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 and 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