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Kyungah Ham

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Ham Kyungah

Ham Kyung-Ah (1966~) is an artist who tenaciously delves into the crevice of contradiction and irrationality while challenging the rules and taboos of the system hidden within the solid shell of reality. Her work occasionally initiates from spontaneous ideas and later completed with long-term time, labor and cost. Ham blindly follows people in yellow clothes, whom she comes across in various countries in Asia, and she examines the significance of society, culture, and religion embedded within their lives. The artist also explores Asia and Europe to trace the background of the price meltdown of bananas, produced in Southeast Asia. Ham collects wastes disposed of the former president’s house to metaphorically depict the tragedy of Korean modern history, and parodies the shameful history of imperialism with the objects collected (stolen) from all over the world. She accidently finds a propaganda leaflet in front of her house one day, and this becomes a momentum for Ham to work with embroidery craftsman from North Korea, conducting a tabooed communication. In this way, Ham Kyung-Ah consistently reveals the layers of the curved meaning latent in the slick epidermis of reality.
 

Tae Hyunsun (Senior Curator, Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art)

Other Side of Reality/Reality of Other Side

Ham Kyungah perpetually seeks to delineate the hidden aspects of society that influence the lives of individuals. Although many contemporary artists actively criticize systematic and institutional power, Ham Kyungah stands out because of her audacious spirit and relentless actions. For example, after becoming somewhat obsessed with the color yellow, she spent years traveling to various Asian countries and following random people who were wearing in yellow. She then made a film of interviews investigating the cultural, institutional and religious implications of the color yellow (Chasing Yellow, 2001). In the video work Honey Banana (2006), she exposed the harsh reality of the banana trade in East Asia in the 1980s, revealing how the sudden drop in the price of bananas—once considered a luxury fruit and a symbol of wealth in Korea—was tied to the tyranny of multinational companies and to huge capital under neo-liberalism.
These relentless actions are triggered by Ham’s insight into the whole truth of various phenomena. In her works, she unravels the clandestine but inexorable inner workings of reality, weaving a rich new narrative in the process. Her art is always embedded with poignant themes, as she applies her piercing insight to disclosing the full context of the (in)visible, including the inevitable loss brought on by power and capital, the helplessness of the individual under social and governmental power, the irrational essence of reality, and the bitter irony of history.

Hidden Faces of Power

Ham Kyungah’s critical themes are particularly evident in Odessa Stairs (2006), wherein she constructed a staircase from old plywood and discarded doors, and then arranged miscellaneous items on the stairs: a bidet, a chair, a loudspeaker, golf shoes, carpet, tiles, a shopping cart, etc. The catch was that all of the items had been discarded during renovations to the private home of a former president of Korea, the last leader of the military regime who had been one of the key figures in the armed crackdown on the Gwangju Democratization Movement. Ham had personally gleaned all of the objects herself from the street in front of the ex-president’s house. The title alludes to the famous scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin, and Ham furthered the reference by placing the shopping cart precariously on the bottom step, recalling the runaway baby carriage from the film. Hence, the work clearly correlates the massacre committed by Russian soldiers with the violent repression of the Gwangju Democratization Movement.

The original scene in the film is renowned for its exceptional use of montage, an effect that Ham recreated by using an assemblage of random objects, the banality of which belies the infamy of their owner. Of course, items representing the power and status of a former president are unlikely to be cast out on the street, so Ham found only ordinary objects that could have come from any household. As such, rather than reconstituting the secret life of a powerful man, as viewers may have anticipated, the work simply reveals him as an ordinary person. The irony is thus produced by the gap between interpretations, and that irony enables the emergence of multi-layered, divergent, and even contradictory meanings, thus elevating the work beyond a simple analogy.
In his review of Odessa Stairs, critic Park Chang-kyong pointed out a bitter truth about history: “That which has triumphed over former powers and authorities has not been disclosure or propaganda, but time.” This idea seems particularly apt in relation to another of Ham’s major works, Museum Display (2000-2010). This work developed from Ham’s growing awareness that the vast collections of internationally renowned museums usually include numerous cultural heritage items that were stolen during the imperialist era. Moreover, thanks to tacit acquiescence and complicity, such looting has been treated with increasing leniency over time, eventually being justified in the name of “art.” In response, Ham planned and executed her own artistic retaliation, which consisted of a brilliant parody, in the form of a copycat crime. For almost a decade, Ham visited major museums around the world, each time pilfering small items (e.g., tea cups, plates, and spoons) from their cafes or shops. For the exhibition, her collection of stolen goods was carefully arranged and displayed in a glass cabinet, with each item labeled with the time and place in which it was “acquired.” Thus, along with providing a kind of provenance for each item, the labels also represent the artist’s bold confession of theft; of course, none of those renowned museums has ever dared to issue such an admission. Museum Displaysummons the plunder of imperialism into the present, even if the statute of limitations on those crimes has long since expired. By reenacting such plunder through another illicit act, Ham seeks to expose both the bare face and the dark side of cultural imperialism.

Conversing with the Invisible

Ham Kyungah’s artistic mischief seems to have reached its climax with her embroidery works. Originating from a flyer of North Korean propaganda that she once found, Ham’s embroidery works represent her own artistic attempt to communicate with North Korean citizens. From the internet, she collected numerous texts and photos, ranging from news reports of war and terrorism to the lyrics of popular songs, and also added her own brief greetings; she then transformed these texts into designs to be made as embroidery. Then in 2008, utilizing an agent in China, Ham sent her designs to professional embroiderers in North Korea. In this covert way, Ham was able to communicate her ideas and greetings, not to mention news about world events, to people in North Korea, where reports from the outside world are banned. As they carefully embroidered her designs, stitch by stitch, the North Korean craftspeople must have read Ham’s writings over and over. It is through this analog and labor-intensive practice of steganography-like embroidery that the artist and the invisible North Koreans have been able to communicate with each other.
After taking a great risk in delegating her artistic and creative duties to North Korean embroiderers, all that Ham got in return was hopeless waiting and restless anxiety. Due to the instability between North and South Korea, the project was continuously delayed, with little hope of ever being completed. Due to ideological conflicts, the works were constantly interfered with by unexpected—or perhaps expected—circumstances. For example, in order to avoid government censors, the North Korean craftspeople sometimes altered or damaged the original designs. In other cases, the entire works were confiscated by the North Korean government. Because of these twists and turns, the project became a game of chance, with Ham never knowing what to expect when she finally received her commissioned works after one or two years. In the end, of course, these twists and turns greatly enriched the meaning of the embroidery works.
Although the early embroidery works were rather impromptu and sentimental, the more recent ones demonstrate how Ham’s thinking about the North-South divide has developed and deepened. Perhaps this is due to her own personal difficulties trying to communicate with North Korea, which is still identified as the “Enemy.” Unfazed by previous incidents where her works were confiscated for having only the slightest hint of capitalist content, Ham recently became even bolder, sending designs based on American abstract art (specifically the works of Morris Louis). She did this knowing full well that abstract art is banned in North Korea, where only figurative paintings or propaganda are allowed. Devoid of figures or narratives, Louis’s pure abstract images were paradoxically transformed into works suffused with historical and social content, as plain colored strips suddenly resonated with untold meaning related to the complex politics of North and South Korea. All of the works that she submitted were returned to her as beautiful embroideries of vibrant colors, indicating that all of the texts that she provided were indeed read by the North Korean craftspeople. Drawing on the history of contemporary art, Ham enacts a supreme irony, using 1950s American abstractart—viewed as the culmination of modernism—as a propaganda weapon to demonstrate the virtues of an “open and free society.”
In new works introduced at her 2015 solo exhibition Phantom Footsteps in Kukje Gallery, Ham Kyungah references the history of the North-South division in an abstract way, while also revealing the presence of the North Korean embroiderers who have thus far remained hidden behind the works. These new embroideries depict huge, ornate chandeliers against a black background, with no text. The chandeliers represent the imperialist desire of the five powerful nations that were involved (either directly or indirectly) in the Potsdam Conference of 1945, where Korea was “officially” divided into North and South. Notably, the chandeliers in the embroideries have either fallen or seem to be swaying, evincing the instability of those national powers and the entire ideology of the Cold War. Despite having fallen, the chandeliers still emit light, implying that those authorities of the past are still exerting their power over the Korean peninsula and influencing the lives of people in North and South Korea. In fact, rather than the beautiful chandeliers on the front, viewers should really turn their attention to the exposed back side of the embroideries, where they can see countless stitches representing the long and arduous labor of the North Korean workers who actually created these seemingly simple two-dimensional artworks. These incalculably dense and fine stitches are nothing less than the traces of the very existence of those workers, allowing us to see the invisible, as expressed in the exhibition title: What You See Is the Unseen.
Through such works, Ham Kyungah asserts that the role of art and the artist is to reveal the existence of the nonexistent. In her own words, the artist is on a journey to follow the “footprints of a ghost.” Of course, ghosts do not leave physical traces, such as footprints. But by peering through to the other side of reality, we eventually encounter ghosts that actually exist. Thus, in her search for the invisible footprints of a ghost, Ham Kyungah ends up unveiling the truth about reality, which is why her art continues to affect us and win our approval.
 

I Can’t See. An Aesthetics of Some and Such: Kyungah Ham’s Impossible Art [1]

KANG Sumi (Professor of the Art Theory at Dongduk Women’s University Seoul)

 

1. In negativity: unvisibility and impossibility

Negativity is mightier than positivity. Of course, people see positivity as pertaining to good, love, benevolence, and ultimate powerfulness and tend to want to believe “though not for now, eventually the positive is the good”. Yet many examples in human history attest to the fact that negativity is always more powerfully effective than positivity while being provocatively stimulating. For instance, one’s saying “no” agitates the mind of the interlocutor at least ten times more than his or her saying “okay”. Also, “cannot see” or “is impossible” affects people or situations more deeply and more powerfully both physically and psychologically than their opposite counterparts. Just as almost toxically spicy foods with a large dose of capsaicin cause pain in our tongues and brains. Particularly, towards the reinforcement of social prejudices by adding to the literal definitions of words thedoxa such as disabled, crippled, incompetent, disconnected, forbidden, closed, renunciative, incommunicative, and frustrating. Although negativity does not necessarily mean something worse, more wrong, more inferior, or more evil than positivity, we have in general used negative words in such a sense.
In this respect, it is likely that using “can’t see” and “impossibility” as keywords as in the title of this article can be quite risky and foster far more misunderstanding than understanding in discussing the art of Ham. Nonetheless, it is my argument that the analysis of her art should begin with taking as its focal point negativity represented by the keywords of “unvisibility”[2] and “impossibility”. The point of this strategy is not to elicit suggestive responses or short-lived attention on the part of readers or viewers by use of the powerful force of negativity. Also, it is certainly not my intention to discolor Ham’s art with negative prejudices. On the contrary, it is employed because I want to emphasize that the creative act of Ham entails the extraordinary impetus in the negative, the difficulties worthy of being endured, and the possibility of the disparate entity that does not easily succumb to compromising into positivity. Also, because her art is replete with the potential possibility of ethical and aesthetic interpretation that can be obtained only in—not through—negativity. A paradigmatic example can be found in that negativity takes on, in Roland Barthes’ sense, “only paradoxical formulae (those which proceed literally against the doxa)”3 and constantly self-generates productive discordances and awakening tensions. This is why this writing starts with negativity, that is, negative words and negative attributes rather than targeting ephemeral stimuli and resulting mechanical agreement and dialectical convergence.
What is at stake most basically in the field of visual art is literally “vision” or “visibility”. And the art of Ham starts from blindness or/and unvisibility. This analysis indeed needs to be carefully delivered. First of all, “blindness” by which I intend to mean here has nothing to do with visual inability or rational/cognitive limitations. Rather, it means the artist’s performativity—namely, the artist’s immersing of herself into situations without any practical calculation. Also, “unvisibility” does not relate to the concealing of truth or the deletion or repression of being, as the opposite counterpart of visibility. Instead, it refers to what Ham is obliged to endure when she works with certain acts, incidents, processes, and objects that are opaque, uncertain, and unstable: the totality of the conditions of not being able to see, not being able to know, not being able to understand, not being able to comprehend, and not being able to grasp with her hands/consciousness. Yet unvisibility here may be related to factors such as concealment, discrimination, and suppression in the respect that it originates not in what is natural or supernatural but in the interface between structural conditions—social, cultural, political, economical, and so forth. In other words, Ham takes an obscure, suffocating course as she engages herself in those processes through which concrete artistic outputs can be hardly expected and in the relationship with those subjects whose potential crises owe to the sensitivities in the political, administrative, social institutional contexts—for example, the color of yellow one accidentally come across in streets, defection brokers, North Korean embroidery workers, etc. There is no visible substance, no profits from it, and no clear answers in such undertakings. Still, what are clearly there are an artist’s voluntary will and methodology to carry on those endeavors even in darkness.
For instance, Chasing Yellow (2000-2001), one of Ham’s earlier works, is an 8-channel video installation for which she recorded the lives and conditions of those yellow entities—people in yellow clothes and yellow objects—that she encountered by chance in various regions in Asia and followed blindly. In conducting this work Ham was not an artist-master who designed a riskless work plan, calculated things for a specific image output, and weighed the pros and cons. Rather, she was a sort of situationist in the street who was readily enduring the negativity originating from not knowing how things were to go and being unable to be certain about whether or not her doings would produce a successful artistic outcome. Another good example would be “Embroidery Project” whose theme was “What you see is the unseen” on which Ham has worked since the late 2000. This work will be more closely examined later in this article. To encapsulate it for the time being, it is a project for which Ham sends designs to embroidery workers in North Korea through a broker who works in China to have them custom-make a large embroidery piece and structuralized—from the physical process of mounting the embroidered fabric onto stretch bars to the establishing of the art-institutional context of an exhibition—it into a contemporary work of art. This project is bounded by some originating conditions: there is considerable difficulty in forming any communications among those involved in this project, not to mention making direct contacts or formal contracts; the process is of blindness and great possibility of failure since losses, dangers, responsibilities by any unreasonable happenings or unfortunate accidents are solely on the artist alone. This is due to the political tensions between South and North Korea, the difference in the political regime, the instability of the given situations, and the continuous existence of unforeseeable variables. Ironically enough, however, the work made through these processes enables viewers to be entertained by the material certainty and blinding spectacles of multicolored embroidered images and the hypersensory concreteness of the images made from countless stitches. It is of paradox in the respect that a creative endeavor undertaken in the negative conditions of unvisibility and impossibility engenders breathtaking visibility and overflowing sensory pleasure. To use Barthes’ words, a paradox that runs counter to a doxa is born from this artist’s art of unvisibility and become part of reality.
Ham’s unvisibility is antipodal to hyper-visibility. The hyper-visible perceptions and sensations that are imposing, like the gaze of the Big Brother, and scrupulous justify the rationalization that since the subject of absoluteness/light/power is always right and powerful, one would better to conform to norms and order, because then everything will be fine and the world will be free of problems. This can be exemplified by the American humanism, transcendental ethics and moralities, the genius theory, and the theological metaphysics. A writer posits that on the other side of this hyper-visibility is “invisibility of subordinate positions”4. It seems that the writer wants to make an antithesis between invisibility and hyper-visibility by defining them respectively as a kind of sacrificial offering and as a total and indisputably powerful vision to which absolute authority via willful negligence is granted by invisibility. But it is my contention that hyper-visibility should be coupled with the active “unvisible,” not the passive “invisible”. Not the relative and subordinate perspective of the weak but the perspective as an independent being whose quintessential nature is constituted of negativity. In other words, the choice of foggy uncertainty and vain relations over guaranteed profits and outputs resulted in the birth of negativity, which is the very agent that allows unvisibility to evade the superior/subordinate relation between the powerful and the weak, and this unvisibility is the counterpart of hyper-visibility. I believe it is quite persuasive to put Ham and her work in the purview of the unvisibility in this sense and context.
In July 2016 when I am writing this article, Ham is working on a new project. But I cannot exclude the possibility that the project would maintain its being only as a critical description in this article, not being able to be realized into immaterial data or an aesthetic object. Even when it is materialized, the impossibility for it to be present or to be shown may remain. The project’s objective is to document in video images the journey of those who attempt the defection from North Korea, that is, the course of the defection attempts of those people who have no choice but to carry out the defection at the risk of their lives despite the lurking immense danger. As if to prove its danger, uncertainty, difficulty, and complexity, this project has made no progress for months since the launch of the project. Also, I have been hearing that almost all sorts of ridiculous and shady variables are taking place and there has been continuing a problematic situation that even the artist cannot figure out how things are going. Ham’s intent behind this work lies not in increasing social agitation by ruffling issues considered sensitive to public security authorities or in creating a sensation so that she can be in the limelight. Also, neither in bolstering the public interest in human rights in North Korea nor in conveying messages about political liberation through a work of art. The reason she has planned this much serious work of documenting those who are trying to defect from North Korea in spite of the distress and difficulties to which she is not obligated to expose herself is that it is of reality that cannot be reduced to any abstract value of money, any fetishistic value of commodity, or any phantasmagoric exchange system of capitalism. What the artist desires to address are that if it is possible to put a price on “ending up as a failure” or “realization of impossibility,” then their prices would be higher than everything else and that their performative values cannot be reduced to money or commodity by any capitalist methods of calculation. These intents are the ingredients for the possibility of disparate beings of which Ham aims to inform us through negativity and for the ethical and aesthetical meanings that can be obtained only within the trajectory of negativity. The ingredients that await the practice of paradoxical criticism beyond the doxa-based interpretation that is formed merely by adding negative prejudices.
In 2002 Afghan and Iraqi refugees in the Sangatte Red Cross camp in France attempted to get to England through the Channel Tunnel. Georges Didi-Huberman commented onBorder (2004), a documentary film of their attempt by Laura Waddington, “It is not, despite the sheltering darkness, rendered invisible bodies, but of ‘fragments of humanity’ that the film just manages to succeed to reveal, so fragile and short as are their appearances.”5 A look at Waddington’s film in fact reveals the point that Didi-Huberman sees as admirable: the desperate endeavors of the beings who are imperfect and unstable but living with desires that can be thwarted by no powerful Other can be sensed in the violently jolting video images of poor quality. My applause to Waddington’s incomparably remarkable ability to express them in her work of art.
Suddenly, Ham’s aforementioned currently on-going work intersects with Waddington’s Border in my mind. In Border by Waddington it is made visible that desires for freedom intrinsic to humanity nestle in the shadows/weakness/pains of the world that are unknown and invisible to us. Yet Ham is all alone enduring the impossibility of her current work—that is, the impossibility of capturing the desire for existential liberation and life-risking actual acts of those attempting to defect from North Korea and presenting them to us as objects to be viewed—that can be shared by no one. Waddington was able to finish her work after all despite many difficulties. But Ham might not be able to do so. I have no intent to compare these two cases. Nonetheless, I should say that this project by Ham does negativize the ruthless pressures of reality precisely because of its negative possibility of failure and its possibility of limiting its continuation, just like negatives in photography that have died away in this digital era.

 

2. Phantom footsteps? The dynamics of creation
The word “theater” derived from the Ancient Greek word “to see”. To this linguistic fact one can add the interpretations that a theater is basically a space for the pleasure of seeing and that visibility is an attribute inherent in the form of presentation of a theater. Also, it is my view that when the dynamics of Ham’s creation is marked by “unvisibility” as discussed above, then her work, paradoxically, is, by destiny, latent with non-theatricality/non-presentability/non-presence. The paradox deepens more when one takes into account the harsh ecology of contemporary art where a work of art’s not being on display is sufficient enough to negate its existence as a work of art. That is the very thing that I am trying to “see” from now on: the phantom existence of paradox.
Whether intentionally or because circumstance does not allow, Ham carries out most of her works under very difficult conditions. And each and every work by the artist are granted the status of an artwork only when their content and form have met, and this attests to the fact that Ham is an artist whose pursuit of completeness is persistent and tenacious in terms of not only visual quality but also the promise of their visual embodiment. One might say that there are many artists like her in the contemporary art scene and that the majority of contemporary artists are focused in the pursuit of pluralistic and intellectual art. Yes. It is true. Ham is, too, a contemporary artist in this respect. Yet we need to point out one aspect that differentiates this artist from others in the contemporary art scene. It has to do with the uniqueness of her aesthetic practices from which Ham has stubbornly refused to derail for nearly two decades. To describe the very aspect, I want to coin a critical phrase based on the title of her solo show at Kukje Gallery in Seoul in 2015. That is, the distinctive and core nature of Ham’s work concerns a “phantom process”.
What I intend to put forward using this phrase, which is a paraphrase of the exhibition title, “Phantom Footsteps” are two points. The first is that, as the artist intended in the first place, works of art are “metaphoric of the paradoxical mechanism through which what is not substantial embodies what is substantial, like the footsteps left by a phantom,” and here “the ‘phantom’ is a general term that refers to those desires and illusions that govern and control life and society.”6; the other point is that the phase can be used to define the entire body of Ham’s works, not her particular work or exhibition. What I aim to convey with the word “phantom” is not negative as in “non-substantial,” “non-essential,” or “impossible to realize”. Rather, I want to emphasize that for each and every work Ham has explored what is new in terms of theme, material, idea, form, medium, methodology, and technique. Under all circumstances, her work has not boiled down to an art object only whose appearance is art-like and has been reduced to neither a mere mechanical system nor everyday cliché. Thus, “phantom process” points to the fact that the dynamics, passage, and qualitative attributes of her exploration are not transcendent but instead constantly cross between being and non-being, like a phantom. At the same time, it addresses that the very nature of Ham’s art is rooted in the unfixed process that readily endures the dynamics of change in spite of the fear or difficulty that is destined to be caused by her art-making process of such ambiguity, uncertainty, and inderterminacy. This is also why one needs to pay attention to the noticeably frequent use of words like “such” and “some” in her titles of both her works and exhibitions. As a determiner and pronoun, these words are used for rather extensive, unclear, and vague reference, and Ham has been realizing this linguistic sense through her art-making process and works.
Let us analyze the art of Ham characterized by these properties of uncertainty and inderterminacy by taking her What You See Is the Unseen/Chandeliers for Five Citiesshown at Phantom Footsteps as a paradigmatic example. This chandelier “Embroidery Project” (named by the artist) creates a massive, bewitching, and irresistibly beautiful landscape in a dimly lit exhibition space. This rapturous spectacle owes to the enormous scale of the work whose dimensions are approximately thirteen meters in width and three meters in height, consisting of four conjoined canvases, the materials, labor, and time that were invested in an immeasurable value and amount, and the unbelievably remarkable embroidery skills. These basic factors elevate the huge embroidered chandelier into a dimension that parallels a kind of digital universe, transforming the light reflecting from each and every strand of high-quality silk thread into a sea of electronic pixels. Yet what is really captivating here is the fact that what one obtains via the aesthetic product produced through the investment of such tangibly certain materials and labor is in fact an eye-blindingly beautiful illusion. It is a visual experience of the aura of a single-time presence that is inevitably ephemeral. In other words, the undeniable materiality and concreteness of the work is ironically what leads viewers to an aesthetic pleasure through which they are absorbed into a sensory trance without being able to perceive its substantiality. Another thing that is astonishing and more important than this is that all of these four large-scale chandelier embroidery works—one diptych and two individual paintings—are completed using a problematic/phantom production process that is very dangerous, nebulous, and unstable and even no one but the artist cannot take responsibility for when something bad might happen. These works stand monumentally while taking hold of the space/time of reality with no difficulty, possessing an artistic aura that takes viewers’ breath away. What in Heaven’s name is problematic/phantom in their production?
For “Embroidery Project” Ham designs, models, and lastly frames the embroidered canvas by her own efforts. Yet she entrusts the embroidering to others. Here there is nothing peculiar about the fact that she does not do the handicraft for herself since the contemporary art scene has been not unfamiliar with “collaboration” and “subcontracting” at all. But in Ham’s “Embroidery Project” it has a totally different significance. To state the key point only, all those with whom she interacts/collaborates during the process from the initial contracting to receiving and paying for the work, which would be part of her work are anonymous people in North Korea or China. And since they are anonymous, all the procedures from ordering to receiving and payment are unclear, uncertain, and unstable. Far from meeting them in person, she works with those people with whom it is impossible—for political, contemporary historical, social, national security-related reasons—for her even to talk to on the phone. About this Ham described with the following pregnant words: “Let’s say it requires 10,000 steps, then I walk 9,999 steps out of 10,000 with nothing determined, with no direction, and in a state where it is totally impossible to foresee what is ahead.”7 Her face was telling me that she had already accepted the unendurable psychological stress and physical hardships caused by those 9,999 footsteps, but there still was a hint of “the fate of the artist”.
But no one forces her to work with so much difficulty. Then why does she do so? The primary answer lies in the artist’s intent. One day, Ham found a propaganda handbill from North Korea. This triggered a “desire to communicate with anonymous, random people in North Korea” in her mind, and she looked for a way for her own artwork to function as a sort of handbill. Then, she secretively had Chinese middlemen deliver the images she designed or redesigned from the images she found on the internet to embroidery workers in North Korea so that they could translate them into pieces of embroidery and paid them to get the embroidery products. As she employed this form of trade of a sort, Ham expected that the embroidery workers in North Korea would brood over the words and images that her drawings deliver like a “handbill”, try to decode the meanings of the allegories, and stretch their imagination.8 When this is the answer from the artist’s perspective, we need to go further. Namely, the other answer is for the work to go beyond the visual-centrism of visual arts and to mirror the structural impossibility of Korea’s contemporary politico-historical realty by putting up with the illegality, irrationality, anxiety, and disadvantage that the structure and process of “Embroidery Project” bring about inevitably. One’s simple curious question like “Wow, who in the world has done this unbelievable piece of embroidery?” leads to other queries about where it was made, who made it, who delivered it, what process it went through, and how they communicated, and ultimately to a critical rethinking of the problematic history and concrete reality in relation to the coexistence of two different political regimes of North and South Korea. In this sense, the title “What You See Is the Unseen” can be interpreted in two ways. On one hand, what we see in the physical appearance of the chandelier embroidery work itself is the outcome of the unseen of the phantom making process that the artist underwent, and on the other hand, what we see contextually in the work is the phantom, seditious/covert(?) handbill-like relationship that manifests in the ongoing tension between North and South Korea that has been inundated with the fratricidal war, mutual vilifications and assailments, antagonism, conflicts, and ruptures since the 1948 division of Korea. Yet I hope that the readers of this text would not conclude Ham and her work to fall into the category of “politico-socialist art”. For what makes the appreciation and criticism of Ham and her art valuable lies not in defining them categorically but in understanding them never cease to seek the courses and methods that correspond to specific themes and forms. What is pivotally important here is that Ham’s artistic practices cross back and forth like phantom footsteps between presence and absence, between the substantial and the insubstantial, between existence and dissolution, between continuity and change, and between possessing and unrewarding contribution. An aesthetic judgment on the significance of the crossing or on the unfixedness demands a reexamination of the starting point of the “Embroidery Project,” that is, the early phase of Ham’s art.


3. Clear and distinct perception? The authenticity of art

“Art is a guarantee of sanity.”9—Louise Bourgeois

Ham started to commit herself fully to her “Embroidery Project” in 2008 when she had her third solo show Such Game at Ssamzie Space in Seoul. Here she showed works ranging from a diptych consisting of black-and-white embroidered images of the mushroom clouds in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which are typically symbolic of the ending of the World War II to small-scale colorful embroidery paintings onto which the artist transferred the communist propagandas from North Korean textbooks. But the content was coherently linked in the respect that they were based mostly on her critical perspective towards historical facts and political reality. Here is a good point to address an intriguing context. Ham had her first solo show in 1998 when Korean society was highly unstable due to the IMF crisis amongst other problems. The venue was Alternative Space Loop that laid the foundation for the radical transformation of the Korean art scene by creating one of the first alternative spaces for young artists in Korea. And the show’s main work was a fragile and variable installation work comprised of grids of matchsticks. During the next many years since then, Korea has undergone increasingly radical changes, and Ham has become an established artist with a long, accomplished career. Despite the length of time of eighteen years that has passed, her art has always been seeking something new refusing to be confined by mainstream artistic practices with respect to the use of materials, the expression of details, and so forth so that content and form are interrelated in terms of not only visual but cognitive perception as well since her early works like the above-mentioned matchstick structure. This variability within continuity or in reverse the continuity of the new is perhaps what enables one to appreciate Ham’s art both inexhaustibly and from a new angle every time.
Then what are the explicit factors that serve to secure this balance of continuity and variability? What are the consistent elements that join the installation consisting of grids of matchsticks (1998), the embroidery diptych of the mushroom clouds in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (2008), and the four chandelier embroidery works (2015), and the elements that differentiate them from one another. Aesthetically, the continuity of Ham’s art from the late 1990s to the present is obtained by the emphasis upon the unseen, the absent, and the minority. And the variability is assured by the fact that what is unseen, absent, and minor defies to be restricted by some particular motifs, mediums, modes, techniques and so on. The embroidery works shown in Such Game reawakened the fear caused by the atomic bombings during the World War that had been submerged beneath social consciousness by 2008 and simultaneously functioned like translucent—since they give visible forms to the unseen—mirrors vaguely reflecting the life of civilians who were victimized by the then ongoing war between the U.S. and Iraq and the conflicts between North and South Korea that the 2007 South-North Korean Summit was not able to resolve. This interest of Ham in issues related to historical consciousness, the formulation of politico-social commentaries, the marginal and weak, and concealed facts can still be detected in her Phantom Footsteps in 2015. One can observe this aspect to some extent in that “five cities” in the title of the aforementioned chandelier embroidery works refer in fact to the great powers of the U.S., the Soviet Union, China, the Britain, and Germany that agreed upon the division of Korea into North and South at the 1945 Potsdam Conference while excluding the countries directly concerned of North and South Korea—Until now, only four chandelier embroideries have been made, and my question is “Until when would the last city-chandelier embroidery piece remain unseen and absent?”.
Between her 2008 and 2015 solo exhibition, however, there are some significant differences as well as similarities. We should probably use the word “growth” or “breakthrough” to be more accurate. In recent years Ham’s works have been incomparably more outstanding in their aesthetic composition, refinement, and exquisiteness than ever and of ample and multilayered contexts. Great works of art do more than just please the eyes of viewers or provide sensorially interesting experiences. Rather, by bridging such visual pleasures and intriguing experiences with the arguments addressed by the works or their inferential potentialities, they lead viewers to more concrete and more in-depth thoughts and to richer and more lucid visions. And I believe that Ham’s recent works have reached this level of maturity. In other words, they arrived at the world where the sensory and the intellectual and the affective and the rational are not incomparable with each other—that is, the world of “aisthesis,” the term used by ancient Greeks to refer to “sense-perception”. It pertains to “every mode of perception obtained via the sense centers of the body including tasting, touching, hearing, seeing, and smelling”10. Or if I agree to the fabulous idea of the sculptor Louise Bourgeois and define art as a “guarantee of sanity,” I believe that Ham’s recent artistic practices/acts can be classified in this artistic category whereby practice that includes conceiving, contacting, negotiating, persuading, waiting, being patient, guessing, giving up, enduring hardship, carrying forward, producing, exhibiting, and returning to the beginning to start all over again help her to retain sanity.
As a matter of fact, even René Descartes who has been dubbed the father of rationalism and tabbed as a philosopher who privileged reason over the senses in order to prove the certainty of the subject understood the senses in the same category of intellectual activity. For example, in an anecdote Descartes is sitting by the fire, wearing a winter dressing-gown and his eyes are wide awake when he looks at a piece of paper. When he calls into doubt whether he is awake or he is dreaming, he realizes what the senses tell him may be false, but the reason that meditates the doubt cannot be denied. The famous epistemic proposition posited by Descartes as the first principle of philosophy, “I think, therefore I am (cogito, ergo sum)” is the very doubt argument.11 Yet according to Descartes, “thoughts” never exclude the senses. Rather, it “means everything that is within us in such a way that we are immediately conscious of it” and not only the intellect (intelligere), the will (velle), and the imagination (imaginari) but also “the senses (sentire) are thoughts (cogitare)”12. To sum up, “I” that doubt, affirm, deny, will, refuse, imagine, and sense “think”13. This is the conclusion of the ontological arguments of Descartes who sought philosophically to arrive at clear and distinct truths.
From this I attempt to draw an argument that might not be that meaningful philosophically but would be valuable to certain aesthetic questions in relation to the creative endeavors of the artist. The questions are as follows: concerning the art of Ham that we have examined so far, “Why and how an artist continues to create in spite of all kinds of uncertain processes, uncertain procedures, insubstantiality, and even no practical interests?” and “Who and what makes it possible?” When I say that these questions are aesthetically valuable, it is not because some abstract art theory can be deduced from them. Rather, it is because an opportunity to understand some aspects peculiar to art can be given by an examination of the actual art-making process of individual artists and some concrete episodes that such a theory neglects or ignores. To answer those questions, the unique raison d´être and methodology of Ham’s art lies in her inevitable pursuit of truths/facts feeding on the whole process of the unstable and variable sense perception of life. Why “inevitable”? Because the artist cannot avoid it even when she does not want to do it or it is accompanied by horrendous hardships. Some might think that these critical remarks of mine are trite and bear little, but after observing Ham’s entire working process, I cannot dare to embellish its sincerity/veracity with those words that might please hipsters. Instead, it might be possible to describe Ham’s working process in a more poetic way by quoting the words of Bourgeois as follows: I am on a “journey without any destination in sight” and “I have been to hell and back. And, Let me tell you, it was wonderful.”14

 

4. Guilty pleasure? From absence to artistic perception
Let us imagine that there is an artist who switches objects whose ownership is clear and definite with other things, steals them, and puts them on display in a huge cabinet of the kind that one can easily find in a museum. Then what would you think of him or her? Probably, you would not be able to expect certain sincerity or veracity of that artist. For it is an illegal act and is seriously unethical. And even if we are open-minded enough to suppose that he or she did so in the name of art, it might appear as just an act of sheer bravado and fallacy. And Ham did such an act. Her Switched Stolen Objects Ham consists of the photographs and texts that relate to a series of happenings in which she stole trivial objects and switched them: for example, she stole a cappuccino cup in a café in Korea, went to a restaurant in France, and switched a cappuccino cup there with the one that she stole in Korea. Also in Museum Display 2000-2010 those sundry items that she purloined during the period indicated in the title throughout the world are displayed using exhibition engineering skills and idioms. Under these circumstances, how silly I was to have stated above that Ham has been pursuing truths and/or authenticity in her art. Obviously, at this point, you are now frustrated by and skeptical about not only this writing of mine but the artist herself as well.
Yet there is a strong paradox by which you can be rescued. That paradox has been nourishing the art-practical and intellectual judgments of Ham who “sublimates” illegal or futile acts into “meaningful forms of artistic consumption” and regards “society” that has been suffering from all sorts of problematic phenomena as “texts to read into”. First, since way before Ham stole those object in all over the world and showed them through Museum Display 2000-2010, the powers of the world have been doing the same thing from the times of imperialism and colonialism onwards. And you can witness the result of what they have done in those influential museums in the West such as the Louvre, the Pergamon Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art—the great cultural heritages of mankind. Ham’s work mirrors the mechanism of such history and cultural politics. Having understood the background and critical insight that motivated and is addressed by Museum Display 2000-2010, both domestic and global art institutions have exhibited this dangerous large-scale installation work so that the opportunity to revisit not only the specific historical paradox but also the contradictions within the institutional system of culture and art can be shared with art viewers. Second, Ham’s intent can be fairly ascertained by accepting that the passage of human desire does not necessarily channel towards, at the level of nations and peoples or individuals, the law-abiding and the morally and ethically good. In fact, it is more likely that the opposite is true! This can be elaborated by, for example, the so-called “guilty pleasure,” namely, the psychological tendency not to be able to stop doing things that give you pleasure although they make you feel guilty, and instead to be more seduced or tempted by the feelings of sin that pleasure causes. Here we can figure out the “purpose” of Ham’s acts of switching and stealing miscellaneous objects here and there. But before talking about it, what needs to be said first is that it does not mean that Ham herself is driven hopelessly by such guilty pleasures. Instead, what is significant here is that the artist pinpoints such ironic, double-sided, and paradoxical aspects of our desires. It is also meaningful to understand that cultural-historical consequences of human activities are what her works seek to reveal. In this respect, it should be stressed that Ham’s works themselves are vestiges of “such/some” that are quite human but are concealed/absent in the order of reality and the ecology of the real, where the utterable and representable prevail in dominance.

In conclusion, in the art of Ham the simultaneous diversification of image, sign, text, and meaning is built on the notion of absence. After all, Switched Stolen Objects is an artistic practice that is only possible via the incident of the absence of objects in specific space/times. And What You See Is the Unseen/Chandeliers for Five Cities is validly established only when it is premised on the absence of North Korea as “the unseen”, of the politico-social ideologies of North and South Korea, and above all those anonymous people in China and North Korea who have been working with Ham on the “Embroidery Project” for nearly eight years. Something, someone, such thing, and such a one that cannot be identified as “this very thing” or “this very person” function as imperative elements as a negative does in photography. Yet it does not end here, not by any means. It is with these imperative elements that made unseen that the imagination of enriched images, the destruction and reconstruction of signs, the formation of an endless chain of signifiers, which refuse to converge into a single signified, and the close knitting of texts start. This series of sense-perceptual performances spark moments of pleasure in the minds of the viewers of Ham’s art. Like the working process of the artist, those moments, too, are simultaneously of narrow precariousness and sober positiveness, and in this sense those moments are as unfixable as phantom footsteps.



 

1. This is the extended version of my article in the exhibition catalogue of Kyungah Ham published in the first half of 2016. Refer to Kang Sumi, “An Aesthetics of Some and Such: Kyungah Ham’s Unfixed Art,”Kyungah Ham Phantom Footsteps, Kukje Gallery, 2016, pp. 7-21.

2. There is a difference between unvisibility and invisibility. Unvisibility is more intentional to “refuse to see” than invisibility. As the art historian Krista Tompson argues, for example, black people are more unvisible than invisible in the Western culture. But the “unvisibility” that I use in this writing is different from that in Tompson’s analysis in the respect that I use the word in the sense of the tenacious continuity of the being/situation’s ambiguity and heterogeneity outside the gaze of the subject, beyond not seeing/being seen by the gaze of racial and politico-cultural discriminations. Krista A. Thompson,Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice, Duke University Press, 2015.

3. Roland Barthes, Richard Miller (trans.), The Pleasure of the Text, HILL and WANG, 1975, pp. 54-55.

4. Pascal Beausse, “The Constructing the Family of Man”, The Family of the Invisibles, Exhibition catalogue, Seoul Museum of Art, 2016, pp. 24-33. Refer to p. 27 & p. 33.

5. Georges Didi-Huberman, Survivance des lucioles, Hongki Kim (trans.), 반딧불의 잔존 (Survival of Fireflies), Gil Press, 2012, p. 152.

6. Kyungah Ham, Kyungah Ham: Knock, Knock, which is Ham’s unpublished portfolio. (All of the artist’s statements quoted in this article are from this. Hereinafter referred to as “Kyungah Ham”), 2015, p. 114.

7. My interview with the artist done on December 29th, 2015.

8. Kyungah Ham, p. 84.

9. Bourgeois’ longtime assistant, Jerry Gorovoy’s recollection. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFFWJyuda3g

10. KANG Sumi, Aisthesis. Thinking with Walter Benjamin’s Aesthetics, Geulhangari, 2011, p. 271.

11. René Descartes, Discourse de la méthode · Meditationes de prima philosophia, trans. by Choi Myung-Kwan, Seokwangsa, 1987, p. 30; pp. 77-90.

12. René Descartes, Principia Philosophiae (1644), trans. by Won Seok-Young, Acanet, 2012, p. 13.

13. René Descartes, Discourse de la méthode · Meditationes de prima philosophia, ibid., p. 86.

14. Jerry Gorovoy, ibid.

15. KANG Sumi, “The Politico-economics of Art and Artistic Consumption: Kyungah Ham’s Switched Stolen Objects,” Rediscovering of Seoul Life, Hyunsilbook, 2003, p. 128.

16. In Ham’s “Embroidery Project”, North Korea is, as a trigger of absence, the matrix of this project and at the same time the mechanism by which all the procedures are phantomized for the very reason that it is absent and cannot be seen. To be more accurate, primary “absence” concerns not the absence of North Korea as a regime or a nation but an unseen entity, an entity that evades the lawful and the system, the process that is not permitted to be made known to the public, and the fact that exchange with North Korea is suppressed.