2023

점으로부터 무한으로의 여정

2023

Transcultural Weaving

2023

Bottari as a Fluid Canvas and Sculpture

2023

Kimsooja To Breathe

2022

Kim Sooja: From Social Sculpture to the Realm of Infinity

2022

김수자 : 사회조각에서 무한의 영역으로

2021

보따리로 감싸고 자수로 엮어낸 여성성…공통된 키워드는 ‘관계맺기'

2021

김수자, 문화인류학적 탐구를 이어가는 바늘 여인

2020

아우름과 떠남의 미학: 김수자의 보따리

2020

Kimsooja - The New Normal

2020

KIMSOOJA, SCHAUENDES DENKEN

2020

A Needle Woman Weaves the World - ‘바늘 여인’, 세계를 직조하다, 2020

2019

“Mirror image: Kimsooja’s self-reflective installations take over the French city of Poitiers”

2019

Encounter with a City

2019

Transforming a city’s memories

2017

Kimsooja: The Task of Being-Together

2017

Archetype of Mind

2017

Geometry of Mind and of Body

2017

A Journey through Immobility

2016

Create A New Light

2015

Kimsooja 'To Breathe' in Centre Pompidou Metz "My work has always been a response to violence and inhumanity"

2015

세계 속에서 미술의 새로운 정체성을 만들어가는 작가, 김수자 Kimsooja

2015

An Architecture of Gaze

2014

Kimsooja: A Modern Day Global Nomad Transcending boundaries, re-constructing a global identity

2014

Kimsooja: Ways of Being - A Conversation between Daina Augaitis and Kimsooja

2013

Sewing into Life

2013

Essential Empathy

2013

A Place to Be - A Conversation with Kimsooja

2013

Centripetal Acceleration

2013

Kimsooja and the Art of Place

2013

Gnomon of Place, Gnomon of Foreignness

2013

55th Venice Biennale: Il Palazzo Enciclopedico | The Encyclopedic Palace

2013

삼라만상을 하나로 묶는 김수자의 보따리

2012

A Disappearing Woman

2012

The Unaltered Reality of the World

2012

Kimsooja: A Needle Woman

2012

Calm Chaos: Kimsooja's Earth – Water – Fire – Air

2012

The pilgrimage of our own existence

2012

Kimsooja, To Breathe: Invisible Mirror/Invisible Needle

2011

Kimsooja's <A Needle Woman>, Sacred Ritual

2011

Points of Convergence - Part I: Other-Self-World

2011

Kimsooja: Black Holes, Meditative Vanishings and Nature as a Mirror of the Universe

2011

Points of Convergence - Part 2: Mirror-Void-Other

2011

Kimsooja: Contemplation on top of the Horizontal and Vertical System

2010

Contemplation on the Origin of Life

2010

To be Born, Love, Suffer and Die

2010

Woman / Needle

2009

About nothingness: being nothing and making nothing

2009

KIMSOOJA | Tierra - Agua - Fuego - Aire / Earth - Water - Fire - Air

2008

An Interview with Kimsooja

2008

Interview with Kimsooja

2008

Art & Today, Excerpt from Art & Globalism

2008

Standing at the Zero Point

2008

Between Existence and Non-Existence

2008

Passages and Places - The City

2007

Kimsooja

2007

Kimsooja: Electric Chants

2006

To Breathe / Respirar

2006

Cultural Memory, Cultural Archetype and Communication

2006

An interview with Kimsooja

2006

An Interview with Kimsooja

2006

Kimsooja - A One-Word Name Is An Anarchist's Name

2006

An Interview with Kimsooja

2006

Kimsooja: Less is More

2005

Living in the Present, Connecting with the Universe

2005

The Bottari as Time Capsule - Thoughts accompanying the exhibition, "Kimsooja - Bottari Cologne 2005", Kewenig Galerie, Cologne 29.1 - 23.4, 2005

2005

Concrete Metaphysics

2005

Museion - The Perception of the Horizonta

2005

Kimsooja: Journey into the World

2005

Experiencing A Vacuum

2005

The Discipline of Looking

2005

Kimsooja: A Lighthouse Woman, A Needle in the World

2004

From Exploring WOW; or, How Works of Art Work

2004

Kimsooja at The Project

2003

KIMSOOJA

2003

Mandala: Zone of Zero

2003

Interview

2003

Conditions of Anonymity: The Performance Art of Kim Sooja

2003

Kimsooja

2003

An Incantation to Presence

2003

Being and Sewing

2003

Interview

2003

'In the Space of Art: Buddha and the Culture of Now' Interview

2003

Kim Sooja: March 24, 2003

2003

A One-Word Name Is An Anarchist's Name.

2002

Kimsooja: A Mirror Woman

2002

Homeland Exists Only in Our Memory in This Era

2002

Kim Sooja at Peter Blum

2002

Cloth and Life

2002

Kim Sooja

2002

The Persistence of the Void

2002

Obvious but Problematic

2002

Interview

2002

Whitney Biennale

2001

Kimsooja's Bottari and Her Journey

2001

Kim Sooja at P.S.1

2001

One Woman's Serenity in the Thick of Things

2001

The Concept of Bottari

2000

SelfScape

2000

Sooja Kim: Intercommunication Cente

2000

Kim Sooja: A Needle Woman

2000

Kim Sooja's A Needle Woman

2000

Bottari

1999

Folds and Loose Threads

1999

Soo-Ja Kim: Cities on the Move

1998

Soo-Ja Kim: A solitary performance with old fabric

1998

Interview

1997

Wrapping Bodies and Souls

1996

From Plane to Three Dimensions: A Bundle

1994

Sewing into Walking, an interview from 1994

1994

Formative Characteristics Shown In Kimsooja's Sewing And Deductive Object Works

1991

Recent Works of Kimsooja - A Return to the Archetype

1988

The Grammar and Expression of "Sewing" - On the first solo exhibition of work by Kimsooja

점으로부터 무한으로의 여정

Soyeon Ahn

2023

  • Soyeon Ahn
    돌이켜보면 거의 40년에 가까운 시간 동안 김수자 씨 작업의 전 과정을 가까이서 지켜볼 수 있었던 것이 저에게는 개인적으로 큰 행운이었습니다. 80년대 말에 미술관 그룹전에서 작품을 처음 보았고 이후 90년대 초 MoMA PS1에 다녀오는 시기에 나누었던 대화들, 그리고 1995년 베니스에서 백남준 선생님이 서포트해 주신 ≪호랑이의 꼬리(Tiger’s Tail - 15 Korean contemporary artists for Venice ‘95)≫ 전시를 진행하면서 함께 상의하고 작업 설치를 했던 모든 과정들이 흥미로운 추억으로 남아 있습니다.
    김수자 씨 작업은 매우 명상적이면서도 강렬한 에너지를 지니고 있기 때문에 보는 이들의 마음에 큰 공감과 위로를 주는 특징이 있다고 생각합니다. 무엇보다도 작품 하나하나가 생명력을 지닌 것처럼 세월이 지나도 현재 진행형이란 점은 탁월한 부분이 아닐 수 없습니다. 예를 들어, 1980년대 1990년대에 제작되어 그 특정 시기의 이슈를 반영했던 작품들이 오늘날에도 여전히 동시대의 작품으로 다시 읽히고 있다거나, 전시 기획자들의 관심사에 따라서 하나의 작품이 여러 방향과 시각에서 재해석될 수 있다는 것은 김수자 작품 세계만이 가진 놀라운 힘이라고 생각합니다. 저는 바늘이 천 또는 어떤 대상에 맞닿는 점으로부터 바느질과 엮는 행위가 만들어내는 관계와 네트워크의 문제, 그리고 보따리의 이동과 포용의 개념이 인간세계를 넘어서서 자연이나 빛과 같이 우주까지 아우르며 개념적으로 확장되어 나가는 그 과정을 주목하게 됩니다. 이를 포괄적으로 정의하여 김수자의 작업 세계는 ‘점으로부터 무한으로의 여정’이라 해도 될 것 같습니다.
    작가의 작품 세계는 연대기적으로 서술하는 것이 큰 의미가 없을 정도로 작품 하나하나가 현재성과 전체성을 지니고 있기 때문에 오늘 대화는 궁금했던 가장 최근의 프로젝트부터 시작해서 자유로운 시간 여행을 하면 어떨까 싶습니다. 지금 진행 중인 프로젝트 중에서 코펜하겐 프레데릭스버그미술관(Frederiksberg Museums)의 시스턴(Cisternerne)에 설치한 작업에 대해서 우선 소개해 주시면 좋겠습니다. 제가 알기로 과거 지하 저수지를 활용한 전시장이기 때문에 자연광이 전혀 빛이 들어오지 않는 공간으로 알고 있는데, 그곳에 빛을 도입했다고 들었습니다. 작업에 대해서 소개를 해주십시오.



Kimsooja
사실 제가 빛이 전혀 없는 어둠 속에서 빛을 생성하고, 다시 그것을 반응하게 하는 작업을 이제까지 한 적이 없었습니다. 베니스 비엔날레 한국관(2013)에서 완전한 어둠과 무반향의 공간을(anechoic chamber) 빛의 공간과 대비하여 보이기는 하였지만요. 그런데 규모가 4,400sqm나 되고, 3개의 챔버(chambers)로 나누어져 있는 시스턴(Cisternerne)이라는 특수한 옛 지하 저수지 공간에서 작업을 해야 했고 그곳은 늘 100%의 습도를 유지하는 물이 항상 존재하는 특수한 공간이었습니다. 우리는 그곳의 물을 거의 다 뺄 수도, 채울 수도 있었습니다. 첫 번째 챔버로 내려가면 바닥이 젖어있어 습기로 가득차 있고, 두 번째 챔버는 첫번째 챔버에 비해 더 물이 고여있고, 세 번째는 조금 더 물이 차있는 상태를 유지하였습니다. 저는 어둠과, 거울을 대신하는 물, 그리고 그 세 개의 챔버를 거니는 과정 전체를 하나의 경험의 스펙트럼으로 생각하고, 그 상황을 어떻게 가장 잘 해석하고 구현하여 관객들에게 어떤 특별한 경험을 줄 수 있을지를 고민했습니다. 그 결과, 제가 그동안 사용하지 않았던 인공의 빛을 어둠 속에 드리우는 작업을 생각하게 됐습니다.

그동안 어떤 오브제나 새로운 공간을 만들고 건축적인 요소를 새로 제작하는 작업이 아닌 주어진 공간 조건 속에서 최소한으로 개입하여 최대한의 경험으로 응답한다는 입장으로 작업을 지속해 왔습니다. 시스턴의 공간 형태는 보르도의 CAPC와 비슷하게 붉은 벽돌의 아치 형태로 되어있습니다. 이 어둠 속의 공간에서 저는 비어있는 아치형태의 건축적 공간을 빛의 따블로(tableau)인 아크릴릭 패널을 행잉(hanging)하여 전체 공간에 설치하였습니다. 저는 보통 기존의 유리창이 있는 아치 형태의 구조물에 회절 격자 필름(diffraction grating film)을 붙여서(wrapping) 사용하곤 했는데, 이번에는 유리창 대신에 총 48개의 대형 아크릴릭 패널을 설치하여 회절격자 필름을 부착했습니다. 그리고 각각의 공간과 시점, 위치에 따라 각기 다른 라이트 소스(light source)를 사용하고 세심하게 각도와 빛의 강도를 조절하여 각기 다른 빛의 스펙트럼을 연출했고, 저는 이 전체 공간을 하나의 빛의 실험실이라고 생각하고 있습니다.

이 빛의 실험실에서 저는 시작점으로부터 세 번째 방에 이르기까지 관객들이 점점 확장된 경험을 할 수 있도록 공간을 연출했습니다. 두번째 챔버 부터는 10cm에서 20cm 가량 물이 차 있었기 때문에, 관객이 걸을 수 있도록 나무로 된 보도를 사용해 물 곁에 접근할 수 있도록 했고, 빛이 필름을 통과하면서 거울효과로 확산되는 물의 반향을 통해 무지갯빛 향연을 보일 수가 있었는데 관객이 물가를 걸을때 나무패널의 진동으로 인하여 잔물결이 일면서 멀리까지 이동하는 것을 볼 수 있어 흥미로왔지요. 그리고 마지막 세 번째 챔버에서는 전체를 조망할 수 있는 하나의 스펙터클(theatrical spectacle) 처럼 다양한 스펙트럼의 빛의 파노라마를 한눈에 볼 수 있도록 설치했습니다.
이곳이 일년 사시사철 100%의 습도를 가진 공간이기 때문에 겨울에는 매우 춥기도 하고, 물이 가득찬 공간에서 전기조명을 설치한다는 것이 도전적인 일이었습니다. 하지만 극도로 어려운 공간조건에서도 그곳의 스태프들의 오랜 작업의 경험으로 예상 밖의 결과를 성취하였습니다. 저는 이번 프로젝트가 그동안의 빛작업을 통합하면서 빛 작업의 새로운 챕터를 열어주었다고 생각하고 있습니다.



Soyeon Ahn
지금 말씀하신 것처럼 빛의 실험실로서, 이제는 인공광을 이용한 프로젝트도 가능한 하나의 새로운 챕터라고 말씀하셔서 굉장히 흥미롭고 또 앞으로가 더욱 기대됩니다.


Kimsooja
또한 특이할 만한 사항은 개념적으로 제가 이 전시의 타이틀을 ≪Weaving the Light≫라고 명명했다는 겁니다. 빛을 엮는다는 개념으로 프로젝트를 진행한 것이죠. 40년간의 지난 작업 과정을 통해 저는 바느질하기(sewing), 엮기(weaving), 그리고 감싸기(wrapping)라는 텍스타일과 연계된 행위와 실험들을 숨 쉬고 바라보고 걷는, 또 가사노동과 씨 뿌리는 일상적인 행위들을 통해서 개념을 발전시켜 왔는데요, 이번에는 그 빛 자체를 직조하는 행위로써 구현했습니다. 말하자면 빛이 스스로를 직조하고 있지만 마치 내가(혹은 관객이) 빛을 직조하는 것처럼, 직조의 주체를 사람으로 의인화해서 빛의 스펙트럼이나 바늘의 형상, 기능 등을 연계하고 그 공간 안에서 적극적으로 읽고 경험할 수 있게 했습니다.


Soyeon Ahn
그동안의 작업들은 주로 자연광을 이용한 작업들이었기 때문에 작가가 그 작업에서 추구하는 방향과 실제 자연광이 시시각각으로 변하면서 만들어 내는, 컨트롤할 수 없는 상황이 만나는 부분이 있었는데요. ‘빛의 실험실’이라는 개념처럼 이번 작업을 계기로 빛이 없는 곳에 작가가 인위적으로 빛을 가져와 직조하여 보다 적극적인 개입을 시작했다는 생각이 듭니다.


Kimsooja
빛을 컨트롤한다는 게 새로운 요소였고, 그 과정을 통해 관객의 의도하지 않은 퍼포먼스로 인해 무한한 빛의 언어가 탄생하는 지점이 특히 흥미로웠습니다.


Soyeon Ahn
새로운 시도에 대한 이야기를 들을 수 있어서 좋았습니다. 그동안의 작업을 돌이켜보면 김수자 작가는 ‘빛'을 매우 중요한 매개체로 다루어 왔습니다. ‘빛’과 관련한 작업을 하는 몇몇 작가들이 있습니다만 그들의 작업이 어떤 형태와 조형으로서의 결과를 도출했던 반면, 김수자 작가의 빛은 규정되지 않은 공간에 관한 것입니다. 전시장으로 주어진 건축물의 창을 일종의 경계로 설정하여 안과 밖의 공간 모두를 다루는 양상을 보입니다. 빛을 통해서 무한의 가능성을 바라보게 한다고 생각하는데요, 빛을 다루게 된 계기나 빛에 대한 생각을 조금 더 공유해 주십시오.


Kimsooja
사실 색에서 빛으로 넘어가는 전환을 처음 시도한 것은 극장 조명을 처음으로 사용한 2003년 뉴욕의 The Kitchen에서의 콜라보레이션에서 였고, 이후 극장조명을 포터블 형식으로 재현한 비디오 프로젝션을 통해서였습니다. 뉴욕에 있는 The Kitchen이라는 곳에서 Linda Yablonsky가 기획한 ‘Spotlight Reading’에서 To Breathe – Invisible Mirror / Invisible Needle의 원형이 된 무대조명을 처음으로 스크린에 프로젝션하면서 하나의 스테이지 작업으로 선보였습니다. 이 작업이 나오기 전에는 MoMA PS1 스튜디오에서 제작한 천과 사다리, 스파게티 뽑는 기계 등의 오브제를 사용한 초기 작업(연역적 오브제, 1993)에서 전구를 처음 도입했고, 또 안소연선생님과 함께 일한 ≪호랑이의 꼬리≫에서도 색이자 물질인 천을 오래된 창고벽의 구멍들에 꽂고 보따리 작업을 구석에 설치해 놓은 작업과 함께 형광등을 벽에 기대어 놓았었지요. 그 이후에 레이나 소피아 크리스탈 팔라스(Crystal Palace, Museo de National Reina Sofía)에서 처음으로 자연광을 이용하여 회절 필름(diffraction film)을 사용한 To Breathe – Mirror woman 작업을 하게 되었습니다. 그 순간이 바로 저에게는 회화에 있어서의 질문들, 즉 페인팅에 있어서 캔버스천의 날실과 씨실의 십자 표면과 구조에서 파생된 모든 작업의 기반들이 회절 필름이라는 또하나의 무수한 나노스케일의 십자형 스크레치라는 프리즘을 통해서 무지갯 빛으로 변환된 하나의 전환점이라고 할 수 있습니다. 어떻게 보면 그때부터 제 작업이 색에서 빛으로 개념과 차원을 확장했다고 할 수 있습니다.

그리고 제가 회절 필름을 사용하게 된 것은 70년대 말과 80년대 초반부터 늘 천착해왔던 평면의 또는 세계의 구조, 언어와 정신의 구조로써의 수직과 수평의 십자기호(crucifix)와도 관련이 있습니다. 제가 대학원에 다닐 때 논문까지 썼듯이 그것이 어떻게 독창성을 추구하는 현대미술에서 과거 고대미술에서부터 현재까지, 지속적으로 주요 화가들의 어느 시점에서 지속적으로 제시되어 왔는가(regenerate) 하는 것에 주목하고 있었습니다. 특히 우리나라의 건축, 가구, 한글의 구조를 또 자연의 제현상을 매우 주의 깊게 관찰하고 연구하고 있었어요. 그것이 결국은 제가 질문하고 있었던 회화에 있어서의 평면성, 그리고 회화의 표면과 구조의 문제를 조금 더 심도있게 질문할 수 있는 계기가 되었습니다.
회절 필름의 1cm 안에는 거의 나노(Nano) 스케일의 약 5천 개의 수직과 수평으로 된 스크래치가 있고 그것이 프리즘으로 작용을 함으로써 빛이 그 면에 닿는 순간 회절되고 투과되며 반사되어 실을 뽑듯이 Wave length를 따라 오방색의(Obangsaek) 빛줄기를 탄생시키는 것입니다. 제가 오랫동안 천착해왔던 세계의 구조, 표면의 구조와 연계된 질문과 이 회절 격자 필름을 사용한 빛으로의 나아감은 사실 필연적이었다고 봅니다. 그때부터 빛으로의 여행이 시작되었다고 할 수 있습니다. 그래서 다른 작가들이 사용하는 빛과 제가 사용하는 빛의 근거는 아주 다르다고 볼 수가 있을 것 같습니다. 저는 보다 미술사적인 맥락에서 근본적인 구조이자 재료로써 빛을 사용한 것입니다.

크리스탈 팔라스 작업의 경우는, 제가 이제껏 싸온 보따리를 건축물로 전환시켰다는 점에서 조금 더 결정적인 전환점이 되는 작업이었다고 할 수 있습니다. 그래서 투명한 건축물을 필름으로 감싸서 그것이 하나의 건축적인 보따리(Bottari)가 된 것입니다. 보이드를 싸고, 빛과 퍼포머들의 삶이 만나게 되면서 살아있는 사람들의 보따리라고도 할 수 있지요. 삶이 그안에 있는.


Soyeon Ahn
네. 말씀하신 특별한 직조의 개념을 확장시켜 새로운 재료나 건축 구조물을 사용한 것에 덧붙여 김수자 작가는 거기에 To Breathe라는 전제를 달고 있습니다. 작가만의 독특한 비전이 아닐 수 없는데요, 이전부터 그 전제를 중시했기 때문에 물리적인 공간 자체가 지금 말씀하신 삶과 연관이 되고, 그래서 그 안에서 우리가 함께 호흡하고 느낄 수 있는 가능성을 얻게 되는 거지요. To Breathe라는 개념을 도입을 하고 천착하게 된 배경에 대해서도 말씀해 주십시오.


Kimsooja
다시 말하자면 회절 격자 필름을 사용한 것은 제가 이 재료 자체를 하나의 천(textile)으로 보았다는 것, 그래서 개념적으로는 보따리 싸기(wrapping bottari) 내지는 건축적인 보따리라고 생각한다는 것입니다. 쉽게 접근하자면 그 안에 있는 모든 요소들, 즉 실내외의 빛, 그리고 공간 안에 거울을 설치하고 호흡하는 사운드, 즉 들숨과 날숨이 끊임없이 교차되는 호흡하는 소리(breathing sound)를 넣었는데, 말하자면 날숨이나 들숨이 정지되는 순간을 우리는 죽음이라고 봐야할 겁니다. weaving이나 sewing과 마찬가지로 경계를 넘나드는 현상으로서의 들숨과 날숨을 담은 이 작업을 삶과 죽음을 잇고 self와 the other self를 잇는 작업이라고 봅니다.

제 작업은 늘 수직과 수평을 근간으로 해서 차원과 개념을 확장해왔고, 이원성(duality)의 문제는 끊임없이 진화하는 중요한 하나의 축이라고 할 수 있습니다. 조금 더 설명하자면 이원성이 이원성으로 끝나는 것이 아니라 무한대로 생성되고, 변화하고, 소멸되고, 변이되면서 재해석 되어 이것이 또 다른 세계를 창출하는 의미에서의 이원성을 말합니다. 제 인식의 한 축에 기반하여 저의 개념적인 진화가 가능했다고 볼 수 있습니다. 자주 아이디어는 불현듯, 번개처럼 떠오르지만요.


Soyeon Ahn
작업 자체가 거대한 보편성으로 나아가기 때문에 자칫하면 우리의 개별적인 삶과 거리감이 생길 수도 있었는데요. 그럼에도 불구하고 작업이 실제 살아 숨 쉬는 것처럼 지금의 삶과 연결되는 이유는 이전의 바늘 여인과 같이 작가가 거기에 호흡하기의 개념을 부여했기 때문에 공간 자체가 유기체처럼 경험하는 이의 현존과 함께 하는 것 같았습니다.


Kimsooja
또다시 저의 80년대 초의 논문 이야기로 돌아가게 되는데, 그때 제가 수직과 수평, 십자형 기호의 보편성과 유전성에 대해서 글을 썼습니다. 저는 모더니즘부터 그 이후의 현대미술에서 수많은 작가가 십자가를 거쳐오는 작업의 과정을 겪었다는 것, 그것에 굉장한 의문을 가졌습니다. 현대미술이 독창성과 독자성을 추구함에도 불구하고 무엇으로 인해 제 자신을 포함해 그 많은 작가들이 생애의 어떤 한 시점에 이 십자를 만나게 되는가에 대해 질문하고 이를 찾아보았습니다. 그 결과, 칼 구스타프 융(Carl Gustav Jung)의 마음의 원형, 만달라(Mandala)에 다다랐어요. 심상의 형태가 십자가에서 시작해서 점점 확산되는 형태로 나가는데, 그것을 저는 심리학적인 측면 뿐만 아니라 조형 예술측면에서 도일하게 적용해 보았습니다. 결국 우리 마음 안에 그러한 구조가 있기 때문에 본질에 다다르려고 노력하는 많은 작가들이 어느 한 시점에는 필연적으로 십자가를 만날 수 밖에 없다는 이해에 다다른 것이지요.

To Breathe라는 제목은 이러한 형이상학적인 접근과 물질적인 해석(metaphysical & physical interpretation)이 제 작업에서 함께 전개된 결과라고 볼 수 있습니다. 같은 맥락에서 볼때 보따리 작업 역시 보따리가 갖는 천의 평면 또는 입체의 형식적인 측면과 몸의 탄생과 죽음, 기억과 삶의 애환을 담아낸 하나의 오브제로서 양자를 같이 이야기할 수 있었던 것이 아닌가 합니다. 그리고 이렇게 두 축이 병행된 질문을 계속함으로써 관객과 작업을 가까이 둘 수 있게 된 것 같습니다. 다시 말해, “Weaving is breathing and breathing is living.”이라는 사유의 전환으로 저의 삶과 형식에 대한 태도를 대변할 수 있겠습니다.


Soyeon Ahn
개인적인 질문 하나 하고 넘어가도 될까요? 최근에 돌아가신 부군께서 정신과 의사셨는데, 서로 간에 많은 대화를 나누시고 또 영감을 주고 받았으리라 생각이 듭니다. 제가 플라토(Plateau)에 있을 때 혼자 제 전시를 보러 오셔서 산해경(山海經)책을 남겨놓고 가신 적이 있어요. 그 정도로 미술에 대해서도 관심이 있으셨는데, 김수자 작가가 평소에 가지고 있는 인간과 우주, 수직과 수평에 대한 개념을 혹시 서로 간에 공유하고 대화를 나누신 적이 있을까요?


Kimsooja
오랜 시간을 통해 끊임없는 대화가 오간 건 사실이지만 우리가 처음 만났을 때는 제가 대학원 논문을 쓰고 있을 때였고, 그 당시는 미술에 관해 서로 자세한 이야기를 하지는 않았고 그도 미술을 가까이서 접할 기회가 거의 없었던 걸로 압니다. 하지만 삶과 몸, 또 정신의 본질적인 문제를 늘 화두로 안고 살아간 사람이지요. 그런데 사실 예전에 저의 오브제 작업 중에 Deductive Object – Remembrance (1990)라는 작업이 있었는데, 불교에서 스님들이 좌선할 때 쓰시는 먹색 누비 깔개에 에이프레임 지개에 딸려있는 나무 지팡이와 작은 헌 천조각을 공처럼 엮어 매달고, 넝쿨 모양의 스틸 프레임 장식을 붕대로 감아 기대놓은 작업이 있었습니다. 그런데 남편은 그것을 보고 본인은 완전히 저의 예술을 믿기로 했다고 했고, 그것을 완전히 정신과적인 교과서라고 생각한다고 한 적이 있습니다.


Soyeon Ahn
작가님이 본인의 생각을 시각적으로 구현해 주는 사람이었나 봅니다. 사실 김수자 작가의 작업에는 특정 종교가 반영되지는 않지만 종교적인 부분이 복합적으로 들어오기도 합니다. 앞에 언급한 빛을 이용한 작업이 아무래도 주어진 건축물의 유리창을 활용하는 것이다 보니 자연스럽게 스테인드글라스의 전통과도 맞닿은 것으로 보입니다. 프랑스 메츠(Metz) 대성당의 스테인드글라스를 제작하셨다는 이야기를 들었습니다. 보통 전시를 기획하는 경우와는 다른 매우 특별한 경험이었을 것 같은데, 그 경험을 공유해 주시기 바랍니다.


Kimsooja
프랑스에서 가장 아름다운 성당 중의 하나로 알려진, 그 생테티엔 드 메츠 성당(La cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Metz)의 영구 스테인드글라스를 제작하게 된 것은 굉장한 영광이었습니다. 동시에 워낙 유구한 역사가 담긴 공간이었기 때문에 굉장한 부담을 갖고 작업을 한 것도 사실입니다.
처음에는 나노 폴리머(nano polymer)로 실험적인 작업을 하려고 했었습니다. 그런데 실제 공간에서 이 재료를 테스트해 보니 가시거리가 너무 멀어서 나노 구조가가 가진 디테일한 아름다움이나 빛의 움직임을 보이기가 어려웠습니다. 더군다나 역사적인 기념물을 관리하고 의사결정을 내리는 커뮤니티는 아무래도 전통을 중요시하고 지속성을 담보해야했기 때문에 신물질인 나노 폴리머 재료의 사용 승인을 받는 것에도 어려움이 있었습니다. 여러 이유로 인해 저는 있는 그대로의 수공의 고대 유리(ancient glass)에 새로 개발된 다이크로익 유리(dichroic glass)를 함께 사용하는 대안을 마련했습니다. 그래서 다이크로익 유리가 무지개색을 드러내며 걸어가는 방향에 따라 다르게 보이게끔 하기 때문에 이것이 제게는 깨어지기 쉬운 나노 폴리머를 입힌 글라스를 쓰는 것 보다 좋은 해결책이었습니다. 결과적으로 고전적인 스테인드글라스와는 다른 새로운 방식을 제시하게 되었고, 이것은 저에게도 의미가 있었습니다. 특히 스테인드글라스를 제작했던 아틀리에 파로(Atelier Parot)는 노트르담 성당을 복원(renovate)하는 팀이었습니다. 최고의 협업자들과 과정을 함께하며 좋은 경험을 했고, 이는 제가 유리라는 물질(material)에 새로 진입을 하는 계기가 됐습니다. 최근에도 유리 작업에 계속해서 관심을 갖고 실험하는 중입니다.

이 프로젝트는 가톨릭 성당에서 이루어졌지만, 사실 저는 모든 종교에 대해 포용적인 태도를 갖고 있습니다. 물론 저의 양가가 대대로 가톨릭이고, 저 또한 한때 가톨릭 학교를 나왔기 때문에 성당이 익숙하고 편안한 공간이기도 합니다. 그렇지만 스테인드글라스의 색을 정하는 데 있어서는 여전히 오방색을 적용했습니다. 오방색이라는 것이 결국 도교(Taoism)나 유교(Confucianism), 심지어는 불교(Buddhism)에도 나오는 색의 영역이고, 방위나 차원이기 때문에 오방색과 성당의 만남은 어떻게 보면은 서양의 무지개와 동양의 오방색의 흥미로운 만남이라고 할 수 있습니다. 또 성당 유리창의 원래 구조가 다이아몬드 형태였는데 불교에서는 다이아몬드 형태가 자아가 완성된 단계를 상징하기 때문에 제게는 굉장히 흥미로운 지점이었습니다. 이렇게 저의 해석을 거쳐 다른 요소들을 병치시키는 것이 역사적인 기념비에 대한 급진적인(radical) 접근일 수도 있었는데 성당에서는 포용적으로 잘 받아주었습니다.


Soyeon Ahn
같은 개념으로 푸아티에(Poitier) 전시 ≪통과 \ 김수자(Traversées \ Kimsooja)≫를 통해 푸아티에 노트르담 성당에 설치했던 Solarescope라는 작품에서도 오방색을 쓰셨습니다. 함께 공존하지 못할 것들을 포용하는 개념이 들어 있었던 것으로 이해했습니다. 이야기를 나누고 보니, 저와 함께 플라토 삼성미술관 ‘지옥의 문’ 앞에 설치한 Lotus: Zone of Zero작품이 떠오릅니다. 천장에 매단 거대한 연등 사이로 사운드 작업이 함께 울려 나왔는데, 각 종교의 성가(chant)들을 수집해서 한꺼번에 들려주는 작업이었습니다.


Kimsooja
그렇습니다. 플라토에서 했던 작업 역시 티베트 불교 성가, 그레고리안 성가, 그리고 이슬람 성가를 같이 들려주는 작업이었고, 시각적으로는 만달라 연등을 보였습니다. 어떻게 보면 불교의 포용적인 태도를 그 안에 담는다고 볼 수도 있지만, 그것을 넘어서 모든 종교가 화합하고 이상적인 세계로 전향하는 것을 말하고자 했습니다. 그 작업은 이라크 전쟁과 같이 종교로 인해 많은 전쟁이 일어나고 갈등이 전 세계를 뒤흔든 이후의 작업이기도 했습니다. 세계의 공존과 평화에 대한 저의 메시지라고 할 수 있습니다.
그래서 이 푸아티에 작업은 사실은 예전에 2003년 제2회 발렌시아 비엔날레에서 처음 했던 Solarescope라는 전쟁에 의해 파괴되어 폐허가 된 어떤 건물의 외벽에 오방색이 서서히 변환되는 빛 프로젝션을 하는 작업으로부터 시작된 것이었습니다. Solarescope는 여지의 땅이라는 개념이라고 합니다. 건물의 벽면에 빛을 영사하고 그 벽면을 강조함으로써 그 이외의 공간을 드러내는, 이분법적인 공간의 공존을 드러내고자 한 작업이었습니다. 표면을 강조한 작업인데 사실은 노트르담 성당(L'église Notre-Dame-la-Grande) 설치 전시가 끝나면서 기부를 해서 매해 크리스마스 때마다 프로젝션을 하기로 했습니다.


Soyeon Ahn
빛을 매개로 한 작업의 규모가 특정 장소를 다루는 것에서 규모를 한정지을 수 없는 공간으로 확장하는 사례는 2010년에 아뜰리에 에르메스에서 처음 선보인 지수화풍이라는 작업이었습니다. 그것은 자연 그 자체, 또는 자연의 사원소에 대한 개념을 다루고 있기 때문에 가장 근원적이면서도 가장 포괄적인 작업 가운데 하나였습니다. 지수화풍의 각각의 작품 제목에서도 깊은 의미가 담겨있었는데 사원소가 서로 간에 엮이며 직조하는 것을 제시했었습니다.


Kimsooja
사원소는 말하자면 물은 물이 아니고, 또 불은 불이 아니라는 개념입니다. 물이 항상 불에 기대어 있고, 공기에 기대어 있고, 또 땅에 기대어 서로 연대되어 있다는 것입니다. 불교의 연기설이 말하듯 하나이지만 홀로 서 있는 것이 아니라는 것과 같습니다.

이를테면 저는 물의 땅(Tierra de Agua, Earth of Water), 즉 잔잔한 물이 바닷가에서 끊임없이 찰랑이는 것을 보면서 산의 풍경을 떠올리면서 거기서 땅을 보았고, 이처럼 땅과 물, 불과 땅, 공기와 불 등 요소들을 순열 조합하듯 연계시킴으로써 생각을 발전시켰고, 제 작업의 중요한 근간이 되는 자연과 물질의 관계를 보여주는 개념으로 전개했습니다.


Soyeon Ahn
우리가 빛과 공간, 자연에 대해서 이야기를 나누면서도 끊임없이 김수자 작가의 핵심적인 철학이 담긴 바늘과 보따리를 연상합니다. 이미 수많은 인터뷰에서 언급하셨겠지만 작업의 출발점이자 핵심 아이디어라고 할 수 있는 바늘과 보따리에 대해 이야기 나누고 싶습니다. 철학적으로 보편성을 담은 작업세계도 작가 본인이 직접 경험한 작은 행위들, 바느질과 관련된 개인적이고 실제적인 경험과 연계됨으로써 진정성을 확보한다고 생각합니다.
19800년대의 한국 미술아카데미 분위기는 매우 경직되어 있었고, 획일적이고 남성 중심적이었는데요, 그 당시 어떠한 각성들이 맹아가 되어 오늘날 김수자 작가의 작품 세계를 열게 되었는지 청년 작가로서 첫 발을 디뎠을 당시의 상황에 대해 말씀해 주세요.


Kimsooja
사실 70년대 중반부터 말, 80년대 초반에 이르기까지 저는 홍익대학교에서 학부와 대학원 생활을 하고 있었습니다. 당시 홍익대학교 단색화 교수들의 영향력에서 자유로울 수는 없었습니다. 하지만 사실 저는 70년대 말부터 전위적인 실험을 하고 있었고, 몸을 통해 퍼포머티브(performative)한 사진 작업도 했습니다. 학교에서는 어떠한 문제에 대해 적극적인 태도로 다른 시각을 제시하거나 질문을 하기도 했고, 가끔 학교에서 문제를 삼기도 했지만 그것이 제 작업과 동료들의 작업과 의식에 영향을 주었다고 생각합니다.
당시에 제가 천착하던 세계에 대한 구조, 평면의 구조에 대한 관심과 질문을 제 모든 삶 안에서 해석하려고 하곤 했습니다. 더불어서 어떻게 하면 나로부터 필연적으로 나올 수밖에 없는 나만의 언어, 이제껏 미술사에서 나오지 않았던 어떠한 언어를 구현할 수 있을까를 고민하며 다양한 재료적 실험을 했지만 자아 매체, 또 방법론과의 동질성을 느낄 수 없었습니다. 그러던 시기의 어느 날 어머니와 함께 이불을 꿰매는 일을 하면서 어떤 획기적인 바늘과 천과의 만남이 있었습니다.

다른 인터뷰에서 여러차례 언급한 것 처럼, 정말 바늘 끝이 부드러운 천에 닿는 순간 정말 전 우주의 에너지가 내 머리를 치며 손끝을 타고 바로 그 천과 바늘 끝에 다다른 것 같은 전율을 경험했습니다. 바늘과 천이 만나는 그 순간이 바로 제가 계속해서 고민해왔던 수직, 수평뿐만 아니라 모든 구조의 문제가 놓여있는 그 시작점이었습니다. 그래서 그때부터 ‘아, 이거다!’ 깨닫고 바느질 작업을 하기 시작했습니다. 바느질을 하면서 매우 충동적으로 또 자연스럽게 또 오브제를 랩핑(wrapping)하는 작업으로 넘어가게 되었는데, 사실 이 오브제 랩핑은 직관적으로 전개한 작업이었습니다. 어떤 개념을 생각하거나, 결과를 예상하며 한 행동이 아니라, 제가 그것을 해야만 했기 때문에 그 에너지를 가지고, 직관적으로 몰입해 랩핑을 했다는 것입니다.
그리고 그렇게 감는 작업 중에는 링 형태의 Untitled(1991)라는 제목의 작품이 있습니다. 저는 서클을 형성하는 그 휘어진 사각 프레임을 하나의 캔버스 프레임으로 간주했었습니다. 캔버스 프레임이 연결되어 링이 만들어지고, 이것이 공간을 소잉(sewing), 내지는 싸는(wrapping) 구조가 된 것이었습니다. 이런 식으로 작업들이 연결되고, 이것이 보따리 랩핑으로 급진전되었습니다. 사실 보따리는 제가 싸면서 발견한 것이 아니라, 어느 순간 보따리가 놓여있는 것을 보고 발견한 것이었습니다. 그런데 이후에 보따리 작업을 계속하다 보니 제가 계속 랩핑을 하는 것이 어찌 보면 결국은 보따리를 싸는 것과 같은 행위가 아닌가 하는 것을 깨닫게 되었습니다. 다시 말해, 결국 보따리를 싸고 천을 오브제에 싸는 행위가 결국 바느질 행위와 같지 않나 하는 인식에 다다랐습니다. 천이라는 평면을 랩핑하는 행위가 소잉이었기 때문에 제가 오브제 랩핑을 할 수 있었고, 그렇기 때문에 보따리를 할 수 있었다라는 결론에 이르게 되더라고요, 어느 순간.

그래서 모든 것이 저의 당시의 특별한 에너지와 개인적인 체험에 의해서 시작되고 이어졌지만, 이것이 동시에 너무나도 명확한 구조적 논리에 의해서 전개가 되었다는 것을 깨달았습니다. 이 모든 것들이 제 작업에 대한 확신을 주었고, 작업의 소스(source) 가 되어 To Breathe와 같은 작업도 탄생했다고 생각합니다.


Soyeon Ahn
사실 1970년대에서 80년대로 넘어가면서 한국 미술사에도 커다란 방향 전환이 있었습니다. 다양성이 특성인 오늘날의 상황과는 달리, 당시는 한국적 모더니즘의 형식인 단색화의 큰 흐름이 1980년대에 민중 미술로 대체되었습니다. 커다란 흐름이 다른 흐름으로 뒤덮어 버려 방향이 다른 시도들은 거의 불가능한 시기였는데요. 김수자 작가의 경우는 모더니즘이 가지고 있는 한계에 대해서 끊임없이 고민하고 반항하며 그에 대해 하나의 탈출구를 마련하면서도 민중미술이라는 가부장적인 큰 흐름에 휩싸이지 않았다고 생각합니다. 사실 민중미술은 시대정신을 반영하는 역할을 했지만, 미술 내적으로는 어떠한 대안도 제시하지 못한 측면이 있습니다. 반면, 김수자 작가는 그 새로운 시대정신에 공감해서 여성주의적인 시각이나 노마딕한 시대의 상황 등을 적극적으로 표출하면서도 그것을 본인이 오랜 시간 고민해 온 조형 형식 속에 녹여냈습니다. 그렇기에 아티스트로서 굉장히 중요한 독자적인 발걸음을 할 수 있었다고 생각합니다.


Kimsooja
저는 민중미술뿐만 아니라 집단적인 어떤 움직임이나 행위를 굉장히 꺼려했고 제 체질에 맞지 않았습니다. 사실 민중미술이 막 시작될 무렵 현재 민중미술의 중요한 핵심이 되는 멤버들과 대학원시절 스터디 그룹을 하기도 했습니다. 그 친구들이 저와 함께 무언가를 해보려고 했지만, 저는 거기에 함께하기보다는 나만의 독자적인, 홀로 가는 길을 가기로 했습니다. 물론 대학시절 단색화의 영향이나 남성중심적인 분위기도 영향을 주었겠지만, 당시 제가 70년대 중후반 한국의 아방가르드의 움직임을 경험하고, 앙데팡당과 같은 활동도 한두 번 같이 하면서 실험미술에 계속해서 관심을 가져왔기 때문에 그러한 결정이 가능하지 않았나 생각합니다. 그리고 사실은 단색화 교수나 작가들이 후기 젊은 작가들을 같이 끌어들이려고 했던 그런 태도에 대해 저항을 할 수 있었던 것은 제가 단색화 자체를 글로벌하고 보편적인 작업으로 보지 않았기 때문에 그러했던 것도 있고, 개인적으로 예술에 있어서 실험적이고 전위적인 태도나 접근에 조금 더 가치를 두고 있었기 때문입니다. 하지만 단색화와 민중미술이라는 기존의 두 축이 현실적으로는 큰 영향을 주고 있었던 게 사실이었죠. 그래서 고독한 혼자만의 길을 갈 수밖에 없었던 것이구요.


Soyeon Ahn
단조로운 화단의 분위기가 작가로 하여금 반발력을 가지고 스스로의 길을 모색하는 계기가 되었다는 의미로 이해했습니다. 보따리는 그것을 묶으면서 의미를 발견한 것이 아니라 있는 것을 ‘보고’ 발견하셨다고 하셨습니다. 그래서인지 보따리 작업 또는 그와 연관된 작업에는 항상 연역적 오브제라는 타이틀이 붙습니다. 그렇게 제목을 붙이신 이유에 대해서 조금 더 설명을 부탁드립니다.


Kimsooja
사실 연역적 오브제(Deductive Object)라는 작품명은 제가 90년대 초반에 랩핑 시리즈를 하면서 처음 사용하게 되었습니다. 당시 저는 농기구나 일상의 오브제들, 우리의 가옥 등에서 십자구조를 발견하는 것에 흥미가 있었고, 랩핑작업은 그 구조를 재확인하는 것이었습니다. 구조를 변형하는 것이 아니라 그것을 재확인하고, 다시 원형으로 되돌리는 작업이라는 의미에서 연역적 오브제라는 작품명을 썼던 것입니다.
사실 이전부터 스튜디오에 많은 보따리를 가지고 있었지만, MoMA PS1 스튜디오에서 우연히 고개를 돌렸을 때 그곳에 놓여 있던 붉은색 보따리 하나를 보는 순간부터 보따리를 하나의 전위의 새로운 오브제로 자각하기 시작했습니다. 제 주변에 많이 가지고 있었지만 이전에는 보따리를 그렇게 보지 않았던 것이지요. 제가 이용하기 위해서, 무언가를 싸기 위해 소장하고, 이동하려고 썼던 물건이었는데, 그 순간 저는 보따리가 가진 놀라운 의미와 조형적인 요소를 발견한 것입니다.


Soyeon Ahn
보따리는 있는 그대로, 그 자체로 완성된 것으로서 의미가 있지만, 그것을 묶기도 하고 펼치기도 하는 행위를 통해서 관객들과의 접촉면을 늘리는 부분이 있다고 생각합니다. 관객이 참여할 수 있는 작업도 여러 번 진행하셨는데, 몇 가지 사례를 살펴보면 각각 양상이 매우 다르고 또 다양한 것 같습니다. 1995년 제1회 광주 비엔날레 당시, 광주 희생자들을 위해서 언덕에 펼쳐 둔 보따리와 의복들은 저의 마음속에 너무나 슬프고 강력하게 각인이 되어 아직까지도 큰 감동을 줍니다. 그런가 하면 세타가야 미술관이나 다른 해외 미술관에서는 커피 테이블에 이불보를 덮음으로써 이불보가 가지고 있는 환희로운 순간을 관객들과 함께 나누는 등 즐거움의 이미지가 강합니다. 또 ≪국립현대미술관 현대차 시리즈 2016 : 김수자- 마음의 기하학(MMCA-HYUNDAI MOTOR SERIES 2016: Kimsooja - Archive of Mind)≫에서는 더욱 적극적으로 관객의 참여를 이끌어 관객으로 하여금 작품의 일부를 만들게 했습니다. 관객은 김수자 작가에게 어떤 존재인지 궁금합니다.


Kimsooja
질문에 답하기 전에 우선 보따리에 사용된 이불보에 대해 이야기하지 않을 수 없습니다. 세타가야 미술관의 카페 테이블에 놓였던 이불보는 우리나라의 신혼부부들이 사용했던 버려진 이불보를 주로 많이 사용했습니다. 그런데 이 이불보는 눈부시게 화려한 색들로 이루어져 있고, 또 보색대비으로 인해서 더욱 눈에 띄는 색의 스펙트럼을 보이기도 합니다. 더불어 장수, 사랑, 행복, 재물, 다산 등을 상징하는 한자나 수가 놓아져 있고 꽃, 나비, 사슴이나 복주머니 등 우리가 살아가면서 함께하고픈 상징적인 기원의 기호를 담고 있습니다. 그것들은 주로 신부 어머니의 간절한 마음을 담아 선물로 주어지는 것인데, 사실 삶의 현실은 그렇지만은 않지요. 오히려 회한의 이불보가 될 수도 있겠지요. 삶이 항상 아름답고, 화려하고, 행복한 것만은 아니기 때문에 보따리를 싸는 천도 외면은 화려하지만 그 자체로 반대급부를 제시하는 모순을 담고 있다고 볼 수 있습니다. 세타가야 미술관의 커피 테이블에 놓인 이불보도 사실 삶의 모순된 현실을 제시하는 것으로 볼 수 있습니다.
그리고 동시에, 이를테면 이부자리에서 음식을 먹지 못하는 것과 같이 금기시되는 것들을 하나의 평면 작업이자 페인팅으로 제시한 것입니다. 더불어 만나고, 먹고, 대화하는 사람들의 활동이 보이지 않도록 사각형의 공간에서 일어나게 함으로써 보이지 않는 랩핑이라는 개념으로 작업을 전개한 것입니다. 저는 항상 보따리 이불보를 우리 삶의 프레임이라고 생각하고 있습니다. 보따리가 실질적으로 쌓이고 펼쳐지는 것이 결국 우리의 삶이 쌓이고 펼쳐지고 전개되는 현장(site)과 닮아있다고 생각합니다.

그래서 세타가야 미술관의 관객들이 이불보 주변에서 일으키는 행위를, 또는 광주비엔날레의 관객들이 존 레논의(John Lennon) '이메진(Imagine)' 음악을 들으면서 헌옷 위를 걷거나 보따리를 메고 푸는 행위를 허용한 것입니다. 말하자면 관객들의 참여를 수용하고, 저는 제3자의 시각으로 그들의 행위를 바라보는 또 다른 하나의 논리라고 할 수 있습니다. 그래서 베니스비엔날레나 크리스탈 팔라스에서의 작업도 저는 하나의 퍼포먼스 작업으로 생각하고 있습니다. 하지만 이것은 자발적이고 의도되지 않은 퍼포먼스이고, 단지 작가인 저만이 보고 있었던 것이라고 할 수 있습니다. 개인의 초상권 등을 고려해야하기 때문에 촬영해서 제시하지는 않았지만, 그 공간 안에서 벌어지는 사람들의 모든 활동들, 삶 자체를 이미 의식되지 않은 퍼포먼스로 보는 것입니다. 이러한 요소들을 고려하고 있었기 때문에 아마도 제가 Archive of Mind와 같은 관객 참여 작업을 보다 적극적으로 제시를 할 수 있었던 것 같습니다.


Soyeon Ahn
오늘 저희가 시간을 종횡무진하면서 여러 중요한 작품들과 개념들에 대해서 짚어봤습니다.
이제 다시 현재로 돌아와 최근 전시에 대해 이야기하면서 전체 대화를 마무리하면 좋을 것 같습니다. 올해 초 멕시코의 푸에르토 에스콘디도(Puerto Escondido) 지역의 매우 특별한 공간에서 ‘자오선’이라는 개인전을 열었다고 들었습니다. 그리고 이 전시가 이 공간의 개관 전시였다는 말을 들었고요. 공간에 대한 소개와 함께 그 공간에 어떻게 대응하고자 했는지 전시의 개념에 대해서 말씀해 주시기 바랍니다.


Kimsooja
사실 이 공간의 명칭이기도 한 메리디아노(Meridiano)는 스페인어로 ‘자오선’를 뜻합니다. 공간이 너무나도 미니멀하고 명징적(definite)이면서 아름다웠지만, 이 ‘자오선’이라는 수직성이면서 원형인 명제 자체가 저한테는 굉장히 영감을 주는 질문이었습니다. 굉장히 흥미로우면서도 이것을 어떻게 해석하고 제시할지에 대해서는 고민이 필요했습니다. 그 당시 저는 시간적인 여유가 없어서 장소를 직접 보지 못하는 상황이었습니다. 이러한 상황에서 무언가를 결정하고 보인다라는 것이 굉장히 조심스러웠습니다. 그래서 그곳에 실제로 가기까지 아무런 아이디어를 내놓지 않았습니다. 대신 Axel Vervoordt 갤러리의 Boris Vervoordt와 “Let’s take a risk.”라는 합의 하에 열흘 정도 그 주변에 가서 생각해보고, 어떠한 대안을 찾으면 작품을 보이고 그렇지 않으면 그냥 공간을 오픈한다는 조건으로 그곳에 가게 되었습니다.

그렇게 저는 열흘 동안 바닷가에서 파도 소리를 듣고, 산책을 하고, 멕시코의 따가운 햇살을 받은 초목들을 또 밤하늘을 바라보면서 그곳을 체험하면서 그 미니멀한 공간 안에 태양이 그리는 선들, 태양과 이 공간이 만나는 지점, 그 끊임없이 변하면서 형성되는 빛과 그림자의 기하학적인 선들이 너무나도 흥미롭고 아름다웠습니다.

저는 전시가 시작되지 않은 상태, 그 아무것도 없는 공간에 의식을(ceremonial) 치르듯이 나홀로 존재하고 싶었습니다. 해와 지면이 만나는 공간에서 변화하는 빛의 각도에 조응하면서 저라는 수직의 존재를 극명하게 드러냄으로써 각기 다른 자오선(Meridiano)이라는 지오메트리(Geometry)를 부여한 것입니다. 이 시리즈는 일련의 퍼포먼스 사진 작업이 되었습니다. 이것은 하나의 공간을 조우하는 저만의 의식(ceremony)이었다고 할 수 있습니다.
그 후 제가 유일하게 남겨놓은 작업은 그 지역에서 발견한 바윗돌을 검은색으로 칠에서 그곳에 들어가는 첫 번째 공간에 놓는 것이었습니다. 시간성과 물질성을 최대한으로 갖고 있는 바위라는 오브제를 검은색으로 칠함으로써 랩핑한 것입니다. 이것을 MMCA 현대차 시리즈에서 보였던 오방색 연역적 오브제 이후의 두번째 페인팅으로써의 연역적 오브제 작업이라고 보실 수 있을 것 같습니다. 그 당시 작업에서 랩핑과 페인팅을 처음으로 만나게 할 수 있었기 때문에 다시 제가 페인팅으로 돌아올 수 있었다고 생각합니다. 이번에는 바위를 검은색으로 랩핑함으로써 보따리가 재탄생하게 된 것입니다.
이후 오프닝 세레머니에서는 내부 갤러리 공간에서 무엇을 보여줄 것인지 굉장히 많은 고민을 했습니다. 고민 끝에 잠을 자다가 꿈에서 불을 보았고, 불이 갖는 바위와의 대극적인 요소들, 즉 찰나성, 기화성, 수직적 사라짐의 기하학을 공간 안에 불을 피우는 작업을 하기로 결정했습니다. 불을 피우는 과정도 재미있었습니다. 왜냐하면 아래에 벽돌 구조를 깔고, 그 다음에 모래를 덮어 콘형태로 쌓고, 그 위를 다시 평평하게 깎아서 다시 나무를 격자형 구조로 엇갈려 피라미스식으로 집을 짓듯이 쌓았습니다. 그 다음에 불을 지펴서 천장이 연기가 하늘로 올라가고, 뚫린 천장을 통해 빛이 들어오면서 빛과 천장의 끝부분이 만나는 자리에서 타올라가는 빛과 연기의 기하학을 보여줄 수 있었습니다. 계속해서 형성되고 사라지고, 마지막에는 제가 사라지면서 결국 모든 것을 없애버리는 그런 퍼포먼스 작업이었습니다.

이 자오선이라는 것은 적도를 중심으로 90도의 수직적 원을 그린 선이고, 적도를 중심으로 끊임없이 존재하는 선입니다. 저는 이러한 자오선을 통해 기하학적이고 우주적인(cosmic)한 지구와 몸, 그리고 태양의 관계를 이야기할 수 있었습니다. 그런 자오선의 수직성을 저의 몸이 대신한 것입니다. 이것은 어떻게 보면 저의 브라만다의 검은 돌에서 영감을 얻었던 연역적 오브제인 '우주의 알(Cosmic Egg)'과도 맞닿아 있습니다. 이 일련의 작업은 저에게는 보따리가 또다시 재탄생하게 되는 흥미로운 경험이었습니다.


Soyeon Ahn
공간이 워낙 특별해서 뭔가 한 것이 없다고 겸손하게 말씀을 하셨지만, 자오선이라는 개념을 가진 공간 안에서 시간과 공간, 빛과 그림자, 불과 공기, 자연과 인간이 조우하는 상태를 군더더기 없이 명확히 구현한 것 같습니다. 그 한 가운데서 펼쳐진 A Needle Woman 퍼포먼스와 연역적 오브제 한 점은 김수자 작가 예술 세계의 핵심이 아니었을까 하는 생각을 하게 됩니다. 앞으로도 보는 이들의 사고를 확장하고 고취시키는 작업 기대하겠습니다.

Edit by Kimsooja Studio 27 Sep. 2023

Transcultural Weaving

Malene Vest Hansen

2023

  • A certain memory is still clear as day to the Korean artist Kimsooja many years after the fact: one day when she was helping her mother sew bed covers, a common occupation for Korean women, a shock ran through her body as the needle punctured the fabric. As she sewed it felt like energy from the whole universe was collected in the tip of the needle: she became the energy conduit of the needle's circular motions; the needle which simultaneously hurts and heals.[1] This image can be seen as formative to Kimsooja's oeuvre with her examinations of textiles and textures, her exploration of the senses, symbols and structures in art, gender, and culture.

  • When you experience Weaving the Light, which Kimsooja has created for Cisternerne, with spectral patterns of rainbow light dancing in the damp dark chambers beneath Søndermarken in Frederiksberg, the new immersive installation can perhaps seem miles away from Kimsooja's memory of the electrifying encounter with the fabric during intimate housework with needle and thread. However, there are clear threads that can be drawn through the conceptual artist's oeuvre across the decades; here I will follow significant tracks through Kimsooja's examinations of visible crossings in the fabrics of the world.
    The title Weaving the Light is characteristic of Kimsooja, an inter- weaving of concrete and abstract symbolic meanings. The title establishes a duality of the material and static with the immaterial and procedural. As for the technical side, we encounter a rather simple idea in Cisternerne: In the underground chambers, a series of transparent acrylic sheets have been hung up, whose smooth surfaces are covered with diffraction grating film. In the damp darkness of the old water reservoir, the new textures of the acrylic sheets act as prisms to the electric light sources that are placed behind the screens. This light is visibly split into the colours of the rainbow and because the film is woven into nets of varying density, the light forms different patterns. The title is therefore descriptive: The installation consists of the weaving of light.

  • But even if it seems simple to explain at first what we are seeing, it is not so easy to catch the meanings that open them- selves to us when we sense the dance of the light patterns in the installation. For what is light? How do we sense it? And how do we understand the colours of the light? Weaving the Light becomes like a laboratory of light and opens to interpretations of wonderful sights and visions in the subterranean darkness. An archive of light is hiding in the old, damp water reservoir beneath Søndermarken.

  • Kimsooja sees her acrylic sheets covered with diffraction film as a kind of canvas on which she paints with light. Kimsooja has become a well-known figure on the global contemporary art scene through her work with a diverse array of materials and media and is typically characterized as a conceptual multi- media artist. But her insistence on using the canvas in a kind of extended painting is significant.
    Kimsooja was born in 1957, grew up in Korea, and was educated as a painter in Seoul where she studied Western painting. As such she is schooled in the tradition of the modern Western concept of art in a Korean culture. In Korean culture the colour spectrum known as obangsaek (a direct translation would be five-orientation-colour) plays a very central role – it figures in traditional art, and everywhere from cooking to architecture, fashion, and textile patterns.

  • Obangsaek consists of the five colours: blue, red, yellow, white, and black, which are to be balanced to achieve a good life, a healthy body, and a good society. The five colours each symbolize a direction – blue is east, red is south, yellow is centre, white is west, and black is north – but they are also interpreted as symbols of what is considered the five fundamental elements of life: wood (blue), fire (red), earth (yellow), metal (white), and water (black). Obangsaek permeates Korean art and culture through the centuries and this too is a part of Kimsooja's palette.
    But Kimsooja works with rather than in the tradition – or rather traditions, plural. She works transculturally and chooses her subjects, patterns, and media from the canon and culture of Asia and Korea as well as the West.

  • She moulds familiar signs, symbols, and canons into new patterns, she reinterprets prescribed shapes, discreetly but disobediently, so that the usual and formal is seen in a new light, familiar yet alien.

  • Kimsooja is a Korean pioneer on the international art scene. Through the decades she has travelled, lived, and worked trans- nationally, lived in Seoul, Paris, and New York, and as a nomad artist she embodies globalization. Kimsooja has thematised nomadic refractions between nations, cultures, and traditions in a series of works focusing on the bottari: the Korean word for a bundle consisting of wrapping cloth tied around belongings so they can be brought on the road. Kimsooja has worked with bottaris, made from brightly coloured traditional Korean bed covers, through paintings, photos, videos, and installations where the beautiful patterned fabric bundles envelop memories, loss, and unknown goals.

  • Like many other female artists' work with textiles, Kimsooja's work with fabric and sewing can also be seen as 'subversive stitches', as the British feminist art historian Rozsika Parker has termed it.[2] Textile work wasn't traditionally considered as fine art on par with painting and sculpture, but rather as typically female handicraft and labour. Art works involving textile can therefore be said to bring both mundane as well as gendered connotations with it to the field of contemporary art. With that said, Kimsooja’s motivation behind working with textile was not to address it as a textile art form, but instead to investigate the historical Western canvas as a textile, circling the question of the tableau, the painting, and the structure of its surface.
    Still, Kimsooja searches the gendered and cultural connotations – she has therefore changed her name from Kim Soo-Ja to Kimsooja, a name that doesn't appear to signal gender or marital status.

  • Transcultural weaving is the theme in a series of Kimsooja’s first film Thread Routes, where Kimsooja focuses on traditional textile cultures and techniques across the globe – in South American, European, Indian, Chinese, North American, and North African local workshops.

  • In parallel with these explorations, she has examined the more abstract interweaving of forms and shapes. Here, architecture is what is being transformed by the dance of the rainbow prism, buildings wrapped in colours as if they were enormous bottaris into which we as visitors can immerse and explore.
    In 2006, for the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid, Kimsooja created To Breathe: A Mirror Woman, which had the glass building wrapped in diffraction film and the floor covered with mirrors such that the site-specific installation transformed the exhibition building into a space vibrating with dancing colours of the rainbow, along with rhythmic breathing sounds in the auditory piece The Weaving Factory. 'Painting' with the 'immaterial' prismatic rainbow colours is something Kimsooja has worked with variations on in a series of site-specific installations, among them several Catholic churches, where the connection to traditional Christian metaphors of divine light in the stained-glass mosaics clearly link Eastern and Western colour symbolism. The works of Kimsooja thereby circulate methods and elements that appear again and again in new constellations in new places – repetitions such as the basic rhythmic movements of life, like breathing and weaving.
    Weaving the Light is the latest in a series of installations where Kimsooja expands something site-specific into a new meaning. Kimsooja explains that she is simply responding to a place when she works with a specific location.
    She is a transformer; she receives and reacts to what she can see the place is calling for.[3] This is in line with the role of the artist as the British art historian and writer John Berger describes it in the text Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible.

  • According to Berger, the idea of understanding the artist as a 'creator' is a modern illusion. The artist is rather a 'receiver' who relates to the world and collaborates with the observer who meets the work.[4] When Kimsooja works with painting in a generalized scope, she examines the visible and invites us to join this examination.
    Daylight has played an essential role to the dance of the prism light in Kimsooja's earlier site-specific installations with diffraction film; the sun has set the installations in motion with its daily walk across the sky. In the gloom of Cisternerne we have left daylight behind and descended into the subterranean darkness.
    Here there is no moving light from the sun, here it is the movement of electricity which puts light in the prisms. In Cisternerne we, the visitors, become 'performers' in Kimsooja's immersive installation. As we walk around the damp, dark, and echoing halls we become moving shadows making the light wave in the colours of the rainbow when it is reflected in a surface of water. It feels strange yet simple, like walking through a dream vision, without a sense of where you are, sensing ourselves in a subterranean sea of lights, as we together weave the light in Kimsooja's archive of lights.

Malene Vest Hansen
Art Historian, Associate Professor, PhD


— From the Solo Exhibition Weaving the Light, Cisternerne, Frederiksberg Museum, Reader, pp.20-25.

[1] Malene Vest Hansen: interview with Kimsooja, Frederiksberg 17 January 2023.
[2] Rozsika Parker: The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, 2019.
[3] Malene Vest Hansen: interview with Kimsooja, Frederiksberg 17 January 2023
[4] John Berger: Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible, 2020, s. 84.

Bottari as a Fluid Canvas and Sculpture

A conversation between Keumhwa Kim (KHK) and Kimsooja (KSJ)

Keumhwa Kim

2023

  • KHK: Dear Sooja, you have been described by many art critics as a global nomad time and again. The meaning of travelling has changed a lot in recent years, especially due to the Covid pandemic. How has this affected your artistic practice? And how important is the experience of being on the road to your work?

  • KSJ: The last four years have been an interesting shift in how to make art in times of a pandemic, both in terms of my own experience as a nomadic artist and with regard to my installation practice in situ. For my site-specific installations, I would normally travel there to get an idea of and to feel the physicality of the site. Instead of physical presence, however, I rather had to use my imagination and sense of space, judging from the photos or videos provided. Moreover, I would install pieces via video calls, com- municating with the installers and curators, even for large-scale installations that need a great sense of precision and a long development process. This was sometimes possible thanks to my sense of space from memory, but often with great collaboration and support from the curators and community members. Still, I cannot deny the benefits of travelling, as it
    has frequently been my source of inspiration and experience in the world, often giving me new artistic insights. In the last few years, we had to spend a part of our lives in virtual reality, but today we may also have to travel less to save the planet and our limited energy. After the process of globalisation, which opened up the world and made it accessible from everywhere, we are finally appreciating locality.

  • KHK: Let’s talk about bottari, which gives the exhibition its title: (Un)Folding Bottari. What is your personal connection to bottari?

  • KSJ: I noticed that bottari have been used in Korea and other Asian countries as a typical carrying item, and even as a means of protecting important government and legal documents. I have also come to notice that bottari are universal objects, used for any means of migration as well as in war zones in Europe and around the world, as it is the easiest, lightest, and simplest way to pack things in urgency. It is interesting for me to see the coincidence of linguistic similarities of bottari (beginning with b or bo) for instance in Turkish (bohça), Mongolian (bagts), Hindi (bandal), Vietnamese (bó), Nepali (bandala), English (bundle) or German (Bündel). It was a ground-breaking moment when I discovered that this everyday making and method- ology of bottari would become my core artistic inspiration and new vocabulary. A number of bottari have been in my studio ever since 1983, as I have been keeping them to store my sewing materials, such as used clothes and bedspreads. One day when I was at the PS1 residency in 1992, I was sitting in my studio. Suddenly I turned around and discovered a unique red bottari sitting on the floor that looked completely different from the everyday object I had been storing and using. It was a sig- nificant and unique object, consisting of different elements of visual languages and meanings; a wrapped two-dimensional painting, a three-dimen- sional sculpture held together by a knot. I started making Bottari as a three-dimensional sewing prac- tice by wrapping, and I wrapped Bottari with frag- ments of used cut fabrics of colourful traditional clothes until 1993, then with used everyday clothes since I returned to Korea when I realised that bottari are not only aesthetic but also realistic objects.

  • KHK: The exhibition displays the multimedia trans- formation of your concept of bottari: starting from Bottari (2017), wrapped in ybulbo, Korean bed sheets, to Bottari 1999 – 2019 (2019), the transport container painted in obangsaek, and Deductive Object – Bottari (2023), new porcelain work, how would you define the concept of bottari in your artistic practices?

  • KSJ: For me, a bottari is an essential object that rep- resents our body, the condition of humanity, a fun- damental aesthetic and formal aspect that retains spatial, social, political and temporal dimensions. I see our body as the most complicated bottari, and the place of ybulbo, a Korean bedspread I use as a wrapping cloth, as the frame of our life; the place where we are born, love, dream, suffer, and die. It contains so much, so many different issues that we deal with. I have wrapped and unwrapped bottari and I am still discovering new aspects of this fluid canvas and sculpture.
    KHK: Based on the collection of the Korea Gallery, you developed a new work for the show: Deductive Object – Bottari, inspired by an icon of Korean art: a moon jar. Why did you decide to derive Bottari from moon jars?

  • KSJ: When I saw the Korean gallery for the first time, I was quite surprised to see the poor collection of ceramics and the small gallery space compared to other Asian countries such as China, Japan and India etc. I felt the urge to bring large Korean moon jars, representative of Korean traditional treasures with a humble presence of beauty and generosity, portray- ing the Korean spirit. While thinking about a possible loan of the moon jars from the National Museum of Korea, I decided to collaborate with the ceramic factory Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Meissen to make them in my own bottari concept and form. Ever since my collaboration with the Sèvres Ceramic Manufacture in Paris (2019), I have been concep- tualising the moon jar as a Bottari, but I have never installed a Bottari in a display case to physically jux- tapose it with the moon jar. In fact, creating a direct visual relationship between a Bottari and a moon jar at the Humboldt Forum was a very effective and interesting way to present Bottari; one with fabric, the other with porcelain.

  • KHK: What aspect of the moon jar interests you personally?

  • KSJ: For me, it symbolises gentleness, abundance and an embracing generosity that is ready to hold everything in humble presence, like a moon. It also reminds me of a woman’s body, especially the belly of a pregnant woman wearing a traditional long white Korean skirt with a wide band around the chest. In the sense that a moon jar is a container, I immediately relate it to the functionality of my Bottari as a container that also has a width that can be embraced with both arms. I rather emphasised the inner emptiness by opening only a tiny hole, with- out leaving any functional space as with traditional moon jars, and without adding any other elements that the traditional Korean moon jar shape has, such as the opening band part and that of the base. My idea of conceptualising the Korean moon jar as a Bottari stands alone with its own basic formal ele- ments; the surface as a wrapped fabric, the orbit of horizontal and vertical movement to form the shape as a contemplative process of life and time. The tactile physicality of the moon jar makes it the other, and the wrapped invisible dark void as the unknown black hole, revealing a larger question about the material and immaterial, existence and transience, even cosmic questions similar to Bottari.

  • KHK: To Breathe: Mandala (2010) is presented by means of two different sound channels: the artist’s voice on the one hand and a mix of Gregorian and Tibetan chants and the Islamic call to prayer on the other, forming an expansive and site-specific dia- logue with the Bodhisattva sculpture. What was your intention to bring both sound channels together?

  • KSJ: My initial concept was to use the typical Amer- ican jukebox loudspeaker as a mandala. While the first edition only played Tibetan mandala chanting as a single channel sound in 2003, the Iraq war broke out in the same year. When I noticed how much destruction, hatred and violence was created all around the globe, I decided to comment on it in a spirit of criticism, also suggesting a harmonious and peaceful coexistence by overlapping the three representative religious chants. Installing it next to the Bodhisattva together with To Breathe: Mandala, which plays my own breathing and humming performance, gives an even stronger presence of existence and peace, although I did not intend to emphasise Buddhism as the main religious prac- tice among others.

— From the Solo Exhibition Kimsooja: Wrapping the Void, Humboldt Forum, Reader, pp.20-23.

Interview with Kimsooja

Galeries Lafayette

2023

Could you tell us more about the invitation made by Galeries Lafayette? What attracted you to this project?

  • KS: When I saw the dome for the first time from the interior of Galerie Lafayette, I was stunned by the magnificent and glaring beauty of it. It was perhaps one of the most beautiful domes I’d ever seen as a glass structure. As an artist, I was intrigued by its perfection, and at the same time, I knew it would not be an easy task to add anything extra to it. However, the more I was contemplating on the condition of the dome with the magasin underneath, I realized that both elements could not go together, especially the visual and sonic noise that come from the store and many visitors on the ground level. That is why I was inspired to activate this unique spatial condition to the public for the first time when you discussed opening the terrasse space between the two domes.

The installation To Breathe at Galeries Lafayette is the first of its kind in Paris. Could you tell us more about your unique relationship with this city?

  • KS: Ever since I visited Paris in 1984 for a 6 month scholarship at Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, I’ve fallen in love with this fascinating city and have revisited Paris almost every time I traveled to Europe. It is the city where I feel my true self more than any other cities in the world. I enjoy the beauty of the city, sophisticated lifestyle, passion for art, the historic memories that are kept in monuments. At the same time, your own solitude in this city makes you aware which urges oneself to be more introspective. It is my great pleasure and honor to present To Breathe, in my beloved city of Paris for the first time, especially with the unique and magnificent dome of Galeries Lafayette and to share it with Parisiens and more.

For 30 years, your work has highlighted the object of the bottari, which you have since transposed to the scale of places through the works To Breathe. Could you tell us about these ‘bottari of light’?

  • KS: It was with To Breathe–A Mirror Woman in 2006 at Palacio de Cristal of Reina Sofía in Madrid when I first conceived the architecture as a ‘bottari’. This attempt was to wrap the surface of the building with diffraction film that can be considered as a fabric of light and it can diffract the exterior lights into the interior space with iridescent lights when the light hits the thousands of the vertical and horizontal scratches on the film. Without putting any object but the mirror floor, the sound of my breathing, and wrapping the entire surface of the glass windows around the Palacio de Cristal, the void of the interior space was pushed all the way to the skin of the building like bottari wrapping. Since then, I have realized several installations such as the Korean pavilion for the Venice Biennale and The Chapel in Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the past years.

With To Breathe, you ‘wrap the places in light’ to reveal their architecture and their stories. What did you want to reveal in this emblematic building, which is both a place of commerce and a historical monument?

  • KS: I was not willing to engage or reveal the interior of the magasin, rather I wanted to avoid it due to its conflicting elements of the mass public, its visual and sonic conflicts against the sanctuary-like main dome and its grandiose beauty. Instead, I was intrigued by the circular space of the terrasse in-between the two dome skins. And I wish to experiment with the diffraction possibilities when people walk around the space. It will cast the iridescent light spectrums in two opposite directions: one from reflection, the other from transmission through the double dome on the rooftop.

You invest the dome with a film that diffracts light into a spectrum of colors, creating unique environments. Light and color have always played an important role in your work: can you explain the special relationship you have with them?

  • KS: Since the late 70s, I’ve been fascinated by a Korean term ‘Obangsaek’ and its color spectrum theory which originate from Chinese Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. It is a term for five cardinal color spectrums that indicates Center (yellow), North (black), East (blue), South (red), and West (white). It equally signifies its specific character of ‘Matters’ of the universe such as Earth (yellow), Water (black), Wood (blue), Fire (red), and Metal (white). It can also represent seasons, and different tastes as well. As I’ve been quite into investigating the inner structure of the world and matter, this Obangsaek theory gave me great resources for fundamental elements to expand and deepen my perspectives on the universe. This Obangsaek spectrum related practice was tied to Korean traditional fabrics and garments and their ceremonial meanings as well. My gaze to the inner structure of things and the human mind naturally made me experiment with the ‘transparency’ of things since the late 70s, and allowed me to discover and apply diffraction film for the first time in 2006 on the occasion of A Mirror Woman installation at Crystal Palace of Reina Sofía. This diffraction film can function as a transparent textile (consisting of thousands of vertical and horizontal scratch lines similar to warp and weft) and as a medium that ‘wraps’ the architecture with light. This long process allowed me to extend my notion of color into light and use light itself as a brush for my own painting.

Théophile Bader, the founder of Galeries Lafayette, dreamed of a ‘luxury bazaar’ where the golden light diffused by the dome would flood the great hall and make the merchandise sparkle. The original stained glass windows of the dome were removed in the mid-twentieth century and replaced with white glass. 110 years later, you return the dome to its colorful hues, using light as Jacques Grüber had imagined at the time. Is To Breathe a ‘tribute’ to the original project?

  • KS: If my installation reminds of the original intention of the dome it would be great although the material and the methodology and how colorful the work is must be quite different. I hope To Breathe serves as a tribute to the original project in respect to the history of the dome, and at the same time to continue the evolution of its beauty.

Your works have a strong meditative dimension: visitors must be attentive to their environment to experience them. How do you create such an experience in a place that receives 100,000 visitors from all over the world every day?

  • KS: I guess people are attentive when they encounter a new environment and an unusual visual and sonic experience. One interesting thing is that the light spectrum changes all the time—its intensity, direction—based on the natural light source depending on the weather each day, the time, and the seasons, so that audiences can experience different installations at different transitional moments. At times, feelings of bless or transcendence can transport their state of mind to different levels. Perhaps the key of the installation is the ephemerality of light.

This installation offers different points of view, visible from the terrace but also in the whole department store. What route will you recommend to visitors?

  • KS: It would be good to start from the main magasin platform to view the dome first although it might not give the full spectrum depending on the time and the light condition. At least people may have a glimpse of the iridescent light spectrum from afar and have understanding of the upper level light sources. I don’t expect audiences to experience the full spectrum of the installation here, as I said I didn’t wish to engage this inner magasin space as my main focus. Secondly, when they enter the terrasse of the first dome, I would recommend to walk around the full circle of the terrasse to experience different lights depending on the time of day; the directionality of sunlight, and the reflection around the first skin of the dome and the surrounding glass structures. Here is the place where people will have an interiorized extended experience with the sound of breathing and humming around the space. Lastly, when people go up to the rooftop, with a vast open view of the cityscape of Paris, they can have a deep breath and view the light sources that are bouncing back towards them as if the units of the steel dome structure were color palettes, especially when the light is intense and the viewing angle is right.

You wanted to create a more confidential space between the two domes, accessible to the public during tours. Accompanied by a soundtrack, how is this space connected to the rest?

  • KS: I am especially pleased with it, and looking forward to this new installation within the terrasse, which is the in-between space of the double domes, and its unique opportunity to offer a durational promenade around the circular terrasse around the dome. This space will receive the transmissive lights from the upper dome from the rooftop, but also show the reflection from the skin of the main dome. So this will be the most exclusive area audiences can experience among the three points of view; seeing diffraction and reflection lights, hearing breathing sounds during the promenade. I’ve never used any space like this before so it will definitely be a unique opportunity.

— From the Solo Exhibition Kimsooja: To Breathe, Galeries Lafayette Paris Haussmann, Bookelet

Kim Sooja: From Social Sculpture to the Realm of Infinity

Kim Kibu

2022

  • In 1994, Kim Sooja's performance at Oksan Seowon in Gyeongju marked the beginning of a social sculpture. Traditionally, sculpture involves carving a form to create the artist's desired shape. However, another definition of sculpture encompasses the assembly of objects. Within this definition, Sewing Into Walking-Kyungju becomes the starting point for defining Kim Sooja's bundle work as a sculptural piece and a postmodernist work.

  • Since time immemorial, the banks of valleys have been private yet communicative spaces for women. The artist's performance at Oksan Seowon's valley involves walking across a quilt, the result of generations of aesthetic tradition and transmission, while collecting individual patches laid on the stone floor. Through this process, the work demonstrates the creation of a bundle. Though it may seem like an intensely personal and mundane activity, it can be viewed as performance art that modernises the work resulting from the continuous transmission of generations.

  • From grandmothers to mothers, and onto adult women forming new households, the starting point has always been the transmission and gifting of a colourful quilt. Traditionally, the quilt travels between the bride's and groom's homes during the exchange of clothes and gifts, accompanied by the wedding document. During this process, dowries come and go, usually consisting of silk, quilt linings, cotton, and money. As each household goes through this process to form a new home, quilts accumulate. Various blessings for a new beginning in forming a future home are engraved on the quilt with diverse colours and harmonies. The traditional Korean definition of fortune and wishes for blessings are carved into these patches in various ways.

  • In Korean households, the quilt is not just a functional, fabric-made product but an object imbued with the care, thought, and aesthetic vision of both families in preparing for and forming a new home.

  • Joseph Beuys defined sculpture as "Thought is sculpture. Rather than a sculptural piece derived from a single object or materialised through a process, the act of 'thinking' naturally has a much more passionate effect in this world."[1] The quilt, comprised of thoughts that create a social starting point, holds the stories and thoughts of each family member receiving the object.

  • Kim Sooja chooses these quilts, laden with thoughts, memories, and aesthetic synthesis, as the objects for her social sculptures, and proceeds to bind the traces of generations and memories of time into a single bundle. She gathers these objects, which encapsulate the touch of grandmothers and mothers and serve as the starting point for forming households, and sometimes sews them together with needle and thread to create shapes, or ties them into a single bundle. This process itself is a performance that creates a social sculpture.

  • Kim Sooja's works choose a different artistic direction than the monochrome movement of previous generations, which fell into the abstract world due to a lack of communication with authority, and the people's art of her contemporaries, which was collectively centred on themes of excessive self-assertion, shedding authority, and resistance to power. This direction is connected to postcolonial discourses and multicultural debates that began in the Western art world. This trend, triggered by the exhibition "Les Magiciens de la terre" held at the Pompidou Centre in 1989, was a time when more outsiders, namely, Eastern and African artists, were gradually given opportunities to participate in exhibitions in the Western contemporary art mainstream.

  • In line with these changes, Kim Sooja's artistic activities transformed and took various forms, starting with a wall sculpture exhibition at MoMA PS1 in 1992-93. Her sophisticated yet Eastern contemporary art provided opportunities for interaction with numerous curators seeking contemporary challenges. Kim Sooja was in search of a new artistic starting point.

  • "Sometimes, she connects the concept of 'sewing' with the concept of 'walking', turning it into an everyday life notion, and links the fabric that first wraps the skin in birth and death with the soul, protecting and embracing it from the outside world."[2]

  • Kim Sooja's artistic creation ideology connects with other concepts at the end of the long Cold War, the onset of globalisation, and the increasing freedom of movement. As global diasporic movements and migrations increase, Kim Sooja's work is classified as nomadic, opening the door to further interpretations. Her soft-material objects, unlike the rigid, angular cases of the West traditionally associated with immigration, can seamlessly fill any space, and have evoked admiration for the Eastern aesthetic of diverse colours and patterns, even during moments of movement, amongst Westerners.

  • The quotidian bundle is exhibited at the Venice Biennale, a hall of contemporary art, and later in churches where it encounters the divine and requires sanctity. The realm of the everyday encounters new spaces and expands the activity area of the work into the realm of the eternal.
    Harald Szeeman, the general director of the art section of the Venice Biennale in 1999 and 2001, defined Kim Sooja's creative process and her work's keywords as follows:

  • "Through a mixture of weaving close to the present and at the same time far away, she challenges us to reflect on the most basic actions, namely the ephemerality of our existence, the celebration of the moment, change, migration, resettlement, adventure, suffering, and having to leave what is familiar. She skilfully adapts her memorious and narrative-rich fabric to the present situation, creating an area of beauty and influence."[3]

  • Kim Sooja's work enjoys the status of nomadic works that can adapt and operate more openly in accordance with the requirements of a global environment. The nomadic life is one always prepared to leave. Kim Sooja's aesthetic and material heritage from her grandfather, who operated the first weaving factory in Daegu, and her father's frequent migrations as a military man who moved his station often, are reflected in her work.

  • After 2000, Kim Sooja's work expands the definition of the artistic realm through new objects. In "To Breathe - A Mirror Woman," she focuses on the breath of light. The work held at the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid (2006) shifts its focus from the traditional bundle to light.

  • The range of light visible to the human eye is the realm of visible light. This visible light is composed of various combinations of light, and when it reflects off water particles or translucent glass, its original colours are projected, making the wavelengths of light visible to the observer.

Kim Sooja reflects and distorts these breaths and waves of light through film in architectural spaces, creating a harmonious interplay of space and light on a mirror, allowing one to experience infinite spatial inclusion without distinction between above and below. One can witness the expansion of the artistic realm of images as representations of humans, architecture, and nature through the interplay of spaces created by human planning and the celestial light reflecting below the mirrored woman.

  • This process offers a new direction for Kim Sooja, who sought healing through art while embracing compassion for humanity and vulnerability to violence, crossing visible boundaries. The focus of art, which was previously directed towards humans, is expanded to encompass the realm of the natural world and infinity.

  • The numerous vertical and horizontal lines of the structure of specific film materials function as prisms for light. Light passes through this film, creating a rainbow effect. Through this process, Kim Sooja, who studied the structure of canvas, light, colour, and pigment, envisions a structure capable of expressing the essence of light and sound in an inner space. In a completely sealed and dark space, she creates a silent space with blocked noise and contrasts it with light to forge a new space. [4]

  • If the conventional works of art moved towards a more open space in relation to objects and actions, and towards a goal-oriented purpose, in ‘Archive of Mind, 2016’, a confined and restricted space is created where a certain light shines from above to below, inviting the audience's participation on the table. The breaths exchanged between the participating audience members create invisible waves through numerous clay balls due to collisions and absorption, which are then transmitted to strangers seated at the round table. This visualises the process of light waves being transmitted to us through installation art and implies another meaning.

  • Much like the body, water, which constitutes the majority of the human body, adjusts the balance of the internal world through blood pressure, cells, and blood flow under the influence of gravity, the direction of the brain, and hormone regulation. Similarly, the human mind is constantly determined by the intersectional encounters of the body, soul, and spiritual realm within the chambers of the mind.

  • Two thousand years ago, Apostle Paul recognised that the state of the mind, body, and soul was not only connected to the present situation but also to the eternal world, and he left these words in a letter to the Thessalonian church:

  • "May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

  • The installation art structured in the inner mind visualises the continuous formation of human spirit, soul, and body connections in everyday relationships, creating waves, inner conflicts, and collisions, sometimes bleeding like wounded souls. It structures the minds of people who cannot cope with or recognise these conflicts. Furthermore, it encourages confrontation with the inner world and oneself through new structures, transcending the realm of everyday life.

  • Kim Sooja has always been at the forefront of her time, expanding her artistic world in response to the needs of the era. As the real world becomes increasingly complex, and the direction of exchange and media leads to the loss of humanity, Kim Sooja's work focuses on creating her artistic realm in a direction that allows her to listen to the invisible inner voice.

  • Deductive Object, 2016’ reflects a large amorphous structure onto a mirror below, bringing together the realms of earth and sky, and leading the viewer's gaze from a previously complex inner space to an infinite abyss.

  • While Anish Kapoor created abstract yet meditative sculptures that evoke tension and fear in the audience with the smoothness of a woman's nipple on the surface and an overwhelming size that dominates the space, or an unpredictable darkness, Kim Sooja presents works that harmoniously encounter the existing natural world rather than a one-sided and structured space. Her works do not overwhelm the human mind or create an atmosphere of discomfort. Instead, they create environments that allow for a gentle contemplation of the inner self, much like the smoothness of the object's surface.

  • This aspect is connected to the direction of her future-oriented works involving architecture, space, nature, and objects, as well as the artist herself since the 2000s.

  • In 2022 Frieze Seoul Artist talk, Kim Sooja expressed her views on the future of art, emphasising the importance of understanding humanity, creating art that truly communicates and moves the artist from deep within their heart, and moving away from rough and destructive artworks. She hopes that the direction of art will progress towards works that genuinely respect human dignity and contribute to human civilisation.

  • Such an artistic view provides a new sanctuary and meditative space amidst the ongoing transformations, explorations of new objects, and the increasingly complex and aggressive contemporary art world. It prompts audiences to reconsider what true art is. This artistic realm may appear like a dreamy space created by sitting on a bundle truck, absorbing the breath of nature and the dew held overnight, projected in the light. Much like the mythological early works of the artist, which transformed everyday migration into something mysterious, her artistic world may even now be taking long strides towards creating another dreamy yet beautiful future.

  • 10 September, 2022

[1] Carmela thiele, Schnellkurs skulptur, DuMont Buchverlag GmbH, 1995
[2] Hans Ulrich Obrist, Wrapping Bodies and Souls, 1997
[3] Harald Szeeman, Bottari, 2000
[4] A Conversation between Kimsooja and Hou Hanru, Create A new Light, 2016


By Kim Kibu (Independent Curator, MA in Art History, Tsinghua University, Beijing)

김수자 : 사회조각에서 무한의 영역으로

김기부

2022

  • 1994년 경주 옥산서원에서 행해진 김수자의 퍼포먼스는 하나의 사회 조각 작품의 출발점을 알린다. 전통적으로 조각은 어떠한 형태를 새겨서 예술가가 원하는 형태를 만드는 것이 일반적이다. 하지만 조각의 또 다른 정의는 어떤 대상을 모아서 결합하는 것(Assembling)도 내포한다. 그러한 조각의 정의 안에서, 는 김수자의 보따리 작업을 하나의 조각 작품으로, 그리고 포스터 모더니즘적 작품으로 정의할 수 있는 출발점이 된다.

  • 예로부터 계곡 물가는 여인들의 사적인 소통이 일어나는 장소였다. 옥산서원 근처 계곡에서 이뤄지는 예술가의 퍼포먼스는 세대의 심미적 전통과 전승의 결과인 이불보 위를 걸어가면서 하나하나 돌 바닥에 놓여있는 조각보를 수집한다. 이 과정을 통해 하나의 보따리로 만들어나가는 작업을 보여준다. 이 작업은 지극히 개인적이고 일상적인 활동인 것 같아 보이지만 지속적인 세대의 전승에 의해 이뤄진 작업을 현대적으로 전환시킨 행위 예술로 볼 수 있다.

  • 할머니부터 어머니, 그리고 앞으로 새로운 가정을 이뤄나갈 성인 여인의 출발점은 언제나 오색찬란한 이불보의 전승과 선물에서 시작된다. 전통적으로 이불보는 신랑의 집에서 신부의 집으로 송복(送服)이 이뤄질 때 신부의 두벌 옷과 패물, 혼서지(婚書紙)와 함께 오간다. 이 과정 속에서 새로운 가정을 이루기 위한 혼수들이 오고 가는데, 대게 비단·이불감·솜·돈 등을 선물한다. 새로운 가정을 이루기 위해 각 가정마다 이러한 과정을 거치면서 이불보가 쌓이게 된다. 이불보에는 미래에 한 가정을 이뤄나갈 새 출발에 대한 여러가지 축복이 담긴 상징물들이 다양한 색상과 조화를 이루며 새겨진다. 한국의 전통적 복(福)의 정의와 축복의 소망들이 이 조각보에 다양한 방식으로 새겨진 것이다.

  • 한국의 가정에 있어서 이불보는 단순한 기능적 역할을 하는 섬유로 만든 생산품이 아닌, 한 가정을 이루고, 그 가정을 이루기 위해 양측 가정에서 사려깊게 준비하고 선택한 마음과 생각, 심미적 안목이 담겨져 있는 오브젝트인 것이다.

  • 요셉 보이스는 “생각은 곧 조각이다. 단지 하나의 대상물로부터 파생되었거나, 아니면 어느 정도 물질화 과정을 통해 만들어진 조각품보다는, ‘생각한다’는 행위가 이 세상에서 당연히 훨씬 더 격정적으로 작용한다.”[1]라고 조각을 정의하였다. 사회적 출발점을 만들어나가는 생각들이 모인 이불보에는 그 오브젝트를 받는 대상, 즉, 가족의 구성원 마다 각자의 사연과 생각들이 축적되어 있다.

  • 김수자는 이러한 생각들과 추억, 심미적 종합인 이불보를 자신의 사회적 조각을 위한 오브젝트로 선택하고, 세대의 흔적과 시간의 기억들을 하나의 보따리로 묶어 나가는 행위를 진행한다. 할머니와 어머니의 손길이 담겨지고, 가정을 이뤄나가는 하나의 출발점이 되는 이 오브젝트를 한 곳에 모아 때로는 바늘과 실로 꿰어서 형태를 만들거나, 하나로 묶어내어 보따리를 만들어 나간다. 이 과정 자체가 하나의 사회 조각을 창조하는 퍼포먼스인 것이다.

  • 김수자의 작품은, 권위에 의해 소통할 수 없어 추상의 세계로 빠져들게 된 앞 세대의 단색화 운동과 과도한 자기주장과 권위 탈피, 권력에 대한 반목과 대항이라는 주제로 집단적으로 이뤄진 동세대의 민중미술과는 다른 예술 방향성을 선택한다. 그 방향성은 서양 예술계에서 시작한 탈식민적 담론과 다문화적 논쟁과 연결된다. 1989년 퐁피두 센터에서 이뤄진 대지의 마술사들”(Les Magiciens de la terre) 전시로 촉발된 이러한 흐름은, 서양 주류 동시대 예술계에서 더욱 많은 외부인들, 즉, 동양과 아프리카계 예술가들에 대한 전시참여의 기회가 점차 증대되는 시기였다.

  • 이러한 시대 변화에 맞춰서 1992-1993년 MoMA PS1에서 벽 조각 전시를 시작으로 김수자의 예술활동은 다양한 형태로 변형되고 조각된다. 김수자의 동양적이면서도 세련된 현대예술은 시대적 과제를 찾던 수 많은 큐레이터들과의 교류하는 기회를 제공한다. 김수자는 새로운 예술적 출발점을 모색하게 된 것이다.

  • “때로는 ‘바느질’의 개념을 ‘걷기’개념과 연결시켜서 일상 생활의 개념으로 전환시키고, 출생과 죽음의 현장에서 처음 피부를 감싸게 되는 직물과 영혼을 연결시켜 외부의 세계로부터 보호하고 포옹시킨다.”[2]

  • 김수자의 예술 창작 이념은 기나긴 냉전의 종식과 세계화의 촉발, 이동의 자유가 증진되는 시점에 또 다른 개념과 연결된다. 전지구적으로 이뤄지는 디아스포라적 이동과 이주의 증대에 맞춰서 김수자의 작품은 유목민적 작품으로 분류되며 또 다른 해석의 문이 열리게 된다. 이민가방으로 딱딱하게 정의되던 서양의 각진 케이스가 아닌 어떠한 공간에서도 빈틈없이 공간을 메워 나갈 수 있는 부드러운 소재의 김수자의 오브젝트는, 서양인들로 하여금 이동의 순간에도 심미적 요소를 고려하여 다양한 색상과 문양이 새겨진 동양의 멋에 감탄을 자아들게 만들었다.

  • 일상의 보따리는 동시대 예술의 전당인 베니스 비엔날레의 현장에서도 전시가 되고, 이후 신과 조우하며 거룩의 성결함을 요구하는 교회에서도 전시되게 된다. 일상의 영역에서 새로운 공간과 만남을 이뤄나가며, 영원의 영역으로 작품의 활동 공간이 확장되기 시작한 것이다.

  • 1999년과 2001년 베니스 비엔날레 예술부분 총감독을 한 Harald Szeeman는 김수자의 창작행위의 과정과 그의 작품 키워드를 정의하면서 아래와 같이 작품을 정의한다.

  • “가까운 현재에 있고 동시에 먼 곳에 있는 직조의 혼합을 통해, 그녀는 우리에게 가장 기본적인 행동, 즉 우리의 존재의 덧없음, 순간을 즐기는 의식, 변화, 이주, 재정착, 모험, 고통, 익숙한 것을 남겨야 하는 것에 대해 성찰하도록 도전합니다. 그녀는 기억력과 서사가 풍부한 그녀의 옷감을 아름다움과 영향을 미치는 연상의 영역으로 능숙하게 현재의 상황에 맞춥니다.”[3]

  • 김수자의 작품은 시대의 상황에 맞춰서 더욱 개방적이면서도 세계적인 환경의 요구에 맞춰서 활동하며 적응할 수 있는 유목민적 작품의 지위를 누리게 된다. 유목민은 언제든지 떠날 준비를 하는 삶이다. 김수자는 대구에서 직조공장을 최초로 운영하던 조부의 심미적, 재료적 유산과 매번 주둔지를 옮겨가던 군인 아버지의 잦은 이주성이 자신의 작품세계에도 반영이 된 것이다.

  • 2000년 이후 김수자의 작품은 새로운 오브젝트를 통해 예술영역의 정의를 확장시킨다. <To Breathe - A Mirror Woman>에서 김수자는 빛의 호흡에 주목한다. 마드리드 팔라시오 데 크리스탈(Palacio de Cristal, 2006)에서 진행된 작품은 기존의 보따리가 아닌 빛에 주목한다.

  • 인간의 눈으로 확인할 수 있는 빛의 영역은 가시광선의 영역이다. 이 가시광선은 다양한 빛의 조합으로 이뤄지는데, 물의 입자나 반투명의 유리에 빛이 반사가 되면 본래 가지고 있던 색상이 투영되어 빛의 파동을 가시적으로 관찰할 수 있게 된다.

  • 김수자는 이러한 빛의 호흡과 파동을 필름을 통해 건축의 공간에 반영하고 왜곡시켜서, 거울 위에 공간과 빛의 조화가 상을 맺어, 위와 아래의 구분 없이 무한한 공간적 포용을 경험할 수 있게 만든다. 인간의 계획에 의해 만들어진 공간과 천상에서 비춰진 빛이 거울 위 여인 아래로 비춰지고, 인간과 건축, 자연의 표상으로 이미지의 예술 영역이 확장됨을 목도할 수 있다.

  • 이러한 과정은 가시적 경계를 넘나들며 인류에 대한 연민과 폭력에 대한 취약성을 감싸안으며 예술을 통한 치유의 방향을 모색하던 김수자에게 새로운 방향성을 제시한다. 기존에 인간으로 향하던 예술의 시선을 자연계와 무한의 영역으로 작품 영역을 확장시킨 것이다.

  • 특정 필름의 재료가 가지는 수 많은 수직과 수평선의 구조는 빛에 있어서 프리즘과 같은 기능을 가진다. 빛은 이 필름을 통과하여, 무지개 빛을 만들어 나간다. 이 과정을 통해 캔버스와 빛, 색상과 안료의 구조에 대해 연구하던 김수자는 빛과 소리의 본질을 내면적 공간으로 표현할 수 있는 구조를 생각한다. 완전히 밀폐되고 어두운 공간에서 소음이 차단된 침묵의 공간을 조성하여, 빛과 대비시켜 새로운 공간을 창조해 나간다.[4]

  • 기존의 작품은 오브젝트와 행위적 관계, 어떠한 지향적 목표점을 향해 보다 열린 공간으로 나아갔다면, <Archive of Mind, 2016>에서는 밀폐되고 제한된 공간 속에서 일정 빛이 위에서 아래로 향하면서 테이블 위에서는 관객의 참여를 유도한다. 작품에 참여하는 관객들 간의 호흡이 수많은 Clay Ball을 지나면서 충돌과 흡착에 의해 보이지 않는 파동을 만들어 나가면서 원탁에 앉은 타인에게 전달되게 된다. 이 것은 빛의 파동이 우리에게 전달되는 과정을 설치 예술을 통해 시각적으로 보인 것이며, 또 다른 함의를 내포하고 있다.

  • 육체의 대다수를 구성하는 물은 중력의 영향, 뇌의 방향성과 호르몬의 조정에 의해 혈압과 세포, 혈류를 통해 신체 내부세계의 발란스를 조정한다. 이러한 신체와 유사하게 인간의 마음 역시 지속적으로 마음의 방에 몸과 혼, 영의 영역의 교차적 조우를 통해 마음의 상태가 결정이 된다.

  • 2000년 전 사도 바울은 이러한 마음과 몸, 혼의 상태가 현재의 상황뿐만 아니라 영원의 세계와 연결된다는 것을 인지하고 데살로니카 교회에 보내는 편지에 이러한 문구를 남긴다.

  • “평강의 하나님이 친히 너희를 온전히 거룩하게 하시고 또 너희의 온 영과 혼과 몸이 우리 주 예수 그리스도께서 강림하실 때에 흠 없게 보전되기를 원하노라” (데살로니가전서 5장 23절)

  • 내면적 마음에 형태가 구조화된 설치작품은 인간의 영과 혼, 몸의 연결고리가 지속적으로 일상의 관계 속에서 파동을 일으키며, 내면적 갈등과 충돌, 때로는 상처입은 영혼처럼 피흘리며 이에 대처하지 못하고 인지하지 못하는 인간의 마음들을 시각적으로 구조화 시킨다. 그리고 새로운 구조물을 통해 더 이상 일상의 영역이 아닌 내면의 세계와 자신과의 대면을 유도한다.

  • 김수자는 언제나 시대의 필요에 앞서 자신의 작품세계를 펼쳐나갔다. 현실세계는 점점 더 복잡화되고 교류와 매체의 방향성은 인간성을 상실하는 내용들이 세상을 점령해나가고 있는 이 시점에 김수자의 작품은 더욱 보이지 않는 내면의 목소리에 귀를 기울일 수 있는 방향으로 자신의 예술세계를 창조해나간다.

  • (2016)는 커다란 비정형의 구조물을 아래의 거울에 반사 시켜, 땅과 하늘의 영역을 조우시키고, 조형물을 바라볼 때 기존에 복잡화된 내면의 공간은 무한대의 심연의 세계로 나아가게 만든다.
  • 아니쉬 카푸어는 여성의 젖꼭지와 같은 표면의 부드러움과 때로는 압도적인 크기로 공간을 점령하거나, 깊이를 예측할 수 없는 어둠으로 관객들로 하여금 긴장감과 두려움의 감정을 불러일으키는 추상적이면서도 명상적 조각을 만들었다면, 김수자는 이러한 일방적이면서도 구조화된 공간의 요청이 아닌, 기존의 자연계와 함께 조우하면서 조화를 이뤄나가는 작품을 선보인다. 그녀의 작품에서는 인간의 마음을 압도하거나 일방적으로 불편함을 느끼는 분위기를 조장하지 않는다. 오브젝트 표면의 부드러운 느낌처럼 내면을 부드럽게 관조할 수 있는 환경들을 조성한다.

  • 그 점은 2000년대 이후 건축과 공간, 자연과 오브젝트, 그리고 작가 자신의 미래지향적 작품의 방향성과 연결된다.

  • 2022년 Frieze Seoul Artist talk에서 김수자는 앞으로 미래 예술의 방향에 대해 인간에 대한 이해와 작가 스스로 마음 속 깊은 곳에서 감동하며 소통할 수 있는 예술, 더 이상 거칠고 파괴적인 예술 작품이 아닌, 진정으로 인간을 인격적으로 존중하고, 인류 문명사에 도움이 될 수 있는 작품으로 예술의 방향이 진행이 되면 좋겠다고 자신의 예술관을 피력한다.

  • 이러한 예술관은 지속적인 변형과 새로운 오브젝트에 대한 모색과 점차 복잡화되고 과격해지는 현대의 예술세계에 새로운 안식처와 명상의 공간을 제공한다. 그리고 진정한 예술이 무엇인지에 대해 관객들에게 다시 질문하게 된다. 이러한 예술세계는 보따리 트럭 위에 앉아 자연의 호흡과 밤새 머금은 이슬이 빛에 투영되어 하나의 몽환적 공간을 연출한 것처럼 보일 수도 있다. 일상의 이주를 신비로움을 자아내게 만든 그녀의 신화적 초기 작품의 모습처럼, 예술가의 작품세계는 지금 이 순간에도 또 다른 몽환적이면서도 아름다운 미래를 만들어 나갈 먼 걸음을 내딛고 있는지도 모른다.

  • 2022.9.10.

[1] Carmela thiele, Schnellkurs skulptur, DuMont Buchverlag GmbH, 1995
[2] Hans Ulrich Obrist, Wrapping Bodies and Souls, 1997
[3] Harald Szeeman, Bottari, 2000
[4] A Conversation between Kimsooja and Hou Hanru, Create A New Light, 2016


김기부 (독립 큐레이터, 북경 칭화대 예술사 석사)

김수자의 보따리

보따리로 감싸고 자수로 엮어낸 여성성…공통된 키워드는 ‘관계맺기'

김홍희

2021

  • 김수자의 보따리 작업은 바느질과 같은 여성의 가사행위가 예술적으로, 동시에 세계 무대의 맥락 속에서 어떻게 의미화되는지 흥미로운 지점을 보여준다. 어머니와 함께하던 바느질 기억으로부터 천을 이어 붙이는 회화적 천 작업과 조각적 보따리 작업이 탄생했다. 그 보따리는 30년 창작활동과 국내외 전시를 거치면서 양식적·매체적으로 다변화되고 미학적·정치적으로 심화, 확장되고 있다.

  • 지금은 전설이 된 역사적 전시회 ‘떠도는 도시들(Cities on the Move)’(1997~1999)은 신자유주의와 글로벌리즘 영향하에 아시아가 지리정치학적 요지로 부상하면서 신도시 건설붐과 새 도시문화가 부흥되던 1990년대를 배경으로 기획된 시의적인 전시회였다. 작가는 자신의 작업에서 이정표가 된 ‘떠도는 도시들: 보따리 트럭 2727킬로미터’를 발표했다. 보따리를 가득 실은 트럭을 타고 장장 2727㎞를 달린 방랑의 여정을 기록한 이 비디오에서 작가는 스쳐가는 한국 풍경을 뒤로하며 보따리 위에 걸터앉은 채 고정된 프레임 속에서 내내 뒷모습만 보인다. 현대적 도시현상과 진보개념을 역행하듯 보따리와 쓸쓸한 여인의 뒷모습이 유랑민의 소외와 향수를 환기시킨다.

  • 김수자는 1999년 뉴욕으로 이주했다. “문화적 망명자”를 자처한 그는 이방인의 삶을 영위하는 “한계 상황” 속에서 ‘바늘 여인’과 같은 퍼포먼스 비디오를 탄생시킨다. 첫번째 ‘바늘 여인’(1999~2001)은 도쿄·상하이·런던·뉴욕 등 인구가 밀집한 8개 대도시에서 촬영한 다채널 비디오다. 작가는 여기서도 관객으로부터 등을 돌린 채 대도시 군중 물결 한가운데 부동의 자세로 서 있다. 내적 동요를 불러일으키는 부동의 뒷모습, 그 특유의 이러한 미장센은 도쿄 시부야 번화가에서 느꼈던 실존적 경험에 근간한다. 행인 인파로 자신이 “지워지는” 느낌을 받는 순간, 그들과 하나 되는 일체감으로 “안도와 마음의 평화”를 되찾았다고 그는 회고한다. 이것이 무명의 군중을 보자기로 감싸는 연민·포용·환대의 감흥이 아니었을까?

  • 두번째 ‘바늘 여인’(2005~2009)에서 작가는 정치적·종교적 분쟁, 내전·폭력과 빈곤으로 피폐해진 6개 도시인 파탄·예루살렘·사나·하바나·리우데자네이루·은자메나를 탐방했다. 착취되고 거세된 현장, 유토피아·디스토피아가 엇갈리는 혼란을 대면하면서 작가는 자신이 찌르고 봉합하는 바늘이 돼 지구와 인류의 불행을 지우는 치유자가 되기를 염원했다.

  • 우리를 각성시키는 바늘 여인의 메시지는 ‘실의 궤적’(2010~2019) 연작에서 다른 모습으로 계승된다. 인류학적·고고학적·문명사적 다큐멘터리이자, 유럽과 남·동아시아, 북·남미, 아프리카 등 다른 문화권을 이동하며 직물의 경로를 추적한 이 대하 서사시에서 작가의 모습은 사라지고 카메라 뒤에서 응시하는 눈이 직조문화의 원형적 장면과 어휘를 포착하며 다양한 직조문화에 내재한 인간 존재의 원형, 원초적 생명원리를 발견하게 한다.

  • 김수자는 한편으로 자신의 몸을 매체화하는 숨소리 사운드 퍼포먼스를 수행해왔다. ‘직조공장’(2004)은 폴란드 우치의 공장 빈 건물에서 영감을 받아 자신의 숨소리와 허밍 사운드로 공장을 재가동시킨다는 개념으로 발상됐다. 들숨·날숨의 반복되는 호흡을 씨줄·날줄로 교차되는 직물에 유비시키는 호흡 퍼포먼스는 2006년 베니스의 라 페니체 극장에서 발표한 ‘호흡: 보이지 않는 거울, 보이지 않는 바늘’로 본격화됐고, 같은 해 마드리드 크리스탈 팰리스 개인전 ‘호흡: 거울여인’에서는 건축물에 부착된 특수필름과 바닥에 설치된 거울을 통해 반사되는 빛이 호흡 퍼포먼스와 어우러지는, 빛과 호흡이 공명하는 공감각적 보따리를 창출했다.

  • 숨소리와 빛으로 공간을 감싸는, 탈물질화된 보따리를 ‘후기 보따리’로 명명한다면, 2013년 베니스비엔날레 한국관 전시가 이를 명문화한다. 작가는 한국관의 유리 전면을 특수필름으로 덮어 무한대로 굴절되는 무지갯빛으로 공간을 가득 채우고, 바닥에 거울을 부착해 반사된 빛을 재투영시키는 만화경 같은 미러링 효과를 연출했다.

  • 2016년 국립현대미술관 현대차시리즈 개인전 ‘마음의 기하학’에서도 관객이 점토를 구형으로 빚게 하는 퍼포먼스를 통해 ‘후기 보따리’를 예증했다. 특수필름을 사용하는 빛 작업과 함께 ‘구의 궤적’이란 새로운 소리 작업으로 관객을 공명시켰다. 커다란 타원형 탁자 위를 굴러가는 찰흙 공의 마찰 소리와 작가의 가글링 소리가 뒤섞인, 어떤 언술보다 강력한 주술적 초성의 마력이 관객과의 일체감을 조성했다. 이로써 주객체를 연결하는 ‘마음의 기하학’이 완결됐다.

— The Kyunghyang daily news, March 2021

김수자, 문화인류학적 탐구를 이어가는 바늘 여인

이연재

2021

  • 보따리 오브제와 바늘 여인으로 2000년대 전후 세계 미술무대에서 명성을 얻은 김수자(1957∼)는 어머니와 이불보를 만들며 바느질을 하고 있을 때, 온 우주적 에너지가 자신의 몸을 통과하여 바늘 끝에 모이는 느낌을 경험했다고 밝혀왔다. 손으로 직물을 짜고 만드는 행위는 전통적으로 여성들이 전담했고, 이는 예술(art)이 아닌 수공예(craft)로 분류되었다. 그러나 ‘쓰여진 것’이라는 의미의 ‘텍스트(text)’의 라틴어 어원이 ‘짜여진 것(thing woven)’이라는 점을 상기해보면, 김수자의 작업들은 여성적 행위를 환유하는 ‘바느질’로 만든 직물들을 보여줄 뿐 아니라 이것들이 인간에 의해 직조되고 기록되어 온 문화·역사적인 텍스트로 확장되는 것으로 해석할 수 있다. 작가의 작업은 부차적인 것으로 간주되어 온 여성들의 서사가 사실은 인류의 문화·역사 기반 곳곳에 짙게 배어있다는 점을 은연중에 보여주는 것이다. 우리는 김수자의 작업에서 역사의 주변부로 위치 지워진 영역들의 문화인류학적 전복을 읽을 수 있다.

  • 김수자가 미술대학을 다니던 1970년대 말∼1980년대 초반의 우리나라 화단은 크게 단색화 계열과 민중미술 계열 작가들로 양분되어 있었다고 볼 수 있다. 그리고 다다적인 오브제· 행위 미술, 개념미술 등 실험적인 작업을 탐구하는 작가들도 일군 존재했다. 그러나 김수자는 “정치적 미술이 내재한 공격적 측면에 공감할 수 없었고” [1] 그렇다고 단색화의 시류를 따르고 싶지 않았다. 그는 미술대학을 다니던 당시 재료와 물성에 대한 탐구뿐 아니라 아방가르드적인 설치나 퍼포먼스를 시도하기도 했다. 그러면서도 캔버스 회화의 구조와 이 세계의 내적 구조에 대해 고민하고 있었다는 김수자는 우리 주변에 이미 존재하는 십자(十字)형의 기호에서 그 답을 찾고자 했다. 김수자는 이러한 수평·수직의 기하학적 기호는 역사 이전의 시간에서부터 전해 내려온 것이며, 이것이 보이지 않는 우주의 질서와 본질을 함축하고 있기 때문이라는 아이디어를 석사학위 논문으로 발전시켰다. [2]

  • 김수자는 자신에게 불편하지 않고 익숙한 소재들인 실, 바늘 등을 사용하여 캔버스 틀을 벗어난, 콜라주 회화 작업을 시작했다. 그는 당시의 자신에 작업에 대해 서양의 현대미술에서 다루지 않았던 재료를 사용하여 “여성의 일상을 현대미술사의 문맥에서 재해석하고 펼쳐 보이려는” [3] 아방가르드적 접근이었다고 평가했다. 씨실과 날실이 종횡으로 엮인 비단 이불보, 그리고 이를 바늘이 수직으로 뚫고 들어가고 나가고를 반복하며 잇는 행위는 김수자가 구축해나가기 시작한 고유의 조형적 세계관을 시각적으로 풀어낸 형식이었다. 김수자의 초기 ‘꿰매기’ 회화는 곧 우리에게 잘 알려진 입체적 보따리 오브제로 변주되었고, 이 꿰매기와 보따리 모티프는 이후 전개된 작가의 영상작업에서도 영감의 원천이 되었다.

  • 작가의 초기 ‘꿰매기’ 회화 작품은 사각형의 조각보들과 색동천을 한 땀 한 땀 바느질하여 이어붙인 것이다. 바느질 자국을 살펴보면 작가는 사실 이보다 더 규칙적이고 반듯하게 잘 꿰맸을 수 있었을 것이다. 어느 지점은 바느질이 듬성듬성하고 또 어느 지점은 꽤 촘촘하다. 사용된 천의 모양도 정확하게 재단된 정사각형이나 직사각형이 아니고, 모서리 실밥이 드문드문 풀어헤쳐진 것이 보인다. 작가는 당시 수평·수직의 문제에 깊이 빠져있었다고 했는데, 김수자의 조각보 콜라주 회화에 드러난 수평·수직은 몬드리안의 기하추상 회화와 달리 정확하고 단단하게 각이 잡혀있지 않다. 천 조각들을 덧대어 성기게 이어붙인 마디를 들추면 미세하게 벌어지는 틈이 남겨져 있는 것이다. 어떤 조각보 면은 검은 잉크와 아크릴 물감이 거칠게 덧발라져 있다. 수평과 수직의 조형요소로 추출된, 균형 잡힌 완전함에 대한 갈망에도 불구하고 본디 우리의 삶은 아무리 계획하고 재단해도 엉성하며 때로는 암흑으로 뒤덮이기도 한다는 것을 은유하듯 말이다.

  • 김수자는 전통 가옥의 문살에 이 형형색색의 조각보들을 덧대거나 휘감는 설치 작업을 지나 조각보 자체를 볼륨을 가진 입체적 오브제로 발전시킨다. 그는 1992년 뉴욕현대미술관 PS1 레지던시에 참여했을 때, 이불보로 만든 보따리 작업을 선보였다. 뉴욕 레지던시에서 보따리에 싸인 자신의 짐을 보고 영감을 얻었던 것이다. 지금은 세대교체와 생활양식의 변화로 보따리가 흔하게 볼 수 있는 사물은 아니지만 당시 한국인에게 아주 익숙한 사물이었던 보따리는 그저 둥글게 말은 짐꾸러미였다. 그 꾸러미 안에는 귀한 선물이 들어있기도 하고, 장소를 옮겨가면서도 꼭 가지고 가야 하는 필수적이고 소중한 물건들이 싸매져 있었다. 불편한 이동 중에도 이고 지고 들고 간 짐꾸러미 보따리에는 낯선 곳에서 잘 뿌리내리고 살아가보겠다는 의지와 간절한 마음이 깃들어 있던 것이다.

  • 보따리 오브제의 소재인 비단 이불보는 한국인이 겪는 생로병사의 흔적이 내재된 천이다. 우리는 이불 위에서 나고 죽으며, 잠들고 사랑한다. 한국 여성들은 여전히 인생의 큰 관문인 혼인을 준비할 때 혼수와 예단으로 이불을 준비한다. 김수자는 한국 전통색감의 이불보와 조각보를 사용한 것은 오직 오리엔탈리즘, 포스트식민주의, 한국의 지역적 미학에 대한 관심에서 비롯된 것이 아니라 그것들이 본인 삶의 큰 부분이었기 때문이었다고 말했다. [4] 또한 작가는 최근 인터뷰에서 “그 재료 자체가 현대미술의, 특히 회화의 평면성과 그 구조를 실험하는 유효한 출발점이라고 생각했고 만약 이것이 실존의 문제, 여성과 인간의 본질적 삶의 화두를 가져오는 재료가 아니었다면 쓰지 않았을 것” [5] 이라고 밝혔다. 1990년대에는 지구촌, 세계화가 화두였던 시기였다. 권력과 위계를 해체하는 포스트모더니즘 이론은 경제적·문화적 패권을 쥐고 있던 미국과 유럽 중심주의를 벗어나 주변부, 제3세계에 대한 관심을 불러일으켰다. 이에 따라 중심부에 편입되지 못하고 떠도는 자들에 대한 이야기(이산과 유목주의)가 미술계의 하나의 거대 주제로 부상하였다. 따라서 작가가 의도하였든 아니든, 이러한 한국적인 소재와 정서는 역으로 세계무대에서 좋은 반응을 얻었다.

  • 보따리 오브제 설치는 영상작업으로 확장되었다. <떠도는 도시들 - 보따리 트럭 2727km>(1997)은 용달 트럭에 실린 보따리들 위에 올라앉은 작가의 뒷모습을 보여준다. 이 트럭은 어린 시절 작가가 이사 다녔던 우리나라의 지역들을 찾아 이동하는데, 이렇게 이동하는 작가의 뒷모습을 바라보던 관객은 마치 작가의 뒷자리에 함께 앉아 이사가는 그 상황 속에 놓인 듯한 느낌을 받게 된다. 덜컹거리며 나아가는 보따리 트럭에 몸을 싣고서 멀리 앞을 응시하는 작가의 모습은 명상적이다. 이동하는 그 상황 속에 함께 놓인 관객은 경계를 넘어 새로운 영토에 들어가 그가 맞닥뜨릴 삶에 대한 두려움, 희망 그리고 잠시 익숙했던 곳을 떠나야만 하는 아쉬움의 감정을 공유하게 된다. 그리고 묶은 머리를 길게 내려뜨린 이 여성이 홀로 짐꾸러미를 싸고 이를 트럭에 단단히 동여맸을 모습을 짐작하게 된다. 결국, 김수자의 보따리 트럭 영상작업은 때로는 정착에 성공하였을 테지만, 대부분은 본 땅에 안착하지 못하고 가장자리를 배회했을 외부인·이민자들의 외로운 역사의 기억을 여성의 몸으로써 불러일으킨다. 작가는 이 작업이 “나와 우리 가족의 뿌리에 관한 기록에 가까웠다”고 [6] 했다. 이 영상작업은 한스 울리히 오브리스트와 하랄드 제만이 각각 기획했던 국제 전시에 출품되었고, 이를 기점으로 김수자는 세계 미술계에서 명성을 쌓아갔다.

  • 김수자의 최초의 영상작업 <바느질하며 걷기 - 경주>(1994)는 돌과 낙엽이 쌓인 땅 위에 원색의 이불보들을 넓게 펼쳐두고, 작가가 그 위를 걸으며 이불보들을 손으로 하나씩 거둬들이는 퍼포먼스 영상이다. 바닥에 깔린 다채로운 이불보들을 발로 밟고, 손으로 거둬들이며, 이를 팔에 걸치는 작가의 행위는 스스로 바늘의 역할을 하고 있음을 암시한다. 이는 퍼포먼스가 자연이라는 거대한 캔버스를 꿰매고 있음을 상징적으로 개념화 한 작업이었다. 또한 베틀을 이용해 실을 수평·수직의 엮어 손으로 삼베를 짜던 여성들의 전통적인 모습을 은유한다고 볼 수 있다. 전술하였듯, 생로병사의 흔적이 내재된 이불보를 긴머리를 하나로 묶은 여성이 바늘이 되어 그 속을 들고 나며 엮는 모습을 보여주는 것이다. 이 작업은 이후 제작된 김수자의 영상작업들에서 발견되는 공통적인 주제를 예고한다.

  • <바늘 여인>(1999∼2001)에서 작가는 8개의 각 화면 가운데 등을 보인 채 부동의 자세로 서 있다. <보따리 트럭>에서처럼 관객은 긴머리를 하나로 묶은 작가의 뒷모습을 보게 되고, 작가의 옆을 스쳐 지나가는 도쿄·상하이·멕시코시티·런던·델리·뉴욕·카이로·라고스 도심 속 수많은 군중들을 마주치게 된다. 8채널 영상 속 전 세계 군중들에 둘러싸인 관객은 그들의 바쁜 움직임과 강한 에너지를 함께 느끼게 된다. 제목에서 드러나듯 이 영상에서 작가는 명확하게 바늘의 역할을 자처하며, 여기에 지켜보는 관객도 가담시킨다. 그렇다면 바늘에 꿸 실과 원색의 원단들은 어디에 있는가. 바늘 여인 옆을 스쳐가는 한 사람, 한 사람이 각각의 날실이자 직물이 되는 것이다. 그 하나하나의 날실에 축적된 각자의 시간과 기억들, 삶의 아우라가 바늘 여인과 관객의 곁을 통과하는 것이다. 결국, 이 작업은 자유롭게 흐르는 이러한 수많은 날실들이 서로 엮이고 상호 관계되어 그 도시 고유의 사회문화적 콘텍스트가 만들어지고 있음을 함축적으로 보여준다. 바늘 여인인 작가는 이 과정에 관객이 적극 동참하도록 제안하면서 홀로 독창적이고 중심적인 모더니즘적 작가의 지위에서 벗어난다.

  • 김수자의 비교적 최근 작업인 <실의 궤적>(2010∼2019)은 문화의 다양성에 대한 존중과 경의가 담긴 문화인류학적 다큐멘터리라고 부를 수 있다. 다양한 문화권의 직조문화를 다루고 있는 이 영상작업 시리즈는 6개의 장으로 구성되어 있는데, 각 챕터는 페루의 직물 문화(Ⅰ), 유럽의 레이스 문화(Ⅱ), 인도의 판목 날염 문화(Ⅲ), 중국의 자수 문화(Ⅳ), 미국 원주민의 직물과 바구니 문화(Ⅴ), 모로코의 모자이크 타일 문화(Ⅵ) 등을 기록하여 보여준다. 손으로 꿰매고, 엮고, 두드려서 만드는 각 민족 고유의 공예 방식과 그 민족이 살아온 대자연·고대 유적·건축물 등을 화면 속에 병렬한 것이다.

  • 예를 들어, Ⅰ장에서는 페루 전통의상을 입은 여성이 꽃과 식물의 잎으로 염색한 실을 손으로 감고 돌려가며 직물(textile)을 짜고 있다. 고대 페루 문화에서 직물짜기는 개인과 지역의 정체성을 보여주는 중요한 방식이었다. 알파카·라마·양의 털 등 자연에서 온 원료가 여인의 손에서 실의 형태로 뽑혀 나와 텍스타일로 만들어지는 것이다. 작가는 페루 여성이 입고 있는 전통의상의 자수 문양과 그의 뒤로 보이는 고대 페루 유적지의 기하학적 패턴, 그리고 여성의 손에 의해 돌고 있는 실패의 모양에서 형태적 유사성이 발견되도록 카메라 촬영 구도를 의도하였다. 유럽의 레이스 제작문화를 다룬 Ⅱ장에서는 바람에 흔들리는 초목과 꽃을 보여주던 화면이 손으로 보빈 레이스를 만드는 유럽 여성의 모습으로 전환된다. 그리고 자연을 닮은 보빈 레이스의 문양과 유럽 건축물에서 발견되는 구조가 어떻게 연결되어 있는지 보여준다.

  • 김수자의 이 영상작업은 여성은 자연, 남성은 문화와 연관되어 있다는 인류학의 전통적인 이분법적 서술에 부드럽게 저항한다. 여성적 작업의 기호인 공예와 텍스타일이 각 민족·지역의 텍스트, 콘텍스트를 구성하고 있음을 보여주는 것이다. 작가는 자연, 전통의상, 직물, 공예, 음식, 건축을 화면 속에 병치하고 뒤섞는 방식을 채택했다. 이를 통해 그동안 인류학자들이 특권적으로 규정해 온, 인간의 문화 및 사상의 발전사라는 거대 구조의 근저에는 젠더화 된 남성·여성적의 작업 모두 공존한다는 것을 암시한다.

  • 바느질에서 출발한 김수자의 작업은 여성적인 행위와 노동을 자연, 결혼, 가족 등 여성에게 허락되어온 영역 속에 종속시켜 묘사하지 않고, 젠더화 된 권력과 지식체계를 균형 있게 재구성하는 시도를 보여준다. 인류의 문화양식은 서서히 축적되어 변증법적으로 발전되어 왔다. 이 발전과정 속에는 언제나 역사의 승자만 존재했던 것은 아니다. 김수자는 그다지 중요한 것으로 여겨지지 않았던, 중심의 바깥에 위치한 사물, 기억, 존재들을 작업 속으로 끌고 와 탐구자의 시선으로 조명한다. 이를 통해 서구의 지배적인 이론과 지식으로 편중된 우리 사고체계의 틈새에 새로운 무게 추를 올려둔다.

  • — Contemporary Art Forum, June 2021

이연재(1986∼), 이화여대 대학원 미술사학과 석사, 현재 서울시립미술관 수집연구과 학예연구사
[1] 김수자·후한루 대담, 「새로운 빛을 밝히다」, 『김수자-마음의 기하학』(국립현대미술관, 2017), p. 46.
[2] 김수자, 「조형기호의 보편성과 유전성의 관한 고찰: 십자형 기호를 중심으로」, 홍익대학교 석사학위논문, 1984.
[3] 김수자와의 메일 인터뷰, 2021년 5월 10일.
[4] 김수자·후 한루 대담(2017), p. 56.
[5] 김수자와의 메일 인터뷰, 2021년 5월 10일.
[6] 김수자·후 한루 대담(2017), p. 24

아우름과 떠남의 미학: 김수자의 보따리

윤난지

2020

  • ‘작가 김수자’ 하면 맨 먼저 떠오르는 이미지가 ‘보따리’다. 주로 서민들의 이삿짐이었던 알록달록한 이불 천으로 된 보따리는 김수자 작업의 화두이자 1990년대 미술의 주요 아이콘이다. 모든 것을 아우르면서도 또 다른 곳을 향한 떠남을 암시하는 보따리는 세계가 하나로 이어지고 여행과 이주가 빈번해진 이른 바 전 지구화 시대를 표상하는 모티프가 되었다. 더하여, 한국의 토착문화, 그중에서도 특히 여성문화와 그 문화의 이동을 의미함으로써 로컬과 글로벌, 주변과 중심이 교차하는 당대 세계의 문화지형도에도 적절하게 부합하였다. 보따리 작업이 구체적으로 시작된 것은 1992년 우연한 계기를 통해서이지만 그 연원은 이전 으로 거슬러 올라간다. 김수자가 수업기를 보낸 1970년대 말~1980년대 초는 이른바 단색화 시대였는데, 이때부터 그는 단색화의 모더니즘 미학, 특히 그 고답적인 정신주의에 의문을 가지면서 천이라는 촉각적 재료와 바느질이라는 일상공예 기법을 평면작업에 적용하는 실험을 시도하였다. 또한 자신의 신체 움직임을 기하학적 구조로 분석한 <구조-몸의 연구>(1981, 사진, 실크스크린)에서처럼, ‘몸’을 작업의 주요 계기로 주목하게 된다. 몸과 그 몸이 살아가는 일상이라는 화두에 점차 이끌리게 된 것인데, 이에 확신을 갖게 한 계기가 작가가 자주 언급해온 어머니와의 바느질이다.

  • “어머니와 함께 이불을 꿰매는 일상적인 행위 속에서 나의 사고와 감수성과 행위 이 모두가 일치하는 은밀하고도 놀라운 일체감을 체험했으며... 천이 가지는 기본 구조로서의 날실과 씨실, 우리 천의 그 원초적인 색감, 평면을 넘나드는 꿰매는 행위의 천과의 자기동일성, 그리고 그것이 불러일으키는 묘한 향수... 이 모든 것들에 나 자신은 완전히 매료되었다고 할 수 있다.”[1]

  • 1983년의 이 경험을 통해 그는 당대 두 주류로 대치하고 있던 단색화와도, 민중미술과도 다른, 자신만의 작업에 집중하게 된다. 이후 그는 알록달록한 천의 질감과 바느질 자국을 드러내는 천 콜라주로, 지게나 얼레 등 전통기물을 천으로 싼 오브제 작업으로, 그리고 천 조각들 자체를 오브제 삼아 집적한 아쌍블라주로 과감하게 나아갔다. 평면작업의 재료가 되었던 천이 점차 그 자체로서 미학적 의미를 드러내게 된 것이다.

  • 이런 천 작업의 연장선상에서 1992년 우연한 계기로 발견한 모티프가 ‘보따리’다. 그가 뉴욕 PS1에 체류 중이던 어느 날 천 재료들을 싸서 보관한 보따리가 눈에 띄게 되었는데, 작가의 말처럼, 그 순간 보따리는 “하나의 조각이고 회화”[2]가 되었다. 서로 다른 것을 하나로 아우르는 보따리는 또한 바늘 없는 바느질, 즉 어머니와의 일상에서 발견한 새로운 미학의 또 다른 구현물이었다.

  • 이렇게 발견한 보따리를 김수자는 같은 해 오픈 스튜디오에서 처음 전시하게 되는데, 이 작업에도 이전 오브제 싸기 작업과 마찬가지로 <연역적 오브제>라는 이름을 붙였다. 천으로 또 다른 평면을 만들어가는 초기 작업의 귀납적인 방법에 대해 천을 통해 오브제를 역 추적한다는 의미를 함축한 이 명칭이 보따리에도 부합했기 때문이다. 그에게 보따리는 하나의 모티프로 그치는 것이 아니라 자신의 작업 원리를 구현한 시각 기호였던 것이다.

  • 싸고 묶고 풀고 다시 싸는 과정을 함축한 보따리는 여성의 일상 특히 그 신체적 움직임과 긴밀하게 엮인 오브제인데, 이를 구체화한 예가 1994년의 전시 《바느질하여 걷기》(갤러리 서미)다. 전시장 바닥에 배치된 보따리들과 옷가지들, 오래된 가옥이나 자연 속에 놓인 보따리와 펼쳐진 천들 사이에서 움직이는 작가를 찍은 영상, 그리고 그 설치 공간 속을 걸어 다니는 관람자를 찍은 실시간 영상으로 이루어진 이 전시는 보따리가 여성 몸의 움직임과 하나가 되는 과정을 구현한 총체적 퍼포먼스였다. 영상에서 작가는 스스로 보따리들 중 하나가 되거나 보따리 천을 펼치고 싸거나 자연이라는 드넓은 천 속으로 바느질하듯 걸어 들어가는 행위를 시연하였다. 자신의 모든 작업을 천이 이끄는 ‘퍼포먼스’[3]라고 한 작가의 입장이 이 전시를 통해 구체화된 것이다.

  • 이렇게 관람자를 퍼포머로 끌어들이는 퍼포먼스는 1995년 광주비엔날레 작업으로도 이어졌다. 중외공원에서 이루어진 같은 제목의 작업에서 작가는 자연 속에 헌 옷과 보따리들을 펼쳐 놓고 관람자들이 그 속을 걸을 수 있게 하였다. 반전 운동의 상징 존 레논의 노래 ‘이매진(Imagine)’과 ‘스탠 바이 미(Stand by Me)’가 흘러나오는 현장은 광주 민주화운동의 참상을 떠올리게 하면서 이 작업의 정치적 의미를 부각하였다. 두 달여 전시 후에 흙과 낙엽과 옷이 뒤범벅이 된 현장은 이를 다시 확인하게 했다. 이 작업을 통해 보따리는 희생자의 넋을 기린다는 치유의 의미 또한 함축하게 되었다. 보따리는 퍼포먼스와 엮이면서 바느질로, 그 신체적 구현으로서의 걷기로, 그리고 그 심리적 효과로서의 아우르기로 그 의미가 확장되어 간 것이다.

  • 이런 퍼포먼스와 함께 보따리가 움직임 혹은 이동의 매체이자 도상으로 부각된 것은 당연한 수순일 것이다. 보따리와 작가의 몸이 함께 이동하는 <떠도는 도시들-2727Km 보따리 트럭>(1997)이 그 증거다.

“보따리를 싸고 풀듯이 내 몸 역시 끊임없이 머물고 떠납니다.”[4]

  • 1995년의 한 대담에서의 작가의 이 말이 예언이 된 듯, 2년 후 그는 스스로 하나의 보따리가 되어 다른 보따리들과 함께 머물고 떠나는 여정을 시도하였다. 보따리를 실은 트럭에 작가가 함께 타고 11일 동안 전국의 마을들을 누비는 퍼포먼스이자 이를 기록한 비디오 영상인 이 작업은 아우름과 함께 떠남의 계기를 함축하는 보따리 미학을 작가가 몸소 실천한 예다. 이사가 잦았던 어린 시절 주거지들을 거쳐 가는 이 여정을 통해 그 자신도 모든 것을 아우르면서도 끊임없이 떠나는, 혹은 떠남으로써 또 다른 것을 아우르는 보따리가 되었다.

  • 작가 자신 또한 유목 혹은 여행의 주체로 부각된 것인데, 전 세계 여러 도시들에서 이루어진 거리 퍼포먼스를 기록한 <바늘 여인> 시리즈(1999~)는 이런 작가 개념이 또 다른 형태로 이어진 예다. 작가 스스로 바늘이 되어 현지인들 속으로 스며드는 과정을 기록한 이 비디오 작업에서 보따리는 사라졌지만 그 의미는 “치유의 도구”[5]로서의 바늘을 통해 구현되었다. 여기서 김수자는 자신의 몸을 스쳐 가는 낯선 이들을 조용히 바라보는 뒷모습으로 등장한다. 그에게 여행은 다른 문화를 포획하기 위한 것이 아니라 그 문화를 있는 그대로 수용하고 또한 있는 그대로 두고 떠나기 위한 것이다. 이는 19세기 산업혁명이 촉발한 남성적 정복의 여행과 대극에 있다. 마치 바늘이 헝겊과 헝겊을 이어주고 떠나듯, 보따리가 서로 다른 천들을 감쌌다 풀어주듯 그는 아우름과 떠남의 반복으로서의 여행, 이른바 여성적 포용의 여행을 실천한 것이다. 어머니와의 바느질 체험이 사회적 차원으로 드러난 그의 여행은 사람과 사람을 이어주는 부드러운 정치학의 구현이다. 소외된 지역이나 분쟁 지역에서 이루어진 이후의 작업들이 이를 보다 선명하게 드러낸다.

  • 이렇게 김수자의 작업을 이끌어 온 것이 보따리와 그 미학이며 이는 현재까지도 이어지고 있다. 보따리는 펼쳐져 빨래처럼 널리기도, 낯선 이국 카페의 테이블보로 쓰이기도, 조각조각 잘려 벽돌 틈새에 끼워지기도 하면서 변이를 거듭해 왔다. 비디오 작업 또한 장소를 달리하면서 지속되었다. 보따리 트럭은 1998년 사웅파울로 비엔날레 등 전 세계 여러 곳에서 전시되면서 이른바 노마디즘(nomadism) 시대의 아이콘이 되었다. 특히 ‘코소보 난민에게 바침’이라는 부제가 붙은 1999년 베니스 비엔날레의 것은 이주와 그에 따른 문제를 전 세계적인 차원으로 확장하는 계기가 되었다. 2007년 파리에서 이민자 관련 장소들을 순회하면서 다시 제작된 보따리 트럭에는 ‘이주’라는 부제가 붙었다. 이는 최근 작가가 전시감독을 맡은 푸아티에 비엔날레 《가로지르기/김수자》(2019.10.12.~2020.1.19.)에도 전시되었으며, <보따리>라는 이름으로 설치된 뉴욕 이삿짐 컨테이너와 함께 전시의 의미를 각인시켰다. 보따리가 바느질로 개념화된 <바늘 여인> 또한 전 세계 여러 도시에서 시연되어 왔다.

  • 마드리드 크리스털 궁전 설치 작업(2006)에서 시작된 <숨쉬기> 연작은 보따리 개념을 건축적 공간에 적용한 예다. 유리창에 붙인 회절격자 필름을 통해 오방색 빛으로 가득 찬 공간을 연출한 것인데, 이는 빛으로 가득 찬, 그리고 그 빛의 움직임처럼 살아 숨 쉬는 보따리다. 스피커를 통해 들려오는 작가의 숨소리와 허밍소리는 그 공간을 거대한 신체로 체험하게 한다. 전 세계 다양한 건물들을 옮겨 다니며 지속되고 있는 이런 작업과 함께 보따리는 점차 비 물질화되고 개념화되어 왔는데, 근작 <마음의 기하학>(2016)은 그것이 심리적인 차원으로 발현된 예다. 관람자들은 점토로 각자의 형상을 만들면서 마음의 보따리를 싸고 푸는 과정을 통해 자신과 타인의 내면을 넘나들게 되는 것이다.

  • 1990년대를 관통하고 2000년대로 이어진 김수자 작업은 그 자체가 신체적, 심리적 유목의 도정이었다. 평면도 입체도, 비움도 채움도 되는 보따리의 유연함이 그의 작업, 그 유목을 가능하게 한 것이며, 이를 통해 그의 작업은 인간 사회를 넘어 자연과 우주를 포괄하는 방향으로 전개되었다. 작업의 내용 뿐 아니라 작업방식, 나아가 전시와 사회활동에 있어서도 작가의 유목은 지속되었다. 자신의 뉴욕 행을 일종의 “문화적 망명”[6]으로 본 작가 말대로, 그는 단지 물리적으로 뿐 아니라 심리, 사회적으로도 거처를 옮겨 다닌 것이다. 1980년대 중·후반에는 일본과 대만, 1990년대 초·중엽에는 뉴욕, 이후 전 세계 여러 도시들로 이어진 그의 여정은 아직도 지속되고 있다. “언제쯤 바느질 뜸을 따라 걸어가는 이 길이 끝날 것인가”7라는 작가 자신의 질문은 진행 중이다.

  • 이렇게 끊임없이 움직이는 작업의 여정에서 작가 이미지는 거의 변하지 않는 모습, 즉 긴 검은 머리를 묶거나 땋은 뒷모습으로 기호화되어 왔다. 작업의 유동성에도 불구하고 작가 자신은 전형적인 아시아 여성으로서의 이미지를 고수해왔는데, 이런 이미지는 그의 작업을 페미니즘과 관련짓지 않을 수 없게 한다. 김수자 스스로도, 페미니스트 작가를 자처하지는 않지만, 자신의 여성적 정체성을 부정하지는 않으며 작업을 통해서도 이를 일관되게 추구해왔다. 여성적 일상, 특히 어머니와의 모성적 유대관계를 통해서 발견한 소재와 기법에서 출발한 그의 작업은 이른바 ‘여성적 감수성(feminine sensibility)'의 존재를 확인하게 하는 점에서 페미니즘 중에서도 본질주의(essentialism)와 닿아 있다. 자신의 재료인 천을 “감싸고 덮고 보호하는 것” 즉 “여성의 자궁과 같은 이미지”8로 본 작가의 입장이 이를 확인하게 한다.

  • 1990년대 미술에서 김수자 작업이 의미 있는 위치를 차지한다면, 그것은 단순히 재료와 기법을 통해 여성적 일상을 미술의 영역으로 수용하고 설치와 퍼포먼스, 비디오 등 새로운 방법과 매체 실험을 시도하였기 때문만은 아니다. 몸과 마음 같은 생리, 심리의 세계와 기하학적 구조라는 수학 혹은 과학의 원리를 융합하려는 의도가 초기 작업에서부터 일관되게 내재되어 있는 것을 목도할 수 있듯이, 그의 작업의 진정한 의미는 서구 근대의 이분법적 세계관을 넘어선 또 다른 미학을 제안한 점에 있다. 이는 서구 근대를 추동한 남성 미학, 그 배제의 논리에 대해 포용의 원리라는 대안을 제안하는 점에서 여성 미학으로 이름 지을 수 있을 것이다.

  • 보따리는 이러한 여성 미학의 출발점이자 그 도상이다. 모든 것을 아우르면서도 또한 모든 것을 떠나보내는 보따리는 하나의 목표를 향해 정진해 온 모더니스트 영웅 신화, 그 남성적인 직진의 논리를 비껴간다. 한국성의 기호이자 여성성의 기호인 보따리는 다양한 문화들과의 접점과 함께 차이를 또한 만들어내면서 로컬 문화를 글로벌한 지평에 스며들게 하였다. 로컬 문화를 통한 글로벌한 아우름의 표상인 그것은 정복이 아닌 포용을 지향하는, 그런 의미에서 여성적인 글로벌리즘의 도상이다.

  • 몸과 천이 하나가 된 또 다른 보따리 <만남-바라보며 바느질하기>(1998, 2011)에서 나는 천에서 혼령을 불러내는 영매와 같은 예술가, 김수자를 본다. 그는 보따리 작업을 시작한 이래 아우름과 떠남을 반복하면서 인간과 인간, 문화와 자연의 교응을 중개해 왔다. ‘아우르고 떠나기’ 이것이 김수자의 노마디즘, 이를 통한 글로벌리즘의 진정한 정체다.

  • — Monthly Art Magazine, November 2020, pp. 66-69

[1] 김수자, 「작가노트」, 『김수자』(전시도록), 갤러리 현대, 1988, p.9.

[2] 박영택, 김수자(대담), 「김수자: 평면에서 입체로의 접근, 보따리」, 『공간』, 1996년 6월, p. 116.

[3] 김수자, 「천과 삶」, Sewing into Walking(전시리플릿), 갤러리 서미, 1994, n.p.

[4] 황인, 김수자(대담), “Sewing into Walking: Cloth, Video, Sound Installaion by Kim Soo-Ja”, 『공간』, 1995년 1월, p. 38.

[5] 김수자의 편지(2000. 2. 15): 태현선, 「김수자: 세상을 엮는 바늘」, 『김수자: 세상을 엮는 바늘』(전시도록), 로댕갤러리, 2000, p.13.

[6] 후 한루, 김수자(대담), 「새로운 빛을 밝히다」, 『김수자: 마음의 기하학』(전시도록), 국립현대미술관, 2016, p. 24.

A Laundry Field, 2020. Site-specific installation consisting of 100 local Swedish embroidered bedsheets. Installation view at Wanås Konst Sculpture Park, Sweden. Courtesy of Wanås Konst and Kimsooja Studio. Photo by Mattias Givell

Kimsooja - The New Normal

Mark Rappolt

2020

  • While most people were locking down this May, Korean artist Kimsooja was hanging out laundry, in a wood northeast of Malmö, not too far from the border between Sweden and Denmark, on the site of a medieval castle and an organic farm. Between the trees, 100 pristine white bedsheets are pinned to clotheslines and flap, like so many captured cartoon ghosts, in the wind. They give an idea of stains removed, fresh starts, new beginnings, extreme hygiene and slates wiped clean. And, with their embroidered trims (an example of local craftspersonship), of old traditions of manufacture and housework, which to a lot of us might seem anachronistic in a world of urbanised living, rapid manufacture, household convenience and washing machines. White: the mark of mourning, purity and rebirth. Or perhaps all this is to overthink what is simply evidence of an easily comprehensible, quotidian routine.

  • But overthinking is a pastime in which many of us have had an opportunity to indulge over the past few months. Locked down, changing our routines, afraid of other people, afraid of going out, conjuring profundity out of banality and, egged on by politicians around the world, constantly redefining what we mean by ‘normal’. As if the term was anything other than subjective in the first place.

  • The sheets make up an artwork titled A Laundry Field (2020). If that ‘A’ before ‘laundry field’ suggests that it is one of many, it is. And in more ways than one. On the one hand, because what we see is nothing new: many people around the world hang out their washing to dry; they’ve been doing it since they had things to wash, and things to hang them on. If you stumbled across the washables here, at Wanås Konst, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was simply evidence of a routine interrupted by, say, a sudden global health emergency meaning that no one was around to take it in. On the other hand, A Laundry Field is a development of earlier works by Kimsooja, such as Mumbai: A Laundry Field (2007–08), a multi-channel video that uses footage of the city to cast the overcrowded Maharashtra port as a field inhabited by people wearing clothes and people cleaning or drying clothes. Both works play with their ‘matter-of-fact’ nature and are evocative in their banality, their normality and the ways in which they accept – but do not insist on – projection and interpretation on the part of the viewer. You want to see garments as embodying the history and traces of human bodies? Fine. You just see ordinary life? That’s a truth too. It’s a form of equivocation that lies at the heart of much of Kimsooja’s work. And, you might say, at the heart of much good art. ‘I saw art in life and life as art,’ the artist said in a 2008 interview with Susan Sollins. ‘I couldn’t separate one from another. So my gaze to the world and my questions were always related to life itself.’

  • Kimsooja’s best known works feature bottari, a traditional Korean cloth bundle used to wrap goods in preparation for transport by hand. While such fabrics (bottari are often recycled from colourful bedspreads) have acquired links over time to the gendering of labour, the dynamics of domestic and civic power and the segregation of public and private space, bottari bundles are also evocative of displacement and migration (frequently, and particularly in terms of Korea’s modern history, as a result of war and famine), symbolic of both the home and a lack of one.

  • Although this interest is born of the artist’s Korean cultural heritage – her own ‘reality’, as she puts it – it developed as a medium to be used in more than just two-dimensional works (the artist trained as a painter) when she was displaced from that heritage, during a 1992 residency at moma ps1 in New York. There, the museum became a space in which to accept the bottari’s cultural baggage and to subvert it. In the resultant installation, Deductive Object, she inserted fragments of Korean bedcovers into gaps in the gallery’s brick wall and made static sculptures out of a series of everyday objects covered in bottari cloth. Over the years the bottari works have developed simultaneously as a reality and an abstraction, similar to the way in which civic and social culture across the world has drifted these past few months. Cities on the Move – 2727 Kilometers Bottari Truck (1997, first shown in the group exhibition Cities on the Move, from which the work’s title derives) was a performance and video documenting the artist’s 11-day journey across South Korea, visiting places with which she had a personal connection, on the back of a truck overloaded with tied bottari bundles; To Breathe: A Mirror Woman (2006) saw her clad Madrid’s Crystal Palace in translucent, light-refracting film in such a way that the building itself and the atmosphere within it became a colourful wrapping, a type of bottari.

  • At the same time Kimsooja has expanded such interests beyond her own cultural inheritance in works like the ongoing Thread Routes (2010–), a series of videos inspired after witnessing traditional lace- making in Bruges in 2002. Taking the performative elements of local textile cultures as its subject, the first focuses on Peruvian weaving and the relationship it has with issues of tradition, gender, historic and vernacular architecture, and local landscapes.

  • Further chapters have explored European, Indian, Chinese, Native American and Moroccan practices to create a body of work that further evokes relationships between the particular and the universal, and brings to mind the poetry of mystics such as Kabir. A fifteenth-century Muslim weaver from India, Kabir linked the process of textile manufacture to meditation on and exploration of the divine in his verses. Indeed, they proved to be so successful and easily comprehensible that his influence spans both Islam and Hinduism, and the practices of Bhakti and yoga. Works by Kimsooja such as To Breathe: A Mirror Woman and the interactive installation Archive of Mind (2016) have featured recordings of the artist’s own breathing as components of the installation, while she refers to the videos that make up Thread Routes as a form of “visual poetry”.

  • “The reality of myself and my culture has constantly and gradually evolved, and rather dramatically since I moved to New York,” the artist writes as we exchange emails between London and Korea and their respective lockdowns.

  • “This move gave me the perspective of my own culture as part of a multi-cultural context. Yet, I held the string of my particular personal life as a continuum that questions fundamental and existential problems: what Zen Buddhism describes as ‘Wha Du (in Korean, Gong An in Chinese)’. This might have given me the consistency and long breath in my career.” She’s referring to the practice in which a story, statement or question is used to provoke a crisis of doubt in the mind of a student of Zen on their pathway to enlightenment. And perhaps nowhere in her work is such a crisis evoked more than in the video series A Needle Woman (1999–2001). In it the artist, clad in grey, is recorded, standing motionless, her back to camera, generally against the flow of traffic, in some of the busiest pedestrian junctions in some of the most densely populated metropolises in the world (Shanghai, Tokyo, Mexico City and Delhi). It’s a work that explores the ways in which losing yourself is linked to finding yourself, about the individual and the collective, and one that has added resonance now that crowds are a source of added fear. The last is something the Nobel Prize-winning writer Elias Canetti described as ‘the touch of the unknown’ in his 1960 analysis of relations between the self and others, Crowds and Power. Although one of Canetti’s assertions – ‘It is only in a crowd that a man can become free of this fear of being touched. That is the only situation in which fear turns into its opposite’ – is looking a bit shaky right now.

  • “Artists often discover the art in daily life,” the artist writes, “and bring daily life to the museum to contextualise it within art history.” Indeed, even before the intrusions of urinals and readymades and the age of modern art museums, attempts by the authors of poetry (whether visual or written) to engage with the unauthored poetics of everyday life have enjoyed a rich history, not least in painting, and works by Joseon artists such as Danwon, or the seventeenth-century Dutch masters. Yet on the site of the museum there is often a question about what – between daily life and art history – is contextualising or responding to what. And an anxiety about whether it is the artworks in a museum or the circumstances of lived experience that gets audiences closer to truths about the world. All of which responds to a more general paranoia that what enters the museum is removed from lived life. And perhaps it’s a paradox of museum culture for artists like Kimsooja that the more she has sought to introduce the ordinary, the more her work is celebrated as extraordinary.

  • As we discuss A Laundry Field, Kimsooja explains that her works have been shown mostly within the museum context, but for a few exceptions. “In museum spaces,” she writes, “I used fans, lights, and sounds to give a vibration to it and bring sensation to the audiences as they encounter the persona of the fabrics. When situated within nature, such as Wanås sculpture park [the Swedish foundation is located in a natural landscape], the wind, light, cast shadows of trees, and bird sounds paint the laundered bedcovers and evoke the memories and poetics of the bedcovers. I find A Laundry Field installed at Wanås sculpture park gives an experience that blurs the boundary between daily life and the museum context that maximises the audience’s imagination and experience.” Reading this, it’s hard not to think of the new work as an attack on the exceptionalism of the museum context.

  • In that, the exhibition at Wanås, titled Sowing into Painting, goes a little further than other works by Kimsooja. It traces a circle through her varied output (it contains chapters one, two and four of Thread Routes, a series of the Deductive Objects (1993–2020), Meta-Painting (2020, which comprises stretched and frame linen canvases as well as bottaris made of linen canvas and used clothes) and To Breathe (2020, an evolution of the work shown in Madrid). And it traces a circle through the manufacture of painting in the title work Sowing into Painting, a field sown with two types of flax that are harvested to produce canvas and other fabrics as well as the linseed oil that is classically used as a binding agent in Western painting. It returns the exceptional to the normal, culture to nature, and a life observed (not least in the types of paintings of ‘everyday’ life that populate museums and other archives) to a life lived.

— ArtReview Asia, Summer 2020

Breathe - Tour Maubergeon, 2019, site-specific installation with mirror panels. Installation view at Tour Maubergeon, 2019. Courtesy of the City of Poitiers and Kimsooja Studio. Photos by Jan Liegois.

KIMSOOJA, SCHAUENDES DENKEN

Doris von Drathen

2020

  • Zweimal in ihrem 37-jährigen Werk hat sich die südkoreanische Künstlerin auf ihr persönliches Leben bezogen. Im Herbst 2019 stellt Kimsooja einen 6 mal 2,4 mal 2,6 Meter großen Container auf den Platz vor die Kathedrale von Poitiers (s. Kunstforum Nr. 265) und markiert damit ihren Abschied von New York, wo sie, seit den ersten Stipendien bis heute, fast 30 Jahre gelebt hatte. Ein radikaler Wendepunkt, denn seither pendelt Kimsooja zwischen Seoul und Paris, wo sie sich vielleicht in der Zukunft niederlassen wird, auch wenn sie längst im Unterwegssein zuhause ist. Der Container aber birgt nicht nur ihre Umzugskisten, sondern auch ihre künstlerische Weltsicht: Gelb, Rot, Blau, Weiß, Schwarz, Gelb, Rot, Blau … skandieren die leuchtenden Streifen auf seinen Wänden die alte koreanische Tradition eines Farbkosmos, der bis heute das analogische Denken der Künstlerin prägt: So entspricht Blau dem Holz, Rot dem Feuer, Gelb dem Erdmittelpunkt, Weiß dem Metall und Schwarz dem Wasser; die fünf Elemente finden ihr Pendant in den fünf Himmelsrichtungen und Jahreszeiten, die ihrerseits um ein Zentrum kreisen. Wie das Farbspektrum lebendig wird im Sonnenlicht, so erwacht der Kosmos im universalen Atemstrom zu beständiger Wandlung und Bewegung. Ein webender Austausch verbindet alle Elemente, Zeiten, Winde und Wesen zu unaufhörlich neuen Analogiereihen. Der Container hat den Titel „Bottari 1999 – 2019“ und holt damit den zweiten ebenso radikalen Wendepunkt ins Gedächtnis: Zur Biennale von Venedig 1999, stellt Kimsooja in Harald Szeemanns d’Apertutto ihren blauen „Bottari Truck in Exile“ vor eine Raum öffnende Spiegelwand. Das Vehikel ist Zeitzeuge ihrer Abschiedsreise von Korea, als ihr fester Wohnsitz in New York entschieden war. In elf Tagen hatte sie 2.727 Kilometer zurückgelegt und in den Orten ihrer Erinnerung die Einwohner um ausgediente Kleider und Bettüberwürfe gebeten. Gefaltet, eingewickelt, an den Stoffenden zusammengeknotet, so entstanden die traditionellen Reisebündel, die seidigen, farbenreichen „Bottaris“, die bald zum Leitmotiv ihrer Arbeit werden sollten. Zwischen den anwachsenden Bergen von Bottaris auf der offenen Ladefläche des Lasters sitzend fuhr sie über Bergpässe und Feldwege: „Cities on the Move – 2.727 Kilometers Bottari Truck“ hieß diese erste gefilmte Performance.

  • Als Artist in Residence am PS1, hatte die Künstlerin 1992 in ihrem New Yorker Atelier zum ersten Mal den skulpturalen Aspekt ihrer eigenen Reisebündel gesehen. Von jeher war sie an die Gestik gewöhnt, Kleider, Hausrat, Bücher mit den Bettüberwürfen, die traditionell in jede Familie gehörten, zusammenzubinden. Auf diesen Tüchern, den kunstvoll gewirkten Ybulbos, wurde geruht, geliebt, geschlafen, darin wurden Säuglinge auf den Rücken gebunden und getragen, Kranke und Tote transportiert. Die Funktionen der Ybulbos beschreiben also einen Existenzbogen. 1994 hatte die Künstlerin in Korea ihre erste Installation photographiert: Bottaris auf der Türschwelle eines verlassenen Hauses, im südkoreanischen Dorf Yangdong, der Umgebung von Gyeongju. Die leuchtend farbigen, kunstvoll gewirkten Bottaris als Spuren von Angst, Hast und Flucht vor diktatorischer Unterdrückung. Dieser politische Hintergrund prägt die Bilder der Performance-Reise, „Cities on the Move – 2.727 Kilometers Bottari Truck“. Die Gesten des Zusammenfaltens, Bündelns, Knotens hatten den Rhythmus dieser Zeitreise bestimmt. Als Bottari der Gegenwart hatte die Künstlerin sich selbst verstanden, die auf ihrer Reise in die Zukunft versucht, Spuren der Vergangenheit zu sammeln. Denn die ausgedienten Kleider und Bettüberwürfe mit ihren Gerüchen und eingeprägten Gesten sind für Kimsooja vor allem dies: Erinnerungsvehikel menschlicher Gegenwart. Ähnlich wie Photographien bezeugen sie vergangenes Leben.

  • In diesem Sinn hatte Kimsooja im Jahr 1995, zum 15. Jahrestag des Massakers von Gwangju, auch hier abgelegte Kleidung und Bett-Tücher gesammelt. Die südkoreanische Stadt war weltweit bekannt geworden durch den von Studenten angeführten, massiven Aufstand der demokratischen Bewegung, die vom Militärregime im Mai 1980 brutal niedergeschlagen worden war. Kimsooja baut kein Monument. „Sewing into Walking“ heißt ihre Performance: Die Künstlerin schleppt Bottari um Bottari in den Wald des Massenfriedhofs, und deckt im langsamen Gehen die alten Kleider und Ybulbos über die Erde, als müßte sie heilend gewärmt werden, als müßte den Toten, die Umarmung ihrer Nachbarn nachgetragen werden. So näht Kimsooja tatsächlich die Vergangenheit in die Gegenwart, näht Zeiträume, Entstehen und Vergehen zusammen. Auf ihrem Weg, in ihrem „Walking“, tritt sie zum ersten Mal als verkörperte Nadel auf, die in ihrer Vertikalität die horizontale Kleiderschicht mit der Erde verbindet.

  • In dieser Künstlerauffassung eines konzeptuellen Nähens, hatte sie 1984 in Seoul, nach ihrem Studium der Malerei, die Arbeit „The Earth and the Heaven“ aus Seidenresten zusammengenäht, ein Achsenkreuz aus den Farbfeldern der fünf Elemente. Was sie daran interessierte, war die Gestik an der Grenze, die Nadelbewegung selbst, in ihrem verbindenden Durchqueren unterer und oberer Schichten, die Kimsooja wie selbstverständlich auf die Zeit, den Raum und das Universum bezieht. Die Bewegung der Hände, wenn sie die vier Stoffzipfel der farbenreichen Bett-Tücher unter- und übereinander führen und einen Knoten festzurren, ist der nähenden Geste vergleichbar. Wenn aus dem Falten und Bündeln des Tuches nun eine kugelförmige Dreidimensionalität entsteht, erscheint es für Kimsooja wiederum selbstverständlich, darin eine Welt zu sehen. Damit nähert sie sich, so könnte man es sehen, über ihr experimentell künstlerisches Tun, einem Mathematiker und Philosophen der europäischen frühen Aufklärung: Leibniz war aus dem spirituell-körperlichen Doppelcharakter des Tuches und dessen Faltungen, die er eingehend betrachtet hatte, die Einsicht hergeleitet, das gesamte Universum sei ein einziger kontinuierlicher, sich wandelnder Körper, der verschiedene Gestalten annimmt. Die Möglichkeit dieser Parallele zeigt die transkulturelle Dimension, die Kimsoojas Weltsicht öffnet.

  • In einer Reihe von Performances zwischen 1999 und 2005 erweitert sie die Logik ihrer Künstlerkonzeption, Nadel zu sein. Als unbewegliche Gestalt im grauen Gewand wird sie in der Rückenansicht für den Zuschauer zum Medium, das vermag, den Atem und die Wahrnehmung zu verlangsamen, den Betrachter hineinzuziehen in verdichtete Situationen des Zeitraums. So sehen wir sie 1999 in Japan, als „A Needle Woman – Kitakyushu“, horizontal auf einem langen, glatten Felsen ausgestreckt; ihr Körper verbindet sich mit der grauen Gesteinsformation, zeichnet die Grenzlinie zwischen Himmel und Erde nach. Der Zuschauer, auf ihren Rücken schauend, atmet wie sie den offenen Himmelsraum und dessen Stille, teilt ihr Erleben. Ein Jahr später steht sie in Indien an der Böschung des Yamuna River; vorübertreibende Verbrennungsreste zeigen sein stetiges Strömen. Kimsooja nennt sich hier „A Laundry Woman – Yamuna River“, schaut in dunstige horizontlose Ferne, weiß, der Fluß wird weiterströmen, auch nach ihrem Lebensende. In folgenden großen Video-Reihen, steht sie im Mittelpunkt von dicht bevölkerten Metropolen, wie Tokio, Mexico City, London oder Kairo. Ihre unbewegliche graue Gestalt erscheint als Seismograph im Zeitstrom der vorüberziehenden Menschenmassen; ein Strom, der kaum innehält, wenn das Gesicht eines Vorübergehenden dem ihren begegnet. In einer zweiten großen Serie bereist sie ebenso als unbeweglicher Zeitzeuge, konzentriert auf ihr physisch gegenwärtiges Sein, die Krisenherde der Zeit, Havanna, Rio de Janeiro, Jerusalem, N’Djamena, Sana’a, Patan und Nepal. Fast einem Kriegsreporter gleich, muß sie in dieser zweiten Performance-Reihe, oftmals um ihr Leben fürchten. Ihre Präsenz bewegt sich also auch hier an einer Grenze. Die Identifikation mit der physischen Zeugenschaft der Künstlerin, mag im Betrachter eine neue Aufmerksamkeit für das Weltgeschehen wecken. Die Video-Installation der zweiten Reihen war 2005 in Aperto zu sehen.

  • Vom Phänomen der Nadelbewegung, vom Prinzip ihres Verbindens verschiedener Raum- und Zeitschichten ausgehend, entwickelt Kimsooja von nun an erweiterte Bildkonzeptionen, indem sie das Phänomen des Spiegels, das schon angeklungen war, zum Thema macht. Denn auch der Spiegel führt verschiedene Raumschichten zusammen. Wie die Nadel bleibt der Spiegel unsichtbar, erschafft Bilder und verschwindet mit ihnen. Wie die Nadel markiert der Spiegel eine Grenze des Raums. Auch sein Auftritt bezeichnet eine Grenze der Zeit, den haarscharfen Augenblick, wenn Zeit erst geschieht. Im Palacio de Cristales in Madrid verband Kimsooja dieses Agieren des Spiegels mit ihrem ruhigen Atemgeräusch. „To breathe – A Mirror Woman“ hieß die Arbeit, im Jahr 2006: Einer lebendigen Bestimmungsgröße des Raums gleich, so steht sie als zierliche schwarze Gestalt auf einem grenzauflösenden Spiegelboden, inmitten von hohen, funkelnden Glaswänden, die mit einem optischen Prisma beschichtet sind. Kein Halt nirgends: Unter den Füßen werden die Glaskuppeln zum schwankenden Abgrund, der Körper schwebt im Raum, dessen Grenzen zerstieben in einem Feuerwerk der Spektralfarben. Atmender, Licht durchpulster Raum. Damit öffnet Kimsooja ihre Performance für den Betrachter, der hier nun selbst die Bewegungen von Raum und Zeit ausloten kann.

  • Das ist der Absprung für die Künstlerin in eine bis dahin nicht gekannte Freiheit, die Welt aus dem Blickwinkel des Ein- und Ausfaltens von Stoffbahnen zu verstehen: Kimsooja findet ihre Bilder auf der Straße und in der Natur. So beobachtet sie die Wäscher in den Armenvierteln von Mumbai: die daraus entstandene Videoinstallation heißt, „Mumbai: A Laundry Field“, 2007–2008. Die Kamera schafft eine Analogie zwischen Körper und Tuch, wenn die Wäscher ihre harte Arbeit, das Bürsten und Reiben, das Ausspülen, Wringen und Ausschlagen der hoch auffliegenden, spritzenden Stoffe unterbrechen und sich selbst unter den Wasserschlauch stellen. Daneben Bilder von der alten Gleichung Habitat und Habit, wenn Obdachlose ihren Schlafplatz auf der Straße und sich selbst mit Tüchern schützen.

  • Die seltenen Weltgegenden, die von menschlicher Zerstörung noch bewahrt sind, sind das Thema in einer Folge von acht Filmen, die das unaufhörliche Verwandeln im Austauschtanz der Elemente beobachtet: „Earth-Water-Fire-Air“, 2009 – 2010. Achtmal zeigt die Kamera deren fließende Interdependenz: Das innere Feuer der Erde und seine rotglühende Lava erstarren zu schwarzen, noch weiterglühenden Gesteinsflammen; das Feuer kann ohne die Luft nicht sein; eine Wasseroberfläche gleicht Bodenwellen; eine Meereswelle schlägt meterhoch gegen einen Felsen, während ihre im Sonnenlicht aufwehende Gischt das Feuerwerk der Spektralfarben entfacht – unmögliche, alltägliche Verbindung von Feuer und Wasser. Was Kimsooja zeigt, ist das haarscharf austarierte Zusammenwirken der Elemente und ihrer Kräfte, deren Wandlungen ohne unser Zutun beständig neue Bilder erzeugt, an der Zeitgrenze des Augenblicks. Kimsooja zeigt die andere Seite: Als gelte es für den Betrachter ein Atemreservoir zu schaffen, trägt sie unermüdlich Bilder zusammen aus einer weiterlebenden Harmonie. Ihr Künstlercredo heißt verbinden, heilen, weben, statt trennen, zerreißen und verwerfen. „Thread-Routes“ ist der Titel ihrer bis heute weitergeführten Folge, die 2010 begann, und bisher sechs abgeschlossene Filme umfaßt: Quer durch die Welt folgt die Künstlerin hier den selten gewordenen Spinnerinnen, Weberinnen, Klöpplerinnen, Gerbern und Stoffdruckern mit der Kamera. Auf den Gebirgspfaden des Altiplano von Peru beobachtet sie, wie alteingeübte Hände Schafswolle zu Fäden zwirbeln, im Gehen, die Spindel kreiseln lassen, irgendwo unterwegs einen Haken in die Erde schlagen, Fäden spannen und ihr Weben beginnen. Der Wiederholungstanz uralter Gesten beseelt von Afrika bis Kroatien diese Filme, deren Bilder immer wieder das Weben des Windes, der Wolken, des Lichts und der Schatten verbinden mit den fabrizierenden Händen und ihren Fadenwegen. Die Akteure sind in jedem Filmabspann mit Namen aufgeführt, oftmals zusammengenähte Namen aus den ursprünglichen und später aufgezwungenen Kulturen. Vier dieser Filme waren im Herbst 2019 in Poitiers zu sehen. Nichts ist nostalgisch; die Bilder leben aus dem dokumentierten Tun heraus.

  • Nichts manipulieren, nichts hinzufügen, das ist ihr Schaffensprinzip. Kimsooja, die ihre Arbeit aus ihrer pragmatischen Beobachtung entwickelt, anerkennt nur ein Künstlervorbild: John Cage. Kurz nach ihrem Studium hatte sie 1985 zur Biennale von Paris dessen weißen Container gesehen. Im Innenraum seiner Leere und Stille war an der Wand ein einziger Satz zu lesen: „Whether you try to make it or not, the sound is heard“. Diese Worte haben die Künstlerin seither begleitet und bestärkt in ihrer Künstlerhaltung eines „Non-Making“, in ihrer Überzeugung, keine Gegenstände herzustellen. Bis heute ist sie davon nicht abgerückt. Während ihrer Ausstellung in Poitiers, im Herbst 2019, sind die Besucher aufgefordert, an einem „Archive of Mind“ mitzuwirken. Im Palais der Ducs d’Aquitaine steht, wie zuvor im Museum für zeitgenössische Kunst in Seoul, der große ovale Holztisch mit seinen Schemeln. Die Gäste bedienen sich aus großen Lehmklumpen, setzen sich an den Tisch, drehen ihre Handvoll Lehm zu einer Kugel und hinterlassen sie dort. Die Stille öffnet das Gehör für ein leises auf- und absteigendes Wassergurgeln, ein vertikales Echo auf die horizontalen Kreisbahnen am Tisch. Es dauert, bis eine Kugel sich formt. Die Wiederholungsgeste wird zum Alltagsfilter. Das Freigeben eines eigenen Bottari öffnet einen anderen Denkraum. Sich beteiligen, ohne zu besitzen, ohne zu besetzen.

  • Diese Logik wird einen Kreis schließen, wenn Kimsooja im Verlauf von 2020 im Park der schwedischen Wanås Foundation, Leinen aussäen, seine blau blühenden Felder, seine Ernte und schließlich das Fadenspinnen und Weben von groben Leinwänden beobachten wird. Keine Objekte, keine Bilder. Auch nicht im Dezember 2020, wenn sie in der Kathedrale von Metz ein Fenster aus dichroitischem Glas herstellen wird: eigentlicher Autor werden die Farbbrechungen des Lichts sein. Was sie erschafft, sind Seherfahrungen, mit Leibniz gesagt, ein schauendes Denken.

— Kunstforum, Bd.267, May 2020

보따리 트럭–이주(Bottari Truck–Migrateurs) 2007_생 루이 성당 설치 전경 Courtesy of Courtesy of Musée d’Art Contemporain du Val-de-Marne, Kewenig Gallery Berlin, Photo by Jan Liegeois

A Needle Woman Weaves the World - ‘바늘 여인’, 세계를 직조하다, 2020

Kimsooja in conversation with Kim Boggi

2020

  • 글로벌 아티스트 김수자(金守子). 그가 매머드 전시를 열고 있다. 프랑스의 중세도시 푸아티에에서 열리고 있는 비엔날레 형식의 제1회〈트라베르세/김수자 (Traversées/Kimsooja)〉(2019. 10. 12~ 2020. 1. 19). 전시제목인 ‘트라베르세’는 ‘통과(crossing)’ 또는 ‘가로지르기 (traverse)’라는 뜻이다. 전쟁 이주 망명 등 오늘의 ‘글로벌 위기’를 반영하는 주제다. 여기에, 유목(nomad)의 표상인 ‘보따리 작가’ 김수자를 주인공으로 내세웠다. 그는 사운드를 아우르는 장소특정적 설치와 퍼포먼스 오브제 비디오 필름 라이트설치 등 총 15점의 대형 작품을 발표했다. 또 주제에 부합하는 글로벌 작가를 초대하는 큐레이터 역할까지 맡았다. 실로 김수자 예술의 빛나는 무대가 아닐 수 없다. 김수자와 초대작가 14명은 도시 곳곳에 흩어져 있는 13개의 역사적인 기념 건축에 작품을 선보였다. 이 전시에 주목해 작가와 인터뷰를 가졌다. 내용은 크게 두 갈래다. 하나는, 〈트라베르세/김수자〉의 전시 개념과 공간 매핑, ‘글로벌 위기’에 대응하는 개별 작품을 소개했다. 국제적으로 널리 알려진 참여작가 간의 조형적 연계성을 리뷰했다. 또 하나는, 김수자의 ‘관객-주체’ 퍼포먼스, 무지갯빛 스펙트럼, 실재와 가상이 혼재하는 거울 설치 등 근자의 작품에 주목해 그 조형론을 깊게 파고들었다. 그리하여 바느질과 보따리 같은 모국주의 개인사에서 출발해 인간의 존재론 같은 보편적 예술 성취로 이어지는 작품 여정을 조망한다.

  • Art : 김수자는 작년 연말에 뉴욕 스튜디오를 철수했다. 한국으로 캠프를 이동하는 중이다. 작가로서 큰 전기를 맞고 있다. 작가 이전에 자연인으로 본다면, 수구초심(首丘初心)이라고나 할까, 고향으로의 회귀의식이 발동한 것인가. 그 소회를 듣고 싶다.

  • Kim : 수구초심으로 한국으로 돌아온 건 아니고, 그저 한 자연인으로서 나를 필요로 하는 가족의 일원을 돌보기 위해 한국에 와 있을 수밖에 없는 상황이 됐다. 정확하게 말하면 ‘돌아왔다’기보다는 ‘와 있다’고 해야 할 것 같다. 한국에 있다 해도 과연 얼마나 한국에서 산다고 할 수 있을지 모르겠다. 한국선 거의 섬에 살듯이 지내기 때문이다. 나는 오랜 기간 뉴욕에서 화상이나 컬렉터, 미술관의 아무런 지원 없이 주로 유럽의 지원에 의존해 작업해 왔다. 2000년대 이후 점점 상업성이 극으로 치닫고 있는 뉴욕이 더 이상 나에게 의미가 없다고 판단해 떠날 계획을 이미 갖고 있었다.(사실 인텔렉추얼한 측면에서 뉴욕을 아끼는 부분이 아직도 남아 있다. 뉴욕은 역시 내가 그 속에서 죽고 싶은 마지막 도시이다.) 1년 전만 해도 파리를 유럽의 베이스로 삼아 그곳으로 스튜디오를 옮기려 했다. 이번에 근 20년간 거주한(그래 봐야 실제로는 10년도 채 못 살았지만) 뉴욕의 이스트빌리지 아파트 짐을 모두 컨테이너에 실어 프랑스의 푸아티에로 운송하는 새로운 작업 〈보따리 1999-2019〉은 애초 파리에 정착하기 위해 계획된 것이었다. 그런데 그 사이에 한국으로 돌아와야 하는 상황이 벌어진 것이다. 그 이전에 보다 경제적인 도시 베를린으로 옮겨 보려고 6개월간 오가며 지내 봤지만, 정붙이기 어려웠다. 여러 우여곡절도 있었지만, 역시 나는 파리가 수월하다. 프랑스 정부나 자치단체, 그리고 미술관으로부터 많은 지원을 받아 오고 있다.

주제는 ‘트라베르세’, 통과 혹은 가로지르기

  • Art : 이번 인터뷰에서 다룰 중점 사안은 현재 프랑스 중부 도시 푸아티에 전역에서 열리고 있는 대규모 프로젝트 〈트라베르세/김수자(Traversées/Kimsooja)〉다. 우선 ‘트라베르세(traversées)’는 ‘통과(crossing)’ 또는 ‘가로지르기(traverse)’라는 뜻이다. 이게 바로 전시 주제인데, 무엇보다 이 전시의 시스템이 아주 특별하다. 여느 국제전과 달리 한 명의 예술가를 선정해, 그 예술가가 자신의 작품뿐만 아니라 다른 작가들의 작품까지 도시 전역에 전시하는 방식이다. 그 첫 번째 축제의 〈트라베르세〉를 이끄는 주인공으로 김수자가 선정됐다. 그러니까 김수자는 작품 발표뿐만 아니라 큐레이터 역할까지 맡았다. 주연배우와 감독을 겸하는 일이니, 작가로서 이보다 더 큰 영광이 또 있을까 싶다. 푸아티에 예술축제의 설립 배경, 미션과 비전은 무엇인가?

  • Kim : 푸아티에는 파리에서 보르도 방향인 남서쪽으로 1시간 반 거리에 있는 인구 9만 5,000명 정도의 작은 중세도시다. 한국인에게는 다소 생소하지만 한때 프랑스의 수도이기도 했고, 푸아티에 전투로 유명했던 아랍권과의 전쟁 등을 겪으며 끊임없이 외부의 도전을 받았다. 그러니까 실제로 과거에 수많은 주변국가와 그 문화의 트라베르세가 일어났던 곳이다. 또 이 푸아티에 전투로 인해 ‘유럽’이라는 개념이 탄생한 곳으로도 유명하다. 또한 현대미술에 지대한 영향을 미친 프랑스 철학자 미셸 푸코(Michel Foucault)의 탄생지이기도 하며, 종교와 교육도시로도 널리 알려져 있다. 그래서 애초에 40여 명이 참여하는 비엔날레로 기획한 이 프로젝트의 전체 제목이 〈트라베르세〉이고, 초대작가를 한 명으로 압축하여 트라베르세의 의미를 오래 탐구해 온 작가에게 전시 콘텐츠를 전권위임(Carte Blanche)함으로써, 그 첫 에디션의 제목을 〈트라베르세/김수자〉로 시작한 것은 이 비엔날레의 독특한 성격을 대변한다. 특히 도시의 진보적인 정치 성향과 현 시장의 이민과 난민 수용의 포용정책이 프로젝트의 추진 동력이 됐다. 무엇보다 도시 전체를 하나의 무대로 삼아 한 작가의 작업으로 매핑(mapping)할 뿐 아니라, 작가와 이번 전시에 연계될 수 있는 다른 작가의 작업을 초대할 수 있는 권한과 지원을 해 준 것은 세계 어디서도 유례를 찾아볼 수 없는 비엔날레 형식이라고 할 수 있겠다. 〈트라베르세/김수자〉는 푸아티에 시장인 알랭 클래이(Alain Claeys)가 푸아티에 출신이며 전 루브르미술관 관장이자 2015년 한불수교 130주년 기념행사를 총지휘한 앙리 루아레트(Henri Loyrette)의 제의를 받아들임으로써 만들어졌다. 전 퐁피두센터-메스 디렉터이자 현재 팔레드도쿄 관장인 엠마 라비뉴(Emma Lavigne)와 독립큐레이터 엠마누엘 드 몽가종(Emmanuelle de Montgazon)을 공동 예술감독에 임명함으로써 그 첫발을 내딛게 됐다. 시장은 이 행사를 통해 푸아티에를 국제사회와 국제미술의 지형 속에 자리매김한다는 취지와 함께 최근 유럽의 가장 첨예한 이슈인 전쟁, 난민, 이주 문제를 전적으로 포용하는 입장을 표명하고자 했다. 또한 푸아티에에는 매우 흥미로운 콩포르모데른(Confort Moderne)아트센터가 있지만 아직 현대미술관이 없다. 중세도시에 활력을 불어넣을 수 있는 도시의 중심에 자리잡은 상징적인 건물이며 최근까지 법원으로 사용된 아키텐 공국의 궁전(Palais des ducs d’Aquitaine)을 새로운 현대미술 공간으로 전환해 시민에게 선사한다는 의미도 크다.

  • Art : ‘트라베르세’, 이른바 ‘경계 넘기’ ‘가로지르기’는 익히 잘 알려져 있듯이, 그동안 김수자가 견지해 온 작품 주제다. 1992∼93년 뉴욕 PS1창작스튜디오 작업실에서 태동된 〈보따리〉 시리즈 이후 김수자의 작품은 유목(nomad)의 표상으로 세계의 주목을 받았다. 이번 푸아티에 예술 축제에서는 이 트라베르세의 개념이 어떻게 구체적으로 작품에 실현되었는가. 〈보따리〉가 푸아티에라는 사이트에서 어떻게 새롭게 구현되었는가. 전시 내용을 구체적으로 살펴보자.

  • Kim : 우선, 두 명의 공동디렉터는 유서 깊은 중세도시 전체를 하나의 거대한 캔버스로 삼아 작업할 수 있도록 전적으로 나를 믿고 지원하며 〈트라베르세/김수자〉의 길 안내자가 되어 주었다. 나로서는 큰 영광이었다. 또한 푸아티에라는 도시의 ‘열쇠’를 한 작가에게 넘겨줄 수 있는 시장과 디렉터들의 용기와 실험정신이 없었다면, 이런 대규모 비엔날레 형식의 개인/공공 프로젝트가 이처럼 새롭게 탄생될 수는 없었을 것이다. 말 그대로 ‘드림 큐레이터(Dream Curator)팀’이었다.(Curator는 ‘신경쓰다’ ‘돌봐 주다’를 뜻하는 라틴어 ‘curare’에서 나왔다.) 우선 트라베르세라는 타이틀을 받았을 때, 국제적인 지형도에서 제일 먼저 떠오른 아이디어는 그동안 내가 오래 계획해 온 유럽으로의 베이스 이동, 특히 뉴욕에서 파리로의 이주를 실행할 가장 적절한 시점이라는 것이었다. 나의 삶 자체를 옮기는 작업인 〈보따리 1999-2019〉는 지난 20년간 살아온 뉴욕 이스트빌리지의 아파트에 쌓인 나의 일상생활의 모든 짐을 오방색 컨테이너에 싣고 푸아티에로 옮겨 피난처로서의 상징성을 지닌 성당(Cathedrale de Saint-Pierre) 앞에 내려놓는 여정이었다. 반면 푸아티에 도시 내의 지형도는 팔레(Palais des ducs d’Aquitaine)를 중심축으로 십자를 그으며 구도시와 맞닿는다는 생각으로 팔레로부터 매핑을 했다. 그래서 팔레의 중심에 〈마음의 기하학(Archive of Mind)>을 설치해 시민이 함께 모이는 중심축으로 상정했고, 구도심을 관통하는 오래 닫힌 팔레의 문을 열어 중세부터 중심 길이었던 카테드랄 길(rue de Cathedrale)을 통과해 성십자미술관(Musée Saint-Croix)과 콩포르모데른 아트센터에 이르는 긴 산책로의 좌우측 군데군데에 산재한 성당과 교육시설, 회랑 등 도시의 역사적 건물들을 문맥에 따라 경험하도록 계획했다. 각 사이트가 전체와 서로 연계를 가지면서도 각기 하나의 시각적 의미론적 중심으로서 내러티브를 갖도록 했다.

  • Art : 《e-flux》에 실린 컨테이너 〈보따리 1999-2019〉가 인상적이다. 한국의 보따리가 컨테이너로 치환된 작품이다. 한마디로 보따리의 변주인데, 이 작품의 함의가 대단히 중요하다. 이주 이동 유목의 의미를 담고 있는 보따리라는 이름을 유지하면서도 실제 보따리 형상은 컨테이너로 바뀌었다. 보따리의 ‘문화 번역’이라고 해야 할까. 컨테이너 표면은 5가지 원소(목 화 토 금 수)를 표상하는 한국의 전통 오방색으로 색띠를 그려 넣었다. 보따리의 원천을 유지하면서도 실제 작가 자신의 이주 상황을 그대로 드러내는, 그래서 리얼리티가 강한 작품으로 보였다. 사실 2016년부터 〈연역적 오브제〉라는 입체작품을 발표했는데, 이 역시 색동천의 변주가 아닌가. 강철을 용접한 난형(卵形)의 형태에 기본 방향(동 남 중앙 서 북)과 전통 오방색으로 아주 현대적으로 입체화한 작품으로 보인다.

  • 〈보따리 1999-2019〉는 지난 8월 말 뉴욕의 짐을 컨테이너에 실어 푸아티에로 보내면서 말 그대로대서양을 횡단해 설치한 작품이다.

  • Art : 김수자는 큐레이터 자격으로 일본의 타다시 가와마타(Tadashi Kawamata), 인도의 수보드 굽타(Subodh Gupta)를 초대했다. 이 작가들은 우리나라에서도 개인전을 개최한 바 있고, 세계적으로도 널리 알려져 있다. 또 콩고의 새미 발로지(Sammy Baloji)도 참가했다. 그 외 초대작가와 김수자 작품과의 개연성이랄까, 이번 전시 프로젝트와의 관련성에서 들여다보는 일이 중요할 것 같다.

  • Kim : 이번 전시에서 개인적으로 대단히 흥미로웠고 영감을 준 요소는 내가 이번 테마와 연계되는, 혹은 나의 작업과 연계되는 다른 동료작가를 초대해, 내 작업과의 연계성을 공유하며 〈트라베르세〉의 의미를 심화하고 확장하는 과정이었다. 예를 들자면, 나는 타다시 가와마타의 작업을 남성적 직조 행위로 본다. 그의 작업은 내가 2010년부터 진행해 오고 있는 〈실의 궤적(Thread Routes)〉 16mm 필름 프로젝트를 맨 처음 발상할 당시인 2002년, 벨기에의 브루주(Brugge)에서 보빈 레이스(Bobbin Lace)를 짜고 있는 한 여성을 보면서 바로 병치하게 된 남성적 직조 행위로서의 건축 행위를 연상시킨다. 텍스타일에서 여성적 직조 행위와 건축에서 남성적 직조 행위는 그동안 내가 〈실의 궤적〉 필름 속에 병치해 왔다. 이러한 건축적 요소를 이번에 팔레의 입구 기둥에 설치한 가와마타의 〈둥지〉를 통해 물리적으로 잘 병치할 수 있었다.

메인 작가와 큐레이터를 겸하다

  • Art : 가와마타는 기존의 건축에 기생하는 나무로 된 집 혹은 둥지 같은 형상의 설치작품을 통해 구축과 해체의 모호한 풍경을 연출한다. 시작도 끝도 아닌, 일종의 이항대립의 중간지대와 같은 차원은 마치 김수자의 〈보따리〉가 이제 막 떠나려는 상황과 이제 막 도착한 상황, 그 두 상황의 사이 혹은 공존과도 통한다.

  • Kim : 공감한다. 관객들이 가와마타의 〈둥지〉를 지나 팔레 내부로 들어가면 중심에 설치된 〈마음의 기하학〉(2019)을 체험할 수 있다. 여기서 보따리와 구(球)로의 이행을 보다 더 구체적이고 물리적으로, 또 심리학적으로 이해하게 된다. 이것은 지적한 대로 형식적으로 하나의 가능태로서의 보따리가 형성과 해체의 가능성을 공유하고 있는 동시에 이 전시가 강조하는 중요한 요소인 ‘환대와 보호(Hospitality and Protection)’라는 측면, 즉 미셀 푸코가 말하는 헤테로토피아(Heterotopia)의 특수한 장소성을 가지면서도 질 들뢰즈(Gilles Deleuze)가 말하는 환대와 환영의 의미를 동시에 지닌다. 그래서 이번 전시의 첫 입구에 가와마타의 작업을 선보였다. 전시의 중심축이 되는 18m 길이의 타원형 테이블 위에서의 퍼포먼스 〈마음의 기하학〉은 팔레 내의 다른 두 설치, 과거 재판관들의 개인 사무실 공간이었던 투르 모베르종(Tour Maubergeon)의 〈숨쉬기(To Breathe)〉 거울과 숨소리 설치에서 다시 아치형 천장과 그 구조의 반사로 인해 조성된 타원형의 가상적 공간을 만든다.

  • Art : 김수자 예술에서 퍼포먼스의 중요성을 빼놓을 없다. 흔히 ‘작가-주체’의 퍼포먼스로는 〈바늘 여인〉이나 〈빨래하는 여인〉처럼 작가 스스로를 공간의 축이자 시간의 축으로 설정하는 작품이 있다. 그런데 근자의 〈마음의 기하학〉에서는 ‘관객-주체’의 퍼포먼스로 이동했다. 〈마음의 기하학〉은 많은 사람이 작은 찰흙 구(球)를 빚어 텅 빈 거대한 타원형 테이블을 채우는 작업이다. 단순히 관객 참여형이라고만 평가하기에는 작품의 의미가 대단히 깊고 넓다. 작품의 주제가우주라든가 우리 인간의 존재론과 같은 문제로 이동했다. 각기 다른 사람이 만들어 낸 각기 다른 형태의 찰흙 구는 인간의 마음이라는 소우주이고, 그 소우주가 모여 은하수와 같은 대우주를 만들어 낸다. 여기에 우주의 소리를 연상시키는 사운드 〈구의 궤적〉이 조합된다. ‘오디오 퍼포먼스’라고 해야 할까. 결국 촉각 시각 청각이 총동원되는 작품이다.

  • Kim : 팔레에는 특별히 이번에 푸아티에시에서 커미션하여 모로코에서 새로 제작한 아프리카 챕터인 〈실의 궤적 Vl〉과 함께 전체 프로젝트의 하나의 센터로서 각기 다른 형식(설치 퍼포먼스 사운드 필름 라이트)으로 전체 프로젝트의 스펙트럼을 대변하게끔 설치하였다. 또한 가와마타의 〈터널〉은 오랜 세월 막혀 있던 구도시로 통로를 열어 주는 매개 작업이었다. 이렇게 다다른 카테드랄 길은 2012년 런던올림픽 때 참가국으로만 제작된 〈숨쉬기: 깃발〉 이후 국가를 상징하는 모든 존재하는 국기를(공식적이든 비공식적이든 차별 없이 알파벨 순서로, 여기서 남한과 북한의 국기가 오브랩된다) 사용해 재편집한 비디오 작업에서 추출한 이미지들로 초국가적 깃발을 제작해, 카테드랄 길을 따라 컨테이너 보따리가 있는 생피에르 성당까지 설치되어 뮤지엄 쪽으로 안내하게 된다. 여기서 또 시리아 난민의 도착 장소 중 하나이고 근년에 가장 회자되었던 그리스의 레스보아 섬에서 발견한 난민의 구명조끼로 제작한, 그리스 작가이자 건축가 아킬레아스 수라스(Achilleas Souras)의 돔 형식의 설치 〈SOS(Save our Souls)〉를 만나게 된다. 바다 내음과 소금기가 그대로 묻어 있는 이 작업은 성탄절 전날 밤 설치 일부가 불에 타는 안타까운 일이 발생했다. 좀 더 지켜봐야겠지만 현 시점의 유럽과 프랑스의 여러 정치 종교 사회적 문제를 암시한다고 생각한다. 결국 이 사건은 불안정한 시대를 대변하는 이 작업의 의미를 더욱 강화하는 사건이 됐다.

  • Art : 구명조끼를 작품에 끌어들이는 다른 작가도 있지만, 아킬레아스 수라스의 경우 건축가여서인지 단순히 구명조끼를 난민의 상징으로 외형적으로 돋보이게 하기보다는 대단히 구축적인 조형이 돋보인다. 가와마타의 작품 〈둥지〉와 〈터널〉과도 구조적으로 잘 어울린다.

  • Kim : 19세의 젊은 그리스 건축가 아킬레아스 수라스의 작업 역시 이민과 난민의 문제, 또 환대의 문제를 제기한다. 나는 그의 작업과 〈보따리〉의 의미와 형식적 유형을 여기서 또 한번 연계하면서 내용적 유사성을 제시했다. 내가 초대한 작가들에게서는 여타의 유사한 재료를 쓰거나 작업을 하는 작가들에게 흔히 발견되는 오리지널리티에 대한 의문은 들지 않았다. 그 의미의 진정성과 형식과 내용의 일관성 때문이다. 일단 뮤지엄 광장에 들어서면 리크리트 티라바냐(Rirkrit Travanija)의 수직수평 구조로 대나무를 사용한 건축적 미로와 중심에 위치한 찻집 설치와 다도(茶道)를 아우른 작업 〈무제(the infinite dimension of smallness)〉(2018) 역시 그가 오래 유지해 온 헤테로토피아적 공간 제시와 환대를 대변하는 나눔의 퍼포먼스의 연장선에 있는 작업이다.

  • Art : 이번 프로젝트에 입체 설치작품 이외에 퍼포먼스의 비중도 높은 것 같다. 리밍웨이(Lee Mingwei)의 〈수선 프로젝트〉는 한눈에 봐도 김수자의 작품과 연결된다. 바느질, 이른바 직조라는 개념인데, 남성작가의 바느질이 흥미롭다.

  • Kim : 미술관 내부에 설치한 리밍웨이의 〈수선 프로젝트〉 역시 비폭력주의와 환대 내지는 관용적 태도와 맥을 같이 하는 남성의 바느질 작업이다. 그의 작업은 전자의 남성적 직조라기보다는 여성성에 기초한 남성의 직조로 보이는 러빙 케어(Loving Care)의 의미를 늘 추구하고 있다. 그의 예술적 접근 역시 비폭력주의와 나눔, 포용, 그리고 상처 치유와 통합과 하모니를 추구한다. 그런 점에서 내 작업과 맥락이 가까이 다가와 있다. 그러한 일련의 접근은 미술관 2층에 설치된 〈실의 궤적 l, ll, lll〉에서 바느질, 마름질, 염색, 레이스 뜨기, 직조, 쿠킹, 노마딕 생활상과 각 챕터의 지역성에 기초한 역사적 건축물과 자연과 현지의 수공예적 감수성과 미학의 병치를 통해 종합적으로 통합되어 선보인다. 콩고 출신의 작가 세미 발로지 역시 구리 탄피를 녹여 십자가를 만드는 일련의 과정과 그 십자가를 목에 매단 교회의 소년합창단을 통해 과거 콩고의 식민지배의 역사와 문화를 성스러운 안무와도 같은 필름과 설치작업 〈Tales of the Copper Cross Garden〉(2017)에 담아냈다. 폭력을 치유로 전환시키고 있는 이 작가의 작업 역시 나의 감수성과 방향성과 결을 함께한다고 생각된다.

  • Art : 식기를 소재로 삼아 다양한 입체 설치작품을 펼치는 인도작가 수보드 굽타는 이번에 요리 퍼포먼스로 각광을 받았다.

  • Kim : 굽타는 푸아티에 건축센터(Maison d’Architecture)에서 오래된 부엌의 소스팬과 냄비 등을 이용하여 하나의 투과성 있는 독특한 집을 만들고 그 안을 부엌 겸 식당으로 꾸며 인도음식 퍼포먼스 〈요리 세계〉(2017)를 펼쳤다. 작가가 관객과 대화하며 본인의 레시피를 가미한 인도의 거리음식을 나누는 퍼포먼스는 문화적 건축적 미학적이었고, 이식된 공동체를 오감과 함께 느낄 수 있는 풍부한 경험이었다. 나 역시 2018년 중국의 인촨비엔날레(Yinchuan Biennale)에서 시도한 장소특정적인 죽(porridge) 프로젝트를 푸아티에 현지 조건에 맞추어 실행하고 싶었지만, 10여 개의 프로젝트를 준비하느라 겨를이 없어 포기했다. 굽타와 한 공간의 블랙박스에 나는 뭄바이의 슬럼가와 공공빨래터 도비갓(dhobighat), 또 인산인해를 이루며 기차로 출퇴근하는 모습을 담은 〈뭄바이: 빨래터〉(2007)를 병치했다. 인도의 문화와 사회적 현주소를 편견 없이 있는 그대로 보여 주어 시너지 효과를 가져 온 프로젝트였다. 사실 이 작업은 나의 이불보 설치작업의 연장으로 보면 된다. 한편 유럽에서 가장 오래된 세례성당(Baptistère Saint-Jean)에서는 한국의 국악인 정마리가 정가를 불렀다. 지고한 순수미와 독특한 창법으로 〈영속하는 기쁨의 노래〉를 60분간 쉼 없이 노래하며 관객 모두에게 명상과 초월적 경험을 선사했다. 끊일 둣 이어지는 그녀의 숨막힐 듯 가녀린 목소리의 풀림은 마치 직조행위를 비물질화하여 바라보는 것 같은 연상작용을 불러일으켰다. 나는 그녀의 소리를 이 프로젝트의 미학적 정점에 놓고 싶었다.

오방색 스펙트럼, 우주의 빛

  • Art : 이번에도 무지갯빛 효과를 자아내는 빛 작업을 선보였다. 김수자가 빛을 작품에 끌어들인 것은 2006년 스페인의 마드리드 크리스털 궁전의 설치작품 〈숨쉬기–거울여인〉(2016)에 이어 2013년 베니스비엔날레 한국관에서였다. 유리창에 회절격자 필름을 부착해 빛이 스며들면 무지갯빛 효과를 낼 수 있다. 전시공간은 마치 우주와 같은 스펙터클한 환경으로 바뀐다. 김수자가 비물질을 작품 재료로 끌어들인 것은 획기적인 변화다. 베니스에서는 빛이 스며드는 공간과는 대조적으로 빛과 소리가 완전히 차단된 적막한 공간을 조성하기도 했다. 외부 공간을 내부로 끌어들이는 빛 작업이 지속되고 있다. 빛을 작품에 끌어들이는 근본적인 이유는? 빛은 김수자 예술에서 어떤 역할을 맡고 있는가?

  • Kim : 이 답변을 위해서는 색의 스펙트럼 이상의 의미를 갖고 있는 오방색과 십자, 보따리에 대한 내 생각을 먼저 이야기하는 것이 순서다. 근 40년 가까이 내가 끊임없이 실험해 온 지속적인 문제 중 하나는 화가로서의 시각을 견지하며 질문해 온 캔버스의 표면(surface), 나아가 경계(border), 캔버스를 지탱하고 있는 십자구조이다. 이 십자구조는 1980년 홍익대 대학원 졸업논문으로 발표했던 〈조형기호의 유전성–십자형 기호를 중심으로〉에서도 다루었다. 나는 칼 구스타브 융(Carl Gustav Jung, 1875∼961)의 만다라에서 보인 마음의 원형(Archive of Mind)에서 그 구조적 심리적 근원을 찾았다. 십자는 고대부터 현대에 이르기까지 구조적으로도 많은 작가가 거치지 않을 수 없는 터널과도 같은 것이다. 색의 기본적인 스펙트럼으로서의 오방색은 그 방향성과 계절, 맛과 물질의 성질을 포함하는 우주의 스펙트럼이라고 해야 옳다. 이보다 더 풍부한 의미를 내포하는 색의 정의가 있을까.

  • Art : 예나 지금이나 화가에게 색채에 대한 물음은 결국 그 시작과 끝이 빛의 세계로 귀결된다. 무지갯빛의 스펙트럼은 결과는 비물질이지만, 실상 회절격자의 물질이 매개가 된 것이다. 김수자가 보여 준 물질과 비물질이라는 이중구조에의 관심에서 본다면 당연한 귀결이라고 할 수 있다. 그렇다. 기본적으로 바로 이 오방색(빛에 내재하는)과 십자구조인 회절격자 필름의 만남이 내가

  • Kim : 사용하는 무지개 스펙트럼의 핵심이다. 이 필름은 1cm에 거의 수천 개의 수직수평 스크래치로 긁혀져 특수 제작된 것이다. 거의 나노스케일이어서 눈에 감지되지 않지만, 그 자체로 하나의 투명한 천이다. 나의 작업 그 자체라고 해도 과언이 아니다. 이 필름이 유리창에 부착되어 외부의 빛을 통과할 때 유리창 면과 하나가 된 필름 표면은 프리즘처럼 빛을 굴절시킨다. 결국 유리창은 하나의 빛의 타블로인 셈이다. 날씨 변화에 따라 빛을 호흡하고 변주하면서 벽과 바닥, 또는 천장과 사람의 신체에 빛의 페인팅을 실현하는 것이다. 이때 바닥에 설치된 거울은 또 한번의 반사굴절로 내부 공간을 무지갯빛으로 물들인다. 이 필름이 부착된 표면을 처음 사용할 때는 투명하고 아름다운 구조의 궁전 건축물 자체를 아무런 오브제도 설치하지 않고 하나의 ‘보따리로 싼다’는 개념이었다. 여기에서 바닥의 거울도 보따리 천에 해당된다. 허의 공간을 건축 표면까지 밀어낸 것, 즉 공(vide)의 공간과 나의 숨소리(삶과 죽음의 경계로서의)가 바로 보따리의 구조물이 됐던 것이다. 관람객들은 기존 보따리의 상징적인 인물인 헌옷 대신 살아 있는 퍼포머로 그 안에 싸여지는 것이다. 또 바닥의 거울설치를 통해 그 건축물마저도 이중성을 갖게 되며 하나의 완전성인 구(球)를 지향하는 것이다.

  • Art : 반사의 매개체인 거울은 실제와 가상이 혼재하는 확장된 공간을 만들어 내고 있다. 투과성을 띠는 빛과 함께 거울을 자주 사용하는 이유는?

  • Kim : 거울을 처음 사용한 것은 하랄트 제만이 감독을 맡았던 1999년 제48회 베니스비엔날레의 본전시 아페르투토(d’Aperttuto)에서였다. 그때의 거울은 코소보 난민에게 헌정한 〈아페르투토, 혹은 보따리트럭(d’Aperttuto, or Bottari Truck in Exile)〉(1999)을 위한 하나의 가상의 길을 여는 작업이자 동시에 아르세날레의 전체 공간을 거울로 싸서 보여 주는 보따리 작업이었다. 거울의 운용은 그때그때 사이트가 요구하는 질문에 응답하며 새로운 개념을 만들어 왔다. 돌이켜 보면, 젊은 시절로 거슬러 올라간다. 내가 1979년에 지금은 없어진 그로리치화랑에서 동료 이윤동 작가와 〈호흡전〉이라는 2인전을 열었다. 그때 창호지를 제거한 한국 가옥의 투명한 격자구조의 문짝을 들고 서서 홍익대 뒷쪽 와우산을 배경으로 일련의 퍼포먼스 사진(흥미롭게도 그때 입었던 스커트가 무지개 색의 사선으로 된 줄무늬 스커트였다)을 흑백 네거티브로 프린트한 투명필름을 빨랫줄에 걸어 한 공간에 설치했다. 또 검은 카펫이 깔려 있던 갤러리 바닥에는 지름 10~15cm 정도의 두 개의 길고 가는 나무둥지를 거의 40~50cm 간격으로 잘라 조금씩 어긋나게 드로잉을 하고, 그 어긋난 나이테 사이에 30cm 정방형의 투명 플렉시글라스를 끼워 넣었던 설치작업이 있었다. 지금 생각하면 그것이 바늘땀이었던 것 같다. 수직수평의 개념도 함축되어 있었고. 내가 회화의 평면성을 질문하던 그때부터 투명성에 관심을 갖게 된 것 같다. 필름의 투명성이나 투과성, 나 자신과 세상을 비추는 거울의 상징적 투명성과 대상성에 관심을 가지고 있었던 것이다. 최근에는 푸아티에의 거울 작업처럼 있는 그대로의 특정 공간의 바닥에 거울을 설치해 공간의 구조를 거울이라는 경계를 통해 재해석하기도 하고, 관객을 의도되지 않은 자율적인 퍼포머로 바라보기도 한다. 또한 10폭 거울 병풍을 새로운 회화 형식으로 제시하기도 했다. 거울은 아직도 나의 조형적 질문의 대상이다. 앞으로도 새로운 개념이 발견될 것만 같은 거울을 기회 있을 때마다 지속적으로 실험할 계획이다.

  • Art : ‘경계 넘기’ ‘가로지르기’는 1990년대 광주비엔날레의 ‘경계를 넘어서’ 같은 주제나, 1993년 베니스비엔날레에서 보니토 올리버가 내세웠던 ‘유목성’ 같은 주제를 떠올린다.김수자의 〈보따리〉가 이 시기에 태동된 것은 참으로 절묘하다. 이 시기의 경계나 노마드는 글로벌리제이션으로 쏠려 있다. 동서 냉전 이데올로기의 해체 이후 복합문화주의의 도래, 비서구권 미술의 약진 등 여러 환경 변화와도 밀접한 관계를 맺고 있다.

  • Kim : 보따리가 1992년에 탄생했다고 할 때, 노마디즘이나 글로벌리즘의 이슈가 미술과 사회에 거의 동시에 등장했다는 것은 매우 흥미롭다. 단지 내 작업에서의 유목적 특성은 지극히 개인적인 가족사에 기인하며, 그 당시 글로벌리즘은 생각조차 하지 않았다. 그리고 나는 어떤 ‘이즘(ism)’ 등의 프레임워크에는 현재까지도 별 관심이 없다. 보따리는 한순간 직관적으로 발견된 것이지만, 하나의 전체(totality)로서 그 안에 논리적 형식적 내용과 삶의 본질적인 철학과 정서가 내포되어 있기 때문에 지속성을 가지고 진화할 수 있었다고 생각한다. 다만 보는 이의 관점이 낭만적일 때 작업도 더 낭만적으로 보일 것이고, 그것이 더 이상 낭만적일 수 없는 시점에서의 감상은 보다 리얼해 보일 것이다.

  • Art : 돌이켜보면, 1992년 〈보따리〉가 나오면서 김수자의 작가적 행보가 급속하게 분주해졌다. ‘물꼬가 터졌다’는 말은 이럴 때 사용해야 하리라. 1995년 베니스비엔날레 특별전 〈호랑이 꼬리〉, 1995년 광주비엔날레, 1996년 도쿄국립근대미술관의 한일교류전 〈1990년대 한국미술 이야기〉 등에서 ‘보따리의 변주’가 이어졌다. 보따리야말로 천변만화의 가변성을 지닌 입체 구조다. 묶기/풀기, 닫음/열림, 구축/해체, 수직성/수평성, 3차원/2차원, 긴장/이완, 수축/팽창, 채움/비움, 정지/이동 등의 조형 체계와 사유의 임의성을 지니고 있다. 이불보를 바닥에 가지런히 깔거나, 테이블보로 설치하거나, 빨랫줄에 널듯이 걸거나…. 〈보따리〉는 이 다양한 얼굴이 무엇보다 매력이다. 1997년에 〈떠도는 도시들-보따리 트럭 2727km〉를 제작하고, 그 이후 1999년부터 〈바늘 여인〉〈빨래하는 여인〉 시리즈가 이어졌다. 〈바늘 여인〉은 서영희가 지적했듯이 “자신이 바늘(수직축)이 되어 세계의 도시와 인파의 층(수평축)을 거듭 관통하며 시공간을 넘어 기억과 체험을 하나로 연결한 작업이다.” 각 대륙의 8개 도시를 방문하면서 〈바늘 여인〉 시리즈를 이어 갔다. 긴 머리를 동여맨 김수자의 뒷모습이 등장한다. 이 뒷모습은 천상 바늘로 보인다. 1999년 김수자는 뉴욕으로 삶의 무대를 옮겼다. 작품도 작가도 이동, 이주가 본격화되었다.

  • Kim : 때때로 글로벌리즘의 이슈로 읽히기도 했던 〈바늘 여인(1999∼2001)의 첫 번째 시리즈는 마침 9.11테러가 일어난 바로 그날도 뉴욕 MoMA PS1 개인전에서 전시 중이었다. 그 이후 이라크전쟁 발발과 함께 전 세계가 불신과 증오와 혼란에 빠지고 이슬람권과 기독교권과의 대립이 심화된 상황은 나의 작업에도 영향을 미쳤다. 그래서 시작한 첫 작업이 지금은 사라진 뉴욕의 전설적인 갤러리 더프로젝트(The Project)에서 처음 선보였던 〈Mandala: Zone of Zero〉(2004)였다. 이 작품에는 이라크전쟁에 대한 비판적인 시각이 암묵적으로 깔려 있고, 동시에 세계의 평화와 화합을 암시하는 작업으로 부시(Bush)정책의 폭력성에 대한 발언을 담았다. 키치한 미국의 겜블링 오브제 상점에서 착상한 주크박스 스피커 3개에 티벳과 그레고리언, 그리고 애초엔 이슬람의 성가들이 각각 푸른 벽의 공간에 섞여 다소 혼란스러운 불협화음이 나도록 병치시킨 설치였다. 하지만 실상 이 불협한 세계의 종교와 이념을 모아 들어보면, 매우 공평하고 조화롭다고 생각하게 되지 않는가. 거의 베이스와 바리톤, 그리고 테너의 성악적 체계가 공존하며 나름의 음색으로 대화하듯이 조화로운 코러스를 이룬다. 이번 〈트라베르세/김수자〉에서도 싱글 주크박스에 3개의 성가가 혼합되어 들리도록 제작한 싱글채널 에디션을 콩포르모데른(Confort Moderne) 아트센터에 선보였다. 현재 로마의 21세기미술관 MAXXI에서도 다른 에디션이 선보이고 있고, 시애틀아시아미술관(Seattle Asian Art Museum)에서도 곧 초기 에디션이 동시 다발적으로 선보이게 된다. 이제야 이 작업이 제도권에서 폭넓게 받아들여지고 있다고 생각한다.

글로벌 위기, 어떻게 대응하는가

  • Art : T. J. 디모스 같은 이론가는 1980, 90년대의 진행되었던 글로벌리제이션 속의 현대미술의 패러다임은 대단히 로맨틱한 ‘노마디즘’이었다고 간주하는 한편, 2000년대에 와서는 글로벌리제이션에 의해 일어났던 다양한 갈등을 되묻는 물음으로 패러다임이 변했다고 주장한다. 그는 9.11이후의 상황을 ‘글로벌 위기(Crisis Globalization)’이라 부르고, 그것이 내포하는 여러 모순과 아티스트들의 실천 관계를 묻는다. 그것은 오늘의 세계 상황에 대한 미술의 대응이라 요약할 수 있다. 국경을 뛰어넘는 자본주의 경제의 끊임없는 유동, 정보기술의 발전으로 태어난 글로벌 사회는 냉전 종식과 함께 세계 질서의 새로운 유토피아를 꿈꾸었지만, 그 꿈은 결과적으로 무너지고 있다. 이 와중에 진행되었던 경제 불균형의 확대, 난민의 증가, 새로운 정치적 대립은 서구중심주의에서 벗어나 글로벌 아트를 지향해 왔던 아티스트와 큐레이터들의 활동에도 큰 영향을 미쳤다. 작금은 글로벌한 규모로 이동하는 삶의 양태 그 자체, 이를테면 망명, 디아스포라, 난민에 개입해 상상력을 갖춘 비판적 도큐멘터리로서의 아트가 전면에 나왔다. 2017년의 카셀도쿠멘타(여기에 김수자의 〈보따리〉가 출품되었다), 2018년 광주와 부산의 비엔날레에서도 크게 보면, ‘글로벌 위기’가 주제였다. 여기서, 좀 거칠게 묻는다. ‘트라베르세’ 혹은 김수자의 작품은 오늘의 세계 상황에 어떻게 대응하는가.

  • Kim : T. J. 디모스의 해석에 공감한다. 2005년 베니스비엔날레 본전시 프로젝트를 위해 〈바늘 여인〉의 두 번째 시리즈를 제작할 때, 나는 첫 번째 시리즈(1999~2001)와 달리 세계의 중심적 대도시가 아니라 경제적 종교적 정치적 문화적 충돌이 발생하는 각 대륙의 문제의 도시와 후기식민주의 문제를 안고 있던 도시를 찾아 나섰다. 그럴 필요를 강력하게 느꼈다. 첫 번째 퍼포먼스를 통해 세계가 무엇으로 고통받고 있는지 내 눈으로 확인했다면, 9.11 이후에 폭력과 대립이 만연한 전 세계의 이중삼중의 충돌현상, 그 혼란의 파고를 목격했기 때문이었다. 이렇듯 나는 현 시대에 살며 한 개인사에서 출발해 확장된 인간의 조건들에 천착해 왔다. 세계에 던지는 나의 존재론적 질문들, 혹은 정치사회적 인류학적 질문들은 언제나 비폭력과 평화, 정의와 진실, 사랑과 화해, 즉 휴머니즘과 유토피아 정신에 뿌리를 두고 있다고 말할 수 있다.

  • Art : 앞으로 작품 활동 계획은?

  • Kim : 뉴욕 스튜디오의 짐도 한국으로 돌아오고 있다. 새로운 스튜디오도 마련해야 하는데 뜻대로 할 수 있을지 아직은 모든 것이 불확실하다. 늘 불확정적인 삶을 살아서인지 스튜디오가 없어도 걱정되지 않는다. 현재도 뉴욕에서 일하는 어시스턴트가 있고 오랫동안 일해 온 협업자들이 있다. 파리는 파리대로 일을 도와주는 어시스턴트가 있어 모든 프랑스 프로젝트를 현지의 협업자들과 함께 일하고 있다. 한국에서도 협업자를 찾고 있다. 한국을 기반으로 멀리 여행하지 않아도 할 수 있는, 그동안 관심을 가졌던 아시아 지역을 중심으로 한 프로젝트를 펼치고 싶다. 사실 그동안 글로벌하게 협업자들과 일해서 어디를 가더라도 더 이상 거주지가 문제시되지는 않는다. 앞으로 한국 관객들과 더 자주 만나고 참여하며, 작업 외에 한국 미술계의 발전을 위해 내가 할 수 있는 역할을 조금이라도 할 수 있으면 좋겠다. 그간 잘 뒤쫓아 가지 못했던 한국미술도 좀 속속들이 보고 싶다. 늘 낯설고 쉽지 않지만 한국에 조금씩 적응해 봐야 할 것 같다.

— Art in Culture, January 2020

Left, South Korean artist Kimsooja with one of her To Breathe installations at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, UK. Right, Kimsooja’s To Breathe in the chapel at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Photography: Harry Mitchell

“Mirror image: Kimsooja’s self-reflective installations take over the French city of Poitiers”

Andy Saint Louis

2019

  • For more than 25 years, South Korean artist Kimsooja has focused her practice on a specific element in her country’s visual culture: the bottari, a colourful bundle of cloth used to wrap and transport items by hand. It is a traditional and timeless component of life in Korea, where bottari fabrics are often recycled from old silk bedcovers, a repurposing that inverts domestic and public spheres, conventional gender roles and power structures. It is in this context that Kimsooja began using this material in her work: ‘I’ve always started from my own reality and my own culture,’ she says. ‘It’s not that I like them, necessarily. I use them because it’s my reality.’

  • Kimsooja (who goes by a single-word name, in defiance of cultural conventions) has spent the better part of the past two decades peripatetically, based between New York, Paris and Seoul, and realising projects around the world. Her meditative works explore the self, the other, and the narratives woven through life’s journeys. ‘The whole world I was viewing has been, in a way, wrapping and unwrapping the bottari,’ she reflects. Across sculpture, installation, performance and video, the bottari has served as a visual metaphor for the artist’s own decentred existence and a longer history of human transience, migration and now displacement in a globalised society.

  • This year, the 62-year-old artist has translated the handheld bottari to an urban scale, wrapping the French city of Poitiers in a bundle of public art installations that activate its medieval architecture and foreground its rich history. Traversées is a sprawling contemporary art event in this old Roman town southwest of Paris, where Kimsooja inaugurates a new ten- year cultural and urban heritage initiative. More than a dozen works by the artist transform the city’s historic sites into sensorial experiences.

  • ‘We wanted to put the city in motion, starting from its iconic sites of memory while looking to the future, which Kimsooja understood perfectly,’ explains the event’s co-artistic director Emmanuelle de Montgazon. ‘This constellation of works resonates together and allows visitors to chart their own course.’

  • As the birthplace of Michel Foucault, Poitiers is an apt locale for an in- depth presentation of Kimsooja’s work. The influential 20th-century philosopher’s premise of heterotopia – a socio-cultural space of otherness theorised as a self-contained ‘world within a world’ that exists in parallel to our lived experience – seems a fitting description of Kimsooja’s bottari. The organisers of Traversées were drawn to the duality conveyed by Kimsooja’s works: ‘They exist only in relation to the places they take over, but they come with a very strong introspective dimension, says de Montgazon. ‘They belong as much to their own history as to the history of the places and people to which they are addressed.’

  • Kimsooja was originally drawn to bottari in 1992, during an artist residency in New York at PS1 Contemporary Art Center. She adopted it as a colourful, readymade, three-dimensional canvas and alternative platform for art-making that she quickly expanded in multiple directions. ‘I also started working in video, considering the video frame as a wrapping method – wrapping the world or wrapping nature – rather than image- making,’ she recalls. A representative series of her video performance works, collectively titled A Needle Woman (1999-2001), depicts the artist standing motionless in the midst of busy pedestrian thoroughfares around the world, with her back to the camera. In these simple yet compelling works, her body acts as a needle, the unceasing flow of passers-by serving to wrap her stationary form. For Kimsooja, video offers ‘an immaterial way of wrapping the reality of the world’.

  • In 2006, Kimsooja received a commission from the Museo Nacional de Reina Sofía in Madrid in which she introduced a different approach to wrapping reality: a site-specific installation at the city’s iron-and-glass Crystal Palace, built in 1887. Titled To Breathe: A Mirror Woman (2006), this large-scale architectural intervention covered the building’s glass exterior with a translucent film that diffracts white light into a spectrum of colours, swathing the interior space in an ethereal prismatic environment. A floor-covering of mirrors multiplied the refractions, completely enveloping the audience in her luminous bottari.

  • Similar bottaris of light and sound were subsequently unveiled at the 55th in 2013 (where Kimsooja represented her country at the Korean Pavilion) and earlier this year at the . In Yorkshire, Kimsooja transformed the art centre’s 18th-century chapel into a vertiginous space of reflection, both literally and metaphorically, softening the solid interior surfaces of its historic masonry, to convey a lightness that contrasted with its rigid exterior. In Poitiers, she unveils her first mirror installations to be exhibited in France, including one that reveals the stunning vaulted ceiling of the Maubergeon tower in the medieval Palais des Ducs d’Aquitaine.

  • Similar bottaris of light and sound were subsequently unveiled at the 55th in 2013 (where Kimsooja represented her country at the Korean Pavilion) and earlier this year at the . In Yorkshire, Kimsooja transformed the art centre’s 18th-century chapel into a vertiginous space of reflection, both literally and metaphorically, softening the solid interior surfaces of its historic masonry, to convey a lightness that contrasted with its rigid exterior. In Poitiers, she unveils her first mirror installations to be exhibited in France, including one that reveals the stunning vaulted ceiling of the Maubergeon tower in the medieval Palais des Ducs d’Aquitaine.

  • For Traversées, Kimsooja approaches the city of Poitiers as a tapestry, its medieval streets and historic sites forming paths that intersect, converge and separate as visitors trace their own journeys while traversing its contours. Not only are her works installed throughout the city, but she has invited an array of other creators – among them composer Myriam Boucher, choreographer Min Tanaka, and artists , Tadashi Kawamata and Rirkrit Tiravanija – to contribute to the project, incorporating their own threads to the warp and weft of Kimsooja’s cultural fabric. §

— Wallpaper, October 2019

Archive of Mind, 2019, participatory site-specific installation consisting of clay balls, 18m elliptical wooden table, and sound performance Unfolding Sphere, 2016. Installation view at Palais des ducs d'Aquitane, 2019. Courtesy of the City of Poitiers, Axel Vervoordt Gallery and Kimsooja Studio. Photos by Jaeho Chong.

Encounter with a City

Emma Lavigne & Emmanuelle de Montgazon

2019

  • During her first visit to the Musée Sainte-Croix of Poitiers, Kimsooja stopped at length in front of Francois Nautré’s painting, Le siège de Poitiers par l’amiral Gaspard de Coligny en 1569 [The Siege of Poitiers by Admiral Gaspard de Coligny in 1569] (1619), a true pictorial account and faithful portrait of the city. She was moved by the representation of the besieged city, by the precision of the narrative, and was overwhelmed by this seeming detail: how the inhabitants sought to survive and protect themselves in this context of war. She was particularly drawn to the large swaths of white cloth protecting the inhabitants’ movements from the enemies on the lookout, and referencing the work of the drapers and weavers in the region.

  • Her visits were closely tied to the history of the city, a history that is inseparable from its cultural and social fabric, which makes it so rich.

  • “It is only one step from memory to encounter,” wrote Marc Augé2. Thus Kimsooja focuses on personal stories that are often forgotten by History. From the splendor of Eleanor of Aquitaine to the famous passage of Joan of Arc, Kimsooja preferred the tutelary figure of Saint Radegund (520-587), Queen of the Francs, “divorced” from a tyrant, who devoted the rest of her life as nun to the disenfranchised. In the church of Sainte-Radegonde, Kimsooja was moved by the sobriety of her tomb and the many votive plaques, some of which are still recent, that cover the dark crypt and the choir. She was also attached to the figure of Jean-Richard Bloch, a politically-engaged poet and writer, friend of Louis Aragon and André Malraux, “exiled in his own city,” who opened his house in La Mérigotte—which has become the Villa Bloch 2019 artists’ residency—to writers, political refugees, poets and musicians.

  • Kimsooja was born in Korea, a country where Christianity is at its most influential in Asia, while co-existing with Confucianism, Shamanism, Taoism, and Buddhism. By choosing a nomadic life, she carries with her the origins of her culture, whose belief in the “Spirit heart” is founded on the pursuit of harmony. This cultural identity mixed with family history leads to the encounter with the Other, the necessary mirror to one’s own existence.

  • In the majestic Palace of the dukes of Aquitaine, the center of spirituality and contemporary culture, Kimsooja conceived a crossing of the City based on the very principles of co-existence and harmony that have inspired all of her work for over thirty years.

  • “Travelling reaffirms that the world is not a flawless process.” These are the words of philosopher Jean-Godeffroy Bidima, whose works on African identity are built around this notion, which he deems to be resolutely plural. His definition is a promise that looks to the future and to growth, opening the fertile ground between identity, travel and memory to a constellation of new possibilities. With the issue of migration occupying a central place in society, and the West still struggling to break free from postcolonial discourse, the Traversées project questions the factors behind the acts of travel, movement and uprooting that fuel the work of Kimsooja and her fellow artists who, through personal experiences and without bias, are able to capture and portray the perceptible and invisible flows of an increasingly unsettled contemporary world. The common thread between voluntary nomadism and forced migration is probably found in the act of being uprooted.

  • To symbolically hand over the keys of Poitiers to Kimsooja is to accept that the city’s memories will be transformed into a space in which to imagine the future. But it is also to offer the artist the opportunity to re-frame her work; to imbed it in a new time and space, that of a city steeped in history; to imperceptibly sketch out new lines, influenced by the ideas of Michel Foucault, by the memory of the former Palais de Justice, by the spirituality of places of worship, and by the generosity of the Villa Bloch. These “traversées” will open our eyes to new paths and will write a new chapter in this rich story, one that will not only be recounted but lived and shared, turning local residents and visitors alike into wanderers, following the paths left by the artists, routes that fork and multiply into a disorienting infinity. The catalogue accompanying Traversées / Kimsooja aims to guide the viewer through this journey, and to suggest through certain key works, including Bottari, A Needle Woman, and To Breathe, pathways that connect Kimsooja’s work to that of other invited artists, and invent a new geography.

  • Jung Marie’s Korea meets Subodh Gupta’s India. Rirkrit Tiravanija nests a tea house inside a scaffolding of bamboo from Thailand, with a ceremony led by Mai Ueda. New Yorker Stephen Vitiello reveals the buried sounds of the city of Poitiers, while Sammy Baloji slows down the monotonous chants of a children’s choir inside the Chapel of the Augustins, drawing out the role played by the Church in the colonial enterprise.

  • A “traversée” is an experience of otherness and hospitality and the paths of Traversées / Kimsooja are outlined, everyone can create their own journey. Similarly, the artists accompanying Kimsooja “advance life, activate it, intensify it, renew it”.3 The city, transformed by these unique works, as the shared meals of Thomas Ferrand or Subodh Gupta, progressively reveals its various historical, social, collective and individual dimensions. In this kaleidoscope, every movement, every action, every breath, every glance becomes another possibility for physical and metaphysical discovery, and constitutes a shared memory, woven together by the gestures, as the danced portraits or choreographies of Lenio Kaklea, that comprise – just like Kimsooja’s Thread Routes – this “slow and silent journey”.

  • Space is transfigured in Kimsooja’s work, becoming a sensory experience. She hollows out the architecture of the different sites, letting new sensations in, disturbing their stability. She instils a void in the heart of the stone, that interstitial space essential to the dialectics of Yin and Yang, to the rhythm of breathing, the beat at the core of life.

  • Inspired by Michel Foucault and his definition of heterotopia, which “has the power to juxtapose in a single real space, several spaces, several locations which are in themselves incompatible,”4 Kimsooja disperses space using light diffraction and mirrors, as seen in her work To Breathe. Her spaces are dematerialised; they shake the weight of history to become – like the artist herself – nomadic, as the nests of Tadashi Kawamata. They are spaces without space and thus, in Foucault’s eyes, produce the shift required to make the coexistence of utopias possible. Kimsooja metonymically inverses the world order, her aesthetic response to the turbulence and violence she perceives. Our sense of horizontality is disturbed as it becomes warped by the effect of the mirrors into abyss-like depths, while the space takes on an atmospheric quality. “I’d like to make works that are like water and air, that cannot be owned but can be shared by everyone,” explains Kimsooja. Like the miniature world contained in the “bottari”, the lines between Kimsooja’s work and the space that it inhabits become blurred. Fabrics, films and mirrors – the artist’s vocabulary – take on the appearance of bodies or membranes, skins that sense, react and reveal, that filter and diffract the commotion of urban life, the ashes of light, energy and electric short circuits that punctuate the outside world, transforming them into a constantly self-renewing visual and pictorial experience.

  • The works by the guest artists infiltrate city life, offering shared vessels for beleaguered bodies, worn down by the inconsistencies of the world, gradually breathing in unison or moulding, as is the case with the clay spheres of Archive of Mind. An emotion is released from these works; the realisation that we can now conceive, to borrow the words of Jean-Paul Sartre on the eve of the Second World War, “what an emotion is. It is a transformation of the world.”

— Traversees\Kimsooja Exhibition Catalogue, October 2019

Artist Kimsooja stands with a truck used for her 2007 performance video “Bottari-Truck Migrateurs” inside Saint-Louis Chapel in Poitiers, France. The work is part of the initial edition of the French city’s new art biennale “Traversées / Kimsooja.”

Transforming a city’s memories

So-Young Moon

2019

  • POITIERS, France — In front of many historic places in the western French city of Poitiers — including the Palace of the Dukes of Aquitaine, the former home of the medieval celebrity Eleanor, the queen consort of France and then of England — stand big boards announcing a three-month citywide contemporary art festival that runs through Jan. 19.
    Surprisingly, the boards are decorated with obangsaek, or the Korean traditional spectrum of five cardinal colors, which represent the four directions and the center. Moreover, the event’s title is “Traversées / Kimsooja,” including the name of the Korean contemporary artist of international renown.
    There is also a shipping container covered with obangsaek in the square of the city’s landmark Poitiers Cathedral. It is Kimsooja’s new work titled “Bottari 1999-2019,” which carries her personal belongings that she amassed in her New York apartment over the last 20 years. Now that she is leaving the apartment, the container is a symbol of her migratory, nomadic and in-between state. Bottari means traditional Korean cloth bundles used to carry belongings.
    The inaugural edition of Poitiers’ new art festival “Traversées,” which translates to traverses or acts of crossing, has not taken the typical form of the international art biennials that have saturated the world. Instead, it let one artist interact with and change the city by installing her works in the new contexts of the city’s old buildings and streets.
    The artist was also encouraged to invite other artists to join the citywide exhibition. Sixteen artists from all around the world, including big names like Indian artist Subodh Gupta, Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata and Congolese artist Sammy Baloji, have joined.

  • “It was the idea of the festival’s co-curator Emma Lavigne,” Kimsooja told the Korea JoongAng Daily at the opening on Oct. 12. Lavigne, the new president of the prestigious Palais de Tokyo museum in Paris, and Emmanuelle de Montgazon, an art historian born in Poitiers, are co-curators of the art event.
    “This might be the most inspiring, challenging and ambitious project I’ve done so far, mainly focusing on site-specificity responding to the notion of Traversées, to which I’ve been devoted for so many years,” Kimsooja said.
    Indeed, throughout her oeuvre, the 62-year-old artist has explored borders and crossed borders, sometimes with performances and films that symbolically allude to migration in the real world and sometimes with abstract installations that visualize moving through the borders between cosmic dualities such as yin and yang and material and non-material.
    The very work that propelled the artist to international fame in 1997 was also about migration. For the performance and video work “Cities on the Move: 2,727 kilometers Bottari Truck,” she traveled throughout Korea for 11 days on top of a truck loaded with bottari. Its 2007 version, commissioned by a French museum, was set in Paris and is now projected on a wall of Saint-Louis Chapel in Poitiers, with the truck used for the performance parked inside the chapel near its gracefully-arched and painted altar.
    According to Lavigne and de Montgazon, the colorful bottari on the truck “reveals the tension between perpetual displacement and a desire for familiarity” and the performance is “an allegory of migration but also an appeal for empathy and peaceful co-existence.” Such elements of the work gain more resonance in the new context of the old Catholic chapel, which could have been either a place of religious exclusivism or a refuge for alienated people.
    “To symbolically hand over the keys of Poitiers to an artist is to accept that the city’s memories will be transformed into a space in which to imagine the future,” Lavigne and de Montgazon said in a joint statement. “Poitiers is a city famous for its rich heritage and its university,” said Alain Claeys, the mayor of the city. “Our wish is to build a relationship between heritage and contemporary art, which will allow heritage to have a new life. In particular, with artist Kimsooja’s works, we can talk about the very important topic of our time : migration"

  • Kimsooja has dealt with crossing geopolitical and cultural borders, as well as abstract borders between dualities such as light and darkness, with the motifs of sewing, weaving and bottari. In sewing, a needle and thread penetrate the borders of fabric. And bottari, which is two-dimensional when spread out and three-dimensional when bundled up, makes a very flexible boundary between inside and outside.
    The artist has used the motifs sometimes in literal forms and sometimes in abstract and symbolic forms. The latter is seen in the “To Breathe” series now installed at the cloister of Chapelle des Augustins and the catacomb of Sainte-Radegonde Church in Poitiers.
    Their windows have been wrapped by Kimsooja with translucent diffraction film sheets, so that sunlight coming through them and falling on the walls and floors make planes of iridescent light that constantly change, just like “breathing obangsaek bottari,” the artist said.
    “The works lead the viewers to stay for a long time and meditate, while perceiving the changes of the spaces over time,” Lavigne said.
    Not only Kimsooja but also some of the artists invited to “Traversées” have transformed the historic spaces of Poitiers into those of new perception and imagination with relatively simple physical interventions. When Korean artist Jung Marie sang a jeongga, or an elegant song enjoyed by the aristocracy in the Joseon era (1392-1910), a cappella at Sainte-Radegonde Church, her clear voice resounded even better under the church’s high vaults, sending the audience to an ethereal and spiritual space in between the East and the West. Meanwhile, Gupta’s installation and performance art piece “Cooking the World” attracted many people at the opening of the festival. In a house-shaped installation that consists of used Indian pots and pans hanging from the ceiling, the artist himself cooked popular street foods from several Indian cities and served them to the viewers.
    “Inspired by the book ‘Cooking the World’ by Charles Malamoud about how food is essential in Indian ceremonies and rituals, I thought I can do something with food, as I love to cook myself and have created artworks with utensils for more than 20 years,” the Indian artist said. One of the highlights of the exhibits is Kimsooja’s performance installation “Archive of Mind” at the Palace of the Dukes of Aquitaine. There’s a giant, oval-shaped wooden table. Visitors are encouraged to take lumps of clay in four shades, roll them into spheres and then place them on the table to dry. The table with finished balls of clay resembles the landscape of a desolate alien planet, giving a cosmic feel.

  • When Kimsooja introduced the work in Seoul in 2016, she said the forms of the spheres would reflect the symmetrical forces of the palms of the participants and their minds. The clay balls would have edges, because of the impossibility to make a perfect sphere and because of gravity’s effect when they are dried on the table.
    The dried clay balls make sounds when they are rolled and the sounds represent their geometric forms — the forms caused by the dual forces of the participants’ palms, their minds and gravity.
    “Poitiers, which was important in international politics in medieval times but then was dormant for quite a time, is now opening itself up to the world again” Kimsooja told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “Responding to the city’s wish, I have weaved the city with other parts of the world through my works based in the notions of crossing borders and works by other artists from all around the world.”

— Korea Joongang Daily, October 2019

Archive of Mind, 2016, participatory site specific installation consisting of clay balls, 19 m elliptical wooden table, and sound performance Unfolding Sphere, 2016, Installation at Kimsooja - Archive of Mind at MMCA, Seoul, Photo by Aaron Wax ,Courtesy of MMCA and Hyundai Motor Co. and Kimsooja Studio

Kimsooja: The Task of Being-Together

Steven Henry Madoff

2017

  • The world is torn by conflict and yet each tear, each micro-struggle and clash is toward its own version of unity. All conflict is a nostalgia for and trajectory toward a totalizing scheme. Of course, there are different structures of totalization, some that suppress difference and others that support a democratic ethos. In the broadest sense, the idea of totalization is captured by Martin Heideggerís term ìBeing-in,î for which the simplest definition is offered by Peter Sloterdijk as ìsomething with something in something.î The social example of Being-in is that we are each a something, and so we are somethings together within the something that is society. Society: from the Latin socius, a comrade. And so society is the being-together of comrades. Civitas: from the Greek word for city and which leads to the word ìcitizen,î or those comrades who live together in organized space. Polis: from the proto-Indo-European pele, an enclosed space, so that the polis is an enclosed space of citizens in which to Be-in is to live under the organization of social codes, of codes among comrades, though the codes, as all the annals of human time tell us, are always in a state of both schematized and anarchic disruption carried forward into negotiation and revision.

  • Socius. Civitas. Polis. In the art of Kimsooja, there are two assumptions that underlie the symbolic social intention running throughout her career of making. One of these assumptions is journalistic in its basis, accepting the daily and historical record of events. This assumption is that humans are (by the evidence of actions always and everywhere repeated) violent, destructive, and intolerant. The other assumption, in contrast with the first, is that we seek wholeness and rely on healing and care in its many forms to address the iniquities of human destructiveness. Indeed, these counterpoised signatures of human conduct are the needle dipping in and out of the cloth of being human and the belief structures underlying our nature, both theological and philosophical. The biosphere, the life codes, the sociality, the deistic principles, the ethical apparatusesówhether it is a war in our blood, a crisis of political sovereignty or a crisis of religious faithóthese constructs torn asunder or joined together in unified consensus toward the co-existence of difference are within the praxis of Being-in.

  • Society within itself has, from the time of Aristotle, asked the questions of what is the good life and how can we live together? This is the subject of ethics. But in the short space of this essay, I would like to specify this thinking about ethics as a questioning of how we should act toward one another in order to live in consensual understanding and agreement, and by doing so mediate violence toward the social whole. Can we, therefore, understand Being-in in the limited sense of its social format of being-together? Can we understand totalization not as universalism and absolutism, but as a space of closeness in which otherness and improvisation act as fulcrums in a continual rising and falling of chaos and order? And can we then define this being-together as the responsibility of the socius to overcome its violence toward wholeness, its lacerating shards that are the fragmentation of the enclosed space of society and the undoing of unifying social forms?

  • In this case, unification does not void the presence of violence, but envisions a flexibility of social codes under the contingencies of circumstance so that recodings can take place through consensual agreement, by deliberation and plebiscite. Ethical wholeness is understood as the agreement among selves alert to their equality, for the ethical self is the self that bears responsibility for its actions toward other selves, and therefore ethics is a questioning of actions and a listening to the answers of others toward resolution. This is a form of critique in which the social self is formed in the crucible of the exchange of questions and answers about how to act on and in this being with others, this being-together, which is always a mapping of the social space, the space of what could be called ethical intimacy. Ethics in this sense is a form of creative practice that takes into consideration contingency, agency, and the mutuality of deliberation.

  • I come to this thinking about ethics in light of the overall project of Kimsoojaís art, as it seems to me that her questions and propositions in the argument of her work are fundamentally presented as what I will call a gestural ethics. Her work over the years and in its various forms offers itself as a symbolic representation of an aspirational being-together. The opacity of individual selves is not so much taken into account as an idealized transparency of recognition of selves who may move through the violent complications of human nature toward a valorized sociality of tolerance. Commonality is a feature of the artistís proposal of what being-together can mean, and to this point, we see a repeated figural gesture in her art, for whenever we see Kimsooja in a video or photograph, her back is to us, she is facing other people, other things, as if to always say, ìHow can I be with you if we are to be together in light of our differences from one another, in light of the possibility of agreement?î As if to insist on a dance of the reciprocity of identities, ìWho am I in you and who are you in me?î

  • In fact, a constant in the artistís works is the sense of collective presence, of watching and participating in the dance of selves with selves performing that dance. In this movement of I-with-you, there is an implicit proposal of the similarities and conjunctions among disparate things in environments of work and contemplationóseen, for example, in moving-image works such as A Needle Woman and Thread Routes. These are spaces that feel hermetically concentrated, given to an almost ethnographic scrutiny, narrowed by a gaze that looks to the weighted significance of hands and figures focused by the charged intensity of enclosed space. Kimsoojaís camera may establish its point of view in open air, as we see continually in her films and videos, but there is always a sense of motions framed, cropped, pulled inward. Meditative attention is paid to the study of human movements whose results are linked at once to embodied presence, sociality, material labor, and, at the same time, to the ethereal abstraction of repetition.

  • The artistís installations are underwritten by this sense of collective intimacy, this gestural ethics in which space presents itself as the enraptured site of an enlightened stitching of things, one to another. Light itself and the symbolic value of colors imbue this being-together. I think of her Deductive Object (2016), an ovoid welded steel form painted with stripes in the colors of the traditional Korean Obangsaek, colors representing the five cardinal directionsóeast, south, center, west, northóand the five elements as established in Korean culture: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Touch, sight, breath, weight, durability, timeís duration, the direction of the sun, what the body needs to sustain itself, where it will travel, hearth and toolÖ all speak to the idea of Being-in as a home in the world, the world of life, of what the Greeks called zo?, as Giorgio Agamben notes, zo? as ìthe simple fact of living common to all living beings,î and here also, the Greek bios, the way of living as an individual and in being-together. These dual flows of living, crossing one into the other as streams of unbridled and governed energies, are indicated in the coded colors and the completed geometry of this sculpture, whose title confers its reasoned status as a physical artifice deduced from a totalizing metaphysical proposition. Kimsooja undergirds this symbolism by placing her Deductive Object on a mirrored plinth in an enclosed courtyard so that it sits at a center, an omphalos of the socius that amplifies this Being-in and being-together, above it a sky that brings light from every direction.

  • Around this sculpture, which towers at nearly two-and-a-half meters like a heroic obelisk, are the museumís windowed walls that the artist has covered with a special diffraction grating she has often used. It refracts the light into a rainbowís spectrum. It is a pictorial device, as it turns every windowed view into a frame in which details are dissolved into vaguely abstract shapes alive with angles of color. The abstraction activates an optical dematerialization, one thing melting into another, and this too underscores a theme of unified being, returning us from matter to metaphysical belonging. Even the title of the work, To Breathe, intends to dissolve boundaries, suggesting that seeing and breathing are one with the other, a kind of synesthesia, a sensory miscegenation. This trajectory toward fluidity and fusion is a perennial current in the Kimsoojaís work: bodies together in repeated acts of attention, of moving, of making; bodies that float on mirrored surfaces, suspending materiality, that are abstracted and generalized, that are corporeal but are oftentimes inflected by a sound recording variously of the artistís breathing, humming or gurgling that hovers in the air, which she uses recurrently to suggest the shedding of the body, of the liquefaction of inside and outside, the original version of which was titled The Weaving Factory from 2004, and the most recent, Unfolding Sphere, from 2016. Itís as if, in this art, the consecrations of repeated actions and motifs form a ritual of conjoined beingóthis gestural ethics in which the rendering of a ceaselessly various but continuous activity of negotiating the sociality of I-with-you is predicated on the idea of repetition as order, repetition as an emblem of the establishment of norms, of practiced ways of being-together that are open to play, to process and change.

  • So it is that the communal performance of Kimsoojaís installation titled Archive of Mind (2016), which is also the name of the exhibition here at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, presents us with a nineteen meter elliptical wood table set out with lumps of clay to be rolled between each guestís hands to form spheres, the table filling with them like a model of a domed city or the map of a constellation dense with newborn planets. Clay, of course, is the material from which we are made in origin myths of the world, that a God-figure shapes, breathing into that clay of the raw human form to ìinspireî itófrom the Latin insp?r?re, meaning literally to fill with breathóto bring the body to life. These clay spheres, then, bear the symbolic inspiration of the hand that makes, shapes, encloses, a marking of self and selves, of recognitions, as recognition itself is a conscious acknowledgment of the other. And here this recognition is an acknowledged mutuality that is premised on the playful pleasure of the communal act, of hands directed toward similar motions with a single material, producing similar sounds as they transform this clay and momentarily themselves, transfigured by this act of the mutual (for the word ìmutualî originates in the Latin m?t?re, to change). Mutuality and mutability are one with the other, just as the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy notes of the I-with-you, of the transformation in being-together: ìI can only recognize myself recognized by the other to the extent that this recognition of the other alters me.î

  • It is the transformative act of recognition of self and other, of the reciprocity of the I and you that makes way for social discourse, for dissensus and consensus in the negotiation of how we can be together. This discourse is always mobilized by circumstance, though the frame of ethics is based on a durable plinth of reason reflecting upward to present the possibility of a complementary perspective from the grounds of interdependence. In Archive of Mind, bodies address each other through the motion and task of hands, entering into the sociality of being. Through this act of making, of the manual activity of those sitting in the ellipse of this table, watching each other, listening to each other, and listening together to the amplified recording of balls rolling and Kimsoojaís body gurgling (that audio work, Unfolding Spheres), these closed circles of unifying actions present a normative purpose that instantiates the recognizability of I-with-you, of each with the otherís being-together.

  • Still, the project of Kimsoojaís work is not limited to the human self as subject, but proposes that we are things among other things, a broader ethics, an idea of agency that is animistic in its reach. All things are woven in this proposition, as in a web that catches each thing that exists as a generative machine of correlation and, with hope, affiliation that populates the Being-in. This is made manifest in the artistís series of six 16-milimeter films entitled Thread Routes (2010-16). Take, for example, the most recent of these, Thread RoutesñChapter V (2016), whose method, as we also see in the previous works in the series, is to show in a documentary yet poetic style a global range of landscapes and peoples and their practices of weaving. In Thread RoutesñChapter V, we see wicker baskets being made. We see various women working with handlooms, and I am reminded that the loom was the progenitor of modern computation, so that a web of woven yarn is parent to the billions of strands of data on the Internetís World Wide Web, and that the Internet as an active form of ordering, of interwoven streams of electricity and light, is only a microcosm of the still more universal zo? and bios, a marker in a much greater, constellated vastness.

  • That is the artistís documentary point, as the images of human actants are intercut with close-ups held like a long breath so that our attention is steadied and concentrates on natural thingsógrasses, currents of water, clouds, floral patterns, even the dense strands of hair on someoneís headóthat suddenly appear in their knitted forms, just as yarn and wicker do. What we are presented with in this film and the others in the series is the motif of similitude, the way one thing is a formal echo of another, and it isnít necessary that every single thing has agency, but that we can see in all things their common parentage in the composition of the world and discern by a leap of ontological inference an originary intelligence. This prelapsarian, ante-methodological, originary ejaculation of active materiality is presented as evidence, as I have said, of all zo?, all life in its primordial and blossoming forms, whether abject or ecstatic, by which the ìthread routeî is the thread of this originary intelligence through all matter, and threading is equivalent with marvel, equivalent with ìsomething with something in something,î and equivalent, therefore, with the woven-ness of Being, as if the world in the thread of all time and before time were shrunk to a miracle of emblematic presence displayed in a glass vitrine, a cosmos in a teacup, all threading as the gesture of the genomic impulse toward supreme order hung like an amulet on Beingís many-bodied and bodiless body.

  • These woven likenesses in Kimsoojaís artworks suggest an expansive mise en abyme among materially different things; a mirrored reciprocity of othernesses in constant address that are therefore exemplars of a gestural ethics that invokes the obligation of one thing to another to find a normative frame in which Being-in in its aspect of being-together can give account of an agora of reparative promise. This ethical work, because of its openness, in which all things, human and nonhuman, may participate and are envisioned as participating, rests on anecdotal moments of local histories, geographies, politics, and the most localized gestures of bodies in rooms together, at the same time that it is pan-political and trans-temporal through the artistís regular investment of symbolism in materials, colors, gestures, and forms. Ethical relativism, the moral systems of individual cultures, is simultaneously acknowledged and contravened, imagined within a supreme coefficiency of thing with thing, a breath elongated, a light refracted and spread, in the artistís overarching imagining of Being-in, this task of intimacy, of being-together.

— Kimsooja: Archive of Mind. Exhibition Catalogue published by National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, 2017

Deductive Object, 2016, site specific installation consisting of painted welded steel, aluminum mirror panels, Sculpture: 2.45 x 1.50 m, Mirror: 10 x 10 m. Installation view at Kimsooja - Archive of Mind at MMCA, Seoul. Courtesy of MMCA and Hyundai Motor Co. and Kimsooja Studio. Photo by Aaron Wax.

Archetype of Mind

Sung Won, Kim

2017

  • While a group of people is working diligently around a large oval table, a mysterious sound reverberates through the dark space. The exhibition Archive of Mind (2016) begins with these curious, almost cosmic sounds, along the huge empty table. The accumulation of small, solid balls of clay on the tabletop forms an image that perfectly complements the sound, creating the central work Archive of Mind (2016). The delicate combination of the sound and image coax the viewers to consider a primal time and space that existed before civilization.

Galaxy of Mind

  • The sound that continually echoes through the space of Archive of Mind is a mixture of the sound of dried clay balls being rolled across the table in different directions and the sound of the artist gargling water. The recorded sound, which is amplified from underneath the table, travels between 32 speakers, transforming the space into a meditative arena. When the volume is low, the sound of the clay balls is clear and vivid, but when the volume is raised, the sound becomes a storm of thunder and lightning. The cosmic dimension of the work is particularly intriguing, given that the artist Kimsooja described Archive of Mind as a “galaxy of mind.” She continued to say that the “sound of the clay balls rolling over the flat surface represents the horizontal trajectory, while the gurgling sound of water represents the vertical trajectory of traversing one’s diaphragm.” Hence, the work visualizes a psychological geometry that arises from the coexistence and dynamics between these horizontal and vertical trajectories. Moreover, the sound of the round balls rolling across the table provides viewers with an auditory experience of geometric shapes. Thus, through sound, Archive of Mind evinces both the material surface and the surrounding void. Archive of Mind encompasses the sound of Unfolding Sphere along with the performance of the people forming the clay balls, yielding an immersive experience that transcends polarities and dualities, enacting a unity that may be seen as the motivating power behind Kimsooja’s art.

  • Although her interest in ceramics can be traced back about ten years, Kimsooja has only recently begun to create works with clay. The clay balls first appeared in 2016, when Kimsooja was invited to participate in Water Event, the solo exhibition of Ono Yoko (b. 1933) at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Lyon. For that exhibition, Kimsooja exhibited a single ball that she had shaped from a handful of wet clay. Rather than transforming clay into utensils or objects, she is primarily interested in the material characteristics of the clay, as well as the dual possibility of emptying and filling. The act of making a ball of clay requires the use of both hands to cover, press, and roll the clay. In order to form a perfect sphere, all points of each hand must be focused and directed towards the center. Each clay sphere, consisting of earth and water, is a microcosm of our planet as a living organism.

  • This simple and repetitive process is also related to the concept of Bottari, Kimsooja’s artistic trademark. “Bottari” refers to the practice of bundling goods or possessions in a traditional wrapping cloth for easier transportation. Considering this universal act, Kimsooja said, “Like these forms gradually converging to the center, my mind also converges. Moreover, these acts embody the moment when materiality is transformed into immateriality and ‘void’.” Here, rolling a clay ball is no longer a frivolous act of play. Instead, it becomes a type of ritual in which a mind is formed and shaped by shaving off the sharp corners. Also, the repetitious act of rolling balls of clay between one’s palms can leave people enchanted, like a spell.

Completion of Works and Audience

  • At the entrance of Kimsooja’s Archive of Mind, clay is provided for visitors; they may take as much as they like, with the understanding that they will roll it into one or more balls and place them on the table. It is crucial to note that Kimsooja has never incorporated this type of audience participation in any of her previous works. As such, it seems to necessitate some explanation and justification. In the contemporary art world, works involving audience participation are generally well-received, in part because they are almost guaranteed to draw a large audience. At the same time, however, they have been criticized for pandering to popular tastes. Of course, just because an artwork or exhibition generates a positive public response does not necessarily mean that it has pandered to popular tastes, just as works that are not well-received cannot automatically be classified as progressive or experimental. Moving beyond such issues, we should focus on the details of audience participation in this work. In particular, how do the audience’s actions (i.e., entering the exhibition, choosing clay, rolling it into a ball, putting it on the table, leaving the exhibition) connect and contribute to the overall meaning and context of Kimsooja’s existing oeuvre?

  • In her works, the audience has always been one with the artist, sharing the artist’s thoughts and point of view. To understand her works, we must examine how the artist-subject is transformed into the audience-subject. In A Needle Woman and A Laundry Woman, for example, the audience is forced to focus their attention on a woman’s back. As such, the audience virtually wears the clothes of the artist, and sees the world from the position of the artist. For her Bottari works, discarded clothes are bundled inside used blankets and sheets of unknown origin; the resulting parcels are then carried to various parts of the world by a searching subject. Thus, the subject is once again conflated with the audience. In Kimsooja’s works, the audience is not a passive recipient of the artist’s ideas or perspectives; instead, the audience is transformed into an active and initiative subject who shares various forms of life that are guided by the artist. In Archive of Mind, the audience takes on an even more active role by clasping and rolling clay, an act that distinctly recalls the packing and wrapping of Bottari parcels. Like the active subject who symbolically becomes the artist’s body and envelopes the world, the audience of this exhibition participates in a kind of ritual by forming balls of clay, thereby helping to complete this work by unfolding their own “Archive of Mind.”

Geometric Experiences

  • For people who know Kimsooja primarily through A Needle Woman or her Bottari works, the theme of this exhibition might be a little surprising. Notably, however, the displayed works still feature two fundamental characteristics that have defined her work for over thirty years: a horizontal-vertical structure and a dynamic spatial relationship. In her art, Kimsooja uses geometric thoughts and experiences to unify dualities, thus yielding a new type of space. This psychological geometry tends to emphasize the quality of space, rather than the quantity, often creating new forms by transitioning from one condition to another.

  • In A Study on Body (1981), an early work that she made while she was in her twenties, Kimsooja explored geometric shapes by using her own body as an axis, around which her various joints bend both vertically and horizontally. The documentation of her performance demonstrates how bodily movements can enact basic geometric shapes, such as triangles, squares, circles, and semicircles. Indeed, A Study on Body lays the framework for understanding the recurring vertical-horizontal cross structure that has now characterized Kimsooja’s works for more than thirty-five years. In the early 1980s, when there were many regulations limiting international travel for Koreans, Kimsooja went to Japan for the first time, as part of an exchange exhibition. Almost immediately, she noted the difference between the cultures of the two countries. From that point forward, she began emphasizing structural and formal characteristics that are inherent to Korea, such as austerity, incompletion, unique colors, and the principle of the “Three Ultimates” (i.e., Heaven, Earth, and mankind). She began utilizing the dynamism of the cross structure to interpret everything from aspects of daily life to grand concepts of life and death. This is the context from which A Study on Body emerged. Indeed, this structure has remained a consistent element of her subsequent works (e.g., Bottari, A Needle Woman, A Mirror Woman, To Breathe), functioning like an archetype of her practice. Furthermore, this structure provides the primary meaning and connection among the diverse works presented in this exhibition, such as A Study on Body (1981), Geometry of Body (2006-2015), and Archive of Mind (2016).

  • One of the main characteristics of contemporary art is the mixture of temporal and spatial attributes. In this sense, Kimsooja’s Geometry of Body can be said to visualize the invisible by spatializing time. This work involves a yoga mat that the artist has used since 2006, such that it is now embedded with traces of her body, forming a perfect self-portrait. The colorless traces left by countless pressings of her hands and feet cause us to imagine gravity and her momentary movements. The yoga mat also extends the concept of the “readyused,” which characterized her earlier works with bottari, blankets, and sheets. Here, however, the object is used to visualize the body and to reveal ephemeral motion and gravity. In a similar vein, One Breath (2004/2016), which originated as part of Kimsooja’s sound performance of The Weaving Factory (2004), is a digital embroidery drawing that reproduces the wavelength of a single breath of Kimsooja. During a breathing performance, a monitor tracks the artist’s inhalations and exhalations; then, one full breath is chosen at random and rendered as digital embroidery. The peaks and valleys of regular respiration are recorded as a graph, followed by a horizontal line that marks the moment of respiratory arrest. The prominent vertical-horizontal structure and depth of the breathing performance represent an extension of the circular loop that she had earlier represented in her sewing works, which she stopped making in 1992.

Deductive Space

  • Deductive Object (2016), a sculpture of the artist’s own arms, is Kimsooja’s first work involving life casting. The two arms are facing one another, with the thumb and index finger touching to form the void. At first glance, it looks like a rather straightforward example of life casting sculpture. But upon further consideration, the distinctive position of the thumb and index finger inevitably makes us think of holding a needle. Kimsooja views this connection as another form of weaving, constructing a void within the act. This gesture calls to mind her earlier series Deductive Object (1992), which consisted of wrapped objects. That series was an extension of Kimsooja’s early sewing works, wherein she used the motion of the needle to represent the repeated penetration of the horizontal by the vertical. Similar to Bottari, the act of sewing connects dualities, weaves separate entities to form a new relationship, and proposes an aesthetic of tolerance and embrace. Installed in the museum’s courtyard, the new version of Deductive Object (2016) is Kimsooja’s second outdoor sculpture; the first was A Needle Woman: Galaxy Was A Memory, Earth Is A Souvenir (2014), a work involving nanotechnology, which was installed on the campus of Cornell University in New York. Deductive Object (2016) was inspired by the Brahmanda (black stones sometimes called “cosmic eggs”) an Indian symbol of the birth of the universe. According to Indian tradition, the black surface of the Brahmanda is rubbed until it becomes reflective, like a mirror. Learning about the Brahmanda, Kimsooja recognized various points of connection with her own work, particularly related to the attitude and significance of her Bottari works. These affinities led to the creation of a huge ellipsoid decorated with Obangsaek (five-colored bands – include description in footnote). In Kimsooja’s early Bottari works, the two-dimensional surface (or tableau) of fabric became a three-dimensional sculpture through the simple act of tying. For this exhibition, Deductive Object enacts a new type of transformation, with the geometry of Bottari now visualized as a five-colored ellipsoid. Moreover, this unique transformation is reflected and expanded by the mirrored pedestal that holds the ellipsoid.

  • A cosmic egg placed on a mirror, Deductive Object coexists with To Breathe (2016), a site-specific work made with diffraction grating film. For To Breathe, Kimsooja transformed the windows and walls of the museum’s courtyard into a giant Bottari, a technique she had previously employed with A Mirror Woman (2006) at the Crystal Palace in Madrid. In the current work, the walls are covered with the diffraction grating film that radiates an array of colors and sunlight in all directions, filling the space with a brilliant spectrum. Through this site-specific work, the courtyard becomes a welcome respite where the audience can rest and meditate. In addition, the ground is lined with mirrors that reflect everything, highlighting the immateriality and void of the five-colored ellipsoid. To Breathe extends the void of space onto the surfaces, thereby “immaterializing” the duality of Bottari into the language of light. Therefore, the work maximizes the symbolic power of the unity between sculpture and flat surface, between the material and immaterial.

Weaving the World

  • The only video work in the exhibition is Thread Routes – Chapter V (2016), the fifth in Kimsooja’s Thread Routes series (2010-) documenting her travels throughout the world. This edition, set in North America, merges cultural anthropology, unique geology, and astounding natural scenery. The artist combines images of a spinning wheel with scenes of basket weaving by the Navajo and Hopi tribes, against the magnificent scenery of Shiprock and Canyon de Chelly in the Southwest United States, along with ancient ruins of the Chaco Culture. The huge mountains and caves, formed over eons of time by water, wind, and soil, move both spatially and temporally until they become connected to overhead wires, long stretches of road, and eventually, the industrial environment of a huge metropolis. The video ends with an aerial view of the massive ramps, freeways, and intersections of Los Angeles. Using an anthropological exploration, the video reveals how the fabric of the world is shaped by acts of weaving, enveloping, and unfolding.

  • Although the first chapter of the Thread Routes series was finished in 2010, the series can actually be traced back to 2002. At that time, Kimsooja drew the inspiration for “Thread Routes” from the tradition of weaving lace in Bruges, Belgium, which she examined within the context of various architectural features. Through the series, she has explored other European and Asian traditions of lace weaving, crafts, and embroidery, as well as the spinning wheel of Native American nomads. On one hand, the series may be seen as a type of cultural anthropology, but at the same time, it overwhelms us with lyrical beauty, and thus might be called the poetics of nature and civilization. Although the new video does not include any of Kimsooja’s most recognizable motifs (e.g., a needle, bottari, the artist’s back), it deftly posits a grand unity by addressing various dualities (e.g., self and others, man and woman, wrapping and unfolding, spirit and material, civilization and non-civilization, traditional and contemporary, city and nature).

  • Wrapping and unfolding, tying and untying, connecting and disconnecting are the basic acts of Kimsooja’s art. While these acts play a prominent role in her art (especially her bottari and breathing performances), they are not merely formalistic executions. Instead, operating within a vertical-horizontal structural relationship, they link various dualities and enact a shift from material to immaterial. Archive of Mind is the geometry of wrapping and unfolding, acts that enable dots, lines, and planes to come into contact with one another. In that moment, the immaterial is changed into the material, and vice versa. Hence, this geometry of unfolding-and-wrapping is an incessant exploration of the space of materiality and immateriality. Archive of Mind is a psychological geometry that reveals the dynamic relationship between movements and forms, producing surfaces and structures with the potential for motion, while simultaneously searching for a formless form. Summoning the psychological archetype from the “archive of mind,” these works ultimately guide our attention towards an empty void and an intangible space.

— Kimsooja: Archive of Mind. Exhibition Catalogue published by National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, 2017

A Study on Body, 1981. Silkscreen Print on Paper, 34 x 34 cm. Courtesy of Kimsooja Studio.

Geometry of Mind and of Body

Yonghee, Suh

2017

  • For her special exhibition at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Korea in the Hyundai Motors Series 2016, Kimsooja presented nine artworks, including her most recent, which were displayed in the Exhibition Hall 5 and in the courtyard of the Museum’s Seoul branch from July 27, 2016, to February 5, 2017. The exhibition featured artworks of diverse media, both two-dimensional and three-dimensional works, installations, and audio and video. This exhibition offered a rare opportunity to appreciate the breadth of the artist’s work scope and varied use of materials.

  • Kimsooja is an established, mid-career artist who has been internationally prominent for almost thirty years. In her previous exhibitions, she has used diverse media and implemented creative ways of installing artworks. Audiences have admired her endeavours to push the envelope of her own creative domain, and had high expectations for what the artist would convey on this occasion. In the titles Kimsooja chose, she deliberately asked viewers to ponder certain meanings in her art. She called the two most prominent works in the exhibition Archive of Mind (Geometry of Mind in Korean) and Geometry of Body, which established an overarching theme that extended throughout the exhibition. This was an invitation for the viewers to look at each piece in the context of either the expansion of body or the expansion of mind. More specifically, viewers were confronted with a dualistic interplay of mind and body. Through the visual extrapolation of these two contrasting but inextricable concepts, Kimsooja unfolded a realm in which one could reflect on the relationship between the substantial and the insubstantial, between the inside and outside of being, or between the self and the world.

  • The artist chose to title the exhibition bilingually: its Korean title, Maeummui gihahak, or Geometry of Mind, together with its English title, Archive of Mind, hinted that the exhibition was more than an illustration of the sensory employment of medium or an experimentation with forms of expression. Rather, the exhibition revolved around the metaphysical notions of mind and body. Serious viewers would realize that her goal in this exhibition was not to differentiate her artistic present from the past by demonstrating certain expressive forms in unexpected or unprecedented ways. They were expected to focus on very specific messages that Kimsooja’s artworks signify and find themselves asking questions like: What is the fundamental motivation for her art-making? What is the consistent theme that runs through her works in this exhibition? How should such profound-sounding titles be construed? This essay aims to help the reader revisit these questions and, in the process of seeking answers, come upon discoveries both intended and serendipitous. This would help us experience the epiphany Kimsooja wished to share with all of us through her reflective project at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Korea.

  • In most of the writings on Kimsooja, her work is interpreted through conceptual frameworks borrowed from such disciplines as cultural anthropology, psychology, philosophy, religion, sociology, or feminism. This study does not stray far from those frames of reference, but differs in its focus on the concepts of body and mind as manifested in Kimsooja’s art — a viewpoint that has not been pursued in the past. It specifically strives to expound the relationship between mind and body from the perspectives of both Eastern and Western philosophical traditions; I will try to interleave East Asian and European thoughts in relation to the concepts in Kimsooja’s works. Kimsooja has arranged each bundle of her ideas in non-contiguous spaces, which then have to be stitched together with a metaphysical thread across the gaps of discontinuity. This study is organized in the same way — that is, in a structure of non-contiguous thoughts and their synthesis across the discontinuous boundaries to propose a new condition of contemplation.

Body and Mind: Monistic Dualism

  • The concept of mind is inherently difficult to grasp. In general, the term mind refers to a person’s personality or character; but it can also mean a metaphysical space that contains a person’s thought or emotion. In English, mind represents the spirit or thought of the brain. The corresponding French word âme means soul or consciousness. The meaning of mind differs somewhat whether the Korean or English term is used. This divergence is probably a result of differences in Eastern and Western thought. In many traditions of European origin, mind and material have been disparate concepts. Mind is a human attribute whereas material is an attribute of things. The human mind stands independent of the external, material world and is subject to rational principles, thus forming a dimension that is separate from the material world, to which the body belongs. This way of thinking is called dualism of mind and body, predicated on the premise that mind and body are independent of each other. However, Eastern thought is not compatible with this kind of dualism. In East Asia, mind and material are deemed interdependent or complementary to each other, forming an inseparable relationship. This view, which has become the basic underpinning of philosophical thinking, treats mind and body as two different manifestations of the same entity. It does not hold that the mind governs over a body seen to be inferior. This is a monism of mind and body, or monistic dualism. According to this view, mind and body originate in and ultimately fuse and return to the state of being one. Oneness is deemed as the fundamental principle of the whole universe; it corresponds to the Great Ultimate (??, taiji) in the Confucian book the I Ching or Yijing (??, Classic of Changes), the universal and absolute principle (?, li) in the teachings of Neo-Confucianism, and nothingness (?, kong) in doctrines of Buddhism.

  • Recently, a monism of mind and body has been accommodated by many European thinkers, one of them being Jean-Luc Nancy. In his book Corpus, Nancy focuses on the disparaged status of the body in relation to mind, and attempts to rebalance the conventionally lopsided relationship between the two. The premise of his claims is that the body is der einzelne, meaning that it does not exist in the dominion of the mind, nor is it an existence that is merged with the mind. At the same time, he repudiates the concept of body that is perceived as the opposite to soul or mind. Nancy’s “body” is not a foreign or unfamiliar object to an inner soul (âme, psyché) but a correlator that coexists with soul. To paraphrase, body is the expansion of soul and at the same time the exterior of soul. According to Nancy, the body is opened toward the outside, i.e., it is revealed and unfolded outwards. The body is the soul’s expansion toward the exterior and forms itself as the Other (l’autrui). The soul or the mind, then, is the inner substance of the outer body and, as such, supports the body’s sense of contact. Body and soul form an oppositional pair to each other. This is a monistic dualism as the relationship between body and mind.

  • The concept of mind cannot be apprehended by logic or be defined by certain categories or boundaries. In order to discern the concept of mind beyond this impossibility of knowing or the limit of our rational capacity, one has to dispense with the belief in the mind’s self-sufficiency and experience a break from the closed, egocentric self. One must see that the mind is opened toward the outside — the outside which may be called the body, the Other, and the world or the universe. The process of the mind opening up or unfolding toward the outside — thereby breaking out of the subject-centred closedness that endlessly collapses inwards — is what Nancy calls as the expansion of the soul. Through such a process, the soul transcends the limitation of being immanent in itself and enters what both Emmanuel Levinas and Nancy describe as the altruistic coexisting relationship of “being-with.” The characterization of the relationship between mind and body (soul and body) as “being-together” parallels the concept of the “pluralistic singular existence (être singulier pluriel),” which is the essence of ourselves in society. Rather than expand on the relationship of pluralistic singular existence to the democratic community, I intend to connect this concept to the monistic dualism of material and mind, material and non-material, and, by extension, to the monistic dualism of finiteness and infiniteness.

  • In his discourse on the expansion of the soul, Nancy set out by addressing the issue of the body among the many facets of the Other. He argues that when the soul tries to reach the body, which is its own Other, as well as the outside, the soul contacts itself through the outer skin of the body, which is its own exposure (l’exposition du soi, l’expeausition). Owing to the ego outside the ego and the body that is the boundary between the self and the world, the soul is able to maintain its balance without leaning toward the inside or the outside. The concept of body, which stands as neither a subject nor an object, in conjunction with the idea of a balanced soul, offers a valuable clue to understanding Kimsooja’s works in this exhibition.

  • Nancy’s expansive argument about body and soul leads to a discussion of the existential finiteness of the body and its coexistence in a social context. However, in Kimsooja’s Geometry of Body, the finite coexistence of people is not a matter of importance; her focus is on our original existence that confronts the absolute or the infinite. In that regard, Kimsooja’s work diverges from Nancy’s discourse. Additionally, as a means of approaching the infinite that is the limit of existence, most of Kimsooja’s works involve geometrical structures and a balance that symbolically signify the monistic dualism of body and soul. The geometric balance, with its primordial power, brings about an effect by which we are almost unconsciously drawn into the world of the absolute and the infinite. Facing the overwhelming infinite or absolute, we are awakened from the state of our everyday existence and compelled to turn our eyes towards our original existence. We either avoid facing death or lead a life oblivious to it even though the inevitability of death is embedded in the very foundation of our present existence. If existence comes to grips with death through a constant ontological anxiety, it is said to be in fundamental and inherent authenticity (Eigenlichkeit). It was the philosopher Martin Heidegger who set out this ontological perspective and touched on the issue of “authentic existence” in Sein und Zeit (Being and Time). This authenticity of being metamorphoses the state of everyday “being there” (Dasein) into authentic existence. An authentically finite self anticipates its eventual death and projects (Entwurf) itself into authentic being, thus breaking from the self-contained self.

  • In my view, the concept of authentic being is closely aligned with the monistic dualism of mind and body. A human being conceived as a dualistic entity of mind and body is an existence placed on a path to absolute nothingness, or death. Of course, death in Western existentialism is the negation and perishing of being. Little or no attention is paid to the state beyond death. Even though Dasein anticipates its own death, it does not pursue the absolute domain that death ushers in. In contrast, traditional Eastern thought does not consider the death of body and soul to be a perishing, but as either a threshold through which existence enters the absolute world or a stage where existence is united with the infinite world. Therefore the meaning of existence expands to the dynamic absolute (taiji) or nothingness. While the East and the West may differ in their answers to what constitutes authenticity of being, both affirm death to be instrumental in opening up the complete possibility of being, or the ultimate infiniteness that establishes the meaning of our existence.

The Meaning of “Geometry”

  • The monistic dualism of body and mind provides an effective framework when we seek to grasp the significance of “geometry” as specified in the titles of works such as Geometry of Body and Geometry of Mind. It is obvious that the artist did not intend geometry to be a mathematical study dealing with figures or space. Kimsooja’s geometry is an intuitive method to help visualize complex ideas around the metaphysical notions of body or mind. The artist, by employing such a geometric method, reminds viewers of the dualistic and agonistic structure of body and mind — or the dualistic structure of material and consciousness, of the finite and the infinite, and of authenticity and non-authenticity of being. Furthermore, through geometric structure, Kimsooja leads each viewer to think of possible aspects of being. Geometry in this case can be understood as a statistician’s method that transforms a great deal of complex information into visual models, or a logician’s method of deductive reasoning in which concrete and evident facts are laid out as the ground for general principles. This methodological approach has helped the artist to avoid being lured into subjective, emotional traps while rendering images and objects in the visual arts. Kimsooja could better convey her ideas to the viewer thanks to intuitive clarity and deductive facility offered by this geometric method. Thus we could argue that her works can be categorized as conceptual art.

  • Verticality and horizontality, as key elements of a geometric structure, can effectively represent the ideas underlying a monistic dualism of the body and mind. Since the early 1980s, Kimsooja’s works almost without exception have a structure of verticality and horizontality, with intersections of longitudinal and transversal lines in an orderly fashion. The structure of perpendicular lines intersecting each other and extending in opposite directions displays a sense of expanding movement that unfolds toward infinity, while maintaining balance in the four cardinal directions. This structure creates an open-ended space in which the inside communicates with the outside and movement can take place in any direction. When a vertical and a horizontal line intersect, the four directions come into being. As lines are added through that intersection, the number of directions increases to eight, sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four, and so on. In traditional East Asian philosophy and religion, these numbers signify time and space. In the Yijing, the sacred book of Confucianism, sixty-four trigrams symbolize sixty-four directions and represent divergent attributes of being. In the Buddhist scripture Taejanggaemandara, the eight lotus petals called jungdaepalyeobeon — which contain the four Buddhas of east, west, south and north and the four Buddhas of the northeast, southeast, northwest and southwest — symbolize the omnipresence of Buddha throughout the universe. Additionally, the eight or sixteen spokes of the wheel represent the Buddhist Dharma that permeates all directions of the universe. It is also the archetypal image of wonyoongmuae, which means “all things in all directions with no obstructions and in perfect integration.” The vertical and horizontal structure underlying all these concepts may be viewed as the dualistic structure of yin and yang or of heaven and earth, symbolizing the universe as an unhindered infinite space.

  • The concept of cheonjiinsamjae, as expounded in the Yijing, offers an interesting perspective on how the universe functions in relation to human beings. It adds the human being to the dualistic order of heaven and earth. Even though the universe initially comprised these two fundamental elements, human beings have come to be an indispensable mediator between heaven and earth, enabling the universe to function at its full capacity. A dualistic view of heaven and earth presumes that the world is just spread between the earth and the sky does not accommodate the use of the human mind, and is devoid of any engagement with human mind or attention. In contrast, the theory of samjaeron, the theory of three generative forces, asserts a role for human beings in the operation of heaven and earth. It raises the status of human beings to the same level , while asserting that human beings are the linchpin that holds together the universe. The inclusion of humans alters the traditional view of nature into a humanistic view of the world. Owing to this shift of views, nature philosophy in the East evolved into a humanistic moral philosophy, as manifested in Confucianism. The Doctrine of the Mean, written by the Confucian scholar Zisi, states that a human being is able to assist in change and operation of the universe and, if he or she is willing, can participate in the ranks of the three generative forces. For this, a person should perfect his or her own “human identity” bestowed by the universe. The Doctrine of the Mean dictates that it is imperative for human identity to be in compliance with the principles of the universe, or li. This is called the axiom of sungjeuklee, which means “human identity equal to the principle of the universe,” and is considered the core proposition of Confucianism. Therefore people should always cultivate their own body and mind so that their human identity is in sync with the principles of the universe — that is, in the state of golden mean. This is a state of balance maintained by a steady mind that does not get disturbed or swayed in any direction. A person in the state of golden mean attains his or her original identity, which is aligned with the principles of the universe, and can effectuate a harmonious world. If the human, who is a significant medium in helping to change and operate the world, is absent or disengaged, what would become of the world? Then, heaven and earth would remain indifferent to each other, separate, without relation, which brings us back to a dichotomous dualism. With humans engaged in conscious efforts to realize the principles of the universe, a dualistic structure is replaced by a monistic dualism of the world.

  • Although humans are finite beings, as mediators, they have the potential to reach for heaven in vertical relations and traverse the earth in horizontal relations. The vertical-horizontal structure defines our infinite universe. The encounter of yang, the spirit of heaven, and yin, the spirit of earth, procreates living matter and entities. Of these, only humans can join as the third of the three generative forces of the universe and engage in the operations of heaven and earth. Humans are capable of giving unitary interpretations of the world and of nature, as only humans have mind. According to the Doctrine of the Mean the ideal state of existence is the golden mean, which is alternatively called the middle or composure in the sense that it is the harmonious middle between yin and yang. The notion of composure resonates with ataraxia — “imperturbability,” the composed and stable state of mind and body sought after by the Epicurean School of ancient Greece. They believed human happiness exists in the state of ataraxia just as Confucian scholars asserted that if humans abide by the rule of the golden mean they are able to live a life that is delightful, worry free and happy, a life in which they perceive their own humanity without imbalance or bias.

  • The geometry of vertical and horizontal structure embodies a state of calm and composure that does not tilt to one side — this composure of body and mind is similar to what Confucianism pursued. The most fitting image of the stability of mind and body in the state of composure would be one of a vertical and horizontal structure in balance. Kimsooja may not have intentionally predicated her works on the propositions of Confucianism or, more precisely, Neo-Confucianism, however, it cannot be denied that her framework parallels them quite aptly. Just as Heidegger argued for the existential being to be authentic (to stay in existential anxiety by facing death and thereby overcoming the dualism between existence and nothingness), Confucian philosophies pursued a more positive human existence that communicates with the infinite and the absolute — a spatial and temporal realm that cannot be experienced. Confucianism in particular emphasized the universe as the root of the beginning and end, of the world of yin and yang. The basic tenet of Confucianism lies in the harmonization of human identity with the cardinal rule of the universe and living a balanced life in accordance with the order of yin and yang.

  • Kimsooja’s Geometry of Mind, an installation that was shown for the first time in this exhibition, prompts us to closely analyze the mind and realize it indeed is unified with the body as one and at the same time is related to authentic human identity. As there is no way to define this mind, we instead have to observe what state the mind exists in. When we observe our own mind, we realize that it initially has no shape or movement — it exists in a state of potential. It is only when a stimulus enters that the mind moves and arises; it oscillates to the state of reality filled with perception and emotion. The mind’s tranquil state of potential, while traversing through the time and space of our reality, transforms into a state of “being real” and reveals itself in this process. One of the annotations to the Yijing refers to the state of mind that has not yet been revealed to the outside as “the mind being calm and undisturbed.” In comparison, the state of mind that is revealed and able to respond is referred to as “the mind feeling and communicating.” Cheng Yi, a renowned Confucian scholar, wrote that a “calm and undisturbed state” is the original body of mind, and the state of “mind feeling and communicating” is the operation of mind. He postulated a duality of mind as an a priori state and an experienced state.

  • Since the nature of mind cannot be seen or touched, Confucians viewed it as empty. Buddhists viewed the mind as nothingness. Nevertheless, the mind is not completely empty. The energy of yin and yang is implicitly embedded in the mind. When the mind that has remained calm, it takes an orientation toward something at a given moment, the energy of yin and yang is activated, enabling the mind to feel. This energy allows the mind to realize or embody itself through time and space, and also allows the mind to change into various shapes. Zhu Xi, the founder of Neo-Confucianism in the Song period, compared the nature of the mind to a mirror that is clean and clear, and explained that emotion is something reflected on the mirror of the mind — that is, a reflection of the mind’s mysterious movement. He referred to the change and function of the human mind as “mysterious perception, sensation and judgment”. This mysterious function of mind has two aspects: one is the self-control of trifling emotions and desires generated by the body, and the other is the moral or ethical mind, which is based on human identity. The ethical intelligence refers to a mind that feels shame when it sees something that is not right and detests injustice, a mind of humility and accommodation for other people, and a mind that can discern right from wrong. This mind comes from a place of truth and must be encouraged. This ethical mind provides clues for understanding four personalities: gentle and virtuous, righteous, polite and civil, and wise and sagacious. The mind based on human identity acts as a swinging pendulum, gradually leading us to a state of balanced composure as well as a state of authentic being.

  • Eastern essence-function theory states that the mind would be in a peaceful pause when the body is also paused, and the mind would respond and feel once the body is activated. In other words, states of the mind are understood to match states of the body. This postulation of a mind-body identity is predicated on the theory that both mind and body are subject to the same energies of yin and yang. For this reason, a human being is defined as one and at the same time as two, entailing an argument that a human being can be split in two while maintaining its wholeness. This is the unification of matter and mind. In relation to the tranquility and movement of the mind, Nancy discusses something of note in Corpus. He paraphrased a quotation from Freud that came to light after his death: “the soul is unfolding (étendue) outwards, [but of the movement of being unfolded,] nothing is known.” If we substitute this “soul” for “mind,” we can see that that mind resides peacefully inside and then migrates outward and unfolds itself. The mind is not able to perceive its own movement of expansion because its unfolding is carried out unconsciously and quietly. However, if the unfolded mind makes contact with the body, the body of the mind would move towards the outside and evoke the unification of stillness and movement in the manner of twoness (mind and body) within one (the self) and oneness within twoness. Nancy makes clear that the self’s “unknowing” is the authentic self, and the process of the soul moving toward the outside, registering bodily sensation and going through thoughts and experiences, is the means of the unification of stillness and movement through which the unity of mind and body is exposed to world. Neo-Confucianism long ago explained the phenomenon of the mind being unified with the body (that is its own outside) and expanding toward the world through its essence-function theory.

  • Nothing could illustrate the stillness and then movement of the mind more vividly and persuasively than an experience that came upon Kimsooja one day in 1983, when she was sewing a bedcover with her mother. Suddenly she came to an important realization:

  • Through the banal activity of sewing a bed cover with my mother, I experienced a surprising sensation that my own thoughts, sensitivity and action were all integrated. That unifying sensation was so private and surprising. At that moment, I was able to find some kind of possibility that can include within itself countless memories, pain, as well as affection and love in life, all of which I had buried within me until that moment. The warp and weft as the fabric’s basic structure, the raw sense of colour of our own fabric, the unification of the action of sewing up and through the two-dimensional fabric, the fabric and myself and the strange nostalgia that all of this evoked...with all of this I was completely enchanted.
    Later, when describing this experience again, she recounted that when the sharp needle poked into the fabric, she felt the energy of the universe suddenly penetrating through her whole body. This surprising epiphanic experience not only marked the origin of her Sewing series but also helped form the spiritual archetype for her oeuvre. The coincidence of the tension of mind with that of the body in the act of sewing brought memories and emotions that had been buried deep inside the mind to the threshold of the unconscious. This in turn electrified and moved the artist’s body and mind. Kimsooja described how this experience of the unification of her mind and body gave birth to Sewing, in which the meaning of the needle and thread is rooted in oneness of mind and body. Just as mind and body are two sides of a real being, needle and thread are as one and, as a unified entity, do the work of sewing the fabric — which symbolizes the outside world or the infinite space between heaven and earth. In the installation Archive of Mind, the participants are given an opportunity to experience the same kind of epiphany through the ritualistic act of forming clay balls rolled between their hands.

  • When one is touched by an artwork, his or her mind is stimulated in response: “the tranquil and unstirred mind” begins to “communicate and stir” in response to the stimulus, thus, revealing itself. In the Sewing series, Kimsooja’s artworks have been structured in a way to best resonate with the stillness and the movement of mind. The bed cover is worked with needle and thread that symbolize the oneness of body and mind. The fabric, smoothly spread out, is a horizontal structure that accommodates the movement of the mind traversing over it. Against the backdrop of the horizontal fabric, the vertical movement of sewing through the warps and wefts represents the unfolding of the mind. The mind, in sync with the hand-movement of sewing, eventually brings to the surface the nature of being and emotion that has been sequestered in the unconscious. It is not just the repetitive hand movement that stirs the stillness of mind; the artist’s mind and body are stimulated on multiple levels. For example, the colorful, traditional fabric Kimsooja uses serves as a strong stimulus for the visual and tactile senses. Furthermore, the artist is inspired by the cultural implications of these silk fabrics. The vertical and horizontal structures in Kimsooja’s work are the most conspicuous visual stimuli that inspire the viewers.

  • ...

  • The artist’s working method, which is to join squares of fabric along their widths and lengths and multiply them by sewing, also aligns with the structure of verticality and horizontality. To the question of what Geometry of Mind and Geometry of Body mean, answers may be found if one understands the principles of the three generative forces and the manifestation of heaven, earth, and human. Now let’s delve further into the geometry of the vertical and horizontal structure.

  • As suggested above, the geometry of the vertical and horizontal structure has nothing to do with reifying certain idealistic concepts, nor with the identification and classification of conceptual objects in a geometric lattice. The geometry of the vertical-horizontal structure in this essay refers to a method that helps one intuit the infiniteness of the universe or the intrinsic nature of the uncertainty of being, as well as intuit the state of balance between dualistic, antagonistic elements such as body and mind, or yin and yang. Geometric structuralization is a method to facilitate the observation and reflection of complex, often conceptual, notions. It is necessary to rely on such methods in order to have categorical, systematic or structural unity when contemplating the essence of the indeterminate consciousness called mind. Through this method we are able to reach the intuition of and reflect on such topics as body and mind, or yin and yang, all of which are indefinable by knowledge.

  • In a similar vein, Julia Kristeva, a semiologist, opts for a dualistic system of the semiotic and the symbolic in order to explain how the signification of poetic language is ingenerated from pulsion, which exists under the consciousness. It is, in fact, impossible to formulate the disorderliness and pulsation that flows and moves into a state of segmentation in a self-evident logic or axiom. Nonetheless, Kristeva hypothesizes that pulsion, the drive of desire, generates the ultimate signification of the text. She divides the process of signification into the strata of semiotic and symbolic, and investigates the interaction of these two. Consequently, she claims that signification is ingenerated out of the semiotic field in which the fragmented pulsion is condensed and subsequently connected to the symbolic field in which law, order, and social consciousness are concentrated. In other words, the two conflicting categories are connected in such a way that the semiotic mobility engages with the symbolic order, the former moving into the latter to compose signification.

  • There can be many possible interpretations for the vertical and horizontal structure that characterizes Kimsooja’s work. One would be as follows: (a) the expansion of mind construed as the expansion of the energy of pulsion in the field of the semiotic, (b) the integration of the body with the outside world interpreted as the unification with society and history in the symbolic field, and (c) the monistic dualism of body and mind construed as the formation of signification generated from the cooperation of the semiotic and the symbolic. The mind is the realm that is indefinite and uncertain, like the field of the semiotic. Yet it can be said that the mind’s own expanding energy — that is, the body — creates the meaning of “being” along with the order of the symbolic, such as sewing, the hand movement of rolling clay balls, or the somatic movement of yoga. As for how the pulsion that moves across the artist’s body and mind gives rise to certain meanings in the process of sewing, that is, at the moment of “poking the sharp needle” into the fabric, the artist explained: I experienced a surprising sensation that my own thoughts, sensitivity and action were all integrated. That unifying sensation was so private and surprising. At that moment, I was able to find some kind of possibility that can include within itself countless memories, pain, as well as affection and love in life, all of which I had buried within me until that moment. [...] the strange nostalgia that all of this evoked...with all of this I was completely enchanted.

  • Kimsooja mused that the meaning of her works is forged when subconscious memories and feelings are introduced to the consciousness, causing her to reflect on the innate nature of being. Is this not the true role of art? Art should let the artist’s hidden desires that have been forgotten or hidden in the mundane or everyday to be truly unfolded and expanded onto the horizon of the consciousness, and enable her or him to experience the epiphanic moment of recovering the original emotion and nature of being. It is for this reason that I sincerely recommend viewers immerse themselves and directly participate in the process through which the artist creates the meaning of her art, thereby relishing the opportunity to relive their own memories and feelings as well as intuit the nature of being.

— Extract of Kimsooja: Archive of Mind. Exhibition Catalogue published by National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, 2017

To Breathe, 2017-2021, Rendering of the Site Specific Permanent Installation, Mairie de Saint-Ouen Metro Staion, Paris, France. Commission of the RATP Régie autonome des transports parisiens. Courtesy of the RATP and Kimsooja Studio

A Journey through Immobility

Jérôme Sans

2017

  • JS : How would you define your work?

  • K : I view my work as a threshold: “any place or point of entering or beginning, a magnitude or intensity that must be exceeded for a certain reaction, phenomenon, result, or condition to occur or be manifested.”

  • JS : Would you call some of your works self-portraits? Is it important that you yourself are in some works?

  • K : In some ways, my work could be viewed as a self-portrait. I do not wish to display my personal identity in my work—especially in the video performances when my back is facing the viewer—but the position demonstrated does show a certain kind of identity. I think a person’s back can be one of the most evocative parts of the human body; it isn’t dynamic, but it presents a profound and abstract encapsulation of a person.

  • JS : How do you consider the globalized world?

  • K : A globalized world sounds very positive, dynamic, interconnected: a constant flow of cultural, economic, technological, and intellectual interactions. But we face many visible and invisible divisions created by constant border crossings: racial, economic, political, and religious conflicts. The standardization of daily life under globalism could benefit those who need it most, but we lose the authenticity, spirituality, and the myth of a land and its people. Globalism reduces the uniqueness and specificity of humanity, although new technology will bring a new facet.

  • JS : What do you think of migration today?

  • K : More than five million Syrians have migrated to Greece, Turkey, Germany, and nearby countries; there is a constant flow from Africa to Southern Italy and Spain; people from Mexico and Central and Latin America try to get to the United States. As an artist who has always been concerned with borders, migration, and refugee issues, especially from living near the Korean Demilitarized Zone during my childhood, I am shocked by President Trump’s decision to block borders, deny immigrants a new life in the United States, and deport second-generation immigrants.
    American citizens have to pay attention to this humanitarian issue, especially since only a few organizations and individuals are focused on the refugee crisis. Major European countries are taking risks to support and help the refugees. Along with global warming, it is the most urgent issue of our time.

  • JS : Your work deals with exile and displacement. Do you feel exiled too?

  • K : Definitely. I have considered myself a cultural exile since 1999. Recently, I’ve collaborated with Korean-specific projects, such as Année France-Corée for a solo show at the Centre Pompidou-Metz in 2015 and the MMCA Hyundai Motor 2016 project. Still, my position as an artist remains that of an outsider rather than insider, even though I’ve been well received. Perhaps it is the fundamental nature of being an artist?

  • JS : You have lived in New York for several years, how have things changed for you?

  • K :Thanks to support from Arts Council Korea in 1992, I was able to participate in the P.S. 1 studio residency program in New York. I met people who understood my work and viewed it objectively, with enthusiasm and generosity. It really opened up possibilities for me. Due to the Korean financial crisis in the late 1990s, I was not able to receive financial and intellectual support for my work. It truly disappointed me and made me realize that I needed to find support outside Korea.
    In the last ten years, this has changed dramatically and Korea is now one of the most supportive countries in the world. However, when I go back to Korea, I am too established to get support from my country. The level of professionalism still needs to be raised, especially in governmental organizations.
    Where to live, work, and die are big questions. You need a nation to live—but you don’t need a nation to die.

  • JS : The idea of displacement is very present within your work.

  • K : All good art is made from thinking outside the box. In that sense, having displacement as a condition of life is not a bad choice for an artist.

  • JS : In some of your works, like A Needle Woman (1999–2001, 2005, 2009), immobility rather than displacement is present. Is it a way to show personal identity toward the global world?

  • K : In my practice, the notion of duality and its complex geometry and disorder are always present through my understanding of the world. While I am presenting my immobility, which is impossible in literal terms, a lot of mobility happens in my body and mind, allowing me to reach to the place and moment of my performances. This immobility gives me an anchor to hold onto, so my journey flows through immobility.

  • JS : Some of your works and installations are made with bottari, meaning, “to pack for a trip.” Which trip are you addressing?

  • K : The bottari represent our body and skin, their agony and memory as a wrapped frame for life. Bottari are the simplest way of holding objects or belongings that embody many meanings and temporal dimensions. A trip could be a simple A-to-B, or a relocation, or a separation of a couple in feminist terms, wrapping only the most essential belongings in an emergency—migration, exile, or our final journey: death.

  • JS : Do you consider yourself as a nomad?

  • K : Yes, fundamentally.

  • JS : Your work is an invitation to a sensorial and visual trip—a way to travel without moving.

  • K : We can easily grasp what is going on in this hyper-informed society, but we can’t experience true reality, not in depth. All experiences are limited by the conditions of space and time; I am determined to witness the here and now, living through my eyes and body, sharing my experiences with the audiences.

  • JS : In the emblematic work, A Needle Woman, you stand in moving crowds. Who was this needle woman? And who is she now?

  • K : A Needle Woman is a woman who gazes at the world, gazing at and witnessing the world without acting. She allows us to take a journey to reality and reach for the ontological root—our destiny. She is there as a tool, a question, a permanency; I am here as a temporality.

  • JS : In your installation To Breathe – A Mirror Woman (2006), shown in Madrid, we can hear your own breathing, filling the space. What is your relationship to the body and the act of breathing?

  • K : I’ve always reinterpreted and recontextualized existing concepts, depending on the site, the questions I had, and the relationship to other works and sites. This installation has three different components from past projects. The Weaving Factory (2004), was my first sound performance, I overlapped my breathing and humming; it developed from the idea of my body as a weaving machine, inspired by an old textile factory in Lodz, Poland, for the First Lodz Biennale. Later, I worked on a video installation commissioned by Teatro La Fenice, Venice, called To Breathe (2006), which incorporated The Weaving Factory. La Fenice is an opera house and singing is about breathing. When I was invited to make a work for the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid, I brought all of these elements together, contextualized as a bottari and as a void. Attaching the diffraction film to the architecture was an act of wrapping and unfolding the daylight into a rainbow spectrum.

  • JS : One of your upcoming projects is a work for the new subway station at Mairie de Saint-Ouen in Paris.

  • K : Although it is a site-specific and permanent installation, this project brings me back to the body/work and audience/pedestrian relationships in A Needle Woman. This installation will symbolize another body of mine, one that witnesses the station’s pedestrians. The diffraction film installation will function as my body, standing still in the station and witnessing the pedestrians, while offering the public a forum.

  • JS : You were teaching at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. What is your connection to Paris?

  • K : Paris was the first western city I visited; I stayed for six months in the mid-1980s. A scholarship from the French government allowed me to work at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in the lithography studio. Whenever I had a project in Europe in past thirty years, I’ve also visited Paris, even if I didn’t have any particular reason.
    During my six-month stay in Paris, I traveled to other European cities for the first time, visiting major museums in Germany, Italy, Holland, and England. I was 27 years old. I absorbed the language, art, culture, and life in Paris, they are forever in my memory. In 1985 at the Biennale de Paris, I first encountered John Cage’s work. Although I knew of him as an avant-garde composer, I had never heard his music live, or seen any of his visual works. With great curiosity, I entered an empty railway car to hear his sound piece, but there was only silence and a simple written statement, “Que vous essayez de le faire ou pas, le son est entendu” (“Whether we try to make it or not, the sound is heard”).
    It was interesting that I learned so much from an American avant-garde composer, rather than from European art or artists, although I was aware of the French Supports/Surfaces group and the influential artists at the time. After my encounter with Cage’s work, I became curious about American art and culture for the first time.
    I’ve shown quite often in France, the French government and institutions have supported many of my works, and I owe them a lot. I was admitted to the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the Minister of Culture for my modest contribution to French culture. I have a love for Paris and French culture and want to spend more time working there.

  • JS : What new avenues are you exploring?

  • K : Since 2010 I’ve been working on a 16mm film series titled Thread Routes, filming textile cultures from around the world: Peruvian weavings (chapter I), European lacemaking (chapter II), Nomadic Indian textiles (chapter III), Chinese embroidery (chapter IV), Native American weaving (chapter V), and African textiles (chapter VI). I can’t wait to visit Africa to film soon. Since 2016, I have realized a large-scale participatory installation titled Archive of Mind, firstly for a solo exhibition at the National Museum for Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, as part of the MMCA Hyundai Motor Series. This project is evolving and was presented at the Intuition exhibition at Palazzo Fortuny in Venice this year, and opens up to explore the sculptural aspect of my practice from the position of a painter.
    There is also a new installation at Nijo Castle, Kyoto, commissioned by the Culture City of East Asia, with the title Asian Corridor; it’s a ten-panel folding mirror screen on a mirrored floor, entitled Encounter – A Mirror Woman (2017). This is my second East Asian City project, the first, in Nara, was Deductive Object (2016), a black sculpture, inspired by an Indian ritual stone called Brahmanda (a cosmic egg in Hindu culture), installed on top of a mirror panel.
    These works redefine the geometry of bottari and the surface of the symbolic bottari that represents the totality of the universe. I want to explore further what this could bring to my future practice. I am also starting new clay works. All of these are exciting, new directions to keep exploring, and I am very curious about the outcome.

  • JS : How do you see the future?

  • K : The future doesn’t exist anymore—it is past.

— Kimsooja: Interviews Exhibition Catalogue published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König in association with Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, 2018
This interview was conducted in summer 2017 via email in conjunction with one of Kimsooja’s upcoming projects, a work for a new subway station in Paris.

Archive of Mind, 2016, participatory site specific installation consisting of clay balls, 19 m elliptical wooden table, and sound performance Unfolding Sphere, 2016. Installation view at Kimsooja - Archive of Mind at MMCA, Seoul. Courtesy of MMCA and Hyundai Motor Co. and Kimsooja Studio. Photo by Aaron Wax.

Create A New Light

A Conversation between Kimsooja and Hou Hanru

2016

  • H.H : Letís start with travel. Today, we are constantly traveling: last week we were in New York and now youíre in Berlin and Iím in Rome. Traveling has become a norm of contemporary life, both in the everyday and in the artistic. . . .

  • K : Yes, traveling has become increasingly common in this era. In a way, we are living and working on the move.

  • H.H : So this is really a state of being. Traveling is also a very important aspect in your work. From the beginning, you reflected on the question of identity from a female perspective, using traditional Korean textiles with your Bottari works. This question is also addressed from another perspective, that of an artist who is constantly traveling and moving. You look at the world through the lens of a nomad. Traveling has become a common motivation for people to reflect on the subject of identity.

  • K : Yes, definitely.

  • H.H : On the other hand, travel has become a way of life, donít you think?

  • K : Traveling has always been a part of my life. From a young age, I lived in various cities and villages, moving every couple of years within South Korea, including the Demilitarized Zone where my father served. Sorok Island, where my husband and I lived during his military service as a psychiatrist, was especially isolated from the public because it was used as a national hospital for leprosy patients. As a member of a nomadic family, traveling became my reality. My visual experience and perspective on nature and humanity have developed significantly from these transitory places and moments. One important experience was in 1978 when Hongik University, which I attended, started an exchange program with Osaka University; it was an eye opening experience about Korea and Korean cultural identity. Although Japan is only a short distance away, the trip altered my perception of Asian cultures and their differences. This began my investigation of my culture, such as the structural elements of architecture, furniture, language, nature, and sense of colors. I rediscovered that the aesthetics, the sensibilities of colors and forms, are very different in Korea and Japan. This period coincided with my investigation of the horizontal and vertical structures in nature, canvas, and all types of cruciform visual elements. This was the subject of my thesis, focusing on the cross in ancient and contemporary art. In 1984, I received a scholarship to the …cole nationale supÈrieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, to study printmaking for six months. It was my first exposure to European art and ancient culture; as a result, I started to inquire what is new in art and culture after European art history, and became interested in learning about American culture.

  • H.H : This led to a new direction in your life and work. Also, your traveling changed from national to international, from local to global. In the meantime, the image of bottari was introduced to represent this tension, between trying to be at home and travelling across the world. . . .

  • K : I didnít realize that my family had been wrapping and unwrapping bottaris all the time until I worked on Cities on the Move ñ 2,727 km Bottari Truck (1997), a performance and video project for the Cities on the Move exhibition, which you and Hans Ulrich Obrist curated in 1997. It marked a turning point in my work from local to global travel. I hadnít considered that I was dealing with global travel, as the journey was deeply personal. It was a record of my familyís roots, but many people thought the project was dealing with globalism. Maybe thatís true, in the sense that the performance can represent migration. Cities on the Move traveled to so many cities; the title served as its destiny and global exchange in the arts had been launched.

  • H.H : Can you talk about your move to New York?

  • K : I consider my move to New York as a ìcultural exileî from Korean society. It was the moment when I made more critical performances: the series A Needle Woman (1999ñ2001), A Homeless Woman (2000ñ2001), and A Beggar Woman (2000ñ2001). I made them right after I moved to New York during a transitional periodóI felt like I was stepping off a cliff, with one foot already in the air. This risky move made me reflect on my surroundings and the human condition more critically. I started living in Berlin recently, although I am not sure if it will be for the long term. Itís interesting because it brings me back to when I established myself in New York in the late 1990s. That was a very difficult moment for me, every single step of the way, adjusting to a new society. Currently I am located in the Moabit area, which is a multicultural neighborhood. I like it, but I feel alienated. As an artist, I cherish this ambiguous state; distance and alienation bring me to a more objective and critical perception. I want to keep that critical distance all the time and New York provides that. Each time I arrive back in New York, I find a new definition, or have a specific feeling about New York, one that I havenít had before. When I feel that Iím losing perspective, I relocate myself, but I cannot deny that I somewhat respect the familiarity and rhythms of mundane life.

  • H.H : You have spoken of being a Korean woman growing up in a family influenced by Confucianism. Obviously, you were aware of very important social and political changes in Korea in the 1980s and 1990s. Maybe growing up in a military family allowed you to experience this change in a way that other people would not? How much has this background influenced your way of thinking and art making? Was there was a moment of emancipation from this background?

  • K : Both of my parents were from Catholic families and very open-minded; however, as my father was the only son, he had to follow the traditional Confucian ways, which were deeply rooted in Korean society.
    As a military family, we lived in temporary and sometimes dangerous places, like refugees, migrating from one place to another. During my elementary school years, I lived near the Demilitarized Zone, in and around Cheorwon and Daegwang-ri, the second to last stop on the Kyung-Eui train line, which used to run all the way to North Korea. We often heard stories about North Korean spies who snuck into South Korea, and there were casualties every now and then. We didnít live far from a mined area; kids played with the spent bullets and would get injured by the landmines. I am of the generation, born a few years after the Korean War, who really experienced the conditions of the war and the conflict that it brought to our daily lives. Iíve always been aware of the Other, because of my daily experience with the border. My thoughts on borders and those living on the other side made me question the relationship between myself and the Other. The idea of a border and questioning it had to do with being a painteróreacting to the canvas as another border. I tried to overcome this border, or limit, in front of me, and connect with the Other. This was also part of the psychology in my sewing practice. The act of wrapping, with bottaris, is a way of three-dimensional sewing; it is unifying in that sense. Borders have always been part of an underlying psychology and challenge in my work.

  • H.H : In the 1980s Korea transitioned from a military dictatorship to a democracy. You began exhibiting your work during this period, can you describe your early exhibition experiences?
    I started showing in 1978 when I was in my third year at Hongik University; it was a two-person show at the Growrich Gallery in Seoul. I hung a series of transparent films on a laundry line; they were silkscreened with images of a traditional Korean doorframe taken in a forest, one showed me holding it from behind and one was without me. I also installed two pieces of wood, inserting Plexiglas between them, with the wood blocks slightly tilted and following the curves of the wood. The other artist was my classmate Lee Yoon-Dong, who experimented by dripping black coal tar pigment on canvas; the work questioned gravity and materiality and its rhythm. I showed a few times in Japan and Taiwan in the mid- to late-1980s and in the US after the early 1990s, but it was not until the mid-1990s that I started to exhibit more globally. Some shows included Division of Labor: Womenís Work in Contemporary Art at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, which traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1995), the First Gwangju Biennale (1995), and Manifesta 1 at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam (1996).
    Globalism has expanded and affected much of our thinking about our way of making art, and our way of living. It seems almost inevitable to work globally, especially as I work a lot with site-specific performances, installations, and videos.
    Many female artists were extremely active and audacious in their workóoften performancesóduring this transitional period in the 1990s. Lee Bul is another well-known female artist. How did you feel about this? And why did you decide to leave Korea in 1999, right after participating in the Twenty-fourth S„o Paulo Biennial (1998)?

  • K : In the 1990s, female artists, including myself, were engaged in performances using their bodies. I think that had to do with womenís social status in Korea at that time. Many female artists were associated with feminism. But performance art was already popular in the 1970s and 1980s in Korea, under the rubric of Happenings or Events, mostly by the Avant-Garde group, or the S. T group, which was entirely male, except one female artist, Chung Kang-Ja. During the mid-1990s, women did not have the equality they have nowómuch of our daily lives was governed by a patriarchal Confucian value system.
    After my residency at P.S. 1, Long Island City, NY (1992ñ93), my first solo show was at Seomi Gallery in Seoul; I showed three of my first performance videos Sewing into Walking ñ Kyungju, Yang Dong Village, and Mai Mountain (1994), and a Bottari installation. Used clothes were also installed on the gallery floor together with rows of TV monitors with Bottaris as a ìmedia Bottari,î and surveillance camera footage of re-wrapping the space of the wrapped Bottaris. These works could have been easily associated with feminism, but I refused the feminist label, owing to the formal and conceptual elements of my Bottaris, and my approach to universality. As a female artist, it was not easy to survive in this hierarchical and patriarchal society, or even in the global art world, until now. I noticed Korean social and cultural issues more clearly after my return from the P.S 1 residency. At the same time, economic development changed Korean society, which was quickly shaken by the financial crisis starting in 1997. I was chosen to represent Korea for the Twenty-fourth S„o Paulo Biennial, but I couldnít get any state support, only from a couple of individuals and a commission from ARCO. Korea wasnít able to ship my Cities on the Move ñ 11,633 Miles Bottari Truck (1998) from Korea to S„o Paulo. I felt hopeless and disappointed by my country, and I had to accept personal support from Korean-Brazilian immigrants who had heard about my situation. This situation confirmed my decision to find support elsewhere, so I moved to New York.
    I established myself as an artist without much support from my home country until recently. After the late 1990s financial crisis, the slowly growing Korean art market and Korean journalism often misled audiences by promoting marketable and status-oriented artists. My career trajectory is totally different from that of older and younger generations, who constantly receive support from the state and their galleries.

  • H.H : Around that period, several important art movements were created by students to oppose the power of the establishment.

  • K : Minjung Art was one and there were many modernist and postmodernist group activities that were against the established movements, such as Nanjido and Metavox from the mid-1980s. The newer groups were organized by artists from Hongik University, where I studied. Other groupsóMuseum, TARA, Logos and Pathówere also around. I kept myself completely independent, although I was friends with some of the members.

  • H.H : Minjung Art and artists from your generation represented a tendency toward conceptual and experimental forms of creation, especially performance and installation. What was your role?

  • K : Prior to my generation, there were experimental modernist group movements, such as the Avant-Garde and S. T. groups, which coexisted with the Dansaekhwa artists. I didnít follow Dansaekhwa art theory or practice, although the theories were predominant at Hongik University. Also, there was a big age gap between my generation and the Dansaekhwa members.
    When I was at Hongik University attending undergraduate and graduate school (1976ñ1980 and 1982ñ84), the Minjung Art movement was slowly happening and I knew a few of the leading members. We would meet casually in a study group, as I was intellectually interested for some time, but when they wanted me to join, I couldnít because I always had a certain resentment about focusing only on political issues and such dogmatism. I couldnít connect with the aggression of some of the political art. At that time I was making art that was abstract, performative, conceptual, and spiritual.
    I had zero interest in any group or collective activities. I always kept myself independent by questioning the monopoly of the Dansaekhwa group, to which most of my professors belonged. I voiced my opinions in classes to open up the dialogue, offering my fellow students different possibilities and perspectives. I kept myself completely isolated, to be independent from political and artistic hierarchies, to preserve my own integrity. It has been a long and lonely path. To address further your question about my role in performance and installation in a Korean art context: the large scale of my site-specific installations and global performance projects in the 1990s and early 2000s might have influenced a younger generation in Korea, as I see many are expanding their practices. Iíve noticed that some of my interestsóthe notion of the needle, thread, wrapping, and unfoldingóhave achieved wider currency in current contemporary art, particularly in art concerned with the body, textiles, and everyday life.

  • H.H : People often identify you as a leading figure, together with a few younger artists such as Lee Bul or Choi Jeong-Hwa. They express similar positions, confronting the status quo, social and political situations. Lee Bulís work is a kind of counter-violence against oppression, while your work is much more related to meditation and transcendence. You use intimate materials such as textiles and bottaris. How did you arrive at this language?

  • K : I cannot associate with any type of violence or raw expression. In that sense, Iíve been working closely with non-violence and that is my position to the individual and society. I couldnít and didnít engage directly with political issues. The artistic language that I created has always stemmed from a healing perspective, maybe because of my compassion for humanity and my vulnerability to violence.
    This vulnerability might be rooted in my childhood experience of living near the Korean border, among others. I felt innately vulnerable. I cannot watch scenes of violence and my inclination has always been to embrace and connect with those around me. However, it is true that I gain strength through resistance and patience. Maybe this mindset originated when I discovered sewing and needlework as a methodology for healingódespite the violent potential of a needle. Searching for my own medium, I focused on vertical, horizontal, and cruciform structures in the world. In 1983, when I was making a bedcover with my mother, I was about to push the needle into the brilliant, soft, and silky fabricóbut when the needle touched the fabric, I experienced a revelation, as if the whole universeís energy passed through my body to the tip of the needle. I immediately recognized the relation with this border, the surface, and the vertical and horizontal woven structure that was penetrated by the needle. The fabric had a woven vertical and horizontal pattern (warp and weft) and I saw this as a way to investigate the surface of a structure as a painting. This action and experience was the moment that I ìinterwoveî myself as a person who is innately vulnerable, seeking to connect with and embrace those around me.
    At the same time this experience coincided with my artistic struggle to redefine the structure of the surface of a canvas. Iíd been trying to find an original painting methodology for a number of years, since beginning college. That was the moment I discovered sewing as a methodology for painting, using the fabric of life as a canvas and the needle as a brush. The concept of needle and sewing evolved naturally into social, cultural, and political dimensions and has expanded with a broader context into my current practice.

  • H.H : For many years, you have developed this process of wrapping and unwrapping bedcovers, carrying them on your travels, and showing them as installations. They are more than luggage, more like real companions. They have become your partner as you travel. Itís like having a life that you can carry around with you in your global displacements. During the last few years you extended this interest, engaging with textiles from other cultures and places. For example, you went to Peru to work with the local women and filmed the weaving culture, called Thread Routes ñ Chapter I (2010).

  • K : Yes, Thread Routes continued with Chapter II (2011) filming lace making in European countries, block printing, embroideries and weavings in India (Chapter III, 2012), embroideries in China (Chapter IV, 2014), and basket weavings in Native American communities (Chapter V, 2016). I am also planning to film weaving in African cultures (Chapter VI).

  • H.H : That gives your vision broader cultural dimensions.

-K : I consider the Thread Routes films as a retrospective of my formal practices related to thread and needle, with the textile as a canvas and a structural investigation. It was conceived in 2002 in Bruges, when I first saw a bobbin lace maker on a street. It immediately inspired me to juxtapose it with the local architectural structures, as a sort of masculine lacemaking, but it took a long time to start the actual film. I finally started, using 16 mm film, with textiles in Peruvian culture. Itís a non-narrative documentary film, using only visual juxtapositions with minimal environmental sound. I wanted to approach this project as ìanthropological poetry,î capturing the long, silent journey of textile cultures around the world, revealing similarities and differences, different production methods. Through the cameraís lens, I wanted to reveal each cultureís craftsmanship as a living form in textile, in architecture, and in nature.
I didnít use Korean secondhand bedcovers because I was interested in orientalism or local aesthetics, but because they were part of my daily life in Korean society. Itís the same reason that Europeans or Americans use their local materials, so there is nothing exotic about them, although Westerners might view them that way. The material I chose for the Bottari works was not originally wrapping cloth. Initially, I chose a bedcover for wrapping as the bed is the place for our bodies to rest, as a frame of life where we are born, love, dream, suffer, and die. This symbolic site carries all of our dreams, love, agony, pain, and despair throughout our lives. The colors are striking and have extreme contrasts, but I didnít choose the colors for aesthetic reasons, they just came with the fabric as cultural symbols, symbols of the daily life that I lived. I accepted what was created and what was handed down from our parents upon marriage. The wrapping and unwrapping is another language I discovered when looking at an existing bottari bundle in 1993. Bottaris are common universal objects, existing in all cultures, but the bottaris I discovered at my P.S. 1 studio appeared to me in a completely different context: a totally different object that was a painting in the form of a wrapped canvas, a ready-used object, a sculpture, and a performed object that unifies the form as a totality.

  • H.H : One of your recent projects, An Album: Sewing into Borderlines (2013), is on the American-Mexican border, initiated a few years ago under the federal General Services Administration Art in Architecture Program. In the beginning, you wanted to work with people who had been deported from the US, but since the GSA could not accommodate that project, you shifted to working with migrants who cross the US-Mexican border every day to work.

  • K : In the end, I focused more on the positive, welcoming aspects of migration for the different generations of Mexican immigrants traveling to the US. It was during the Obama administration, when artists were supported during the economic crisisómore about hospitality than despair.

  • H.H : But now the policy of the new government forces you to raise new questions about the issue. The political structure under Trump is a different situation. How will this change influence your project? You have been interested in female migrants, who have a very different life and experience with migration than men do.

  • K : Women are central to the migration chain; they are the major nexus, connecting everyone in the family. Women travel on more visible routes like trains, cars, and buses, which makes them more vulnerable to arrest. Generally one-third of women are deported. Men use riskier methods, on foot through the desert or by boat. There are even tunnels dug under the border. Female migration is more transitional. Women work for others, generally in homes or little stores during their migrations. They stay in one place for a short time, earn some money, and then move on.

  • H.H : You developed this project along the US-Mexican border, where migrants are both caught and detained.

  • K : The GSA project, which is a permanent installation at the land port of entry in Mariposa, Arizona, was installed right on the border. I installed large LED screens with portraits of the immigrants who cross the border, commuting to work every day. I filmed each portrait from the front and back, showing each personís psychological journey in a durational gaze. I would call their names and they would turn to the camera, creating a psychological border between themselves and the Otherófirst the camera and then the public. I focused on the juxtaposition of their psychological borders with the political border where the work is installed.
    I learned a lot about the border situation between Mexico and the US. Lately, the social, political, and cultural geography has shifted because of Trumpís immigration policies, especially with Mexico. This new view on immigration is the most urgent and critical issue to address right now.
    I began to research the new reality Mexican immigrants are facing since last year. There are interesting organizations that support womenís migration, including El Instituto para la Mujeres en la Migr·cion (Institute for Women in Migration). Interestingly, the organization is supported mainly by American non-profit organizations. I researched the conditions of women migrating in South America, especially in Mexico. Thereís a constant migration through Mexico. The organizations support detained family members, women, or children, by providing shelter, educational programs, and further support. Families get separated, sometimes women are detained and sent back to Mexico, but if their kids were born in the US, then the children enter the care of these organizations. The children are then moved to a shelter where their mothers cannot see them. Once in the shelters, American families can adopt the children and change their names. Basically the mothers no longer have any rights to their children after they are adopted. So, there are efforts to reunite these families. It is not only a migration issue; itís also a whole family-related issue.
    The importance of the womenís role in a family experiencing migration made me think of dealing with women as central figures. For this new Mexican immigration project, yet untitled, I want to have female performers wearing national flags. The location will be a former route from where the Spanish conquered Mexico. Iíll film the performance between two volcanoes in the Valley of Mexico, one of which, IztaccÌhuatl, is also know as the Mujer Dormida or the Sleeping Woman. There is a myth surrounding these two volcanoes (the other one is PopocatÈpetl): they symbolize grief and the eternal love between a man and a woman.

  • H.H : Obviously, this covers issues far beyond the specific question of immigrant families. It should be extended to explore the question of all relationships, the human family. For your new exhibition in Seoul, Kimsooja: Archive of Mind, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), Seoul, you installed a huge oval table covered with clay balls that are made by the audience. Can you explain this project and its participatory aspect?

  • K : Iíve been interested in clay and ceramics for a long time. My interest is more in the void that the vessels create, rather than the vessel itself. I was invited to participate in Water Event for Yoko Onoís solo show, LumiËre de líAube, at the MusÈe díart contemporain, Lyon, 2016; the Biennale de Lyon invited artists to create water containers. At the time, I was thinking about the clay ball as a Bottari, but also as the Earth, as a container. So rather than creating a void to contain water, I decided to make a clay ball as a pre-existing water container and address environmental issues. I sent a small clay ball that was still drying. Since then, I have been contemplating the formation of clay balls, how its creation has a psychological and meditative effect on the maker. When you make a clay ball you have to push your fingers and palms toward the center. A sphere is made by pushing from every point on the surface. Itís not easy to make a perfect sphere because you need to smooth every angle. The action of pushing opposing sides toward the center is similar to producing gravity within the sphere. To make the smoothest sphere, you roll the clay ball between your palms. Itís like a wrapping action, similar to making Bottari. This repetitive rolling action creates a spherical shape in your mind. I was working with my assistants with this clay and we reacted to it instinctively, enthusiastically touching it, rolling it. I found this instant reaction and concentration very interesting. It made me think that this project is not only for me to experience, but might even be more important for the viewers as participants. I decided to make an enormous communal table, bringing everyone together, sharing this experience at this elliptical wooden table, 62 feet (19 m) long. Each person has his or her space and time, but the work also creates a communal space, a communal society, working together toward a certain state of mind, creating a kind of cosmic landscape, a mind-galaxy.

  • H.H : Like a field?

  • K : Yes. I made the large table out of 68 smaller tables, which are made from irregular shapes to construct the elliptical geometric shapes. I also installed a sound piece, Unfolding Spheres (2016), with thirty-two speakers under the table, and a 16-channel soundtrack. One part is the sounds of the dried clay balls rolling, crushing, and touching, recorded with 4 or 5 different microphones. Because sound is only made when the ball touches an angled corner, it reveals the geometry of the clay ball. At the same time, it creates a cosmic sound: when the balls bang loudly, it produces a sound like a thunderstorm. I also made an audio performance, gargling with water in my throat, like a ìgrrrî sound. Sometimes it sounds like a stream, then it reveals more of the verticality of the rolling spheres, pushing air against gravity. It has a vertical force or movement, while the sound of the clay balls rolling reveals a horizontal axis. Iíve engaged in this vertical-horizontal structural relationship since the late 1970s. I also showed Structure ñ A Study on Body (1981); for this series of prints, I moved my arms at 90? to create geometric shapes, such as a triangle, circle, octagon, or square, to connect my body to the earth and the sky. I also included different colors to create different geometric shapes between my body and to determine the space around it. These prints directly connect to my sewn works, which have vertical-horizontal structures.

  • H.H : You mentioned a cosmic sensation, the connection between the body and the world. I think one interesting aspect of this work is the relation between the body and architecture, highlighted through your use of light. For example, with your installations, Respirar ñ Una Mujer Espejo / To Breathe ñ A Mirror Woman, at the Palacio de Cristal, Madrid (2006), To Breathe: Bottari for the Korean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2013), and now To Breathe (2016) in the exhibition at the MMCA, you have created beautiful environments with diffraction grating film applied to the windows. The light enters and creates a rainbow spectrum; it transforms the interior, giving it a cosmic feeling. On the other hand, in the Korean Pavilion there was an additional room, which was completely dark and silent. This is a fascinating contrast between the two aspects of cosmic existence. It seems to be a new dimension of your work developed in the last few years.

  • K : In the MMCA courtyard I used the same film as in the Palacio Cristal and the Korean Pavilion. In a way, the painting or pigment was transmitted into light. This particular film has thousands of vertical and horizontal lines in every inch. It has a woven structure and functions like a prism, creating iridescent light when light passes through it. This is one of my investigations into the structure of painting, of canvas, and of color and pigment in relation to light. I created a completely dark and silent space, an anechoic room, to define the nature of light and sound. It was the opposite state of visualization, operating in connection with my questions of duality in both life and art. My questioning of dualityóthe vertical and horizontal structure of the canvasórelates to the psychological structures, the mandalas in our mind.
    My Masterís thesis was on the symbol of cross, from antiquity up to contemporary painting and sculpture. This cross and the horizontal-vertical structure are always present in art. Iím curious how it constantly reappears despite contemporary artís desire for creativity and innovation. Many artists reach this point, confronting this very basic structure: Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich, Joseph Beuys, Antoni T‡pies, Lucio Fontana, Frank Stella, and many more. Iíve always questioned the inner structures of our world and our psychology. In my thesis I identified a relationship with psychological geometry of the Mandala, which utilizes cross structures and Carl Jungís archetypal phenomena theory. This isnít unrelated to my question of duality in art and life.
    When I was planning the Korean Pavilion, I experienced Hurricane Sandy in New York. I was living in complete darkness without any electricity for more than a week. I questioned the fear I had while walking in the dark in my building and on the streets, especially when someone is walking toward you. I realized that the fear occurs in our mind because of the ìunknownîóignorance of the Other. The unknown and the ignorance in the human mind were the questions I had at that time. Eventually, the relationship between light and darkness, sound and silence forming an architecture of bottari was what I created in the Korean Pavilion.

  • H.H : This can be a perfect conclusion. Now we all live in a kind of darkness, and we need to find a way out, to create new light.

  • K : Precisely.

— Kimsooja: Archive of Mind. Exhibition Catalogue published by National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, 2017

To Breathe, 2015, site-specific installation consisting of video projection To Breathe: Invisible Mirror, Invisible Needle, 2005, mirror, diffraction grating film, and sound performance The Weaving Factory, 2004, at Centre Pompidou-Metz, photograph by Jaeho Chong. Commissioned by Centre Pompidou-Metz, Courtesy of Institut français/Année France Corée, Kukje Gallery, Seoul and Kimsooja Studio

Kimsooja 'To Breathe' in Centre Pompidou Metz

"My work has always been a response to violence and inhumanity"

Thomas Van Loocke

2015

  • Visiting an exhibition preview can impede an uninhibited view at the art at hand, but in the event of a large-scale installation that opens to the invitees at a specific time, it can also have a magical shine, as if you enter and explore a shrine together. However, this heightened sense of wonder can only partly explain why I was overwhelmed by a wave of goose flesh, even before I fully set foot in Kimsooja's latest installation. That is the impact her art can have.

  • Kimsooja's 'To Breathe' in Centre Pompidou Metz is a part of the 2015-2016 Korea-France Billateral Exchange, an event to celebrate 130 years diplomatic of relations between the two countries. The Korean artist, who lives and works in New York, Seoul and Paris, is known for her simple visual language and her deep humanism, a combination of core features, which led Olivia María Rubio to label her art as existential minimalism.

  • In Metz she presents the next chapter in her To Breathe series. How to describe and assess an installation that immerses you instantaneous and do justice to its total experience? One immediately feels the limitations of language. It seems that the only way is to chop it into manageable components and in Kimsooja's case a possible path is to deal with these components in a chronological order.

  • The oldest one is the recording of her humming and breathing. For her participation in the Lodz Biennale of 2004 she was inspired by her assigned location: a former weaving factory. The rhythmic and cyclic movement of a loom made her think of the inhaling and exhaling of the human body. In other words, in her sound performance she replaced mechanical movement with bodily motion and mechanical sound with human humming.

  • The aural facet of her installation in Metz is similar to the one in Lodz. First we hear a skin-tingling humming. Then her soft nasal sounds develop into a polyphonic flirt on the edge of harmony and dissonance. They suddenly fade away and after a few silent seconds, we hear the artist breathing, from calm to agitated. It goes crescendo to a climax which we do not know the content of. Is it the angst of gasping for life or is it the rapture of la petite morte?

  • The affective force of the soundscape is soothed by the second component of her installation: the slow projection of color fields on a floor screen. She first experimented with this in 2006, when she presented 'To Breathe / Respirare (Invisible Mirror, Invisible Needle)' at the Teatro la Fenice in Venice and the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris.

  • The monochromes, more or less in the middle of the installation, are an oasis of serenity where the look can linger. They are surrounded by a sea of glittering mirrors that is bounded by the bay windows on both sides of the 80 meters long Gallery 2. The mirrors and the diffraction grid film on the windows are the more recent components in 'To Breathe'. In 2006 she transformed the Palacio de Cristal, a glass pavilion in the heart of the Buen Retiro Park in Madrid, with them.

  • Whereas the film folds and blurs Metz's skyline and landmarks into a fairy-like rainbow spectrum, the mirror stickers unfold the space and the self. The ripples where they stick together and the reflection of the grid ceiling are dizzying and disorientating. Strolling while looking in the mirrors has a vertigo-like effect, but it also sharpens your sense of self-awareness. Something that was already ignited by the breathing.

  • The abstraction of the alternating color projection, the virtuality of the mirrors and the reality of the cityscape and changing light melt together to an immersing experience that is as confronting as it is comforting. Here's an artist who is confident in her simple visual language and whose modest power is exposed to those who are open to it.

  • Thomas Van Loocke : How difficult is it to create intimate art that can host a lot of visitors, like your installation in Metz? How do you feel about this tension?

  • Kimsooja : I think all art can be intimate as long as the audience takes it as such. My breathing performance might be intimidating to some visitors, as it evokes a strong physical reaction because of its intimate, physical and sexual aspects. However, when you take it serious enough to go beyond those dimensions, you start to question the borderline between the moments of life and death.

  • TVL : What are the best conditions to view and experience your installation? All alone or with a few or even a lot of others?

  • K : All alone is interesting, but so is having someone else's presence, as the other's body serves as a measurement of scale to the installation. Even if there are several others, you can always be focused as long as you find an element to focus onto. At the moment, the number of visitors is limited to fifteen.

  • TVL : In an earlier interview you said that "the whole of (your) practice has always been a journey of searching for a self-awareness". Do you think visitors can enter that state of mind when they're more and more preoccupied with their smartphones and shooting the most likeable Instagram photos?

  • K : It is one of the symptoms of our contemporary technological society. Most people are not able to focus on the here and now. Instead of experiencing the now, they record it, so that they can replay it later. There's no corporeality and mindfulness to the time they spend. However, I was surprised to see many of the visitors very much engaging with the installation. Walking slowly, contemplating the moment. Visitors can experience whatever they want, as long as they don't do anything dangerous or disturb the others. I know you can't control your audience. The piece is there for the ones who are ready for and open to it.

  • TVL : Regarding that lack of control and the ability to experience your spatial installations, how do you look back on your participation in the Venice Biennale of 2013? One reviewer noted that "the impact of the installation itself (was) far outweighed by the bureaucratic procedure one (had) to transition through".

  • K : I agree that the opening period of the Biennale was not ideal to fully experience this particular piece. The Biennale attracts such a large number of visitors that we needed a procedure to ensure that everything ran as smooth as possible. Without it could have been dangerous for some people to enter the anechoic darkroom, just as walking on the mirror floor could have been for seniors or for people who suffer from vertigo. Although I am grateful for the enthusiasm and patience of the people who waited to experience both spaces in the Korean Pavilion, I still regret that we couldn't give more time in the anechoic chamber to the visitors. If I were able to recreate the piece, I think that more time would make it possible to delve deeper in one's inner space and to have a richer experience.

  • TVL : Your work is based on displacement and humanness. What is your view on the biggest refugee and migration crisis since the Second World War?

  • K : I personally think the Third World War is already happening. It was ignited by America's reaction to 9/11. In an endless cycle of violence, the whole world is now drenched in human blood. It threatens our freedom, sanity and daily life. We all have to witness this incessant violence, as mass media shows it non-stop in this era. It numbs us and makes us more and more indifferent, which is a huge problem. Contemplating our own individual problems will be the key to solve this, I think. We need to recover our heart, love and peace, now more than ever. The key is in our mind.
    Equally distressing is the unbelievable desperation of the refugees crossing oceans and borders. In this time we need art that can comfort and heal the human mind that has been hurt so much. We have to rethink how to lead our life and how to respect, embrace and share with the other, instead of arguing with or attacking him or her – to save ourselves, the others and the next generations and to save this globe.

  • TVL : Are politicians tackling it in the right way? Do they show enough humanness in their approach?

  • K : I am so disappointed by all measures taken by politicians in the name of the nation and humanity. What they do is exactly the same as what the ones they condemn are doing: killing. There's no better solution in history than Mahatma Ghandi's resistance, as there can be no excuse for taking someone's life. What are religious leaders teaching to their followers? Why can't we hear them speak up? What are influential thinkers doing nowadays? I was touched by the speech of the Princess of Jordan: she proposed to open her country for the huge number of refugees and to educate the immigrant kids. As she is one of the most powerful figures in Jordan, her words have a huge impact. I wished all nations showed this kind of courage, responsibility and humanity. Americans and Asians hesitate to act, as they think it is someone else's problem. Especially America should welcome refugees, given every citizen descends from immigrants all over the world.

  • TVL : Has this crisis affected your work?

  • K : My work has always been a response to violence and inhumanity and this will never change. I answer it by means of healing. Either by showing society's reality as a witness or by proposing a harmonious way of co-existence, questioning who we are and where we're going. I wish people find equilibrium and peace in my work that comes from their own empathy.
    As a child, I spent some important years near DMZ areas in South Korea, as my father served in the military. I came to realize lately that experiencing the specific geographical condition as well as the daily danger and DMZ border issues, must have given me a sensitive and vulnerable attitude to any kind of violence, be it verbal, visual or physical. Although my father was forced to serve during the Korean War and continued his responsibility until he retired as a general, he didn't believe in physical force and often showed anger over the military conduct towards civilians, especially the Gwangju massacre on May 21, 1980. I am sure the whole condition of my childhood has influenced my thoughts and my work a lot. Not only the environment in which we lived, but the education my parents gave me. There was love and care and they always emphasized and demonstrated the equality of every human being.
    As a teenager, I suffered a lot not being able to help people in need. I wished to quit high school and to become a social worker or labourer, as I was burdened by the thought that I was a privileged individual, although we were just a normal middle class family in Korean society. I chose to go to college, to be financially independent and to gain the strength to help others, while pursuing art as a tool for my contemplation on life and the world. My engagement with social issues in different forms is the basis of my art.

  • TVL : What are your prospects?

  • K : I'm doing extensive research for the last chapter of the Thread Routes, a film project that consists of six chapters, each one in a different location around the globe. I hope the political situation in Africa becomes stabilized so that I can travel more freely in the coming years to create it. This is the most important project on my mind right now.
    Another big plan is to find the right location for 'A Needle Woman – Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir', a 46-foot-taal needle-shaped sculpture in iridescent steel and polymer that I developed in collaboration with architect Jaeho Chong – my son – and Cornell University nano material engineer Ulirich Wiesner last year.

A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is Souvenir, 2014, 46 x 4.5(diameter) feet, mixed media installation, photograph by Aaron Wax

세계 속에서 미술의 새로운 정체성을 만들어가는 작가

김수자 Kimsooja

Young Hee, Suh

2015

  • 누구든지 김수자 작가가 제작한 작품들을 신속히 훑어보기로 한다면, 필자는 가장 손쉬운 방법으로 그의 작품들이 매체별로 정리된 웹 홈페이지 www.kimsooja.com로 일단 들어가 보라고 추천하고 싶다. 썩 잘 분류된 이 홈페이지는 작가의 글, 인터뷰, 작품에 대한 생생한 포트폴리오 역할을 하기 때문이다. 사실 필자도 여느 감상자들과 마찬가지이다. 김수자의 예외적인 전시들을 보기 위해 수시로 해외로 나갈 수는 없다. 그래서 빈번하게 이 사이트에 링크를 걸곤 한다. 그럼 그때마다 간화선(看話禪)의 화두 같은 작품들이 하나씩 하나씩 또렷이 드러나고, 이윽고는 일상에서 둔탁해진 의식의 벽이 얇은 필름처럼 예민해지는 묘한 기쁨을 느낀다.

  • 김수자의 작품은 우리의 마른 감각에만 호소하지 않는다. 빠르고 격한 충격을 주거나 새뜻한 간질거림으로 자극하는 작품들과는 매우 다르다. 특이하게도 그의 작품들은 감상자의 몸과 의식을 동시에 사로잡고, 시각과 감성의 깊이(profondeur)를 파고든다. 그의 상상력과 정서도 그저 그렇고 그런 충동에서 비롯되지는 않는다. 그의 미적 상상력은 출렁이지 않고 고요히 가라앉은 마음과 여유로운 호흡으로부터 시작된다. 그래서 작품을 바라보는 우리도 너 나 없이 부지불식간에 방치해왔던 깊은 생각들 속으로 가라앉는다. '나'를 질문하게 하는 존재라는 것 혹은 세계 속 존재의 의미 내지 근원을 더듬어가는 사색의 느린 흐름을 타보는 경험을 하게 된다. 감상자들의 이 같은 특별한 경험을 배려하기 위함인지, 작가는 자신의 작품 안에서 스스로 목소리를 내세우지 않는 편이다. 작품을 설치하고서는 에고의 흔적을 지운 채 조용히 물러난다. 예술가가 주관과 감정을 표면에 드러내지 않음이 감상자에겐 흔치 않은 당혹스런 일이 되겠으나, 하지만 그렇기에 스스로 의식의 체험을 할 수 있는 넉넉한 사유의 자리를 얻음에야 ... 그러니 우리가 그의 작품 속으로 풍덩 빠져 볼만 하지 않겠는가.

  • 천들을 바늘과 실로 꿰매어 연결한 1980년대의 <ㄱ, ㄴ, ㄷ, ㄹ> 연작과 <天, 地> 연작에서부터 최근의 비디오 설치작품인 <地水火風> 연작까지, 작가의 작품 구성은 미니멀리즘을 연상시킬 만큼 늘 단순하고 구조적이다. 초기작에서 수직선과 수평선 혹은 사선으로 이어진 사각형 천들은 조각조각마다 염색된 오방색들을 그대로 드러낸 채, 협화음과 불협화음의 색조 구성을 보여준다. <지수화풍>에서도 세계를 구성하는 4 요소들인 흙, 물, 불, 바람의 자연 이미지들을 순열로 연결해 설치함으로서, 존재를 둘러싼 세계의 근원적 의미를 네 방향을 따라 구조적으로 사유하도록 한다. 작가가 스펙터클의 축으로 등장한 <바늘여인> 연작에서도 마찬가지다. 그는 등을 돌린 채 얼굴을 보이지 않는 침묵 상태로 그렇게 '수직'으로 멈추어 서있다. 그 대신 주변 도시와 다양한 면모의 사람들이 형형색색의 천 조각들처럼 '수평'으로 그를 감싸 흐르고 움직인다. 2010년을 전후해 등장한 일련의 비디오 작품들인 <뭄바이: 빨래터>과 <앨범: 허드슨 길드> 그리고 <실의 궤적> 연작들 역시도 유사하게 이해할 수 있지 않을까 싶다. 보이지 않는 작가의 몸은 여전히 지구 곳곳을 수평으로 흐르는 갖가지의 존재의 삶들, 그 조각과 편린들을 끌어 모았다가 때가 되면 우리 눈앞에 보따리를 풀듯 펼쳐놓고 주목하도록 손짓한다.

  • 그의 비디오 작품들은 그 전에 선행된 <보따리> 연작의 연장선 위에 있다. 초기에 천들을 아상블라주하듯 꿰맨 작품들은 평면작업이지만, 1991년 뉴욕 PS1 작업실에서 발견한 <보따리> 연작은 천들을 꿰매지 않고 천 조각 하나하나의 단위를 독립된 기표로 인식하면서 시작된다. 천 조각들은 색과 문양 그리고 크기에 상관없이 각각 하나의 기호가 되며, 전시장 바닥 혹은 테이블 위에 펼쳐놓는 산포의 기호로 유연하게 변화된다. 그러다가 작가가 어느 순간에 이 천 조각들을 끌어 모아 보따리로 싸면서, 평면 작업(수평 구조, 정지 상태)이 입체 작업(수직 구조, 이동 상태)으로 이행되고, 보따리는 신체와 함께 여행하는 오브제로 변환된다. 펼치고 싸는 다시 그 반대로도 전환되는 <보따리> 연작은 그 가변성과 이동성(유목성) 덕분에 시, 공간을 통한 작품 구조의 열림을 가져온 그야말로 현대미술의 획기적인 전환점으로 이해되는 것이다.

  • 이후 작가는 세계 곳곳마다 보따리들을 들고 다니며 전시장마다 상이한 퍼포먼스를 펼쳐 보였다. 그리고 우리는 보따리를 열 때마다 존재와 삶의 다양한 상들을 풀어내는 작가의 행위에 매료되지 않을 수 없었다. 그런데 그는 여기서 멈추지 않고 다시 미술의 정체성이란 경계를 허물며 다른 영역으로 나아갔다. 새로운 출발점은 <보따리>의 무한한 구조적 가변성에 있었다. 그로부터 작가는 천 조각들 대신 비디오 영상 단편을 매재로 삼고 그리고 보따리를 펼치고 싸는 일 대신 필름을 편집해내는 일로 이행하며, 전혀 또 다른 이미지들을 펼쳐냈다. 필자는 비디오와 필름 영상의 선택이 그에게 어떤 변화를 가져왔는지 생각할 때마다, 감탄과 환호의 박수를 보내게 된다. 비단 작품 스케일과 구상에서 실현에 이르는 과정의 변화 뿐 아니라, 영상의 흐르는 시간성은 음양을 따라 오행하는 유동적 사태들 다시 말해 만물의 생성-변화-소멸의 변전을 근원적으로 설명해내는 최적의 방법적 조건을 마련해주었다고 생각한다. 들숨과 날숨의 호흡이나 실을 잣고 씨실, 날실을 직조하는 일 그리고 세계 곳곳에서 이어지는 실의 궤적과 남미, 유럽의 바늘 여인들의 이중 구조 역시 그의 비디오 작품에서는 존재-삶의 구조적 양태에 대한 직관의 이미지들로 살아났다.

  • 호흡(숨쉬기)은 우리 삶의 시작과 끝이다. 첫 호흡으로 태어나며, 마지막 호흡으로 생을 마감한다. 이 보이지 않는 들숨, 날숨의 끝없는 반복은 우주의 보이지 않는 무한 에너지(氣, 光)의 맥동 그 자체이다. 다양한 삶들을 이루는 바탕이자 가장 근본적이고 통일된 존재 상징으로서 이 호흡을 김수자는 2006년 마드리드의 '크리스탈 궁전' 내부에 가득 채웠다(<호흡: 거울여인>). 이어 2013년 베니스 비엔날레에서도 <호흡하기: 보따리>란 설치작품을 통해, 전시장을 빛과 호흡으로 채웠다. 국내외 관객들에게 강한 인상을 던진 두 설치작품들은 비시각적인 빛과 호흡을 특수 필름과 거울을 사용해 눈부시도록 찬란한 무지개빛과 확대된 호흡 소리로 즉 심장의 수축과 확장, 씨실과 날실의 직조처럼 손에 잡힐 듯 생생한 촉각적, 청각적 맥동으로 전환시켰다. 그리하여 작가나 감상자의 존재/부재를 부각시키는 한편 생명과 환경의 연계에 더 주목하도록 하는 관계적 상황을 연출해냈다.

A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is Souvenir, 2014, 46 x 4.5(diameter) feet, mixed media installation, photograph by Jaeho Chong

An Architecture of Gaze

Jaeho, Chong

2015

  • A silent figure stands with its back facing the viewer, poised motionless against the ebb and flow of the anonymous crowd, unsheltered and without a want. Standing in front of A Needle Woman, a performance/video work (1999-2009) by the acclaimed artist Kimsooja, we see a body which, without doing anything, becomes a measure of time and space. As the artist's body weaves ceaselessly through the crowd, it shifts in and out of our field of vision. For a fleeting moment we experience our body transposed into hers, and through the borrowed gaze of the artist we confront our own impermanence in the face of time.

  • Her most recent work, similarly titled, A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir, carries this experience forward in a new form of practice. It is the result of a close collaboration between Kimsooja, the nanoscientist Ulrich Wiesner, and myself, an architect, on the occasion of the Cornell University's inaugural art biennial organized by Stephanie Owens, director of the Cornell Council for the Arts. Sited at the heart of the university's Arts Quad, the 46 foot high 4.5 foot diameter custom-fabricated steel structure is fleshed out with transparent acrylic panels that have been individually coated in iridescent nanopolymer. Under a raking light, each of these panels transforms the entire pavilion into a radiant spectrum of color as the molecularly engineered 'block copolymer,' produced by Hiroaki Sai and Ferdinand Kohle from the Wiesner Group, refracts various wavelengths of light dependent on the angle from which it is viewed. The interior of the floor is mirrored, doubling and extending the sky into the ground.

  • Cornell has a long history of commissioning site-specific art works. Perhaps those best known came out of the seminal 1969 Earth Art show curated by Willoughby Sharp, which brought together a group of young artists, including Hans Haacke, Richard Long, Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim, and Günther Uecker, to produce new works on campus. Many of these artists treated the earth itself as a canvas and as sculptural material, just as today Kimsooja sees the earth as a "readyused" object – an idea akin to Duchamp's readymades, or Piero Manzoni's 1961 Socle Du Monde. In fact, much like Duchamp's attitude, Kimsooja's work resists human desire and adoration for visual pleasure, never making anything, but creating new thoughts for any given object or phenomenon. However, drawing such a formalistic relationship between the two artists in using found objects has its limits. For instance, the idea of the needle employed by Kimsooja, in her own words, is "a medium, a mystery, a reality, a hermaphrodite, a barometer, a moment, and Zen," which is much closer to a state of empathy than to a rationale of apathy. It echoes the spirit of Arte Povera, whose attitude, according to Germano Celant, is "intent upon retrieving the factual significance of the emerging meaning of human life."

  • What then, led an artist who refuses to 'make' objects to conceive a 46-foot tall 'sculpture'? At the first meeting between the collaborators, Kimsooja was presented with a small vial containing an iridescent substance. Generally known as 'structural color,' and characterized by Ulrich Wiesner as 'block copolymer,' this chemically grown chain of monomers produce a continuous banding of molecules with light-refracting qualities similar to those found on the wings of butterflies or the shells of beetles. When examined under an electron microscope, it appears as a striated fabric. Needless to say, Kimsooja's sustained interest in used fabrics as a tableau of life finds another scale of reality here. Such a profound consistency between nanoscientific phenomena and her artistic practice allows her to work within an invisible realm outside the register of human senses and to bring reality closer to our own experience – a practice to which she has always been committed.

  • "Interconnected to observations in art-making," she says, "nano-techniques are an inverse expression of our perspective of the universe (cosmology)." The former constantly sharpens our gaze towards a single point, infinitely dividing and redefining space almost to the point of eliminating interiority, while the latter moves toward the limits of exterior space, beyond geometric imagination. Architecture, whose purpose includes the preservation of interiority through geometry, frames this vast scope of space at a scale conducive to a direct bodily experience. To this end, the physical form of the pavilion has little relevance as a sculptural object, but rises out of a necessity of finding an instrument to bridge the visible and the invisible.

  • The form of a needle is not without its own architectural history. The Egyptian obelisk, for example, functioned as a religious axis between man and the cosmos for many centuries. Some known as 'Cleopatra's Needle,' these sacred structures embody early Egyptian creation myths that explained the rising and setting of the sun – the solar cycle – through the metaphor of birth and consummation of life closely associated with solar deities, namely the sun god Ra. As such, light and time had already emerged as symbolic channels between man and celestial order in the shape of a needle.

  • In effect, it is neither the nanomaterial, the architecture, nor the artistic intention that reveals the invisible, but the subtle yet perpetual cosmic motion reflected in the change of light. Material seizes such an instance. The molecular structure on the skin of the pavilion physically unwraps light, enabling a person's gaze to weave through the undulating depths of visual surface – a phenomenon perfectly mirroring the dynamic reciprocity between the standing figure and the gazing subject in the artist's video work. The 'needle,' in turn, anchored perpendicular to the ground, parallels our bodies and emerges as an object of non-violence. A stream of consciousness that once took the form of a brushstroke on the surface of a canvas is abstracted over the years in Kimsooja's practice as first a needle, then a body, a camera lens, and finally a luminous void. A gaze is all that remains.

  • More than a symbol of, or a testament to, the confluence of art and science, A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir opens the ontological dimension between our fleeting existence and the cosmos by rendering all of our gaze – an emphatic gesture of human subjectivity – instrumental to the relational structure between distance, time, matter, and memory: a void at the tip of a needle point.

— From Space: Issue 566, January 2015

A Needle Woman, 1999 – 2001, 8 channel video projection, 6:33 loop, silent.

Kimsooja: A Modern Day Global Nomad

Transcending boundaries, re-constructing a global identity

Christina Arum Sok

2014

Abstract

  • In this digital era of instant information and communication, a new level of cultural globalization has allowed disparate groups to come together, forming a familiar and shared culture. This idea of 'global harmony' is not suggestive of an idealized and naïve state of international utopia, but rather should be considered as a platform for increased understanding of shared human traits, states of being, conditions and emotions, which are ultimately, universal.

  • Contemporary Korean artist, Kimsooja, is an embodiment of this concept of transcending boundaries, distinctions and limiting categories, as she is a true modern day global nomad. She is a multidisciplinary and multi-faceted artist, who, in fact, rejects prescriptive identity groups such as gender and marital status as well as socio-political, socio-economic, cultural and geographical identity constructs. Kimsooja's visual language may be rooted in Korean cultural traditions and mediums often associated with women and craft such as sewing, embroidery and textiles; however, she resolves to re-construct her identity and weaves herself into a global landscape. She achieves a delicate balance of leaving her mark as well as absorbing what is out there in the world, integrating into the fabric of different realities.

  • This paper examines Kimsooja's selected conceptual works to understand how she critically overcomes the shadows and burdens of identity constraints. Kimsooja is able to ground herself to issues of real value and genuine stories that are concerned with the world, and artistic practices that uncover ideas that are neglected or overshadowed by the commercial gloss of the global art market. Furthermore, her body is neither the site of sexuality nor the fantasized/fetishized female body of the 1960s and 1970s Euro American Feminist context. Alternatively, her body can be seen as a needle weaving through disparate cultures, in an act of re-construction, unification and investigation of what it means to be a human being in the 21st century. As such, Kimsooja is an exemplary contemporary woman artist who strives to deliver her stance on true human equality and honesty, going back to basic story telling through highly sophisticated and intellectual visual mediums that nonetheless remain humble in its true intentions.

  • "Without a needle, there would be no fabric, and without each individual, no fabric of society."

  • In today's inter-connected contemporary context of hyper permeability and fluidity between disparate cultures, Kimsooja, can be seen as a multifaceted woman artist, a global citizen and a critical voice for humankind. She presents pressing and engaging works that touch upon the very essence of the human spirit and the physical body, particularly as it relates to and intersects with nature and the real world. Her works are existential and spiritual explorations of humankind's basic and fundamental relationship with the environment around them. Furthermore, her artistic practice investigates formal qualities and aesthetics, engaging in a unique method of story telling and creation. In addition, Kimsooja has an innate ability to balance oppositions and paradoxes in complementary and poetically sensitive ways, setting her apart as a contemporary artist of international caliber. Her works are empathetic and deeply concerned with humankind at large. As such, the decisive word for Kimsooja is transcendence. Ultimately, Kimsooja is the personification and embodiment of transcending boundaries as well as re-constructing identities beyond limiting categories or binaries, into a new type of cultural hybridity.

  • In this paper, I will investigate how Kimsooja strikes an inherent balance of co-existences on multiple levels: firstly, in her early inquiries of form and aesthetics, and subsequently, in conceptual explorations of gender, nationality and identity. The latter ultimately results in dialogic awareness amongst humankind as well as the unity of the human spirit, the human body and nature. By weaving through these multifarious layers and demonstrating how they all function as variegated tools of expression, I will present the framework that grounds Kimsooja's presence as a modern day global nomadic artist, who speaks a language derived from her unique experiences, that resonates with all of humankind. I will be focusing mainly on Kimsooja's video series titled A Needle Woman, which was first done between 1999 and 2001, followed by a second set of works done in 2005, and a final iteration in 2009 in Paris, which was commissioned by La Nuit Blanche and projected onto the façade of the Hôtel de Ville, Paris. The reading of these works will be complemented with a number of other images including a late-19th century photograph and other historically significant images from the rich span of Korean art history. Kimsooja's modes of expression may have changed over the course of her artistic career; however, her core interest and concept of being a voice for humankind, a window into the human spirit and ultimately, a true modern day global nomad has always remained steadfast.

Kimsooja's early formal and aesthetic inquiries

  • Kimsooja's works have evolved in a step-by-step process, with one artistic practice and aesthetic investigation resulting in another, providing critical building blocks for her oeuvre. Kimsooja's works were recently displayed in its chronological entirety for the first time at the Vancouver Art Gallery's exhibition Kimsooja Unfolding (October 2013 – January 2014). This survey exhibition displayed her work with 3 specific foci: her interest in time, memory and displacement; the relationship between the human body and the physical, material world; and last but not least, her engagement with the expressive and conceptual qualities of colour, light and form.

  • Kimsooja studied Western painting at the prestigious Hong-Ik University in Seoul, and her origin as a painter was a crucial starting point for the development of her art. Beginning her professional career in the 1980s, Kimsooja had a heightened level of consciousness about the concept of tableau. From the very onset, she was interested in the intersection of art and life, as for her, art was not a paradigm disconnected from real life – not just her own life but also the world around her. In fact, Kimsooja was inspired by her childhood experiences as a young girl sewing bedcovers with her mother, which brought about the revelation of unity between her thoughts, sensitivity and activity, forming her artistic tenet. Her early aesthetic investigations in formative works such as The Earth and the Heaven (Plate 1) allowed for varied expressive formats that followed the legacy of abstract expressionist style painting, collage and the ready-made, or 'ready-used' as she calls them. The use of textiles and the act of sewing were not so much a demonstration of a feminist, activist standpoint, as it may at first seem, but rather, as the artist states, "the engagement with methodologies based on female domestic labour was more about avant-garde action in relation to contemporary painting and the concept of tableau," following in the tradition of modernist inquiry.

  • Having rationalized the needle as the tool that breaks through the surface of the 'canvas' or piece of cloth, Kimsooja was able to penetrate the barrier that separated art from life. As Suh Young-Hee elaborates, having punctured the surface of pictorial art of the preceding centuries, like Lucio Fontana, who slashed his monochromatic canvases, Kimsooja is no longer bound to the two-dimensional screen of illusion but rather, engaged in a process of creating three-dimensional as well as four-dimensional structures that her 'needle' passes through and conjoins. As the act of sewing intertwines art and life, a renewed reality and experience is forged for the artist. Therefore, the fabric and the act of sewing become the forms to which Kimsooja expresses the world of human beings like herself. A pivotal moment for Kimsooja was her 1992-1993 residency in New York City at MoMA PS1, where she was roused to re-assign meaning to used traditional Korean bedcovers as a ready-used aesthetic formation. At this time, being away from her native land, Kimsooja conceived of her iconic bottari (Plate 2), which aggregates a wrapped two-dimensional 'tableau' into a three-dimensional sculptural form through the act of filling the tableau up with used clothes and tying a knot to unite the contents together. As such, this action of wrapping bodies and memories was seen as a true formalistic and aesthetic statement that provided a breakthrough for Kimsooja's artistic practice.

  • Kimsooja's early inquiry into form and fashioning new methods of expression is similar to the pioneers of Korean modern art, the forefathers of Monochrome art. These artists in the 1970s pursued new modes of expression that were connected to their personal experiences, contemplating the exigency of a Korean modernism. Kimsooja marks a significant presence in this continuum of Korean art history as she is carving out another mode of artistic expression. The Monochrome artists, however, were trying to define a Korean identity solely in the realm of modern painting. To take an example, Monochrome artist, Ha Chong-hyun was concerned with the materials' physical qualities (Plate 3), as he pushed pigment back and forth between the linen, until the paint and the surface became intermeshed, breaking the distinction between material and surface. In contrast, moving far beyond the confines of Monochrome artists' contemplations on the 'surface,' Kimsooja is not merely concerned with material and form. For her, it is more about using her newfound relationship with artistic creation and renewed engagement with formalistic structures and aesthetic qualities as a tool for expression. This unique mode of expression for Kimsooja allows her to pursue art-making that is closely intermeshed with real life; there is no separation between the two dimensions.

  • Moreover, as her artistic career has evolved beyond the three-dimensional structure into video, installation and performance, Kimsooja's role as an artist has further sophisticated. Her performances are on the complete opposite spectrum to the often violent, sexually charged performances of Marina Abramovic and Lee Bul (Plate 4) where the female body is the site of exploitation and extreme forms of expression. Rather, Kimsooja emphasizes "inverting the notion of an artist as a predominant actor through 'non-doing' and 'non-making' in order to reveal a critical point that is without heroism and without violent action or aggression." In other words, art-making has become a meditative journey for Kimsooja; through the repetitive voyage of the needle piercing through material surfaces and her body as a metaphorical needle weaving through different environments, Kimsooja achieves an absolute sense of self-awareness. This philosophy of course is tied to Zen Buddhism and Eastern philosophies with the practice of meditation as an act of emptying oneself, resulting in a connection between the mind, body and soul, to ultimately attain enlightenment. In fact, Kimsooja describes A Needle Woman series to be a critical, transformative experience when she transitioned from a vulnerable state of mind to a focused, meditative and enlightened state of mind. In this way, Kimsooja's works focus on the process and act of art-making rather than the end result, as well as subjective experience rather than objective articulation.

  • Therefore, in Kimsooja's art, the physical, material and spiritual dimensions coincide, while co-existence of creation and non-creation, of doing and non-doing is also prevalent. Kimsooja transcends the essentialized inquiries in formalistic qualities that are only concerned with art in its singular dimension and purpose. Instead, utilizing her diversified artistic methods of exploring form and aesthetics as a way to move into greater self-awareness, she connects her mind, body and soul with the outer world in order to understand what it means to be truly human. Moreover, she is in sync with the many different human realities as well as the 'conditions of humanity' she encounters through her artistic journeys as a Needle Woman across 14 cities, which results in acute contemplations on the differences in ethnicities, geography, economics and cultural, religious, political tensions.

Cultural and gender-specific roots of Kimsooja's nomadic existence

  • At the core, Kimsooja moves beyond traditional epistemology, transcending familiar and expected categorizations. Kimsooja's ontological manifestation is explicated in her one-word name, without distinction between surname and given name, which as she declares, becomes an anarchist's name. This defiant act of changing her name to be one entity is symbolic of her rejecting gender, marital status, socio-political, socio-economic, cultural and geographical identity constructs. Her discord with categories allows her existence to be free, moving seamlessly through time, place and ideas. However, aesthetically there are clear connections to her being a woman and a Korean native.

  • When examining Kimsooja's oeuvre there are unavoidable implications and associations with regards to gender. Encounter – Looking into Sewing (Plate 5) is an appropriate segue into this discussion of her role as a woman artist. This arresting photograph suggests a woman's figure completely veiled by multiple layers of traditional bedcovers, capturing the multi-layered complexity of the female identity, not only questioning its societal construct but also moving beyond conventional gender paradigms. The female figure hinted by the gomusin shrouded by cloths represents tradition, signifying the weight of Confucian values that to varying extents still govern gender roles in Korean society today. Yet the gomusin is taking a step forward, seemingly an allusion to the position of women today striving to re-define their status and position at large. At this point, we can compare Kimsooja's photograph with a late-Choson dynasty photograph (Plate 6) of a young Korean woman in street costume. Not so different from the burka, in late-19th century Korea, women were expected to cover their body and head in public as a sign of propriety. The incredibly similar form of the cloths engulfing the female figure insinuates gender politics, gender roles in society and issues concerned with women's rights.

  • However, Kimsooja consciously chooses to disassociate with the confines of 'feminism,' even despite the changing landscape of global feminisms, a sub-domain of global contemporary art today. She clearly states that she is neither operating within the traditions of the feminist movement nor within the practices of performance artists who use their body as sites of sexuality and violence in staged performances or grotesque actions. We can read her bottari works (Plate 2) in particular, as art for women by women, in the sense that these textiles and the act of sewing, as well as the tradition of wrapping bottaris, are historically, functionally and aesthetically associated with women. These works inevitably bring about questions of women's position in society, simultaneously underscoring the important role of women in the family domain, perhaps also intimating their conditions as alienated housewives.

  • Admittedly, Kimsooja recounts that though she had been predominantly influenced by the avant-garde aesthetic engagements in New York City, which inspired the formation of the bottari, that in actual fact, upon return to Korea, she came to a critical realization of Korean society and Korean women's role bundled up in her formerly-mere aesthetic 'ready-used' object. Notably, it was after this grounding to socio-cultural issues and awareness of the real world that further evolved Kimsooja's bottari works to a critical level, as it is seen as a site of intersection of the physical body, Kimsooja's own conditions as a woman as well as Korean women at large, and further, human destiny. Therefore, she moved on to wrap the bottari with used clothing, as a way of reinforcing fragments of reality in her 'ready-used' object. It is important to acknowledge Kimsooja's feminine sensibilities and recognize that these visual motifs associated with the female gender are tools for expression. Furthermore, although her contribution to visual culture is as a woman artist, she is ultimately interested in the physical and spiritual interactions with nature and the realm of human reality, which transcends gender identity and constructs. Her art is a phenomenological experience for both herself and the audience, rooted in a feminine aesthetic.

  • As always, Kimsooja mediates between polarizing movements or philosophies. She has married the interest in form and problematic of art-making with a spiritual dimension – art becoming more of an 'experience,' for both herself and her audiences. Her solid foundation and higher consciousness and sensitivity to perceiving the intricate connection between the human body, spirit and the earth allows her to move into the realm of existentialism. In A Needle Woman, we are able to understand how harmony, balance and unity is achieved between the human body, spirit and nature.

  • Although Kimsooja's aesthetics are based on feminine sensibilities and rooted in Korean cultural traditions, she is neither celebrating individuality nor predominantly on a quest to discover her 'inner-self,' articulating her unique 'identity.' Instead, Kimsooja's visual roots become tools for expression, as well as points of entry into her narrative. What becomes the universal appeal and deeper criticality of Kimsooja's work is the fact that through her meditative approach to art-making, she provides an engaging platform that becomes a window to humanity. Her work is a universal lens to perceive the human spirit and to have awareness of the modern day conditions of being a human being.

Transcending boundaries

  • Fundamentally, Kimsooja goes back to the core of human existence. Her work transcends its singular purpose as an aesthetic object, in order to enhance our understanding of our position in the world. She provides us with insight as to how art is sincerely intertwined with our own existence and experience of the world. Kimsooja, therefore, provides a platform for critical dialogue related to identities in a globalized world. No doubt her work emerges from a Korean cultural context, yet again, her work transcends a singular, local context having a much broader impact to a global audience. In other words, Kimsooja's art is all about human expression and basic human emotions that knows no boundaries.

  • In a work that deals with globalization at the core – A Needle Woman (Plate 7) – Kimsooja places herself in 15 different cities around the world over the course of 10 years. Her body and physical presence is the constant in these works, as she blends in or sticks out of the crowd. She describes herself as a needle that weaves through the different cities and experiences the diversity, building a tapestry of global inter-connectedness. She becomes either an expression of the all-too-familiar global citizen or a stranger/foreigner who does not belong. While presenting this contradiction, she also desires to reconcile "perfect immobility and perpetual motion," wanting to exist simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. This notion is a fundamental questioning of existence and identity in globalization. Through her works, the social identities of people in the different locations can be examined, as people go about their daily existence, responding to the artist's body in vastly different ways. Concurrently, her own identity is questioned as she simultaneously embodies and rejects her indigenous culture, constantly altering and blending into the global, social fabric. Kimsooja is influenced by her Korean roots, yet she takes these elements of culture to befit her patchwork identity, her skin wrapping and re-wrapping her body, just like a bottari, as it passes through the world.

  • In A Needle Woman, Tokyo (Plate 8), the movement and the pace at which people are passing by is entirely unsettling, chaotic, disruptive and jarring for the audience. The endless crowd walks in front of the camera lens, while the chaos of traffic and lights of the ambulance murmur past in the distance, unfocused. Although the people walking by constantly change, and individuals only stay in the focus of the camera lens for a split second, the viewer cannot help but feel the monotony of the crowd. There is no individual within this mass. It quickly becomes exhausting to look at, our eyes become tired and restless. All the while, Kimsooja remains still, meditative in the hectic chaos, where people are barely stopping and noticing her presence. Kimsooja's presence becomes the constant, her long black hair flowing down her back, creating a perfect symmetry to her body. Her presence intersects the flow of people and the entire experience. She remains inconspicuous in her monk-like attire, not ostentatious, yet she is also highly conspicuous – the only stillness in the constant movement.

  • Complementing this Tokyo work is A Needle Woman, Kitakyushu (Plate 9), which has Kimsooja lying horizontally on a rock formation. In stark contrast, to the hustle and bustle of a great metropolis, here, Kimsooja is becoming one with nature. The distinction between her body and the natural environment begin to merge as the video progresses in stillness and silence. We begin to look beyond the specific shapes of her body's contour laying on the rock, and in turn, we begin to see the unity between the body, the rock and the sky, as our spirit connects with this specific time and place on a contemplative level. Kimsooja states that the most important thing to arise out of these performances is her own experience of 'self' and awareness as a process, rather than the video as a result.

  • In 2005, Kimsooja continued her video works in A Needle Woman series in 6 new cities. In complete contrast to her presence in the bustling streets of Tokyo, the public reaction in Havana (Plate 10) is vastly different. These second set of video works had been deliberately slowed down so that the passersby's interactions with her body could be accentuated. When the video begins the first thing we notice is an elderly man standing right in front of Kimsooja, trying humorously to illicit a response from her, while another man stands on the right corner of the frame, staring from a safe distance for a prolonged period of time. Throughout the work, the people strolling by all slow down to take a look and there is a general sense of reaction to Kimsooja's presence. As such, this then becomes a sociological experiment, providing insight into the cultural differences between Cubans and Japanese, to say the very least.

  • Kimsooja desires to be "like a needle that leaves no mark," connecting two pieces of cloth, two continents or states of consciousness. Kimsooja's openness to the world is what makes her a global, nomadic artist, embodying a hybrid identity. She weaves seamlessly through different cultures, leaving her mark but more importantly absorbing what is out there. Synchronously, she is mesmerized by the sense of unity felt through this act of sewing and weaving, as she equates it to a process of emptying and connecting with the inner self. In A Needle Woman, this process of weaving is like a continuous act of repetition, which becomes a form of meditation and contemplation. The greater function and purpose of Kimsooja's art is for us to question what it actually means to be human. The power of her art is that the different layers in her work stimulate thought and engage the mind, to cultivate "mindfulness of what human beings encounter by virtue of being human," similar to the goal of meditation practice.

Conclusion

  • Kimsooja challenges societal as well as art historical constructs and categories, operating as a free-agent of change. It is through her practice, modus operandi and philosophy that a new epistemology of contemporary art takes place, as she escapes from being pinned down to any movement, style, or group of artistic practice. Kimsooja has created a unique language of expression, fusing her deep-rooted cultural influences with her feminine sensibility, filtering through her personal history and communicating her innate empathy towards humankind and the greater human spirit. Her art opens us up to see the world from totally unexpected perspectives, as she herself truly feels with her body, transcending the artistic medium, the actual performance as well as the time and place to sensuously experience the world around her.

  • There is already so much conflict, negativity, criticism and problems in the world; in Kimsooja's works, her belief is apparent that there does not need to be anymore negative energy expended on inculpating existing systems. Instead of focusing on the failures and injustices, she does what is most human, she feels great empathy for humankind, her art being a heartfelt gesture of reaching out to the common human spirit that we all share. She engages with matters, issues and state of realities in the most basic human way, opening her heart, which in turn, inspires us to open our hearts, to come to a common, shared understanding and experience of the world. Her works re-discover what has always existed in nature but that has never really been 'found,' as she goes beyond painting methodology to "[reveal] visual realities in nature that have always been there." To conclude, Kimsooja desires art to be the world fine-tuned to make us conscious of place – "our place, the place of others and the place of art, arising in the interstices of culture."

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Cities on the Mo ve – 2727 Kilometer Bottari Truck, 1997 (production still)

Kimsooja: Ways of Being

A Conversation between Daina Augaitis and Kimsooja

Daina Augaitis

2014

  • A fundamental presence in much of Kimsooja's work is that of the body. Over decades of production, beginning with the sewn works of the eighties, in which the body was merely implied through the presence of cloth, followed by the bottari works of the nineties that served as metaphors for intimate coverings of the body, to her canonical video works recording the artist's bold physical presence in the world and some of her most recent works implicating the human presence of others, the body has been one of the underpinnings of an artistic practice that addresses large issues of our time—primarily, how we relate as human beings, and the physical/spiritual/social nature of such relations. After all, it is through the body that we perceive and act in the world, and it is also through our bodies, as viewers of Kimsooja's work, that we come to gain a perspective on her ideas. The following dialogue with the artist focuses on four points of entry into to the performative aspects of her work: body, place, time and participation.

  • Daina Augaitis : One of your earliest works, Structure – A Study on Body (1981), is a set of prints that explores the idea of a universal body—but in this case you were already, as a young artist in 1981, inserting the specificities of your own subjective body into your work, as if to counter a universal stereotype. Can you describe the impetus for making this work?

  • Kimsooja : After graduating from college in 1980, I continued investigating questions of tableau as a place in which painters spend their lives trying to find their own mirror. I especially focused on its woven horizontal and vertical system—and with this, the structure of the world and the universe at large. I valued this cruciform structure as a means for understanding the inner structure of aesthetics and human psychology, and it also gave me a perspective from which to approach natural phenomena. This also led to my master's thesis: "A Study on the Universality and Hereditariness of the Plastic Sign: A Focus on the Cruciform Sign" (1984). It was an investigation of the transcendent examples of ancient archetypes through to modern and contemporary painting and sculpture in relation to anthropological and psychological aspects. For example, my enthusiasm for Korean culture at that time extended to the Korean alphabets that were constructed by three symbolic Taoist elements: earth (horizontal line), sky (vertical line) and the human being (dot), a system invented by King Sejong of the Joseon dynasty in the fifteenth century that has an intrinsic horizontality and verticality. I've been focusing totally on this cruciform structure in Korean architecture, furniture, objects and alphabets—even in traditional garments and human psychology—as a basis for understanding the world. During my first trip to Japan in the late 1970s, I came to recognize the uniqueness of Korean visual culture in terms of its own sensibility of colour, especially in relation to Japanese, Chinese and other Asian cultures, which I had previously thought had greater similarities. This interest then expanded to include the body as a tool for the formal examination of horizontal and vertical structures, in a way that is similar to how it is incorporated in our alphabet. My intention in these performative prints was to explore my body within a circular framework as a geometric axis, using images of my arms, hands and legs stretched and folded in various poses to create spatial dimensions that were highlighted with different colour tones. Leonardo da Vinci created a certain universal stereotype in his Vitruvian Man, but for me it was less about proportion than about the dimensionality of the space extended into the world through the cross-like structures of my own body. That was the starting point for this project, which ended up as a series of serigraph prints. It was only a few years later that I escaped from Christianity/Catholicism, and while I won't disagree that I have had a psychological association with cruciform shapes in the artistic domain, that was not the motivation behind exploring the cross shape in my sewn work.

  • DA : You were conscious of the specificities of your culture and exploring those, but what about the specificity of gender? Were you consciously making work as a female? What was the situation for women in Seoul in the eighties?

  • K : When I was young I understood the position of women in our society to a limited degree, but I became much more aware of it after I married in 1983, when the different roles and positions of women in the family and in society became clearer to me and I began to explore identity issues. However, I looked at my own culture through completely different eyes when I returned to Seoul at the end of 1993 from New York (after finishing a one-year residency at PS1), a place where many different roles, ethnicities, cultures and value systems were in action.
    At times I am conscious that I am a female when it comes to domestic daily-life relationships, and in a political sense, but not as much in art-making, even though I realize I implicate the traditional female domain by using tools like the needle and activities like sewing. However, I believe these elements have evolved conceptually beyond contexts of femininity. It's not that I wish to emphasize my gender, but I am simply not a man, and I can't make my titles A Needle Man or A Mirror Man or A Beggar Man. I started a "sewing" practice in the early eighties neither as a female artist nor as a female specifically interested in sewing nor as someone who was particularly good at sewing. Rather, I was questioning the surface of the tableau and measuring its bodily and psychological depth, binding myself to it (the other) and taking it as a mirror with which to reflect myself, which was also a healing process for me and for others. I discovered experimental artistic value in women's domestic labour—especially in Korea, where female and male labour were clearly separated until the late nineties. Even now, tasks such as cleaning the house, doing laundry, cooking, decorating the home, shopping and educating children are divided along gender lines, although the younger generation has become more open to sharing domestic responsibilities and there are more female professionals in Korean society in recent years. In the late nineties I was compelled to refer to the context of women's labour in performative painting, sculpture and installation. And the discovery of the bottari (Korean word for "bundle") as a form of tableau—a sculpture and a "ready-used" object—made me continue to extend this notion of women's "labour" in contemporary art practice. I was increasingly engaged with my symbolic works made from bedcover fabrics, which had a parallel meaning in my personal life after I got married. It is not unrelated to the cultural and ethical position or expectations that Korean women have in our society. Nevertheless, I never wished my practice to demonstrate a feminist or an activist position, although I certainly accept my own femininity and the strong feminine aspect of my work. More importantly, I believe in a basis of humanity, and while feminism stands alongside humanism, I am less interested in gender-oriented power struggles. In hindsight, I still think my engagement with methodologies based on female domestic labour was more about avant-garde action in relation to contemporary painting and the concept of tableau.
    The short period I spent in New York was instrumental, because that's when I discovered a new meaning in the used traditional Korean bedcovers of newly married couples as a ready-made/ready-used aesthetic formation. By wrapping fragments of used traditional clothing in these colourful bedcovers, the bottari constituted a wrapped two-dimensional "tableau" that had been transformed into a three-dimensional sculpture simply by tying one knot and encasing all the contents, as if hugging them all inwardly or being pregnant. It is an action of wrapping bodies and memories. While I was in New York, these bottari objects were a formalistic and aesthetic statement, but when I returned to Korea, I saw our society and women's roles in it from a more critical perspective, and the bottari was no longer just an aesthetic object. Rather, it became tied to notions of the body, to my own conditions and to those of women in general in Korean society, and also to human destiny in a broader sense. After that, I no longer used fragments of coloured fabrics inside of the bottari as a way of creating a type of "pigment." Instead, I began to wrap used clothing in its entirety in order to emphasize elements of reality.

  • DA : When you're using fabric and clothing as the material for many of your works, it implies an absent body. As you think back on these early works, what body were you referring to? Is it your body? Is it a metaphorical body of society?

  • K : Looking back at my earlier practice, it seems interesting that I've been so focused on associating fabric and clothing with the skin and the body; even now I realize how much I've been conscious of its presence and connotation. The question began with the conditions of my own body, but I must say it was translated and transformed into somebody else's and then, ultimately, into an anonymous body. I try to use my body more objectively than subjectively and don't wish to make it about personal revelation.

  • DA : Thinking about when you began to make bottari in New York, could you further describe the implication of the memory of their previous owners?

  • K : I had been making large sewn pieces since 1983, stitching square- or rectangleshaped parts of used clothes together into a flexible and not pre-determined "canvas." A few of them were cross-shaped—which of course can be a reference to a body or have a religious connotation—while others were triangular or irregularly shaped, based on verticality and horizontality. I started with the old clothes of my grandmother and then I used anonymous people's clothing. At that time, I worked mostly with traditional clothing not only because I was fascinated with the nature of the fabric, but also because the practices of Korean daily life were very much ruled by tradition—that is to say, by Confucianism, which created a strong hierarchy in domestic life and in our society. However, this was also one of the reasons that non-verbalized suppression and contradictions were present in our society. I was never actively engaged with feminism or with any particular groups or isms in my private life or in my art. It was my goal to maintain an independent stance while pursuing a sense of totality in my practice. What happened was that these social concerns merged with my existential and aesthetic problems.
    After 1990, I moved away from the square shapes and made irregularly assembled forms with the same materials on a larger scale, which brought a more open dimension to my work. My last sewn piece made at PS1, Towards the Flower (1992), is a large, sewn assemblage wall piece consisting of a long pole wrapped with reused bedcovers and scraps of clothing leaning against the tableau together with my first wrapped bottari as another component. The piece combines three elements: the wall tableau as a painting; the pole leaning onto the painting, which replaces my (or the audience's) hand and gaze and is an extended body; and the first bottari I had made as a sculpture that enfolds and wraps up all the sewn pieces I had made in the past. In the end, the bottari seemed to encapsulate everything inside of it and became a complex symbol. I didn't make any more sewn pieces after that.

  • DA : How did you make the transition from the bottari works to the video works in which you begin to use your own body as subject matter?

  • K : My first video was actually intended as a documentary film of my methodical working process with the bedcovers at a chosen site in Oksanseowon Valley in Kyungju. There I laid the bedcovers out on the ground like a field of laundry and then slowly collected them in my arms and wrapped them into bottari. The film shows every single step and interaction with these flexible fabrics (or "canvases"). At the end, I wrapped everything into two bottari and carried them away. When I was reviewing the footage, I immediately noticed that my body walking on the fabric signified a symbolic needle and I furthermore discovered that the camera's lens and the video's frame served as another form of immaterial framing within the screen. The video thus became a wrapping of the wrapping. The juxtaposition of such opposites—the physicality of the bottari, which evokes a body, together with the video frame as another immaterial way of wrapping—has been a component of my work ever since.

  • DA : As you began to move into this field of performance centred on your own living body as an essential aspect of the work were you thinking at all about some of the experiments of Valie Export, Marina Abramović or Yoko Ono? Were you interested in the history of performance art as you began to use your own body?

  • K : I had only seen a few historical performance images, but I was not interested at all in the staged performances or violent actions of Western performers. Instead I wished to interact directly with nature or in the realm in which real life occurs—not to show something to the audience, but rather to offer an experience for both the audience and myself… In 1979, while I was still at art school, there was an "event" as part of the Daegu Contemporary Art Festival that I was invited to be a part of. It was an interactive "Two-Person Event" organized by Kim Yong-Min for which we ravelled from Seoul to the Gangjeong riverside in Daegu. We wore identical orange workers' vests and departed from the Seoul train station for Daegu, my home town. We took notes on the journey (mainly done by Kim Yong-Min) and each one of us collected preferred objects along the river that were installed in two small adjacent spaces with primitive walls constructed from gathered branches. I collected small objects, such as stones, small piles of sand, little tree branches, flowers, a tiny soju (Korean sake) glass, fresh garlic cloves, etc. I placed the garlic and the soju glass on top of a small installation of branches and leaves atop a tiny sand dune, as if it were a small shrine offering in a shamanistic ceremony. Each of us hung our clothes on the wall and left our travel notes that recorded the entire journey from the train station in Seoul to the Gangjeong riverside and the exhibition space in Daegu. This journey together was unplanned, and was guided completely by each of our individual desires. I realized then that this raw energy of daily life would become the essence of my performances. I wanted to establish a totally different way of doing performances by inverting the notion of an artist as a predominant actor through "non-doing" and "nonmaking" in order to reveal a critical point that is without heroism and without violent action or aggression. I was quite vulnerable and disturbed by the violent performance actions of some performance artists in relation to their own bodies or those of others. I've always questioned a violent exploitation of the body, as it is something I am completely against, even if it is intended to demonstrate the infliction of violence upon the body. I have always believed that there is a way to demonstrate critical ideas without being aggressive.

Place

  • DA : Your earliest performance-based works occurred when you began to travel with the bottari works in the mid nineties. Was this to explore different places as a way of locating specific contexts and histories that would emerge out of them?

  • K : I was inspired by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Hou Hanru's exhibition Cities on the Move, a project in which I participated. When I was young, my family was always moving from one city or village to another due to my father's job. I often enjoyed playing with my school friends in my teenage years by writing down all the names of the cities and villages in which I had lived, connecting them to one another with lines like long sewn stitches in between the names of the towns. The title of Cities on the Move reminded me of our family's nomadic life and inspired me to do the Cities on the Move – 2727 Kilometers Bottari Truck (1997) performance, revisiting all of the villages and cities of my youth in an eleven-day trip across Korea.

  • DA : By now you have worked in a vast number of cities throughout Asia and around the world. What are your thoughts about the idea of place now? Are you using those locations as a way to root your experience in them? How do you choose where you'll be going?

  • K : When I chose Tokyo as the location for the first performance of A Needle Woman (1999), I only had the idea that I would do a performance piece in the city followed by one in nature, without any more specific plans. Clearly, I didn't want to be an actor on stage, and it was a new challenge for me to pursue this experience as an anonymous performer. This work was intended as the first performance piece that I would record and show to the public, working together with the CCA Kitakyushu. I follow my instinct in terms of the energy that I feel from a place—it is an energy that has a lot to do with either people or nature. I often choose the place intuitively, otherwise I am not inspired and can't perform.
    In order to experience my body defined by different realities, the enlightening experience in Shibuya of standing solitarily in the middle of humanity was followed by the opposite axis of standing with a performance of lying horizontally in solitude in nature.

  • DA : When you work in different locations, does your work change? And how do you intersect with the social, cultural, political and economic dimensions of each place?

  • K : I had an incredible experience performing in Tokyo. The performance started the moment in which I became aware of my body in an extreme state of conflict in the middle of a big crowd. I couldn't walk anymore and just had to stop right there and be still in order to tame the inner scream building in my body from the energy of all the people around me. As it became more and more extreme it felt as if I were getting wrapped up inside my own body like a bundle—an absolute sense of self-awareness. That's how the performances of A Needle Woman (1999–2001, 2005, 2009) began. While I was standing still and remaining centred, I experienced an incredible transition in my mind from vulnerability to a focused, meditative and enlightened state of mind. This is when my mind and eyes entered the reality of a large universe, seeing the white light beyond the horizon of the waves of people coming and going. This powerful experience of enlightenment enabled me to meet the people of the world's most crowded cities. For the first series of A Needle Woman performances, I chose the most populated locations in the world in order to meet oceans of people—Shanghai, Delhi, Cairo, New York, Mexico City, London and Lagos, all metropolises on different continents.

  • DA : When you arrived in these cities did you think in advance about what the politics of each place were?

  • K : Before this work, I hadn't witnessed the conflicts, violence or poverty that exist around the world. But after visiting Delhi, Lagos and Cairo, those places really made me reconsider differences in ethnicities, geography, cultural and religious tensions, politics and economics. When I finished all eight cities in the series in 2001, I realized how problematic the entire world had become. The more I travel,the more challenging and violent the world seems. Eventually, for the 2005 Venice Biennale I decided to create another series of A Needle Woman performances dedicated to cities in conflict, whether this was economic, ethnic, religious, violent or post-colonial in nature. The condition of humanity in each place and my growing inner awareness intersect, leading to deeper and broader questions.

  • DA : Do you work with local people? And is community collaboration important? It seems that the notion of collaboration has evolved in your work.

  • K : Actually, I'm not big on collaborating with large groups; I almost have a fear of it. I prefer one-on-one relationships rather than group relationships. But I am getting more involved in collaborative work, and it does offer me valuable experiences. Recent collaborations with communities include working on An Album: Hudson Guild (2009), for which I collaborated with the Hudson Guild Senior Center. Another example is my most recent ongoing film project, Thread Routes (2010–), which focuses on specific weaving communities around the world. In these works I am now physically removed from the viewers, but through my gaze, I explore my perspective through the specific communities that perform their passions, desires and rituals. In Thread Routes these are captured in their textile-related performances, implicating local environmental conditions and the aesthetics of movement that unfold in the actions of their bodies. It goes back to my earlier work displaying an interest in sewing, spinning, wrapping and unwrapping. In a sense, I unwrap their bodies and minds, creating drawings of their movements and life. I feel the psychological dimensions of our bodies are demonstrated when they are unfolding in a performative state.

Time

  • DA : The passage of time is a significant aspect of your work. How do you think about time and impermanence in relation to your work?

  • K : I believe not in permanency but in constant transition. Everything is in process and is ephemeral, including my own body. In my earlier works the process of sewing was a journey to the past, present and future, as an internal voyage through space and time. The performance of A Needle Woman afforded me the awakening experience of an internal journey by locating/dislocating the physicality of my own body, which in turn posed questions and suggested different perceptions of time in both my mind and that of the viewer. Yet another special state of perception occurred in A Laundry Woman – Yamuna River, India (2000), the performance in which I was standing on the bank of the Yamuna River. At one point I became confused to such a degree that I could not determine whether it was my body or the river that was moving. How could I be so confused about the relationship between my body and the river? A while after finishing the performance, I came to realize that the reason was because I had been so focused—to the extreme, like the point of a needle, which has no space but only location. And when there is no space but only location, you're open to all dimensionality; you cannot relate your physical body to any particular thing or direction because you are simultaneously unrelated and entirely related within. I had become confused in that zero point of time and space, and it was a profound and humbling moment of awareness of my own ephemerality.
    Also, when I did the second version of A Needle Woman (2005) I focused more on my body as an axis of time: it has more emphasis as a video piece rather than a performance in comparison to the previous version and is presented in slow motion, whereas the first version focuses on my body as an axis of space in a realtime performance. I accentuated a temporal aspect and reduced the tension of the world in this second version by slowing down the video so that passersby have a longer interaction with my body, and this smoothed out even aggressive actions. Also, the viewers' experience of a slightly longer duration during these moments of interaction allows the delicate psychological threads woven into this video to become apparent. Slowing down the video's speed produces an expansion of time and creates a stretched stillness as a result. My body in stillness slows down to the degree of permanency, a zero point of time, the central needle point of a clock. I have been increasingly interested in extending time while observing the phenomenon of duration.

  • In An Album : Hudson Guild, the camera focuses on each individual's face for a certain length of time and freezes their movement at one point, thereby seeming to transform a moment into eternity. An awareness of time becomes more obvious in this video through the psychological journeys visible on the faces of each individual, whom I filmed closely for many minutes. It is as if I had stopped each person walking by me in A Needle Woman to give my gaze—carefully and closely, one person at a time—to them and all the individuals who pass through my life. I must say, this creates a continuum linking this work with A Needle Woman, and there is still much to explore in what time can reveal. But time reveals things to us only when we have consciousness.

  • DA : What about the psychological dimension of duration? What's going on in your mind and what connection do you make with the people around you, especially in a piece like A Beggar Woman (2000–2001)?

  • K : When I did A Needle Woman, I felt a great empathy for the humanity around me just by gazing at people coming and going. It's a short moment, but in it one can grasp the essence of the ephemerality of human reality. Also I felt a great amount of affection toward the people I encountered. All of those emotions about people were accumulating in my body and embracing me. By the end, I was filled with such fulfilment, peace and happiness. The performance of A Needle Woman was a truly amazing experience for me.
    In the various performances of A Beggar Woman, in contrast to those of A Needle Woman, I relate directly to the specific social reality in a suggestive way by sitting in a pose with my hand outstretched like a beggar. I was not asking for money by posing as a beggar, but instead asking questions by opening my palm to the audience. I didn't expect that people would react by giving real money in this performance. However, I was given money in most places, and I was extremely touched and humbled by this action, as it was a moment of personal communication for me. The interaction and psychology of reacting to a beggar and giving something to him is complicated for both of the people involved. It is a moment of sympathy/expectation, doubt/anti-doubt, hesitation/frustration, willingness/request, withdrawal/disappointment, anxiety/anger and regret/relief—all of which are tensions that are generated between the giver and the receiver. The only place I wasn't given money was in Cairo, but instead I was given an even more valuable gift there: someone placed a baby chick in my hand, and I was so shocked to have this small, warm, moving life in my outstretched palm—in my bottari. Even if it was a playful gesture, the person who gave me the bird had responded to my open question with a profound answer, "A life." Another special experience was the first performance of A Beggar Woman that I did in Mexico City (2000), where I saw and connected with a man from a distance. I had already felt his presence in advance, and I had the intuition that he would give me his money. As soon as I sensed this, I was very touched and couldn't stop weeping as I awaited his action. I tried hard to maintain my stillness. As he slowly approached, he searched for money in his various pockets. Once he found a coin, he slowly came to me and put it carefully into my palm and then left. This was a real response to me, not to a performer. I have learned a great deal from my performances, about people and cultures.

  • DA : I wonder about a piece like Encounter (1998), which is a photograph. As a photographic document, is it therefore more about gesture rather than performance?

  • K : Encounter is actually a performative photograph I made in connection with another performative sculpture called Encounter – Looking into Sewing, which I made in 1998 at the Kunsthalle Fridericianum in Kassel. For this work, I placed a mannequin covered with silk bedcovers at the central intersection of the crossshaped room in the museum's tower and I declared it to be "A Performance." People came and waited, watching the figure/sculpture for a while, expecting some sort of action. When the figure didn't move after a long time, instead of assuming the figure was a performer, the audiences started walking around the figure to try to understand. So I interpreted this interaction on the part of the audience as a kind of "relational performance." That was the original work; the photograph is a re-creation or a record of a similar performative sculpture covering an actual woman inside.

  • DA : The idea of speed is one that Western society is both enthralled with and dependent on. Your work seems to function in the opposite way. Is it your intention to slow things down, to change the speed of engagement?

  • K : Rather than being against speed, I suppose my work sets up a certain kind of observation in relation to speed. However, sometimes a speeded-up action can also open up reality. For example, I was in Hawaii for a site-specific installation and then ended up making the video A Wind Woman (2003). I was filming while driving along a mountaintop and at a certain point, when the speed of the camera and the car coincided, the lens captured the hidden threads between the sky and the trees—the border between things and space (something I've always been curious about and wished to define), stretching it into a brushstroke of wind/speed. Stretching space and time enables different relationships to be noticeable and awakens us to see the world from totally different perspectives. So by observing how quickly or slowly I look at things through changing speeds, I have discovered a series of historical phases of abstract painting—Realism, Impressionism, Expressionism and even Minimalism—as a series of momentary transitions of painting practices. It took many centuries in the history of painting to arrive at the point where Gerhard Richter's brushstroke is recognized as a unique painting methodology; however, A Wind Woman, for example, demonstrates different movements of painting in the history of modern painting, revealing visual realities in nature that have always been there.
    I began my practice as a painter, and most of my evolution stems from my position as a painter.

Participation

  • DA : It seems that your work is very much about the connections you make with humanity, but can you imagine a performance in which there is a surrogate body in place of your own?

  • K : It is inevitable that I perform A Needle Woman, as it is about not just the visual representation but also the unique experience I have as a person and a practitioner whose body has been contextualizing the notion of a needle for thirty years now. Most of my performances were about not just the form but also my inner experience. The state of mind I achieve while I stand there comes from a particular motivation and autonomy of the status of my body and mind. I notice that my back reveals the neutral identity and my state of mind at the time. The back is actually one of the most honest parts of our body. When I'm not stable or focused, I feel it is visible in my back. It's critical for me to be centred, with a focused state of mind and body. If someone else did this piece, the results as an experience and the tension of the performance would be completely different. I did direct and re-perform a version of A Beggar Woman as the project Conditions of Anonymity (2005) with a group of about twenty-two volunteers, a work that was commissioned by Creative Time in New York. The performance was done in Times Square while the videos A Laundry Woman – Yamuna River, India (2000) and A Beggar Woman – Cairo (2001) were being presented on an LED screen. I couldn't repeat myself by doing the same performance while my videos were presented on-site, but I was able to direct a group performance of the same action. I thought this performance could be experienced by any individual without pretention, and it worked out very well, with participants sharing amazing individual experiences and the interactions of the performance.

  • DA : You speak about your back revealing the truth, but there is also truth in the gaze. Who is the primary audience for you in the case of A Needle Woman? Is it the sea of people walking by you in real life, or are you already thinking of the video projection and the audience that will be behind you?

  • K : Both of those are my audiences, and so am I—I, too, am observing from my back while looking forward. At the same time, in order to maintain my body as balanced, I never lock eyes with the passersby. I continuously gaze at a perspective point—a distant needle point. For those watching the video, my body becomes like a vertical needle with a symbolic void in it that allows viewers to enter or erase my body after watching my back for a while, almost like weaving. In the end, it is as if I become an invisible woman whose physicality is erased by waves of people on the street and by audiences—by being watched.

  • DA : At what point does the spectator become part of your work? I was reading Jacques Rancière's Emancipated Spectator, and he writes about the need for theatre to mobilize the viewers as much as the actors. When I watched Hudson Guild, I felt that you had activated the participants and that the border between actor, viewer and action had been blurred.

  • K : In a way, An Album: Hudson Guild was an extended version of A Needle Woman but with my body removed and the roles reversed. In the first part of the video, I am watching each individual community member via the camera as he or she stares into its lens, and in the moment each enters his or her own imaginary world—regardless of what he or she is looking at—and looks back at the camera, that gaze answers my voice when I call his or her name. Rather than being anonymous people in the street, here people from the street come and sit and perform their own personality during their psychological journey, which allows their specific individuality to emerge. One might think this video has something to do with Andy Warhol's screen tests, but Warhol's approach to celebrities that had personal relationships with him is just the opposite of mine and has totally different associations to each of the performers in relationship to the audience. The gazes of the people in Hudson Guild become a parallel to A Needle Woman's gaze, because now they observe themselves from a fixed position, although I give them the freedom to be who they are and do what they wish. In the second part of the video, I placed them all together in the audience's seats of a theatre for a group video portrait and filmed them from the centre of the stage—treating the audience as performers and placing the camera in the same position of A Needle Woman. As performers of themselves, they seem like a sort of constellation of humanity in their own embodied bottari in the theatre. The frozen gaze of each individual turns the continuity into discontinuity, and at the same time, it transforms a moment into eternity.
    Once I screened this video in the same theatre in which I had filmed it and invited the performers to attend. Doing so mirrored the audience, raising questions about who is the viewer and who is the performer; what is performed and what is activated/de-activated; who is watched and who is watching; and what are we looking at and what do we really see.

  • DA : This brings our discussion back to the activation of the individual in society. We are all performers in the theatre of life.

A Laundry Woman, 2000, used Korean bedcovers and clothing, dimensions variable, installation at the Kimsooja, A Needle Woman - A Woman Who Weaves the World, Rodin Gallery (Plateau Samsung Museum of Art)

Sewing into Life

Wendt, Selene

2013

  • An artist is not an isolated system. In order to survive he has to continuously interact with the world around him…Theoretically there are no limits to his involvement – Hans Haacke

  • Interacting with the world around her is precisely what Kimsooja does throughout her work. Since the early eighties, she has relied on the power of the needle, literally and metaphorically, as a means of expressing the direct interaction between art and life. This is the golden thread that binds her work together. Although educated as a painter in Seoul with a short printmaking scholarship in Paris, Kimsooja quickly discovered the unique possibilities associated with the use of needle and fabric as opposed to brush and canvas. She first discovered fabric as a powerful artistic medium, as a young girl, while sewing a bedcover with her mother. The act of stitching through the surface with a needle made her mind wander; philosophy, artistic process, and history all seemed to converge with the fabric.

  • When she first began sewing, Kimsooja wanted to overcome the limited surface of painting by reaching to the other side. She was drawn to the idea of getting in and beyond the membrane of cloth with a needle, and subsequently realized the significance of sewing as a process of wrapping fabric with threads. Kimsooja was intrigued by the continuous and mesmerizing back and forth action involved in sewing, and its inherent creative or mending purpose. From the outset, the process of sewing allowed her to identify herself with the object being sewn, which simultaneously represented an extension of the self. With needle and thread in hand, the mind can wander while the hand goes through the motions of a precise and monotonous craft. Quite simply, Kimsooja had discovered the possibility of sewing meaning into life.

  • From the start, the cultural relevance of traditional Korean cloths has been an integral aspect of Kimsooja’s work. The fabrics implemented throughout her work function as powerful traces of the countless personal stories that, when purposefully brought together, speak of the ultimate interconnectedness of all humanity. Her fascination with the formal structure of fabric and the implications of the needle and thread moving through its surface translate to a silent conversation with the fabric, one that also involves an investigation of issues related to craft and traditional women’s roles. Kimsooja’s earliest works involved collage-like techniques that were, for the most part, more formal than conceptual. These delicate, sewn works hinted at important aspects that would unfold in later work. For example, a plain beige t-shirt decorated with roughly sewn patches of red, yellow and green fragments of clothing comprises a study in color, form and composition, and an underlying meaning is woven into the loose threads and rough unfinished edges. While patchwork, quilting, needlework and stitching are implemented in textile works that speak of pain, loss and vulnerability, sewing itself is simply a means of expression, not the end goal. Through the years, Kimsooja’s approach to sewing has become increasingly conceptual; the complete absence of thread or fabric in some works is as important as the bright textiles featured in other works. The power of sewing as metaphor, and the symbolism associated with a sewing needle in particular, relate to universal issues of identity and existentialism that tie all of Kimsooja’s work neatly together.

  • Kimsooja’s Deductive Object series from the early nineties is also highly indicative of later developments in her work, particularly in terms of the possibilities associated with conveying life stories through common objects. For this series, Kimsooja made use of culturally specific everyday items, such as kites, reels, shovels, forks, or window frames that she wrapped with swatches of Korean bedcovers and clothes, in works that pushed formal and conceptual boundaries. These ‘already-mades’[1] are strongly linked to issues of domesticity and women’s labor, and are rich with social, cultural and aesthetic implications. In her work with found objects, and bedcovers in particular, Kimsooja stresses that she is most interested in the fact that the cloth or objects are ‘pre-used’ rather than ‘pre-made’. The history of the cloth as connected to its owner is underlined, rather than the significance of the anonymous person who may have sewn the bedcover in the first place. The soul, aura and memory of the objects and fabrics she uses are of utmost importance, both spiritually and conceptually.

  • Kimsooja subsequently widened the context of her Deductive Object series by placing emphasis on how the objects relate to the surrounding space. In 1993, she had an important exhibition at PS1 in New York, and one particular installation really stood out. As is so often the case with Kimsooja, ‘complex simplicity’ is precisely what makes the work so powerful. Imagine a white washed brick wall, scattered with small holes, the kind of exhibition wall that most artists and curators would want to smooth out or cover up. Kimsooja engaged directly with this wall, in a beautiful introduction to the idea of sewing as intervention. Hiding in the cracks of the wall, and nestled between the threads of the work, are some very important clues about the direction that Kimsooja’s work was taking – sewing into life. The colorful scraps of fabric scattered around the wall play with the concept of sewing, as each hole in the wall relates to the eye of a needle metaphorically threaded with tiny pieces of cloth. While the overall pattern echoes a textile work in progress, the true essence of the work lies in the space in between, in the connection between the invisible threads that join humanity together. By placing emphasis on metaphor rather than material, Kimsooja reveals the bare threads of her ongoing investigation of existential issues while simultaneously embracing and challenging the possibilities connected with textiles and the practice of sewing.

  • In the early nineties, Kimsooja started making bottari, and the underlying conceptual issues that bring art and life together became even more evident. This raised her work to an entirely new level. Kimsooja gained international recognition for these colorful fabric bundles made from traditional Korean cloths, used to wrap and carry one’s possessions. Although bottari can be made using any kind of fabric, Kimsooja intentionally uses abandoned Korean bedcovers made for newlyweds that she subsequently wraps around used clothing. As such, her use of bottari involves a fascinating double entendre. The bottari function as art objects that relate directly to the Korean tradition of wrapping ones possessions, conveying the idea of being on the move, while also functioning as real bottari that contain something of personal value. A perfect balance between pure form and function, they are beautifully situated on the boundary between art and life. Kimsooja’s interest in bottari also signaled a logical transition from a painterly interest in surface planes to the use of fabric as sculptural mass. This gradually led to a more abstract realm, where sewing is implied within the context of various spaces and environments. So, although she had started out with a traditional needle, Kimsooja freed herself from being bound by the needle by purposefully, yet almost imperceptibly, deconstructing the process of sewing, to the extent that the connection to a needle, thread or fabric eventually becomes barely discernable. Ultimately, all that is left in relation to real sewing are conceptual traces of the needle, or the metaphor of a needle as a tool of empowerment and liberation.

  • With or without a needle and thread, Kimsooja relays captivating stories through art that relates to life as it relates to the concept of sewing. Sewing as an artistic process, sewing as a quiet contemplative activity, sewing as a conversation with the surface of fabric, sewing as a formal investigation, sewing as a meditative process, sewing as it relates to traditional women’s roles, sewing as craft, sewing as intervention, sewing as wrapping, and sewing as a connective act, are all part of the complex fabric of Kimsooja’s singular artistic approach. Reflections about life and art are spun from a seemingly endless thread that weaves in and out of time and space, where past, present and future are melded into one.

  • Around the same time that Kimsooja realized that she could use bottari to effectively express the notion of the totality of art and life, Suzi Gablik was investigating similar themes in her research about connective aesthetics. What Gablik would describe as participative, empathetic and relational modalities of engagement are the defining factors of Kimsooja’s approach to art. Gablik’s theory of connective aesthetics, as outlined in her book The Reenchantment of Art, reads almost as an ode to Kimsooja’s artistic practice. If art should somehow help us to understand our place in the world, if art should work beyond its immediate role as an object and truly relate to our own existence, Kimsooja certainly provides the kind of approach that Gablik was interested in. Mindfulness, consciousness, compassion, and empathy are words that consistently appear in Gablik’s writing, and these words also come to mind in relation to Kimsooja’s practice. Gablik’s search for an enveloping relational vision that would embrace a feminine approach is definitely found in Kimsooja’s work. As Gablik writes, “The sense of everything being in opposition rather than in relation is the essence of the old point of view, whereas the world view that is now emerging demands that we enter into a union with what we perceive, so that we can see with the eyes of compassion.” [2] Twenty years later, Kimsooja’s art is as compassionate and relevant as ever.

  • In retrospect, we can see the visible and invisible traces of an artistic practice that has been consistently defined by a very conscious and determined use of the same materials or approach, set within different contexts where new layers of meaning emerge with each new project. The intricate pattern of Kimsooja’s work is created from a needle that keeps pointing towards concepts that are as fluid as they are static, simultaneously material and immaterial, visible and invisible, simple and complex. Louise Bourgeois once said that fibers, whether spun by spiders or created on a spinning wheel, have deep significance, and that threads weave important memories and emotional connections for us all. This truly captures the essence of Kimsooja’s fascination with the stories that are permanently imbedded in the fabrics that have provided an ongoing source of artistic and even spiritual inspiration for Kimsooja.

  • Through the years, Kimsooja’s bottari have appeared in many different contexts around the world, almost magical in the way they fit into almost any gallery space or natural environment. Like seasoned world travelers, Kimsooja’s bottari are constantly on the move; whether in a museum space or a forest, appearing in multitudes, or all alone, they have been arranged in a meticulously arranged row, or strewn about in a more chaotic manner, they have remained completely still, or moved 2727 kilometers on a truck. With each new setting, added depth and meaning unfolds.

  • In beautiful contrast to the bottari, Kimsooja is equally renowned for her textile installations where the bedcovers are unwrapped, unfolded, laid out, or carefully hung in gorgeous labyrinths of shiny, vibrant fabric. The vividly colored textile work A Laundry Woman, 2000, is a perfect example of this approach. On entering the installation, the viewer is completely surrounded by textiles and is invited to walk through an intricate web of color where pattern and meaning converge. Kimsooja has often compared sewing and walking as similar activities, and describes how this first came about, “In 1994, I started connecting my body as a symbol of a needle in the moment that I was viewing the documentary footage of my daily working process undertaken at Oksanseowon Valley near Kyungju, Korea. I decided to make this as a video performance piece called Sewing into Walking - Kyungju. I identified this walking process in nature—the collecting and gathering of all these bedcovers—as a symbolic needlework which my body was serving.” [3] To walk through A Laundry Woman is to understand the inherent communicative power of textiles, and the underlying meanings are seemingly endless. With each step, as with each stitch, the viewer is one step closer to understanding the metaphysical aspect of work. In this case, the viewer plays the metaphorical role of the needle, winding in and out, betwixt and between these gorgeous fabrics that have a story to tell. The specific choice of decorative Korean bedcovers as intimate possessions that tell life stories of pain, loss, love, and desire is, of course, as significant as ever. These fabrics, colored by cultural and personal histories, are narratives that are literally left hanging for the viewer to unravel as they delicately float between the worlds of art and craft.

  • In Kimsooja’s work, each project is inextricably bound to the thread of the next project. From project to project, the conceptual thread is picked up and re-sewn into a complex and interwoven vision of reality. A perfect example of this is seen in the similarities and differences between A Laundry Woman and A Mirror Woman, 2002. These works appear to be quite similar, both formally and conceptually, and they both relate to a wide range of existential issues; yet the simple addition of mirrors that cover the walls is all it takes to set these works dramatically apart. The mirrors contribute to a heightened sense of infinite space, thereby shifting the focus from the immediate reality of the viewer’s experience to an endless space that can be understood as relating more to the universe than the individual. Similar to separate threads in an intricate piece of fabric, even if they don’t touch each other, they are still bound to the same fabric, and every single thread plays an equally important role in contributing to the overall effect. These works are cut from the same cloth, and stand as powerful symbols for the place of each individual in the universe. The message is abundantly clear; without a needle there would be no fabric, without each individual, no fabric of society.

  • As we follow the needle to its most abstract form, the significance of sewing as metaphor becomes abundantly clear. A needle is easily understood as an extension of the body, and nowhere is this more evident than in the two-screen video installation A Needle Woman, 1999 where the needle moves in a completely theoretical direction. In one projection Kimsooja stands motionless within various urban environments; in the other she lies immobile on a rock. The two projections create a compelling dialogue of opposites typical of her work in general. In the bustling city streets of Tokyo, Shanghai or Delhi, her role is non-changing; she stands alone, straight as a needle. She sews herself into the fabric of society, disappearing periodically just as a needle would. In the accompanying projection she lies upon a colossal rock in natural surroundings. In contrast to the fast paced city scenes, the only changing elements are the drifting clouds against a clear blue sky, and subtle nuances of light. Clearly, Kimsooja is a metaphor for the needle—she connects two parts and in the end disappears. Her role, or the role of her body, is to interact with the fabric of society and to direct our focus; then she disappears, just as a needle does after it’s job is done.

  • In A Needle Woman the body is understood as a needle within the fabric of life. Kimsooja elaborates on this important aspect; ”The mobility of my body comes to represent the immobility of it, locating it in different geographies and socio-cultural contexts. Immobility can only be revealed by mobility, and vice versa. Constant interaction between the mobility of people on the street and the immobility of my body in-situ are activated during the course of the performance depending on the context of the society, the people, nature of the city and that of the streets…I pose ontological questions by juxtaposing my body and outer world in ‘relational condition’ to space/body and time/consciousness.” [4] This captures the essence of Kimsooja’s overall approach, which ultimately relates to the idea of the singularity of the individual as part of an endless multiplicity. Looking at the world through Kimsooja’s eyes, we find ourselves looking at the universe through the eye of a needle. As Kimsooja ‘sews into life’ she simultaneously unravels the thread that is the entire conceptual basis for her work. Imbedded in the visible and invisible seams of her work we see how the traces of migration, war and cultural conflict necessarily affect ones identity and perception of reality—conveyed by an artist who is fully aware of the power of connective aesthetics. Her vision of the totality of art and life is beautifully conveyed through the symbolic power of the needle to mend, heal and connect. She uses a needle to guide us towards awareness and understanding in an approach to art that is intricately spun around the literal and conceptual practice of sewing.

[1] Kimsooja consciously uses the term already-made instead of readymade.

[2] Suzi Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art, Thames and Hudson, NY, 1991. Page 130.

[3] From an interview with Olivia Sand that appeared in Asian Art Newspaper, 2002

[4] From an interview with Chiara Giovando, 2012 featured on Kimsooja's website. www.kimsooja.com

Mandala: Chant For Auschuwitz, 2000, Installation at Poznan Biennial in Hitler's former Office at Zamek, Poznan

Essential Empathy

Jacob, Mary Jane

2013

  • Kimsooja gives herself to us. She does so through her art not simply because she is an artist, but because through art she can give to others. This exchange between artist and viewer has its rewards, offering access to the essence of human communication as well as essential connections to the larger reality of which we are a part. So following Kimsooja's path of communion among peoples and realms, empathy will be the focus of this essay.

  • When we look at Kimsooja's art and see her standing there, we experience her aliveness and partake of her vitality along with our own. Her art makes us feel our aliveness. When we see Kimsooja there, completely still, we also see beyond her and beyond ourselves. Along with her presence in the wind, with the sun and the moon, we sense something more. She endeavors not so much to represent so we can see, but to be one with the world through her work so we can recognize our being too.

  • In this way she participates in what cultures have always done. The names of those makers have not come down to us, so we praise past societies without individual recognition. But as she takes up her ancient charge we know her name or do we? To be her art, she consciously steps out of self, taking on a one-word name that "refuses gender identity, marital status, socio-political or cultural and geographical identity by not separating the family name and the first name.[1]"

  • Making art as one's way of being, or more accurately way of becoming, is to see art as a path. It can also be a reminder of our shared path, and in that way art is like religion and philosophy. But unlike these other fields of endeavor, art alone can be an experience that words on a page can never quite be. More than explaining a connection between the mundane and spiritual realms, between what is perceived by the senses and what is sensed by the mind, in art these can unite and be one. Making art with this aim of ultimate meaning is an act of hubris (punishable by the ancient Greeks), and a dicey claim in our world today. So this is a precarious start for an essay, though for the work of Kimsooja, a necessary one. Her ambition calls for no less.

  • Artists, like philosophers and theologians, are in the business of understanding the relation of the everyday to something greater: ideas, values, the ethereal. But it's not just a professional thing. It's what we do as humans and have done since the beginning of time. This is how we live and must. Each generation, each individual must find their meaning or live a life without it. Kimsooja's concerns are both with the here and now and beyond this place and time. Consciousness overtakes self-consciousness. How can we talk of this? "Spiritual" conjures notions too religious or new age-y for those in contemporary art, while the "unconscious" had a place earlier in the twentieth century, with the birth of psychology. The ambiguity of the ethereal, the other worldly, or unknown, means that it tends to be left out of discussion or to remain tacitly unspoken. "Universal" is a word banished by postmodernism. The claim to represent humanity is a totalizing concept that makes the use of this word suspicious; the complexity of social and cultural difference makes it taboo.

  • An understanding of Eastern philosophy, religions, and culture are ways to think about for Kimsooja's art; they clearly enter into the very nature of who she is. Some have expertly written of this, and these references remain central sources for knowing for her art, but there is more, not just because she is a person of our times who lives and works across cultures, but also because there has been a rich cross-pollination between Eastern and Western thought for centuries now. So, while Kimsooja's work is grounded in Asian philosophy[2], I have chosen to write about her work through the lens of the Western pragmatist philosophy of John Dewey, who was himself influenced by Taoist and Buddhist philosophy[3]. Turning to Dewey, we encounter the ideas of a humanist not embarrassed to venture into the wholeness of the enterprise that is life, because he, like Kimsooja, believed that a wide view is necessary and that art is the most meaningful way to achieve it.

  • As Dewey saw it, life compartmentalized into high and low, and values categorized as profane or spiritual, material or ideal, betrays the nature of things. Likewise, he felt that dividing occupations or interests into practice and insight, imagination from doing, significant purpose from work, and emotion from thought and doing, is to mistake human nature. But when they come together, are one, as in Kimsooja's work, we can experience "deep realizations of intrinsic meanings," " the sense of reality that is in them and behind them," as they tell "a common and enlarged story," and Dewey believed, the ideal can be embodied and realized[4]. Then distinctions of mind and body, soul and matter fade away.

  • To Dewey, this sense of continuity between the mundane world and something greater comes with experience, not just by living over time but by living life in a reflective, consciousness way[5]. For Kimsooja, her body is her medium and instrument conscious experience for others, not merely for expression or representation. And Dewey firmly believed, as Kimsooja demonstrates, that the senses, our own bodily capacity can be used directly to access the "spiritual, eternal and universal."[6] In Taoism, these realms are understood as one universal and ubiquitous vital energy. For Dewey we can know this through art.[7] The aliveness and vitality that art produces makes sense of life's experiences as it generates continuity between the earthly and eternal.

  • Thus, the experience of art (and for Dewey, art is an experience rather than an entity or object ) puts us in touch with the spiritual, non-physical world. But just as not all experience possesses insight or continuity, not all art rises to the level where it achieve a union of the material and the ideal. Yet when looking at Kimsooja's work, we understand Dewey when he says: "The depth of the responses stirred by works of art shows their continuity with the operations of this enduring experience" because such "works and the responses they evoke are continuous with the very processes of living." Her works affect what this philosopher called: "The mystic aspect of acute esthetic surrender, that renders it so akin as an experience to what religionists term ecstatic communion." [9]

  • Being consciously alive rises to the level of the aesthetic. It occurs, to Dewey, when we are fully and completely present in the experience of making and perceiving, but this does not only happen in the act of making art; it can happen in life.[10] For him, like Kimsooja, to live well, in an aesthetic or art way, is to be fully conscious, open, awake. As we are continually evolving in a state of becoming, we need to continually practice awareness. In Dewey's system of thought, in which each individual is responsible for themselves and for advancing society, practice involves putting one's values to work. His concept of the aware individual for his Pragmatist philosophy finds alignment with Buddhism's concept of buddha mind an awakened state of consciousness which respects both everyday action and the search to enlightenment as the same path. But whereas in Buddhism and Taoism this is achieved through meditation, Dewey advocated art. The work of art, in Dewey's view, as an object of practice can be a path to self-realization.

  • This path includes understanding others, and in experiencing art, we can experience others. On one level, in viewing art we can share the feelings of others, what we commonly call empathy. On another level, in art we can be with others, something we might describe as an experience of humanity. Dewey knew that empathy was the basis for any social enterprise. Art, for Dewey, had this great capacity for empathetic experience because, he believed, experiencing art is an act of re-creation:

  • Works of art are the means by which we enter, through imagination and the emotions they evoke, into other forms of relationship and participation than our own. We understand it in the degree in which we make it a part of our own attitudes, not just by collective information concerning the conditions under which it was produced. We accomplish this result when, to borrow a term from Bergson, we install ourselves in modes of apprehending nature that at first are strange to us. To some degree we become artists ourselves as we undertake this integration, and, by bringing it to pass, our own experience is reoriented. This insensible melting is far more efficacious than the change effected by reasoning, because it enters directly into attitude. [11]

  • How might this apply in the art of Kimsooja? A Homeless Woman - Cairo (2001) becomes an object of interest, even of compassion, on the part of passersby who pause to consider her manifestation of a human condition that till then had been almost invisible. In A Beggar Woman the artist presented herself to people in the streets of Delhi (2000), Mexico City (2000), Cairo (2001), and Lagos (2001). A different manifestation of this work occurred with Beggar Woman: Times Square (2005). Misinterpreted in the press as a gesture flying in the face if this city's truly needy, we might contemplate the questions, How do we draw attention to need? Can we experience others throughout a city, beyond just one city, holding in our hearts their hunger? Is acknowledgment of them acceptance without change? Who is in need? Who is present? Who offers what to whom?

  • Have you ever received a comment from a homeless person that stayed with you even though you gave nothing, while a thank you in return for money given on another occasion was not a memorable moment? Here the hands of Kimsooja's sitters are in a gesture simultaneously receiving and offering, being needy and charitable, troubled and wise. A practice in many religious traditions including Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Christianity, in which beneficence is manifested through both giving and receiving this act of engagement contains all things. [12]

  • Other empathetic works, beginning in 1995 with Sewing into Walking - Dedicated to the Victims of Gwangju, have taken the form of memorials. Clothes stood in for persons, spread out on a mountainside where tragedy had struck. It was a commemoration of as many at 2000 killed there as they rose up against the dictatorship of then-president Chun Doo-hwan. And it was a poultice for the earth. This incident, called 518 to signify its start date of May 18, found a parallel in 9/11 when later Kimsooja was moved to a enact a loving gesture of remembrance. In Epitaph (2002) she laid a single bedspread at Greenlawn cemetery in view of New York's skyline. Clothes, used as in Gwangju, were laid out on the floor of Hitler's former office in Poznan, Poland, to form Mandala: Chant for Auschwitz (2010), while cloth in all its colors and forms flow through four screens of Mumbai: A Laundry Field (2007-08), standing "for human presences and the questions that concern us all," [13] and creating a wider circle of life, not just of this place but many. On this occasion, as in other works, she also draws upon the ancient form of the mandala as a symbol of the universe and a vehicle of practice for focusing attention and bringing one in touch with a realm beyond the profane.

  • Carpets of clothes led to newly fashioned carpets with Planted Names (2002). Four woven works memorialize those who made the Middle Passage, packed in rows aboard ships, and then planted in rows the vast carpet of the former rice fields of the plantation site for which they were made [14]. In part inspired by the artist's experience the year before in Nigeria, this work was preceded by Bottari: Alfa Beach (2001) in which the sea sits atop the sky. This inversion is an empathetic response, she said, to "the saddest line I've ever seen in my life, thinking of the destiny of the slaves and their deprived freedom. Thus the flipped horizon was, for me, a disturbed horizon, a disoriented sense of gravity and of the slaves' psychological return I perceived in the curls of the waves reaching the same shore from which they had left." [15]

  • Kimsooja embraces the many associations of water: purification and cleansing, the depth of the womb and the vastness of the universe, its lunar cycles or the mind, and fluidity, as Taoism tells us, is the flow of energies and the inevitability of impermanence. In A Lighthouse Woman (2002), a companion to Planted Names, she created a witness to the waters' histories of pain through an oversized needle-like object surrounded by water. Its repeating, hour-long sequence of nine hues projected onto the lighthouse caused it to change as if breathing, saturating it and spilling into a pool the color. Viewers gave time to see this work, participated in being witnesses to time. And in experiencing A Lighthouse Woman they could experience empathy, not as an idea but, as Dewey said, through their individual senses they could actually experience "the spiritual, eternal and universal." Visited communally, there was communion.

  • The empathy of each of these works was made real through the use of historical and geographic reference and the artist's astute choice of tangible, material form, yet became the embodiment of others. In perceiving these works, as Dewey knew, we come to understand the wider story of humanity over time and to appreciate others' struggles. This happens across cultures, and even if we think we are more critical and aware of cultural differences than Dewey's generation, there's some truth as he says: "when the art of another culture enters into attitudes that determine our experience genuine continuity is effected. Our own experience does not thereby lose its individuality but it takes unto itself and weds elements that expand its significance"; then experience is one of "complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events," transforming into "participation and communication." [16]

  • In Kimsooja's work empathy of specific moments and situations gives way to a greater sense of oneness in humanity. This is the experience we have of Kimsooja's magnum opus, A Needle Woman. Begun in 1999, it is the embodiment of the fluidity of ourselves and our self into others, of time flowing into time, of place flowing into place, of oneness. She is the needle and yet the eye of the needle. She is the key that opens our vision, yet at the same moment the keyhole through which we pass. She shifts seamlessly, fluidly, between being solid and there, to empty, a shadow. Thus, in Needle Woman, we have two sides, too spectator and participant, as we looking at and moving into the scene, seeing others flowing along, being in the flow. Here our full participation is the transformation through the experience of art.

  • It has often been remarked that here the artist remains anonymous by not revealing her face. But it is more: she and all the persons in the frame are part of a larger, unframed whole: everything, everywhere. We understand this when this artist says, "I have an ambition as an artist: it is to consume myself to the limit where I will be extinguished. From that moment, I won't need to be an artist anymore, but just a self-sufficient being, or a nothingness that is free from desire." [17] Thus, Kimsooja aspires to a level beyond that of the experience of others and their story, and even beyond humanity as she seeks to approach the experience of a greater realm. To do this, art is a path not a goal, and a way to achieve full self-realization.

  • Taoism says the human mind before creation is pure emptiness, and that within this emptiness or void resides all potential. With awareness our mind can return to this state of emptiness, once again becoming part of it, connecting us to the universe and, during moments of insight, producing a sense of oneness with all things. This mental state is not a matter of representing reality; it is a state of being. This all-inclusive reality connects with our own mundane self because it is already ours or, better, it is already us. When Kimsooja speaks of "being consumed to the limit," she participates in that wholeness and is one with it. Art that evokes this multi-dimensional connection possesses an empathetic essentialism that goes beyond coming in touch with the emotions of others to achieve true identification, an understanding of being.

  • This level of empathy has been called by Gonzalo Obelleiro "imaginative empathy." It "is concerned with the essence of emotion, not the specifics of its manifestations," he writes, finding Dewey's philosophy of experience useful to ground a pedagogy imaginative empathy [18]. It is true that in addition to art's practical social roles of producing empathy, hence, creating an empathetic state of awareness, Dewey also felt that imagination through art played a social role [19]. But imagination in art and in common parlance has a sense of flights of fancy rather than of truth of experience, so here I prefer to recast this empathy found in the essence of emotion, as "essential empathy."

  • In A Needle Woman—Kitakysuhu (1999) the artist lies on an exposed rock of a mountain. Her stillness between earth and sky allows us to perceive the connected transitoriness of all nature, human as well as earthly and heavenly. Moving beyond self, she says: "Over time, I find that my body, with its duration of stillness—breathing in the rhythm of nature—becomes itself a part of nature as matter, neutral, a transcendent state. To me it is like offering and serving my body to nature. [20]" Likewise in Laundry woman—Yamuna River, India (2000), we experience, as she did, a similar oneness. Standing downriver from a cremation site, she faces the ephemeral joining the eternal. She des not represents or expresses this moment of passage but achieves it in a complete enlightened state of awakeness. And when this was achieved, she said, she "finally realized that it is the river that is changing all the time in front of this still body, but it is my body that will be changed and vanish very soon, while the river will remain there, moving slowly, as it is now. [21]" Our life is fluid, always changing, as we float in the river of the universe. As with A Needle Woman, she is in the picture yet evaporates from it, opening up the space for us to enter. As viewers, she gives us a glimpse of an awakened state: initially what it looks like, then with time, if we can achieve a deeper state of consciousness and presence, the chance to fuse and become one with her, replacing the artist, participating ourselves. So her art, like potent, sacred objects of cultures throughout time immemorial are not representations but means to this state of essential empathy, not the picture of it.

  • One of the primary aims of perceptual awareness for Dewey is for us to become conscious of the consequences of our actions, on other peoples and humankind, and for the planet. Today we think "planetary" in regard to ecological and environmental stewardship, but Dewey was also thinking in less tangible ways. With an understanding our individual effect on the greater whole, Dewey modeled a responsive and elastic web of consciousness in co-existent, recalling the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness as envisioned as Indra's Net: all things are a part; each reflects the whole; each affects and is affected by every other part.. With a belief that art was useful in guiding personal development toward social good, Dewey seized upon art's exceptional ability to create feelings of empathy and, thus, deeper understanding of the human condition and existential condition. For this he depended on art, for he knew it was essential to imagine a better future.

  • In other works, such as A Wind Woman (2003), Kimsooja becomes nature. In Earth—Water—Fire—Air (2010) she works at the site of a nuclear plant in Korea. For A Mirror Woman: The Sun & the Moon (2008), filmed on a beach in Goa, India, she created the moment of eclipse, when the sun and moon become one. The artist, it could be said, is gone in these works, but rather she is fully present with everything. Doris von Drathen has so aptly written of this work when she says the space the artist occupies is "the dividing wall of the mirror that generates consciousness," from which "she can view the impossible, open her range of vision into the cosmos, intensify her own sense of consciousness towards transcendence. At this moment of absolute presence, an ethical dimension reveals itself," whish is at once "the relinquishment of an identity that is defined by belonging" and "an awareness that concentrates utterly and absolutely on the Self." And here, too, we participate as: "The viewer merges into the incessant breathing of the sea, as it gives forth its waves, allowing them to rise and subside in eternal circuit...the viewer becomes susceptible to the circuit of the celestial bodies in the selfsame endlessness of their return [22]. Our full existence demands this connection to something larger.

  • Artists can be insightful and make insightful art. If we are perceptive, art can give glimpses of insight. But rarely is art insight. Yet this happens when Kimsooja embodies oneness or, Dewey's terms, continuity, giving herself to us and, when we experience it as we give ourselves to her art and fully participate in it. Participation. It's a word Dewey chose [23], but which has taken on a new meaning in art today as we have lost the capability to participate with art objects, and talk about engaging viewers in modes of participation such as collaborative authorship or other forms of making. Spectatorship connotes detachment, looking at the surface of things or actions. In American and European contemporary life the spectacle society is one of superficial and mediated relationships [24]. The spectator does not feel empathy, but the participant does. And only as a participant can we partake on yet another level of the essential empathy that Kimsooja experiences and which become her art.

  • To be a participant in Kimsooja's art does not require sitting in Times Square or being with the artist on a beach in India. It can happen in front of a video in a gallery. To an exceptional degree her art revives the experience of art Dewey knew—where being with art makes all the difference. If we think about the viewer as involved in empathetic relation to the artist's experience, to others' experiences, and to the essence of empathy, then as participants we are caring, hence engaged. Caring, the engaged audience functions like the artist, invested in the moment [25]. This parallel of artist-to-audience is so fundamental that as we experience art we "become artists ourselves." [26] Kimsooja gives us the possibility to do this with her art. If we fully participate, the experience is ours.

[1] http://www.kimsooja.com/action1.html

[2] See Interview with Kimsooja in Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, Eds. Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacob (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 212-219.

[3] In dealing with a wider realm, Dewey advocated a philosophy that "accepts life and experience in all its uncertainty, mystery, doubt, and half-knowledge and turns that experience upon itself to deepen and intensify its own qualities—to imagination and art." John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934; New York: Penguin, 2005), 35.

For a discussion of Dewey's personal connections to Eastern philosophy, see the author's essay "Like-Minded: Jane Addams, John Dewey, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy," in Chicago Makes Modern: How Creative Minds Changed Society, Eds. Mary Jane Jacob and Jacquelynn Baas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 23-25.

[4] Ibid., 21, 28

[5] Dewey wrote: "The existence of art is the concrete proof…that man uses the materials and energies of nature with intent to expand his own life….Art is the living and concrete proof that man is capable of restoring consciously, and thus on the plane of meaning, the union of sense, need, impulse and action characteristic of the live creature. The intervention of consciousness adds regulation, power of selection, and redisposition. Thus it varies the arts in ways without end. But its intervention also leads in time to the idea of art as a conscious idea—the greatest intellectual achievement in the history of humanity." Ibid., 26.

[6] Ibid., 32.

[7] Dewey wrote: "The conception of man as the being that uses art became at once the ground of the distinction of man from the rest of nature and of the bond that ties him to nature…art itself is the best proof of the existence of a realized and therefore realizable, union of material and ideal...There is no limit to the capacity of immediate sensuous experience to absorb into itself meanings and values that in and of themselves—that is in the abstract—would be designated 'ideal' and 'spiritual.'" Ibid., 26, 29, 28.

[8] Ibid., 344.

[9] Ibid., 28-29

[10] We might think here of when someone remarks they are "living the project," being so fully engaged. We see it in the excitement or focus someone give sot what they are doing, their skillful command but with the presence of the moment that is each time lived anew. This Dewey called esthetic. By way of example, he wrote: "An angler may eat his catch without thereby losing the esthetic satisfaction he experienced in casting and playing. It is the degree of living in the experience of making and of perceiving that makes the difference between what is fine or esthetic in art and what is not. Whether the thing made is out to use…is, intrinsically, speaking, a matter of indifference….Whenever conditions are such as to prevent the act of production from being an experience in which the whole creature is alive and in which he possesses his living through enjoyment, the product will lack something of being esthetic. No matter how useful it is for special and limited ends, it will not be useful in the ultimate degree—that of contributing directly and liberally to an expanding and enriched life." Ibid., 27.

[11] Dewey, Ibid., 347 - 348. This proceeds from Dewey's premise that: "Without an act of recreation the object is not perceived as a work of art." Ibid., 56

[12] See also http://www.dharmasculpture.com/buddha-varada-mudra-sanskrit-boon-granting-charity-hand-gesture.html

[13] Rosa Martinez, "A Disappearing Woman," in Kimsooja: To Breathe (Seoul: Kukje Gallery, 2012), 22.

[14] Planted Names was made for and exhibited at Drayton Hall, Charleston, South Carolina, commissioned by the author for the Spoleto Festival USA in 2002. Interestingly one of the descendents of this plantation family, Bill Drayton is the founder of the progressive social entrepreneurship organization Ashoka that uses empathy-based ethics as a keystone to working together to make change.

[15] Martinez, 21.

[16] Dewey, 349, 22-23

[17] Ingrid Commandeur, "Kimsooja: Black Holes, Meditative Vanishings and Nature as a Mirror of the Universe," in Kimsooja: To Breathe, 9.

[18] See Gonzalo Obelleiro, “Imaginative Empathy in Daisaku Ikeda’s Philosophy of Soka Education,” conference paper for Soka Education: Leadership for Sustainable Development, Soka University of America, February 11-12, 2006, 39-51. www.sokaeducation.org/images/4/48/Imaginative_Empathy-Obelleiro.pdf

Obelleiro argued that empathy, in line with Buddhist tradition, is not the mere act of re-experiencing one’s own sufferings, but when “[w]e feel empathy when we partake on the essence of the emotions that person is experiencing.” To the author, this is supported by Dewey’s philosophy of experience because it “shares with Buddhism the basic epistemological premise of the oneness of self and environment and oneness of mind and body,” and because “in its clear humanistic approach, it privileges human interactions and regards ethics as not as fixated in a particular framework of rules and maxims, but as the art of creative, inner dialogue between primary experience and critical reflection.” To Obelleiro, “Dewey makes it clear that concepts like imaginative empathy are not simply theoretical concepts but are modes of praxis or manifestations of philosophy as art, which can only be learned in experience, particularly in interaction with other human beings.” So he concludes: “it is only through the creative integration of the two, direct experience and cultivation of mind and spirit, that imaginative empathy can be attained. The kind of artistic skill required for this integration can only be learned from another human being, for it is the quintessential human quality. Some call it wisdom.”

[19] Dewey wrote: “The first stirrings of dissatisfaction and the first intimations of a better future are always found in works of art.” Ibid., 360.

[20] Kimsooja, Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, 217.

[21] Ibid., 217.

[22] Doris von Drathen, "Standing at the Zero Point," in A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon (Tokyo, Shiseido Gallery, 2008).

[23] As stated previously, Dewey said, experience “when carried to the full, is a transformation of interaction into participation and communication”; and also: “Works of art are means by which we enter, through imagination and the emotions they evoke, into other forms of relationship and participation than our own.”

[24] Here, of course, I am referring to Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books, 1994, originally published in French 1967).

[25] Robert M. Pirsig, in his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, distinguishes between being involved and being a spectator. Care, for Pirsig, is what makes one’s work or actions an art. See Robert M. Pirsig Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York: Harper and Collins, 1974), 34-35.

[26] Dewey, Art As Experience, 348

To Breathe: Bottari, 2013, mixed media installation, partial installation view of the Korean Pavilion, The 55th Biennale di Venezia, photograph by Jaeho Chong

A Place to Be - A Conversation with Kimsooja

Gautherot, Franck

2013

  • FG: In 2005 Seungduk Kim, your present commissioner for the Pavilion, invited you to participate in a Korean group show she curated at the Vienna Kunsthalle. You didn't agree to take part in such an exhibition. What led you to accept her invitation for Venice? How do you feel about this national identity when you have been a 'self-exiled' artist for so long?

  • KSJ: I think 'national exhibition' refers to so many different categories and connotations. For an artist who considers herself a 'self-exile' and a cosmopolitan, the notion of a 'nation', or 'national' is not that simple. The particular concept of the nation or national has to be defined before one can address its criteria. The historical, political, economic and cultural specificities of a society and a nation have a lot to do with an artist in terms of her/his personal and collective identity. These factors define how an artist has built up her/his own perceptions of the world and artistic criteria within the international art scene. A nation is like ones' parents by whom you were raised and who have influenced your life with given conditions and perceptions. When it comes to a collective identity, an artist who pursues his or her own unique and individual vocabularies must have their own point of view as to what category they fit into within a specific group show, or an exhibition as a national representative.
    Over the years I had to decline a number of national group shows including biennales that weren't in line with my personal artistic practice and my beliefs. For example, I declined to participate in a national group exhibition which was an exchange between Korea and China in Beijing a couple of years ago. That decision was a reaction against the constant violence inflicted on an artist Ai Wei Wei by his government. I have no personal relationship with Ai Wei Wei, but I don't believe that a government can deprive an artist of their freedom of expression and perform violent actions towards them regardless of who they are. The decision I made not to participate in this exhibition had nothing to do with the curator, organizer or invited artists and their artistic values but was solely a humanitarian and ethical action; in the attitude of taking a position as an outsider.
    My reaction to the Korean Exhibition at the Kunsthalle Vienna was also an action to declare my position as an outsider. That was still a time when I was questioning "Koreanness". As far as I know, the show examined and juxtaposed two opposite poles in Korean art: the Modern Art group and the Minjung Art group. These two groups were usually not curated together, because they had a certain kind of political conflict between each other and also due to their respective interests in Korean society. As an artist who had tried to keep a distance from any group activities or any hierarchical structures in Korean society, I didn't want to return to that particular political context in a national exhibition such as this, as it was something that I had consciously avoided for much of my career. I have worked hard to retain my autonomy and independence as an artist, although it has not been an easy path for me over the years. Besides which, I had already been introduced to the audiences in Kunsthalle Vienna during a solo show just a few years before and an international group show in Vienna Seccession in the past. It is more to do with my own personal history and position rather than with the show itself. When I saw the catalogue, I thought the show looked quite interesting as a spectator.
    I guess being invited to represent my own country's national pavilion is the most exceptional recognition I can achieve as an artist who considers herself in self-exile. Without a doubt, it is an honor and it is a challenging question for me to work on this particular biennale, so I was willing to develop the best possible project for the Korean Pavilion.

  • FG: Seungduk Kim expressed, from the beginning, her wish to focus on the pavilion as an architecturally strong component that the artist will have to play with. How did you take her invitation to mainly connect to this given architectural situation?

  • KSJ: I understand how much the nature of the particular architectural elements of the Korean Pavilion has raised questions for the commissioners and invited artists in the past, and we are no exception. However, I value Seungduk Kim's approach to the pavilion, as it has never been examined from a solely architectural perspective. This certainly coincided with my immaterial way of approaching the site specific project and I tried to preserve the original structure of the pavilion while challenging its specific qualities and problems.
    Leaving the whole space empty without installing any objects in it, the installation expands the void to the maximum by taking the architecture of the Korean Pavilion itself as a Bottari (Korean word for bundle). I tried to transform the entire pavilion into 'A Bottari of Light and Sound, Darkness and Soundlessness' that inhales and exhales; as if the architecture itself were my body. I have chosen not to install any objects in the space so that the audience's body may be embraced by the sound of my breathing. The Weaving Factory (2004-2013) sound performance fills the pavilion and proposes a unified experience, together with the yang energy which enters as sunlight, and extending all the way to the yin energy of the black hole in the anechoic chamber.
    The skin of the glass windows is wrapped with the diffraction grating film fabric that defuses the sunlight into a rainbow color spectrum. What we see is the unfolded sunlight and the shadows of nature that shower into the pavilion and are translated into a color spectrum. This light and shadow reflects onto the white walls and simultaneously bounces endlessly back and forth from the mirrored skin of the ceiling and the floor; folding and unfolding into infinity. The darkness in light and the light in darkness is stretched to an extreme into waves of light and sound. The audience's body resides within mine as a whole, wrapping and unwrapping, communicating with each other. The light waves and the sound waves together with my humming and the inhaling and exhaling of my own breath, question the moment of life and death while the mirrors bounce light off their surfaces breathing in and out.
    It was significant that Hurricane Sandy happened in New York right at the moment when we were discussing this project. The experience of living without power, electricity, heat and conveniences for one week with the whole community, was a humbling and contemplative moment. At the same time, this special moment gave me an insight into the Korean pavilion project by encouraging me to construct an anechoic chamber to explore a state of complete darkness and soundlessness. In this way, the visual knowledge of infinite reflection in the main space—which is constructed from purely natural light, finds a counterpoint in the space of the 'unknown' or 'unseen' in the anechoic chamber.

  • FG: In general how do you picture your contribution to any exhibition situation: Is it the space that calls first? The people? The context? The location and its history?

  • KSJ: I am aware of all the factors and consider them all simultaneously. The artist's job is done by an omnipresent gaze and mind that looks at both the visible and the invisible.

  • FG: You have been invited many times to exhibit at the Venice Biennale. So the biennale is no longer an issue for you, but the Korean Pavilion is a new challenge. How do you locate yourself within its specific history? You said you have seen many of the shows there over the years.

  • KSJ: I have been invited to participate in the main Venice Biennale exhibition twice. The first time for Harald Szeemann's d'APERTutto (1999), and the second time for Rosa Martinez's exhibition Always a little further (2005), both were shown in the Arsenale. I have also participated in other official exhibitions at the biennale such as the Tiger's Tail (1995) curated by Soyeon Ahn and organized by The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea, in the Palazzo Vendramin. Nam June Paik had been at the German pavilion in 1993; this was the following biennale for which he contributed to present large scale Korean Contemporary Art in Venice. It was the first time I had presented my installation with bottaris in Venice. I also participated in Markers (2001) curated by Ryszard Waskow on Garibaldi Street; and ArtTempo (2007) at the Palazzo Fortuni organized by Axel Vervorrdt, and curated by Jean-Hubert Martin and Matijs Visser. This exhibition became an inspiration for many curators to create a historical return of the Gutai group through exhibitions such as the show Daniel Birnbaum invited Matijs Visser to curate at the following Venice biennale. They are now introduced everywhere around the world.
    Most of the biennale projects were marvelous experiences for me, especially when my work was in a context that opens a new dimensionality, was re-contextualized, or when I could create a meaningful new piece that opens up new possibilities. Many of the Biennales I participated in served these kinds of opportunities, and each time I have also been able to see the Korean Pavilion and its projects and other pavilions. This certainly helped me to understand what was going on in the world at that time. It also helped me to form an approach to the Korean Pavilion and an understanding of what position the Korean pavilion has on the contemporary art map, along with its relationship with other pavilions. Therefore, this provided me with some insight as to how to approach the Korean pavilion project and the practicality of dealing with specific local conditions. Most of the biennales I have participated in have given me opportunities to create new commissioned works with challenging themes and audiences. However, I am always interested in challenging new projects that I am inspired by—whether it is a biennale that gets more attention, or a small, remote local project—as long as there exists the possibility to realize work and develop from it.
    This project was inspired not only by Seungduk Kim's approach to the architecture, which assured me the chance to pursue the site-specificity, but also by contemplating Massimiliano Gioni 's title Encyclopidia di Palazzo. For me, this title immediately connects with my thoughts on the notion of bottari and Gioni's reference reiterated a certain common knowledge which is in line with the evolution of my practice. National Pavilions don't always correspond directly to the biennale's main theme, but rather present their artists' own theme independently. However, even if I am not invited to participate in certain projects, I always take curatorial positions as my question and contemplate how I would answer. So I have a number of unrealized projects that are related to projects I was not invited to, but which I considered from my artistic position. Without exception, each time I come to the biennale as a visitor or as an exhibitor, I have examined the Korean Pavilion, asking myself "How could I answer if I were using this space or this theme?" You know, it has already been almost twenty years since I saw the opening of the Korean Pavilion.

  • FG: You have been quite familiar with biennales around the world. What stays with you after all these participations? In your work? What are your ideas about biennales and why did you kindly agree to be part of this one?

  • KSJ: I must say that many of my projects were developed not only by my own thoughts, but also by interesting themes and questions that have been posed by each of the national or international curators with whom I have worked. Biennales have been one of the exhibition frames that has enabled me to realize a number of my important new projects, as they present a supportive model for new work—rather than showing existing works—either by posing inspiring questions or offering specific spaces and challenging ideas to contemplate. I value all these opportunities for developing new projects and expanding or contextualizing my ideas and practices in new ways. I am always interested in trying to find the best answer I can deliver through my perspective in response to the current aesthetic, philosophical, psychological or political questions posed by curators through their exhibitions, and also in response to the work of writers. Although biennales are often tough, most biennales I have participated in have examined broad and specific current issues of this era, and obviously they fulfill an important role as agents for re-contextualizing contemporary art history. The fabric of my practice and my approach in general has threads that relate directly and indirectly to many current issues in life and art. In fact, any theme can be discussed with my approach towards the 'totality in life and art'.
    For three consecutive biennales, I turned down kind invitations to participate. My decision to decline the invitations had nothing to do with the curatorship, or any other matter, it was purely because I couldn't accept the title of the biennale, which I felt was no longer relevant in this era. As I defined my position, I also couldn't participate in subsequent editions, even if a good friend of mine was inviting me and the show was nothing to do with the problem I found in that biennale's title. I don't serve the biennale itself but instead I participate as a communicator for those whose question is valuable—to find my own answer and experiment with it. I must say, most biennales served my practice so well by opening up my artistic paths and giving me opportunities that I hadn't had before.
    I am skeptical about the current boom of biennales around the world and their political power structures. Sometimes it seems more like manufacturing an industry in order to promote a city as an international destination through a focus on the tourism and economic benefits of staging a biennale. I don't blame cities for this, but I do think sometimes there is a lack of awareness and reflection on the origin of the art biennale model as a structure to examine the cutting edge of contemporary art. Maybe that is also a current symptom that we face in this era that reveals the reality of the commercially driven art world.

  • FG: Concerning your project, I am very impressed by your precise way of following the 'brief' to propose, within this framework, a very original environmental creation filling the entire space. How did you come to this solution?

  • KSJ: My practice has been increasingly dematerializing since the early days until now. My ultimate goal as an artist is to be liberated from materiality, including my body. To become self-sufficient and freed from desire—for me—is the highest achievement in my art. I wish to be liberated from doing art or making art by extinguishing my artistic energy to the limit. This cannot be achieved by simply stopping the act of making art—paradoxically, it can only be achieved by doing art, living fully, in the most profound and poignant way.
    Since I created To Breathe: A Mirror Woman (2006) at the Crystal Palace in Madrid (curated by Oliva Maria Rubio and commissioned by the Reina Sofia Museum), I reached the point where I could contextualize three decades of my sewing practice process in the most immaterial and conceptual manner. The notion of sewing and that of wrapping and unwrapping in this context, defines the identity of a bottari in the most open and immaterial manner. By emptying the whole space and filling the void only with my breathing, I can address the whole architectural structure as a bottari of light and sound.
    The experience of the Crystal Palace installation helped me to envisage the transformation of the Korean Pavilion into a bottari of light and sound. What differentiates this installation from the Cyrstal Palace installation is the addition of the added element of 'parallel mirror surfaces'. That is; the installation of mirrors on the ceiling as well as the floor, which expands the visual void into infinity. This addition opens up the entire space into an infinite rainbow spectrum—a 'breathing pavilion'. The complete darkness of the anechoic chamber is another important component that I have never examined in conjunction with the parameters of light and sound.
    I hope that all of these elements of immateriality will together create a sensational physical and audio-visual experience for the audiences.

  • FG: Seungduk Kim in her text points out something rather new in the comment and analysis of your work: the centripetal nature and forces at work in the pavilion. Are you aware of this idea?

  • KSJ: I think the word 'centripetal' serves very well to define the formal and mental structure of my perspective in time and space. Since the beginning of my awareness and art practice, I've been investigating the origins of the cruciform structure in analyzing tableaux, daily objects, physical, psychological human activities and body, and the natural phenomena in its relationship to the cosmic world. During the whole course of my experimentation since the late 1970s, I've been digging into the core structure, even before sewing and wrapping or performing. My piercing gaze and focus naturally transmits into a spiral force. This force has also been embodied in the 'standing still' performance in A Needle Woman (1999-2009) where the stillness of my body functions as an axis of time and space. Standing still can represent the inner turmoil of chaos, speed, the scream and also rebirth.

  • FG: You compose the pavilion as a succession of ambient artworks: the main space hosts the diffractions of light in endless reflecting effects through the mirrored floor and ceiling; the semi-circular space at the front of the building is reshaped into an infinite cylindrical room. There is no composition, as you created the conditions with the materials (films, mirrors). You submit to randomness (sunny or cloudy days) and the intensity of effects. It is not the viewer who completes the painting, but the weather in its uncertainty. How did you open up your formal strategy to include such unpredictable and variable elements?

To Breathe: Bottari, 2013, mixed media installation, partial installation view of the Korean Pavilion, The 55th Biennale di Venezia, photograph by Jaeho Chong

Centripetal Acceleration

Kim, Seungduk

2013

  • "The proper place of the inner life is defined solely by the failure to establish any satisfactory relationship with external reality." - Jean Starobinski, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction, 1957

  • What has not yet occurred cannot be described, of course... even though we have all the information imaginable on materials, the construction plans, and the display. We experimented with every aspect separately in a highly visual manner: checking samples of aluminium mirror panel for the floor and ceiling; sticking portions of diffraction grating film on the windows of the pavilion on a cold November day; testing the sound-absorbing foam for the anechoic dark room; spending hours on Chinese websites to find ideas for the "by-products": bags, socks, USB keys; going to Dongdaemum night market in Seoul to look for bojagi fabric. In fact if we had already done similar things for previous shows, this time was rather special since all the elements were mass-produced and the entire display is handled by a local construction team. Nothing directly implies an artwork, but there is a huge volume of material for an intangible installation.

  • Paradoxes are common in art, but in Kimsooja's case, it comes close to the wire. Which is exactly what makes it exciting, and challenging. Nothing can be gauged in advance, it has to be completed to be delivered and experienced properly. No model, no CGI can offer the final vision... For the artist, it is a method and a life-long involvement, but for the curator there is a certain amount of suspended action. Slowly we will perceive the strengths and effects of the materials, patiently we will figure out the reflections on the ceiling and on the floor, gradually we will begin to fathom the sounds absorbed by layers of thick and heavy rockwool, plasterboard, rubber coatings and sharp foam pyramids. Virtuality will be at play all through the weeks of April and May until the last touch is added by the sound installation. The voice of the artist will imbue the whole environment with organic bodily breathing.

  • In order to work within Sukchul Kim's architecture for the Pavilion with no structural modifications, additions or alterations [1], Kimsooja decided that the metal skeleton of the pavilion would receive several skins to shape it into a consistent body: diffraction grating films will cover the glass windows (walls and roof); aluminium mirror panels will be stuck on the floor and fixed to the ceiling; the artist's voice will wrap the main space; an anechoic chamber will occupy the brick pavilion on the South side. The volume of the space will thus be opened out; the skins provide the mutation of the initial transparent cage-like space into a translucent web of light diffracted into rainbow colours, which speed up through an infinity of reflections. Humming and breathing will fill the space with kaleidoscopic volume. A dark anechoic chamber will bury the coloured experience deep inside the visitor's body. Kimsooja's project for the Biennale, To Breathe: Bottari, is original and perfectly fitting within her body of work.

Breathing

  • Bringing nurturing air into our lungs, exhaling impoverished air, in a constant balanced movement. Our body is run by capturing the fuel for life. Bringing it in and sending it out. It takes the best and rejects the weakened part of the gas.

Diffracting / Reflecting

  • Light will be driven around from surface to surface and it will already be multiple in its diffracted state. Will it be rainbow-like and packed with art historical reminiscences? An infinity mirror à-la-Kusama? A kaleidoscope on an adult scale? Architecture as an engine to provide a kind of light therapy? Viewers are included by definition. If no one is there, then there is nothing! The traditional Korean use of bright colours, plain colours, primary colours is at work everywhere in everyday life, in the past and still now. Red, yellow, blue, white and black, these five colours – or Obangsaek – were considered to be closely related to the five cardinal directions. In Korean, Obang means "five directions" and saek means "colour". Obang consists of north, south, east, west, and the centre of these cardinal points. Each direction has its own colour. North is associated with the colour black. Black stands for winter, water, kidneys, a salty taste, sorrow and knowledge. The colour for south is red. Red means summer, fire, the heart, bitterness, pleasure and propriety. East was assigned the colour blue. Blue represents spring, trees, the liver, sourness, delight and benevolence. West was associated with the colour white. White signifies fall, gold, lungs, pungency, anger and righteousness. Lastly, the centre was attributed the colour yellow. Yellow denotes the spleen, soil, sweetness, greed and wisdom. Beyond such symbolism, these colours (found in fabrics for bedcovers and cushions among other uses) equally strongly address those whose background has been bathed in the utopia of the De Stijl patterns: primary colours in geometric patterns and order. The ghosts of Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg are alive in Korea. Naturally Kimsooja has dealt, and keeps dealing, with these traditional and modernist issues of colour. It helps when tradition, which is often a burden of authoritarian limitations, is aligned with avant-garde references.

Bottari

  • In Kimsooja's work, Bottari reads as seminal, motherly, warm, storytelling, formalist, matrix-like, basic, vintage & kitsch, cheap & precious, flexible, endless. Bottari is the result of rolling up pieces of fabric in bundles. A package, a wrapped object. Though they may consist of several pieces of fabric rolled up together in a tautological bag. In the 1990s, Deductive Objects were shown in different locations and particularly in New York at PS1 during a residency programme in 1992-1993. Some works bear the diffused influence of the Paris time while others found their way out and captured the cultural and artistic specificity of the New World. There is one piece (see pp. 117, 132) that can be seen as a turning point for her work – away from the sculptural objects or bidimensional canvas-like pieces, towards site specific environments: it took up an entire wall for a discreet and precise installation of small torn pieces of multicoloured fabric inserted in tiny holes between the bricks of the wall. This piece reminds me of a sacred place. There are traditions in different religions – jewish or buddhist– to use written words as support for prayers or meditation: placing slips of paper containing written prayers in the crevices of the Wall in Jerusalem is much publicised or hanging Lokta paper prayer flag garlands on trees in Tibet. In this instance, slips of fabric replaced the paper, and colours instead of written prayers. As such, the piece deals with memory's narratives and secrets.

Transparency and Obstruction

  • Kimsooja's work could also perhaps be qualified as acts of unveiling and disclosing: slips of papers are left behind, a corpus of secrets is wrapped in bundles, she is seen from the back in the video works. Kimsooja does not willingly participate in the transparency of the present world, where everything is supposed to be accessible, revealed, only to be forgotten a moment later. She is keeping layers of narratives deep within the knotted fabric. If she does not show her face in the videos, it means that we will never see the way she looks at the crowds of human beings in the noisy streets of the cities of the world. She stands as an obstacle in the flow, like in Etienne-Jules Marey's poetic science experiences – such as the mechanics of fluids visualised by using a square object (obstacle). Does Kimsooja mean to study how much an obstacle – here a still and quiet standing woman – may slow down the pace of humanity on the move? What will such a woman in grey outfits cause to the movement of a crowd? Often she stays invisible and does not produce any slow down. Swiss professor of French Literature and Historian of Ideas, Jean Starobinski, analysed the constant unbalanced position in the case of Jean-Jacques Rousseau between his sincere desire for "transparency" and his frustration that created "obstruction" and led him to passive resignation.

  • Contradiction in form usually creates unsolved situations. In Kimsooja's works, paradox is an engine, a tool for building shelters and places for relief. Neither an "art aid", nor a comfort spot for exhausted art travellers, her places are energy batteries. Transparency is not invisibility. But rather, turning transparent is the ultimate dream of the voyeur: nothing is kept secret, everything is visible, accessible to desire. Architecture in modern times has fought for this since glass could be mass produced in large sizes and reinforced to resist [2]. The combination of clarity (glass) and blurring via a colourgenerating device is one step further than stained-glass in churches, where light comes through coloured glass windows and projects onto the stone paving in a complex palette of colour tones [3].

  • For the 2013 Korean Pavilion, with a formal strategy of non-doing, Kimsooja will allow the random good fortune of the changing lights to shape and reshape the whole building. The composition will not be controlled, leaving chance and mischance to create the coloured ambiance. Mirrors on the floor and ceiling will multiply to infinity the reflected coloured lights contained inside the pavilion showering the visitors with jets of diffracted violet, blue, green, yellow, orange and red pure light colours.

Centripetal Acceleration

  • The proposed environment will function as a centripetal engine, an unplugged energy plant absorbing energies of any kind like the ever-changing daylight and the empathy left behind by the viewer. Every single component and effect will be sucked up by the centre, by the nucleus. The Korean Pavilion will be turned into a large scale experiential generator.

  • The additional room could be described either as the total opposite or as the end result of chromatic light experiences. This anechoic chamber is a darkened space designed to completely absorb the reflections of sound waves and be insulated from exterior sources of noise. It is designed to accommodate just a few people at a time who are prepared to lose their sense of auditory stability and dwell in their own heartbeat or the turmoil of their blood circulation. To complete the Korean Pavilion visit as if attracted and absorbed into a black hole.

  • Somehow this could be envisaged as a summary of a number of Kimsooja's previous works in which the elements of the composition have been captured, absorbed, wrapped. We have decided to take the visitors to a region of space from which nothing can escape, neither light, nor sound. A perfect hijacking. For the greater good.

[1] The framework and its limitation to the architecture isn't a curator's caprice to challenge the artist, but rather a rooted project deeply attached to the specificity – in style and in meaning – of this particular and significant edifice: the Korean Pavilion looks like a temporary World Expotype national pavilion. For this reason, the visitor's journey needed to be cast as an immersive art experience. Since La Biennale di Venezia is a gigantic theme park with contemporary art as the core, it was absolutely obvious to stay within that very format. There was no point in mimicking museums or art centres but instead it seemed important to follow the World Expo style as a natural place and moment for the participation of avant-garde artistic movements and individuals. Osaka Expo 1970 was the last edition to be really in tune with such a practical utopia.

[2] Different to the Crystal Palace, erected for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, the Glass Pavilion by Bruno Taut in Cologne in 1914 and La Maison de verre (1927-1931) by Pierre Chareau in Paris, which used glass bricks as a light provider more than as a source of transparency.

[3] In Theo van Doesburg's Stained-Glass Composition II (1917) and Stained-Glass Composition V (1917-1918) designed for the Villa Allegonda, the projection of diffracted light is already planned at the design stage, having organised the nonobjective distribution of rainbow-coloured units (primary and complementary colours) in the vertical format. Daniel Buren's Passages Under a Colored Sky in 2007 in Anyang in Korea operates in a similar way: using the pergola structure with coloured glass casting coloured shadows on the ground.

A Homeless Woman- Delhi, 2000, 6:33 video loop, Silent.

Kimsooja and the Art of Place

Morgan, David

2013

  • Place is important in the work of Kimsooja. The Bottari Truck in Exile (1999) was a work on the road, a truck heaped with bundles of clothing and bedcovers wrapped in brilliant silk fabric, travelling from one place to the next. In video work from 1999 to 2001, she traveled to many places around the world to produce pieces such as A Needle Woman (1999-2001) and A Laundry Woman (2000). More recently, she has devoted much effort to site-specific work that transforms an existing place such as the Crystal Palace in Madrid (2005) or the Teatro la Fenice in Venice (2006) through the graceful calibrations of light and color. In many ways, Kimsooja’s art may be described as a searching meditation on the nature of place—asking a number of questions such as what a place is, how it is defined, how long it lasts, who makes it, what the relation of place is to body, and how places are experienced. A Homeless Woman (2001) and A Beggar Woman (2001), videos that document her emplacement within teeming urban crowds as an anonymous female figure dressed in gray, whose silent, immovable presence is literally out of place, disrupting the traffic of befuddled pedestrians, if only for a moment. Some respond by pausing to inspect her, others are bemused by the camera that witnesses their presence. Still others fail to notice her at all, for whom she is nothing but the blurred place through which they hurry on their way to work.

  • The signals of critique, whether political or economic or geared to considerations of ethnicity or gender, are not hard to see. One could readily give Kimsooja’s art of place a reading that stresses an incisive reflection on the politics of identity, the social construction of gender and race, the economics of power and agency. Clearly, the crafting of place relies fundamentally on the coordinates of authority, social relations, and hierarchies keyed to ethnicity, race, and gender. And one need not look far in her discussions of her own work to find the artist’s corroboration of a political reading. She dedicated Bottari Truck in Exile, exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1999, to refugees of the current war in Kosovo. Exile is an apt theme in regard to place because it means the loss of one’s native setting or milieu, one’s homeland. Kimsooja brought the truck loaded with bottari (Korean for “bundle”) from Korea to Venice for the Biennale. The work was not simply the truck, but the process of getting it from one place to another. She traversed countless national and international boundaries to transport bundles of laundry, the baggage in which exiles haul the traces of their existence. One thinks of transnationalism and the global flows of labor; of forced migrations; of international traffic in contraband; or of worldwide circuitry of capital pulsing through networks of markets.

  • The politics of power and powerlessness, of loss and theft are there, yet one senses that this framework does not exhaust what the work has to offer, where it wants to go. Kimsooja has spoken of the “dimension of pure humanity” as the special interest that drives her work[1]. She wants to ponder what she calls “the human condition and its reality” rather than indict political and economic systems. So she laments the refugees of the war in Kosovo rather than scrutinizing the conditions of the war’s existence. As an artist, human suffering concerns her in the first place, before the failure of social institutions and political will. An artist does not have to choose between the two, of course, but rather than critique and jeremiad, Kimsooja explores the intimate connection of art and moral sensibilities. She is a passionate observer of human beings. All of the work mentioned so far is evidence of an eye bent on the daily routines of human life, using them to register a wistful but wistfully beautiful sense of “the human condition and its reality.”

  • One might say that the common and principal function of religion, morality, and traditional philosophy is to posit a human condition as a way of explaining suffering and proposing a solution to it, or at least a way of enduring it. Kimsooja does not want her art to engage viewers as a religion or morality or philosophy. But it is clear that she wants her work to elicit profound aesthetic reflection. Everything she works with is something that bears the traces of human touch—the things women gather and clean, launder and stretch for the wind to dry. The clothing and bedding that touch us everyday, like a second skin. The things we bundle and carry from place to place, the things we save when the house is burning, when the village is destroyed, when the economy collapses. The things that are left when we are gone, that lie scattered on the ground, as in Sewing into Walking (1994) or in Portrait (1991), where a massive cloak of discarded fragments of cloth rises like a monumental gravestone, a mortuary icon of lives whose flesh is remembered in a dense clutter of castoff artifacts. It is the way of all flesh, this scatter of clothing. Sewing into Walking traces a walk through time as a patchy fabric of strewn memories, if even that. This is an elegiac work, bound to evoke in many viewers a sense of what the artist calls “the human condition.”

  • According to Buddhist teaching, everything, every feeling, is marked by impermanence, holding no place and passing away. Impermanence joins suffering and non-self as the three characteristics of existence, according to Buddhist thought. As one scholar has summarized the matter, “change, degeneration, and non-essentialism are fundamental features of everything.” [2] Nothing lasts, everything fails to satisfy, and there is no soul or self or substance that abides above it all. In short, there is no place to hold us that will not itself crumble into something else—except the dharma of release, or nirvana. Religions often describe a human condition because they want to diagnose the cause of suffering and to prescribe its solution—either through methods like the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism or the redemption that any number of salvific faiths offer their adherents.

  • But Kimsooja does not craft an art tasked with human salvation—either by divine means or by human politics. Her work is not preachy or propagandistic or doctrinaire because what really drives her art is the power of things to provoke thought, to arrest the mind and to fix it on something elusive and mysterious, something we want to take for a truth. Kimsooja wants to cultivate a mindfulness of what human beings encounter by virtue of being human. She ponders what is human—loss, yearning, beauty, routine, work—and does so in the sensuous terms of art that define the places of everyday life. Art is a heightened sensory consciousness, a poignant awareness of the world that opens up in the place that watching, touching, hearing, and making afford. “I’ve never practiced meditation in my life,” she once said in an interview, “but I found every moment for me was a meditation in itself. I reached a similar Zen Buddhism completely through my own way of meditation on life and art and its practice.” [3]

  • What does this make of art? The arts used to operate in the service of institutional religion, contributing to devotional life, decorating the altars of churches, shrines, pilgrimage sites, bodying forth the sacred in the daily exchanges between earthly mortals and heavenly powers in a sacred economy of pledge and favor, petition and reward. Popular imagery in everyday religious life still does that for believers today. But fine art has arisen over the last two centuries to occupy a different space in Western culture. For some people, art is a kind of therapy. It conducts a service of comfort, diversion, or uplifting pleasure. For others, however, the benefit must be described in terms of the meditative absorption to which Kimsooja alludes. Art is a way of refining or honing perception, for use as the means of introspection and as a social and cultural lens. In this approach, “aesthetic” does not mean beauty for the sake of beauty, but something more like sensuous cognition, a delicate tooling of the senses to scrutinize the world for the sake of a penetrating take on its weight and heat and chaos. And so we have Kimsooja’s artistic postulation of the human condition. This is neither religion nor politics; neither preaching nor moral reform. It is a limbic way of seeing, a projection of sensation into the larger world for the sake of feeling it vicariously in the skin of an artwork.

  • What does that mean? Kimsooja’s art is about the cultural work of looking. You may behold A Needle Woman in at least two ways. First, as a video projected on a screen in a gallery over the course of an exhibition for a few weeks. In this instance the video acts as a documentary, recording human actions at another place and time. The scene is a street, far away, a place that is not here, where you and I are standing. We look upon the place with curiosity. An image of the video’s installation in a gallery shows how this works: a bench invites you to sit down and watch an image projected from above. The image appears, as if through a rectangular aperture that has opened up in the gallery wall. In the dimly lit space, you are urged to sit or stand quietly and gaze upon the scene. You devote yourself to the task, if you have time, because you hope to see something interesting, something you’ve not seen before. You wait for something to happen. It’s art, after all. It’s supposed to do something. But when very little happens, the second way of seeing the piece begins to take shape. You glance furtively about the gallery at those standing near you. You glance at your watch, you wonder how long this will go on. Ineluctably, your perception shifts from looking at a video image-window in the wall to looking at people in your vicinity looking at a video image-window in the wall. You become aware of the discomforts of your body. If you’ve ever meditated, the feeling will be familiar. The scene moves from there, on the other side of the wall, to here, in and around you, and you realize that you are part of the art. The piece takes your time, your body, your patience and invests it in a work that includes you. You might look for the door. You might want to get out of here. Yet you’re intrigued by the two sets of looking—on the screen and in this room, and you wonder what you feel.

  • The boundaries of a work of art dissolved in the twentieth century. Art went from hanging on walls and perching on pedestals to happening in deserts and junkyards, on street corners and human bodies. With the dissolution of conventional boundaries came a redefinition of the place of art. So looking at A Needle Woman and A Laundry Woman, we ask: where is the artwork? Is it there, in the crowd’s response to or unawareness of the stolid presence around which they move? Or is it here, among us? Perhaps the two modalities are really one: we are yet another crowd in which the impassive worker woman stands. Perhaps our wandering eye is no different than the urban crowds in Tokyo, Cairo, Mexico City, London, or Delhi. Perhaps Kimsooja lures us into the gallery to sew the art world into the larger fabric of far-flung cities. To see her work is to be transported into a global work of art that shows us to ourselves. The boundaries demarcating the place of this art are disorienting, sublime. There is no getting out of it or away from it. Its center is everywhere, marked by the visual field that pivots on the gray figure of the artist standing steadfastly at the intersection of blinking gazes.

  • The steady feature of the artist in these videos is the structure that configures our visual field. Even when she is engulfed by the crowd that weaves obliviously about her, she remains our point of reference. Kimsooja transcends the world out there by holding her back irresolutely toward us, here. The camera is never forgotten. The people there are placed on a stage stretching before us. They were filmed for the purpose of being screened elsewhere. Place as local site is not singular, but part of a larger set of places that only the art viewer is allowed to see. The folks in Delhi don’t know or ever see the people in Mexico City or Shanghai—or us. We do, thanks to Kimsooja’s back. If she only wanted to be a needle, to transform her body into an inanimate object, it would not matter if we saw her from the side or front or any other angle. But we never see her face. This device structures the work of art by showing its proper side, where it is to be viewed—in a gallery. The place of art is a critical moment, a step back in space or time to see anew. Kimsooja wants art to be the world tweaked to make us conscious of place—our place, the place of others, and the place of art, arising in the interstices of culture. Place matters to her because she loves the beguiling way that art seizes our attention and invites our devoted scrutiny.

  • The appropriation of place for artistic purposes is something we see elsewhere in Kimsooja’s oeuvre. In the haunting beauty of An Album: Havana (2007), a ten-minute silent video created on site in Cuba. The camera runs for nearly three minutes down a pier overlooking the ocean and a cloudy horizon as lovers, tourists, and fishermen saunter along or sit on a stonewall. The video repeats for a second and third time, but each iteration increasingly blurs focus until in the final run the screen is a blank flicker that gradually transforms into bright light. In the second run we can still recognize the figures, but in the third sequence they evaporate in brownish haze. Deprived of sound and focus, the result is a lushly beautiful portrait of a place that steadily vanishes. What seems at first solid melts into the air, leaving viewers to wonder what their relation is to place that is no more. Memory of place may not be as sure as we’d like to think. With each replay, what we once stood before fades until finally it is gone. With nothing to see, it is not clear that the seer abides.

  • In an altogether different piece, Mandala: Zone of Zero (2003), the sound of Tibetan, Gregorian, and Islamic chant animates a scintillating object, a large target-shaped series of concentric circles composed of mirrors, fabric, and colored plastic. Circular mandalas are familiar to North Americans because of the “wheel of time” rituals conducted by lamas who created elaborate sand forms, often in museums [4]. Kimsooja’s Mandala resembles the Tibetan Wheel of Existence, a teaching tool used by itinerant Buddhist teachers who unfurled their charts to explicate the doctrines of Buddhism. The chrome ornaments that mark the four directions on the mandala even recall the jaws of the Lord of Death who holds the wheel in Tibetan tangkas. And like the wheel of dharma set in motion by the Buddha, and the samsaric cycle of rebirth and the circular arrangement of teachings illustrating the Wheel of Existence, Kimsooja’s wheel turns, too.

  • But the use of Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim chant in Mandala suggests that the artist has something broader in mind than the traditional Tibetan mandala. The object itself resembles a monumental roulette wheel more than a religious device—the star motifs recall the four-armed spindles at the center of roulette tables. Its glittering mirrors, sumptuous fabrics, gleaming chrome, and loud colors celebrate the ephemeral character of sensation, the flutter of fond feelings one associates with a jukebox full of favorite songs. All of this is very different from Buddhism’s diagnosis of the flitting mind’s need for the discipline of meditation to tame and control it. Yet although the art deco chrome ornamentation of the jukebox in Mandala reminds one of soda fountains and dance halls more than anything in a mediation hall, it does resemble popular Buddhist shrines and temples. One thinks of shiny golden statuettes of bodhisattvas, or of the long lines of brightly colored lanterns that appear each year at temples to celebrate Buddha’s birthday. Mandala spins and flashes like an incandescent turntable as the sound of chanting fills the room. Perhaps the mission of art, if it has one, is to reconnect introspection to the body and the senses. Whether you are in a disco or a Zen hall, you are in your body, and that is the means by which religion, mediation or art take place.

  • Both Havana and Mandala invoke Buddhist tradition in different ways. Mandala uses a familiar motif in Tibetan tangkas; Havana recalls the three features of all phenomena: impermanence, dissatisfaction, and no-self. Yet neither piece can be said to emulate Buddhism by offering itself as a tool for Buddhist practice. Both are about the power and place of art in modern life. Where Havana blurs, and finally erases a sense of place, Mandala seems to transpose the viewer from the body of the Buddha enthroned in the mental architecture of an imagined shrine to the splendor of the human body awash in sensation. The point is not therapy or religion or meditation technique, but a refinement of perception, the aesthetic cultivation of imaginative, felt life. Kimsooja’s work is not art in the place of religion, but art as sensory reflection on the places where life happens in the way it does.

  • Author Bio
    David Morgan is an art historian and Professor of Religion at Duke University. He has written on contemporary art, including such artists as Bill Viola, Magdalena Abakanowicz, and Ed Paschke. He is also author of several books on the history and theory of religious visual culture: Visual Piety (1997), Protestants & Pictures (1999), The Sacred Gaze (2005), The Lure of Images (2007), and The Embodied Eye (2012).

[1] Gerald Matt, "Interview" in Kimsooja. To Breathe/Respirare (Milan: Charta, 2005), 87.

[2] Brian Black, "Senses of Self and Not-Self in the Upanishads and Nikayas," in Irina Kuznetsova, Jonardon Ganeri, and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, eds., Hindu and Buddhist Ideas in Dialogue: Self and No-Self (Abingdon, England: Ashgate, 2012), 18.

[3] Matt, "Interview", 91.

[4] Pratapaditya Pal, Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure (Art Institute of Chicago in association with the University of California Press and Mapin Publishing, 2003), 256.

A Needle Woman, 2005, Sana'a (Yemen), one of six channel video projection, 10:40 loop, silent

Gnomon of Place, Gnomon of Foreignness

Madoff, Steven Henry

2013

  • "Hospitality is certainly, necessarily, a right, a duty, an obligation, the greeting of the foreign other as a friend but on the condition that the host, the Wirt, the one who receives, lodges or gives asylum remains the patron, the master of the household, on the condition that he maintains his own authority in his own home, that he looks after himself and sees to and considers all that concerns him and thereby affirms the law of hospitality as the law of the household, oikonomia, the law of his household, the law of a place…." —Jacques Derrida, "Hostipitality" [1]

  • The six videos projected simultaneously that comprise the Korean artist Kimsooja's A Needle Woman (2005) present the artist wearing precisely the same clothes, standing precisely the same way, and, it would seem, at the same time of day, the sun shining down. She is absolutely still amid passing crowds of inhabitants in Patan, Nepal; Havana, Cuba; N'Djamena, Chad; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Sana'a, Yemen; and Jerusalem, Israel. The crowds react differently to this odd figure, clearly a foreigner. They are presented in slow motion, with no sound, which only emphasizes the sense of movement, instant reaction, passage.

  • A Needle Woman has been written about many times, and Kimsooja is often described in these writings as a nomadic figure in this work, traveling across the world to come to rest in a crowded thoroughfare and then move on to the next. The needle referred to in the title is Kimsooja theorizing herself as a needle that passes through the fabric of a place and its people; and there is that other sense of a needle, that it sews together, is an instrument of suture, of healing, which could not be more appropriate because the locations that are visited in the work are all places of violence, disrepair or unresolved conflict. But as the light falls on her vertical figure, I would suggest another instrument that she can be interpreted to represent, and that is the gnomon.

  • A gnomon is the standing element of a sundial that casts the shadow and indicates the hour. It is an index of the sun's passage over the surface of the earth, but not an index of the sun for itself, so to speak, but the sun as a sign of time, and time not for itself but as the sign of what happens ultimately to each of us. Time is the marker of our transition through aging, the marker of our passage, we at the center; and the gnomon, therefore, indicates not only surfaces but human interiority, not only an exterior of sunlight and shadow but time in us, of us, and for us. (The old Greek word gnomon means "indicator," "the one who discerns," or "that which reveals.") This is to say that light and shadow begin on the surface of things, and we inscribe them in a symbolic regime; they become elements in the narrative of our rise in time and our fading, of our moral troubles, our ethical thresholds and flaws. These lights and shadows work their ways into us, embed themselves, and are indicated by the marks our actions leave.

  • Kimsooja, who plants herself in the middle of place, which is the activation of space as a locus of meaning, is this gnomon figure, this gnomon of place, against whom the physical light and its symbolic presence falls—an indexical instrument recording human passage and transition. This is on the level of the anthropocentric, of the human as the root of all occasion, all meaningfulness. [2] But the index here does not simply regard the internalization of knowledge, an epistemological dominion of its own self-reflexive primacy. No, Kimsooja, whose face is always unseen in this work, who stands like statuary, a flesh monument to the human, offers us the face of everyone else. These faces are the signifying engines of each tableau. They reflect light passing, of movement that is notated in time, of shadows, of a narrative unspooling, telling the story of a transitory exchange, of the value of the transitory in its opposite: that which leaves a mark. Where is this exchange? It is transacted within that "law of a place" Derrida suggests, which is a place of exchange, with its oikonomia, its discipline of the household's inventory. It is an economy of relations that, like hospitality, assumes an exchange, and it happens here, in A Needle Woman, among a triad of nodes:

1 ) There are the individual faces in the crowd.
2 ) There is Kimsooja, the one who discerns.
3 ) There are the viewers, us, the ones toward whom these faces move.

  • The author Susan Stewart has written that a face is a "‘deep' text, a text whose meaning is complicated by change and by a constant series of alterations between a reader and an author," [3] and this is what we find here. These texts are read by Kimsooja, as they read hers. They write each other and read each other, and these trajectories of reciprocity extend to us, the third node of the triad. Kimsooja is the indicator of meaning, that which reveals, which she reads on the faces of these foreigners, who are not foreigners in this place where she is the foreigner, but to her and to us are themselves foreigners in foreign lands, who she instigates to project meaning, and we receive it. Our position, of course, is the same as the artist's. Our expressions, our knowledges, our dispositions are not seen, since we too face forward, away from others. If she is the index of these texts, then we who receive the meanings of these faces are the archive. In us lie the accumulation of their expressions and perceived meanings. They leave notations, marks.

  • In each of these places where Kimsooja has come, she writes herself into another book, another register: the book of guests. As such she has the right to be treated decently, without aggression, by the people of any foreign land, as Immanuel Kant says. He says it plainly in his tract from 1795, "Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch," of which the third section is entitled, "The Law of World Citizenship Shall Be Limited to Conditions of Universal Hospitality." He writes that hospitality is "not a question of philanthropy but of right. Hospitality means the right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy when he arrives on the soil of another." Her position is one of cosmopolitan demand. International law supports this principle of cosmopolitanism: If I intend to do you no harm, I will not be the subject of hostility when I cross into your territory. That is the right of cosmopolitanism, of hospitality.

  • But of course note that hostility has the word "host" within it, so it is buried within the genealogy of human praxis that to be host may also mean to be an aggressor. So it is that this turning of tables, this inversion of meaning, is embedded within the figure of Kimsooja herself. She would seem to be the guest here in Jerusalem, Patan, Havana, and so forth, an open receptor of her hosts' reactions to her presence. But there is always this possibility of inversion in these terms of host and guest. In her presencing, she is the aggressor, the one who makes a demand, the one who claims by her indexical stance an ownership of place, this space of meaning-making, a directive presence, an emanation of control projected onto her guests, who instantaneously and therefore unwittingly enter into her symbolic territory and offer up to her, as guests do, something of themselves that she requires for their entrance. As the gnomon, she records these passages, her monitoring of time's essence as the passage of the body, its consciousness, and its disposition of knowledge and meaning. This is what we see. This is what then enters into us and is stored in our memories.

  • There is another machine at work in A Needle Woman because what I have been describing are machines, mechanisms that produce end-products through their labors—in this case, writing machines and reading machines, machines that record each place's citizens caught in the encounter of revealing their reaction to foreignness and leaving their text for the artist, for us. The task the artist has given herself is to be the apparatus of this textuality, to perform it in each of these spaces where, as Henri Lefebvre states, space "is the shifting intersection between that which touches, penetrates, threatens or benefits my body on the one hand, and all other bodies on the other." [4] It is in this spatial situation that Kimsooja's body performs the act of a particular inscription: this revealing of difference. For as I've said, each of these places she has chosen to stand in is a conflict zone, and violence can be defined as a foreignness alien to a first state of being in its tolerance of difference that is Edenic peace. These are then places alien to themselves, and Kimsooja is an alien in these lands of alienation, an index of Otherness in which everyone is an Other as long as there is no resolution of difference or in which difference has not been an accepted resolution in itself. The artist has loaded her meaning-machine with the data of geopolitics and history. And with that data stored, she adds the element of the foreign irritant (herself), the virus, the possibility of another data set with which this first data set must interact.

  • If Kimsooja's first machine is the performance-body in the operative process of revealing the text of foreignness, this other machine is a byproduct of her body's performance: a different kind of machine, a self-referential machine, an aesthetic machine—the machine of Modernism, built in the nineteenth century, dominant in the twentieth, and still working today. Its operating principle is the self-conscious unveiling of an artwork's mechanism, as Mallarmé unveiled the workings of the poem through a poetry about the self-consciousness of making a poem; as the Cubists made representational illusion on a painted surface a problem of painting to be observed, broken down, and rebuilt, etc. This machine is made manifest in the form that it takes before us here: A Needle Woman as video, as a time-based transition of images that hosts time while denying time the ultimacy of its ongoing forward movement. Her video's slow motion distends time and then keeps stopping, refusing it continuity because the video implies that time goes on, then cuts it off over and over in a loop of suspension. The continuity of time in A Needle Woman lasts for precisely ten minutes and thirty seconds. Then it begins again. Nor is it one time that starts and stops; its six places present six times starting and stopping simultaneously.

  • It does not contradict my argument to say, "Well, that's true of any film, video, TV show, streaming webcast, radio program, even a theater play." That may be so, but nonetheless it is here the matter of specific artistic choice that is crucial. In the first performance video of A Needle Woman, executed in 1999, Kimsooja did not use slow motion; it was presented in "real" time. But here she purposefully does so, availing herself of the medium's technical self-consciousness of time, revealing the medium's unwillingness to surrender to the time-ness of time, to its continuity, and instead overwhelms it, denies it, commands it, erupts it. (Modernism counts among its hallmarks discontinuity and eruption.) In this sense, her video is a parasite of time, a foreign guest who overtakes its host, just as Derrida says that the host can become the hostage. [5]

  • This self-referential aesthetic machine is a ghostly presence, for ghost and guest are also words that share the same root in their signifying of the one who visits. This machine of representation hovers, being hosted by time and yet taking time hostage, revealing this internal conflict that remains unresolved—an echo, a shadow laid down over the video's first presence as the record of bodies as meaning-machines whose subject, too, is the encounter of conflict that remains unresolved, the question of the foreigner. Subject and mechanism share the double-position of the aporia, of an internal confrontation of contradictory forces who are both hosts and guests, just as Kimsooja's figure in A Needle Woman stands in this double-position, this double-imposition of silent entreaty and power's requisition of others for one's own purpose. Her figure, then, belongs to the discourse of hospitality. She is the steward of the aporia, the body of supplicant and sovereign, of visitor and imposing owner of place, a needle piercing time, not healing it, but holding it in suspension. Yet we, who are the third node in this transaction, are not outside of time, not held in place. The gnomon of foreignness falls across us and enters us. Time continues in us as foreignness does, with its demands on hosts and guests, its questions of domination, its juridications, its texts, its burdens and pleasures that enter us again, now held by us: an inquiry, an offering, a mirror, a virus of troubled rights.

[1] Jacques Derrida, "Hospitality," trans. Barry Stocker and Forbes Morlock, Angelaki, volume 5, number 3, December 2000, 4. > return to article >
[2] I will not address here the agency and autonomy of nonhuman things because that is not Kimsooja's subject in this work. > return to article >
[3] Susan Stewart, On Longing (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 127. > return to article >
[4] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1991), 184. > return to article >
[5] As Derrida says: "So it is indeed the master, the one who invites, the inviting host, who becomes the hostage—and who really always has been. And the guest, the invited hostage, becomes the one who invites the one who invites, the master of the host." Of Hostipitality, trans. Rachel Bowlby (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 123-25. > return to article >

To Breathe: Bottari, 2013, mixed media installation, partial installation view of the Korean Pavilion, The 55th Biennale di Venezia, photograph by Jaeho Chong

55th Venice Biennale: Il Palazzo Enciclopedico | The Encyclopedic Palace

Prapoglou, Kostas

2013

  • This year's Venice Biennale's subject, the 'Encyclopedic Palace', is conceived by Biennale director Massimiliano Gioni after M. Auriti's 'Il Enciclopedico Palazzo del Mondo' in the 1950s. Auriti's model built on a 1:200 scale, welcomes guests at the central Pavilion of Giardini. The original 136 floor skyscraper-to-be would have occupied a vast area in Washington DC and would have played host to an international knowledge database from all times.

  • In a similar fashion to Auriti, Kippenberger's utopic 'Metro-Net World Connection' series (1993-7) envisaging a vast network of tube lines connecting the entire world, materialised with the production of only but a few real-life metro-like entrances (such as the one on the Greek island of Syros). His work was posthumously exhibited at the German Pavilion of the 50th Biennale in 2003 and although it did not become the subject of the entire Biennale back then, the profound romanticism, idealisation and conceptualisation of both arcadian cases inspired artists and philosophers on a grand scale.

  • This year's 88 national participations scattered at the Arsenale, Giardini and various other sites as well as other independent exhibitions around Venice, have tailor made their shows to fit and survey this year's theme.

  • How can art evolve and expand along the lines of "what could knowledge be or become"? The answer derives from the spectrum of what the modern world may accept as valuable piece of information; consequently, that is knowledge-worth extracting and distilling from today's reality. Needless to catalogue the valuable portion of data from the non-valuable, perhaps it all deserves to fall into the 'universal' category of encyclopedic knowledge. This would include pretty much everything in the Platonic and Aristotelian domain.

  • For the art enthusiast and critic, the national pavilion behaviourism is always an interesting factor. The perception and acuity of knowledge filtered through national identity and social layering proves to be rather pronounced in this year's Biennale. While several national participations seem to establish their artistic locus via certain political and socio-economic routes, probably in the hope that their chosen narrative will create international awareness, some others free themselves from analogous needs and effectively represent an artistic oeuvre and calibre worth revisiting and investigating further.

  • The unique environment of the Korean Pavilion, 'To Breathe: Bottari' (curated by Seungduk Kim), encapsulates both the long artistic tradition of its creator Kimsooja and diverse elements of Korean culture. The transformation of the entire pavilion space into a bubble-like enclosure allows light and sound to dominate throughout, instantly activating the viewer's senses. We are invited to experience the given domain and increasingly become part of it. But by entering a small dark anechoic chamber and remaining there in a state of blandness for just one minute the visitor is vulgarly amputated from their senses. Kimsooja's exploration of senses via the stern process of 'total voidance' created by introducing this black hole reaches (via manipulating our living environment) a state of realisation and, therefore, total appreciation of our current known situation. By actively involving the viewer with this experience, the artist succeeds in producing an ongoing mass performance thus generating a living intervention.

  • Konrad Smolen愀ki of the Polish Pavilion works along the same lines of understanding our senses in a natural and non-natural, controlled environment. His installation, 'Everything Was Forever, Until it Was No More' (curated by Daniel Muzyczuk and Agnieszka Pindera), encompasses the assessment of sound produced by a traditional instrument (two bronze handmade ecclesiastical bells), its reproduction by loudspeakers and its processing with a special technique that re-transmits a delayed, altered resounding sound wave. Smolen愀ki's lengthy research on the properties of sound and time has not only achieved to de-characterise and separate a source from its very own physical sound but also to free and re-baptise the latter with a brand new hypostasis. The 'newly born' abstract sound echoing forcefully among the pavilion walls voids the original pre-sound minimalistic locus and introduces a surreal time lapse domain. I personally found extremely intriguing how eager visitors were to investigate the soundless space before the activation of the two bells, and how keen they were to abandon it shortly after the production of the reverberating noise despite the earplugs provided. This intense discomfort may be explained as the natural result of the process of deconstruction of senses through deanalysing and decoding noise against time. It all proves how complex it can be to re-register in our collective unconscious a modified detail in one of our senses. Coincidentally enough, the artist has been recently asked by the Biennale organisers to pause the installation until further notice.

  • Outside the borders of Biennale proper, the Azerbaijan Pavilion situated at Campo San Stefano presents a group exhibition of six young artists focusing on aspects of cultural existence, ethnic distinctiveness and social discourse. 'Ornamentation', the title of Azerbaijan's show (curated by Hervé Mikaeloff), is an amalgamation of decorative arts, religion and tradition infused with contemporary vision. Rashad Alakbarov's installations, 'Intersection' and 'Miniature', are assemblages of random objects made of wood or metal organised in -what appears to be- unsystematic fashion. Only when a projector light hits the mass of objects we witness the hidden imagery forming on the opposite wall. Although sharing a very similar technique with other highly acclaimed artists such as Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Alakbarov's chosen shadow iconography is profound; from the traditional shebeke designs and patterns to a human reclining figure and an optical illusion that reveals its message only when you use a camera.

  • "It is not chaos" appears through the camera lens pointing out to the [semi]obvious oxymoron, that the actual appearance of things can only be subjective, the mass of knowledge generated from the conscious world can only be interpreted through the de-construction and re-construction of its individual components.

  • Auriti's vision can only depart from its limbo by praising the value of senses. This year's Biennale has had several strong participants, whose artistic oeuvre and exploration have gone a step further and, undoubtedly, increased our expectations in the fields of research, technological development and medium advancement, and in absolute synchronicity with the latest psychoanalytic, philosophical and scientific impetus.

To Breathe: Bottari, 2013, mixed media installation, partial installation view of the Korean Pavilion, The 55th Biennale di Venezia, photograph by Jaeho Chong

삼라만상을 하나로 묶는 김수자의 보따리

Han, Heng-Gil

2013

한국관 건축양식에 스며드는 '보따리'

김수자 작가는 1990년대 초에 '보따리' 연작을 시작했고 한국 가정에서 일상적으로 사용되는 전통 자수로 장식된 이불보를 국제적인 현대미술의 조형언어로 발전시켰다. 작가는 이불보의 레디메이드 특성보다는 '이미 사용되었었던' 헌 물건이라는 점에 초점을 두고, 그 천들을 사용한 사람들의 무명성과, 육체, 운명 등의 비물질적이고 비가시적인 것에 대한, 즉 삶에 대한 해석의 공감대를 형성하는 데 노력해왔다.
작가는 이불보가 사람의 탄생과 죽음, 수면과 사랑, 고통과 꿈 등의 사건들이 발생하는 현장임을 지적했고, 사랑과 복, 행운, 장수, 후손 등의 기원을 상징하는 이불보의 자수 장식을 강조했다. 작가는 이불보에서 인간의 존재를 규정짓는 틀을 가리키는 색인적 기호를 발견했다.
작가는 또한 이불보가 내포하는 젠더의 역할과 미적 구조에도 초점을 두었다. 이불보는 가정에서의 여성노동, 사회에 가려진 여성의 무보상 업무와 활동을 암시한다. 이불보 상징을 활용하는 작가의 활동은 여성의 사회적, 문화적, 미적 의미를 재정립하는 행위였고, 현대예술사에서 여성의 독특한 맥락을 창조하는 행위였다.
올 2013년 베니스비엔날레 한국관에 설치될 '보따리'는 장소특정적인(site-specific) 설치가 될 것이다. 김수자 작가는 유리, 철조, 나무 등의 다양한 건축 자재와 굴곡진 벽면 등의 일반적인 파빌리온 건축양식을 갖춘 한국관을 전시를 위해 변형시키지 않고, 기존의 건축양식을 최대한으로 살리면서 그 구조 자체가 작가의 특징적인 개념인 '보따리'의 연장선으로 기능하도록 프로젝트를 구상한다.
소리, 빛, 색채 등 인간의 오감을 자극하는 감성적인 요소들을 사용하여 관객이 전시공간을 '몸'으로 체험할 수 있게끔 하는 체험 중점적인(experiential) 전시가 될 것이다. 그러나 전시는 동시에 상징체계의 역할도 수행할 것이다. 왜냐하면, 작가가 바깥 자연을 실내공간 안으로 끌고 들어와 밖을 안에서 보는 상황을 창조하여 안과 밖의 경계선을 넘나들 뿐만 아니라, 전시공간 자체를 자족적인 자연으로 전환시켜 인간의식의 소우주를 재구성하려는 계획을 세우고 있기 때문이다.
잡동사니를 이동하려는 의도를 충족시키는 수단이라기보다는 그 잡동사니를 묶는 목적을 충당하는 보따리의 기능에서 김 작가는 변화무쌍한 인간역사, 다양한 요소로 구성된 세계, 혹은 다면적이고 다층적인 한 개인의 정체성과 삶을 하나로 묶는 틀의 개념을 발견한다.

우주와 삶의 총체성, 그리고 보편성의 함유

김수자의 보따리는 하나로 결합된 우주를 상징한다. 여기서 우주는 인간의 의식세계를 의미한다. 보따리는 삶의 총체성을 상징하는 도구로 사용되고, 삶을 총체성의 관점에서 해석할 수 있는 수단으로 활용된다.
그 보따리 상징의 의도는 '하나로 된 우주'라는 개념을 소통, 혹은 타인에게 전달하려는 것이다. 반면 그 보따리 상징의 목적은 '하나로 된 우주'라는 개념을 재현하는 데 있다. 이 점에서, 즉 이동수단으로 지각되는 보따리가 자족적인 우주공간의 상징으로 전환된다는 점에서 김수자의 창조성과 예술성이 두드러진다. 김 작가의 과거 작업들을 살펴보면, 우주의 총체성을 의미하는 '보따리' 개념의 확장은 전통 한국가정에서 일상적으로 사용되는 보따리를 전시장으로 옮겨 놓아 첫째, 그 일상적 맥락의 해체를 통해, 그리고 둘째, 시각예술이란 새로운 맥락과의 결합을 통해 성공적으로 이루어진다.
김수자 작가는 지난 30여 년 동안 전체성과 보편성을 토론하는 작업을 일관성 있게 추구해 왔다. 삶의 총체적인 틀을 논하는 '보따리'도 그렇고, 천조각들을 꿰매어 하나로 연결 짓는 바늘의 의미를 논하는 '바늘 여인'도 마찬가지이다. 그의 작업이 제시하는 전체성과 보편성은 관객에 의해 특수하게 분석되어야 한다.
마시밀리아노 지오니가 기획하는 올해 베니스비엔날레 미술전의 주제는 인간역사에서 나타난 모든 창조물을 수집하고자하는, 실행 불가능한 인간의 집착적인 의지를 표현하는 '백과사전적 궁전'이다. 우주의 총체성과 보편성을 논하는 김수자의 '보따리' 개념은 비엔날레의 전체적인 주제개념에 딱 맞아떨어지는 안성맞춤이다. 따라서 올해 한국관의 김수자 <보따리>전은 맥락특정적인(context-specific) 전시가 될 것이다.
나아가 올해 한국관 전시는 절묘하게 시기적절한(time-specific) 행사가 될 것이다. 김 작가는 뉴욕에서 허리케인 샌디를 경험했다. 전기와 가스, 그리고 온수가 없이 일주일간을 고통스럽게 산 작가는 많은 생각을 하는 시간을 갖게 되었고, 그 경험을 바탕으로 세계 도처에서 갈수록 빈번하게 발생하는 천재지변을 토론하는 새 작업을 이번 한국관 전시를 통해서 발표할 예정이다. 따라서 자연재해 문제를 다루는 환경의식(environment-conscious)적인 작업이 예상된다.
이렇게 한국의 가정문화, 베니스비엔날레 미술전, 한국관의 건축 특징, 작가 개인의 경험, 관객의 감수성 등 다층적이고 다면적인 요소들을 꿰어 하나의 네트워크로 결합시키는 김수자의 2013년 베니스비엔날레 한국관 '보따리' 설치는 이 국제전에서 보기 드문 보석 같은 전시가 될 것으로 기대된다

A Needle Woman – Kitakyushu, 1999, Single channel video projection, 6:33 loop, silent, Commissioned by CCA Kitakyushu

A Disappearing Woman

Martinez, Rosa

2012

  • During the twentieth century the desire to build bridges of spiritual intelligence between East and West has helped balance the excesses of the rationalist mind while it has eased the suffering imposed on the planet in the name of progress. The growing popularisation of Buddhist philosophy, the critical questioning of counterculture and non-violent dissidence and the continuous diaspora of Asian artists have resulted in new perspectives that extend and illuminate the global horizon.

  • In this landscape of exchanges, The Secret of the Golden Flower, a Taoist text written almost two thousand years ago, arrived in the West thanks to psychologist Carl Gustav Jung and sinologist Richard Wilhelm, who published the first English version in 1931. Jung and Wilhelm suggested the interconnection between gnosis (as a hermetic tradition of the profound knowledge of the Self), methods of physical and emotional healing such as yoga, and processes in the collective unconscious understood as a psychic substratum common to mankind as a whole. The Secret of the Golden Flower is also an alchemical treatise on inner transformation, which is something pursued by the masters of all mystical traditions. 'The Golden Flower is the Light, and the Light of Heaven is the Tao.' [1]

  • In another book, Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino, we learn of the adventures of the legendary Venetian traveller Marco Polo, who arrived at the Mongolian court of Kublai Kahn in the thirteenth century. Remaining at the court as an ambassador for seventeen years, the story reveals how he entertained the Kahn with the tales of the cities he had visited during his travels, many of them imaginary. The book ends with an instructive reflection: 'The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by living together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno and make them endure, give them space.' [2]

  • The work by Kimsooja is inscribed in this very context of learning and wisdom, as for over three decades her proposals have sought new forms of connection between East and West and have created spaces of beauty, healing and awakening. On her travels as an international artist Kimsooja has visited the most varied places, carrying out performances, making documentary films, holding exhibitions of her works and producing site-specific interventions. Her oeuvre has connected the genealogy of Korean culture to the linguistic systems of global contemporary art in a synthesis that, as José Roca has put it, maintains 'a position of resistance against being digested into an aseptic internationalism,' while it intends, 'in these days of multiculturalism, to hyperbolize the characteristics of its difference to become more "exotic" in a medium eager for otherness.' [3]

  • Kimsooja has prioritised intuition as a means of knowledge, linking different cultures with threads that can be visible or invisible, always seeking a common anthropological substratum as, from a clearly universalistic vision, she considers that everything about human nature concerns her. 'My philosophical and artistic aim is to achieve the totality which absorbs and unites the whole question of self and the world.' [4]

  • The cities, paths and landscapes travelled by Kimsooja are neither fantastic nor imaginary. Her metropolises are real, overpopulated, impoverished by war, colonial exploitation or ideological embargoes. The streets she chooses are paths travelled by beings that survive within the limits determined by their geopolitical position. She also chooses ancient places or contexts in which the primeval forces of nature unfold. Very often her firm slender body appears amidst the crowds or on the silhouette of a rock, either standing up or lying down, but always motionless and with her back to the spectator. This generic and at once recognisable body, the lank hair tied back, remains static and contemplative, allowing the world—be it India's River Yamuna or Cairo's human sea—to flow before or around her. 'For me the most important thing to arise out of these performances is my own experience of self and awareness as a process rather than the video as a result. That's how I continue to ask questions to the world and to myself.' [5]

  • These works have the intensity of a hypnotic trance. They manage to draw spectators out of their mental dispersion, making them momentarily identify with the artist's own experience. Their titles are apposite for focusing on her philosophical and archetypal concerns. The Earth and the Heaven (1984), Toward the Mother Earth (1990-1991) and The Mind and the World (1991) speak of cosmological connections. A Needle Woman (1999-2009), A Beggar Woman (2000-2001), A Laundry Woman (2000), A Mirror Woman (2002) and A Wind Woman (2003) allude to woman's role as healer and mediator. To Breathe/Respirar (2006) addresses key emotions through breathing and the diffraction of light, while Earth-Water-Fire-Air (2009-2010) returns to the contemplation of the fundamental elements of nature.

  • In formal terms, Kimsooja's evolution reveals how she was surrounded by, and yet remained independent from, the dominant forces in Korea from the late seventies to the nineties, i.e., monochrome painting and the Minjung movement, turning instead to two-dimensional sewn works in the eighties and sculptural objects, Bottari installations and time-based performances and videos in the nineties. Her iconic Bottari, her mysterious 'deductive' objects and her installations evince how her mature artistic language falls into the field of expanded sculpture. Since Joseph Beuys said that even a thought can be considered sculpture insofar as it plastically shapes the spectator's mind, and Piero Manzoni converted the world into a giant ready-made when he built his Socle du Monde (1961), artists have explored, reconstructed or reinvented reality starting from its fundamental materials: people, nature, desire and destruction.

  • Kimsooja fixes her gaze on the world and intervenes in it, always in an extremely delicate way for, juxtaposing terminology, she considers what exists more a 'ready-used' than a 'ready-made'. She used clothes belonging to her grandmother for the very first time in 1983, and since then traditional Korean clothes and bedcovers have been a means of recycling 'our body and life itself.' [6]

  • Whether they compose Bottari or unfold in space, these used Korean bedcovers, as canvases and as frames of our life, have appeared as a constant feature in her work, just as her own body has been a performative sculpture, a symbolic needle that abandons the place once its healing mediation is over. 'Sewing and wrapping clothes have always been processes shred with contemplation and healing,' says the artist, adding, 'The relationship of the needle to the fabric is same as my body to the universe.' [7]

  • As well as having close ties with the Korean female domestic roles, Kimsooja's work bears similarities with the visions of other artists such as Louise Bourgeois, who has also considered the ambivalent power of the needle and its ability to heal. When Kimsooja stands with her back to the camera, her work can be visually associated with that by Caspar David Friedrich, and yet she establishes a conceptual difference: for while the character depicted by Friedrich is immersed in cosmic solitude, her gaze offers us a non-tragic proximity in which stillness is a form of knowledge. Her continuous search for sacred geometry connects the horizontal with the vertical—the earth, the sky, and the human being, the same three basic elements of Taoism—and with yin and yang as energies that structure the world, all of which bears similarities with the theosophical and abstract research by painters such as Piet Mondrian.

  • Among the works on display in this exhibition are a few essential pieces in her creative itinerary that had not hitherto been shown in Korea. In Bottari: Alfa Beach (2001) the inverted arrangement of the horizon between the sea and the sky visualises the artist's consciousness and feelings: 'The inversion happened when I saw the horizon from the Alfa Beach in Nigeria where African slaves were sent to Atlantic ocean—this was the saddest line I've ever seen in my life, thinking of the destiny of the slaves and their deprived freedom. Thus the flipped horizon was, for me, a disturbed horizon, a disorientated sense of gravity and of the slaves' psychological return I perceived in the curls of the waves reaching the same shore from which they had left." [8]

  • In the trilogy Mirror of Water, Mirror of Air, Mirror of Wind (2010), filmed in Greenland, the texture of the natural elements takes the viewer back to the idea of a pictorial surface that connects so many of her works. A Needle Woman is no doubt one of her masterpieces and a significant icon in the history of contemporary art. In the first edition of the piece (1999-2001) the artist stood with her back to the crowds of Tokyo, Shanghai, Mexico City, London, Delhi, New York, Cairo and Lagos. In the edition made especially for her participation in the Venice Biennale of 2005 she travelled to the cities of Patan, Jerusalem, Sana'a, Havana, Rio de Janeiro and N'Djamena, appearing again as a cosmic needle sewing human tissue to space and timelessness. In A Wind Woman (2003) the fleeting landscapes filmed at high speed by her camera look as if they had been painted by brushstrokes of wind and threads of time in order to extend interstitial spaces. They also betray traces of different pictorial styles such as Impressionism, Expressionism and even Minimalism, as when the landscape is completely dark, light or pervaded by a bright blue sky. In An Album: Havana (2007), a sequence filming the parallel lines of the malecón and the seafront horizon, people and landscape gradually merge to create an abstract, dynamic and yet ethereal composition that ends up dissolving into the light and wind. In these works the artist's body appears elliptical, outside of the screen's field of vision, just as it is in To Breathe – Invisible Needle/Invisible Mirror, a projection of saturated monochrome colours, the changing spectrum of which is synchronised with the sound of the artist's peaceful or strained breathing and with meditative humming. Presented at La Fenice theatre in Venice, it is a return to the issue of canvas and asks 'Where is surface?', along the lines of Minimalist abstraction. 'When the digital colour spectrum is constantly changing, we don't grasp the reality of surface,' [9] says the artist. At the same time, the signs and iconographic motifs of Korean bedcovers and clothes dematerialise as forms and colours dissolve into pure light and breathing sound. The audience breathes visually, in harmony with the artist's sound performance.

  • Verging on the ethnographic documentary and yet preserving the spatial format of a four-screen video installation, Mumbai: A Laundry Field (2008) is a visual stroll through overpopulated Mumbai. The camera shows the arduous work of washing laundry: it travels along the narrow streets of the slums, captures dwellings filled with rubble in which people sleep on tarmac and draws up close to the overcrowded trains on an ongoing and oppressive circuit: 'This piece juxtaposes rich visual experience with extremely tough living conditions for mankind. It follows the aesthetics of fabrics as transformed canvases and, at the same time, reveals the harsh reality of daily life in slum areas of Mumbai. … For me it is a retrospective version of older works for it has the dimensions of the fabrics I used to make, both visually and symbolically; clothes and fabrics stand here for human presences and the questions that concern us all.' [10] Thread Routes. Chapter 1. Peru (2010) is the first 16mm film in an ongoing series in which the artist captures the material and immaterial threads woven by different cultures. Chapter 1: Peru begins with a panorama that covers the mountain peaks of the Andes. In the middle of a circular amphitheatre a standing woman turns a spindle. A long downward travelling shot reveals a landscape of farmed fields that resemble woven earth, as do the lines of sedimented sand under the water of a lake, women's plaits and the threads of wool in a loom. In this work the artist uses reiteration as a rhetorical figure, insisting on the slowness of the gaze and committing herself to lengthy descriptions that highlight the poetry of Peruvian thread works and the pictorial juxtaposition of the elements she interconnects. Her intention is for the gaze 'to link weaving and knitting activities to geometrical, agricultural and architectural forms, to the fabric of landscapes and to meditative repetitive actions and festivities that reveal their primeval truth and aesthetics.' [11]

  • Art and artists are proven to have a key function—to offer relevant interpretations of the time and place in which they emerge, to shape a path that will penetrate mirages and draw us towards the profound essence of reality. Relevant artists like as Kimsooja act as bridges, mediators, channels that offer the truth of their visions, arresting noise and clearing confusion. Like all other human beings, artists experience thousands of phenomena along their existential paths, but through creative practice they are gradually able to purify them. Kimsooja's oeuvre is characterised by a firm will to reach the deepest spheres of awareness by means of the most accurate of artistic procedures. She does so through works that transport memories, emotions, distances and universal realities; proposals for connecting heaven and earth; gestures that require coming together, alms or silence. The artist has even declared that one of her wishes is to disappear, to become invisible: 'I want to disappear at some point with my own decision, and I've been planning "A Disappearing Woman" piece …". [12] This disappearance has to do with both her own need to become increasingly slight and subtle after having travelled the world burdened by the memories of so many people, and with her reflections on her own ontological question.

  • The epitaph the Greek poet Nikos Kazantzakis chose for his tombstone, 'I hope nothing. I fear nothing. I am free,' coincides with the Buddhist teachings of Crazy Wisdom, that declares that this spiritual practice is related to 'all that is free of hope and fear.' [13] Indeed, losing one's fear of not having is to have, and losing one's fear of disappearing is to remain.

  • In her oeuvre Kimsooja wishes to find new ways of perception in 'doing' by 'non-doing', for 'doing nothing' may reveal something meaningful as 'the moment of awareness or a moment of light that results from artistic practice itself.' [14] Thanks to this wise balance we may discover a third eye with which to contemplate the true foundations of art and life without fearing we shall dissolve or disappear, as we shall go back to being air, water, earth and fire, fully aware that every practice conveys a possibility of light and every death implies a new rebirth.

[1] Carl Gustav Jung and Richard Wilhelm, The Secret of the Golden Flower. A Chinese Book of Life, Routledge, London, 1999 (p. 21). First published in 1931 by Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., London. > return to article >
[2] Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Division of Educational Studies, Emory University, Georgia. Quoted from > return to article >
[3] José Roca, 'Kimsooja: A Mirror Woman,' Peter Blum Gallery, New York, 2002. > return to article >
[4] Gerald Matt, 'Kim Sooja im Gespräch mit Gerald Matt', in Kim Sooja: A Laundry Woman (exh. cat.), Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, 2002. > return to article >
[5] Mary Jane Jacob, 'Interview with Kimsooja' in Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacob (Eds.), Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 2003. > return to article >
[6] Gerald Matt, 'Kim Sooja im Gespräch mit Gerald Matt', op. cit., 2002. > return to article >
[7] Mary Jane Jacob, 'In the Space of Art: Buddha and the Culture of Now,' op. cit., 2003. > return to article >
[8] Kimsooja in conversation with Rosa Martínez, 2012. > return to article >
[9] Idem. > return to article >
[10] Idem. > return to article >
[11] Idem. > return to article >
[12] Gerald Matt, 'Kim Sooja im Gespräch mit Gerald Matt', op. cit., 2002. > return to article >
[13] Chögyam Trungpa, 'RMDC, Route 1, Livermore', poem 49 in the book First Thought Best Thought. 108 Poems. Introduction by Allen Ginsberg, Shambhala Publications, Inc., Massachusetts, 1983, p. 85. > return to article >
[14] Gerald Matt, 'Kim Sooja im Gespräch mit Gerald Matt', op. cit., 2002. > return to article >

Kimsooja, Bottari Truck - Migrateur, 2007, Single Channel Video, silent, 10:00, loop, performed in Paris, Commissioned by Musée d'Art Contemporain du Val-De-Marne (MAC/VAL)

The Unaltered Reality of the World

Giovando, Chiara

2012

  • C.G: I just arrived on the island of Møen in Denmark, where your work will shortly be shown. Last night I spoke with a young Swedish traveler and he said, “I am interested in learning everything by doing nothing.” His statement brought your practice to mind. You have made a series of performance videos that elaborate on each other. A Beggar Woman (2000–2001), A Homeless Woman (2000–2001), and A Needle Woman (1999–2001, 2005, 2009): all present stillness in the midst of chaotic activity. In the latter you inhabit a fixed performative posture within various urban environments, blurring the boundaries between private and public space. In a sense, your body seems to be the place that you inhabit. Could you speak about the relationship between the place of the body (the performative posture) and the geographical place?

  • K: You can imagine zooming in, the way a needle engages with a piece of fabric. My body’s mobility comes to represent its immobility, locating it in different geographies and socio-cultural contexts. Immobility can only be revealed by mobility, and vice versa. There is a constant interaction between the mobility of people on the street and the immobility of my body during the performance, depending on the society, people, nature of the city and the streets. Different elements inhabit the site as the qualities of the city and the presence of my body appear as an accumulated container of my own gaze toward humanity, and other gazes reacting to my body. While the decision of the location is based on research of its populations, conflicts, culture, economy, and history, the idea of the immobile performance arrived all of a sudden, like a thunderclap or a Zen moment: the conflict between the extreme mobility of the outer world and my mind’s silence coalesced in my body. I always had the desire to present the unaltered reality of the world, by presenting bodies, objects, and nature without manipulating them or making something new. Instead, I want the audience’s and my experiences to reveal new perceptions of the reality of the world and our existence. I pose ontological questions by juxtaposing my body and the outer world in a relational condition to space/body and time/consciousness.

  • C.G: Your video Bottari Truck – Migrateurs (2007) and the sculptural work Deductive Object (2007) will both come to Kunsthal 44 Møen. Both of these works include bottari. In your work Bottari appears as brightly colored fabric bundles, loaded onto carts or trucks, or placed on the floor. The different contexts draw out various metaphors, representing a journey when loaded on a truck, or exile when displayed half-open and scattered. Once you said, “The body is the most complicated bundle.” What are the imagined and symbolic contents of these bottari and how do they relate to the body?

  • K: In modern society, bottari (bundles in Korean) have changed into bags; they are the most flexible container in which we carry the minimum of valuables, their use is universal throughout history. We hold onto precious things in dangerous times, such as war, migration, exile, separation, or during an urgent move. Anyone can make a bottari using any kind of fabric. However, I’ve been intentionally using abandoned Korean bedcovers that were made for newly married couples, covered with symbols and embroideries and mostly wrapping used clothing inside—these have significant meanings and questions on life. In other words, my bottari contains husks of our bodies, wrapped with a fabric that is the place of birth, love, dream, suffering, and death—a framing of life.
    While a bottari wraps bodies and souls, containing the past, present, and future, a bottari truck is more a process than a product, or rather it oscillates between process and object as a social sculpture. It represents an abstraction of the individual, of society, of time, and memory. It is a loaded self, a loaded other, a loaded history, and a loaded in-between. My Bottari Truck is an object operating in time and space, locating and dislocating ourselves to the place where we came from, and to where we are going. I consider a Bottari as a womb and a tomb, globe and universe. Bottari Truck is a bundle of a bundle of a bundle, folding and unfolding our mind and geography, time and space.

  • C.G: Sewing into Walking (1995) is dedicated to the victims of Gwangju. In this work, piles of clothing and fabric covered the ground and the Bottari were scattered.

  • K: It’s a metaphor for the victims of Gwangju uprising in the mid-1980s. The bottari represent people with no power and those forced to remain silent.

  • C.G: There seems to be both very private and public aspects to your practice. Many of your early works are meticulously sewn, an activity both intimate and meditative. Yet in your films you work with large crews in public spaces. How do these two methodologies affect your process?

  • K: I made the sewn works alone in my studio; the A Needle Woman performances were shot spontaneously, inserting myself into the general public. I traveled alone to meet people in about fifteen large cities on different continents—except Shanghai and Cairo where I couldn’t easily find a videographer in time. It was not always safe and easy. I am the only witness to all of my performances.
    Recently, I started making a film series, Thread Routes (2010–), shot on 16mm film in many locations of different continents. It’s not about my own experience, but instead other men and women who performed the needlework and threadwork respectively. For this project I had to work with a team. It’s been very inspiring for me to work with a team and travel together, communicating with the group. I’ve learned from them and their research. It’s a different process of production, requiring me to work toward an objective, with a collective way of seeing revealing production process. But in the end it is still an intimate process, where I can revise through editing—that is the next step in the process.

  • C.G: The sculpture Encounter – Looking into Sewing (1998–2011) is also a part of your show at Kunsthal 44 Møen. In this work a mannequin, beneath layers of fabric, stands in for a body. Can you tell me about your concept, what happens when this work is looked “into”?

  • K: It originated with an installation I made in the Museum Fridericianum, Kassel, 1998, for the exhibition Echolot, also curated by René Block. I conceived the work as a performance, but without any performing. An immobile mannequin was fully covered with used Korean bedcovers, and I documented the performative actions made by the audiences, who tried to locate the covered figure. Thus, a visible and invisible interaction is happening, peeling off the fabric by looking. I consider this “invisible sewing.”
    I wanted to create a tension between the audience and the ambiguous figure, the sculptural object. The audience looked at this figure waiting for a performance—but of course there was no movement. I used the immobile figure as a performer for the first time, before using my own body, without planning, A Needle Woman performance at that time, so the audience members themselves become the performers, through their own curiosity and reactions.
    This piece is one of the earliest manifestations of the ideas that led to A Needle Woman. It’s a fundamental moment: a strange encounter occurs between the figure and the audience, marked by this intense gaze.

— Kimsooja: Interviews Exhibition Catalogue published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König in association with Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, 2018, pp 151 - 154
This is the revised version of the unpublished interview conducted on the occasion of the exhibition Kimsooja at Kunsthal 44 Møen, Askeby, Denmark, in 2012. It is published here with the kind permission of Chiara Giovando.

A Needle Woman, 1999 – 2001, video still from Delhi, 8 channel video projection, 6:33 loop, silent

Kimsooja: A Needle Woman

Morales, René

2012

  • A woman stands on the street, immersed amid a torrent of passersby, utterly motionless -- a needle sewing through the fabric of humanity. With a simple, stoic gesture, Kimsooja vividly embodies the struggle to preserve a place for the individual within society, using her body as a conduit for critical questioning. This struggle is a perennial one, but by situating herself in an array of urban centers that span the planet, she imbues it with the tenor of contemporaneity: for if there is a single experience that can be said to exemplify the urgent conditions of today's world, it is the state of being engulfed by the "global city."

  • This first version of A Needle Woman was created between 1999 and 2001. Approximately six years later, a silent but momentous event occurred: For the first time in history, the world's urban populace outnumbered the rural one. [1] Over the last 30 years, urban populations have reached staggering proportions, and their rates of growth are accelerating exponentially. In 1900, only 10% of the world's population lived in cities. Today the figure has climbed above 50%; by 2050, it will represent three-fourths of humanity. [2]

  • A Needle Woman was produced just as the full realization of this explosion of urbanization reached a fever pitch, spilling across a variety of academic disciplines as well as art and popular media. The work is particularly emblematic of the directness with which the phenomenon tended to be addressed at the turn of the new millennium. With the benefit of a little more than ten years' hindsight, it is all the more striking for how it remains relevant to the discourse that developed in the wake of those confrontations.

  • One of the most important of these discursive evolutions involves the way in which urbanism has grafted onto globalization studies. It was the rise of mega-cities throughout the world that made it no longer necessary to abstractly theorize that globalization is happening. Indeed, urbanization is increasingly seen not as an after-effect of globalization, but as its primary driving force. [3] Over the last three or four decades, the increased number and scale of cities capable of participating in the production and management of global flows of goods and capital have led to a vast expansion of those same flows. At the same time, they have produced significant populations of middle-class, cosmopolitan individuals, while mobilizing large numbers of migrant workers from the countryside as well as immigrants from poorer places. The result has been the development of cities bearing unprecedented levels of heterogeneity. The urbanization of the globe has turned out to be inseparable from the globalization of the urban.

  • The nuance and poetry with which A Needle Woman captures these complex dynamics belies the precision with which it communicates meaning. This is especially so with respect to the artist's deliberate selection of the eight sites that "pass through" the anonymous, solitary figure. The academic literature on global urbanism provides a useful entry point (one of many) through which to access the implications that arise from this particular grouping of cities. Viewed in this light, the work bears a particularly strong resonance with an important theoretical framework known as the "global city" paradigm, as well as with the critiques to which it has been subjected. Originally advanced by the urban scholar Saskia Sassen in the 1990s, this approach focuses on how specific urban centers interface with and influence the world economy, using a series of measures such as monetary exchanges, volume of trade, and the number of transnational corporations based in a given urban zone as a way of quantifying its degree of "structural relevance" within a hierarchy of cities. From this perspective, the inclusion of New York, London, and Tokyo in A Needle Woman would serve to represent the traditional command centers of the global economy. Shanghai would serve to indicate the elite class of ascendant hubs that have established themselves more recently as major financial players. Mexico City, Delhi, and Cairo might stand for the crucial "second-" and "third-tier" cities that have also managed to lay a significant claim on the global financial sphere, though at a lower level.

  • While there can be no doubt that the "global city" rubric has produced invaluable insights, in its earliest manifestations it met with heated criticism, especially from the direction of the "Global South" -- that is, from beyond Europe and North America. [4] By prioritizing economic criteria, the methodology involved in this concept had the effect of placing limits on the types of questions that were asked. Indeed, by reducing a city's relevance to its contribution to the world's financial system, it had the effect of focusing the attention of researchers onto a limited number of cities -- perhaps 30 or 40, all but three or four of them in the developed world. Advocates of these critiques also remind us of the importance of more grounded and culturally oriented lines of investigation through which we might uncover valuable means for improving city life -- from the creative productions of Rio's favela architecture, to the vibrant informal economies of Mumbai, to the socially cohesive effects of local popular culture in Kinshasa.

  • With this debate as backdrop, A Needle Woman delivers a keen insight through the inclusion of an eighth site that paradigmatically represents the reverse side of the forces of global urban change: With a population that has escalated from 300,000 in 1950 to one that is estimated to top 23 million inhabitants by 2015, the city-region of Lagos exemplifies the lot of urban agglomerations that have witnessed astonishing growth in the context of severe poverty. [5]

  • In human terms, mass urbanization has had its most powerful effects in the poorest parts of the world. Here again, the rate of the transformations is staggering: Today, about 70% of city dwellers live in developing countries, compared with less than 50% in 1970; by 2030, roughly four out of five urbanites will reside in the developing world. With much of this growth playing out against city infrastructures that remain ill-equipped to handle such expansion, unprecedented numbers have come to inhabit what are typically described as "slums." In the least developed countries, the proportion of slum residents approaches 80% of the populace; already, this figure represents one-third of the total global urban population. [6] While it is important to resist the chronic tendency to reduce the complexity of informal settlements to a single, homogenized vision of Dickensian bleakness, it is difficult not to read such mind-boggling statistics without being struck by the sense that we are in the midst of a crisis.

  • In the face of these and other challenges, a pressing need has arisen to focus at least as much energy on understanding the specific and differentiated local repercussions of globalization as on identifying the resonant scenarios that it creates throughout the world. It has become vitally important, in other words, to survey this global age from the level of the street, the neighborhood, the city, where we may hope to find concrete ways both to maximize its potentials and to mitigate its most distressing symptoms.

  • It is precisely in this sense that A Needle Woman seems so well attuned to the exigencies of the global-urban era. The figure that appears in these images confronts head-on the fearsome power of the contemporary city. At the same time, through her stillness, she expresses the possibility of making peace with it. It is worth paying attention to the mixture of resoluteness and humanism with which she looks forward to the volatile century that stretches out before us.

[1] United Nations HABITAT Office, 2006 report. > return to article >
[2] Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic, eds. The Endless City: The Urban Age Project by the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank's Alfred Herrhausen Society, pg. 9. New York: Phaidon Press, 2007. > return to article >
[3] This paragraph is indebted to J. Miguel Kanai and Edward Soja, "The Urbanization of the World," in The Endless City, pgs. 54-69. > return to article >
[4] See Jennifer Robinson, "Global and World Cities: A View from off the Map" in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 26.3, September 2002, pgs. 531-554; as well as Kris Olds and Henry Wai-Chung, "Pathways to Global City Formation: A View from the Developmental City-State of Singapore" in Review of International Political Economy 11:3 August 2004, pgs. 489-521. > return to article >
[5] Mike Davis, Planet of Slums, pg. 15. London: Verso, 2006. > return to article >
[6] Davis, pg. 51. > return to article >

Aire de Tierra / Air of Earth, 2009, 06.25 loop, sound, still from Earth – Water – Fire – Air, 8 channel video projection, Commissioned by Hermes Foundation, Paris

Calm Chaos: Kimsooja's Earth – Water – Fire – Air

Geusa, Antonio

2012

  • The modern artist is living in a mechanical age and we have a mechanical means of representing objects in nature such as the camera and photograph. The modern artist, it seems to me, is working and expressing an inner world – in other words – expressing the energy, the motion and the other inner forces.. ..the modern artist is working with space and time, and expressing his feelings rather than illustrating. [1] — Jackson Pollock

  • In the preface to the second edition of his collection of poems "Lyrical Ballads" William Wordsworth asks a simple yet crucial question "What is a Poet?" The answer he gives is probably the most truthful ever given: "He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind; a man […] who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe[.] [2]

  • Kimsooja's work as an artist is constant proof that she perfectly embodies Wordsworth's definition of a Poet. At the core of her production there is always a physical and at the same time metaphysical confrontation between the "spirit of life" that is in her and the "spirit of life" of the world surrounding her. Ultimately, her art is the result of using her body, the shell of her "comprehensive soul", to achieve a balance in the connection of inner and outer life. To quote Kimsooja's own words, her body is the "medium, mystery, hermaphrodite, abstraction, barometer, and shaman" [3] uniting her with the essence of the world. It is charged with and releases spiritual power. All her works, from 2727 kilometres Bottari Truck (1997) to A Needle Woman (1999-2001, 2005), from A Beggar Woman (2000-2001) to A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon (2008), to mention just a few, are the visualization of this flow of energy.

  • Even when Kimsooja is not physically present in the work on display in the gallery space, the reality that she offers the viewers is not a mere representation of a given natural phenomenon. It is the result of an interaction between two parts, of an exchange of energies. Her words about that production in which she is not in the frame – "When I disappear, I represent the act of nature more closely. Thus only my gaze becomes active" [4] – are self-explanatory. The objective of the video camera recording Nature is not a mechanical substitute of her eyes or an extension of her body. It is the activator of the gaze, an active participant in the process of capturing the flow of energy running in both directions between the artist and the outside world. It acts like that needle that for the first time made her sense a strong and inexplicable force emanating from her whole body when she was still a child and was helping her mother sewing together different pieces of fabric into a blanket cover. The absence of her body in the final composition of the projected images does not mean that Kimsooja was there, but she is not there any longer. Kimsooja is still there. To a certain extent, her videos are visual correspondents of what a "trace" is in Jacques Derrida's linguistic studies, that is a "mark of the absence of a presence, an always-already absent present" [5] .

  • The Earth – Water – Fire – Air project, started in 2009, is one of those instances in which Kimsooja's body is not visible in the exhibited images. Natural phenomena, or "Beautiful and permanent forms of nature" – the "Lyrical Ballads" once again – are its main "subjects". In the specific, they are video recordings taken on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands and in Guatemala – volcanic landscapes with incandescent lava, the restless sea, millenarian rocks sculptured by time, clouds of pure white on a clear blue sky. The four basic elements essential to both Eastern and Western thought as the basics of life in the Universe are not presented as single units, each of which is independent and isolated from each other. On the contrary, as suggested by the titles of the videos [6] , they are shown in binary combinations, interacting one with the other, flowing one into the other, the same way as the artist did with the space surrounding her when she recorded those images. Clearly, viewers can fully feel the strength of this energy when inside the space where the work – an eight-channel video installation in its current form – is exhibited. Without any doubts, Earth – Water – Fire – Air is first of all a work that has to be experienced. The intensity of the bond between the artist and the visible objects that she captured with the help of her camera is perceived in the gallery space where viewers are free to move around and use their senses to take in the energy coming out from the screens.

  • It is by experiencing the work as an installation that any possible references to Beauty suggested by the incontestable magnificence of the natural spectacles lose their validity. Beauty is not a keyword here. Surely, a more appropriate approach would be through the concept of the Sublime in aesthetics. To be more precise, the way the Sublime was perceived by the Neo-Kantian school of the beginning of the 20th century according to which the feelings of fear and horror – fundamental qualities for the 18th and 19th centuries (Edmund Burke and the English Romantics, amongst others) – were replaced by a sense of contentment and safety before an object of superior force.

  • Kimsooja stands with her video camera in front of an object of "superior force". The moment she presses the rec button, like a needle piercing a piece of cloth, her "superior force" starts to interact with that of Nature before her. The energy of the exchange is very strong and overwhelming. However, the effect reached – Earth, Water, Fire, and Air displayed in the exhibition space – is indisputably one of ease and wellbeing. Her works are never a methodical process of "quoting" from Nature, simply because Kimsooja is not a passive receiver. The segment called "Fire of Air" can serve as a proof of the artist's dialoguing with Nature. In it, while being driven she operates a spotlight to break the darkness of the night and illuminate the rocky fields of the landscape. Here, she in charge of what can be seen and what stays wrapped in darkness. Because of this constant dialoguing, none of the images offered to the viewers can ever be, to quote Wordsworth again, a "soulless image on the eye" [7] , a mere visual impression on the retina of the spectator. On the other hand, Kimsooja sublimates the etymological meaning of the word "video", that is "I see", first person of the present tense of videre (to see). She invests it with both spiritual and lyrical power. Simply, albeit roughly, put, it is poetry camouflaged as science.

  • As an artist Kimsooja's possess the unique ability to turn the chaos of energy exchanging during the time of performing or recording – that "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" [8] between the Poet and Nature – into a sense of tranquility and calmness for the viewers. Accordingly, the screens framing the videos lose their boundaries and a distinct feeling of oneness with Nature is strongly felt. To a certain degree, the genesis of Earth – Water – Fire – Air is not that dissimilar to that of Jackson Pollock's canvases. It is the same intensity of human artistic energy – albeit different in nature. Obviously, the outcome is at the antipodes. Kimsooja's is a calm chaos generated by the maturity of the passions of the artist's heart. And it is this proven maturity that, paraphrasing Pollock when he was asked if he worked from Nature, allows to state that Earth – Water – Fire – Air proves once and for all that Kimsooja is Nature.

[1] Pollock, Jackson. Interview by William Wright, Summer 1950. Quoted in Clifford Ross (ed.), Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, Abrahams Publishers: New York, 1990, pp. 139-140. > return to article >
[2] Eliot, Charles William (ed.). Prefaces and Prologues. Vol. XXXIX. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001. www.bartleby.com/39/. 2 May 2012. > return to article >
[3] Kim, Sung-Wong, "About Nothingness: Being Nothing and Making Nothing". Official internet site of Kimsooja. www.kimsooja.com/texts/sung_won_kim_EWFA_2009.html. 2 May 2012. > return to article >
[4] Commandeur, Ingrid. "Black Holes, Meditative Vanishings and Nature as a Mirror of the Universe". Kimsooja – Windflower: Perceptions of Nature (Catalogue). Kroller Muller Museum, The Netherlands. Interview with the artist by the author, November 2010. > return to article >
[5] Macsey, Richard and Eugenio Donato (eds). The Languages of Criticism and The Sciences of Man: the Structuralist Controversy. JHU Press: Baltimore, 1970, p. 254. > return to article >
[6] n its current version Earth – Water – Fire – Air comprises the following eight videos: “Fire of Earth”, “Water of Earth”, “Fire of Air”, “Earth of Water”, “Air of Fire”, “Air of Earth”, “Air of Water”, “Water of Air”. > return to article >
[7] Wordsworth, William. The Complete Poetical Works. London: Macmillan and Co., 1888; Bartleby.com, 1999. www.bartleby.com/145/. 2 May 2012. > return to article >
[8] Eliot. > return to article >

Deductive Object, 1993, used Korean Clothes, Installation view at PS.1, New York, Dimensions variable

The pilgrimage of our own existence

An art where nomadism and the relation with the other reveals the importance of mankind and the contemplation of the reality that we live in.

Mello, Laeticia

2012

  • Kim Soo-Ja is her full name, but she introduces herself in her web page as Kimsooja (Korea, 1957) with her own manifesto: In "A One-Word Name Is An Anarchist's Name" (2003), Kimsooja refuses gender identity, marital status, socio-political or cultural and geographical identity by not separating the family name and the first name. In this same way – without an identity or with an almost ephemeral one – she has been developing since 1992 her singular and poetic work that includes videos, performances, installations, site-specific projects and photographs.

  • To give rise to her work, Kimsooja travels to different cities, villages and small towns in search of diverse cultures. It is a pilgrimage with bottaris – Korean word that means "wrapping luggage with a wrapping cloth", the easiest and most functional way of carrying one's belongings– sometimes walking and others by truck; a nomadism that speaks about civilizations, traditions, and languages that shall be faced in the new crossing.

  • The art that she creates becomes ceremonial. She looks through her own past, present and future and through that contemplation the questions and discourses on time and space emerge. This way, Kimsooja links her work to nature and the relation with others. In her pieces the viewers are engulfed by the multiple perspectives introduced by the artist and they can participate of it lively.

  • Textiles are the media that Kimsooja chooses to develop her maps of beliefs. Despite her origins where there always existed a need of experimenting different types of media similar to fabrics, sewing became the wisest and most accurate tool. It allowed her to combine her questionings and the relation between the "I" and the "Other" over the canvas surface. Thereby, the separation between the artist and the surface disappears and transforms into a healing joint.

  • Bottaris are probably the most distinctive element in Kimsooja's art. They hold not only references to the migration of her land but also to the essence of all her work: mankind. "I've always been fascinated by nomadic minorities' life style and their rich visual culture and originality. During my youth my family also lived a nomadic life due to my father's job, although within Korea. I wasn't aware of the fact that my family had been wrapping and unwrapping bottaris all the time until I started Cities on the Move–2727 km Bottari Truck in 1997", she explains.

  • Kimsooja's bottaris are sculptural pieces. Viewers can open, touch and examine them. The artist acts as an intermediary between the owners of those clothes and old bedspreads and the observers. As they make contact with the bottaris, they embark on their own journey imagining who used these fabrics before. This way, the pieces transcend the Eastern tradition and the historical codes that were associated to them; they become channels which redefine the concept of the object. Here it doesn't matter if Kimsooja re-makes and re-contextualizes a ready-made but the way she chooses to look at her past and the transition that Korea lived from a traditional lifestyle to a modern one.

  • A Needle Woman, A Beggar Woman and A Homeless Woman are the most developed and delicate performances by Kimsooja. In them, she appears with a singular hieratic posture amongst a crowd in continuous flow that walks towards and by her sometimes observing and others questioning themselves the truth of her static stance. Anonymous and with neutral clothing, she achieves to interfere with the canons and flux of the city with one unique message: temper and truth.

  • The patience and austerity that the artist uses to introduce folklore and daily habits of Asian and Latin-American cultures in her videos is what lets her bonds so closely to their respective traditions. Each folkloric practice that Kimsooja discovers works as a talisman. First she researches the origins and encounters of the culture and then she charges herself with figures of power.

  • The spectrum and repetition which Kimsooja works with in her videos is expressed by the cities in move, in an action loop. In Thread Routes (Chapter 1. Peru) – a video that captures the routes of the threading women in Peru –, women weave again and again the colorful embroideries of their origins where generations and spiritual experiences are combined together. Mumbai: A Laundry Field was filmed in India where men shake, drain and strain against the stones the symphony of tonalities of their clothes. They are the representation of time, an intangible and unapproachable mental space, never planned.

  • "When it comes to the performative video pieces such as A Needle Woman performance series, I just had a strong desire to do a performative piece but didn't know what exactly it would be, even until the moment I started filming", Kimsooja says. That is the main reason why intuition plays such an important role in the process and meaning of her work. She rises as a medium woman, as an ethnographic canal that lets the world see the most pure forms of art. A reader of the visible and invisible worlds given by nature.

  • These projects have turned Kimsooja into one of most renowned and interesting artists from the international contemporary panorama. She lives and works in New York, and has exhibited her projects and artworks all around the world. Among them latest ones we can name NPPAP - Yong Gwang Nuclear Power Plant Art Project, commissioned by The National Museum of Contemporary Art (2010), Earth – Water – Fire – Air, Hermes (2009), Kimsooja, Baltic Center (2009) and Lotus: Zone of Zero, BOZAR, Brussels (2008), as well as other emblematic ones like Artempo: where time becomes art (2007) presented at the Venice Biennale, Cities on the Move (1997-2000) and Traditions/Tensions (1996-1998), and the participation in other biennales like Moscow (2009), Whitney Biennial (2002), Lyon (2000), São Paulo (1998), to name some.

  • Kimsooja has been working for two years on a series of a 16 mm film project called Thread Routes. She has completed the Peruvian chapter on weaving culture and the European chapter on lace making is being developed. The project about origins of textile culture includes India, Mali, China, and Native America.

A Needle Woman, 2005, Sana'a (Yemen), one of six channel video projection, 10:40 loop, silent

Kimsooja, To Breathe: Invisible Mirror/Invisible Needle

D'Ambrose, Ricky

2012

  • From blue to violet. The nine minutes of To Breathe: Invisible Mirror/Invisible Needle involve a lifecycle of the color spectrum, an electronic spiritual autobiography of red-yellow-blue sanctified at the four hard edges of the screen. These are colors that command, rather than pacify, the eye; the problem, to borrow Duchamp's phrase, of being "up to the neck in the retina," here becomes a compelling visual solution, an optical tease with metaphysical consequences. "My motivation for creating this piece was to question the depth of the surface," Kimsooja has said. "Where is the surface? What in the world is there between things?"

  • These migrating color fields, these on-screen anti-surfaces, frustrate the eye, if only temporarily; the effort here is to re-educate our visual intelligence, to make the eye more buoyant, less habituated. What Kimsooja calls her interest in in-betweens – in those enigmatic medial spaces that can be intuited but never experienced simultaneously – gives this work its itinerant sensibility, and it is this skepticism of the surface that disaffiliates To Breathe from a mid-twentieth-century aesthetics apotheosized by Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly, Anne Truitt, Robert Ryman, etc. A more suitable list of aesthetic influences might include: magic lantern shows, Stan Brakhage films, Technicolor, stained glass windows, and also Cézanne, whose attraction to what he called "the meeting of planes in the sunlight" might describe another visual corollary to this work: the sensation, the flicker of colors, produced when staring at the sun with one's closed.

  • The two channels. The inhale-exhale component of the soundtrack forms its metrical unit: the couplet. The rhyming of inhale and exhale is made possible by an activity (breathing) which, in this instance, becomes increasingly less agile, more labored and urgent. Once the last exhale is replaced by the low, monophonic sound of humming, however, we assume that a change in condition has taken place, that a transaction between physical and spiritual experience has culminated in repose. And yet, Kimsooja's colors continue their gestation; the juxtaposition of an uninterrupted, trifurcated human hum and an image with no reliable surface and no discernable visual plane is the technique of a stereoscopic aesthetics. The effort is toward two radically dissociated channels of information that cannot be unified by the eye alone, but that require a bit of imaginative thinking and mental ingenuity to grant their coalescence.

  • But to think imaginatively entails a sensorial leap of faith and a transfiguration of the commonplace that often feels peculiar and difficult, but that is also necessarily clarifying and inventive. Hence the statement by Kimsooja: "I don't believe in creating something new but in inventing new perspectives based on mundane daily life." The result plays like an ecstatic vision; a flash of light and sound that transforms Duchamp's "retinal element" into an instrument – a needle to thread and combine, a mirror to duplicate and rhyme – for achieving the movement from surface to spirit.

May 2012

Kimsooja's <A Needle Woman>, Sacred Ritual

Choi, Yoonjung

2011

I. Intro

  • This project is planned as an experiment, which introduces new arrangement from a deviated and strayed viewpoint, rather than unilaterally maintaining fixed conceptions. The Project Room, starting from the appearance of warehouse, or 'preparatory warehouse', reveals various aspects, such as 'underground - isolation from natural light'; 'concrete' wall, revealing its raw material; 'properties of road - passages and intersections.' As previous exhibition[1] showed the possibility of the Project Room as an exhibition hall, this exhibition is the result of the finding that the very aspects of the Project Room can be a main stem of a project.

  • The original form of the Project Room was composed of just eighteen columns connecting the ceiling and the floor. To make it an exhibition hall, walls were made between columns and six new ones were added, which form a skeletal space of 'passage_road' and 'intersections_center.' This basic form, which is isolated from natural light, has advantages of not only playing a basic role as an exhibition hall, but also effectively installing and producing works which utilize effects of light and the luminous intensity. Each section seen from 'intersection_center' is over six meters in width. It provides various criterion of space production and enables experimental and genre-integrating project such as concert, performance and films to be planned.
    Therefore the plan for the Project Room will be to make programs which will be able to emit 'indiscriminate' energy by concentrating on finding experimental local art, young art, and various genre related with space interpretation, as well as utilizing the characteristic form of the space.

  • This exhibition aims to introduce a 'video series' that is conceived as a work from the start for dense space interpretation and introduction of the work. So we invited Kimsooja(1957), a world renowned artist born in Daegu, and researched her video works, which have been exhibited as projects, to choose a work which not only reveals kim's proper color but also flexibly fit into the direction of interpretation on the Project Room. In this process, we start from reading the structure of intersection (cross) of the Project Room, and then we begin to imagine, during continuous discussion, the structure of symmetric labyrinth as a variant of the structure of passage. Each video, planned for a project, is placed on various screens, which is located on the designed line of flow, rather than arranged according to the established way of installation. It is the moment when the meaning of space is positively expanded through the integration of the work and the space into a work of installation. In this project, Kimsooja's representative work, <A Needle Woman(2005)>, which takes as its stages symbolic sites of religious conflict, poverty, international isolation, civil war occurring worldwide, provided the core of this research and the criterion of thinking.

  • This work, composed of six pieces, extended time through slow playing and was arranged on a wall side by side in a form of embodying the figure life-size. The artist's body as an axis of time mediates spectators with the world, and the spectators are cognitively able to experience the gap of time by borrowing the artist's body. In other words, it was intended to reflect the problem of the universality and the substance of mankind which persists after making the elements of trouble in each city naturally and psychologically resolve through this cognitive process.
    This exhibition was devised so as to expand the experience of the meaning of the work through the space interpretation, all without losing the existing intention. Therefore the road structure of this space plays a primary role of setting a physical distance for appreciation, and the line of flow leads a kind of practice walking that is a walking from work to work while connecting them. We intended psychological distance for thinking for spectators to concentrate on the work through this process, and we placed on six screens, three kinds in their size, peculiar cognitive experience in which we can recognize the artist's body as medium, aiming at more dramatic effect. At last, spectators who arrive at the last work on the line of flow go beyond being mere spectators, becoming agents who participate in the exhibition and are able to have their own trace of thinking of the work.

  • At the stage of researching the works of kimsooja, organizing articles also functions as a keyword constituting the core of this project. We selected articles - first, contextualizing kimsooja's entire work for a systematic understanding[2]; second, conceiving appropriate application and interpretation of [3]>, which is frequently mentioned with regard to kimsooja's works; third, dealing with a perspective on the meditation and memory as a starting point of 'archetypal' thinking[4]; and, finally a referential article, comparatively analyzing shamanism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism in East Asia with regard to cultural archetypes[5] - to provide various humanistic perspectives for the significance of kimsooja and her work.

II. Connecting : From Universal Space to 'Symmetric and Delusive' Space

  • 'Universal Space', a widely used architectural concept, is a starting point where we decide the direction and the standard of this project. It provides a starting point for a conscious foundation which enables the form of space to be transformed, in that simplicity and changeability of space, which is applicable to any use, let the energy, which variously visualizes the space itself, emitted. It is also a clue to imagining 'labyrinthine structure' which overcomes the existing 'passage-road' structure, a biased element would have functioned as a restriction.[6] In other words, we imagine 'universal space' in the solidity and rigidity of basic framework and decisively transform the meaning of 'passage_road' into 'labyrinth' to expand and develop the unique interface. Of course, the structure of labyrinth intend to remind us of its symmetric form and to produce a line of flow as traces rather than a maze or a wayfinding. Video works are running on screens which are placed in each dead end and vary in size, 2.4m, 3.9m and 6.8m each. Because of the mood emitted from these works, spectators may have an illusionary experience that they feel like walking into the video image while identifying themselves with Kimsooja whose back faces us. It is a kind of figurative infiltration of the role of 'labyrinth' into the ingenious unity made of the labyrinthine structure of the space and video works.

A Needle Woman, Archetypal Consciousness as Sentiment and Nullification

III. Outro

  • "Art should produce the thing itself, or the incomprehensible. However art should describe things neither as the comprehensible (the symphathizable) nor as the incomprehensible, but it should describe them as the comprehensible not yet comprehended."[18]

  • In her videos, the artist reveals herself and, at the same time, has us revealed. This is because we are freely assimilated into the crowd as we watch the artist and visually recorded behaviors of people. However, we don't stop here. We are anxious to hear stories of each person who approaches the clue of the spark of life which their individuality and their worldwide existence cause in 'relation,' and, on the other hand, we feel pity for them. It also lets us ask ourselves "how much do we understand situations where the life of others unravel, situations that exist in other countries?"[19] By means of this, it shows not only people who experience various situations in the world but also ourselves, as observers, individuals, who are abandoned in a state of indifference.
    The artist deliberately confined the space of observation and produced it into video to avoid the narcissistic concentration of the sight on 'being' of herself. [20]

  • <A Needle Woman(2005)> just sheds a light on the ritual which seeks for a proper human nature and embraces cultural differences, with an extremely simple act from which narration is removed. Starting from this, we can trigger the ethical mind of a person who encounters the uncomfortable part of our contemporary events through the artist's body projecting the axis of space-time. Left in a state where "if we know the fact that photographs bring the pain from remote places before our eyes, we don't accept the fact that the pain of others is closely related with us"[21] and we don't know what effect it has on our life, the artist's body becomes a kind of antenna, which leads the others to thought, and sacred medium, which embraces the site of injury.

  • — Exhibition Catalogue published by Daegu Art Museum, Korea, 2011

[1] Daegu Art Museum Opening Special Exhibition3 , From August 10th to November 20th, 2011

[2] [kimsooja, Thinking along the system of horizontality-verticality], 2010, Younghee Suh(Professor of Hongik University) : This article is a revised version of the article, previously published in 『Contemporary Artooo』, 2010.

[3] [Nomadism: Elements of Nomadic Life and Art], 2011, Lee Jin Kyung(autonym Park Tae Ho, Professor of Seoul National University of Science and Technology)

[4] [Cultural Memory, Cultural Archetype and Communication], 2011, Bak Sang Hwan(Professor of Sungkyunkwan University) : This article is revised and developed from 「The study of Communication and Possibility on the Cultural Contents and Humanism」,『Journal of the humanities』Vol. 41(Sungkyunkwan University Research Institute for the Humanities, 2008).

[5] [Shamanism as an Archetype of East Asian Culture], 2010, Yang hee Seok(Professor of Chonnam National University)

[6] "Striated space is a territorialized and layered space, characterized as sedentary, moving along the fixed and closed trace and in which development rather than creation(becoming) occurs. [...]the line of smooth space is vectorial and open, while the line of striated space is dimensional and closed[...]On the contrary, smooth space is nomadic and migratory, the space of speed, movement and creation, in which line is subordinated not to number or measurable decision but to vector and direction, and point is subordinated to line and trace[...]It means a space, without decided direction and course, which has no center, like a patchwork, and is able to be infinitely and formlessly connected and expanded." [Architecture and movement in time], 2009, Spacetime, Kim Won Kap : This is a philosophy of Deleuze [A Thousand Plateaus] applied to architectural concept.

[7] In [Nomadism: Elements of Nomadic Life and Art], Lee Jin Kyung is appealing his viewpoint that permeating strange things into the given existing arrangement through which the life as 'deterritorialization' is rearranged, is closer to the truth, rather than misunderstanding nomadism as a simple trace of movement.

[8] Shin Oh Hyun,「Freedom and Tragedy_Sartre's human ontology」, Moonji Publishing Co. p. 125 "Consciousness refuses to identify its existence with borrowed existence, to the extent that it doesn't exist by itself but exist in the relation with things exist by themselves, or by defining existing things as existence, so its existence is what is borrowed from things exist by themselves."

[9] Kim Yoon Sik,「Problem of inheritance of tradition in literature」,《Generation》, 1973, p. 219

[10] From the Artist's Notes in 1988

[11] Ibid.

[12] "A needle woman(Tokyo,1999), it was the first performance of this series. Video recording team and I were walking the city searching for appropriate time and place. I could not but stop walking in Shibuya where hundreds and thousands of people passing by. I was standing still while feeling the energy of the crowd and focusing on my body. I strongly felt the connection to the core of myself. At the same time, I realized what separated the crowd from myself. It was like a moment of epiphany, and I decided to record the performance showing my back to the camera." extracted from interview, Olivia Maria Rubio, 2006

[13] Mircea Eliade,「Shamanism」, translated in korean by Lee Yoon Ki, Kachi Publishing Co. p. 32

[14] Ibid., p.23

[15] In addition, it is not an objet as a simple 'readymade' but a heritage as a 'readyused', which symbolizes identity of Korea or shares cultural memory, and from which the occasion of 'meditation' on cultural awareness, or distancing could be made.

[16] Black(玄色) includes five pure colors and ultimately symbolizes 'The Supreme Polarity that is non-Polar(無極而太極), Unity of Heaven, Earth and Human(天地人一體)'. [Study on Korean's Color Sense], Park Myung Won , Vol. 4, p.297

[17] "In the performance video needle woman, at the moment when the spectator doesn't aware my body any more, they come to see the world which I see, through my body. Or my body becomes a medium of self meditation for spectators.[...]I show my world view as it is without refraction to spectators. It is a zen like work which has been evolved from thorough questions to myself. At the same time, I hope for my body to be a barometer which reflect over the condition of mankind by taking a role of axis of space-time. I want to meet every person in the crowd and to hug them. It is a kind of pity for mankind who leads a life today." _ Kimsooja

[18] [Searching for a new art], 1998, Bertolt Brecht, edited and translated by Kim Chang Joo, New Road

[19] [KimSooJa: Less is More], 2006, Olivia Maria Rubio

[20] [Experiencing A Vacuum], 2005, Emanuela De Cecco

[21] Susan Sontag,「Regarding the Pain of Others」, 2008, translated by Lee Jae Won, ewhobook, p. 150

Kimsooja, A Needle Woman, 1999-2001, video still from Tokyo, 8 channel video projection, 6:33 loop, silent

Points of Convergence

Part I: Other-Self-World

Maerkle, Andrew

2011

  • In 1999, in Tokyo's bustling Shibuya neighborhood, Kimsooja produced the first in a series of performance videos collectively titled A Needle Woman (1999-2001). Standing still in the middle of the oncoming crowds, the artist achieved a minimal but not insignificant intervention into the rhythm of local daily life. Simultaneously confrontational and vulnerable, her action opened a window onto the collective humanity of the passersby - viewed from the advantage of hindsight, it is perhaps they who were the vulnerable ones that day. The first version of A Needle Woman eventually led Kimsooja to make similar performances in seven other international metropolises, while in 2005 she revisited the piece by traveling to an additional six zones of conflict and social tension, among them Jerusalem, N'Djamena and Patan.

  • A Needle Woman is part of a larger body of work investigating themes ranging from memory and form to nature and consciousness. Often invoking images related to fabric - namely, the Korean bottari cloth bundle, but also threads and needles - such works ask viewers to reconsider their bodily relations to social structures, and reflect about what it means to be both an individual and a member of a community. Realized and exhibited in cities across the world, they offer a universal perspective, but also reflect the unique conditions of specific times and places.

  • ART iT met with Kimsooja in Tokyo to discuss her practice to date and how she relates to issues of globalism, locality and site-specificity.

  • ART iT: You've done projects in cities around the world, ranging from Lagos and Delhi to New York, Paris and Tokyo. Given that experience, what does locality mean to you, and has its significance for you changed over time?

  • Kimsooja: First of all, I must say that I was never interested in globalism and that was not my starting point for traveling around the world doing site-specific performances and video pieces. I was mostly interested in locality. In the mid-1990s my Cities on the Move-2727km Bottari Truck (1997) performance video piece coincided with the emergence of global issues in the international art scene, and my work received exposure in the context of globalism from curators who were trying to understand the phenomenon as it relates to contemporary art. However, as an artist, I was only focused on each city and its own locality. I valued the beauty of the pure authenticity and reality of each city.
    I have witnessed the development and transformation of many metropolises over the years. When I visited Lagos in 2000, the city had very tough living conditions, yet maintained authentic cultural realities. Now I hear the rough areas have been smoothed out and completely developed. For example, there was the Oshodi open-air marketplace that had been established along active railway tracks, which stretched for miles almost to the horizon. When a train arrived, people selling goods on the railway tracks would immediately clear out and then return once the train had passed. The marketplace was constantly moving and taking on different forms and dynamics. If it rained, the sellers would still stand there with their goods, even when the water reached their knees. It was the most amazing marketplace I had ever seen, and I’ve always wanted to return there to work again, but I hear now the market no longer exists as before. I understand that for the local economy it might be more productive to be modernized, but in terms of the authenticity of the local way of living and culture, I think it's a shame. With globalization, everything has become so standardized.

  • ART iT: What was the impetus for you wanting to make the video pieces in different cities?

  • Kimsooja: The motivation began with the A Needle Woman performance I did in Tokyo in 1999 for a commission by CCA Kitakyushu. I was thinking of doing a walking performance piece, but didn't have a definite idea, so I walked around the city waiting to find the right moment and energy in the right place. After walking for several hours I arrived at Shibuya. When I saw the hundreds and thousands of people coming and going, I was so overwhelmed that I couldn't walk any further and had to stop there immediately, hearing my own silent inner scream right at that moment. Once I stopped, I also realized the meaning of walking.
    I asked the videographer to film me from behind. At the beginning of the performance it was very difficult to stand in the middle of a crowded street with all the people's energy coming toward me. I was determined to stand still; at the same time, I was in a vulnerable situation. I was totally exposed, but as time passed, I found my own center. I became very focused and entered a meditative state. As I stood there, I felt myself begin to mentally embrace and wrap the people who were passing me. I entered a state of mind of total concentration and peace, which allowed me to experience a certain kind of enlightenment. When I looked at the horizon of the waves of oncoming people, I could see a bright light coming from beyond them, and I found myself looking at the entire humanity of the world.
    From this special experience, I determined to continue making A Needle Woman performances around the world in order to meet, possibly, every single person in the world. That was the starting point. For the first version of A Needle Woman (1999-2001), I was interested in major metropolises where I could meet many people on the street. In addition to Tokyo, I made performances in Shanghai, New Delhi, Mexico City, Lagos, Cairo, London and New York.

  • ART iT: You've spoken about the needle as a hermaphroditic tool that is both aggressive and passive. To stand in the middle of the crowd is both a vulnerable and a confrontational action, all the more so in a city where you're not a local. Is the confrontation an important part of the work?

  • Kimsooja: Every performance is a confrontation, both with one's self and the other. In this performance, the confrontation moved from the people on the street to myself and then slowly extended to the whole world, until ultimately I achieved a level of compassion whereby self and other became one. During the performances, these transformations were happening in my mind rather than in my body.
    Of course, there were many different physical reactions from the different cities. Tokyo was the most critical experience I had - people in Tokyo were aware of others next to them, but they pretended not to see them. When you see the video from Tokyo, my body is there, but it seems as if I myself am not there. I am totally ignored or isolated from the crowd, as they don't pay attention to me or acknowledge my presence. I'm an invisible person, yet this is one of the most crowded streets in the world. The time-based video makes apparent this phenomenon. It's as if I am a ghost, or my body becomes increasingly transparent. It's also interesting how my state of mind changed during the course of the performance, because the more I embraced the people into my mind, the more I was also liberated from them, and could empty myself. The visual and physical processed and the psychological, spiritual process were moving in opposite directions.
    Your comment on confrontation interests me not only in regard to my performance pieces but also in regard to earlier sewing pieces and installations. These were also very much related to a confrontation with "the other," through the medium of the canvas.

  • ART iT: How did the experience change from city to city? Did you see different things about yourself in different cities?

  • Kimsooja: Yes. It depended on the location and the energy of the place. In New Delhi, people found an Asian woman standing in the middle of the street to be very odd and mysterious, perhaps because of their associations with religious imagery in Indian culture. They would stop and look at me for a few minutes, trying to find out who I was and what I was doing. Some people would ask the camera crew whether I was a Buddha or a sculpture.
    During the performances, I never engaged anybody in a direct gaze. I would focus on a single, vanishing point. This helped to keep myself stable, although I knew what was happening and how people looked at me. In New Delhi, the inner gazes shared between my mind and their minds were very intense. In Shanghai, people were only half-interested and would quickly return to their own business after glancing at me. In Cairo, people were playful and curious. Some people would stand in front of me, mirroring my position for a few minutes. There was also a man who brought a bottle of cologne and sprayed it in front of me to get my attention, and a woman who grabbed my ponytail and move it around my body. The reactions tended to be direct and very provocative.
    In New York, people were always interested in looking all around, searching for new information on the street, so their heads were constantly moving - eating, walking, talking, laughing, sometimes mimicking me. In London, where there is a similar multinational population, they were more turned in on themselves, and their gazes tended to be directed downwards at a 45-degree angle, rather than looking up. So these performances gave me insight into the mentality of the people in each city and different cultures in various geographies.

  • ART iT: Have you ever done A Needle Woman or a similar kind of performance in Korea?

  • Kimsooja: No. I didn't want to position myself in the same place where I’ve lived for over 40 years. I wanted to have a degree of separation from and objectivity to the cities where I performed. Had I done it in Korea, everything would have been too familiar, with less tension. It would have been difficult to create a distinction between my body and the others - even if there were a visible distinction - because mentally and historically we share so much together. This was a piece that had to be examined outside of my own context.

  • ART iT: But you have done other projects and of course exhibitions in Korea, such as the Earth - Water - Fire - Air (2010) installation of videos along the breakwater of the Yeonggwang Nuclear Power Plant. What is your relationship - through your creative process - with Korea?

  • Kimsooja: Passions and troubles can feed creativity. All my problems are good resources. My private life, my family, my friends, my country - cultural, political and social relationships can all be material for me to work with. The more I know my own culture, the more I actually feel estranged from it because I know where it comes from and yet I know that I'm not fully part of it. It was interesting for me to have grown up in a society that was undergoing economic and political turbulence. But then I thought that living in the same homeland for about 40 years is more than enough to learn what you can from one place. I thought that if I continued to live there I would just repeat myself, and I needed another vital ground. Another factor in leaving Korea was that even until the late 1990s it was difficult for female artists to receive recognition or support in the male-dominated social hierarchy.

  • ART iT: Did this idea that you were moving away from your homeland at all affect the dynamic of doing projects in other cities and countries? For example, what keeps your practice from acting out a kind of artistic globalization?

  • Kimsooja: I think of globalization as being related to things like the profusion of a few brands across the world, or a process in which everything becomes standardized and preexisting cultures or ways of thinking and living are slowly eradicated. My intention with A Needle Woman was more about inner experience rather than expressing myself or showing off. For me, the performance inevitably became a kind of ontological question about living in the world, and the world in which I am living became my canvas - a backdrop, rather than a market. I’ve always been interested in experiencing the wakefulness of being in the world, rather than necessarily transforming my experience for the audience. Simply, the latter came naturally as a result of my being an artist.
    If there is a certain global aspect in my work, it's perhaps more in that I present the performances together in multi-channel video installations so that viewers can simultaneously see the different momentums of each city around the world. But I don't know if I recreate the standardized format of globalization. I am the same person and I am doing the same performance, but my inner transformation has always been there. Is it possible for me to become a global item? I don't know. It could be interesting if that were so. Obviously, in the current era artists can take on brand-name value. I never thought of that in my own practice because for me it's not about the product or a work of art but the artist as a being. Art is a methodology of living for me.

  • ART iT: Maybe it's no coincidence, though, that in the age of globalization we have seen a rise in site-specific commissions asking artists to fly some place, do research and produce a project in that context. Sometimes this approach can produce powerful works, but it can also become an empty gesture towards an idealized notion of locality.

  • Kimsooja: Yes, it is true, and depending on the practices such commissions can take shape in different ways. Performance can be very different from installation, sculpture or even painting, which normally has less site-specificity in terms of interaction and can travel anywhere. A space-oriented site-specificity will be different from a time-oriented specificity, and a politically-oriented specificity will also be different from the other two. It varies so much with each project that it's very difficult to generalize.

This article was published in Art iT magazine, June, 2011.

A Mirror Woman: The Sun & the Moon, 2008, 4 channel video projection, sound, 12:33 loop.

Kimsooja: Black Holes, Meditative Vanishings and Nature as a Mirror of the Universe

Commandeur, Ingrid

2011

  • One of the best-known works by the Korean artist, Kimsooja (b. Taegu, 1957, lives and works in New York, Seoul and Paris) is the video and performance Cities on the Move: 2727 kilometres Bottari Truck (1997), created for the much-discussed exhibition, Cities on the Move. [1] It is a quiet version of a road movie. We see a blue truck, loaded with colourful bundles of textiles, called bottari in Korean, piled up on one another like a mountain. Kimsooja is sitting at the top of the pile and makes the journey together with the truck, 2727 kilometres along all the places she had lived as a child. The frame of the image is fixed: from the back, we see Kimsooja as an anonymous female figure in the lotus position, while cities and Korean mountain landscapes move past. For Cities on the Move (1997), curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Hou Hanru, artists, architects and designers investigated or reflected on urban transformations in Asia as a result of globalization and modernization. Because of the associations that the work evokes with the concepts of migration and nomadic lifestyles, Kimsooja's 2727 kilometres Bottari Truck became the ultimate metaphor for this theme. Her participation in the exhibition marked her definitive breakthrough into the international exhibition circuit. [2] Commenting on the great interest being shown in her work, she has said, 'Today, it seems that we are witnessing a "cultural war" with many issues arising in a global context, bringing together different races and beliefs, with an increasing discrepancy between rich and poor, economically powerful and less powerful countries. (…) The issues that that I address in Bottari Truck and A Needle Woman are very much related to current topics, such as migration, refugees, war, cultural conflict and different identities. I think people are interested in considering these topics through the reality of the works. This may be one reason for their success.' [3]

  • In this context, Kimsooja also expressed her criticism of the international biennial circuit, which she finds 'more and more focused on the power structure within the art world'. [4] Although Kimsooja's work, as she herself indicates, indisputably concerns the field of tension between the rise of a global culture and regional values and such themes as migration and cultural conflict, at the same time, it goes much further. Equally fascinating in her work is her utterly personal approach to performance and the representation of nature, both of which are strongly influenced by an Eastern way of looking at things.

  • A Needle Woman (1999-2001) is a multichannel video installation in which Kimsooja forms the unmoving, meditative central point. Her face turned away from the viewer, she stands in the middle of the masses of people in different urban metropolises: Tokyo, Shanghai, Mexico City, London, Delhi, New York, Cairo and Lagos. The title, A Needle Woman, describes how Kimsooja sees herself: as a needle that 'pricks through' the social, societal context of the different geographic locations. It is a handsome example of the way in which her work embraces a marriage between the characteristically Western model of participation in relational aesthetics and Eastern, meditative techniques. [5] While her work shares roots with the relational aesthetics of such artists as Maurizio Cattelan, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Pierre Huyghe and Rirkrit Tiravanija, it begins with a concept of space and time that contradicts that approach. Where, in the work of an artist such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, the encounter with the public is the central focus, as a temporary social activity, Kimsooja's performances separate themselves from this temporary character and have the objective of creating a moment of concentration and focus that is binding, revealing and in essence holistic. 'I am interested in approaching the reality that embraces everything, because it is the only way to get to the point without manipulation.' [6]

  • In the Korean art scene in which Kimsooja first defined her position as an artist in the early 1980s, there was an ongoing debate about cultural identity, a critical review of formalism and the meaning of social engagement, similar to that of the art world in the West. The need to mix art with life went hand-in-hand with attention to local, cultural traditions and the reflection on the history of one's home country. Kimsooja belongs to a new generation of artists who are interested in the body, memory, intimacy, the everyday and the marginal. She found her identity as an artist at the point when she decided to abandon paints and canvas, the media canonized by the history of Western art that she had mastered as a student at the Hong-Ik University in Seoul. Like Tiravanija, Kimsooja chose to use everyday materials and activities as her starting point. The ybulbo, a traditional piece of cloth in cotton or silk, printed with colourful motifs and which has since time immemorial had a range of everyday functions in Korea - people sleep and children are born on them and they serve to wrap up items for safekeeping or for travel - became her new 'canvas', needle and thread her 'brushes'.

  • In the 1980s, Kimsooja stitched these traditional cloths together into covers and objects, bundled them into bottari and used them in countless installations and performances. From here, she gradually developed a working method in which she saw her own body as the needle or thread and the world as 'the canvas'. Her performances were recorded with video cameras as a condensed moment of energy and interaction with the world, whereby the screen functions as a metaphor of the screen that exists between Kimsooja and the rest of the world.

  • Kimsooja came from a Catholic family, but daily life in Korea is also permeated with both Confucianism and a mix of Buddhism and shamanism. After Buddhism, Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, is the primary religion in South Korea. Korean religion is complex and eclectic in nature: it is founded in old Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist traditions but it also embraces many Christian elements. The fact that her work reveals so much in common with the principles of Zen Buddhism was something she only realized rather late in her career. Still, she does not want to refer to her work as either Eastern or Western. It is a way of thinking that confuses Western art critics. In an interview, Nicolas Bourriaud asked her, 'Do you think that oriental thought has a real impact on the contemporary art world, or is it only a postmodern kind of exoticism, a decor for western aesthetic investigations?' Kimsooja's reply was that the Eastern way of thinking inhabits every context of contemporary art history, not just as theory, but as an attitude melded into one's personality and existence, and is inseparable from Western thinking. [7]

  • Kimsooja's interventions in public space are not about an open, noncommittal social relationship. Her meditative 'disappearances' clearly make a moral appeal to the public. For her performances, A Homeless Woman - Delhi (2000) and A Homeless Woman - Cairo (2001), she set herself down on the ground in the middle of the busy, urban public spaces of Delhi and Cairo, respectively. For a new edition of the video installation of A Needle Woman (2005), she visited six cities in precarious political and social circumstances: Patan (Nepal), Jerusalem (Israel), Sana'a (Yemen), Havana (Cuba), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) and N'Djamena (Chad). Her unmoving, meditative stillness creates an emptiness and a focus of concentration that makes everything happening around her in all these different metropolises all the more visible. 'I have an ambition as an artist: it is to consume myself to the limit where I will be extinguished. From that moment, I won't need to be an artist anymore, but just a self-sufficient being, or a nothingness that is free from desire.' [8] Kimsooja feels that the highest ideal that can be achieved by an artist is to be as minimal, as unprepossessing a presence as possible.

  • In her recent multichannel video installation, A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon (2008), included in the Windflower exhibition, this principle reaches an apex. In this work, the images for which were taken along the beach in Goa, India, we see an exceptional eclipse in which the sun and the moon melt together. To the left and right of this are two additional video screens showing the waves washing up on the beach and the rhythm of the tides. Kimsooja herself is no longer in the image. We can only perceive her indirectly as the person who observes the natural phenomena from behind the camera, and who by way of a technical procedure, records the sun rise and set over the moon. When I asked her if she felt that she had taken an important step towards completely disappearing out of her own work, she replied, 'I personified the mirror symbolically as my body, as an inserted action/performance in between the sun and the moon, so that my presence becomes invisible, and my body/life vanishes while it transforms as a metaphor of an object. (…) When I disappear, I represent the act of nature more closely. Thus only my gaze becomes active.' [9]

  • Late last year, and from a comparable perspective, Kimsooja created the large-scale video installation, Earth-Water-Fire-Air (2009-2010), a temporary project on location on the grounds of one of the largest nuclear reactors in the province of Yonggwang, South Korea. This scale and setting of this version of the video installation was the result of a collaboration between the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Korea, the korean Ministry of Culture and the company Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power, including Hanijin Shipping. [10] Kimsooja placed a video installation, comprised of eight large screens, each about 150 metres away from the others, on a 1200-metre long pier in the sea. Video recordings that she had taken on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands and of volcanoes in Guatemala formed the cornerstone for an abstract, visual interpretation of nirvana, in which the four elements – earth, water, fire and air – flow into one another. The fact that the character of each element is inseparably bound to the other elements is also expressed in the titles of the six videos: Fire of Earth, Water of Earth, Earth of Water, Air of Fire, Air of Earth, Air of Water, Fire of Water, Water of Fire. For a period of two weeks, the video works could be seen after sunset, in the evenings and at night, with visitors having to submit to the strict security regulations of the industrial power complex. With this work, Kimsooja wanted to draw attention to the issue of nuclear energy as a form of energy that, like the concepts of Yin and Yang [two opposite and complementary values in Chinese philosophy-Taoism with which the universe presents itself –ed.], produces positive as well as destructive energy. The work is intended as a contemplation on the use of natural sources of energy and the relationship between mankind, his origins and the earth. In light of the recent catastrophic events at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami, this work has unexpectedly become all the more poignant and topical.

  • In an earlier work, the performance and video, A Needle Woman - Kitakyushu (1999), Kimsooja lies on a rock formation in the Japanese city of Kitakyushu. It is an extremely minimalist image: heaven and earth and a woman lying on top of a rock formation, forming the line that divides the two. Kitakyushu is an industrial city in western Japan, with a million inhabitants. In the 1960s, the city had a bad reputation because of air pollution, but today, the recycling and water purification techniques that are employed there are now being adopted as a model for other major Japanese cities. It is a strange anachronism that in the video, Kitakyushu is only represented in an image of the nature present in the tattered margins of the city. The earth and the air, however, appear as universal eminences, as Yin and Yang, the dynamic powers from the natural world, as we know them from classic Chinese science and philosophy. As Kimsooja explains, 'When I was invited to make a new commissioned work at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Kitakyushu, Japan, I thought I would do a performance piece – one in the city of Tokyo, and the other one in nature. Then I would juxtapose them together. This was to examine how my body reacts and defines, in relationship to the given environmental conditions that are the human being and nature. As a result, one was standing still in the middle of a crowd, while the other was lying down on a rock, facing nature. Verticality and horizontality were a metaphor for a dynamic balance between urban and natural forces.' [11]

  • In the West, people are sometimes inclined to identify Yin and Yang in terms of opposite ideas of good and bad, but the essence of Taoist philosophy is not to think in terms of the opposites of moral judgments, but from the idea of a balance. It is primarily this spiritual principle that is deeply anchored in Kimsooja's work and is a determining factor for her perspective of nature and landscape – being present, being absent, as actively as possible, so that a black hole is created that attracts all meaning towards itself. As an artist, one becomes a mirror of the complexity of the universe, facing the viewer. In this, Kimsooja is a master.

Notes:

[1] Cities on the Move, travelling exhibition (1997-1999), successively in Vienna; CACP Bordeaux; PS1 New York; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek Denmark; Hayward Gallery London; Bangkok (various locations across the city); Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki. > return to article >
[2] Kimsooja took part in the first edition of the Kwangju Biennial (1995) and Manifesta (1996), as well as Istanbul Biennial (1997), São Paulo Biennial (1998), the Venice Biennial (1999, 2001, 2005, 2007), Tapei Biennial (2000), Busan Biennial (2002), Whitney Biennial (2002), Yokoyama Triennial (2005) and recently, the Thessaloniki Biennial (2009) and the Moscow Biennial (2009). > return to article >
[3] Olivia Sand, 'An interview with Kimsooja', Asian Art Newspaper, May 2006. > return to article >
[4] 'Although I've been in many of these international events, and have had both positive and negative experiences, in general the international Biennials scene shows very little respect for art and artists. They seem to focus more and more on the power structure of the art world, and their specific political alliances with the artists and institutions, rather than the quality of the work and its meaning,' in Petra Kaps, 'Kimsooja – A One-Word Name is An Anarchist's Name', interview, 2006, published on Kimsooja's website: www.kimsooja.com. > return to article >
[5] The concept of 'relational aesthetics' was coined by the French curator and theorist, Nicolas Bourriaud. In the late 1990s, he used this term to try to categorize a certain type of art and artists, 'a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space'. The term was first used in the catalogue for the exhibition, Traffic, at the CACP in Bordeaux, which was curated by Bourriaud and included such artists as Maurizio Cattelan, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Liam Gillick, Carsten Holler, Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno, Jorg Pardo and Rirkrit Tiravanija. They have historically become model examples of relational aesthetics. See also, Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon, Les presses du réel, 2002. > return to article >
[6] From an interview with Nicolas Bourriaud in Kimsooja: Conditions of Humanity, exhibition catalogue, Contemporary Art Museum, Lyon, 2003. The quote continues: 'Most people approach reality from analysis or "from language to colligation" which is the "truth", but I am proposing a "colligation to be analyzed" by audiences.' > return to article >
[7] Ibid. Kimsooja's response was, 'It would be unfortunate if the Western art world considered Eastern thought as a decor for Western aesthetic investigation – as if it were another element to add without noticing the fact that it is a way – in the process of making art. It is always there, as a dialectic, in all basic phenomena of art and life together. Eastern thought often functions in a passive and reserved way of expression, usually invisible, nonverbal, indirect, disguised, and immaterial. Western thought functions more with identity, controversy, gravity, construction in general, rather than deconstruction, and material rather than immaterial, compared to Eastern thought. The process finally becomes the awareness and necessity of the presence of both in contemporary art. It is the Yin and Yang, a co-existence that endlessly transforms and enriches.' > return to article >
[8] Olivia María Rubio, 'An interview with Kimsooja', Art and Context, summer 2006. > return to article >
[9] Interview with the artist by the author, November 2010. > return to article >
[10] The piece was originally created for and commissioned by the Lanzarote Biennale and Atelier Hermes in Seoul. > return to article >
[11] Op. cit, note 9. > return to article >

Kimsooja, Cities on the Move - 2727 KM Bottari Truck, 1997, single channel video, 7:33 min. loop, silent, Commissioned by Korean Arts & Culture Foundation

Points of Convergence

Part 2: Mirror-Void-Other

Kimsooja on the performance of non-action.

Maerkle, Andrew

2011

  • ART iT: We were just discussing your understanding of the dynamic between globalism and locality, particularly with regard to your performance videos for A Needle Woman (1999-2001/2005). Your work is often discussed in terms of displacement. Is there any place to which your works return or come home?

  • Kimsooja: I tend to work on the move, mostly while I'm traveling. For the works themselves there is no sense of "home." The context changes each time they travel. When the same performance piece is shown in India it is different from when it is shown in Peru or Kenya. It elicits different connotations from the viewers, and in response to each specific time and geography.
    I don't intend to make displacement a theme in my work but the constant nature of moving from one place to another in my life automatically creates that phenomenon. Also, the notion of displacement is already there in bottari making. As a physical container of bodies, memory, history and society, the bottari holds together many different notions of time, space, culture, society and gender, but at the same time it is also made with a single piece of square-shaped fabric, so formalistically it's a transformed painting that becomes a three-dimensional sculpture the moment you tie it up with a knot.
    It was from this formalistic aspect that I first began working with bottari, and then in 1993 when I returned to Korea from my residency at PS 1 in New York, my interest evolved towards more personal, social and cultural significances. I was able to see my own culture and society differently after my stay in New York, and this created a different reality that could offset the formalistic aspect of the work. The notion of displacement in the bottari also relates to time. The bottari is a container of different tenses - the past, present and future - which are collapsed together all at once the moment I wrap it up.
    In a way, the presence represented by the bottari can also be represented by the artist's body, which is similarly a container of all those problems. Maybe I'm unfolding them through my relationship to the nature and humanity of each city. For example, in the first version of A Needle Woman (1999-2001), I visited all the major world metropolises, but in the second version (2005) I went mainly to cities in war zones or to those that were sites of political and religious conflict. I visited Havana and Rio de Janeiro in order to witness issues of post-colonialism, exploitation and violence. I went to Patan, in the Kathmandu Valley, while a civil war was taking place, and it was a very dangerous moment. I wanted also to go to Afghanistan and Iraq, although ultimately it was too risky and I didn't want to gamble my life to that extent. But these were some of the symbolic locations that drew my attention at that time.

  • ART iT: Regarding the similarities between the bottari and the body, one thing that interests me about your works is posture. It's incredibly difficult to stand or sit still for any amount of time. To do so, your body has to assume almost architectural qualities. Is posture something that you've thought about over the years - not just the body itself, but also the shape of the body and the mechanics of how you hold it up or lay it down?

  • Kimsooja: In fact, even to stand still can be a production. When I did the first A Needle Woman performance in Shibuya I had to learn right at that moment how to stand still and how to breathe and be grounded. I had never practiced any meditation or yoga, but because of this urge that drove me to do the performance, I was able to start learning meditation practice on my own. In order not to move my shoulder, I had to learn how to breathe from my stomach, as I could only move horizontally. In order to be grounded, I had to stand solidly and rigidly, but also had to find a way to relax in order to maintain my circulation over the course of the performance. The only thing I could do was to order myself to relax my head, relax my left shoulder, relax my feet, relax my neck - and it worked. I learned to circulate my own body by practicing this performance. Looking at it, I see the body, as you say, as an architectural element. I see it very objectively rather than identifying with it.
    The idea of a standing performance also developed from my awareness of and reaction against the aggressive and violent exposure of the self that often happens in performance practices in history. I was very aware of that, and I wanted to create a performance that is nonviolent that could show more by doing "nothing."

  • ART iT: In Chinese philosophy there is the concept of "wu wei" - acting without acting, a kind of non-expression or non-action. I think this concept is fascinating to explore further in an art context.

  • Kimsooja: In my performances, non-expression often creates a measure or barometer for understanding the other, similarity and difference. In A Needle Woman, viewers see the same performance of non-action taking place in all these different cities, and then become aware of the clear distinctions between the behavior of the people in the different cities and the different landscapes. After a certain point the viewers tend to forget my image and begin to see what I am seeing. My body begins to function as a void that is replaced by the bodies of the viewers, allowing them to experience each performance in each location. I think it would be very different if I excluded myself and showed only the cityscapes with people. There would be no entry point for viewers.

  • ART iT: You're both the needle and the fabric?

  • Kimsooja: I am both the needle and the bottari. There are all these folding and unfolding processes going on in my art and mind and body, but also through my gaze and the relationship between my body and the people and the world, there is this other dimension of a needle that is weaving together different societies, geographies and cultures. I feel that my body becomes an axis of time and space. However, the first version of A Needle Woman was filmed in real time, and shows more of the axis of space than of time. The second version was filmed in slow motion, so it emphasizes the comparison in time. The people moving in slow motion appear to engage more sensitively and personally with my body, but at the same time my body, as a zero point of time, becomes an extended zero. What is that time? That is my question.

  • ART iT: It's like you are constructing a series of mirrors.

  • Kimsooja: I have worked with mirrors on several projects since 1999, but it was while I was preparing my solo show in 2008 at Shiseido Gallery in Tokyo, "A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon," that I realized the mirror is also an unfolded needle. My work dealing with nature unfolds as an extended fabric, while the needle is an extended tool of the human body that signifies the nature of humanity. Everything to do with the relationship between the needle/body, fabric/mirror evolves from my earlier pieces. In fact, the motivation behind my earlier work with sewing came from an awareness of the mirrorical aspect in painting. As a painter, I had always questioned problems regarding the surface of the canvas. I think the painter's life is all about wandering onto the canvas searching for different methodologies of producing one's own mirror. The notion of the mirror and one's identity has always been there, transformed through different media and methodologies.

  • ART iT: One of the major issues that we will continue to face in the future, and which we've already been dealing with for past centuries, is how to deal with the other. Maybe your way of dealing with this issue is to put yourself in the place of the other, rather than that of the self?

  • Kimsooja: That's very true. It's an interesting perception. The artist's main subject somehow is based on the self and the other. The confrontation with the canvas is always about how to deal with the other and how to project oneself. But I want to expand that issue to communication with the other, and embracing the other, and, finally, reaching a ground of oneness. This is an issue that ultimately everyone has to face.

  • ART iT: Now you are working on a new project called Thread Routes (2010- ). In conclusion, can you explain about how this project relates to your earlier work?

  • Kimsooja: Compared to A Needle Woman, the Thread Routes project is all about searching for the questions and roots of threads in an anthropological approach. It focuses on weaving, lace making, knitting and spinning - all actions with threads - in relation to the geographical, agricultural and architectural structures in various regions around the world. One inspiration for this project came from a visit to Bruges, where I saw a lace-making woman in the street, and immediately connected the structural and performative element of this action with local architectural practices. I began filming in Peru as the first chapter to this project. There, I juxtaposed different weaving communities' performances with the local landscapes, as well as architecture and archaeological structures. It was my first time shooting with 16mm film and I discovered a more special relationship with the camera than when I use digital film.
    "Thread Routes" is a retrospective project in that I am looking back at my earlier sewing practices up till now, searching for the structural, cultural and psychological roots of my own interest. I will continue to film in Bruges, Burano, Croatia, Prague and Alhambra. I also can't help thinking of countries in the Middle East that have strong decorative architectural elements. Other locations include Mali and Rajasthan in India, where there are clay houses decorated with circular mirrors, which also recalls the Indian tradition of fabrics decorated with mirrors. I also plan to film the weaving culture of the Miao people in Sichuan, who have a unique garment tradition of pleated skirts that to me seems to be strongly related to their agricultural cultivation using mountainside terraces and the layers of traditional architecture that are built along the local landscape. Then there are also traditional Japanese stone gardens - the structure of which I can easily relate to weaving. Native American archeological sites are another planned location.
    I'm also working on a site-specific commission by GSA that will take place right on the US-Mexico border in Arizona. I am making a video piece using a LED screen right on top of the first gate for entering the US, addressing the political problems and violence that occur with immigration and drug trafficking issues in the Mariposa Land Port of Entry. Again, this is a very delicate and vulnerable location with which to deal.

This article was published in Art iT magazine, July, 2011.

The Heaven and the Earth, 1984, Used clothing fragments, acrylics, Chinese ink on canvas cloth, 190 x 200 cm

Kimsooja: Contemplation on top of the Horizontal and Vertical System

Suh, Younghee

2011

  • 김수자

  • 수평-수직 체계 위에서의 사유

  • 서영희 (미술평론, 홍익대교수)

  • 수평과 수직, 구조, 상징

  • When the vertical and the horizontal meet, they form a cross. As they come together as a cross, harmony comes forth in a relation of interdependence. Even when seeing the horizontal line and the vertical line separately, we easily conjure up their intersection. From the early ages of primitive culture or ancient culture, the repetition or rearrangements of the horizontal and vertical lines were used as signs for arithmetic, or further as symbolic signs for communication and letters. The cross being formed as a result of the perpendicular intersection was considered a sign of perfection, more so than the square composed of two sets of equally measured horizontal lines and vertical lines, particularly because of the conception that its centripetal force was greater. The ┼ even when turned over to an ╳ was regarded as a sign of perfection that displayed harmony and completion. This is why the ancient Latins devised to write ╳ after the number nine, and the ancient Chinese also used ┼ as their sign for ten. The human body as a measure of the world is also in the form of a cross. The human limbs and organs are structured centripetally: the body with arms spread and legs together form ┼, and the copy of the human body drawn by Vitruvius in AD 1st century and later again by Leonardo da Vinci forms an ╳ with all the limbs spread apart. Furthermore, the cross symbolically signified the connection between the heavens - the world of the gods - and earth. Considered as a connection between the transcendental world and the secular world, the intersection of the horizontal line and the vertical line is also called the 'world's axis.' Let us look at the cross in Christianity and the swastika(卍) in Buddhism. The former signifies the tribulations on earth and glory in heaven and the latter refers to the cosmic symbol of the connection of heaven and earth; both imply psychological healing as well as religious salvation. Thus in Western culture, the cathedral - the dwelling place of God - had as its basis the floor plan of a cross as well as the cruciform vault, and the mandala in Hinduism and Buddhism had as its basic structure the cross intersection of the horizontal and the vertical, symbolizing the order of the cosmos that pointed towards the heavens and the earth. The cross structure, divided into four areas of the upper-lower hemispheres and the left-right hemispheres, also symbolized the different aspects of a human being: the cognitive and sensory, the intuitive and affective. One can find both in the Confucianist Book of Changes and in Buddhism that the four directions in the horizontal-vertical intersection symbolize the cosmic order formed by water, earth, fire and wind. As is well known, the Korean vowels also make use of the horizontal and vertical lines: ㅡ as earth, ㅣas the sky, and the middle dot as the human.

  • The horizontal-vertical form frequently appears in art as well. From the primitive arts to contemporary, from decorative art to fine art, the horizontal-vertical lines generally appears as signs that signify the universe and man. When looking at ancient art and primitive artifacts, one frequently finds horizontal-vertical intersections, cross structures, and grids on murals, ceramics, textile and basket weaving, etc. As explicated in art psychology, this phenomenon may be derived from the human effort to control and impute order upon a world, or nature, that is otherwise too vast and unpredictable. Wilhelm Worringer, too, explains the horizontal-vertical structure in his 'Abstraction and Empathy' as an order standing in contrast to the disorder of nature. Commentaries on abstract art generally mention Cezanne's attitude that reorganized nature into a sturdy order of geometry as well as the geometric abstraction of Kandinsky and Mondrian's horizontal-vertical system and Klee's hieroglyph-like symbol paintings as a way to elucidate that the context of the horizontal-vertical system is the expression of the abstract painters' worldview. This form of argument, taking the form of structuralist epistemology, argues that the horizontal-vertical structure perceived as a symbol of man and the universe has been generally inherited in artists from the primitive ages to contemporary times (i.e., ranging from the grid work in minimalist paintings to cross-like shaped-canvas). The cross as an intersection of the horizontal and vertical lines is an extremely condensed sign, implying with the lines' directions all five senses of humans, inner psychology and even spiritual content, thus rendering inevitable to admit that the artist's faculty for abstraction operates in tandem. The anthropologist Levi-Strauss, having been much interested in art, explains in his "Elementary Structures of Kinship" that the basic structure of dichotomy that formed an internal relation of interdependence is effectively at work in various cultures and arts, an argument aided by the Saussurean intersection of the diachronic and synchronic (horizontal and vertical, respectively) axes.

  • Kimsooja, the subject of this article, is surely a painter, though she does not paint on the canvas. Instead, she is an artist who takes as her premise the horizontal-vertical structure as a general order for the world and mankind, further expressing this premise by coupling it with metaphysical thought. In this respect, the works of Kim is an interesting metaphor on the world, her series a continuous metonymy on the horizontal-vertical structure. The meditation on the basic structure of the horizontal and the vertical is consistently in effect as the logic and archetype of her production, manifested from the fabric-weaving series, "Sewing," through "Deductive Objet" all the way to the "Needle Woman" series and "Earth, Water, Fire, Air" series. In this respect, it is important to remember that the artist herself has repeatedly mentioned in interviews – and especially in her master's thesis, "A Study on the Universality and Hereditariness of the Plastic Sign: A Focus on the Cruciform Sign (1984)" –that, like the Eastern yin and yang, the binary structure of the horizontal and vertical is the fundamental system which encompasses and composes the world. This article intends to examine, albeit briefly, the transition of Kim's thought from canvas to fabric as well as how the horizontal and vertical lines and their cruciform intersection are actualized in her work.

The Transition of Thought I: From Canvas to Fabric

  • For Kim, the tools for expression are no longer limited to the canvas, paint and brush. The flat surface and rectangular stretcher of the canvas is but a tool for representation, whether concrete or abstract, a rigid device that in inapt to take the place of the free flow of thought. Thus the artist selects from fabric, a flexible material among the components of the canvas. The "Sewing" series (1983-1988), the first work with fabric, brought forth works of indeterminate forms, sewing together various scraps of fabric. If one would insist on calling these pictorial art, would it be considered a kind of Color Field abstractionism? But in contrast to the hard-edge or Color Field paintings of 70s America, one does not find the homogeneity of the color surface or a precisely cut contour. Rather, the different scraps of fabric, varying in size and stained with traces of drawing, are connected without being tidied up – their surfaces rugged, edges irregular and seams tattered. In place of an artist's will for perfection, the materiality proper to fabric is wholly accentuated. Even still, this should not be categorized under a kind of Dadaist act of choosing anti-aesthetic objets or a tendency for conceptual art. Fabric and sewing is Kim's subject matter by which she expresses the world of humans like herself–entangled, knotted, and contemplating the fundamental structures of the world. Pieces of fabric are linked both horizontally and vertically, sewn in a manner that is interdependent and mutually supportive. As a result, the fact that the 'woven' scraps sustain a horizontal-vertical structure without sagging down despite the disappearance of the stretcher is called to our attention. Replacing the wooden stretcher, the source of the tautness that pulls the fabric is the relational device, that is, the 'countless stitches of sewing.' Thus is the support that holds the balance between gravity and the pieces of fabric.

  • Here, I would like to mention the source by which the work's order is formed: the binary structure between the tension of the needlework and the flexibility of the fabric. It is often regarded as merely coincidental this appearance of the working with sewn fabric pieces. As the artist repeatedly mentioned, this method suddenly crossed her mind in 1983 as she was tacking up the duvet cover with her mother. This anecdote is well known through various writings, but I reference it once more, for it offers a clue to the embarking of the artist's distinct art world: "In the quotidian act of tacking up bed sheets with my mother, I experienced an intimate yet wonderful sense of unity of my thoughts, sensibilities and actions. I found the possibility to contain such abundance of memory and pain, even the affection for life in that unity. The weaving of the weft and warp as a basic structure of the fabric, our primordial sense of color in our fabrics, the self-identification with fabric in the act of weaving through flat surface, and the strange nostalgia evoked in it… all of this was entirely mesmerizing." (The Artist's Notes, 1988 Gallery Hyundai) Later the artist reminisces this experience, remarking that the moment she tacks the pointy needle into the fabric, she feels the energy of the universe penetrating her entire body. This astounding anecdote on a rather serendipitous experience would be repeated in every of her interviews, becoming a clue that renews our awareness to what the archetype of her work is.

  • I would like to interpret the 'moment she tacks the point needle' into the duvet cover spread across the floor as a ground breaking moment of penetrating the surface screen of pictorial art that persisted for several hundred years. Like the Spatialist painter Lucio Fontana who pierced the uni-colored canvas with a sharped-edged dagger, Kim also realized pictorial art that was no longer a screen of illusion but a three-dimensional structure as she weaved through the surface of the duvet cover, piercing holes into it. What is of particular importance here is the perpendicular penetration of the needle into the sheets horizontally spread on the floor. This three-dimensional relation between horizontality and verticality is thought to be a decisive opportunity for Kim - only familiar with the illusion of the surface - to identify the reality of painting, or the hidden structure of the canvas. For some time, pictorial art has been identified as a conceptual representation of the illusion created by the screen of paint covering the canvas surface. But once the shift in thought takes place where the signifiers, or the structural elements – the materiality of color, the fabric of the canvas, the wooden stretcher that supports the screen – is thought to define the meaning of painting, the modernist equation of 'painting = flat, rectangular screen' is also rendered null. Further more, when one stretches the canvas or the bed sheets, it sees that they are also products of the horizontal-vertical system where threads are intersecting. When Kim decided to suspend the bed sheets in the exhibition center for the audience to be able to see both sides of the fabric, this method of installation was of particular importance in terms of confirming the three-dimensionality and spatial topology of fabric.

Transition of Thought II: From Sewing to Deductive Objet to Bottari

  • In any occasion of the "Sewing" series, one is able to find sewn horizontal-vertical joints. Taking "Heaven and Earth (1984)" has a representative example, the work is of a horizontal-vertical structure formed by sewing various-sized square fabric pieces. The contour is also in the form of a cross. Here we find the horizontal-vertical system, frequently encountered in the history of cultural anthropology, appearing as an component sign of the universe and the archetype of production. Other works such as "Earth," "Your Portrait," and "Wall" repeatedly display the cruciform sign, and one recognizes that this is a binary composition of the horizontal-vertical signifying the yin and yang. Around 1989, the "Deductive Objet" appears. This second series is significant in that it marks a transition from surface work to three-dimensional work. Composed of works that covers or wraps curios or everyday objects with fabric, this series is of the flexibility of fabric added to the rigidity of the objet. If the previous work was an inductive production where the needlework that gave fabric tension gradually worked towards completing a form, this series worked oppositely. The artist given from the beginning an objet already structured in a horizontal-vertical manner, then she works deductively to reveal its original form by wrapping fabric around it. The motivation behind this way of production, also known through interviews, was the allure of the plain and clear structural beauty inherent in antique articles like the carrier(ji-gae), the sliding door frame, the spool, the shuttle, the clotheshorse, the ladder, all that evoked old memories. Coincidentally enough, these everyday articles each form a horizontal-vertical structure. The simple geometric structural beauty found in the deductive objets of the laid carrier or the doorframe and the trapezoidal ladder – it is not so different from the horizontal-vertical mosaic structure found in the "Sewing" series. It may be considered different because of the shift from surface structure to three-dimensional structure and the changes in material, but the structural systems are equivalent between both series; one can say that thought made the transition from the plane geometry of the x-y axis to the solid geometry of the xyz axis where depth is added. "Untitled (1991)" a work where a large circular steel rim used by gymnasts covered by fabric may not seem like a horizontal-vertical structure. But if were to imagine this round three-dimensional objet that rolls through space to be spread out on surface, the horizontal-vertical structure of a long, narrow ladder is conjured.

  • When we notice that the rigid objet is the wooden support for the canvas and the tautly stretched canvas is the surface, the inference that this is another adaptation of the structural deconstruction of the canvas is possible. Before we go too far, it is necessary that we compare this with the analytic experimental painting movement, Supports/Surfaces, that took place in 70s France. Starting from a point of self-criticism on paintings, the artists of Supports/Surfaces revealed the very structure of the canvas in an effort based on structural epistemology to break away from the superior ideas in pictorial art, making various objets of binary oppositions by considering fabric and wood as signifiers that made meaning. It is difficult to know at the moment how much of this profound process Kim consulted, but a critical discourse that objectively reveals their inter-relation seems like a significant attempt to be made at another opportunity.

  • At any rate, the "deductive objet" series, formed from three-dimensional structures, also has a site-specific characteristic in that it acquires meaning when it is installed in a particular location. For example, cloths hung on the walls or those stacked on the floor of the exhibition hall can only form meaning by covering that particulate site called the exhibition hall. Needless to say, the hard wall and floor stand in binary opposite to the soft pieces of fabric, following the production archetype of horizontal-vertical. Rocks in nature and multifarious pieces of fabric in "Lying in Nature," which took place in the valleys of Oksan Seowon in Kyungju, and the table and bed sheets in the "Deductive objets", in which they are used as tablecloths in cafeteria and restaurant of Biennale, are another cases that they leave the exhibition halls and become reinstalled in the specific sites of nature and the city, realizing the horizontal-vertical system by covering the given structure with cloth. The "deductive objet" I found most interesting was "Encounter, Seeing through Sewing"(1998-2002). The artist's body, upright, is none but the pointed needle, and the multi-colored pieces of cloth stacked on top of her head are that bed sheets right on the verge of being pierced. The issue concerning the Korean woman's identity from the viewpoint of general feminism at the sight of the new bride, both beautiful and doleful wrapped around in multi-colored fabric, is one to be dealt elsewhere. Here, we want to take a step away from feminism and first take on the interpretive project of inferring the more fundamental structural production archetype of the horizontal and vertical.

  • Following the "Deductive Objet," the "Bottari" series, birthed in the PS1 studio in New York, is considered to be the case where the artist's thoughts transition from surface to three-dimensionality, then to location, then finally into another space. An everyday object consisting of wrapping cloth (bojagi) and miscellaneous contents, the bottari is associated with the nomadic origins of the Korean people, the moving customs of the commoner as well as the nomadic memories of the artist's childhood. Here, let us attend to the three-dimensional structure that the artist must have had to consider when wrapping the bottari each time. First, the act of taking four corners of the cloth and tying them together: The flat cloth is born into three-dimensional bottari only after the four corners of the cloth are gathered to the corner of the content and knotted cross-wise. The knot formed here is balanced only when the corners cross at right angles, and thus gives form to a proper bottari. If not, the knot of the bottari loses balance and the content inside becomes unpleasantly disfigured as if organs were spilling out. The most important moment in the transformation of the cloth into bottari (bojagi into bottari) is when the four corners of the cloth come together to form a horizontal-vertical cruciform. Anyone who has tied a bojagi would understand the important of this moment. One repeatedly ties and unties the knot to check the balance of the horizontal-vertical knot structure, also making sure with his eyes whether the bottari has enough tension to stay parallel to the ground. Only after this final inspect can we pick up the bottari and take our steps in movement.

  • As the "Bottari" series is where Kim was able to establish her reputation as an international artist, its significance is noteworthy. The rectangular surface structure of the canvas turned into a variable form of three-dimensional structure, and from the screen where the image was permanently uncovered, into a structure where revealing/concealing, opening/closing are repeated through the untying/tying of the bottari, also possessing a kind of spontaneity where revealing/concealing co-exist through glimpses of cloths caught between the gaps in the bottari. On the other hand, the force of the bojagi that adds tension by tightly tying otherwise loosely sprawled fabric is nothing but the equivalent of the stretcher of the canvas, the needlework of the bed sheets, the objets that conferred formed onto multifarious pieces of fabric, each imposing tension. Put in a different location at every turn, the bottari is a vertical structure moving parallel along the horizon as well as an objet that actively communicates with its spectators with the splendid display of Eastern color and distinct ethnic presence in its space.

  • Time and space of the horizontal and the vertical
    The place where the flowing universe and the mind stays

  • After "Wandering Cities – the Bottari Truck 2727km" in 1997, Kim presents the "Needle Woman" series and "The Laundering Woman" series consecutively. As if to weave different regions by riding the bottari truck through local highways and mountain roads, this time Kim becomes the needle (vertical axis) herself and passes through cities all over the world and throngs of people (horizontal axis), going beyond time and space to connect memory and experience as one. The artist always appears with her back against us, her long hair tightly tied, and we see in her surrounding crowds of people of various physiques and skin color passing her by in waves. But it is difficult to discern whether it is the artist who passes through the city dwellers all over the world or the other way around. When we look at water flowing, we are confused about whether we are flowing or the water. Such confusion of consciousness gives a sudden realization that whether it is the other or I that move, the logic of flowing remains the same. This brings to mind the Buddhist account that says beyond the uncertainty of human perception, all things flow and change and there is no immutable substance. The Avatamska Sutra also states that the agent of the flowing external world is one's mind. So the Needle Woman, standing still and looking at the waves of people, or the river with particles of a cremated body floating, seems to be a sign representing both the ever-renewing universe and the condition of the mind prone to change in an instant. Also, where the sky meets the earth, i.e. the horizon, the body of the artist lies at an angle with her limbs stretched horizontally. In this case the Needle Woman lies on flat ground, but in relation to the soaring mountains, trees and buildings, or even people moving around upright, her body lies at right angles. Thus it becomes relative which is horizontal and which is vertical. When one turns upside down and looks at the world, it is the world that seems turned upside down. The "Earth, Water, Fire, Air" series, her most recent work, displays the every changing landscapes of nature with 7-8 large projects installed depending on the kind of exhibition space. From Lanzarote Island in Spain and Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala, the artist recorded footage of lava erupting and solidifying, the crashing waves of the oceans and wet fog, the clouds and win, the movement of the earth and sand, and from Greenland she captured footage of glaciers – such video footage puts the spectator before the massive force of primordial nature. The artist is nowhere to be seen, but because the very viewpoint that captured the panoramic vision of nature is projected on the screen, the artist is beyond the boundaries of presence and absence. Flowing scenes of the 'Earth, Water, Fire, Air' are projected on all the walls, and the spectator who stands in the middle of the exhibition hall feels as the vertical axis, feeling as though all things in nature are continuously flowing.

  • In Buddhism, when referring to the human being, one speaks of the Five Elements: the material element of body, the spiritual elements of sentiment, imagination, volition and judgement. One can argue that in this work the artist is absent, for she is condensed into invisible spiritual elements. But because the four basic components of the material element of body are 'Earth, Water, Fire, Air', it can also be said that through the landscape of 'Earth, Water, Fire, Air', the artist and the rest of human existence is presence as a metaphor. Like the ancient Greek materialist Heraclitus argued, is not the human body born already composed of the four elements of earth, water, fire and wind, only to decompose back to the four, into nature? Then the images of nature in "Earth, Water, Fire, Air" may be like the image before a human's formation as well as the image it will return to according to the cycle of disappearance. Thus "Earth, Water, Fire, Air" series is, as mentioned in the artist's interview in February 2010, a meditative work where "questions of the unity of nature and mankind are posed." Furthermore, this serendipitous spark is that which confers the dynamism of life upon the cycle of the four elements, that is, 'Earth, Water, Fire, Air' in which earth becomes water, water becomes fire and fire becomes air; it is a spark that happens at the very moment the vertical spirit (mind or soul) intersects, fixed upright like the needle.

  • 수평선과 수직선이 서로 만나면 십자형이 된다. 이 두 선들은 종횡으로 엇갈려 십자형을 구성함으로서 서로에게 없어서 안 되는 상호 보족의 관계를 이루고 균형을 잡는다. 설혹 수평선과 수직선이 떨어져 있더라도, 우리는 이 둘을 잇는 십자형을 쉽게 머리에 떠올리게 된다. 일찍이 원시문화나 고대문화에서도 수평선과 수직선을 반복하거나 위치를 조정함으로서 셈을 세는 기호 혹은 메시지를 전하는 상징기호 나아가 문자로 사용했다. 특히 이 두 선들이 중앙에서 직각으로 마주친 십자형은 동일한 길이의 두 수평선과 두 수직선이 네 개의 직각을 이룬 정사각형보다 중앙집중의 힘이 강하다 하여 한층 더 완벽한 기호로 여겼다고 한다. 심지어 ┼형 구조가 기울어져 ╳형 구조로 되어도 균형과 완성을 상징하는 완벽한 기호로 본다. 그래서 고대 라틴인은 마지막 숫자 아홉 다음에 완성을 뜻하는 숫자로 ╳형을, 고대 중국인도 열 십자를 ┼형으로 그렸다. 또한 세상의 척도로서 인체도 십자형이다. 인체는 사지와 장기가 중심을 향하는 형태로 구성되어, 양 팔을 펴고 두 발을 모으고 있는 사람의 형태는 ┼형이며, AD1세기의 비트루비우스가 그렸고 후에 레오나르도 다빈치가 모사한 인체도는 사지를 벌려 ╳형을 이룬다.

  • 뿐만 아니라 십자형은 신들의 세계인 하늘과 땅을 연결한다는 상징적 의미도 있다. 수평과 수직의 만남을 초월적 세계와 세속적 세계의 연결로 간주해 '세계의 축'이라 부르기도 한다. 기독교의 십자가와 불교의 만(卍)자 기호를 보자. 전자는 지상의 수난과 천상의 영광을, 후자는 천지 연결을 뜻하는 우주적 상징으로, 둘 다 심리적 치유와 종교적 구원을 암시한다. 그래서 서양에서는 신의 거처인 성당을 건축할 때 십자형 도면과 십자형 교차궁륭이 기본이고, 힌두교, 불교의 만다라에서는 수평과 수직이 교차하는 십자형을 기본골격으로 삼되 이를 하늘과 땅을 가리키는 우주질서의 상징으로 보는 것이다. 상반구와 하반구, 그리고 좌반구와 우반구, 네 개의 영역을 나누는 십자형 구조를 토대로 사고와 감각, 직관과 감정으로 구분해서 인간의 격을 상징하기도 한다. 유교 주역과 불교에서는 수평-수직의 네 방위를 물, 흙, 불, 바람의 네 가지 원소로 상징하여 우주적 질서를 나타낸 것을 볼 수 있다. 잘 알고 있듯이 한글 모음도 수평선, 수직선을 이용하여 땅은 ᅳ로, 하늘은 ㅣ로 그리고 인간은 가운데 점으로 상징해서 구성된 체계이다.

  • 미술에서도 수평과 수직의 형태는 자주 등장한다. 원시미술에서부터 현대미술에 이르기까지, 장식미술에서든 순수미술에서든, 수평선과 수직선은 보편적으로 우주와 인간을 상징하는 기호로 나타난다. 고대미술과 원시공예품을 살펴보면, 수평-수직선, 십자형, 격자무늬가 벽화, 도자기화, 섬유직조, 바구니엮기 등에서 빈번하게 발견이 된다. 이는 예술심리학에서 설명하듯이 인간이 광대하고 예측불가능한 세계 내지는 자연에의 불안을 통제하고 그것에 질서를 부여하려는 의도에서 파생된 결과라고 할 수 있다. 현대에 이르러 W. 보링거의 '추상과 감정이입'에 관한 이론도 무질서한 자연에 대립한 질서로서 수평, 수직의 구조를 밝힌 바 있다. 일반적으로 추상미술과 관련한 해설들은 세잔이 자연을 견고한 기하학적 질서로 재조직한 태도를 언급하며, 나아가 칸딘스키와 몬드리안의 수직, 수평 시스템의 기하추상 그리고 클레의 기호회화를 해명하면서 수평-수직 체계의 맥락을 추상화가들의 세계관 표현이라고 설명하곤 한다. 구조주의적 인식방법을 취한 이 같은 논의는 한마디로 인간과 우주의 상징으로 인식된 수직, 수평의 구조가 원시시대부터 현대-이를테면 미니멀 회화의 격자구조나 십자형 셰이프트캔버스에 이르기까지, 미술가들 사이에 보편적으로 유전되어 왔음을 주장하게 한다. 수평선과 수직선이 교차한 십자형은 고도로 축약된 기호이며, 두 선들이 가리키는 방향에 따라 인간의 오감과 내면 심리, 정신적 내용까지 함축하므로, 미술가의 추상재능도 더불어 작동된다는 사실을 인정할 수밖에 없다. 예술에도 관심이 많았던 인류학자 레비-스트로스도 "친족관계의 기본단위"에서, 소쉬르의 공시축-통시축 즉 수평-수직의 교차하는 두 축을 토대로, 내적으로 의존관계를 맺는 이원대립의 기본구조 dichotomie가 여러 문화, 예술영역에서도 공통으로 유효한 작동인임을 가리킨 적이 있다.

  • 이 글에서 조명하려는 김수자는 화가이면서도 캔버스 화면 위에 그림을 그리지 않는다. 대신 인간을 비롯한 세계를 수평-수직 구조란 보편적 질서로 상정하고 이를 형이상학적 사유와 연동시켜 표현하는 작가이다. 그런 점에서 김수자의 작품은 세계에 대한 흥미로운 은유이고, 연작들은 수평-수직 구조에 대한 환유의 연속이라고 볼 수 있을 것이다. 실제로 수평, 수직의 기본구조에 대한 사유는 그의 천을 꿰매는 바느질 작업-"꿰매기 연작"-에서부터 출발하여 이후 "연역적 오브제" 연작을 거쳐 "바늘여인" 연작 그리고 최근의 "지수화풍 地水火風" 연작에 이르기까지, 일관된 작업논리 내지는 제작원형으로 작용하는 것이다. 이와 관련하여 작가는 수차례 인터뷰에서 특히 자신의 석사논문(<조형기호의 보편성과 유전성에 관한 고찰, 십자형 기호를 중심으로> 1984)에서 수평, 수직의 이원적 구조가 동양의 음양론과 마찬가지로 세계를 포괄하고 구성하는 근본체계임을 암시하거나 설명했음을 상기할 필요가 있다. 이 글에서는 작가의 사유가 어떻게 캔버스 화면에서 천 작업으로 이동하는지 그리고 수평선과 수직선 그리고 두 선의 연결인 십자형이 작가의 작품에서 어떻게 구체화되어 나타나는지를 간략하게나마 살펴보고자 한다.

사유의 이동 I : 캔버스에서 천으로

  • 김수자에게 있어 표현의 도구는 더 이상 캔버스와 물감 그리고 붓이 아니다. 그에게 있어 캔버스의 평평한 면과 사각 틀은 구상, 추상을 불문한 재현의 도구일 뿐이고 너무 딱딱한 장치여서, 자유로운 사유의 흐름을 대신하기에는 전혀 적합하지가 않다. 그래서 작가는 캔버스의 구성요소들 중 하나인 유연한 소재, 천을 선택했다. 최초의 천작업인 "꿰매기" 연작(1983-1988)은 각양각색의 천 조각들을 바느질로 연결하여 부정형의 외현을 갖는 작품들을 등장시켰다. 이들을 굳이 회화라고 부른다면, 색면추상이라고 할까? 하지만 1970년대 미국의 하드에지나 컬러필드 회화와는 정반대로, 여기서는 균질의 평평한 색면이나 자른 듯 선명한 윤곽은 찾아볼 수가 없다. 오히려 드로잉 흔적으로 얼룩진 크고 작은 헝겊조각들이 다소 울퉁불퉁한 표면을 보이며 연결되어 있고, 테두리는 불규칙하며 너덜대는 실밥들이 정돈되지 않은 채 붙어있다. 완성을 향한 작가의 의지보다는 재료인 천의 고유한 물질성이 전면으로 부각되어 있다. 그렇다고 해서 이를 다다이스트 같은 반미학적 오브제 선택이라든가 혹은 포괄적인 개념미술의 성향이라고 분류하지는 않겠다. 그가 고른 천과 바느질은 세계의 근본적 구조를 관조하고 그 안에서 살아가는 자기 자신처럼 얽히고 설킨 인간 세계를 표현하기 위해 선별된 소재들이다. 사각형으로 자른 천들을 수평과 수직 방향으로 잇대어 놓고 바느질로 연결하여 서로를 기대고 부축하게 하고 있다. 그래서 주목되는 것은 캔버스의 딱딱한 나무틀이 사라졌음에도 불구하고 ‘꿰매어진’ 천들은 밑으로 늘어지지 않고 수평-수직 구조를 유지한다는 사실이다. 천을 잡아당기는 팽팽한 긴장감의 근원은 나무틀을 대신한 관계의 장치 즉 '바느질의 무수한 땀들'이다. 이들이 조각천과 중력 사이의 균형을 이루게 하는 근거이다.

  • 여기서 필자는 작품의 질서를 형성하는 원천인 긴장된 바느질과 유연한 천의 이원적 구조에 대해 언급하고자 한다. 바느질한 천 작업의 발생은 우연히 이루어진 것으로 설명된다. 작가가 여러 차례 말했듯이, 1983년 어느 날 어머니와 함께 이불보를 시침하면서, 불현듯 깨닫게 된 작업방식이다. 이 일화는 그 동안 여러 글들을 통해 잘 알려진 내용이긴 하지만, 작가의 고유한 작품세계의 출발을 알리는 단초가 되므로 다시 인용한다 : “어머니와 함께 이불을 꿰매는 일상적인 행위 속에서 나의 사고와 감수성과 행위가 모두 일치하는 은밀하고도 놀라운 일체감을 체험했으며, 묻어두었던 그 숱한 기억들과 아픔, 삶의 애정까지도 그 안에 내포할 수 있는 가능성을 발견하게 되었다. 천이 갖는 기본구조로서의 날실과 씨실, 우리 천의 원초적인 색감, 평면을 넘나들며 꿰매는 행위의 천과의 자기동일성, 그리고 그것이 불러일으키는 묘한 향수... 이 모든 것들에 나 자신은 완전 매료되었다” (<작가노트>, 현대화랑, 1988). 훗날 작가는 이 경험을 다시 회상하며, 천에 뾰족한 바늘을 꽂는 순간 갑자기 온 몸을 관통하는 우주의 에너지를 느꼈다고 말한다. 이 우연한 경험의 놀라운 일화는 이후 그가 인터뷰할 때마다 반복되는 내용으로서, 그의 작업의 원형이 무엇인지 새삼 환기시켜주는 단서가 된다.

  • 작가가 방바닥에 펼쳐진 이불보 천위에 '뾰족한 바늘을 꽂는 순간'을 필자는 수 백 년 동안 지속된 회화의 평면 스크린을 꿰뚫는 획기적인 순간이라고 바꾸어 해석하고 싶다. 일찍이 단색만 칠한 캔버스를 예리한 칼로 찢고 구멍을 내었던 공간주의 화가 루치오 폰타나처럼, 그도 이불보 표면을 바늘로 넘나들어 구멍을 내면서, 회화를 더 이상 일루전의 스크린이 아닌 입체 구조물의 존재로 깨닫게 된 것이다. 특히 여기서 주목할 점은 수직의 바늘이 수평으로 펼쳐진 이불보의 천을 관통해 나가는 장면이다. 이 3차원의 수평과 수직의 관계는 평면 일루전에만 익숙했던 작가에게 회화의 실체 즉 은폐됐던 캔버스의 구조를 확인시키는 결정적 계기였다고 생각된다. 그 동안 회화는 불투명한 스크린 위에 그려진 물감의 막, 그 환영들의 관념적인 재현 내용으로 정의되곤 했었다. 하지만 환영 아래에 감춰져 있던 회화의 기표들 즉 색물감, 캔버스의 천, 그리고 나무틀 같이 화면을 지지하던 구조요소들이 곧 회화의 의미를 결정한다는 사고 전환을 이룬다면, '회화 = 사각형의 평평한 화면'이란 모더니스트 공식은 무의미해질 수밖에 없다. 또한 캔버스나 이불보를 확대해보면, 틈새가 있는 날실과 씨실로 직조된 구조물임이 드러나서, 이들도 실상 상호 교차하는 두 실들로 이뤄진 수평-수직 체계의 결과물임을 알 수 있다. 후일 그가 이불보들을 전시장 공간에 매달아 천의 앞면과 뒷면을 동시에 볼 수 있도록 한 설치법 역시 천의 입체적 구조와 공간적 위상을 증명한 이벤트였다고 생각된다.

사유의 이동 II : 바느질에서 연역적 오브제로 그리고 보따리로

  • 바느질로 완성되는 "꿰매기" 연작 작품들은 어느 경우이든 바느질로 연결된 수평-수직의 이음새들을 볼 수 있다. <하늘과 땅>(1984)이 대표적 예로, 상이한 크기의 사각형 헝겊들이 바느질에 의해 수평-수직 구조로 연결되어 있으며, 외형의 윤곽마저도 수평선과 수직선이 만나는 십자형을 이루고 있다. 인류문화사에서 보편적으로 마주칠 수 있는 수평-수직의 체계가 여기서도 우주구성의 기호로서 그리고 제작의 원형으로서 등장하고 있는 것이다. 그 외의 작품들, <대지>>, <너의 초상>, <벽>에서도 변형된 십자형 기호를 거듭 마주칠 수 있으며, 음양을 상징한 수평-수직의 이원구성임을 발견하게 된다. 1989년 즈음하여 "연역적 오브제"가 등장한다. 이 두 번째 연작은 평면 작업에서 입체 작업으로 옮아갔다는 점에서 의의를 찾을 수 있다. 오래된 골동 집기나 일상 물품을 천으로 감싸거나 덮는 이 작업은 딱딱한 골격의 오브제에 부드럽고 유연한 천이 덧붙여진 상황이다. 앞서 천에 긴장된 힘을 주던 바느질 작업이 차츰 형태를 완성해내는 귀납법식 제작이었다면, 이번에는 그 반대의 상황이 벌어진다. 처음부터 수평-수직 형태의 골격을 이룬 오브제가 주어지고 그 위에 천을 감싸서 본래 주어진 모양을 드러내는 연역법의 제작인 것이다. 제작 동기는 작가의 인터뷰를 통해 알려졌듯이, 오랜 기억을 되살리는 기물들인 지게, 창호지문틀, 얼레와 북, 빨래걸이, 사다리 등에 내재된 단순명료한 구조미에 매혹되었기 때문이다. 이 일상적 사물들은 아닌게 아니라 가만히 들여다보면, 뜻 밖에도 수평-수직의 구조를 이루고 있다. 땅바닥에 드러누운 지게의 연역적 오브제나 사각형 문틀 그리고 위로 갈수록 폭이 좁아지는 이등변 사각형의 사다리 등 그 단순한 기하학적 구조미는 '바느질' 연작에서 볼 수 있던 수평-수직의 모자이크식 구조미와 크게 다를 바 없다. 평면구조에서 입체구조로 바뀌고 재료가 달라서 이질적이랄 수 있겠지만, 구조의 체제는 등가여서, 마치 xy축의 평면기하학에서 공간의 깊이를 더한 xyz축의 입체기하학으로 사유의 이동을 했다고 말할 수 있다. 체조선수들이 사용하는 커다란 원형 강철 테에 천을 입힌 작품(<무제> 1991)은 수평-수직 구조가 아닌 것 같이 보인다. 하지만 공간을 가로질러 굴러갈 수 있는 이 둥근 입체 오브제를 풀어 평면으로 되돌린다고 상상할 경우, 좁고 긴 사다리 모양의 수평-수직 구조가 금방 눈앞에 나타나게 된다.

  • 딱딱한 오브제가 캔버스의 나무틀-support 역할을 하며, 팽팽하게 둘러싼 천이 화면의 천-surface이라고 상정해본다면, 이 역시도 캔버스의 구조적 해체에 대한 또 다른 번안이란 추론이 가능하다. 너무 멀리 가기 전에 이 같은 작업을 1970년을 전후하여 프랑스에서 전개된 분석적 실험회화운동인 쉬포르/쉬르파스 Supports/Surfaces와 비교해야 할 필요가 있다. 회화에 대한 자기비판으로 출발한 쉬포르/쉬르파스 작가들은 구조주의 인식론을 토대로 회화의 우월했던 관념과 단절하기 위해 캔버스 구조 자체를 드러내고, 각자 천/나무를 의미를 만드는 기표로 간주하여 다양한 이원대립쌍의 오브제들을 만들어내곤 했다. 이들의 의미심장한 작업을 작가가 알거나 참조했는지 지금 확인할 수 없으나, 객관적으로 상호 관련성을 밝혀내는 비평적 논의는 앞으로 또 다른 기회에 시도해 볼 의의가 있다고 생각한다.

  • 여하튼 입체 구조물로 이룩된 "연역적 오브제" 연작의 또 다른 특징은 작품이 특정 장소에 놓여짐으로서 비로소 자신의 의미를 획득하는 장소특수성을 지닌다는 점에 있다. 가령 전시장 벽면이나 바닥에 설치된 헝겊들의 축적은 바로 해당 전시장 공간의 그 특정 장소를 덮음으로서 작품의 의미를 완성시킬 수 있는 것이다. 딱딱한 벽면과 바닥이 여기서도 부드러운 천과 이원적 대응 구조를 이루며 수평-수직의 제작 원형을 따른다는 사실은 두말 할 나위도 없다. 이후 경주 옥산서원 계곡에서 이루어진 <자연에 눕다>는 자연의 바위들과 색동 천들이, 비엔날레의 카페테리아나 식당에서 테이블보로 사용된 "연역적 오브제"는 식탁과 이불보가, 각각 전시장을 떠나 자연과 도시의 특정 장소에서 주어진 골격 위에 천을 덮는 수평-수직의 체제를 실현한 경우가 된다. 필자가 보기에 가장 흥미로운 "연역적 오브제"의 예는 <만남, 바느질하여 바라보기>(1998-2002)이다. 여기서 수직으로 직립한 작가 자신의 몸은 뾰족한 바늘에 다름 아니고 그 머리 위에 겹겹이 덮인 색동 천들은 바늘이 이제 막 만나자 마자 뚫고 지나갈 바로 그 이불천들이다. 색동천들을 두른 새색시의 아름다우면서도 처연한 모습을 관찰하며 보편적인 페미니즘 관점에서 한국 여인의 정체성을 논의하는 일은 다른 지면에서 시도될 문제이다. 여기서는 페미니즘을 비켜서 보다 근본적인 수직과 수평의 구조적 제작원형을 추론하는 일이 앞선 해석의 과제라 여겨진다.

  • 뉴욕 PS1 창작스튜디오의 작업실에서 태동된 "보따리" 연작은 "연역적 오브제"에 이어 작가의 사유가 평면에서 입체, 입체에서 장소 그리고 다시 다른 공간으로 이동되는 사례라고 판단된다. 보자기와 내용물로 구성된 보따리는 지난 세대의 평범한 일상사물로, 그에 얽힌 한민족의 유랑기원과 서민들의 이삿짐 풍습 그리고 작가개인의 어린 시절 유랑기억이 기술될 수 있다. 하지만 이 글에서는 작가가 매번 보따리를 싸면서 고려했을 입체적 구조에 대해 생각해보도록 하자. 우선 사각형 보자기의 모퉁이를 손으로 거두어 잡아 싸는 행위 즉 매는 행위로부터 상기해보자. 평면의 보자기는 4개 모서리 끝의 천을 잡아 올려 중앙에 놓인 짐 위로 잔뜩 잡아당긴 다음 그 짐의 정중앙 위에서 서로 엇갈려 맬 때, 비로소 입체의 보따리로 탄생한다. 여기서 매듭은 네 손잡이 천들이 정확히 직교해야만 균형을 이루며, 보따리도 제대로 된 모습을 갖게 된다. 그렇지 않으면 보따리는 매듭의 균형을 잃고 일그러져 속에 든 내용물을 마치 내장을 드러내 듯 흉한 모양이 되어버리는 것이다. 역시 보자기가 보따리로 변신할 때, 가장 중요한 순간은 그 네 모서리 천이 한 쌍식 수직과 수평의 십자형 교차를 이룰 때이다. 이 순간이 얼마나 중요한가는 보자기를 매어본 사람이면 누구라도 이해할 것이다. 그래서 쌌다가도 풀러 다시 매기를 여러 번 하면서 수평-수직의 매듭구조가 균형을 잘 잡았는지 그래서 보따리가 팽팽한 긴장감을 가지고 지면에서 평형을 이루며 앉았는지 눈으로 거듭 확인해보게 된다. 그래야 비로소 우리는 그 보따리를 단숨에 들어 올리고 걸음을 내딛으며 이동할 수 있는 것이다.

  • 사실 "보따리" 연작에서부터 김수자의 국제작가로서의 명성이 확립됐다고 볼 수 있는 만큼, 이 연작이 갖는 의미는 크다. 캔버스의 사각형 평면구조가 가변성 있는 형태의 입체구조로 되었고, 이미지가 고정적으로 현시되던 화면 상태에서 보자기의 풀기/매기에 따라 현시/은폐, 열림/닫힘을 반복할 수 있을 뿐 아니라, 보따리 틈새로 보이는 천들에 의해 현시/은폐가 공존하기도 하는 그런 임의성을 지닌 구조물로 전환되어 있다. 다른 한편, 늘어진 천들을 팽팽히 싸매어 긴장시키는 보자기의 힘은 역시 화포를 잡아당기던 나무틀이나 이불보에 장력을 주던 바느질, 각양각색 천들에 형태를 부여하던 오브제의 또 다른 대응물에 다름 아니다. 매번 달라진 장소에 놓이는 보따리는 수평의 지평을 따라 이동하는 수직의 구조물이자, 해당 장소에서 그 화려한 동양적 색감과 독특한 민속적 존재감으로 감상자들과 적극적으로 소통의 관계맺기를 하는 오브제이기도 하다.

  • 수평과 수직의 시공간
    흐르는 삼라만상과 마음이 머무는 자리

  • 김수자는 1997년의 작품 <떠도는 도시들-보따리트럭 2727km> 이후 "바늘여인" 연작과 "빨래하는 여인" 연작을 연달아 발표한다. 이는 보따리트럭 위의 자신이 국도나 산간도로를 타고 이동하며 상이한 지역을 엮어낸 것처럼, 이번에는 자신이 바늘(수직축)이 되어 세계의 도시와 인파의 층(수평축)을 거듭 관통하며 시공간을 넘어 기억과 체험을 하나로 연결한 작업이다. 작가는 항상 긴 머리를 질끈 동여맨 뒷모습으로 등장하며, 정지해 서있는 그의 주변을 다양한 골격과 피부색의 인파가 물결처럼 스쳐 지나가는 장면을 보인다. 그런데 막상 작품 비디오나 사진을 보면, 작가가 세계 곳곳의 도시인들 사이를 뚫고 지나가는지 혹은 사람들이 그를 스치고 지나가는지 확실히 분별되지 않는다. 흐르는 물길을 가만히 바라보노라면, 물이 흐르는지 내가 흐르는지 혼돈되는 것과도 같다. 이런 의식의 헷갈림은 주체인 내가 움직이든 타자가 움직이든 궁극으로는 흐르는 이치는 동일하다는 사실을 불현듯 깨닫게 한다. 인간 지각의 불확실함 너머로 불교에서 설명하는 것처럼 만물은 흐르고 변화할 뿐 고정불변의 실체는 없음과 화엄경의 유심설(唯心說)에서 말하는 흐르는 외부세계의 주체는 바로 나의 마음자리란 사실을 떠오르게 한다. 바늘여인은 그렇게 가만히 서서 사람들의 물결 혹은 화장한 시신의 부유물이 흐르는 강물을 바라보며, 생멸변화하는 우주와 찰나로 바뀌는 마음자리를 표상하는 기호 역할을 하는 듯하다. 또한 하늘과 땅이 맞닿아 만들어낸 지평(바위산 혹은 도로면)에 몸을 모로 누이고 팔과 다리를 수평으로 길게 뻗고 있는 작가의 모습도 있다. 이 경우 바늘여인은 평평한 바닥에 누워있는 모습이지만 주변의 치솟은 산과 나무나 건물들 혹은 서서 움직이는 사람들에 대해서는 상대적으로 직교하는 자세라고 볼 수 있다. 어느 쪽이 수평으로 누어있고 수직으로 서있는지는 상대적인 문제가 될 수밖에 없다. 거꾸로 매달려 세상을 바라보면, 그 세상이 도리어 뒤집힌 모습으로 지각되지 않던가. 가장 최근 작품인 <지수화풍> 연작은 전시 장소에 따라 설치된 7개~8개의 대형 프로젝터를 통해 자연의 변화무쌍한 풍경들을 펼쳐 보인다. 작가가 스페인의 란자로테산과 콰테말라의 파카야화산에서 촬영한 용암 분출과 응고, 바다의 출렁이는 파도와 물안개, 하늘의 구름과 바람, 대지의 움직임과 모래 그리고 그린랜드에서 촬영한 빙하의 동영상들은 감상자를 원시적 자연의 엄청난 힘과 맞닥뜨리게 한다. 물론 작가는 어디에도 비추어지지 않지만, 대자연의 파노라마를 담은 작가의 시야가 곧 스크린에 투영되어 있으므로, 존재와 부재의 경계를 넘어서 있다고 할 수 있다. 사방 벽에 비추어진 동영상에는 수지화풍의 장면들이 흘러가며 전시장 가운데 서있는 감상자는 마치 자신이 세상의 수직축이고 사방으로 자연의 삼라만상이 연이어 흘러간다고 여겨질 것이다.

  • 불교에서 인간존재를 가리킬 때 5온(蘊)이란 말을 하는데, 이는 물질적 요소인 색(色)과 정신적 요소인 수(受).상(想).행(行).식(識)의 5 요소로 이루어져 있다는 뜻이다. 이 작품에서 작가는 비가시적인 정신적 요소들로 축약되어 부재한다고 이해할 수도 있지만, 실상 육체(색)의 물질적인 4가지 기본 요소들이 지수화풍이므로 자연의 지수화풍 풍경들을 통해 작가를 비롯한 인간 존재가 은유되어 있다고 생각할 수도 있다. 어차피 인간 육신은 고대 그리스 유물론자 헤라클레이토스의 말대로 흙, 물, 불, 공기의 4원소로 구성된 채 탄생했다가 다시 그들 4원소로 분해되어 자연으로 되돌아가는 것이 아니겠는가? 그렇다면 이 <지수화풍>의 자연의 모습들은 곧 인간으로 생성되기 전의 본래 모습이며 또 장차 소멸의 순환고리에 따라 돌아갈 모습이기도 하다. 따라서 <지수화풍> 연작은 작가의 2010년 2월 인터뷰에서 한 언급처럼 "자연과 인간은 하나라는 일체성을 근간으로 한 질문들을 담고" 있는 명상적 작품이다. 그리고 흙이 물이 되고 물이 불이 되며 불이 공기가 되는 이 수평으로 돌고 도는 지수화풍, 4 원소의 순환고리에 생명의 역동성을 부여하는 우연의 스파크는 바로 수직의 마음(정신 혹은 영)이 바늘처럼 꽂혀 교차하는 순간에 발생하는 것이리라.

Young Hee Suh is an art critic and Professor at Hong Ik University, Seoul.

Contemplation on the Origin of Life

Ahn, Soyeon

2010

The video installations which filmed the dormant volcanoes located at Lanzarote in the Canary Islands and Pacaya volcano in Guatemala, comprise of six separate video scenes. They were all fortuitously captured by the camera, that is, from the moving car, between stops during the walk. The random, incidental scenes of landscape happened to have caught the artist’s eyes. One wonders whether it is possible to hold the nature’s principality within the frame in accordance with the intended image map, and capture it even as the symbolic body of such as made. Should it be an impossible mission, the artist could only opt for presenting the video images as that of road signs indicative of what is beyond the framed images. Still it falls on to an artist’s scope how the coincidental images would be arranged, and by summoning up the primary elements be- yond the images, thus constructing the thoughtful relevance among the works, the seemingly contradictory concept of Empedocles’ is realized; the in- evitability of contingent occurrences.
The images of the volcanic areas in Lazarote were exhibited in a separate space within the Atelier Hermes. They were video images taken at night in- side a car as it was moving along the road. The artist lit the flashlight towards the darkish landscape, and the landscape in the dark around the dim edges of the circular torch light were thus captured. Through the nocturnal scenes, this work, titled , poses to contemplate – the root of creation – gauging the depth of the void in the invisible space. It is a metaphor of the darkness and the emptiness that are before civilization. Also it comments on the subconscious, an imaginative realm of human beings, alluding altogether to another theme, which is on the creation of fire. featured in the main exhibition space, presents the overwhelming waves crushing against the rugged rocks, with the surprising magnificence of a rainbow rising in the midst of the misty fog and finally the majestic sound of the waves. The viewers come face to face with the dramatic eruption of nature, assailed by the vivid sensation of the damp foams of the crashing waves. The work is a paradoxical approach to conveying a reflection on fire. Observing the mystical formation and the disappearance of rainbow like a mirage, one is given an opportunity to understand the birth of the symbolic world; ponder on the splendid desire of fire, Prometheus’ cheating of the Gods.
Another two works and were each filmed during the day and night from the inside of a moving car as well. They explore the landscape of light touching upon the sur- face of the objects in the scenery, reflecting the depth of changing space. The light makes contact with the surface of the landscape just as a needle does, and the artist carries out the structural search for space. It sends off the odd impression of the scenery altering despite the fact that the filmed object is nothing but the still earth: this is because the landscape was met with light and speed- both of which are mobile elements. The work Air of Earth also refers to earth rather than fire, in spite of the blazing flames of the active volcano filling up the whole screen. The artist and the camera staff took the risk of climbing up to the fire pit in close quarters as near as 200 or 300 meters from the volcano to capture the im- ages. What ultimately draws the viewer’s attention is not burning fire but the ashes that are left by the rocky exhaustion of life. When Empedocles threw his body into the Etna volcano to finish his life, it seems that he yearned to experience the metaphor of nature’s entering nirvana. Everything returns to earth, and earth evokes old age, winter and the real realm of death.
Above the blighting volcano hangs the clear and blue sky. The work is titled, , which is another paradoxical reference to water. and doubly transpose two elements in each work: fire and water and, earth and sky. is displayed across in an askew angle. The latter captures the movement of waves which looks as though it could feel hard against one’s palm, and solid enough to be touched. The goddess of Water heals all the contradictions and affront, wrapping around the hollowness of air, the ambitious energy of fire and the pessimistic resignation of earth. She promises a new beginning and a return to life.
Kimsooja believes that the foundation of life and the principle elements of nature are not as they are visually seen, but lie in the beyond, in the mystic combination of the elements and their hidden meanings. Thus her works pose as a piece of slippery puzzle that is impossible to complete. There are 128 combinations that can occur with the 4 elements; however with circumstantial chance and irregularity, they transcend the limits of the mathematical inference. Instead, as in Bachelard’s “Dreams of the Material”, or the boundlessness of the fully blossoming Mandala – they are of the nature. To Kimsooja, the completion of works means the moment has come when she does not need to create any more works. It will be exciting, until the moment comes, to watch Kim devote herself to other works relating to the release of light and the evolution of life.

  • Translated by Kate YK Lim (Arte en Fide Representative)

  • — This article was published for a review of Kimsooja’s solo exhibition at Atelier Hermes in Seoul in Wolganmisul Magazine of Feb., 2010

[1] The Korean word for a “bundle (of belongings).”

[2] In Korea, the duvet cover was sewed onto the actual mattress as bed-frames.

Archive of Couples, 2009, 1 of 30 Iris Prints, 114.1 x 80.5 cm each.

To be Born, Love, Suffer and Die

Ryu, Byounghak

2010

  • Ryu Byounghak: I'd like to say, your recent series of art works feels slightly different on the surface from Bottari and A Needle Woman, which are well known to us. So before we look into the new work, I think it is very important to retrace one by one your footsteps in the making of these earlier works.

  • Kimsooja: People who have seen my Bottari pieces and A Needle Woman series — works that deal with humans — may think that my recent works — Earth-Water-Fire-Air, are only about nature. Nevertheless, I have continued to make a series of video works that deal with the themes of humans and nature simulateneously; which is something that has been present in my work since the beginning of my career. From my perspective, nature is an extension of a fabric and the needle is an extension of a body. In this sense, I think the relation between the fabric and the needle has evolved through the contemplation of nature as fabric, and a human body as a needle, that meditates towards humanity. In the end, these two are one.

Bottari, Wrapping Humans and Life

  • Ryu: So it seems we need to shed some light on this path to understand your work thoroughly. To start the conversation, let's discuss the motive of Bottari. In the mid-1990s, you once said, Keeping bottari (bundle) is a very common domestic practice in Korea, and bottaris have been around me my whole life, especially, since I began working on sewn pieces using used cloth and clothes in the 80s. I became aware of new possibilities for conceptualizing bottari from a mundane daily object to a completely new way of making painting, sculpture and installation. This opened up a new vision of its cultural, aesthetic, socio-political, and philosophical dimensions. One day in my P.S.1 studio in 1992, I turned my head and there was a bottari that I had put there a while before, which I used to look at everyday. When I gazed at this bottari in that moment, a completely different perspective emerged; a totally new bottari was sitting there. I had been wrapping and unwrapping bottaris for my clothes for sewn pieces, but I hadn't seen its hidden formalism and meanings before that moment. That bottari in front of my eyes was a completely new object and discovery. It was a sculpture and a painting and a ready made and a used object — all without doing anything except simply making a knot. Through this simple act of tying up, bottari making opens up a possibility for transforming two dimensions into three; which simultaneously transforms the object into both a pictorial plane and a sculptural volume.

  • Ryu: With this content, we can say you already found that bottari can be a sculpture and, in this way, your work Bottari is a sort of ready-made.

  • Kimsooja: Yes. 'ready-made', in the sense that it has been existing as an object and a form, and at the same time, a 'ready-used' object, in the sense that it is made from materials which have already been used by people.

  • Bottari is a fluid and transformable ready made and ready used. However, both contexts co-exist as a oneness in my bottari. As the nature of both a painting and a sculpture exists in one single body of bottari, and this object reveals the reality of life, it also has a diachronic temporality. To me, bottari contains radical aspects in many senses, but in Korea it is just an object that is so embedded in daily life, that this work might have been hard to understand and recognize distinctly as an artwork because it is so closely tied to daily life practices. My work is all about recognizing new artistic value and contextualizing and recontextualizing mundane daily life objects, and daily life actions with the least maniplulation. In fact I see the bottari that I rediscovered at P.S.1 in 1992 as more pro forma. I was focusing on the moment of transformation that the fabric, the two dimensional tableau, becomes the three dimensional object and sculpture by the ordinary act of tying. I have shown the installation Bottari also at the New Museum and Ise Art Foundation, New York, in 1993 but my vision changed around the time when I came back to Korea and prepared for my solo exhibition (1994). I had a new understanding of Korean society as a woman, and also as a person who had experienced the reality of an open society. That is to say, I came to understand that bottari wasn't just an aesthetic or formal object, but one made of the "reality of our lives". Since then, I started to use not only fragments of fabrics and clothes of various colors and patterns, but also used clothes from anonymous people as a pre-existing form. I began to work with the thought of wrapping humans, our life and memories rather than simply taking a formalist approach.

  • Ryu: Looking at your works from late 1990s, I had a thought about formality. They are ready-mades for sure, but they are different from the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp had fixed a urinal, a common product, into Fountain, the artwork, but Bottari travels back and forth between the common product and the artwork. You also transform a common product: bottari into the artwork Bottari, then after a certain period of time the art work is disassembled and turned back to a common product, and then a common product bottari appears again as an artwork in a different form. Through the 1990s your exhibitions were about wrapping the bottari, then going to another place and unwrapping it again, by doing this its mobility is emphasized. Looking at the successors of Duchamp's ready-made, like Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII also known as The Bricks, Dan Flavin's Monument made with fluorescent lights and Jeff Koons' New Shelton Wet/Dry Double Decker arrangement of vacuum cleaners, we can see that they are each fixed. But your works are fluid. Interestingly, you can wrap all three items: the brick, the fluorescent light and the vacuum cleaner, with the fabric and the shape changes differently in each case. Bottari is read as the work of a certain kind of magic. I think that is the other aspect of formality in your works.

  • Kimsooja: The fabric naturally possesses fluidity, so I hope that my works can be expanded to transcend all its limits.

The Border that Determines the Method in Life and Art

  • Ryu: Especially in the works after 1994, you used bedcovers a lot. In a past interview, you once said the bedcover holds the contents that covers us from birth to death, I think this symbolic content is telling of a sense of place.

  • Kimsooja: Actually when I was working on Bottari, many people thought I wrapped the bottari with Korean traditional wrapping fabric (bojagi), but I only used bedcovers. More precisely, I used traditional Korean bedcovers for newlywed couples. I think the bedcover is a field in which function and specific meaning coexist; in the sense that it is a place where we are born, love, dream, suffer and die. It is a frame for our life. Within this frame is the wishes of our whole lifetime — love, long life, wealth, and fertility are embroidered as forms and letters. Perhaps this might be considered a contradiction when we consider that this everyday, almost mundane yet colorful object — the bedcover — is covered with aspirations and festive elements. So, when the bedcover is unfolded, it is a tableau that has a place to stay. It is a two dimensional surface that implies memories of the loving life of a couple, sex, rest, stability, or family and comfort. However, the context gets reversed when it is tied into a bottari; suddenly it suggests dislocation, mobility, departing, migration and separation. The tableau (bedcover) that wraps and forms the bottari acts as a 'border' determining the dichotomy in life and art.

  • Ryu: Let's talk about the work you installed at the cafe in Central Park, for the Whitney Biennial, in 2002. You used bedcovers as tablecloths. Did the local audience know they were bedcovers?

  • Kimsooja: If I did not provide an explanation about the work, they would not have known. As a matter of fact, I showed the tablecloth installation first at Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh in 1995, then in Manifesta 1, and again at Setagaya Museum in Japan in 1998 as well as at the Central Park café for the Whitney Biennale 2002. At that time, after a series of bottari works, the meaning of unfolding the bottari became connected to the process of returning them into the original form of a canvas. In other words, the idea of using a bedcover as a tablecloth was to wrap invisible elements in the space, with mind and gaze, by turning the bedcovers back into a canvas. By unfolding the bottari and presenting it as a tableau, it folds invisible activities around the table into the tableau. For example, in cafes, people meet, talk to each other, share food and drinks, listen to the music and so on. I presented the tablecloth installation to wrap all these intangible communicational interactions, under the concept of an invisible wrapping. Ephemeral elements that appeared in the work are connected to the site-specific installation called To Breathe - A Mirror Woman, shown at Crystal Palace in Spain. At Crystal Palace, I intended to juxtapose the illusion of the mirror and the reality of space together — mirroring as a sewing activity — by covering the entire floor in mirrors. I also installed translucent film on all the glass windows of the architectural structure, in order to diffract the sunlight into a rainbow's spectrum when it penetrates the interior space from its source in the exterior space. Also, I unified all the elements of the notion of sewing by installing the amplified sound of my breathing — inhaling and exhaling — as voice performance. Holding the void of the space attached to the skin of the architecture, I presented the mirrored structure of the building itself, like a double-sided crystal palace with a division of a mirror surface on the ground so that it creates a negative space of the palace as a sewn architecture — a closed bottari — with the sound of my breathing creating a bottari of light and sound. In that, this work maximizes the immaterial character of the concept of bottari.

  • Ryu: I see. Although, I didn't see the installation of the bedcovers on the cafe tables firsthand, I did see it in a catalog. It was shocking. Especially after you mentioned that the bedcovers you used were intended for newlyweds. And bedcovers, by their characteristics, immediately convey the love making of newlyweds. In human natural desires, there are appetites and the libido. In that work, the two just fell into place. I wondered did the local public know that these were bedcovers, and how did they react to them.

  • Kimsooja: At the first exhibition in Edinburgh, an audience member came to see the installation and she said that I was brave (laugh). In a way this work is provocative, but on the other hand it is presented in a very passive form. Some of the Korean bedcovers are quite exquisite and have delicate needlework, and there I used many beautifully preserved examples, so that the work drew a lot of attention. Yet the true meaning of the work that I am concentrating on is not just the cultural and aesthetic value of the bedcover.

Axis of Space and Time, A Needle Woman

  • Ryu: I want to connect the next question to our earlier conversation about the ready-made. Once you said, "I don't believe in the aphorism that the artist is the person who makes a new thing. I think the role of the artist is to find a new way of reading the existing world with specific observations, and by providing new contexts or concepts. However, whatever material I used at that time, it was mostly to refer to the life of the user." Based on my feeling, I made the connection that your video works, like A Needle Woman, had come about as you turn yourself into the ready-made. Like the Deleuzian notion of becoming, your works came to me as becoming a needle woman and becoming a laundry woman, in a fashion. It is known that A Needle Woman started in Tokyo, Japan, in 1999. How did you come to start this work?

  • Kimsooja: When I was commissioned to do a project with CCA KITAKYUSHU, I simply thought that I would like to do some kind of performative piece. In my first year living in New York City as an artist in exile, I felt that personally I was standing on the edge of a cliff — which kept me mentally very sharp. So, as I was becoming more aware and concentrating on my body more sensitively, I began to think deeply about subjects like isolation, the self and the other. Initially, I had been walking around downtown Tokyo for a couple of hours, waiting for a certain decisive time and place. Then I arrived at Shibuya, the street where hundreds of thousands of people flood in and out, and I experienced a moment in which I could not walk one step more. In Zen Buddhism, there is a sound which expresses awakening, "Ak!". I was shouting the inner scream, "Ak!" in a silence that I kept inside of me, and I couldn't move my feet but just had to stand still right at that specific moment in that location. Having that experience of standing still in that place, I have come to understand the meaning of walking. In other words, the relation between my body and the presence of a crowd accumulated in the bottari (my body), through the accumulated time and energy in the act of walking. I set that place for the first performance of A Needle Woman. Without even time to reconsider, I thought "This is it!" and started the performance right away and told the cameraman to record my appearance and the crowd in a certain frame from behind. I remember that performance was one of the most special experiences of my life. Over the waves of oceans of people, beyond the horizon of the people, I saw bright white light rising beyond the horizon of humanity. My mind was filled with love, joy and peace as well as compassion for all humanity. Through this unforgettable experience, I reached the point where I felt that "I wish to meet every single human being in the world." To meet everyone in the world, I continued the project A Needle Woman visiting eight metropolises on each continent. Looking back at all these events, I realized that all of these attempts to meet others was only a way to meet my own true self.

  • Ryu: The eight cities were Tokyo, Shanghai, Deli, New York, Cairo, Lagos and London. After that, I remember you continued to other cities, such as Patan, Nepal, Havana, Cuba, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, N'Djamena, Chad, Sana'a, Yemen and Jerusalem, Israel.

  • Kimsooja: These are the cities I performed in for the second series of A Needle Woman. In the first series, I placed my body as an axis of the space in the 8 metropolises in different continents, while in the second series, I presented my body as an axis of time. From my experiences visiting the first eight cities which were facing severe political, religious, economic and social conflicts within the country or with other ones, I decided to visit and confront the conflicting reality of the world choosing these 6 cities. Especially when I was visiting Patan, in the Kathmandu valley in Nepal, the country was in the midst of a civil war so I heard a lot of gunshots during the working process and saw many armed soldiers. These works, different from the first series, were made in slow motion so that the world I see as an equal value and delicate emotional relationship between my body and passers by, is more pronounced. In the first version which was shot in real time, the performative aspect of my body and the tension between my body and the passers by was more visible. I think the intersection of the times; the psychological relationship of the bodies and the passers by stand out more in the second version (2005) and my body reacts more as an axis of time rather than space. Because my body is in the time zone of zero — stillness — I was wondering "what kind of time it is when zero is expanded within this stillness showing in slow motion?". In fact, it is eternity. We can see the three different temporalities — my body as the extended point of zero (in the zone of zero); the time of the people who are walking in the street (in slow motion); and the time of the audience who watch the relation of these (in real time), and how they coexist and relate to each other.

Circulation and Connectivity of the Four Elements

  • Ryu: Most of the places that were mentioned earlier, posess a historic sense of place like Patan, Nepal and Havana, Cuba. In the case of A Lighthouse Woman, you wrapped the lighthouse of Morris Island, Charleston, with various colored lights. In this way I discovered that Charleston, the capitol of South Carolina, was where the United States Civil War began. In other works, there are cities whose sense of place oddly has an alternating point of life and death, too, like the sense of place of the bottari and the bedcover. Also there is a feeling of a certain significance in the sense of place of Earth-Water-Fire-Air. Is there a reason you chose Lanzarote, the volcanic island in the Canary Islands, Spain, and the volcano in Guatemala?

  • Kimsooja: Surely an invitation from Lanzarote Contemporary Art Museum and a subsequent visit to Lanzarote Biennale, 2009, served as momentum, but I had been dreaming of a project about the four elements of nature for years, so I explored this exceptional location without hesitation. Looking back on it now, the choice of the place where the fire — the lifeforce of the volcano — is completely extinguished, is more meaningful when considering that the extinct volcano was the nirvana of nature.

  • Ryu: I had a funny experience earlier when I was looking at the work. When you look at a video work, the lens of the projector sometimes gets covered by a viewer, and a shadow appears on the screen. So by approaching the work closely, my shadow rose in the middle of the sea waves.

  • Kimsooja: In fact when I screen A Needle Woman or A Laundry Woman, from time to time audiences overlap their bodies on the screen by standing in front of the work. When viewers are watching my back on the screen, at some point my figure is removed, and they replace my body — and my point of view — with their own. It's like the magic of foreshortening. For me, what the multilayered point of sight in A Needle Woman suggests is very interesting. I sometimes see that the different perspectives of A Needle Woman affects the audiences' point of view in analyzing a photographic or videographic image in terms of the relationship between the artist, the subject and the viewer, by establishing three different perspectives which is an approach that hasn't been examined or discussed before in photography and video or film making.

  • Ryu: All eight titles of each work in Earth-Water-Fire-Air are metaphoric. They are different from common titles. For example, the title of the video of the sea of waves is not waves of ocean but Earth of Water. So I studied it carefully, and could see then that the waves looked like a mountain on Earth if I looked at the water in the ocean as a landscape. Was that your intention?

  • Kimsooja: As I looked at it, water has the element of fire, as well as air and earth, and earth has the elements of fire, water and air as well. Therefore, each element circulates and connects to the others. In the process of looking at them as four separate elements, I intended to reveal that they cannot stand alone and are leaning on each other as humans. As a method of addressing their connectivity and internal dynamics, as a means of defining the element of earth in water, I also looked at the relationship of fire and air by switching them (Air of Fire). When permutated the combinations are 16, and when two elements in each pair are alternated there can be as many as 32 combinations. In other words, this can be considered as a starting point for trying to contemplate the four elements. In that sense, the work comes from feeling the power and weakness of nature; understanding that in the end, each of the elements are one and unified within our body. This led me to ask: what is the humanity of fire, or what is the humanity in water, earth and air? The work contains these questions based on the unifying principle that humans and nature are, after all, one. Notably, when confronted with the lava, which becomes stone and falls apart in reality, I witnessed the boiling magma spurting out from deep in the Earth, running and becoming the lava stone; soon after turning into dust. Stepping on the hot ground and feeling the heat while working on a plateau 3000 meters high, I realized that the ground that we all walk on is a hot, breathing, physical organism. In the disappearance of the heat, a tableau vivant was created, and as that occurred, I had the opportunity to recognize one by one all the elements of nature: from the small lava stone that evaporates into dust, into 'nothing'; just like human destiny.

  • Ryu: In one of the works, a car is driving through a dark place and shining a flashlight on and off so that only the place where the light is on can be seen and vanished again. At first I was wondering what that was, but soon I found out the scene centered on the volcano and was lit and shot in the place where the flashlight you lit towards the landscape from the car. The thing that appears and disappears is made from the cooled down lava (a fireball of lust) spewed from the volcano. In the video, I could feel the brevity in which every human must turn to ashes. Lastly, for the audience, may I ask how you would like them to appreciate the work?

  • Kimsooja: Well, rather than mentioning how to question, I would like to say that I want to observe, and share this with you. With a question for the endless pictorial journey, I want to ask once again the first and the last question: what is the matter that this life is made of?

This article was originally published in Korean in Art in Culture magazine, February 2010. English translation was published in Art in Asia magazine, June, 2013.

A Needle Woman, 2005, Patan (Nepal), one of six channel video projection, performance video, 10:40 loop, silent, Courtesy of Kimsooja Studio

Woman / Needle

Zoller, Maxa

2010

  • MZ: Your work is concerned with boundaries between the self and the other. Cloth, the needle, and the activity of wrapping, sewing, walking, and breathing have become not only methods, but philosophical tools to investigate the liminal space of where the self ends and the other begins. I would like to start this interview with two of your works, the multi-channel video installations A Needle Woman (1999ñ2001, 2005) and then work our way back to your early bottari sculptures. In a way, this interview will work like a Russian doll in which the largest part includes the smallest, which in turn already anticipates that in which it is nesting. As your work is not linear, but cyclical and interconnected, I thought that this would be an appropriate way to gain insight into the relationship between content and method in your complex practice. The first and second versions of A Needle Woman are eight- and six-channel video installations respectively, which show a woman standing still in a crowd in different metropolises around the globe.

  • KS: Yes, the first series was performed and filmed beginning with Tokyo, then continued to Shanghai, Mexico City, London, Delhi, New York, Cairo, and Lagos (Nigeria). When I traveled around the world performing this first series, I learned a lot about the reality of the political and cultural differences around the world. When I was invited to present a piece for the Venice Biennale in 2005, the whole world was facing conflicts caused by the Iraq war, which created tensions between Muslim countries and the United States, and this conflict contaminated the rest of the world. I felt the urgency to create the same performance, focusing on cities in conflict, to witness the world, while keeping the same form and frame as in earlier performances. I decided to place my body in the middle of conflicted cities that were suffering from poverty, violence, postcolonialism, civil war, and religious conflicts. This is how I chose Patan (Nepal), Jerusalem, Sana (Yemen), Havana, Rio de Janeiro, and NíDjamena (Chad). I performed and documented all six cities in a few months in 2005. There is also a third, single-channel video made in 2009, which was commissioned by Nuit Blanche, Paris. With this version, separate from the first two versions, I decided to focus on different realities in Paris, performing in three neighborhoods that represented multi-cultural communities such as the BarbËs marketplace, a typical Parisian community on Rue de Montreuil, and a touristic location, the Champs-ElysÈes.

  • MZ: I would like to quote the German curator Volker Adolphs who very eloquently wrote about the first A Needle Woman: ìLike a needle, she pricks into the colorful social tissue of the cities, sewing different societies together. Kimsooja sees the needle as an extension of her body; she overcomes in-between spaces and disappears again. The thread remains as a binding and mediating trace of the ghost in the fabricís weave. . . . But it is also possible to see this the other way around. In this case the unceasing, endless wave of people is the stationary and enduring part, and the artist is the being in motion, who will go on, pass away, decompose, and disappear.î Can you talk about how you developed this extraordinary series of videos?

  • KS: Before I started using video as a medium for my performative practice, I was painting using Korean bedcovers and traditional clothing. I have always retained my artistic position as a painter. All of my experiments in different media have been a continuous evolution of my painting practice. Iíve always been aware of Western art history and I have been writing my own painting history by contemplating my reality and condition as a Korean woman in a larger society. Iíve been searching for my own methodology, one that articulates my questions about the structure of the canvas, nature, and the worldófocusing on horizontality, verticality, and dualityóbut at the same time questioning the self and the other to unite them. I continued my sewing practice for almost a decade (1983ñ92). My documentary video about my daily practice of working with Korean bedcovers in nature, Sewing into Walking ñ Kyungju (1994) was the first video when I discovered that my body functions as a symbolic needle that weaves the great fabric of nature. That is how I started using videoónot because I was particularly interested in image making, but because the cameraís gaze weaves the reality of the world and the videoís frame is an immaterial way of wrapping objectsóa bottari.
    In 1999, when the Center for Contemporary Art, Kitakyushu, commissioned me, I thought to make walking performances using my body, one in the city, the other in nature. I began by walking for a couple of hours in different parts of Tokyo, but I couldnít find the right moment and energy to define it, nor the precise methodology to film it. At last, I arrived in the Shibuya area where hundreds of thousands of people were coming and going. I was completely overwhelmed by the huge crowd and its accumulated energyóI was screaming inside and had to stop and stand still right there. At that very moment, I realized the meaning of my hours of walking: I immediately decided to perform standing still and document the performance from behind.

  • MZ: So A Needle Woman is not so much about being a global citizen, but rather it developed out of a moment of personal crisis?

  • KS: Yes, it was a very personal encounter and contemplation of myself, others, and humanity. At first, I didnít think about the global citizen. I started the performance more as an existential question, but Iíve been more and more engaged with the world since this first performanceócontemplating humanityís destiny and feeling compassion for it. At the beginning of the performance it was very difficult to resist all the energy on the street and I was truly vulnerable, standing still, as a womanótotally naked, psychologically. But during the performance I found my own space and time and I learned how to breathe, how to be still, how to relax different parts of my body, and how to focus. It was like being in a vortex that created an enormous sound, but was silent at its core.
    I experienced an amazing transformation and transcendence while performing in Tokyo. While the crowd was walking toward me, I perceived a white light coming from behind them, like a light coming through the eye of the needle. By the end, my mind was full of love, happiness and peace, and I was enlightened while looking at the waves of people coming and going. After the powerful experience of that performance, I was eager to continue the same performance on other continents and to ìmeetî everyone in the world.

  • MZ: In these performance videos, you stand in for the needle that stitches all these different pieces of the world together, your long black hair becoming the eye of the needle. Over the many years of your sewing, wrapping, and performing art practices you have developed your own philosophical topology of the needle.

  • KS: In the first performance video, I used my body as a symbolic needle that weaves the great fabric of nature, but I was also conscious of the needle as an object having many dualities. A needle is used in healing, but itís also used to connect separated partsóboth actions performing pain. The needle is a hermaphrodite, and has a void, the eye of the needle, which allows the thread through, which in a way represents our soul and spirit. At the same time, the needle is an extension of our hands and body, so it combines the body, the spirit, the physical and the void, the material and the immaterial.

  • MZ: In what way is the second version different from the first?

  • KS: In the second version, I chose cities that were in conflict. For example, Patan was caught up in a civil war at the time; I saw soldiers with guns everywhere and heard many gunshots. Through colonialism, Havana is related to the United States, which later blocked free travel between the two countries. Rio de Janeiro has issues of violence and poverty, as well as postcolonial issues; I visited the favelas and experienced severe violence and danger there. NíDjamena is in Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world and one with post-independence problems. Sana is in Yemen, which has political and religious conflicts with Israel. I had to travel from Sana via Jordan to Jerusalem, as there was no other way. We think we live in a global society and believe that we should be able to travel freely, but in fact, it is more and more difficult to travel freely and we have to take risks to live our lives.
    In the second version of A Needle Woman, I considered my body more as an axis in time, whereas in the first version, I considered my body as an axis in space. I wove in different societies, economies, and cultures by positioning myself at zero timeóslowing down the movement of people on the street in relation to the real time of the audience. In this way, I created three different durational modes: real time where the audience is located, zero time where I stand still, and a slowed-down time as the passersby move around me. I am still questioning what happened when I stood still at point zero and I keep thinking about the permanency in it.

  • MZ: I want to talk about the relationship between the passersby and the camera. Sometimes people approach the camera and, through the lens, look directly at us, the audience.

  • KS: In terms of photographic perspectives in performance and video, itís like having a third, hidden eye. Before I made the first A Needle Woman, I did another video, Sewing into Walking ñ ?stikl‚l Caddesi (1997), in Istanbul. I positioned the camera (without myself) within a fixed frame so that people on this main street would be framed (wrapped) when they are coming and going, without manipulating them. If I compare the relationships to the A Needle Woman performance, the camera could be replaced with my body and the lens with my eyes. I wasnít aware of it while performing the first A Needle Woman, but Sewing into Walking was one of A Needle Womanís origins, which I might have to revisit at some point. I tend to go back and forth from different boundaries of my practice, away from and back to the central question. I think this enables me to grasp how I relate my eyes and my body to the audience, myself, and the location, creating different layered viewpoints. Itís interesting for me to place my body in the center and as an observer.

  • MZ: Letís talk about the role of your body in these performances. By positioning your back and not your front to the camera, you complicate the relationship between yourself and the stream of people walking toward you, the camera, and the viewer. In a way, it is through the reaction of the passersby that we come to identify with you, that we ìseeî your front.

  • KS: By positioning the camera away from the audience, I was able to stay anonymous; conversely, the audience could assume my position and focus on what I was experiencing. For example, in Lagos, I performed in the middle of the marketplace and there were kids and adults carrying the goods they were selling on their heads. They stood still, watching me from start to finish, a mirroring of what I was doing. At the same time, the audience in the exhibition space viewing this performance/video can also enter my body at a certain moment and experience what I perform.

  • MZ: In other words, by becoming the mirror and the needle between the audience and the world, you remove yourself.

  • KS: In a way, I objectify myself as a needle and as a mirror to the audience. I believe that painters are always trying to find their own mirror on the surface of their canvases in order to find their own identity. I was also trying to question where the boundary lies in To Breathe ñ Invisible Mirror/Invisible Needle (2003ñ2005), a video, and The Weaving Factory (2004), a sound performance work; the two were presented at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. We can never stop gazing at the endlessly transforming color field in To Breathe ñ Invisible Mirror/Invisible Needle because we cannot truly measure its depth or define its surface. This is also related to my early painting practice. The bottari represents a physical wrapping practice, as a canvas, an object, and a sculpture; however, I use the mirror as a physical and symbolic material having a similar function to video in terms of framing the images. Similar perceptions exist also in sound and light worksóideas about wrapping immateriality within space. There are materialized and dematerialized elements that run parallel in my work, but in the end, they coexist as one.

  • MZ: I recently read Jean-Luc Nancyís text on the Noli me Tangere story in the Gospel of St. John in which the resurrected Christ encounters Mary Magdalene and says to her, ìTouch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father.î In A Needle Woman you serve as a sort of apparition; you produce difference by inserting your body in these particular environments. The reactions range from indifference to a rather threatening curiosityóbut nobody touches you, as if you are saying, ìNoli me tangere.î

  • KS: I think it has to do with the transcendent element of performances that deal with time. This is also true of A Laundry Woman ñ Yamuna River, India, the performance I did in Delhi in 2000 on the bank of the Yamuna River, right next to a shmasana, a Hindu cremation site. The debris that you see on the river is from the cremationsóburnt body parts, flowers, and pieces of wood are slowly floating and passing by my body. I was contemplating human destiny, the purification of the burnt bodies and myself. In the middle of the performance, I experienced an unbelievable confusionóI couldnít figure out if the river was moving, or if my body was moving while standing still. After a while, I found myself back in the center of the flow and away from the confusion. After this performance, I learned from the confusion. My inner and physical gaze was so focused that there was no boundary between myself and the other, like a needleís point that has no physical dimension, but only a location, and is open to the void. It was not the river that was in motion, but my body in time, which seemed to be a solid, physical entity that flowed and then disappears.

  • MZ: I think that this experience also applies to the viewer. Speaking for myself, I entered a trance-like state in your exhibition at Baltic, Gateshead, England (2009), where you presented the A Needle Woman and A Laundry Woman installations.

  • KS: Yes, there is a kind of hypnotic element to timeís passing. Time is a repetition of each moment of breathingóinhaling and exhalingóand this repetition creates a hypnotic state. I was so concentrated and focused on one pointówhich was nowhere. There are no orienting points at the very tip of the needle, so you cannot relate yourself to anywhere, but at the same time you can relate yourself to everywhere. I learn from each performance, which offers deeper questions, and thatís why I cannot but continue my work.

  • MZ: The needle is like a threshold or an interfaceólike a skin.

  • KS: Yes, thatís why I consider the mirror as an unfolded needle as it has a similarity in its nature.

  • MZ: Your understanding of the mirror as an unwrapped, unfolded needle is fascinating. Earlier you mentioned To Breathe ñ Invisible Needle/Invisible Mirror. Could you tell me about the particular needle-mirror relationship in this work?

  • KS: I find the needle and the mirror very interesting in that their identities are not revealed. The needle always functions dually as a medium that connects things, but at the same time it can also hurt. Only by hurting can it heal, and thatís when its function as a medium manifests. In the end, the needle leaves the site.
    Like the needle, the mirror is also an interesting object in terms of identity because it reflects everything but itself. The mirror creates a plane that reflects the self, and the illusion of the self. Itís similar to the surface in painting, something I was always aware of because of the approach I had in my sewing practice. I did not begin my sewing practice because I was particularly interested in sewing, or the feminist aspects of the medium, or because I was a skilled seamstress, but because I was interested in the question of the fabricís surface as a canvasóand in the questions about the Other, the self, and their relationship.
    The whole process of questioning and answering is like pushing a needle into the fabric (canvas) and pulling it through as a repetitive action. This circular movement of sewing-as-dialogue led to my wrapping fabrics around Korean folkloric objects and to bottari pieces as a three-dimensional form of sewing. The moment I discovered bottari was very intuitive and astonishing. I was staring at the ordinary bottari in my studio when suddenly it presented itself as a new painting, a new sculpture, and a new object. The journey with the bottari truck in Cities on the Move ñ 2,727 Kilometers Bottari Truck (1997), and the whole idea of the mirror concerns the mirror as a border. I spent much of my childhood near the Korean Demilitarized Zone where I heard casualties on the border; this must have drawn my attention to the idea of borders. Itís not unrelated to the constantly changing spectrum in To Breathe ñ Invisible Mirror/Invisible Needle.
    When I was invited to create a piece for La Fenice, I knew that itís an opera house and discovered that singing is all about breathing. I wanted to emphasize that element, but I also realized that breathing is the same as sewingóinhale and exhaleóand it can be the defining moment of life and death. So breathing is related to sewing and defining a surfaceís depth. With the changing spectrum I wanted to incorporate my breathing with the audienceís within the architecture, so I could embrace the architecture as a living, breathing body.

  • MZ: To Breathe ñ A Mirror Woman, also made in 2006, is clearly related to the La Fenice installation. Can you tell us about this large-scale intervention in this extraordinary space?

  • KS: It was in the Palacio de Cristal, Madrid, and organized by the Reina SofÌa. When I saw the space I was stunned by its beauty; I thought it was an absolutely beautiful object in itself that didnít need anything added. So instead, I decided to empty the space in order to push the void out, all the way to the exterior of the building. I covered the entire glass faÁade with diffraction grating film, which diffused the light into a rainbow spectrum, and placed mirrors across the whole floor to reflect the structure of the building, creating a virtual space.
    I also added the sound of breathing from La Fenice, The Weaving Factory: there are two different stages, the sound of inhaling and exhaling, and the sound of humming. The result sounds like a chorus of my own voice echoing and bouncing on the mirrored floor. Depending on the light and time of day, the color spectrum changed endlessly and amazingly. In a way it was a bottari of light and sound, combining all the different concepts of needle, mirroring, breathing, and wrappingóall of these elements together in one space.

  • MZ: I want to return to Sewing into Walking ñ Kyungju, a key work that connects your architectural installations, the color and video projections of the 2000s, and your early bottari works. In that work, you use breathing and walking as an extension of the sewing and wrapping practices in the bottari.

  • KS: I didnít intend it to be a video. I just wanted to make a documentary record of how I related to fabric in my daily practice, so it was done quite naturally. But when I reviewed the video, especially in slow motion, I discovered the transitional nature of the performative element in my daily life.
    The fabrics I use are mainly bedcovers for newly married couples in Korea, and are gifted to the bride and groom by the brideís parents. The performance ended with me wrapping all the bedcovers together, tying them into bundles, and then leaving the site.
    The bed is the frame of our lives: where we are born, where we dream, love, suffer, and die. So wrapping and unwrapping the bedcover has a symbolic meaning for me: wrapping life and death, in the end. When unfolded, the bedcover signifies a couple, family, love, settlement, and location. When wrapped into a bundle, the bedcover suggests the opposite, separation and dislocation, migration, and the status of refugees. When a Korean woman says, ìWrap the bundle,î it means she is about to leave her family to pursue her own lifeóso in Korean society it has a feminist element as well. By working with the boundaries of wrapping and folding, I have been able to create different perspectives and dimensions in my work.
    The first bottari I made (or rather discovered) was in 1992 in my studio in P.S. 1, New York. Bottari were always with me in my studio and as part of the Korean household, I used them to store things and fabrics from the beginning of my sewing practice, which started in 1983óbut I didnít pay much attention to it until later. I was turning my head and looking around at my studio and there was this unusual object, so familiar but totally distinctive. It was a unique painting and at the same time a sculpture made with one very simple knot, a readymade, and a ready-used object. So it was a surprising new discovery: a three-dimensional sewn object made by wrapping which was a three-dimensional canvasóa painting and a sculpture. Since then, Iíve developed projects and installations that defined different dimensions and concepts of bottaris.

  • MZ: These bottari also raise questions related to modernist practices of medium-specificity: what is a canvas? What can be done with a canvas?

  • KS: Bottari are very much linked to our bodies and our daily lives. I consider our bodies as the most complicated bottari, so for me the bedcover is like a skin. Without that close link to reality, it would be less meaningful, more abstract, and I wouldnít have been able to create a broader question and concept for my work. Itís quite interesting for me to discover the parallels between aesthetic and formalistic evolution and the physical, psychological, and philosophical examination of our body, sexuality, human relations to the world in general, even political problems within bottari.

  • MZ: Earlier you mentioned your upbringing close to the Demilitarized Zone. Can you share some details about this time in your life?

  • KS: My father was in the military service from the Korean War until he retired. We moved from one city to another, one village to another every other year, wrapping and unwrapping. As a nomad, I have always been aware of the border, not only in my own work, but also physically and psychologically. I always felt a certain awareness of the Other, or a danger when I lived in that region. Since I was a little child, I have been very sensitive to the pain of others, which could be related to my experience near the DMZ. I was always aware of places other than my own, which is not unrelated to my use of fabric and questions on boundaries in different practices. Without realizing it, I began to discover more about my own history and destiny through my work. At the Venice Biennale in 1999 I installed DíApertutto, or Bottari Truck in Exile, a bottari truck installed in front of a mirrored wall and dedicated it to the refugees of the Kosovan War. The mirror opened up a virtual exit, but it was a road that you could not pass throughóso it also represented the frustrations and conditions of the refugees.

  • MZ: Traveling also features in your video Cities on the Move ñ 2,727 Kilometers Bottari Truck for the exhibition of the same title.

  • KS: I was very inspired by the exhibitionís title, which was linked to my life. The distance traveled for over eleven days in Cities on the Move was very meaningful to meóthe bottari truck and my body as another bottari sitting on topóendlessly moving like a line on a graph, in time and space. I was very much aware of time in this performance, looking back at my past and forward to the future, and drawing lines along the journey onto the topology of the South Korean land.

  • MZ: Is that why the video is in slow motion?

  • KS: Not necessarily, but I think slow motion can reveal much more of the realities around us, ones that donít often get much attention. In a way it resembled my inner rhythm or my mindís wavelength.

  • MZ: Your work is not linear, but as I said in my introduction, moves in different directions, all of which are interconnected. It has a somewhat crystalline structure. As a last question, I would like to ask you about the relationship between the different stages in your early practice.

  • KS: In one of the earlier pieces, The Heaven and the Earth, a crucifix shape from 1984, I used pieces of my grandmotherís clothing, which I sewed togetheróIím still using remnants in other works. In another piece, Portrait of Yourself from 1991, I assembled parts of used clothing from anonymous people, it was like a network of invisible existences. In the sense of human bodily traces and relations, it can be compared to A Needle Woman. In Mind and the World (1991), I wrapped a bamboo pole with used clothing and then leaned it against the center of the sewn surface pieces. Looking back, I think of this pole, in relation to the sewn fragments of used clothing, as being like my mind and body leaning toward humanity and the world, just as A Needle Woman stands in front of the world.
    Retrospectively, I realize that I was able to evolve all these earlier practices with used fabrics because wrapping fabrics onto objects, or bottari, in the end was the same methodology as sewing: wrapping the surface of a fabric with threads around. The cruciform and circular structures were already there, and that might have been how I could continue this work, without a pre-conception, responding directly to the physicality of the materials, only following my intuition and the urgency of my desire.

— Edited transcript of an interview held at Tate Modern, London, February 20, 2010, in collaboration with Art Monthly; first published as part of Talking Art Series, London: Art Monthly and Ridinghouse, 2017, pp. 316ñ26. It is republished here with the kind permission of Maxa Zoller.

Tierra de Agua / Earth of Water, 2009, 7:09 loop, still from Earth - Water - Fire - Air

About nothingness: being nothing and making nothing

Kim, Sungwon

2009

"Whether we try to make it or not, the sound is heard" [1]

  • The new work of Kimsooja, Earth-Water-Fire-Air (2009), which is based on the four elements of nature—earth, water, fire and air—and their organic combination, seems to consist only of typical natural landscapes of a volcanic area, when seen in just a visual context. These landscapes capture the "natural phenomenon" itself, without any deliberate intervention, artificial transformation or staging on the artist's part. The artist silently brings the spectators before nature, as she previously took them amidst the numerous people in various places of the world such as Tokyo, Shanghai, New Delhi, New York City, Mexico City, Cairo, London, Lagos (Needle Woman, 1999-2001), Patan, Havana, Jerusalem, Sana'a, Rio de Janeiro, and N'Djamena (Needle Woman, 2005). However, the rear view of the artist, who had guided spectators to witness the diverse lives taking place in every corner of the world, is no longer visible. "If the perspective in Needle Woman was me looking at myself from behind, my perspective in this work exists beyond the bodies of spectators and me, and is a perspective that sees more than simply the landscape. In other words, it is the gaze of the 'third eye'." [2] The back view of the artist is replaced by the eye of the camera in Earth-Water-Fire-Air, and the perspective of the artist becomes the "third eye," which gazes through the eye of the camera. The "eye of the camera" is mobilized in the same context as "bottari"—the tied bundles in her well-known works—existed as a gigantic frame (bottari-frame) to encompass or spread out people's invisible lives. Her "eye of the camera" (bottari-frame), rotating 360 degrees, captures the sky, land, lightning, snow and fog of New York and Mexico City (2000-2001), while the stationary eye of the camera stares at the eclipse, the sunlight and moonlight reflecting off the dark blue surface of the sea (Mirror Woman: Sun and Moon, 2008). In Earth-Water-Fire-Air (2009), it captures directly the natural phenomena of volcanic areas in the Canary Islands and Guatemala. These works, in which the back view of the artist moves to the position of the camera, and the eye of the camera works at the same line as the "bottari-frame," conceptually transverse all Kimsooja's previous works, in search of a connection with the infinite energy hidden in humans' invisible lives and in nature. Now in Earth-Water-Fire-Air, Kim is turned into the "third eye," which exists everywhere but cannot be seen anywhere, withholding direct comment or interpretation on the "greater theme" of the relationship between nature and humans, or fundamental reflection on this, but opening up infinite possibilities to spectators to participate in the eloquent speech of nature.

  • To what kind of world does the "third eye" of Earth-Water-Fire-Air invite viewers? It is a world of principles of nature, origins of matter, essence of humans and life, and mutuality and coexistence of all such qualities. The four elements of nature—earth, water, fire and air—are the roots of western philosophy, but also related to the five elements (metal, water, wood, fire and earth) that form everything in the universe according to the eastern theory of yin, yang and wu xing, or the five elements of creation (earth, water, fire, wind and void) according to Buddhist philosophy. Such elements, which are the core of Eastern and Western thought, and the energy created by their mutual combination enable us to think about the recurrent structure of circulation known as the birth and death of all things, to realize the mysterious relationship between nature (matter) and humans, and to ponder on the life of humans. "As water has an element of fire and the earth has the elements of fire, water and air, each element is in a relationship of mutual circulation and connection. In the process of looking at them separately as four elements, I intended to reveal their 'inability to stand alone, and dependency'." [3] In extension of such thought, through this work Kimsooja visualizes the dynamic relations of "water, fire, earth and air" and their infinite energy through "the natural phenomenon itself." Each of the seven landscapes taken of the dead volcano of Lanzarote in the Spanish Canary Islands, and of the live volcano of Pacaya in Guatemala, has an independent title. In these works, the relations between the titles and images suggest a different element hidden within a certain element based on a permutation or combination structure of sets of two elements, or visualize the organic relation between two elements and their energy. Blazing red lava (Air of Earth), the clear blue sky looking down upon the lava (Air of Water), dark blue waves of the sea (Earth of Water), a rainbow emerging from the waves breaking against the volcano (Air of Fire), three different landscapes taken while slowly driving along the same volcanic terrain in the day, evening and night (Fire of Air, Fire of Earth, Water of Earth)... But the combination of these elements does not allow direct reference to any particular ideology of East or West. The artist wants to contemplate not on the persuasiveness of such ideology, but rather on nature, the elements that form nature, and the origin and methods of existence of humans, through free combination and exchange among the elements.

  • One of the characteristics of Kimsooja's work, regardless of what it deals with—city, people, life, the world, or nature—can be found in the perspectives or ways of thinking about these, and the attitude of raising questions about them. This indicates that her work does not communicate the artist/subject's viewpoint of this world to others one-sidedly, and that the world seen by the artist/subject no longer aims at a consistent message. If so, how is the "subject," which encompasses the "landscapes" of the world as a compound collective of different elements, reflected in her works? This "artist-subject," who pays attention to the world's diverse cities, nature, people and their lives, is neither a romantic subject who reflects inner tension and conflict before colossal nature, nor a heroic subject of American abstract expressionism who pursues absolute sublimity transcending this world, nor a phenomenological subject who presents perceptional phenomena by connecting sensuous experience and visual sense, nor an archeological subject who excavates social-cultural vestiges. The work of Soo-ja Kim no longer pursues or reflects a "single subject" that has emerged in the history of art. Her work announces the coexistence of numerous subject-spectators within time-space, and the birth of those anonymous subjects' multilateral perspectives. The moment the spectator focuses on the "rear view" of Needle Woman or Woman Washing Clothes, he/she will wear "the clothes of the artist's body," stand exactly where the artist stands, and see beyond the world the artist sees. The relationship between subject and spectators of the work Bottari, in which discarded old clothes are wrapped in a blanket cover once used by someone of unknown origin and are carried all over the world in search of something, can also be read in the same context. In Kimsooja's work the spectator is no longer a passive subject who accepts a single perspective presented by the artist. In her work the spectator is an active subject who lives positively within the forms of life through the guidance of the artist. Thus, the spectator can leave together with the artist on a long journey to understand and embrace even more and different lives, and can share the world's diverse realities, different people, and their lives.

  • Most of Kimsooja's works are extremely static, continent, and extraordinarily simple, having no narrative or dramatic plot. They present amazing eloquence, however, through the speeches of the objects (bottari, needle, and mirror) in her works, which slowly dominate the spectator through persuasive powers reminiscent of the prosopopea of ancient orators. This "personification" is not simply confined to personified imagery, but is one of the rare oratories that start from the idea that personified objects can think, and that they can be made to talk. This method of personification, which generally has made objects speak about the wisdom of god to enlighten people about their arrogance, ignorance or limitations, now seems to reveal its effect through the experiences of the objects in Kimsooja's works, which start from compassion and love for humankind, and attempt to understand and embrace humans and their lives. As a child, while sewing blanket covers together with her mother, the artist reports feeling a mysterious energy flow through her body at the moment the point of the needle pierced the cloth; as she connected the different pieces of cloth together one by one, she smelled the delicate scent of life from the gigantic blanket cover. With the artist's declaration—"The needle is the medium, mystery, hermaphrodite, abstraction, barometer, and shaman. And so is my body" [4] —the quiet, eloquent speech begins. The artist's body becomes a needle connecting different cultures, diverse lives, people's love, compassion, agony, loneliness, etc., throughout the world as if she were taking stitches one by one, finally giving birth to the "wrapping cloth (bojagi) of life," in a variety of colors. All sorts of races, culture, and traces of their "differences" are marked on the bojagi, which attempts to meet with more stories in other time-spaces.

  • The needle becomes the "axis" of time-space, which allows "connections" among many other subjects, and serves as a medium that makes simultaneous communication with spectators possible. Along with the joy, anger, sorrow and pleasure of human life contained in the bottari (Bottari Truck series), the "needle," which enables encounters among all human beings in the world (Needle Woman, Woman Washing Clothes series), meets with the "mirror" (Mirror Woman series), which enables thought about me and others, the group and the individual, and the human and the world, once more bringing spectators into the paths of these objects in a natural manner. The mirrors spread across the entire floor of the Crystal Palace become a "spread-out needle," attempting to sew together the false image and the real image (To Breathe — A Mirror Woman, 2006), and the monochrome projection of primary colors and the recorded sounds of the artist's own inhalation and exhalation, performed at the Teatro la Fenice, Venice in the same year under the "same title," invite spectators to a mediation of life and death. Through To Breathe: Invisible Needle/Invisible Mirror (2006), performed at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, which seeks merging of material and spirit through the complete dematerialization of body/needle/mirror, and through Mirror Woman: Sun and Moon (2008), which captures the sun and moon during an eclipse, the natural phenomenon of sun and moon light reflecting off the surface of the dark blue sea, the artist ultimately aims to become one with the breath of humans and the cosmos, opening questions about the origin of all creation and the principles of nature. And abundant questions on this matter are continued in Earth-Water-Fire-Air. The artist's body penetrates the lives of the world through the "needle," connects the dualities of the inner and outer aspects of the human, as well as of existence and non-existence, by being a "mirror," and this needle and mirror breathe in and breathe out as they talk about life and death, going back and forth between the worlds of material and nonmaterial. The paths of the needle and the mirror then expand from the human to nature and the universe, beginning a journey to the world of the origin and essence of all creation.

  • From the early 90s until now, spectators have participated in Kimsooja's world of work together with the endlessly mobile body of the artist through "needle" and "bottari." Some read post-modern nomadism or global culture in her performances and objects, while others have made connections between the Korean objects, colors and references to Eastern culture that appear in her work, and national identity or feminism. Of course, in today's culture, which pursues movement, cultural diversity and difference, each cultural code and reference reflects the identity of the concerned group. If, however, we assume the state of art now as the effort to preserve the autonomy of each of the differences, and to pursue their mere coexistence, ironically, such identities will be destined to remain as folklore or exotic elements. Artists' work today is based on references to their unique culture and regional codes, and Kimsooja's world of work is no exception. But what is important is that such elements in her work transcend the local and construct significance in the global dimension, forming a circuit. That is, her work seeks cooperation among the multiplicity of different cultural seeds, and proposes continuous adaptation among their peculiarities. Minimalist aesthetics and the "ready-used" concept, which can be sensed throughout her work, connect Korean objects, local culture and Eastern thought to the Western history of art, undergo new adaptations, and form extraordinary and creative routes that enable us to journey through the life of humankind.

  • Kimsooja's bottari, blanket covers, needle work, etc., have created a new model that traverses Korean tradition, Eastern philosophy and art-historical codes. All of Kimsooja's objects are ready-made. Of course the "readymade concept" is no longer an issue of interest for us today. The point is not the fact that Kim took the readymade objects, but how she expanded and transformed the concept of readymade. "My work redefines the already existing concept of the object. This preexistence is hidden within daily life, particularly in the perspective of the West. Art history does not speak of such preexistence, and does not conceptualize this idea. It is only conceptualized when someone makes it break away from its original production, and shows it in the frame of representation/performance. To create a context of its own in art history: this is the work I do. So my work has nothing to do with making a new object without a previous life." [5] Her interest in bottari, blanket covers and other objects is not in the "already made (action/result)," but in how it has been used (time/experience). In other words, when the artist uses old clothes or blanket covers that were worn or used by someone, she is using that someone's "life." Kimsooja transforms blankets, wrapping cloths and bottari, permeated with the colorful lives of anonymous people, into unique objects with diachronic aspects of time; follows the traces of our lives; feels the breath of the people; and sets out in search of the love of humanity. The transfer from "readymade" to "readyused" in her works is carried out through a certain "acetic practice," stitching blanket covers, wrapping bottari, meeting many people, and participating in their life journeys. This ascetic attitude and practice enable the artist to become an anonymous being, wrapping and unveiling other anonymous life, revealing and re-contextualizing the preexisting but invisible tracks of life. The colorful blanket-wrap becomes a frame of life embellished with all deeds of life; the flamboyant, multicolored bottari becomes a flexible vessel that embraces such anonymous life; and the needle-body, which connects all of this, becomes a gesture to visualize the anonymous subjects while extinguishing itself in the process. Moreover, the artist/subject, who has disappeared from the picture-plane, becomes the "third eye," beginning contemplation on fundamental life. The process of contextualizing the present through the times, lives and traces of objects once used by someone is always born with minimum intervention and minimum action in Kimsooja's work. Such aesthetics of the least in her work process is a kind of meditation, "making nothing and being nothing." Making nothing but revealing something more powerful, visualizing perpetuity through extinction, and saying the most with the least — this is Kimsooja's world of work.

Notes:

[1] John Cage, cited from interview of Kimsooja by Nicolas Bourriaud in Cat. Kim Sooja: Condition of Humanity, 2003. > return to article >
[2] Cited from interview of Kimsooja by Byoung-hak Yoo, Art in Culture, March 2010. > return to article >
[3] Cited from interview of Kimsooja by Byoung-hak Yoo, Art in Culture, March 2010. > return to article >
[4] Cited from interview of Kimsooja by Nicolas Bourriaud, in Cat. Kim Sooja: Condition of Humanity, 2003. > return to article >
[5] Cited from interview of Kimsooja by Nicolas Bourriaud, in Cat. Kim Sooja: Condition of Humanity, 2003. > return to article >

Aire de Fuego / Air of Fire, 2009, 5:02 loop, sound, still from Earth - Water - Fire - Air

KIMSOOJA | Tierra - Agua - Fuego - Aire / Earth - Water - Fire - Air

Rubio, Oliva María

2009

of sea, of fire, of dreams, of earth, of air. Miguel Hernández

  • For the 2009 5th Lanzarote Biennial, Kimsooja has undertaken a project of five videos, filmed entirely on the island of Lanzarote, that tackles the subject of the four elements that have been employed by philosophers since antiquity to describe the essential components of material reality and the source of all energy and life, both in Western traditions and in the East: earth, water, fire, and air. Always charged with great symbolism, the four elements which date back to the time of Pre-Socratic philosophers and later received a more precise explanation from Empedocles, persisted through the Middle Ages to modern times and profoundly influenced the development of European thought and culture. These Western conceptions coincide with Indian, Japanese, and Buddhist traditions, which like Aristotle added a fifth element, ether (or the container of the cosmos) and with the Buddhist tradition. In some Asian countries like Korea and China, air is substituted for wind.

  • Kimsooja has uncovered, in the volcanic, ocean landscape of the island of Lanzarote, the force and inspiration of these elements, the essential energy that we all depend on as living beings, as well as an invitation to fantasy and a source of creativity. Kimsooja compels us to see fire in water, earth in water, air in water, and therefore, also the opposite: water in air, water in earth, water in fire. In a way, as the artist notes, water alone would suffice to represent all four elements, even though one might imagine that each element admits only a singular and unique representation.

  • The first three videos: Fire of Earth; Water of Earth and Fire of Air, share a common "journey" and form a trilogy. They have been filmed in different moments of day and night, in slow motion, while the artist was driving though the rocky landscape of the island. Each one of these videos evokes the elements of fire, water, and air, respectively.

  • The first video, Fire of Earth, was filmed during the day, and depicts the island's daytime landscape. The camera leads us through the island's rocky scenery, and makes us feel the body of the earth as if it were a skin. The camera's ample panoramic lens serves as a counterpoint to the partial vision of the nocturnal scene in the second video.

  • Here, the movement of the camera, sometimes sped up and other times slowed down, guides us through the rocky scene creating a trompe l'oeil effect: it looks as though the mountains in the background remain still, while the rocky terrain of the foreground moves faster, then slower, creating the illusion that the sea rocks, charred by the volcano's fire, are gliding across the landscape as if being dragged by a lava flow or a movement from deep inside the earth. At times, the mountains in the background also seem to move, but in the opposite direction as the foreground's rocky landscape; or that the fore is spinning, turning around the mountainous background in a circular motion of eternal return. The silence that envelopes everything and counters the ceaseless movement creates a mood of estrangement that is heightened by the moonscape of the boulder field, transmitting all the energy and spirituality of cosmic connection, typical of these extraordinary spaces.

  • The second video, Water of Earth, filmed at night and also in slow motion while driving, roams the nocturnal landscape of Lanzarote with a substantially different impact than the daytime film. Here we also encounter a trompe l'oeil effect. Again we experience the dynamic of mobility in the foreground and immobility in the background (in this case the sky), as in the daytime video, but here, the vista is obscured. In contrast with the complete view of the first video, our vision is now reduced by the darkness of night or absence of light. Also, due to the absence of light, the foreground takes on a larger role. Here the fore stands out against the sky, and the mountains that appear during the daytime disappear almost completely into the background. In this video the effect of movement occurs on several levels and always flows in the same direction. Altogether it resembles a deep river of dark waters moving quickly in the background and sliding slowly into the fore. The background is covered with scrub and rocky hills that appear like ghosts darkened by the night and almost completely fill the frame obscuring our view of the bottom. Sometimes the screen is pierced by poles or trees that pass across our field of vision like shooting stars. The varying degrees of acceleration evoke many other natural processes such as streams, floods, and rapids.

  • In the third video, Fire of Air, the artist illuminates the darkness with a spotlight while driving through the fields of volcanic rock. Focusing in on the center of the frame and leaving the rest of the screen dark, we see the blackness that envelops everything, except when the light collides with a physical object.

  • With the appearance and disappearance of light, and therefore the landscape, the images become unrecognizable. When the light appears, what we see is like a sort of swirling cloud, blowing in the wind. The night's darkness envelops everything until the light reappears. The light here is the source of energy that illuminates the space but is also absorbed by the darkness when it does not cross a physical object. Only when the light crosses or collides with something physical does it consume its energy. And as the artist herself notes, "darkness and distance play the roles of absorbing light in a vacuum and consuming the source/energy of light in physicality."

  • The appearance and disappearance of light creates an aura of mystery. The spotlight that the artist guides, like the sun lighting the earth, turns the landscape into something ethereal, abstract, resembling an eddy of clouds being swept away by the wind, spinning like a Ferris wheel of light. The rocky, nocturnal landscape of Lanzarote disappears and turns into a mass of light and clouds. Only every so often do tiny points of light appear on the horizon.

  • This trilogy speaks about how natural light and darkness, or lack of light, as well as the use of artificial light is associated with our modes of perception. In some way, it reveals how our visual reality is directly related to light, darkness, perspective, emptiness and physicality, simultaneously creating the mystery of our vision that goes beyond reality and lead us into the realm of fantasy. Fact and fiction are paired in these videos, opening our minds to a deeper reality that transcends habitual perceptions.

  • The movement of the earth, the movement of life, the acceleration and deceleration of events, the fleetingness of life… these elements also become manifest in contemplating this work.

  • This project is accompanied by two individual videos, Air of Fire and Earth of Water, which focus on the elements water and air and the energy generated when both come into play. To do this, Kimsooja selects two particular moments in the continuous movement of the sea and the undulating waves produced by air currents.

  • In the first, Air of Fire, the artist selects a segment of sea where the ocean joins with the earth on a cliff of black volcanic rock to depict the beautiful spectacle of a rainbow forming. When the waves of white foam, propelled by the wind, collide with the cliff, breaking and jumping through the air, the colors of the rainbow appear in their entire splendor. These waves soar to the top of the cliff, dispersing droplets as if to revive the fields of volcanic rock. In the middle of the video, the picture disappears from the screen and it goes black, leaving on our retina the image of the waves and rainbow, while we continue to hear the sound of water crashing against the cliff and dispersing with the force of the air. This separation of image and sound shows how meaning is created and reconstructed at the intersection of the auditory and visual senses. The sound of the waves breaking on the cliff, the beauty of foam leaping through the air, the appearance of a rainbow set against dark rocks, all of this is a hymn to the glory of nature, but it also drives us to question the mystery of creation.

  • In the second video, Earth of Water, Kimsooja films another section of the sea, framed as if it were a living painting. Rolling waves, continually shifting the movement and form of their own landscape, create a hypnotic mood that is enhanced by the gray scale of the sea's natural palette. One wave, gentle and repetitive, like a harmonious melody, rippling the sea.

  • Through these five videos in Lanzarote together with living volcanic and the sky scene in Guatemala that will be evolved in the future, the artist employs the reality of landscape and its materiality in order to transform beyond it. Juxtaposing fact and imagination, she imbues the series with elements of ambivalence and mystery. These works convey our diverse modes of perception and the creation of new meanings.

  • Oliva María Rubio is an art historian, curator, and writer, who has been director of exhibitions at La Fábrica, since 2004. She was the Artistic Director of PHotoEspaña (PHE), an International Festival of Photography and Visual Arts celebrated in Madrid (2001-2003), where she programmed around 60 exhibitions. She is a member of numerous juries on art and photography, and a member of the Committee of Visual Arts “Culture 2000 programme”, European Commission, Culture, Audiovisual Policy and Sport, Brussels (2003), the Purchasing Committee at Fonds National d’Art Contemporain (FNAC), Paris 2004-2006, and artistic advisor of the Prix de Photography at Fondation HSBC pour la Photograhie, Paris, 2005.

  • Oliva María Rubio is also the author of La mirada interior. El surrealismo y la pintura (Madrid, Tecnos, 1994), and writes articles for catalogues, magazines and newspapers. She recently curated Kimsooja's exhibition at Crystal Palace, Madrid, in collaoboration with the Reina Sofia Museum, and the travelling show of Andres Serrano: Salt on the wound, 2006.

She was the curator of Kimsooja's To Breathe: A Mirror Woman at the Crystal Palace, organized by Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in 2006.

A Needle Woman, 1999 - 2001, video still from New York, 8 channel video projection, 6:33 loop, silent.

An Interview with Kimsooja

Kim, Sunjung

2008

  • I would like to begin with a question about your video installation, A Needle Woman, perhaps your best-known work. It was made from 1999 until 2001, and was shot in various locations, such as Tokyo, Shanghai, Delhi, New York, Mexico City, Cairo, Lagos, and London. Could you describe your experiences in those cities and countries, and the background of the work?

  • When the CCA (Center for Contemporary Art) Kitakyushu [in Japan] approached me about a new project, I had the idea of making a performance video that would show the relationship between my body and the people on the streets of Tokyo. But it wasn't clear what form it would eventually take. At first, I got on and off crowded subway trains, and walked around for two hours. After this two-hour-long period, when I arrived to a street in Shibuya, where hundreds of thousands of people were constantly passing through, like waves of a human ocean ebbing and flowing - I suddenly became aware of the meaning of my ‘walking'. It was a breathtaking moment. I had to stop on the spot and stand still- creating a contradictory position against the flow of the pedestrians, like a needle or an axis, observing and contemplating them coming and going, weaving through and against my body as a medium, like a symbolic needle. I determined to record this experience of standing motionless in a crowd, viewed from behind. I immediately let the cameraman know and documented the performance. As if facing and sustaining a giant surf, my body was completely exposed to everyone in the middle of this street, and in the course of this intense standoff, my body and mind gradually transcended to another state. In other words, as I accelerated the state of my isolation, the presence of my body seemed to be gradually erased by the crowd. Simultaneously, as the sustained immobility of my body was leading me toward state of peace and balance in my mind, I passed the state of tension between the self and others and reached the point in which I could bring and breathe others into my own body and mind. My heart began to slowly fill with compassion and affection for all human beings living today. Experiencing the extreme state that the body and mind could reach and embrace sympathies for humankind, paradoxically, liberated my mind and body from the crowd. I saw the aura of a bright white light emerging from an unknown source beyond the horizon, and I cannot help but feel that it was a mysterious, transcendental experience.

  • After the Tokyo performance, I had a desire to see all of the people in the world, and the series A Needle Woman came out of this desire, in which I visited eight metropolises on five different continents. The relationship between my body and the crowd of each city was different in each instance, and the responses I got were also quite diverse. According to the geographical, cultural, religious, and socio-economic conditions, people responded completely differently to the body of the performer as an other—or an Asian female—and my inner reaction also manifested itself in various ways.

  • In this work, I established the immobility of my body as a symbolic needle, and further questioned my relationships with others through the act of a social, cultural sewing. At the same time, I see this video series as an extension of my bottari work, in which I tried to embrace the humanity within myself.

  • A new version of A Needle Woman was made for the 2005 Venice Biennale, with footage you shot in rather dangerous places riddled with many social and political problems. I'm curious about the reasons why you selected those cities and what kinds of issues you wanted to address in such backgrounds.

  • The first series of A Needle Woman consisted of real-time videos that focused on the spatial dimensions created by the body as a symbolic needle, or an axis within various spaces, in the midst of densely populated metropolises. The new version I presented at the 2005 Venice Biennale takes more of an interest in the cities that are experiencing poverty, violence, post-colonialism, civil wars, and religious conflicts—Patan, within Kathmandu Valley (Nepal), Havana (Cuba), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), N'Djamena (Chad), Sana (Yemen), and Jerusalem (Israel). My intention was to present a critical perspective on current conditions of humanity. Created in slow motion, this new series places my body at the zero point on the axis of time, and explores temporal dimensions by showing the contrast between my motionless body and the others' slow motion. This work also shows the subtlety of the relationship between bodies, and their emotional transitions and psychologies. This was another opportunity for me to explore the question of time, which has been important to me since my first video, Sewing into Walking.

  • To Breathe: A Mirror Woman, which was presented in your solo exhibition in the Palacio de Cristal, commissioned by The Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, was a work that changed the context of a given space and its spatiality. It seems that the work places emphasis on changing a space, and on the experience one may have in that space. If your earlier work had been about the two-dimensional experience of visiting different places via performance translated into video, this work asks viewers to experience the very space in which it is shown. Could you discuss the background and intention of this piece?

  • To Breathe: A Mirror Woman is a site specific project that brings together and amplifies the relationships between yin and yang ,and the concepts of the needle and sewing, that I have been developing for two decades. - from sewing into wrapping, sewing into walking, sewing into looking, and sewing into breathing. The idea of this project is based on wrapping the transparent architecture of Palacio de Cristal building into a bottari of light and sound. I incorporated the diffraction grating film with the entire glass pavilion of the Palacio de Cristal, to create a constantly changing spectrum of colors; the sound element consisted of a chorus blended from my own breathing and humming. Both elements were absorbed in and reflected out onto the mirror that covered the whole floor of the building, expanding a "void" within the skin of the architecture, and even becoming one with viewers' bodies and breaths as a sanctuary.

  • The body is an important element in your work. If A Needle Woman substitutes your own body for the needle, what does A Mirror Woman do? What kinds of metaphorical functions are performed by the needle and the mirror?

  • If A Needle Woman featured my body as a tool, which symbolizes the needle, in A Mirror Woman, the mirror functions in lieu of the body, that observes and reflects the "other." One can see the linguistic operations of anthropomorphizing the "needle" and the "mirror," which draw out the meaning of the works.

  • I didn't have a chance to visit your public project A Lighthouse Woman, and only got to see photographs of it. How did you start this project?

  • The piece was commissioned as part of the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2002, under the theme of "Witness of Water, Witness of Land". Charleston was one of the coastal cities of importation for African slaves. My work consisted of projecting a lighting sequence onto a lighthouse that had been out of commission for almost forty years in Morris Island, , where the devastating Civil War began. The piece was intended to breathe life back into the lighthouse and to commemorate the numerous lives lost in the war. The lighthouse was wrapped with a spectrum of nine colors, which gradually changed in a thirty-minute cycle in rhythm with the waves. A Lighthouse Woman structurally symbolized the body of a woman waiting for her husband and lover, children and brothers, who had gone off to war. I installed another work at the Drayton Hall Plantation House: four black carpets embroidered with the names of the slaves who worked there, which were placed in front of the fireplaces of the house.

  • Your Bottari Truck addresses mobile globalism. Does the importance of this work lie in the concept of globalism in mobility? Or is it the notion of identity or "being" in the global era?

  • I wasn't thinking about globalism when I made Bottari Truck, as I have never made a work related to a particular "ism" or category. I was always interested in the notion of body, personal histories and memories, and the questions of human despair and desire. I think this particular piece began to be interpreted from the perspective of globalism because the notions inherent in it came to be considered an important point of departure for globalism —such as location/dislocation and locality — and the work evolved with this social change. While I was performing 11 days throughout Korea, I was paying attention to the mobility of the bottari truck, and the continuity of both the bottari truck and the stillness of my body on the move. The truck was a moving sculpture, loaded with histories and memories, and its constant mobility, and the immobility of my body, co-incided on a temporal and spatial grid.

  • It seems to me that works such as Bottari Truck and A Needle Woman are located on a "border." They also encompass dualities such as inside and outside, life and death, pleasure and sadness. What would you say constitutes your interest in the border?

  • One might say that a consciousness about the "border" forms a sensitive spiritual axis in my thoughts. The idea connects with Eastern spirituality, which interprets all of existence in terms of yin and yang. Awareness of "border" in my work can refer to the question of the surface in painting, which was one of the starting points in my earlier sewing work. I consider the canvas as a mirror of identity, upon which artists are searching for their whole lives.

  • Perhaps, my obsession with "border" also has to do with my childhood, which was spent near the dangerous border of the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ).

  • In your 1994 solo exhibition Sewing into Walking, you developed the concept of "sewing" into "walking" by transforming "sewing stitch by stitch" into "walking step by step." Did your engagement with sewing start from a feminist point of view, or would you say that it started from personal experience?

  • This sewing practice didn't arise from a feminist point of view, or because I was particularly fond of, or good at, sewing. At that time I was exploring the structure of two-dimensionality and the world and its methodologies. One day in 1983, I was sewing a bedcover with my mother and suddenly came to realize possible formal, aesthetic, psychological, and cultural anthropological implications of the act of sewing. It was a question and an answer that came to me like a lightening bolt, or a divine revelation. I have to say that it was like a fated encounter between the universe and the needle, my hands and my body, that became an unforgettable event. This realization was completely unrelated to works that were made as part of the feminist art movements taking place in the United States and other places. As the notions of the "needle" and "wrapping" developed, the notion of sewing also expanded and evolved to relate to other acts of daily life, such as walking, looking, breathing, and mirroring.

  • Please describe the new works you are planning.

  • In the long term, my wish is to make my artistic desire disappear. In the short term, I'd like to make works that are like water and air, works that, like most of my works, cannot be possessed, but can be shared by everyone. I'd still like to wander around the world and answer questions that come to me at each moment, freely using any media. I will continue to be working without any preconceived plan, and answer questions that come to me through the evolution of my ideas.

  • What do "Korea" and "Korean" mean for you?

  • My Korean identity and my life in Korea are my main source of inspiration, but this source isn't always a positive one. Korea seems to me to be a land of shamanistic energy. I will continue to live as an anonymous outsider, as an anarchistic cosmopolitan.

Kimsooja, A Laundry Woman - Yamuna River, India, 2000, Single Channel Video Projection, 10:30 loop, Silent. Courtesy of the artist.

Interview with Kimsooja

Gordon, Kelly

2008

  • Kelly Gordon: What is your process when you make video works? Do you begin with notes, diagrams, sketches, or storyboarding? How much does it change on site?

  • Kimsooja: I basically refuse to "make" things, and I try to keep everything as it is and as natural as possible. My ideas are almost never written down or based on stories. For example, when I was trying to do a commissioned video performance for CCA Kitakyushu, I had in mind a walking performance but I wasn't completely sure how to realize it in that particular environment. I was walking around the city with the videographer for a couple of hours because I couldn't find an idea for doing the performance in that cityscape in relation to my body and spirit. Finally, when I arrived at a street in Shibuya, where hundreds of thousands of people were constantly passing through, like waves of a human ocean ebbing and flowing, I immediately understood the significance of my walking. I had a clear awareness of the contrast created between my body and the environment around me. It was a breathtaking moment. I had to stop and stand right there, remaining motionless against the flow of the people walking. I became like an axis, observing and contemplating the moment of people's coming and going, weaving past my body as a medium, like a symbolic needle. This is the moment when the standing still performance that occurs in A Needle Woman first happened.
    This is also how I worked for A Laundry Woman - Yamuna River, India. I stopped while passing by the Yamuna, next to a cremation facility, where all the debris was floating by. In that moment, I found the connection to the location and time within my spirit and body, and I immediately asked my videographer to start documenting my performance.
    Usually the performance lasts a maximum of thirty minutes, as that is the threshold of how long I can keep my body still. By the time my body reaches its limit, and through intense focus on the relationship of the self and the other, I experience different stages of awareness and a new perception of the status of my body and the world around me. For example, there was a moment during the A Laundry Woman performance when I was completely confused whether it was the river moving, or me. Then I came to the awareness that my concrete body was standing motionless but that, in another sense, it was also running and would burn to ash very soon.

  • KG: In several of your videos, including A Laundry Woman - Yamuna River, India, you appear with your back to the camera in a dark, featureless outfit, almost like a silhouette. Is this to suggest that you represent an "everywoman" character? Or a Sprecher figure, like those in Renaissance paintings who bear witness and offer authenticity to a scene? Do you draw from other literary or artistic inspirations? During the shoot, how do you retain the expression on your face that the viewer cannot see?

  • K: There have been interesting comparisons made between Casper David Friedrich's paintings and my performance videos, especially with A Laundry Woman and A Needle Woman. Actually, the Museum Folkwang in Germany exhibited my work next to Casper David Friedrich's paintings. As I turn my back towards the audience, my body functions as a void through which viewers can look and contemplate what I am gazing at, placing themselves in my position. Yet I still have to create a corporeal figure that witnesses, mediates, and contemplates on the here and now in each location.
    I am not interested in showing my identity, but I can't imagine ever using a surrogate to replace me. The work should be performed with my own awareness of the energy of the location. If I were to substitute someone else, the figure would become empty, and would have no connection to this idea of the here and now. The most important aspect of my performance videos is what I experience within myself during the process. I actually don't care much about the resulting video piece, but when the experience is strong and special, the actual video seems to be strong and special too, so I just focus on the moment. To concentrate on the here and now I need inner silence and motionlessness. The performance comes from my awareness of other people or the river passing by rather than from my intention. I don't perform in order to make videos; rather, I make videos to document the moment of performance and my awareness.
    Most audiences are curious about my facial expression while my back is turned. I don't want to show my face as it will draw people's attention to my identity rather than what I am experiencing as an anonymous figure. My approach in making these videos is not to guide the audience in a specific direction but to leave the experience open. I do not borrow or reference things in my work. The pieces usually develop from my intuition, which is based on my experiences and the conditions of my life, rather than from logic. At the same time, I believe in the logic of intuition.

  • KG: Which comes first, the idea or the site? You have filmed all over the world but the sites often feel very similar and have a trance-inducing quality. Do these attributes inform how you select the sites? What is your technique for making the viewer feel vividly there—present with you?

  • K: I usually don't plan things in advance; I just let it happen—sometimes waiting, sometimes wandering around until the right moment arrives. It arrives when I feel the energy, accumulated from that precise time and place, in my body. Then I immediately start a performance. It is a temporary mobile temple that I establish. This only happens when I am ready and have been searching for some connection between my mind and body and a specific context of space, culture, geography, and the conditions of nature and human beings within a place. The whole process feels true to myself. The performances and videos seem to be vivid and engaging to the viewer as a result.

  • KG: Your video works suggest a timeless dimension on several levels. While the works typically have ambient or minimal sound, one can imagine a voice-over beginning with "Once upon a time..." Yet even the videos from ten years ago seem very current.

  • K: Your perception of my work with regards to the spectrum of time is interesting. It is true that it looks current but at the same time quite old. I think this is because through most of my work I've been pursuing a sense of universality that is timeless and fundamentally truth—general human experiences. I also think that the present tense is created as the presence of my body as it functions as a medium or a void, through which the audiences gaze, rather than as an static and iconic representation. I don't believe in creating something new but in inventing new perspectives based on mundane daily life as it relates to contemporary art.

  • KG: What are you working on now, and how is it like or unlike A Laundry Woman - Yamuna River, India and your other video works?

  • K: All my projects can look similar and at the same time be totally different. I've been working on a project called Mumbai: A Laundry Field since 2006, and am adding a couple more channels now. I've been to Mumbai again this year to film in another slum area where many people sleep on the streets, and I plan to go back this summer to film during the monsoon season. It is quite different from the other videos I've made so far, closer to a documentary format, without commentary but with edits. This piece brings together many of my previous practices relating to fabrics, the human body, and humanity, so it has a retrospective element to it.
    Another video I am making now is called A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon, which is a four channel video I filmed in Goa, showing the parallel relationship with The Sun and The Moon overlapped on top of the ocean waves and its reflections. I still have a series of videos I've been working on since 2005, involving architectural cityscapes around the world, which I haven't been able to finish yet. Other than that, I have a few other site-specific architectural projects I am currently working on in Europe, as well as a few other site-specific projects.
    I actually don't think about consistency and the pieces' relationship to my other work. I believe they must be related naturally in the larger scheme. I only focus on trying to break my own boundaries by constantly questioning and opening up new horizons.

  • KG: Your work often explores the physical and metaphorical aspects of materials and threads. What is the source of your fascination with textiles? How has this been manifest as your practice has evolved?

  • K: My fascination with fabric as a medium began when I was sewing a Korean bedspread with my mother in 1983. At this time I was questioning the "dimension of the surface on painting," and also searching for a methodology that could reveal the horizontal and vertical structure of the world in a way not yet examined in the history of painting. When I put a needle into the structure of the fabric, which has both a vertical and horizontal surface, I was thrilled and exhilarated, as if a ray of energy that seemed to come from the whole universe was penetrating through my body and my hands, and reaching to the needle point where it met the surface of the fabric. I was also interested in the fact that sewing layers on top of the structure of the fabric in a circular, performative way. This was the moment of my encounter with the yin and yang energy that has evolved in many different paths and levels in my practices.

Kelly Gordon is an Associate Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC.

Kimsooja, A Mirror Woman - the ground of nowhere, 2003, Crossings 2003: Korea/Hawaii, in commemoration of the centennial of Korean/Hawaiian immigration, Honolulu City Hall, 57' x 21' diameter, aluminum ring, fine gauze cotton, mirror, wood, photo by Kimsooja, Courtesy of Crossings 2003: Korea/Hawaii and Kimsooja Studio. Kimsooja, A Mirror Woman - the ground of nowhere, 2003, Crossings 2003: Korea/Hawaii, in commemoration of the centennial of Korean/Hawaiian immigration, Honolulu City Hall, 57' x 21' diameter, aluminum ring, fine gauze cotton, mirror, wood, photo by Kimsooja, Courtesy of Crossings 2003: Korea/Hawaii and Kimsooja Studio.

Art & Today, Excerpt from Art & Globalism

Heartney, Eleanor

2008

  • Kimsooja, who comes from a nomadic tradition in which all of one's possessions were designed to be folded up and taken away, recalls Chen's "transexperience" in both her heritage and her current experience as a woman living between her Korean past and her Western present. Her sculpture and installation works are combined with or accompanied by performances in which she appears as an alter ego known variously as A Needle Woman, A Mirror Woman, or A Beggar Woman. In the video A Needle Woman, 1999-2001, Kimsooja sits impassively, her back to the camera, in front of a variety of bustling streets — in Cairo, Delhi, Lagos, London, Mexico City, New York, Shanghai, and Tokyo — becoming a kind of motionless center, a cosmic outsider, existing in another time and consciousness apart from the world around her.

  • A Mirror Woman: The Ground of Nowhere, 2003, a sixty-foot-high vertical cylinder of white fabric, was installed in the lobby of Honolulu's colonial-era City Hall, whose atrium roof Kimsooja arranged to have reopened. Sealing off all but the opening to the sky directly above the fabric column, she placed a mirror floor on the ground the column's center, so that visitors who stepped inside found themselves standing on a piece of sky. Meanwhile, the fabric swayed gently in the breeze, creating a seemingly living, breathing space. Clouds drifting above and reflected below suggested, paradoxically, the feeling of rolling on an open sea. As part of an arts festival celebrating Korean immigration to the United States, A Mirror Woman referenced the immigrant's sense of destabilized identity, but it also provided a universal experience of merging with earth and sky.

Originally published as:
Heartney, Eleanor - Art & Today, Published in London: Phaidon. 2008. pp. 314-319

Kimsooja, A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon (Eclipse), 2008, One of Four Channel Video Projection, 12:33 loop, Sound. This project was possible with the generous support of Shiseido Co., Ltd.

Standing at the Zero Point

von Drathen, Doris

2008

  • Within the confines of our linear notion of experience and imagination, the conjunction of sun and moon is merely an idea and, to us, unthinkable. Exceptional constellations of planets, such as the eclipses of the sun and the moon, are, by their very essence, quite different, for these do not feature the two celestial bodies at the very same time, but more the moment of shadow when the one is moving in front of the other and robbing it of light. The actual conjunction of sun and moon bursts the bounds of our reality, in a way that has always been conceived as metaphor for expressing the transgression of the impossible, the transgression of the duality of day and night that occludes all formulae and laws of time and place. The conjunction of sun and moon is the icon of impossibility.

  • When, in her video installation A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon, Kimsooja lets us experience precisely this impossibility on screen, she is not working with tricks. The sequence of images unfolds in real time, for the full duration of sunset and moonrise. One could almost say that the work of art in itself, however, remains invisible: it is the very point where Kimsooja is standing and observing the events in the sky. The artist is positioned on a spot, which is precisely gauged by seismograph, in fact at the zero point of a place, in that splice of space between the planets, in the chink between the orbits of sun and moon, on the verge of consciousness, at the brink of the mirror. The rest is waiting, with a fixed camera and an open frame, so that the rise of the moon and the setting of the sun are able to overlie one another.

  • Yet what does this say about the event, which the viewer is experiencing in that pictorial space, spanned between the four walls of Kimsooja's latest 4-channel video installation? For the fascination that takes hold of the viewer is immense; when, right at the threshold, one is caught up by the incessant sound of waves, when one gazes, transfixed, onto that horizon of the ocean which, in barely noticeable motion, traverses a silvery pane of light that has risen from the endlessly soft, shallow waves, whitely shimmering, roseate in reflection and alabaster in transparency, whilst the line of the horizon is left more and more below. And at the same time, and just as slowly, a red glowing ball of sun that glimmers in the foam moves closer to this extremely large moon, at some point touches its upper outer edge, enters into the circle of the moon, touches from inside against that selfsame edge to glide with the same slowness, yet moving freely, across the silvery surface of that circular pane and at some point, touch from inside against its lower edge and then, still touching this lower edge from the outside, gradually leaves the moon to move closer to the horizon, gradually, almost unnoticeably yet all of a sudden, immerses itself into its space of haze and disappears. There are several forms of motion that interlink in this pictorial space: not only do sun and moon draw closer to one another in the opposing orbits of their rise and fall. In ancient harmony, the waves of the ocean surge and join in with the orbits of the planets: the more the moon rises, the more the waves pull back, and over and over again wash over the sand. Shadow-like, against the light, palm leaves stir in the wind as if to tune in with the chorale in this momentous gathering of breath. For the waves that ceaselessly wash over the sands, withdraw, only to spill over the sand again, seemingly inscribed in the cosmic harmony of the huge orbital paths of the moon and those of the sun that, as we know, embody the illusion of the actual movement of the earth. The slow rhythm of the barely noticeable motion is in alignment with the shallowness of the waves, which at no single moment ever rear up into dramatic walls of water but, restrained and soft, roll on in horizontal dynamics in accompaniment to the line of horizon. The longer one is transfixed by this sequence of images, the more it appears as if the planetary orbits and the waves of the ocean are borne and pulsated by one single respiratory movement, as if one could imagine something like a cosmos, the founding principle of which lies in the simplest of movements, namely that of aspiration and exhalation, a constant contraction and expansion. This all engulfing breath is described by Hermann Broch after his contemplation of nature at night: "The quietude aroused by the drawing of breath, the night filled with the drawing of breath and, evolving from night and tranquillity, that omnipresence, that breath of the world in sleep. The dark exhaled, became more and more structured, filled with minion upon minion, ever more terrestrial, ever more abounding in shadow. (...) And that breathing being wandered through the breath of the night, over field and garden and sustenance, they too drawing their breath; and the breath of the universe opened itself to receive the creature, opened to the Oneness of the world that, in receiving love, receives its own structure." [1]

  • The singularity of the work of Kimsooja, however, is that she does not illustrate such an idea as cosmic breath or universal principle that might well apply to the creation as a whole, but vice-versa, she derives it from an "almost" everyday observation. For were one to gaze like Kimsooja and her camera, one would after all be able to observe this conjunction of sun and moon, this respiratory chorale of the planetary orbits and the movement of the ocean every single month. In fact it is this fundamental principle of breathing that correlates very distinctly here with her previous work. And it is only in viewing this new video composition that the dimension of the light and sound of her former composition To Breathe (invisible mirror / invisible needle), 2005, now becomes clearer; for this work, Kimsooja composed a genuine chorale from the sound of her own breathing and performed it at the Venetian theatre La Fenice; coloured light projections switched their respiratory rhythm as they took their cue in front of the closed stage to then roam through the audience. A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon also relates to the performance A Needle Woman, Kitakyushu, 1999, when Kimsooja, in supine position, nestles close to a rock to become part of that breathing horizon, her back turned towards the viewer whose gaze she can thus transport conjointly with her own into the far distance. Likewise related to this work is also the complex performance of A Needle Woman between 1999 and 2001, when Kimsooja placed herself as immovable vertical axis in the midst of crowds of people who are streaming by, this one single moment of an encounter gauged in an extended time. For what we see when looking at the planetary orbits of A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon is indeed this, an encounter between differing time currents that meet up at one particular point.

  • It might well seem to be symbolic of the work of Kimsooja when, on a second wall in A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon video installation, she shows the slow, gleaming approach of a shallow wave as it rolls to splay out over the sand, which has become a mirror of the returning waters and reflects the glowing spot of light from the sun. Infinitely gentle, the flat wave slinks towards the mirror of light, touching its outer edge, to spill a little more over this second sun before withdrawing, only to start again. The soft gentleness of this wave as it spreads over the sand calls to mind that fabric which in Korea traditionally has served as a Ybulbo, which is the Korean word for these artistically woven and decorated cotton or silk bedcovers that can be wrapped for multiple uses as a Bottari (a bundle). For people sleep on these spreads, children are born on them; they serve to wrap up items for safekeeping or for travel and were also used to carry the ill, or to cover and transport the deceased. Not only does this reflecting imagery relate to this fabric, one of the principal leitmotifs in Kimsooja's work, but also, and above all, the motif of the mirror emerges that in like manner is one of the recurrent elements in her work and plays a major role in her installation A Mirror Woman, 2002: here, a number of lines of these traditional bedcovers were suspended across a large interior space; the walls were mirrored, so that countless fabrics were reproduced in endless space. The performance A Laundry Woman, Yamuna River, 2000, in Delhi also could be understood as the imagery of a mirror; for once again, as immovable axis of time, the artist stands on the bank of the burial river; a few miles further down the river the dead were being burnt; and some residue of the decoration that was not combustible was borne onwards by the river together with ashes of the incinerated bodies. With her back to the viewers, her gaze carries their eyes into the distance, over the river and its horizon and the comparison with the mirror is set: whereas the river will ever continue to flow, the artist becomes conscious of her own shorter span of life. A sort of leap in time is set in scene, derived from observation of the world around us and culminating in the laws of the universe.

  • And this is exactly what is happening when in the A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon the sand is washed over, when the waves roll leisurely to the shore to play with the sun mirror: an everyday perspective that in the sequence of orbital imagery becomes an insight into cosmic motion. For the longer one contemplates this pictorial space, the more it seems as if it were the most natural thing that the motion of the waves, which at some point touch the mirrored sun, is inscribed in the imagery of wandering orbits of sun and moon. What is so breathtaking about this? Is this phenomena not related to the question of boundaries, the awesome secret of dynamics and power that seem, just as with the waves, to set constraints on the motion and expansion of the moon, the sun and the earth? Time and again, Kimsooja uses her observations of the world around us to span and create her own spatiality, one that is far removed from our understanding and touches upon the enigmas of the cosmos. Hardly any mystical train of thought would seem to open the door to such abundance of imagery as in Judaism, where those dynamics of a power, which is able to dictate here and no further, is considered as one of the divine manifestations, namely Shaddai. What is so surprising about this term, which denotes the forces of equilibrium of the universe, is that the cabalistic numerical value of its letters is 314; in other words, it corresponds exactly to the Greek pi. So that the mathematical, transcendental number for the rapport between the circumference of a circle and its diameter, i.e. the very tension and expansion of the circle, reflects the ancient mystical conceptions of Shaddai. [2] These spherical movements also coincide in the work of Kimsooja with the notion of cosmic forces, when moon and sun wander across sea and sky and, spellbound, we watch how they traverse the horizon of the earth, well knowing that this horizon, like the movement of the sun, is nothing but a deception of our own restricted range of vision. In the imagery of the 4-channel video installation A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon, the other walls, the third and the fourth, show formations of water that are immersed in the roseate silvery light of the moon as it rises at the same time as the sun sets. In one of these sequences, the camera takes a close shot of the heaving sea without shoreline or horizon. The viewer merges into the incessant breathing of the sea, as it gives forth its waves, allowing them to rise and subside in eternal circuit, as if the sea were fitted with a flywheel. On the fourth wall, shallow waves lap over some small rocks, swelling upwards to cover them, only to withdraw again to release the stones. Rather like a fixed marking, the stones appear to be parameters for the motion of the waves; here too, an encounter takes place between differing conjunctures. It is the endless repetition of the motion of the waves that gives a homogeneous sense of time; because of the persistent contraction and expansion of the ocean, the breathing of the sea, the viewer becomes susceptible to the circuit of the celestial bodies in the selfsame endlessness of their return. In this image, time is tangible; it is duration; as Bergson would say, a "homogeneous medium" which leaves behind the dimension of a succession of events. [3] It would be possible here to draw a comparison with the myths surrounding the wheel, the association of the potter's wheel, i.e. the principle of creation and the unremitting whirl of its cycles. The sole chance of escaping from this constant rotation is, as Indian and Asian sages teach, [4] by concentrating on the innermost Self. And that is why, more on a sublimed level than from a formal aspect, one could say that this work A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon has the strength of being the sum of Kimsooja's oeuvre — up to the present day.

  • However, when the works of Kimsooja consistently bring over this moment of supreme and absolute presence, this concentration on the innermost Self, then it is possible to recognise here her utter self-containment and inner repose, where quietude and meditation are more an inner position than any exceptional condition and penetrate every moment of her day. In the same way, her work is embedded in the direct, close observation of the world surrounding us.

  • This too is how the photographs The Sun - Unfolded were generated that strike as if from another world. Magical circles of spectral colours take concentric shape around the sun, like rays of light that unfold in concentric waves. The Sun - Unfolded is the name of these concentric circles that are reminiscent of a mandala. The distinctive element of the work of Kimsooja is, however, that these photographs are not manipulated; they were taken on the brink, as it were, by coincidence, whilst preparing the video A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon on Goa beach. It is paradoxical that it is in particular these photographs, which seem to complete this work; as if the sunlight itself reveals its secret and in one wave-like respiratory movement, unfolds the energy that lightens our vision day by day.

  • And it is interestingly this somewhat incidental creation, which, compared to the cosmic works of Kimsooja hitherto, comes full circle. For in the year 2003 she created A Mirror Woman: the ground of nowhere. In a room that was open to the sky the artist installed a 19-metre oscillating pillar composed of strips of muslin; on the ground she placed a mirror of the same diameter. Stepping through the wafting muslin, the visitor hence looked downwards to the sky and could watch the clouds and seagulls pass beneath his feet. On the one hand, just as with a glance into a well, there is the surprise effect of the world being upside-down; on the other, however, as so often in her work, Kimsooja broaches the sensitive topic of displacement, the fate of the emigrant who lives the experience that there is no ground any more under his feet, his only anchorage being within himself and in the sky. Yet in terms of the moon and the sun orbits, another dimension becomes apparent, namely that of the wholeness of the world, the idea of oneness that is found in the Egyptian writings of Hermes Trismegistos: "That which is above is the same as that which is below and that which is below is the same as that which is above". [5] This train of thought, which in its substance said that all is derived from The One and can be returned to The One, maintained its validity from the times of classical antiquity in the writings of Plato, of the Renaissance at the Medici court, through to the era of the Enlightenment and its philosophers, such as Leibniz. Again today, these thoughts are topical in the search for a systemic image of man and universe. In the eastern world of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, the idea of Oneness has always been at the heart of spiritual imagery. Emphasis is made of this philosophy here because in the series The Sun - Unfolded it would seem to find its icon. Peculiar as it is, these circles are identical to the drawings of Leibniz when setting down his own philosophy of The One.

  • The concentric waves of light from the work The Sun - Unfolded also come full circle in To Breathe - A Mirror Woman, which Kimsooja installed at the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid. From glass wall to glass wall, a mirror covered the flooring so that the construction of the high glass vault repeated itself beneath the feet of the visitor and swung in the bottomless space of doubled dimension. The entire cupola of the palace was covered with a transparent refractile coating, so that inside the endless space, a coloured light, such as found in church windows, set about its dancing twirls and doused the visitor in a thousand-fold splatter of spectral colours. Here too, the room was replete with the sound of the artist's breathing, the rhythm of which varied according to differing states of emotion, from joy, calm, doubt and anxiety through to a confidence reclaimed. The sound of breathing throws the visitor involuntarily back onto himself and his own rhythm of breathing. This is what is so unparalleled in the work of Kimsooja. The viewer is included in the pictorial space and an intimate dialogue is threaded between the viewer and the work of art; the artist knows how to render herself invisible and to transpose her own experience to the viewer. And this is precisely what happens in the oeuvre A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon: her position at the zero point between the orbits of the moon and the sun becomes a place in the splice of space, at the dividing wall of the mirror that generates consciousness; from here, she can view the impossible, open her range of vision into the cosmos, intensify her own sense of consciousness towards transcendence. At this moment of absolute presence, an ethical dimension reveals itself; this absolute liberty demands the relinquishment of territory, the relinquishment of an identity that is defined by belonging; it calls for an awareness that concentrates utterly and absolutely on the Self.

  • Translated from the German by Pauline Elsenheimer.

Notes:

[1] Hermann Broch, Tod des Vergil, Frankfurt, 1976, p.212 "Atmungserweckt die Stille, atemerfüllt die Nacht, wuchs aus Nacht und Stille das immer Vorhandene, der atmende Weltenschlaf. Aufatmete die Dunkelheit, wurde gestalteter und gestalteter, kreatürlicher und kreatürlicher, irdischer und irdischer, wurde schattenreicher und schattenreicher. (...) Das Atmende durchwanderte den Atem der Nacht, mitwanderten Feld und Garten und Nahrung, mitatmend auch sie, und der All-Atem öffnete sich die Kreatur zu empfangen, öffnete sich zur Welteneinheit, die liebeempfangend die eigene Gestalt empfängt." > return to article >
[2] Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Mystères de la Kabbale, Paris, 2000, p.369 cf Gershom Scholem, Die jüdische Mystik in ihren Hauptströmungen, Frankfurt, 1980, p. 152 > return to article >
[3] cf Henri Bergson, Zeit und Freiheit (Sur les données immédiates de la conscience), Frankfurt, 1989, p.76 > return to article >
[4] cf Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, Dictionnaire des Symboles, Paris, 1969, Vol. 4, p.119 ff > return to article >
[5] Hermes Trismegistos, "Verfertigt von von Alethophilo", 1786, Stuttgart 1855, p.51 ff. > return to article >

  • First published in the catalogue in conjunction with the exhibition A Mirror Woman : The Sun & The Moon at Shiseido Gallery, Tokyo, Japan, August 23, 2008 - October 19, 2008.

Encounter – Looking Into Sewing, 1998 – 2002, Vivachrome print, 83-3/4" x 49-5/8", Photo by Lee Jong Soo, Courtesy of Art & Public, Geneva, and Kimsooja Studio.

Between Existence and Non-Existence

Jung, Joonmo

2008

  • 신동아 0806호 원고 / 김수자

  • 실존과 부재의 사이
    글/정준모(미술행정, 고양문화재단 전시감독)

경계선 상의 보따리 (Bottari on the Borderline)

  • 김수자의 보따리는 매우 선명하다. 그 선명하고 화려한 색채는 눈이 부실 지경이다. 하지만 그의 보따리가 갖는 오브제로서의 선명성에도 불구하고 그의 작품은 분명한 메시지나 미학을 던져주지는 않는다. 관객에게 오랜 시간 인내하는 시간을 요구 할 뿐이다. 일상에서처럼 슬쩍 지나치지 않는다면 더욱 많은 사람들과 일상들과 인연을 맺을 수 있음에도 불구하고 바쁘다는 핑계로 외면하고 지나치는 사람들에게 김수자의 작품은 그곳에서 말을 걸어주는 사람을 기다리고 있을 뿐이다. 즉 말 걸기를 통해 관계를 맺는 것이다. 그리고 작품으로 메시지를 주려고 하기보다는 그 관계 속에서 자신을 들여다보거나 또 다른 자신을 만나도록 도와준다. 그의 작품은 그런 점에서 명료하다. 아니 단순하다. 하지만 그 관계 속에서 그냥 지나치지 않고 그의 작품을 일상으로 가지고 들어가는 일이 그리 쉬운 일이 아니다. 왜냐하면 우리는 외면하고 지나치는 일에 너무 익숙하기 때문이다. 하지만 그의 보따리를 외면하기에는 왠지 쉽지 않다. 왜냐하면 그의 보따리는 현존하는 오브제이자 현실 그 자체인 때문이다. 사실 많은 예술은 가정이자 허구인 경우가 대부분이다. 이러한 예술의 허구성은 삶의 일상성이라는 블랙 홀로 빠져들기 쉬운 인간의 속성으로부터 온갖 장치와 착시현상의 장치들을 걷어내고 순수한 예술적 대상에 몰입할 수 있도록 도와준다. 하지만 그 전제가 허구라는 점에서 김수자의 보따리와는 다르다. 사실 김수자의 작품이 여타의 작품과 구분되는 가장 중요한 요소는 보따리가 현실에 존재하는 예술품 그 자체라는 사실이다. 그러나 그 자체를 넘어 보따리가 포함하고 있는 은닉된 사물과 그 관계로 인해 또는 예술적 허구가 기미만 보여주는 불투명한 느낌의 감상 또는 예술을 위한 예술의 도구였다면 그의 보따리는 예술적 현실 그 자체로서 예술이라는 사실이다. 그의 현전하는 보따리는 예술적 존재태로서 단순하게 참과 거짓으로 분리 할 수 있는 ‘실제로 일어나지 않는 일’이 아니라 지금 이곳에 내가 서 있는 이 자리에서 ‘실제로 일어난 일’이라는 사실이다.
    그러나 그의 보따리는 현존성 그것만으로 모든 것을 말하지는 않는다. 그의 작품의 실재적 현실도 중요하지만 그 보따리의 다양한 의미를 간과해서는 안 된다. 즉 보따리가 갖는 다양한 의미와 그 변주에 관심을 가져야 한다는 것이다. 보따리는 단순하게 어느 무엇을 싼 덩어리 이상의 의미를 갖는다. 한국의 전통적인 포장방법인 보따리는 마치 물과 같은 속성을 지녔다. 무엇을 싸느냐에 따라 그 크기가 달라지고 모양 또한 변한다. 또 용도를 다하면 천으로 돌아간다. 하지만 물은 다른 용기에 담기지만 천은 담는 용기 그 자체라는 점에서 다르다. 물은 어느 곳에 담기던 물이라는 고유의 속성을 지니지만 보자기는 내용믈에 따라 그 모양이나 성격이 달리진다. 그 점에서 물은 자신을 끝내 잃어버리지 않지만 천의 하나에 불과한 보자기가 보따리라는 오브제로 변모하면 각각 다른 얼굴과 모습을 지닌다. 이렇게 다양한 얼굴을 가진 보따리를 통해 김수자는 다양한 각기 다른 사람들의 삶의 영욕을 성공과 실패를, 희망과 좌절을 투영시켜 볼 수 있도록 하는 것이다. 그는 가끔 그의 작품에 거울을 사용해서 공간을 확장시키거나 과거와 미래를 관통하도록 장치하고 있기도 하다. 그의 이런 시도는 그의 보따리가 개개인의 또는 관객하나하나의 삶을 담아내고 있는 것을 강조하기 위한 고안이라고 추측한다. 아무리 더러운 시궁창 물이 고여 있는 웅덩이도 자연을, 하늘에 떠 있는 구름을 비추어 준다. 그래서 비록 더러운 물이지만 물속에 구름이 흘러간다. 때로는 들여다보고 있는 사람의 얼굴까지도 비추어 준다. 정말 아름답고 시적이기까지 하다. 김수자는 물웅덩이의 의미보다는 수면이 비친 풍경이 어떻게 보이는지를 말하려 할뿐이며 관객들에게도 웅덩이 물의 맑고 탁함보다는 물에 비친 풍경의 아름다움을 보여주고자 한다. 하지만 여기서 간과하지 말아야 할 것은 물에 비친 풍경은 언제나 유목민처럼 움직이고 떠도는 것이지 붙박이는 아니라는 점이다.

보자기, 세계를 싸서 보따리가 되다. (Pojagi, Creating bottari by wrapping the world)

  • 김수자가 보따리에 관심을 가진 것은 이미 십 수 년 전으로 거슬러 올라간다. 천을 덧대거나 이어서 캔버스라는 사각형의 틀로부터 벗어나고자 했던 그는 대학원 시절 천이라는 매체와 바늘과 실 이라는 전통적인 규방문화적 재료와 방법론을 차용해서 작업을 시도했다. 그의 이런 작업은 당시 한국적 환원주의라는 교조적인 미술풍토에 대한 외면인 동시에 모더니즘 조차도 제대로 이해하고 실천하지 못하는 의사모더니스트들에 대한 반발이었다.
    그는 회화의 지지체로서의 평면의 의미가 강조되던 시절 평면 그 자체도 결국은 오브제라는 결론에 이르면서 그는 평면을 버리고 보다 순수한 평면적 존재에 열중하게 되었다. 그는 당시 삶과 유리된 교양 있는 부르주아 계급을 위한 모더니즘적 사고로 결별을 선언하고 민족주의를 외치는 사이비 좌파들의 ‘삶의 예술’이 아닌 삶의 진정성에 방점을 찍는 작업을 시작한 것이다.

  • "어머니와 함께 이불을 꿰매는 일상적인 행위 속에서 나의 사고와 감수성과 행위가 모두 일치하는 은밀하고도 놀라운 일체감을 체험했으며, 묻어두었던 그 숱한 기억들과 아픔, 삶의 애정까지도 그 안에 내포 할 수 있는 가능성을 발견하게 되었다. 천이 갖는 기본 구조로서의 날실과 씨실, 우리 천의 원초적인 색감, 평면을 넘나들며 꿰매는 행위의 천과의 자기 동일성, 그리고 그것이 불러일으키는 묘한 향수--- 이 모든 것들에 나 자신은 완전히 매료되었다."<1988년 현대화랑 도록-작가노트 중에서>

  • 이렇게 그의 초기 작업은 천에서 시작되었다. 그에게 있어서 천은 일상적인 옷에 다름 아니었다. 옷이란 인간이 부끄러움을 알고 나서부터 걸치기 시작한 것으로 인간에게 옷이란 자유와 그에 따른 책임을 의미하는 동시에 인간의 실존적 의미를 대체하는 상징이기도 하다. 또 옷이란 인간에게 있어서는 삶의 조건이자 삶의 향기이기도 하다. 그리고 옷은 제 2의 피부라는 말처럼 그 사람을 대변하기도 한다. 즉 옷이란 외피를 통해 사람들은 자신의 취향과 사람 됨됨이를 드러내기도 한다. 세상을 떠난 고인의 옷을 태우는 우리네 관습도 따지고 보면 옷이란 것이 갖는 인물의 대체재로서의 의미 때문일 것이다. 이런 보자기가 오브재를 이루면 보따리가 된다. 사실 보자기는 순수한 우리말이지만 우리말 외에 ‘보’(褓) ‘복’(袱) 또는 ‘복’(福)으로 불린다. 여기서 복 복자를 쓰는 경유는 보자기를 복을 싸두는 용기의 개념으로 인식하기 때문이다. 또 각 지방별로도 이름이 조금씩 달라서, 보대 밥부재 보재기 보래기 포대기 보자 보따리 등 다양하게 불린다. 보자기가 처음에는 무언가를 가리고 덥는 옷의 개념이었다고 한다. 현존하는 최고의 보자기인 선암사의 탁자보를 탁의(卓衣)라 부르고 갓난아이를 싸는 천을 강보(襁褓)라 부르는 것도 바로 옷의 의미가 지녔기 때문이다.
    이어령은 ‘서양인은 가방을 만들어냈고 동양인은 보자기를 만들어냈다’고 했다. 같은 운반용, 포장용 수단이지만 가방은 한 가지 기능만 하는 대신에 보자기는 다양한 목적과 수단을 지닌다. 또 가방은 용도가 없을 때도 자체 모양과 무게를 지니지만 보자기는 접어두면 된다. 게다가 자신을 위한 공간을 필요로 하지 않는다. 특정한 자기모양이 없기 때문에 어떤 모양이라도 다 지을 수 있다. 그리고 그 양이 많으면 많은 대로 적으면 적은 대로 두루 다 쌀 수 있다. 그래서 보자기는 그 자체가 ‘공(空)’인 까닭에 천변만화(千變萬化)가 가능한 것이다. 이런 보자기로 김수자는 세계를 싸서 보따리를 짓기 시작했다.
    그의 바느질(The Heaven & the Earth, 1984)은 연역적 오브제로 이어진다. 그에게 바느질은 바늘을 가지고 천에 구명을 내어 서로를 잇는 행위였다. 하지만 바느질이란 바늘로 상처를 내는 한편 그 상처를 치유한다는 이율배반적 행동에 다름 아니다. 그리하여 바느질이란 하나의 행동이 물질이나 사물의 성격 그리고 인간의 행동이 또 같지만 경우에 따라 그 결과와 의미가 서로 다르게 인식되고 나타나는 것처럼 이중적 의미와 가치, 상반된 성격을 갖는 것이었다.
    이후 그는 지게 등 민속적인 농기구들이나 사다리, 빨래걸이 등을 일일이 천으로 싸고 감는 행위<Untitled, 1991>를 통해 당시 물성에 대한 생각을 안료가 아닌 천을 통해 구현하기도 한다. 물질을 에워쌈으로서 새로운 물질로 치환시키는 이런 작업은 당시 매우 신선한 반응을 일으켰다. 이렇게 진화를 시작한 김수자의 천과 보자기는 사각의 틀을 벗어나 벽면에 부착되기도 하고 <어머니의 땅을 향해, 1990-91> 바닥에 놓이거나 모서리에 걸쳐지거나 또는 다른 오브제를 감싸면서 새로운 공간 즉 장소와 만나게 된다. 이 장소는 본질적이고 근본적인 만남이 일어나는 장소, 그리하여 본래의 의미가 사라지고 새로운 관계 속에서 또 다른 의미로 전이되는 곳, 새로운 변형의 장소를 만남으로서 보따리 또는 보자기도 관객도 새로운 환경에서 서로를 새롭게 들여다볼 수 있는 공간으로서의 ‘장소’가 된다.(꽃을 향하여, 1992, P.S. 1) 향후 이 장소라는 개념은 그의 보따리만큼이나 작품을 결정짓는 뼈대가 된다. 그리고 그의 보자기는 이 장소에 던져진 것처럼 널려있거나 전시장 벽면의 틈새에 끼워지는 형태의 전면적인 설치작업으로 변화한다. 그리고 더 이상 천을 자르고 꿰매는 일 대신에 천에 조그마한 힘을 가해서 있는 그대로의 천에 최소한의 형태를 부여하는 보따리를 만들기 시작한다.

치유하는 보따리 (Healing Bottari)

위무와 치유의 보따리 (Bottari that heals and mourns)

보따리를 풀면서 (Unwrapping Bottari)

  • 우리는 일상 속에서 많은 것들을 만나지만 그것들을 그냥 스쳐지나 보내기도 하고 때로는 외면하기도 하고 인식하지 못 한 채 지나치기도 한다. 왜냐하면 일상은 과거나 현재와 그렇게 깊은 관련을 가지지 않기 때문이다. 사실 사람의 삶이란 일상적인 사물들이 던지는 이야기들을 들어주는 것인 동시에 말 걸기이다. 그리고 그 말 걸기에 일상이나 사물과 나 또는 인간과의 관계맺음이다. 즉 관계란 일상성의 또 다른 말이다. 삶은 그 주변 또는 중심과 끊임없이 관계를 맺는 것을 의미한다. 하지만 이렇게 궁극적인 의미의 삶이 목표가 너무도 크고 방대하다 하더라도 가장 일상적인 상태에서 머물면서 ‘있는 그대로’ 또는 ‘되는 대로’살아가기 때문에 이런 세상과 사물과의 만남과 그 관계 속에서 자신의 존재를 인식하고 그들의 목소리를 듣기보다는 세속적인 재미나 호기심에 이끌려 자신의 삶이 유한하다는 명백한 미래는 잊어버리고 일상 속에서 머물기를 즐긴다. 즉 사람들은 일상성 속에 함몰되어 그 궁극의 의미나 실천방법을 잊어버리고 현실에 몰입한다.
    이렇게 김수자의 말 걸기는 계속된다. 일루젼에 대한 의문으로 시작에서 비롯된 바느질과 싸고 감는 행위는 자연으로 들어가 자연과 인간의, 신체와 자연과의 일체를 이루고 다시 이는 3차원의 보따리로 이어진다. 그리고 그 보따리는 때에 따라 묶이기도 싸매기도 하면서 자신의 영역을 확장시키고 빛이라는 메가 보자기를 통해 종래의 물성과 역사적 의미를 탈색시켜 새로운 치유의 산물로 환원시킨다. 이렇게 그의 작업은 일관되게 천으로 기호화된 신체이자 작품을 지지하는 바탕이자 표면이기도 하다. 이런 그의 작업은 삶과 죽음의 경계선상에 있기도 하고 때로는 차안에 때로는 피안에 존재하기도 한다. 하지만 보자기의 겉과 안이 다르지 않듯 부조리한 것들의 집합체인 모순덩어리인 인간의 현현이 김수자의 ‘보따리’이다. 그의 보따리는 존재태인 동시에 존재들로 가득 찬 존재의 그 자체이자 모순으로 점철된 인간의 욕망 덩어리이기도 하다. 하지만 보따리는 존재하는 오브제로서의 덩어리이자 곧 풀어헤치면 한 장의 천으로 돌아가는 이중적 구조가 그의 작품을 이끌어 가는 모체이다, 그리고 그는 이런 구조를 통해 예술과 삶의 경계를 분명하게 구분하지 않는다. 예술은 언제나 일상화되며 일상도 언제나 예술이 될 수 있다는 순환적 구조이기 때문에 예술과 삶의 경계를 넘나들며 약자를 힘 없는 사람을 우선 배려한다. 이런 박애주의적 태도와 함께 동양적 또는 한국적이라는 신비주의적인 로칼리즘에 천착하기보다는 서구 모더니즘이 간과했던 가치들을 찾아내어 이것들을 새롭게 회생시키면서 예술적인 삶보다는 삶과 함께 하는 일상의 예술을 실천하는 삶의 진정성이 묻어나는 예술을 실천하고 있기 때문에 그에 대한 국제적인 관심은 여전히 증폭되어 갈 것이다.

  • Originally Published in Shin DongA Magazine, June 2008.

Jung Joon Mo is a writer and curator based in Seoul, and is currently the Exhibition Director for Koyang Culture Foundation. He was chief curator of the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Korea, and was the Exhibition Director of the Gwangju Biennale.

A Needle Woman - Mexico City, 2001.

Passages and Places - The City

Adolphs, Volker

2008

  • David Claerbout's work Shadow Piece opens the view from the inside to the outside, from the house to the street. Streets and houses shape the city. The city is a space. Michel de Certeau describes space as "a web of movable elements. It is to a certain extent filled by the totality of the movements that unfold within it. It is therefore a result of activities that give it a direction, that temporalize it." [1] This result doesn't yet define identity and unity; the city manifests itself as "a single mass of pedestrians..., a web of slapdash, out‑of‑the‑way accommodations, a traversing of your assumed own places and a universe of rented places, which are beset by a non‑place or dreamed‑up places." [2] Our concepts are not clear. Do place and space stand in relation to each other like house and place to the street, like standing‑still to going on, like the closed to the open? Does the place at first seem to us to be something stable and motionless, only a point at which we come to a halt and where we linger? But as soon as something happens at the location and with the location, i.e., a movement, it expands, becomes a space that leads to other spaces. Places have the most diverse functions. They divide up the protected area I can retreat to. They are also public zones that I share with others, places where I meet confidants just as much as places that are transitory and anonymous. Places can be places of passage, transit rooms, railway stations, ticket offices, where people pass each other, where they disperse to other parts of the city via a network of streets. The city is not merely a sequence of places and not a static geometry of streets. It is, repeatedly, a newly created movement in time and space, in which the different processes of walking come together: the goal‑oriented, or meandering and strolling walk, walking around, passing‑by, lingering. The city happens. In a fancy‑free stroll through Paris, the French situationists à la Guy Debord created another, open structure of experience, i.e., their own changing topography of the city beyond any fixed plan. The activity of pedestrians who take over the city space generates an urban network, provides the city with energy and determines its velocity. The reality of growing cities encompasses both the sedentary and the nomadic. It's a reality that can bear me up or isolate me. A café, a street, a quarter are familiar to me, but at the next corner I am already a stranger. The city is like an organism, which is held together in some way or other that I cannot really make out. In order to move around in the city, I have to constantly tear up my roots; in walking, I disengage myself from a place and fail to reach it. Some live in the city; they remain, they wait, have in fact not arrived, remain underway.

  • In her four‑channel video installation A Needle Woman from 2000‑2001 (Fig. p. 110/111), Kimsooja stands with her back to the viewer as a stationary, vertical axis in the heart of four metropolises: Mexico City, Cairo, Lagos and London, in a stream of people who meet her and go past her. At first the viewer takes in the waves of intermingling passersby, the continuum of urban life, into which the artist has plunged. In the midst of the mass movement, the artist appears, in her own words, to be a "barometer", a "witness", a "compass", a "surveying pin" that records the different cultures. [3] Like a pin, she pricks into the colorful social tissue of the cities, sews different societies together. [4] Kimsooja sees the pin as an extension of her body; she overcomes in‑between spaces and disappears again. The thread remains as a binding and mediating trace of the ghost in the tissue's weave. [5]

  • The fact that people always move in the same way seems to blend cities into a global unconcern in which the artist surfaces at random, alternating locations, but a closer look also shows peoples' social identities in differing hierarchies, classes, relations to each other, different reactions to the artist that are noted or avoided and ignored. In London's cosmopolitan bustle, people walk around self‑engrossed, unreceptive, single‑minded. In Lagos they react with curiosity, laughter, irritation. In one city, Kimsooja becomes transparent, almost vanishes; in the other she appears as a counterpart. She is both present and absent, part of the cities' space and time and outside of that space and that time. She obviously stands in the way as a physical impediment and yet her physical existence is ignored. She meets the others and is isolated; she is divided from the life of the others and in the same way integrated in the passage of that Iife. The viewer looks at the back of the artist, takes up her position and also that of the people who go past her, tries to imagine Kimsooja's face that radiates self‑confidence and the safety in staying within the flow of passing life. Even when she is a perceived object, her inner nature remains closed to the others. She is the observer as such, not only of what happens around her, but also of the processes that go on inside her.

  • The speed of the video has been reduced by 50 percent. By means of this prolongation, time, the artist's encounters, the flow of people, stationary and fleeting time -all are more intensely experienced. The artist is the indicator of time and space; both make up a unit, both are physical. "Although, when I place my motionless body in space as a vertical axis, I create a form of timelessness, I simultaneously open up another movement: it is a vertical movement directed inwards; time in the form of consolidation. We cannot separate the coexistence of time and corporeality and therefore of spatiality; they will always belong together." [6] A Needle Woman thus transmits three perceptions of time, standing still in the body of the artist in which past, present and future meet, which, in comparison and despite the slowdown, incorporates the visible speed of the other passing figures plus the perspective of the viewers, who stand respectively for real‑time.

  • Kimsooja, on the one hand, opposes the acceleration of life; her motionlessness highlights the floundering, empty movement and temporal mechanism of the human stream around her. But it is also possible to see this the other way around. In this case the unceasing, endless wave of people is the stationary and enduring part and the artist is the existence that is in motion, will go on, pass away, decompose and disappear. Kimsooja speaks of the finitude and infinity of being. We are in time and timeless; we are transient and without any durable substance and thus also have access to and an experience of delimitation, of transcendence or going beyond time.

  • Although the nomadic lifestyle is a characteristic phenomena of this era, it could also be one's choice; we can still live without moving around much and be rooted in one's own place. Human curiosity and the desire for communication expands its physical dimension and happens to control human relationships and the desire for possessions, and pursuing the establishment of a global community, which includes the virtual world. But a true nomadic life wouldn't need many possessions, or control and it doesn't need to conquer any territory; it's rather an opposite way of living from a contemporary lifestyle, with the least amount of possessions, no fear of disconnection, and being free from the desire of establishment. It is a lifestyle that is a witness of nature and life, as a kind of process of a pilgrim. Nomadism in contemporary society seems to be motivated from the restless desire of human beings and its follies, rather than pursuing true meaning from nomadic life.

Notes:

[1] Kimsooja, in: Art and Context, Summer 2006. > return to article >
[2] Michel de Certeau, "L'invention du quotidian", . > return to article >
[3] Ibid. > return to article >
[4] See Kimsooja im Gespräch mit Doris von Drathen, in: Kimsooja. Künstler. Kritisches Lexikon der Gegenwartskunst, edition 4, no. 12, 2006, p.14. > return to article >
[5] Ibid. > return to article >
[6] See the statements by Kimsooja in an interview with Nicolas Bourriaud in: Kimsooja. Conditions of Humanity, cat. Musée d'art contemporain de Lyon/museum kunst palast, Düsseldorf 2003/2004, p. 56. > return to article >

  • Originally published in "Passages and Places - The City". Going Staying catalogue from the exhibition at Kuntmuseum Bonn published in Bonn: Herausgegben vom 2007. pp.106-111.

Kimsooja, Bottari - Alfa Beach, 2001, single channel video projection, 6:18 loop, silent

Kimsooja

Beccaria, Marcella

2007

  • Identifying nomadism as a condition that is inevitably linked to contemporary existence, Kimsooja draws on her own continual displacements as material that is indispensable for the creation of her work. Repeating an experience connected to her nomadic childhood, she positions herself in new contexts, in which she renegotiates the uniqueness of her identity.

  • Although directly tied to her biography, Kimsooja’s art does not indulge in narrative details, but instead strives to transform the subjective into the universal. Thus, whether she finds herself amid the crowd in Shanghai, New York, Tokyo, or Mexico City, or at the edge of a river or sea in any part of the world, whenever the artist appears in her work, she portrays herself from the back. Transforming presence into absence, her figure becomes a means, a door thrown open to the world’s infinite mutability.

  • Taking the form of videos, installations, or performances, many of Kimsooja’s works recognize the act of sewing as a powerful metaphor. Like a needle, which is capable of disappearing after having connected otherwise separate fragments, Kimsooja sees the value of her art in its possibilities for uniting individuality and multiplicity, body and spirit, East and West.

  • Sometimes the artist uses bottari, bundles of bedcover fabric traditionally employed in Korea, her native country. Usually employed for transporting objects connected to daily life, they embody the very idea of wandering and the multiple facets of elation and sorrow.

  • The word bottari also appears in a series of videos to which the work in the collection, Bottari: Alfa Beach, 2001, belongs. The video was filmed in Africa, on a Nigerian beach whose name is linked to the slave trade. The work features the inversion of the horizon line, exchanging the position of the sky with that of the sea. Seemingly simple, the reversal suggests the sudden impossibility of establishing one’s own position in the world, evoking the drama of the slaves who were kidnapped from their own land and forced to face voyages to destinations utterly unknown to them. The sense of dislocation is heightened by the lack of sound.

Text by Marcella Beccaria from "The Castle, The Collection", Castello di Rivoli Museo D’Art Contemporanea, published in 2008 by Skira.

Mandala: Zone of Zero, 2001. Jukebox detail.

Kimsooja: Electric Chants

Drobnick, Jim

2007

  • A prominent subtheme resonates throughout the works in "Listening Awry" — the contrast between the modalities of sound and vision. In Kimsooja's Mandala: Zone of Zero (2004), this contrast assumes transcultural, historical, and metaphysical dimensions. Unlike the other works in the exhibition, one first experiences Mandala indirectly, as a faint light softly diffusing around the edges of a pair of partitions. Visitors follow the glimmer through a dim transitional space to then enter a cloistered, alternative realm. The main feature is a radiant, vividly‑hued jukebox, outfitted with mirrored tesserae and flashy ornamentation, and positioned squarely to face the beholder. Carpeting hushes one's footsteps, and the overall calming effect is enhanced by serene, twilight blue walls engulfing the space, lit solely by the jukebox's incandescence. Incongruously, a soundtrack of Tibetan Buddhist, Gregorian and Islamic chants resonates in the room, providing a sacred vocal counterpoint to the visual flamboyance of the jukebox. The disparity between sound and vision could hardly be more extreme or more succinctly composed. Eastern vs. Western cultures, traditional vs. postmodern sensibilities, spiritual vs. materialistic pursuits — these and other polarities suffuse Kimsooja's installation and create a form of listening awry based on paradoxical juxtaposition.

  • In many ways, the jukebox epitomizes the materialism of American culture. Recalling the postwar optimism and economic surge of the 1950s, the jukebox serves as an icon for youthful, leisurely distraction and ephemeral popular culture. A conspicuous fixture of bars, diners, bowling alleys and other socializing venues for the past century, it still maintains a cultural relevance in the digital era in the figure of the "celestial jukebox" — the utopian repository of personal choice and universal variety. Either as a nostalgic cultural artifact or futuristic ideal for the music industry, the jukebox functions as both the object and enabler of desire. With its flickering reflections, gaudy colours, streaming bubbles, and roulette‑wheel appearance, Kimsooja's jukebox, however, would seem to be one of the last items to be associated with spirituality. Even as the readymade stands alone, disconnected from its complementary cabinet of records or CDs, hovering transcendently, its link to the superficialities of consumer culture and the escapist pleasures of mass entertainment renders it seemingly antithetical to introspection.

  • Yet, for the artist, the jukebox hears an uncanny resemblance to the geometric schema present in a number of religious traditions, specifically Tibetan Buddhism and Hindu Tantrism. Mandala, the Sanskrit term for "circle," is a sacred diagram that facilitates concentration for spiritual initiates. Symbolically, it can depict the figure of one or several deities, represent the stages of consciousness that adepts pass through on the way to enlightenment, as well as delineate an outline of the cosmos. The formal correspondences between the jukebox and mandalas are striking: both employ hands of concentric circles, a central focal point, and four equidistant markings or "gates" at the cardinal points. For Kimsooja, who moved to New York from Korea in 1998, the similarities were remarkable, if not also painfully ironic. Contrary to the discipline and profundity embodied by the mandala, the jukebox's visual cacophony is designed to amuse. Its entrancing spectacle may inspire stillness to some degree, though probably due more to hypnosis than meditation. Nevertheless, the overall effect of the lights, carpet and enveloping blue walls (blue being one of the conventional signifiers of divinity) conveys a palpable sense of tranquility and sanctuary.

  • The chanting of monks from three major world religions resound through the space and counteract the jukebox's glitzy presence. At times sonorous, at other times discordant, the chants go in and out of phase as each becomes dominant at various points in the mix. The deep, rumbling bass of Tibetan monks forms a near‑continuous drone upon which the mid‑range polyphonic melodies of a Gregorian choir glide over. At a higher register, the ecstatic vocalizations of a muezzin calling the faithful, along with the ringing of bells, pierce through to intensify the devotional collage. The outpouring of these traditional, centuries‑old chants from a commercial jukebox — instead of the expected pop, rock, hip‑hop, or country & western tunes — not only reconceives the mechanism but also the character of the museum space and those within it. No longer a neutral site for aesthetic contemplation, Mandala charges its surroundings with the mystical energies said to be evoked by the recitation of mantras, prayers and holy texts.

  • Which side prevails in this "zone of zero," as the subtitle of the piece indicates? Does the simultaneous presence of different belief systems bring forth a greater unity or effect a canceling out? Are the chants reduced to the level of commercial top ten hits, in essence nullifying their esoteric meaning, or is Mandala an object cleverly adapted for surreptitiously inserting spiritual content into a materialistic culture? In the general context of the relationship between the East and West, the artist considers their two opposing sensibilities to be engaged in a dialectic, one that brings together "all basic phenomena of art and life":

  • Eastern thought often functions as passive and reserved expression: invisible, non‑verbal, indirect, disguised and immaterial. Western thought functions more with issues of identity, controversy, gravity, construction and materiality. The process is finally the awareness and necessity of the presence of both in contemporary art and life. It is the Yin and Yang, a co‑existence that endlessly transforms and enriches.

  • But more than just a confrontation between consumerism and devotion, Mandala's creation after the invasion of Iraq informs its significance. Like her audio piece Letter from New York (2001), which collages together the chanting of Tibetan monks along with police sirens and jet engines that allude to the World Trade Center attacks, Mandala emerges out of a climate of crisis. The invasion of Iraq has been questioned by many for its dubious rationale and disastrous consequences for the Iraqi population and security around the world. The artist, disturbed by the U.S.'s unprincipled foreign policy and subsequent catastrophes, sought to identify its root causes, which she located in the materialism at the heart of the American ethos. Given this social and political context, Mandala provides both a critique and an antidote. In Kimsooja's meditative space, conflicting sonic and visual experiences combine, antithetical cultural practices interpenetrate, and polarized spiritual and secular sensibilities co‑exist to offer visitors the chance to contemplate the possibility of an improbable, but all‑too necessary, harmony within difference.

  • A striking aspect of the works discussed above is the degree to which the body is implicated. As Richard Leppert notes, a central paradox of sound lies in its contradictory semiotic status — while the product of (sometimes intense) physical activity, it nevertheless serves as a paradigm of abstraction and ephemerality. Such foregrounding of the physicality of sound's production, as well as its reception, becomes another subtheme in the practices associated with listening awry. Tse, for example, plays the cello and inserts her own body into the dialogic relationship with the natural landscape. Sierra, meanwhile, enlists buglers to stand and perform a twenty‑four‑hour aural fusillade. The simple fact of their bodily presence aggravates the metropolitan security apparatus and confirms the piece's provocational significance. For Marclay, the body is the endpoint for a series of translations that originate in music. However mute, the body conveys a version of musicality twice‑removed via gestural performance. And in the case of Kimsooja's enveloping installation, the bodies of viewers themselves become sound resonators within the sanctuary‑like space. An emphasis on corporeality in these works complements the notion of embeddedness informing "Listening Awry": The embodiment of sound correlates with the embeddedness of sound in social practice, thus completing an overall circuit between listening and being, self and other, the individual and society. Through the din of trumpets, chants, echoes, and noisome gestures can be heard the knocking of the embedded against the embodied as history, affect and politics are brought forward for artistic reflection and critique.

  • © Jim Drobnick, 2007. No part of this essay maybe reproduced without the author's permission.

Jim Drobnick's text is excerpted from his essay in Listening Awry, Hamilton, ON: McMaster Museum of Art, 2007.

To Breathe - Invisible Needle, Invisible Mirror. Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 2006.

To Breathe / Respirar

Vettese, Angela

2006

  • In her 2006 New Year's wishes to her friends, Kimsooja included a short and true story about a pair of twin girls who were born prematurely. One of the twins was not expected to live. A nurse from the hospital decided to break the rules and placed the two infants in the same incubator. Once the newborns were placed together, side by side, they embraced each other. The stronger of the two helped to regulate the body temperature and heartbeat of the weaker one, thus enabling the weaker one to survive against all expectations. Nothing could introduce this book, the second collaborative effort between La Fenice Theatre and the Bevilacqua La Masa Foundation, more poetically than the story of this metaphoric event. For the duration of one month, and preceding each opera performance at the Teatro La Fenice, the public will have the opportunity to view Kimsooja's latest video work projected on the theater's screen. The Bevilacqua La Masa Foundation is proud to be the first Italian art center to have established an agreement of this kind with an opera house. Upon viewing Kimsooja's videos, both at La Fenice and at the gallery space of the Foundation, but in particular the one selected for the theater, it seems only fitting to ask ourselves what the contents and significance of such videos are. Indeed, here is one of those rare occasions that demonstrate how the methods of interpreting contemporary art are not so dissimilar from those used for interpreting opera: the initial and instinctive pleasure one receives is deepened and made more complete only upon having learned something about the musical score and the operatic libretto. It is only after a first reading that one is then ready for a second, more competent and knowledgeable understanding.

  • The title of the video chosen for the occasion is To Breathe / Respirar. It is a succession of colors that anticipate the rhythm of breathing‑at times hurried, at times calm and composed. The video does not portray any images, rather only colors, and speaks of the need for air, emptiness, and space for filling our lungs. Breathing is an act of survival as well as a therapeutic response to the small and large troubles that life imposes on us. Breathing as an essential act explains why the video is an image reduced to its basic essence, that is, to light.

  • Although indebted to Mondrian from an artistic and theoretical point of view, as Kimsooja confirms herself, the artist does not betray her first and foremost tradition which stems from a deep relationship to Korean life and aesthetics. In this way To Breathe / Respirar leads us to look for its origins in the artist's previous works. In the 1980s Kimsooja used the fabrics and clothes that had belonged to her grandmother as a source for her geometric patchworks, which were often made in the form of a cross as in The Earth and the Heaven (1984). To the detriment of its geometry, the fortuitousness of the composition as then intensified in such later works as Toward the Mother Earth (1990‑91) and The Mind and the World (1991): pieces of material arranged like rapid brush strokes, but also like fragments of life, collected from the street and somehow brought back to life. Also the series 'Deductive Objects', created in the early 1990s, included strips of material compiled in this same way, even if scattered on the floor in a multi‑colored trail or hung like tablecloths over tiny bar tables.

  • Many of the artist's subsequent works show concepts similar to the one presented in the video at La Fenice, where the idea of pieces of fabric, or rags, has been substituted by the valuable cloth that in Korea is given to newly wed couples as a nuptial bed covering. We are speaking of Bottari, which Kimsooja has used in numerous and varied ways. On different occasions they have been displayed like ordinary clothes, or as extremely decorative and interrelated layers of colors (e.g., Bottari, 2000; A Laundry Woman, 2000; A Mirror Woman, 2002). In the early 1990s Kimsooja presented the Bottari in another form, that of a traveling bundle: a swollen fruit containing just a few of one's possessions. In the performance presented at the exhibition "Cities on the Move", Kimsooja traveled by truck for eleven days in November of 1997 through all the Korean towns and cities that had been fundamental to the formation of her own identity. She was aware that she would soon be leaving behind Korea — and her fond attachment to it — to live and work in Europe and the United States. The images produced in this performance show her standing upright, with her back against the truck cab, and supported by the mound of Bottari that also served as a psychological reminder of her burden.

  • The Bottari as a sign of bound identity, as a way to be seen but also as a way to not see, became a cascade of color that draped and spilled forth from the body of the artist in the performance Encounter: Looking into SewingA Needle Woman (1999‑2005). Here her body is presented as a needle which, although immobile and harnessing the flow of people around her, penetrates the crowd and knits the people together. In metaphorical terms, the combining of colors and pieces of cloth is no different than the "gathering" or "garnering" of people.

  • Breathing is a symmetrical act, and thus it is akin to a given aesthetic found in the majority of Kimsooja's works — both those where her own body is at play and those where objects are the central focus. Take for example the installation Lotus: Zone of Zero (2003) erected in the center of the nearly monumental greenhouse of Lille. The installation consisted of 307 lanterns in the form of lotuses, from which issued the sounds of three cultural sources: an interweaving of Tibetan, Gregorian, and Islamic chants, presented always in the spirit of sewing and binding. The symmetry also becomes a way for emphasizing the relationships therein: right / left, above / below, inner / outer. It is no coincidence that in the version of A Mirror Woman presented at the Honolulu City Hall (A Mirror Woman - the ground of nowhere, 2003), hands, emotions and friendships were sewn together in a completely symmetrical tower of gauze. Here visitors were invited to lie down on a circular mirror placed on the floor, one that reflected a portion of open sky exposed by another circle located above the tall cone of gauze. The position that Kimsooja assumes in almost all of her performances is one of symmetry, including her solitary meditation along the sacred Yamuna River, as well as her immersion in the chaos of Times Square on March 11, 2005 (A Beggar Woman). The emotional shock produced which in the first case can be seen simply by the artist's exposure to nature and to her own intimate and internal thoughts — is also felt in A Beggar Woman by all those people who notice her sitting on the ground, immobile as a lotus, like some unexpected flower that has suddenly sprung forth. Even in those images where symmetry is absent, such as in the portion of A Needle Woman in which the artist leans against a rock, or in the disjointed movements of A Wind Woman (2005), the lack of harmony is reasserted along with a desire to regain it. This also happens in the repetitive and circular passage of day into night, a cycle characterized by a conciliatory symmetry that the artist has marked out in more than one of her videos.

  • The video To Breathe / Respirar is an extreme and mature synthesis of all the themes presented in Kimsooja's works. Nothing is more symmetrical than the monochrome. These monochromes are sewn together by that electronic needle called post‑production. The color and form are similar to a kind of Asian silk, but also to Western modernism: in this way, one inhales and exhales, duality harmonizes, distant cultural traditions unite and connect like mirrored images, or like two twins helping each other to live.

Angela Vettese has been President of the Bevilacqua La Masa Foundation since 2002. She directs the Graduate Program in Visual Arts at the university IUAV of Venice, and teaches at the Universita Bocconi in Milan. She is the director of the Civic Gallery of Modena. She has published numerous essays for both national and international publications. Her published works include such books as Capire l'arte contemporanea (Allemandi, 1996), Artisti si diventa (Carocci, 1998), A cosa serve l'arte contemporanea (Allemandi, 2001), and Ma questo O un quadro? (Carocci, 2005). She has been a contributing art critic for the Sunday edition of the Italian newspaper "Il Sole 24 ore" since 1986.

Cities on the Move - 2727 KM Bottari Truck, 1997, single channle video, 7:33 min. loop, silent, Commissioned by Korean Arts and Cultural Foundation

Cultural Memory, Cultural Archetype and Communication

Bak, Sanghwan

2006

Gesture of Memory and Communication of Usual Culture

  • Kimsooja, the female artist now in her fifties, first drew attention from her performance in 1997 where she traveled around Korea on her truck loaded with hundreds of bottaries (bundles), soon rising to international fame by taking performances with themes of bottari and needles to Italy, the Seine River and the Liberation Square in France. Her main subject-matter, the bottari and the needle, reminiscent of the life of the modern people, their joys and sorrows, is apt to express issues such as the refugees, starvation, and cultural conflicts. Through the mediation of her body, Kim's performances are intended to show by reconstructing and actualizing our memories of cultural difference and the dogma of religion rising from troubling factors in any region in the world. Here, the body is functioning not as disconnection from the past but as a form of observation that connects herself to a group. The process of reconstruction of the past is proceeded in an unique frame of world interpretation not applied an individual – though one is the agent of the process – but to a group to which one belongs. Herein lies the reason why her performances become the content of communication.

  • Memory is generally produced in the process of socialization. In this sense, Kimsooja's work is fundamentally to invent a new model for 'social memory'. Social memory, or group memory, consistently influences society in the context of tradition, but it is forgotten or eradicated when the group is dissolved through political or social upheaval. Substituting this phenomena which happen when existing social conditions changes for 'cultural memory (kulturelles Gedaechtnis)', Kim also alters the process that recalls the cultural archetype universal to mankind into the process of thinking of 'timeness.' These are expressed in her works such as , a performance in which she both stays in and moves through crowds of people, and in which she is wandering to search for her archetype which has been thrown into the world. 'Cultural memory' expressed by Kimsooja, though, is quite at a distance from memory that is concocted by political power.

  • When a social group remembers a recent past they experienced, they actualize it through daily communication, acquiring a concrete identity. However the time span and social effectiveness of this 'vivid memory' is inevitably limited. A group that secures political hegemony in a give society tries to conceal the exclusiveness of their limited memory by means of casting back its origin to a far and remote past, subsequently attempting to acquire universal validity of its group that owns that memory. However, because 'origin' is separate from actual experiences and thus inevitably mythical, it is necessary to mobilize media such as, documents, texts, architecture, icon, gravestones, temples, monuments, rituals, festivals, and so on.

  • Like this, 'cultural memory' means a social memory which institutionalizes and systematically transmits the significance of culture, constituting group identity. In the sense that it is closely connected to group identity, cultural memory is differentiated from history which seeks abstract and universal knowledge. Here, culture is communication via material basis or medium where cultural memory is takes root, and the development and changes of the medium plays a role in changing the mode of culture and cultural memory. The role of text as a leading medium for memory is replaced by that of photographs, video images, and computers as a consequence of the revolutionary development of multimedia in the twentieth century.

  • The cultural memory which Kimsooja wanted to recognize, can be understood as a reinterpretation of the act of memorializing the deceased (returning to the cultural archetype). As Aleida Assmann noted, "the most essential and pervasive form of memory that connects the live and the deceased, is the respect towards the deceased"[1], also mentioning that while this tradition was maintained until the eighteenth century, it perished on the threshold of the modern period. Because the idea that the deceased occupies a legal and social status in the memory of the living has come to an end, the relation among cultural archetype, tradition and custom calls for an even closer examination.

  • Here Assmann distinguishes two forms of memory: one is 'functional memory (Funktionsgedaechtnis)', structured to function directly according to immediate needs, and the other is 'storing memory(Speichergedaechtnis)', where experiences of the past and knowledges are stored via media and accessed as necessary. History corresponds to the latter. If storing memory plays a role of basis on which functional memory is verified and corrected, then functional memory is the steerman of storing memory. With regard to this, Kimsooja's work can be defined as a kind of 'meta-memory' which performs 'the working of memory.' If history ― constructed in the form of universal or abstract discourse, which is nation-centered and elite-centered ― is an ideology which speaks for the power of authority in current society, Kim interprets the working of memory in the aspect of dissolving oppressed and forgotten truth. Instead of reflecting the experience of the past as it were, she reorganizes it in a way to appeal to the cultural identity; that is, she artificially organizes it to have the marks of the minority be understood more vividly in ordinary life. By freeing herself from the grand discourse of social or political issues and looking back on herself, she pursues diversity instead of unity and attempts a shift in the perceiving of conflict.

  • Kimsooja refuses a voluntary submission to authoritarianism and exclusivism ― self-rationalizing within collectivism ― and attempts at a social consent that takes its form in an act of rational distancing from the group to which one belongs. This is an effort to understand that the cause of contradiction and conflict as analysed in history, or remembered culture coexist within and without herself. This is not an attempt to avoid social conflicts and contradictions, but a way to resolve the problems while constantly and actively confronting(Umgang) them. This way, Kimsooja pursues the return to the 'cultural archetype.' That is, works which remind us of the archetype of mythology, primitive or universal, or works which replaces contents ― harmonized through our body-as-nature ― with sound (in Weaving factory) or with natural scenary (in Earth, Water, Fire, Air), are manifestations of her effort to approach cultural archetype in an attempt to fill the gap of social, and historical differences. For proper understanding, the keyword, 'cultural archetype' calls for a detailed examination through the process of reflecting on history.

Private Possession of Cultural Archetype and Reflection on History

  • Cultural archetype is a more confusing concept than that of culture, which itself is no less difficult to define. However we can gain some form of consensus at least in the area of art in that we are conscious of cultural propagation, cultural transmission and cultural change. Although there is conceptual vagueness, tradition, in a cultural memory that reconstructs the past, still holds an important position with regard to communicating with the past. When we cast back limited memory to a remote past, it is estranged from reality, then requiring a mythical symbol, and when the cultural archetype aspires towards traditional culture as a subject-matter of creation, it is frequently connected to mythical imagination.

  • Of course, the concept of time used in cultural memory occupies a rather peculiar position. Time contemporaneously used within a specific group is their own time, but the timeness of cultural memory as transmitted memory is operating in a 'distended situation (die zerdehnte Situation)', a situation where it is disconnected and then reconnected. Cultural memory has a cultural meaning, in which the past and present are arranged and transmitted along the same line. Myth is the memory of origins, a memory which "is directed and experienced through the monumental field of communication, such as symbols, rituals or festivals. It is th