Interview with Kimsooja

Place: Daegu Art Museum Project Room(B1F), December 5th, Monday, 2011

Interviewee : Kimsooja, Artist, Interviewer : Choi Yoon-Jung, Curator

1. Introduction

Yoon-Jung (Choi): I first want to express my gratitude for being part of our opening exhibition. Since this is your hometown, I'm sure this would be a particularly emotional experience for you. Do you mind sharing with us your impression of the participation? Is this your first exhibition in Daegu?
Kimsooja (Kim): I have worked in Daegu, perhaps in the late 70s. It was the 'Daegu Contemporary Art Festival" hosted by Daegu Daily. I was able to work with Kim Yongmin on an event for the occasion. We took the train from Seoul, wore orange vests and went about collecting things without saying a word to each other. We collected anything and everything. The exhibition was at the Maeil Daily Gallery, and our work involved installing collected objects. I remember I made a small stone grave of sort with the pebbles, sand, garlic and tree branches I found out in the field. So this is the first exhibition since then, and actually a first ever solo exhibition in Daegu. This certainly is an emotional experience, and to be able to meet with the audience and citizens of Daegu through my work makes the exhibition all the more special.
Choi: The exhibited work here is 'Needle Woman (2005).' If the first Needle Woman series that took place from 1999 to 2001 were to be considered a kind of sacred ritual wherein the Needle Woman perceives the body as a 'needle' in the midst of the throngs of people, it seems as though the 2005 work confers additional significance. How would you differentiate the two projects?
Kim: In the early 'Needle Woman' my body would operate as one symbolic needle or medium, a certain 'axis of space.' This is why the sites I sought out were where I could meet many people. Especially in the metropolitan areas like Tokyo, Shanghai, New York and London, my performance was in real-time, carrying out the mind of embracing the people I meet. The 2005 piece exhibited here is similar in that it is also a performance, but this time it is not a performance shown in real-time. Rather, it is in a kind of 'slow-mode' where my body is brought to point zero, now as an 'axis of time.' In other words, it is a work where the temporal difference among my body(Zero-time), slow mode(extended-time) and the audience(real-time), and the changes on the psychological dimension rising from such difference could be explored more in depth.
I looked into countries that symbolize factors of conflict in politics, religion, culture and economics; post-colonial Cuba, Chad; poverty-stricken, violence-laden Rio de Janeiro; Sana'a, Yemen and Jerusalem, Israel where religious, cultural conflicts are ongoing; Patan, Nepal where civil war remains. This is based on the very question about condition of humanity. After Iraq-war, violent crime was rampant in the world. So this work shows a longing for peace.
Despite the conflict, discord, poverty and strife, when the performance footage from each city is brought into one space, temporally extended into 'slow-mode,' one realizes that there is human's universal nature to be found.
Choi: I'm aware that this work is originally intended to be displayed consecutively alongisde each other on one wall. I would like to hear more about the relation between a work and the mode of installation proper to the work.
Kim: Every city has its own particular problems, and when these problems are laid out on one wall in one space, and when these are stretched out in time, I believe that real existing problems starts to unravel and become allayed. And what remains is the essential. Perhaps the work would be able to reflect the universality and origin commonly shared by humanity as well as express the possibility of reconciliation. Though it may be ironic to display countries with elements of conflict in allayed form, it contains my intention to portray the horizon of my viewpoint that faces towards the possibility of such a world. So that is an important visual element.
Choi: When we look at your work, we start to understand the artist's body displayed as 'axis' and the work's significance through the performance scenes. It's also interesting to note the various responses of the crowd in different countries and cities. I'm sure there were many happenings at the sites of shooting.
Kim: The work in Yemen, for example, was at a vast marketplace. Many merchants and pedestrians were passing by, and there were a variety of shops including a music shop where they sold CDs and cassette tapes. There was local music being played from the shop, and since I had my back against them I was unaware of what was going on. Behind me was an elderly man dancing with a croissant-like sword which Yemenite men wear around their waists. At a glimpse, the scene may look violent or dangerous, but I was told that the dance was of Yemen's traditional ritual, performed at weddings and festivals. A cultural act characteristic of the place. It was so impressive to me.
Choi: Then I'm sure you were exposed to actually dangerous situations.
Kim: Our work in Patan near Kathmandu, Nepal was during the time of the civil war. Employees of the Korean consulate office and other foreign consulate offices were being told to go back to their countries. I did look into the situation beforehand and concluded that it was not direly dangerous, so I decided to proceed. When I arrived in Kathmandu, armed soldiers were placed in every nook and cranny, and I frequently heard gunshots from the hotel I stayed. The area was actually the site of ongoing contention between the Maoists and the government, making it, in fact, extremely dangerous.
sI was also a slum called Rocinha in Rio de Janiero. Being one of the biggest slums(favela), the area was laden with topless young men with guns around their waists and drug dealers. One day I went up to the rooftop to take a view of the mountainside that was surrounded by houses crammed against each other. Then suddenly I heard gunshots right behind me as well as across from where I was standing. Uneasy about not knowing what was happening, I later found out that it was an occasion where drug dealers exchange signals when conflict is triggered.


Choi: In the process of researching data and references of critical reviews and interviews, I personally wanted to ask this question. There are cases where 'shaman' or 'shamanistic act' is mentioned in relation to your work. I assume that this is largely due to the fact that your performance itself takes on the attitude of a medium, mediating between humans, between worlds. What do you think about this expressions?
Kim: Well, during the act of wrapping and sewing fabric(or fallore object) of primary, traditional Korean pure colors, there were moments when I felt that the energy I had was shamanistic. But since calling it shamanistic would mean it is a religious activity, I think it is a bit closer to 'Zen' in Buddhism. When I was in Shibuya, Tokyo to carry out my walking performance, I saw throngs of people passing by Shibuya and could not but pause where I was standing, and piles of outcries accumulated within me besieged by like a whirlwind of silence. I'm thinking that to hear that sound might be closer to an act of 'Zen' and that the decisive moment of artistic act occurs from this experience. I believe it is through this that the inexplicable energy and the creative act of the artist as a transcendental act -- an act that seems to completely demolish that energy, time and space -- could be better explained.
Choi: Likewise, what I zeroed in on was the possibility of interpreting this more in connection with the aspect of cultural archetypes and elements of the humanities, rather than with the shaman as an agent. In this respect, the historical origin of shaman in Eastern culture finds its context in Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist thought, also showing parallels to the Confucian sage and the Taoist hermit. This surely isn't a common topic, though very interesting. I'm sure that this also makes the interpretation for the contemporary artist so fertile.
Kim: Because my work is a result of a general rumination over the problem of how to obliquely present my viewpoint in the larger context of contemporary art history and performance art, thus it requires a consideration of diverse aspects that cannot be tackled merely from the viewpoint of 'shaman,' energy, or spirit-possession. Again, this must be contextualized in contemporary art as well as incorporate different viewpoints, that is, the four points of viewing the world. If I performed the Needle Woman towards four, or eight, directions, there is also Sufism, where the idea that this world-encompassing act is the act of love for mankind and the extent to which this love should reach are expressed in a kind of poetic language. In other words, I am saying that rather than viewing this as one phenomenon in our culture, an attempt to combine complex and multilateral interpretation is needed. The combination of, say, the context of contemporary art, both the position of obliquely expressing the performer's contextual thought and the position of a medium, the position of Zen, Sufism, the cruciform structure in Christianity, the viewpoint on sacrifice, etc. Hence, I believe that it is possible to speak of various viewpoints in a complex manner.
Choi: Because your performance incorporates regions of conflict, some might think of your work as a journalistic effort to bring awareness about certain situations.

Kim: I am not interesting in tools of social change utilized for direct incitement about the situation itself. But I stand in the position of always being conscious of such problems, of looking at the situations and of mediating to help look at the situations. This has less to do with trying to solve the problems through a direct, one-to-one contact with every state of affair than the effort to help immerse oneself in the situation by means of contemplation and taking a transcendental stance. The next depends upon audiences. They will able to experience each different dimension ,following their own memories, sensibilities, and capabilities.
Choi: The word 'nomadism' also makes a frequent appearance in references to your work. I was looking at past interviews, and there were no negative mentions in relation to this. I also remember you mentioned this as a 'life style' of the modern man, whereas the critics had no hesitation in connecting nomdaism with bottari(bundles) as a symbol of moving and relocating. At the Whitney Biennale, you wrapped the table with traditional Korean fabric, which was called nomadic(by Yi-Jinkyung). I agree with this view. Rather than bottari symbolizing moving, relocation or sedentism, it seems to be where new values are generated from the collision under a table cloth with traditional patterns, covering self-identity, familiar cultures which have been put in a different culture,
Kim: Yes, I agree as well. But I also think that the very process of my act can also be considered nomadic. In this respect, whether it is fabric spread out in Whitney Museum or the Bottari truck at the Venice Biennale, are they not all parts of a nomadic act displayed? After all, contemporary people live in a time where living a nomadic life is inevitable.
So now nomadism is not close to live in free and easy retirement and echo-friendly but in hectic Urban-global-business as pragmatic meanings. Constantly, world wide-communication and 'omnipresent Nomadism' is rampant. I believe that my work is a natural result of my real-life wrestling with personal problems and agonies. It was not my original intention to fit my work into a specific framework of nomadism or cultural context.
Choi: I got the sense that 'Needle Woman' (2005) was in line with your preceding works such as 'Sewing into walking'(1995) that commemorates the victims of the Gwangju massacre, 'D'apertutto or Bottari Truck in Exile' (1999) dedicated to the victims of the Kosovo War, and 'Planted Names'(2002) that recorded the names of the black slaves victimized in the plantations of South Carolina. This aspect was also noted in Oliva Maria Rubio's review. I start thinking that your work might show an activist's appearance already from the very content it contains.
Kim: That's possible. Some view my work as Minjung art. It isn't entirely wrong, but I believe my work contains both modernism and Minjung art elements. Aesthetically, my work always be in the realm of the abstract(form) and the representational(reality). Thus without connecting a certain collective movement(Modernism or Minjung art) or any other groups, In spite of all this, I adamantly refused to take a political stance, thus independently going about my own way. In the case of Minjung art in Korea, it rises from the basis of the absurdities of the times and political realities, but for me, problems on a more personal level, especially the ontological passion of an individual, self-contradictions and self-love had priority. If those ten-something years of passionate acts of sewing were to be viewed as processes of healing within the self, once the healing was thought to be complete, I turned to the healing of the other. Of course even during the times of sewing, the individual as the 'self' was, let's say, not so much a revealer of some hidden story or identity. Because it was through the borrowing of the other's body, the other's pain that I dealt with my own pains and passions, the physical healing of sewing was transformed into 'Needle Woman,' a way of healing without acting. The idea of the nomadic is also something about emptying your space. It's not about setting your own space and building your own territory. It's about constantly opening and dissolving oneself to another world through self-negation, a constant experience of numerous processes of this sort.
Choi: There is, of course a critical consciousness that comes from internal situations as an artist before the needle work times. Such process continues till now, and coupled with 'mediation', you cast it back to the relation between yourself and the world, between humans, all the way to the relation between elements in nature. I want to hear an elaboration on 'relation.'
Kim: The first work with sewing was actually a visual expression of a certain relation. It is a kind of statement I made as an artist, a statement which I still hold fast to, and through fabric as tableau(surface), needle as a symbolic brush and artist's body. The stage of my work was comprised of a passion for surface I had as a painter, believing that such surface could be the other as well as myself, a kind of 'mirror,' a study of otherness. Thus, the act of sewing is one that traverses the division between the self and the other, for it intends to question and subsequently find the answers to the questions. In this sense, such an act may be considered a personification of the problem of painting in its form. That is, 'surface' became 'character.' Ontologically it became the 'other,' and in turn occupies an equivalent position as a medium. In terms of the medium, this also made it possible to unfold upon a surface the studies on form as well as questions of mankind and essence. Thus this makes one, not two.


Choi: The breadth of the genres in which you work seems broad, ranging from installation to video and sound. You approach such diverse genres and forms, and I want to know whether there is something you intend to convey in your choice of each genre?
Kim: Well. When I move from sewing to wrapping objects, and from there to wrapping bottari, the passage is not guided by a kind of logic or preconceived idea but rather by an immediate response. It is an accumulation through an instant impulse, an artistic will that is proper to me. But in retrospect, I certainly see an internal logic or sensibility at work. Thus, the wrapping work was possible because the properties of wrapping were already implicit in the original questions I had towards flatness and the properties of sewing. In other words, such things were naturally unraveling out of my body. As a flat bottari, it was discovered from within me, then naturally connecting to artistic impulses. I frequently feel like I am being led by something. Different from intending something, I feel led to a place where I have no other choice but to act, and such an act becomes the ground for the next project. After the bottari project, clues to the problem of ideas and media fitting to the experience of a new space were discovered. For example, what enabled me to think up the weaving sound at a weaving factory was the experience of the weaving factory space at 2004 Lodz biennale in Poland, an empty room similar in structure to this project room. It was a case where I became conscious of my body as it felt like I was hearing the sound of weaving machines where weft and warp intersect. In the end, I realized that our inhalations and exhalations are like weaving, and started puzzling over their meaning beyond mere yin and yang, but its connection to life and death. This is what led me to the sound performance of 'To Breathe.' When it comes to choosing a new medium and intending its application, I invoke a new kind of thinking in the encounters with a new space, new culture, cultural archetype or natural structure. In this sense, rather than merely calling it a discovery of new media/genres, it might be more appropriate to say that the medium is discovered in the process of attempting to deepen the questions and concerns I initially carried. Thus my selection of a certain kind of medium is triggered by the deepening of the concepts behind my work, not about the medium or genre itself. This is the same with my video work, where the camera lens confers a conceptual meaning in the context of connecting the world and people.
Choi: You mainly work abroad. Do you mind sharing your exhibition plans for next year or projects you are either working on right now or are interested in working on?
Kim: A few solo exhibitions and group exhibitions are planned to take place for next year in Europe, Asia, and USA. Especially I have to create the video project for the installation in the IOC Olympic Museum and in the border between Arizona and Mexico commissioned by USA Government. Thus, next year I will so busy that I cannot take a rest. And another project I am working on right now stands at the antipode of the Needle Woman project. While the Needle Woman work centers on finding the trajectory of the needle, 'Thread Routes' is a 16mm film project which traces the trajectory of the thread. We had better guess the meaning of 'Thread routes' as 'Thread roots'. As the Roots(nature) seems to lead us to the Routes(road) on our necessary journeys.

- Exhibition Catalogue published by Daegu Art Museum, Korea, 2011