Earth - Water - Fire - Air, Earth of Water

Tierra de Agua / Earth of Water, 2009, 7:09 loop, still from Earth - Water - Fire - Air

About nothingness: being nothing and making nothing

Sung-Won Kim

"Whether we try to make it or not, the sound is heard" [1] 

The new work of Kimsooja, Earth-Water-Fire-Air (2009), which is based on the four elements of nature—earth, water, fire and air—and their organic combination, seems to consist only of typical natural landscapes of a volcanic area, when seen in just a visual context. These landscapes capture the "natural phenomenon" itself, without any deliberate intervention, artificial transformation or staging on the artist's part. The artist silently brings the spectators before nature, as she previously took them amidst the numerous people in various places of the world such as Tokyo, Shanghai, New Delhi, New York City, Mexico City, Cairo, London, Lagos (Needle Woman, 1999-2001), Patan, Havana, Jerusalem, Sana'a, Rio de Janeiro, and N'Djamena (Needle Woman, 2005). However, the rear view of the artist, who had guided spectators to witness the diverse lives taking place in every corner of the world, is no longer visible. "If the perspective in Needle Woman was me looking at myself from behind, my perspective in this work exists beyond the bodies of spectators and me, and is a perspective that sees more than simply the landscape. In other words, it is the gaze of the 'third eye'." [2]  The back view of the artist is replaced by the eye of the camera in Earth-Water-Fire-Air, and the perspective of the artist becomes the "third eye," which gazes through the eye of the camera. The "eye of the camera" is mobilized in the same context as "bottari"—the tied bundles in her well-known works—existed as a gigantic frame (bottari-frame) to encompass or spread out people's invisible lives. Her "eye of the camera" (bottari-frame), rotating 360 degrees, captures the sky, land, lightning, snow and fog of New York and Mexico City (2000-2001), while the stationary eye of the camera stares at the eclipse, the sunlight and moonlight reflecting off the dark blue surface of the sea (Mirror Woman: Sun and Moon, 2008). In Earth-Water-Fire-Air (2009), it captures directly the natural phenomena of volcanic areas in the Canary Islands and Guatemala. These works, in which the back view of the artist moves to the position of the camera, and the eye of the camera works at the same line as the "bottari-frame," conceptually transverse all Kimsooja's previous works, in search of a connection with the infinite energy hidden in humans' invisible lives and in nature. Now in Earth-Water-Fire-Air, Kim is turned into the "third eye," which exists everywhere but cannot be seen anywhere, withholding direct comment or interpretation on the "greater theme" of the relationship between nature and humans, or fundamental reflection on this, but opening up infinite possibilities to spectators to participate in the eloquent speech of nature.

To what kind of world does the "third eye" of Earth-Water-Fire-Air invite viewers? It is a world of principles of nature, origins of matter, essence of humans and life, and mutuality and coexistence of all such qualities. The four elements of nature—earth, water, fire and air—are the roots of western philosophy, but also related to the five elements (metal, water, wood, fire and earth) that form everything in the universe according to the eastern theory of yin, yang and wu xing, or the five elements of creation (earth, water, fire, wind and void) according to Buddhist philosophy. Such elements, which are the core of Eastern and Western thought, and the energy created by their mutual combination enable us to think about the recurrent structure of circulation known as the birth and death of all things, to realize the mysterious relationship between nature (matter) and humans, and to ponder on the life of humans. "As water has an element of fire and the earth has the elements of fire, water and air, each element is in a relationship of mutual circulation and connection. In the process of looking at them separately as four elements, I intended to reveal their 'inability to stand alone, and dependency'." [3]  In extension of such thought, through this work Kimsooja visualizes the dynamic relations of "water, fire, earth and air" and their infinite energy through "the natural phenomenon itself." Each of the seven landscapes taken of the dead volcano of Lanzarote in the Spanish Canary Islands, and of the live volcano of Pacaya in Guatemala, has an independent title. In these works, the relations between the titles and images suggest a different element hidden within a certain element based on a permutation or combination structure of sets of two elements, or visualize the organic relation between two elements and their energy. Blazing red lava (Air of Earth), the clear blue sky looking down upon the lava (Air of Water), dark blue waves of the sea (Earth of Water), a rainbow emerging from the waves breaking against the volcano (Air of Fire), three different landscapes taken while slowly driving along the same volcanic terrain in the day, evening and night (Fire of Air, Fire of Earth, Water of Earth)... But the combination of these elements does not allow direct reference to any particular ideology of East or West. The artist wants to contemplate not on the persuasiveness of such ideology, but rather on nature, the elements that form nature, and the origin and methods of existence of humans, through free combination and exchange among the elements.

One of the characteristics of Kimsooja's work, regardless of what it deals with—city, people, life, the world, or nature—can be found in the perspectives or ways of thinking about these, and the attitude of raising questions about them. This indicates that her work does not communicate the artist/subject's viewpoint of this world to others one-sidedly, and that the world seen by the artist/subject no longer aims at a consistent message. If so, how is the "subject," which encompasses the "landscapes" of the world as a compound collective of different elements, reflected in her works? This "artist-subject," who pays attention to the world's diverse cities, nature, people and their lives, is neither a romantic subject who reflects inner tension and conflict before colossal nature, nor a heroic subject of American abstract expressionism who pursues absolute sublimity transcending this world, nor a phenomenological subject who presents perceptional phenomena by connecting sensuous experience and visual sense, nor an archeological subject who excavates social-cultural vestiges. The work of Soo-ja Kim no longer pursues or reflects a "single subject" that has emerged in the history of art. Her work announces the coexistence of numerous subject-spectators within time-space, and the birth of those anonymous subjects' multilateral perspectives. The moment the spectator focuses on the "rear view" of Needle Woman or Woman Washing Clothes, he/she will wear "the clothes of the artist's body," stand exactly where the artist stands, and see beyond the world the artist sees. The relationship between subject and spectators of the work Bottari, in which discarded old clothes are wrapped in a blanket cover once used by someone of unknown origin and are carried all over the world in search of something, can also be read in the same context. In Kimsooja's work the spectator is no longer a passive subject who accepts a single perspective presented by the artist. In her work the spectator is an active subject who lives positively within the forms of life through the guidance of the artist. Thus, the spectator can leave together with the artist on a long journey to understand and embrace even more and different lives, and can share the world's diverse realities, different people, and their lives.

Most of Kimsooja's works are extremely static, continent, and extraordinarily simple, having no narrative or dramatic plot. They present amazing eloquence, however, through the speeches of the objects (bottari, needle, and mirror) in her works, which slowly dominate the spectator through persuasive powers reminiscent of the prosopopea of ancient orators. This "personification" is not simply confined to personified imagery, but is one of the rare oratories that start from the idea that personified objects can think, and that they can be made to talk. This method of personification, which generally has made objects speak about the wisdom of god to enlighten people about their arrogance, ignorance or limitations, now seems to reveal its effect through the experiences of the objects in Kimsooja's works, which start from compassion and love for humankind, and attempt to understand and embrace humans and their lives. As a child, while sewing blanket covers together with her mother, the artist reports feeling a mysterious energy flow through her body at the moment the point of the needle pierced the cloth; as she connected the different pieces of cloth together one by one, she smelled the delicate scent of life from the gigantic blanket cover. With the artist's declaration—"The needle is the medium, mystery, hermaphrodite, abstraction, barometer, and shaman. And so is my body" [4] —the quiet, eloquent speech begins. The artist's body becomes a needle connecting different cultures, diverse lives, people's love, compassion, agony, loneliness, etc., throughout the world as if she were taking stitches one by one, finally giving birth to the "wrapping cloth (bojagi) of life," in a variety of colors. All sorts of races, culture, and traces of their "differences" are marked on the bojagi, which attempts to meet with more stories in other time-spaces.

The needle becomes the "axis" of time-space, which allows "connections" among many other subjects, and serves as a medium that makes simultaneous communication with spectators possible. Along with the joy, anger, sorrow and pleasure of human life contained in the bottari (Bottari Truck series), the "needle," which enables encounters among all human beings in the world (Needle Woman, Woman Washing Clothes series), meets with the "mirror" (Mirror Woman series), which enables thought about me and others, the group and the individual, and the human and the world, once more bringing spectators into the paths of these objects in a natural manner. The mirrors spread across the entire floor of the Crystal Palace become a "spread-out needle," attempting to sew together the false image and the real image (To Breathe — A Mirror Woman, 2006), and the monochrome projection of primary colors and the recorded sounds of the artist's own inhalation and exhalation, performed at the Teatro la Fenice, Venice in the same year under the "same title," invite spectators to a mediation of life and death. Through To Breathe: Invisible Needle/Invisible Mirror (2006), performed at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, which seeks merging of material and spirit through the complete dematerialization of body/needle/mirror, and through Mirror Woman: Sun and Moon (2008), which captures the sun and moon during an eclipse, the natural phenomenon of sun and moon light reflecting off the surface of the dark blue sea, the artist ultimately aims to become one with the breath of humans and the cosmos, opening questions about the origin of all creation and the principles of nature. And abundant questions on this matter are continued in Earth-Water-Fire-Air. The artist's body penetrates the lives of the world through the "needle," connects the dualities of the inner and outer aspects of the human, as well as of existence and non-existence, by being a "mirror," and this needle and mirror breathe in and breathe out as they talk about life and death, going back and forth between the worlds of material and nonmaterial. The paths of the needle and the mirror then expand from the human to nature and the universe, beginning a journey to the world of the origin and essence of all creation.

From the early 90s until now, spectators have participated in Kimsooja's world of work together with the endlessly mobile body of the artist through "needle" and "bottari." Some read post-modern nomadism or global culture in her performances and objects, while others have made connections between the Korean objects, colors and references to Eastern culture that appear in her work, and national identity or feminism. Of course, in today's culture, which pursues movement, cultural diversity and difference, each cultural code and reference reflects the identity of the concerned group. If, however, we assume the state of art now as the effort to preserve the autonomy of each of the differences, and to pursue their mere coexistence, ironically, such identities will be destined to remain as folklore or exotic elements. Artists' work today is based on references to their unique culture and regional codes, and Kimsooja's world of work is no exception. But what is important is that such elements in her work transcend the local and construct significance in the global dimension, forming a circuit. That is, her work seeks cooperation among the multiplicity of different cultural seeds, and proposes continuous adaptation among their peculiarities. Minimalist aesthetics and the "ready-used" concept, which can be sensed throughout her work, connect Korean objects, local culture and Eastern thought to the Western history of art, undergo new adaptations, and form extraordinary and creative routes that enable us to journey through the life of humankind.

Kimsooja's bottari, blanket covers, needle work, etc., have created a new model that traverses Korean tradition, Eastern philosophy and art-historical codes. All of Kimsooja's objects are ready-made. Of course the "readymade concept" is no longer an issue of interest for us today. The point is not the fact that Kim took the readymade objects, but how she expanded and transformed the concept of readymade. "My work redefines the already existing concept of the object. This preexistence is hidden within daily life, particularly in the perspective of the West. Art history does not speak of such preexistence, and does not conceptualize this idea. It is only conceptualized when someone makes it break away from its original production, and shows it in the frame of representation/performance. To create a context of its own in art history: this is the work I do. So my work has nothing to do with making a new object without a previous life." [5]  Her interest in bottari, blanket covers and other objects is not in the "already made (action/result)," but in how it has been used (time/experience). In other words, when the artist uses old clothes or blanket covers that were worn or used by someone, she is using that someone's "life." Kimsooja transforms blankets, wrapping cloths and bottari, permeated with the colorful lives of anonymous people, into unique objects with diachronic aspects of time; follows the traces of our lives; feels the breath of the people; and sets out in search of the love of humanity. The transfer from "readymade" to "readyused" in her works is carried out through a certain "acetic practice," stitching blanket covers, wrapping bottari, meeting many people, and participating in their life journeys. This ascetic attitude and practice enable the artist to become an anonymous being, wrapping and unveiling other anonymous life, revealing and re-contextualizing the preexisting but invisible tracks of life. The colorful blanket-wrap becomes a frame of life embellished with all deeds of life; the flamboyant, multicolored bottari becomes a flexible vessel that embraces such anonymous life; and the needle-body, which connects all of this, becomes a gesture to visualize the anonymous subjects while extinguishing itself in the process. Moreover, the artist/subject, who has disappeared from the picture-plane, becomes the "third eye," beginning contemplation on fundamental life. The process of contextualizing the present through the times, lives and traces of objects once used by someone is always born with minimum intervention and minimum action in Kimsooja's work. Such aesthetics of the least in her work process is a kind of meditation, "making nothing and being nothing." Making nothing but revealing something more powerful, visualizing perpetuity through extinction, and saying the most with the least — this is Kimsooja's world of work.


  1. John Cage, cited from interview of Kimsooja by Nicolas Bourriaud in Cat. Kim Sooja: Condition of Humanity, 2003.  > return to article >
  2. Cited from interview of Kimsooja by Byoung-hak Yoo, Art in Culture, March 2010.  > return to article >
  3. Cited from interview of Kimsooja by Byoung-hak Yoo, Art in Culture, March 2010.  > return to article >
  4. Cited from interview of Kimsooja by Nicolas Bourriaud, in Cat. Kim Sooja: Condition of Humanity, 2003.  > return to article >
  5. Cited from interview of Kimsooja by Nicolas Bourriaud, in Cat. Kim Sooja: Condition of Humanity, 2003.  > return to article >