Encounter - Looking into Sewing, 1998/2002, digital c-print.
Photo by Lee Jong Soo.

Being and Sewing

Maria Brewinska, 2003

The trace of a body. Not long ago, maybe just a while ago, there was a body here. It lived in a rhythm of everyday behaviour and actions, shaping the values and sense requisite to the existence of the objects surrounding it; clothes above all, the obvious, but usually trivialized signs of life, which remain in the body's place, in the place vacated by it, empty and useless. The independent existence of clothes, alongside the body's life, begins at birth, starting with little baby clothes and moving on to bigger and bigger ones. Clothes — there are always some bodies putting them on, wearing them, desiring them, striving to get them, taking possession of them, discarding, storing, inheriting. Nearly all their life bodies never part with what clothes, adorns and protects them, what is closest to them, next to the skin, what absorbs its smell, grime and sweat.

The objects left by the body, the clothes saturated with its physicality — are they not the most obvious and tangible traces of its reality, the proof of its existence? Is the material world coexisting with the body not its most faithful memory? The sense of this world disappears with the passing of a particular life, although it can be reborn with the life of new bodies. One moment, a freeze frame of the stream of life changes forever the state of the subject and object. It is maybe the most strongly felt — physically and psychically — end of the stream of the time of life, flowing in between, in space and time..

Kim Sooja: "We are wrapped in cotton cloth at birth, we wear it until we die, and we are again wrapped in it for burial. Especially in Korea, we use cloth as a symbolic material on important occasions such as coming of age ceremonies, weddings, funerals, and rites for ancestors. Therefore cloth is thought to be more than a material, being identified with the body - that is, as a container for the spirit. When a person dies, his family burns the clothes and sheets he used. This may have the symbolic meaning of sending his body and spirit to the sky, the world of the sky, the world of the unknown."

Scattered clothes and bottari, bundles stuffed with clothes, made of traditional Korean fabrics, are spread on the ground in a forest during the First Biennial in Kwangju in 1995. This installation, made of 2.5 tonnes of second-hand clothes and entitled Sewing into Walking was dedicated by Kim Sooja to the victims of the suppression of a democratic protest in Kwangju in 1980. The tragedy of those victims was expressed by an installation made of a mass of used clothes, those most obvious signs of the presence of a body.

Kim Sooja, e-mail, April 1, 2003:

The Kwangju Massacre happened in the 1980 and hundreds of people died for their democracy movement. When I was invited from Kwangju, I couldn't do anything before I commemorate their lives...

Deductive Object-dedicated to my neighbours was done in 1996 when the department store was completely collapsed and killed hundreds of people and I was in that building with my son 30 mins before collapse, and we used to live in the same block. I had to comment and commemorate the victims of my neighbours especially when I had an occasion to install my piece in Japan which had a lot to do with Korea in the history (war, colonization, conflict ...). So the neighbour means both my own neighbour in Seoul but also Korea-Japan relationship, so I mixed the Korean used clothes with Japanese.

Kwangju, Seoul and Kosovo are just a few of the many places in the world which have been marked forever by the death of many beings. Kim Sooja sees it, but she does not get involved in political conflicts. So when she presents Bottari Truck — in Exile, a truck loaded with colourful bottari, at the Venice biennial and dedicates that event to the [victims of] the war going on at the same time in Kosovo (so close to Venice), that gesture is just an expression of concern for the lot of other people.

Kim Sooja conceptualizes political events through installations in which an important element are bottari and traditional Korean bedcovers, objects strongly associated with women and the roles they play (in Korea considerably limited by Confucianism). Another key element of the installation are used clothes, which in Korean tradition are carriers of the spiritual element, and in Kim Sooja's works also become a representation of the human body. Those are, it seems, the only three projects with implied political, social and emotional meanings; all the others are creative acts made concrete as objects, installations, performances and videos; recently, those are becoming increasingly minimalist. An attitude of conscious "inaction" is articulated ever more plainly in the performances realized and registered on video in different places around the world and shown in exhibition rooms.

In an essay published in this catalogue Adam Szymczyk proposes a new interpretation of the artist's work. Giving descriptions of journalist's reports of the war in Iraq, he confronts Kim's quiet presence with the media clamour accompanying the current political situation in the world. Kim Sooja's media personality is radically different from the way the media operate. In her video performances she shows her body, but remains silent and conceals her face, turning away from the viewers. She seems to be protesting against the noise made by the media and against all acts directed against human beings, including accidental tragedies (such as the collapse of the supermarket in Seoul), expressing her opposition to the pain and suffering accumulated in the clothes.

Kim Sooja consciously cultivates this attitude by a contemplative perception of the world and a rejection of excess information (e.g. deciding not to read books). She is a nomadic artist, constantly on the move, but she seems to stand firmly on the ground. In fact, her attitude may be interpreted, in a simplified way, as a practical exemplification of Heidegger's being-in-the-world, an existence cast into the world, but conscious of its "spatiality"; concerned, but not frightened; a being open to cognition and "the world's worldliness"; a being which accepts other "beings".

Kim Sooja: "When I look back over my more than twenty years of handling bedcovers, I feel that I have always been performing, guided by the piles of cloth I haved live among. What in the world have I stitched and patched. What have I tied up in bundles. When will the journey of my needle end, my silkworm unwrap its flesh. Will it in the end slough off its skin. Will the boundless with no destinations find theirs ways to go."

Looking at the twenty years of Kim Sooja's work we can see that they form a consistent process. After art studies in Seoul, until about 1992, Kim Sooja makes abstract collage using traditional Korean fabrics and clothes. She combines sewing as a technique with drawing and painting. In those pieces sewing becomes not only a direct way of creating form, but a constitutive element defining her work. The use of this unique technique, associated rather with gender art, women's art, is blends with the artist's personal experience, taken from her family home, of sewing the traditional bedspreads together with her mother and grandmother. She sews her first objects from inherited clothes and bedspreads.

Kim Sooja's early collages come in different geometrical shapes, as flat reliefs, their surfaces made of bits of fabric sewn together, painted in ink or covered with abstract drawings — The Earth and the Heaven (1984), Blue (1987), Black (1987). In the 1990s they are gradually transformed into three-dimensional objects, assemblages, which, although they can be hung like paintings, have a richer texture, as they consist of larger pieces of cloth, creased, draped in a baroque fashion, fastened to the base. They form a crumpled, crammed, multicoloured mass, suggestive of an abstract flower (Toward the Flower, 1992), of earth, (Toward the Mother Earth, 1990-1991), of a portrait (Portrait, 1991), or carrying even more metaphorical meanings (Mind and the World, 1991). Some of them are objects leaning against the wall or propped up with bamboo sticks. As such, they already belong to the genre of installation — between the reality of a two-dimensional wall and space.

At the same time, from about 1991 Kim Sooja starts creating spatial objects and installations, leaving the painting and more or less flat textile compositions almost entirely behind. Those new compositions feature ready-made objects, always covered, wrapped up, rolled up in cloth (among others, a ladder, part of a rowing boat, a table, some tools and many old-fashioned objects of everyday use, which the artist treats with nostalgia, as the most precious traces of life and also as beautiful forms.) A series of those objects is called Deductive Object; it was afterwards expanded to include spatial objects made solely of fabrics. Needles, cloth, threads, sewing, sewing together, wrapping, covering, unfolding and spreading define Kim Sooja's artistic activities.

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Kim Sooja, e-mail, April 2, 2003

"Korean traditional wrapping cloth is 'Bojagi'( I prefer to use this way although people used to call it Pojagi - now Koreans try to match with the actual pronunciation of (Po)jagi and (Bo)ttari is same letter and pronunciation in Korea. Bojagi is traditionally used as wrapping cloth which was made out of small pieces of cloth sawn by anonymous women. But I used only used bedcovers which are made for the newly married couples.

'Bottari' is a wrapped bundle but normally people wrap households, cloth, clothes, books, gifts,...whatever, but my bundle is wrapped used clothes from anonymous people — I used yellow pages and white pages from New York in 1993 before I leave NYC as if wrapping people in New York."

A turning point in Kim Sooja's work was her exhibition in P.S. 1 Studio in New York in 1992. There, beside earlier work, she presented bottari made of traditional Korean bedspreads, filled with clothes. She also exhibited pictures, assemblage and even a kind of "tableau" made of crumpled fabrics, stuck to a surface and partly extending beyond the frame, as if pulled out of the inside of the picture. It was through those objects that a symbolic disruption of frames was effected. A year later at the Ise Art Foundation in New York Kim Sooja shows only a massive bottari, provocative not only in its shape, but also through the intensive red of the rectangular piece of fabric.

In the early 1990s Kim Sooja departs completely from the closed form of "tableau" with its limitations, and devotes herself to multi-directional exploration of space. The group exhibition "In Their Own Images" at the P.S.1 Museum in New York (1994) marks the starting point of Kim Sooja's new experiment with the "spatiality" and intimacy of a wall. Deductive Object — scraps of cloth filling cracks in a wall — is used by her at the 5th Biennial in Istanbul in 1997. While at the P.S.1 Museum colourful bits of fabrics protruded blithely beyond the wall, in Istanbul the blend discreetly with the old walls of the Hagia Eireni museum, becoming no more than patches of colour, hardly visible in the arcaded corridor. The association between those scraps stuck in the cracks of a wall with the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem is rather obvious.

Since the exhibitions at the P.S.1 Studio (1992) and the ISE Art Foundation (1993) Kim Sooja increasingly often exhibits bottari entitled Deductive Object, arranging them in different ways: a solitary bottari in a gallery (Museum Fridericianum, Kasel, 1998), one combined with bedcovers spread on the floor (Akira Ikeda Gallery, Nagoya, 1996 and the 5th Biennial in Lyon, 2000); crammed (Kwanhoon Gallery, Seoul, 1994), or against the background of a landscape, where they evoke their basic function: a practical means of transporting the most necessary things or one's all belongings, thus becoming a symbol of nomadism (Yongyou, Korea, 1995), and finally in combination with a video installation at the Seomi Gallery in Seoul (1994), consisting of bottari, monitors and scattered clothes. It was that installation, entitled Sewing into Walking, that anticipated the one dedicated to the victims of the Kwangju Massacre.

Apart form bottari, the most important thing are the traditional Korean bedspreads — to the artist, symbols of woman, of sex, love, the body at rest, sleep, privacy, fertility, longevity and health. They can also be interpreted as a special kind of traces of life. They are used fabrics — extraordinary witnesses of life, birth and death. At the artist's second individual exhibition at the Hyunday Gallery (1991) a single one of those is hung, together with old, sentimental objects. Then we encounter a whole mass of them, forming a patch of colourful fabrics. Long before, Sooja ties them into bottari, spreads them on the grass with deliberately slow gestures (performance Sewing into Walking, 1994). In recent years, they most often appear in installations such as A Laundry Woman, a simple presentation of a number of cloths hung out in the gallery to resemble drying linen. Is that not a metaphor for the roles of woman in Korean society, and women's roles in general? All the time Kim Sooja imitates women's activities in spare, minimalist gestures: she spreads, ties, folds, hangs out.

In November 1997 Kim Sooja takes an 11-day performance-trip around Korea in a truck. The 33-minute video from that trip is a record of the views of the truck with its load of colourful bottari. Possibly, Kim Sooja is making a journey into the past, going back to the journeys which her family was obliged to embark on following her father, an Army man working in the demilitarized zone. At the same time it is a metaphor for her current life — the life of a nomad artist, crossing ever new borders in order to meet new people. That aspect of nomadism, shown in Kim Sooja's performances, in installations using the symbolic bottari and in videos, is one of the key points of her art. Such nomadism takes place in open spaces and needs them to come into being, although it is confronted with the horizontal plan of the world and the limitations imposed by the organization of space by the "state".

Kim Sooja's videos are a record of performances happening in various cities and places around the world. Kim appears in them with her back to the camera. She is the woman who stands among passers-by or lies on a rock in Kitakyushu (A Needle Woman); the woman who sits on the pavement and begs in Cairo and Mexico (A Beggar Woman); the woman lying in the street in Delhi and Cairo (A Homeless Woman) and standing by the river in Delhi (A Laundry Woman).

As a figure against the background of the filmed spaces and people she is clearly distinct from their rhythm, their movement, their image. That is an effect of the medium of communication — video, which produces a flat and illusion-like picture. It is also due to the artist taking on the role of the "other" or even "stranger", and the position of the motionless figure — in the foreground — further prevents her from integrating with the surroundings. There is no sound from the crowded streets and the landscapes in which we see Kim Sooja; she reduces the reception to pure vision. We do not know who's filming her; if it were not for the artist's figure in the centre of the picture, it could be perceived as the record of an anonymous security camera, continuously controlling the streets, filming live with no scenario. All the passers-by, inhabitants of great cities, are filmed and become unwitting actors.

In the video A Needle Woman (1999-2001) the artist stands in crowded streets. Her complete immobility contrasts with the movement and noise of the metropolis, but the noise we can only guess at. The camera films the masses of bodies making their way along the streets of London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Lagos, New York, Cairo, Mexico City, Delhi. In Tokyo, the crowd does not get thinner even during the sultry summer. It moves smoothly, pattering and shuffling in a characteristic Japanese way. In the evenings, what sounds like one huge conversation hovers over the city, intermingled with street sounds.

In Kim Sooja's video, however, we will not hear Tokyo. In this, as in other films, instead of the sounds and the artist's face, we are shown her body and the face of the anonymous crowd. Thousands of people walk towards her, enter the frame and disappear after a moment. The video takes on the role of a sociologist's record — it shows the reactions of the crowd in confrontation with "another". In London, New York and Mexico City that crowd passes Kim Sooja ignoring her almost entirely. Similarly in Tokyo — here the indifference is greatest (no wonder many street performances were held here, for example by the group HiRed Center, to "activate" the street and the crowd). In Shanghai, Delhi and Cairo the crowd shows more interest; sometimes somebody turns, or stops for a while to stare. It is in Lagos that Kim Sooja arouses the greatest curiosity. Freeze frames from the video show not a crowd, but individual faces, feelings, reactions. In Tokyo, a smiling Japanese woman's face appearing for a moment is the only instance of emotion in the anonymous crowd. In Cairo the camera registers little events: somebody meets somebody, there is a warm greeting etc. Those are the most fascinating observations that Kim Sooja presents us with. On the other hand, it is well known what hostility and aggression a "crowd" can show: against itself as a whole, but also against the individuals that constitute it. Those video records and the artist's attitude express a sort of protest and something that stems from her affirmation of the world and total "being-in-the-world". There is also something innocent and naïve about them, and certainly something brave. Kim Sooja may not pose the question, but it would be difficult not to ask ourselves: why do stranger bodies incite so much hatred in us?

In A Beggar Woman Sooja begs on the streets of Lagos, Cairo, Mexico. In Cairo, two issues coincide: the problem of gender and of cultural differences. Kim — a woman, an "other" is surrounded solely by men, younger and older; a crowd of them encircle her body so that at times the motionless figure is no longer visible. In A Homeless Woman, shot in Delhi and Cairo, it is in Cairo that the homeless woman excites greatest interests. A group of men can not restrain their curiosity: they talk, they stare, even directly into the camera.

Kim Sooja makes her presence in the world noticeable through the continuity of repeated situations and shots of her own unchanging image: a figure standing among people or against a natural background. People bring in their own physicality and materiality into her works, and so does nature. It is a manifestation of various ways of being in the world. In that way Kim Sooja points to the basic problems of existence: that we are always alone, but also, that we always have the world and people around us.

— From the exhibition catalogue kimsooja solo show at the Zacheta Gallery of Art, Warsaw 2003.

Maria Brewinska worked as a curator at Contemporary Art Center in Warsaw. She currently works as a curator at the Zacheta gallery of Art, Warsaw.
She curated Chinese Artist show in 2004 and the Yayoi Kusama solo show 2004 including the Kimsooja solo show 2003.