There was a time when I thought Kyungah Ham’s works were funny, the reason being the fact that her works are all action films featuring the adventures of a persona—the artist herself—who confronts the world all on her own, almost like in a Buster Keaton or 007 film. Talking to Ham about her works, you’re bound to hear about the countless challenges and crises she overcame, stories that seem to take up more than half of all work descriptions. Her works unfold in the forms of a mini-blockbuster or an adventure that transgresses multiple spacetimes. She records events and captures scenes while traveling across the globe, from Paris, London, Berlin, Tokyo, New York, and Seoul to everywhere else including Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Hawaii. Most of her themes come in contact with epic narratives such as Western colonialism, war, capitalism, and the impassable spacetime that is North Korea. Watching the artist incessantly planning and executing these projects by herself, I can’t help but think of Don Quixote, charging the giant invisible monster all by himself. What’s interesting is that just like 〈Don Quixote〉, her action films all stem from trivial moments in her life: that one moment at a museum in Europe when she realizes that the works on display were forcefully taken from other countries, or that moment when she found a propaganda leaflet sent from North Korea via helium balloon on her doorstep and wondered if she, too, could send something over the border. The story soon takes a serious turn when the protagonist starts to cross lines to put her thoughts into action. In 〈Chasing Yellow〉, she chases down and interviews people wearing yellow items, following them around parts of Southeast Asia, the United States, and Europe, while in 〈Museum Display〉, a set of an archival exhibition and video, she steals things while traveling across the globe, replacing one object with another stolen object, and even brings stolen objects back to showcase them. In each of her works, the artist is on the move like an intelligence agent on a secret mission or a journalist on the verge of a major breakthrough, obsessively delving into a particular topic, gathering related information, or making inferences.
Don Quixote: turning imagination to reality
There’s a huge gap between one’s idea of something and the actual subject of the idea. An attempt to bridge or mend this gap generally renders an outcome far-removed from the original idea or the expected findings. To a traveler of life and time, responding to or reflecting on the unfamiliar world is inevitably an act of defining one’s own life. An exploration that begins from a trivial curiosity or question soon reveals the extensive net of truths tied to the small clue, unearthing the angel or the monster that’s been lying beneath the surface since the ancient times. But alas, not everyone can see the angel or the monster. They’ve already become too assimilated to the world and therefore are hardly distinguishable. Besides, to be able to discern them, you must walk the kind of path that takes decades to reach a neighboring location, maybe cheat a few deaths, all while encountering the charlatans, the fortunetellers, the hunters, the boatmen, the children, and the ghosts along the way. To avoid becoming one of them yourself, you must keep reiterating that trivial question that had you embark on this journey in the first place. You must remember, not what lies ahead in the end, but what was at the beginning of it all.
Going back to the story about the North Korean propaganda leaflet, Ham travels to China in 2008 and finds intermediaries who would put in embroidery orders to anonymous artisans in North Korea. She delivers a series of designs with text to be embroidered and asks that the artisans really chew on the messages. Each order takes more than a year to reach North Korea and return with the product, so the artisans obviously have enough time to think about the messages. Not only does Ham invest high cost and effort into these missions, but she also risks her own safety. In the process, some of the early works got confiscated by the North Korean government, and one of her intermediaries even went missing. Watching the process of this illegal cross-border-spy-manufacture-smuggle horror show that has taken place since 2008 with South Korea, China, and North Korea as its stage, it’s hard not to marvel at the artist’s conception, not to mention the bold execution and drive that would easily put the National Intelligence Service to shame.
Switching objects: the ethical conundrum
In Ham’s works, objects switch places through third-party intervention. Put differently, Ham’s works are consequently about “delegated” subjects. Not only in her embroidery project but also in her early works such as 〈Chasing Yellow〉 (2001–2002) and 〈Honey Banana〉 (2006), subjects like “yellow” and “banana” represent things cast out from everyday life—those placed on the outside of a boundary to begin with. “Yellow” hints at the Western view of Asians (though deliberately obscured in the work), and “banana” points to the labor and capital associated with Asia’s mass production and distribution of the fruit. The subjects’ definitive flaws, encountered in the context of post-colonialist life, naturally place the subjects on the outside of the ordinary space and time; therefore the artist is able to put on a performance of crossing the border in search of them. Within this structure, life isn’t something voluntary but becomes something projected, distorted, or duplicated. This renders true not only for Ham’s own life but also for others’ lives as well. If “yellow” is about Ham, placed inside the scope of others’ perspectives, “embroidery” is about an Other’s perspective delegated by Ham.
I was personally disinclined to Ham’s “stealing.” 〈Museum Display〉 consists entirely of footage of Ham displacing objects. What motivated this project was her experience of European museums—the British Museum, the Louvre, the grand spaces filled with colonial-era trophies harvested from around the world. The fact that these relics and artifacts were intensively relocated at one particular point in time is anything but natural. The question of whether the countries of their origin were capable of preserving them is beside the point. In a sense, these museums are the results of national-level pillages that have been rationalized by the cultural rhetoric that is art history. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to justify the artist’s act of stealing trivial objects from them as a historical parody.
On a different note, if you look back at how Ham as an artist has torn down the boundary between her life and work, compulsively acting upon her awareness within the frame of performance, you come to rethink the nature of the “risk” in her works. There are unmistakable elements of “risk” associated with every work of hers, and the risk isn’t just limited to physical danger; it includes the kind of danger that threatens the very institution of ethics. Her ethically dubious pieces (e.g., performing in a police uniform in central Tokyo without approval for which she gets locked up, putting in an embroidery order to North Korea at the risk of several people’s safety as well as political and penal repercussions, or carrying out the “stealing performance” as mentioned above for as long as she did) ultimately, and undoubtedly, hold the artist herself liable. This is an important issue in contemporary art. We already know of numerous contemporary artworks that dance around the ethical line.
Santiago Sierra’s works, for example, executed with illegal US immigrants as the medium, are evaluated as having crossed the line no matter how much they were intended only to reenact the wrong. What’s important is if the artist, while putting on such unethical performance, proposes a justifiable or overriding reason that would account for the risk. In other words, it has to be a case where art intervenes on reality only because reenactment falls way too short of addressing the real issue. In that sense, 〈Museum Display〉 falls right on the border. Containing footage of obvious “theft,” this piece plainly analogizes the fact that the whole institution and history of museums are built on the grand, systematic, seemingly institutionally accepted nescience that suppresses people’s consciousness today. The objects that have be relocated (stolen) ultimately end up inside a glass case of another museum, and when we think of museums this way, we should realize that most of the cultural and artistic protypes we adore and consume embody a fundamental flaw because colonial logic of power no longer applies or definitively presides among today’s world. Instead, if this kind of analogy semantically charges the subjects that have been made into enemies, that would be because such logic of power is still omnipresent in today’s world. And in that case, the most “appropriate” way to reenact the logic of power is plain, real-life “theft.” I sometimes picture Ham getting sued by the restaurants from which she stole the fork or the teacup or getting arrested. But then, life does sometimes render exceptional outcomes. I imagine that the plaintiffs would be the kind of people who would rather make better anecdotes out of their losses. Just as the museums of powerful countries have conspired amongst themselves to blur the line between pillage and art history, individual theft could be blurred with art.
Self-filmed noir: tracking down the trail of clues
One-person chase is a big recurring theme in Ham’s works. They comprise series of investigations, interviews, dot-connecting, and relocation. She collects hints and finds scattered clues to complete the “view with Persian carpet,” criticizing monopolized social phenomena. Sometimes, the case is ridiculously simple and is solved without much effort. In 〈Bulls with Citizenship〉 (2010), for instance, the bullfight announcers openly mobilize ethnic emotions as the bulls are dragged into the arena as countermeasures to national identity—which has nothing to do with them—to bleed in a battle. Sometimes, the arduous investigation ends with just gazing at the discovered subject from afar. The mythical statuettes on the rooftops in east Paris in 〈Rendez-vous〉 (2004) are installed to remind of the war with the country where the train leads to, and the artist merely zooms in on them from afar.
The process of her self-questioning and self-answering reaches a level of obsession from time to time. 〈The Odessa Stairs〉 consist of found objects the artist picked up outside of a former president’s residence—garbage taken out to the roadside after a bathroom renovation. Ham goes through the garbage and categorizes it to deduce how each object was used and what meaning it holds. (There is really nothing there, but the garbage is so incessantly described as important just because of its origin.) She exhibits it on large steps made of plywood, and, as a finishing touch, names the steps as the birthplace of the Russian Revolution. “The Odessa Steps” is a famous scene in Sergei Eisensteins’s film 〈Battleship Potemkim〉 and the main stage of the historical event that primed the Russian Revolution. The syntagma of this piece reads like “the president who came to power through coup d’état—thrown out garbage—Russian people’s revolution—the slant of the steps—victims rolling down the steps.” The abstractness of the objects is derived from their relocation. The shabby objects turn into symbols, and combined with the new stage and title, they become a complex, multi-layered structure with an unfathomably complex inner narrative.
Kyungah Ham’s Cinema
The one condition under which Ham moves, questions, and delivers messages and objects is “covertness.” That is, she has to be selective about which questions handed to her she will answer, or she will omit a large portion of her answer. People tell her things—stories lined with truths—and ask that they be kept a secret. The North Korean embroidery project, for instance, is based on the premise of discretion from the very beginning. There’s the covertness inevitable due to the nature of the project that transgresses the North Korean border, but there’s also the underlying covertness provided by the artist, derived from the open scenario of how the message would be received by the North Koreans. The text consists of banal song lyrics, advertisement copy, and hackneyed phrases, but the pretense that they’re to be read by North Koreans establishes circumstances as tentative and conditional as cracking a tweaked yet open code. The messages will be read into with discretion. Meticulously camouflaged by flamboyant images, the statements “Greedy is good” or “Money never sleeps” are bound to be interpreted as seditious even if they’re read outside of any context. The 〈Abstract Weave〉 series that references American abstract artist Morris Louis’s painting—a style considered imperialistic in North Korea—hides tiny little embroidered texts under the colorful strips, turning the entire piece into a cloak. The suspense that comes from this discrete unfolding of narrative is something only achievable through cinema. Ham says that there have been people who suggested that she resume her embroidery project in China or Korea, but what’s key for the project is not the embroidery but the cinema.
We use the expression, “like in a movie.” Korean people say “You’re making a movie” or “Stop filming” as an expression equivalent to “Stop being dramatic.” We tend to associate surreal or extremely visceral reality with film. In Ham’s case, the film is herself, and it deals with her excessive, overdramatic response to the world. Her obsession, suspicion, and immersion lead to investigation, curiosity, voluntary illusion, identification, and chase. The artist’s body creates suspense like a trigger of a gun. For about a year beginning in 2008, she produced the blue and white porcelain series. These porcelain pieces were recreations of murder weapons such as an AK-47 or an M16 on which Adolf Hitler’s romantic landscapes were drawn in the form of blue traditional patterns. The syntagma of “identity-hostility-romanticism-monster” is so schismatic that it creates an abyss of self-denial—a small black hole. These weapons are fragmentized stories and at the same time, self-portraits. The porcelain takes over the weapons’ bodies, which are then painted over with mythic tragedy disguised as romantic scenery. The slightly altered weapons reveal tension not through their muzzles but through their bodies. Kyungah Ham’s cinema is one of the excessive tension and pain engraved in her body like in John Ford’s westerns, and simultaneously of the outcome of the vigorous performance triggered by the tension and pain. It’s cinema that also backs up Ham’s paintings and sculptures. As such, it can’t be the other way around.
A professor at the Kaywon School of Art and Design, an art critic and former artistic director of Media City Seoul (2012). Recent curatorial activities includes the 2014 Super Romantics, for the Daegu Art Factory; Better Than Universe, with ZKM for the Daegu Media Art Festival 2013. He was a juror on the TV Show Art Star Korea in its first season in 2014. His PhD is from University of Paris VIII, Saint-Denis.