A Needle Woman, Tokyo, 1999, part of 8 channels, 6:33, video loop, Silent.

Kim Sooja's A Needle Woman

Keiji Nakamura, 2000

Dressed in a dark, austere, almost monastic robe, long hair tied loosely, a woman stands in the middle of the screen, back to the camera — it is the artist KIM Sooja herself. She alone is in monochrome, she alone does not move. Though since all she does is stand there, amidst the crowded Shibuya area of Tokyo, for example, she does at times vanish from view when her motionless figure is swallowed by the on-going multicolored flow of foot traffic that crisscrosses heedlessly in front and back of her. Which summons a groundless sense of disquiet — where did she go? — until suddenly a moment later, as if everyone else had made way for her, that unmistakable back of hers re-emerges. Her presence cuts through the crowds, creating a singular opening, seemingly spotlighting her alone. An instant of emptiness in the space, an eternal space. Time that stopped while she disappeared begins to flow again. A certain calm visits the viewer.

But why should we fixate so upon this image of her just standing in a crowd? It is because we feel the sheer force of will, the determination that radiates from her backside with scarcely a movement. It is because her whole being is standing there in the performance. Perhaps she is not standing on the street, but transmigrating between this reality and the netherworld, between life and death. And upon her passages we viewers project the fundamental uncertainty of our own being. As she vanishes, submerging into the tides of men, we read the transience of existence and grow unsettled; only to take reassurance in the constancy of life forces as her figure resurfaces, poised and unmoving.

In her Shibuya piece, the passers-by generally walk at a fast clip, not one stopping to look in her direction. Each is occupied with his or her own affairs, busily hurrying toward some goal, whether business or pleasure. Whereas in Shanghai, the people walk relatively slower, each seemingly meandering along a random course. Most of them cast a glance at her, look back over their shoulders, or even stop and stare. And in bustling backstreets of Delhi we witness the same curiosity, the same lack of reserve.

Nonetheless, not to make culturo-anthropological comparisons between people's actions and reactions city-to-city: the "where" of things is secondary. For even in the most chaotic urban Brownian motion, even in Shibuya where the mindless distraction of foot-traffic takes on a strange regularity, all she does is stand there. Again swept under, again floating up in the human stream, she slowly embroiders her way into the fabric of the streets, of the people. She finds her place as the "Needle Woman" stitching it all together, patching things up.

The instant her hidden figure comes back into the picture, the viewer is struck by an awakening. It is the moment she establishes her presence, thereby beginning to charge the viewer's inner being. Just standing there, voiding herself, the world opens up, transparent: do you not suddenly see yourself? It is an almost erotic encounter with existence, Ekstase (Heidegger), an existential epiphany.

This becomes clear in her two pieces enacted not in the city but against nature. In one work she lies upon a great rock, one arm outstretched. Motionless, of course. As if we are looking at a parinirvana, an image of the reclining Buddha, though funnily enough, from behind. Under a clear blue sky, lying on that great stone as if meditating upon sensual illusions, backgrounded by the slight passing of clouds and the resultant varying nuances of light. The rock does not move, but time is surely passing. In A Laundry Woman, the work where she stands watching the Yamuna River in India, what at first appears to be almost stagnant water is shown by the appearance of drifts of rubbish to be a surprisingly rapid current. As this river of refuse flows past her it actually appears to be flowing through her, so that she is washed and purified by the waters.

In these two works, by synchronizing with natural time, she seems to have grasped her own inner time. So that, ultimately, viewer time also merges with her take on cosmic time.

KIM Sooja's videoworks are neither mere audiovisual records set in different locations town and countryside; nor are they tape works complete in themselves. They only become "finished" through the psychosomatic interactions engendered between the visuals and the viewer. And for this reason, viewing on a monitor is insufficient; the works must be projected in a specially created space or setting. There must be this psychosomatic interplay with the viewer, a dialogue between the figure of the artist seen from behind and the flux of persons around her in a such a way that watching the videos becomes participation in her performance. For although at the original shooting stage she was performing alone, when projected as part of an installation it takes on new life as another viewer-participation performance, the viewers creating their own meanings.

Almost nothing happens on screen. Nor do the visuals offer up meaning. Yet as the quietive, near-static visuals awaken a mixture of diverse uncertain and fulfilling emotions, the viewer and the viewed begin to share a singular reality. And this makes for a meaning to the images thrown back to the screen.

Yet just how are we viewers to participate interactively in these works? How are we to share in the awakening of the woman-from-behind? Here, surely more intuitive than consciously thought out, are the secrets to her method. First of all, none of the tapes is edited; all seven-odd-minute tapes are slices of real time. So that the addition of oneself to this timespan constitutes a sharing in the performance-as-photographed. Fixed-frame shooting without image manipulation likewise does away with all inverisimilitudes.

Moreover, in all the tapes she is shown largely from the waist up; that her legs are not seen proves quite important. Very likely if her whole body were in frame, viewers would watch the picture with detached objectivity. By not seeing her lower body, viewers can place themselves directly behind her to observe the scenes in physical identification with her. Herein the images transcend the mere visual to attain a whole-body reality. Thus her image should not be projected too large; ideally she should appear roughly the life-size equivalent of the viewer.

In this regard, although not exhibited here, her 1997 Sewing into Walking may be regarded as an experimental forerunner to the present works. In this work the artist herself does not appear; a fixed camera merely records a busy street in Istanbul. Yet because of the eye-height field of vision, we get an odd en-scéne sensation of standing right beside her and looking on. It is this lack of artifice that brings home her reality to the viewer. In this way her unadulterated street visuals become images of being itself. Here we find the origins of her later Needle Woman series.

Her previous works have been variously labeled according to their concerns with "Korean tradition and modernization," "women's roles and feminism," even "nomadism." One reason being her longtime use of traditional Korean bedcover fabrics. In her very first works, she collaged cut-up swatches of these fabrics, sewing them together into patchwork wall-hangings. Then later she bundled up old clothes in these colorful bedcovers-cum-wrapping cloths (bottari) and made installations of these large bundles, or piled them into a truck and drove them around Korea as an 11-day performance. Or again, she hung them up laundry line style, or spread them like tablecloths on museum café tables.

Of course, bedcovers are replete with meanings: newborn babies are swaddled in them, they also cover corpses on death-beds. And in between people see them throughout their lives as the site of sleeping, resting and sex. Moreover, as she always appropriated somebody's actual used bedcovers, they were by no means neutral.

Thus, as women learn to sew from their mothers, then wrap up their household possessions when they leave home, she becomes "A Needle Woman" bundling everything, the whole world in cloth, stitching people together. Which perhaps explains why KIM Sooja's works have been proven so unintentionally topical in "post-modern" and "post-colonial" circles. Even though her aims are more universal, she has been burdened with well-meaning but trivial readings. In some ways, while totally different in genre, her relationship with fabric recalls Trihn T. Minh-ha's film, Surname Viet Given Name Nam. Both their works have provoked altogether too much discourse, almost more than their enjoyment as works in themselves.

Fabric is text, and the artist herself has made not a few statements about her use of fabric. Thus the many labels are not necessarily wrong. But the fact that, fully aware of these deeply compounded layers of meaning, she continues to use fabrics perhaps indicates that while recognizing her own beginnings in cloth, her thinking is to seek transcendence to a more universal level. Thus, her videowork, wholly removed from fabric, may well constitute a pursuit of means able to cast off all labels. We may see her performance of simply standing as a no-nonsense, unadorned minimalist action, an existential minimalism.

KIM Sooja in video appears totally free from everything.

— From exhibition catalogue, ICC, Tokyo, 2000.

Keiji Nakamura, Japanese, born in 1936. Art critic, lives and works in Tokyo. After teaching at a university for twenty years, he worked as a senior curator at The National Museum of Art, Osaka from 1986-95, then as Deputy Director/Chief Curator at the InterCommunication Center, Tokyo from 1995-2000.

Translated by Alfred Birnbaum.