Contemplation on the Origin of Life

Ahn Soyeon
Chief Curator / Rodin Gallery Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul

You see nature’s landscapes as they are, unscathed by civilization; and the mingling of water, fire and air in volcano strata. They are the moments of the beginnings of the universe, and at the same time, aged appearances of the aeons of endurance. We realize we cannot fathom the age of nature, because nature is not a “paused” scene; it is a living organ- ism that ceaselessly flows and changes in and out of different states and forms. Nature as we perceive with our senses, and a mystical world beyond such sensory perceptions, are in fact adjacent to each other; and from this, the artist explores the meaning of “Earth-Water-Fire-Air”.
This is Kimsooja’s first exhibition show back in her home country since 2000 at Rodin Gallery. What is being exhibited – these site-specific installations – are some of the most essential focal points that she has dealt with while she travelled extensively for 10 years and carried out many different art pro- jects. Strangely enough, in contrary to her epithet, <Bottari 1) Artist>, the current installation does not contain any of her gaudy trademark bottari cloth, crowds of people, nor the back of herself – what the artist has explained to be the vanishing point of her ego. Instead, scenes from nature are presented. They are something strange, undecipherable; they are squirming underneath a surface. Many con- temporary artists nowadays deal with issues of the urban lifestyle, the fragmented identities, social relationships arising from them and their antimonies working against them. But what Kimsooja pays attention is instead ancient nature, and furthermore, the basic elements comprising the nature, both of which are far off the mark of the context of con- temporary art. She has shown a compassionate gaze at these aspects of contemporaneous life before, but this time, she sheds a new light on such life through the primary elements of nature; and they are always seemingly standing on the opposite of our lives. It would not be inadequate to interpret that the psychic energy that the artist felt when she sewed goes hand in hand with nature’s earth, water, fire and air. We find a consistent flow that passes from life to nature and the consequent collusion of the two.
One day in 1983, university painting major Kimsooja was sewing together with her mother duvet cover onto the mattress 2) when she all of a sudden felt a moment so special that she has cherished it all her life. At the moment when the needle poked through the duvet cover, some kind of electric energy from the tip of the needle penetrated and pervaded through her entire body. What could be called a dramatic encounter with the needle was in fact the passage to the answer to the question on the surface of the canvas that Kimsooja was looking for: it was the answer to the depth and structure of the surface, the world, and the void beyond it. In her early sewing pieces and Deductive Object Series, she mostly made use of sewing and wrapping fabrics around the objects that conveyed verticality of the needle upon the horizontal flatness of the fabric and the structure of the objects. She tries to find structure and the underside of it by the symbolic action of sewing: her artwork, Sewing Into Walking, adopted her ‘walking’ to places; whereas in <A Needle Woman>, she became the ‘needle’ as she stands still against the wave of people walking towards her; <A Laundry Woman> faces nature, with her back to the viewer. She says that she turns herself over as a needle between one person and another, between people and nature, mediating between them as her own body becomes the “vanishing point” of it all. What this means is that when the needles disappears behind the fabric, it is as if she, the medium for relationships and communication, vanishes into people and nature, and subsequently because she has her back to the viewers, she becomes the “avatar of the others”, resulting in the extinction of the self and identity.
The artist further developed her theme, which is the unification with the others by the dissolution of the self, by the use of mirrors, objects that are of equal symbolic importance to needles. Her needle works focused upon the structure of human relations and their healing via stitching, while mirrors, through the mechanism of reflection, would momentously lead her to deal with the nature that is opposite side to the humans. The first time she used a mirror was in the 1999 Venice Biennale. At the end of the Arsenale, there standing still was a truck loaded full of bottari; and in front of the truck, she installed a large mirror and in turn created an imaginary road that the truck can drive onto, and at the same time, exuded the ambience of space being wrapped around with something. In 2002, she started the <A Mirror Woman> Series. Just as the mirror cannot be reflected by itself, so she also cannot find herself reflected upon mirrors, thus she identifies herself as an object of <non-being>, just like the mirror. This is why she decided to eliminate the performative elements in her works ever since, and in their stead, created architectural space in which the viewers can rest and contemplate. The reconciliation of the duality – dealt with in the bottari and needle works – was intensified through the use of mirrors. Mirrors effectively reveals the antipodes of situation, concepts and people: the self and others, male and female, wrapping and unfolding, reality and fantasy, the material and metaphysical, The sun and the moon, yin and yang, inhaling and exhaling – all of which edge closer to the principles of nature. A recent video installation, The Sun and the Moon (2008), captures the image of the rays of both the sun and the moon reflecting upon the surface of the ocean during an eclipse; a phenomenon of harmonious overlap where the yin meets the yang.
It is inevitable that after observing all the different types of human lives, civilizations and the beyond in the corners of the world, Kimsooja’s path found itself crossing nature’s fundamentals, that is, earth, water, fire and air. These four elements, including yin and yang, are the ‘rhizomes’ of the universe. They have been considered to be part of the 115 elements that made up the world since the Enlightenment Age; this is in conjunction to the philosophy of the Oriental, where it is believed that 5 elements are the most important make ups – gold, water, wood, fire and earth. In Buddhism, it is believed that earth, water, fire, wind and air are the roots. As the Western philosophical tradition explained in 6 BC by Empedocles, just like there are four seasons, four stages of life (childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age), or four directions (north, south, east and west), there are four spheres of material (earth, water, fire and air). The synthesis and exchange of the four indestructible and unchangeable elements are brought together through philia and neikos, that is, Love and Strife. This power relationship between energy and the material can be compared to the Oriental’s yin and yang. Moreover, this is also the story of eternal recurrence (ewige wiederkunft, Nietzsche), or Freud’s Eros and Thanatos, that hu- mans are driven by two conflicting central desires. Kimsooja’s brings her works under the spotlight: firstly, the place is where the material nature meets intimately with human nature. Secondly, she embraces and grasps human nature vis-à-vis nature as they are in fact, one.

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 <Fire of Air>, 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. <Air 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 <Fire of Earth> and <Water of Earth> 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, <Air of Water>, which is another paradoxical reference to water. <Air of Fire> and <Earth of Water> doubly transpose two elements in each work: fire and water and, earth and sky. <Air of Water> is displayed across <Earth of Water> 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.