A Needle Woman, 2005, Patan (Nepal), one of six channel video projection, performance video, 10:40 loop, silent, Courtesy of Kimsooja Studio

Woman / Needle

Maxa Zoller, 2010

MZ: Your work is concerned with boundaries between the self and the other. Cloth, the needle, and the activity of wrapping, sewing, walking, and breathing have become not only methods, but philosophical tools to investigate the liminal space of where the self ends and the other begins. I would like to start this interview with two of your works, the multi-channel video installations A Needle Woman (1999ñ2001, 2005) and then work our way back to your early bottari sculptures. In a way, this interview will work like a Russian doll in which the largest part includes the smallest, which in turn already anticipates that in which it is nesting. As your work is not linear, but cyclical and interconnected, I thought that this would be an appropriate way to gain insight into the relationship between content and method in your complex practice. The first and second versions of A Needle Woman are eight- and six-channel video installations respectively, which show a woman standing still in a crowd in different metropolises around the globe.

KS: Yes, the first series was performed and filmed beginning with Tokyo, then continued to Shanghai, Mexico City, London, Delhi, New York, Cairo, and Lagos (Nigeria). When I traveled around the world performing this first series, I learned a lot about the reality of the political and cultural differences around the world. When I was invited to present a piece for the Venice Biennale in 2005, the whole world was facing conflicts caused by the Iraq war, which created tensions between Muslim countries and the United States, and this conflict contaminated the rest of the world. I felt the urgency to create the same performance, focusing on cities in conflict, to witness the world, while keeping the same form and frame as in earlier performances. I decided to place my body in the middle of conflicted cities that were suffering from poverty, violence, postcolonialism, civil war, and religious conflicts. This is how I chose Patan (Nepal), Jerusalem, Sana (Yemen), Havana, Rio de Janeiro, and NíDjamena (Chad). I performed and documented all six cities in a few months in 2005. There is also a third, single-channel video made in 2009, which was commissioned by Nuit Blanche, Paris. With this version, separate from the first two versions, I decided to focus on different realities in Paris, performing in three neighborhoods that represented multi-cultural communities such as the BarbËs marketplace, a typical Parisian community on Rue de Montreuil, and a touristic location, the Champs-ElysÈes.

MZ: I would like to quote the German curator Volker Adolphs who very eloquently wrote about the first A Needle Woman: ìLike a needle, she pricks into the colorful social tissue of the cities, sewing different societies together. Kimsooja sees the needle as an extension of her body; she overcomes in-between spaces and disappears again. The thread remains as a binding and mediating trace of the ghost in the fabricís weave. . . . But it is also possible to see this the other way around. In this case the unceasing, endless wave of people is the stationary and enduring part, and the artist is the being in motion, who will go on, pass away, decompose, and disappear.î Can you talk about how you developed this extraordinary series of videos?

KS: Before I started using video as a medium for my performative practice, I was painting using Korean bedcovers and traditional clothing. I have always retained my artistic position as a painter. All of my experiments in different media have been a continuous evolution of my painting practice. Iíve always been aware of Western art history and I have been writing my own painting history by contemplating my reality and condition as a Korean woman in a larger society. Iíve been searching for my own methodology, one that articulates my questions about the structure of the canvas, nature, and the worldófocusing on horizontality, verticality, and dualityóbut at the same time questioning the self and the other to unite them. I continued my sewing practice for almost a decade (1983ñ92). My documentary video about my daily practice of working with Korean bedcovers in nature, Sewing into Walking ñ Kyungju (1994) was the first video when I discovered that my body functions as a symbolic needle that weaves the great fabric of nature. That is how I started using videoónot because I was particularly interested in image making, but because the cameraís gaze weaves the reality of the world and the videoís frame is an immaterial way of wrapping objectsóa bottari.
In 1999, when the Center for Contemporary Art, Kitakyushu, commissioned me, I thought to make walking performances using my body, one in the city, the other in nature. I began by walking for a couple of hours in different parts of Tokyo, but I couldnít find the right moment and energy to define it, nor the precise methodology to film it. At last, I arrived in the Shibuya area where hundreds of thousands of people were coming and going. I was completely overwhelmed by the huge crowd and its accumulated energyóI was screaming inside and had to stop and stand still right there. At that very moment, I realized the meaning of my hours of walking: I immediately decided to perform standing still and document the performance from behind.

MZ: So A Needle Woman is not so much about being a global citizen, but rather it developed out of a moment of personal crisis?

KS: Yes, it was a very personal encounter and contemplation of myself, others, and humanity. At first, I didnít think about the global citizen. I started the performance more as an existential question, but Iíve been more and more engaged with the world since this first performanceócontemplating humanityís destiny and feeling compassion for it. At the beginning of the performance it was very difficult to resist all the energy on the street and I was truly vulnerable, standing still, as a womanótotally naked, psychologically. But during the performance I found my own space and time and I learned how to breathe, how to be still, how to relax different parts of my body, and how to focus. It was like being in a vortex that created an enormous sound, but was silent at its core.

I experienced an amazing transformation and transcendence while performing in Tokyo. While the crowd was walking toward me, I perceived a white light coming from behind them, like a light coming through the eye of the needle. By the end, my mind was full of love, happiness and peace, and I was enlightened while looking at the waves of people coming and going. After the powerful experience of that performance, I was eager to continue the same performance on other continents and to ìmeetî everyone in the world.

MZ: In these performance videos, you stand in for the needle that stitches all these different pieces of the world together, your long black hair becoming the eye of the needle. Over the many years of your sewing, wrapping, and performing art practices you have developed your own philosophical topology of the needle.

KS: In the first performance video, I used my body as a symbolic needle that weaves the great fabric of nature, but I was also conscious of the needle as an object having many dualities. A needle is used in healing, but itís also used to connect separated partsóboth actions performing pain. The needle is a hermaphrodite, and has a void, the eye of the needle, which allows the thread through, which in a way represents our soul and spirit. At the same time, the needle is an extension of our hands and body, so it combines the body, the spirit, the physical and the void, the material and the immaterial.

MZ: In what way is the second version different from the first?

KS: In the second version, I chose cities that were in conflict. For example, Patan was caught up in a civil war at the time; I saw soldiers with guns everywhere and heard many gunshots. Through colonialism, Havana is related to the United States, which later blocked free travel between the two countries. Rio de Janeiro has issues of violence and poverty, as well as postcolonial issues; I visited the favelas and experienced severe violence and danger there. NíDjamena is in Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world and one with post-independence problems. Sana is in Yemen, which has political and religious conflicts with Israel. I had to travel from Sana via Jordan to Jerusalem, as there was no other way. We think we live in a global society and believe that we should be able to travel freely, but in fact, it is more and more difficult to travel freely and we have to take risks to live our lives.

In the second version of A Needle Woman, I considered my body more as an axis in time, whereas in the first version, I considered my body as an axis in space. I wove in different societies, economies, and cultures by positioning myself at zero timeóslowing down the movement of people on the street in relation to the real time of the audience. In this way, I created three different durational modes: real time where the audience is located, zero time where I stand still, and a slowed-down time as the passersby move around me. I am still questioning what happened when I stood still at point zero and I keep thinking about the permanency in it.

MZ: I want to talk about the relationship between the passersby and the camera. Sometimes people approach the camera and, through the lens, look directly at us, the audience.

KS: In terms of photographic perspectives in performance and video, itís like having a third, hidden eye. Before I made the first A Needle Woman, I did another video, Sewing into Walking ñ ?stikl‚l Caddesi (1997), in Istanbul. I positioned the camera (without myself) within a fixed frame so that people on this main street would be framed (wrapped) when they are coming and going, without manipulating them. If I compare the relationships to the A Needle Woman performance, the camera could be replaced with my body and the lens with my eyes. I wasnít aware of it while performing the first A Needle Woman, but Sewing into Walking was one of A Needle Womanís origins, which I might have to revisit at some point. I tend to go back and forth from different boundaries of my practice, away from and back to the central question. I think this enables me to grasp how I relate my eyes and my body to the audience, myself, and the location, creating different layered viewpoints. Itís interesting for me to place my body in the center and as an observer.

MZ: Letís talk about the role of your body in these performances. By positioning your back and not your front to the camera, you complicate the relationship between yourself and the stream of people walking toward you, the camera, and the viewer. In a way, it is through the reaction of the passersby that we come to identify with you, that we ìseeî your front.

KS: By positioning the camera away from the audience, I was able to stay anonymous; conversely, the audience could assume my position and focus on what I was experiencing. For example, in Lagos, I performed in the middle of the marketplace and there were kids and adults carrying the goods they were selling on their heads. They stood still, watching me from start to finish, a mirroring of what I was doing. At the same time, the audience in the exhibition space viewing this performance/video can also enter my body at a certain moment and experience what I perform.

MZ: In other words, by becoming the mirror and the needle between the audience and the world, you remove yourself.

KS: In a way, I objectify myself as a needle and as a mirror to the audience. I believe that painters are always trying to find their own mirror on the surface of their canvases in order to find their own identity. I was also trying to question where the boundary lies in To Breathe ñ Invisible Mirror/Invisible Needle (2003ñ2005), a video, and The Weaving Factory (2004), a sound performance work; the two were presented at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. We can never stop gazing at the endlessly transforming color field in To Breathe ñ Invisible Mirror/Invisible Needle because we cannot truly measure its depth or define its surface. This is also related to my early painting practice. The bottari represents a physical wrapping practice, as a canvas, an object, and a sculpture; however, I use the mirror as a physical and symbolic material having a similar function to video in terms of framing the images. Similar perceptions exist also in sound and light worksóideas about wrapping immateriality within space. There are materialized and dematerialized elements that run parallel in my work, but in the end, they coexist as one.

MZ: I recently read Jean-Luc Nancyís text on the Noli me Tangere story in the Gospel of St. John in which the resurrected Christ encounters Mary Magdalene and says to her, ìTouch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father.î In A Needle Woman you serve as a sort of apparition; you produce difference by inserting your body in these particular environments. The reactions range from indifference to a rather threatening curiosityóbut nobody touches you, as if you are saying, ìNoli me tangere.î

KS: I think it has to do with the transcendent element of performances that deal with time. This is also true of A Laundry Woman ñ Yamuna River, India, the performance I did in Delhi in 2000 on the bank of the Yamuna River, right next to a shmasana, a Hindu cremation site. The debris that you see on the river is from the cremationsóburnt body parts, flowers, and pieces of wood are slowly floating and passing by my body. I was contemplating human destiny, the purification of the burnt bodies and myself. In the middle of the performance, I experienced an unbelievable confusionóI couldnít figure out if the river was moving, or if my body was moving while standing still. After a while, I found myself back in the center of the flow and away from the confusion. After this performance, I learned from the confusion. My inner and physical gaze was so focused that there was no boundary between myself and the other, like a needleís point that has no physical dimension, but only a location, and is open to the void. It was not the river that was in motion, but my body in time, which seemed to be a solid, physical entity that flowed and then disappears.

MZ: I think that this experience also applies to the viewer. Speaking for myself, I entered a trance-like state in your exhibition at Baltic, Gateshead, England (2009), where you presented the A Needle Woman and A Laundry Woman installations.

KS: Yes, there is a kind of hypnotic element to timeís passing. Time is a repetition of each moment of breathingóinhaling and exhalingóand this repetition creates a hypnotic state. I was so concentrated and focused on one pointówhich was nowhere. There are no orienting points at the very tip of the needle, so you cannot relate yourself to anywhere, but at the same time you can relate yourself to everywhere. I learn from each performance, which offers deeper questions, and thatís why I cannot but continue my work.

MZ: The needle is like a threshold or an interfaceólike a skin.

KS: Yes, thatís why I consider the mirror as an unfolded needle as it has a similarity in its nature.

MZ: Your understanding of the mirror as an unwrapped, unfolded needle is fascinating. Earlier you mentioned To Breathe ñ Invisible Needle/Invisible Mirror. Could you tell me about the particular needle-mirror relationship in this work?

KS: I find the needle and the mirror very interesting in that their identities are not revealed. The needle always functions dually as a medium that connects things, but at the same time it can also hurt. Only by hurting can it heal, and thatís when its function as a medium manifests. In the end, the needle leaves the site.
Like the needle, the mirror is also an interesting object in terms of identity because it reflects everything but itself. The mirror creates a plane that reflects the self, and the illusion of the self. Itís similar to the surface in painting, something I was always aware of because of the approach I had in my sewing practice. I did not begin my sewing practice because I was particularly interested in sewing, or the feminist aspects of the medium, or because I was a skilled seamstress, but because I was interested in the question of the fabricís surface as a canvasóand in the questions about the Other, the self, and their relationship.
The whole process of questioning and answering is like pushing a needle into the fabric (canvas) and pulling it through as a repetitive action. This circular movement of sewing-as-dialogue led to my wrapping fabrics around Korean folkloric objects and to bottari pieces as a three-dimensional form of sewing. The moment I discovered bottari was very intuitive and astonishing. I was staring at the ordinary bottari in my studio when suddenly it presented itself as a new painting, a new sculpture, and a new object. The journey with the bottari truck in Cities on the Move ñ 2,727 Kilometers Bottari Truck (1997), and the whole idea of the mirror concerns the mirror as a border. I spent much of my childhood near the Korean Demilitarized Zone where I heard casualties on the border; this must have drawn my attention to the idea of borders. Itís not unrelated to the constantly changing spectrum in To Breathe ñ Invisible Mirror/Invisible Needle.
When I was invited to create a piece for La Fenice, I knew that itís an opera house and discovered that singing is all about breathing. I wanted to emphasize that element, but I also realized that breathing is the same as sewingóinhale and exhaleóand it can be the defining moment of life and death. So breathing is related to sewing and defining a surfaceís depth. With the changing spectrum I wanted to incorporate my breathing with the audienceís within the architecture, so I could embrace the architecture as a living, breathing body.

MZ: To Breathe ñ A Mirror Woman, also made in 2006, is clearly related to the La Fenice installation. Can you tell us about this large-scale intervention in this extraordinary space?

KS: It was in the Palacio de Cristal, Madrid, and organized by the Reina SofÌa. When I saw the space I was stunned by its beauty; I thought it was an absolutely beautiful object in itself that didnít need anything added. So instead, I decided to empty the space in order to push the void out, all the way to the exterior of the building. I covered the entire glass faÁade with diffraction grating film, which diffused the light into a rainbow spectrum, and placed mirrors across the whole floor to reflect the structure of the building, creating a virtual space.
I also added the sound of breathing from La Fenice, The Weaving Factory: there are two different stages, the sound of inhaling and exhaling, and the sound of humming. The result sounds like a chorus of my own voice echoing and bouncing on the mirrored floor. Depending on the light and time of day, the color spectrum changed endlessly and amazingly. In a way it was a bottari of light and sound, combining all the different concepts of needle, mirroring, breathing, and wrappingóall of these elements together in one space.

MZ: I want to return to Sewing into Walking ñ Kyungju, a key work that connects your architectural installations, the color and video projections of the 2000s, and your early bottari works. In that work, you use breathing and walking as an extension of the sewing and wrapping practices in the bottari.

KS: I didnít intend it to be a video. I just wanted to make a documentary record of how I related to fabric in my daily practice, so it was done quite naturally. But when I reviewed the video, especially in slow motion, I discovered the transitional nature of the performative element in my daily life.
The fabrics I use are mainly bedcovers for newly married couples in Korea, and are gifted to the bride and groom by the brideís parents. The performance ended with me wrapping all the bedcovers together, tying them into bundles, and then leaving the site.
The bed is the frame of our lives: where we are born, where we dream, love, suffer, and die. So wrapping and unwrapping the bedcover has a symbolic meaning for me: wrapping life and death, in the end. When unfolded, the bedcover signifies a couple, family, love, settlement, and location. When wrapped into a bundle, the bedcover suggests the opposite, separation and dislocation, migration, and the status of refugees. When a Korean woman says, ìWrap the bundle,î it means she is about to leave her family to pursue her own lifeóso in Korean society it has a feminist element as well. By working with the boundaries of wrapping and folding, I have been able to create different perspectives and dimensions in my work.
The first bottari I made (or rather discovered) was in 1992 in my studio in P.S. 1, New York. Bottari were always with me in my studio and as part of the Korean household, I used them to store things and fabrics from the beginning of my sewing practice, which started in 1983óbut I didnít pay much attention to it until later. I was turning my head and looking around at my studio and there was this unusual object, so familiar but totally distinctive. It was a unique painting and at the same time a sculpture made with one very simple knot, a readymade, and a ready-used object. So it was a surprising new discovery: a three-dimensional sewn object made by wrapping which was a three-dimensional canvasóa painting and a sculpture. Since then, Iíve developed projects and installations that defined different dimensions and concepts of bottaris.

MZ: These bottari also raise questions related to modernist practices of medium-specificity: what is a canvas? What can be done with a canvas?

KS: Bottari are very much linked to our bodies and our daily lives. I consider our bodies as the most complicated bottari, so for me the bedcover is like a skin. Without that close link to reality, it would be less meaningful, more abstract, and I wouldnít have been able to create a broader question and concept for my work. Itís quite interesting for me to discover the parallels between aesthetic and formalistic evolution and the physical, psychological, and philosophical examination of our body, sexuality, human relations to the world in general, even political problems within bottari.

MZ: Earlier you mentioned your upbringing close to the Demilitarized Zone. Can you share some details about this time in your life?

KS: My father was in the military service from the Korean War until he retired. We moved from one city to another, one village to another every other year, wrapping and unwrapping. As a nomad, I have always been aware of the border, not only in my own work, but also physically and psychologically. I always felt a certain awareness of the Other, or a danger when I lived in that region. Since I was a little child, I have been very sensitive to the pain of others, which could be related to my experience near the DMZ. I was always aware of places other than my own, which is not unrelated to my use of fabric and questions on boundaries in different practices. Without realizing it, I began to discover more about my own history and destiny through my work. At the Venice Biennale in 1999 I installed DíApertutto, or Bottari Truck in Exile, a bottari truck installed in front of a mirrored wall and dedicated it to the refugees of the Kosovan War. The mirror opened up a virtual exit, but it was a road that you could not pass throughóso it also represented the frustrations and conditions of the refugees.

MZ: Traveling also features in your video Cities on the Move ñ 2,727 Kilometers Bottari Truck for the exhibition of the same title.

KS: I was very inspired by the exhibitionís title, which was linked to my life. The distance traveled for over eleven days in Cities on the Move was very meaningful to meóthe bottari truck and my body as another bottari sitting on topóendlessly moving like a line on a graph, in time and space. I was very much aware of time in this performance, looking back at my past and forward to the future, and drawing lines along the journey onto the topology of the South Korean land.

MZ: Is that why the video is in slow motion?

KS: Not necessarily, but I think slow motion can reveal much more of the realities around us, ones that donít often get much attention. In a way it resembled my inner rhythm or my mindís wavelength.

MZ: Your work is not linear, but as I said in my introduction, moves in different directions, all of which are interconnected. It has a somewhat crystalline structure. As a last question, I would like to ask you about the relationship between the different stages in your early practice.

KS: In one of the earlier pieces, The Heaven and the Earth, a crucifix shape from 1984, I used pieces of my grandmotherís clothing, which I sewed togetheróIím still using remnants in other works. In another piece, Portrait of Yourself from 1991, I assembled parts of used clothing from anonymous people, it was like a network of invisible existences. In the sense of human bodily traces and relations, it can be compared to A Needle Woman. In Mind and the World (1991), I wrapped a bamboo pole with used clothing and then leaned it against the center of the sewn surface pieces. Looking back, I think of this pole, in relation to the sewn fragments of used clothing, as being like my mind and body leaning toward humanity and the world, just as A Needle Woman stands in front of the world.
Retrospectively, I realize that I was able to evolve all these earlier practices with used fabrics because wrapping fabrics onto objects, or bottari, in the end was the same methodology as sewing: wrapping the surface of a fabric with threads around. The cruciform and circular structures were already there, and that might have been how I could continue this work, without a pre-conception, responding directly to the physicality of the materials, only following my intuition and the urgency of my desire.

— Edited transcript of an interview held at Tate Modern, London, February 20, 2010, in collaboration with Art Monthly; first published as part of Talking Art Series, London: Art Monthly and Ridinghouse, 2017, pp. 316ñ26. It is republished here with the kind permission of Maxa Zoller.