Encounter - Looking into Sewing, 2012

Kimsooja, Encounter - Looking into Sewing, 1998 - 2011, performative sculpture, used Korean bedcovers, mannequin, 165 x 80(diam.) cm. Unique piece, photo by Simon Vogel.

An Interview with Kimsooja

Chiara Giovando, 2012

CG: Thank you again for your time with these questions. I am very grateful to be able to have this correspondence with you. I just arrived to Møen Island where your work will soon come! It is a small Danish island and people speak to each other openly and eagerly. Last night I spoke with a young Swedish man who is also a visitor and he said "I am interested in learning everything by doing nothing." I thought of it as a gift and it brought to mind your practice.

You have made a series of performative video works that elaborate on one another. A Beggar Woman, A Homeless Woman and A Needle Woman all present stillness in the midst of often chaotic activity. A Needle Woman will be shown this summer at Kunsthal 44 Møen in an exhibition curated by René Block. In A Needle Woman you inhabit a fixed performative posture within a changing environment, in this case the streets of Paris, blurring the boundaries between private and public space. In a sense your body seems to be the "place" that you inhabit, this performance has been made in cities all over the world, Cairo, New York, Deli. Could you speak about the relationship between the place of the body (the performative posture) and the geographical place?

KS: You can imagine zooming in, how a body of a needle engages a field of fabric. Precisely, the mobility of my body comes to represent the immobility of it, locating it in different geographies and socio-cultural contexts. Immobility can only be revealed by mobility, and vice versa. Constant interaction between the mobility of people on the street and the immobility of my body in-situ are activated during the course of the performance depending on the context of the society, the people, nature of the city and that of the streets. Different elements inhabit in-situ as the nature of the city and the presence of my body appear as an accumulated container of my own gaze towards humanity and other gazes in reaction to my body. While the decision to choose and arrive to the location is based on populations, conflicts, culture, economy and history, the decision of a performance in immobility arrived all of a sudden, like thunder or a Zen moment where energetic conflict between the extreme mobility of the outer world and a vortex of silence in my mind fell into my body.

I've always had a desire to present the reality of the world as it is, by presenting bodies, objects and nature without manipulating or making something new. Instead, I expect my own experiences and those of my audience to reveal new perceptions of the reality of the world and the reality of our existence. I pose ontological questions by juxtaposing my body and outer world in ‘relational condition' to space/body and time/consciousness.

CG: Your video piece Bottari Truck - Migrateurs as well as the sculptural work Deductive Objects will both come to Kunsthal 44 Møen. Both of these works include the Bottari. In your work the Bottari appears as brightly colored fabric bundles loaded into carts and trucks, sometimes placed on the floor. The different contexts in which these objects appear in your work draw various metaphors. Some times representing journey when loaded into a truck or exile when pictured half opened and scattered. I read a quote of yours; "The body is the most complicated bundle." What are the imagined and symbolic contents of the Bottari? How does this relate to the body?

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KS: In the modern society, Bottaris have been changed into bags. A Bottari (bundle in Korean) is the most flexible container in which we carry the minimized valuable things and its use is universal through history. We keep precious things, mostly in dangerous zones of our life, such as war, migration, exile, separation or a move where urgency take places. Anyone can make Bottari using any kind of fabrics, however, I've been intentionally wrapping it with used or abandoned Korean bedcovers that were made for newly married couples with symbols and embroideries and mostly wrapping used clothing inside- that has significant meanings and questions on life. In other words, the Bottari I wrap is an object that contains husks of our body wrapped with a fabric that is the place of birth, love, dream, suffering and death- a frame of life.

While Bottari wraps bodies and souls, containing past, present, and future, a Bottari truck is rather a process than a product, or rather oscillating between the process and the object that is a social sculpture. It represents an abstraction of personage, an abstraction of society and history, and that of time and memory. It is a loaded self, a loaded others, a loaded history, a loaded in-between. Bottari Truck is a processing object throughout space and time, locating and dislocating ourselves to the place where we came from, and where we are going.

I find Bottari as a womb and a tomb, globe and universe, and Bottari Truck is a bundle of bundle of bundle folding and unfolding our mind and geography, time and space.

CG: Walking into Sewing is dedicated to the victims of Gwangju. In this work piles of clothing and fabric cover the ground, the Bottari is scattered.

KS: It is a metaphor for the victims of Gwangju uprising movement in the mid 80's, and yes, Bottari always represents the people who have no power in the society, or the people who have been forced out the keep their own words in silence.

CG: There seems to be both a very private aspect to your practice as well as a public one. Many of your early works are meticulously sewn, an activity that is both intimate and meditative. Yet in your films you are working with large crews and inhabiting public spaces. How do these two methodologies affect your process?

KS: Both sewn works that I have done in my closed studio space or my rooms and the A Needle Woman performances have been done privately inserting myself to the non-art-world public, without any notice. I've been traveling all alone to meet people around the world, about 15 significant cities on different continents- except Shanghai and Cairo where I couldn't easily find the videographer in time. It was not always safe and easy though. I must say I am the only witness of all of my performances.

Recently, I started making a 16 mm film called 'Thread Routes' that takes place in many locations around the world. It is not about my own experience, instead other men and women are performing actual needlework.  For this project I had to work with a team. It has been very interesting and inspiring for me to work with a team and travel together, communicating with the group. I have learned from them and from their research. It is a quite a different process of production and it has forced me to work with an objective and collective way of seeing. But in the end it is still an intimate process, where I can revise the relationships through editing. That is the next step of the filming process.

CG: Encounter - Looking into Sewing is a sculptural work that is also a part of your show at Kunsthal 44 Møen. In this work a mannequin stands in for the bodily referent beneath layers of fabric. Please speak about your concept of sewing, what takes place when it is "looked into"?

KS: Encounter - Looking into Sewing, (1998) originated from the installation I made in the Museum Fridericianum for an exhibition called 'Echolot' curated by Rene Block. I conceived this piece as a 'performance'- without performing. An immobile mannequin is fully covered with used Korean bedcovers, documenting the performative actions made by the audiences, who try to figure out the covered figure while walking around the figure. In this moment a visible and invisible interaction is happening around the sculpture, peeling off the barriers of fabrics that hide the sculptural figure by "Looking" at it. I consider this invisible "sewing".

I tried to create a kind of tension between the audience and the ambiguous figure. The audience looks at this uncertain figure waiting for a performance but there is no movement. It was my intention to set up an immobile figure as a performer instead of myself so that people automatically become performers through their own curiosity and reactions. I tried to create a kind of tension between the audience and the uncertain figure, the sculptural object. The audience looks at this figure and is clearly waiting for a performance but there is no movement. (Interestingly, I realize that this piece is one of the earliest references to the ideas that led to to A Needle Woman performance.) This is a fundamental moment, when a strange encounter occurs between this unknown figure and the audience, and it is marked by this intense gaze.

Chiara Giovando is curator in residence at Kunsthal 44 Møen. Giovando is an artist and curator from Los Angeles, CA. She is also Co-director of Human Resources, an art space in Chinatown, L.A.