Is a balloon still a balloon if it's made out of stainless steel? What if the balloon was made out of bronze? Would it transform the humble balloon into something worth admiring? What if the balloon held the breath and wishes of close friends and family? Would it take on meaning then?
These are some of the questions raised by contemporary Korean artist Gimhongsok, in his latest installation series Untitled (Short People). Currently exhibiting at the Kukje Gallery in Busan, Untitled: Short People is an installation featuring two independent works of art. On the floor, there are 8 balloon sculptures scattered throughout the space, whilst on the walls hang the Human Order series, a spray paint series consisting of 6, 2 metre high paintings. This post will be focusing on the sculptures.
Untitled (Short People) is an installation work made up of 8 freestanding sculptures. All 8 pieces have the same basic composition (a stack of balloons mounted upon a rock) but with key differences in their size, color, position and orientation. You wouldn't be wrong in thinking that these are mere balloons stacked on top of each other until you remember the most basic principle of the balloon: that they float. So how on earth are they staying grounded, let alone perfectly stacked? This work genuinely excites me because there are so many things at play here: it is all about tension, playing with disparities and questioning how you perceive and on what you place your value.
First things first- you think "but it's just a balloon?" Well, that's where you're wrong but you don't need to feel too bad about it. You're seeing these art-works online (rather than in person), so it's hard to gauge the materials. But more importantly, these sculptures seem to be designed to create that reaction. Let's explore how!
Firstly, the art-work truly begins with the act of an individual blowing up a balloon, thus sealing their breath inside before it is sent to be cast in stainless steel. In this particular series, the individuals who are donating their breath are acquaintances of the artist: "friends from elementary school, high school and college, childhood friends, relative, colleagues and students at the university where I teach." In his past balloon series' MATERIAL (2012), Gimhongsok asks his family to participate, proposing "that they blow up the balloons as much as possible with a single breath... During this act of blowing up, I asked them to think about one wish and put it into the balloon. The wishes translated into English as 'mother, achievement, travel, everyday wonders, rightness, interest, attraction and love." The first letter of each of these wishes creating the title MATERIAL. This is the intention of the first incarnation of the balloon series.
In the second series titled 8 Breaths (2013-), the artist re-develops the meaning of the stacked balloons- this time they symbolise the relationship between performance and labour, the art world and the factory. Reinterpretation of an idea, phrase or even an artwork (and not necessarily his own) is a key feature in Gimhongsok's work. This time the breath belongs to the factory workers from the bronze factory that the piece was produced in. In this way, you could view the series as a collaboration between the artist and those who help make the works come to life.
Then there is the matter of materials. The fragile, easy to tear material that we associate with a balloon is now reinforced in one of the strongest metals known to man: stainless steel. Not to sound too poetic, but you could view this process as a transformation of someone's breath/wishes, from something fleeting and temporary to something almost indestructible.
However, if you aren't in the mood for romance, then this also raises the question about what needs to be done to an object for us to see it as worthy of praise, admiration or even worship. This question is raised in a few different ways:
1) In taking a mundane object (such as a balloon) out of its normal context and placing it in a gallery, does it lose its meaning as a balloon?
2) By redefining the traits we associate with a balloon (i.e. if it no longer floats, pops etc), is it still a balloon?
3) Does an object have more value if it contains the traces of a loved one?
The artist does not specify an answer to these questions but leaves the interpretation up to the viewer. Although Gimhongsok is raising pretty profound questions about how we perceive things and how we choose to place value- it's done in such a bold, and playful way that you're left thinking "damn that was clever" and "wow, I couldn't have done that."
My notes about the artist:
Gimhongsok (1964) is a South Korean contemporary artist, who actively resists stylisation and "representative" works. In other words, he does not confine himself to a single method or style of art but finds power in using mediums as needed. I think fluidity best describes Gimhongsok- not only is he bold enough to play around with different modes of communication, but he is big on playing around with the meaning of things that already exist. Whether that is creating new meaning through the act of translation, reframing an ordinary object or material, or even altering the meaning of previous works (and not always his own). It seems to me, that Gimhongsok is concerned with the viewer's reaction to his art, and what questions they create for the individual. He does this in such a clever and playful way that once you gauge some of his intentions, you're left wanting more :')
Information I used for this post:
Further information on Gimhongsok:
[Banner Image: Gimhongsok, Untitled (Short People) - 6 balloons (2018) stainless steel, stone // Courtesy of artist and Kukje Gallery. Photo by Chunho An]