Kimsooja, A Mirror Woman - the ground of nowhere, 2003, Crossings 2003: Korea/Hawaii, installation view at Honolulu City Hall, 57' x 21' diameter, aluminum ring, fine gauze cotton, mirror, wood, photo by Hal Lum, Courtesy of Crossings 2003: Korea/Hawaii and Kimsooja Studio.

Living in the Present,
Connecting with the Universe

Eleanor Heartney, 2005

Needles and mirrors are associated with femininity. They represent things done for others, or things done for oneself. But in the hands of Kimsooja, these simple objects become cosmic metaphors. Transcending the quiet confines of the domestic world, they point to new ways of thinking about our place in the universe.

Take the needle, for instance. When Kimsooja assumes the role of A Needle Woman, she draws on early memories of sewing with her mother and using bed clothes lovingly sewed by her grandmother. A Needle Woman makes reference to the simple actions that bind things together to sustain daily life. But this persona also reflects the fact that the first time Kim held a needle, she felt an incredible surge of energy, as if cosmic forces were converging on the needle's point. This experience has lead her to the post-Einsteinian notion that space, time and energy are interconnected. Their existence is relative rather than absolute — an insight which lies behind a work like A Needle Woman 1999-2001, in which the artist becomes a still point within a series of cityscapes marked by the swirl and chaos of urban life. In this series of videos, we see the motionless back of the standing artist, as residents of such diverse cities as Delhi, Lagos, London, Mexico City, Tokyo, Cairo and Shanghai pass before and around her like actors on a giant stage. Her long black hair, tied at her neck and dropping straight down her back, becomes a vertical force line anchoring her to the earth. This work offers three experiences of time — that of the artist, who becomes our reference point, that of the surrounding urbanites, rushing about their daily business, and that of the viewer who experiences these two very different modes simultaneously.

Kimsooja has extended this idea in a number of other works. For A Beggar Woman, filmed in Lagos, Nigeria in 2001, she sits on a street with her hands open like a beggar. In Homeless Woman (2001), she lies motionless and vulnerable on the bustling streets of Delhi. In this works, her transcendence of ordinary time takes on a political cast, as she identifies herself with the outcasts of society.

Describing her mental state as Needle Woman, Kimsooja has remarked: "it is the point of the needle which penetrates the fabric, and we can connect two different parts of the fabrics with threads, through the eye of the needle. A needle is an extension of the body, and a thread is an extension of the mind... The needle is medium, mystery, reality, hermaphrodite, barometer, a moment and a Zen." As a needle, she gathers power into herself so as to refocus it out into the world.

The mirror has similar complexity. In the popular mind, it symbolizes female vanity. However, a mirror is also a reflective surface in which we hope to glimpse deeper realities. The idea of painting as a mirror of the world is a mainstay of western art tradition. In the modern era, the mirror has turned inward, reflecting an interior world rather than external one.

But mirrors are unreliable tools. They can be misleading and even deceitful, which is why artists have so frequently employed them to play tricks on viewers. One famous example is Velazquez' Las Meninas in which a mirror in the background of a royal family portrait reflects back the image, not of present day viewer who seems positioned to be its subject, but the patrons for whom it was originally created. Something similar happens in Manet's A Bar at the Folies Bergere, in which the a frontal view of the barmaid directly confronting the viewer is transformed in the reflection of the mirror behind into an image of the woman serving a male customer.

More recently, artists have incorporated real mirrors into works in order to multiply or expand space, to dissolve the distance between viewer and surroundings or to destabilize the space which the viewer inhabits. Two notable practitioners of mirror art are Michelangelo Pistoletto and Yayoi Kusama. By silkscreening photographic images of men and women onto sheets of highly polished steel, Pistoletto literally brings the viewer into the image, collapsing the realms of "reality" and representation. Kusama, meanwhile, has created several completely mirrored rooms filled with hundreds of tiny lights which so multiply and distort the viewer's reflection that one begins to loose any sense of self.

Kim's Mirror Woman partakes of a similar disorientation. In her work mirrors dissolve distinctions between interior and exterior realities so as to allow individual consciousness to meld with the larger cosmos. In an 2002 installation titled A Mirror Woman, Kimsooja strung pairs of colorful fabrics, traditional Korean coverlets, in a room with completely mirrored walls. They created a maze through which the viewer could wend, creating a kaleidoscopic sense of fracture, as body and fabric seemed to merge into each other.

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Needle Woman and Mirror Woman are thus two aspects of Kim's quest for cosmic integration. Needle Woman cuts through landscapes in order to stitch them up again. Mirror Woman dissolves differences between inside and out. These personas are most fully embodied in a pair of public installations which serve as precursors to Kim's installation at the Teatro La Fenice. A Lighthouse Woman was created as part of the 2002 Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. In this work, Kim created a computer synchronized nighttime display ( KS: "This was a lighting installation using actual light source and the pieces I show in La Fenice is video piece which was computer generated color spectrum rather than lighting installation." ) which bathed the exterior of a disused lighthouse with an ever changing sequence of colored light. The work was mesmerizingly beautiful as saturated veils of gold, crimson, aquamarine and purple washed slowly over the elegant nineteenth century lighthouse shaft. For Kim, the lighthouse served as a surrogate of her own body. She projected herself into the structure, which became the embodiment of all the women over the years who waited for the safe return of those who had gone to sea. This work harked back to the idea of the needle, here symbolized by the lighthouse shaft, as the collector of energy. It also echoed Kimsooja earlier works in which bottari served as both paint and canvas to transform space, and knit together memory, history and consciousness. Here, a similar effect was created by light as a tapestry of color merged past and present, sky and water, mind and matter.

Mirror Woman, meanwhile, reaches her fullest embodiment to date in A Mirror Woman: The Ground of Nowhere, a work created for the exhibition Crossings 2003 Korea/Hawaii. Installed in the lobby of Honolulu's colonial era City Hall, this installation consisted of a sixty foot high vertical cylinder of white fabric set in the center of an uncovered atrium. In order to create this work, Kim orchestrated the reopening of a long closed aperture in the atrium roof. She sealed off all but the area directly above her fabric column, which she left open to the elements. Inside the fabric column, Kim laid down a mirror floor, so that visitors who stepped inside the muslin walls found themselves standing on a piece of sky. Meanwhile the fabric swayed gently in the breeze, giving a sense that one was inside a living, breathing space.

Clouds drifting above and reflected below gave one the feeling, paradoxically, of rolling on an open sea. At night the stars flickered above and below. As part of an arts festival celebrating Korean emigration to Korea, A Mirror Woman made reference to the immigrant's sense of destabilized identity. But this hypnotic installation also provided visitors a more general experience of becoming one with earth and sky.

These works provide underpinnings for Kim's new installation. TO BREATHE - Invisible Mirror / Invisible Needle - 2003-2005 which has been installed in the Teatro La Fenice. This work is also a light installation. It consists of a slowly changing overlay of colored light which washes across the auditorium and audience. Accompanying this display is a chorus woven together from the sounds of human breath ( KS: "my own voice and performance" ). Here, as in Mirror Woman in Hawaii and Needle Woman in Charleston, space is infused with a sense of life. As ear and eye are taken over by the symphony of light and sound, time loses its schematic quality and distinctions between space, self and other disappear.

Kim's work is often discussed in relationship to her status as an immigrant, a nomad, or an Asian woman displaced into western culture. These ideas were reinforced by her use of Korean materials like the bottari, which she has often presented bound up in bundles (Bottaris in Korean), suggesting a lifestyle in which all one's worldly goods are easily gathered for easy departure. A sense of displacement permeates works like 2727 Bottari Truck (1997), a video depicting her journey through rural Korea on the back of a truck filled with bundles composed of bound bottari. Here again, the camera presents her from the back, a still center in the midst of a changing landscape. But if works like these touch on traditional concepts of home and roots and celebrate the traditional female activities which give us a sense of place, it is dangerous to oversimplify Kim's intentions.

On one hand, her work clearly involves a rejection of western dualisms which make distinct and irreconcilable entities of such pairs as mind/matter, space/time, or self/other. Instead, she is more attuned to Buddhist inspired ideas about the circular nature of time and the transcendence of desire and physical limitations. But she refuses the easy division of East and West. Instead, she reminds us that even in the West, there are more wholistic traditions which bear kinship to her thinking.

For instance, there is the notion of duration as explored by French philosopher Henri Bergson in the late 19th century. Bergson described duration as lived time, the experience in which time and space and past and future are fused with the continual present. He likens duration to the perception of dance, where prior and future movements are implied at every moment in the sweep of the performer's continuous gesture. Thus, instead of making the present disappear, as happens when the linear experience of time rushes us along a prescribed path from past to future, duration creates a consciousness of our unity with the dynamic nature of the world. This seems a satisfying description of the experience evoked by TO BREATHE.

A few decades after Bergson published his speculations, Albert Einstein turned to physics to propose a similar revolution in our thinking about time. His theory of relativity also rejected the notion of space and time as self sufficient and independent entities. Instead, he fused them into a single interactive entity called spacetime. More recently advances in electronic communication make it possible to experience what video artist Bill Viola calls "parallel time", the sensation of existing simultaneously in one's own body and in some far flung locale. Viola notes that it is possible to be as aware of what is happening in a loft in New York as in a street in Paris or a war zone in the middle east. This idea certainly resonates with the multiple experiences of time and space expressed by the Needle Woman.

Thus, in referencing ancient Asian traditions and philosophies, Sooja Kim (Kimsooja) is also presenting us with tools for thinking about the complexities of life today. Needle Woman and Mirror Woman face backward and forward, tying together history and the future, while reminding us that in the end, it is the infinite present in which we live our lives.