Kim Sooja at P.S.1


One Woman's Serenity in the Thick of Things

Kim Sooja at P.S.1

Volk, Gregory


  • This first solo New York exhibition by Korean artist Kim Sooja featured recent videos, but her work is really a mixture of video, performance, sculpture (involving Kim's own body) and private acts of meditation in outdoor public spaces. The centerpiece was A Needle Woman (1999 — 2001), for which Kim traveled to eight major population centers — Cairo, Delhi, Lagos, London, Mexico City, New York, Shanghai and Tokyo — only to stand motionless, with her back to the camera, on downtown thoroughfares packed with pedestrians and sundry vehicles. At P.S.1, the silent videos of these actions, taken from a stationary camera several yards behind Kim, were projected on the walls of one large hall. Wearing a simple gray dress, Kim stands amid human motion and commotion, as people surge toward her and around her. Sometimes she seems about to be overwhelmed, perhaps even struck or otherwise menaced, and you fear for her safety. At other times, she is a strong enigmatic presence who simply waits in one place while everyone else goes every which way.

  • Always visually lush, these videos tap into the uneasy relationship between the individual and mass society, the dislocation of being a foreigner engulfed by another culture, and questions of how to maintain one's own equilibrium in a swirling, destabilizing world. Even though you never see Kim's facial expression, it is clear that her actions required courage and intense inner vitality. Throughout everything, she exudes a patient acceptance and a spiritual calm which is deeply affecting. Also part of the performance is the life of the streets — i.e., hundreds of anonymous people striding, pedaling or driving toward Kim, then disappearing from view: on-the-go New Yorkers too preoccupied to notice, multiethnic Londoners yammering into cell phones, Shanghai residents stealing surreptitious glances.

  • What's particularly impressive is how such minimal actions on Kim's part result in provocative portraits of the different cities. In Tokyo, Kim is so completely ignored that she could be a ghost, and you can't help but think how the Korean minority in Japan has long suffered from cultural invisibility and discrimination. Just the opposite is Lagos, where people cluster around her with a lively curiosity.

  • Also included in the show were videos of related actions, sometimes projected and sometimes on monitors. Lying on her side in Cairo while surrounded by staring men and young boys, Kim becomes a female "other" par excellence, her unobtrusive yet bewildering behavior confounding the onlookers. As she stands on the bank of the Yamuna River in Delhi, the river lows from left to right, its surface festooned with slow-moving flotsam. This is garbage moving past, but you think of memories passing, of wishes and losses, the dazzling scraps of a life. Kim Sooja's unassuming actions really draw you in with their complex and evocative power.

— From Art in America, December 2001.

One Woman's Serenity in the Thick of Things

Johnson, Ken


  • An art form of chameleonesque elasticity, video can adapt to a bewildering variety of formats, from tiny television monitors to whole-wall, wraparound projections. It can mimic narrative approaches from real world documentation to surrealistic montage to Hollywood-style fantasy, and it can readily absorb the colors and patterns of digital abstraction.

  • Still, as the works of Kim Sooja demonstrate in "A Needle Woman", on view at P.S. 1, one of video's most effective uses in the gallery is the creation of rectangular pictures on the wall — like old-fashioned photographs or paintings, but with moving parts.

  • Ms. Kim, who was born in South Korea in 1957 and moved to New York in 1998, uses video with bare bones directness yet uncommon elegance to document her quietly provocative performances. In each of her works, the artist stands, sits or lies very still with her back to the camera while the world around her rushes by. The best have a surprising emotional impact.

  • In the main installation, eight projections show Ms. Kim standing on busy sidewalks in different cities: New York, Cairo, Tokyo, London, Mexico City, New Delhi, Shanghai and Lagos. Pedestrians hurry by while this enigmatic, unprepossessing figure with a long black ponytail stands like a statue, a motionless stone in a river of humanity.

  • Most people ignore her; some glance at her quizzically; some stop and stare or take pictures. In Lagos, mischievous children study her as though considering what they might do to get a rise out of her.

  • The tension between the colorful, all-over busyness of the crowd and the stillness of the central figure makes these works captivating pictorially and as a real-time narratives.

  • In addition, the still woman has a mythic and curiously melancholy presence. She might be the lost soul of globalized modernity.

  • Two other large projections in other galleries shift the setting from city to country. In one, we look down from a slightly perspective onto the artist, who stands with her back to us facing a glassy, slowly flowing river. Spatially this is the most interesting of Ms. Kim's works because the reflective surface of the river appears at first to be far away; then you realize it is almost at the artist's feet. The collapse of distance is breathtaking.

  • In the other video, the artist reclines on her side on the rocky summit of a hill holding still as clouds drift slowly by. Both videos have a soothing, meditative effect.

  • The image of the lone artist facing cosmic spaces calls to mind the lone wanderers that Casper David Friedrich painted, and video adds the dimension of time. Just as the protagonist in the video contemplates the flow of time in nature, viewers in the gallery contemplate the flow of time not only as represented in the video by flowing water or shifting clouds, but also in the real-time flow of the video itself. And again, as in the artist-in-the-madding-crowd videos, the centered figure embodies an inspirational equanimity of spirit in the face of what must lead, after all, to death.

  • Ms. Kim goes wrong in a piece called "A Beggar Woman" that she performed in Nigeria. At P.S. 1 a video monitor shows her sitting cross-legged on a patch of public ground holding out one hand as if begging for money. Some people put money into her hand; one man steals money out of her hand. While the image of the beggar is not without resonance and the events captured by the camera are not without interest, the element of deception is troubling. Unlike the other works, in which the artist's enigmatic presence casts no judgment on the crowd, this one shines a light of moral inquisition on passerby, implicitly questioning their relationship to people in need; yet the artist herself is behaving with an ethically questionable duplicity.

  • One wonders where Ms. Kim might go from here. Can — or should — she venture beyond this one idea of the motionless, anonymous woman in tension with worldly movement? Might new performance ideas lead to new formal possibilities? Repeated too often, the performance of motionlessness could start to seem like a gimmick, but who knows? Maybe it could be extended and deepened through ritualistic repetition into a powerfully spiritual enterprise.

  • — From The New York Times - Friday September 7, 2001.

Ken Johnson is the art critic for The New York Times and Art in America.