To Breathe / Respirare. Palacio de Cristal. Parque del Retiro, Madrid.

An interview with Kimsooja

Oliva María Rubio, 2006

Kimsooja (Taegu, Korea in 1957) is one of the most acclaimed Korean artists in the international artistic panorama. Currently, she lives and works in New York. Her works have been exhibited at biennials such as Venice, Whitney (New York), Lyon, Kwangju (Korea), as well as in the most relevant museums around the world. In our country, she has participated in important exhibitions such as Mujeres que hablan de mujeres included in the program of Fotonoviembre (Tenerife, 2001), PhotoEspaƱa, Valencia Biennial in 2002, MUSAC (2005), among others. She makes installations, photographs, performances, videos and site specific projects, the most recent of which was presented in Madrid's Palacio de Cristal: To Breathe: A Mirror Woman. Not long before, she had presented another site-specific project at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. Since 1993, one of the most distinguishable elements in her work are the bottari, a kind of bundle made of traditional Korean lively colored bedcovers, which is often used for packing old clothes. Nomadism is a key subject for her, but she also tackles issues such as the relation with the other and the feminine roles, revealing not only the importance of the human being in the chaotic world we are living in but also her loneliness and fugacity.

Studying your work over time, we can say that it is a very singular work. Nevertheless, you are always dealing with present issues, such as nomadism or the relationship with the others. What are the sources of your work?

I guess the reason why my work has been engaged to present issues, regardless of a continuous singular context, is because I've been questioning old and fundamental issues on art and life. All human activities and problems come from the same root, which are old questions that have no answer, and endlessly repeat in history in one form or another. When we are planted in our own root, one can grow naturally from one's own source without trying to search another resources branches of temporary issues come out of this root in the end.

Has this singularity anything to do with an education such as yours, where Asian ways of thinking are mixed with the Western philosophy Christianity, Zen Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism and Taoism?

In general, the complicated religious background in Korean society might confuse one's identity rather than keeping it in singular mind. It seems to be more connected with one's personality and individual history rather than social tendency. I can say that I wanted to be firmly rooted in my own culture and my own perspectives. I noticed many Korean artists in my generation were imitating and easily adopting Western practices and philosophies without question, just by reading magazines and books. At that time, in the late 80's, I decided to stop reading for almost a decade. This allowed me to question, by myself, issues on art, and to pull out ideas from my own self, rather than exterior resources. Another reason I stopped reading books was that there were so many things to read in the world besides books and magazines life and nature. My mind was always active reading all of the visible and invisible world.

The bottari and the Korean traditional bedspreads with lively colours are characteristic elements of your work and have a strong presence in your installations. What do these elements represent for you?

There are two different dimensions in my use of traditional Korean bedcovers: one is the formalistic aspect as a tableau and as a potential sculpture. The other is as a dimension of body and it's destiny that embraces my personal questions as well as social, cultural and political issues. The bright colourful bedcovers that celebrate newly married couples for happiness, love, fortune, many sons and long life are contradictory symbols for life in Korean society, for a country that is going through such a transitional period: from a traditional way of life to a modern one.

Despite the fact that you say you are not political matters, you have created several installations or pictures that are clearly related to political or social events, such as "Bottari Truck in Exile" (1999), presented in the 48th Biennial exhibition of Venice, or "Epitaph" (2002), a photograph taken after the September 11th attack against the World Trade Center in New York. What are the reasons for you tackle these subjects?

My practices were started solely on my personal issues and structural questions on tableau, which can be seen in the beginning of my earlier 'sewing' work and my 'wrapping' series of Bottari. However, my artwork has gradually embraced basic human problems, which have recently become a bigger part of my questions and concerns. My own vulnerability and agony on life had a presence in my earlier work, which was an important part of the healing process for me to survive. It then transformed naturally into 'compassion' for others, and turned to the healing process for others. All of my works that relate to political issues and problems originate from 'compassion for the human being', people who suffer by violence, poverty, war and injustice, which often stem from individual problems and conflicts. I would say one can categorize some of my work as a political reaction, but it is more from concern on humanity, rather than as a direct political statement as an activist.

Between 1999 and 2001 you created one of your most relevant video installations, "A Needle Woman". A product of performances where you are the protagonist, always in the middle of a crowd in Tokyo, Shanghai, New Deli, New York, Mexico, Cairo, Lagos and London. For the 51st Biennial exhibition of Venice (2005) you did a new version traveling to another six cities: Patan (Nepal), Havana, Rio de Janeiro, N'Djamena (Chad), Sana'a (Yemen) and Jerusalem. Taking into account that many of these countries undergo serious problems, have you ever felt that something could happen to you? Which has been the strongest experience you have lived through while you were doing these performances?

In terms of the performance itself, the A Needle Woman performance I did in Tokyo (1999) was the strongest experience I had. It was the first performance of the series. I was walking around the city with a camera crew to find the right moment and place where I could find the energy of my own body in it. When I arrived in the Shibuya area there were hundreds of thousand of people sweeping towards me, and I was totally overwhelmed and charged by the strong energy of the crowd. I couldn't help but to stop in the middle of the street amongst the heavy traffic of pedestrians. Being overwhelmed by the energy of the crowd, I focused on my body and stood still, and felt a strong connection to my own center. At the same time, I was aware of a distinguishable separation between the crowd and my body. It was a moment of 'Zen' when a thunderbolt hit my head, as I continued to stand still there, and I decided to film the performance with my back facing the camera. During the performance there were moments I was conscious of my presence, but with the passage of time, I was able to liberate myself from the tension between the crowd and my body. Furthermore, I felt such a peaceful, fulfilling, and enlightened moment, growing with white light, brightening over the waves of people walking towards me.

The first series of "A Needle Woman" was focused on encountering people in eight Metropolises around the world. The second version, made in 2005 with the same title, was focused on cities in trouble, from poverty, political injustice, colonialism, religious and political conflict in between countries and within a country, civil war, and violence.

I chose the most difficult cities in the world, although I couldn't make it to a few of the cities I wished to visit, such as 'Darfur' in Sudan, and 'Kabul' in Afghanistan. It was one of the most difficult trips I've ever experienced in my life. The difficulties with this series of performances were more about the conditions of traveling, rather than during performance time.

When I first visited Nepal, the country was in a state of emergency, and there was no phone service in between the cities and even countries, with no internet connection during most of my stay. Foreign ambassadors were being called back to their own countries, gunshots were heard from different parts of the country while traveling, and armed soldiers were occupying every corner of the streets in Kathmandu. Even in my video, there's a scene with armed soldiers passing by. To be able to travel to Havana in Cuba, I had to travel through Jamaica, as there was no direct airline service, and no collaboration whatsoever between the US and Cuba. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I went to a huge favela area called Rocinha, where I heard a series of gun shots from one mountain side to another, as if they were shooting directly from the back of me. I was standing on the roof of the central part of the area surrounded by mountains of poverty although local people considered it to be signals between the drug dealers. I also saw a number of young men carrying guns in the middle of narrow alleys to control the people in that neighbourhood. I also witnessed more poverty in N'Djamena in Chad, which is known as one of the poorest countries in the world. I witnessed conflicts between Yemen and Israel. I could only travel from Sana'a in Yemen to Jerusalem via Jordan, as there's no direct airline service in between these two countries, and the Yemeni people wouldn't allow me to enter their country if I was traveling from Israel.

When you are in these types of situations, there is no room for fear.

People believe we live in an era of globalism, which allows us to travel freely and that we are connected to anywhere in the world, but in fact, it is not true, and the world is still full of discrimination, hatred, and conflict.

When I finished these pieces, in slow motion, they turned out to be quite similar from one city to another, regardless of the problems within. We have a very shallow perception of ourselves in terms of our notion of time, and how we perceive an extreme situation in our own time frame, but in fact, all of these cities could be seen as a similar situation in a larger perception of time.

According to works such as "A Needle Woman" or even according to the symbolism of using the bottari, travel and changing places is very present in your career, both personal and professional. Could we say that the contemporary man is a nomadic being that is forced to go from one place to another without a rest?

Although the nomadic lifestyle is a characteristic phenomena of this era, it could also be one's choice. We can still live without moving around much and be rooted in one's own place. Human curiosity and the desire for communication expands its physical dimension and happen to control human relationships and the desire of possessions, and pursuing the establishment of a global community, which includes the virtual world. But a true nomadic life wouldn't need many possessions, or control, and it doesn't need to conquer any territory; it's rather an opposite way of living from a contemporary lifestyle, with the least amount of possessions, no fear of disconnection, and being free from the desire of establishment. It is a lifestyle that is a witness of nature and life, as a kind of a process of a pilgrim. Nomadism in contemporary society seems to be motivated from the restless desire of human beings and it's follies, rather than pursuing true meaning from nomadic life.

During these past years you are going for site-specific projects. You have just finished one at La Fenice Theatre in Venice, and now this one in Madrid. What is the most attractive thing about this kind of projects?

I wouldn't say site specific installation projects are more intriguing for me than other projects such as video, performance, and photos, as these were also site specific projects from my point of view. The difference is, for this type of site-specific installation, there's a solid question already existing, which I am interested in pondering. But the answer may raise another question to the audience. Other projects, such as video, performance or photos, are those I am questioning from myself, my own problems either in art practice or life, and the questioning goes both ways, to myself and to the audiences. I am interested in problems, questioning, and responding to the conditions of the site.

Once having seen the results of your project for the Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace) in the Retiro Park in Madrid, "To Breathe: A Mirror Woman", a work that consists of an intervention in the palace [a diffraction grating film that covers all the crystal part of the building and a mirror on the ground that works as the unifier and multiplier of the space and an audio with your own breathing from the performance "The Weaving Factory" (2004)], have your expectations been met? Is the result very different from your initial idea?

Not totally, but only in terms of some technical issues. I've never used the diffraction grating film in my work before, and I'd been experimenting with its effects on a small scale model. The effect coming from the Crystal Palace, with actual sunlight, and its degree and direction, created a much more spectacular environment than from the model. I could envision the effect of the mirror floor and the effect of the sound within the Palacio de Cristal, as I had already experimented with both mirror and sound in other installations.

Considering that this new project for Crystal Palace is both a logical continuation and a new step in the development of your artistic career, what does it mean for you?

From this project, I discovered 'Breathing', not only as a means of 'sewing' the moment of 'Life' and 'Death', but 'Mirroring' as a 'Breathing self' that bounces and questions in and out of our reality. Evolving the concept from my earlier 'sewing practice' into another perspective, 'Breathing' and 'Mirroring' as a continuous dialogue to my work was the most interesting achievement of a new possibility in experimenting with waves of light, sound, and mirror as a result of the space of emptiness.

What is the relationship between this installation and other previous needle and sewing works?

To Breathe: A Mirror Woman is related to my earlier practices such as 'sewing', 'wrapping', and the question of 'surface', as well as the notion of 'reflection', that was always a part of my work in the metaphysical sense. Interestingly, a mirror can be another tool of 'sewing' as an 'unfolded needle' to me, as a medium that connects the self and the other self. If 'mirroring' can be a form of 'sewing the self', which means questioning the self, and connecting the self, 'breathing' is, in its dimension of action, a similar activity of 'sewing' that questions our moment of 'Life' and 'Death'. In mirroring, our gaze serves as a sewing thread that bounces back and forth, going deeply into oneself and to the other self, re connecting ourselves to its reality and fantasy. A mirror is a fabric that is sewn by our gaze, breathing in and out.

What is the relationship between "A Needle Woman" and "A Mirror Woman"?

Again this goes back to the idea of surface, a continual question. A needle / body, which questions and defines the depth of fabric / surface, and a mirror that embodies the depth of body and mind, defining our existence, through a needle. I am standing as a needle to show A Needle Woman video as a mirror of the world, to question my own identity amongst others. At the same time, I am standing as a mirror that reflects the world, gazing myself from the reflected reaction the audience bounces back to me. A needle is a hermaphroditic tool that can be a subject and an object, and this theory can be applied similarly to a mirror. In that sense, I can consider a 'needle' as a 'mirror', by definition and a psychological healing tool, and a 'mirror' as a multiple and unfolded needle woven with the gaze, as a field of questions.

This intervention in the Palacio de Cristal is visually very beautiful but one may even feel some kind of anguish or have the feeling that he or she is in prison. How would you explain this effect?

People may feel as if they are in my body, as the Palacio de Cristal seems to breathe, or in a cathedral bathed with stained glass, or in a space of fantasy, while walking on a mirror floor that feels like a liquid surface. Hearing my breathing and humming within the space might cause the audience to hold its breath, and they may become conscious of their own body and breathing. Maybe this feeling of being imprisoned comes from the prison of ones' own body?

Inside and outside, life and death, disruption and joy, anguish and delight, uncertainty and acknowledgement, these are aspects of feelings we feel when we are inside the Palace. Why are you interested in this idea of opposites, and duality?

From the beginning of my career, back in the late 70's when I was at college, I was already intrigued by the dualities existing in the structure of the world, that are the combination of 'Yin' and 'Yang' elements. I've been looking at all existing things and the structure of the world from this perspective. An example from my earliest sewn piece Portrait of Yourself, 1983, and also The Heaven and The Earth, 1994, have vertical and horizontal elements, or a cross shape. I've been establishing my structure of perception and creation through this perspective. There was a series of assemblage based on random shapes in my work from 1990, such as Toward the Mother Earth, 1990-91, and Mind and the World, 1991, where 'duality' as 'yin' and 'yang functioned as a hidden structure. On another level of the surface, there comes another layer of yin and yang relationships, and this phenomenon goes on and on in each dimension of structure.

But this doesn't mean that I was doing art mathematically or logically most of my works were created by the most irrational decisions and a sudden intuition rather than building up theories or logic itself, and I have always believed in the logic of sensibility within the process of creation. Duality can be one way to start understanding existences of the world, although there are so many different factors that surround and define the structure of the world. When the creation process starts, this duality theory doesn't work anymore, and it goes beyond the logic, and leads it's own life and process.

Your works aspire to capture the whole of the human experience: the body and the soul, the mind and the body are appealed to in the same extent in your creations. Why is it so important for you to make art a nothingness that experience of the body and the senses, as well as of the mind and the imagination?

Ever since I was aware of the totality of the world, I had to work on it, and it naturally involved different aspects of ways of existences, structure of metaphysics, and that of frustration and fantasy. That's what I know, what we live, and what I can express.

Throughout your career, we can see that your new pieces refer to other previous works. Each of your new installations has a trace, an element, something that relates it with previous works. Do you conceive the whole of your artistic career as a kind of 'work in progress'?

For me, there is no concept of a completion. I am just moving towards a future where I find a better answer than the previous answer. This is totally against commercialism, as the art market requires a finished object to be sold and to collect. My work is still evolving and unfinished, and is just a process.

And in this sense, where are you heading to? What is your ambition as an artist?

If I have an ambition as an artist, it is to consume myself to the limit where I will be extinguished. From that moment, I won't need to be an artist anymore, but to be just a self-sufficient human being, or a nothingness that is free from desire.

Oliva María Rubio is an art historian, curator, and writer, who has been director of exhibitions at La Fábrica, since 2004. She was the Artistic Director of PHotoEspaña (PHE), an International Festival of Photography and Visual Arts celebrated in Madrid (2001-2003), where she programmed around 60 exhibitions. She is a member of numerous juries on art and photography, and a member of the Committee of Visual Arts “Culture 2000 programme”, European Commission, Culture, Audiovisual Policy and Sport, Brussels (2003), the Purchasing Committee at Fonds National d’Art Contemporain (FNAC), Paris 2004-2006, and artistic advisor of the Prix de Photography at Fondation HSBC pour la Photograhie, Paris, 2005.

Oliva María Rubio is also the author of La mirada interior. El surrealismo y la pintura (Madrid, Tecnos, 1994), and writes articles for catalogues, magazines and newspapers. She recently curated Kimsooja's exhibition at Crystal Palace, Madrid, in collaoboration with the Reina Sofia Museum, and the travelling show of Andres Serrano: Salt on the wound, 2006.

She was the curator of Kimsooja's To Breathe: A Mirror Woman at the Crystal Palace, organized by Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in 2006.

* This text was published in Art and Context, Summer 2006.