Earth-Water-Fire-Air, Air-of-Earth

Aire de Tierra / Air of Earth, 2009, 06.25 loop, sound, still from Earth – Water – Fire – Air, 8 channel video projection, Commissioned by Hermes Foundation, Paris

Calm Chaos: Kimsooja's Earth – Water – Fire – Air

Antonio Geusa, 2012

The modern artist is living in a mechanical age and we have a mechanical means of representing objects in nature such as the camera and photograph. The modern artist, it seems to me, is working and expressing an inner world – in other words – expressing the energy, the motion and the other inner forces.. ..the modern artist is working with space and time, and expressing his feelings rather than illustrating. [1]  — Jackson Pollock

In the preface to the second edition of his collection of poems "Lyrical Ballads" William Wordsworth asks a simple yet crucial question "What is a Poet?" The answer he gives is probably the most truthful ever given: "He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind; a man […] who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe[.] [2] 

Kimsooja's work as an artist is constant proof that she perfectly embodies Wordsworth's definition of a Poet. At the core of her production there is always a physical and at the same time metaphysical confrontation between the "spirit of life" that is in her and the "spirit of life" of the world surrounding her. Ultimately, her art is the result of using her body, the shell of her "comprehensive soul", to achieve a balance in the connection of inner and outer life. To quote Kimsooja's own words, her body is the "medium, mystery, hermaphrodite, abstraction, barometer, and shaman" [3]  uniting her with the essence of the world. It is charged with and releases spiritual power. All her works, from 2727 kilometres Bottari Truck (1997) to A Needle Woman (1999-2001, 2005), from A Beggar Woman (2000-2001) to A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon (2008), to mention just a few, are the visualization of this flow of energy.

Even when Kimsooja is not physically present in the work on display in the gallery space, the reality that she offers the viewers is not a mere representation of a given natural phenomenon. It is the result of an interaction between two parts, of an exchange of energies. Her words about that production in which she is not in the frame – "When I disappear, I represent the act of nature more closely. Thus only my gaze becomes active" [4]  – are self-explanatory. The objective of the video camera recording Nature is not a mechanical substitute of her eyes or an extension of her body. It is the activator of the gaze, an active participant in the process of capturing the flow of energy running in both directions between the artist and the outside world. It acts like that needle that for the first time made her sense a strong and inexplicable force emanating from her whole body when she was still a child and was helping her mother sewing together different pieces of fabric into a blanket cover. The absence of her body in the final composition of the projected images does not mean that Kimsooja was there, but she is not there any longer. Kimsooja is still there. To a certain extent, her videos are visual correspondents of what a "trace" is in Jacques Derrida's linguistic studies, that is a "mark of the absence of a presence, an always-already absent present" [5] .

The Earth – Water – Fire – Air project, started in 2009, is one of those instances in which Kimsooja's body is not visible in the exhibited images. Natural phenomena, or "Beautiful and permanent forms of nature" – the "Lyrical Ballads" once again – are its main "subjects". In the specific, they are video recordings taken on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands and in Guatemala – volcanic landscapes with incandescent lava, the restless sea, millenarian rocks sculptured by time, clouds of pure white on a clear blue sky. The four basic elements essential to both Eastern and Western thought as the basics of life in the Universe are not presented as single units, each of which is independent and isolated from each other. On the contrary, as suggested by the titles of the videos [6] , they are shown in binary combinations, interacting one with the other, flowing one into the other, the same way as the artist did with the space surrounding her when she recorded those images. Clearly, viewers can fully feel the strength of this energy when inside the space where the work – an eight-channel video installation in its current form – is exhibited. Without any doubts, Earth – Water – Fire – Air is first of all a work that has to be experienced. The intensity of the bond between the artist and the visible objects that she captured with the help of her camera is perceived in the gallery space where viewers are free to move around and use their senses to take in the energy coming out from the screens.

It is by experiencing the work as an installation that any possible references to Beauty suggested by the incontestable magnificence of the natural spectacles lose their validity. Beauty is not a keyword here. Surely, a more appropriate approach would be through the concept of the Sublime in aesthetics. To be more precise, the way the Sublime was perceived by the Neo-Kantian school of the beginning of the 20th century according to which the feelings of fear and horror – fundamental qualities for the 18th and 19th centuries (Edmund Burke and the English Romantics, amongst others) – were replaced by a sense of contentment and safety before an object of superior force.

Kimsooja stands with her video camera in front of an object of "superior force". The moment she presses the rec button, like a needle piercing a piece of cloth, her "superior force" starts to interact with that of Nature before her. The energy of the exchange is very strong and overwhelming. However, the effect reached – Earth, Water, Fire, and Air displayed in the exhibition space – is indisputably one of ease and wellbeing. Her works are never a methodical process of "quoting" from Nature, simply because Kimsooja is not a passive receiver. The segment called "Fire of Air" can serve as a proof of the artist's dialoguing with Nature. In it, while being driven she operates a spotlight to break the darkness of the night and illuminate the rocky fields of the landscape. Here, she in charge of what can be seen and what stays wrapped in darkness. Because of this constant dialoguing, none of the images offered to the viewers can ever be, to quote Wordsworth again, a "soulless image on the eye" [7] , a mere visual impression on the retina of the spectator. On the other hand, Kimsooja sublimates the etymological meaning of the word "video", that is "I see", first person of the present tense of videre (to see). She invests it with both spiritual and lyrical power. Simply, albeit roughly, put, it is poetry camouflaged as science.

As an artist Kimsooja's possess the unique ability to turn the chaos of energy exchanging during the time of performing or recording – that "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" [8]  between the Poet and Nature – into a sense of tranquility and calmness for the viewers. Accordingly, the screens framing the videos lose their boundaries and a distinct feeling of oneness with Nature is strongly felt. To a certain degree, the genesis of Earth – Water – Fire – Air is not that dissimilar to that of Jackson Pollock's canvases. It is the same intensity of human artistic energy – albeit different in nature. Obviously, the outcome is at the antipodes. Kimsooja's is a calm chaos generated by the maturity of the passions of the artist's heart. And it is this proven maturity that, paraphrasing Pollock when he was asked if he worked from Nature, allows to state that Earth – Water – Fire – Air proves once and for all that Kimsooja is Nature.

  1. Pollock, Jackson. Interview by William Wright, Summer 1950. Quoted in Clifford Ross (ed.), Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, Abrahams Publishers: New York, 1990, pp. 139-140.  > return to article >
  2. Eliot, Charles William (ed.). Prefaces and Prologues. Vol. XXXIX. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14;, 2001. 2 May 2012.  > return to article >
  3. Kim, Sung-Wong, "About Nothingness: Being Nothing and Making Nothing". Official internet site of Kimsooja. 2 May 2012.  > return to article >
  4. Commandeur, Ingrid. "Black Holes, Meditative Vanishings and Nature as a Mirror of the Universe". Kimsooja – Windflower: Perceptions of Nature (Catalogue). Kroller Muller Museum, The Netherlands. Interview with the artist by the author, November 2010.  > return to article >
  5. Macsey, Richard and Eugenio Donato (eds). The Languages of Criticism and The Sciences of Man: the Structuralist Controversy. JHU Press: Baltimore, 1970, p. 254.  > return to article >
  6. n its current version Earth – Water – Fire – Air comprises the following eight videos: “Fire of Earth”, “Water of Earth”, “Fire of Air”, “Earth of Water”, “Air of Fire”, “Air of Earth”, “Air of Water”, “Water of Air”.  > return to article >
  7. Wordsworth, William. The Complete Poetical Works. London: Macmillan and Co., 1888;, 1999. 2 May 2012.  > return to article >
  8. Eliot.  > return to article >