It’s been an eight-year project doing this work. It’s been full of miscommunication and mistakes, and has required a lot of patience. The first time I decided to do this, I was not clear on how to make it happen. Simply because there was no one doing this kind of work, there was no system, no agent. One day I found a propaganda flyer under the gate of my parents’ house [in Seoul] blown there by the wind. I believed it came from North Korea, as it was very common to find these propaganda flyers on the small mountain in my town and on the streets when I was young. At the time, South Korea was under a regime that strongly imposed anti-Communism under the military dictatorship. When we brought the found flyers to the school, we would receive compliments and rewards. We were taught and believed that the communists had horns on their heads.
On the propaganda flyer that I found in 2008, there was a picture of Kim Jong-il, the previous leader in North Korea, surrounded by flowers–the national flower called Kimjoingilia is named after the leader Kim Jong-il. There was propaganda written on it. I was shocked when I saw the flyer; it seemed bigger and prettier than what I remembered as a child, but still I could see it was propaganda. It represented an unknown world. Holding it in my hand it felt like an unexpected, alien thing, almost like an unidentified object blown from beyond Earth. The entire experience is still very palpable in my imagination and I wanted to remain in that moment, where I was struck by an uncanny object that had no reference.
I wanted people in North Korea to feel what I felt, so I thought, what if I sent these sorts of flyers to communicate across the border with North Koreans in an artistic way? I was inspired to use this kind of medium to communicate. This propaganda had a specific political purpose, but I wanted to make it more artistic–to use it as a point of departure. I had to think about what to send, and how to communicate with them. I had to use my imagination and be really organised, I wanted to share this feeling by using my own artwork, developing imagery that represents me and is my avatar, in order to reach North Koreans and help them learn things.
Initially I thought about sending stories and sharing information from our world, the outer world, so I collected news articles. We’re living in a digital era and we can access any information with just a click of the mouse, whereas you can’t in the DPRK. I decided I could convert collected internet news articles, images and text into embroidery in a sense translating something forbidden into hand stitches. What’s nice is that embroidery is so different compared to the digital in terms of duration and the way it frames values of humans versus the computer. I also expected that even if any censorship occurred, they would still have had enough time to read the news articles and they could gradually experience the new images and texts as they slowly made the works.
If politics, systems, and rules are based on some sort of ideology, I think that art is something that lies on the edge where it can transcend, translate, and express one’s experience. I think my work puts art at the edge of the relationship between these two hostile forces. When you look at the edge from the inside, it may seem like it is placed on the outside. However from the edge, it may seem like it is placed nearly at the end but it still exists inside.
It has been difficult for me to proceed because the sociopolitical tension has been heightened in recent years. By working on a project that is dependent on these circumstances, I have been under tremendous stress, continuously experiencing various unexpected incidents and have therefore had to constantly question the extent to which I should push this work. Throughout the process I have suffered from deep personal anguish.
When I first began the news article pieces, the work was confiscated by the Communist authority when it was almost completed. Sometimes, the original designs that contained images that were perceived as more capitalistic were confiscated. On the other hand, the most recent work I sent, At first, it is the dark, was flagged by the censors and I had to pay bribes at the border to have the work returned to me.
One of the ‘SMS (Sending Message Service) Series’ has the text ‘Perhaps I long for our liaison to fail’, which is a lyric from a Korean pop song. I see the relationship between South and North Korea as longtime lovers. But our failing liaison also has political and historical connotations.
Besides the ‘Chandelier Series’, I made the ‘SMS Series’ and the ‘Morris Louis Series’. In all of these I was interested in using abstract forms because of the political and historical context of abstraction’s advent in the West and the ironic perception of Abstract Expressionism today. Moreover, as an artist I want to experiment by creating new realities in North Korea where abstract art is not allowed.
Sometimes I see evidence in the work that reveals subtle reactions to our collaboration and I feel like I have communicated with them. At times, I receive some sort of feedback from the artisans through the intermediaries.
Yes, there’s a lot of labor in them, but in addition there’s a lot of other factors involved: a middleman, censorship anxiety, bribery ... not just manual labor. There is so much more behind the scenes work that goes into making each piece happen.
Embroidery is an encouraged and accepted form of art in North Korea. I have heard that they give embroidered portraits to leaders from other countries as gifts.
Well, I imagined a kind of invisible mapping when I conceptualised the ‘Chandelier Series’, in that they would hang in five different cities of the countries that participated in the Potsdam Declaration (the agreement where Korea’s division from Japan was ratified). I wanted to signify that the North Korean female embroidery workers, who are the victims of world history made by super powers, exist behind the stitches.
There are many layers of meanings behind the title Phantom Footsteps. It can refer to a situation filled with the vestige of the collapse of ideological beliefs. It can also be referring to capital that ultimately makes everything possible beyond physical and spatial limitations. In addition, it can also be said that artistic images or texts are leaving a trace as some influential history by settling down in a new place as seeds and blooming there. It could also describe the way that North Korean embroidery artisans communicate with the outer world. Lastly, phantom footsteps could be my obsession with revealing something that is present but not visible. It is an ironic phenomenon, wherein what is not real, like the footsteps left by a phantom, constitute reality.
I would say that it is an invisible part of the work. The viewer can only see the visible part of the work and complete the whole work with their imagination.
These embroidery works were first shown abroad in exhibitions including at the Kunstmuseum in Bonn (2013) and Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf (2013), as it was a sensitive issue in Korea at the time.
I find that the work is perceived as being both extreme and whimsical in South Korea. Long term issues, like the political situation between South and North Korea, easily becomes a conventional topic. However, when the tension gets serious, people tend to focus on it more than the value of the artistic experimentation.
You can say that and it is true that embroidery is often made by women.
I want to make myself neutral: I’m not female; I’m not male; I’m not Asian; I’m not a gender or a race. I don’t want audiences to have any preconceptions about my work. I have to disconnect the relationship between my work and myself. Maybe some embroidery workers would share my ideas?
I am currently working on a new series that will be showcased at the Korea Artist Prize exhibition. I am also working very closely with the curators of two upcoming biennales in Asia, Taipei Biennial and Suzhou Documents, in order to share my works with a broader audience. —[O]