By Shannon Boklaschuk
Through her artistic practice, University of Saskatchewan (USask) graduate Julie Oh wants to challenge the way people view, and respond to, everyday objects.
During a recent interview at USask’s Kenderdine Art Gallery, where Oh is currently engaged in a one-month residency, the Saskatoon-based artist sat amongst 70 medical-grade oxygen cylinders. She rented the green metal canisters and installed them in the gallery in the Agriculture Building in advance of her upcoming solo exhibition, sesame, open yourself, which is set to open on June 3.
The oxygen tanks may be an expected sight in a hospital or laboratory setting, but they take on a different meaning, and spark a different emotional response, within the unexpected context of an art gallery. That is precisely the point; by changing the setting and placement of common objects, Oh’s work presents viewers with opportunities to see the objects, and their utility, in new ways and in new spaces.
“My work is driven by my curiosity to understand how objects work their way through the world,” Oh said in an artist’s statement. “Each project often expands from a single encounter or situation. When making new work I try to create a rupture in the appearance and impact of ordinary things. Most often they are found, and I don’t steer them too far from their natural state; minimal intervention is enough to cause a subtle short-circuiting of recognition and meaning. By refocusing the objects, they become powerful vessels for the human experience: mortality, labour, faith and freedom.”
Like people around the world, Oh has been contemplating the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic since 2020—and sesame, open yourself is her personal response to the global health crisis. Oh’s work explores contradictory viewpoints; she notes, for example, the oxygen canisters can be a force for good when employed in the treatment of respiratory illnesses; yet, lined up together in the gallery space, the tanks take on ominous human shapes, evoking images of disease, suffering and death. The history of the canisters is also of interest to Oh, who said some of them date back to the 1920s.
“It’s quite striking to see this many lined up against a wall,” said Oh, noting the canisters may look like weapons of destruction but can also symbolize medicine and healing.
“It’s a real double-sided meaning contained in an object that I was really interested in exploring,” she said.
Oh took video documentation as the oxygen cylinders were delivered to the gallery and has since been editing the video during her residency. When the exhibition opens, an audio recording of the chiming sounds that were produced when the canisters touched one another will be played in a loop.
Curator and fellow USask graduate Leah Taylor (BFA’04) said the air cylinders have become a sort of proxy for the human body, addressing the lives of those that rely on the objects for oxygen while also thinking about the current need for breathing machines related to COVID-19 hospitalizations.
“Moreover, Julie is interested in the history of the object itself and how that history is imbued with an energy, aura or a meaning that is often separate from its intended function,” said Taylor. “Julie works instinctually by allowing the installation of objects to each hold space within the gallery, offering an entanglement of conceptual readings that address the aura of their presence.”
Curious passersby have popped into the gallery to learn more about the objects and why they are there. Oh wants to have more of these types of impromptu conversations with members of the USask community before her residency concludes on May 27.
Returning to the USask campus is a homecoming of sorts for Oh, who earned two degrees in USask’s College of Arts and Science—a Bachelor of Science in microbiology in 2007 and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in studio art in 2009—before pursuing a master’s degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as a Fulbright Scholar. Since then, Oh’s work has been shown in solo exhibitions at the Dunlop Art Gallery in Regina and at PAVED Arts in Saskatoon. Her work has also been included in group exhibitions in the U.S., Turkey and Lebanon, and her installation, lines, was featured at Remai Modern in Saskatoon in 2018 through the RBC Emerging Artist Series.
Oh said her return to the USask campus has evoked a sense of nostalgia but has also prompted her to reflect on her own personal growth as an artist.
“It’s so familiar because I spent seven years here; it’s a long time. But you’re coming back with a whole new set of skills and a whole new understanding of what art can be,” she said.
Taylor described Oh as “an important part of the fabric of Saskatoon and Saskatchewan’s visual arts ecology” and said Oh’s residency and solo exhibition were timely selections for the Kenderdine Art Gallery given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the current residency and upcoming exhibition, Taylor had engaged in several studio visits with Oh over the past three years and had the opportunity to watch her work develop conceptually and materially.
“The latest body of work is poignant and responsive, as we’ve been grappling with a global pandemic and its many implications on society and health. Julie’s observations of these times, as seen in her work, felt both quiet and urgent,” said Taylor. “The aura emanating from her careful selections of everyday objects, along with their reconfiguration and placement, becomes both haunting and witty. She deconstructs and isolates pieces to allow them to transmit new ideas or readings that will ask the viewer to reconsider their own relationship to the object, such as a baseball home base plate.”
Oh said she often finds the objects that are used in her projects through her meandering walks through Saskatoon. Some of them, such as the oxygen cylinders, were rented; the cylinders for sesame, open yourself were chosen, in part, because they physically represent the emotional weight people have been carrying throughout the health crisis. Oh’s plans for the home plate—a weathered object that has taken on an orange hue through its exposure to sunlight—is to install it above the doorway of the Kenderdine Art Gallery, prompting viewers exiting the gallery to reflect on the concept of home as well as the passage of time.
“The rounded spots look like the sun rising and setting,” Oh said.
The home plate also echoes the shape of the entranceway to the Agriculture Building, where the Kenderdine Art Gallery is housed. With each of her exhibitions, Oh considers the architecture of the gallery and its subtle features and adapts her work “to the parameters of the space and context,” she said in her artist’s statement.
“I pay special attention to the relationship with the viewer’s body and the psychology of space and draw out these experiential elements in line with a new body of work.”
Oh’s work also involves combining objects together to create new objects infused with new meaning. For example, another piece installed in the Kenderdine Art Gallery is a front-end cover for an automobile inset with a dental molding. Oh, who grinds her teeth at night, needed the mouth imprint to be taken so her dentist could create a custom mouthguard for her. She became fascinated with the molded object and ultimately combined it with the automobile cover to represent the face coverings that people have been wearing throughout the pandemic—a way to unite people through shared meaning.
“We’re all experiencing this together,” she said.
sesame, open yourself will be on view at the Kenderdine Art Gallery from June 3 – Aug. 30, 2022. The exhibition will be accompanied by a take-away essay by curator Rose Bouthillier. An opening reception, along with an artist and curator talk/tour with Julie Oh and Leah Taylor, will be held on Thursday, June 2. The talk/tour will take place from 6:30 pm - 7:30 pm, with the reception to follow from 7:30 pm – 9 pm. The events are free and open to the public.