A Needle Woman - Kitakyushu, 1999. Single Channel video. 6:33 loop, Silent


Nicolas Bouriaud, 2003

NB: In Buddhist philosophy, there is a notion which has a great importance: the impermanence of the world we live in. The needle woman stands in front of passing-by elements, like as if you were stressing on this impermanence, or on the fluidity of things. How does the Eastern way of thinking match contemporary art history, in you work?

KS: The impermanence of our lives is an important notion in my work and thinking and with this perception, comes a deeper compassion for human beings. Meditation about impermanence has been shading in my work since I first started the sewing pieces in the early 80's — connecting fragments of my deceased grandmother's clothes.

Buddhist philosophy, especially Zen Buddhism is similar to the way I perceive and function in the world. However, the ideas in my work are created from my own questions and experiences, not from Buddhist theory itself. (It is more complicated — as I was brought up formally a catholic, and practiced also Christian for some time, but Korean daily life practice is greatly dominated by Confucianism, mixture of Buddhism, and Shamanism.)

Certainly, where my immediate perceptions and decisions in art making meets the disciplines of Buddhism — making art and living my life are not consciously borrowed from theories. I intentionally stopped reading over a decade ago to concentrate and follow my own thoughts, but I recently started reading again especially on Buddhism as I find amazing similarities in my work and perception of life in it.

I might add that, the Eastern way of thinking inhabits every context of contemporary art history not just as a theory but as attitude melded in ones personality and existence and is inseparable with Western thinking.

NB: Do you think that oriental (eastern) thought has a real impact on the contemporary art world, or is it only a postmodern kind of exoticism, a decor for western aesthetic investigations?

KS: It would be unfortunate if the Western art world considered Eastern thought as a decor for Western aesthetic investigation — as if it were another element to add without noticing the fact that it is a way — in the process of making art. It is always there — as a dialectic — in all basic phenomena of art and life together. Eastern thought often functions in a passive and reserved way of expression, usually invisible, non verbal, indirect, disguised, and immaterial. Western thought functions more with identity, controversy, gravity, construction in general rather than de-construction, and material than immaterial compared to Eastern. The process finally becomes the awareness and necessity of the presence of both in contemporary Art. It is the 'Yin' and 'Yang' — a co-existence that endlessly transforms and enriches.

NB: You could have chosen to ignore your Korean cultural background, but you decided to use it as a material. In a way, especially the Bottari series, your work Post-produces formal elements from this already existing Korean shapes and patterns. But formally speaking, your exhibitions are playing with minimal art. Would minimalism play a special role onto this connection between East and West? And which movements or artists were the most influential for you?

KS: I have always used my personal life as the basic material for my work — hoping it would embrace the other. If I hadn't grown up and lived as a married woman in a Korean society, I wouldn't have chosen these traditional bedcovers. In Korea, they have a special meaning as the bed is the site of birth and death — of sleeping, loving, suffering, dreaming dying — it frames our existence. The bedcover is given to and used by newly married couples in Korea with messages beautifully embroidered and emblematic of wishes for love, fortune, happiness, many sons, and a long life.... it is so easy to notice it's contradiction when we see these symbols. I can't interpret my own culture with other culture's materials in the same way..... I try to find materials in their own context, but it always ended up with me bringing materials from Korea as theirs looked so neutral and hard to get the sense of the energy I feel from ours.

As for minimalism, I agree with you as a part of the nature of my practice but in the sense of extension of it's interpretation to the life as well as formalistic terms. The Japanese art critic Keiji Nakamura perceives my work as 'existential minimalism,' and this makes sense to me also. I greatly respect minimalism in the sense of the process of making art as well as it's vision. However the contents minimalists deal with are often maximal. It's hard to name any particular artist who was influential to me as I've been influenced in a way from anyone whom I have an opinion on their work-even from the ones we don't agree with. Yet, there is one statement by John Cage I saw it written in the bottom corners of an empty container at the 1985 Paris Biennale; that has reverberated for a long time in my mind. "Whether we try to make it or not, the sound is heard.".

NB: You are partly working with objects and surfaces made by other people. Of course the readymade is not a stake anymore, but in your case it could be questioned on a social or psychological level. The notion of existential minimalism could bring us to this direction, too, because it carries the idea of humanity, concrete people making products in a particular context. So what is the status of those objects in your mind and in your work in general? Is it a neutral process to use those bedcovers, or do you consider their context of production and the condition of the workers? And, more generally, what is the status of pre-existing things in an artwork?

KS: Analyzing the nature of my already-mades, can give a significant clue to the context of my work. I've been using objects from Korean domestic daily life significantly in my series, 'Deductive Object' from the early 90's. Here, I chose traditional Korean domestic already-mades; wooden window frames, reels, drums, and agricultural tools; a saw, shovels, forks, hooks... and wrapped them with old Korean clothes and bedcovers.

Now, I as am working exclusively in New York, I'm using objects found here; a child's toilet, a swing, vessels and an old directory board from a department store...etc. I've been thinking more about people who owned and used the objects and their traces rather than the people who made or manufactured them in those objects and I'm noticing that they are symbolically genderized in form and function.

Perhaps we need to re-define the notion of readymade in a larger context than relying on Marcel Duchamp's investigation — especially in this mass producing, global networking era which needs constant re-definition. My work is about pre-existing things buried into our daily lives — not mentioned nor conceptualized in art history.

My work also includes a presentation of the daily life of women's labor and her domestic performance trying to re-define the social, cultural and esthetic meaning of it to create it's own context in contemporary art history.

NB: This concept of pre-existence of things is very interesting. In a way, one could say that you are working with the ghosts of the objects, their aura, trying to turn the invisible into a shared experience. The anonymous is supposed to be invisible; so is the past, mostly. Is that important for you to make them visible?

KS: Yes. Depending on the nature of the already-made objects, my interest lies on different issues; for example, when I work with bed covers, I am working with pre-existing objects focusing more on the fact of 'pre-used' rather than 'pre-made' as I am more focused on anonymity of the bodies and the destinies of the couples rather than on anonymity who made the bed covers, although I am concern about the people who made them.

On the other hand, the folklore objects I've used, my interest lies more on the genderized nature and esthetic structure of the object and it's function in daily life rather than the anonymous beings who made or used them. But when I made a series of carpets which embeded names of the African American slaves who used to work for the plantation houses in the US, I was trying to combine the nature of the painstaking labor of carpet weavers and that of the African American plantation slaves emphasizing both of theirs hardships as I find carpet weaving and plantation job is similar jobs in different dimension. I wish to reveal this anonymity — as myself — one of the anonymous.

NB: The Needle woman is a central figure in your video works: You are standing in front of people and objects, right in the middle of a maelstrom of things, as if you were out of the world. Is that another figure of anonymity (the voyeur? Or are you even more into the world by watching it pass?)

KS: It is the point of the needle which penetrates the fabric, and we can connect two different parts of the fabrics with threads, through the eye of the needle.

A needle is an extension of the body, and a thread is an extension of mind. The traces of mind stays always in the fabric, but the needle leaves the site when it's medialization is complete. The needle is a medium, a mystery, a reality, a hermaphrodite, a barometer, a moment, and a Zen.

NB: Watching the needle woman, I was also thinking about a negative image of the baudelairian flaneur, an archetypal figure of the occidental modernity. Are you inscribing your work in the field of modernity, or is it a notion that is totally irrelevant for you?

KS: It is interesting to see my work discussed in this way — being compared to others from a completely different culture and social identity and also born at different time and space. My work is focused on the totality of life and art. One can see different realities in one persona or in art. Perhaps that is why one sees diverse similarities in my work.

NB: in a way, you are trying to capture the totality of human experience, which is quite rare. As you said, your work is not about any particular issue? Can you tell me what this ambition implies, and means?

KS: Totality is the truth and the reality of things. And it takes time to clarify in language as a whole. I am interested in approaching the reality that embraces everything because it is the only way to get to the point without manipulations. Most people approach reality from analysis or 'from language to colligation' which is the truth', but I am proposing a 'colligation to be analyzed' by audiences. My working process is intuitive and I believe it's own logic. If I have an ambition, it is to be just a 'being' who has no need to be anyone special, but is freed from human follies and desires — without doing anything particular. 'Being nothing/nothingness' and 'making nothing/nothingness' is my goal. It is a long process.

NB: To be "freed from desires" sounds very buddhistic. Is the artist a kind of boddhisattva, who tries to free himself/herself and to liberate the viewer?

KS: I remember the way desire was talked about in the 80's through the work of "simulationnist" artists such as Jeff Koons or Haim Steinbach : art was the absolute object of desire, a "pure merchandise," a perfect exchange value. Desire was examined in terms of compulsion and acquisition. So today, what would be the relationships between art and desire?

In any case, artists have been constantly dealing with their own desire and audience. For me, artists' practices are similar to that of Buddhist monks' in the sense that they both try to liberate and to become beyond themselves. In this era of globalization and technology however, the self, the body, the spirit, and the other can be perused in many ways -Artists deal with different types of desires depending on their social and cultural context. Desire can be visualized in a physical object form which satisfies sense of 'possession' or in a psychological and metaphorical way that deals desire as another 'subject'. When Claud Viallat said 'Desire leads', I think he referred to another origin of art instinct which links and visualizes these two different source of desires. Artists cannot help ask what is the origin of their desire, and what role desire plays in their work. To understand that this is 'the subject' an artist confronts in the end, and to extinguish it.

— From the exhibition catalogue of Kimsooja: Conditions of Humanity, Contemporary Art Museum, Lyon, 2003:

Born 1965

Art critic & curator.
Director of the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, since 1999. (with Jerome Sans)
Founder & Director of the magazine Documents (92-2000)
87-95 : correspondent in Paris for Flash Art.

Curated Exhibitions (selection) :
Unmoving short movies (Venice Biennale, 1990).
Curator for the Aperto (Venice Biennale, 93).
Commerce (Espace St Nicolas, Paris, 94).
Traffic (Capc Bordeaux, 1996).
Joint Ventures (Basilico gallery, New York, 96).
Le Capital (CRAC Sete, 99).
Contacts (Kunsthalle Fri-Art, Fribourg, Switzerland, 2000).
Touch (San Francisco Art Institute, 2002).
GNS (Palais de Tokyo, 2003).
Playlist (Palais de Tokyo, 2004)
First Moscow Biennale (Moscow, 2005)

Books : 
• Relational Aesthetics (Presses du reel, 1998 -french-  2002 -english. Other translations : Yugoslavia, copyleft edition, 2000. Danish, Royal College of art, 2003. Turkish, 2004. ),
• Formes de vie. L'art moderne et l'invention de soi (Denoel, 99).
• Postproduction (Lukas & Sternberg, 2001, in english.
French version : 2004, Presses du Réel.
Spanish version : Adriana Hidalgo, 2004.
Italian : Postmedia books, 2004. Slovenian, 2004. Turkish, 2004. ).