Bottari Truck, 2000. Used clothes and bed covers, Rodin gallery, Seoul. Courtesy Samsung Museum, Seoul. Photo by Kim Hyun Soo.

Kim Sooja: A Needle Woman

Tae Hyunsun, 2000

For the past 100 years for Koreans the problem of tradition and globalization has not simply been relegated to the art field. They have been elements of conflict that are shared throughout the realms of the larger society and culture and represent an issue we must resolve in the future. After the mid-nineties the works of many Korean artists have been shown in international exhibitions and Biennales. Among those who have been active in the international art scene attempting to find clues to solving to this problem is Kim Sooja, who with her own unique opus has emerged as a leading figure in both international and Korean art circles.

The work of Kim Sooja offers material for a new discourse in not only the national, but also in the international at the juncture between the end of one century and the beginning of a new one. In her work, which has been frequently condensed to the term bottari (a bundle wrapped with Korean traditional bedcovers for carrying household belongings), the viewer is offered perhaps the most immediate insight into the stories of women and the relationship between art and life. In addition it addresses the newly emerging theme of nomadism forcing us to deal with issues like notions of time, as well as communication and relationships. Yet, more than anything else, Kim Sooja's work addresses the problems of humanity. What is it, then, in this artist's work that prompts this variety of discourse?

Cloths, Needlework, and Bottari

From the late seventies until the early eighties Kim Sooja attended college and graduate school. This was a time when formalism was a dominant movement in Korean art circles, yet a period when self-reflection about this was also present. One of the main concerns was 'surface plane' and Kim's work began with speculation about this. However her thoughts included not one, but both sides of the surface. Her investigations into the surface plane were inspired by two revelations about the ordinary. It was in 1983, when Kim was sewing with her mother, that she rediscovered one of her most familiar materials, cloth:

"One day while sewing a bedcover with my mother, I had a surprising experience in which my thought, sensibility, and action at that moment all seemed to converge. And I discovered new possibilities for conveying buried memories and pain, as well as life's quiet passions. I was fascinated by the fundamental orthogonal structure of the cloths, the needle and thread moving through the plane surface, the emotive and evocative power of colorful traditional cloths." [1] 

Cloths are something that mankind comes into contact with from practically the moment of birth until death. They follow the rhythms of and last throughout our lives. The designs on the cloths are not merely decorative either, they hold a myriad of symbolic meanings from fecundity, health, and long life to happiness and even the colors have symbolic significance. The relationship between cloths and mankind does not simply exist on a functional level like providing warmth, protection or embellishment; they have a spiritual dimension as well. Furthermore, following the precepts of Confucianism, traditionally cloths have been a medium for women's roles. In our now completely industrialized world, it is difficult to find women making traditional bedding, which consisted of a mattress filled with cotton down and covered in cloths and an equally decorative fluffy quilt-like covering. However the connotative elements that traditional bedding had — women's work, sex and love — can still be found in the cloths. Moreover the bedding covers that she uses in her projects are all actually used by someone, making them not merely cloths as objects, but materials that have a life and soul of their own. "Cloths are more than matter, they touch the skin and are one with the living body. I regard that body [of cloths] as even having a soul." Said Kim. [2]  In a relatively brief period of time this episode has become myth. Her discovery was not simply of cloths and needlework, but both artistic perspicacity and an insight that she obtained because of her experiences as a woman.

Needlework naturally is associated with cloths. The artist, in using the needle to pass into the surface and back through the undersurface of the cloths, suggests the possibility of overcoming the limits of the surface plane. The artist comments, "I suppose I was attracted to the cloths as it was a part of my life. It also had an inside and an outside which permitted me to have an ongoing conversation or interaction through the process of needlework." To be more precise, for Kim needlework was a conversation with the surface as well as an interaction with space.

One of the most immediate issues that Kim's work with cloths and needlework raises is that of feminism. The everyday lives of women are found throughout Kim's work from "surface work, to three-dimensional, installation, and performance art." Her work is "the discovery of painterly rational in the everyday lives of women" and the "conceptualization of the ordinary." [3]  Kim Sooja has elevated the status of women's housework, which according to Confucian values had been denigrated, and encompassed the realm of the ordinary that had been excluded by modernism. However the artist carefully rejects being termed a feminist. As she says herself in reference to the feminine element in her work "it is one of many." [4]  Rather than dealing with the issue of women directly in her work, it is the ordinary, or to put it another way, it is a natural focal point since she was a woman, and in her work this act of inclusion is one of "embracing" [5]  rather than rejection or opposition. In short, Kim has attained a universal level that transcends sex for the human.

After discovering cloths and the act of sewing, until the late-eighties the artistic immersed herself in the creation of cloths collages using cloths and needlework rather than canvas and paint. In general, works of this period are like Dans Ma Chambre (1988) where she either draws or applies color on cloths where the square surface is preserved and thus ordinary materials are fitted to suit the established artistic forms. However in the nineties the artist began to free herself from form. She took ordinary objects from traditional lifestyle like window frames, an A-frame or a bobbin and wrapped them in cloths confirming the initial form of that object (hence the name: Deductive Object) and created assemblage with colleciotn of cloth scraps.

In 1992, approximately ten years after she had her first revelation, at her art studio at P.S.1 Museum in New York she noticed for the first time (in an artistic sense) bottari filled with old clothes she had lying around her.

"Everyone has bundles around. I had bundles in my art studio before I started to incorporate them into the work, but I didn't notice them. In 1992, when I was working at the P.S.1 studio I happened to see a bundle put there. I put clothes in a bundle and didn't realize it. The bundle was something new to me. It was a sculpture and a painting. I saw that just by tying things I could change a two-dimensional work into a three-dimensional work." [6] 

This was Kim Sooja's discovery of another aspect to what was a common object in the lives of Koreans, the bottari. In the colorful, but ordinary bottari, the artist has discovered in the cloths itself a power of expression and its own natural character. With almost no effort on the part of the artist, the bottari could tell its own story. The artist would now no longer use needlework. Instead she substituted the three-dimensional act of sewing that had penetrated the two-dimensional inside and outside surface of the cloths, with the transformation of the cloths from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional object by tying it. Rather than the one time act of sewing, Kim using the bottari, which could be wrapped, tied, untied, and wrapped again and again to narrow the distance between herself and her work and to bring her life and action into the work. Ten years ago the artist, with ordinary used cloths and no artistic retouching, returned it to its state as a common entity in our lives. In the artist's purely formal act she successfully approached the essence of the ordinary.

The Needle Woman

Kim Sooja had discovered the possibilities of bottari during her residence in New York, so it was only natural that for an artist who had taken her point of departure from the surface plane, she should expand to include the spatial dimension as well. With her interest piqued about site, Kim now rejected the unnatural isolation between the gallery space and the work. Here cloths and bottari served as outstanding media in linking the two. A wonderful example of Kim's work with cloths in a site-specific project was the 1992 wall installation at P.S.1 Museum. It was overwhelmingly evident that the artist had organically utilized the material characteristics of the fabrics as well as the special nature of the brick wall with its many cracks.

As Kim's interest in the relationship between the work and the site grew, her work was no longer confined to perimeters of art museums and galleries and moved towards the unconventional exhibition spaces as the act of sewing became conceptualized. The artist, who considered needlework the same as breathing or as a form of communication, then began to regard use it as way of relating separate activities like walking, talking, and looking. [7]  This expanded concept of needlework was first realized in the 1994 exhibition entitled Sewing into Walking held at the Gallery Seomi, Seoul. In this installation project consisting of old clothes, bottari, and video, the "needlework" was represented by the walking of visitors across the floor where the old clothes were scattered. In a video of the artist walking towards a distant Mt. Mai, each of her steps becomes one stitch of the needle transforming nature into cloths which she is "sewing." Kim explains, "Previously I sewed cloth with thread and needle. This time my body serves as a needle sewing large cloth pieces of nature." [8] 

The needle is "something that can injure, but as a medium it is a instrument of healing." [9]  In a video work that premieres at this exhibition A Laundry Woman (2000) the concept of the artist-as-needle-as-healing device is realized. The artist is shown looking at the Yamuna River in Delhi, India where the flowing water brings slices of life in the objects floating from a crematory. These objects pass by the body of the artist, who in effect is “washing” them in an act of purification. Through this meditation on life and death this video returns the original problem of mankind. Even from the rear view of the artist, who is facing the river, we feel the empathy between the living and the dead.

Recently the artist's concern with needle has developed a more philosophical dimension. As a medium, the needle passes between separated spaces and as a means of mediation instantly disappears. Moreover, like the needle, once her role as a medium has ended, she becomes a nonentity. In a performance video of Kim entitled A Needle Woman (2000) filmed in Shanghai, China, and Shibuya, Japan, and Delhi, India, Kim was standing completely still, in the middle of a street in Shibuya where passersby reacted to her with total indifference and in a busy street in Shanghai where the people reacted by looking over their shoulders at her, and finally in India where the people stop and stare intently at her. While the reactions of passersby were quite different it appears as if there was a thread between them and the still artist. In this video project, where the artist's body acts as the medium and represents a universal human not defined by gender, her recent interest in linking herself to others and to the world becomes clear. Kim explains that "The artist's body, used as a type of medium, barometer, or compass needle effects only an unseen relationship with the passersby. In the end she becomes virtually nonexistent and in this state is alienated and disappears." [10] 

In contrast to Kim Sooja, who in her role as an intermediary merges into nothing, the physical presence of the viewers is embraced in her work. In her installation work the bottaris can be untied, the contents examined, and even taken by exhibition visitors. In the traditional concept of art objects as being rare, valuable, and sacred, these would be considered as acts of damage or sacrilege, but in Kim's projects the curiosity and individual reactions of the viewers are accepted as revealing the relationship between them and the object. Here the artist is acting as an intermediary between the actual past owners of the old clothes and bedding covers and those who currently look at or take them away-future, unknown persons. In her role the artist may be invisible, but her presence is strong in creating such a relationships.

While Sewing into Walking in 1994 expanded needlework into walking, in A Laundry Field: Sewing into Walking, Looking into Sewing (1997) we are able to see an even more interesting relationship developed. In this installation project, Kim set up lines of laundry. Viewers "looked" at cloth lines of bedding covers as their bodies "penetrated" through or between them. Their line of sight became the needles and the covers a linking, spontaneous, participatory space. For Kim Sooja visitors to her exhibitions are the performers.

There are even more compelling examples. In Edinburgh's The Fruitmarket Gallery (1995), the Museum Boymans Van Beuningen Gallery in Rotterdam, and the cafe of the Setakaya Art Museum in Tokyo, the artist took brilliantly colored bedding covers and used them to cover tables like table cloths in actual places where people did ordinary activities like eating and drinking. For Koreans, using our traditional cloths associated with sleeping and bedding (like sheets in the West) in such a fashion might provoke something of a cultural shock, but the artist in an international setting was inviting the actions (and reactions) of a variety of visitors to her work. While linked to tradition, it was not tied to it, and these installations represent an example of a sense of flexibility that could be applied anywhere in the world.

My object or installation work is an extension of my actions called 'needlework'." As the artist indicates, her work after bottari developed into conceptual needlework that created relationships without the actual act of sewing. This could be described as her use of nature and the ordinary routines of people as "larger" materials.

Video, Another Bottari

Kim Sooja, rather than confining herself to fixed spaces, attempted to move and widen her range. In the fall of 1997 she held a performance that involved loading a truck full of bottaris and making an eleven-day journey throughout Korea. The video that recorded this performance, Cities on the Move - 2727 km Bottari Truck underlined the inherent sentiments — movement and wandering — that the bottari connotes in addition to being a timely exploration of the theme of nomadism recurrent in artistic circles in the nineties. [11]  This work, which explores the metaphors of time originates in Kim's memories of her family's frequent moves all over Korea during her childhood as a result of her father's career in the military. It also reflects her current life as an artist who travels the world.

The journey, which took her and her bottari truck from:

Seoul - Uijongbu - Yonchon - Chonkok - Daegwangri - Cholwon - Gimwha - Sokcho - Chongsun - Andong - Daegu - Gyongju - Busan - Jinju - Sunchon - Sorokdo - Gwangju - Daejon - Yongin - Seoul

was an experience that was not simply physical movement, but spiritual movement through memories themselves. The bottari truck, which was shown at the Sao Paulo Biennale (1998) and the Venice Biennale (1999) still has many journeys to make throughout the world before it reaches its final destination. In Kim Sooja's bottari truck implied the notion of time including the past, present, and future.

The element of time in Kim Sooja's work has become an even stronger in her performance videos. In Kim Sooja's videos she uses no videography and no editing. Instead she uses repetition to emphasize simply the passage of time, where nature becomes a workspace, they become a device for conveying her acts and images to the exhibition space. These videos Kim identifies as her "image bottari." [12]  In her early video work, Sewing into Walking, the TV monitors placed under the bottari serves as another type of bottari. Therefore the work is closer to a video installation in that she deals with video monitors as objects. However, recently she conveys the meaning and concept of her work only through the medium of video projection.

In recent videos like A Needle Woman and A Laundry Woman the real fabric and bottari that accompanied her performance early on have disappeared. The activities of the artist herself have been reduced to a minimum, she no longer walks or wraps her bottari. While extremely minimalist in act, with the artist standing still and staring straight ahead, these videos are replete with discussions of the artist's desire to become a "needle of the world." Actions have been minimalized, but instead of the physical world that a person's body to link the world, now the eye and the mind replace the body. Thus it would be more correct to say that cloths, needlework, and bottari in her work have not disappeared, they have been conceptualized. As Rosalind Krauss puts it, the true medium for video art is not a mechanical device, but psychological circumstances. Kim's videos, even without human direction allow us to feel inaction and experience sympathy with nature. In her videos, cloths, needlework, and bottaris all transcend the meaning of the ordinary to encompass the problems of human relations and communications.

In the past two decades Kim Sooja began with an investigation into surface planes, then expanded her interests to include object and then moved from object to space. In doing so she has touched on the problems of self, the self and others, in other words, the subject: mankind. Here the cloths and needle has served to lead the artist along with the bottari the catalyst for the experience. Of course in modern art the use of cloths is nothing new. As we discover in the history of readymade, which made it possible to expand the use of cloths as artistic material, form has an imposing presence in textile art and craft. Until the early nineties in Kim Sooja's work also expansion of material and plasticity were important themes, but in that decade she returned to the original values of cloths basing her work on her pre-eminent interpretive involving cloths. Here we can assume that for the artist cloths has much more significance than being simply material.

For the artist cloths, which had been her first interest, is also a solution to the problem of the surface plane. In the fifties and sixties (and for Korea in the seventies) the essence of painting was the two-dimensional surface of the canvas in accordance with the tradition of modern painting. With the limited understanding as a premise, the diverse possibilities and the latent properties of cloths themselves were ignored or overlooked. Kim Sooja in her needlework, which is both an everyday activity and a natural way to relate to cloths, raised sewing to an artistic activity. As such her activities led to the rediscovery of the essence of cloths as an entity that moves between two and three dimensions and human stories behind. What she found were values that had been overlooked in modernism's limited understanding and in the process she completely overcame formalism as well. To this was then added Kim's own creativity. In the end the artist's choice of material (cloths) was a way of dealing with the problems of surface plane and the desire for creativity as well as resolving the estrangement between life and work.

In conclusion, the reason for Kim Sooja's activity on the international art scene and the attention she has drawn globally is that while she uses Korean materials and her sense of ethnicity is strong, in the end this does not become strident nationalism. She achieves a wonderful balance between a traditional heritage and globalization. While her work, through needlework and its conceptualization, is on women, it attains a universal context of the essential human.

This exhibition featuring the installations of bottari and bedding covers, also allows us to see her development through video work. The artist has taken on the entire gallery itself as a subject for interpretation. In the Glass Pavilion of the Rodin Gallery, where Rodin's Gates of Hell and the Burghers of Calais are installed, Kim has first scattered old clothes establishing a physical relationship between the past; the figures of legend and history in Rodin's sculptures and the original owners of the clothes, and the viewers who will be walking around the exhibition in the present.

In the video rooms, the figure of the artist herself photographed from behind from a 1994 video taken at Gyongju's Oksan Seowon valley entitled Sewing into Walking where she raises bedding covers one-by-one, wraps them into a bundle and leaves, moves onto a the video of her (also taken from behind) atop her fully loaded bottari truck for Cities on the Move - 2727 km Bottari Truck. Along with the screening of these videos the actual truck itself is installed in the plaza in front of the gallery. In addition, the videos mentioned earlier, A Needle Woman and A Laundry Woman, will receive their first public showing here. The installation of bedcovers, A Laundry Woman, will receive its Korean premiere. In this comprehensive exhibition of the conceptual and artistic world of Kim Sooja we look forward to the dynamic participation of all visitors.


Notes:

  1. Kim Sooja, "Artist's Note," Kim Sooja, exhibition catalogue, Gallery Hyundai, Seoul, 1988, p.9.  > return to article >
  2. Kim Sooja, "Cloths and Life," Kim Sooja, exhibition catalogue, Gallery Seomi, Seoul, 1994.  > return to article >
  3. Kim Sooja, "Conceptualizing the Ordinary," Women: Their Difference and Power, Kim Honghee(ed.), 1994, pp.82-83.  > return to article >
  4. Bahk Youngtaik, "Kim Sooja: To Approach from Plane to Three-Dimension, A Bundle," Space, October 1996, p.116.  > return to article >
  5. Kim Airyung, "Kim Sooja: Life and Art Wrapped in Bottari," Wolgan Misul, October 1999, p.168.  > return to article >
  6. Bahk Youngtaik, ibid., p.113.  > return to article >
  7. Bahk Youngtaik, ibid., p.113.  > return to article >
  8. Hwang In, "Sewing into Walking : Cloths, Videos, Sound Installation by Kim Sooja," Space, January 1995, p.38.  > return to article >
  9. Kim Sooja, letter from the artist, February 15, 2000.  > return to article >
  10. Kim Sooja, letter from the artist, February 15, 2000.  > return to article >
  11. This work was created for the exhibition curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Hou Hanru in 1997 entited Cities on the Move.  > return to article >
  12. Hwang In, ibid.  > return to article >


Tae Hyunsun is a curator at Samsung Museum of Modern Art, Seoul. She studied French Language and Literature and Art History at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. Since 1999, She curated Encounter with Rodin, Kim Sooja: A Needle Woman, 2000 at Rodin Gallery, Illusion and Reality: Hyperrealism Painting in Korea and America at Ho-Am Art Gallery, Human Figure in 20th Century Sculpture, 2001, and Ahn Sang-Soo: Imaninging Hangul at Rodin Gallery. She coordinated Yes, Yoko Ono show at Rodin Gallery and Artspectrum at Ho-Am Art Gallery in 2003.