiberglass mouse on its hind legs, both stands for and offers itself up to the modes of experience Oh extracts from hard sculptural form. Mice play a privileged role in the veritable ark of creatures real and imagined within Oh’s art. Always situated in direct relationship to other sculptures which dwarf or threaten them, mice serve as stand-ins or stunt doubles for the viewer and their physical relationship to the art object. PokPo is one part of a sculptural double act. Its partner object—a gigantic matchstick-like form—is always installed in the opposite corner of the space.[4] Frozen in an act of awed contemplation, the mouse reaches out for this object, forever beyond its actual grasp, but asserting an irresistible imaginative pull. The installation dramatises the power Oh invests in his static, hard sculptures, to keep the viewer at a physical distance from the art object but to transport them elsewhere, across gallery space and potentially beyond it.

Oh always treats physical space as imaginative space, a realm waiting to be activated through the art object. Like PokPo, Guulddook (drape) (2010) promotes rapt contemplation as a form of active engagement. This fiberglass resin sculpture is presented as a material sleight-of-hand, a trick performed for its audience. The sculptor’s act of material transformation turns an everyday fabric covered box into an experience, something to behold. The minimalist surface is made to perform for its audience.

Oh’s cartoony mice only become friendly and appealing through a similar act of sculptural transformation. He positions these static creatures in the gallery knowing that even the most adoring viewer would likely recoil in horror if a real mouse darted across the room. Like the explosion of the balloon, the appearance of the live rodent would constitute that moment of rupture that unsettles and transforms experience. Oh’s work always seeks to impart such a jolt, often through bringing real world forms and experiences into the gallery and transforming them into something other. Often this transformation carries darker associations behind its apparent child’s play. The video’s exploding balloon symbolises elements of the human condition related to creation and destruction, life and death, which are likely far from the mind of the project’s participants as they start blowing.

By rendering the surface of the art object permeable, Oh’s recent inflatables and installations shift the terms of sculptural encounter. The large, space-hungry inflatables of the Huggong family (2013) remain ‘look but don’t touch’ propositions (even if they expand these possibilities to include looking through and from beneath, as well as around). With Periphery and Sphere Square (both 2013) Oh presents multiple objects as environments to be walked through and clambered over, offering the experience of the artwork from the inside out. Creating their own spaces, or spaces within spaces, these works need to be entered and negotiated on different and individual terms. Periphery metaphorically shrinks its audience and immerses them within a vast, forest-like environment of form and colour. Sphere Square empowers the visitor to stride colossus-like over a mythic landscape, or alternatively simply slink into an oversized beanbag.

For all its call to participate, and its bright, colourful forms, a work like Periphery is far from a simple playpen. It is an environment which can be as threatening as it is playful, a space in which one may feel lost, claustrophobic, swallowed by colour, form and light. It is as if one has been locked inside a hard sculpture or one of Oh’s trademark bright bands of painterly colour, and can’t find a way back out into the real world.  Periphery induces those same feelings of anxiety and potential threat as The Ability to Blow Themselves Up, where the viewer is cast adrift, at the mercy of the art experience and the art object. There are times where Oh comes across as prankster, establishing situations for his audience to encounter and then sitting back and watching the action unfold—allowing them to explode balloons in their own faces. In both works the audience is asked to perform, for the benefit of the art object, the artist, and each other. Performance anxiety subsequently shifts from the artist to the audience. The failure to explode the balloon, the inability to blow oneself up, becomes a constant pressure applied to the participant.

All of these encounters are underpinned by the trust relationship Oh continually builds and tests between artist, work, and audience. The participants in The Ability to Blow Themselves Up trust fully in the project, abiding by its set terms and conditions, even when taken to a place of vulnerability normally reserved for the artist. Periphery does away with all established rules for gallery protocol and behavior, placing the institution in the vulnerable position of needing to trust fully in the vision of the artist and in the actions of its audience. Visitors don’t get off lightly either, and need to trust in the safety of the work and in each other. Like many of Oh’s works, Periphery makes a social space for collective play or action. Yet the surprise and necessarily intimate encounter with another body in such a tightly enclosed space provides another of Oh’s trademark moments of rupture.

This trust relationship extends in all directions. Oddooki, a five piece work originally commissioned for the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa’s Sculpture Court in 2010, up-scales and multiplies a Korean self-righting toy. These half-chicken, half-egg hybrid forms extend their own ‘what came first’ joke by holding yet another form within themselves—a bell which chimes as the sculpture is rocked. As with the excessively loud and explosive soundtrack of the video, here, and in other works, sound is used as an element to disrupt and transform visual experience. Odooki is a ‘performance sculpture’[5], dancing with or for its audience. Here Oh literally puts hard sculptures in the hands of his audience, in that position of vulnerability. This vulnerability is amplified when work is positioned beyond the gallery, as with this case at Te Papa’s Sculpture Court, or with GlobGob (2010), a permanent public sculpture in Newmarket, Auckland. Dispatched to the outside world, these sculptures inevitably become subject to less controllable elements such as climatic conditions and overzealous forms of engagement.

As his practice is essentially about what you can get away with as a maker and a consumer of art, Oh works to keep all possibilities for engagement and transformation live, for both artist and audience. He does not see these two positions as distinct, always nudging his audience towards creative actions, while often locating himself within or at least alongside the audience gleefully encountering his art. Oh appears in front of the camera as anonymous participant in The Ability to Blow Themselves Up as well as standing behind it as named artist, refusing to miss out on the experience the work offers his audience—while providing the audience with the opportunity to contribute to the work’s making.

Oh’s overarching approach to form and materials is similarly improvisational. Everything starts off as doodling, itself somewhat akin to the act of blowing into the balloon until the inevitable yet always surprising result occurs. The inflatables extend this improvisational response into new territories, as essentially a form of sculptural doodling in space. An inflatable form is filled with hot air until it occupies and transforms architectural space in ways impossible to fully predict or control. By reaching a point just before explosion, creating a weightless volume, the inflatables hold rather than collapse space and matter as the exploding balloon does. Rather than calling Oh’s two modes of sculpture hard and soft, it might be better to consider them weighted and weightless, with each striving to achieve the qualities of the other. The hard sculptures often cluster, balance or perch acrobatically or precariously, suggesting a lightness that defies their materials and finish. The inflatables, in contrast, are weightless, and need to be restrained to avoid floating away. Yet they command and take over space in ways normally reserved for monumental, ‘weighty’ sculpture.

A gleaming metal tower reaching for the ceiling, Lot Lot (2013) appears at first glance to belong to the monumental sculptural tradition. Yet it quickly reveals itself to come from the more precarious category of everyday experience. Oh’s homage to hastily stacked service trays in busy restaurants and the bustling art of the wait team, the sculpture is made up of layer upon layer of identical stainless steel bowls, reaching a seemingly impossible height. The use of found materials is important, but, like those other processes of blowing into a balloon or doodling on an empty page, it is the almost performative act of stacking which here takes centre stage. Lot Lot pushes sculptural form to its limits, carrying the sense that it has been stacked one or two layers too high, that it is uncomfortably close to a dramatic and noisy collapse. Oh’s work often seeks out this sense of a tipping point, as though it has been pushed too far, too high, too tight, and is hovering at the point of collapse or explosion.

Oh’s earlier work refused to keep this sense of danger and chaos in check, exploding the boundaries between good and bad taste as well as that line between creation and destruction. In paintings like Brambly Brim (2006) and Mong Mong (2005-2006) the inner workings of the human body meet the outer skin of the painted surface. The treatment of the paint suggests bodily fluid—dripped, poured and played about with on roughly prepared surfaces. These heavily congealed and cooked up surfaces anticipate the resin swirls of the later noodle bowl sculptures, and offer an early take on Oh’s ongoing interest in connecting the consumption of food with that of art, both forms of sensual pleasure and bodily gratification. His installations from this time similarly sought to turn the body of the institution inside out. Oh’s contribution to 5 4 3 2 1: Auckland Artist Projects (2006) created a living and breathing form from ventilation shafts, air ducts and other industrial objects, works that sat exposed within gallery space rather than being hidden behind walls. Unlike the later inflatables, breath was here expelled from, rather than held within the sculptural object.

While Oh’s painting and sculpture has gone through a process of refinement over recent years, it has not shed its core interests and values. The inflatables are far more elegant than the early installations, but work similarly to transform experience through playing with the interior and exterior realms of the sculptural object and the room that can be made there for the audience. His recent slickly minimalist paintings explore the concept of borders or windows between worlds. These interests are not too dissimilar from Oh’s earlier and far more chaotic bursting open of the painterly surface to share its messy contents with the body of the viewer. Oh’s practice continues to be directed at transforming the passive space of the picture plane, or the sculptural surface, or the empty gallery, into the active space of embodied experience by presenting a family of objects to be pushed through, listened to, crossed over or blown up.

As subject and concept, ‘the explosion’ guides much of the operation of Oh’s practice, especially those relationships it establishes between artist, artwork and audience, and the spaces where they all meet. For Oh, the explosion is a symbol of that transformation of the real and the everyday into the beautiful and the wondrous, a power he invests in everything he does. His practice is driven by a belief in and pursuit of the transformative power of art: its ability to turn the everyday into the magical, passive experience into active encounter, the individual into a collective, the mundane into the profound. This is all encapsulated in that moment—repeated in the video and threaded throughout Oh’s entire practice—when the balloon explodes, time stops, and the world changes.

Published in Seung Yul Oh: MOAMOA, (Dunedin and Wellington: Dunedin Public Art Gallery and City Gallery Wellington, 2014), 25–40.

[1] The video was first shown at Spiral Gallery (2003) and St Kevin’s Arcade (2004).

[2] Over the past two years The Ability to Blow Themselves Up has been exhibited at all four of New Zealand’s metropolitan galleries. Showings include: Made Active, Auckland Art Gallery (2012), Moving on Asia: Towards a New Art Network 2004-2013, City Gallery Wellington (2013), Seung Yul Oh: Huggong, Christchurch Art Gallery (2013) and Seung Yul Oh: MOAMOA, A Decade, Dunedin Public Art Gallery and City Gallery Wellington (2013-2014). The video is also exhibited on CIRCUIT Artist Film and Video Aotearoa New Zealand (

[3] Warrick Brown, Seen this Century: 100 Contemporary New Zealand Artists, A Collector’s Guide, Auckland: Godwit, 2009. P71.

[4] PokPo was first exhibited at Artspace Auckland in 2010. It has been reconfigured for the two different gallery spaces in Seung Yul Oh: MOAMOA, A Decade.

[5] Accessed 15 January 2014.