Kimsooja's <A Needle Woman>, Sacred Ritual

Choi Yoon Jung, Cutator of Daegu Art Musuem

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 exhibition1 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 understanding2; 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' thinking4; and, finally a referential article, comparatively analyzing shamanism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism in East Asia with regard to cultural archetypes5 - 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

Having shown the inherited cultural memory and the flow of her inner necessity  through the act of sewing and working with fabric and bottari while plunging herself into the world, Kimsooja now transforms her meditative thinking of the awareness of nature and universal value into action, concentrating on the relation between things and herself, and between human and nature and human relationships. Here, the body of the artist as a medium becomes a vanishing point of perspective and relation, deriving a certain resonance which visualizes the form of performance. 

Backdrops of <A Needle Woman(2005)> are Patan (Nepal), Havana (Cuba), Jerusalem (Israel), Sana'a (Yemen), Rio de Janero (Brazil), N¡¯Djamena (Chad in Central Africa). <A Needle Woman(1999-2001)> is a kind of sacred ritual in which she is aware of her 'body' as a 'needle' passing through people crowded in major metropolises, naming herself 'a needle woman'. <A Needle Woman(2005)> provides a wider room to interpret the problem of 'relation' from the perspectives of comparative culture, sociology and humanities, in that it approaches sites which symbolize conflict over international interests and paradoxical oppositions that remain unresolved.

Chad(N¡¯Djamena) is a representative post-colonial country which has been suffering from a civil war between Islam and Christianity for over 30 years,  all within a structure that precluded independent and autonomous social development. Nepal(Patan), despite its status as a cultural sanctuary, is still laden with the anxiety of a civil war triggered and prolonged by the ideological discord and internal troubles in the country's leadership. Yemen(Sana'a) is the site of extreme opposition between Islamic fundamentalism (North Yemen) and separatism (South Yemen), and Rio de Janiero (Brazil) has long been called the gang's empire, a city full of crime, poverty and violence. Jerusalem (Israel) shows the absence of communication and extreme opposition against the Islamic society, and Havana (Cuba) symbolizes post-colonial ideology and the isolation from international society, an act led by U.S.A. Poverty is still widespread in these countries because of the structural contradiction of society, spurred by solid imperialistic violence and discriminated accommodation of the differences of ideologies and religions, perpetuating an anxiety of hostility.
Kimsooja's perspective of seeing 'relation' here is sentimental. Act of enduring pain is to prove the pain by plunging into the painful reality regardless of ideologic category. Kimsooja doesn't represent dramatic moment of the situation, or journalistic viewpoint. She just encounters people who are living in the site where life goes on anyway. Though aware of the impoverishment in  'pseudo-death'-like reality, they carry on with the weariness of life. Her act of being a medium, a kind of monument for mankind, does not attempt any dichotomous valuation, but acts as a sea embracing everything. It penetrates what she intended in works such as <sewing into walking(1995)>, paying a tribute to the memory of the victims of the Gwangju massacre; <d'apertutto or Bottari Truck in Exile(1999)>, a tribute to the victims of the Kosovo civil war; <Planted Names(2002)>, an installation in which names of black people who are victimized in plantations of South Carolina, are inscribed. 
Measuring the sentiment with the memory of 'the site' in the act of connecting 'the site' with the 'self'. The act of embracing, seeking for reconciliation, and bringing human value back to life through the spiritual cure.  

Existing works, showing forms of leaving and staying, were a process of meditation on her cultural memory through 'being' in the world, and bottari, symbolizing this process, became a cause of the modifier 'nomadism' which repeatedly appears in the discussions of her works. <A Needle Woman(2005)> is "always open to strange lives, strange worlds and strangers,[...]it brings forth new differences within itself through strangers"7 and embodies the root of relation in the commonsensical mechanism of nomadism that is inherent in the act of approaching cities of anxiety and distrust. Additionally, if we can say that this interpretation is related to the process of defining agent by the otherness bringing forth new differences, this should be explicated from the perspective of kimsooja's attitude. This attitude is not irrelevant to the process of defining herself while facing the world as medium or a kind of messenger.

A 'needle', consistent in the context of the artist's attitude, becomes a symbol which dramatically builds a sense of unity with the other through the disappearance of the self. 
"A needle disappears from the place, just leaving the marks of the stitch after accomplishing its role as a medium of sewing fabric[...]At the moment when spectators are not aware of my body, they wear it and stand in my position. This is not different from the property of needle."_kimsooja

The body of the artist, a personified needle, is a mere medium, or what is intended to be erased. For a medium implies the existential limit that it should rely on phenomena, it may seem that there isn't any necessity, substance and root in itself.8 If it is a contextualized element in kimsooja's persisting attitude, we need to understand 'the erasure of body' not as disappearing or finishing its role, but as fulfilling its role.

Art is an embodied voice of life, 'pure crystal' of existing consciousness, that speaks when it is located in its body or in the system of society or nation.9

It is an act that starts with a zen-like awareness of the relation between the self and things, the self and the world, then plunging the self into particular circumstances. An individual acquires the meaning of its existence by awareness of its being in 'common existence.' The needle woman performance is a sort of self christening to the world. This christening is an act of perceiving and having others perceived the situation as a necessary occasion to select and arrange a possibility from all possibilities, and a symbolic mechanism to justify her act by properties of 'needle' which are hurting and curing. It makes us consider the other side of consciousness which determines an attitude.

Once again the category of 'relation' goes back to the self and things (sewing, bottari), human and human <A Needle Woman>, body and nature, and elements of nature <Earth, Water, Fire, Air>. Then the consciousness of the artist becomes the beginning and end that carries such ruminations, and in this beginning and end, the body becomes the mediator that acts as a barometer of the world. The artist probes self-recognition to proceed to trace the world and elements of the world, and this process can be compared to a kind of 'trance' which we necessarily encounter in the desperate request for self-salvation," seeking for a methodology to satisfy everyone in front of the endlessly challenging surface, paradox of self-existence, or strong desire for originality."10 This pattern appears in the early works where, "[i]n the quotidian act of tacking up bed sheets, 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"11, as well as in the first stage of <A Needle Woman>.12 It is a starting point of her entire works which have passed through the act of sewing and the act of wrapping(bottari) and finally accomplished in the act of wandering. 
In such an experience which is a starting point of works, she was urgent. Every urgentness is replaced with symbolic death. At least, if the will to live is a human nature, it desires a possibility to cure a lack and anxiety and to live. It is an instinct to find a spiritual origin on which the will to live is able to rely beyond the painful routine and reality. 
If not to the routine, then our thought may be cast back to mythic inspiration which is the spiritual origin, to 'cultural archetype' which makes the proof of reality reflected by unusual things reminded. The objet of work sometimes speaks of something located behind the act of the artist, or cultural memory which forms category or cultural archetype which the universal can comprehend. Of course it also has singularities such as geographical environment, species or generation, but we can find in these singularities inherited common terms that concern the formation of society, conflict and reconciliation which are handed down and acquired, and myth, religion, and knowledge, begotten by intelligence and sentiment. 
The process in which the artist has expanded the meaning of 'relation' to elements of nature, is to pull out 'the will to live' as pure crystal or nature which always exist in 'common term.' Therefore, a consciousness, which presupposes this process, cannot but desire the 'archetypal thought' of culture and 'reflections on memories'. 

The urgentness of agony and symbolic death needs the occasion of 'resurrection'. A 'trance' or 'realization of an occult way' as a passage ritual lets us imagine an element of shaman. Shamans, who "begin their new true life by separation, or by spiritual crisis which is sufficiently permeated in the tragic greatness and beauty",13 cure diseases and leave achievement as an ascetic. Additionally, they take roles of "a guide of soul, a priest, a mystic as well as a poem."14 Their ultimate end is to mediate supernatural beings and humans. Great artists and scholars surely took a role as messengers for the understanding of the world. They found the connection to the new world from their unique identity and pioneered the way to the new intuition through the cognitive amplification of conceptual thinking. They were seeking for self-love and awareness, and then marching to the world with this spiritual arms. For them, being in the world is not simple 'being' but 'being' chosen by themselves. And they embrace the necessity of act through self-awareness. Now we may need and focus on the artist who expands our world with the significance of shaman. An agent who cuts across and connects the world through self-reflection and doubt, which are substantial for an artist, and  memory and archetypal thought. This should be a modifier for kimsooja who is standing in the same course as a shaman.

Kimsooja always wears achromatic(black) clothes. Achromatic color is a symbol of anarchist, but also, on the other hand, it reminds one of 'Black(玄色)' which is considered the root of all colors in Eastern culture. Like a shaman who mediates transcendental world on the base of principle of yin, yang, and five elements, a philosophy of color, spiritually inherited from this world view, is composed of five pure colors(五方正色), 'blue, red, yellow, white, black'. Five pure colors were used for the bed sheet or fabrics of bottari, which were the main material of kimsooja's existing works, and these fabrics are objets which symbolized the archetypality traditionally accompanies our life from birth to death. This is the ground of the reason that the artist's objet is interpreted not as simple 'readymade' but as 'readyused' having cultural code.15 However, Black(玄色) is made from blending of all colors, and it is considered 'chaos before distinction"16 and 'root of all color'. It is another name of 'truth(道)' and another body which encounters 'every poverty' while wrapping the artist's body.17  

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 <Made in Daegu>, 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.

8Shin 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."

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

10From the Artist's Notes in 1988


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

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

14Ibid., p.23

15In 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.

16Black(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 <Eastern Art>, 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

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