Se Oh reconfigures their own pasts and presents—their Korean heritage, conservative Christian upbringing in West Tennessee, and queer identity (Oh uses they/them pronouns)—as delicate, ghostly objects into which viewers project and reflect themselves. They’ve lately taken shape as small, paper-thin porcelain vessels modeled after traditional Korean ceramics that were buried with the dead. It’s a deeply healing endeavor for Oh, who longed for a stronger connection with their Korean heritage. “As a gay man, I would never be admitted into the gates of heaven,” Oh says, reflecting on the palpable fear their parents held for them. “This triggered me to kill many parts of myself in order to survive as a queer adoptee, transplanted into not only American Southern culture, but also living within the Bible Belt.”
At their latest exhibition, which opens Saturday at Stroll Garden in Los Angeles, the ceramist is inviting us to follow suit. The two-part show opens with a ceremony beckoning visitors to write down a “little death”—a bad habit, for example—they have experienced down on incense paper, light it, and place it in a hand-painted vessel as 60 hand-thrown porcelain works look on from gallery walls. The second part, opening Feb. 29, kicks off with a ceremony debuting large white celadon-glazed porcelains whose forms mimic the likeness of Old Testament angels that keep watchful eyes as they reflect on the little deaths. “There’s been a lot of work involved because of the volume of ceramics,” Oh says. “I’ve been in a meditative space we’re emulating within the show’s presentation.”
They recently called Surface to talk about their practice, their porcelain, and what they’ll present at the shows.
When did you first become interested in ceramics?
Before the pandemic, my partner gave me a pottery class at a community studio, and in lockdown, I committed to having something to do. I got a wheel and porcelain and did nothing but play with clay and discover this visual language for four or five months. I made all these objects, so I did a market and met the painter Hiejin Yoo, who was curating a group show. We talked about my researching Korean ceramics and how I didn’t have much connection with my heritage. She asked if I’d like to put my pieces in the show, and two gallerists bought my work and gave me solo shows within a year. It was great to use my longing to connect with my Korean heritage as a motivator for the work. What I’m doing is potent because for why and what it’s doing for me, in a healing way.
And that research led to your interest in burial ceramics?
Our relationship to death in the United States is quite different from other countries. When I put together a show, I’m responding to spaces. Stroll Garden has these varied ceilings, two skylights. It’s a compressed space, almost like a tomb. I went to ceramist Raina Lee’s opening and she had altars on the walls, and the idea of burials popped into my head. I hadn’t done a show focused on humble ceramics—not showing wild glazes, not trying to scale up large, but focusing on a message. Korean funeral ceramics are small because they’re buried with the dead. This gave me a constraint to work with.
Tell me about your materials.
Ninety-nine percent of my work is porcelain derived from the only porcelain developed by an American, whose name is Tom Coleman. I don’t use many glazes—these are raw porcelain with cobalt oxide painted on. Three elements: porcelain, oxide, and fire. This trifecta creating one vessel felt streamlined and appropriate.
The vessels in the show commemorate a “little death.” How did you determine those?
My friends and I have talked about parts of their lives they let go, whether an actual death or a toxic relationship. Each burial ceramic represents those stories—hopefully, their specificity becomes a universal statement. It’s a sobering look at humanity and how we function as humans. Not everything is hopeful or positive, but that’s the reality of being alive.
Coming out of the pandemic, a lot of people learned how to fill their time and have a more fulfilled life, but now that things began opening up, they had all those residual habits and relationships they needed to purge. My friend’s parent died, but they had a great sense of peace. My oldest dog passed away, but she had a beautiful final day in a park she doesn’t usually go to because of her age. It was this beautiful thing of living in a body that right now is not serving you, and closing this chapter so you don’t feel pain or anxiety. The elegies are about letting go, to stop trying to fight and control. There’s a lot of work involved because of the volume of ceramics, but I’ve been in a meditative space we’re emulating within the show’s presentation.
We painted the space a very sweet kind of blue. We’re putting the 60 or so vessels on small shelves on a grid, so it’s not center stage. When you arrive, you’re given incense paper scented with chrysanthemum, traditionally used in Korean funerals. We’re asking people to write about a little death they experienced—a bad relationship, a bad habit, a new venture—on the paper. In the center of the gallery, there’s one hand-painted ceramic piece. People light the paper on fire, put it into the ceramic, and then view the show, an experience you can’t get with photos or video.
What will comprise the second part of the show?
It’s based on Old Testament angels, which have orbs with hundreds of eyes and wings. In Western cultures, we think about angels as watching over us and keeping a watchful eye. This second body of work will be your witness. The vessels are objects meant to watch over you. The ashes from those incense papers will be housed inside these witnesses, so people who acquire the work will not only be a shepherd of my vessel but a small portion of the ashes of these little deaths of strangers, as an echo or addendum to those first 60 ceramics.
“Elegies (Little Deaths/The Witnesses)” will be on view at Stroll Garden (7380 Beverly Blvd, Los Angeles) until March 30.
Studio photography by Brett Long. Gallery photography by Allen Chen.