Cities on the move - 2727 kilometers Bottari Truck, 1997 - 11 days journey throughout Korea. Photo by Lee Sang Gil.

Mind Space
Samsung Museum of Modern Art

Ahn So Yeon, 2003

Kimsooja transforms the quotidian act of sewing and traditional cloths into art that embraces life and society. She has exhibited her art all over the world, including many prominent international art biennales such as Venice, Sao Paolo, and Lyon. It was sometime in the early 1980s, Kim recalls, that she came to realize cloth as a new artistic medium, while sewing a blanket cover with her mother. In the act of sewing, which necessarily accompanies the material of cloth, Kim also discovered a possibility of overcoming the limitations of the "surface plane" — the concept to which the modernist-dominated art world still was fettered. Through the late 1980s, she produced a series of works — drawings and paintings done on unstretched cloths — to break away from the painting canvas, but these works were still an extension of 2-dimensional painting. In the early 1990s, Kim began to produce the series titled Deductive Objects; she took traditional everyday objects such as a doorframe, an A-frame, and a bobbin, and swathed them with cloths, in the process reassuring the objects’ basic structures. With this series of works, Kim reached a turning point in her art, in which cloth is no longer treated as a 2-dimensional pictorial surface, but a material open to many 3-dimensional potentials.

Kim’s encounter with the bottari (a bundle of household belongings wrapped in traditional Korean bedcovers), for which she would be widely known, took place rather fortuitously when she was in artist’s residency at P.S.1, New York. One day, Kim began to see wrapped bundles"bottaris"she had collected in a corner of her studio with a new eye. Kim states that the bottari turns flat cloths into a three-dimensional object through the simple act of "wrapping" — a method of making that is both painterly and sculptural; the bottari is a flat surface turned into a volumetric object, and can also further evoleve into an installation when located in specific place. Although she was initially interested in cloth as an alternative to the modernist flat surface, Kimsooja soon came to understand the material’s infinite possibilities through her exploration of its multi-faceted character. It was through her discovery of the bottari, the form that can flexibly adapt to different environments, that her work began to develop spatially.

In her 1997 video work Cities on the Move - 2727 km bottari truck, she traveled throughout the countryside of Korea for 11 days in a small truck piled high with bottaris in the back. This work is an eloquent testimony to how her work went through the processes of painting, object, and installation, gradually exploding out of the gallery walls. Kim moved often when she was a child because her father, who was a serviceman, had frequent job transfers. In that sense, Cities on the move is a travel through the memories of her own childhood. At the same time, it is a metaphor for her current state of being, an artist who constantly travels for work to different places in the world, and the work expresses the sensibilities of "on the move" and "itinerant" inherent in the bottari. When the video protion of the work, accompanied by the bottari truck, were shown at the 1998 Bienal do Sao Paolo and the 1999 La Biennale di Venezia, Kimsooja became known in the art world as the so-called bottari artist who poses the questions of identity, mobility, borderlessness, and nomadism.

The main methodology of her artmaking"sewing"also went through subsequent evolutionary processes. In more recent years, sewing for Kim has become a conceptual act, without an actual needle or thread, of forming and mediating relations. Pointing to the function of "healing" which the needle possesses, the artist compares her own being to the needle. For Kim, sewing is "like breathing, or communicating" and is an act of bringing separate beings together by linking them, one stitch at a time. The needle is a mediator that travels in the gap, closing it. But when the needle completes its work, the trace of its labor remains only as the thread which it was attached to. The artist identifies with the needle, then in the sense that when her role as mediator is finished, her being becomes "Nothing".

The artist as the needle appears again and again in A Needle Woman (1999-2000), a series of video works which records Kim’s repeated performances on the streets of Shibuya (Tokyo), Shanghai, Delhi, and New York. In all these videos, Kimsooja stands motionless, with her back facing the camera and her front facing the oncoming traffic of pedestrians. The bypassing people’s responses captured by the camera’s eye are varied depending on the location of the performance. The work is a manifestation of the artist’s wish to sew the self and the others, and the self and the world into relationships, using her own body as the medium. Kim explains A Needle Woman as follows: "the artist’s body, as a medium, or a barometer or a compass, forms only unseen links between people passing by it, but in the end, it becomes alienated and almost disappears into the state of nothingness, like an invisible man." Earlier, Kimsooja’s art developed cloths (an irreplaceable part of our lives) and sewing (traditionally women’s labor) into the general human context through her art. Now, she sees her art as a metaphor, and in it, she wishes to make relationships of healing, cleansing, and ultimately, embrace.