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

The Persistence of the Void

Robert C. Morgan, 2002

Having followed the work of Kim SooJa for nearly a decade, I have become increasingly aware of her focus and commitment in developing a unique vision of the world through art. Her vision is, of course, a subjective one. It is subjective in relation to the conjugation of mind and body. As with any refined manner of subjectivity, SooJa depends on a type of alertness based on the sensing of her immediate environment. While performing in relation to the video camera, whether in an urban metropolis or in the wilderness of nature, she maintains a relaxed aura. Her demeanor reveals a purposeful intensity combined with the sensitivity of observation. To develop one's sense of the world through art — indeed, to develop a perception of oneself — is initially contingent on observation, and later, on a phenomenological reduction of what one sees through the process of reflection; in essence, it is the search for an intentionality.

In working with brightly colored textiles in various contexts, SooJa has discovered a ground for her recent observations. She has discovered a way of making sense, of finding an order, regardless of the chaos that intervenes on the surface. In recent years she has extended the meaning of her textile installations ('deductive objects') and bottaris (wrapped bundles of cloth) through a series of remarkable video performances, collectively known as A Needle Woman. Through her process of engagement in the world — in other people's worlds, in specific places and cultures, such as Tokyo, Shanghai, Delhi, New York, Mexico City and Cairo — Kim SooJa has gone deeply within herself in order to find a new transcultural reality.

As an artist, she is not concerned with repeating hypothetical universals borrowed from the Modernist past. This is clearly antithetical to her position, to her ethos. As with her ongoing work, A Needle Woman, SooJa searches for a structural invisibility as the means by which to communicate her intention. To be deeply personal (which is also to be spiritual) opens up the possibility of significant communication — a human transmission — on a transcultural level. By going deeply within oneself, below the surface of narcissism (as defined in Western terms), one discovers the invisible self paradoxically asserting itself within a transcultural, transglobal world.

As is sometimes the case, and I am thinking specifically of Yves Klein, the most radical departures at any given moment in art are often confused with traditional ideas (l'ancien et l'ultramoderne ). What changes, of course, is the context in which the ideas are felt. One might consider that certain ideas in art retain an accelerating force as they evolve within a perpetually shifting globalized environment. Kim SooJa's bottaris have this potential. They refer to a certain kind of transport, a personal history, a private vision of one's own space, a nomadic space, going from one place to another. In the process of going from one place to another, there is a momentum that builds, a certain engagement with the transition of the present. Within this transition of present time — what the philosopher Husserl calls 'internal time-consciousness' — there is the possibility to reflect on the space of the moment. In Zen Buddhism, this is the place of samadhi or the contemplation of a single thought, a sense of oneness, that is often used in meditation. Samadhi offers the possibility of feeling a sense of wholeness, of bringing one's thought into focus, into a single thought, of entering into the space of that thought with full consciousness. This was used by Yves Klein in a manner quite differently from Kim SooJa. Even so, one cannot ignore the affinity — though at a different time and place, a different culture, to be sure.

If anything, A Needle Woman — already emphasizing a kind of anonymity by using the article 'A' as opposed to 'The'— is about the space of samadhi on one level, but only on one level. Contrary to the position of Arthur Danto, not all art exists at the service of philosophy. While the spirit of samadhi is close to A Needle Woman, it cannot operate as its raison d'etre. It can only function as a parallel system, as a personal motivation that the artist feels. In essence, Zen Buddhism may offer an affinity with SooJa's work — particular, it would seem, in A Needle Woman — but it cannot become her art. It is precisely for this reason that Kim SooJa rejects the lamination of theoretical rhetoric against her art. This is particularly true given the varieties of feminist theory, exported from the West, that often usurps the possibility for her art to speak on its own terms, and thereby suggest other parallel systems of thought. Kim SooJa is not interested in making her art an air-tight case and is certainly not a gender-case; it is about the significance of the human being in a chaotic world, how to survive the virtual excess and abandonment of the self, through a rejuvenation of mind/body awareness. Rather than following the theoretical pre-occupations of the West, she follows her own course of social and political engagement emanating from her own history, memory, and intelligence of feeling.

While Western rhetoric may have taken the foreground of attention in much recent art — more intent on "investigations" and visual anthropology than upon the phenomenology of experience — SooJa's position is more related to the nomadic artist, the human being who moves at will (not as a refugee), but within the another context of globalized reality. In doing so, she confronts excesses of all kinds, prematurely archaic or obsolescent structures that have devolved through overabundant information, tabloid-receptive populations who feel devalued in their everyday work and without a sense of history. This puts her art in opposition to the prevailing cynicism of the day, the ultimate detachment that is de rigeur /span>in the fashion world, the failing present where time exists without duration, without memory, and without any sense of a cause-and-effect impact on the proverbial future.

The poet and critic T.S. Eliot has spoken of the "perfect artist" as one who is so committed to his (her) art, with such ineluctable consistency, that the personality becomes less the issue than what is being transmitted through the art. I find Eliot's paradigm interesting in relation to Kim SooJa. One could say that the emphasis in her work has always been one of non-emphasis; instead of a presence we get an absence. The absence is always more profound, more subtle, and somehow more durable. The terms of absence are literally true, specifically in her rediscovery of bottari in 1992 as a kind of ready-made gesture, and most recently in her video projections.

The feeling of absence is also true in her earlier work. Going back to an earlier work, such as Portrait of Yourself (1985), SooJa ingeniously reverses the gaze of the viewer through the presentation of sewn pieces of cloth into a colorful garment. The work suggests that she is there, somehow within the space of the garment. By identifying the trace of her body within a form of representation, the viewer becomes complicit with the intimacy of the work. One may sense the transmission of memory as the cloth has been sewn, painted, and constructed. Absence exists as a condition of memory — a 'trace' of what is being represented. The process leads inevitably to the maker, to the one perceiving what is being made, in essence, to the craft of its making. This is an intimate, more than a social act(ion); yet it is consistent with what SooJa has recounted on afternnon in 1983 while she was sewing a bedcover with her mother: "I made a surprising discovery, whereby my thoughts, my feelings, and my activities of the moment seemed to come into harmony. And I discovered new possibilities for conveying buried memories and pain along with the quiet passions of life."

In the West, art historians are fond of saying that no artist or movement in art comes from the void, that there are always cause-and-effect linkages, relationships, motivations, and consequences. This is, to some extent, true; but its truth is isolated within the discipline of art history, not necessarily within the process of how an artist thinks. What is happening in today's "art world" — the transcultural satellite of globalization — is relevant only to the following extent. Most of these objects and events are academicized into oblivion by the time they hit the market. They are merely symptomatic of the bifurcation between advanced technologies and the socioeconomic well-being of people's lives, particularly those living outside of the Western world.

Here is the crux of the issue: Many artists live in an environment of high transition filled with enormous frustrations. They spend hours in front of the computer. They are dependent on mobile phones and internet data. Traffic on city streets and airport terminals is greater than ever before. They cannot keep us with the piles of work that confront them in the studio. When do they have time to think about the direction of our work? Or, more relevant, when do they have time to think of their lives as forming the substance of their work? These questions, by the way, are not only germane to artists. Many of us are in a similar boat. And this boat seems more often than not to be floating in an empty void — a Western schism that is far removed from the nature of the self.

This is to suggest that Kim SooJa's art is directed towards another kind of void — neither the void of art history nor the void of the today's split in human consciousness, but the void of the self, the concept of "no mind" as described by the Japanese Zen teacher (Sensei) Daisetz Suzuki. When we look at the interwoven elements — material, visual, conceptual — as presented between SooJa's tactile and virtual images, we get a sense of her vision. Somewhere in the interstices between the bottari and the video projections, there is a profound coherence to everything we know. We are exhilarated as human beings to know that we are allowed to "unknow" the burden that constitutes much of our superficial identity. The temptation is always there — to avoid the void. In confronting the crowds of Shanghai, Delhi, or Istanbul, we may become aware that the feelings of the void so clearly articulated in the performances of Kim SooJa, are endangered in a world of chaotic excess. We can only look to the void that she has created, the cancellation of the chaos around her, and ultimately receive the infinite joy of being who we are.

— From Kunsthalle Bern exhibition catalogue, 2001:

Robert C. Morgan is a writer, critic, curator, poet, and artist. He holds an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in contemporary art history. He is the author of some 1500 essays and reviews. His books include Art into Ideas (Cambridge, 1996), Between Modernism and Conceptual Art (McFarland, 1997), The End of the Art World (Allworth, 1998), Gary Hill (Johns Hopkins, 2000), and Bruce Nauman (John Hopkins 2000). Among his many exhibitions, he curated Komar and Melamid: A Retrospective (Ulrich Museum of Art, 1979), Women on the Verge (Elga Wimmer, 1995), and Clear Intentions (The Rotunda, 2003). His performance work was shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1976) and in numerous other galleries and museums until he stopped producing art in 1990. He travels and lectures frequently and is completing a book on Eastern thought and contemporary art.