Archive of Couples, 2009

Archive of Couples, 2009, 1 of 30 Iris Prints, 114.1 x 80.5 cm each.

To be Born, Love, Suffer and Die

Ryu Byounghak, 2010

Ryu Byounghak: I'd like to say, your recent series of art works feels slightly different on the surface from Bottari and A Needle Woman, which are well known to us. So before we look into the new work, I think it is very important to retrace one by one your footsteps in the making of these earlier works.

Kimsooja: People who have seen my Bottari pieces and A Needle Woman series — works that deal with humans — may think that my recent works — Earth-Water-Fire-Air, are only about nature. Nevertheless, I have continued to make a series of video works that deal with the themes of humans and nature simulateneously; which is something that has been present in my work since the beginning of my career. From my perspective, nature is an extension of a fabric and the needle is an extension of a body. In this sense, I think the relation between the fabric and the needle has evolved through the contemplation of nature as fabric, and a human body as a needle, that meditates towards humanity. In the end, these two are one.

Bottari, Wrapping Humans and Life

Ryu: So it seems we need to shed some light on this path to understand your work thoroughly. To start the conversation, let's discuss the motive of Bottari. In the mid-1990s, you once said, Keeping bottari (bundle) is a very common domestic practice in Korea, and bottaris have been around me my whole life, especially, since I began working on sewn pieces using used cloth and clothes in the 80s. I became aware of new possibilities for conceptualizing bottari from a mundane daily object to a completely new way of making painting, sculpture and installation. This opened up a new vision of its cultural, aesthetic, socio-political, and philosophical dimensions. One day in my P.S.1 studio in 1992, I turned my head and there was a bottari that I had put there a while before, which I used to look at everyday. When I gazed at this bottari in that moment, a completely different perspective emerged; a totally new bottari was sitting there. I had been wrapping and unwrapping bottaris for my clothes for sewn pieces, but I hadn't seen its hidden formalism and meanings before that moment. That bottari in front of my eyes was a completely new object and discovery. It was a sculpture and a painting and a ready made and a used object — all without doing anything except simply making a knot. Through this simple act of tying up, bottari making opens up a possibility for transforming two dimensions into three; which simultaneously transforms the object into both a pictorial plane and a sculptural volume.

Ryu: With this content, we can say you already found that bottari can be a sculpture and, in this way, your work Bottari is a sort of ready-made.

Kimsooja: Yes. 'ready-made', in the sense that it has been existing as an object and a form, and at the same time, a 'ready-used' object, in the sense that it is made from materials which have already been used by people.

Bottari is a fluid and transformable ready made and ready used. However, both contexts co-exist as a oneness in my bottari. As the nature of both a painting and a sculpture exists in one single body of bottari, and this object reveals the reality of life, it also has a diachronic temporality. To me, bottari contains radical aspects in many senses, but in Korea it is just an object that is so embedded in daily life, that this work might have been hard to understand and recognize distinctly as an artwork because it is so closely tied to daily life practices. My work is all about recognizing new artistic value and contextualizing and recontextualizing mundane daily life objects, and daily life actions with the least maniplulation. In fact I see the bottari that I rediscovered at P.S.1 in 1992 as more pro forma. I was focusing on the moment of transformation that the fabric, the two dimensional tableau, becomes the three dimensional object and sculpture by the ordinary act of tying. I have shown the installation Bottari also at the New Museum and Ise Art Foundation, New York, in 1993 but my vision changed around the time when I came back to Korea and prepared for my solo exhibition (1994). I had a new understanding of Korean society as a woman, and also as a person who had experienced the reality of an open society. That is to say, I came to understand that bottari wasn't just an aesthetic or formal object, but one made of the "reality of our lives". Since then, I started to use not only fragments of fabrics and clothes of various colors and patterns, but also used clothes from anonymous people as a pre-existing form. I began to work with the thought of wrapping humans, our life and memories rather than simply taking a formalist approach.

Ryu: Looking at your works from late 1990s, I had a thought about formality. They are ready-mades for sure, but they are different from the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp had fixed a urinal, a common product, into Fountain, the artwork, but Bottari travels back and forth between the common product and the artwork. You also transform a common product: bottari into the artwork Bottari, then after a certain period of time the art work is disassembled and turned back to a common product, and then a common product bottari appears again as an artwork in a different form. Through the 1990s your exhibitions were about wrapping the bottari, then going to another place and unwrapping it again, by doing this its mobility is emphasized. Looking at the successors of Duchamp's ready-made, like Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII also known as The Bricks, Dan Flavin's Monument made with fluorescent lights and Jeff Koons' New Shelton Wet/Dry Double Decker arrangement of vacuum cleaners, we can see that they are each fixed. But your works are fluid. Interestingly, you can wrap all three items: the brick, the fluorescent light and the vacuum cleaner, with the fabric and the shape changes differently in each case. Bottari is read as the work of a certain kind of magic. I think that is the other aspect of formality in your works.

Kimsooja: The fabric naturally possesses fluidity, so I hope that my works can be expanded to transcend all its limits.

The Border that Determines the Method in Life and Art

Ryu: Especially in the works after 1994, you used bedcovers a lot. In a past interview, you once said the bedcover holds the contents that covers us from birth to death, I think this symbolic content is telling of a sense of place.

Kimsooja: Actually when I was working on Bottari, many people thought I wrapped the bottari with Korean traditional wrapping fabric (bojagi), but I only used bedcovers. More precisely, I used traditional Korean bedcovers for newlywed couples. I think the bedcover is a field in which function and specific meaning coexist; in the sense that it is a place where we are born, love, dream, suffer and die. It is a frame for our life. Within this frame is the wishes of our whole lifetime — love, long life, wealth, and fertility are embroidered as forms and letters. Perhaps this might be considered a contradiction when we consider that this everyday, almost mundane yet colorful object — the bedcover — is covered with aspirations and festive elements. So, when the bedcover is unfolded, it is a tableau that has a place to stay. It is a two dimensional surface that implies memories of the loving life of a couple, sex, rest, stability, or family and comfort. However, the context gets reversed when it is tied into a bottari; suddenly it suggests dislocation, mobility, departing, migration and separation. The tableau (bedcover) that wraps and forms the bottari acts as a 'border' determining the dichotomy in life and art.

Ryu: Let's talk about the work you installed at the cafe in Central Park, for the Whitney Biennial, in 2002. You used bedcovers as tablecloths. Did the local audience know they were bedcovers?

Kimsooja: If I did not provide an explanation about the work, they would not have known. As a matter of fact, I showed the tablecloth installation first at Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh in 1995, then in Manifesta 1, and again at Setagaya Museum in Japan in 1998 as well as at the Central Park café for the Whitney Biennale 2002. At that time, after a series of bottari works, the meaning of unfolding the bottari became connected to the process of returning them into the original form of a canvas. In other words, the idea of using a bedcover as a tablecloth was to wrap invisible elements in the space, with mind and gaze, by turning the bedcovers back into a canvas. By unfolding the bottari and presenting it as a tableau, it folds invisible activities around the table into the tableau. For example, in cafes, people meet, talk to each other, share food and drinks, listen to the music and so on. I presented the tablecloth installation to wrap all these intangible communicational interactions, under the concept of an invisible wrapping. Ephemeral elements that appeared in the work are connected to the site-specific installation called To Breathe - A Mirror Woman, shown at Crystal Palace in Spain. At Crystal Palace, I intended to juxtapose the illusion of the mirror and the reality of space together — mirroring as a sewing activity — by covering the entire floor in mirrors. I also installed translucent film on all the glass windows of the architectural structure, in order to diffract the sunlight into a rainbow's spectrum when it penetrates the interior space from its source in the exterior space. Also, I unified all the elements of the notion of sewing by installing the amplified sound of my breathing — inhaling and exhaling — as voice performance. Holding the void of the space attached to the skin of the architecture, I presented the mirrored structure of the building itself, like a double-sided crystal palace with a division of a mirror surface on the ground so that it creates a negative space of the palace as a sewn architecture — a closed bottari — with the sound of my breathing creating a bottari of light and sound. In that, this work maximizes the immaterial character of the concept of bottari.

Ryu: I see. Although, I didn't see the installation of the bedcovers on the cafe tables firsthand, I did see it in a catalog. It was shocking. Especially after you mentioned that the bedcovers you used were intended for newlyweds. And bedcovers, by their characteristics, immediately convey the love making of newlyweds. In human natural desires, there are appetites and the libido. In that work, the two just fell into place. I wondered did the local public know that these were bedcovers, and how did they react to them.

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Kimsooja: At the first exhibition in Edinburgh, an audience member came to see the installation and she said that I was brave (laugh). In a way this work is provocative, but on the other hand it is presented in a very passive form. Some of the Korean bedcovers are quite exquisite and have delicate needlework, and there I used many beautifully preserved examples, so that the work drew a lot of attention. Yet the true meaning of the work that I am concentrating on is not just the cultural and aesthetic value of the bedcover.

Axis of Space and Time, A Needle Woman

Ryu: I want to connect the next question to our earlier conversation about the ready-made. Once you said, "I don't believe in the aphorism that the artist is the person who makes a new thing. I think the role of the artist is to find a new way of reading the existing world with specific observations, and by providing new contexts or concepts. However, whatever material I used at that time, it was mostly to refer to the life of the user." Based on my feeling, I made the connection that your video works, like A Needle Woman, had come about as you turn yourself into the ready-made. Like the Deleuzian notion of becoming, your works came to me as becoming a needle woman and becoming a laundry woman, in a fashion. It is known that A Needle Woman started in Tokyo, Japan, in 1999. How did you come to start this work?

Kimsooja: When I was commissioned to do a project with CCA KITAKYUSHU, I simply thought that I would like to do some kind of performative piece. In my first year living in New York City as an artist in exile, I felt that personally I was standing on the edge of a cliff — which kept me mentally very sharp. So, as I was becoming more aware and concentrating on my body more sensitively, I began to think deeply about subjects like isolation, the self and the other. Initially, I had been walking around downtown Tokyo for a couple of hours, waiting for a certain decisive time and place. Then I arrived at Shibuya, the street where hundreds of thousands of people flood in and out, and I experienced a moment in which I could not walk one step more. In Zen Buddhism, there is a sound which expresses awakening, "Ak!". I was shouting the inner scream, "Ak!" in a silence that I kept inside of me, and I couldn't move my feet but just had to stand still right at that specific moment in that location. Having that experience of standing still in that place, I have come to understand the meaning of walking. In other words, the relation between my body and the presence of a crowd accumulated in the bottari (my body), through the accumulated time and energy in the act of walking. I set that place for the first performance of A Needle Woman. Without even time to reconsider, I thought "This is it!" and started the performance right away and told the cameraman to record my appearance and the crowd in a certain frame from behind. I remember that performance was one of the most special experiences of my life. Over the waves of oceans of people, beyond the horizon of the people, I saw bright white light rising beyond the horizon of humanity. My mind was filled with love, joy and peace as well as compassion for all humanity. Through this unforgettable experience, I reached the point where I felt that "I wish to meet every single human being in the world." To meet everyone in the world, I continued the project A Needle Woman visiting eight metropolises on each continent. Looking back at all these events, I realized that all of these attempts to meet others was only a way to meet my own true self.

Ryu: The eight cities were Tokyo, Shanghai, Deli, New York, Cairo, Lagos and London. After that, I remember you continued to other cities, such as Patan, Nepal, Havana, Cuba, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, N'Djamena, Chad, Sana'a, Yemen and Jerusalem, Israel.

Kimsooja: These are the cities I performed in for the second series of A Needle Woman. In the first series, I placed my body as an axis of the space in the 8 metropolises in different continents, while in the second series, I presented my body as an axis of time. From my experiences visiting the first eight cities which were facing severe political, religious, economic and social conflicts within the country or with other ones, I decided to visit and confront the conflicting reality of the world choosing these 6 cities. Especially when I was visiting Patan, in the Kathmandu valley in Nepal, the country was in the midst of a civil war so I heard a lot of gunshots during the working process and saw many armed soldiers. These works, different from the first series, were made in slow motion so that the world I see as an equal value and delicate emotional relationship between my body and passers by, is more pronounced. In the first version which was shot in real time, the performative aspect of my body and the tension between my body and the passers by was more visible. I think the intersection of the times; the psychological relationship of the bodies and the passers by stand out more in the second version (2005) and my body reacts more as an axis of time rather than space. Because my body is in the time zone of zero — stillness — I was wondering "what kind of time it is when zero is expanded within this stillness showing in slow motion?". In fact, it is eternity. We can see the three different temporalities — my body as the extended point of zero (in the zone of zero); the time of the people who are walking in the street (in slow motion); and the time of the audience who watch the relation of these (in real time), and how they coexist and relate to each other.

Circulation and Connectivity of the Four Elements

Ryu: Most of the places that were mentioned earlier, posess a historic sense of place like Patan, Nepal and Havana, Cuba. In the case of A Lighthouse Woman, you wrapped the lighthouse of Morris Island, Charleston, with various colored lights. In this way I discovered that Charleston, the capitol of South Carolina, was where the United States Civil War began. In other works, there are cities whose sense of place oddly has an alternating point of life and death, too, like the sense of place of the bottari and the bedcover. Also there is a feeling of a certain significance in the sense of place of Earth-Water-Fire-Air. Is there a reason you chose Lanzarote, the volcanic island in the Canary Islands, Spain, and the volcano in Guatemala?

Kimsooja: Surely an invitation from Lanzarote Contemporary Art Museum and a subsequent visit to Lanzarote Biennale, 2009, served as momentum, but I had been dreaming of a project about the four elements of nature for years, so I explored this exceptional location without hesitation. Looking back on it now, the choice of the place where the fire — the lifeforce of the volcano — is completely extinguished, is more meaningful when considering that the extinct volcano was the nirvana of nature.

Ryu: I had a funny experience earlier when I was looking at the work. When you look at a video work, the lens of the projector sometimes gets covered by a viewer, and a shadow appears on the screen. So by approaching the work closely, my shadow rose in the middle of the sea waves.

Kimsooja: In fact when I screen A Needle Woman or A Laundry Woman, from time to time audiences overlap their bodies on the screen by standing in front of the work. When viewers are watching my back on the screen, at some point my figure is removed, and they replace my body — and my point of view — with their own. It's like the magic of foreshortening. For me, what the multilayered point of sight in A Needle Woman suggests is very interesting. I sometimes see that the different perspectives of A Needle Woman affects the audiences' point of view in analyzing a photographic or videographic image in terms of the relationship between the artist, the subject and the viewer, by establishing three different perspectives which is an approach that hasn't been examined or discussed before in photography and video or film making.

Ryu: All eight titles of each work in Earth-Water-Fire-Air are metaphoric. They are different from common titles. For example, the title of the video of the sea of waves is not waves of ocean but Earth of Water. So I studied it carefully, and could see then that the waves looked like a mountain on Earth if I looked at the water in the ocean as a landscape. Was that your intention?

Kimsooja: As I looked at it, water has the element of fire, as well as air and earth, and earth has the elements of fire, water and air as well. Therefore, each element circulates and connects to the others. In the process of looking at them as four separate elements, I intended to reveal that they cannot stand alone and are leaning on each other as humans. As a method of addressing their connectivity and internal dynamics, as a means of defining the element of earth in water, I also looked at the relationship of fire and air by switching them (Air of Fire). When permutated the combinations are 16, and when two elements in each pair are alternated there can be as many as 32 combinations. In other words, this can be considered as a starting point for trying to contemplate the four elements. In that sense, the work comes from feeling the power and weakness of nature; understanding that in the end, each of the elements are one and unified within our body. This led me to ask: what is the humanity of fire, or what is the humanity in water, earth and air? The work contains these questions based on the unifying principle that humans and nature are, after all, one. Notably, when confronted with the lava, which becomes stone and falls apart in reality, I witnessed the boiling magma spurting out from deep in the Earth, running and becoming the lava stone; soon after turning into dust. Stepping on the hot ground and feeling the heat while working on a plateau 3000 meters high, I realized that the ground that we all walk on is a hot, breathing, physical organism. In the disappearance of the heat, a tableau vivant was created, and as that occurred, I had the opportunity to recognize one by one all the elements of nature: from the small lava stone that evaporates into dust, into 'nothing'; just like human destiny.

Ryu: In one of the works, a car is driving through a dark place and shining a flashlight on and off so that only the place where the light is on can be seen and vanished again. At first I was wondering what that was, but soon I found out the scene centered on the volcano and was lit and shot in the place where the flashlight you lit towards the landscape from the car. The thing that appears and disappears is made from the cooled down lava (a fireball of lust) spewed from the volcano. In the video, I could feel the brevity in which every human must turn to ashes. Lastly, for the audience, may I ask how you would like them to appreciate the work?

Kimsooja: Well, rather than mentioning how to question, I would like to say that I want to observe, and share this with you. With a question for the endless pictorial journey, I want to ask once again the first and the last question: what is the matter that this life is made of?

This article was originally published in Korean in Art in Culture magazine, February 2010. English translation was published in Art in Asia magazine, June, 2013.