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

Kim Sung Won, 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