Julie Oh relies on instinct; an uncritical trust of feelings elicited on a first encounter. The Saskatoon-based artist collects found objects which are often commonplace and recognizable to many, and then initiates a period of sustained engagement with them. Very little of the object will be physically altered during this time. Instead, Oh looks to isolate an encounter, providing the audience with an obscure and novel perspective. In this new light, it is almost as if the familiarity of Oh’s selected objects is exactly what makes them seemingly so foreign — it is a practice that lowers the partition between these two outwardly opposed conditions of perception. Through this understated gesture, Oh contemplates more far-reaching questions regarding the relevance of context, value, perspective, and engagement.
I first encountered Oh’s work through the documented performance accompaniment of the installation lines, a piece she produced in 2018 as part of the RBC Emerging Artist Series at the Remai Modern. Oh, with the help of 3 others, transported an elongated piece of wood moulding from the window of her second-story apartment to the gallery. Once there, the moulding was installed in uncommon locales beyond the “gallery” portion of the gallery, such as in the elevators, or hallways. lines embodies the nature of Oh’s practice well; it asks audiences to re-assess and re-imagine the shape, potential and value of an object, while encouraging dialogue around the venue of art and what distinguishes the marginalia space of a gallery’s architecture. Oh and I discussed the weight of interpretation, intention, care, as well as the different direction her practice took with the recent solo exhibition Tunnel, Air, Mother at Dunlop Art Gallery Sherwood, Regina.
"I consider myself as a meddler of these objects...there is another life to be had with these objects, and all I'm doing is providing a path to the secondary life that they're meant to fulfill."
With a practice that revolves around found objects, it seems that you would have to invest a lot of attention in states of interpretation and in feelings like spontaneity, absorption and intuition. How do you harness those different conditions?
Hmm, I mean, it's very fast. Sometimes it's really just a click in the brain like, Oh, that hit the spot, then I will document it and move on to another object. So, there's an assertion and confidence in that first moment of encounter where something clicks, and I've been trusting that instinct for the past ten years with all of the objects. When I was just starting to get into this way of working, I think I realized that I was probably going to have to do this for many, many years to show some sort of consistency in the way a mind might work. The kind of objects I work with are so varied and disparate, and because of this, people might have a hard time relating to the work – it can seem very distant – but the continued effort has been there from day one.
Are you saying that the audience may believe there is distance between you and the object? Whereas, in reality, it's a very long-term and connected process for you.
Not so much between me and the object, what I meant was that the work might seem a little bit stand offish because it doesn't look like anything has been done to it.
Right, and of course that’s the whole point. I actually wanted to ask you about the element of interpretation on behalf of the viewer (as it is the vehicle through which they come to an understanding of your work). I wondered if at first you consider yourself an audience of your artwork, and whether something shifts once you make the decision on how your interpretation should be resolved?
I liked how you phrased it — do I consider myself an audience of my own work — but maybe it's better to frame it in a way that I consider myself as a meddler of these objects. Because I'm obviously not leaving these things alone. They captured my attention out in the world and I'm doing something to them. I didn't turn a blind eye. I'm meddling in the sense that, there is another life to be had with these objects, and all I'm doing is providing a path to the secondary life that they're meant to fulfill. I almost consider them as a living thing, but they are just things—they don't have brains or conscience or a mind—so they need some sort of a prompt from another being, and that just so happens to be a human.
Emotion Wand, cracked glow sticks in their packaging
Speaking of a secondary life, do you ever consider the future lives of the objects you engage with? Beyond the one you’ve mentioned — is there a third potential? Whether that means for them to go into someone's home or going back to where they came from…
I think the third potential is the audience’s imagination after they leave the gallery – how they would encounter things on their own, and imagine things in their own minds. It is as if visiting the show was just an example, but there is endless potential in the real world. In terms of the art object and where they end up after… They all just go back to my mom's house, as storage or stored materials or something. Her house like a museum on its own. [Laughs].
Wait, so does that mean you are a keeper of knickknacks?
No, I actually think this is why I live such a minimal life and I don't have any knickknacks. My work is all knickknacks, so I try to have minimal things in my day-to-day life.
Smart, I don’t have so much self-control… To return to this idea of intention, you suggested that you want the audience to have their own imagination about the object, but do you think they should be concerned with your intentions?
I let that go many, many years ago. I'm never going to be right next to you when you look at the work, so I’ve let go of that control. This has, I think, worked for the better. And even sometimes, when I have this kind of discussion — like interviews or even giving artist talks — I wonder: Am I doing more harm than good here? Am I adding anything, or am I just ruining it? Sometimes my thoughts don't come out the way I mean for them to, or sometimes I don't make sense, and my words may be doing harm to the work rather than making the meaning more legible. I don't know, but, I live in a small city and I like talking about art, so I guess I’m just trying to find an outlet for it.
Mopping, 2019 at Dunlop Art Gallery
When we last spoke, you introduced the idea that your practice (or at least elements of it) could be observed as gestures of care toward the objects being engaged with or exhibited. Particularly, you were speaking in relation to Mopping (2019), a video produced as part of your recent solo show Tunnel, Air, Mother that took place at Dunlop Art Gallery, which depicts you mopping the floor of the exhibition. You mentioned the relevance of making the exhibition space feel cared for before the show opened, and I wanted to have you elaborate on that. What does a gesture of care mean to you, do you think there is a specific way it’s produced?
I think I was probably speaking specifically to that one video piece. I think it was just about caring for these objects that don't usually seem to have much value, yet nonetheless, we live with them and they are a part of our lives, always in our periphery. And so, it was about giving my time and attention to them as a way of caring and a way of listening. To listen to what these things have to say is an act of care.
There's something very “everyday” about those gestures — cleaning up after a space, or preparing it to be presented. It is caring for all the work that I put into it and the objects coming from my mother's house; almost as if it was another space in my mother's home that I'm just cleaning up... For some reason, doing that performative gesture really hit home for me, it was one of those decisions of oh, I need to do this, and I need to record it on video, and this is a piece on its own. Those are the decisions I'm making in situ that are even more powerful than the other pieces that I've been working towards.
It sounds to me that that was an actual gesture of care, not just the performative gesture of “here's what caring might look like”. It’s really just instinctual.
Yeah, and the floor needed to be cleaned regardless. When I told the curator, Jennifer Matotek, that I was going to do it she was like, “You're going to what?” She was just so surprised, and maybe a little bit moved by the idea of the artist mopping the floor, but I think there's something very natural about it.
Baby Powder, baby powder, medicine cabinet. Installation view from Tunnel, Air, Mother
Butterfly, found object from my body
Would you say that you place great value onto the space itself?
Yes, I think more so in recent years, because having a whole space to play in has been a very new affair in my practice. My work had been in group shows for years leading up to this, and so when I finally had the opportunity, I realized space was really like another material here.
In order for me to unlock these objects, I need to have this other element. I mean, these objects have to go someplace, right? So, it's of equal importance. How these objects are going to measure up, how these objects are going to live in a space, it's all integral to the work as a whole.
I wanted to get into the “commonplace”, or “familiar” a little bit. Historically, you've worked with things that you're just finding and maybe don't necessarily have an initial relationship with, but with Tunnel, Air, Mother, it was largely based within a personal familiarity. What is your relationship to the familiarity of these objects?
It’s crucial, but, it's a very wide-ranging invitation of familiarity. It’s a way of almost luring people in, that is like, “Oh, yes, that's an umbrella. I know what the umbrella does but… why is it positioned that way?” The familiarity is almost doing the heavy lifting for me, because it's a process of understanding something.
Rather than choosing something alien, you're veering more towards the “I know you already, but I haven't necessarily looked at you like this”.
Right, and I don't go as far as to the extent of making it unrecognizable either. You always know what is in front of you, but there's something like a weird energy happening underneath.
And then specifically in relation to Tunnel, Air, Mother, what does it mean to you that these objects are coming predominantly from your mother’s house?
In a way, I think that project was to give myself a little bit of a break. I just got a bit too overwhelmed by the immensity of the world, of all the things that are available. I wondered, if I narrow down the context a bit, what could come out of that? And I also wanted to do it because who knows how long I'll be living [in Saskatoon]. I wanted to look into that aspect of my life, of caring for my mother while I was still here, so the time was right.
Do you think that this altered your practice slightly? Because it seems to give it a different skew on a narrative, there's a very specific story being told.
Yes, I'm using all of the tools I’ve acquired over the years for every object that I find at my mother’s house. So, the gesture and all the qualities of interventions have all been practiced but obviously it's of another individual's belongings. In a way it's almost like a two-person show, you know? It's like she's done half the work by collecting all of these things, which confuses the authorship a bit. I like the idea of me being led by something, of being pulled by something. To follow rather than lead. That’s why I liked the idea of using my mother’s things, what she collected, what she kept around.
So what’s next? Do you think sourcing from a familiar place will be something you return to in the future?
I think I like working within a set — a very specific set: my mother's home. The set gives a tight parameter, and then you can run wild within that parameter.
The above conversation was conducted by Toronto writer/curator, Kate Kolberg. Editorial support by Juilee Raje. Frontis image: still from lines, courtesy of Julie Oh