'Always A Little Further', the 51st Venice Biennale in Arsenale, Venice.

Concrete Metaphysics

Doris von Drathen, 2005

'The space is nowhere. The space is within itself like honey in a comb.' [1]  The enigmatic quality of this image lies in the special powers of honey — first to accrue and then to spread out, and, resistant to being sealed off, to transform and expand space with its light and scent. This observation can assume broader implications as an analogy for a universal outlook that from the Renaissance through to the present has been formulated by philosophers and poets alike. Namely, that the way we experience exterior space, its boundlessness and its limits depends on the inner space of the subject experiencing it. It is this inner space alone that determines the extent and expansion of space and things, an insight Rilke couched in the words 'the one space stretches through all beings, an inner cosmos', and, elsewhere, 'Space spreads transposingly from us to things: / to properly feel how a tree upsprings, cast around it space from that which inwardly / abides within in you. Surround it with retention. / It has no bounds. Not until its reascension / in your renouncing is it truly tree.' [2] 

To examine experience and objects in terms of their dynamic power to seize and occupy space, to think through time and space in terms of their capacity to expand, in other words to give visual form to the potent equivalence between substance and 'extance' [3]  is probably the most important creative principle propelling Kimsooja's work.

Born in Taegu in 1957 and a resident of New York since 1999, the Korean artist has no need to impress through heroic gestures. The barest means — needle and thread, and a few pieces of used cloth — are quite enough for her. These can, for example, end up as The Heaven and the Earth, one of her first works from 1984. Kimsooja was 27 years old when she stitched together the scraps of material left over from those of her deceased grandmother's old silk dresses that were not fully worn-out and faded. Here, echoing the title, the entire universe is laid out before us — the earth's four quadrants designated by the four points of the compass and at their centre, as described in many ancient cultures, the fifth realm where the 'world mountain' or the site of the 'column of heaven' [4]  is located. That this can indeed be understood to represent a universe is confirmed if one closely examines and elucidates the full body of Kimsooja's art and its underlying coherence.

Having studied painting in Seoul and lithography in Paris, the artist was concerned from the outset with finding means of abandoning the frame encompassing the canvas and the image. In the early nineties she stitched together patches of coloured fabric into relief-like, freely proliferating forms, mounting onto walls a rich spectrum of semi-circular shapes or tondi. Cloth, needle and thread in lieu of canvas, paints and brushes. But these are fabrics that once 'had a life': worn garments or traditional Korean bedspreads. Kimsooja seeks out these pieces of cloth because they 'retain the smells of others' lives, memories and histories, though their bodies are no longer there — embracing and protecting people, celebrating their lives and creating a network of existences.' [5]  These works also have titles that allude to something far beyond the borders of the object and fill it with interior space, such as Toward the Mother Earth.

Stepping beyond

For Kimsooja the act of sewing quickly became far more than a mere departure from painting, as this shift gave her the means to evolve a cognitive approach and a world view, spawning a central idea that was soon to animate her entire work. All the works she has produced since then can be considered part of an exploratory quest to fathom this mythical universe spun around needle and thread. Indeed, unlike any other instrument the needle is able to hold 'the thread, drawing it through the surface into the lower layers, into an underworld of downward motion. There is the needle that moves along the boundary, between the panels it is about to join together. It overcomes intermediary space. But the needle has no existence of its own. It is an instrument, a means; once the work is done, the needle disappears.' [6]  When Kimsooja — who even sewed her own name together from her forename Sooja and her family name Kim — describes the needle's attributes one clearly sees how closely she identifies with this instrument of artistic labour. At the time she was making her large and increasingly expansive relief-like textile collages, she also began working on objects which she modified by covering their surfaces with fabrics. There are, for instance, the large runged wheels some 185 cm high, steel structures made by the artist and assembled together with discarded farming tools; these interest her less as ready-mades than as objects which once had a purpose and are thus imbued with their own time and history. The fabric cover softens the sharp edges and points, transforming the work tool into a feminine and visual object. [7]  While these experimental pieces are perhaps less striking than Kimsooja's other work they nonetheless assume a pivotal function within her artistic development in the sense that they mark the point of transfer of her textile surfaces into the third dimension.

This is the basis on which Kimsooja then founded a wholly new understanding of her role as an artist. In her subsequent works she no longer treated the needle as an extension of her hand but increasingly regarded herself and her own body as the needle, using it as a sewing tool to move between layers of textile. It was this new awareness that led her to make her first bottari, the Korean word for the cloth bundles that are so deeply part of Korean tradition. Even today the large, richly coloured and decorative bedcovers woven in silk or cotton are still used in Korea to transport clothes, books and household articles on journeys or as storage around the home. But these bundles are also the expression of a culture exposed to colonialist threat and repression, one whose constant preparedness for departure and escape has become fully ingrained in the habits of everyday life. A large cover of this kind still represents a typical wedding gift for young couples. Its functions mark the poles of human existence: as a bedspread it is equated with tranquillity, tenderness and birth; as a suspended stretcher it is used as a cradle for carrying the sick and the dead. But besides its place in Korean tradition a further significant aspect becomes evident if one considers the position textiles have held in age-old African-Arab culture. When a woven fabric is removed from the loom and the threads are cut the women pronounce the same ritual blessing as they would at the severance of a baby's umbilical cord. Thus in terms not only of its function but also of its manufacture a cloth could be likened to a bridge spanning the entire breadth of human existence, with the four sides of the loom signifying the four ends of the world.

Being alien

The idea of or awareness for the bottari arose during the period of Kimsooja's artistic residency at P.S. 1 in New York in 1992—93. In her studio she caught sight of the bundle in which she kept her clothes, as she had commonly done in Korea. Living in alien surroundings had changed her perception: 'Suddenly the bundle meant something entirely new to me. It was a sculpture and a painting in one and I realized that by the simple act of tying it together I could shift from two to three dimensions', she noted. [8]  At the P.S. 1 open studio in 1992 and the New Museum in New York a year later Kimsooja created her first installation made of bottari. On her return to Korea she exhibited them for the first time in her home country. In the village Yangdong in the Kyungju region she came across a deserted house which she chose as the site to install this work — brilliantly coloured cloth bundles spread out over the floor. Not only did this manifest an alien view of her own culture but it also instantly set the course for her adoption of alienness as a way of life. Within Kimsooja's oeuvre the bottari evolved into a kind of module that would recur in ever-changing variations in altogether different contexts during her travels over the following years.

At the same time, however, in 1995, she used fabrics to construct an ephemeral monument commemorating the two thousand Koreans who were shot dead in Kwangju. In May 1988 students and others who demonstrated against the imposition of martial law were brutally murdered by the government. For this work Kimsooja covered the ground of a wooded terrain with two and a half tons of cotton clothes, some bundled up into bottari, others piled in loose heaps. Visitors were able to walk over the laid-out clothing. As the installation ran its two-month course and the seasons progressed the items of clothing became increasingly intermingled with the earth of the forest floor. Called Sewing into Walking, a piece in which first she and then each of the visitors acted as needles gradually stitching together not only the past and the present but also the man-made and the naturally grown, the dead and the living.

This new dimension, whereby 'sewing' is extended to the outside world, gave rise to a spectacular image in her 1997 performance titled Cities on the Move — 2727 Kilometer Bottari Truck. For this work Kimsooja heaped piles of bottari onto the uncovered loading area of a lorry, fastening them with a crisscrossed web of strong elastic rope and then, seated on top of this bundle of bundles, travelled for eleven days though Korea visiting all the places she had ever lived in and which for her were thus loaded with memory. To reach these towns and villages the truck climbed sinuous roads over mountains and through valleys, boarded ferries to cross from seashore to seashore. Kimsooja explains why it was so important for her to sit on top of these itinerant bundles of belongings: 'my body — which is just another bottari on the move — is in the present, is tracing the past and, at the same time, is heading for the future, non-stop movement by sitting still on the truck. And though I used myself in this work, I tried to locate a more universal point where time and space coincide.' [9] 


This journey encompassed two extremes at once: the more or less conscious act of bidding farewell to her home country before moving completely to the US and the starting-point of a life that was to be increasingly shaped by the rhythm and her personal awareness of being on the move. But the 'universal point' Kimsooja was seeking might, arguably, reside in the perception of these folded clothes and tightly tied bundles as metaphors for the universe. The bundles could be seen as an altogether concrete expression of Leibniz's notion of the universe as a vast cloth that, however many new folds it acquires, always remains one and the same piece of cloth. 'The entire universe is a continuous body that is not divided but like wax can assume various forms and like a tunic can be folded in a variety of ways.' [10]  Even if Kimsooja herself, who is familiar in like degrees with eastern and western culture, would not draw such a reference to Leibniz, her work nonetheless offers evidence of a sensibility which grasps cloth as a phenomenon and takes account of its pronounced cultural-historical and philosophical connotations. Indeed, her work seems almost to have been woven from all the different contrasting manifestations of this same phenomenon, whether packed together in round, thick, heavy bundles placed on the ground or as pictorial surfaces fluttering gently and delicately against the wall — in the manner of how she went on to work with cloth. Besides fabric, there is hardly another material so rich in associative potential: it is capable of being one and many at the same time, yet can be returned to being one. But the particular quality of Kimsooja's work lies in how she takes the spiritual-corporeal dual nature of cloth, which for so long has fascinated philosophers and poets alike, and transposes it into a constantly revitalized and ever-evolving exploration of time and space.

The broad scope of her travel performance Cities on the Move — 2727 Kilometer Bottari Truck came full circle when she parked her lorryload of bottari in the 'd'Apertutto' [11]  hall during the Venice Biennale in 1999. The truck was installed in front of a large mirrored wall — as though her notion of living in exile were characterized by this dual vision of things. In this particular setting the installation was indeed titled Exile. The fact of departure is irrevocably sealed by the fact of arrival. In another performance, which felt almost like an inverted echo of her Venice installation, Kimsoojaspread one of these magnificently coloured fabrics over the grass between the gravestones of a cemetery in Brooklyn, where the cloth was billowed out by the wind like a sail. Looming behind her was the silhouette of New York with its towers looking as stone-carved as the tombstones. Performed in 2002, just a year after the terror attack on September 11, the piece she titled Epitaph was nothing further than a fluttering gravestone inscription. The Greek word epitaphion means 'at the grave', and it is precisely this embodiment of nothing more than the prepositional gesture of 'at', of hovering in the intermediate realm, of being suspended on the edge that constitutes the poetry of her work. This single gesture might also evoke Rilke's call to cast one's own immeasurable inward space around things so as to free them from their limits, to grasp them concretely in one's vision. But in this instance it was not just any object that she had taken to expand the space of experience. This too is why the 'ybulbo' — the name for large Korean bedcovers steeped in history and tradition — were able to 'spread open' their own space when long rows of them were suspended on washing lines traversing the room in the work A Mirror Woman (2002). Here, not only was the viewer's gaze immersed in a swirl of colour but his ears were also awash with sound, with the chants of Tibetan monks. But the covers were also hung between two walls of mirrors, incorporating the viewer into a never-ending reflection as he wandered through the floating, wafting walls of fabric, these swaying pictorial panels that in endless repetition constantly unfurled new fata morganas and chimerical spatial realms.

This installation was one of the works that again centrally featured fabrics, which are capable of filling space and creating space of their own. At the same time this work acted as a seam, a threshold and a turning point for a new stage in Kimsooja's work. Hereafter she began to envisage the entire space of her surroundings, the world she observes and experiences, as an immense piece of cloth through which she herself travels as a needle.


A Needle Woman (1999) is the name Kimsooja gave herself in the performance she held in Kitakyushu in Japan when she reclined on top of a cliff with her back to the viewer. She lay on her side, her body nestling against the curves of the rock, one of her arms outstretched, cushioning her head, the other clasped along the length of her body. With her legs closed, her body traced a single line starting at the tip of her outstretched feet. She did not support herself: this reclining horizontal posture is not an expression of passivity but a sign of balance and alertness. The colour of the pale limestone echoed that of her gown, reinforcing the sense of unity between the human body and the geological body. This is probably one of her quietest, most peaceful works. 'Nothing changes in this video except the natural light from the sky and a little bit of breeze, and at the end there is one fly that is just passing by against the slow movement of the clouds. Of course, I had to control my breath, so my shoulders wouldn't move; I taught myself how to breathe with my stomach. I was there a pretty long time. The rock was a little bit cold, but it was just so peaceful. I was completely abandoning my will and desire to nature and I was at such a peace.' [12]  Her words may have the ring of Far Eastern meditative culture, but Kimsooja actually expounds a world view that is more a fusion of eastern and western culture and treats meditation as part of everyday life. [13]  Hence, as the horizontal Needle Woman lying on the mountainside of Kitakyushu she can equally associate herself with the crucifix. For her body is 'located at the central point of four different elements which are in-between the sky and the earth, nature and human beings. I located myself on the borderline of the earth and the sky, facing nature and away from the viewers'. [14]  Here one can sense the vision of the universe alluded to in the cross of cloth called The Earth and the Heaven that was mentioned at the outset which, when set in proper context, increasingly reveals its true dimensions.

The further one probes the logic woven into Kimsooja's work — following the weave, as it were — the more it appears to be oriented towards forming an image of the world with universal scope. One year later, with a quietness similar to that witnessed in Kitakyushu, but now tipped into a vertical axis, the artist stood on the steep slopes of the Yamuna river in India near Delhi, not far from where the dead are cremated. She can be seen peering across the water, watching the blossom, ornaments and other remains of incinerated ritual objects drifting away towards the horizon. Again Kimsooja is observed from the rear, the viewer's gaze following hers into the space that to her resembled a painting, a space holding 'anonymous people's life and death, including mine.' [15]  The fact that she is viewed from behind has been frequently commented upon. Yet how else is such a pictorial space meant to arise, one that allows the viewer to participate in what is seen and experienced? Is it not precisely through this distending glance that space and meaning can be generated? [16] 


Kimsooja's appearance in her own pictorial spaces is evidence of 'being in the world', a state that absorbs and incorporates its audience, as opposed to the viewer being excluded and treated as 'other'. Moreover, her presence in these spaces is not that of a melancholy dreamer but of an active axis. Whether in a horizontal or a vertical position, she is always the one who, as she says, condenses movement and time. The artist transforms time into corporeality that not only circumscribes space but actually opens it up: 'For me, space is time — time is space. Every single movement and any physicality is time. If we draw a line from a given point, time runs exactly parallel to it. A line is the physical expression of movement in time. And through this movement space is also opened up. When I position my body as a stationary, vertical axis in space I am to some degree creating a form of timelessness, but I am simultaneously opening up another kind of movement — a vertical, inwardly directed movement, time in the form of condensation. We cannot separate the coexistence of time and corporeality, and hence spatiality; they are for ever immutably fused.' [17]  This conception of time and space as corporeal entities can be witnessed not only in Kimsooja's living images of devotion to the structures of the cosmos and nature, but also in her performances in the open spaces of collective experience in the world's cities. In A Homeless Woman she can be seen lying on the ground in the same posture as she assumed on the Kitakyushu mountain, but now directly on the streets of cities like Delhi and Cairo. As a needle, barometer, seismograph and compass she seems to be doing more than just personifying time and space, she is also indicating the everyday dramas that usually go undetected in our habit-formed lives. The social fabric has now become her material. Her gown is as grey as the dusty road; her presence evolves into silent, physical testimony.

This performance also has a vertical equivalent. As in her extensive performance series A Needle Woman (1999-2001), which she resumed in 2005, urban residents become the cloth in which Kimsooja wraps herself when she travels to large cities and implants herself as a perpendicular axis amid teeming passers-by, standing bolt upright and motionless in the very places where the crowds are densest. The videos on which these performances are recorded are silent; the viewer can fully concentrate on the image and its time and space. Here again the artist's gaze is directed at events before her and the people passing by. People in Delhi, Lagos, Tokyo, New York, London, Mexico City, Shanghai and Cairo. Here we see people with time to notice the artist, to smile at her, to turn around and look back; or others who are focused wholly on their own purposes and hurry onward without registering her. Immobile and with steady gaze, the artist stands in the surging floods of people, stems herself against the current, her motionlessness acting as a gauge of passing time. Similar to how she stood as a vertical living axis by the Yamuna river, fully aware that even if she were no longer there the vast horizontal current would outlast the arc of her existence and continue to flow onward, here it seems much the same, that the broad currents of surging humanity will never cease to flow, will outlast this corporeal needle measuring the present.


In her most recent performances series A Needle Woman from 2005 Kimsooja turned to examine an entirely different theme, even though she barely altered her pictorial means. For this she travelled to trouble spots around the world, places with a background of prolonged struggle against colonialism, regions that have been plagued by war, civil strife, economic conflict and dire poverty, that have been decimated by ancient feuds between warring ethnic groups. She visited Havana where the scars of colonial experience are still keenly felt; she went into the favelas in Rio de Janeiro where everyday life is constantly menaced by street warfare; she travelled to N'Djamena in Chad, the poorest country in Africa and to Sana'a in Yemen, a country currently embroiled in conflict with both the US and Israel — not to mention Patan in Nepal and Jerusalem. These journeys were more tokens of physical testimony than of the possibility of physically experiencing time; the purpose and implications of this testimony are made clear by the high degree of risk to which Kimsooja exposed herself in these places and on her travels. While the viewer again witnesses her as a calm and stationary pole standing in the midst of milling crowds, among which are also variously uniformed soldiers, she herself can hear the rattling of machine-guns from all around her and on more than one occasion has feared she might be shot in the back.

This video installation was shown on six screens at the 2005 Venice Biennale. For the first time the video's speed was not real time but cut by fifty per cent, thereby stretching the duration of the performance, distending the moment of encounter between Kimsooja as an immobile axis and the passing people. Only when time is expanded does the encounter between standstill and flowing time become properly visible. This gives rise to three different time zones within the pictorial space. First there is the form of timelessness embodied by the stationary vertical pole of A Needle Woman. Very similar to her performance Cities on the Move — 2727 Kilometer Bottari Truck where, seated on top of the lorry's fastened load of bundles like a human bottari, she acted as a sign of the present travelling through the past while constantly moving towards the future, here again she is a stationary pole that personifies past, present and future in one. Holding the past within her, Kimsooja encounters the present and looks into the future. Secondly, besides this form of condensed time there is also the motion of the passers-by who are the concrete manifestation of a time composed of countless juxtaposed moments of the present. Finally, a third time zone is introduced into the image by the viewers themselves, for it is they who embody the link to real time. To a greater extent than the physical experience of space, this work manifests the physical experience of time. [18]  It offers concrete evidence of the degree to which our relational systems are determined by both space and time. Time, like space, can isolate or connect. By expanding time Kimsooja's video work emphasizes the encounter, but is more than just a phenomenon of simultaneity. What instead transpires is similar to what happens when we observe the expanded space in her Kitakyushu and Yamuna river performances: the viewer is drawn into a state of consciousness comparable to that of experiencing the horizon. Expanded time opens up the experience of one's own boundary. While the viewer is watching the videos of these six spaces of conflict filled with teeming human crowds he is looking in the same direction as the artist, is standing motionless as her and experiences his own time, its limitation and thereby the possibility of imagining how this boundary might be surpassed.

With the Venice piece the role of A Needle Woman visibly evolved into the political role of a witness, of someone who 'was there', who was in the midst of everything, who also suffered, who partook in need and hardship and is now able to report about it. Here she has become a needle that gauges reality, a clock hand registering the events of our time. But in this role A Needle Woman also embodies our relationship to current events, our unshielded vulnerability towards the moment, an exposure that lacks reflective distance. It is the dislocating filter of imagery that offers the means of overcoming such blind, mute and excessive proximity in our experience of the present. For even if the viewer himself experiences events from the same perspective and, conceivably, with the same inner calm as the artist it is the distance established by the image that provides him with a filter of time and space, thereby engendering insight. Kimsooja has created a profoundly ethical anthropological work. The universe she stretched open when she started out as an artist has evolved into a truly committed condition of 'being in the world', which for the artist herself only makes sense as a political embodiment of our spatial and temporal experience. The full dimensions of her pictorial world are only properly revealed when one perceives it as fostering a sphere of concrete metaphysics — but one which seeks its raison d'être in ethics.

This essay was first published in German in Künstler Kritisches Lexikon der Gegenwartskunst, Nr. 74, vol. 12, II quarter, Munich, 2006.

Translated from the German by Matthew Partridge.

Doris von Drathen is a German art historian who lives in both Paris and New York. Since the publication of her book Vortex of Silence: a proposition for an art criticism beyond aesthetic categories (Charta, 2004), she teaches art theory at Cornell University — an art theory which she coins as: Ethical Iconology. Her latest publication is a monograph on Pat Steir (Charta, 2006).


  1. Joë Bousquet, 'La neige d'un âge', quoted in: Gaston Bachelard, La poétique de l'espace, Paris, 1957/2004, p. 183.  > return to article >
  2. Rainer Maria Rilke, Sämtliche Werke, vol. II, Frankfurt/M., 1991, p. 168: 'Raum greift aus uns und übersetzt die Dinge / dass dir das Dasein eines Baumes gelinge, wirf Innenraum um ihn, / von jenem Raum, der in dir west. Umgib ihn mit Verhaltung. / Er grenzt sich nicht. Erst in der Eingestaltung / in dein Verzichten wird er wirklich Baum.'  > return to article >
  3. Bachelard, ibid.  > return to article >
  4. Otto Friedrich Bollnow, Mensch und Raum, Stuttgart, 1963/2004, p. 64.  > return to article >
  5. Kimsooja in conversation with Mary Jane Jacob in In the Space of Art: Buddha and the Culture of Now, 2004; see: www.kimsooja.com/texts/jacob.html.  > return to article >
  6. Kimsooja in conversation with Doris von Drathen in June 2005; see Künstler Kritisches Lexikon der Gegenwartskunst, Nr. 74, vol.12, Munich, 2006, pp.14—15.  > return to article >
  7. Kimsooja in an email to the author, 5 January 2006.  > return to article >
  8. Kimsooja in conversation with Mary Jane Jacob, ibid.  > return to article >
  9. Ibid.  > return to article >
  10. Horst Bredekamp, Die Fenster der Monade, Berlin 2004, p. 16. ('Totum universum est unum corpus continuum. Neque dividitur, sed instar certae transfiguratur, instar tunicae varie plicatur.')  > return to article >
  11. The name coined by Harald Szeemann for the exhibition of young artists staged in the Arsenale during the Venice Biennale he directed.  > return to article >
  12. Kimsooja in conversation with Mary Jane Jacob, ibid.  > return to article >
  13. Cf. Kimsooja in conversation with Doris von Drathen, reproduced in this publication.  > return to article >
  14. Kimsooja in conversation with Mary Jane Jacob, loc. cit.  > return to article >
  15. Ibid.  > return to article >
  16. Cf. Rilke, loc. cit.  > return to article >
  17. Kimsooja in conversation with Doris von Drathen, reproduced in this publication.  > return to article >
  18. Ibid.  > return to article >