A Lighthouse Woman, Spoleto Festival USA 2002, lighting sequence, Morris Island, Charleston. Photo by Rian King.

Planted Names, Spoleto Festival USA 2002, A carpet with names of the African-American slaves from Drayton Hall plantation house, Charleston.

'In the Space of Art: Buddha and the Culture of Now'

Mary Jane Jacob, 2003

M.J.: Let's talk about how sewing has been a contemplative practice for you and a way of connecting your body to a greater whole?

K.S.: One day in 1983, I was sewing a bedcover with my mother and then at the very moment when I passed the needle through the fabric's surface, I had a sensation like an electric shock, the energy of my body channeled through the needle, seeming to connect to the energy of the world. From that moment, I understood the power of sewing: the relationship of needle to fabric is like my body to the universe, and the fundamental relationship of things and structure were in it. From this experience, for about ten years, I worked with cloth and clothes, sewing and wrapping them, processes shared with contemplation and healing. By 1992, I started making bundles or bottari in Korean — I always used old clothes and traditional Korean bedcovers — that retain the smells of other's lives, memories, and histories, though their bodies are no longer there — embracing and protecting people, celebrating their lives and creating a network of existences.

M.J.: Korea was not a very visible part of the contemporary art world. You yourself came to the U.S. in 1992 on a residency at P.S. 1 in New York. Then Korea joined the ranks of international biennale presenters in the southwestern city of Kwangju, a place where Korean and American identity is sadly linked.
[In May 1980 students and other demonstrators against martial law were killed by government forces with brutal force, the death toll mounting to 2000, though officials claim only 191. The U.S. was implicated in support of President Chun who seized power in a military junta and a wave of botched diplomatic that followed.]

K.S.: This is the site of a national tragedy. It is marked by anniversary reenactments each year. With my work for the first biennale there, Sewing into Walking: Dedicated to the Victims of Kwangju, I placed 2.5 tons of clothes in bundles on a mountainside at the Biennale site. It was the image of the sacrificed bodies. People could walk on them, listening to the "Imagine" song by John Lennon which, through the audiences' bodies, evoked the confrontation of stepping on bodies and guilty conscience, as well as memorializing the victims' lives. Over the two months of the show, the seasons changed and the clothes became mixed with the soil, rain, and fallen leaves, becoming like dead bodies: this was the installation scene I wished to create for the viewers. The audience — the Korean people — opened the bundles and removed nearly one ton of clothes; they hung some onto the trees and took others away with them.

M.J.: Have your works, as a means of healing and connecting, been autobiographical?

K.S.: When I went back to Korea in 1993, after spending time in the U.S. and having a different perspective on my own culture and gender roles in Korean life, I re-confronted the society as a woman and a woman artist. I started realizing my own personal history in bottari projects, using them more as real bottari than for an aesthetic context. My first video performance piece, Sewing into Walking-kyung ju (1994), resulted from an installation; in its documentation I recognized that my own body was a sewing tool, a needle that invisibly wraps, weaves, and sews different fabrics and people together in nature. For my next video performance, Cities on the Move — 2727 Kilometers Bottari Truck in 1997, I made an eleven-day journey throughout Korea atop a truck loaded with bottaris, visiting cities and villages where I used to live and have memories. Because the bottari truck is constantly moving around and through this geography, viewers question the location of my body: 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.

I realize now that Cities on the Move — 2727 Kilometers Bottari Truck emerged from the history of my family that moved from one place to another almost every two years, mostly near the DMZ area, because of my father's job in the military. We were wrapping and unwrapping bundles all the time; we were endlessly in a new environment, leaving people whom we loved behind and meeting new neighbors, as we passed from one city to another, one village to another. We were, in fact, nomads, and I am continuing the nomadic life as an artist, a condition which has become one of the main issues in contemporary art and society. Yet I am also aware that migration is just an extension of nature and we are literally in a state of migration at every moment.

M.J.: It seems like sites — out in the world — have become your studio for making art?

K.S.: Usually, I don't like to make or create anything in nature because I am really afraid of damaging it. Instead, I decided to use existing elements which can be related to my idea of location/dislocation and its gravity and energy towards the future. In 1997 I did another work in the series, Sewing into Walking-Istiklal Cadessi, a video shoot in Istanbul. I experimented with documenting peoples' coming and going through the fixed frame of the lens; it was an invisible way of sewing and wrapping people. Then, with A Needle Woman project (1999-2001), I inserted myself in the middle of the busy street and looked towards the people of eight different metropolises in the world: Tokyo, Shanghai, Berlin, New York, Mexico City, Cairo, Lagos, and London. I considered my body to be a needle that weaves different people, societies, and cultures together by just standing still. Inverting the notion of performing and remaining fixed within the crowd, my body functioned like a barometer, showing more by doing nothing. The needle is an evident yet ambiguous tool, androgynous, maintaining contradiction within it. The needle functions only as a medium; it never remains at the site and disappears at the end. It just leaves traces, connecting or healing things.

Each performance lasted 25-30 minutes, during which I just stared straight ahead. I eventually cut each tape to an unedited section 6-minutes and 30-second in length. In the beginning I had a difficulty resisting all the energies from people coming at me. By the middle of the performance I was centered and focused, and could become liberated from them. In the beginning my body was very, very intense, but in the end I was just smiling, liberated from all attention. I could see the light coming from the back, far from the front, over these waves of people. I was in complete enlightenment.

I didn't know where the smile came from but I was just smiling. Maybe it was the moment when I was freed from my self-consciousness and engaged with the whole picture of the world and people as oneness and totality beyond this stream or ocean of people in the street. I think enlightenment can be gained by seeing reality as it is, as a whole which is a harmonious state within contradiction that requires no more intentional adjustment or healing.

M.J.: Your personal posture as well as the overall stance of your art, seems to aim to profoundly communicate experience. So while we do not have your experience as it was in the real time of making the video, it is still more than our experience of an artwork; you become this portal through which we pass to have our own experience in real time. At the same time you are a conduit for others' experience, the needle through which they pass, the empathetic locus. And like Buddhism, these works are about relationality, not just of human beings but among all beings and with nature.

K.S.: I did another performance called A Needle Woman at Kitakishu in Japan, laying down my body on a limestone mountain, the front of my body away from the viewer. 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. There is one face of nature that caresses the human being in the most harmless way. So we feel at absolute peace in this mild nature. Of course, when it becomes harmful, nothing can compete with its absolute damage.

In a way this work looks a little bit like the reclining Buddha, parinirvana; but, abandoning my ego, at the same time, in a different way, I consider it as a form of crucifix. My 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. In the beginning of the video I think my body looks fragile and dramatic, feminine and provocative: an organic body or a body of desire. Over time, I find that my body, with its duration of stillness — breathing in the rhythm of nature — becomes a part of nature as matter itself, neutral, a transcendent state. To me it is like offering and serving my body to nature.

M.J.: Has performance become an actual practice of meditation for you, focusing and centering, to attain something for you, perhaps enlightenment, as well as give an experience to the viewer?

K.S.: For me, the most important thing (to arise out of) these performances is my own experience of self, and awakenness, rather than the video as an artwork. That's how I continue to ask deeper questions to the world and to myself. That is the enlightenment I encounter while doing this kind of performance. One such experience occurred with A Laundry Woman — Yamuna River, India (2000) I was just looking at some different locations for a performance, but when I passed by this riverside, I immediately felt the energy and decided, “Let's do it.” Again I put my back to the viewer and looked to the river. It was right next to the cremation place on the Yamuna, so the floating images on the surface of the river were all flowers and debris from cremations. While I was facing the river, I was actually looking at anonymous people's life and death, including mine. It was a purifying experience, praying and celebrating. There's a lot of detail on the surface of the river, so I consider this piece as a painting. It's all reflection: there is no sky, but it looks like sky; there are no real birds passing, only reflections of birds from above. So, in a way, the river functions as a mirror of reality.

I decided to be there until the limit of my body. I was there for almost an hour in total. In the middle of standing there, I was completely confused: is it the river that is moving, or myself? My sense of time and space were turned completely upside-down. I was asking and asking and asking again, is it the river or myself? I finally realized that it is river that is changing all the time in front of this still body, but it is my body that will be changed and vanish very soon, while the river will remain there, moving slowly, as it is now. In other words, the changing of our body into a state of death is like floating on the big stream of river of the universe. Doing this performance gave me an important awakenness. It suddenly reminded me of one unforgettable dream that I had in my early twenties. I was looking down at Han River from a hillside in Seoul. After looking at the surface of the river for some time, my vision was fixed on the river and the movement of water inside it, showing me the bottom of the river with sand and round stones. Then I started seeing the dancing and spinning stones touch and hit together, mashing and breaking them into pebbles and dust, which eventually will become part of the river itself: "Stone is Water, Water is Stone!" I screamed in the dream and woke up being shocked by this awakenness as if my brain was hit by a strong metal bell.

M.J.: Your awareness of the impermanence of all things and embodiment of compassion--which is key to the teachings of Buddha--have brought your earlier expressions of healing to another level. I now recognize that this was at the root of our work together for the Spoleto Festival USA in 2002: Planted Names--four unique carpets at the 1742 Drayton Hall, bearing the names of enslaved Africans and African-Americans who built and cultivated this Palladian plantation--and A Lighthouse Woman in which you used the Morris Island Lighthouse.

K.S.: When I was filming A Needle Woman in Lagos, I happened to visit to an island offshore from which slaves were put on ships to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Standing there, looking out, I could feel the enormous pain of those who departed. The horizontal line of the ocean looked like the saddest line I had ever seen in my life. Then when I visited Drayton Hall and learned about the history of African-American slaves from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, I immediately saw this plantation site as a vast carpet where enslaved bodies were embedded. There are so many sad stories behind these colonial places. Carpets are not about the beauty of an artist's design, but about the labor of the carpet maker, so I chose carpets as the form to celebrate their labor and time.

In the companion work, I considered this lighthouse on Morris Island as a witness of water, witnessing all the histories and memories standing still there. When I first visited it, I was so impressed by this lighthouse's loneliness. I related its loneliness to a woman's body and to women who wait for their sons, lovers, brothers and fathers to come home from the sea, who stand by the sea, waiting for them. I programmed a one-hour sequence of nine saturated colors that illuminated the whole tower, spilling onto and reflecting in the surrounding water, changing its rhythm as if it was breathing with the same rhythm of the ocean tides — in and out, inhale and exhale. It wasn't captured in video this time: it was important to experience in the site with the sound of the waves, and the air, and the real sequence of the rhythm of change. I miss the lighthouse.

M.J.: Yvonne Rand has spoken about how we can develop our capacity to be with suffering, as it arises, by developing our ability to be in attention. A way to develop this capacity is to continually, over and over, come back to the posture of the body that goes with being in attention. This arrangement of the body entails having the three energy centers in the torso in alignment: the head energy center for perception, the heart energy center for emotions, and the energy center in the belly, the hara, for spiritual strength and stability. When these three energy centers (located in the center of the body just in front of the spine) are lined up, then one is in the posture of attention or presence. This centered posture, in combination with a breath, allows one to be present. When I am fully present, in the moment, I can then be in the field of energy that I stand in with others. Here, in this field, I can more easily put myself in another's shoes, imagine their point of view--not in the "either/or" way of thinking but "both/and": I can hold both what is true in my experience and what is so for the other person. This is what it means to be present and, out of that, to have the skillfulness to develop the capacity to experience another person's suffering. So, Yvonne recognized that you had developed your capacity to become present in your breath with your own suffering as it arose and fell, and simultaneously experiencing the suffering of others, not as separate from yourself but as one: as you stood at the shore of the Yamuna River, on that coast of the island off Lagos, and in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.

— From the book 'In the Space of Art: Buddha and the Culture of Now', 2004:

Mary Jane Jacob is an independent curator whose exhibition programs test the boundaries of public space and relationship of contemporary art to audiences. She has worked closely with artists creating over 50 exhibitions and commissioning over 100 new artists' projects as chief curator at MCA/Chicago and MoCA/Los Angeles; as consulting curator for Fabric Workshop and Museum/Philadelphia; and for such public projects as "Places with a Past" (Charleston, 1991), "Culture in Action" (Chicago, 1993), "Points of Entry" (Pittsburgh, 1996), and "Conversations at The Castle" (Atlanta, 1996). Currently, she is curator for the Spoleto Festival USA's ongoing "Evoking History" program in Charleston, South Carolina. She is co-editor of an upcoming recent book — Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art (University of California Press, fall 2004) — for which she has conducted insightful with a dozen leading figures about their artmaking practices. This volume is the culminating work of "Awake: Art and Buddhism, and The Dimensions of Consciousness", a consortium research effort based in the Bay Area, which she co-organized. Ms. Jacob is Adjunct Professor at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and on the adjunct faculty of Bard College's Graduate Center for Curatorial Studies in New York.