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

Kimsooja: A Lighthouse Woman, A Needle in the World

Robert C. Morgan, 2005

As a writer coming from a Westernized context, I regard the work of Kimsooja with a great deal of specificity, rarefied thought, and emotion. At the same time, I understand her need to relinquish desire — first in herself, and then, in relation to her work. If desire offers a means to grapple with the emotional realities that exist in relation to the external visual and material world, then the sensory cognitive aspect of the human body serves as its refining conduit. In this respect, Kimsooja posits the sensorium of the body, together with the cognitive apparatus of the mind, as a kind of actionist sanctuary. Her persona — "a needle woman" — suggests that our bodies are where we stand — as she stands anonymously facing the momentum of people walking towards her in the crowded streets of Shanghai and London — or where we lie down — as she lies down under the shade tree in a public place in Cairo. In such circumstances, the artist's body acts as a conduit between the interior realm of the spirit and the external world of perennial chaos. A Needle Woman suggests that by focusing on the body without desire, we offer ourselves the potential to make ourselves whole. The body is what nourishes us and gives us substance. The Fakirs in India have known this for centuries. The body is capable of nourishing itself over extended periods of time. And this notion of self-nourishment is far from the narcissistic desires that have come to possess human beings in the storm of illusory wealth, provided by the monarchs and moguls of globalization.

When I look at the works of Kimsooja — whether her early "deductive objects" as in the wrapping of ordinary household objects, or her brilliant installations of suspended ybulbo, or her magnificent still-body interventions in crowds of people in various major cities, or even in her spinning jukebox wheels overlaid with the mixed sounds of Buddhist chant, Gregorian, and Islamic chants, I begin to see a pattern of recognition. When I observe her video of A Beggar Woman performance in Lagos, I cannot refrain from having an emotional response. I never know exactly how to respond to the kind of aesthetic/anti-aesthetic whirl that spins in my head upon seeing these works by Kimsooja. How do I respond to this feeling of a language that is exorbitant, ineluctable, and mysterious? Yet somehow I discover an unexpected relief from the sensory burden of everyday life, the existential reality that I share with others who feel as I do. I have to admit to a certain beauty in all of this, the kind of beauty that gives strength to carry on. I reflect on Sooja's image of light projected against the lighthouse tower on Morris Island, Charleston (during the Spoleto Festival) in 2002 as a kind of double entendre as symbolizing both doubt and hope. It is here that Sooja becomes "A Lighthouse Woman". I think to myself — Is this not what art is supposed to do? Isn't art supposed to carry the mind and body into a different realm of being, an elevated state of contemplation and understanding of the world in which we inhabit?

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Kimsooja is a woman on a journey. She is an artist and a human being like everyone else. Her hanging polychrome ybulbo (traditional Korean bedcoverings) and her bottari bundles transmit moments of enlightenment and redefinition. They reclaim the space that has been lost to ideology, fashion, mass media, and commerce. They transform the habitation of public space to a place of solace and intimacy that gives substance to everyday life. One may ask upon seeing these works whether the polarities of East and West still mean anything in our postmodern world torn by violent struggles between the rich and poor nations of the world, or even by nations who divide the rich from the poor.

Sooja's persona is "the needle woman" or "the laundry woman"; — and here is the point where my emotions start to swell. I am filled with a sense that life is, in fact, a journey, with a purpose and that compassion is more important then passion. Sooja's video projections — the needle women poised on a rock in Kitakyushu, and her laundry woman on the edge of the Yamuna River in Delhi where the burnt ashes of deceased human beings float to eternity — were made within two years of one another, in 1999 and 2000 respectively. These works asserted a turning-point in her career where the performance and video became an essential component in her work.

Earlier, in 1995 — when asked to participate in the first Gwangju Biennial — Sooja did a second version (first performed in 1994) of Sewing into Walking - Dedicated to the Victims of Gwangju. Her ybulbo were scattered in a forest — used cotton cloth in rumpled piles in chaotic bundles strewn to the winds. Here fabric was returned to nature, one given back to the other. Here she commemorates the struggle for democracy in 1980 where six hundred Korean were gunned down for insisting on their human rights.

The sensory / cognition domain of human beings causes much internal strife and is too often projected outward — violently released into the environment. While this may be part of her message or her mission, she is after all an artist. I express her calling in this way, only to suggest that Kimsooja carries a certain demeanor of gregarious humility. At the same time, I recognize that she is shrewd, sensitive, resilient, brilliant, humble, yet without self-effacement. Art is the focus of her attention. While one may read various phenomenological or minimal dimensions of "being in the world" in her work, there is scarcely a predetermined aspect in her work. I would argue that because she is so clearly in touch with her intuition, a wide breadth ofaesthetic and political speculations may appear as having ideological intentions.

For example, there are those who want to see her work in terms of Buddhism or feminism or minimalism or nomadism. There are those, particularly in Korea, who want to read her work as an anti-Confucianism statement, as a revolt against the way women have been treated in her culture through the manipulation of a distorted Confucian morality at the outset of the Chosun Dynasty.

While these arguments may be well-founded as part of the context in which her work may be understand, none of these issues are the central issue. Through her desire to relinquish the burden of the ego when necessary, to understand compassion as a human practice and necessity, and to allow her body to create an absolute stillness in the universe whether on the rock in Kitakyushu or on the banks of the Yamuna River, here we must return to the central issue. As an artist, Kimsooja has taken advantage of the signifier of self-liberation to free herself from unnecessary worldly restraints and encumbrances, while at the same time she is willing to give art an ethical dimension according to the context of her immediate actions, not according to an overarching principle of rightness, The signifier of freedom in her art also requires something of equal importance, and that is where Kimsooja enters into a transglobal history. She understands that freedom is also the ability to take responsibility for one's own life, and to know that — ecologically speaking — every action has a reaction. Call is Buddhism, if you will — but from another angle of vision, her presence as an artist offers a pragmatic vision for those in search of a better world where happiness and justice will be shared by all.

Robert C. Morgan is an independent critic, curator, writer, and artist. He holds a graduate degree in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in art history. He writes for several international magazines and is author of numerous books, including The End of the Art World (1998), Bruce Nauman (2002), and Vasarely (2004). He lives in New York City.