HongSeok Goh can’t see. But he can make the invisible visible.
“To me, air is like a building material,” he says. Goh captures air, bends it, folds it, shapes it, contorts it, gives it color and heft.
As a blind artist, he says, balloons are a perfect medium for him — a medium that turns mere air into something everyone can see.
On Friday, this remarkable balloon artist from South Korea opened his first-ever installation in the continental United States. It’s an elephant and a turtle, in a kaleidoscope of colors, at Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum.
“He creates visual works of wonder, through his own imagination and his inner eye, for the rest of us to see,” said Rebecca Hoffberger, the director of the museum. “It’s wonderful, when there’s this art that we’re all familiar with from our children’s birthday parties, that takes it to such a scale that it boggles the mind.”
Goh built the elephant and turtle sculpture, which is more than 20 feet long, with a team of six balloon artists who came with him from South Korea and two American balloon artists. They started work on Saturday and finished in the wee hours of Thursday, after working til about 4 in the morning. On Friday, the sculpture opened to the public.
During the construction, Goh slept just two to three hours a night. “I see this as a responsibility and a mission I’ve been tasked with. That’s really what’s driving me. In my mind, I can always sleep later,” he said.
That mission that drives him so fiercely is manifold: He’s representing Korea, since his trip to the United States is funded by a grant from the South Korean government. He’s representing artists with disabilities. And perhaps the role he feels most passionate about — he’s representing balloons as an art form.
“My hope is that this will be the start of a balloon art revolution,” he said, through a translator. “Eventually there will be more exhibits with balloon art. It will get the respect and prestige it deserves.”
In Asia, he makes his living building whimsical balloon decorations for shopping malls, corporate events, parties and the like; his incredibly precise and intricate latex-and-air creations would never be considered worthy of an art museum. When he got the grant to travel abroad and started looking for a museum to house an inflatable installation in the United States, he found much the same attitude here.
Then his plea for a space made it to the desk of Hoffberger at the American Visionary Art Museum. At this unusual museum, balloons fit the bill. Every artist at this museum must be self-taught, as Goh is; many of them also create despite disabilities, and use unusual materials. Hoffberger didn’t see balloons as too temporary for a gallery; in fact, she thought of balloons as having great longevity compared to bubbles — because yes, she knows a bubble artist.
“Here is, in many ways, a work of art that’s like a beautiful sand castle. It’s not meant to live beyond a short length of time,” she said about Goh’s balloon sculpture. “It reminds us that the greatest joys are always, always just in that moment. You can give people a lesson that it’s the purity that you bring to every action that really, in the long run, counts the most, because none of us are going to take any object with us.”
Hoffberger offered Goh a barn with plenty of space to house his installation, and even found a friend with a nearby townhouse who could host the seven Korean balloon twisters. She brought over blankets and extra toilet paper herself. She was thrilled to watch the skilled balloon artists at work, as they started twisting pieces of the project from almost the moment they first arrived.
“It’s the same kind of love we can put into a meal, or a garden,” she said. “It’s shifting people to not say art is valid because we can build a monument that will pass from one generation to the next. That can be great. The pyramids are wonderful, right? But at the same time, there’s another kind of artistry — it’s all about process and intention versus just product.”
That all being said, Goh and his team did go to great lengths to make this sculpture last as long as possible. It’s meant to be on display at the museum for at least 30 days, an extremely long time for a balloon sculpture.
To make that possible, they double-stuffed every single balloon, a time-intensive process of putting one balloon inside another one over and over, even the very thinnest. They also filled each balloon with Hi-Float, a liquid sealant that makes for quite a mess if a balloon does pop during the handling. Before the opening on Friday, they climbed on a ladder to spray every little facet with another chemical to help it keep its shine.
Addi Somekh, a Los Angeles-based balloon twister who once starred in a cable TV reality show about balloons and who worked on this project, marveled at the level of difficulty of Goh’s designs. “I’ve been twisting for 26 years, and he had to teach it to me,” he said. “There’s a level of integrity in his work that’s mind-numbing.”
Goh came up with the concept of the two animals to represent the cosmos — the vast elephant for space, the methodically plodding turtle for time. Every shape and color was chosen for its allegorical value — the elephants’ four legs in the colors of the Korean flag, surrounding the turtle with stars on its head for the United States; the huge ears meant to evoke black holes, on either side of the unfurling dragon that serves as the elephant’s trunk and also as a symbol of the expanding universe.
Goh started losing his sight as a teenager due to a virus that attacks the optical nerve, he said. He is now 45 and has very little vision; he expects to go completely blind in a matter of years. In his 20s, he started looking for a creative way to support himself despite his vision loss, and he hit on balloon twisting.
Along the way, he has developed a global reputation and has even invented balloon techniques that artists thousands of miles away now incorporate in their work. Goh is modest about his impact despite his significance in the balloon community: “My techniques come out of necessity, since I can’t see how other people do things and replicate them,” he says. “I’ve never thought of myself as innovating for the sake of innovating.”
Most balloon construction is tactile, much more like sculpting than painting. It’s when it comes to colors that Goh relies most on the opinion of outsiders; he usually consults his wife for help selecting the color he wants. “She’s my eyes, basically, as far as color goes,” he says.
He has artistic sensibilities even about parts of the sculpture he can’t experience. For the elephant’s head, for instance, he said, “I thought white would be a better representation of the universe, instead of thinking of it as something dark and empty.”
That’s what he has created in Baltimore: a swirling, shifting world of color and shape. A vision made visible, a universe from thin air.
This post has been updated.