Search by

The “stitch artist,” that is how Park Sang Hee is known. Her extraordinary attachment to the material has earned her this name. Park has researched and experimented with stitch cutting techniques for almost ten years. Over time, Park must have heard numerous questions about stitch work, but she does not seem to tire of them. The questions and curiosity about her work can be summarized into a single question: What does “stitch” mean to Park Sang Hee? From there flow more. Did Park work at a sign-making company in her youth? Is it a partiality towards a technique utilized before? A desire to make her work iconic? If those are not the reasons, perhaps she felt intimidated working with expensive materials? Even hazarding a guess, I am still left wondering: what is the draw of “stitch” work?
The ubiquitous stitch cut sign is South Korea’s signboard culture’s chief navigator. It presents to the viewing public both spectacular and juvenile content. It reflects society. Signboard culture has stimulated Park’s philosophical questioning enough that she picked “stitch” as her medium.
Park’s work in the 2004 exhibition “Signboards are Art” led me to ask this question: How is this signboard heaven, South Korea constructed? Park’s work does not answer this question directly. Her work instead captures a society’s national character their social psyche in soft and smooth cityscapes. Signboard culture is spectacular, but sometimes considered an eyesore. Yet to Park, it is not something to be criticized and rejected. To her it is part of our history, and quietly reveals characteristics of our society. If this is the case, what kinds of thoughts permeate this culture? Let us now enter the world of “stitch” to take a look at Park’s work.

Park first chooses a background canvas color, and then adds two to three layers of stitch; finally she paints her subject using acrylics. The process can simply be described as: stick, cut, and draw. Park creates a relief cutting using layers of stitch. The undulation of the relief gives the piece liveliness and vivacity, capturing the animation of the signs and causing the viewer’s gaze to linger on the canvas. Park refers to this effect as “tactile interest.” The viewer drawn in instinctively wants to stroke the uneven surface. Park took great care gently applying each layer of stitch to the next. Her pieces are no simple collage. The cutting action has no relation to the contour of the buildings, or their shadows. There is no real rhyme or reason, no set rule to how she cuts away portions of the stitch layers. It is completely devoid of influence from the painting’s image and takes on a life of its own. The fragmentation created by it is instead a product of spontaneity. Why does Park take such care attaching the layers of plastic stitch, simply to randomly cut into it? Regardless of the lack of connection between the image and the cutting, in the end, the drawing and cutting seamlessly come together in the finished product. It is Park’s extrasensory intuition and ability to mentally construct that create this final image. Park interprets the image on the canvas as a fragmentation. It is like a digital image, made up of pixels, and not focused on a single area like the bi-focal of human eyes. The human eye tends to focus on one small area, but digital pixels do not have a particular focus, each pixel is as focused as the others.  Digital images, therefore, do not have a primary or secondary focal point, and thus every part of a digital image is alive with movement. Park is interested in precisely this phenomenon. The way that the uneven surface scatters and fragments the image, but yet everything retains vivacity. It is this quality that Park has transferred from the virtual world to the canvas.

Why is does Park have such an interest in digital images? Park herself attempts to answer the question through modern Korea’s signboards. She insists on maintaining the sense of depth, but still emphasizes fragmentation. The reason behind this becomes clearer by exploring the internal narrative of the piece.

A city has a life and character of it’s own. Take Seoul of example, it is clearly split down the middle into Kang Nam and Kang Book. The cultural city, built on history is markedly different from the carefully planned new city. While Kang Book continuously goes through a cycle of creation and destruction, Kang Nam on the other hand, grows gradually, bit by bit. The same can be said of the satellite cities surrounding Seoul. Regardless of all the differences in the cities, the countless signboards surrounding high-rises are a familiar scene in them all. The signboards are all busy showing off their various colors. Park first chose stitch because stitch was present in the decision-making center of Korean city culture. The city that arose in the last few decades from the ruins of the Korean War was solely focused on growth, ignoring culture and tradition, molding it into a cheap stitch heaven. Though it would be the first inclination of many to criticize such a development, Park does not. She approaches the subject of stitch directly, capturing the history and current reality of the city that the cheap stitch culture embodies. Park calls this approach “ordinariness.” “Ordinariness” is the expression of something as is, without any veneer or packaging. Of course there are many artists who capture daily life through city images. Perhaps this is why when we think of the ordinary it is natural to bring to mind cityscapes.  When the small, the repetitive, the unremarkable are called ordinary, there is an interpretation of the living environment in that definition. When the word enters the realm of art, it takes on another meaning altogether. In art “ordinariness” does not mean the simple image of daily life captured in photographs, but is used to express a renewal of interest in day-to-day scenes. This is Park’s interpretation of ordinariness. Her pieces make us look again at the mix of extreme character and no character that is Korea, through this lens of the ordinary. Through the intaglio of the stitch we experience the spectacle of the signboard world in all of its disorganized chaos.
Of course, this is an extreme interpretation. To interpret a piece, you need to maintain distance, but the sculptural quality of the pieces allows for various interpretations. When we read texts on the signboards, we remember the surrounding views, and our own personal stories that come with the views. Through this process the subject matter takes on a different interpretation each time. The signboards contain both the history of the time and our own personal history. The layering of stitch has created a tactile representation of a visual subject, engaging an additional sense, creating a livelier and more complex landscape. It is much like our time, where the fragmented digital world, co-exists and interacts with the analog narrative.

Park’s pieces can be seen as an endless experiment born from the interaction between light and reproduction. In her recent works, Park is not as interested in signboards, but rather the light that composes the picture. Most of her current works are nocturnal city scenes. All of them contain light, the artificial, man-made illumination of traffic lights, cars, buildings and signs. This light is different from the strong beams of the sun. That light creates a vanishing point perspective; man-made light can befuddle that perspective. Man-made light comes in many colors and luminosities. The colors and intensity often differ with the culture of the city. This is what we get a feel for from her dizzying, beautiful pieces. Like the diversity of the undulations of the stitch, so multifaceted is the city.
A sign is made up of three components: stitch, cutting and the use of light. Amusingly, and ironically, these are the same components of Park’s work.

By Paek Gohn / Aesthetics

Quick Page Up