It’s easy to take things as they are. We accept the world as it is presented to us, as if that’s how it has always been. We adopt an English name when we are told to and welcome boundaries, both emotional and physical, which have been drawn arbitrarily by some powerful figures, without questioning them. Why? The Korean artist Kyungah Ham is one of the few who dares to challenge the status quo by using her own sarcastic humour and courage to produce works that are not only politically incorrect, but borderline illegal. At this year’s Paris Asian Art Fair, Asia Now, Ham showcased her latest work, Mona Lisa and the others from the North. This brought forward some unusual embroidery works from behind the Iron Curtain, as well as interviews with North Korean defectors that centred on the Mona Lisa, and their stories connected to the broader narrative of their life. Within this narrative, a new metaphysical and three-dimensional structure of the Mona Lisa was formed.
TEXT: Emmy So
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist
About the artist
Kyungah Ham works across installation, video, performance and traditional media. The lagacy of war is a recurring motif n Kyungah Ham’s art, in particula the division of the Korean peninsula and related government propaganda. Ham’s paintings and sculptures often conceal political messages, which may initially be eclipsed by the colourful and luscious style in which they are rendered. Ham enacts a dialogue that extends across the barriers of ideology and physical distance that mark South Korea relations with its northern neighbour. Ham’s work reflects both historical and contemporary episodes of conflict, and construct a strange and compelling mixture of propaganda, social activism, and personal memory.
The inspiration for the Embroidery project and Mona Lisa and the others from the North both came by chance. Although I am a South Korean, I don’t have any relatives in North Korea. Therefore, as close as our countries literally are, North Korea is still a mystery to me. But one day, in 2008, I found a propaganda flyer under the gate of my parents’ place. What lies between these two different worlds is just a 250 km long demilitarised zone, and the flyer must have been blown there by the wind. It was of a picture of the leader Kim Jong-il, embraced by Kimjoingilia flowers, which is obviously the national flower named after him. It was not the first flyer I had seen from North Korea, because ever since I was young, we’d find these propaganda flyers easily in my hometown. But the one I saw in 2008 was much bigger and prettier than the ones I had seen before. I could understand what was written on it, and yet it was so alien to me. The experience inspired me to create something in return. I want people in North Korea to feel what I felt.
Yes and no. What I wanted to do was to communicate across the border in an artistic way. I started to collect international and domestic articles about wars and terror and then revised their tone of voice into an antiquated North Korean style with Sung Ki-wan, the poet. I reconstructed drawings done by Iraqi kids who had experienced the war and these were humorously rewritten. I aimed to send the edited contents to embroidery labourers living in North Korea, and ask them to transform them into embroidery works through China. It was compulsory to go through an analogical process to deliver them, which is in contrast to the highly digitalised world in which people can access information with one click. I hoped that through their mundane embroidery work, the embroiderers would still have time to read the news and experience the new images and texts. But, unfortunately, the finished pieces were confiscated by the North Korean government! However, I was glad they had confiscated them when they were almost finished, as it meant the embroiderers had time to read everything that I had sent, which was the most important part of the work.
My second attempt was more successful. I included more emotional messages, such as ‘I am sorry’, ‘I am hurt’ and ‘Are you lonely as well?’ in the Needling Whisper, Needle Country Series. This was a more personal impulse to convey my own story, as well as to test the water to see if personal emotions could possibly be political or critical in a collective society. When the works arrived, it was obvious that the images of some of the works were hugely distorted. There were unexpected combinations of colours that were different from the original suggestions, misspellings and such. After that there was the Chandeliers series, the SMS series and Set in their studious corners, the players move the gradual pieces series too, where I confronted them with abstract images. I was interested in using abstract forms because of both the political and historical context of the advent of abstraction in the West. Moreover, as an artist, I want to create new realities in North Korea where abstract art is non-existent.
I have been doing the Embroidery project for 9 years now, and although I have had some success, the whole process is muddled up as a result of uncertainties and stresses. With the mounting tension that exists between North and South, e.g. the ROKS Cheonan sinking, hydrogen bomb test, etc., the works are never delivered on time as promised. There was abduction and monetary issues between the brokers too, so it has always been a mess! There have been so many miscommunications and mistakes, and I have changed intermediary a couple of times as they disappeared or even got executed! This was not because of my works, of course, as they were smuggling drugs too! So you can see how chaotic it can be. I can never really tell if I will see the final work or not.
Things are much smoother this time, as I don’t have to involve an intermediary. As I was working on the series of embroidery works of North Korea, I came across the embroidered Mona Lisa and a commemorative stamp. The moment that I saw the Mona Lisa made in North Korea was a sheer surprise, for it was generally believed that North Korea took an exclusive stance towards Western culture. The embroidered Mona Lisa, which was largely completed by a highly skilled master craftsman, created a unique image that is different to the original, and it impressed me a lot. I am curious about how this famous Western woman will be seen in a closed society where only State-admitted art forms can exist.
One of the defectors told me during the interview that the image of the Mona Lisa could still be shown back in the 50s or 60s, and students at the Pyongyang University would learn about Leonardo da Vinci. But when Kim Jong-il came to power in the 70s, he saw it as a symbol of Western culture and capitalism, and art students haven’t been able to learn about foreign paintings anymore since then. However, images of the Mona Lisa still circulate secretly in North Korea, like porn images back in time. It’s politically incorrect, but it still has its presence. One of the things that most defectors recount about their first impression of the Mona Lisa is the lack of eyebrows. And they are right, the Mona Lisa is supposed to have eyebrows, but they have been gradually eroded to the point that they are no longer visible. But in North Korea, the only portraits one can see are of the leaders! People couldn’t even have their own portrait at home. So I guess seeing a 16th century woman with eyebrows is quite a scene.
Exactly! I guess most of us are more familiar with the replicas than the original one, and the more replicas there are, the more famous it becomes. Embroidery is an encouraged and accepted form of art in North Korea, which is why embroiderers make the Mona Lisa for overseas clients. I have heard that they give embroidered portraits to leaders from other countries as gifts as well.
However, when people encounter my work, they just see the embroidered canvases. They might be colourful, they might be miraculous, but to me, the work is more about seeing the unseen, people who are still living behind the Iron Curtain. In this set of work, the Mona Lisa is more like a point of departure for the defectors to talk about and they then slowly reveal a broader narrative of their life. One defector in particular impressed me. He was the lead pianist at the state orchestra, one of the few who was privileged enough to study abroad and be exposed to Western culture. He learnt about the French pianist Richard Clayderman and was amazed by how complex the chords and progression of his music were compared to the music he knew and loved in North Korea. He wanted to play this music when he proposed to his girlfriend, but got reported by a fellow member and had to write a 10-page written apology. The betrayal triggered his escape because he couldn’t see himself as a musician who wanted to be there. Art has the power to enable humans to see through lies, doesn’t it?
You might think I am brave, but this always puts me under a lot of stress when I do it! But at the same time, I feel like this is what I need to do, you know? Museum Work is a personal response to the hypocrisy behind the superficial elegance. Many artefacts are indeed stolen / robbed by their countries, and yet they have no shame. So my work is, in a way, a little corrective project to make one see things in a new perspective. In Mona Lisa, there are two layers because the main goal is to show the embroiderers what is there in the world outside, rather than to show the audience what is going on in North Korea, as I am sure there are many sources of information nowadays.
I never communicate with them directly because it could spell problems for both ends. But the work itself reveals a lot about the situation in North Korea. Sometimes, a few groups of embroiderers have to be switched for the work to be completed. Sometimes, my blueprints are lost, so the work comes back completely different to what I had intended. Some images even become abstract without any planned details. But I would love to think that the message I send has, in a way, some impact on them. One lyric that really speaks to me comes from a K-pop song: ‘Perhaps I secretly longed for our liaison to fail.’ I used it in Needling Whisper, Needle Country with images of tiny twinkling stars and a chandelier. To me, individuals living in North Korea appear to be like twinkling stars in the dark. They do exist, but their reality is obscured by not only their political and ideological barriers, but also the murky window of the world’s understanding about them. Sometimes, I see evidence in the work that reveals subtle reactions to our collaboration and I feel like I have communicated with them. It feels like I’m wishing upon a star and it twinkles back.
But my work doesn’t stop there, you bet.
Emmy SO is an independent journalist who writes extensively on art and culture, lifestyle and luxury topics, for major publications like in Marie Claire, Ming Pao Weekly, City Magazine and online media Initium, and she is the author of book projects regarding art, design and architecture. Emmy spends her time both in Hong Kong and Europe, covering what is new in the continent and bring it back to the readers in the Asian market.