Nagasaki and Hiroshima Mushroom Clouds

Nagasaki and Hiroshima Mushroom Clouds, Kyungah Ham, Photo by Vivien Sham

By Lian Yiting

This series of artworks had been commissioned to be created in North Korean factories, and smuggled into South Korea. Other than the colourful abstract embroideries, a black and white art piece depicting the nuclear mushroom clouds in Nagasaki and Hiroshima is also presented as the centrepiece of the series.

The artworks remind me of poetry, with layers and layers of meaning are housed under a charming countenance and a flamboyant rhythm of colours. At first glance, the artworks are visually gratifying, with all but one piece featuring vibrant, rich colours meshed together in various aesthetically appealing geometric patterns and gradients. Add to that the softness of the texture, and the captivating allure of the initial impression is complete.

However, upon closer inspection, the mind-bending contradiction of the ambience and the actual content becomes apparent. In stark contrast to the pleasant colour scheme and palette, gruesome scenes of violence and murder leap out from the mishmash of colours.

Skulls, deformed fingers, gushing blood, explosives and other such horrific elements are embroidered into the colourful background. The irony and inappropriateness of the artworks’ rich, striking colours of the artworks then hits the viewer. The unexpected medium of embroidery, with its soft velvety texture, further contrasts with the hard realities of war and death.

This irony shocks the senses and mind, further amplifying the horror created by the war imagery. The viewer experiences cognitive dissonance caused by the unexpected juxtaposition of violent imagery and cheerful, loud colours.

These multiple scenes of war are intricate and skilfully blended into a background of colourful patterns. Meanwhile, these complex pieces are alternated with several crudely done embroideries illustrating gory scenes of war, such as a boy having his head chopped off while a smile remains plastered on his face, explosives being set up, etc. These crudely sewn pieces of work gives one the impression that they had been created by young children, unskilled in the art of embroidery and using simple images with few details. Pity is involuntarily stirred in the viewer, as the idea of young children being through such traumatic experiences and creating such horrific images of art hits home. The intricate pieces of art also resemble the romanticised notions of war, juxtaposed with the harsh reality of war, unadulterated and raw.

The repeated words of “I’m hurt”, “I’m sorry”, suggests a hope to both North Korea and South Korea ending the hostility between them and resolving their differences with apologies and sincerity. Certain South Korean slangs and phrases are also sewn onto the art pieces, implying attempts to have a cultural integration of the two nations.

As opposed to this hope of achieving harmony, the art piece depicting a chandelier and the words, “Perhaps I secretly wished that our liaison would fail” suggests hopes to the contrary. I see the chandelier to represent status, wealth and power, as such objects are often seen in the homes and facilities of the rich and powerful.

What this art piece could be suggesting is that despite the pain of war and the hopes of the people to achieve peace and harmony, certain wealthy people in power are willing to sacrifice the innocent commoners and keep up the conflicts and hatred between North Korea and South Korea so as to maintain their status and power. They could be working against achieving harmony between the two states, in order to secure their current wealth and status. The chandelier piece seeks to expose the selfish motives of the people in power who are keeping the two countries at loggerheads.

The most striking part of this series of embroideries would be the photographic embroideries of the mushroom clouds in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. From a distance, I was convinced that these artworks were photographs, misled as I was by the attention to detail and the realistic portrayal of the mushroom clouds. However, as I examined it closely, the embroidery work became more obvious. These mushroom clouds are depicted to remind viewers of the iconic events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki getting destroyed by atomic bombs. This is an identification point of the end of World War II, which also marked the start of the divide between North Korea and South Korea, and the consequent strife and discord between the two countries. The end of World War II saw Japan being ousted from Korea, and Korea being occupied by the Soviet Union in the North and the United States in the South. Different leaders were backed by these superpowers, and hence the country was divided.

The artworks could be seen as an attempt to speak out against an iron-fisted government, as well as an effort to transcend the boundaries between North Korea and South Korea via the channel of art. The works were commissioned in North Korean factories, and subsequently smuggled to South Korea for reassembly. This signifies a breaking of barriers to facilitate contact and coorperation between the two nations.

An interesting fact to note was the location of this art piece in the Singapore Biennale. Firstly, it was located at Old Kallang Airport, which had the theme of “Ports”. The smuggling of the art piece from North Korea to South Korea fits in with the idea of ports, where goods are brought into the country and exported. Further exposition of the idea of transporting goods across borders was found in the art work by Taryn Simon, located next to Kyungah Ham’s art works. Taryn’s art work consisted of photographs of contraband items confiscated by the US customs.

This strategic location of Kyungah Ham’s art works in Old Kallang Airport and next to Taryn Simon’s Contraband piece serves to show how the transporting of goods across borders may have different meanings and purposes. For Contraband, the purpose of attempting to bring those goods across borders was probably for monetary or personal gain. In the case of Kyungah Ham’s art works, they were smuggled across borders for the purpose of promoting harmony between the two countries and to expose the hypocrisy of the people in power.

Hence, other than the meaning of the artworks themselves, the location also adds yet another layer of meaning. It serves to show that illegal activities such as smuggling need not always be an immoral thing. In times when the government or those in power are corrupted or clamping down on the commoner’s freedom of expression, illegal acts such as smuggling could be viewed as noble attempts to better the lives of the people.


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