Archive of Mind, 2016, participatory site specific installation consisting of clay balls, 19 m elliptical wooden table, and sound performance Unfolding Sphere, 2016, Installation at Kimsooja - Archive of Mind at MMCA, Seoul, Photo by Aaron Wax ,Courtesy of MMCA and Hyundai Motor Co. and Kimsooja Studio

Kimsooja: The Task of Being-Together

Steven Henry Madoff, 2017

The world is torn by conflict and yet each tear, each micro-struggle and clash is toward its own version of unity. All conflict is a nostalgia for and trajectory toward a totalizing scheme. Of course, there are different structures of totalization, some that suppress difference and others that support a democratic ethos. In the broadest sense, the idea of totalization is captured by Martin Heideggerís term ìBeing-in,î for which the simplest definition is offered by Peter Sloterdijk as ìsomething with something in something.î The social example of Being-in is that we are each a something, and so we are somethings together within the something that is society. Society: from the Latin socius, a comrade. And so society is the being-together of comrades. Civitas: from the Greek word for city and which leads to the word ìcitizen,î or those comrades who live together in organized space. Polis: from the proto-Indo-European pele, an enclosed space, so that the polis is an enclosed space of citizens in which to Be-in is to live under the organization of social codes, of codes among comrades, though the codes, as all the annals of human time tell us, are always in a state of both schematized and anarchic disruption carried forward into negotiation and revision.

Socius. Civitas. Polis. In the art of Kimsooja, there are two assumptions that underlie the symbolic social intention running throughout her career of making. One of these assumptions is journalistic in its basis, accepting the daily and historical record of events. This assumption is that humans are (by the evidence of actions always and everywhere repeated) violent, destructive, and intolerant. The other assumption, in contrast with the first, is that we seek wholeness and rely on healing and care in its many forms to address the iniquities of human destructiveness. Indeed, these counterpoised signatures of human conduct are the needle dipping in and out of the cloth of being human and the belief structures underlying our nature, both theological and philosophical. The biosphere, the life codes, the sociality, the deistic principles, the ethical apparatusesówhether it is a war in our blood, a crisis of political sovereignty or a crisis of religious faithóthese constructs torn asunder or joined together in unified consensus toward the co-existence of difference are within the praxis of Being-in.

Society within itself has, from the time of Aristotle, asked the questions of what is the good life and how can we live together? This is the subject of ethics. But in the short space of this essay, I would like to specify this thinking about ethics as a questioning of how we should act toward one another in order to live in consensual understanding and agreement, and by doing so mediate violence toward the social whole. Can we, therefore, understand Being-in in the limited sense of its social format of being-together? Can we understand totalization not as universalism and absolutism, but as a space of closeness in which otherness and improvisation act as fulcrums in a continual rising and falling of chaos and order? And can we then define this being-together as the responsibility of the socius to overcome its violence toward wholeness, its lacerating shards that are the fragmentation of the enclosed space of society and the undoing of unifying social forms?

In this case, unification does not void the presence of violence, but envisions a flexibility of social codes under the contingencies of circumstance so that recodings can take place through consensual agreement, by deliberation and plebiscite. Ethical wholeness is understood as the agreement among selves alert to their equality, for the ethical self is the self that bears responsibility for its actions toward other selves, and therefore ethics is a questioning of actions and a listening to the answers of others toward resolution. This is a form of critique in which the social self is formed in the crucible of the exchange of questions and answers about how to act on and in this being with others, this being-together, which is always a mapping of the social space, the space of what could be called ethical intimacy. Ethics in this sense is a form of creative practice that takes into consideration contingency, agency, and the mutuality of deliberation.

I come to this thinking about ethics in light of the overall project of Kimsoojaís art, as it seems to me that her questions and propositions in the argument of her work are fundamentally presented as what I will call a gestural ethics. Her work over the years and in its various forms offers itself as a symbolic representation of an aspirational being-together. The opacity of individual selves is not so much taken into account as an idealized transparency of recognition of selves who may move through the violent complications of human nature toward a valorized sociality of tolerance. Commonality is a feature of the artistís proposal of what being-together can mean, and to this point, we see a repeated figural gesture in her art, for whenever we see Kimsooja in a video or photograph, her back is to us, she is facing other people, other things, as if to always say, ìHow can I be with you if we are to be together in light of our differences from one another, in light of the possibility of agreement?î As if to insist on a dance of the reciprocity of identities, ìWho am I in you and who are you in me?î

In fact, a constant in the artistís works is the sense of collective presence, of watching and participating in the dance of selves with selves performing that dance. In this movement of I-with-you, there is an implicit proposal of the similarities and conjunctions among disparate things in environments of work and contemplationóseen, for example, in moving-image works such as A Needle Woman and Thread Routes. These are spaces that feel hermetically concentrated, given to an almost ethnographic scrutiny, narrowed by a gaze that looks to the weighted significance of hands and figures focused by the charged intensity of enclosed space. Kimsoojaís camera may establish its point of view in open air, as we see continually in her films and videos, but there is always a sense of motions framed, cropped, pulled inward. Meditative attention is paid to the study of human movements whose results are linked at once to embodied presence, sociality, material labor, and, at the same time, to the ethereal abstraction of repetition.

The artistís installations are underwritten by this sense of collective intimacy, this gestural ethics in which space presents itself as the enraptured site of an enlightened stitching of things, one to another. Light itself and the symbolic value of colors imbue this being-together. I think of her Deductive Object (2016), an ovoid welded steel form painted with stripes in the colors of the traditional Korean Obangsaek, colors representing the five cardinal directionsóeast, south, center, west, northóand the five elements as established in Korean culture: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Touch, sight, breath, weight, durability, timeís duration, the direction of the sun, what the body needs to sustain itself, where it will travel, hearth and toolÖ all speak to the idea of Being-in as a home in the world, the world of life, of what the Greeks called zo?, as Giorgio Agamben notes, zo? as ìthe simple fact of living common to all living beings,î and here also, the Greek bios, the way of living as an individual and in being-together. These dual flows of living, crossing one into the other as streams of unbridled and governed energies, are indicated in the coded colors and the completed geometry of this sculpture, whose title confers its reasoned status as a physical artifice deduced from a totalizing metaphysical proposition. Kimsooja undergirds this symbolism by placing her Deductive Object on a mirrored plinth in an enclosed courtyard so that it sits at a center, an omphalos of the socius that amplifies this Being-in and being-together, above it a sky that brings light from every direction.

Around this sculpture, which towers at nearly two-and-a-half meters like a heroic obelisk, are the museumís windowed walls that the artist has covered with a special diffraction grating she has often used. It refracts the light into a rainbowís spectrum. It is a pictorial device, as it turns every windowed view into a frame in which details are dissolved into vaguely abstract shapes alive with angles of color. The abstraction activates an optical dematerialization, one thing melting into another, and this too underscores a theme of unified being, returning us from matter to metaphysical belonging. Even the title of the work, To Breathe, intends to dissolve boundaries, suggesting that seeing and breathing are one with the other, a kind of synesthesia, a sensory miscegenation. This trajectory toward fluidity and fusion is a perennial current in the Kimsoojaís work: bodies together in repeated acts of attention, of moving, of making; bodies that float on mirrored surfaces, suspending materiality, that are abstracted and generalized, that are corporeal but are oftentimes inflected by a sound recording variously of the artistís breathing, humming or gurgling that hovers in the air, which she uses recurrently to suggest the shedding of the body, of the liquefaction of inside and outside, the original version of which was titled The Weaving Factory from 2004, and the most recent, Unfolding Sphere, from 2016. Itís as if, in this art, the consecrations of repeated actions and motifs form a ritual of conjoined beingóthis gestural ethics in which the rendering of a ceaselessly various but continuous activity of negotiating the sociality of I-with-you is predicated on the idea of repetition as order, repetition as an emblem of the establishment of norms, of practiced ways of being-together that are open to play, to process and change.

So it is that the communal performance of Kimsoojaís installation titled Archive of Mind (2016), which is also the name of the exhibition here at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, presents us with a nineteen meter elliptical wood table set out with lumps of clay to be rolled between each guestís hands to form spheres, the table filling with them like a model of a domed city or the map of a constellation dense with newborn planets. Clay, of course, is the material from which we are made in origin myths of the world, that a God-figure shapes, breathing into that clay of the raw human form to ìinspireî itófrom the Latin insp?r?re, meaning literally to fill with breathóto bring the body to life. These clay spheres, then, bear the symbolic inspiration of the hand that makes, shapes, encloses, a marking of self and selves, of recognitions, as recognition itself is a conscious acknowledgment of the other. And here this recognition is an acknowledged mutuality that is premised on the playful pleasure of the communal act, of hands directed toward similar motions with a single material, producing similar sounds as they transform this clay and momentarily themselves, transfigured by this act of the mutual (for the word ìmutualî originates in the Latin m?t?re, to change). Mutuality and mutability are one with the other, just as the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy notes of the I-with-you, of the transformation in being-together: ìI can only recognize myself recognized by the other to the extent that this recognition of the other alters me.î

It is the transformative act of recognition of self and other, of the reciprocity of the I and you that makes way for social discourse, for dissensus and consensus in the negotiation of how we can be together. This discourse is always mobilized by circumstance, though the frame of ethics is based on a durable plinth of reason reflecting upward to present the possibility of a complementary perspective from the grounds of interdependence. In Archive of Mind, bodies address each other through the motion and task of hands, entering into the sociality of being. Through this act of making, of the manual activity of those sitting in the ellipse of this table, watching each other, listening to each other, and listening together to the amplified recording of balls rolling and Kimsoojaís body gurgling (that audio work, Unfolding Spheres), these closed circles of unifying actions present a normative purpose that instantiates the recognizability of I-with-you, of each with the otherís being-together.

Still, the project of Kimsoojaís work is not limited to the human self as subject, but proposes that we are things among other things, a broader ethics, an idea of agency that is animistic in its reach. All things are woven in this proposition, as in a web that catches each thing that exists as a generative machine of correlation and, with hope, affiliation that populates the Being-in. This is made manifest in the artistís series of six 16-milimeter films entitled Thread Routes (2010-16). Take, for example, the most recent of these, Thread RoutesñChapter V (2016), whose method, as we also see in the previous works in the series, is to show in a documentary yet poetic style a global range of landscapes and peoples and their practices of weaving. In Thread RoutesñChapter V, we see wicker baskets being made. We see various women working with handlooms, and I am reminded that the loom was the progenitor of modern computation, so that a web of woven yarn is parent to the billions of strands of data on the Internetís World Wide Web, and that the Internet as an active form of ordering, of interwoven streams of electricity and light, is only a microcosm of the still more universal zo? and bios, a marker in a much greater, constellated vastness.

That is the artistís documentary point, as the images of human actants are intercut with close-ups held like a long breath so that our attention is steadied and concentrates on natural thingsógrasses, currents of water, clouds, floral patterns, even the dense strands of hair on someoneís headóthat suddenly appear in their knitted forms, just as yarn and wicker do. What we are presented with in this film and the others in the series is the motif of similitude, the way one thing is a formal echo of another, and it isnít necessary that every single thing has agency, but that we can see in all things their common parentage in the composition of the world and discern by a leap of ontological inference an originary intelligence. This prelapsarian, ante-methodological, originary ejaculation of active materiality is presented as evidence, as I have said, of all zo?, all life in its primordial and blossoming forms, whether abject or ecstatic, by which the ìthread routeî is the thread of this originary intelligence through all matter, and threading is equivalent with marvel, equivalent with ìsomething with something in something,î and equivalent, therefore, with the woven-ness of Being, as if the world in the thread of all time and before time were shrunk to a miracle of emblematic presence displayed in a glass vitrine, a cosmos in a teacup, all threading as the gesture of the genomic impulse toward supreme order hung like an amulet on Beingís many-bodied and bodiless body.

These woven likenesses in Kimsoojaís artworks suggest an expansive mise en abyme among materially different things; a mirrored reciprocity of othernesses in constant address that are therefore exemplars of a gestural ethics that invokes the obligation of one thing to another to find a normative frame in which Being-in in its aspect of being-together can give account of an agora of reparative promise. This ethical work, because of its openness, in which all things, human and nonhuman, may participate and are envisioned as participating, rests on anecdotal moments of local histories, geographies, politics, and the most localized gestures of bodies in rooms together, at the same time that it is pan-political and trans-temporal through the artistís regular investment of symbolism in materials, colors, gestures, and forms. Ethical relativism, the moral systems of individual cultures, is simultaneously acknowledged and contravened, imagined within a supreme coefficiency of thing with thing, a breath elongated, a light refracted and spread, in the artistís overarching imagining of Being-in, this task of intimacy, of being-together.

— - Kimsooja: Archive of Mind. Exhibition Catalogue published by National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, 2017