A Needle Woman, 2005, Patan (Nepal)

Kimsooja - A One-Word Name Is An Anarchist's Name

Petra Kapš, 2006

Kimsooja (b. Taegu, Korea, 1957) is a world-renowned artist, who has been living in New York since 1999. She has been included in many important contemporary art publications throughout the world, and has been exhibiting her works in Asia, America and Europe. Her work includes installation, performance, video and photography. Nomadism has been a constant in her life since childhood, and has also become a strategy that she has been using continuously to articulate her artistic work — the imperatives of the ego, passion and desire; detachment from material, and relationships with other people, are a continuous search throughout her artistic creations. The main themes she deals with are movement, totality, time and space, life, death, and the ephemeral aspect of the material world. Different interpretations of her work offer a wide spectrum of readings and several contexts — from minimalism, feminism, nomadism, buddhism, to aesthetic and political ideologies. Nevertheless, the main purpose of her work is a mode of artistic creation, her belief in intuition, and reaching balance. Compassion is an element of Kimsooja's work that manifests also as a response, not in terms of direct political activism, but as conscience and conscious presence; as witness. Kimsooja's work was presented to Slovenia at the last year's exhibition The Fifth Gospel in Celje.

The following text is from a conversation with the artist Kimsooja, and the intense personal experience and subsequent reflection provoked by seeing her video works. The questions that followed the primary impulse was how did the artist, with seemingly minimalistic means, succeed in opening up a new perspective for the viewer, and at the same time awaken human consciousness in a remarkably simple and fascinating way. When we are standing in front of Kimsooja's artwork, we are actually confronting ourselves.

A One-Word Name Is An Anarchist's Name is the first statement on your website project. At first sight, the notion of anarchism seems to be in complete contrast with your work. On the other hand, your activities in the Western art world and society in terms of minimalism, detachment, reduction of the ego, your respect to nature and all living beings and unmindfulness of self-image, they all work subversively to that first impression.

What I made in this comment on my website, 'A One-Word Name Is An Anarchist's Name' was a symbolic cultural statement in respect to naming an individual who lives as an outsider from one's own society, as a spectator rather than as an activist who practices anarchism in an actual political context.

In public you appear with the name Kimsooja, the identity of which is explained on your website with the following words: "A one word name refuses gender identity, marital status, socio-political or cultural and geographical identity by not separating the family name and the first name." Can your intentions in the art world also be indicated with these words?

I was actually more interested in the possibilities the art world has, which allows universal language and diversity. This is in contrast to my own limited socio-cultural daily life context from Korea — to be more independent as a human being out of hierarchy, to question and open up a new relationship to the society.

The symbolic meaning of the different ways a married women's name appears in different societies is quite interesting — married women's names in Western society follow after their husband's name, and that of Asian women's follow after their own father's name, both of which eventually keep the male dominant family name. This gives an interesting contrast and level of perception of what degree and hierarchy those two societies are similar as male dominant societies, and different in terms of women's status. This idea of putting my first name and last name together suddenly stimulated my desire to be free from any of social structures, and expanded my imagination to obtain an absolute independency as a human being, within the art world at least. Different from a person's name in daily life, the name presented in the art world usually represents no personality or emphasis of their gender, but functions more as a symbol of a specific art practice as a character. However, it was a symbolic gesture for me to explain my social, cultural burden from Korean society, from which I wished so much to be liberated.

Upon entering your website, the user reads your words: "I was hoping for an ideal society and relationship among people in the art world in which we could share real opinions with honesty, sincerity, dignity and love of art and life. I hope that my website project will not just introduce my activities but can bring more articulated discussions and criticism on art and the world." The site was published on 14 July 2003 — what are your experiences with this appeal now? Also, what do the individual responses to your 'Action Two: It Is Not Fair' mean to you?

It is quite a delicate issue. Around the time when I decided to start my website, I was very disappointed by the dominate big international biennale scenes. Although I've been in many of these international events, and have had both positive and negative experiences, in general these international biennale scenes show very little respect for art and the artists. They seem to focus more and more on the power structure of the art world, and their specific political alliances with the artists and institutions, rather than the quality of the work or it's meaning. The peak of this phenomenon has past, and there seems to be an effort to make some balance between the role of artists and that of curators. There must be a balance between the creator and the organizer, and neither should empower the other, but instead communicate and encourage each other in equal amounts. Although both artists and curators have different attitudes and perspectives, in the end we always learn from each other. This is just one example of the varied relationships between people that I wished to address.

The 'Action Two: It Is Not Fair' project was started to give an opportunity to question the notion of 'fairness' as it is related to this phenomenon in the art world, but rather than narrowing it only to the art world, I opened up a broader discussion. My position in this project functions as a 'witness' and as a 'questioner' rather than an answerer. All of the responses I've gotten gave me positive and negative questions and perceptions on the human relationship towards other humans, society, and to themselves. From the diverse and specific perspectives I've received, I have arrived at a fine balance of fairness on a broader level beyond the individual statements.

The fundamental creative principles, processes and concepts of Kimsooja's artistic articulation are continuously present since the beginning of her career. At first, she was mainly focusing on painting, specifically on questions about the surface. She created paintings out of pieces of fabric, combining sewing, painting and drawing. Her paintings were made of used fabric, rags, and clothing. The first clothing that she incorporated into her paintings were owned by her grandmother. She later started to collect used clothing from anonymous people, and to explore the their invisible presence in the fabric. From the early 1980's, sewing became the essential principle of her artistic process — sewing as a monotonous repetition of movement ... the possibility of a meditative gaze into the human interior (self) ... a fluid journey of mind and spirit. The processes of sewing, covering, and wrapping are tightly connected to everyday activities (mostly female activities in Korean, as well as in Western, tradition). Putting them into an artistic context creates a balance between the artistic procedures and the creative elements of everyday activities. The meditative process hidden beneath a common marginal act of sewing exposes the performative process of the reduction of the ego, already in these early works. With meditative means, the artist is reaching a certain state of consciousness, where she focuses and eradicates herself, and she simultaneously creates space for the viewers to enter. It can be present in the imprint of the body left on the used fabrics, the smell of anonymous people on clothing, and on bedcovers. This space is also 'the void' through which the viewer enters. By focusing on herself, she reaches towards the point where the ego slowly disappears. Kimsooja is creating the void, an empty space through which the viewer can reach the balance between human relationships and life.

With her residency in New York at the beginning of the 1990's, her experience based on living and working in Korea intermingled with that of a different view over her own artistic practice and cultural context in New York. Her artistic point of view was radically changing towards re-questioning cultural, social and political Korean traditions.

In talking about your work, we can use a few key words: journey (nomadism), detachment from matter or attachment to human being, existing beings, time, life, death, mobility as a necessary condition of life, totality. What is your relationship to these words?

I guess all these words are related to the destiny of our existence.I am questioning my own destiny in this world in various paths, but reaching to the totality of it.

Your works express the relationship of life and art in a very special way. Is this the prime notion for your artistic engagement - art as a tool for understanding the mobility of life? In Martin Heidegger's conversation with Shinji Hisamatsu we find a very interesting word, geido — a 'path (journey) of art', this word comprises of a deeper relation to life, to our own being. It is a word for art that has substantial importance for existence.

I must say, the result of art making which we call 'art work' is a secondary thing for me. The most important part in making art for me is, "questioning life, self, the other, and the world", and finding my own path for answers, which leads to another question, as always. In that sense, I find geido, as mentioned by Shinji Hisamatsu, to be a very coherent interpretation.

In the Korean tradition, it is quite common that bedcovers are received by newlyweds as a gift. The richly embroidered fabrics with symbolic patterns are filled with familial and social desires, expectations and demands. The bedcover is wrapped around the body in various life circumstances (among others, during birth, rest, sex, illness, death). In the eyes of a Western observer, this piece of fabric is an aesthetic object of provocative, intensely radiant colours. Colour is one of the most important constants in Kimsooja's work, contextually related to Korean tradition and Western modernism. The bedcovers that the artist includes in her work are discarded bedcovers, that have all served their time. The echos of a once present body remain as traces of smell and form.

By the beginning of the 1990's, Kimsooja used bedcovers as bottari (which means bundle), in which people wrap their belongings for travelling. She wrapped the clothes of anonymous people and daily objects within them. Bottari is a metaphor for the artist's life credo — a nomadism that is the basis of her creative practice. It implies the idea of a constant readiness to leave, detachment from the physical world, and is a universal metaphor for mobility. In the photo of the performance entitled Encounter, Looking Into Sewing, a figure is completely covered, with bedcovers draped over their head. This image brings several associations to the mind of the viewer — the image of a bride, a metaphor of torture. In this work, the artist has exposed strong feelings of intimate denial, abstinence (especially in the life of a woman from Korean society), and explored the relationship between the visible, and the hidden yet present. Bedcovers that imply an intimate environment are embraced in public spaces. The artist put them on café tables as table cloths in one of her projects entitled Deductive Object, presented at Manifesta 1 in 1996. By doing so she confronted an aesthetic exterior and functionality with the Korean prohibition of eating in bed.

In her project Sewing Into Walking - Dedicated To The Victims of Kwangju, 1995, Kimsooja piled up loose clothing, and clothing wrapped in bedcovers, and put them in a 2.5 ton heap. In the Korean tradition, clothing preserves the spirit of their owners, and are therefore burned after a person dies. In this installation, they represent the reincarnation of people, the memory and the guilt, over the massacre in Kwangju in 1980.

In the 11 day performance Cities On The Move - 2727 Kilometers Bottari Truck, 1997, she travelled through her childhood hometowns on a heap of bundles, bottaris loaded on a truck. In this way, her initial introspective sewing gaze manifested itself in a real journey. By later placing this truck in a gallery space (Bottari Truck In Exile, d'APERTutto, Venice, 1999) she transformed her personal experience into a universal issue of cycle and passing of life, and cohabitation of time and space. At the same time, by dedicating this installation to the victims of war in Kosovo, she took the position of a quiet yet indelible witness.

I am interested in your experience of suppression and endurance that you talk about in connection with the traditional Korean bedcovers. Bedcovers have a strong intimate seal for every individual. A bedcover can (un)cover the most intimate parts of an individual and the shape of life as well that is re-established by the cohabitation of two individuals.

It is interesting that you point out the word 'cohabitation' within the bedcover's hidden structure. Most people don't see that dimension, which involves another big issue in my life and work. People's gaze often ends up with the beauty of the fabrics or the cultural aspect of it, and imagining the couple's memory and intimacy, but there is another big issue in dealing with the 'reality of relationship' and 'self' and 'other' within this frame. Things become a question when they are problematic - it is good material to live and to question. Again this problematic 'co-habitation of duality' raises all sorts of questions on human existence.

Time is connected with memory and reminiscence. One of the main topics you deal with is death. We can also understand your works as 'preservers of memory' of the dead, of the sufferers who are present in clothes, ashes, bedcovers, bottari, carpets, in cessation of breathing ... They are interventions against concealment and oblivion. Where does this continuous emphasis on life and death come from?

I am also curious about this continuity of my own concern: my obsession on body, death, and its memory to try to reveal the truth of victimized and disappeared beings, among other dimensions of my work. I think I have a strong compassion for all ephemeral beings, including myself.

Aside from exploring various contexts of found objects and used fabrics, their meanings and physical presence, performance and video represent another area of Kimsooja's artistic activity. The series of video works A Needle Woman, 1999-2001 is a video record of performances carried out in eight world metropolises (London, Lagos, New York, Tokyo, Mexico City, Cairo, Delhi, Shanghai). The artist uses a consistent structure of visual imagery (a static camera frames the view, and the artist is turned away from the viewer, and is situated on the street with an extraordinarily large number of people). The artist's body is in a state of a seemingly static and deeply contemplative posture. The viewer meets the mass of moving people. The artist's body can be interpreted as the entrance door, a point of identification or watching (observing the relation of the passersby to the artist, we can only make conclusions about her responses to the people from their faces). If we focus on the pieces from Lagos and Tokyo, two extremely different realities, we can follow the whole spectrum of social, political and cultural contexts that we find in the response of people's bodies and faces. In the installation of these video works, we begin to observe particular specificities of people, small daily events recorded by the camera — unobtrusive presentation, emphasising the particularities of every individual. With her minimal intervention that is actually merely presence, the artist is documenting people in a simple way, positioning herself as observer, not an arbiter. The element of time modification causes variation in the recorded natural mobility of people and their surroundings. The minimal slowing down enables the viewer to observe details and characteristics in th continuous 'flow' of people, the image passing by remains conscious for a moment. The interpretative field of this series is extensive and applies to all Kimsooja's work. From the analogy of a sewing needle and the artist's body forming a relationship to the passersby with its immobility, exploring the responses on its presence for mental and physical personal space, to the social context of the heterogeneity of social phenomena and the role of human being in contemporary world.

One of the defining parameters of Kimsooja's work in this context is her research of movement, mobility. Her body seems to be immobile, completely static compared to the mass of moving people. This seemingly motionless body is also analogous with a statue, a static object.

The image of your body in video performances, being turned away from the viewer, addresses people in a special way. This body-image cannot be interpreted as a symbol, but as an emptiness that, on one side opens up the space for the viewer, and on the other represents mobility towards human life, to his essence. How do you comprehend your body at this particular point?

I find your perception of my body as a 'void' one of the most accurate and relevant descriptions of the presence of my body in my videos. The emptiness is created by turning my back towards the audiences, by not showing my personal identity, and also by allowing my body to function as a passageway for the audience to go through or enter into - this enables the audience to experience what I see and experience in situ. It is a similar function to a needle point, which has a decisive form of function, but works only through the empty hole of a needle eye, which is on the opposite side of the needle point. They can never meet each other, and they have this Yin and Yang relationship serving itself as a medium between fabrics. I weave the social and cultural fabrics with my presence and void as a medium. But I also believe that there's ego, which was not there while performing- I must say, standing there in the middle of the crowds was also a process of emptying my own ego, while receiving all of the people and their energy in my body and mind. This process of emptying the ego allows people to enter your body and create a void of your own self.

Your artwork A Laundry Woman - Yamuna River, India, 2000 was shown at the exhibition The Fifth Gospel in Celje. The video projection was placed inside the Catholic Church of Saint Mary. The strong context in which the work was placed added an interesting analogy. Through the body of the artist - place/point of identification/entrance - the viewer entered into the artwork in the same way as Western civilization entered the body of Christ in history. How the viewer experienced it from this point onwards was dependent upon himself. The body functioned as a mediator. What are your thoughts about this different context that has a strong 'point of possibility' to influence the work?

Locating my body in the midst of crowds or in nature is to question my existence and that of others on what I see, where I am, and where we are going. It is the question raised from the experiences of these performances that leads me to go forward and question further. Relating my work within the context of the Catholic Church and its history can be controversial in the sense of my way of thinking and that of Catholicism. I am interested in this kind of contradiction, as it can sometimes create an unexpected innovation, as if two different ways of mathematics can solve the same question from a different method. When those two different approaches and energies crash and merge together, they can break through the existing way of thinking. This is a fascinating side of fusion in art making and art reading.

When the function of one sense is prevented, for whatever reason, other senses sharpen to compensate for the missing information. The artist uses this effect for achieving special (meditative) states in the viewer, and to sharpen the human senses that are necessary in perceiving reality. Her video works mostly exclude sound. The intensity of the video image overwhelms us in the beginning, and only gradually do we become conscious of the fact that individual sounds — the flowing of a river, the dripping of water, a gust of wind, birds singing, human speech, street noise — are all missing. With this absence (and consequently, the orientation of human consciousness toward a sole level of perception) the artist directs our attention to the field of the visible and further to the field of spirit. The sharpened act of seeing centers our perception exclusively on the image. There is an obvious intertwining of artistic and meditative strategies that mostly omit sound, and focus on directing the (inner) gaze. In her work The Weaving Factory, 5.1, sound is the only element of the installation. Simple and minimal expressive means are the logical choice for achieving the goal — to direct, to sharpen the sight, and hearing. This year, the artist joined light, colour and sound in her work To Breath / Respirare, presented in La Fenice theater in Venice. The video installation was a combination of the projection of intensive monochromatic colours alternating in regular rhythm and the recorded sound of the artist's breathing. The sound element transitioned from a relaxed tempo that aroused pleasant, relaxed feelings, to an unbearably quick tempo, awakening anxious feelings verging on physical pain.

I have experienced your art works as a visual world, and a world of silence, where different phenomena are shown that lead the viewe into (self) consciousness. Furthermore, this consciousness of things that are outside of us aims at harmonizing and balancing the individual in life.

A sense of consciousness, equilibrium and harmony has played an important role in my work, but at the same time, this is nothing but my own personality. I used to raise questions from the point where the consciousness of an unbalanced and un-harmonized situation stays — that which has a lack of care or lack of fulfillment as a whole and as a oneness. The whole process of making art is about balancing the situation through a Yin and Yang perspective, like an acupuncturist. I often see the situation in the complexity of duality and try to find the necessary remedy for it.

On watching your video works (in Celje and Venice) I had a very interesting experience of time; with each work I had a feeling of being thrown out of the common concepts of time. Time extended, or it was as though it did not exist anymore. How do you define time?

I often feel that I am in a state where I am out of a specific time frame, either in the midst of concentration or in a meditative state. When I see my videos, I feel similar states of my own experiences I have in daily life. Time is not there when I am there, and when there is time I am not there anymore. Time exists when one has consciousness of the other or one's other self - when one can see the other, even oneself as the other. Time is the body that you see with your eyes of consciousness. Time exists when a separation of your body and consciousness occurs. Time is space, and space is time.

What are your feelings about your past projects?

All of my past work functions as just one 'station' towards another, as a process to reach to the final destination towards 'void', or the 'extinguishment' of my artistic and existential self.

What role does beauty play in your life and aesthetics? What is your relationship to this phenomenon?

I believe in beauty as a reflection of truthfulness, harmony, and purity — but also as a reflection of decadence, as well as in its inevitable complexity within its own contradiction. Beauty is discovered when the viewer has eyes for it, and everything in this world has its own connection to beauty.

Ethics, which has played an important role in the history of Western art, was not discussed in connection with art in the time of modernism. This situation is changing at the moment. Your works express strong ethical messages. What is your attitude towards these two spheres of ethics and contemporary art?

Ethical attitude generally comes from the pursuit of harmony and concern of others. I think art can be ethical in the pursuit of beauty and reality, although there's some contradiction between art and ethics in aesthetic methodology. Art often didn't respond much to the reality of our life and present time in modernism, and the creative process of art making often involved a de-constructive element. There are also so many different levels of ethics - ethics for ethics, ethics to prove truth and fairness, ethics that revenges the negative phenomena of society. These two aspects of being destructive in their own process and being ethical to idealism can be coherent at some level and it is inevitable to respond to present conditions of life in any form.

It seems that nowadays we consume art only through filters of digital technology, images in a digital camera or a movie camera. Watching through digital media is like consumption, I watch with my eyes like I use things; a commodity. But at the same time, it seems that these media membranes do not mutilate your work. The viewer doesn't need any knowledge of contemporary art for experiencing your work. Are such effects important for you?

I don't think much about the viewer's point of view, or have interest in guiding them to a particular way of looking at my work. What leads the viewer to access my work is probably because I am not dealing with only specific issues and questions in contemporary art, but also with essential questions on life from mundane daily life.

How do you develop your works from the first impulse to the final realization?

In most cases, the first impulse leads to another reflection that creates a concept, and the concept leads to another impulse and they fuse ... But sometimes just one intuition or concept is enough.

It seems as though Korean tradition is getting more and more hidden, covered in your work.

I left Korea at the end of 1998 after participating in the Sao Paulo Biennale, and I've been living in New York since then. As the years go by, my living and working conditions are more based in New York daily life and my travels throughout the world. I live in a somewhat different social and cultural life than in Korea, although I still question Korean culture and my own identity and relationships. I've started working with daily objects I discover in New York, communicating and thinking more in English, and being aware of the political and socio-cultural status of my present living conditions within the world.

I consider myself to be a cosmopolitan, which might be the reason why the Korean cultural elements I used to deal with have been disappearing little by little from my work. But I am sure, at some point, there will be another moment when I re-discover my own culture from a different perspective than when I was in Korea.

You have been working in the Western world for almost a decade now. What is your relationship to the Korean period today? What did the last decade give to you?

It gave me personal independence, financial support, social freedom, and detachment from my society and relationships.

What would you say about the notion that your art works are not questioning particularity of subjectivity that is so relevant today but are addressing fundamental questions of being, basic questions of life such as the balance of inside and outside, spirit and body, mind and soul, human as a natural and cultural being, being that exists in time and space of 'now'?

I have always been dealing with present issues around me and the society that I was in. People sometimes see it that way because I used traditional materials, but it was my and my society's reality, although diminishing, and it had symbolic cultural connotations that are part of contemporary global society's issues as well. I just didn't use Western fabrics or images as it wasn't my reality and they created strong present questions for me. If I used Western fabrics, I wouldn't have been able to create my own conceptual context as a relationship to the bedcover, body and cohabitation — that has to do with my reality within Korean culture.

Are there any new horizons in your art?

I know my work goes further and further away from the materialistic world but I am still interested in materiality itself as a strong presence of existence and a body of time. I also know that the whole process is just an endless circulation of comprehension of the world and self, and I wish one day I could be just a simple being freed from desire of making art and see as it is and live as I am within the world as it is.

Petra Kapš is an independent curator, art critic and writer. She is MA candidate at the Department of Philosophy at the University in Maribor, Slovenia.