A Homeless Woman- Delhi, 2000, 6:33 video loop, Silent.

Kimsooja and the Art of Place

David Morgan, 2013

Place is important in the work of Kimsooja. The Bottari Truck in Exile (1999) was a work on the road, a truck heaped with bundles of clothing and bedcovers wrapped in brilliant silk fabric, travelling from one place to the next. In video work from 1999 to 2001, she traveled to many places around the world to produce pieces such as A Needle Woman (1999-2001) and A Laundry Woman (2000). More recently, she has devoted much effort to site-specific work that transforms an existing place such as the Crystal Palace in Madrid (2005) or the Teatro la Fenice in Venice (2006) through the graceful calibrations of light and color. In many ways, Kimsooja’s art may be described as a searching meditation on the nature of place—asking a number of questions such as what a place is, how it is defined, how long it lasts, who makes it, what the relation of place is to body, and how places are experienced. A Homeless Woman (2001) and A Beggar Woman (2001), videos that document her emplacement within teeming urban crowds as an anonymous female figure dressed in gray, whose silent, immovable presence is literally out of place, disrupting the traffic of befuddled pedestrians, if only for a moment. Some respond by pausing to inspect her, others are bemused by the camera that witnesses their presence. Still others fail to notice her at all, for whom she is nothing but the blurred place through which they hurry on their way to work.

The signals of critique, whether political or economic or geared to considerations of ethnicity or gender, are not hard to see. One could readily give Kimsooja’s art of place a reading that stresses an incisive reflection on the politics of identity, the social construction of gender and race, the economics of power and agency. Clearly, the crafting of place relies fundamentally on the coordinates of authority, social relations, and hierarchies keyed to ethnicity, race, and gender. And one need not look far in her discussions of her own work to find the artist’s corroboration of a political reading. She dedicated Bottari Truck in Exile, exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1999, to refugees of the current war in Kosovo. Exile is an apt theme in regard to place because it means the loss of one’s native setting or milieu, one’s homeland. Kimsooja brought the truck loaded with bottari (Korean for “bundle”) from Korea to Venice for the Biennale. The work was not simply the truck, but the process of getting it from one place to another. She traversed countless national and international boundaries to transport bundles of laundry, the baggage in which exiles haul the traces of their existence. One thinks of transnationalism and the global flows of labor; of forced migrations; of international traffic in contraband; or of worldwide circuitry of capital pulsing through networks of markets.

The politics of power and powerlessness, of loss and theft are there, yet one senses that this framework does not exhaust what the work has to offer, where it wants to go. Kimsooja has spoken of the “dimension of pure humanity” as the special interest that drives her work[1].  She wants to ponder what she calls “the human condition and its reality” rather than indict political and economic systems. So she laments the refugees of the war in Kosovo rather than scrutinizing the conditions of the war’s existence. As an artist, human suffering concerns her in the first place, before the failure of social institutions and political will. An artist does not have to choose between the two, of course, but rather than critique and jeremiad, Kimsooja explores the intimate connection of art and moral sensibilities. She is a passionate observer of human beings. All of the work mentioned so far is evidence of an eye bent on the daily routines of human life, using them to register a wistful but wistfully beautiful sense of “the human condition and its reality.”

One might say that the common and principal function of religion, morality, and traditional philosophy is to posit a human condition as a way of explaining suffering and proposing a solution to it, or at least a way of enduring it. Kimsooja does not want her art to engage viewers as a religion or morality or philosophy. But it is clear that she wants her work to elicit profound aesthetic reflection. Everything she works with is something that bears the traces of human touch—the things women gather and clean, launder and stretch for the wind to dry. The clothing and bedding that touch us everyday, like a second skin. The things we bundle and carry from place to place, the things we save when the house is burning, when the village is destroyed, when the economy collapses. The things that are left when we are gone, that lie scattered on the ground, as in Sewing into Walking (1994) or in Portrait (1991), where a massive cloak of discarded fragments of cloth rises like a monumental gravestone, a mortuary icon of lives whose flesh is remembered in a dense clutter of castoff artifacts. It is the way of all flesh, this scatter of clothing. Sewing into Walking traces a walk through time as a patchy fabric of strewn memories, if even that. This is an elegiac work, bound to evoke in many viewers a sense of what the artist calls “the human condition.”

According to Buddhist teaching, everything, every feeling, is marked by impermanence, holding no place and passing away. Impermanence joins suffering and non-self as the three characteristics of existence, according to Buddhist thought. As one scholar has summarized the matter, “change, degeneration, and non-essentialism are fundamental features of everything.” [2] Nothing lasts, everything fails to satisfy, and there is no soul or self or substance that abides above it all. In short, there is no place to hold us that will not itself crumble into something else—except the dharma of release, or nirvana. Religions often describe a human condition because they want to diagnose the cause of suffering and to prescribe its solution—either through methods like the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism or the redemption that any number of salvific faiths offer their adherents.

But Kimsooja does not craft an art tasked with human salvation—either by divine means or by human politics. Her work is not preachy or propagandistic or doctrinaire because what really drives her art is the power of things to provoke thought, to arrest the mind and to fix it on something elusive and mysterious, something we want to take for a truth. Kimsooja wants to cultivate a mindfulness of what human beings encounter by virtue of being human. She ponders what is human—loss, yearning, beauty, routine, work—and does so in the sensuous terms of art that define the places of everyday life. Art is a heightened sensory consciousness, a poignant awareness of the world that opens up in the place that watching, touching, hearing, and making afford. “I’ve never practiced meditation in my life,” she once said in an interview, “but I found every moment for me was a meditation in itself. I reached a similar Zen Buddhism completely through my own way of meditation on life and art and its practice.” [3]

What does this make of art? The arts used to operate in the service of institutional religion, contributing to devotional life, decorating the altars of churches, shrines, pilgrimage sites, bodying forth the sacred in the daily exchanges between earthly mortals and heavenly powers in a sacred economy of pledge and favor, petition and reward. Popular imagery in everyday religious life still does that for believers today. But fine art has arisen over the last two centuries to occupy a different space in Western culture. For some people, art is a kind of therapy. It conducts a service of comfort, diversion, or uplifting pleasure. For others, however, the benefit must be described in terms of the meditative absorption to which Kimsooja alludes. Art is a way of refining or honing perception, for use as the means of introspection and as a social and cultural lens. In this approach, “aesthetic” does not mean beauty for the sake of beauty, but something more like sensuous cognition, a delicate tooling of the senses to scrutinize the world for the sake of a penetrating take on its weight and heat and chaos. And so we have Kimsooja’s artistic postulation of the human condition. This is neither religion nor politics; neither preaching nor moral reform. It is a limbic way of seeing, a projection of sensation into the larger world for the sake of feeling it vicariously in the skin of an artwork. 

What does that mean? Kimsooja’s art is about the cultural work of looking. You may behold A Needle Woman in at least two ways. First, as a video projected on a screen in a gallery over the course of an exhibition for a few weeks. In this instance the video acts as a documentary, recording human actions at another place and time. The scene is a street, far away, a place that is not here, where you and I are standing. We look upon the place with curiosity. An image of the video’s installation in a gallery shows how this works: a bench invites you to sit down and watch an image projected from above. The image appears, as if through a rectangular aperture that has opened up in the gallery wall. In the dimly lit space, you are urged to sit or stand quietly and gaze upon the scene. You devote yourself to the task, if you have time, because you hope to see something interesting, something you’ve not seen before. You wait for something to happen. It’s art, after all. It’s supposed to do something. But when very little happens, the second way of seeing the piece begins to take shape. You glance furtively about the gallery at those standing near you. You glance at your watch, you wonder how long this will go on. Ineluctably, your perception shifts from looking at a video image-window in the wall to looking at people in your vicinity looking at a video image-window in the wall. You become aware of the discomforts of your body. If you’ve ever meditated, the feeling will be familiar. The scene moves from there, on the other side of the wall, to here, in and around you, and you realize that you are part of the art. The piece takes your time, your body, your patience and invests it in a work that includes you. You might look for the door. You might want to get out of here. Yet you’re intrigued by the two sets of looking—on the screen and in this room, and you wonder what you feel.

The boundaries of a work of art dissolved in the twentieth century. Art went from hanging on walls and perching on pedestals to happening in deserts and junkyards, on street corners and human bodies. With the dissolution of conventional boundaries came a redefinition of the place of art. So looking at A Needle Woman and A Laundry Woman, we ask: where is the artwork? Is it there, in the crowd’s response to or unawareness of the stolid presence around which they move? Or is it here, among us? Perhaps the two modalities are really one: we are yet another crowd in which the impassive worker woman stands. Perhaps our wandering eye is no different than the urban crowds in Tokyo, Cairo, Mexico City, London, or Delhi. Perhaps Kimsooja lures us into the gallery to sew the art world into the larger fabric of far-flung cities. To see her work is to be transported into a global work of art that shows us to ourselves. The boundaries demarcating the place of this art are disorienting, sublime. There is no getting out of it or away from it. Its center is everywhere, marked by the visual field that pivots on the gray figure of the artist standing steadfastly at the intersection of blinking gazes.

The steady feature of the artist in these videos is the structure that configures our visual field. Even when she is engulfed by the crowd that weaves obliviously about her, she remains our point of reference. Kimsooja transcends the world out there by holding her back irresolutely toward us, here. The camera is never forgotten. The people there are placed on a stage stretching before us. They were filmed for the purpose of being screened elsewhere. Place as local site is not singular, but part of a larger set of places that only the art viewer is allowed to see. The folks in Delhi don’t know or ever see the people in Mexico City or Shanghai—or us. We do, thanks to Kimsooja’s back. If she only wanted to be a needle, to transform her body into an inanimate object, it would not matter if we saw her from the side or front or any other angle. But we never see her face. This device structures the work of art by showing its proper side, where it is to be viewed—in a gallery. The place of art is a critical moment, a step back in space or time to see anew. Kimsooja wants art to be the world tweaked to make us conscious of place—our place, the place of others, and the place of art, arising in the interstices of culture. Place matters to her because she loves the beguiling way that art seizes our attention and invites our devoted scrutiny.

The appropriation of place for artistic purposes is something we see elsewhere in Kimsooja’s oeuvre. In the haunting beauty of An Album: Havana (2007), a ten-minute silent video created on site in Cuba. The camera runs for nearly three minutes down a pier overlooking the ocean and a cloudy horizon as lovers, tourists, and fishermen saunter along or sit on a stonewall. The video repeats for a second and third time, but each iteration increasingly blurs focus until in the final run the screen is a blank flicker that gradually transforms into bright light. In the second run we can still recognize the figures, but in the third sequence they evaporate in brownish haze. Deprived of sound and focus, the result is a lushly beautiful portrait of a place that steadily vanishes. What seems at first solid melts into the air, leaving viewers to wonder what their relation is to place that is no more. Memory of place may not be as sure as we’d like to think. With each replay, what we once stood before fades until finally it is gone. With nothing to see, it is not clear that the seer abides.

In an altogether different piece, Mandala: Zone of Zero (2003), the sound of Tibetan, Gregorian, and Islamic chant animates a scintillating object, a large target-shaped series of concentric circles composed of mirrors, fabric, and colored plastic. Circular mandalas are familiar to North Americans because of the “wheel of time” rituals conducted by lamas who created elaborate sand forms, often in museums [4]. Kimsooja’s Mandala resembles the Tibetan Wheel of Existence, a teaching tool used by itinerant Buddhist teachers who unfurled their charts to explicate the doctrines of Buddhism. The chrome ornaments that mark the four directions on the mandala even recall the jaws of the Lord of Death who holds the wheel in Tibetan tangkas. And like the wheel of dharma set in motion by the Buddha, and the samsaric cycle of rebirth and the circular arrangement of teachings illustrating the Wheel of Existence, Kimsooja’s wheel turns, too.

But the use of Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim chant in Mandala suggests that the artist has something broader in mind than the traditional Tibetan mandala. The object itself resembles a monumental roulette wheel more than a religious device—the star motifs recall the four-armed spindles at the center of roulette tables. Its glittering mirrors, sumptuous fabrics, gleaming chrome, and loud colors celebrate the ephemeral character of sensation, the flutter of fond feelings one associates with a jukebox full of favorite songs. All of this is very different from Buddhism’s diagnosis of the flitting mind’s need for the discipline of meditation to tame and control it. Yet although the art deco chrome ornamentation of the jukebox in Mandala reminds one of soda fountains and dance halls more than anything in a mediation hall, it does resemble popular Buddhist shrines and temples. One thinks of shiny golden statuettes of bodhisattvas, or of the long lines of brightly colored lanterns that appear each year at temples to celebrate Buddha’s birthday. Mandala spins and flashes like an incandescent turntable as the sound of chanting fills the room. Perhaps the mission of art, if it has one, is to reconnect introspection to the body and the senses. Whether you are in a disco or a Zen hall, you are in your body, and that is the means by which religion, mediation or art take place.

Both Havana and Mandala invoke Buddhist tradition in different ways. Mandala uses a familiar motif in Tibetan tangkas; Havana recalls the three features of all phenomena: impermanence, dissatisfaction, and no-self. Yet neither piece can be said to emulate Buddhism by offering itself as a tool for Buddhist practice. Both are about the power and place of art in modern life. Where Havana blurs, and finally erases a sense of place, Mandala seems to transpose the viewer from the body of the Buddha enthroned in the mental architecture of an imagined shrine to the splendor of the human body awash in sensation. The point is not therapy or religion or meditation technique, but a refinement of perception, the aesthetic cultivation of imaginative, felt life. Kimsooja’s work is not art in the place of religion, but art as sensory reflection on the places where life happens in the way it does.


Author Bio

David Morgan is an art historian and Professor of Religion at Duke University. He has written on contemporary art, including such artists as Bill Viola, Magdalena Abakanowicz, and Ed Paschke. He is also author of several books on the history and theory of religious visual culture: Visual Piety (1997), Protestants & Pictures (1999), The Sacred Gaze (2005), The Lure of Images (2007), and The Embodied Eye (2012).

[1] Gerald Matt, "Interview" in Kimsooja. To Breathe/Respirare (Milan: Charta, 2005), 87.

[2] Brian Black, "Senses of Self and Not-Self in the Upanishads and Nikayas," in Irina Kuznetsova, Jonardon Ganeri, and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, eds., Hindu and Buddhist Ideas in Dialogue: Self and No-Self (Abingdon, England: Ashgate, 2012), 18.

[3] Matt, "Interview", 91.

[4] Pratapaditya Pal, Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure (Art Institute of Chicago in association with the University of California Press and Mapin Publishing, 2003), 256.