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October 19, 2023

New exhibit at Philadelphia Museum of Art features pieces smuggled out of North Korea

'The Shape of Time,' which opens Saturday, examines South Korea's global influence and how the country grapples with its past

Arts & Culture Museums
Korean exhibit Philadelphia Museum of Art Provided image/Philadelphia Museum of Art

"What You See Is the Unseen/Chandeliers for Five Cities" by Kyungah Ham, pictured above, features embroidery by artists in North Korea, which was smuggled through intermediaries.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art's latest collection features ceramic, fiber, photo and video installations from Korean artists — including massive pieces of embroidery created in and then smuggled out of North Korea.

"The Shape of Time: Korean Art After 1989" explores South Korea's impact on contemporary pop culture while looking back on the country's complicated past. The exhibit focuses on art created after the nation's last military dictatorship ended and international travel bans were lifted, opening South Korea up to the globe. All 28 artists featured in the exhibit, which opens Saturday for a nearly four-month stay, were born between 1960 and 1986.

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One featured artist is Kyungah Ham, who broke international law to create her towering pair of embroidered pieces "What You See Is the Unseen/Chandeliers for Five Cities." Ham envisioned swaying and crashing chandeliers to represent the uncertainty and instability in Korea following the 1945 division of the country. After creating the designs, Ham worked with intermediaries in China and Russia to get them in the hands of skilled artists in North Korea.

Once their stitching was complete, the pieces were broken apart and sent back across the border — though as the artist notes, she had no idea if she would ever see them again. Her first attempts were seized by authorities and never returned.

"There were risks of artworks being confiscated due to censorship from the North Korean government, bribes being demanded or intermediaries disappearing," she says in the exhibit's audio guide via a narrator. "All these processes had to be carried out secretly, much like a spy movie."

Other pieces in "The Shape of Time" include a 10-minute video recreating the mandatory exercise program in Korean schools between 1977 and 1999 and a series of portraits of Michael Jackson, painted in the style of royals of the Joseon dynasty (a play on Jackson's title as "King of Pop"). The blend of Korean and American cultures is further explored in "Headless," a collection of 16 Buddha sculptures made from Nerf foam and featuring the heads of cartoon characters like Bert from "Sesame Street" and Tommy Pickles from "Rugrats."

A black-and-white video still depicting a man on the left and a woman on the right doing exercises.Provided image/Philadelphia Museum of Art

A still from “Let's Do National Gymnastics!” by Jaewoo Oh, depicting mandatory exercises in Korean schools.

Also included in the exhibit is a piece that will degrade over the course of the exhibit's run. "Evanescent Landscape - Hwigyeong: Philadelphia" is a collection of buildings sculpted from unfired clay that recreates the neighborhood in Seoul where artist Juree Kim worked for many years. Water will be gradually added to the piece, eroding and ultimately sinking the structures to represent gentrification.

Unfired clay sculptures of buildings modeled on the Seoul neighborhood of HwigyeongKristin Hunt/for PhillyVoice

“Evanescent Landscape - Hwigyeong: Philadelphia” will be destroyed over the course of the exhibit as water is added to the unfired clay sculptures.

"The Shape of Time" opens Saturday, Oct. 21 and runs through Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. While the majority of the collection will be concentrated in the Dorrance Galleries on the second floor, select pieces will be installed throughout the museum's interior and on the terrace near the west entrance.

The Shape of Time: Korean Art After 1989

Saturday, Oct. 21 to Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024
Open during regular museum hours | Free with $30 museum admission
Philadelphia Museum of Art
2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19130

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