A Laundry Woman - Yamuna river, India, 2000, 10:30 video loop, Silent.


Barbara Matilsky, 2003

"My work explores the awakening of the self and the other... It is an awakening of the hidden meanings in elements of our mundane lives, to which the viewers previously haven't paid much attention."

Growing up in South Korea, Kimsooja describes her complex spiritual background informed by Buddhism, Catholicism, and a code of moral conduct influenced by Confucianism. After high school, she intentionally "stepped out of organized religion in order to experience the real world". The artist felt uncomfortable with the systematization of beliefs and behavior within the faith traditions. Although Kimsooja does not practice Buddhism formally, her beliefs and personal practices strongly parallel this philosophy of life.

A Laundry Woman (2002) is a video projection that suggests the harmony of the universe through its stillness and tranquility (figs. 25 and 26). It documents a meditative performance by the artist along the Yamuna River in North India. Videotaped from a slightly elevated vantage point and seen from the back, Kimsooja's figure is silhouetted against blue, opalescent waters. Although the sky is not visible, the viewer is made conscious of its presence by the reflections of flying birds in the water. The artist remains perfectly still while the video captures her state of quiet mindfulness.

Kimsooja describes her experience during this meditation: "In the middle of the performance, I was completely confused...[about] whether it is the river which is running and moving or myself." The artist's perceptions of space and time were turned upside down and mentally she became completely immersed in and at one with the water. She later realized that it is not the river that constantly changes but her body, which is transforming all the time: "My body will disappear while the river is still flowing."

While watching the video, the viewer slowly becomes aware of the ritual offerings and ashes of deceased people who were cremated at a site along the river. The cycle of life and death becomes a powerful theme in the work. Kimsooja began thinking of the decomposed bodies that floated before her. She meditated on "their lives and their memories and was trying to purify their bodies as well as mine. Praying for their future life with compassion for human beings." The artist experienced a heightened sense of what she describes as "awakeness", particularly in her awareness of the relationship between nature and the body, stillness and movement, life and death.

By interpreting the confluence of river and atmosphere, Kimsooja highlights an idea embraced by many artists in the exhibition: the unity of life. She describes the effect of blending water and sky as a mirror presenting both reality and its opposite dimension. From a formal perspective, the artist conceives the river as a surface that is similar to a two-dimensional canvas. There is a strong impulse towards abstraction in A Laundry Woman, which reflects Kimsooja's early career as a painter.

Through the video, the artist invites the viewer to share her meditative experience. As she explains, "That is why my body is facing against the viewer. Look at what I look at. I do not present my ego, my identity." Kimsooja's desire for the viewer to "wear" her body suggests the idea of the artist as mediator in order to open possibilities for other people to participate in a "certain awareness and awakening." She points out that there are few opportunities in daily life to achieve this concentrated state of mind.

In A Laundry Woman, Kimsooja's body in essence becomes an offering for others to use in order to achieve an expanded consciousness. "Some people referred to me as a shaman who mediates between the dead and the living. I sometimes feel that way too because, in a way, I am doing that all the time. I think it comes from compassion. Understanding others' suffering. Sharing suffering. Sharing love." For many people familiar with India, the title of the work may conjure images of the low-caste women whose livelihood revolves around the river. In this interpretation, the artist becomes the laundry woman in an act of empathy.

While discussing the idea of pairing A Laundry Woman with a small sculpture of Buddha Shakyamuni touching the earth to witness his enlightenment, Kimsooja immediately responded to the shared symbolic gesture in the two works of art (fig. 4). She noted that her video establishes connections between the individual and nature; similarly, the Buddha links himself to the land. Through the body, she also connects herself with other human beings from all cultures. As she explains, "All human activities are about linking the self to the other."

Relationships are a central theme in a group of installations that depict sewing as a metaphor for threading together different aspects of life. Kimsooja conceives her video works as "invisible sewing." The artist created another work with the title of Laundry Woman (exhibited at the Kunsthalle in Vienna and the Zacheta Gallery of Art in Warsaw, 2002), an installation consisting of suspended fabrics that suggest linens drying outdoors. These materials become symbols of women, love, the body, and sleep. On a social level, they are associated with women's roles in society. For Kim, cloth transcends its materiality and functions as "a container for the spirit"; people are swathed at birth and at death in cloth, and it is also used ceremonially in weddings and other rites of passage.

The Laundry Woman also relates to a group of works called Bottari — beautifully wrapped bundles of used Korean bedcovers, fabrics that are either manufactured or sewn by mothers and daughters as shared experiences. These pieces of cloth remind us of the cycle of life; they are used to bundle together household possessions when leaving home, and they help to establish domestic comfort in the absence of a true shelter. Their stitches bind people together.

Kimsooja insists that what is most essential is not the body of work but the questions that it raises. She hopes that the viewer will participate in her works by sharing this inquiring state of mind. When asked what her hopes were for the museum visitor, she replied, "I would like the audience to share with me the experience I had during my performance, question and answer, and really put each one's state of mind and body into that position."

— Kimsooja, interviewed by Barbara Matilsky, August 2003.

Barbara Matilsky, Curator of Exhibitions Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Formerly curator at the Queens Museum of Art, New York City, where she organized the traveling exhibition, Fragile Ecologies: Contemporary Artists' Interpretations and Solutions (1992).