A Needle Woman - Delhi, 2000, part of the 8 cities performances (1999-2001), 6:33 video loop.

Obvious but Problematic

Bernard Fibicher, 2002

Reactions to Kim Sooja's silent video projections tend to be just as soundless - indeed speechless - as the works themselves. We have little trouble recognizing what is shown; there is no "plot" whatsoever, nor does any new information crop up at any point during a sequence. In short, there is hardly food for discussion. This makes it all the more tempting to seek some sort of exegesis with respect to the work of this Korean artist, to link it historically with certain artistic or philosophic traditions, in order to define it in words. To that end, certain catchwords represent particularly appealing departure points: Zen Buddhism, meditation, yoga, the suspension of the body, the emptying of the mind, ecstasy through asceticism, becoming one with the cosmic forces, and so forth. Kim's art may well touch upon any or all of these. Public response to her work, however, has repeatedly proven that viewers who balk at Eastern philosophy are nonetheless capable of empathizing with what she presents.

This leads us to consider linking Kim's work with Western Existentialist or phenomenological trends, prone as they are to claiming universalism. For instance, then, the mere fact of the artist's Da-Sein (that is, her being + there) in her videos might to some extent relate to Heidegger's notion of Ek-sistenz as analyzed in Being and Time . His "being-in-the-world" means to exist, from the Latin ex-sistere, the equivalent of standing outside one's self in a state of being that has always preexisted. In other words, it is precisely the most innocuously quotidien aspect of life that allows us to be and become what we already are, enabling the pure "what is and is to be" to emerge while "wherefrom and whereto" remain shrouded in mystery. To Heidegger, the body is inconsequential, simply there, a mere background for our acts, never standing in the foreground; the body is an instrument of transcendence. Might we not say as much of the artist's body, as it appears in her videos? By contrast, for Maurice Merleau-Ponty, author of a most important Phénoménologie de la perception, our perception of things always depends on a standpoint, namely that of our body. To be body means to be linked to a certain world ("Etre corps, c'est être noué à un certain monde..."). And that world is what makes me aware of my body "at the center of the world," as "the unperceived end point towards which all objects turn their face" ("le terme inaperçu vers lequel tous les objets tournent leur face"), "the hub of the world" ("le pivot du monde"). By way of illustration, see the four-part video installation A Needle Woman !

Several art-historical contexts might lend themselves to "explaining" Kim Sooja's work. Traditional Chinese landscape painting, for instance, uses the dialectical relationship between solid and liquid: the landscapes reflect the reciprocal influence of rock and water, mountain and clouds, as captured by the interplay of brush and India ink. Although painting is not her medium, Kim does seem to follow these roughly sketched principles, allowing the stiff bodies she presents to interact with flows found in nature or streaming crowds.

Western art history, too, offers several frameworks within which it would be feasible to position Kim's work. "Forerunners" of sorts easily come to mind in the realms of performance and body art: one thinks of the Marina Abramovic/Ulay pair's experiments with the basic positions of the human body - standing, lying, sitting - or the statue-like and aura-pervaded standing role into which James Lee Byars enjoyed casting himself. However, art historians also tend to link Kim's stance in her videos with the back-view figures that so frequently appear in Caspar David Friedrich's paintings of around 1818. The title figures of two of these - his Woman before the Setting Sun (Museum Folkwang, Essen) and Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (Kunsthalle Hamburg) - each stand full-length, parallel to the painting and in the foreground, exactly in the middle of the composition. Both turn their back to the viewer: solitary individuals, they stand confronted by the endless breadth and immeasurable magnitude of Nature. Just as in Kim's work, through their anonymity, these figures seen from behind serve as substitutes - within the painting - for the viewer. They are at once subject and object of our gaze.

It would certainly be interesting to carry some of these ideas a few steps further, or to explore still others, such as the concept of the sublime, or Baudelaire's notion of the " bain de foule" (to revel in crowds). For the purposes of this essay, however, we shall focus on the video images themselves, attempting to discover what constitutes their definition-defying fascination. The common denominator for most of Kim's works is the standing or lying female figure, motionless and seen from the back. In the first place, the figure is inaccessible because the woman turns her face away, that is, away from the viewer. It is the crowd streaming towards the "Needle Woman," in the video sequence by that name, who can see her from the front; they see something we are denied. Were we to take the place of the female figure, we would discover nothing more than what we already see as viewers. Hence, to identify with the back-view figure is relatively beside the point. It would be far more interesting to adopt the standpoint of one of the passersby. In the last analysis, it seems that the figure "invisible" to us holds the key to the whole scene. Why are the passersby looking at her or ignoring her? Is she crying or laughing, speaking or holding her silence? Are her eyes open or shut? Is she pretty or ugly? The gazes of the passersby offer no clue in the matter. This woman is no individual (she can be multiplied) but an abstraction. Clad in neutral gray, the artist's figure seems incorporeal, silhouette-like, a shadow of ourselves, a Doppelgänger. And yet she stands her ground with respect to the crowd, tacitly but nonetheless forcefully asserting her presence. In fact, the artist strikes a delicate balance between presence and absence; she is at once herself and the "other."

A second factor rendering inaccessible the figure viewed from behind is that the viewer is incapable of sharing her standpoint. The "Needle Woman" on the rocks lies above the viewer's eye level and above the horizon; no pathway leads to her. Moreover, deprived of a foreground, she cannot be situated in depth. The landscape lying ahead of her is invisible to us. We wonder if the woman is sleeping or meditating with closed eyes, whether she even deigns to cast a glance at what is hidden from us. Not content with refusing to show herself, she further denies us the possibility of seeing things from her standpoint, thus cutting off our view ahead. This female figure represents unattainable distance. The "Laundry Woman" presents similar spatial problems, inviting us to wonder where it is that she is standing. Very near the river bank? High above the river? The water forms a wall in front of her: instead of mirroring the artist herself, it reflects the sky above and its flock of whirring birds. On the other hand, the viewer is refused her standpoint, prevented from sharing her space. Here, the female figure is invisible to us from the waist down, with only her upper body jutting out into the image. (The reclining figure, too, does not seem to be in the picture but to project itself onto the picture from the side, shoving itself in between the rocks and the sky.) This "upper-body figure" is impossible to pin down in any fixed spatial terms. Nevertheless, the figure seems "grounded" in the literal sense of the word, standing as it does exactly at the center of the image, which it divides symmetrically into two. It is this figure that determines and creates the spatial coordinates. Everything starts out from it, relates to it: it is the center, the alpha and the omega.

The third reason that this back-view figure is inaccessible has to do with the space itself — the space the figure faces, to which it is exposed. This space is unstable, constantly changing, liquid. A longer look makes even the supposedly solid rocks in Kitakyushu, upon which the "Needle Woman" reclines, seem subject to "change": the ridges look like the flow of hair that has been let down. Anthropomorphic elements begin appearing in the rocks, something like the features of a human skull lying about. The woman sitting on the bundles in Cities on the Move may be shaken about a bit by the potholes in the street, but it is nonetheless she who remains the static element in the sequence. The street winds its way through the images before our eyes, and the landscape comes towards us. Yet, despite the space's instability — its dynamic quality to put it more positively — no uneasiness or menace is suggested (by contrast, for instance, with the progressive deformation and narrowing of the lead character's living quarters in Boris Vian's Froth on the Daydream. The female figure not only exists in space that is anisotropic, but also belongs to another time — an extremely slow-motion version of our own world. Kim's video imagery portrays the world's continuous transformation as an inexorable but altogether natural turn of events. However, the strength of the individuals exposed to this unending transformation is equally inexorable: through the simple fact of their presence-laden Da-Sein, they are capable of neutralizing it.

Here we have what most probably explains the fascination of Kim Sooja's video works. Refusing to draw her systematic play of contrasts into any sort of tension-charged dialectical relationship, she instead achieves such a delicate equilibrium that opposite poles are brought to the fore as a natural basis for harmony. Although what she stages is commonplace, her video imagery does not come across as believable. The balance struck between presence and absence exists not only in her images, but in our head as well, inasmuch as the back-view figure can show itself as soon as the video projector is switched off. Kim Sooja: at once subject and object of our gaze, an individual and an abstraction, a specific woman and every(wo)man, instrument and actress, motionless and purposeful. In theories of perception, the fact that the eye sees what moves is a truism. In Kim's work, it is immobility that catches the eye. While setting herself at the center of the imagery, the artist distances herself from it. Her forceful but simple appearance is an incredible manner of self-assertion, proving that it is possible here and now, and with a strict economy of means, to adventure into new spatial and temporal dimensions.

— From Kunsthalle Bern exhibition catalogue, 2001:

Bernard Fibicher's special fields of expertise are the art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and public art. He was curator of the Cantonal Art Museum in Sion and chief curator at the Zürich Kunsthaus (1995-97) in the prints, drawings and video department where he was responsible for the exhibitions "Erotica", "Wall Drawings" (with Maria Eichhorn, Simon Patterson and Gary Simmons) and shows by Gillian Wearing, Callum Innes, Pierrick Sorin, Inez van Lamsweerde etc. At Kunsthalle Bern, he has specialized in exhibitions of contemporary artists from all over the world (especially Africa and Asia), presented a number of group shows such as "Genius Loci", "White Noise", "South Meets West", "I Never Promised You a Rosegarden", "Basics", "Danger Zone", etc., as well as solo shows by the following artists: Marie-José Burki, Thomas Hirschhorn, "Big Tail Elephant Group", Cecilia Edefalk, Callum Innes, Christoph Rütimann, Ceal Floyer, Martin Kersels, Michel François, Rémy Zaugg, Kim Sooja, Anne Katrine Dolven, Gregor Zivic, Richard Wright, Maria Eichhorn, Pascale Marthine Tayou, Ilona Ruegg, Meschac Gaba, Maria Eichhorn, Salla Tykkä, Mark Lewis, Tomoko Takahashi, Brian Tolle, Marjetica Potrc, Kay Hassan, Serge Spitzer, Ann Veronica Janssens, Martin Creed, Chloe Piene and Ai Weiwei. He will be director of this institution until the end of 2004.