Bottari, 1998, installation view from Kunsthalle Kassel.

Kim Sooja

Olivia Sand, 2002

Compared to the sixties and the seventies when performance as a visual arts medium was in its initial stages as a popular medium to explore, today, very few contemporary artists rely on performance as their primary medium of artistic expression. Kim Sooja (b. 1957 in Korea) is one of the leading contemporary artists in the field, combining her performances with video and photography. In her latest project A Needle Woman and as a performance artist, Kim Sooja could almost be described as an 'non-performance artist': silently standing still in the street with her back towards the camera, the audience appearing to be the actual performer.

Over the past years, the work of Kim Sooja has gone through important transitions. However, the idea of sewing remains central to all of her pieces, in a more figurative way at first in her early work, and recently, in a more abstract way. What started as a remnant, as a static patchwork of several individual lives (the sewing together of traditional Korean used clothes gathered by the artist or brought together as bundles on a truck, as in Cities on the Move - Bottari Truck), turned into the tailoring of a garment larger than life, that on a global level would include the existence of millions of people from different continents.

Kim Sooja, now based in New York, gained critical acclaim with her Bottari Truck, which was shown in the Sao Paulo Biennale in 1998 and the Venice Biennale in 1999 based on her performance of driving a truck loaded with bottari bundles through Korea. Kim Sooja's performances are very subtle and never does she impose any conclusions on the viewer. On the contrary, it is the flow of her deliberate 'inaction,' her silence that over time creates an almost meditative state of mind or religious experience for the viewer. With minimal action, Kim Sooja's performances include aesthetics, poetry and contemplation, qualities that often appear to be missing in contemporary art today.

In the following interview, Kim Sooja discusses her recent projects, performance art, as well as the contemporary art scene in Korea.

OS:  You are one the very few non-US artists that has been selected for the Whitney Biennial opening in New York (Whitney Museum of American Art). What type of work will you be showing?

KS:  We were talking about a project in Central Park, but it is not confirmed yet. The first proposal I made was actually rejected because that specific space in Central Park was already being used (a space similar to a stage close to the fountain). I was going to install theatre curtains in relationship to the piece. I was planning on entitling it Invisible Woman, where I would disappear for the whole month. That was my plan, but it is not going to be realized. However, we are still trying to find another location and I might install table-cloths in one of the cafeterias of the zoo. The museum is very excited about the project. I was also given a space within the museum to do an installation. We nevertheless have to confirm whether I can use both spaces.

OS:  How did you select the various sites for your performances of A Needle Woman, your latest work?

KS:  I tended to select cities that had a very large population, where I would meet many people on the street. I did not really plan to go to mega cities, located in different continents, but this is what actually happened. After my first performance in Tokyo, people told me I should go to Shanghai where I would meet a lot of people. In order to complete my project, I ended up going there. Following that, I, of course, also thought of India as a place for a performance. I chose Delhi, then Mexico City, another city with a large population, then Cairo and Lagos. All these cities in different continents are very unique. In a way, A Needle Woman addresses globalism, but also localism. At the same time, it is interesting to witness how people from various cultures react differently towards my work. For me, this project created fascinating interactions.

OS:  More specifically, how was the reaction to the performance in these various places?

KS:  Of course, the reaction was very different from one place to another. In Tokyo, when I was standing in the street, nobody dared to look at me. It was as if I was an invisible person. In the beginning, my body was very tense, but at the end, since nobody was looking at me anyway, my body became lighter and lighter, and I was in a state of meditation. As people were just ignoring me and passing by, my body became like a ghost. In Shanghai, the people showed more interest. They looked at me with curiosity, but without really approaching me. They just went on their way. In Delhi, it was more intense because people on the street were so curious. They stopped in front of me trying to understand what I did, and who I was. Needless to say, I caused a lot of traffic problems! Many people inquired with my cameraperson whether I was a sculpture or a Buddha. I think that in a way, they were just so innocent and didn't have many experiences of that kind with foreigners. It was a very intense encounter. Mexico City was more like a mixture between Shanghai and Tokyo. The people didn't overtly show their interest, but they still found me 'strange'. They would look back, and sometimes laugh and talk about me, but without ever touching my body.

Cairo was a very different experience because people were very curious, and tried to provoke me. For example, a man just ran into my performance and sprayed some perfume at me in order to wake me up, and see how I would react. Also, a woman started walking around me. She suddenly approached me and grabbed my hair. The audience just played with me like a doll, and of course, I couldn't move. It was interesting the way they reacted. They were very eager to communicate with me, coming into the camera frame, talking to the camera people. There was always some interaction going on. The next stop was in Lagos. It was the most static performance as far as the relationship with the audience goes. People on the marketplace stood in front of me as if they were taking a group photo that included me. They were trying to provoke me by waving their hands in front of me to see if I would react or not. They wanted to find out whether I was a ghost. Children were always standing there, laughing. Sometimes they were curious, sometimes they became very serious about what I was doing. At the end of the performance, they all took a photograph. With them, it was similar to a humanistic relationship. London was also very similar to New York. People were just following their way, coming and going, walking fast, talking on their cell phones. Also, a lot of people were having their lunch on the street while was performing, and they tried to find some information about my presence. Sometimes, they were even trying to imitate what I was doing.

OS:  Do you welcome the interaction with the audience?

KS:  Most performers are doing and showing something which involves moving their body, with people watching in a static position. Instead, I wanted to show different reactions from people towards my performance by standing still, and not moving my body.

OS:  Throughout your latest projects, how did you become 'a needle woman'?

KS:  Initially, I was sewing together used clothing from my grandmother, mother and family. Then, I started collecting anonymous clothing, used clothing. They kept people's smells and the shape of their body. The sewing process enabled me to become a needle itself. In the beginning, I was sewing with my hands with the needle, but then, I started my 'wrapping series.' This also deals with sewing because I see sewing as a wrapping process of the fabric with the thread. Then, I developed the wrapping series of the bundles. I feel that the bundle is another type of sewing. It is almost three-dimensional sewing that wraps together. In 1994, I started connecting my body as a symbol of a needle with a piece called Sewing into Walking where I was performing in nature. On the ground, I put bed covers, and I would then walk around to collect these fabrics one by one. So this walking process, the collecting and gathering of all these things is about the meaning of the needle which my body is serving. From that point, I started to focus more on the invisible character of the needle like in Sewing into Looking: I see people's way of looking, communicating, eating, loving. In a way, everything that implies a connecting process is sewing. When I did Laundry woman, Looking into Sewing, Laundry Field, it was related to my sewing, looking, and walking process all together as one function of the needle. My body became the needle itself. Of course, it is symbolic but I find I don't really need to do needle-work by hand anymore. I am now more interested in the invisible daily activities of people. Putting myself in the middle of people is like a weaving process. Over the years, my work has become more abstract, different from the work I was previously showing. I am discovering a new horizon.

OS:  Most of the time you have used cloth both in a positive and in a negative way. Are you planning on further exploring the negative side of cloth?

KS:  I did that kind of performance / video / photo work in 1998. I covered myself with cloth, I was completely hidden. I am actually thinking of doing more performances in a hidden situation. Overall, the cloth and clothing that we wear living together for our whole life deals with my basic question on life, and also with my question on surface which is canvas, since I started out as a painter. For example, the Korean bed cover is a symbol of our body and stands as the frame of our life. It is the site where we are born, where we love, dream, sleep, suffer and die. So it is a symbolic field of human life. Wrapping and unwrapping inside is more about questioning our own way and our own destiny. Putting clothes in it was also very much related to my earlier sewn pieces, but also it is completely related to my recent needle woman performances.

OS:  So your early training was as a painter?

KS:  I studied painting so my questions came through the painting issues in contemporary painting. Of course, I was examining oil painting, objects, doing all these different experimental paintings and exploring various processes. Still, I was always wondering how I could really get into the object I was dealing with, and become one with this object? That was my main question. However, I could never feel the oneness when I was dealing with canvas, paper, or any other medium. I was always trying to find the level where I can completely overlap myself. I had a great desire to melt with this object. The sewing process is all about desire, which can also be love in a way. I discovered the tactility in the sewing process in 1998 when I was making bed covers: putting the needlepoint to the fabric, I almost felt an electric shock, which intrigued me. I felt that I had found what I was looking for, this was the way I could explore the question of surface, the question of life itself. Sewing was a very important starting point which then led me to use my body as a needle.

OS:  During your studies, you traveled extensively.  Which trip was the most influential?

KS:  I received a grant from the French government to study in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. It was also an important opportunity for me to discover Europe, and I traveled to Italy, Germany and Denmark. These trips just confirmed what I had learnt from books, but they were not that influential to my work. The one most important trip to me was the one to Japan. I went there in 1979. Until then, in Korea, one was not allowed to travel abroad, and consequently we didn't have much information about our neighbours. Before going to Japan, I thought all Asian countries were the same culture. When I went to Japan, I found it was very different from my country, Korea. In Japan, the structure, the culture and architecture are all very humble and 'simple'. Although I was fascinated by what I saw in Japan, I also felt that there were some limitations in terms of aesthetic quality. Their art is very sophisticated, and I find it very interesting. However, I also found my own reality from that trip, and I started to appreciate our culture in Korea with its colourful, and almost 'shamanistic' elements. I became very interested in further discovering the Korean aspects dealing with structure and aesthetic. That is one reason why I was very keen to use typical Korean fabrics as material in my work.

OS:  The Bottari Truck project is one of your most famous pieces. How did it come about? Which cities did you cover?

KS:  It was started in 1997 in Korea. I made a trip in Korea to visit old cities and villages I used to live in, and in which I had memories. It took 11 days to make the whole trip. Out of this trip, I made one video called Cities on the Move, 2727 km which was showing my back passing through the mountains. It explores the question of time and space, and their coexistence. Initially, while I was sewing, my mind would always travel somewhere else. I would always dream of traveling. The Bottari Truck performance was my actual traveling, with my mind going back towards the past, looking back on my life in Korea.

OS:  Recently more and more curators and dealers travel to Korea to find "new talent".

KS:  Over the past decades, there were two important changing points: the Olympics in 1988 and the first Kwangju Biennale in the mid 1990's. Following the Olympics, more people from abroad started coming to Korea, and after the Biennale, more and more people could come to visit artists studios and exhibitions. Today, there are numerous contemporary art exhibitions taking place, and the artists get to show their work abroad. There has been a major transition from the time when it used to be very closed to today where it is completely open.

Olivia Sand is a correspondent for the Asian Art Newspaper based in New York, and Strasbourg, France. She contributes to The Asian Art Newspaper on a monthly basis, covering the Asian contemporary art scene. The newspaper, published out of London, serves as a thorough information source on the world of Asian art.

— From Asian Art Newspaper, London, 2002.