Kyungah Ham’s embroidery project, begun in 2008, investigates the complex questions that surround social and cultural economies and how values have evolved in the new millennium. Ham’s works explore the various mechanisms of power that impact every aspect of contemporary society. Based as much on her personal experience as on acute observation of social trends, the artist’s focus is on the precariousness of power exercised within all societies. Ham pays particular attention to circumstances where everyday life is consciously or unconsciously impacted by western-oriented discourses, global capitalism, and ongoing ideological conflicts. Ham’s use of embroidery also questions the legacy of cultural hegemony by expertly balancing the symbolism of craftwork with cultural capital.
The works from the SMS series were manufactured by North Korean artisans. The artist creates these designs based on digitally pixelated images and phrases taken from the Internet and popular songs (for example, “Are you lonely, too?” and “Money never sleeps”). Made using a broad palette, Ham’s designs are sent to textile workers in North Korea through a mediator and the final works are returned to the artist in South Korea through the same circuitous route. One potential outcome of this clandestine production process is the increased exposure of North Koreans to a new cultural context, and for Ham part of the conceptual thrust of the work is exposing the invisible labor of her silent collaborators. Although her works are sometimes lost or confiscated during their illicit transit, the artist is committed to the powerful act of using them as a means of communication across the physical border.
An important clue to the artist’s thinking is found in each work where Ham includes the amount of effort and time spent by the North Korean artisans, a gesture that reminds viewers of the hidden hands involved in all manufacturing. To borrow Ham’s own words, “What you see is the unseen.”