View of a ‘luxurious’ decorative art

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View of a ‘luxurious’ decorative art

On a silk-embroidered folding screen, Chung Young-yang depicts a school of carp swimming in the ocean. The work, a commission from former President Park Chung Hee, is luxuriant, capturing the carp in motion in a way that makes each scale appear to glitter in the swift current of the water.
The color gradation of the fish scales is intricate and richly intense, as if the artist painted with the tip of a brush.
In another work depicting a tree branch with morning glories, Chung deliberately leaves the seams of her stitches on the surface of the folding screen to create the rough texture of the twigs.
The works by Chung, a New York-based embroiderer and owner of some of the world’s finest examples of silk embroidery, embody the essence of the techniques and traditions of royal embroidery in Korea, which stands as an icon of luxury and indulgence in decorative art.
In “Silken Threads,” an exhibit currently featured at the Chung Young-yang Embroidery Museum, Chung, 68, has brought together her own work and other embroidery she has collected from around the world.
The museum, on the campus of Sookmyung Women’s University, in Cheongpa-dong, Seoul, houses an extensive collection of embroidery and woven textiles representing various historical periods and geographical regions that she has provided.
Overall, the collection is substantial for a university museum in an institution with a long tradition in textile art.
The current exhibit is due mostly to the efforts of Chung, the museum’s founder, whose works are included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institute and the presidential residences in Korea, Malaysia and Germany.
For the show, Chung sent a group of highly trained embroiderers to China to produce an exact replica of an ancient robe. To create a copy as close to the original as possible, she asked the team of embroiderers to dye the silk using the same plants the ancient embroiderers used.
The exhibit focuses primarily on East Asian costumes, tracing the history of silk embroidery in China ― including some items that were worn in the Forbidden City ― and its dissemination throughout East Asia.
The collection includes votive textiles, ecclesiastical robes, military uniforms, folding screens, wedding garments and various types of clothing, as well as costume accessories used mostly by the upper class.
“Embroidery was a status symbol,” says Lee Talbot, the museum’s curator. “You could tell a person’s rank precisely by the style and motifs of the robes they wore. It was a way to know visually how to treat a person.”
In Chinese embroidery, for example, an image of a dragon with five talons on its feet meant that the person came from an imperial family. Three talons meant the person was either a concubine or a distant relative of the king.
During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Korean authorities set up a codification system for the embroidered insignia worn by officials which distinguished the exact rank of the civil and military bureaucracy.
In the exhibit are samples of folk embroidery from the Joseon period done in cotton and homemade thread, but embroidery generally was reserved for the aristocracy in East Asian culture.
There were exceptions, however, such as bridal robes, which contained auspicious motifs and colors that were only used in designs for aristocrats.
Luxuriousness was a feature of East Asian embroidery since the medium was considered a status symbol. The more silk a person wore, the wealthier he was thought to be.
In many examples of East Asian embroidery, the sleeves of robes are draped in silk, with the cuffs pleating on the ground.
From early times in China, tiny grains of seed pearls were embroidered onto panel screens. Other embroiderers from those periods used such materials as peacock feathers, horsehair and human hair, which had been twisted together into a thin thread to provide depth and color variation.
There is a piece in the museum from Liao ― a pair of shoes made with a golden paper backing and covered with embroidery ― that is designed in such a way that one could imagine golden light emanating from the shoes when a person walked in them.
Design patterns that were fashionable in China bear a resemblance to Persian motifs from the same period, as the active trade with China via the Silk Road makes it evident that there also was some form of cultural exchange.
One of the contrasts between embroideries from the East and West that is evident in the exhibit is the cultural tradition of signing a work.
While most works from the West are signed and dated by the artist, thus making their origins traceable, the origin of most Eastern embroidery remains unknown because of the lack of documentation about the artist.
Kim Tae-ja, a vice director of the museum, says the show allowed local experts in the decorative arts to put Asian embroidery into a “scholarly context.”
The exhibit has helped identification come a long way, she says. “It was very common for owners of antique shops in Korea to openly lie about the origins of their collections, because there was virtually no way to find out the truth about Asian embroidery.”


by Park Soo-mee

“Silken Threads” runs through March 2005. For more information, call Chung Young-yang Embroidery Museum at 02-710-9134. To reach the museum, take subway line No. 4 to Sookmyung Women’s University station, exit 10. Follow the walkway until you reach the first building on the right after passing through the front gate.
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