A Mirror Woman, 2002. Korean bedcovers, mirror structure walls, 4 fans, cables, clothespins, Tibetan monk chant. Installation view at Peter Blum Gallery, New York, 2002. Photo by Bill Orcutt.

Kimsooja: A Mirror Woman

José Roca

From February 23 to May 18, 2002, the Peter Blum Gallery of New York presents the exhibition A Mirror Woman by the Korean artist Kimsooja. At the same time, her work can be seen as part of the Whitney Biennial (which this year has overflowed the physical limits of the Marcel Breuer building, taking over part of the public space of Central Park). The work of Kimsooja in the Biennial is titled Deductive Object, and is in the Leaping Frog Cafe in the Central Park Zoo.

The notion of nomadism has been privileged in the discussion and practice of the visual arts in the last decade, coinciding with the phenomenon of globalization and the effects that this has had on the circulation of goods and ideas — as much in economic as cultural terms — and the "mutual contamination" that this traffic implies. Kimsooja, a Korean artist living in New York, is one of those artists who exemplify in a complex way the paradoxes of globalization. While she works with deeply local materials and references, her work has been inserted comfortably into the international scene, holding a position of resistance against being digested into an aseptic internationalism but taking care, in these days of multiculturalism, to hyperbolize the characteristics of its difference to become more "exotic" in a medium eager for otherness.

Kimsooja is not a new face in New York. A year ago, P.S.1. (the "alternative" space par excellence of the 90s, nowadays associated to MoMA) presented an individual exhibition of her work, which had been shown already in that same space shortly before, within the framework of the very publicized Cities on the Move. Perhaps the work that has given her the greatest international visibility is her series of videos titled A Needle Woman, initiated in 1999. The artist traveled to eight cities in several continents, among them some of the most populated cities of the world: Cairo, New Delhi, Lagos, London, Mexico City, New York, Shangai and Tokyo. Generally, they are presented / displayed as large-format projections, in whose image is seen the artist from the back in a crowded city street.

The passers-by look in the direction of the camera — which they encounter from a considerable distance — and this depth of field has the effect of "leveling" the image on which figure and background are based and is difficult to calculate the proximity between the artist and the locals that encounter her. The artist is immovable in a meditative attitude, totally passive to the reaction of the people. This passivity generates a tension: at any moment we are hoping that she is interrupted, bothered, or even attacked. One of the immediate readings provoked by this work is one of the uncomfortable relation of the individual with society, a personal act of meditation facing the collective interaction in a public space. The artist opposes the slowness of individual, metaphysical time, at the speed of the collective time, whose rate is marked by conventions. A Needle Woman is, in the words of Paulo Herkenhoff, "the cartography of a 'displaced being.'" The needle, the artist reminds us, is an ambiguous image, as much masculine as feminine: "it can inflict a wound and at the same time be used to heal it." When facing the human river in the streets of these great cities, Kimsooja is penetrating the social weave and is simultaneously being permeated by its particularities. This tension is clearly perceivable in the videos, in which there is always a latent sensation of violence — implicit in the confrontation between individual and society, foreigner and locals, the woman and a phallocentric society; the confrontation is literalized by the formal disposition of the performance.

The status of a foreigner in another country and the condition of the urban immigrant is also invoked here. The tension between the urban landscape, full of color and vitality, and the immovable image of the artist, always dressed in the same grey tunic (which recalls the clothes of indigents and the poor, unavoidable presences in all contemporary metropolises) adds a political reading to this confrontation between individual and society. It is worth noting that the use of an indefinite article to title the work, "A" Needle Woman instead of "The" Needle Woman, testifies to the will of Kimsooja to allude more to the human condition than to a particular history, presenting / displaying "the lost soul to us of globalized modernity," as the critic Ken Jonson wrote in the New York Times.

The work of Kimsooja is in the tradition of the performance, though the body remains immovable here. But it is also in the tradition of the landscape and, why not, of the urban documentary. These videos are pictures of the local life in each one of the selected contexts: the chaotic architecture in which tradition and modernity mix in cities like Delhi and Shangai; the human rivers in New York or Tokyo. Each video incorporates abundant sociological information on the "local color": clothes, means of transport, forms to be related in the public space. In New York and London people ignore each other (and the artist) but simultaneously speak on cellular phones, establishing an alternative relational plot in which the notion of the street as the space of social interaction par excellence is challenged by the technological and social reality of the great contemporary large cities.

The images of the eight cities vary significantly, in their color, texture and, as was already said, in the attitude of the passers-by with respect to the artist, confirming that in the base of national stereotypes much truth exists: in London and New York, cultures in where individuality is an appraised good, people pass to the side without becoming jumbled, minding their own business, doing something that is not there. In the cities of Asia a similar attitude is perceived, although the furtive glances attest more to a timid nature than of an affirmation of individuality. And readings could be made still more particular: as the critic Gregory Volk writes, in Tokyo the artist could just as well not be there, because the people ignore her completely, "before which it is inevitable to think about how the Korean minority in Japan has long suffered from cultural invisibility and discrimination." In Sao Paolo or Mexico City, people were more direct in satisfying the curiosity generated by this unusual urban presence (an Asian woman completely immovable in a sidewalk is without a doubt an unexpected appearance), whereas in Lagos, the performance caused a true collapse in the circulation of this large African city, when a group of boys crowded itself around the artist to watch her, to ask her questions and to try to obtain some type of reaction. And so on in each case.

From 1994 the artist has used multicolored fabrics presented/displayed in several ways: spread on the ground, folded in piles, hung on lines as if they were being dried in the sun or in bunches (called Bottaris), which have become one of her more characteristic visual resources. In their different uses, these colorful fabrics have a great evocative capacity; they recall the clothes hung in the patios, or put out to dry on the banks of rivers in the rural areas of many countries — no only in the Third World. The bunches have more complex readings; it is inevitable to think of displaced urbanites with their properties in the hills, or of associations even more macabre, because many of them are the size to wrap a human body. The fabric in this case is a delicate limit between interior and outside, spirit and materiality, the individual and the world that surrounds it. The Bottaris are made from fabrics traditionally used in Korea to surround domestic objects like clothes or books. These bulks symbolize the historical displacement of the Korean population, but they touch upon a global preoccupation, the phenomenon of internal migrants and the immigrants, displaced from their places of origin for diverse reasons — religious, political, economic — one of the subjects of greatest importance in the postindustrial societies. The Bottaris are the house in the absence of the house, indices of a left or lost place, that guarantee a connection with history.

A Mirror Woman, the installation in the Peter Blum Gallery, consists of a kind of multicolor labyrinth formed by the fabrics that hang from cables like the ones used to dry clothes, that cross - extended across the rectangular space of the gallery. In the two sidewalls the artist has placed mirrors that cover the entire surface of the walls, with which one has the sensation to be immersed in an infinite space. For Kim, the mirror is "another way to surround the world". These textiles are associated with the condition of the woman in Korean society, and to domestic rites like sewing and embroidering bedcovers as marriage gifts. Kimsooja has described how she arrived at this material: "I was sewing bedcovers for my mother and after a while I had a strange sensation in which my thoughts, my feelings and my actions seemed to get to be on [with the fabric and the act of sewing it]." These fabrics are all the same form and size (a regular square), but vary significantly in their color, texture and composition, because they are made in many cases from pieces of used dresses or other blankets. Most of them belonged to somebody, and this "biographical load" is perceivable in the installation, in where they are a stirring presence.

The intervention in the Leap Frog Cafe in Central Park is very subtle, because as it is not an artistic space, the fabrics tend to merge with the colorful atmosphere of the park. When using the bedcovers like tablecloths in the restaurant, Kimsooja incorporates in this scope of socialization the presence of experiences lived in other times and other contexts; apparently this displacement is a transgressive act, because in Korea it is taboo to eat upon the bed. Probably a casual person at the table does not perceive the presence of "the work", but this is the risk associated with all intervention that is not codified by its inclusion in a museological space. What is certain is that for many others the social act around the table (eating, talking, drinking coffee) will be mediated by their presence, and by the consciousness that these fabrics have been dumb witnesses of many other lives. Like the mirrors.