2023

Transcultural Weaving

2022

Kim Sooja: From Social Sculpture to the Realm of Infinity

2022

김수자 : 사회조각에서 무한의 영역으로

2021

보따리로 감싸고 자수로 엮어낸 여성성…공통된 키워드는 ‘관계맺기'

2021

김수자, 문화인류학적 탐구를 이어가는 바늘 여인

2020

아우름과 떠남의 미학: 김수자의 보따리

2020

Kimsooja - The New Normal

2020

KIMSOOJA, SCHAUENDES DENKEN

2019

“Mirror image: Kimsooja’s self-reflective installations take over the French city of Poitiers”

2019

Encounter with a City

2019

Transforming a city’s memories

2017

Kimsooja: The Task of Being-Together

2017

Archetype of Mind

2017

Geometry of Mind and of Body

2015

세계 속에서 미술의 새로운 정체성을 만들어가는 작가, 김수자 Kimsooja

2015

An Architecture of Gaze

2014

Kimsooja: A Modern Day Global Nomad Transcending boundaries, re-constructing a global identity

2013

Sewing into Life

2013

Essential Empathy

2013

Centripetal Acceleration

2013

Kimsooja and the Art of Place

2013

Gnomon of Place, Gnomon of Foreignness

2013

55th Venice Biennale: Il Palazzo Enciclopedico | The Encyclopedic Palace

2013

삼라만상을 하나로 묶는 김수자의 보따리

2012

A Disappearing Woman

2012

Kimsooja: A Needle Woman

2012

Calm Chaos: Kimsooja's Earth – Water – Fire – Air

2012

The pilgrimage of our own existence

2012

Kimsooja, To Breathe: Invisible Mirror/Invisible Needle

2011

Kimsooja's <A Needle Woman>, Sacred Ritual

2011

Kimsooja: Black Holes, Meditative Vanishings and Nature as a Mirror of the Universe

2011

Kimsooja: Contemplation on top of the Horizontal and Vertical System

2010

Contemplation on the Origin of Life

2009

About nothingness: being nothing and making nothing

2009

KIMSOOJA | Tierra - Agua - Fuego - Aire / Earth - Water - Fire - Air

2008

Art & Today, Excerpt from Art & Globalism

2008

Standing at the Zero Point

2008

Between Existence and Non-Existence

2008

Passages and Places - The City

2007

Kimsooja

2007

Kimsooja: Electric Chants

2006

To Breathe / Respirar

2006

Cultural Memory, Cultural Archetype and Communication

2006

Kimsooja - A One-Word Name Is An Anarchist's Name

2006

Kimsooja: Less is More

2005

Living in the Present, Connecting with the Universe

2005

The Bottari as Time Capsule - Thoughts accompanying the exhibition, "Kimsooja - Bottari Cologne 2005", Kewenig Galerie, Cologne 29.1 - 23.4, 2005

2005

Concrete Metaphysics

2005

Museion - The Perception of the Horizonta

2005

Kimsooja: Journey into the World

2005

Experiencing A Vacuum

2005

The Discipline of Looking

2005

Kimsooja: A Lighthouse Woman, A Needle in the World

2004

From Exploring WOW; or, How Works of Art Work

2004

Kimsooja at The Project

2003

KIMSOOJA

2003

Mandala: Zone of Zero

2003

Kimsooja

2003

An Incantation to Presence

2003

Being and Sewing

2003

Kim Sooja: March 24, 2003

2002

Kimsooja: A Mirror Woman

2002

Homeland Exists Only in Our Memory in This Era

2002

The Persistence of the Void

2002

Obvious but Problematic

2002

Whitney Biennale

2001

Kimsooja's Bottari and Her Journey

2001

The Concept of Bottari

2000

SelfScape

2000

Kim Sooja: A Needle Woman

2000

Kim Sooja's A Needle Woman

1999

Soo-Ja Kim: Cities on the Move

1998

Soo-Ja Kim: A solitary performance with old fabric

1994

Formative Characteristics Shown In Kimsooja's Sewing And Deductive Object Works

1991

Recent Works of Kimsooja - A Return to the Archetype

1988

The Grammar and Expression of "Sewing" - On the first solo exhibition of work by Kimsooja

Transcultural Weaving

Malene Vest Hansen

2023

  • A certain memory is still clear as day to the Korean artist Kimsooja many years after the fact: one day when she was helping her mother sew bed covers, a common occupation for Korean women, a shock ran through her body as the needle punctured the fabric. As she sewed it felt like energy from the whole universe was collected in the tip of the needle: she became the energy conduit of the needle's circular motions; the needle which simultaneously hurts and heals.[1] This image can be seen as formative to Kimsooja's oeuvre with her examinations of textiles and textures, her exploration of the senses, symbols and structures in art, gender, and culture.

  • When you experience Weaving the Light, which Kimsooja has created for Cisternerne, with spectral patterns of rainbow light dancing in the damp dark chambers beneath Søndermarken in Frederiksberg, the new immersive installation can perhaps seem miles away from Kimsooja's memory of the electrifying encounter with the fabric during intimate housework with needle and thread. However, there are clear threads that can be drawn through the conceptual artist's oeuvre across the decades; here I will follow significant tracks through Kimsooja's examinations of visible crossings in the fabrics of the world.
    The title Weaving the Light is characteristic of Kimsooja, an inter- weaving of concrete and abstract symbolic meanings. The title establishes a duality of the material and static with the immaterial and procedural. As for the technical side, we encounter a rather simple idea in Cisternerne: In the underground chambers, a series of transparent acrylic sheets have been hung up, whose smooth surfaces are covered with diffraction grating film. In the damp darkness of the old water reservoir, the new textures of the acrylic sheets act as prisms to the electric light sources that are placed behind the screens. This light is visibly split into the colours of the rainbow and because the film is woven into nets of varying density, the light forms different patterns. The title is therefore descriptive: The installation consists of the weaving of light.

  • But even if it seems simple to explain at first what we are seeing, it is not so easy to catch the meanings that open them- selves to us when we sense the dance of the light patterns in the installation. For what is light? How do we sense it? And how do we understand the colours of the light? Weaving the Light becomes like a laboratory of light and opens to interpretations of wonderful sights and visions in the subterranean darkness. An archive of light is hiding in the old, damp water reservoir beneath Søndermarken.

  • Kimsooja sees her acrylic sheets covered with diffraction film as a kind of canvas on which she paints with light. Kimsooja has become a well-known figure on the global contemporary art scene through her work with a diverse array of materials and media and is typically characterized as a conceptual multi- media artist. But her insistence on using the canvas in a kind of extended painting is significant.
    Kimsooja was born in 1957, grew up in Korea, and was educated as a painter in Seoul where she studied Western painting. As such she is schooled in the tradition of the modern Western concept of art in a Korean culture. In Korean culture the colour spectrum known as obangsaek (a direct translation would be five-orientation-colour) plays a very central role – it figures in traditional art, and everywhere from cooking to architecture, fashion, and textile patterns.

  • Obangsaek consists of the five colours: blue, red, yellow, white, and black, which are to be balanced to achieve a good life, a healthy body, and a good society. The five colours each symbolize a direction – blue is east, red is south, yellow is centre, white is west, and black is north – but they are also interpreted as symbols of what is considered the five fundamental elements of life: wood (blue), fire (red), earth (yellow), metal (white), and water (black). Obangsaek permeates Korean art and culture through the centuries and this too is a part of Kimsooja's palette.
    But Kimsooja works with rather than in the tradition – or rather traditions, plural. She works transculturally and chooses her subjects, patterns, and media from the canon and culture of Asia and Korea as well as the West.

  • She moulds familiar signs, symbols, and canons into new patterns, she reinterprets prescribed shapes, discreetly but disobediently, so that the usual and formal is seen in a new light, familiar yet alien.

  • Kimsooja is a Korean pioneer on the international art scene. Through the decades she has travelled, lived, and worked trans- nationally, lived in Seoul, Paris, and New York, and as a nomad artist she embodies globalization. Kimsooja has thematised nomadic refractions between nations, cultures, and traditions in a series of works focusing on the bottari: the Korean word for a bundle consisting of wrapping cloth tied around belongings so they can be brought on the road. Kimsooja has worked with bottaris, made from brightly coloured traditional Korean bed covers, through paintings, photos, videos, and installations where the beautiful patterned fabric bundles envelop memories, loss, and unknown goals.

  • Like many other female artists' work with textiles, Kimsooja's work with fabric and sewing can also be seen as 'subversive stitches', as the British feminist art historian Rozsika Parker has termed it.[2] Textile work wasn't traditionally considered as fine art on par with painting and sculpture, but rather as typically female handicraft and labour. Art works involving textile can therefore be said to bring both mundane as well as gendered connotations with it to the field of contemporary art. With that said, Kimsooja’s motivation behind working with textile was not to address it as a textile art form, but instead to investigate the historical Western canvas as a textile, circling the question of the tableau, the painting, and the structure of its surface.
    Still, Kimsooja searches the gendered and cultural connotations – she has therefore changed her name from Kim Soo-Ja to Kimsooja, a name that doesn't appear to signal gender or marital status.

  • Transcultural weaving is the theme in a series of Kimsooja’s first film Thread Routes, where Kimsooja focuses on traditional textile cultures and techniques across the globe – in South American, European, Indian, Chinese, North American, and North African local workshops.

  • In parallel with these explorations, she has examined the more abstract interweaving of forms and shapes. Here, architecture is what is being transformed by the dance of the rainbow prism, buildings wrapped in colours as if they were enormous bottaris into which we as visitors can immerse and explore.
    In 2006, for the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid, Kimsooja created To Breathe: A Mirror Woman, which had the glass building wrapped in diffraction film and the floor covered with mirrors such that the site-specific installation transformed the exhibition building into a space vibrating with dancing colours of the rainbow, along with rhythmic breathing sounds in the auditory piece The Weaving Factory. 'Painting' with the 'immaterial' prismatic rainbow colours is something Kimsooja has worked with variations on in a series of site-specific installations, among them several Catholic churches, where the connection to traditional Christian metaphors of divine light in the stained-glass mosaics clearly link Eastern and Western colour symbolism. The works of Kimsooja thereby circulate methods and elements that appear again and again in new constellations in new places – repetitions such as the basic rhythmic movements of life, like breathing and weaving.
    Weaving the Light is the latest in a series of installations where Kimsooja expands something site-specific into a new meaning. Kimsooja explains that she is simply responding to a place when she works with a specific location.
    She is a transformer; she receives and reacts to what she can see the place is calling for.[3] This is in line with the role of the artist as the British art historian and writer John Berger describes it in the text Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible.

  • According to Berger, the idea of understanding the artist as a 'creator' is a modern illusion. The artist is rather a 'receiver' who relates to the world and collaborates with the observer who meets the work.[4] When Kimsooja works with painting in a generalized scope, she examines the visible and invites us to join this examination.
    Daylight has played an essential role to the dance of the prism light in Kimsooja's earlier site-specific installations with diffraction film; the sun has set the installations in motion with its daily walk across the sky. In the gloom of Cisternerne we have left daylight behind and descended into the subterranean darkness.
    Here there is no moving light from the sun, here it is the movement of electricity which puts light in the prisms. In Cisternerne we, the visitors, become 'performers' in Kimsooja's immersive installation. As we walk around the damp, dark, and echoing halls we become moving shadows making the light wave in the colours of the rainbow when it is reflected in a surface of water. It feels strange yet simple, like walking through a dream vision, without a sense of where you are, sensing ourselves in a subterranean sea of lights, as we together weave the light in Kimsooja's archive of lights.

Malene Vest Hansen
Art Historian, Associate Professor, PhD


— From the Solo Exhibition Weaving the Light, Cisternerne, Frederiksberg Museum, Reader, pp.20-25.

[1] Malene Vest Hansen: interview with Kimsooja, Frederiksberg 17 January 2023.
[2] Rozsika Parker: The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, 2019.
[3] Malene Vest Hansen: interview with Kimsooja, Frederiksberg 17 January 2023
[4] John Berger: Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible, 2020, s. 84.

Kim Sooja: From Social Sculpture to the Realm of Infinity

Kim Kibu

2022

  • In 1994, Kim Sooja's performance at Oksan Seowon in Gyeongju marked the beginning of a social sculpture. Traditionally, sculpture involves carving a form to create the artist's desired shape. However, another definition of sculpture encompasses the assembly of objects. Within this definition, Sewing Into Walking-Kyungju becomes the starting point for defining Kim Sooja's bundle work as a sculptural piece and a postmodernist work.

  • Since time immemorial, the banks of valleys have been private yet communicative spaces for women. The artist's performance at Oksan Seowon's valley involves walking across a quilt, the result of generations of aesthetic tradition and transmission, while collecting individual patches laid on the stone floor. Through this process, the work demonstrates the creation of a bundle. Though it may seem like an intensely personal and mundane activity, it can be viewed as performance art that modernises the work resulting from the continuous transmission of generations.

  • From grandmothers to mothers, and onto adult women forming new households, the starting point has always been the transmission and gifting of a colourful quilt. Traditionally, the quilt travels between the bride's and groom's homes during the exchange of clothes and gifts, accompanied by the wedding document. During this process, dowries come and go, usually consisting of silk, quilt linings, cotton, and money. As each household goes through this process to form a new home, quilts accumulate. Various blessings for a new beginning in forming a future home are engraved on the quilt with diverse colours and harmonies. The traditional Korean definition of fortune and wishes for blessings are carved into these patches in various ways.

  • In Korean households, the quilt is not just a functional, fabric-made product but an object imbued with the care, thought, and aesthetic vision of both families in preparing for and forming a new home.

  • Joseph Beuys defined sculpture as "Thought is sculpture. Rather than a sculptural piece derived from a single object or materialised through a process, the act of 'thinking' naturally has a much more passionate effect in this world."[1] The quilt, comprised of thoughts that create a social starting point, holds the stories and thoughts of each family member receiving the object.

  • Kim Sooja chooses these quilts, laden with thoughts, memories, and aesthetic synthesis, as the objects for her social sculptures, and proceeds to bind the traces of generations and memories of time into a single bundle. She gathers these objects, which encapsulate the touch of grandmothers and mothers and serve as the starting point for forming households, and sometimes sews them together with needle and thread to create shapes, or ties them into a single bundle. This process itself is a performance that creates a social sculpture.

  • Kim Sooja's works choose a different artistic direction than the monochrome movement of previous generations, which fell into the abstract world due to a lack of communication with authority, and the people's art of her contemporaries, which was collectively centred on themes of excessive self-assertion, shedding authority, and resistance to power. This direction is connected to postcolonial discourses and multicultural debates that began in the Western art world. This trend, triggered by the exhibition "Les Magiciens de la terre" held at the Pompidou Centre in 1989, was a time when more outsiders, namely, Eastern and African artists, were gradually given opportunities to participate in exhibitions in the Western contemporary art mainstream.

  • In line with these changes, Kim Sooja's artistic activities transformed and took various forms, starting with a wall sculpture exhibition at MoMA PS1 in 1992-93. Her sophisticated yet Eastern contemporary art provided opportunities for interaction with numerous curators seeking contemporary challenges. Kim Sooja was in search of a new artistic starting point.

  • "Sometimes, she connects the concept of 'sewing' with the concept of 'walking', turning it into an everyday life notion, and links the fabric that first wraps the skin in birth and death with the soul, protecting and embracing it from the outside world."[2]

  • Kim Sooja's artistic creation ideology connects with other concepts at the end of the long Cold War, the onset of globalisation, and the increasing freedom of movement. As global diasporic movements and migrations increase, Kim Sooja's work is classified as nomadic, opening the door to further interpretations. Her soft-material objects, unlike the rigid, angular cases of the West traditionally associated with immigration, can seamlessly fill any space, and have evoked admiration for the Eastern aesthetic of diverse colours and patterns, even during moments of movement, amongst Westerners.

  • The quotidian bundle is exhibited at the Venice Biennale, a hall of contemporary art, and later in churches where it encounters the divine and requires sanctity. The realm of the everyday encounters new spaces and expands the activity area of the work into the realm of the eternal.
    Harald Szeeman, the general director of the art section of the Venice Biennale in 1999 and 2001, defined Kim Sooja's creative process and her work's keywords as follows:

  • "Through a mixture of weaving close to the present and at the same time far away, she challenges us to reflect on the most basic actions, namely the ephemerality of our existence, the celebration of the moment, change, migration, resettlement, adventure, suffering, and having to leave what is familiar. She skilfully adapts her memorious and narrative-rich fabric to the present situation, creating an area of beauty and influence."[3]

  • Kim Sooja's work enjoys the status of nomadic works that can adapt and operate more openly in accordance with the requirements of a global environment. The nomadic life is one always prepared to leave. Kim Sooja's aesthetic and material heritage from her grandfather, who operated the first weaving factory in Daegu, and her father's frequent migrations as a military man who moved his station often, are reflected in her work.

  • After 2000, Kim Sooja's work expands the definition of the artistic realm through new objects. In "To Breathe - A Mirror Woman," she focuses on the breath of light. The work held at the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid (2006) shifts its focus from the traditional bundle to light.

  • The range of light visible to the human eye is the realm of visible light. This visible light is composed of various combinations of light, and when it reflects off water particles or translucent glass, its original colours are projected, making the wavelengths of light visible to the observer.

Kim Sooja reflects and distorts these breaths and waves of light through film in architectural spaces, creating a harmonious interplay of space and light on a mirror, allowing one to experience infinite spatial inclusion without distinction between above and below. One can witness the expansion of the artistic realm of images as representations of humans, architecture, and nature through the interplay of spaces created by human planning and the celestial light reflecting below the mirrored woman.

  • This process offers a new direction for Kim Sooja, who sought healing through art while embracing compassion for humanity and vulnerability to violence, crossing visible boundaries. The focus of art, which was previously directed towards humans, is expanded to encompass the realm of the natural world and infinity.

  • The numerous vertical and horizontal lines of the structure of specific film materials function as prisms for light. Light passes through this film, creating a rainbow effect. Through this process, Kim Sooja, who studied the structure of canvas, light, colour, and pigment, envisions a structure capable of expressing the essence of light and sound in an inner space. In a completely sealed and dark space, she creates a silent space with blocked noise and contrasts it with light to forge a new space. [4]

  • If the conventional works of art moved towards a more open space in relation to objects and actions, and towards a goal-oriented purpose, in ‘Archive of Mind, 2016’, a confined and restricted space is created where a certain light shines from above to below, inviting the audience's participation on the table. The breaths exchanged between the participating audience members create invisible waves through numerous clay balls due to collisions and absorption, which are then transmitted to strangers seated at the round table. This visualises the process of light waves being transmitted to us through installation art and implies another meaning.

  • Much like the body, water, which constitutes the majority of the human body, adjusts the balance of the internal world through blood pressure, cells, and blood flow under the influence of gravity, the direction of the brain, and hormone regulation. Similarly, the human mind is constantly determined by the intersectional encounters of the body, soul, and spiritual realm within the chambers of the mind.

  • Two thousand years ago, Apostle Paul recognised that the state of the mind, body, and soul was not only connected to the present situation but also to the eternal world, and he left these words in a letter to the Thessalonian church:

  • "May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

  • The installation art structured in the inner mind visualises the continuous formation of human spirit, soul, and body connections in everyday relationships, creating waves, inner conflicts, and collisions, sometimes bleeding like wounded souls. It structures the minds of people who cannot cope with or recognise these conflicts. Furthermore, it encourages confrontation with the inner world and oneself through new structures, transcending the realm of everyday life.

  • Kim Sooja has always been at the forefront of her time, expanding her artistic world in response to the needs of the era. As the real world becomes increasingly complex, and the direction of exchange and media leads to the loss of humanity, Kim Sooja's work focuses on creating her artistic realm in a direction that allows her to listen to the invisible inner voice.

  • Deductive Object, 2016’ reflects a large amorphous structure onto a mirror below, bringing together the realms of earth and sky, and leading the viewer's gaze from a previously complex inner space to an infinite abyss.

  • While Anish Kapoor created abstract yet meditative sculptures that evoke tension and fear in the audience with the smoothness of a woman's nipple on the surface and an overwhelming size that dominates the space, or an unpredictable darkness, Kim Sooja presents works that harmoniously encounter the existing natural world rather than a one-sided and structured space. Her works do not overwhelm the human mind or create an atmosphere of discomfort. Instead, they create environments that allow for a gentle contemplation of the inner self, much like the smoothness of the object's surface.

  • This aspect is connected to the direction of her future-oriented works involving architecture, space, nature, and objects, as well as the artist herself since the 2000s.

  • In 2022 Frieze Seoul Artist talk, Kim Sooja expressed her views on the future of art, emphasising the importance of understanding humanity, creating art that truly communicates and moves the artist from deep within their heart, and moving away from rough and destructive artworks. She hopes that the direction of art will progress towards works that genuinely respect human dignity and contribute to human civilisation.

  • Such an artistic view provides a new sanctuary and meditative space amidst the ongoing transformations, explorations of new objects, and the increasingly complex and aggressive contemporary art world. It prompts audiences to reconsider what true art is. This artistic realm may appear like a dreamy space created by sitting on a bundle truck, absorbing the breath of nature and the dew held overnight, projected in the light. Much like the mythological early works of the artist, which transformed everyday migration into something mysterious, her artistic world may even now be taking long strides towards creating another dreamy yet beautiful future.

  • 10 September, 2022

[1] Carmela thiele, Schnellkurs skulptur, DuMont Buchverlag GmbH, 1995
[2] Hans Ulrich Obrist, Wrapping Bodies and Souls, 1997
[3] Harald Szeeman, Bottari, 2000
[4] A Conversation between Kimsooja and Hou Hanru, Create A new Light, 2016


By Kim Kibu (Independent Curator, MA in Art History, Tsinghua University, Beijing)

김수자 : 사회조각에서 무한의 영역으로

김기부

2022

  • 1994년 경주 옥산서원에서 행해진 김수자의 퍼포먼스는 하나의 사회 조각 작품의 출발점을 알린다. 전통적으로 조각은 어떠한 형태를 새겨서 예술가가 원하는 형태를 만드는 것이 일반적이다. 하지만 조각의 또 다른 정의는 어떤 대상을 모아서 결합하는 것(Assembling)도 내포한다. 그러한 조각의 정의 안에서, 는 김수자의 보따리 작업을 하나의 조각 작품으로, 그리고 포스터 모더니즘적 작품으로 정의할 수 있는 출발점이 된다.

  • 예로부터 계곡 물가는 여인들의 사적인 소통이 일어나는 장소였다. 옥산서원 근처 계곡에서 이뤄지는 예술가의 퍼포먼스는 세대의 심미적 전통과 전승의 결과인 이불보 위를 걸어가면서 하나하나 돌 바닥에 놓여있는 조각보를 수집한다. 이 과정을 통해 하나의 보따리로 만들어나가는 작업을 보여준다. 이 작업은 지극히 개인적이고 일상적인 활동인 것 같아 보이지만 지속적인 세대의 전승에 의해 이뤄진 작업을 현대적으로 전환시킨 행위 예술로 볼 수 있다.

  • 할머니부터 어머니, 그리고 앞으로 새로운 가정을 이뤄나갈 성인 여인의 출발점은 언제나 오색찬란한 이불보의 전승과 선물에서 시작된다. 전통적으로 이불보는 신랑의 집에서 신부의 집으로 송복(送服)이 이뤄질 때 신부의 두벌 옷과 패물, 혼서지(婚書紙)와 함께 오간다. 이 과정 속에서 새로운 가정을 이루기 위한 혼수들이 오고 가는데, 대게 비단·이불감·솜·돈 등을 선물한다. 새로운 가정을 이루기 위해 각 가정마다 이러한 과정을 거치면서 이불보가 쌓이게 된다. 이불보에는 미래에 한 가정을 이뤄나갈 새 출발에 대한 여러가지 축복이 담긴 상징물들이 다양한 색상과 조화를 이루며 새겨진다. 한국의 전통적 복(福)의 정의와 축복의 소망들이 이 조각보에 다양한 방식으로 새겨진 것이다.

  • 한국의 가정에 있어서 이불보는 단순한 기능적 역할을 하는 섬유로 만든 생산품이 아닌, 한 가정을 이루고, 그 가정을 이루기 위해 양측 가정에서 사려깊게 준비하고 선택한 마음과 생각, 심미적 안목이 담겨져 있는 오브젝트인 것이다.

  • 요셉 보이스는 “생각은 곧 조각이다. 단지 하나의 대상물로부터 파생되었거나, 아니면 어느 정도 물질화 과정을 통해 만들어진 조각품보다는, ‘생각한다’는 행위가 이 세상에서 당연히 훨씬 더 격정적으로 작용한다.”[1]라고 조각을 정의하였다. 사회적 출발점을 만들어나가는 생각들이 모인 이불보에는 그 오브젝트를 받는 대상, 즉, 가족의 구성원 마다 각자의 사연과 생각들이 축적되어 있다.

  • 김수자는 이러한 생각들과 추억, 심미적 종합인 이불보를 자신의 사회적 조각을 위한 오브젝트로 선택하고, 세대의 흔적과 시간의 기억들을 하나의 보따리로 묶어 나가는 행위를 진행한다. 할머니와 어머니의 손길이 담겨지고, 가정을 이뤄나가는 하나의 출발점이 되는 이 오브젝트를 한 곳에 모아 때로는 바늘과 실로 꿰어서 형태를 만들거나, 하나로 묶어내어 보따리를 만들어 나간다. 이 과정 자체가 하나의 사회 조각을 창조하는 퍼포먼스인 것이다.

  • 김수자의 작품은, 권위에 의해 소통할 수 없어 추상의 세계로 빠져들게 된 앞 세대의 단색화 운동과 과도한 자기주장과 권위 탈피, 권력에 대한 반목과 대항이라는 주제로 집단적으로 이뤄진 동세대의 민중미술과는 다른 예술 방향성을 선택한다. 그 방향성은 서양 예술계에서 시작한 탈식민적 담론과 다문화적 논쟁과 연결된다. 1989년 퐁피두 센터에서 이뤄진 대지의 마술사들”(Les Magiciens de la terre) 전시로 촉발된 이러한 흐름은, 서양 주류 동시대 예술계에서 더욱 많은 외부인들, 즉, 동양과 아프리카계 예술가들에 대한 전시참여의 기회가 점차 증대되는 시기였다.

  • 이러한 시대 변화에 맞춰서 1992-1993년 MoMA PS1에서 벽 조각 전시를 시작으로 김수자의 예술활동은 다양한 형태로 변형되고 조각된다. 김수자의 동양적이면서도 세련된 현대예술은 시대적 과제를 찾던 수 많은 큐레이터들과의 교류하는 기회를 제공한다. 김수자는 새로운 예술적 출발점을 모색하게 된 것이다.

  • “때로는 ‘바느질’의 개념을 ‘걷기’개념과 연결시켜서 일상 생활의 개념으로 전환시키고, 출생과 죽음의 현장에서 처음 피부를 감싸게 되는 직물과 영혼을 연결시켜 외부의 세계로부터 보호하고 포옹시킨다.”[2]

  • 김수자의 예술 창작 이념은 기나긴 냉전의 종식과 세계화의 촉발, 이동의 자유가 증진되는 시점에 또 다른 개념과 연결된다. 전지구적으로 이뤄지는 디아스포라적 이동과 이주의 증대에 맞춰서 김수자의 작품은 유목민적 작품으로 분류되며 또 다른 해석의 문이 열리게 된다. 이민가방으로 딱딱하게 정의되던 서양의 각진 케이스가 아닌 어떠한 공간에서도 빈틈없이 공간을 메워 나갈 수 있는 부드러운 소재의 김수자의 오브젝트는, 서양인들로 하여금 이동의 순간에도 심미적 요소를 고려하여 다양한 색상과 문양이 새겨진 동양의 멋에 감탄을 자아들게 만들었다.

  • 일상의 보따리는 동시대 예술의 전당인 베니스 비엔날레의 현장에서도 전시가 되고, 이후 신과 조우하며 거룩의 성결함을 요구하는 교회에서도 전시되게 된다. 일상의 영역에서 새로운 공간과 만남을 이뤄나가며, 영원의 영역으로 작품의 활동 공간이 확장되기 시작한 것이다.

  • 1999년과 2001년 베니스 비엔날레 예술부분 총감독을 한 Harald Szeeman는 김수자의 창작행위의 과정과 그의 작품 키워드를 정의하면서 아래와 같이 작품을 정의한다.

  • “가까운 현재에 있고 동시에 먼 곳에 있는 직조의 혼합을 통해, 그녀는 우리에게 가장 기본적인 행동, 즉 우리의 존재의 덧없음, 순간을 즐기는 의식, 변화, 이주, 재정착, 모험, 고통, 익숙한 것을 남겨야 하는 것에 대해 성찰하도록 도전합니다. 그녀는 기억력과 서사가 풍부한 그녀의 옷감을 아름다움과 영향을 미치는 연상의 영역으로 능숙하게 현재의 상황에 맞춥니다.”[3]

  • 김수자의 작품은 시대의 상황에 맞춰서 더욱 개방적이면서도 세계적인 환경의 요구에 맞춰서 활동하며 적응할 수 있는 유목민적 작품의 지위를 누리게 된다. 유목민은 언제든지 떠날 준비를 하는 삶이다. 김수자는 대구에서 직조공장을 최초로 운영하던 조부의 심미적, 재료적 유산과 매번 주둔지를 옮겨가던 군인 아버지의 잦은 이주성이 자신의 작품세계에도 반영이 된 것이다.

  • 2000년 이후 김수자의 작품은 새로운 오브젝트를 통해 예술영역의 정의를 확장시킨다. <To Breathe - A Mirror Woman>에서 김수자는 빛의 호흡에 주목한다. 마드리드 팔라시오 데 크리스탈(Palacio de Cristal, 2006)에서 진행된 작품은 기존의 보따리가 아닌 빛에 주목한다.

  • 인간의 눈으로 확인할 수 있는 빛의 영역은 가시광선의 영역이다. 이 가시광선은 다양한 빛의 조합으로 이뤄지는데, 물의 입자나 반투명의 유리에 빛이 반사가 되면 본래 가지고 있던 색상이 투영되어 빛의 파동을 가시적으로 관찰할 수 있게 된다.

  • 김수자는 이러한 빛의 호흡과 파동을 필름을 통해 건축의 공간에 반영하고 왜곡시켜서, 거울 위에 공간과 빛의 조화가 상을 맺어, 위와 아래의 구분 없이 무한한 공간적 포용을 경험할 수 있게 만든다. 인간의 계획에 의해 만들어진 공간과 천상에서 비춰진 빛이 거울 위 여인 아래로 비춰지고, 인간과 건축, 자연의 표상으로 이미지의 예술 영역이 확장됨을 목도할 수 있다.

  • 이러한 과정은 가시적 경계를 넘나들며 인류에 대한 연민과 폭력에 대한 취약성을 감싸안으며 예술을 통한 치유의 방향을 모색하던 김수자에게 새로운 방향성을 제시한다. 기존에 인간으로 향하던 예술의 시선을 자연계와 무한의 영역으로 작품 영역을 확장시킨 것이다.

  • 특정 필름의 재료가 가지는 수 많은 수직과 수평선의 구조는 빛에 있어서 프리즘과 같은 기능을 가진다. 빛은 이 필름을 통과하여, 무지개 빛을 만들어 나간다. 이 과정을 통해 캔버스와 빛, 색상과 안료의 구조에 대해 연구하던 김수자는 빛과 소리의 본질을 내면적 공간으로 표현할 수 있는 구조를 생각한다. 완전히 밀폐되고 어두운 공간에서 소음이 차단된 침묵의 공간을 조성하여, 빛과 대비시켜 새로운 공간을 창조해 나간다.[4]

  • 기존의 작품은 오브젝트와 행위적 관계, 어떠한 지향적 목표점을 향해 보다 열린 공간으로 나아갔다면, <Archive of Mind, 2016>에서는 밀폐되고 제한된 공간 속에서 일정 빛이 위에서 아래로 향하면서 테이블 위에서는 관객의 참여를 유도한다. 작품에 참여하는 관객들 간의 호흡이 수많은 Clay Ball을 지나면서 충돌과 흡착에 의해 보이지 않는 파동을 만들어 나가면서 원탁에 앉은 타인에게 전달되게 된다. 이 것은 빛의 파동이 우리에게 전달되는 과정을 설치 예술을 통해 시각적으로 보인 것이며, 또 다른 함의를 내포하고 있다.

  • 육체의 대다수를 구성하는 물은 중력의 영향, 뇌의 방향성과 호르몬의 조정에 의해 혈압과 세포, 혈류를 통해 신체 내부세계의 발란스를 조정한다. 이러한 신체와 유사하게 인간의 마음 역시 지속적으로 마음의 방에 몸과 혼, 영의 영역의 교차적 조우를 통해 마음의 상태가 결정이 된다.

  • 2000년 전 사도 바울은 이러한 마음과 몸, 혼의 상태가 현재의 상황뿐만 아니라 영원의 세계와 연결된다는 것을 인지하고 데살로니카 교회에 보내는 편지에 이러한 문구를 남긴다.

  • “평강의 하나님이 친히 너희를 온전히 거룩하게 하시고 또 너희의 온 영과 혼과 몸이 우리 주 예수 그리스도께서 강림하실 때에 흠 없게 보전되기를 원하노라” (데살로니가전서 5장 23절)

  • 내면적 마음에 형태가 구조화된 설치작품은 인간의 영과 혼, 몸의 연결고리가 지속적으로 일상의 관계 속에서 파동을 일으키며, 내면적 갈등과 충돌, 때로는 상처입은 영혼처럼 피흘리며 이에 대처하지 못하고 인지하지 못하는 인간의 마음들을 시각적으로 구조화 시킨다. 그리고 새로운 구조물을 통해 더 이상 일상의 영역이 아닌 내면의 세계와 자신과의 대면을 유도한다.

  • 김수자는 언제나 시대의 필요에 앞서 자신의 작품세계를 펼쳐나갔다. 현실세계는 점점 더 복잡화되고 교류와 매체의 방향성은 인간성을 상실하는 내용들이 세상을 점령해나가고 있는 이 시점에 김수자의 작품은 더욱 보이지 않는 내면의 목소리에 귀를 기울일 수 있는 방향으로 자신의 예술세계를 창조해나간다.

  • (2016)는 커다란 비정형의 구조물을 아래의 거울에 반사 시켜, 땅과 하늘의 영역을 조우시키고, 조형물을 바라볼 때 기존에 복잡화된 내면의 공간은 무한대의 심연의 세계로 나아가게 만든다.
  • 아니쉬 카푸어는 여성의 젖꼭지와 같은 표면의 부드러움과 때로는 압도적인 크기로 공간을 점령하거나, 깊이를 예측할 수 없는 어둠으로 관객들로 하여금 긴장감과 두려움의 감정을 불러일으키는 추상적이면서도 명상적 조각을 만들었다면, 김수자는 이러한 일방적이면서도 구조화된 공간의 요청이 아닌, 기존의 자연계와 함께 조우하면서 조화를 이뤄나가는 작품을 선보인다. 그녀의 작품에서는 인간의 마음을 압도하거나 일방적으로 불편함을 느끼는 분위기를 조장하지 않는다. 오브젝트 표면의 부드러운 느낌처럼 내면을 부드럽게 관조할 수 있는 환경들을 조성한다.

  • 그 점은 2000년대 이후 건축과 공간, 자연과 오브젝트, 그리고 작가 자신의 미래지향적 작품의 방향성과 연결된다.

  • 2022년 Frieze Seoul Artist talk에서 김수자는 앞으로 미래 예술의 방향에 대해 인간에 대한 이해와 작가 스스로 마음 속 깊은 곳에서 감동하며 소통할 수 있는 예술, 더 이상 거칠고 파괴적인 예술 작품이 아닌, 진정으로 인간을 인격적으로 존중하고, 인류 문명사에 도움이 될 수 있는 작품으로 예술의 방향이 진행이 되면 좋겠다고 자신의 예술관을 피력한다.

  • 이러한 예술관은 지속적인 변형과 새로운 오브젝트에 대한 모색과 점차 복잡화되고 과격해지는 현대의 예술세계에 새로운 안식처와 명상의 공간을 제공한다. 그리고 진정한 예술이 무엇인지에 대해 관객들에게 다시 질문하게 된다. 이러한 예술세계는 보따리 트럭 위에 앉아 자연의 호흡과 밤새 머금은 이슬이 빛에 투영되어 하나의 몽환적 공간을 연출한 것처럼 보일 수도 있다. 일상의 이주를 신비로움을 자아내게 만든 그녀의 신화적 초기 작품의 모습처럼, 예술가의 작품세계는 지금 이 순간에도 또 다른 몽환적이면서도 아름다운 미래를 만들어 나갈 먼 걸음을 내딛고 있는지도 모른다.

  • 2022.9.10.

[1] Carmela thiele, Schnellkurs skulptur, DuMont Buchverlag GmbH, 1995
[2] Hans Ulrich Obrist, Wrapping Bodies and Souls, 1997
[3] Harald Szeeman, Bottari, 2000
[4] A Conversation between Kimsooja and Hou Hanru, Create A New Light, 2016


김기부 (독립 큐레이터, 북경 칭화대 예술사 석사)

김수자의 보따리

보따리로 감싸고 자수로 엮어낸 여성성…공통된 키워드는 ‘관계맺기'

김홍희

2021

  • 김수자의 보따리 작업은 바느질과 같은 여성의 가사행위가 예술적으로, 동시에 세계 무대의 맥락 속에서 어떻게 의미화되는지 흥미로운 지점을 보여준다. 어머니와 함께하던 바느질 기억으로부터 천을 이어 붙이는 회화적 천 작업과 조각적 보따리 작업이 탄생했다. 그 보따리는 30년 창작활동과 국내외 전시를 거치면서 양식적·매체적으로 다변화되고 미학적·정치적으로 심화, 확장되고 있다.

  • 지금은 전설이 된 역사적 전시회 ‘떠도는 도시들(Cities on the Move)’(1997~1999)은 신자유주의와 글로벌리즘 영향하에 아시아가 지리정치학적 요지로 부상하면서 신도시 건설붐과 새 도시문화가 부흥되던 1990년대를 배경으로 기획된 시의적인 전시회였다. 작가는 자신의 작업에서 이정표가 된 ‘떠도는 도시들: 보따리 트럭 2727킬로미터’를 발표했다. 보따리를 가득 실은 트럭을 타고 장장 2727㎞를 달린 방랑의 여정을 기록한 이 비디오에서 작가는 스쳐가는 한국 풍경을 뒤로하며 보따리 위에 걸터앉은 채 고정된 프레임 속에서 내내 뒷모습만 보인다. 현대적 도시현상과 진보개념을 역행하듯 보따리와 쓸쓸한 여인의 뒷모습이 유랑민의 소외와 향수를 환기시킨다.

  • 김수자는 1999년 뉴욕으로 이주했다. “문화적 망명자”를 자처한 그는 이방인의 삶을 영위하는 “한계 상황” 속에서 ‘바늘 여인’과 같은 퍼포먼스 비디오를 탄생시킨다. 첫번째 ‘바늘 여인’(1999~2001)은 도쿄·상하이·런던·뉴욕 등 인구가 밀집한 8개 대도시에서 촬영한 다채널 비디오다. 작가는 여기서도 관객으로부터 등을 돌린 채 대도시 군중 물결 한가운데 부동의 자세로 서 있다. 내적 동요를 불러일으키는 부동의 뒷모습, 그 특유의 이러한 미장센은 도쿄 시부야 번화가에서 느꼈던 실존적 경험에 근간한다. 행인 인파로 자신이 “지워지는” 느낌을 받는 순간, 그들과 하나 되는 일체감으로 “안도와 마음의 평화”를 되찾았다고 그는 회고한다. 이것이 무명의 군중을 보자기로 감싸는 연민·포용·환대의 감흥이 아니었을까?

  • 두번째 ‘바늘 여인’(2005~2009)에서 작가는 정치적·종교적 분쟁, 내전·폭력과 빈곤으로 피폐해진 6개 도시인 파탄·예루살렘·사나·하바나·리우데자네이루·은자메나를 탐방했다. 착취되고 거세된 현장, 유토피아·디스토피아가 엇갈리는 혼란을 대면하면서 작가는 자신이 찌르고 봉합하는 바늘이 돼 지구와 인류의 불행을 지우는 치유자가 되기를 염원했다.

  • 우리를 각성시키는 바늘 여인의 메시지는 ‘실의 궤적’(2010~2019) 연작에서 다른 모습으로 계승된다. 인류학적·고고학적·문명사적 다큐멘터리이자, 유럽과 남·동아시아, 북·남미, 아프리카 등 다른 문화권을 이동하며 직물의 경로를 추적한 이 대하 서사시에서 작가의 모습은 사라지고 카메라 뒤에서 응시하는 눈이 직조문화의 원형적 장면과 어휘를 포착하며 다양한 직조문화에 내재한 인간 존재의 원형, 원초적 생명원리를 발견하게 한다.

  • 김수자는 한편으로 자신의 몸을 매체화하는 숨소리 사운드 퍼포먼스를 수행해왔다. ‘직조공장’(2004)은 폴란드 우치의 공장 빈 건물에서 영감을 받아 자신의 숨소리와 허밍 사운드로 공장을 재가동시킨다는 개념으로 발상됐다. 들숨·날숨의 반복되는 호흡을 씨줄·날줄로 교차되는 직물에 유비시키는 호흡 퍼포먼스는 2006년 베니스의 라 페니체 극장에서 발표한 ‘호흡: 보이지 않는 거울, 보이지 않는 바늘’로 본격화됐고, 같은 해 마드리드 크리스탈 팰리스 개인전 ‘호흡: 거울여인’에서는 건축물에 부착된 특수필름과 바닥에 설치된 거울을 통해 반사되는 빛이 호흡 퍼포먼스와 어우러지는, 빛과 호흡이 공명하는 공감각적 보따리를 창출했다.

  • 숨소리와 빛으로 공간을 감싸는, 탈물질화된 보따리를 ‘후기 보따리’로 명명한다면, 2013년 베니스비엔날레 한국관 전시가 이를 명문화한다. 작가는 한국관의 유리 전면을 특수필름으로 덮어 무한대로 굴절되는 무지갯빛으로 공간을 가득 채우고, 바닥에 거울을 부착해 반사된 빛을 재투영시키는 만화경 같은 미러링 효과를 연출했다.

  • 2016년 국립현대미술관 현대차시리즈 개인전 ‘마음의 기하학’에서도 관객이 점토를 구형으로 빚게 하는 퍼포먼스를 통해 ‘후기 보따리’를 예증했다. 특수필름을 사용하는 빛 작업과 함께 ‘구의 궤적’이란 새로운 소리 작업으로 관객을 공명시켰다. 커다란 타원형 탁자 위를 굴러가는 찰흙 공의 마찰 소리와 작가의 가글링 소리가 뒤섞인, 어떤 언술보다 강력한 주술적 초성의 마력이 관객과의 일체감을 조성했다. 이로써 주객체를 연결하는 ‘마음의 기하학’이 완결됐다.

— The Kyunghyang daily news, March 2021

김수자, 문화인류학적 탐구를 이어가는 바늘 여인

이연재

2021

  • 보따리 오브제와 바늘 여인으로 2000년대 전후 세계 미술무대에서 명성을 얻은 김수자(1957∼)는 어머니와 이불보를 만들며 바느질을 하고 있을 때, 온 우주적 에너지가 자신의 몸을 통과하여 바늘 끝에 모이는 느낌을 경험했다고 밝혀왔다. 손으로 직물을 짜고 만드는 행위는 전통적으로 여성들이 전담했고, 이는 예술(art)이 아닌 수공예(craft)로 분류되었다. 그러나 ‘쓰여진 것’이라는 의미의 ‘텍스트(text)’의 라틴어 어원이 ‘짜여진 것(thing woven)’이라는 점을 상기해보면, 김수자의 작업들은 여성적 행위를 환유하는 ‘바느질’로 만든 직물들을 보여줄 뿐 아니라 이것들이 인간에 의해 직조되고 기록되어 온 문화·역사적인 텍스트로 확장되는 것으로 해석할 수 있다. 작가의 작업은 부차적인 것으로 간주되어 온 여성들의 서사가 사실은 인류의 문화·역사 기반 곳곳에 짙게 배어있다는 점을 은연중에 보여주는 것이다. 우리는 김수자의 작업에서 역사의 주변부로 위치 지워진 영역들의 문화인류학적 전복을 읽을 수 있다.

  • 김수자가 미술대학을 다니던 1970년대 말∼1980년대 초반의 우리나라 화단은 크게 단색화 계열과 민중미술 계열 작가들로 양분되어 있었다고 볼 수 있다. 그리고 다다적인 오브제· 행위 미술, 개념미술 등 실험적인 작업을 탐구하는 작가들도 일군 존재했다. 그러나 김수자는 “정치적 미술이 내재한 공격적 측면에 공감할 수 없었고” [1] 그렇다고 단색화의 시류를 따르고 싶지 않았다. 그는 미술대학을 다니던 당시 재료와 물성에 대한 탐구뿐 아니라 아방가르드적인 설치나 퍼포먼스를 시도하기도 했다. 그러면서도 캔버스 회화의 구조와 이 세계의 내적 구조에 대해 고민하고 있었다는 김수자는 우리 주변에 이미 존재하는 십자(十字)형의 기호에서 그 답을 찾고자 했다. 김수자는 이러한 수평·수직의 기하학적 기호는 역사 이전의 시간에서부터 전해 내려온 것이며, 이것이 보이지 않는 우주의 질서와 본질을 함축하고 있기 때문이라는 아이디어를 석사학위 논문으로 발전시켰다. [2]

  • 김수자는 자신에게 불편하지 않고 익숙한 소재들인 실, 바늘 등을 사용하여 캔버스 틀을 벗어난, 콜라주 회화 작업을 시작했다. 그는 당시의 자신에 작업에 대해 서양의 현대미술에서 다루지 않았던 재료를 사용하여 “여성의 일상을 현대미술사의 문맥에서 재해석하고 펼쳐 보이려는” [3] 아방가르드적 접근이었다고 평가했다. 씨실과 날실이 종횡으로 엮인 비단 이불보, 그리고 이를 바늘이 수직으로 뚫고 들어가고 나가고를 반복하며 잇는 행위는 김수자가 구축해나가기 시작한 고유의 조형적 세계관을 시각적으로 풀어낸 형식이었다. 김수자의 초기 ‘꿰매기’ 회화는 곧 우리에게 잘 알려진 입체적 보따리 오브제로 변주되었고, 이 꿰매기와 보따리 모티프는 이후 전개된 작가의 영상작업에서도 영감의 원천이 되었다.

  • 작가의 초기 ‘꿰매기’ 회화 작품은 사각형의 조각보들과 색동천을 한 땀 한 땀 바느질하여 이어붙인 것이다. 바느질 자국을 살펴보면 작가는 사실 이보다 더 규칙적이고 반듯하게 잘 꿰맸을 수 있었을 것이다. 어느 지점은 바느질이 듬성듬성하고 또 어느 지점은 꽤 촘촘하다. 사용된 천의 모양도 정확하게 재단된 정사각형이나 직사각형이 아니고, 모서리 실밥이 드문드문 풀어헤쳐진 것이 보인다. 작가는 당시 수평·수직의 문제에 깊이 빠져있었다고 했는데, 김수자의 조각보 콜라주 회화에 드러난 수평·수직은 몬드리안의 기하추상 회화와 달리 정확하고 단단하게 각이 잡혀있지 않다. 천 조각들을 덧대어 성기게 이어붙인 마디를 들추면 미세하게 벌어지는 틈이 남겨져 있는 것이다. 어떤 조각보 면은 검은 잉크와 아크릴 물감이 거칠게 덧발라져 있다. 수평과 수직의 조형요소로 추출된, 균형 잡힌 완전함에 대한 갈망에도 불구하고 본디 우리의 삶은 아무리 계획하고 재단해도 엉성하며 때로는 암흑으로 뒤덮이기도 한다는 것을 은유하듯 말이다.

  • 김수자는 전통 가옥의 문살에 이 형형색색의 조각보들을 덧대거나 휘감는 설치 작업을 지나 조각보 자체를 볼륨을 가진 입체적 오브제로 발전시킨다. 그는 1992년 뉴욕현대미술관 PS1 레지던시에 참여했을 때, 이불보로 만든 보따리 작업을 선보였다. 뉴욕 레지던시에서 보따리에 싸인 자신의 짐을 보고 영감을 얻었던 것이다. 지금은 세대교체와 생활양식의 변화로 보따리가 흔하게 볼 수 있는 사물은 아니지만 당시 한국인에게 아주 익숙한 사물이었던 보따리는 그저 둥글게 말은 짐꾸러미였다. 그 꾸러미 안에는 귀한 선물이 들어있기도 하고, 장소를 옮겨가면서도 꼭 가지고 가야 하는 필수적이고 소중한 물건들이 싸매져 있었다. 불편한 이동 중에도 이고 지고 들고 간 짐꾸러미 보따리에는 낯선 곳에서 잘 뿌리내리고 살아가보겠다는 의지와 간절한 마음이 깃들어 있던 것이다.

  • 보따리 오브제의 소재인 비단 이불보는 한국인이 겪는 생로병사의 흔적이 내재된 천이다. 우리는 이불 위에서 나고 죽으며, 잠들고 사랑한다. 한국 여성들은 여전히 인생의 큰 관문인 혼인을 준비할 때 혼수와 예단으로 이불을 준비한다. 김수자는 한국 전통색감의 이불보와 조각보를 사용한 것은 오직 오리엔탈리즘, 포스트식민주의, 한국의 지역적 미학에 대한 관심에서 비롯된 것이 아니라 그것들이 본인 삶의 큰 부분이었기 때문이었다고 말했다. [4] 또한 작가는 최근 인터뷰에서 “그 재료 자체가 현대미술의, 특히 회화의 평면성과 그 구조를 실험하는 유효한 출발점이라고 생각했고 만약 이것이 실존의 문제, 여성과 인간의 본질적 삶의 화두를 가져오는 재료가 아니었다면 쓰지 않았을 것” [5] 이라고 밝혔다. 1990년대에는 지구촌, 세계화가 화두였던 시기였다. 권력과 위계를 해체하는 포스트모더니즘 이론은 경제적·문화적 패권을 쥐고 있던 미국과 유럽 중심주의를 벗어나 주변부, 제3세계에 대한 관심을 불러일으켰다. 이에 따라 중심부에 편입되지 못하고 떠도는 자들에 대한 이야기(이산과 유목주의)가 미술계의 하나의 거대 주제로 부상하였다. 따라서 작가가 의도하였든 아니든, 이러한 한국적인 소재와 정서는 역으로 세계무대에서 좋은 반응을 얻었다.

  • 보따리 오브제 설치는 영상작업으로 확장되었다. <떠도는 도시들 - 보따리 트럭 2727km>(1997)은 용달 트럭에 실린 보따리들 위에 올라앉은 작가의 뒷모습을 보여준다. 이 트럭은 어린 시절 작가가 이사 다녔던 우리나라의 지역들을 찾아 이동하는데, 이렇게 이동하는 작가의 뒷모습을 바라보던 관객은 마치 작가의 뒷자리에 함께 앉아 이사가는 그 상황 속에 놓인 듯한 느낌을 받게 된다. 덜컹거리며 나아가는 보따리 트럭에 몸을 싣고서 멀리 앞을 응시하는 작가의 모습은 명상적이다. 이동하는 그 상황 속에 함께 놓인 관객은 경계를 넘어 새로운 영토에 들어가 그가 맞닥뜨릴 삶에 대한 두려움, 희망 그리고 잠시 익숙했던 곳을 떠나야만 하는 아쉬움의 감정을 공유하게 된다. 그리고 묶은 머리를 길게 내려뜨린 이 여성이 홀로 짐꾸러미를 싸고 이를 트럭에 단단히 동여맸을 모습을 짐작하게 된다. 결국, 김수자의 보따리 트럭 영상작업은 때로는 정착에 성공하였을 테지만, 대부분은 본 땅에 안착하지 못하고 가장자리를 배회했을 외부인·이민자들의 외로운 역사의 기억을 여성의 몸으로써 불러일으킨다. 작가는 이 작업이 “나와 우리 가족의 뿌리에 관한 기록에 가까웠다”고 [6] 했다. 이 영상작업은 한스 울리히 오브리스트와 하랄드 제만이 각각 기획했던 국제 전시에 출품되었고, 이를 기점으로 김수자는 세계 미술계에서 명성을 쌓아갔다.

  • 김수자의 최초의 영상작업 <바느질하며 걷기 - 경주>(1994)는 돌과 낙엽이 쌓인 땅 위에 원색의 이불보들을 넓게 펼쳐두고, 작가가 그 위를 걸으며 이불보들을 손으로 하나씩 거둬들이는 퍼포먼스 영상이다. 바닥에 깔린 다채로운 이불보들을 발로 밟고, 손으로 거둬들이며, 이를 팔에 걸치는 작가의 행위는 스스로 바늘의 역할을 하고 있음을 암시한다. 이는 퍼포먼스가 자연이라는 거대한 캔버스를 꿰매고 있음을 상징적으로 개념화 한 작업이었다. 또한 베틀을 이용해 실을 수평·수직의 엮어 손으로 삼베를 짜던 여성들의 전통적인 모습을 은유한다고 볼 수 있다. 전술하였듯, 생로병사의 흔적이 내재된 이불보를 긴머리를 하나로 묶은 여성이 바늘이 되어 그 속을 들고 나며 엮는 모습을 보여주는 것이다. 이 작업은 이후 제작된 김수자의 영상작업들에서 발견되는 공통적인 주제를 예고한다.

  • <바늘 여인>(1999∼2001)에서 작가는 8개의 각 화면 가운데 등을 보인 채 부동의 자세로 서 있다. <보따리 트럭>에서처럼 관객은 긴머리를 하나로 묶은 작가의 뒷모습을 보게 되고, 작가의 옆을 스쳐 지나가는 도쿄·상하이·멕시코시티·런던·델리·뉴욕·카이로·라고스 도심 속 수많은 군중들을 마주치게 된다. 8채널 영상 속 전 세계 군중들에 둘러싸인 관객은 그들의 바쁜 움직임과 강한 에너지를 함께 느끼게 된다. 제목에서 드러나듯 이 영상에서 작가는 명확하게 바늘의 역할을 자처하며, 여기에 지켜보는 관객도 가담시킨다. 그렇다면 바늘에 꿸 실과 원색의 원단들은 어디에 있는가. 바늘 여인 옆을 스쳐가는 한 사람, 한 사람이 각각의 날실이자 직물이 되는 것이다. 그 하나하나의 날실에 축적된 각자의 시간과 기억들, 삶의 아우라가 바늘 여인과 관객의 곁을 통과하는 것이다. 결국, 이 작업은 자유롭게 흐르는 이러한 수많은 날실들이 서로 엮이고 상호 관계되어 그 도시 고유의 사회문화적 콘텍스트가 만들어지고 있음을 함축적으로 보여준다. 바늘 여인인 작가는 이 과정에 관객이 적극 동참하도록 제안하면서 홀로 독창적이고 중심적인 모더니즘적 작가의 지위에서 벗어난다.

  • 김수자의 비교적 최근 작업인 <실의 궤적>(2010∼2019)은 문화의 다양성에 대한 존중과 경의가 담긴 문화인류학적 다큐멘터리라고 부를 수 있다. 다양한 문화권의 직조문화를 다루고 있는 이 영상작업 시리즈는 6개의 장으로 구성되어 있는데, 각 챕터는 페루의 직물 문화(Ⅰ), 유럽의 레이스 문화(Ⅱ), 인도의 판목 날염 문화(Ⅲ), 중국의 자수 문화(Ⅳ), 미국 원주민의 직물과 바구니 문화(Ⅴ), 모로코의 모자이크 타일 문화(Ⅵ) 등을 기록하여 보여준다. 손으로 꿰매고, 엮고, 두드려서 만드는 각 민족 고유의 공예 방식과 그 민족이 살아온 대자연·고대 유적·건축물 등을 화면 속에 병렬한 것이다.

  • 예를 들어, Ⅰ장에서는 페루 전통의상을 입은 여성이 꽃과 식물의 잎으로 염색한 실을 손으로 감고 돌려가며 직물(textile)을 짜고 있다. 고대 페루 문화에서 직물짜기는 개인과 지역의 정체성을 보여주는 중요한 방식이었다. 알파카·라마·양의 털 등 자연에서 온 원료가 여인의 손에서 실의 형태로 뽑혀 나와 텍스타일로 만들어지는 것이다. 작가는 페루 여성이 입고 있는 전통의상의 자수 문양과 그의 뒤로 보이는 고대 페루 유적지의 기하학적 패턴, 그리고 여성의 손에 의해 돌고 있는 실패의 모양에서 형태적 유사성이 발견되도록 카메라 촬영 구도를 의도하였다. 유럽의 레이스 제작문화를 다룬 Ⅱ장에서는 바람에 흔들리는 초목과 꽃을 보여주던 화면이 손으로 보빈 레이스를 만드는 유럽 여성의 모습으로 전환된다. 그리고 자연을 닮은 보빈 레이스의 문양과 유럽 건축물에서 발견되는 구조가 어떻게 연결되어 있는지 보여준다.

  • 김수자의 이 영상작업은 여성은 자연, 남성은 문화와 연관되어 있다는 인류학의 전통적인 이분법적 서술에 부드럽게 저항한다. 여성적 작업의 기호인 공예와 텍스타일이 각 민족·지역의 텍스트, 콘텍스트를 구성하고 있음을 보여주는 것이다. 작가는 자연, 전통의상, 직물, 공예, 음식, 건축을 화면 속에 병치하고 뒤섞는 방식을 채택했다. 이를 통해 그동안 인류학자들이 특권적으로 규정해 온, 인간의 문화 및 사상의 발전사라는 거대 구조의 근저에는 젠더화 된 남성·여성적의 작업 모두 공존한다는 것을 암시한다.

  • 바느질에서 출발한 김수자의 작업은 여성적인 행위와 노동을 자연, 결혼, 가족 등 여성에게 허락되어온 영역 속에 종속시켜 묘사하지 않고, 젠더화 된 권력과 지식체계를 균형 있게 재구성하는 시도를 보여준다. 인류의 문화양식은 서서히 축적되어 변증법적으로 발전되어 왔다. 이 발전과정 속에는 언제나 역사의 승자만 존재했던 것은 아니다. 김수자는 그다지 중요한 것으로 여겨지지 않았던, 중심의 바깥에 위치한 사물, 기억, 존재들을 작업 속으로 끌고 와 탐구자의 시선으로 조명한다. 이를 통해 서구의 지배적인 이론과 지식으로 편중된 우리 사고체계의 틈새에 새로운 무게 추를 올려둔다.

  • — Contemporary Art Forum, June 2021

이연재(1986∼), 이화여대 대학원 미술사학과 석사, 현재 서울시립미술관 수집연구과 학예연구사
[1] 김수자·후한루 대담, 「새로운 빛을 밝히다」, 『김수자-마음의 기하학』(국립현대미술관, 2017), p. 46.
[2] 김수자, 「조형기호의 보편성과 유전성의 관한 고찰: 십자형 기호를 중심으로」, 홍익대학교 석사학위논문, 1984.
[3] 김수자와의 메일 인터뷰, 2021년 5월 10일.
[4] 김수자·후 한루 대담(2017), p. 56.
[5] 김수자와의 메일 인터뷰, 2021년 5월 10일.
[6] 김수자·후 한루 대담(2017), p. 24

아우름과 떠남의 미학: 김수자의 보따리

윤난지

2020

  • ‘작가 김수자’ 하면 맨 먼저 떠오르는 이미지가 ‘보따리’다. 주로 서민들의 이삿짐이었던 알록달록한 이불 천으로 된 보따리는 김수자 작업의 화두이자 1990년대 미술의 주요 아이콘이다. 모든 것을 아우르면서도 또 다른 곳을 향한 떠남을 암시하는 보따리는 세계가 하나로 이어지고 여행과 이주가 빈번해진 이른 바 전 지구화 시대를 표상하는 모티프가 되었다. 더하여, 한국의 토착문화, 그중에서도 특히 여성문화와 그 문화의 이동을 의미함으로써 로컬과 글로벌, 주변과 중심이 교차하는 당대 세계의 문화지형도에도 적절하게 부합하였다. 보따리 작업이 구체적으로 시작된 것은 1992년 우연한 계기를 통해서이지만 그 연원은 이전 으로 거슬러 올라간다. 김수자가 수업기를 보낸 1970년대 말~1980년대 초는 이른바 단색화 시대였는데, 이때부터 그는 단색화의 모더니즘 미학, 특히 그 고답적인 정신주의에 의문을 가지면서 천이라는 촉각적 재료와 바느질이라는 일상공예 기법을 평면작업에 적용하는 실험을 시도하였다. 또한 자신의 신체 움직임을 기하학적 구조로 분석한 <구조-몸의 연구>(1981, 사진, 실크스크린)에서처럼, ‘몸’을 작업의 주요 계기로 주목하게 된다. 몸과 그 몸이 살아가는 일상이라는 화두에 점차 이끌리게 된 것인데, 이에 확신을 갖게 한 계기가 작가가 자주 언급해온 어머니와의 바느질이다.

  • “어머니와 함께 이불을 꿰매는 일상적인 행위 속에서 나의 사고와 감수성과 행위 이 모두가 일치하는 은밀하고도 놀라운 일체감을 체험했으며... 천이 가지는 기본 구조로서의 날실과 씨실, 우리 천의 그 원초적인 색감, 평면을 넘나드는 꿰매는 행위의 천과의 자기동일성, 그리고 그것이 불러일으키는 묘한 향수... 이 모든 것들에 나 자신은 완전히 매료되었다고 할 수 있다.”[1]

  • 1983년의 이 경험을 통해 그는 당대 두 주류로 대치하고 있던 단색화와도, 민중미술과도 다른, 자신만의 작업에 집중하게 된다. 이후 그는 알록달록한 천의 질감과 바느질 자국을 드러내는 천 콜라주로, 지게나 얼레 등 전통기물을 천으로 싼 오브제 작업으로, 그리고 천 조각들 자체를 오브제 삼아 집적한 아쌍블라주로 과감하게 나아갔다. 평면작업의 재료가 되었던 천이 점차 그 자체로서 미학적 의미를 드러내게 된 것이다.

  • 이런 천 작업의 연장선상에서 1992년 우연한 계기로 발견한 모티프가 ‘보따리’다. 그가 뉴욕 PS1에 체류 중이던 어느 날 천 재료들을 싸서 보관한 보따리가 눈에 띄게 되었는데, 작가의 말처럼, 그 순간 보따리는 “하나의 조각이고 회화”[2]가 되었다. 서로 다른 것을 하나로 아우르는 보따리는 또한 바늘 없는 바느질, 즉 어머니와의 일상에서 발견한 새로운 미학의 또 다른 구현물이었다.

  • 이렇게 발견한 보따리를 김수자는 같은 해 오픈 스튜디오에서 처음 전시하게 되는데, 이 작업에도 이전 오브제 싸기 작업과 마찬가지로 <연역적 오브제>라는 이름을 붙였다. 천으로 또 다른 평면을 만들어가는 초기 작업의 귀납적인 방법에 대해 천을 통해 오브제를 역 추적한다는 의미를 함축한 이 명칭이 보따리에도 부합했기 때문이다. 그에게 보따리는 하나의 모티프로 그치는 것이 아니라 자신의 작업 원리를 구현한 시각 기호였던 것이다.

  • 싸고 묶고 풀고 다시 싸는 과정을 함축한 보따리는 여성의 일상 특히 그 신체적 움직임과 긴밀하게 엮인 오브제인데, 이를 구체화한 예가 1994년의 전시 《바느질하여 걷기》(갤러리 서미)다. 전시장 바닥에 배치된 보따리들과 옷가지들, 오래된 가옥이나 자연 속에 놓인 보따리와 펼쳐진 천들 사이에서 움직이는 작가를 찍은 영상, 그리고 그 설치 공간 속을 걸어 다니는 관람자를 찍은 실시간 영상으로 이루어진 이 전시는 보따리가 여성 몸의 움직임과 하나가 되는 과정을 구현한 총체적 퍼포먼스였다. 영상에서 작가는 스스로 보따리들 중 하나가 되거나 보따리 천을 펼치고 싸거나 자연이라는 드넓은 천 속으로 바느질하듯 걸어 들어가는 행위를 시연하였다. 자신의 모든 작업을 천이 이끄는 ‘퍼포먼스’[3]라고 한 작가의 입장이 이 전시를 통해 구체화된 것이다.

  • 이렇게 관람자를 퍼포머로 끌어들이는 퍼포먼스는 1995년 광주비엔날레 작업으로도 이어졌다. 중외공원에서 이루어진 같은 제목의 작업에서 작가는 자연 속에 헌 옷과 보따리들을 펼쳐 놓고 관람자들이 그 속을 걸을 수 있게 하였다. 반전 운동의 상징 존 레논의 노래 ‘이매진(Imagine)’과 ‘스탠 바이 미(Stand by Me)’가 흘러나오는 현장은 광주 민주화운동의 참상을 떠올리게 하면서 이 작업의 정치적 의미를 부각하였다. 두 달여 전시 후에 흙과 낙엽과 옷이 뒤범벅이 된 현장은 이를 다시 확인하게 했다. 이 작업을 통해 보따리는 희생자의 넋을 기린다는 치유의 의미 또한 함축하게 되었다. 보따리는 퍼포먼스와 엮이면서 바느질로, 그 신체적 구현으로서의 걷기로, 그리고 그 심리적 효과로서의 아우르기로 그 의미가 확장되어 간 것이다.

  • 이런 퍼포먼스와 함께 보따리가 움직임 혹은 이동의 매체이자 도상으로 부각된 것은 당연한 수순일 것이다. 보따리와 작가의 몸이 함께 이동하는 <떠도는 도시들-2727Km 보따리 트럭>(1997)이 그 증거다.

“보따리를 싸고 풀듯이 내 몸 역시 끊임없이 머물고 떠납니다.”[4]

  • 1995년의 한 대담에서의 작가의 이 말이 예언이 된 듯, 2년 후 그는 스스로 하나의 보따리가 되어 다른 보따리들과 함께 머물고 떠나는 여정을 시도하였다. 보따리를 실은 트럭에 작가가 함께 타고 11일 동안 전국의 마을들을 누비는 퍼포먼스이자 이를 기록한 비디오 영상인 이 작업은 아우름과 함께 떠남의 계기를 함축하는 보따리 미학을 작가가 몸소 실천한 예다. 이사가 잦았던 어린 시절 주거지들을 거쳐 가는 이 여정을 통해 그 자신도 모든 것을 아우르면서도 끊임없이 떠나는, 혹은 떠남으로써 또 다른 것을 아우르는 보따리가 되었다.

  • 작가 자신 또한 유목 혹은 여행의 주체로 부각된 것인데, 전 세계 여러 도시들에서 이루어진 거리 퍼포먼스를 기록한 <바늘 여인> 시리즈(1999~)는 이런 작가 개념이 또 다른 형태로 이어진 예다. 작가 스스로 바늘이 되어 현지인들 속으로 스며드는 과정을 기록한 이 비디오 작업에서 보따리는 사라졌지만 그 의미는 “치유의 도구”[5]로서의 바늘을 통해 구현되었다. 여기서 김수자는 자신의 몸을 스쳐 가는 낯선 이들을 조용히 바라보는 뒷모습으로 등장한다. 그에게 여행은 다른 문화를 포획하기 위한 것이 아니라 그 문화를 있는 그대로 수용하고 또한 있는 그대로 두고 떠나기 위한 것이다. 이는 19세기 산업혁명이 촉발한 남성적 정복의 여행과 대극에 있다. 마치 바늘이 헝겊과 헝겊을 이어주고 떠나듯, 보따리가 서로 다른 천들을 감쌌다 풀어주듯 그는 아우름과 떠남의 반복으로서의 여행, 이른바 여성적 포용의 여행을 실천한 것이다. 어머니와의 바느질 체험이 사회적 차원으로 드러난 그의 여행은 사람과 사람을 이어주는 부드러운 정치학의 구현이다. 소외된 지역이나 분쟁 지역에서 이루어진 이후의 작업들이 이를 보다 선명하게 드러낸다.

  • 이렇게 김수자의 작업을 이끌어 온 것이 보따리와 그 미학이며 이는 현재까지도 이어지고 있다. 보따리는 펼쳐져 빨래처럼 널리기도, 낯선 이국 카페의 테이블보로 쓰이기도, 조각조각 잘려 벽돌 틈새에 끼워지기도 하면서 변이를 거듭해 왔다. 비디오 작업 또한 장소를 달리하면서 지속되었다. 보따리 트럭은 1998년 사웅파울로 비엔날레 등 전 세계 여러 곳에서 전시되면서 이른바 노마디즘(nomadism) 시대의 아이콘이 되었다. 특히 ‘코소보 난민에게 바침’이라는 부제가 붙은 1999년 베니스 비엔날레의 것은 이주와 그에 따른 문제를 전 세계적인 차원으로 확장하는 계기가 되었다. 2007년 파리에서 이민자 관련 장소들을 순회하면서 다시 제작된 보따리 트럭에는 ‘이주’라는 부제가 붙었다. 이는 최근 작가가 전시감독을 맡은 푸아티에 비엔날레 《가로지르기/김수자》(2019.10.12.~2020.1.19.)에도 전시되었으며, <보따리>라는 이름으로 설치된 뉴욕 이삿짐 컨테이너와 함께 전시의 의미를 각인시켰다. 보따리가 바느질로 개념화된 <바늘 여인> 또한 전 세계 여러 도시에서 시연되어 왔다.

  • 마드리드 크리스털 궁전 설치 작업(2006)에서 시작된 <숨쉬기> 연작은 보따리 개념을 건축적 공간에 적용한 예다. 유리창에 붙인 회절격자 필름을 통해 오방색 빛으로 가득 찬 공간을 연출한 것인데, 이는 빛으로 가득 찬, 그리고 그 빛의 움직임처럼 살아 숨 쉬는 보따리다. 스피커를 통해 들려오는 작가의 숨소리와 허밍소리는 그 공간을 거대한 신체로 체험하게 한다. 전 세계 다양한 건물들을 옮겨 다니며 지속되고 있는 이런 작업과 함께 보따리는 점차 비 물질화되고 개념화되어 왔는데, 근작 <마음의 기하학>(2016)은 그것이 심리적인 차원으로 발현된 예다. 관람자들은 점토로 각자의 형상을 만들면서 마음의 보따리를 싸고 푸는 과정을 통해 자신과 타인의 내면을 넘나들게 되는 것이다.

  • 1990년대를 관통하고 2000년대로 이어진 김수자 작업은 그 자체가 신체적, 심리적 유목의 도정이었다. 평면도 입체도, 비움도 채움도 되는 보따리의 유연함이 그의 작업, 그 유목을 가능하게 한 것이며, 이를 통해 그의 작업은 인간 사회를 넘어 자연과 우주를 포괄하는 방향으로 전개되었다. 작업의 내용 뿐 아니라 작업방식, 나아가 전시와 사회활동에 있어서도 작가의 유목은 지속되었다. 자신의 뉴욕 행을 일종의 “문화적 망명”[6]으로 본 작가 말대로, 그는 단지 물리적으로 뿐 아니라 심리, 사회적으로도 거처를 옮겨 다닌 것이다. 1980년대 중·후반에는 일본과 대만, 1990년대 초·중엽에는 뉴욕, 이후 전 세계 여러 도시들로 이어진 그의 여정은 아직도 지속되고 있다. “언제쯤 바느질 뜸을 따라 걸어가는 이 길이 끝날 것인가”7라는 작가 자신의 질문은 진행 중이다.

  • 이렇게 끊임없이 움직이는 작업의 여정에서 작가 이미지는 거의 변하지 않는 모습, 즉 긴 검은 머리를 묶거나 땋은 뒷모습으로 기호화되어 왔다. 작업의 유동성에도 불구하고 작가 자신은 전형적인 아시아 여성으로서의 이미지를 고수해왔는데, 이런 이미지는 그의 작업을 페미니즘과 관련짓지 않을 수 없게 한다. 김수자 스스로도, 페미니스트 작가를 자처하지는 않지만, 자신의 여성적 정체성을 부정하지는 않으며 작업을 통해서도 이를 일관되게 추구해왔다. 여성적 일상, 특히 어머니와의 모성적 유대관계를 통해서 발견한 소재와 기법에서 출발한 그의 작업은 이른바 ‘여성적 감수성(feminine sensibility)'의 존재를 확인하게 하는 점에서 페미니즘 중에서도 본질주의(essentialism)와 닿아 있다. 자신의 재료인 천을 “감싸고 덮고 보호하는 것” 즉 “여성의 자궁과 같은 이미지”8로 본 작가의 입장이 이를 확인하게 한다.

  • 1990년대 미술에서 김수자 작업이 의미 있는 위치를 차지한다면, 그것은 단순히 재료와 기법을 통해 여성적 일상을 미술의 영역으로 수용하고 설치와 퍼포먼스, 비디오 등 새로운 방법과 매체 실험을 시도하였기 때문만은 아니다. 몸과 마음 같은 생리, 심리의 세계와 기하학적 구조라는 수학 혹은 과학의 원리를 융합하려는 의도가 초기 작업에서부터 일관되게 내재되어 있는 것을 목도할 수 있듯이, 그의 작업의 진정한 의미는 서구 근대의 이분법적 세계관을 넘어선 또 다른 미학을 제안한 점에 있다. 이는 서구 근대를 추동한 남성 미학, 그 배제의 논리에 대해 포용의 원리라는 대안을 제안하는 점에서 여성 미학으로 이름 지을 수 있을 것이다.

  • 보따리는 이러한 여성 미학의 출발점이자 그 도상이다. 모든 것을 아우르면서도 또한 모든 것을 떠나보내는 보따리는 하나의 목표를 향해 정진해 온 모더니스트 영웅 신화, 그 남성적인 직진의 논리를 비껴간다. 한국성의 기호이자 여성성의 기호인 보따리는 다양한 문화들과의 접점과 함께 차이를 또한 만들어내면서 로컬 문화를 글로벌한 지평에 스며들게 하였다. 로컬 문화를 통한 글로벌한 아우름의 표상인 그것은 정복이 아닌 포용을 지향하는, 그런 의미에서 여성적인 글로벌리즘의 도상이다.

  • 몸과 천이 하나가 된 또 다른 보따리 <만남-바라보며 바느질하기>(1998, 2011)에서 나는 천에서 혼령을 불러내는 영매와 같은 예술가, 김수자를 본다. 그는 보따리 작업을 시작한 이래 아우름과 떠남을 반복하면서 인간과 인간, 문화와 자연의 교응을 중개해 왔다. ‘아우르고 떠나기’ 이것이 김수자의 노마디즘, 이를 통한 글로벌리즘의 진정한 정체다.

  • — Monthly Art Magazine, November 2020, pp. 66-69

[1] 김수자, 「작가노트」, 『김수자』(전시도록), 갤러리 현대, 1988, p.9.

[2] 박영택, 김수자(대담), 「김수자: 평면에서 입체로의 접근, 보따리」, 『공간』, 1996년 6월, p. 116.

[3] 김수자, 「천과 삶」, Sewing into Walking(전시리플릿), 갤러리 서미, 1994, n.p.

[4] 황인, 김수자(대담), “Sewing into Walking: Cloth, Video, Sound Installaion by Kim Soo-Ja”, 『공간』, 1995년 1월, p. 38.

[5] 김수자의 편지(2000. 2. 15): 태현선, 「김수자: 세상을 엮는 바늘」, 『김수자: 세상을 엮는 바늘』(전시도록), 로댕갤러리, 2000, p.13.

[6] 후 한루, 김수자(대담), 「새로운 빛을 밝히다」, 『김수자: 마음의 기하학』(전시도록), 국립현대미술관, 2016, p. 24.

A Laundry Field, 2020. Site-specific installation consisting of 100 local Swedish embroidered bedsheets. Installation view at Wanås Konst Sculpture Park, Sweden. Courtesy of Wanås Konst and Kimsooja Studio. Photo by Mattias Givell

Kimsooja - The New Normal

Mark Rappolt

2020

  • While most people were locking down this May, Korean artist Kimsooja was hanging out laundry, in a wood northeast of Malmö, not too far from the border between Sweden and Denmark, on the site of a medieval castle and an organic farm. Between the trees, 100 pristine white bedsheets are pinned to clotheslines and flap, like so many captured cartoon ghosts, in the wind. They give an idea of stains removed, fresh starts, new beginnings, extreme hygiene and slates wiped clean. And, with their embroidered trims (an example of local craftspersonship), of old traditions of manufacture and housework, which to a lot of us might seem anachronistic in a world of urbanised living, rapid manufacture, household convenience and washing machines. White: the mark of mourning, purity and rebirth. Or perhaps all this is to overthink what is simply evidence of an easily comprehensible, quotidian routine.

  • But overthinking is a pastime in which many of us have had an opportunity to indulge over the past few months. Locked down, changing our routines, afraid of other people, afraid of going out, conjuring profundity out of banality and, egged on by politicians around the world, constantly redefining what we mean by ‘normal’. As if the term was anything other than subjective in the first place.

  • The sheets make up an artwork titled A Laundry Field (2020). If that ‘A’ before ‘laundry field’ suggests that it is one of many, it is. And in more ways than one. On the one hand, because what we see is nothing new: many people around the world hang out their washing to dry; they’ve been doing it since they had things to wash, and things to hang them on. If you stumbled across the washables here, at Wanås Konst, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was simply evidence of a routine interrupted by, say, a sudden global health emergency meaning that no one was around to take it in. On the other hand, A Laundry Field is a development of earlier works by Kimsooja, such as Mumbai: A Laundry Field (2007–08), a multi-channel video that uses footage of the city to cast the overcrowded Maharashtra port as a field inhabited by people wearing clothes and people cleaning or drying clothes. Both works play with their ‘matter-of-fact’ nature and are evocative in their banality, their normality and the ways in which they accept – but do not insist on – projection and interpretation on the part of the viewer. You want to see garments as embodying the history and traces of human bodies? Fine. You just see ordinary life? That’s a truth too. It’s a form of equivocation that lies at the heart of much of Kimsooja’s work. And, you might say, at the heart of much good art. ‘I saw art in life and life as art,’ the artist said in a 2008 interview with Susan Sollins. ‘I couldn’t separate one from another. So my gaze to the world and my questions were always related to life itself.’

  • Kimsooja’s best known works feature bottari, a traditional Korean cloth bundle used to wrap goods in preparation for transport by hand. While such fabrics (bottari are often recycled from colourful bedspreads) have acquired links over time to the gendering of labour, the dynamics of domestic and civic power and the segregation of public and private space, bottari bundles are also evocative of displacement and migration (frequently, and particularly in terms of Korea’s modern history, as a result of war and famine), symbolic of both the home and a lack of one.

  • Although this interest is born of the artist’s Korean cultural heritage – her own ‘reality’, as she puts it – it developed as a medium to be used in more than just two-dimensional works (the artist trained as a painter) when she was displaced from that heritage, during a 1992 residency at moma ps1 in New York. There, the museum became a space in which to accept the bottari’s cultural baggage and to subvert it. In the resultant installation, Deductive Object, she inserted fragments of Korean bedcovers into gaps in the gallery’s brick wall and made static sculptures out of a series of everyday objects covered in bottari cloth. Over the years the bottari works have developed simultaneously as a reality and an abstraction, similar to the way in which civic and social culture across the world has drifted these past few months. Cities on the Move – 2727 Kilometers Bottari Truck (1997, first shown in the group exhibition Cities on the Move, from which the work’s title derives) was a performance and video documenting the artist’s 11-day journey across South Korea, visiting places with which she had a personal connection, on the back of a truck overloaded with tied bottari bundles; To Breathe: A Mirror Woman (2006) saw her clad Madrid’s Crystal Palace in translucent, light-refracting film in such a way that the building itself and the atmosphere within it became a colourful wrapping, a type of bottari.

  • At the same time Kimsooja has expanded such interests beyond her own cultural inheritance in works like the ongoing Thread Routes (2010–), a series of videos inspired after witnessing traditional lace- making in Bruges in 2002. Taking the performative elements of local textile cultures as its subject, the first focuses on Peruvian weaving and the relationship it has with issues of tradition, gender, historic and vernacular architecture, and local landscapes.

  • Further chapters have explored European, Indian, Chinese, Native American and Moroccan practices to create a body of work that further evokes relationships between the particular and the universal, and brings to mind the poetry of mystics such as Kabir. A fifteenth-century Muslim weaver from India, Kabir linked the process of textile manufacture to meditation on and exploration of the divine in his verses. Indeed, they proved to be so successful and easily comprehensible that his influence spans both Islam and Hinduism, and the practices of Bhakti and yoga. Works by Kimsooja such as To Breathe: A Mirror Woman and the interactive installation Archive of Mind (2016) have featured recordings of the artist’s own breathing as components of the installation, while she refers to the videos that make up Thread Routes as a form of “visual poetry”.

  • “The reality of myself and my culture has constantly and gradually evolved, and rather dramatically since I moved to New York,” the artist writes as we exchange emails between London and Korea and their respective lockdowns.

  • “This move gave me the perspective of my own culture as part of a multi-cultural context. Yet, I held the string of my particular personal life as a continuum that questions fundamental and existential problems: what Zen Buddhism describes as ‘Wha Du (in Korean, Gong An in Chinese)’. This might have given me the consistency and long breath in my career.” She’s referring to the practice in which a story, statement or question is used to provoke a crisis of doubt in the mind of a student of Zen on their pathway to enlightenment. And perhaps nowhere in her work is such a crisis evoked more than in the video series A Needle Woman (1999–2001). In it the artist, clad in grey, is recorded, standing motionless, her back to camera, generally against the flow of traffic, in some of the busiest pedestrian junctions in some of the most densely populated metropolises in the world (Shanghai, Tokyo, Mexico City and Delhi). It’s a work that explores the ways in which losing yourself is linked to finding yourself, about the individual and the collective, and one that has added resonance now that crowds are a source of added fear. The last is something the Nobel Prize-winning writer Elias Canetti described as ‘the touch of the unknown’ in his 1960 analysis of relations between the self and others, Crowds and Power. Although one of Canetti’s assertions – ‘It is only in a crowd that a man can become free of this fear of being touched. That is the only situation in which fear turns into its opposite’ – is looking a bit shaky right now.

  • “Artists often discover the art in daily life,” the artist writes, “and bring daily life to the museum to contextualise it within art history.” Indeed, even before the intrusions of urinals and readymades and the age of modern art museums, attempts by the authors of poetry (whether visual or written) to engage with the unauthored poetics of everyday life have enjoyed a rich history, not least in painting, and works by Joseon artists such as Danwon, or the seventeenth-century Dutch masters. Yet on the site of the museum there is often a question about what – between daily life and art history – is contextualising or responding to what. And an anxiety about whether it is the artworks in a museum or the circumstances of lived experience that gets audiences closer to truths about the world. All of which responds to a more general paranoia that what enters the museum is removed from lived life. And perhaps it’s a paradox of museum culture for artists like Kimsooja that the more she has sought to introduce the ordinary, the more her work is celebrated as extraordinary.

  • As we discuss A Laundry Field, Kimsooja explains that her works have been shown mostly within the museum context, but for a few exceptions. “In museum spaces,” she writes, “I used fans, lights, and sounds to give a vibration to it and bring sensation to the audiences as they encounter the persona of the fabrics. When situated within nature, such as Wanås sculpture park [the Swedish foundation is located in a natural landscape], the wind, light, cast shadows of trees, and bird sounds paint the laundered bedcovers and evoke the memories and poetics of the bedcovers. I find A Laundry Field installed at Wanås sculpture park gives an experience that blurs the boundary between daily life and the museum context that maximises the audience’s imagination and experience.” Reading this, it’s hard not to think of the new work as an attack on the exceptionalism of the museum context.

  • In that, the exhibition at Wanås, titled Sowing into Painting, goes a little further than other works by Kimsooja. It traces a circle through her varied output (it contains chapters one, two and four of Thread Routes, a series of the Deductive Objects (1993–2020), Meta-Painting (2020, which comprises stretched and frame linen canvases as well as bottaris made of linen canvas and used clothes) and To Breathe (2020, an evolution of the work shown in Madrid). And it traces a circle through the manufacture of painting in the title work Sowing into Painting, a field sown with two types of flax that are harvested to produce canvas and other fabrics as well as the linseed oil that is classically used as a binding agent in Western painting. It returns the exceptional to the normal, culture to nature, and a life observed (not least in the types of paintings of ‘everyday’ life that populate museums and other archives) to a life lived.

— ArtReview Asia, Summer 2020

Breathe - Tour Maubergeon, 2019, site-specific installation with mirror panels. Installation view at Tour Maubergeon, 2019. Courtesy of the City of Poitiers and Kimsooja Studio. Photos by Jan Liegois.

KIMSOOJA, SCHAUENDES DENKEN

Doris von Drathen

2020

  • Zweimal in ihrem 37-jährigen Werk hat sich die südkoreanische Künstlerin auf ihr persönliches Leben bezogen. Im Herbst 2019 stellt Kimsooja einen 6 mal 2,4 mal 2,6 Meter großen Container auf den Platz vor die Kathedrale von Poitiers (s. Kunstforum Nr. 265) und markiert damit ihren Abschied von New York, wo sie, seit den ersten Stipendien bis heute, fast 30 Jahre gelebt hatte. Ein radikaler Wendepunkt, denn seither pendelt Kimsooja zwischen Seoul und Paris, wo sie sich vielleicht in der Zukunft niederlassen wird, auch wenn sie längst im Unterwegssein zuhause ist. Der Container aber birgt nicht nur ihre Umzugskisten, sondern auch ihre künstlerische Weltsicht: Gelb, Rot, Blau, Weiß, Schwarz, Gelb, Rot, Blau … skandieren die leuchtenden Streifen auf seinen Wänden die alte koreanische Tradition eines Farbkosmos, der bis heute das analogische Denken der Künstlerin prägt: So entspricht Blau dem Holz, Rot dem Feuer, Gelb dem Erdmittelpunkt, Weiß dem Metall und Schwarz dem Wasser; die fünf Elemente finden ihr Pendant in den fünf Himmelsrichtungen und Jahreszeiten, die ihrerseits um ein Zentrum kreisen. Wie das Farbspektrum lebendig wird im Sonnenlicht, so erwacht der Kosmos im universalen Atemstrom zu beständiger Wandlung und Bewegung. Ein webender Austausch verbindet alle Elemente, Zeiten, Winde und Wesen zu unaufhörlich neuen Analogiereihen. Der Container hat den Titel „Bottari 1999 – 2019“ und holt damit den zweiten ebenso radikalen Wendepunkt ins Gedächtnis: Zur Biennale von Venedig 1999, stellt Kimsooja in Harald Szeemanns d’Apertutto ihren blauen „Bottari Truck in Exile“ vor eine Raum öffnende Spiegelwand. Das Vehikel ist Zeitzeuge ihrer Abschiedsreise von Korea, als ihr fester Wohnsitz in New York entschieden war. In elf Tagen hatte sie 2.727 Kilometer zurückgelegt und in den Orten ihrer Erinnerung die Einwohner um ausgediente Kleider und Bettüberwürfe gebeten. Gefaltet, eingewickelt, an den Stoffenden zusammengeknotet, so entstanden die traditionellen Reisebündel, die seidigen, farbenreichen „Bottaris“, die bald zum Leitmotiv ihrer Arbeit werden sollten. Zwischen den anwachsenden Bergen von Bottaris auf der offenen Ladefläche des Lasters sitzend fuhr sie über Bergpässe und Feldwege: „Cities on the Move – 2.727 Kilometers Bottari Truck“ hieß diese erste gefilmte Performance.

  • Als Artist in Residence am PS1, hatte die Künstlerin 1992 in ihrem New Yorker Atelier zum ersten Mal den skulpturalen Aspekt ihrer eigenen Reisebündel gesehen. Von jeher war sie an die Gestik gewöhnt, Kleider, Hausrat, Bücher mit den Bettüberwürfen, die traditionell in jede Familie gehörten, zusammenzubinden. Auf diesen Tüchern, den kunstvoll gewirkten Ybulbos, wurde geruht, geliebt, geschlafen, darin wurden Säuglinge auf den Rücken gebunden und getragen, Kranke und Tote transportiert. Die Funktionen der Ybulbos beschreiben also einen Existenzbogen. 1994 hatte die Künstlerin in Korea ihre erste Installation photographiert: Bottaris auf der Türschwelle eines verlassenen Hauses, im südkoreanischen Dorf Yangdong, der Umgebung von Gyeongju. Die leuchtend farbigen, kunstvoll gewirkten Bottaris als Spuren von Angst, Hast und Flucht vor diktatorischer Unterdrückung. Dieser politische Hintergrund prägt die Bilder der Performance-Reise, „Cities on the Move – 2.727 Kilometers Bottari Truck“. Die Gesten des Zusammenfaltens, Bündelns, Knotens hatten den Rhythmus dieser Zeitreise bestimmt. Als Bottari der Gegenwart hatte die Künstlerin sich selbst verstanden, die auf ihrer Reise in die Zukunft versucht, Spuren der Vergangenheit zu sammeln. Denn die ausgedienten Kleider und Bettüberwürfe mit ihren Gerüchen und eingeprägten Gesten sind für Kimsooja vor allem dies: Erinnerungsvehikel menschlicher Gegenwart. Ähnlich wie Photographien bezeugen sie vergangenes Leben.

  • In diesem Sinn hatte Kimsooja im Jahr 1995, zum 15. Jahrestag des Massakers von Gwangju, auch hier abgelegte Kleidung und Bett-Tücher gesammelt. Die südkoreanische Stadt war weltweit bekannt geworden durch den von Studenten angeführten, massiven Aufstand der demokratischen Bewegung, die vom Militärregime im Mai 1980 brutal niedergeschlagen worden war. Kimsooja baut kein Monument. „Sewing into Walking“ heißt ihre Performance: Die Künstlerin schleppt Bottari um Bottari in den Wald des Massenfriedhofs, und deckt im langsamen Gehen die alten Kleider und Ybulbos über die Erde, als müßte sie heilend gewärmt werden, als müßte den Toten, die Umarmung ihrer Nachbarn nachgetragen werden. So näht Kimsooja tatsächlich die Vergangenheit in die Gegenwart, näht Zeiträume, Entstehen und Vergehen zusammen. Auf ihrem Weg, in ihrem „Walking“, tritt sie zum ersten Mal als verkörperte Nadel auf, die in ihrer Vertikalität die horizontale Kleiderschicht mit der Erde verbindet.

  • In dieser Künstlerauffassung eines konzeptuellen Nähens, hatte sie 1984 in Seoul, nach ihrem Studium der Malerei, die Arbeit „The Earth and the Heaven“ aus Seidenresten zusammengenäht, ein Achsenkreuz aus den Farbfeldern der fünf Elemente. Was sie daran interessierte, war die Gestik an der Grenze, die Nadelbewegung selbst, in ihrem verbindenden Durchqueren unterer und oberer Schichten, die Kimsooja wie selbstverständlich auf die Zeit, den Raum und das Universum bezieht. Die Bewegung der Hände, wenn sie die vier Stoffzipfel der farbenreichen Bett-Tücher unter- und übereinander führen und einen Knoten festzurren, ist der nähenden Geste vergleichbar. Wenn aus dem Falten und Bündeln des Tuches nun eine kugelförmige Dreidimensionalität entsteht, erscheint es für Kimsooja wiederum selbstverständlich, darin eine Welt zu sehen. Damit nähert sie sich, so könnte man es sehen, über ihr experimentell künstlerisches Tun, einem Mathematiker und Philosophen der europäischen frühen Aufklärung: Leibniz war aus dem spirituell-körperlichen Doppelcharakter des Tuches und dessen Faltungen, die er eingehend betrachtet hatte, die Einsicht hergeleitet, das gesamte Universum sei ein einziger kontinuierlicher, sich wandelnder Körper, der verschiedene Gestalten annimmt. Die Möglichkeit dieser Parallele zeigt die transkulturelle Dimension, die Kimsoojas Weltsicht öffnet.

  • In einer Reihe von Performances zwischen 1999 und 2005 erweitert sie die Logik ihrer Künstlerkonzeption, Nadel zu sein. Als unbewegliche Gestalt im grauen Gewand wird sie in der Rückenansicht für den Zuschauer zum Medium, das vermag, den Atem und die Wahrnehmung zu verlangsamen, den Betrachter hineinzuziehen in verdichtete Situationen des Zeitraums. So sehen wir sie 1999 in Japan, als „A Needle Woman – Kitakyushu“, horizontal auf einem langen, glatten Felsen ausgestreckt; ihr Körper verbindet sich mit der grauen Gesteinsformation, zeichnet die Grenzlinie zwischen Himmel und Erde nach. Der Zuschauer, auf ihren Rücken schauend, atmet wie sie den offenen Himmelsraum und dessen Stille, teilt ihr Erleben. Ein Jahr später steht sie in Indien an der Böschung des Yamuna River; vorübertreibende Verbrennungsreste zeigen sein stetiges Strömen. Kimsooja nennt sich hier „A Laundry Woman – Yamuna River“, schaut in dunstige horizontlose Ferne, weiß, der Fluß wird weiterströmen, auch nach ihrem Lebensende. In folgenden großen Video-Reihen, steht sie im Mittelpunkt von dicht bevölkerten Metropolen, wie Tokio, Mexico City, London oder Kairo. Ihre unbewegliche graue Gestalt erscheint als Seismograph im Zeitstrom der vorüberziehenden Menschenmassen; ein Strom, der kaum innehält, wenn das Gesicht eines Vorübergehenden dem ihren begegnet. In einer zweiten großen Serie bereist sie ebenso als unbeweglicher Zeitzeuge, konzentriert auf ihr physisch gegenwärtiges Sein, die Krisenherde der Zeit, Havanna, Rio de Janeiro, Jerusalem, N’Djamena, Sana’a, Patan und Nepal. Fast einem Kriegsreporter gleich, muß sie in dieser zweiten Performance-Reihe, oftmals um ihr Leben fürchten. Ihre Präsenz bewegt sich also auch hier an einer Grenze. Die Identifikation mit der physischen Zeugenschaft der Künstlerin, mag im Betrachter eine neue Aufmerksamkeit für das Weltgeschehen wecken. Die Video-Installation der zweiten Reihen war 2005 in Aperto zu sehen.

  • Vom Phänomen der Nadelbewegung, vom Prinzip ihres Verbindens verschiedener Raum- und Zeitschichten ausgehend, entwickelt Kimsooja von nun an erweiterte Bildkonzeptionen, indem sie das Phänomen des Spiegels, das schon angeklungen war, zum Thema macht. Denn auch der Spiegel führt verschiedene Raumschichten zusammen. Wie die Nadel bleibt der Spiegel unsichtbar, erschafft Bilder und verschwindet mit ihnen. Wie die Nadel markiert der Spiegel eine Grenze des Raums. Auch sein Auftritt bezeichnet eine Grenze der Zeit, den haarscharfen Augenblick, wenn Zeit erst geschieht. Im Palacio de Cristales in Madrid verband Kimsooja dieses Agieren des Spiegels mit ihrem ruhigen Atemgeräusch. „To breathe – A Mirror Woman“ hieß die Arbeit, im Jahr 2006: Einer lebendigen Bestimmungsgröße des Raums gleich, so steht sie als zierliche schwarze Gestalt auf einem grenzauflösenden Spiegelboden, inmitten von hohen, funkelnden Glaswänden, die mit einem optischen Prisma beschichtet sind. Kein Halt nirgends: Unter den Füßen werden die Glaskuppeln zum schwankenden Abgrund, der Körper schwebt im Raum, dessen Grenzen zerstieben in einem Feuerwerk der Spektralfarben. Atmender, Licht durchpulster Raum. Damit öffnet Kimsooja ihre Performance für den Betrachter, der hier nun selbst die Bewegungen von Raum und Zeit ausloten kann.

  • Das ist der Absprung für die Künstlerin in eine bis dahin nicht gekannte Freiheit, die Welt aus dem Blickwinkel des Ein- und Ausfaltens von Stoffbahnen zu verstehen: Kimsooja findet ihre Bilder auf der Straße und in der Natur. So beobachtet sie die Wäscher in den Armenvierteln von Mumbai: die daraus entstandene Videoinstallation heißt, „Mumbai: A Laundry Field“, 2007–2008. Die Kamera schafft eine Analogie zwischen Körper und Tuch, wenn die Wäscher ihre harte Arbeit, das Bürsten und Reiben, das Ausspülen, Wringen und Ausschlagen der hoch auffliegenden, spritzenden Stoffe unterbrechen und sich selbst unter den Wasserschlauch stellen. Daneben Bilder von der alten Gleichung Habitat und Habit, wenn Obdachlose ihren Schlafplatz auf der Straße und sich selbst mit Tüchern schützen.

  • Die seltenen Weltgegenden, die von menschlicher Zerstörung noch bewahrt sind, sind das Thema in einer Folge von acht Filmen, die das unaufhörliche Verwandeln im Austauschtanz der Elemente beobachtet: „Earth-Water-Fire-Air“, 2009 – 2010. Achtmal zeigt die Kamera deren fließende Interdependenz: Das innere Feuer der Erde und seine rotglühende Lava erstarren zu schwarzen, noch weiterglühenden Gesteinsflammen; das Feuer kann ohne die Luft nicht sein; eine Wasseroberfläche gleicht Bodenwellen; eine Meereswelle schlägt meterhoch gegen einen Felsen, während ihre im Sonnenlicht aufwehende Gischt das Feuerwerk der Spektralfarben entfacht – unmögliche, alltägliche Verbindung von Feuer und Wasser. Was Kimsooja zeigt, ist das haarscharf austarierte Zusammenwirken der Elemente und ihrer Kräfte, deren Wandlungen ohne unser Zutun beständig neue Bilder erzeugt, an der Zeitgrenze des Augenblicks. Kimsooja zeigt die andere Seite: Als gelte es für den Betrachter ein Atemreservoir zu schaffen, trägt sie unermüdlich Bilder zusammen aus einer weiterlebenden Harmonie. Ihr Künstlercredo heißt verbinden, heilen, weben, statt trennen, zerreißen und verwerfen. „Thread-Routes“ ist der Titel ihrer bis heute weitergeführten Folge, die 2010 begann, und bisher sechs abgeschlossene Filme umfaßt: Quer durch die Welt folgt die Künstlerin hier den selten gewordenen Spinnerinnen, Weberinnen, Klöpplerinnen, Gerbern und Stoffdruckern mit der Kamera. Auf den Gebirgspfaden des Altiplano von Peru beobachtet sie, wie alteingeübte Hände Schafswolle zu Fäden zwirbeln, im Gehen, die Spindel kreiseln lassen, irgendwo unterwegs einen Haken in die Erde schlagen, Fäden spannen und ihr Weben beginnen. Der Wiederholungstanz uralter Gesten beseelt von Afrika bis Kroatien diese Filme, deren Bilder immer wieder das Weben des Windes, der Wolken, des Lichts und der Schatten verbinden mit den fabrizierenden Händen und ihren Fadenwegen. Die Akteure sind in jedem Filmabspann mit Namen aufgeführt, oftmals zusammengenähte Namen aus den ursprünglichen und später aufgezwungenen Kulturen. Vier dieser Filme waren im Herbst 2019 in Poitiers zu sehen. Nichts ist nostalgisch; die Bilder leben aus dem dokumentierten Tun heraus.

  • Nichts manipulieren, nichts hinzufügen, das ist ihr Schaffensprinzip. Kimsooja, die ihre Arbeit aus ihrer pragmatischen Beobachtung entwickelt, anerkennt nur ein Künstlervorbild: John Cage. Kurz nach ihrem Studium hatte sie 1985 zur Biennale von Paris dessen weißen Container gesehen. Im Innenraum seiner Leere und Stille war an der Wand ein einziger Satz zu lesen: „Whether you try to make it or not, the sound is heard“. Diese Worte haben die Künstlerin seither begleitet und bestärkt in ihrer Künstlerhaltung eines „Non-Making“, in ihrer Überzeugung, keine Gegenstände herzustellen. Bis heute ist sie davon nicht abgerückt. Während ihrer Ausstellung in Poitiers, im Herbst 2019, sind die Besucher aufgefordert, an einem „Archive of Mind“ mitzuwirken. Im Palais der Ducs d’Aquitaine steht, wie zuvor im Museum für zeitgenössische Kunst in Seoul, der große ovale Holztisch mit seinen Schemeln. Die Gäste bedienen sich aus großen Lehmklumpen, setzen sich an den Tisch, drehen ihre Handvoll Lehm zu einer Kugel und hinterlassen sie dort. Die Stille öffnet das Gehör für ein leises auf- und absteigendes Wassergurgeln, ein vertikales Echo auf die horizontalen Kreisbahnen am Tisch. Es dauert, bis eine Kugel sich formt. Die Wiederholungsgeste wird zum Alltagsfilter. Das Freigeben eines eigenen Bottari öffnet einen anderen Denkraum. Sich beteiligen, ohne zu besitzen, ohne zu besetzen.

  • Diese Logik wird einen Kreis schließen, wenn Kimsooja im Verlauf von 2020 im Park der schwedischen Wanås Foundation, Leinen aussäen, seine blau blühenden Felder, seine Ernte und schließlich das Fadenspinnen und Weben von groben Leinwänden beobachten wird. Keine Objekte, keine Bilder. Auch nicht im Dezember 2020, wenn sie in der Kathedrale von Metz ein Fenster aus dichroitischem Glas herstellen wird: eigentlicher Autor werden die Farbbrechungen des Lichts sein. Was sie erschafft, sind Seherfahrungen, mit Leibniz gesagt, ein schauendes Denken.

— Kunstforum, Bd.267, May 2020

Left, South Korean artist Kimsooja with one of her To Breathe installations at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, UK. Right, Kimsooja’s To Breathe in the chapel at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Photography: Harry Mitchell

“Mirror image: Kimsooja’s self-reflective installations take over the French city of Poitiers”

Andy Saint Louis

2019

  • For more than 25 years, South Korean artist Kimsooja has focused her practice on a specific element in her country’s visual culture: the bottari, a colourful bundle of cloth used to wrap and transport items by hand. It is a traditional and timeless component of life in Korea, where bottari fabrics are often recycled from old silk bedcovers, a repurposing that inverts domestic and public spheres, conventional gender roles and power structures. It is in this context that Kimsooja began using this material in her work: ‘I’ve always started from my own reality and my own culture,’ she says. ‘It’s not that I like them, necessarily. I use them because it’s my reality.’

  • Kimsooja (who goes by a single-word name, in defiance of cultural conventions) has spent the better part of the past two decades peripatetically, based between New York, Paris and Seoul, and realising projects around the world. Her meditative works explore the self, the other, and the narratives woven through life’s journeys. ‘The whole world I was viewing has been, in a way, wrapping and unwrapping the bottari,’ she reflects. Across sculpture, installation, performance and video, the bottari has served as a visual metaphor for the artist’s own decentred existence and a longer history of human transience, migration and now displacement in a globalised society.

  • This year, the 62-year-old artist has translated the handheld bottari to an urban scale, wrapping the French city of Poitiers in a bundle of public art installations that activate its medieval architecture and foreground its rich history. Traversées is a sprawling contemporary art event in this old Roman town southwest of Paris, where Kimsooja inaugurates a new ten- year cultural and urban heritage initiative. More than a dozen works by the artist transform the city’s historic sites into sensorial experiences.

  • ‘We wanted to put the city in motion, starting from its iconic sites of memory while looking to the future, which Kimsooja understood perfectly,’ explains the event’s co-artistic director Emmanuelle de Montgazon. ‘This constellation of works resonates together and allows visitors to chart their own course.’

  • As the birthplace of Michel Foucault, Poitiers is an apt locale for an in- depth presentation of Kimsooja’s work. The influential 20th-century philosopher’s premise of heterotopia – a socio-cultural space of otherness theorised as a self-contained ‘world within a world’ that exists in parallel to our lived experience – seems a fitting description of Kimsooja’s bottari. The organisers of Traversées were drawn to the duality conveyed by Kimsooja’s works: ‘They exist only in relation to the places they take over, but they come with a very strong introspective dimension, says de Montgazon. ‘They belong as much to their own history as to the history of the places and people to which they are addressed.’

  • Kimsooja was originally drawn to bottari in 1992, during an artist residency in New York at PS1 Contemporary Art Center. She adopted it as a colourful, readymade, three-dimensional canvas and alternative platform for art-making that she quickly expanded in multiple directions. ‘I also started working in video, considering the video frame as a wrapping method – wrapping the world or wrapping nature – rather than image- making,’ she recalls. A representative series of her video performance works, collectively titled A Needle Woman (1999-2001), depicts the artist standing motionless in the midst of busy pedestrian thoroughfares around the world, with her back to the camera. In these simple yet compelling works, her body acts as a needle, the unceasing flow of passers-by serving to wrap her stationary form. For Kimsooja, video offers ‘an immaterial way of wrapping the reality of the world’.

  • In 2006, Kimsooja received a commission from the Museo Nacional de Reina Sofía in Madrid in which she introduced a different approach to wrapping reality: a site-specific installation at the city’s iron-and-glass Crystal Palace, built in 1887. Titled To Breathe: A Mirror Woman (2006), this large-scale architectural intervention covered the building’s glass exterior with a translucent film that diffracts white light into a spectrum of colours, swathing the interior space in an ethereal prismatic environment. A floor-covering of mirrors multiplied the refractions, completely enveloping the audience in her luminous bottari.

  • Similar bottaris of light and sound were subsequently unveiled at the 55th in 2013 (where Kimsooja represented her country at the Korean Pavilion) and earlier this year at the . In Yorkshire, Kimsooja transformed the art centre’s 18th-century chapel into a vertiginous space of reflection, both literally and metaphorically, softening the solid interior surfaces of its historic masonry, to convey a lightness that contrasted with its rigid exterior. In Poitiers, she unveils her first mirror installations to be exhibited in France, including one that reveals the stunning vaulted ceiling of the Maubergeon tower in the medieval Palais des Ducs d’Aquitaine.

  • Similar bottaris of light and sound were subsequently unveiled at the 55th in 2013 (where Kimsooja represented her country at the Korean Pavilion) and earlier this year at the . In Yorkshire, Kimsooja transformed the art centre’s 18th-century chapel into a vertiginous space of reflection, both literally and metaphorically, softening the solid interior surfaces of its historic masonry, to convey a lightness that contrasted with its rigid exterior. In Poitiers, she unveils her first mirror installations to be exhibited in France, including one that reveals the stunning vaulted ceiling of the Maubergeon tower in the medieval Palais des Ducs d’Aquitaine.

  • For Traversées, Kimsooja approaches the city of Poitiers as a tapestry, its medieval streets and historic sites forming paths that intersect, converge and separate as visitors trace their own journeys while traversing its contours. Not only are her works installed throughout the city, but she has invited an array of other creators – among them composer Myriam Boucher, choreographer Min Tanaka, and artists , Tadashi Kawamata and Rirkrit Tiravanija – to contribute to the project, incorporating their own threads to the warp and weft of Kimsooja’s cultural fabric. §

— Wallpaper, October 2019

Archive of Mind, 2019, participatory site-specific installation consisting of clay balls, 18m elliptical wooden table, and sound performance Unfolding Sphere, 2016. Installation view at Palais des ducs d'Aquitane, 2019. Courtesy of the City of Poitiers, Axel Vervoordt Gallery and Kimsooja Studio. Photos by Jaeho Chong.

Encounter with a City

Emma Lavigne & Emmanuelle de Montgazon

2019

  • During her first visit to the Musée Sainte-Croix of Poitiers, Kimsooja stopped at length in front of Francois Nautré’s painting, Le siège de Poitiers par l’amiral Gaspard de Coligny en 1569 [The Siege of Poitiers by Admiral Gaspard de Coligny in 1569] (1619), a true pictorial account and faithful portrait of the city. She was moved by the representation of the besieged city, by the precision of the narrative, and was overwhelmed by this seeming detail: how the inhabitants sought to survive and protect themselves in this context of war. She was particularly drawn to the large swaths of white cloth protecting the inhabitants’ movements from the enemies on the lookout, and referencing the work of the drapers and weavers in the region.

  • Her visits were closely tied to the history of the city, a history that is inseparable from its cultural and social fabric, which makes it so rich.

  • “It is only one step from memory to encounter,” wrote Marc Augé2. Thus Kimsooja focuses on personal stories that are often forgotten by History. From the splendor of Eleanor of Aquitaine to the famous passage of Joan of Arc, Kimsooja preferred the tutelary figure of Saint Radegund (520-587), Queen of the Francs, “divorced” from a tyrant, who devoted the rest of her life as nun to the disenfranchised. In the church of Sainte-Radegonde, Kimsooja was moved by the sobriety of her tomb and the many votive plaques, some of which are still recent, that cover the dark crypt and the choir. She was also attached to the figure of Jean-Richard Bloch, a politically-engaged poet and writer, friend of Louis Aragon and André Malraux, “exiled in his own city,” who opened his house in La Mérigotte—which has become the Villa Bloch 2019 artists’ residency—to writers, political refugees, poets and musicians.

  • Kimsooja was born in Korea, a country where Christianity is at its most influential in Asia, while co-existing with Confucianism, Shamanism, Taoism, and Buddhism. By choosing a nomadic life, she carries with her the origins of her culture, whose belief in the “Spirit heart” is founded on the pursuit of harmony. This cultural identity mixed with family history leads to the encounter with the Other, the necessary mirror to one’s own existence.

  • In the majestic Palace of the dukes of Aquitaine, the center of spirituality and contemporary culture, Kimsooja conceived a crossing of the City based on the very principles of co-existence and harmony that have inspired all of her work for over thirty years.

  • “Travelling reaffirms that the world is not a flawless process.” These are the words of philosopher Jean-Godeffroy Bidima, whose works on African identity are built around this notion, which he deems to be resolutely plural. His definition is a promise that looks to the future and to growth, opening the fertile ground between identity, travel and memory to a constellation of new possibilities. With the issue of migration occupying a central place in society, and the West still struggling to break free from postcolonial discourse, the Traversées project questions the factors behind the acts of travel, movement and uprooting that fuel the work of Kimsooja and her fellow artists who, through personal experiences and without bias, are able to capture and portray the perceptible and invisible flows of an increasingly unsettled contemporary world. The common thread between voluntary nomadism and forced migration is probably found in the act of being uprooted.

  • To symbolically hand over the keys of Poitiers to Kimsooja is to accept that the city’s memories will be transformed into a space in which to imagine the future. But it is also to offer the artist the opportunity to re-frame her work; to imbed it in a new time and space, that of a city steeped in history; to imperceptibly sketch out new lines, influenced by the ideas of Michel Foucault, by the memory of the former Palais de Justice, by the spirituality of places of worship, and by the generosity of the Villa Bloch. These “traversées” will open our eyes to new paths and will write a new chapter in this rich story, one that will not only be recounted but lived and shared, turning local residents and visitors alike into wanderers, following the paths left by the artists, routes that fork and multiply into a disorienting infinity. The catalogue accompanying Traversées / Kimsooja aims to guide the viewer through this journey, and to suggest through certain key works, including Bottari, A Needle Woman, and To Breathe, pathways that connect Kimsooja’s work to that of other invited artists, and invent a new geography.

  • Jung Marie’s Korea meets Subodh Gupta’s India. Rirkrit Tiravanija nests a tea house inside a scaffolding of bamboo from Thailand, with a ceremony led by Mai Ueda. New Yorker Stephen Vitiello reveals the buried sounds of the city of Poitiers, while Sammy Baloji slows down the monotonous chants of a children’s choir inside the Chapel of the Augustins, drawing out the role played by the Church in the colonial enterprise.

  • A “traversée” is an experience of otherness and hospitality and the paths of Traversées / Kimsooja are outlined, everyone can create their own journey. Similarly, the artists accompanying Kimsooja “advance life, activate it, intensify it, renew it”.3 The city, transformed by these unique works, as the shared meals of Thomas Ferrand or Subodh Gupta, progressively reveals its various historical, social, collective and individual dimensions. In this kaleidoscope, every movement, every action, every breath, every glance becomes another possibility for physical and metaphysical discovery, and constitutes a shared memory, woven together by the gestures, as the danced portraits or choreographies of Lenio Kaklea, that comprise – just like Kimsooja’s Thread Routes – this “slow and silent journey”.

  • Space is transfigured in Kimsooja’s work, becoming a sensory experience. She hollows out the architecture of the different sites, letting new sensations in, disturbing their stability. She instils a void in the heart of the stone, that interstitial space essential to the dialectics of Yin and Yang, to the rhythm of breathing, the beat at the core of life.

  • Inspired by Michel Foucault and his definition of heterotopia, which “has the power to juxtapose in a single real space, several spaces, several locations which are in themselves incompatible,”4 Kimsooja disperses space using light diffraction and mirrors, as seen in her work To Breathe. Her spaces are dematerialised; they shake the weight of history to become – like the artist herself – nomadic, as the nests of Tadashi Kawamata. They are spaces without space and thus, in Foucault’s eyes, produce the shift required to make the coexistence of utopias possible. Kimsooja metonymically inverses the world order, her aesthetic response to the turbulence and violence she perceives. Our sense of horizontality is disturbed as it becomes warped by the effect of the mirrors into abyss-like depths, while the space takes on an atmospheric quality. “I’d like to make works that are like water and air, that cannot be owned but can be shared by everyone,” explains Kimsooja. Like the miniature world contained in the “bottari”, the lines between Kimsooja’s work and the space that it inhabits become blurred. Fabrics, films and mirrors – the artist’s vocabulary – take on the appearance of bodies or membranes, skins that sense, react and reveal, that filter and diffract the commotion of urban life, the ashes of light, energy and electric short circuits that punctuate the outside world, transforming them into a constantly self-renewing visual and pictorial experience.

  • The works by the guest artists infiltrate city life, offering shared vessels for beleaguered bodies, worn down by the inconsistencies of the world, gradually breathing in unison or moulding, as is the case with the clay spheres of Archive of Mind. An emotion is released from these works; the realisation that we can now conceive, to borrow the words of Jean-Paul Sartre on the eve of the Second World War, “what an emotion is. It is a transformation of the world.”

— Traversees\Kimsooja Exhibition Catalogue, October 2019

Artist Kimsooja stands with a truck used for her 2007 performance video “Bottari-Truck Migrateurs” inside Saint-Louis Chapel in Poitiers, France. The work is part of the initial edition of the French city’s new art biennale “Traversées / Kimsooja.”

Transforming a city’s memories

So-Young Moon

2019

  • POITIERS, France — In front of many historic places in the western French city of Poitiers — including the Palace of the Dukes of Aquitaine, the former home of the medieval celebrity Eleanor, the queen consort of France and then of England — stand big boards announcing a three-month citywide contemporary art festival that runs through Jan. 19.
    Surprisingly, the boards are decorated with obangsaek, or the Korean traditional spectrum of five cardinal colors, which represent the four directions and the center. Moreover, the event’s title is “Traversées / Kimsooja,” including the name of the Korean contemporary artist of international renown.
    There is also a shipping container covered with obangsaek in the square of the city’s landmark Poitiers Cathedral. It is Kimsooja’s new work titled “Bottari 1999-2019,” which carries her personal belongings that she amassed in her New York apartment over the last 20 years. Now that she is leaving the apartment, the container is a symbol of her migratory, nomadic and in-between state. Bottari means traditional Korean cloth bundles used to carry belongings.
    The inaugural edition of Poitiers’ new art festival “Traversées,” which translates to traverses or acts of crossing, has not taken the typical form of the international art biennials that have saturated the world. Instead, it let one artist interact with and change the city by installing her works in the new contexts of the city’s old buildings and streets.
    The artist was also encouraged to invite other artists to join the citywide exhibition. Sixteen artists from all around the world, including big names like Indian artist Subodh Gupta, Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata and Congolese artist Sammy Baloji, have joined.

  • “It was the idea of the festival’s co-curator Emma Lavigne,” Kimsooja told the Korea JoongAng Daily at the opening on Oct. 12. Lavigne, the new president of the prestigious Palais de Tokyo museum in Paris, and Emmanuelle de Montgazon, an art historian born in Poitiers, are co-curators of the art event.
    “This might be the most inspiring, challenging and ambitious project I’ve done so far, mainly focusing on site-specificity responding to the notion of Traversées, to which I’ve been devoted for so many years,” Kimsooja said.
    Indeed, throughout her oeuvre, the 62-year-old artist has explored borders and crossed borders, sometimes with performances and films that symbolically allude to migration in the real world and sometimes with abstract installations that visualize moving through the borders between cosmic dualities such as yin and yang and material and non-material.
    The very work that propelled the artist to international fame in 1997 was also about migration. For the performance and video work “Cities on the Move: 2,727 kilometers Bottari Truck,” she traveled throughout Korea for 11 days on top of a truck loaded with bottari. Its 2007 version, commissioned by a French museum, was set in Paris and is now projected on a wall of Saint-Louis Chapel in Poitiers, with the truck used for the performance parked inside the chapel near its gracefully-arched and painted altar.
    According to Lavigne and de Montgazon, the colorful bottari on the truck “reveals the tension between perpetual displacement and a desire for familiarity” and the performance is “an allegory of migration but also an appeal for empathy and peaceful co-existence.” Such elements of the work gain more resonance in the new context of the old Catholic chapel, which could have been either a place of religious exclusivism or a refuge for alienated people.
    “To symbolically hand over the keys of Poitiers to an artist is to accept that the city’s memories will be transformed into a space in which to imagine the future,” Lavigne and de Montgazon said in a joint statement. “Poitiers is a city famous for its rich heritage and its university,” said Alain Claeys, the mayor of the city. “Our wish is to build a relationship between heritage and contemporary art, which will allow heritage to have a new life. In particular, with artist Kimsooja’s works, we can talk about the very important topic of our time : migration"

  • Kimsooja has dealt with crossing geopolitical and cultural borders, as well as abstract borders between dualities such as light and darkness, with the motifs of sewing, weaving and bottari. In sewing, a needle and thread penetrate the borders of fabric. And bottari, which is two-dimensional when spread out and three-dimensional when bundled up, makes a very flexible boundary between inside and outside.
    The artist has used the motifs sometimes in literal forms and sometimes in abstract and symbolic forms. The latter is seen in the “To Breathe” series now installed at the cloister of Chapelle des Augustins and the catacomb of Sainte-Radegonde Church in Poitiers.
    Their windows have been wrapped by Kimsooja with translucent diffraction film sheets, so that sunlight coming through them and falling on the walls and floors make planes of iridescent light that constantly change, just like “breathing obangsaek bottari,” the artist said.
    “The works lead the viewers to stay for a long time and meditate, while perceiving the changes of the spaces over time,” Lavigne said.
    Not only Kimsooja but also some of the artists invited to “Traversées” have transformed the historic spaces of Poitiers into those of new perception and imagination with relatively simple physical interventions. When Korean artist Jung Marie sang a jeongga, or an elegant song enjoyed by the aristocracy in the Joseon era (1392-1910), a cappella at Sainte-Radegonde Church, her clear voice resounded even better under the church’s high vaults, sending the audience to an ethereal and spiritual space in between the East and the West. Meanwhile, Gupta’s installation and performance art piece “Cooking the World” attracted many people at the opening of the festival. In a house-shaped installation that consists of used Indian pots and pans hanging from the ceiling, the artist himself cooked popular street foods from several Indian cities and served them to the viewers.
    “Inspired by the book ‘Cooking the World’ by Charles Malamoud about how food is essential in Indian ceremonies and rituals, I thought I can do something with food, as I love to cook myself and have created artworks with utensils for more than 20 years,” the Indian artist said. One of the highlights of the exhibits is Kimsooja’s performance installation “Archive of Mind” at the Palace of the Dukes of Aquitaine. There’s a giant, oval-shaped wooden table. Visitors are encouraged to take lumps of clay in four shades, roll them into spheres and then place them on the table to dry. The table with finished balls of clay resembles the landscape of a desolate alien planet, giving a cosmic feel.

  • When Kimsooja introduced the work in Seoul in 2016, she said the forms of the spheres would reflect the symmetrical forces of the palms of the participants and their minds. The clay balls would have edges, because of the impossibility to make a perfect sphere and because of gravity’s effect when they are dried on the table.
    The dried clay balls make sounds when they are rolled and the sounds represent their geometric forms — the forms caused by the dual forces of the participants’ palms, their minds and gravity.
    “Poitiers, which was important in international politics in medieval times but then was dormant for quite a time, is now opening itself up to the world again” Kimsooja told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “Responding to the city’s wish, I have weaved the city with other parts of the world through my works based in the notions of crossing borders and works by other artists from all around the world.”

— Korea Joongang Daily, October 2019

Archive of Mind, 2016, participatory site specific installation consisting of clay balls, 19 m elliptical wooden table, and sound performance Unfolding Sphere, 2016, Installation at Kimsooja - Archive of Mind at MMCA, Seoul, Photo by Aaron Wax ,Courtesy of MMCA and Hyundai Motor Co. and Kimsooja Studio

Kimsooja: The Task of Being-Together

Steven Henry Madoff

2017

  • The world is torn by conflict and yet each tear, each micro-struggle and clash is toward its own version of unity. All conflict is a nostalgia for and trajectory toward a totalizing scheme. Of course, there are different structures of totalization, some that suppress difference and others that support a democratic ethos. In the broadest sense, the idea of totalization is captured by Martin Heideggerís term ìBeing-in,î for which the simplest definition is offered by Peter Sloterdijk as ìsomething with something in something.î The social example of Being-in is that we are each a something, and so we are somethings together within the something that is society. Society: from the Latin socius, a comrade. And so society is the being-together of comrades. Civitas: from the Greek word for city and which leads to the word ìcitizen,î or those comrades who live together in organized space. Polis: from the proto-Indo-European pele, an enclosed space, so that the polis is an enclosed space of citizens in which to Be-in is to live under the organization of social codes, of codes among comrades, though the codes, as all the annals of human time tell us, are always in a state of both schematized and anarchic disruption carried forward into negotiation and revision.

  • Socius. Civitas. Polis. In the art of Kimsooja, there are two assumptions that underlie the symbolic social intention running throughout her career of making. One of these assumptions is journalistic in its basis, accepting the daily and historical record of events. This assumption is that humans are (by the evidence of actions always and everywhere repeated) violent, destructive, and intolerant. The other assumption, in contrast with the first, is that we seek wholeness and rely on healing and care in its many forms to address the iniquities of human destructiveness. Indeed, these counterpoised signatures of human conduct are the needle dipping in and out of the cloth of being human and the belief structures underlying our nature, both theological and philosophical. The biosphere, the life codes, the sociality, the deistic principles, the ethical apparatusesówhether it is a war in our blood, a crisis of political sovereignty or a crisis of religious faithóthese constructs torn asunder or joined together in unified consensus toward the co-existence of difference are within the praxis of Being-in.

  • Society within itself has, from the time of Aristotle, asked the questions of what is the good life and how can we live together? This is the subject of ethics. But in the short space of this essay, I would like to specify this thinking about ethics as a questioning of how we should act toward one another in order to live in consensual understanding and agreement, and by doing so mediate violence toward the social whole. Can we, therefore, understand Being-in in the limited sense of its social format of being-together? Can we understand totalization not as universalism and absolutism, but as a space of closeness in which otherness and improvisation act as fulcrums in a continual rising and falling of chaos and order? And can we then define this being-together as the responsibility of the socius to overcome its violence toward wholeness, its lacerating shards that are the fragmentation of the enclosed space of society and the undoing of unifying social forms?

  • In this case, unification does not void the presence of violence, but envisions a flexibility of social codes under the contingencies of circumstance so that recodings can take place through consensual agreement, by deliberation and plebiscite. Ethical wholeness is understood as the agreement among selves alert to their equality, for the ethical self is the self that bears responsibility for its actions toward other selves, and therefore ethics is a questioning of actions and a listening to the answers of others toward resolution. This is a form of critique in which the social self is formed in the crucible of the exchange of questions and answers about how to act on and in this being with others, this being-together, which is always a mapping of the social space, the space of what could be called ethical intimacy. Ethics in this sense is a form of creative practice that takes into consideration contingency, agency, and the mutuality of deliberation.

  • I come to this thinking about ethics in light of the overall project of Kimsoojaís art, as it seems to me that her questions and propositions in the argument of her work are fundamentally presented as what I will call a gestural ethics. Her work over the years and in its various forms offers itself as a symbolic representation of an aspirational being-together. The opacity of individual selves is not so much taken into account as an idealized transparency of recognition of selves who may move through the violent complications of human nature toward a valorized sociality of tolerance. Commonality is a feature of the artistís proposal of what being-together can mean, and to this point, we see a repeated figural gesture in her art, for whenever we see Kimsooja in a video or photograph, her back is to us, she is facing other people, other things, as if to always say, ìHow can I be with you if we are to be together in light of our differences from one another, in light of the possibility of agreement?î As if to insist on a dance of the reciprocity of identities, ìWho am I in you and who are you in me?î

  • In fact, a constant in the artistís works is the sense of collective presence, of watching and participating in the dance of selves with selves performing that dance. In this movement of I-with-you, there is an implicit proposal of the similarities and conjunctions among disparate things in environments of work and contemplationóseen, for example, in moving-image works such as A Needle Woman and Thread Routes. These are spaces that feel hermetically concentrated, given to an almost ethnographic scrutiny, narrowed by a gaze that looks to the weighted significance of hands and figures focused by the charged intensity of enclosed space. Kimsoojaís camera may establish its point of view in open air, as we see continually in her films and videos, but there is always a sense of motions framed, cropped, pulled inward. Meditative attention is paid to the study of human movements whose results are linked at once to embodied presence, sociality, material labor, and, at the same time, to the ethereal abstraction of repetition.

  • The artistís installations are underwritten by this sense of collective intimacy, this gestural ethics in which space presents itself as the enraptured site of an enlightened stitching of things, one to another. Light itself and the symbolic value of colors imbue this being-together. I think of her Deductive Object (2016), an ovoid welded steel form painted with stripes in the colors of the traditional Korean Obangsaek, colors representing the five cardinal directionsóeast, south, center, west, northóand the five elements as established in Korean culture: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Touch, sight, breath, weight, durability, timeís duration, the direction of the sun, what the body needs to sustain itself, where it will travel, hearth and toolÖ all speak to the idea of Being-in as a home in the world, the world of life, of what the Greeks called zo?, as Giorgio Agamben notes, zo? as ìthe simple fact of living common to all living beings,î and here also, the Greek bios, the way of living as an individual and in being-together. These dual flows of living, crossing one into the other as streams of unbridled and governed energies, are indicated in the coded colors and the completed geometry of this sculpture, whose title confers its reasoned status as a physical artifice deduced from a totalizing metaphysical proposition. Kimsooja undergirds this symbolism by placing her Deductive Object on a mirrored plinth in an enclosed courtyard so that it sits at a center, an omphalos of the socius that amplifies this Being-in and being-together, above it a sky that brings light from every direction.

  • Around this sculpture, which towers at nearly two-and-a-half meters like a heroic obelisk, are the museumís windowed walls that the artist has covered with a special diffraction grating she has often used. It refracts the light into a rainbowís spectrum. It is a pictorial device, as it turns every windowed view into a frame in which details are dissolved into vaguely abstract shapes alive with angles of color. The abstraction activates an optical dematerialization, one thing melting into another, and this too underscores a theme of unified being, returning us from matter to metaphysical belonging. Even the title of the work, To Breathe, intends to dissolve boundaries, suggesting that seeing and breathing are one with the other, a kind of synesthesia, a sensory miscegenation. This trajectory toward fluidity and fusion is a perennial current in the Kimsoojaís work: bodies together in repeated acts of attention, of moving, of making; bodies that float on mirrored surfaces, suspending materiality, that are abstracted and generalized, that are corporeal but are oftentimes inflected by a sound recording variously of the artistís breathing, humming or gurgling that hovers in the air, which she uses recurrently to suggest the shedding of the body, of the liquefaction of inside and outside, the original version of which was titled The Weaving Factory from 2004, and the most recent, Unfolding Sphere, from 2016. Itís as if, in this art, the consecrations of repeated actions and motifs form a ritual of conjoined beingóthis gestural ethics in which the rendering of a ceaselessly various but continuous activity of negotiating the sociality of I-with-you is predicated on the idea of repetition as order, repetition as an emblem of the establishment of norms, of practiced ways of being-together that are open to play, to process and change.

  • So it is that the communal performance of Kimsoojaís installation titled Archive of Mind (2016), which is also the name of the exhibition here at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, presents us with a nineteen meter elliptical wood table set out with lumps of clay to be rolled between each guestís hands to form spheres, the table filling with them like a model of a domed city or the map of a constellation dense with newborn planets. Clay, of course, is the material from which we are made in origin myths of the world, that a God-figure shapes, breathing into that clay of the raw human form to ìinspireî itófrom the Latin insp?r?re, meaning literally to fill with breathóto bring the body to life. These clay spheres, then, bear the symbolic inspiration of the hand that makes, shapes, encloses, a marking of self and selves, of recognitions, as recognition itself is a conscious acknowledgment of the other. And here this recognition is an acknowledged mutuality that is premised on the playful pleasure of the communal act, of hands directed toward similar motions with a single material, producing similar sounds as they transform this clay and momentarily themselves, transfigured by this act of the mutual (for the word ìmutualî originates in the Latin m?t?re, to change). Mutuality and mutability are one with the other, just as the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy notes of the I-with-you, of the transformation in being-together: ìI can only recognize myself recognized by the other to the extent that this recognition of the other alters me.î

  • It is the transformative act of recognition of self and other, of the reciprocity of the I and you that makes way for social discourse, for dissensus and consensus in the negotiation of how we can be together. This discourse is always mobilized by circumstance, though the frame of ethics is based on a durable plinth of reason reflecting upward to present the possibility of a complementary perspective from the grounds of interdependence. In Archive of Mind, bodies address each other through the motion and task of hands, entering into the sociality of being. Through this act of making, of the manual activity of those sitting in the ellipse of this table, watching each other, listening to each other, and listening together to the amplified recording of balls rolling and Kimsoojaís body gurgling (that audio work, Unfolding Spheres), these closed circles of unifying actions present a normative purpose that instantiates the recognizability of I-with-you, of each with the otherís being-together.

  • Still, the project of Kimsoojaís work is not limited to the human self as subject, but proposes that we are things among other things, a broader ethics, an idea of agency that is animistic in its reach. All things are woven in this proposition, as in a web that catches each thing that exists as a generative machine of correlation and, with hope, affiliation that populates the Being-in. This is made manifest in the artistís series of six 16-milimeter films entitled Thread Routes (2010-16). Take, for example, the most recent of these, Thread RoutesñChapter V (2016), whose method, as we also see in the previous works in the series, is to show in a documentary yet poetic style a global range of landscapes and peoples and their practices of weaving. In Thread RoutesñChapter V, we see wicker baskets being made. We see various women working with handlooms, and I am reminded that the loom was the progenitor of modern computation, so that a web of woven yarn is parent to the billions of strands of data on the Internetís World Wide Web, and that the Internet as an active form of ordering, of interwoven streams of electricity and light, is only a microcosm of the still more universal zo? and bios, a marker in a much greater, constellated vastness.

  • That is the artistís documentary point, as the images of human actants are intercut with close-ups held like a long breath so that our attention is steadied and concentrates on natural thingsógrasses, currents of water, clouds, floral patterns, even the dense strands of hair on someoneís headóthat suddenly appear in their knitted forms, just as yarn and wicker do. What we are presented with in this film and the others in the series is the motif of similitude, the way one thing is a formal echo of another, and it isnít necessary that every single thing has agency, but that we can see in all things their common parentage in the composition of the world and discern by a leap of ontological inference an originary intelligence. This prelapsarian, ante-methodological, originary ejaculation of active materiality is presented as evidence, as I have said, of all zo?, all life in its primordial and blossoming forms, whether abject or ecstatic, by which the ìthread routeî is the thread of this originary intelligence through all matter, and threading is equivalent with marvel, equivalent with ìsomething with something in something,î and equivalent, therefore, with the woven-ness of Being, as if the world in the thread of all time and before time were shrunk to a miracle of emblematic presence displayed in a glass vitrine, a cosmos in a teacup, all threading as the gesture of the genomic impulse toward supreme order hung like an amulet on Beingís many-bodied and bodiless body.

  • These woven likenesses in Kimsoojaís artworks suggest an expansive mise en abyme among materially different things; a mirrored reciprocity of othernesses in constant address that are therefore exemplars of a gestural ethics that invokes the obligation of one thing to another to find a normative frame in which Being-in in its aspect of being-together can give account of an agora of reparative promise. This ethical work, because of its openness, in which all things, human and nonhuman, may participate and are envisioned as participating, rests on anecdotal moments of local histories, geographies, politics, and the most localized gestures of bodies in rooms together, at the same time that it is pan-political and trans-temporal through the artistís regular investment of symbolism in materials, colors, gestures, and forms. Ethical relativism, the moral systems of individual cultures, is simultaneously acknowledged and contravened, imagined within a supreme coefficiency of thing with thing, a breath elongated, a light refracted and spread, in the artistís overarching imagining of Being-in, this task of intimacy, of being-together.

— Kimsooja: Archive of Mind. Exhibition Catalogue published by National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, 2017

Deductive Object, 2016, site specific installation consisting of painted welded steel, aluminum mirror panels, Sculpture: 2.45 x 1.50 m, Mirror: 10 x 10 m. Installation view at Kimsooja - Archive of Mind at MMCA, Seoul. Courtesy of MMCA and Hyundai Motor Co. and Kimsooja Studio. Photo by Aaron Wax.

Archetype of Mind

Sung Won, Kim

2017

  • While a group of people is working diligently around a large oval table, a mysterious sound reverberates through the dark space. The exhibition Archive of Mind (2016) begins with these curious, almost cosmic sounds, along the huge empty table. The accumulation of small, solid balls of clay on the tabletop forms an image that perfectly complements the sound, creating the central work Archive of Mind (2016). The delicate combination of the sound and image coax the viewers to consider a primal time and space that existed before civilization.

Galaxy of Mind

  • The sound that continually echoes through the space of Archive of Mind is a mixture of the sound of dried clay balls being rolled across the table in different directions and the sound of the artist gargling water. The recorded sound, which is amplified from underneath the table, travels between 32 speakers, transforming the space into a meditative arena. When the volume is low, the sound of the clay balls is clear and vivid, but when the volume is raised, the sound becomes a storm of thunder and lightning. The cosmic dimension of the work is particularly intriguing, given that the artist Kimsooja described Archive of Mind as a “galaxy of mind.” She continued to say that the “sound of the clay balls rolling over the flat surface represents the horizontal trajectory, while the gurgling sound of water represents the vertical trajectory of traversing one’s diaphragm.” Hence, the work visualizes a psychological geometry that arises from the coexistence and dynamics between these horizontal and vertical trajectories. Moreover, the sound of the round balls rolling across the table provides viewers with an auditory experience of geometric shapes. Thus, through sound, Archive of Mind evinces both the material surface and the surrounding void. Archive of Mind encompasses the sound of Unfolding Sphere along with the performance of the people forming the clay balls, yielding an immersive experience that transcends polarities and dualities, enacting a unity that may be seen as the motivating power behind Kimsooja’s art.

  • Although her interest in ceramics can be traced back about ten years, Kimsooja has only recently begun to create works with clay. The clay balls first appeared in 2016, when Kimsooja was invited to participate in Water Event, the solo exhibition of Ono Yoko (b. 1933) at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Lyon. For that exhibition, Kimsooja exhibited a single ball that she had shaped from a handful of wet clay. Rather than transforming clay into utensils or objects, she is primarily interested in the material characteristics of the clay, as well as the dual possibility of emptying and filling. The act of making a ball of clay requires the use of both hands to cover, press, and roll the clay. In order to form a perfect sphere, all points of each hand must be focused and directed towards the center. Each clay sphere, consisting of earth and water, is a microcosm of our planet as a living organism.

  • This simple and repetitive process is also related to the concept of Bottari, Kimsooja’s artistic trademark. “Bottari” refers to the practice of bundling goods or possessions in a traditional wrapping cloth for easier transportation. Considering this universal act, Kimsooja said, “Like these forms gradually converging to the center, my mind also converges. Moreover, these acts embody the moment when materiality is transformed into immateriality and ‘void’.” Here, rolling a clay ball is no longer a frivolous act of play. Instead, it becomes a type of ritual in which a mind is formed and shaped by shaving off the sharp corners. Also, the repetitious act of rolling balls of clay between one’s palms can leave people enchanted, like a spell.

Completion of Works and Audience

  • At the entrance of Kimsooja’s Archive of Mind, clay is provided for visitors; they may take as much as they like, with the understanding that they will roll it into one or more balls and place them on the table. It is crucial to note that Kimsooja has never incorporated this type of audience participation in any of her previous works. As such, it seems to necessitate some explanation and justification. In the contemporary art world, works involving audience participation are generally well-received, in part because they are almost guaranteed to draw a large audience. At the same time, however, they have been criticized for pandering to popular tastes. Of course, just because an artwork or exhibition generates a positive public response does not necessarily mean that it has pandered to popular tastes, just as works that are not well-received cannot automatically be classified as progressive or experimental. Moving beyond such issues, we should focus on the details of audience participation in this work. In particular, how do the audience’s actions (i.e., entering the exhibition, choosing clay, rolling it into a ball, putting it on the table, leaving the exhibition) connect and contribute to the overall meaning and context of Kimsooja’s existing oeuvre?

  • In her works, the audience has always been one with the artist, sharing the artist’s thoughts and point of view. To understand her works, we must examine how the artist-subject is transformed into the audience-subject. In A Needle Woman and A Laundry Woman, for example, the audience is forced to focus their attention on a woman’s back. As such, the audience virtually wears the clothes of the artist, and sees the world from the position of the artist. For her Bottari works, discarded clothes are bundled inside used blankets and sheets of unknown origin; the resulting parcels are then carried to various parts of the world by a searching subject. Thus, the subject is once again conflated with the audience. In Kimsooja’s works, the audience is not a passive recipient of the artist’s ideas or perspectives; instead, the audience is transformed into an active and initiative subject who shares various forms of life that are guided by the artist. In Archive of Mind, the audience takes on an even more active role by clasping and rolling clay, an act that distinctly recalls the packing and wrapping of Bottari parcels. Like the active subject who symbolically becomes the artist’s body and envelopes the world, the audience of this exhibition participates in a kind of ritual by forming balls of clay, thereby helping to complete this work by unfolding their own “Archive of Mind.”

Geometric Experiences

  • For people who know Kimsooja primarily through A Needle Woman or her Bottari works, the theme of this exhibition might be a little surprising. Notably, however, the displayed works still feature two fundamental characteristics that have defined her work for over thirty years: a horizontal-vertical structure and a dynamic spatial relationship. In her art, Kimsooja uses geometric thoughts and experiences to unify dualities, thus yielding a new type of space. This psychological geometry tends to emphasize the quality of space, rather than the quantity, often creating new forms by transitioning from one condition to another.

  • In A Study on Body (1981), an early work that she made while she was in her twenties, Kimsooja explored geometric shapes by using her own body as an axis, around which her various joints bend both vertically and horizontally. The documentation of her performance demonstrates how bodily movements can enact basic geometric shapes, such as triangles, squares, circles, and semicircles. Indeed, A Study on Body lays the framework for understanding the recurring vertical-horizontal cross structure that has now characterized Kimsooja’s works for more than thirty-five years. In the early 1980s, when there were many regulations limiting international travel for Koreans, Kimsooja went to Japan for the first time, as part of an exchange exhibition. Almost immediately, she noted the difference between the cultures of the two countries. From that point forward, she began emphasizing structural and formal characteristics that are inherent to Korea, such as austerity, incompletion, unique colors, and the principle of the “Three Ultimates” (i.e., Heaven, Earth, and mankind). She began utilizing the dynamism of the cross structure to interpret everything from aspects of daily life to grand concepts of life and death. This is the context from which A Study on Body emerged. Indeed, this structure has remained a consistent element of her subsequent works (e.g., Bottari, A Needle Woman, A Mirror Woman, To Breathe), functioning like an archetype of her practice. Furthermore, this structure provides the primary meaning and connection among the diverse works presented in this exhibition, such as A Study on Body (1981), Geometry of Body (2006-2015), and Archive of Mind (2016).

  • One of the main characteristics of contemporary art is the mixture of temporal and spatial attributes. In this sense, Kimsooja’s Geometry of Body can be said to visualize the invisible by spatializing time. This work involves a yoga mat that the artist has used since 2006, such that it is now embedded with traces of her body, forming a perfect self-portrait. The colorless traces left by countless pressings of her hands and feet cause us to imagine gravity and her momentary movements. The yoga mat also extends the concept of the “readyused,” which characterized her earlier works with bottari, blankets, and sheets. Here, however, the object is used to visualize the body and to reveal ephemeral motion and gravity. In a similar vein, One Breath (2004/2016), which originated as part of Kimsooja’s sound performance of The Weaving Factory (2004), is a digital embroidery drawing that reproduces the wavelength of a single breath of Kimsooja. During a breathing performance, a monitor tracks the artist’s inhalations and exhalations; then, one full breath is chosen at random and rendered as digital embroidery. The peaks and valleys of regular respiration are recorded as a graph, followed by a horizontal line that marks the moment of respiratory arrest. The prominent vertical-horizontal structure and depth of the breathing performance represent an extension of the circular loop that she had earlier represented in her sewing works, which she stopped making in 1992.

Deductive Space

  • Deductive Object (2016), a sculpture of the artist’s own arms, is Kimsooja’s first work involving life casting. The two arms are facing one another, with the thumb and index finger touching to form the void. At first glance, it looks like a rather straightforward example of life casting sculpture. But upon further consideration, the distinctive position of the thumb and index finger inevitably makes us think of holding a needle. Kimsooja views this connection as another form of weaving, constructing a void within the act. This gesture calls to mind her earlier series Deductive Object (1992), which consisted of wrapped objects. That series was an extension of Kimsooja’s early sewing works, wherein she used the motion of the needle to represent the repeated penetration of the horizontal by the vertical. Similar to Bottari, the act of sewing connects dualities, weaves separate entities to form a new relationship, and proposes an aesthetic of tolerance and embrace. Installed in the museum’s courtyard, the new version of Deductive Object (2016) is Kimsooja’s second outdoor sculpture; the first was A Needle Woman: Galaxy Was A Memory, Earth Is A Souvenir (2014), a work involving nanotechnology, which was installed on the campus of Cornell University in New York. Deductive Object (2016) was inspired by the Brahmanda (black stones sometimes called “cosmic eggs”) an Indian symbol of the birth of the universe. According to Indian tradition, the black surface of the Brahmanda is rubbed until it becomes reflective, like a mirror. Learning about the Brahmanda, Kimsooja recognized various points of connection with her own work, particularly related to the attitude and significance of her Bottari works. These affinities led to the creation of a huge ellipsoid decorated with Obangsaek (five-colored bands – include description in footnote). In Kimsooja’s early Bottari works, the two-dimensional surface (or tableau) of fabric became a three-dimensional sculpture through the simple act of tying. For this exhibition, Deductive Object enacts a new type of transformation, with the geometry of Bottari now visualized as a five-colored ellipsoid. Moreover, this unique transformation is reflected and expanded by the mirrored pedestal that holds the ellipsoid.

  • A cosmic egg placed on a mirror, Deductive Object coexists with To Breathe (2016), a site-specific work made with diffraction grating film. For To Breathe, Kimsooja transformed the windows and walls of the museum’s courtyard into a giant Bottari, a technique she had previously employed with A Mirror Woman (2006) at the Crystal Palace in Madrid. In the current work, the walls are covered with the diffraction grating film that radiates an array of colors and sunlight in all directions, filling the space with a brilliant spectrum. Through this site-specific work, the courtyard becomes a welcome respite where the audience can rest and meditate. In addition, the ground is lined with mirrors that reflect everything, highlighting the immateriality and void of the five-colored ellipsoid. To Breathe extends the void of space onto the surfaces, thereby “immaterializing” the duality of Bottari into the language of light. Therefore, the work maximizes the symbolic power of the unity between sculpture and flat surface, between the material and immaterial.

Weaving the World

  • The only video work in the exhibition is Thread Routes – Chapter V (2016), the fifth in Kimsooja’s Thread Routes series (2010-) documenting her travels throughout the world. This edition, set in North America, merges cultural anthropology, unique geology, and astounding natural scenery. The artist combines images of a spinning wheel with scenes of basket weaving by the Navajo and Hopi tribes, against the magnificent scenery of Shiprock and Canyon de Chelly in the Southwest United States, along with ancient ruins of the Chaco Culture. The huge mountains and caves, formed over eons of time by water, wind, and soil, move both spatially and temporally until they become connected to overhead wires, long stretches of road, and eventually, the industrial environment of a huge metropolis. The video ends with an aerial view of the massive ramps, freeways, and intersections of Los Angeles. Using an anthropological exploration, the video reveals how the fabric of the world is shaped by acts of weaving, enveloping, and unfolding.

  • Although the first chapter of the Thread Routes series was finished in 2010, the series can actually be traced back to 2002. At that time, Kimsooja drew the inspiration for “Thread Routes” from the tradition of weaving lace in Bruges, Belgium, which she examined within the context of various architectural features. Through the series, she has explored other European and Asian traditions of lace weaving, crafts, and embroidery, as well as the spinning wheel of Native American nomads. On one hand, the series may be seen as a type of cultural anthropology, but at the same time, it overwhelms us with lyrical beauty, and thus might be called the poetics of nature and civilization. Although the new video does not include any of Kimsooja’s most recognizable motifs (e.g., a needle, bottari, the artist’s back), it deftly posits a grand unity by addressing various dualities (e.g., self and others, man and woman, wrapping and unfolding, spirit and material, civilization and non-civilization, traditional and contemporary, city and nature).

  • Wrapping and unfolding, tying and untying, connecting and disconnecting are the basic acts of Kimsooja’s art. While these acts play a prominent role in her art (especially her bottari and breathing performances), they are not merely formalistic executions. Instead, operating within a vertical-horizontal structural relationship, they link various dualities and enact a shift from material to immaterial. Archive of Mind is the geometry of wrapping and unfolding, acts that enable dots, lines, and planes to come into contact with one another. In that moment, the immaterial is changed into the material, and vice versa. Hence, this geometry of unfolding-and-wrapping is an incessant exploration of the space of materiality and immateriality. Archive of Mind is a psychological geometry that reveals the dynamic relationship between movements and forms, producing surfaces and structures with the potential for motion, while simultaneously searching for a formless form. Summoning the psychological archetype from the “archive of mind,” these works ultimately guide our attention towards an empty void and an intangible space.

— Kimsooja: Archive of Mind. Exhibition Catalogue published by National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, 2017

A Study on Body, 1981. Silkscreen Print on Paper, 34 x 34 cm. Courtesy of Kimsooja Studio.

Geometry of Mind and of Body

Yonghee, Suh

2017

  • For her special exhibition at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Korea in the Hyundai Motors Series 2016, Kimsooja presented nine artworks, including her most recent, which were displayed in the Exhibition Hall 5 and in the courtyard of the Museum’s Seoul branch from July 27, 2016, to February 5, 2017. The exhibition featured artworks of diverse media, both two-dimensional and three-dimensional works, installations, and audio and video. This exhibition offered a rare opportunity to appreciate the breadth of the artist’s work scope and varied use of materials.

  • Kimsooja is an established, mid-career artist who has been internationally prominent for almost thirty years. In her previous exhibitions, she has used diverse media and implemented creative ways of installing artworks. Audiences have admired her endeavours to push the envelope of her own creative domain, and had high expectations for what the artist would convey on this occasion. In the titles Kimsooja chose, she deliberately asked viewers to ponder certain meanings in her art. She called the two most prominent works in the exhibition Archive of Mind (Geometry of Mind in Korean) and Geometry of Body, which established an overarching theme that extended throughout the exhibition. This was an invitation for the viewers to look at each piece in the context of either the expansion of body or the expansion of mind. More specifically, viewers were confronted with a dualistic interplay of mind and body. Through the visual extrapolation of these two contrasting but inextricable concepts, Kimsooja unfolded a realm in which one could reflect on the relationship between the substantial and the insubstantial, between the inside and outside of being, or between the self and the world.

  • The artist chose to title the exhibition bilingually: its Korean title, Maeummui gihahak, or Geometry of Mind, together with its English title, Archive of Mind, hinted that the exhibition was more than an illustration of the sensory employment of medium or an experimentation with forms of expression. Rather, the exhibition revolved around the metaphysical notions of mind and body. Serious viewers would realize that her goal in this exhibition was not to differentiate her artistic present from the past by demonstrating certain expressive forms in unexpected or unprecedented ways. They were expected to focus on very specific messages that Kimsooja’s artworks signify and find themselves asking questions like: What is the fundamental motivation for her art-making? What is the consistent theme that runs through her works in this exhibition? How should such profound-sounding titles be construed? This essay aims to help the reader revisit these questions and, in the process of seeking answers, come upon discoveries both intended and serendipitous. This would help us experience the epiphany Kimsooja wished to share with all of us through her reflective project at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Korea.

  • In most of the writings on Kimsooja, her work is interpreted through conceptual frameworks borrowed from such disciplines as cultural anthropology, psychology, philosophy, religion, sociology, or feminism. This study does not stray far from those frames of reference, but differs in its focus on the concepts of body and mind as manifested in Kimsooja’s art — a viewpoint that has not been pursued in the past. It specifically strives to expound the relationship between mind and body from the perspectives of both Eastern and Western philosophical traditions; I will try to interleave East Asian and European thoughts in relation to the concepts in Kimsooja’s works. Kimsooja has arranged each bundle of her ideas in non-contiguous spaces, which then have to be stitched together with a metaphysical thread across the gaps of discontinuity. This study is organized in the same way — that is, in a structure of non-contiguous thoughts and their synthesis across the discontinuous boundaries to propose a new condition of contemplation.

Body and Mind: Monistic Dualism

  • The concept of mind is inherently difficult to grasp. In general, the term mind refers to a person’s personality or character; but it can also mean a metaphysical space that contains a person’s thought or emotion. In English, mind represents the spirit or thought of the brain. The corresponding French word âme means soul or consciousness. The meaning of mind differs somewhat whether the Korean or English term is used. This divergence is probably a result of differences in Eastern and Western thought. In many traditions of European origin, mind and material have been disparate concepts. Mind is a human attribute whereas material is an attribute of things. The human mind stands independent of the external, material world and is subject to rational principles, thus forming a dimension that is separate from the material world, to which the body belongs. This way of thinking is called dualism of mind and body, predicated on the premise that mind and body are independent of each other. However, Eastern thought is not compatible with this kind of dualism. In East Asia, mind and material are deemed interdependent or complementary to each other, forming an inseparable relationship. This view, which has become the basic underpinning of philosophical thinking, treats mind and body as two different manifestations of the same entity. It does not hold that the mind governs over a body seen to be inferior. This is a monism of mind and body, or monistic dualism. According to this view, mind and body originate in and ultimately fuse and return to the state of being one. Oneness is deemed as the fundamental principle of the whole universe; it corresponds to the Great Ultimate (??, taiji) in the Confucian book the I Ching or Yijing (??, Classic of Changes), the universal and absolute principle (?, li) in the teachings of Neo-Confucianism, and nothingness (?, kong) in doctrines of Buddhism.

  • Recently, a monism of mind and body has been accommodated by many European thinkers, one of them being Jean-Luc Nancy. In his book Corpus, Nancy focuses on the disparaged status of the body in relation to mind, and attempts to rebalance the conventionally lopsided relationship between the two. The premise of his claims is that the body is der einzelne, meaning that it does not exist in the dominion of the mind, nor is it an existence that is merged with the mind. At the same time, he repudiates the concept of body that is perceived as the opposite to soul or mind. Nancy’s “body” is not a foreign or unfamiliar object to an inner soul (âme, psyché) but a correlator that coexists with soul. To paraphrase, body is the expansion of soul and at the same time the exterior of soul. According to Nancy, the body is opened toward the outside, i.e., it is revealed and unfolded outwards. The body is the soul’s expansion toward the exterior and forms itself as the Other (l’autrui). The soul or the mind, then, is the inner substance of the outer body and, as such, supports the body’s sense of contact. Body and soul form an oppositional pair to each other. This is a monistic dualism as the relationship between body and mind.

  • The concept of mind cannot be apprehended by logic or be defined by certain categories or boundaries. In order to discern the concept of mind beyond this impossibility of knowing or the limit of our rational capacity, one has to dispense with the belief in the mind’s self-sufficiency and experience a break from the closed, egocentric self. One must see that the mind is opened toward the outside — the outside which may be called the body, the Other, and the world or the universe. The process of the mind opening up or unfolding toward the outside — thereby breaking out of the subject-centred closedness that endlessly collapses inwards — is what Nancy calls as the expansion of the soul. Through such a process, the soul transcends the limitation of being immanent in itself and enters what both Emmanuel Levinas and Nancy describe as the altruistic coexisting relationship of “being-with.” The characterization of the relationship between mind and body (soul and body) as “being-together” parallels the concept of the “pluralistic singular existence (être singulier pluriel),” which is the essence of ourselves in society. Rather than expand on the relationship of pluralistic singular existence to the democratic community, I intend to connect this concept to the monistic dualism of material and mind, material and non-material, and, by extension, to the monistic dualism of finiteness and infiniteness.

  • In his discourse on the expansion of the soul, Nancy set out by addressing the issue of the body among the many facets of the Other. He argues that when the soul tries to reach the body, which is its own Other, as well as the outside, the soul contacts itself through the outer skin of the body, which is its own exposure (l’exposition du soi, l’expeausition). Owing to the ego outside the ego and the body that is the boundary between the self and the world, the soul is able to maintain its balance without leaning toward the inside or the outside. The concept of body, which stands as neither a subject nor an object, in conjunction with the idea of a balanced soul, offers a valuable clue to understanding Kimsooja’s works in this exhibition.

  • Nancy’s expansive argument about body and soul leads to a discussion of the existential finiteness of the body and its coexistence in a social context. However, in Kimsooja’s Geometry of Body, the finite coexistence of people is not a matter of importance; her focus is on our original existence that confronts the absolute or the infinite. In that regard, Kimsooja’s work diverges from Nancy’s discourse. Additionally, as a means of approaching the infinite that is the limit of existence, most of Kimsooja’s works involve geometrical structures and a balance that symbolically signify the monistic dualism of body and soul. The geometric balance, with its primordial power, brings about an effect by which we are almost unconsciously drawn into the world of the absolute and the infinite. Facing the overwhelming infinite or absolute, we are awakened from the state of our everyday existence and compelled to turn our eyes towards our original existence. We either avoid facing death or lead a life oblivious to it even though the inevitability of death is embedded in the very foundation of our present existence. If existence comes to grips with death through a constant ontological anxiety, it is said to be in fundamental and inherent authenticity (Eigenlichkeit). It was the philosopher Martin Heidegger who set out this ontological perspective and touched on the issue of “authentic existence” in Sein und Zeit (Being and Time). This authenticity of being metamorphoses the state of everyday “being there” (Dasein) into authentic existence. An authentically finite self anticipates its eventual death and projects (Entwurf) itself into authentic being, thus breaking from the self-contained self.

  • In my view, the concept of authentic being is closely aligned with the monistic dualism of mind and body. A human being conceived as a dualistic entity of mind and body is an existence placed on a path to absolute nothingness, or death. Of course, death in Western existentialism is the negation and perishing of being. Little or no attention is paid to the state beyond death. Even though Dasein anticipates its own death, it does not pursue the absolute domain that death ushers in. In contrast, traditional Eastern thought does not consider the death of body and soul to be a perishing, but as either a threshold through which existence enters the absolute world or a stage where existence is united with the infinite world. Therefore the meaning of existence expands to the dynamic absolute (taiji) or nothingness. While the East and the West may differ in their answers to what constitutes authenticity of being, both affirm death to be instrumental in opening up the complete possibility of being, or the ultimate infiniteness that establishes the meaning of our existence.

The Meaning of “Geometry”

  • The monistic dualism of body and mind provides an effective framework when we seek to grasp the significance of “geometry” as specified in the titles of works such as Geometry of Body and Geometry of Mind. It is obvious that the artist did not intend geometry to be a mathematical study dealing with figures or space. Kimsooja’s geometry is an intuitive method to help visualize complex ideas around the metaphysical notions of body or mind. The artist, by employing such a geometric method, reminds viewers of the dualistic and agonistic structure of body and mind — or the dualistic structure of material and consciousness, of the finite and the infinite, and of authenticity and non-authenticity of being. Furthermore, through geometric structure, Kimsooja leads each viewer to think of possible aspects of being. Geometry in this case can be understood as a statistician’s method that transforms a great deal of complex information into visual models, or a logician’s method of deductive reasoning in which concrete and evident facts are laid out as the ground for general principles. This methodological approach has helped the artist to avoid being lured into subjective, emotional traps while rendering images and objects in the visual arts. Kimsooja could better convey her ideas to the viewer thanks to intuitive clarity and deductive facility offered by this geometric method. Thus we could argue that her works can be categorized as conceptual art.

  • Verticality and horizontality, as key elements of a geometric structure, can effectively represent the ideas underlying a monistic dualism of the body and mind. Since the early 1980s, Kimsooja’s works almost without exception have a structure of verticality and horizontality, with intersections of longitudinal and transversal lines in an orderly fashion. The structure of perpendicular lines intersecting each other and extending in opposite directions displays a sense of expanding movement that unfolds toward infinity, while maintaining balance in the four cardinal directions. This structure creates an open-ended space in which the inside communicates with the outside and movement can take place in any direction. When a vertical and a horizontal line intersect, the four directions come into being. As lines are added through that intersection, the number of directions increases to eight, sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four, and so on. In traditional East Asian philosophy and religion, these numbers signify time and space. In the Yijing, the sacred book of Confucianism, sixty-four trigrams symbolize sixty-four directions and represent divergent attributes of being. In the Buddhist scripture Taejanggaemandara, the eight lotus petals called jungdaepalyeobeon — which contain the four Buddhas of east, west, south and north and the four Buddhas of the northeast, southeast, northwest and southwest — symbolize the omnipresence of Buddha throughout the universe. Additionally, the eight or sixteen spokes of the wheel represent the Buddhist Dharma that permeates all directions of the universe. It is also the archetypal image of wonyoongmuae, which means “all things in all directions with no obstructions and in perfect integration.” The vertical and horizontal structure underlying all these concepts may be viewed as the dualistic structure of yin and yang or of heaven and earth, symbolizing the universe as an unhindered infinite space.

  • The concept of cheonjiinsamjae, as expounded in the Yijing, offers an interesting perspective on how the universe functions in relation to human beings. It adds the human being to the dualistic order of heaven and earth. Even though the universe initially comprised these two fundamental elements, human beings have come to be an indispensable mediator between heaven and earth, enabling the universe to function at its full capacity. A dualistic view of heaven and earth presumes that the world is just spread between the earth and the sky does not accommodate the use of the human mind, and is devoid of any engagement with human mind or attention. In contrast, the theory of samjaeron, the theory of three generative forces, asserts a role for human beings in the operation of heaven and earth. It raises the status of human beings to the same level , while asserting that human beings are the linchpin that holds together the universe. The inclusion of humans alters the traditional view of nature into a humanistic view of the world. Owing to this shift of views, nature philosophy in the East evolved into a humanistic moral philosophy, as manifested in Confucianism. The Doctrine of the Mean, written by the Confucian scholar Zisi, states that a human being is able to assist in change and operation of the universe and, if he or she is willing, can participate in the ranks of the three generative forces. For this, a person should perfect his or her own “human identity” bestowed by the universe. The Doctrine of the Mean dictates that it is imperative for human identity to be in compliance with the principles of the universe, or li. This is called the axiom of sungjeuklee, which means “human identity equal to the principle of the universe,” and is considered the core proposition of Confucianism. Therefore people should always cultivate their own body and mind so that their human identity is in sync with the principles of the universe — that is, in the state of golden mean. This is a state of balance maintained by a steady mind that does not get disturbed or swayed in any direction. A person in the state of golden mean attains his or her original identity, which is aligned with the principles of the universe, and can effectuate a harmonious world. If the human, who is a significant medium in helping to change and operate the world, is absent or disengaged, what would become of the world? Then, heaven and earth would remain indifferent to each other, separate, without relation, which brings us back to a dichotomous dualism. With humans engaged in conscious efforts to realize the principles of the universe, a dualistic structure is replaced by a monistic dualism of the world.

  • Although humans are finite beings, as mediators, they have the potential to reach for heaven in vertical relations and traverse the earth in horizontal relations. The vertical-horizontal structure defines our infinite universe. The encounter of yang, the spirit of heaven, and yin, the spirit of earth, procreates living matter and entities. Of these, only humans can join as the third of the three generative forces of the universe and engage in the operations of heaven and earth. Humans are capable of giving unitary interpretations of the world and of nature, as only humans have mind. According to the Doctrine of the Mean the ideal state of existence is the golden mean, which is alternatively called the middle or composure in the sense that it is the harmonious middle between yin and yang. The notion of composure resonates with ataraxia — “imperturbability,” the composed and stable state of mind and body sought after by the Epicurean School of ancient Greece. They believed human happiness exists in the state of ataraxia just as Confucian scholars asserted that if humans abide by the rule of the golden mean they are able to live a life that is delightful, worry free and happy, a life in which they perceive their own humanity without imbalance or bias.

  • The geometry of vertical and horizontal structure embodies a state of calm and composure that does not tilt to one side — this composure of body and mind is similar to what Confucianism pursued. The most fitting image of the stability of mind and body in the state of composure would be one of a vertical and horizontal structure in balance. Kimsooja may not have intentionally predicated her works on the propositions of Confucianism or, more precisely, Neo-Confucianism, however, it cannot be denied that her framework parallels them quite aptly. Just as Heidegger argued for the existential being to be authentic (to stay in existential anxiety by facing death and thereby overcoming the dualism between existence and nothingness), Confucian philosophies pursued a more positive human existence that communicates with the infinite and the absolute — a spatial and temporal realm that cannot be experienced. Confucianism in particular emphasized the universe as the root of the beginning and end, of the world of yin and yang. The basic tenet of Confucianism lies in the harmonization of human identity with the cardinal rule of the universe and living a balanced life in accordance with the order of yin and yang.

  • Kimsooja’s Geometry of Mind, an installation that was shown for the first time in this exhibition, prompts us to closely analyze the mind and realize it indeed is unified with the body as one and at the same time is related to authentic human identity. As there is no way to define this mind, we instead have to observe what state the mind exists in. When we observe our own mind, we realize that it initially has no shape or movement — it exists in a state of potential. It is only when a stimulus enters that the mind moves and arises; it oscillates to the state of reality filled with perception and emotion. The mind’s tranquil state of potential, while traversing through the time and space of our reality, transforms into a state of “being real” and reveals itself in this process. One of the annotations to the Yijing refers to the state of mind that has not yet been revealed to the outside as “the mind being calm and undisturbed.” In comparison, the state of mind that is revealed and able to respond is referred to as “the mind feeling and communicating.” Cheng Yi, a renowned Confucian scholar, wrote that a “calm and undisturbed state” is the original body of mind, and the state of “mind feeling and communicating” is the operation of mind. He postulated a duality of mind as an a priori state and an experienced state.

  • Since the nature of mind cannot be seen or touched, Confucians viewed it as empty. Buddhists viewed the mind as nothingness. Nevertheless, the mind is not completely empty. The energy of yin and yang is implicitly embedded in the mind. When the mind that has remained calm, it takes an orientation toward something at a given moment, the energy of yin and yang is activated, enabling the mind to feel. This energy allows the mind to realize or embody itself through time and space, and also allows the mind to change into various shapes. Zhu Xi, the founder of Neo-Confucianism in the Song period, compared the nature of the mind to a mirror that is clean and clear, and explained that emotion is something reflected on the mirror of the mind — that is, a reflection of the mind’s mysterious movement. He referred to the change and function of the human mind as “mysterious perception, sensation and judgment”. This mysterious function of mind has two aspects: one is the self-control of trifling emotions and desires generated by the body, and the other is the moral or ethical mind, which is based on human identity. The ethical intelligence refers to a mind that feels shame when it sees something that is not right and detests injustice, a mind of humility and accommodation for other people, and a mind that can discern right from wrong. This mind comes from a place of truth and must be encouraged. This ethical mind provides clues for understanding four personalities: gentle and virtuous, righteous, polite and civil, and wise and sagacious. The mind based on human identity acts as a swinging pendulum, gradually leading us to a state of balanced composure as well as a state of authentic being.

  • Eastern essence-function theory states that the mind would be in a peaceful pause when the body is also paused, and the mind would respond and feel once the body is activated. In other words, states of the mind are understood to match states of the body. This postulation of a mind-body identity is predicated on the theory that both mind and body are subject to the same energies of yin and yang. For this reason, a human being is defined as one and at the same time as two, entailing an argument that a human being can be split in two while maintaining its wholeness. This is the unification of matter and mind. In relation to the tranquility and movement of the mind, Nancy discusses something of note in Corpus. He paraphrased a quotation from Freud that came to light after his death: “the soul is unfolding (étendue) outwards, [but of the movement of being unfolded,] nothing is known.” If we substitute this “soul” for “mind,” we can see that that mind resides peacefully inside and then migrates outward and unfolds itself. The mind is not able to perceive its own movement of expansion because its unfolding is carried out unconsciously and quietly. However, if the unfolded mind makes contact with the body, the body of the mind would move towards the outside and evoke the unification of stillness and movement in the manner of twoness (mind and body) within one (the self) and oneness within twoness. Nancy makes clear that the self’s “unknowing” is the authentic self, and the process of the soul moving toward the outside, registering bodily sensation and going through thoughts and experiences, is the means of the unification of stillness and movement through which the unity of mind and body is exposed to world. Neo-Confucianism long ago explained the phenomenon of the mind being unified with the body (that is its own outside) and expanding toward the world through its essence-function theory.

  • Nothing could illustrate the stillness and then movement of the mind more vividly and persuasively than an experience that came upon Kimsooja one day in 1983, when she was sewing a bedcover with her mother. Suddenly she came to an important realization:

  • Through the banal activity of sewing a bed cover with my mother, I experienced a surprising sensation that my own thoughts, sensitivity and action were all integrated. That unifying sensation was so private and surprising. At that moment, I was able to find some kind of possibility that can include within itself countless memories, pain, as well as affection and love in life, all of which I had buried within me until that moment. The warp and weft as the fabric’s basic structure, the raw sense of colour of our own fabric, the unification of the action of sewing up and through the two-dimensional fabric, the fabric and myself and the strange nostalgia that all of this evoked...with all of this I was completely enchanted.
    Later, when describing this experience again, she recounted that when the sharp needle poked into the fabric, she felt the energy of the universe suddenly penetrating through her whole body. This surprising epiphanic experience not only marked the origin of her Sewing series but also helped form the spiritual archetype for her oeuvre. The coincidence of the tension of mind with that of the body in the act of sewing brought memories and emotions that had been buried deep inside the mind to the threshold of the unconscious. This in turn electrified and moved the artist’s body and mind. Kimsooja described how this experience of the unification of her mind and body gave birth to Sewing, in which the meaning of the needle and thread is rooted in oneness of mind and body. Just as mind and body are two sides of a real being, needle and thread are as one and, as a unified entity, do the work of sewing the fabric — which symbolizes the outside world or the infinite space between heaven and earth. In the installation Archive of Mind, the participants are given an opportunity to experience the same kind of epiphany through the ritualistic act of forming clay balls rolled between their hands.

  • When one is touched by an artwork, his or her mind is stimulated in response: “the tranquil and unstirred mind” begins to “communicate and stir” in response to the stimulus, thus, revealing itself. In the Sewing series, Kimsooja’s artworks have been structured in a way to best resonate with the stillness and the movement of mind. The bed cover is worked with needle and thread that symbolize the oneness of body and mind. The fabric, smoothly spread out, is a horizontal structure that accommodates the movement of the mind traversing over it. Against the backdrop of the horizontal fabric, the vertical movement of sewing through the warps and wefts represents the unfolding of the mind. The mind, in sync with the hand-movement of sewing, eventually brings to the surface the nature of being and emotion that has been sequestered in the unconscious. It is not just the repetitive hand movement that stirs the stillness of mind; the artist’s mind and body are stimulated on multiple levels. For example, the colorful, traditional fabric Kimsooja uses serves as a strong stimulus for the visual and tactile senses. Furthermore, the artist is inspired by the cultural implications of these silk fabrics. The vertical and horizontal structures in Kimsooja’s work are the most conspicuous visual stimuli that inspire the viewers.

  • ...

  • The artist’s working method, which is to join squares of fabric along their widths and lengths and multiply them by sewing, also aligns with the structure of verticality and horizontality. To the question of what Geometry of Mind and Geometry of Body mean, answers may be found if one understands the principles of the three generative forces and the manifestation of heaven, earth, and human. Now let’s delve further into the geometry of the vertical and horizontal structure.

  • As suggested above, the geometry of the vertical and horizontal structure has nothing to do with reifying certain idealistic concepts, nor with the identification and classification of conceptual objects in a geometric lattice. The geometry of the vertical-horizontal structure in this essay refers to a method that helps one intuit the infiniteness of the universe or the intrinsic nature of the uncertainty of being, as well as intuit the state of balance between dualistic, antagonistic elements such as body and mind, or yin and yang. Geometric structuralization is a method to facilitate the observation and reflection of complex, often conceptual, notions. It is necessary to rely on such methods in order to have categorical, systematic or structural unity when contemplating the essence of the indeterminate consciousness called mind. Through this method we are able to reach the intuition of and reflect on such topics as body and mind, or yin and yang, all of which are indefinable by knowledge.

  • In a similar vein, Julia Kristeva, a semiologist, opts for a dualistic system of the semiotic and the symbolic in order to explain how the signification of poetic language is ingenerated from pulsion, which exists under the consciousness. It is, in fact, impossible to formulate the disorderliness and pulsation that flows and moves into a state of segmentation in a self-evident logic or axiom. Nonetheless, Kristeva hypothesizes that pulsion, the drive of desire, generates the ultimate signification of the text. She divides the process of signification into the strata of semiotic and symbolic, and investigates the interaction of these two. Consequently, she claims that signification is ingenerated out of the semiotic field in which the fragmented pulsion is condensed and subsequently connected to the symbolic field in which law, order, and social consciousness are concentrated. In other words, the two conflicting categories are connected in such a way that the semiotic mobility engages with the symbolic order, the former moving into the latter to compose signification.

  • There can be many possible interpretations for the vertical and horizontal structure that characterizes Kimsooja’s work. One would be as follows: (a) the expansion of mind construed as the expansion of the energy of pulsion in the field of the semiotic, (b) the integration of the body with the outside world interpreted as the unification with society and history in the symbolic field, and (c) the monistic dualism of body and mind construed as the formation of signification generated from the cooperation of the semiotic and the symbolic. The mind is the realm that is indefinite and uncertain, like the field of the semiotic. Yet it can be said that the mind’s own expanding energy — that is, the body — creates the meaning of “being” along with the order of the symbolic, such as sewing, the hand movement of rolling clay balls, or the somatic movement of yoga. As for how the pulsion that moves across the artist’s body and mind gives rise to certain meanings in the process of sewing, that is, at the moment of “poking the sharp needle” into the fabric, the artist explained: I experienced a surprising sensation that my own thoughts, sensitivity and action were all integrated. That unifying sensation was so private and surprising. At that moment, I was able to find some kind of possibility that can include within itself countless memories, pain, as well as affection and love in life, all of which I had buried within me until that moment. [...] the strange nostalgia that all of this evoked...with all of this I was completely enchanted.

  • Kimsooja mused that the meaning of her works is forged when subconscious memories and feelings are introduced to the consciousness, causing her to reflect on the innate nature of being. Is this not the true role of art? Art should let the artist’s hidden desires that have been forgotten or hidden in the mundane or everyday to be truly unfolded and expanded onto the horizon of the consciousness, and enable her or him to experience the epiphanic moment of recovering the original emotion and nature of being. It is for this reason that I sincerely recommend viewers immerse themselves and directly participate in the process through which the artist creates the meaning of her art, thereby relishing the opportunity to relive their own memories and feelings as well as intuit the nature of being.

— Extract of Kimsooja: Archive of Mind. Exhibition Catalogue published by National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, 2017

A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is Souvenir, 2014, 46 x 4.5(diameter) feet, mixed media installation, photograph by Aaron Wax

세계 속에서 미술의 새로운 정체성을 만들어가는 작가

김수자 Kimsooja

Young Hee, Suh

2015

  • 누구든지 김수자 작가가 제작한 작품들을 신속히 훑어보기로 한다면, 필자는 가장 손쉬운 방법으로 그의 작품들이 매체별로 정리된 웹 홈페이지 www.kimsooja.com로 일단 들어가 보라고 추천하고 싶다. 썩 잘 분류된 이 홈페이지는 작가의 글, 인터뷰, 작품에 대한 생생한 포트폴리오 역할을 하기 때문이다. 사실 필자도 여느 감상자들과 마찬가지이다. 김수자의 예외적인 전시들을 보기 위해 수시로 해외로 나갈 수는 없다. 그래서 빈번하게 이 사이트에 링크를 걸곤 한다. 그럼 그때마다 간화선(看話禪)의 화두 같은 작품들이 하나씩 하나씩 또렷이 드러나고, 이윽고는 일상에서 둔탁해진 의식의 벽이 얇은 필름처럼 예민해지는 묘한 기쁨을 느낀다.

  • 김수자의 작품은 우리의 마른 감각에만 호소하지 않는다. 빠르고 격한 충격을 주거나 새뜻한 간질거림으로 자극하는 작품들과는 매우 다르다. 특이하게도 그의 작품들은 감상자의 몸과 의식을 동시에 사로잡고, 시각과 감성의 깊이(profondeur)를 파고든다. 그의 상상력과 정서도 그저 그렇고 그런 충동에서 비롯되지는 않는다. 그의 미적 상상력은 출렁이지 않고 고요히 가라앉은 마음과 여유로운 호흡으로부터 시작된다. 그래서 작품을 바라보는 우리도 너 나 없이 부지불식간에 방치해왔던 깊은 생각들 속으로 가라앉는다. '나'를 질문하게 하는 존재라는 것 혹은 세계 속 존재의 의미 내지 근원을 더듬어가는 사색의 느린 흐름을 타보는 경험을 하게 된다. 감상자들의 이 같은 특별한 경험을 배려하기 위함인지, 작가는 자신의 작품 안에서 스스로 목소리를 내세우지 않는 편이다. 작품을 설치하고서는 에고의 흔적을 지운 채 조용히 물러난다. 예술가가 주관과 감정을 표면에 드러내지 않음이 감상자에겐 흔치 않은 당혹스런 일이 되겠으나, 하지만 그렇기에 스스로 의식의 체험을 할 수 있는 넉넉한 사유의 자리를 얻음에야 ... 그러니 우리가 그의 작품 속으로 풍덩 빠져 볼만 하지 않겠는가.

  • 천들을 바늘과 실로 꿰매어 연결한 1980년대의 <ㄱ, ㄴ, ㄷ, ㄹ> 연작과 <天, 地> 연작에서부터 최근의 비디오 설치작품인 <地水火風> 연작까지, 작가의 작품 구성은 미니멀리즘을 연상시킬 만큼 늘 단순하고 구조적이다. 초기작에서 수직선과 수평선 혹은 사선으로 이어진 사각형 천들은 조각조각마다 염색된 오방색들을 그대로 드러낸 채, 협화음과 불협화음의 색조 구성을 보여준다. <지수화풍>에서도 세계를 구성하는 4 요소들인 흙, 물, 불, 바람의 자연 이미지들을 순열로 연결해 설치함으로서, 존재를 둘러싼 세계의 근원적 의미를 네 방향을 따라 구조적으로 사유하도록 한다. 작가가 스펙터클의 축으로 등장한 <바늘여인> 연작에서도 마찬가지다. 그는 등을 돌린 채 얼굴을 보이지 않는 침묵 상태로 그렇게 '수직'으로 멈추어 서있다. 그 대신 주변 도시와 다양한 면모의 사람들이 형형색색의 천 조각들처럼 '수평'으로 그를 감싸 흐르고 움직인다. 2010년을 전후해 등장한 일련의 비디오 작품들인 <뭄바이: 빨래터>과 <앨범: 허드슨 길드> 그리고 <실의 궤적> 연작들 역시도 유사하게 이해할 수 있지 않을까 싶다. 보이지 않는 작가의 몸은 여전히 지구 곳곳을 수평으로 흐르는 갖가지의 존재의 삶들, 그 조각과 편린들을 끌어 모았다가 때가 되면 우리 눈앞에 보따리를 풀듯 펼쳐놓고 주목하도록 손짓한다.

  • 그의 비디오 작품들은 그 전에 선행된 <보따리> 연작의 연장선 위에 있다. 초기에 천들을 아상블라주하듯 꿰맨 작품들은 평면작업이지만, 1991년 뉴욕 PS1 작업실에서 발견한 <보따리> 연작은 천들을 꿰매지 않고 천 조각 하나하나의 단위를 독립된 기표로 인식하면서 시작된다. 천 조각들은 색과 문양 그리고 크기에 상관없이 각각 하나의 기호가 되며, 전시장 바닥 혹은 테이블 위에 펼쳐놓는 산포의 기호로 유연하게 변화된다. 그러다가 작가가 어느 순간에 이 천 조각들을 끌어 모아 보따리로 싸면서, 평면 작업(수평 구조, 정지 상태)이 입체 작업(수직 구조, 이동 상태)으로 이행되고, 보따리는 신체와 함께 여행하는 오브제로 변환된다. 펼치고 싸는 다시 그 반대로도 전환되는 <보따리> 연작은 그 가변성과 이동성(유목성) 덕분에 시, 공간을 통한 작품 구조의 열림을 가져온 그야말로 현대미술의 획기적인 전환점으로 이해되는 것이다.

  • 이후 작가는 세계 곳곳마다 보따리들을 들고 다니며 전시장마다 상이한 퍼포먼스를 펼쳐 보였다. 그리고 우리는 보따리를 열 때마다 존재와 삶의 다양한 상들을 풀어내는 작가의 행위에 매료되지 않을 수 없었다. 그런데 그는 여기서 멈추지 않고 다시 미술의 정체성이란 경계를 허물며 다른 영역으로 나아갔다. 새로운 출발점은 <보따리>의 무한한 구조적 가변성에 있었다. 그로부터 작가는 천 조각들 대신 비디오 영상 단편을 매재로 삼고 그리고 보따리를 펼치고 싸는 일 대신 필름을 편집해내는 일로 이행하며, 전혀 또 다른 이미지들을 펼쳐냈다. 필자는 비디오와 필름 영상의 선택이 그에게 어떤 변화를 가져왔는지 생각할 때마다, 감탄과 환호의 박수를 보내게 된다. 비단 작품 스케일과 구상에서 실현에 이르는 과정의 변화 뿐 아니라, 영상의 흐르는 시간성은 음양을 따라 오행하는 유동적 사태들 다시 말해 만물의 생성-변화-소멸의 변전을 근원적으로 설명해내는 최적의 방법적 조건을 마련해주었다고 생각한다. 들숨과 날숨의 호흡이나 실을 잣고 씨실, 날실을 직조하는 일 그리고 세계 곳곳에서 이어지는 실의 궤적과 남미, 유럽의 바늘 여인들의 이중 구조 역시 그의 비디오 작품에서는 존재-삶의 구조적 양태에 대한 직관의 이미지들로 살아났다.

  • 호흡(숨쉬기)은 우리 삶의 시작과 끝이다. 첫 호흡으로 태어나며, 마지막 호흡으로 생을 마감한다. 이 보이지 않는 들숨, 날숨의 끝없는 반복은 우주의 보이지 않는 무한 에너지(氣, 光)의 맥동 그 자체이다. 다양한 삶들을 이루는 바탕이자 가장 근본적이고 통일된 존재 상징으로서 이 호흡을 김수자는 2006년 마드리드의 '크리스탈 궁전' 내부에 가득 채웠다(<호흡: 거울여인>). 이어 2013년 베니스 비엔날레에서도 <호흡하기: 보따리>란 설치작품을 통해, 전시장을 빛과 호흡으로 채웠다. 국내외 관객들에게 강한 인상을 던진 두 설치작품들은 비시각적인 빛과 호흡을 특수 필름과 거울을 사용해 눈부시도록 찬란한 무지개빛과 확대된 호흡 소리로 즉 심장의 수축과 확장, 씨실과 날실의 직조처럼 손에 잡힐 듯 생생한 촉각적, 청각적 맥동으로 전환시켰다. 그리하여 작가나 감상자의 존재/부재를 부각시키는 한편 생명과 환경의 연계에 더 주목하도록 하는 관계적 상황을 연출해냈다.

A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is Souvenir, 2014, 46 x 4.5(diameter) feet, mixed media installation, photograph by Jaeho Chong

An Architecture of Gaze

Jaeho, Chong

2015

  • A silent figure stands with its back facing the viewer, poised motionless against the ebb and flow of the anonymous crowd, unsheltered and without a want. Standing in front of A Needle Woman, a performance/video work (1999-2009) by the acclaimed artist Kimsooja, we see a body which, without doing anything, becomes a measure of time and space. As the artist's body weaves ceaselessly through the crowd, it shifts in and out of our field of vision. For a fleeting moment we experience our body transposed into hers, and through the borrowed gaze of the artist we confront our own impermanence in the face of time.

  • Her most recent work, similarly titled, A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir, carries this experience forward in a new form of practice. It is the result of a close collaboration between Kimsooja, the nanoscientist Ulrich Wiesner, and myself, an architect, on the occasion of the Cornell University's inaugural art biennial organized by Stephanie Owens, director of the Cornell Council for the Arts. Sited at the heart of the university's Arts Quad, the 46 foot high 4.5 foot diameter custom-fabricated steel structure is fleshed out with transparent acrylic panels that have been individually coated in iridescent nanopolymer. Under a raking light, each of these panels transforms the entire pavilion into a radiant spectrum of color as the molecularly engineered 'block copolymer,' produced by Hiroaki Sai and Ferdinand Kohle from the Wiesner Group, refracts various wavelengths of light dependent on the angle from which it is viewed. The interior of the floor is mirrored, doubling and extending the sky into the ground.

  • Cornell has a long history of commissioning site-specific art works. Perhaps those best known came out of the seminal 1969 Earth Art show curated by Willoughby Sharp, which brought together a group of young artists, including Hans Haacke, Richard Long, Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim, and Günther Uecker, to produce new works on campus. Many of these artists treated the earth itself as a canvas and as sculptural material, just as today Kimsooja sees the earth as a "readyused" object – an idea akin to Duchamp's readymades, or Piero Manzoni's 1961 Socle Du Monde. In fact, much like Duchamp's attitude, Kimsooja's work resists human desire and adoration for visual pleasure, never making anything, but creating new thoughts for any given object or phenomenon. However, drawing such a formalistic relationship between the two artists in using found objects has its limits. For instance, the idea of the needle employed by Kimsooja, in her own words, is "a medium, a mystery, a reality, a hermaphrodite, a barometer, a moment, and Zen," which is much closer to a state of empathy than to a rationale of apathy. It echoes the spirit of Arte Povera, whose attitude, according to Germano Celant, is "intent upon retrieving the factual significance of the emerging meaning of human life."

  • What then, led an artist who refuses to 'make' objects to conceive a 46-foot tall 'sculpture'? At the first meeting between the collaborators, Kimsooja was presented with a small vial containing an iridescent substance. Generally known as 'structural color,' and characterized by Ulrich Wiesner as 'block copolymer,' this chemically grown chain of monomers produce a continuous banding of molecules with light-refracting qualities similar to those found on the wings of butterflies or the shells of beetles. When examined under an electron microscope, it appears as a striated fabric. Needless to say, Kimsooja's sustained interest in used fabrics as a tableau of life finds another scale of reality here. Such a profound consistency between nanoscientific phenomena and her artistic practice allows her to work within an invisible realm outside the register of human senses and to bring reality closer to our own experience – a practice to which she has always been committed.

  • "Interconnected to observations in art-making," she says, "nano-techniques are an inverse expression of our perspective of the universe (cosmology)." The former constantly sharpens our gaze towards a single point, infinitely dividing and redefining space almost to the point of eliminating interiority, while the latter moves toward the limits of exterior space, beyond geometric imagination. Architecture, whose purpose includes the preservation of interiority through geometry, frames this vast scope of space at a scale conducive to a direct bodily experience. To this end, the physical form of the pavilion has little relevance as a sculptural object, but rises out of a necessity of finding an instrument to bridge the visible and the invisible.

  • The form of a needle is not without its own architectural history. The Egyptian obelisk, for example, functioned as a religious axis between man and the cosmos for many centuries. Some known as 'Cleopatra's Needle,' these sacred structures embody early Egyptian creation myths that explained the rising and setting of the sun – the solar cycle – through the metaphor of birth and consummation of life closely associated with solar deities, namely the sun god Ra. As such, light and time had already emerged as symbolic channels between man and celestial order in the shape of a needle.

  • In effect, it is neither the nanomaterial, the architecture, nor the artistic intention that reveals the invisible, but the subtle yet perpetual cosmic motion reflected in the change of light. Material seizes such an instance. The molecular structure on the skin of the pavilion physically unwraps light, enabling a person's gaze to weave through the undulating depths of visual surface – a phenomenon perfectly mirroring the dynamic reciprocity between the standing figure and the gazing subject in the artist's video work. The 'needle,' in turn, anchored perpendicular to the ground, parallels our bodies and emerges as an object of non-violence. A stream of consciousness that once took the form of a brushstroke on the surface of a canvas is abstracted over the years in Kimsooja's practice as first a needle, then a body, a camera lens, and finally a luminous void. A gaze is all that remains.

  • More than a symbol of, or a testament to, the confluence of art and science, A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir opens the ontological dimension between our fleeting existence and the cosmos by rendering all of our gaze – an emphatic gesture of human subjectivity – instrumental to the relational structure between distance, time, matter, and memory: a void at the tip of a needle point.

— From Space: Issue 566, January 2015

A Needle Woman, 1999 – 2001, 8 channel video projection, 6:33 loop, silent.

Kimsooja: A Modern Day Global Nomad

Transcending boundaries, re-constructing a global identity

Christina Arum Sok

2014

Abstract

  • In this digital era of instant information and communication, a new level of cultural globalization has allowed disparate groups to come together, forming a familiar and shared culture. This idea of 'global harmony' is not suggestive of an idealized and naïve state of international utopia, but rather should be considered as a platform for increased understanding of shared human traits, states of being, conditions and emotions, which are ultimately, universal.

  • Contemporary Korean artist, Kimsooja, is an embodiment of this concept of transcending boundaries, distinctions and limiting categories, as she is a true modern day global nomad. She is a multidisciplinary and multi-faceted artist, who, in fact, rejects prescriptive identity groups such as gender and marital status as well as socio-political, socio-economic, cultural and geographical identity constructs. Kimsooja's visual language may be rooted in Korean cultural traditions and mediums often associated with women and craft such as sewing, embroidery and textiles; however, she resolves to re-construct her identity and weaves herself into a global landscape. She achieves a delicate balance of leaving her mark as well as absorbing what is out there in the world, integrating into the fabric of different realities.

  • This paper examines Kimsooja's selected conceptual works to understand how she critically overcomes the shadows and burdens of identity constraints. Kimsooja is able to ground herself to issues of real value and genuine stories that are concerned with the world, and artistic practices that uncover ideas that are neglected or overshadowed by the commercial gloss of the global art market. Furthermore, her body is neither the site of sexuality nor the fantasized/fetishized female body of the 1960s and 1970s Euro American Feminist context. Alternatively, her body can be seen as a needle weaving through disparate cultures, in an act of re-construction, unification and investigation of what it means to be a human being in the 21st century. As such, Kimsooja is an exemplary contemporary woman artist who strives to deliver her stance on true human equality and honesty, going back to basic story telling through highly sophisticated and intellectual visual mediums that nonetheless remain humble in its true intentions.

  • "Without a needle, there would be no fabric, and without each individual, no fabric of society."

  • In today's inter-connected contemporary context of hyper permeability and fluidity between disparate cultures, Kimsooja, can be seen as a multifaceted woman artist, a global citizen and a critical voice for humankind. She presents pressing and engaging works that touch upon the very essence of the human spirit and the physical body, particularly as it relates to and intersects with nature and the real world. Her works are existential and spiritual explorations of humankind's basic and fundamental relationship with the environment around them. Furthermore, her artistic practice investigates formal qualities and aesthetics, engaging in a unique method of story telling and creation. In addition, Kimsooja has an innate ability to balance oppositions and paradoxes in complementary and poetically sensitive ways, setting her apart as a contemporary artist of international caliber. Her works are empathetic and deeply concerned with humankind at large. As such, the decisive word for Kimsooja is transcendence. Ultimately, Kimsooja is the personification and embodiment of transcending boundaries as well as re-constructing identities beyond limiting categories or binaries, into a new type of cultural hybridity.

  • In this paper, I will investigate how Kimsooja strikes an inherent balance of co-existences on multiple levels: firstly, in her early inquiries of form and aesthetics, and subsequently, in conceptual explorations of gender, nationality and identity. The latter ultimately results in dialogic awareness amongst humankind as well as the unity of the human spirit, the human body and nature. By weaving through these multifarious layers and demonstrating how they all function as variegated tools of expression, I will present the framework that grounds Kimsooja's presence as a modern day global nomadic artist, who speaks a language derived from her unique experiences, that resonates with all of humankind. I will be focusing mainly on Kimsooja's video series titled A Needle Woman, which was first done between 1999 and 2001, followed by a second set of works done in 2005, and a final iteration in 2009 in Paris, which was commissioned by La Nuit Blanche and projected onto the façade of the Hôtel de Ville, Paris. The reading of these works will be complemented with a number of other images including a late-19th century photograph and other historically significant images from the rich span of Korean art history. Kimsooja's modes of expression may have changed over the course of her artistic career; however, her core interest and concept of being a voice for humankind, a window into the human spirit and ultimately, a true modern day global nomad has always remained steadfast.

Kimsooja's early formal and aesthetic inquiries

  • Kimsooja's works have evolved in a step-by-step process, with one artistic practice and aesthetic investigation resulting in another, providing critical building blocks for her oeuvre. Kimsooja's works were recently displayed in its chronological entirety for the first time at the Vancouver Art Gallery's exhibition Kimsooja Unfolding (October 2013 – January 2014). This survey exhibition displayed her work with 3 specific foci: her interest in time, memory and displacement; the relationship between the human body and the physical, material world; and last but not least, her engagement with the expressive and conceptual qualities of colour, light and form.

  • Kimsooja studied Western painting at the prestigious Hong-Ik University in Seoul, and her origin as a painter was a crucial starting point for the development of her art. Beginning her professional career in the 1980s, Kimsooja had a heightened level of consciousness about the concept of tableau. From the very onset, she was interested in the intersection of art and life, as for her, art was not a paradigm disconnected from real life – not just her own life but also the world around her. In fact, Kimsooja was inspired by her childhood experiences as a young girl sewing bedcovers with her mother, which brought about the revelation of unity between her thoughts, sensitivity and activity, forming her artistic tenet. Her early aesthetic investigations in formative works such as The Earth and the Heaven (Plate 1) allowed for varied expressive formats that followed the legacy of abstract expressionist style painting, collage and the ready-made, or 'ready-used' as she calls them. The use of textiles and the act of sewing were not so much a demonstration of a feminist, activist standpoint, as it may at first seem, but rather, as the artist states, "the engagement with methodologies based on female domestic labour was more about avant-garde action in relation to contemporary painting and the concept of tableau," following in the tradition of modernist inquiry.

  • Having rationalized the needle as the tool that breaks through the surface of the 'canvas' or piece of cloth, Kimsooja was able to penetrate the barrier that separated art from life. As Suh Young-Hee elaborates, having punctured the surface of pictorial art of the preceding centuries, like Lucio Fontana, who slashed his monochromatic canvases, Kimsooja is no longer bound to the two-dimensional screen of illusion but rather, engaged in a process of creating three-dimensional as well as four-dimensional structures that her 'needle' passes through and conjoins. As the act of sewing intertwines art and life, a renewed reality and experience is forged for the artist. Therefore, the fabric and the act of sewing become the forms to which Kimsooja expresses the world of human beings like herself. A pivotal moment for Kimsooja was her 1992-1993 residency in New York City at MoMA PS1, where she was roused to re-assign meaning to used traditional Korean bedcovers as a ready-used aesthetic formation. At this time, being away from her native land, Kimsooja conceived of her iconic bottari (Plate 2), which aggregates a wrapped two-dimensional 'tableau' into a three-dimensional sculptural form through the act of filling the tableau up with used clothes and tying a knot to unite the contents together. As such, this action of wrapping bodies and memories was seen as a true formalistic and aesthetic statement that provided a breakthrough for Kimsooja's artistic practice.

  • Kimsooja's early inquiry into form and fashioning new methods of expression is similar to the pioneers of Korean modern art, the forefathers of Monochrome art. These artists in the 1970s pursued new modes of expression that were connected to their personal experiences, contemplating the exigency of a Korean modernism. Kimsooja marks a significant presence in this continuum of Korean art history as she is carving out another mode of artistic expression. The Monochrome artists, however, were trying to define a Korean identity solely in the realm of modern painting. To take an example, Monochrome artist, Ha Chong-hyun was concerned with the materials' physical qualities (Plate 3), as he pushed pigment back and forth between the linen, until the paint and the surface became intermeshed, breaking the distinction between material and surface. In contrast, moving far beyond the confines of Monochrome artists' contemplations on the 'surface,' Kimsooja is not merely concerned with material and form. For her, it is more about using her newfound relationship with artistic creation and renewed engagement with formalistic structures and aesthetic qualities as a tool for expression. This unique mode of expression for Kimsooja allows her to pursue art-making that is closely intermeshed with real life; there is no separation between the two dimensions.

  • Moreover, as her artistic career has evolved beyond the three-dimensional structure into video, installation and performance, Kimsooja's role as an artist has further sophisticated. Her performances are on the complete opposite spectrum to the often violent, sexually charged performances of Marina Abramovic and Lee Bul (Plate 4) where the female body is the site of exploitation and extreme forms of expression. Rather, Kimsooja emphasizes "inverting the notion of an artist as a predominant actor through 'non-doing' and 'non-making' in order to reveal a critical point that is without heroism and without violent action or aggression." In other words, art-making has become a meditative journey for Kimsooja; through the repetitive voyage of the needle piercing through material surfaces and her body as a metaphorical needle weaving through different environments, Kimsooja achieves an absolute sense of self-awareness. This philosophy of course is tied to Zen Buddhism and Eastern philosophies with the practice of meditation as an act of emptying oneself, resulting in a connection between the mind, body and soul, to ultimately attain enlightenment. In fact, Kimsooja describes A Needle Woman series to be a critical, transformative experience when she transitioned from a vulnerable state of mind to a focused, meditative and enlightened state of mind. In this way, Kimsooja's works focus on the process and act of art-making rather than the end result, as well as subjective experience rather than objective articulation.

  • Therefore, in Kimsooja's art, the physical, material and spiritual dimensions coincide, while co-existence of creation and non-creation, of doing and non-doing is also prevalent. Kimsooja transcends the essentialized inquiries in formalistic qualities that are only concerned with art in its singular dimension and purpose. Instead, utilizing her diversified artistic methods of exploring form and aesthetics as a way to move into greater self-awareness, she connects her mind, body and soul with the outer world in order to understand what it means to be truly human. Moreover, she is in sync with the many different human realities as well as the 'conditions of humanity' she encounters through her artistic journeys as a Needle Woman across 14 cities, which results in acute contemplations on the differences in ethnicities, geography, economics and cultural, religious, political tensions.

Cultural and gender-specific roots of Kimsooja's nomadic existence

  • At the core, Kimsooja moves beyond traditional epistemology, transcending familiar and expected categorizations. Kimsooja's ontological manifestation is explicated in her one-word name, without distinction between surname and given name, which as she declares, becomes an anarchist's name. This defiant act of changing her name to be one entity is symbolic of her rejecting gender, marital status, socio-political, socio-economic, cultural and geographical identity constructs. Her discord with categories allows her existence to be free, moving seamlessly through time, place and ideas. However, aesthetically there are clear connections to her being a woman and a Korean native.

  • When examining Kimsooja's oeuvre there are unavoidable implications and associations with regards to gender. Encounter – Looking into Sewing (Plate 5) is an appropriate segue into this discussion of her role as a woman artist. This arresting photograph suggests a woman's figure completely veiled by multiple layers of traditional bedcovers, capturing the multi-layered complexity of the female identity, not only questioning its societal construct but also moving beyond conventional gender paradigms. The female figure hinted by the gomusin shrouded by cloths represents tradition, signifying the weight of Confucian values that to varying extents still govern gender roles in Korean society today. Yet the gomusin is taking a step forward, seemingly an allusion to the position of women today striving to re-define their status and position at large. At this point, we can compare Kimsooja's photograph with a late-Choson dynasty photograph (Plate 6) of a young Korean woman in street costume. Not so different from the burka, in late-19th century Korea, women were expected to cover their body and head in public as a sign of propriety. The incredibly similar form of the cloths engulfing the female figure insinuates gender politics, gender roles in society and issues concerned with women's rights.

  • However, Kimsooja consciously chooses to disassociate with the confines of 'feminism,' even despite the changing landscape of global feminisms, a sub-domain of global contemporary art today. She clearly states that she is neither operating within the traditions of the feminist movement nor within the practices of performance artists who use their body as sites of sexuality and violence in staged performances or grotesque actions. We can read her bottari works (Plate 2) in particular, as art for women by women, in the sense that these textiles and the act of sewing, as well as the tradition of wrapping bottaris, are historically, functionally and aesthetically associated with women. These works inevitably bring about questions of women's position in society, simultaneously underscoring the important role of women in the family domain, perhaps also intimating their conditions as alienated housewives.

  • Admittedly, Kimsooja recounts that though she had been predominantly influenced by the avant-garde aesthetic engagements in New York City, which inspired the formation of the bottari, that in actual fact, upon return to Korea, she came to a critical realization of Korean society and Korean women's role bundled up in her formerly-mere aesthetic 'ready-used' object. Notably, it was after this grounding to socio-cultural issues and awareness of the real world that further evolved Kimsooja's bottari works to a critical level, as it is seen as a site of intersection of the physical body, Kimsooja's own conditions as a woman as well as Korean women at large, and further, human destiny. Therefore, she moved on to wrap the bottari with used clothing, as a way of reinforcing fragments of reality in her 'ready-used' object. It is important to acknowledge Kimsooja's feminine sensibilities and recognize that these visual motifs associated with the female gender are tools for expression. Furthermore, although her contribution to visual culture is as a woman artist, she is ultimately interested in the physical and spiritual interactions with nature and the realm of human reality, which transcends gender identity and constructs. Her art is a phenomenological experience for both herself and the audience, rooted in a feminine aesthetic.

  • As always, Kimsooja mediates between polarizing movements or philosophies. She has married the interest in form and problematic of art-making with a spiritual dimension – art becoming more of an 'experience,' for both herself and her audiences. Her solid foundation and higher consciousness and sensitivity to perceiving the intricate connection between the human body, spirit and the earth allows her to move into the realm of existentialism. In A Needle Woman, we are able to understand how harmony, balance and unity is achieved between the human body, spirit and nature.

  • Although Kimsooja's aesthetics are based on feminine sensibilities and rooted in Korean cultural traditions, she is neither celebrating individuality nor predominantly on a quest to discover her 'inner-self,' articulating her unique 'identity.' Instead, Kimsooja's visual roots become tools for expression, as well as points of entry into her narrative. What becomes the universal appeal and deeper criticality of Kimsooja's work is the fact that through her meditative approach to art-making, she provides an engaging platform that becomes a window to humanity. Her work is a universal lens to perceive the human spirit and to have awareness of the modern day conditions of being a human being.

Transcending boundaries

  • Fundamentally, Kimsooja goes back to the core of human existence. Her work transcends its singular purpose as an aesthetic object, in order to enhance our understanding of our position in the world. She provides us with insight as to how art is sincerely intertwined with our own existence and experience of the world. Kimsooja, therefore, provides a platform for critical dialogue related to identities in a globalized world. No doubt her work emerges from a Korean cultural context, yet again, her work transcends a singular, local context having a much broader impact to a global audience. In other words, Kimsooja's art is all about human expression and basic human emotions that knows no boundaries.

  • In a work that deals with globalization at the core – A Needle Woman (Plate 7) – Kimsooja places herself in 15 different cities around the world over the course of 10 years. Her body and physical presence is the constant in these works, as she blends in or sticks out of the crowd. She describes herself as a needle that weaves through the different cities and experiences the diversity, building a tapestry of global inter-connectedness. She becomes either an expression of the all-too-familiar global citizen or a stranger/foreigner who does not belong. While presenting this contradiction, she also desires to reconcile "perfect immobility and perpetual motion," wanting to exist simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. This notion is a fundamental questioning of existence and identity in globalization. Through her works, the social identities of people in the different locations can be examined, as people go about their daily existence, responding to the artist's body in vastly different ways. Concurrently, her own identity is questioned as she simultaneously embodies and rejects her indigenous culture, constantly altering and blending into the global, social fabric. Kimsooja is influenced by her Korean roots, yet she takes these elements of culture to befit her patchwork identity, her skin wrapping and re-wrapping her body, just like a bottari, as it passes through the world.

  • In A Needle Woman, Tokyo (Plate 8), the movement and the pace at which people are passing by is entirely unsettling, chaotic, disruptive and jarring for the audience. The endless crowd walks in front of the camera lens, while the chaos of traffic and lights of the ambulance murmur past in the distance, unfocused. Although the people walking by constantly change, and individuals only stay in the focus of the camera lens for a split second, the viewer cannot help but feel the monotony of the crowd. There is no individual within this mass. It quickly becomes exhausting to look at, our eyes become tired and restless. All the while, Kimsooja remains still, meditative in the hectic chaos, where people are barely stopping and noticing her presence. Kimsooja's presence becomes the constant, her long black hair flowing down her back, creating a perfect symmetry to her body. Her presence intersects the flow of people and the entire experience. She remains inconspicuous in her monk-like attire, not ostentatious, yet she is also highly conspicuous – the only stillness in the constant movement.

  • Complementing this Tokyo work is A Needle Woman, Kitakyushu (Plate 9), which has Kimsooja lying horizontally on a rock formation. In stark contrast, to the hustle and bustle of a great metropolis, here, Kimsooja is becoming one with nature. The distinction between her body and the natural environment begin to merge as the video progresses in stillness and silence. We begin to look beyond the specific shapes of her body's contour laying on the rock, and in turn, we begin to see the unity between the body, the rock and the sky, as our spirit connects with this specific time and place on a contemplative level. Kimsooja states that the most important thing to arise out of these performances is her own experience of 'self' and awareness as a process, rather than the video as a result.

  • In 2005, Kimsooja continued her video works in A Needle Woman series in 6 new cities. In complete contrast to her presence in the bustling streets of Tokyo, the public reaction in Havana (Plate 10) is vastly different. These second set of video works had been deliberately slowed down so that the passersby's interactions with her body could be accentuated. When the video begins the first thing we notice is an elderly man standing right in front of Kimsooja, trying humorously to illicit a response from her, while another man stands on the right corner of the frame, staring from a safe distance for a prolonged period of time. Throughout the work, the people strolling by all slow down to take a look and there is a general sense of reaction to Kimsooja's presence. As such, this then becomes a sociological experiment, providing insight into the cultural differences between Cubans and Japanese, to say the very least.

  • Kimsooja desires to be "like a needle that leaves no mark," connecting two pieces of cloth, two continents or states of consciousness. Kimsooja's openness to the world is what makes her a global, nomadic artist, embodying a hybrid identity. She weaves seamlessly through different cultures, leaving her mark but more importantly absorbing what is out there. Synchronously, she is mesmerized by the sense of unity felt through this act of sewing and weaving, as she equates it to a process of emptying and connecting with the inner self. In A Needle Woman, this process of weaving is like a continuous act of repetition, which becomes a form of meditation and contemplation. The greater function and purpose of Kimsooja's art is for us to question what it actually means to be human. The power of her art is that the different layers in her work stimulate thought and engage the mind, to cultivate "mindfulness of what human beings encounter by virtue of being human," similar to the goal of meditation practice.

Conclusion

  • Kimsooja challenges societal as well as art historical constructs and categories, operating as a free-agent of change. It is through her practice, modus operandi and philosophy that a new epistemology of contemporary art takes place, as she escapes from being pinned down to any movement, style, or group of artistic practice. Kimsooja has created a unique language of expression, fusing her deep-rooted cultural influences with her feminine sensibility, filtering through her personal history and communicating her innate empathy towards humankind and the greater human spirit. Her art opens us up to see the world from totally unexpected perspectives, as she herself truly feels with her body, transcending the artistic medium, the actual performance as well as the time and place to sensuously experience the world around her.

  • There is already so much conflict, negativity, criticism and problems in the world; in Kimsooja's works, her belief is apparent that there does not need to be anymore negative energy expended on inculpating existing systems. Instead of focusing on the failures and injustices, she does what is most human, she feels great empathy for humankind, her art being a heartfelt gesture of reaching out to the common human spirit that we all share. She engages with matters, issues and state of realities in the most basic human way, opening her heart, which in turn, inspires us to open our hearts, to come to a common, shared understanding and experience of the world. Her works re-discover what has always existed in nature but that has never really been 'found,' as she goes beyond painting methodology to "[reveal] visual realities in nature that have always been there." To conclude, Kimsooja desires art to be the world fine-tuned to make us conscious of place – "our place, the place of others and the place of art, arising in the interstices of culture."

Bibliography

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A Laundry Woman, 2000, used Korean bedcovers and clothing, dimensions variable, installation at the Kimsooja, A Needle Woman - A Woman Who Weaves the World, Rodin Gallery (Plateau Samsung Museum of Art)

Sewing into Life

Wendt, Selene

2013

  • An artist is not an isolated system. In order to survive he has to continuously interact with the world around him…Theoretically there are no limits to his involvement – Hans Haacke

  • Interacting with the world around her is precisely what Kimsooja does throughout her work. Since the early eighties, she has relied on the power of the needle, literally and metaphorically, as a means of expressing the direct interaction between art and life. This is the golden thread that binds her work together. Although educated as a painter in Seoul with a short printmaking scholarship in Paris, Kimsooja quickly discovered the unique possibilities associated with the use of needle and fabric as opposed to brush and canvas. She first discovered fabric as a powerful artistic medium, as a young girl, while sewing a bedcover with her mother. The act of stitching through the surface with a needle made her mind wander; philosophy, artistic process, and history all seemed to converge with the fabric.

  • When she first began sewing, Kimsooja wanted to overcome the limited surface of painting by reaching to the other side. She was drawn to the idea of getting in and beyond the membrane of cloth with a needle, and subsequently realized the significance of sewing as a process of wrapping fabric with threads. Kimsooja was intrigued by the continuous and mesmerizing back and forth action involved in sewing, and its inherent creative or mending purpose. From the outset, the process of sewing allowed her to identify herself with the object being sewn, which simultaneously represented an extension of the self. With needle and thread in hand, the mind can wander while the hand goes through the motions of a precise and monotonous craft. Quite simply, Kimsooja had discovered the possibility of sewing meaning into life.

  • From the start, the cultural relevance of traditional Korean cloths has been an integral aspect of Kimsooja’s work. The fabrics implemented throughout her work function as powerful traces of the countless personal stories that, when purposefully brought together, speak of the ultimate interconnectedness of all humanity. Her fascination with the formal structure of fabric and the implications of the needle and thread moving through its surface translate to a silent conversation with the fabric, one that also involves an investigation of issues related to craft and traditional women’s roles. Kimsooja’s earliest works involved collage-like techniques that were, for the most part, more formal than conceptual. These delicate, sewn works hinted at important aspects that would unfold in later work. For example, a plain beige t-shirt decorated with roughly sewn patches of red, yellow and green fragments of clothing comprises a study in color, form and composition, and an underlying meaning is woven into the loose threads and rough unfinished edges. While patchwork, quilting, needlework and stitching are implemented in textile works that speak of pain, loss and vulnerability, sewing itself is simply a means of expression, not the end goal. Through the years, Kimsooja’s approach to sewing has become increasingly conceptual; the complete absence of thread or fabric in some works is as important as the bright textiles featured in other works. The power of sewing as metaphor, and the symbolism associated with a sewing needle in particular, relate to universal issues of identity and existentialism that tie all of Kimsooja’s work neatly together.

  • Kimsooja’s Deductive Object series from the early nineties is also highly indicative of later developments in her work, particularly in terms of the possibilities associated with conveying life stories through common objects. For this series, Kimsooja made use of culturally specific everyday items, such as kites, reels, shovels, forks, or window frames that she wrapped with swatches of Korean bedcovers and clothes, in works that pushed formal and conceptual boundaries. These ‘already-mades’[1] are strongly linked to issues of domesticity and women’s labor, and are rich with social, cultural and aesthetic implications. In her work with found objects, and bedcovers in particular, Kimsooja stresses that she is most interested in the fact that the cloth or objects are ‘pre-used’ rather than ‘pre-made’. The history of the cloth as connected to its owner is underlined, rather than the significance of the anonymous person who may have sewn the bedcover in the first place. The soul, aura and memory of the objects and fabrics she uses are of utmost importance, both spiritually and conceptually.

  • Kimsooja subsequently widened the context of her Deductive Object series by placing emphasis on how the objects relate to the surrounding space. In 1993, she had an important exhibition at PS1 in New York, and one particular installation really stood out. As is so often the case with Kimsooja, ‘complex simplicity’ is precisely what makes the work so powerful. Imagine a white washed brick wall, scattered with small holes, the kind of exhibition wall that most artists and curators would want to smooth out or cover up. Kimsooja engaged directly with this wall, in a beautiful introduction to the idea of sewing as intervention. Hiding in the cracks of the wall, and nestled between the threads of the work, are some very important clues about the direction that Kimsooja’s work was taking – sewing into life. The colorful scraps of fabric scattered around the wall play with the concept of sewing, as each hole in the wall relates to the eye of a needle metaphorically threaded with tiny pieces of cloth. While the overall pattern echoes a textile work in progress, the true essence of the work lies in the space in between, in the connection between the invisible threads that join humanity together. By placing emphasis on metaphor rather than material, Kimsooja reveals the bare threads of her ongoing investigation of existential issues while simultaneously embracing and challenging the possibilities connected with textiles and the practice of sewing.

  • In the early nineties, Kimsooja started making bottari, and the underlying conceptual issues that bring art and life together became even more evident. This raised her work to an entirely new level. Kimsooja gained international recognition for these colorful fabric bundles made from traditional Korean cloths, used to wrap and carry one’s possessions. Although bottari can be made using any kind of fabric, Kimsooja intentionally uses abandoned Korean bedcovers made for newlyweds that she subsequently wraps around used clothing. As such, her use of bottari involves a fascinating double entendre. The bottari function as art objects that relate directly to the Korean tradition of wrapping ones possessions, conveying the idea of being on the move, while also functioning as real bottari that contain something of personal value. A perfect balance between pure form and function, they are beautifully situated on the boundary between art and life. Kimsooja’s interest in bottari also signaled a logical transition from a painterly interest in surface planes to the use of fabric as sculptural mass. This gradually led to a more abstract realm, where sewing is implied within the context of various spaces and environments. So, although she had started out with a traditional needle, Kimsooja freed herself from being bound by the needle by purposefully, yet almost imperceptibly, deconstructing the process of sewing, to the extent that the connection to a needle, thread or fabric eventually becomes barely discernable. Ultimately, all that is left in relation to real sewing are conceptual traces of the needle, or the metaphor of a needle as a tool of empowerment and liberation.

  • With or without a needle and thread, Kimsooja relays captivating stories through art that relates to life as it relates to the concept of sewing. Sewing as an artistic process, sewing as a quiet contemplative activity, sewing as a conversation with the surface of fabric, sewing as a formal investigation, sewing as a meditative process, sewing as it relates to traditional women’s roles, sewing as craft, sewing as intervention, sewing as wrapping, and sewing as a connective act, are all part of the complex fabric of Kimsooja’s singular artistic approach. Reflections about life and art are spun from a seemingly endless thread that weaves in and out of time and space, where past, present and future are melded into one.

  • Around the same time that Kimsooja realized that she could use bottari to effectively express the notion of the totality of art and life, Suzi Gablik was investigating similar themes in her research about connective aesthetics. What Gablik would describe as participative, empathetic and relational modalities of engagement are the defining factors of Kimsooja’s approach to art. Gablik’s theory of connective aesthetics, as outlined in her book The Reenchantment of Art, reads almost as an ode to Kimsooja’s artistic practice. If art should somehow help us to understand our place in the world, if art should work beyond its immediate role as an object and truly relate to our own existence, Kimsooja certainly provides the kind of approach that Gablik was interested in. Mindfulness, consciousness, compassion, and empathy are words that consistently appear in Gablik’s writing, and these words also come to mind in relation to Kimsooja’s practice. Gablik’s search for an enveloping relational vision that would embrace a feminine approach is definitely found in Kimsooja’s work. As Gablik writes, “The sense of everything being in opposition rather than in relation is the essence of the old point of view, whereas the world view that is now emerging demands that we enter into a union with what we perceive, so that we can see with the eyes of compassion.” [2] Twenty years later, Kimsooja’s art is as compassionate and relevant as ever.

  • In retrospect, we can see the visible and invisible traces of an artistic practice that has been consistently defined by a very conscious and determined use of the same materials or approach, set within different contexts where new layers of meaning emerge with each new project. The intricate pattern of Kimsooja’s work is created from a needle that keeps pointing towards concepts that are as fluid as they are static, simultaneously material and immaterial, visible and invisible, simple and complex. Louise Bourgeois once said that fibers, whether spun by spiders or created on a spinning wheel, have deep significance, and that threads weave important memories and emotional connections for us all. This truly captures the essence of Kimsooja’s fascination with the stories that are permanently imbedded in the fabrics that have provided an ongoing source of artistic and even spiritual inspiration for Kimsooja.

  • Through the years, Kimsooja’s bottari have appeared in many different contexts around the world, almost magical in the way they fit into almost any gallery space or natural environment. Like seasoned world travelers, Kimsooja’s bottari are constantly on the move; whether in a museum space or a forest, appearing in multitudes, or all alone, they have been arranged in a meticulously arranged row, or strewn about in a more chaotic manner, they have remained completely still, or moved 2727 kilometers on a truck. With each new setting, added depth and meaning unfolds.

  • In beautiful contrast to the bottari, Kimsooja is equally renowned for her textile installations where the bedcovers are unwrapped, unfolded, laid out, or carefully hung in gorgeous labyrinths of shiny, vibrant fabric. The vividly colored textile work A Laundry Woman, 2000, is a perfect example of this approach. On entering the installation, the viewer is completely surrounded by textiles and is invited to walk through an intricate web of color where pattern and meaning converge. Kimsooja has often compared sewing and walking as similar activities, and describes how this first came about, “In 1994, I started connecting my body as a symbol of a needle in the moment that I was viewing the documentary footage of my daily working process undertaken at Oksanseowon Valley near Kyungju, Korea. I decided to make this as a video performance piece called Sewing into Walking - Kyungju. I identified this walking process in nature—the collecting and gathering of all these bedcovers—as a symbolic needlework which my body was serving.” [3] To walk through A Laundry Woman is to understand the inherent communicative power of textiles, and the underlying meanings are seemingly endless. With each step, as with each stitch, the viewer is one step closer to understanding the metaphysical aspect of work. In this case, the viewer plays the metaphorical role of the needle, winding in and out, betwixt and between these gorgeous fabrics that have a story to tell. The specific choice of decorative Korean bedcovers as intimate possessions that tell life stories of pain, loss, love, and desire is, of course, as significant as ever. These fabrics, colored by cultural and personal histories, are narratives that are literally left hanging for the viewer to unravel as they delicately float between the worlds of art and craft.

  • In Kimsooja’s work, each project is inextricably bound to the thread of the next project. From project to project, the conceptual thread is picked up and re-sewn into a complex and interwoven vision of reality. A perfect example of this is seen in the similarities and differences between A Laundry Woman and A Mirror Woman, 2002. These works appear to be quite similar, both formally and conceptually, and they both relate to a wide range of existential issues; yet the simple addition of mirrors that cover the walls is all it takes to set these works dramatically apart. The mirrors contribute to a heightened sense of infinite space, thereby shifting the focus from the immediate reality of the viewer’s experience to an endless space that can be understood as relating more to the universe than the individual. Similar to separate threads in an intricate piece of fabric, even if they don’t touch each other, they are still bound to the same fabric, and every single thread plays an equally important role in contributing to the overall effect. These works are cut from the same cloth, and stand as powerful symbols for the place of each individual in the universe. The message is abundantly clear; without a needle there would be no fabric, without each individual, no fabric of society.

  • As we follow the needle to its most abstract form, the significance of sewing as metaphor becomes abundantly clear. A needle is easily understood as an extension of the body, and nowhere is this more evident than in the two-screen video installation A Needle Woman, 1999 where the needle moves in a completely theoretical direction. In one projection Kimsooja stands motionless within various urban environments; in the other she lies immobile on a rock. The two projections create a compelling dialogue of opposites typical of her work in general. In the bustling city streets of Tokyo, Shanghai or Delhi, her role is non-changing; she stands alone, straight as a needle. She sews herself into the fabric of society, disappearing periodically just as a needle would. In the accompanying projection she lies upon a colossal rock in natural surroundings. In contrast to the fast paced city scenes, the only changing elements are the drifting clouds against a clear blue sky, and subtle nuances of light. Clearly, Kimsooja is a metaphor for the needle—she connects two parts and in the end disappears. Her role, or the role of her body, is to interact with the fabric of society and to direct our focus; then she disappears, just as a needle does after it’s job is done.

  • In A Needle Woman the body is understood as a needle within the fabric of life. Kimsooja elaborates on this important aspect; ”The mobility of my body comes to represent the immobility of it, locating it in different geographies and socio-cultural contexts. Immobility can only be revealed by mobility, and vice versa. Constant interaction between the mobility of people on the street and the immobility of my body in-situ are activated during the course of the performance depending on the context of the society, the people, nature of the city and that of the streets…I pose ontological questions by juxtaposing my body and outer world in ‘relational condition’ to space/body and time/consciousness.” [4] This captures the essence of Kimsooja’s overall approach, which ultimately relates to the idea of the singularity of the individual as part of an endless multiplicity. Looking at the world through Kimsooja’s eyes, we find ourselves looking at the universe through the eye of a needle. As Kimsooja ‘sews into life’ she simultaneously unravels the thread that is the entire conceptual basis for her work. Imbedded in the visible and invisible seams of her work we see how the traces of migration, war and cultural conflict necessarily affect ones identity and perception of reality—conveyed by an artist who is fully aware of the power of connective aesthetics. Her vision of the totality of art and life is beautifully conveyed through the symbolic power of the needle to mend, heal and connect. She uses a needle to guide us towards awareness and understanding in an approach to art that is intricately spun around the literal and conceptual practice of sewing.

[1] Kimsooja consciously uses the term already-made instead of readymade.

[2] Suzi Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art, Thames and Hudson, NY, 1991. Page 130.

[3] From an interview with Olivia Sand that appeared in Asian Art Newspaper, 2002

[4] From an interview with Chiara Giovando, 2012 featured on Kimsooja's website. www.kimsooja.com

Mandala: Chant For Auschuwitz, 2000, Installation at Poznan Biennial in Hitler's former Office at Zamek, Poznan

Essential Empathy

Jacob, Mary Jane

2013

  • Kimsooja gives herself to us. She does so through her art not simply because she is an artist, but because through art she can give to others. This exchange between artist and viewer has its rewards, offering access to the essence of human communication as well as essential connections to the larger reality of which we are a part. So following Kimsooja's path of communion among peoples and realms, empathy will be the focus of this essay.

  • When we look at Kimsooja's art and see her standing there, we experience her aliveness and partake of her vitality along with our own. Her art makes us feel our aliveness. When we see Kimsooja there, completely still, we also see beyond her and beyond ourselves. Along with her presence in the wind, with the sun and the moon, we sense something more. She endeavors not so much to represent so we can see, but to be one with the world through her work so we can recognize our being too.

  • In this way she participates in what cultures have always done. The names of those makers have not come down to us, so we praise past societies without individual recognition. But as she takes up her ancient charge we know her name or do we? To be her art, she consciously steps out of self, taking on a one-word name that "refuses gender identity, marital status, socio-political or cultural and geographical identity by not separating the family name and the first name.[1]"

  • Making art as one's way of being, or more accurately way of becoming, is to see art as a path. It can also be a reminder of our shared path, and in that way art is like religion and philosophy. But unlike these other fields of endeavor, art alone can be an experience that words on a page can never quite be. More than explaining a connection between the mundane and spiritual realms, between what is perceived by the senses and what is sensed by the mind, in art these can unite and be one. Making art with this aim of ultimate meaning is an act of hubris (punishable by the ancient Greeks), and a dicey claim in our world today. So this is a precarious start for an essay, though for the work of Kimsooja, a necessary one. Her ambition calls for no less.

  • Artists, like philosophers and theologians, are in the business of understanding the relation of the everyday to something greater: ideas, values, the ethereal. But it's not just a professional thing. It's what we do as humans and have done since the beginning of time. This is how we live and must. Each generation, each individual must find their meaning or live a life without it. Kimsooja's concerns are both with the here and now and beyond this place and time. Consciousness overtakes self-consciousness. How can we talk of this? "Spiritual" conjures notions too religious or new age-y for those in contemporary art, while the "unconscious" had a place earlier in the twentieth century, with the birth of psychology. The ambiguity of the ethereal, the other worldly, or unknown, means that it tends to be left out of discussion or to remain tacitly unspoken. "Universal" is a word banished by postmodernism. The claim to represent humanity is a totalizing concept that makes the use of this word suspicious; the complexity of social and cultural difference makes it taboo.

  • An understanding of Eastern philosophy, religions, and culture are ways to think about for Kimsooja's art; they clearly enter into the very nature of who she is. Some have expertly written of this, and these references remain central sources for knowing for her art, but there is more, not just because she is a person of our times who lives and works across cultures, but also because there has been a rich cross-pollination between Eastern and Western thought for centuries now. So, while Kimsooja's work is grounded in Asian philosophy[2], I have chosen to write about her work through the lens of the Western pragmatist philosophy of John Dewey, who was himself influenced by Taoist and Buddhist philosophy[3]. Turning to Dewey, we encounter the ideas of a humanist not embarrassed to venture into the wholeness of the enterprise that is life, because he, like Kimsooja, believed that a wide view is necessary and that art is the most meaningful way to achieve it.

  • As Dewey saw it, life compartmentalized into high and low, and values categorized as profane or spiritual, material or ideal, betrays the nature of things. Likewise, he felt that dividing occupations or interests into practice and insight, imagination from doing, significant purpose from work, and emotion from thought and doing, is to mistake human nature. But when they come together, are one, as in Kimsooja's work, we can experience "deep realizations of intrinsic meanings," " the sense of reality that is in them and behind them," as they tell "a common and enlarged story," and Dewey believed, the ideal can be embodied and realized[4]. Then distinctions of mind and body, soul and matter fade away.

  • To Dewey, this sense of continuity between the mundane world and something greater comes with experience, not just by living over time but by living life in a reflective, consciousness way[5]. For Kimsooja, her body is her medium and instrument conscious experience for others, not merely for expression or representation. And Dewey firmly believed, as Kimsooja demonstrates, that the senses, our own bodily capacity can be used directly to access the "spiritual, eternal and universal."[6] In Taoism, these realms are understood as one universal and ubiquitous vital energy. For Dewey we can know this through art.[7] The aliveness and vitality that art produces makes sense of life's experiences as it generates continuity between the earthly and eternal.

  • Thus, the experience of art (and for Dewey, art is an experience rather than an entity or object ) puts us in touch with the spiritual, non-physical world. But just as not all experience possesses insight or continuity, not all art rises to the level where it achieve a union of the material and the ideal. Yet when looking at Kimsooja's work, we understand Dewey when he says: "The depth of the responses stirred by works of art shows their continuity with the operations of this enduring experience" because such "works and the responses they evoke are continuous with the very processes of living." Her works affect what this philosopher called: "The mystic aspect of acute esthetic surrender, that renders it so akin as an experience to what religionists term ecstatic communion." [9]

  • Being consciously alive rises to the level of the aesthetic. It occurs, to Dewey, when we are fully and completely present in the experience of making and perceiving, but this does not only happen in the act of making art; it can happen in life.[10] For him, like Kimsooja, to live well, in an aesthetic or art way, is to be fully conscious, open, awake. As we are continually evolving in a state of becoming, we need to continually practice awareness. In Dewey's system of thought, in which each individual is responsible for themselves and for advancing society, practice involves putting one's values to work. His concept of the aware individual for his Pragmatist philosophy finds alignment with Buddhism's concept of buddha mind an awakened state of consciousness which respects both everyday action and the search to enlightenment as the same path. But whereas in Buddhism and Taoism this is achieved through meditation, Dewey advocated art. The work of art, in Dewey's view, as an object of practice can be a path to self-realization.

  • This path includes understanding others, and in experiencing art, we can experience others. On one level, in viewing art we can share the feelings of others, what we commonly call empathy. On another level, in art we can be with others, something we might describe as an experience of humanity. Dewey knew that empathy was the basis for any social enterprise. Art, for Dewey, had this great capacity for empathetic experience because, he believed, experiencing art is an act of re-creation:

  • Works of art are the means by which we enter, through imagination and the emotions they evoke, into other forms of relationship and participation than our own. We understand it in the degree in which we make it a part of our own attitudes, not just by collective information concerning the conditions under which it was produced. We accomplish this result when, to borrow a term from Bergson, we install ourselves in modes of apprehending nature that at first are strange to us. To some degree we become artists ourselves as we undertake this integration, and, by bringing it to pass, our own experience is reoriented. This insensible melting is far more efficacious than the change effected by reasoning, because it enters directly into attitude. [11]

  • How might this apply in the art of Kimsooja? A Homeless Woman - Cairo (2001) becomes an object of interest, even of compassion, on the part of passersby who pause to consider her manifestation of a human condition that till then had been almost invisible. In A Beggar Woman the artist presented herself to people in the streets of Delhi (2000), Mexico City (2000), Cairo (2001), and Lagos (2001). A different manifestation of this work occurred with Beggar Woman: Times Square (2005). Misinterpreted in the press as a gesture flying in the face if this city's truly needy, we might contemplate the questions, How do we draw attention to need? Can we experience others throughout a city, beyond just one city, holding in our hearts their hunger? Is acknowledgment of them acceptance without change? Who is in need? Who is present? Who offers what to whom?

  • Have you ever received a comment from a homeless person that stayed with you even though you gave nothing, while a thank you in return for money given on another occasion was not a memorable moment? Here the hands of Kimsooja's sitters are in a gesture simultaneously receiving and offering, being needy and charitable, troubled and wise. A practice in many religious traditions including Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Christianity, in which beneficence is manifested through both giving and receiving this act of engagement contains all things. [12]

  • Other empathetic works, beginning in 1995 with Sewing into Walking - Dedicated to the Victims of Gwangju, have taken the form of memorials. Clothes stood in for persons, spread out on a mountainside where tragedy had struck. It was a commemoration of as many at 2000 killed there as they rose up against the dictatorship of then-president Chun Doo-hwan. And it was a poultice for the earth. This incident, called 518 to signify its start date of May 18, found a parallel in 9/11 when later Kimsooja was moved to a enact a loving gesture of remembrance. In Epitaph (2002) she laid a single bedspread at Greenlawn cemetery in view of New York's skyline. Clothes, used as in Gwangju, were laid out on the floor of Hitler's former office in Poznan, Poland, to form Mandala: Chant for Auschwitz (2010), while cloth in all its colors and forms flow through four screens of Mumbai: A Laundry Field (2007-08), standing "for human presences and the questions that concern us all," [13] and creating a wider circle of life, not just of this place but many. On this occasion, as in other works, she also draws upon the ancient form of the mandala as a symbol of the universe and a vehicle of practice for focusing attention and bringing one in touch with a realm beyond the profane.

  • Carpets of clothes led to newly fashioned carpets with Planted Names (2002). Four woven works memorialize those who made the Middle Passage, packed in rows aboard ships, and then planted in rows the vast carpet of the former rice fields of the plantation site for which they were made [14]. In part inspired by the artist's experience the year before in Nigeria, this work was preceded by Bottari: Alfa Beach (2001) in which the sea sits atop the sky. This inversion is an empathetic response, she said, to "the saddest line I've ever seen in my life, thinking of the destiny of the slaves and their deprived freedom. Thus the flipped horizon was, for me, a disturbed horizon, a disoriented sense of gravity and of the slaves' psychological return I perceived in the curls of the waves reaching the same shore from which they had left." [15]

  • Kimsooja embraces the many associations of water: purification and cleansing, the depth of the womb and the vastness of the universe, its lunar cycles or the mind, and fluidity, as Taoism tells us, is the flow of energies and the inevitability of impermanence. In A Lighthouse Woman (2002), a companion to Planted Names, she created a witness to the waters' histories of pain through an oversized needle-like object surrounded by water. Its repeating, hour-long sequence of nine hues projected onto the lighthouse caused it to change as if breathing, saturating it and spilling into a pool the color. Viewers gave time to see this work, participated in being witnesses to time. And in experiencing A Lighthouse Woman they could experience empathy, not as an idea but, as Dewey said, through their individual senses they could actually experience "the spiritual, eternal and universal." Visited communally, there was communion.

  • The empathy of each of these works was made real through the use of historical and geographic reference and the artist's astute choice of tangible, material form, yet became the embodiment of others. In perceiving these works, as Dewey knew, we come to understand the wider story of humanity over time and to appreciate others' struggles. This happens across cultures, and even if we think we are more critical and aware of cultural differences than Dewey's generation, there's some truth as he says: "when the art of another culture enters into attitudes that determine our experience genuine continuity is effected. Our own experience does not thereby lose its individuality but it takes unto itself and weds elements that expand its significance"; then experience is one of "complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events," transforming into "participation and communication." [16]

  • In Kimsooja's work empathy of specific moments and situations gives way to a greater sense of oneness in humanity. This is the experience we have of Kimsooja's magnum opus, A Needle Woman. Begun in 1999, it is the embodiment of the fluidity of ourselves and our self into others, of time flowing into time, of place flowing into place, of oneness. She is the needle and yet the eye of the needle. She is the key that opens our vision, yet at the same moment the keyhole through which we pass. She shifts seamlessly, fluidly, between being solid and there, to empty, a shadow. Thus, in Needle Woman, we have two sides, too spectator and participant, as we looking at and moving into the scene, seeing others flowing along, being in the flow. Here our full participation is the transformation through the experience of art.

  • It has often been remarked that here the artist remains anonymous by not revealing her face. But it is more: she and all the persons in the frame are part of a larger, unframed whole: everything, everywhere. We understand this when this artist says, "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 just a self-sufficient being, or a nothingness that is free from desire." [17] Thus, Kimsooja aspires to a level beyond that of the experience of others and their story, and even beyond humanity as she seeks to approach the experience of a greater realm. To do this, art is a path not a goal, and a way to achieve full self-realization.

  • Taoism says the human mind before creation is pure emptiness, and that within this emptiness or void resides all potential. With awareness our mind can return to this state of emptiness, once again becoming part of it, connecting us to the universe and, during moments of insight, producing a sense of oneness with all things. This mental state is not a matter of representing reality; it is a state of being. This all-inclusive reality connects with our own mundane self because it is already ours or, better, it is already us. When Kimsooja speaks of "being consumed to the limit," she participates in that wholeness and is one with it. Art that evokes this multi-dimensional connection possesses an empathetic essentialism that goes beyond coming in touch with the emotions of others to achieve true identification, an understanding of being.

  • This level of empathy has been called by Gonzalo Obelleiro "imaginative empathy." It "is concerned with the essence of emotion, not the specifics of its manifestations," he writes, finding Dewey's philosophy of experience useful to ground a pedagogy imaginative empathy [18]. It is true that in addition to art's practical social roles of producing empathy, hence, creating an empathetic state of awareness, Dewey also felt that imagination through art played a social role [19]. But imagination in art and in common parlance has a sense of flights of fancy rather than of truth of experience, so here I prefer to recast this empathy found in the essence of emotion, as "essential empathy."

  • In A Needle Woman—Kitakysuhu (1999) the artist lies on an exposed rock of a mountain. Her stillness between earth and sky allows us to perceive the connected transitoriness of all nature, human as well as earthly and heavenly. Moving beyond self, she says: "Over time, I find that my body, with its duration of stillness—breathing in the rhythm of nature—becomes itself a part of nature as matter, neutral, a transcendent state. To me it is like offering and serving my body to nature. [20]" Likewise in Laundry woman—Yamuna River, India (2000), we experience, as she did, a similar oneness. Standing downriver from a cremation site, she faces the ephemeral joining the eternal. She des not represents or expresses this moment of passage but achieves it in a complete enlightened state of awakeness. And when this was achieved, she said, she "finally realized that it is the river that is changing all the time in front of this still body, but it is my body that will be changed and vanish very soon, while the river will remain there, moving slowly, as it is now. [21]" Our life is fluid, always changing, as we float in the river of the universe. As with A Needle Woman, she is in the picture yet evaporates from it, opening up the space for us to enter. As viewers, she gives us a glimpse of an awakened state: initially what it looks like, then with time, if we can achieve a deeper state of consciousness and presence, the chance to fuse and become one with her, replacing the artist, participating ourselves. So her art, like potent, sacred objects of cultures throughout time immemorial are not representations but means to this state of essential empathy, not the picture of it.

  • One of the primary aims of perceptual awareness for Dewey is for us to become conscious of the consequences of our actions, on other peoples and humankind, and for the planet. Today we think "planetary" in regard to ecological and environmental stewardship, but Dewey was also thinking in less tangible ways. With an understanding our individual effect on the greater whole, Dewey modeled a responsive and elastic web of consciousness in co-existent, recalling the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness as envisioned as Indra's Net: all things are a part; each reflects the whole; each affects and is affected by every other part.. With a belief that art was useful in guiding personal development toward social good, Dewey seized upon art's exceptional ability to create feelings of empathy and, thus, deeper understanding of the human condition and existential condition. For this he depended on art, for he knew it was essential to imagine a better future.

  • In other works, such as A Wind Woman (2003), Kimsooja becomes nature. In Earth—Water—Fire—Air (2010) she works at the site of a nuclear plant in Korea. For A Mirror Woman: The Sun & the Moon (2008), filmed on a beach in Goa, India, she created the moment of eclipse, when the sun and moon become one. The artist, it could be said, is gone in these works, but rather she is fully present with everything. Doris von Drathen has so aptly written of this work when she says the space the artist occupies is "the dividing wall of the mirror that generates consciousness," from which "she can view the impossible, open her range of vision into the cosmos, intensify her own sense of consciousness towards transcendence. At this moment of absolute presence, an ethical dimension reveals itself," whish is at once "the relinquishment of an identity that is defined by belonging" and "an awareness that concentrates utterly and absolutely on the Self." And here, too, we participate as: "The viewer merges into the incessant breathing of the sea, as it gives forth its waves, allowing them to rise and subside in eternal circuit...the viewer becomes susceptible to the circuit of the celestial bodies in the selfsame endlessness of their return [22]. Our full existence demands this connection to something larger.

  • Artists can be insightful and make insightful art. If we are perceptive, art can give glimpses of insight. But rarely is art insight. Yet this happens when Kimsooja embodies oneness or, Dewey's terms, continuity, giving herself to us and, when we experience it as we give ourselves to her art and fully participate in it. Participation. It's a word Dewey chose [23], but which has taken on a new meaning in art today as we have lost the capability to participate with art objects, and talk about engaging viewers in modes of participation such as collaborative authorship or other forms of making. Spectatorship connotes detachment, looking at the surface of things or actions. In American and European contemporary life the spectacle society is one of superficial and mediated relationships [24]. The spectator does not feel empathy, but the participant does. And only as a participant can we partake on yet another level of the essential empathy that Kimsooja experiences and which become her art.

  • To be a participant in Kimsooja's art does not require sitting in Times Square or being with the artist on a beach in India. It can happen in front of a video in a gallery. To an exceptional degree her art revives the experience of art Dewey knew—where being with art makes all the difference. If we think about the viewer as involved in empathetic relation to the artist's experience, to others' experiences, and to the essence of empathy, then as participants we are caring, hence engaged. Caring, the engaged audience functions like the artist, invested in the moment [25]. This parallel of artist-to-audience is so fundamental that as we experience art we "become artists ourselves." [26] Kimsooja gives us the possibility to do this with her art. If we fully participate, the experience is ours.

[1] http://www.kimsooja.com/action1.html

[2] See Interview with Kimsooja in Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, Eds. Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacob (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 212-219.

[3] In dealing with a wider realm, Dewey advocated a philosophy that "accepts life and experience in all its uncertainty, mystery, doubt, and half-knowledge and turns that experience upon itself to deepen and intensify its own qualities—to imagination and art." John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934; New York: Penguin, 2005), 35.

For a discussion of Dewey's personal connections to Eastern philosophy, see the author's essay "Like-Minded: Jane Addams, John Dewey, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy," in Chicago Makes Modern: How Creative Minds Changed Society, Eds. Mary Jane Jacob and Jacquelynn Baas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 23-25.

[4] Ibid., 21, 28

[5] Dewey wrote: "The existence of art is the concrete proof…that man uses the materials and energies of nature with intent to expand his own life….Art is the living and concrete proof that man is capable of restoring consciously, and thus on the plane of meaning, the union of sense, need, impulse and action characteristic of the live creature. The intervention of consciousness adds regulation, power of selection, and redisposition. Thus it varies the arts in ways without end. But its intervention also leads in time to the idea of art as a conscious idea—the greatest intellectual achievement in the history of humanity." Ibid., 26.

[6] Ibid., 32.

[7] Dewey wrote: "The conception of man as the being that uses art became at once the ground of the distinction of man from the rest of nature and of the bond that ties him to nature…art itself is the best proof of the existence of a realized and therefore realizable, union of material and ideal...There is no limit to the capacity of immediate sensuous experience to absorb into itself meanings and values that in and of themselves—that is in the abstract—would be designated 'ideal' and 'spiritual.'" Ibid., 26, 29, 28.

[8] Ibid., 344.

[9] Ibid., 28-29

[10] We might think here of when someone remarks they are "living the project," being so fully engaged. We see it in the excitement or focus someone give sot what they are doing, their skillful command but with the presence of the moment that is each time lived anew. This Dewey called esthetic. By way of example, he wrote: "An angler may eat his catch without thereby losing the esthetic satisfaction he experienced in casting and playing. It is the degree of living in the experience of making and of perceiving that makes the difference between what is fine or esthetic in art and what is not. Whether the thing made is out to use…is, intrinsically, speaking, a matter of indifference….Whenever conditions are such as to prevent the act of production from being an experience in which the whole creature is alive and in which he possesses his living through enjoyment, the product will lack something of being esthetic. No matter how useful it is for special and limited ends, it will not be useful in the ultimate degree—that of contributing directly and liberally to an expanding and enriched life." Ibid., 27.

[11] Dewey, Ibid., 347 - 348. This proceeds from Dewey's premise that: "Without an act of recreation the object is not perceived as a work of art." Ibid., 56

[12] See also http://www.dharmasculpture.com/buddha-varada-mudra-sanskrit-boon-granting-charity-hand-gesture.html

[13] Rosa Martinez, "A Disappearing Woman," in Kimsooja: To Breathe (Seoul: Kukje Gallery, 2012), 22.

[14] Planted Names was made for and exhibited at Drayton Hall, Charleston, South Carolina, commissioned by the author for the Spoleto Festival USA in 2002. Interestingly one of the descendents of this plantation family, Bill Drayton is the founder of the progressive social entrepreneurship organization Ashoka that uses empathy-based ethics as a keystone to working together to make change.

[15] Martinez, 21.

[16] Dewey, 349, 22-23

[17] Ingrid Commandeur, "Kimsooja: Black Holes, Meditative Vanishings and Nature as a Mirror of the Universe," in Kimsooja: To Breathe, 9.

[18] See Gonzalo Obelleiro, “Imaginative Empathy in Daisaku Ikeda’s Philosophy of Soka Education,” conference paper for Soka Education: Leadership for Sustainable Development, Soka University of America, February 11-12, 2006, 39-51. www.sokaeducation.org/images/4/48/Imaginative_Empathy-Obelleiro.pdf

Obelleiro argued that empathy, in line with Buddhist tradition, is not the mere act of re-experiencing one’s own sufferings, but when “[w]e feel empathy when we partake on the essence of the emotions that person is experiencing.” To the author, this is supported by Dewey’s philosophy of experience because it “shares with Buddhism the basic epistemological premise of the oneness of self and environment and oneness of mind and body,” and because “in its clear humanistic approach, it privileges human interactions and regards ethics as not as fixated in a particular framework of rules and maxims, but as the art of creative, inner dialogue between primary experience and critical reflection.” To Obelleiro, “Dewey makes it clear that concepts like imaginative empathy are not simply theoretical concepts but are modes of praxis or manifestations of philosophy as art, which can only be learned in experience, particularly in interaction with other human beings.” So he concludes: “it is only through the creative integration of the two, direct experience and cultivation of mind and spirit, that imaginative empathy can be attained. The kind of artistic skill required for this integration can only be learned from another human being, for it is the quintessential human quality. Some call it wisdom.”

[19] Dewey wrote: “The first stirrings of dissatisfaction and the first intimations of a better future are always found in works of art.” Ibid., 360.

[20] Kimsooja, Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, 217.

[21] Ibid., 217.

[22] Doris von Drathen, "Standing at the Zero Point," in A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon (Tokyo, Shiseido Gallery, 2008).

[23] As stated previously, Dewey said, experience “when carried to the full, is a transformation of interaction into participation and communication”; and also: “Works of art are means by which we enter, through imagination and the emotions they evoke, into other forms of relationship and participation than our own.”

[24] Here, of course, I am referring to Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books, 1994, originally published in French 1967).

[25] Robert M. Pirsig, in his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, distinguishes between being involved and being a spectator. Care, for Pirsig, is what makes one’s work or actions an art. See Robert M. Pirsig Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York: Harper and Collins, 1974), 34-35.

[26] Dewey, Art As Experience, 348

To Breathe: Bottari, 2013, mixed media installation, partial installation view of the Korean Pavilion, The 55th Biennale di Venezia, photograph by Jaeho Chong

Centripetal Acceleration

Kim, Seungduk

2013

  • "The proper place of the inner life is defined solely by the failure to establish any satisfactory relationship with external reality." - Jean Starobinski, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction, 1957

  • What has not yet occurred cannot be described, of course... even though we have all the information imaginable on materials, the construction plans, and the display. We experimented with every aspect separately in a highly visual manner: checking samples of aluminium mirror panel for the floor and ceiling; sticking portions of diffraction grating film on the windows of the pavilion on a cold November day; testing the sound-absorbing foam for the anechoic dark room; spending hours on Chinese websites to find ideas for the "by-products": bags, socks, USB keys; going to Dongdaemum night market in Seoul to look for bojagi fabric. In fact if we had already done similar things for previous shows, this time was rather special since all the elements were mass-produced and the entire display is handled by a local construction team. Nothing directly implies an artwork, but there is a huge volume of material for an intangible installation.

  • Paradoxes are common in art, but in Kimsooja's case, it comes close to the wire. Which is exactly what makes it exciting, and challenging. Nothing can be gauged in advance, it has to be completed to be delivered and experienced properly. No model, no CGI can offer the final vision... For the artist, it is a method and a life-long involvement, but for the curator there is a certain amount of suspended action. Slowly we will perceive the strengths and effects of the materials, patiently we will figure out the reflections on the ceiling and on the floor, gradually we will begin to fathom the sounds absorbed by layers of thick and heavy rockwool, plasterboard, rubber coatings and sharp foam pyramids. Virtuality will be at play all through the weeks of April and May until the last touch is added by the sound installation. The voice of the artist will imbue the whole environment with organic bodily breathing.

  • In order to work within Sukchul Kim's architecture for the Pavilion with no structural modifications, additions or alterations [1], Kimsooja decided that the metal skeleton of the pavilion would receive several skins to shape it into a consistent body: diffraction grating films will cover the glass windows (walls and roof); aluminium mirror panels will be stuck on the floor and fixed to the ceiling; the artist's voice will wrap the main space; an anechoic chamber will occupy the brick pavilion on the South side. The volume of the space will thus be opened out; the skins provide the mutation of the initial transparent cage-like space into a translucent web of light diffracted into rainbow colours, which speed up through an infinity of reflections. Humming and breathing will fill the space with kaleidoscopic volume. A dark anechoic chamber will bury the coloured experience deep inside the visitor's body. Kimsooja's project for the Biennale, To Breathe: Bottari, is original and perfectly fitting within her body of work.

Breathing

  • Bringing nurturing air into our lungs, exhaling impoverished air, in a constant balanced movement. Our body is run by capturing the fuel for life. Bringing it in and sending it out. It takes the best and rejects the weakened part of the gas.

Diffracting / Reflecting

  • Light will be driven around from surface to surface and it will already be multiple in its diffracted state. Will it be rainbow-like and packed with art historical reminiscences? An infinity mirror à-la-Kusama? A kaleidoscope on an adult scale? Architecture as an engine to provide a kind of light therapy? Viewers are included by definition. If no one is there, then there is nothing! The traditional Korean use of bright colours, plain colours, primary colours is at work everywhere in everyday life, in the past and still now. Red, yellow, blue, white and black, these five colours – or Obangsaek – were considered to be closely related to the five cardinal directions. In Korean, Obang means "five directions" and saek means "colour". Obang consists of north, south, east, west, and the centre of these cardinal points. Each direction has its own colour. North is associated with the colour black. Black stands for winter, water, kidneys, a salty taste, sorrow and knowledge. The colour for south is red. Red means summer, fire, the heart, bitterness, pleasure and propriety. East was assigned the colour blue. Blue represents spring, trees, the liver, sourness, delight and benevolence. West was associated with the colour white. White signifies fall, gold, lungs, pungency, anger and righteousness. Lastly, the centre was attributed the colour yellow. Yellow denotes the spleen, soil, sweetness, greed and wisdom. Beyond such symbolism, these colours (found in fabrics for bedcovers and cushions among other uses) equally strongly address those whose background has been bathed in the utopia of the De Stijl patterns: primary colours in geometric patterns and order. The ghosts of Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg are alive in Korea. Naturally Kimsooja has dealt, and keeps dealing, with these traditional and modernist issues of colour. It helps when tradition, which is often a burden of authoritarian limitations, is aligned with avant-garde references.

Bottari

  • In Kimsooja's work, Bottari reads as seminal, motherly, warm, storytelling, formalist, matrix-like, basic, vintage & kitsch, cheap & precious, flexible, endless. Bottari is the result of rolling up pieces of fabric in bundles. A package, a wrapped object. Though they may consist of several pieces of fabric rolled up together in a tautological bag. In the 1990s, Deductive Objects were shown in different locations and particularly in New York at PS1 during a residency programme in 1992-1993. Some works bear the diffused influence of the Paris time while others found their way out and captured the cultural and artistic specificity of the New World. There is one piece (see pp. 117, 132) that can be seen as a turning point for her work – away from the sculptural objects or bidimensional canvas-like pieces, towards site specific environments: it took up an entire wall for a discreet and precise installation of small torn pieces of multicoloured fabric inserted in tiny holes between the bricks of the wall. This piece reminds me of a sacred place. There are traditions in different religions – jewish or buddhist– to use written words as support for prayers or meditation: placing slips of paper containing written prayers in the crevices of the Wall in Jerusalem is much publicised or hanging Lokta paper prayer flag garlands on trees in Tibet. In this instance, slips of fabric replaced the paper, and colours instead of written prayers. As such, the piece deals with memory's narratives and secrets.

Transparency and Obstruction

  • Kimsooja's work could also perhaps be qualified as acts of unveiling and disclosing: slips of papers are left behind, a corpus of secrets is wrapped in bundles, she is seen from the back in the video works. Kimsooja does not willingly participate in the transparency of the present world, where everything is supposed to be accessible, revealed, only to be forgotten a moment later. She is keeping layers of narratives deep within the knotted fabric. If she does not show her face in the videos, it means that we will never see the way she looks at the crowds of human beings in the noisy streets of the cities of the world. She stands as an obstacle in the flow, like in Etienne-Jules Marey's poetic science experiences – such as the mechanics of fluids visualised by using a square object (obstacle). Does Kimsooja mean to study how much an obstacle – here a still and quiet standing woman – may slow down the pace of humanity on the move? What will such a woman in grey outfits cause to the movement of a crowd? Often she stays invisible and does not produce any slow down. Swiss professor of French Literature and Historian of Ideas, Jean Starobinski, analysed the constant unbalanced position in the case of Jean-Jacques Rousseau between his sincere desire for "transparency" and his frustration that created "obstruction" and led him to passive resignation.

  • Contradiction in form usually creates unsolved situations. In Kimsooja's works, paradox is an engine, a tool for building shelters and places for relief. Neither an "art aid", nor a comfort spot for exhausted art travellers, her places are energy batteries. Transparency is not invisibility. But rather, turning transparent is the ultimate dream of the voyeur: nothing is kept secret, everything is visible, accessible to desire. Architecture in modern times has fought for this since glass could be mass produced in large sizes and reinforced to resist [2]. The combination of clarity (glass) and blurring via a colourgenerating device is one step further than stained-glass in churches, where light comes through coloured glass windows and projects onto the stone paving in a complex palette of colour tones [3].

  • For the 2013 Korean Pavilion, with a formal strategy of non-doing, Kimsooja will allow the random good fortune of the changing lights to shape and reshape the whole building. The composition will not be controlled, leaving chance and mischance to create the coloured ambiance. Mirrors on the floor and ceiling will multiply to infinity the reflected coloured lights contained inside the pavilion showering the visitors with jets of diffracted violet, blue, green, yellow, orange and red pure light colours.

Centripetal Acceleration

  • The proposed environment will function as a centripetal engine, an unplugged energy plant absorbing energies of any kind like the ever-changing daylight and the empathy left behind by the viewer. Every single component and effect will be sucked up by the centre, by the nucleus. The Korean Pavilion will be turned into a large scale experiential generator.

  • The additional room could be described either as the total opposite or as the end result of chromatic light experiences. This anechoic chamber is a darkened space designed to completely absorb the reflections of sound waves and be insulated from exterior sources of noise. It is designed to accommodate just a few people at a time who are prepared to lose their sense of auditory stability and dwell in their own heartbeat or the turmoil of their blood circulation. To complete the Korean Pavilion visit as if attracted and absorbed into a black hole.

  • Somehow this could be envisaged as a summary of a number of Kimsooja's previous works in which the elements of the composition have been captured, absorbed, wrapped. We have decided to take the visitors to a region of space from which nothing can escape, neither light, nor sound. A perfect hijacking. For the greater good.

[1] The framework and its limitation to the architecture isn't a curator's caprice to challenge the artist, but rather a rooted project deeply attached to the specificity – in style and in meaning – of this particular and significant edifice: the Korean Pavilion looks like a temporary World Expotype national pavilion. For this reason, the visitor's journey needed to be cast as an immersive art experience. Since La Biennale di Venezia is a gigantic theme park with contemporary art as the core, it was absolutely obvious to stay within that very format. There was no point in mimicking museums or art centres but instead it seemed important to follow the World Expo style as a natural place and moment for the participation of avant-garde artistic movements and individuals. Osaka Expo 1970 was the last edition to be really in tune with such a practical utopia.

[2] Different to the Crystal Palace, erected for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, the Glass Pavilion by Bruno Taut in Cologne in 1914 and La Maison de verre (1927-1931) by Pierre Chareau in Paris, which used glass bricks as a light provider more than as a source of transparency.

[3] In Theo van Doesburg's Stained-Glass Composition II (1917) and Stained-Glass Composition V (1917-1918) designed for the Villa Allegonda, the projection of diffracted light is already planned at the design stage, having organised the nonobjective distribution of rainbow-coloured units (primary and complementary colours) in the vertical format. Daniel Buren's Passages Under a Colored Sky in 2007 in Anyang in Korea operates in a similar way: using the pergola structure with coloured glass casting coloured shadows on the ground.

A Homeless Woman- Delhi, 2000, 6:33 video loop, Silent.

Kimsooja and the Art of Place

Morgan, David

2013

  • Place is important in the work of Kimsooja. The Bottari Truck in Exile (1999) was a work on the road, a truck heaped with bundles of clothing and bedcovers wrapped in brilliant silk fabric, travelling from one place to the next. In video work from 1999 to 2001, she traveled to many places around the world to produce pieces such as A Needle Woman (1999-2001) and A Laundry Woman (2000). More recently, she has devoted much effort to site-specific work that transforms an existing place such as the Crystal Palace in Madrid (2005) or the Teatro la Fenice in Venice (2006) through the graceful calibrations of light and color. In many ways, Kimsooja’s art may be described as a searching meditation on the nature of place—asking a number of questions such as what a place is, how it is defined, how long it lasts, who makes it, what the relation of place is to body, and how places are experienced. A Homeless Woman (2001) and A Beggar Woman (2001), videos that document her emplacement within teeming urban crowds as an anonymous female figure dressed in gray, whose silent, immovable presence is literally out of place, disrupting the traffic of befuddled pedestrians, if only for a moment. Some respond by pausing to inspect her, others are bemused by the camera that witnesses their presence. Still others fail to notice her at all, for whom she is nothing but the blurred place through which they hurry on their way to work.

  • The signals of critique, whether political or economic or geared to considerations of ethnicity or gender, are not hard to see. One could readily give Kimsooja’s art of place a reading that stresses an incisive reflection on the politics of identity, the social construction of gender and race, the economics of power and agency. Clearly, the crafting of place relies fundamentally on the coordinates of authority, social relations, and hierarchies keyed to ethnicity, race, and gender. And one need not look far in her discussions of her own work to find the artist’s corroboration of a political reading. She dedicated Bottari Truck in Exile, exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1999, to refugees of the current war in Kosovo. Exile is an apt theme in regard to place because it means the loss of one’s native setting or milieu, one’s homeland. Kimsooja brought the truck loaded with bottari (Korean for “bundle”) from Korea to Venice for the Biennale. The work was not simply the truck, but the process of getting it from one place to another. She traversed countless national and international boundaries to transport bundles of laundry, the baggage in which exiles haul the traces of their existence. One thinks of transnationalism and the global flows of labor; of forced migrations; of international traffic in contraband; or of worldwide circuitry of capital pulsing through networks of markets.

  • The politics of power and powerlessness, of loss and theft are there, yet one senses that this framework does not exhaust what the work has to offer, where it wants to go. Kimsooja has spoken of the “dimension of pure humanity” as the special interest that drives her work[1]. She wants to ponder what she calls “the human condition and its reality” rather than indict political and economic systems. So she laments the refugees of the war in Kosovo rather than scrutinizing the conditions of the war’s existence. As an artist, human suffering concerns her in the first place, before the failure of social institutions and political will. An artist does not have to choose between the two, of course, but rather than critique and jeremiad, Kimsooja explores the intimate connection of art and moral sensibilities. She is a passionate observer of human beings. All of the work mentioned so far is evidence of an eye bent on the daily routines of human life, using them to register a wistful but wistfully beautiful sense of “the human condition and its reality.”

  • One might say that the common and principal function of religion, morality, and traditional philosophy is to posit a human condition as a way of explaining suffering and proposing a solution to it, or at least a way of enduring it. Kimsooja does not want her art to engage viewers as a religion or morality or philosophy. But it is clear that she wants her work to elicit profound aesthetic reflection. Everything she works with is something that bears the traces of human touch—the things women gather and clean, launder and stretch for the wind to dry. The clothing and bedding that touch us everyday, like a second skin. The things we bundle and carry from place to place, the things we save when the house is burning, when the village is destroyed, when the economy collapses. The things that are left when we are gone, that lie scattered on the ground, as in Sewing into Walking (1994) or in Portrait (1991), where a massive cloak of discarded fragments of cloth rises like a monumental gravestone, a mortuary icon of lives whose flesh is remembered in a dense clutter of castoff artifacts. It is the way of all flesh, this scatter of clothing. Sewing into Walking traces a walk through time as a patchy fabric of strewn memories, if even that. This is an elegiac work, bound to evoke in many viewers a sense of what the artist calls “the human condition.”

  • According to Buddhist teaching, everything, every feeling, is marked by impermanence, holding no place and passing away. Impermanence joins suffering and non-self as the three characteristics of existence, according to Buddhist thought. As one scholar has summarized the matter, “change, degeneration, and non-essentialism are fundamental features of everything.” [2] Nothing lasts, everything fails to satisfy, and there is no soul or self or substance that abides above it all. In short, there is no place to hold us that will not itself crumble into something else—except the dharma of release, or nirvana. Religions often describe a human condition because they want to diagnose the cause of suffering and to prescribe its solution—either through methods like the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism or the redemption that any number of salvific faiths offer their adherents.

  • But Kimsooja does not craft an art tasked with human salvation—either by divine means or by human politics. Her work is not preachy or propagandistic or doctrinaire because what really drives her art is the power of things to provoke thought, to arrest the mind and to fix it on something elusive and mysterious, something we want to take for a truth. Kimsooja wants to cultivate a mindfulness of what human beings encounter by virtue of being human. She ponders what is human—loss, yearning, beauty, routine, work—and does so in the sensuous terms of art that define the places of everyday life. Art is a heightened sensory consciousness, a poignant awareness of the world that opens up in the place that watching, touching, hearing, and making afford. “I’ve never practiced meditation in my life,” she once said in an interview, “but I found every moment for me was a meditation in itself. I reached a similar Zen Buddhism completely through my own way of meditation on life and art and its practice.” [3]

  • What does this make of art? The arts used to operate in the service of institutional religion, contributing to devotional life, decorating the altars of churches, shrines, pilgrimage sites, bodying forth the sacred in the daily exchanges between earthly mortals and heavenly powers in a sacred economy of pledge and favor, petition and reward. Popular imagery in everyday religious life still does that for believers today. But fine art has arisen over the last two centuries to occupy a different space in Western culture. For some people, art is a kind of therapy. It conducts a service of comfort, diversion, or uplifting pleasure. For others, however, the benefit must be described in terms of the meditative absorption to which Kimsooja alludes. Art is a way of refining or honing perception, for use as the means of introspection and as a social and cultural lens. In this approach, “aesthetic” does not mean beauty for the sake of beauty, but something more like sensuous cognition, a delicate tooling of the senses to scrutinize the world for the sake of a penetrating take on its weight and heat and chaos. And so we have Kimsooja’s artistic postulation of the human condition. This is neither religion nor politics; neither preaching nor moral reform. It is a limbic way of seeing, a projection of sensation into the larger world for the sake of feeling it vicariously in the skin of an artwork.

  • What does that mean? Kimsooja’s art is about the cultural work of looking. You may behold A Needle Woman in at least two ways. First, as a video projected on a screen in a gallery over the course of an exhibition for a few weeks. In this instance the video acts as a documentary, recording human actions at another place and time. The scene is a street, far away, a place that is not here, where you and I are standing. We look upon the place with curiosity. An image of the video’s installation in a gallery shows how this works: a bench invites you to sit down and watch an image projected from above. The image appears, as if through a rectangular aperture that has opened up in the gallery wall. In the dimly lit space, you are urged to sit or stand quietly and gaze upon the scene. You devote yourself to the task, if you have time, because you hope to see something interesting, something you’ve not seen before. You wait for something to happen. It’s art, after all. It’s supposed to do something. But when very little happens, the second way of seeing the piece begins to take shape. You glance furtively about the gallery at those standing near you. You glance at your watch, you wonder how long this will go on. Ineluctably, your perception shifts from looking at a video image-window in the wall to looking at people in your vicinity looking at a video image-window in the wall. You become aware of the discomforts of your body. If you’ve ever meditated, the feeling will be familiar. The scene moves from there, on the other side of the wall, to here, in and around you, and you realize that you are part of the art. The piece takes your time, your body, your patience and invests it in a work that includes you. You might look for the door. You might want to get out of here. Yet you’re intrigued by the two sets of looking—on the screen and in this room, and you wonder what you feel.

  • The boundaries of a work of art dissolved in the twentieth century. Art went from hanging on walls and perching on pedestals to happening in deserts and junkyards, on street corners and human bodies. With the dissolution of conventional boundaries came a redefinition of the place of art. So looking at A Needle Woman and A Laundry Woman, we ask: where is the artwork? Is it there, in the crowd’s response to or unawareness of the stolid presence around which they move? Or is it here, among us? Perhaps the two modalities are really one: we are yet another crowd in which the impassive worker woman stands. Perhaps our wandering eye is no different than the urban crowds in Tokyo, Cairo, Mexico City, London, or Delhi. Perhaps Kimsooja lures us into the gallery to sew the art world into the larger fabric of far-flung cities. To see her work is to be transported into a global work of art that shows us to ourselves. The boundaries demarcating the place of this art are disorienting, sublime. There is no getting out of it or away from it. Its center is everywhere, marked by the visual field that pivots on the gray figure of the artist standing steadfastly at the intersection of blinking gazes.

  • The steady feature of the artist in these videos is the structure that configures our visual field. Even when she is engulfed by the crowd that weaves obliviously about her, she remains our point of reference. Kimsooja transcends the world out there by holding her back irresolutely toward us, here. The camera is never forgotten. The people there are placed on a stage stretching before us. They were filmed for the purpose of being screened elsewhere. Place as local site is not singular, but part of a larger set of places that only the art viewer is allowed to see. The folks in Delhi don’t know or ever see the people in Mexico City or Shanghai—or us. We do, thanks to Kimsooja’s back. If she only wanted to be a needle, to transform her body into an inanimate object, it would not matter if we saw her from the side or front or any other angle. But we never see her face. This device structures the work of art by showing its proper side, where it is to be viewed—in a gallery. The place of art is a critical moment, a step back in space or time to see anew. Kimsooja wants art to be the world tweaked to make us conscious of place—our place, the place of others, and the place of art, arising in the interstices of culture. Place matters to her because she loves the beguiling way that art seizes our attention and invites our devoted scrutiny.

  • The appropriation of place for artistic purposes is something we see elsewhere in Kimsooja’s oeuvre. In the haunting beauty of An Album: Havana (2007), a ten-minute silent video created on site in Cuba. The camera runs for nearly three minutes down a pier overlooking the ocean and a cloudy horizon as lovers, tourists, and fishermen saunter along or sit on a stonewall. The video repeats for a second and third time, but each iteration increasingly blurs focus until in the final run the screen is a blank flicker that gradually transforms into bright light. In the second run we can still recognize the figures, but in the third sequence they evaporate in brownish haze. Deprived of sound and focus, the result is a lushly beautiful portrait of a place that steadily vanishes. What seems at first solid melts into the air, leaving viewers to wonder what their relation is to place that is no more. Memory of place may not be as sure as we’d like to think. With each replay, what we once stood before fades until finally it is gone. With nothing to see, it is not clear that the seer abides.

  • In an altogether different piece, Mandala: Zone of Zero (2003), the sound of Tibetan, Gregorian, and Islamic chant animates a scintillating object, a large target-shaped series of concentric circles composed of mirrors, fabric, and colored plastic. Circular mandalas are familiar to North Americans because of the “wheel of time” rituals conducted by lamas who created elaborate sand forms, often in museums [4]. Kimsooja’s Mandala resembles the Tibetan Wheel of Existence, a teaching tool used by itinerant Buddhist teachers who unfurled their charts to explicate the doctrines of Buddhism. The chrome ornaments that mark the four directions on the mandala even recall the jaws of the Lord of Death who holds the wheel in Tibetan tangkas. And like the wheel of dharma set in motion by the Buddha, and the samsaric cycle of rebirth and the circular arrangement of teachings illustrating the Wheel of Existence, Kimsooja’s wheel turns, too.

  • But the use of Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim chant in Mandala suggests that the artist has something broader in mind than the traditional Tibetan mandala. The object itself resembles a monumental roulette wheel more than a religious device—the star motifs recall the four-armed spindles at the center of roulette tables. Its glittering mirrors, sumptuous fabrics, gleaming chrome, and loud colors celebrate the ephemeral character of sensation, the flutter of fond feelings one associates with a jukebox full of favorite songs. All of this is very different from Buddhism’s diagnosis of the flitting mind’s need for the discipline of meditation to tame and control it. Yet although the art deco chrome ornamentation of the jukebox in Mandala reminds one of soda fountains and dance halls more than anything in a mediation hall, it does resemble popular Buddhist shrines and temples. One thinks of shiny golden statuettes of bodhisattvas, or of the long lines of brightly colored lanterns that appear each year at temples to celebrate Buddha’s birthday. Mandala spins and flashes like an incandescent turntable as the sound of chanting fills the room. Perhaps the mission of art, if it has one, is to reconnect introspection to the body and the senses. Whether you are in a disco or a Zen hall, you are in your body, and that is the means by which religion, mediation or art take place.

  • Both Havana and Mandala invoke Buddhist tradition in different ways. Mandala uses a familiar motif in Tibetan tangkas; Havana recalls the three features of all phenomena: impermanence, dissatisfaction, and no-self. Yet neither piece can be said to emulate Buddhism by offering itself as a tool for Buddhist practice. Both are about the power and place of art in modern life. Where Havana blurs, and finally erases a sense of place, Mandala seems to transpose the viewer from the body of the Buddha enthroned in the mental architecture of an imagined shrine to the splendor of the human body awash in sensation. The point is not therapy or religion or meditation technique, but a refinement of perception, the aesthetic cultivation of imaginative, felt life. Kimsooja’s work is not art in the place of religion, but art as sensory reflection on the places where life happens in the way it does.

  • Author Bio
    David Morgan is an art historian and Professor of Religion at Duke University. He has written on contemporary art, including such artists as Bill Viola, Magdalena Abakanowicz, and Ed Paschke. He is also author of several books on the history and theory of religious visual culture: Visual Piety (1997), Protestants & Pictures (1999), The Sacred Gaze (2005), The Lure of Images (2007), and The Embodied Eye (2012).

[1] Gerald Matt, "Interview" in Kimsooja. To Breathe/Respirare (Milan: Charta, 2005), 87.

[2] Brian Black, "Senses of Self and Not-Self in the Upanishads and Nikayas," in Irina Kuznetsova, Jonardon Ganeri, and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, eds., Hindu and Buddhist Ideas in Dialogue: Self and No-Self (Abingdon, England: Ashgate, 2012), 18.

[3] Matt, "Interview", 91.

[4] Pratapaditya Pal, Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure (Art Institute of Chicago in association with the University of California Press and Mapin Publishing, 2003), 256.

A Needle Woman, 2005, Sana'a (Yemen), one of six channel video projection, 10:40 loop, silent

Gnomon of Place, Gnomon of Foreignness

Madoff, Steven Henry

2013

  • "Hospitality is certainly, necessarily, a right, a duty, an obligation, the greeting of the foreign other as a friend but on the condition that the host, the Wirt, the one who receives, lodges or gives asylum remains the patron, the master of the household, on the condition that he maintains his own authority in his own home, that he looks after himself and sees to and considers all that concerns him and thereby affirms the law of hospitality as the law of the household, oikonomia, the law of his household, the law of a place…." —Jacques Derrida, "Hostipitality" [1]

  • The six videos projected simultaneously that comprise the Korean artist Kimsooja's A Needle Woman (2005) present the artist wearing precisely the same clothes, standing precisely the same way, and, it would seem, at the same time of day, the sun shining down. She is absolutely still amid passing crowds of inhabitants in Patan, Nepal; Havana, Cuba; N'Djamena, Chad; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Sana'a, Yemen; and Jerusalem, Israel. The crowds react differently to this odd figure, clearly a foreigner. They are presented in slow motion, with no sound, which only emphasizes the sense of movement, instant reaction, passage.

  • A Needle Woman has been written about many times, and Kimsooja is often described in these writings as a nomadic figure in this work, traveling across the world to come to rest in a crowded thoroughfare and then move on to the next. The needle referred to in the title is Kimsooja theorizing herself as a needle that passes through the fabric of a place and its people; and there is that other sense of a needle, that it sews together, is an instrument of suture, of healing, which could not be more appropriate because the locations that are visited in the work are all places of violence, disrepair or unresolved conflict. But as the light falls on her vertical figure, I would suggest another instrument that she can be interpreted to represent, and that is the gnomon.

  • A gnomon is the standing element of a sundial that casts the shadow and indicates the hour. It is an index of the sun's passage over the surface of the earth, but not an index of the sun for itself, so to speak, but the sun as a sign of time, and time not for itself but as the sign of what happens ultimately to each of us. Time is the marker of our transition through aging, the marker of our passage, we at the center; and the gnomon, therefore, indicates not only surfaces but human interiority, not only an exterior of sunlight and shadow but time in us, of us, and for us. (The old Greek word gnomon means "indicator," "the one who discerns," or "that which reveals.") This is to say that light and shadow begin on the surface of things, and we inscribe them in a symbolic regime; they become elements in the narrative of our rise in time and our fading, of our moral troubles, our ethical thresholds and flaws. These lights and shadows work their ways into us, embed themselves, and are indicated by the marks our actions leave.

  • Kimsooja, who plants herself in the middle of place, which is the activation of space as a locus of meaning, is this gnomon figure, this gnomon of place, against whom the physical light and its symbolic presence falls—an indexical instrument recording human passage and transition. This is on the level of the anthropocentric, of the human as the root of all occasion, all meaningfulness. [2] But the index here does not simply regard the internalization of knowledge, an epistemological dominion of its own self-reflexive primacy. No, Kimsooja, whose face is always unseen in this work, who stands like statuary, a flesh monument to the human, offers us the face of everyone else. These faces are the signifying engines of each tableau. They reflect light passing, of movement that is notated in time, of shadows, of a narrative unspooling, telling the story of a transitory exchange, of the value of the transitory in its opposite: that which leaves a mark. Where is this exchange? It is transacted within that "law of a place" Derrida suggests, which is a place of exchange, with its oikonomia, its discipline of the household's inventory. It is an economy of relations that, like hospitality, assumes an exchange, and it happens here, in A Needle Woman, among a triad of nodes:

1 ) There are the individual faces in the crowd.
2 ) There is Kimsooja, the one who discerns.
3 ) There are the viewers, us, the ones toward whom these faces move.

  • The author Susan Stewart has written that a face is a "‘deep' text, a text whose meaning is complicated by change and by a constant series of alterations between a reader and an author," [3] and this is what we find here. These texts are read by Kimsooja, as they read hers. They write each other and read each other, and these trajectories of reciprocity extend to us, the third node of the triad. Kimsooja is the indicator of meaning, that which reveals, which she reads on the faces of these foreigners, who are not foreigners in this place where she is the foreigner, but to her and to us are themselves foreigners in foreign lands, who she instigates to project meaning, and we receive it. Our position, of course, is the same as the artist's. Our expressions, our knowledges, our dispositions are not seen, since we too face forward, away from others. If she is the index of these texts, then we who receive the meanings of these faces are the archive. In us lie the accumulation of their expressions and perceived meanings. They leave notations, marks.

  • In each of these places where Kimsooja has come, she writes herself into another book, another register: the book of guests. As such she has the right to be treated decently, without aggression, by the people of any foreign land, as Immanuel Kant says. He says it plainly in his tract from 1795, "Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch," of which the third section is entitled, "The Law of World Citizenship Shall Be Limited to Conditions of Universal Hospitality." He writes that hospitality is "not a question of philanthropy but of right. Hospitality means the right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy when he arrives on the soil of another." Her position is one of cosmopolitan demand. International law supports this principle of cosmopolitanism: If I intend to do you no harm, I will not be the subject of hostility when I cross into your territory. That is the right of cosmopolitanism, of hospitality.

  • But of course note that hostility has the word "host" within it, so it is buried within the genealogy of human praxis that to be host may also mean to be an aggressor. So it is that this turning of tables, this inversion of meaning, is embedded within the figure of Kimsooja herself. She would seem to be the guest here in Jerusalem, Patan, Havana, and so forth, an open receptor of her hosts' reactions to her presence. But there is always this possibility of inversion in these terms of host and guest. In her presencing, she is the aggressor, the one who makes a demand, the one who claims by her indexical stance an ownership of place, this space of meaning-making, a directive presence, an emanation of control projected onto her guests, who instantaneously and therefore unwittingly enter into her symbolic territory and offer up to her, as guests do, something of themselves that she requires for their entrance. As the gnomon, she records these passages, her monitoring of time's essence as the passage of the body, its consciousness, and its disposition of knowledge and meaning. This is what we see. This is what then enters into us and is stored in our memories.

  • There is another machine at work in A Needle Woman because what I have been describing are machines, mechanisms that produce end-products through their labors—in this case, writing machines and reading machines, machines that record each place's citizens caught in the encounter of revealing their reaction to foreignness and leaving their text for the artist, for us. The task the artist has given herself is to be the apparatus of this textuality, to perform it in each of these spaces where, as Henri Lefebvre states, space "is the shifting intersection between that which touches, penetrates, threatens or benefits my body on the one hand, and all other bodies on the other." [4] It is in this spatial situation that Kimsooja's body performs the act of a particular inscription: this revealing of difference. For as I've said, each of these places she has chosen to stand in is a conflict zone, and violence can be defined as a foreignness alien to a first state of being in its tolerance of difference that is Edenic peace. These are then places alien to themselves, and Kimsooja is an alien in these lands of alienation, an index of Otherness in which everyone is an Other as long as there is no resolution of difference or in which difference has not been an accepted resolution in itself. The artist has loaded her meaning-machine with the data of geopolitics and history. And with that data stored, she adds the element of the foreign irritant (herself), the virus, the possibility of another data set with which this first data set must interact.

  • If Kimsooja's first machine is the performance-body in the operative process of revealing the text of foreignness, this other machine is a byproduct of her body's performance: a different kind of machine, a self-referential machine, an aesthetic machine—the machine of Modernism, built in the nineteenth century, dominant in the twentieth, and still working today. Its operating principle is the self-conscious unveiling of an artwork's mechanism, as Mallarmé unveiled the workings of the poem through a poetry about the self-consciousness of making a poem; as the Cubists made representational illusion on a painted surface a problem of painting to be observed, broken down, and rebuilt, etc. This machine is made manifest in the form that it takes before us here: A Needle Woman as video, as a time-based transition of images that hosts time while denying time the ultimacy of its ongoing forward movement. Her video's slow motion distends time and then keeps stopping, refusing it continuity because the video implies that time goes on, then cuts it off over and over in a loop of suspension. The continuity of time in A Needle Woman lasts for precisely ten minutes and thirty seconds. Then it begins again. Nor is it one time that starts and stops; its six places present six times starting and stopping simultaneously.

  • It does not contradict my argument to say, "Well, that's true of any film, video, TV show, streaming webcast, radio program, even a theater play." That may be so, but nonetheless it is here the matter of specific artistic choice that is crucial. In the first performance video of A Needle Woman, executed in 1999, Kimsooja did not use slow motion; it was presented in "real" time. But here she purposefully does so, availing herself of the medium's technical self-consciousness of time, revealing the medium's unwillingness to surrender to the time-ness of time, to its continuity, and instead overwhelms it, denies it, commands it, erupts it. (Modernism counts among its hallmarks discontinuity and eruption.) In this sense, her video is a parasite of time, a foreign guest who overtakes its host, just as Derrida says that the host can become the hostage. [5]

  • This self-referential aesthetic machine is a ghostly presence, for ghost and guest are also words that share the same root in their signifying of the one who visits. This machine of representation hovers, being hosted by time and yet taking time hostage, revealing this internal conflict that remains unresolved—an echo, a shadow laid down over the video's first presence as the record of bodies as meaning-machines whose subject, too, is the encounter of conflict that remains unresolved, the question of the foreigner. Subject and mechanism share the double-position of the aporia, of an internal confrontation of contradictory forces who are both hosts and guests, just as Kimsooja's figure in A Needle Woman stands in this double-position, this double-imposition of silent entreaty and power's requisition of others for one's own purpose. Her figure, then, belongs to the discourse of hospitality. She is the steward of the aporia, the body of supplicant and sovereign, of visitor and imposing owner of place, a needle piercing time, not healing it, but holding it in suspension. Yet we, who are the third node in this transaction, are not outside of time, not held in place. The gnomon of foreignness falls across us and enters us. Time continues in us as foreignness does, with its demands on hosts and guests, its questions of domination, its juridications, its texts, its burdens and pleasures that enter us again, now held by us: an inquiry, an offering, a mirror, a virus of troubled rights.

[1] Jacques Derrida, "Hospitality," trans. Barry Stocker and Forbes Morlock, Angelaki, volume 5, number 3, December 2000, 4. > return to article >
[2] I will not address here the agency and autonomy of nonhuman things because that is not Kimsooja's subject in this work. > return to article >
[3] Susan Stewart, On Longing (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 127. > return to article >
[4] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1991), 184. > return to article >
[5] As Derrida says: "So it is indeed the master, the one who invites, the inviting host, who becomes the hostage—and who really always has been. And the guest, the invited hostage, becomes the one who invites the one who invites, the master of the host." Of Hostipitality, trans. Rachel Bowlby (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 123-25. > return to article >

To Breathe: Bottari, 2013, mixed media installation, partial installation view of the Korean Pavilion, The 55th Biennale di Venezia, photograph by Jaeho Chong

55th Venice Biennale: Il Palazzo Enciclopedico | The Encyclopedic Palace

Prapoglou, Kostas

2013

  • This year's Venice Biennale's subject, the 'Encyclopedic Palace', is conceived by Biennale director Massimiliano Gioni after M. Auriti's 'Il Enciclopedico Palazzo del Mondo' in the 1950s. Auriti's model built on a 1:200 scale, welcomes guests at the central Pavilion of Giardini. The original 136 floor skyscraper-to-be would have occupied a vast area in Washington DC and would have played host to an international knowledge database from all times.

  • In a similar fashion to Auriti, Kippenberger's utopic 'Metro-Net World Connection' series (1993-7) envisaging a vast network of tube lines connecting the entire world, materialised with the production of only but a few real-life metro-like entrances (such as the one on the Greek island of Syros). His work was posthumously exhibited at the German Pavilion of the 50th Biennale in 2003 and although it did not become the subject of the entire Biennale back then, the profound romanticism, idealisation and conceptualisation of both arcadian cases inspired artists and philosophers on a grand scale.

  • This year's 88 national participations scattered at the Arsenale, Giardini and various other sites as well as other independent exhibitions around Venice, have tailor made their shows to fit and survey this year's theme.

  • How can art evolve and expand along the lines of "what could knowledge be or become"? The answer derives from the spectrum of what the modern world may accept as valuable piece of information; consequently, that is knowledge-worth extracting and distilling from today's reality. Needless to catalogue the valuable portion of data from the non-valuable, perhaps it all deserves to fall into the 'universal' category of encyclopedic knowledge. This would include pretty much everything in the Platonic and Aristotelian domain.

  • For the art enthusiast and critic, the national pavilion behaviourism is always an interesting factor. The perception and acuity of knowledge filtered through national identity and social layering proves to be rather pronounced in this year's Biennale. While several national participations seem to establish their artistic locus via certain political and socio-economic routes, probably in the hope that their chosen narrative will create international awareness, some others free themselves from analogous needs and effectively represent an artistic oeuvre and calibre worth revisiting and investigating further.

  • The unique environment of the Korean Pavilion, 'To Breathe: Bottari' (curated by Seungduk Kim), encapsulates both the long artistic tradition of its creator Kimsooja and diverse elements of Korean culture. The transformation of the entire pavilion space into a bubble-like enclosure allows light and sound to dominate throughout, instantly activating the viewer's senses. We are invited to experience the given domain and increasingly become part of it. But by entering a small dark anechoic chamber and remaining there in a state of blandness for just one minute the visitor is vulgarly amputated from their senses. Kimsooja's exploration of senses via the stern process of 'total voidance' created by introducing this black hole reaches (via manipulating our living environment) a state of realisation and, therefore, total appreciation of our current known situation. By actively involving the viewer with this experience, the artist succeeds in producing an ongoing mass performance thus generating a living intervention.

  • Konrad Smolen愀ki of the Polish Pavilion works along the same lines of understanding our senses in a natural and non-natural, controlled environment. His installation, 'Everything Was Forever, Until it Was No More' (curated by Daniel Muzyczuk and Agnieszka Pindera), encompasses the assessment of sound produced by a traditional instrument (two bronze handmade ecclesiastical bells), its reproduction by loudspeakers and its processing with a special technique that re-transmits a delayed, altered resounding sound wave. Smolen愀ki's lengthy research on the properties of sound and time has not only achieved to de-characterise and separate a source from its very own physical sound but also to free and re-baptise the latter with a brand new hypostasis. The 'newly born' abstract sound echoing forcefully among the pavilion walls voids the original pre-sound minimalistic locus and introduces a surreal time lapse domain. I personally found extremely intriguing how eager visitors were to investigate the soundless space before the activation of the two bells, and how keen they were to abandon it shortly after the production of the reverberating noise despite the earplugs provided. This intense discomfort may be explained as the natural result of the process of deconstruction of senses through deanalysing and decoding noise against time. It all proves how complex it can be to re-register in our collective unconscious a modified detail in one of our senses. Coincidentally enough, the artist has been recently asked by the Biennale organisers to pause the installation until further notice.

  • Outside the borders of Biennale proper, the Azerbaijan Pavilion situated at Campo San Stefano presents a group exhibition of six young artists focusing on aspects of cultural existence, ethnic distinctiveness and social discourse. 'Ornamentation', the title of Azerbaijan's show (curated by Hervé Mikaeloff), is an amalgamation of decorative arts, religion and tradition infused with contemporary vision. Rashad Alakbarov's installations, 'Intersection' and 'Miniature', are assemblages of random objects made of wood or metal organised in -what appears to be- unsystematic fashion. Only when a projector light hits the mass of objects we witness the hidden imagery forming on the opposite wall. Although sharing a very similar technique with other highly acclaimed artists such as Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Alakbarov's chosen shadow iconography is profound; from the traditional shebeke designs and patterns to a human reclining figure and an optical illusion that reveals its message only when you use a camera.

  • "It is not chaos" appears through the camera lens pointing out to the [semi]obvious oxymoron, that the actual appearance of things can only be subjective, the mass of knowledge generated from the conscious world can only be interpreted through the de-construction and re-construction of its individual components.

  • Auriti's vision can only depart from its limbo by praising the value of senses. This year's Biennale has had several strong participants, whose artistic oeuvre and exploration have gone a step further and, undoubtedly, increased our expectations in the fields of research, technological development and medium advancement, and in absolute synchronicity with the latest psychoanalytic, philosophical and scientific impetus.

To Breathe: Bottari, 2013, mixed media installation, partial installation view of the Korean Pavilion, The 55th Biennale di Venezia, photograph by Jaeho Chong

삼라만상을 하나로 묶는 김수자의 보따리

Han, Heng-Gil

2013

한국관 건축양식에 스며드는 '보따리'

김수자 작가는 1990년대 초에 '보따리' 연작을 시작했고 한국 가정에서 일상적으로 사용되는 전통 자수로 장식된 이불보를 국제적인 현대미술의 조형언어로 발전시켰다. 작가는 이불보의 레디메이드 특성보다는 '이미 사용되었었던' 헌 물건이라는 점에 초점을 두고, 그 천들을 사용한 사람들의 무명성과, 육체, 운명 등의 비물질적이고 비가시적인 것에 대한, 즉 삶에 대한 해석의 공감대를 형성하는 데 노력해왔다.
작가는 이불보가 사람의 탄생과 죽음, 수면과 사랑, 고통과 꿈 등의 사건들이 발생하는 현장임을 지적했고, 사랑과 복, 행운, 장수, 후손 등의 기원을 상징하는 이불보의 자수 장식을 강조했다. 작가는 이불보에서 인간의 존재를 규정짓는 틀을 가리키는 색인적 기호를 발견했다.
작가는 또한 이불보가 내포하는 젠더의 역할과 미적 구조에도 초점을 두었다. 이불보는 가정에서의 여성노동, 사회에 가려진 여성의 무보상 업무와 활동을 암시한다. 이불보 상징을 활용하는 작가의 활동은 여성의 사회적, 문화적, 미적 의미를 재정립하는 행위였고, 현대예술사에서 여성의 독특한 맥락을 창조하는 행위였다.
올 2013년 베니스비엔날레 한국관에 설치될 '보따리'는 장소특정적인(site-specific) 설치가 될 것이다. 김수자 작가는 유리, 철조, 나무 등의 다양한 건축 자재와 굴곡진 벽면 등의 일반적인 파빌리온 건축양식을 갖춘 한국관을 전시를 위해 변형시키지 않고, 기존의 건축양식을 최대한으로 살리면서 그 구조 자체가 작가의 특징적인 개념인 '보따리'의 연장선으로 기능하도록 프로젝트를 구상한다.
소리, 빛, 색채 등 인간의 오감을 자극하는 감성적인 요소들을 사용하여 관객이 전시공간을 '몸'으로 체험할 수 있게끔 하는 체험 중점적인(experiential) 전시가 될 것이다. 그러나 전시는 동시에 상징체계의 역할도 수행할 것이다. 왜냐하면, 작가가 바깥 자연을 실내공간 안으로 끌고 들어와 밖을 안에서 보는 상황을 창조하여 안과 밖의 경계선을 넘나들 뿐만 아니라, 전시공간 자체를 자족적인 자연으로 전환시켜 인간의식의 소우주를 재구성하려는 계획을 세우고 있기 때문이다.
잡동사니를 이동하려는 의도를 충족시키는 수단이라기보다는 그 잡동사니를 묶는 목적을 충당하는 보따리의 기능에서 김 작가는 변화무쌍한 인간역사, 다양한 요소로 구성된 세계, 혹은 다면적이고 다층적인 한 개인의 정체성과 삶을 하나로 묶는 틀의 개념을 발견한다.

우주와 삶의 총체성, 그리고 보편성의 함유

김수자의 보따리는 하나로 결합된 우주를 상징한다. 여기서 우주는 인간의 의식세계를 의미한다. 보따리는 삶의 총체성을 상징하는 도구로 사용되고, 삶을 총체성의 관점에서 해석할 수 있는 수단으로 활용된다.
그 보따리 상징의 의도는 '하나로 된 우주'라는 개념을 소통, 혹은 타인에게 전달하려는 것이다. 반면 그 보따리 상징의 목적은 '하나로 된 우주'라는 개념을 재현하는 데 있다. 이 점에서, 즉 이동수단으로 지각되는 보따리가 자족적인 우주공간의 상징으로 전환된다는 점에서 김수자의 창조성과 예술성이 두드러진다. 김 작가의 과거 작업들을 살펴보면, 우주의 총체성을 의미하는 '보따리' 개념의 확장은 전통 한국가정에서 일상적으로 사용되는 보따리를 전시장으로 옮겨 놓아 첫째, 그 일상적 맥락의 해체를 통해, 그리고 둘째, 시각예술이란 새로운 맥락과의 결합을 통해 성공적으로 이루어진다.
김수자 작가는 지난 30여 년 동안 전체성과 보편성을 토론하는 작업을 일관성 있게 추구해 왔다. 삶의 총체적인 틀을 논하는 '보따리'도 그렇고, 천조각들을 꿰매어 하나로 연결 짓는 바늘의 의미를 논하는 '바늘 여인'도 마찬가지이다. 그의 작업이 제시하는 전체성과 보편성은 관객에 의해 특수하게 분석되어야 한다.
마시밀리아노 지오니가 기획하는 올해 베니스비엔날레 미술전의 주제는 인간역사에서 나타난 모든 창조물을 수집하고자하는, 실행 불가능한 인간의 집착적인 의지를 표현하는 '백과사전적 궁전'이다. 우주의 총체성과 보편성을 논하는 김수자의 '보따리' 개념은 비엔날레의 전체적인 주제개념에 딱 맞아떨어지는 안성맞춤이다. 따라서 올해 한국관의 김수자 <보따리>전은 맥락특정적인(context-specific) 전시가 될 것이다.
나아가 올해 한국관 전시는 절묘하게 시기적절한(time-specific) 행사가 될 것이다. 김 작가는 뉴욕에서 허리케인 샌디를 경험했다. 전기와 가스, 그리고 온수가 없이 일주일간을 고통스럽게 산 작가는 많은 생각을 하는 시간을 갖게 되었고, 그 경험을 바탕으로 세계 도처에서 갈수록 빈번하게 발생하는 천재지변을 토론하는 새 작업을 이번 한국관 전시를 통해서 발표할 예정이다. 따라서 자연재해 문제를 다루는 환경의식(environment-conscious)적인 작업이 예상된다.
이렇게 한국의 가정문화, 베니스비엔날레 미술전, 한국관의 건축 특징, 작가 개인의 경험, 관객의 감수성 등 다층적이고 다면적인 요소들을 꿰어 하나의 네트워크로 결합시키는 김수자의 2013년 베니스비엔날레 한국관 '보따리' 설치는 이 국제전에서 보기 드문 보석 같은 전시가 될 것으로 기대된다

A Needle Woman – Kitakyushu, 1999, Single channel video projection, 6:33 loop, silent, Commissioned by CCA Kitakyushu

A Disappearing Woman

Martinez, Rosa

2012

  • During the twentieth century the desire to build bridges of spiritual intelligence between East and West has helped balance the excesses of the rationalist mind while it has eased the suffering imposed on the planet in the name of progress. The growing popularisation of Buddhist philosophy, the critical questioning of counterculture and non-violent dissidence and the continuous diaspora of Asian artists have resulted in new perspectives that extend and illuminate the global horizon.

  • In this landscape of exchanges, The Secret of the Golden Flower, a Taoist text written almost two thousand years ago, arrived in the West thanks to psychologist Carl Gustav Jung and sinologist Richard Wilhelm, who published the first English version in 1931. Jung and Wilhelm suggested the interconnection between gnosis (as a hermetic tradition of the profound knowledge of the Self), methods of physical and emotional healing such as yoga, and processes in the collective unconscious understood as a psychic substratum common to mankind as a whole. The Secret of the Golden Flower is also an alchemical treatise on inner transformation, which is something pursued by the masters of all mystical traditions. 'The Golden Flower is the Light, and the Light of Heaven is the Tao.' [1]

  • In another book, Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino, we learn of the adventures of the legendary Venetian traveller Marco Polo, who arrived at the Mongolian court of Kublai Kahn in the thirteenth century. Remaining at the court as an ambassador for seventeen years, the story reveals how he entertained the Kahn with the tales of the cities he had visited during his travels, many of them imaginary. The book ends with an instructive reflection: 'The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by living together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno and make them endure, give them space.' [2]

  • The work by Kimsooja is inscribed in this very context of learning and wisdom, as for over three decades her proposals have sought new forms of connection between East and West and have created spaces of beauty, healing and awakening. On her travels as an international artist Kimsooja has visited the most varied places, carrying out performances, making documentary films, holding exhibitions of her works and producing site-specific interventions. Her oeuvre has connected the genealogy of Korean culture to the linguistic systems of global contemporary art in a synthesis that, as José Roca has put it, maintains 'a position of resistance against being digested into an aseptic internationalism,' while it intends, 'in these days of multiculturalism, to hyperbolize the characteristics of its difference to become more "exotic" in a medium eager for otherness.' [3]

  • Kimsooja has prioritised intuition as a means of knowledge, linking different cultures with threads that can be visible or invisible, always seeking a common anthropological substratum as, from a clearly universalistic vision, she considers that everything about human nature concerns her. 'My philosophical and artistic aim is to achieve the totality which absorbs and unites the whole question of self and the world.' [4]

  • The cities, paths and landscapes travelled by Kimsooja are neither fantastic nor imaginary. Her metropolises are real, overpopulated, impoverished by war, colonial exploitation or ideological embargoes. The streets she chooses are paths travelled by beings that survive within the limits determined by their geopolitical position. She also chooses ancient places or contexts in which the primeval forces of nature unfold. Very often her firm slender body appears amidst the crowds or on the silhouette of a rock, either standing up or lying down, but always motionless and with her back to the spectator. This generic and at once recognisable body, the lank hair tied back, remains static and contemplative, allowing the world—be it India's River Yamuna or Cairo's human sea—to flow before or around her. 'For me the most important thing to arise out of these performances is my own experience of self and awareness as a process rather than the video as a result. That's how I continue to ask questions to the world and to myself.' [5]

  • These works have the intensity of a hypnotic trance. They manage to draw spectators out of their mental dispersion, making them momentarily identify with the artist's own experience. Their titles are apposite for focusing on her philosophical and archetypal concerns. The Earth and the Heaven (1984), Toward the Mother Earth (1990-1991) and The Mind and the World (1991) speak of cosmological connections. A Needle Woman (1999-2009), A Beggar Woman (2000-2001), A Laundry Woman (2000), A Mirror Woman (2002) and A Wind Woman (2003) allude to woman's role as healer and mediator. To Breathe/Respirar (2006) addresses key emotions through breathing and the diffraction of light, while Earth-Water-Fire-Air (2009-2010) returns to the contemplation of the fundamental elements of nature.

  • In formal terms, Kimsooja's evolution reveals how she was surrounded by, and yet remained independent from, the dominant forces in Korea from the late seventies to the nineties, i.e., monochrome painting and the Minjung movement, turning instead to two-dimensional sewn works in the eighties and sculptural objects, Bottari installations and time-based performances and videos in the nineties. Her iconic Bottari, her mysterious 'deductive' objects and her installations evince how her mature artistic language falls into the field of expanded sculpture. Since Joseph Beuys said that even a thought can be considered sculpture insofar as it plastically shapes the spectator's mind, and Piero Manzoni converted the world into a giant ready-made when he built his Socle du Monde (1961), artists have explored, reconstructed or reinvented reality starting from its fundamental materials: people, nature, desire and destruction.

  • Kimsooja fixes her gaze on the world and intervenes in it, always in an extremely delicate way for, juxtaposing terminology, she considers what exists more a 'ready-used' than a 'ready-made'. She used clothes belonging to her grandmother for the very first time in 1983, and since then traditional Korean clothes and bedcovers have been a means of recycling 'our body and life itself.' [6]

  • Whether they compose Bottari or unfold in space, these used Korean bedcovers, as canvases and as frames of our life, have appeared as a constant feature in her work, just as her own body has been a performative sculpture, a symbolic needle that abandons the place once its healing mediation is over. 'Sewing and wrapping clothes have always been processes shred with contemplation and healing,' says the artist, adding, 'The relationship of the needle to the fabric is same as my body to the universe.' [7]

  • As well as having close ties with the Korean female domestic roles, Kimsooja's work bears similarities with the visions of other artists such as Louise Bourgeois, who has also considered the ambivalent power of the needle and its ability to heal. When Kimsooja stands with her back to the camera, her work can be visually associated with that by Caspar David Friedrich, and yet she establishes a conceptual difference: for while the character depicted by Friedrich is immersed in cosmic solitude, her gaze offers us a non-tragic proximity in which stillness is a form of knowledge. Her continuous search for sacred geometry connects the horizontal with the vertical—the earth, the sky, and the human being, the same three basic elements of Taoism—and with yin and yang as energies that structure the world, all of which bears similarities with the theosophical and abstract research by painters such as Piet Mondrian.

  • Among the works on display in this exhibition are a few essential pieces in her creative itinerary that had not hitherto been shown in Korea. In Bottari: Alfa Beach (2001) the inverted arrangement of the horizon between the sea and the sky visualises the artist's consciousness and feelings: 'The inversion happened when I saw the horizon from the Alfa Beach in Nigeria where African slaves were sent to Atlantic ocean—this was the saddest line I've ever seen in my life, thinking of the destiny of the slaves and their deprived freedom. Thus the flipped horizon was, for me, a disturbed horizon, a disorientated sense of gravity and of the slaves' psychological return I perceived in the curls of the waves reaching the same shore from which they had left." [8]

  • In the trilogy Mirror of Water, Mirror of Air, Mirror of Wind (2010), filmed in Greenland, the texture of the natural elements takes the viewer back to the idea of a pictorial surface that connects so many of her works. A Needle Woman is no doubt one of her masterpieces and a significant icon in the history of contemporary art. In the first edition of the piece (1999-2001) the artist stood with her back to the crowds of Tokyo, Shanghai, Mexico City, London, Delhi, New York, Cairo and Lagos. In the edition made especially for her participation in the Venice Biennale of 2005 she travelled to the cities of Patan, Jerusalem, Sana'a, Havana, Rio de Janeiro and N'Djamena, appearing again as a cosmic needle sewing human tissue to space and timelessness. In A Wind Woman (2003) the fleeting landscapes filmed at high speed by her camera look as if they had been painted by brushstrokes of wind and threads of time in order to extend interstitial spaces. They also betray traces of different pictorial styles such as Impressionism, Expressionism and even Minimalism, as when the landscape is completely dark, light or pervaded by a bright blue sky. In An Album: Havana (2007), a sequence filming the parallel lines of the malecón and the seafront horizon, people and landscape gradually merge to create an abstract, dynamic and yet ethereal composition that ends up dissolving into the light and wind. In these works the artist's body appears elliptical, outside of the screen's field of vision, just as it is in To Breathe – Invisible Needle/Invisible Mirror, a projection of saturated monochrome colours, the changing spectrum of which is synchronised with the sound of the artist's peaceful or strained breathing and with meditative humming. Presented at La Fenice theatre in Venice, it is a return to the issue of canvas and asks 'Where is surface?', along the lines of Minimalist abstraction. 'When the digital colour spectrum is constantly changing, we don't grasp the reality of surface,' [9] says the artist. At the same time, the signs and iconographic motifs of Korean bedcovers and clothes dematerialise as forms and colours dissolve into pure light and breathing sound. The audience breathes visually, in harmony with the artist's sound performance.

  • Verging on the ethnographic documentary and yet preserving the spatial format of a four-screen video installation, Mumbai: A Laundry Field (2008) is a visual stroll through overpopulated Mumbai. The camera shows the arduous work of washing laundry: it travels along the narrow streets of the slums, captures dwellings filled with rubble in which people sleep on tarmac and draws up close to the overcrowded trains on an ongoing and oppressive circuit: 'This piece juxtaposes rich visual experience with extremely tough living conditions for mankind. It follows the aesthetics of fabrics as transformed canvases and, at the same time, reveals the harsh reality of daily life in slum areas of Mumbai. … For me it is a retrospective version of older works for it has the dimensions of the fabrics I used to make, both visually and symbolically; clothes and fabrics stand here for human presences and the questions that concern us all.' [10] Thread Routes. Chapter 1. Peru (2010) is the first 16mm film in an ongoing series in which the artist captures the material and immaterial threads woven by different cultures. Chapter 1: Peru begins with a panorama that covers the mountain peaks of the Andes. In the middle of a circular amphitheatre a standing woman turns a spindle. A long downward travelling shot reveals a landscape of farmed fields that resemble woven earth, as do the lines of sedimented sand under the water of a lake, women's plaits and the threads of wool in a loom. In this work the artist uses reiteration as a rhetorical figure, insisting on the slowness of the gaze and committing herself to lengthy descriptions that highlight the poetry of Peruvian thread works and the pictorial juxtaposition of the elements she interconnects. Her intention is for the gaze 'to link weaving and knitting activities to geometrical, agricultural and architectural forms, to the fabric of landscapes and to meditative repetitive actions and festivities that reveal their primeval truth and aesthetics.' [11]

  • Art and artists are proven to have a key function—to offer relevant interpretations of the time and place in which they emerge, to shape a path that will penetrate mirages and draw us towards the profound essence of reality. Relevant artists like as Kimsooja act as bridges, mediators, channels that offer the truth of their visions, arresting noise and clearing confusion. Like all other human beings, artists experience thousands of phenomena along their existential paths, but through creative practice they are gradually able to purify them. Kimsooja's oeuvre is characterised by a firm will to reach the deepest spheres of awareness by means of the most accurate of artistic procedures. She does so through works that transport memories, emotions, distances and universal realities; proposals for connecting heaven and earth; gestures that require coming together, alms or silence. The artist has even declared that one of her wishes is to disappear, to become invisible: 'I want to disappear at some point with my own decision, and I've been planning "A Disappearing Woman" piece …". [12] This disappearance has to do with both her own need to become increasingly slight and subtle after having travelled the world burdened by the memories of so many people, and with her reflections on her own ontological question.

  • The epitaph the Greek poet Nikos Kazantzakis chose for his tombstone, 'I hope nothing. I fear nothing. I am free,' coincides with the Buddhist teachings of Crazy Wisdom, that declares that this spiritual practice is related to 'all that is free of hope and fear.' [13] Indeed, losing one's fear of not having is to have, and losing one's fear of disappearing is to remain.

  • In her oeuvre Kimsooja wishes to find new ways of perception in 'doing' by 'non-doing', for 'doing nothing' may reveal something meaningful as 'the moment of awareness or a moment of light that results from artistic practice itself.' [14] Thanks to this wise balance we may discover a third eye with which to contemplate the true foundations of art and life without fearing we shall dissolve or disappear, as we shall go back to being air, water, earth and fire, fully aware that every practice conveys a possibility of light and every death implies a new rebirth.

[1] Carl Gustav Jung and Richard Wilhelm, The Secret of the Golden Flower. A Chinese Book of Life, Routledge, London, 1999 (p. 21). First published in 1931 by Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., London. > return to article >
[2] Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Division of Educational Studies, Emory University, Georgia. Quoted from > return to article >
[3] José Roca, 'Kimsooja: A Mirror Woman,' Peter Blum Gallery, New York, 2002. > return to article >
[4] Gerald Matt, 'Kim Sooja im Gespräch mit Gerald Matt', in Kim Sooja: A Laundry Woman (exh. cat.), Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, 2002. > return to article >
[5] Mary Jane Jacob, 'Interview with Kimsooja' in Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacob (Eds.), Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 2003. > return to article >
[6] Gerald Matt, 'Kim Sooja im Gespräch mit Gerald Matt', op. cit., 2002. > return to article >
[7] Mary Jane Jacob, 'In the Space of Art: Buddha and the Culture of Now,' op. cit., 2003. > return to article >
[8] Kimsooja in conversation with Rosa Martínez, 2012. > return to article >
[9] Idem. > return to article >
[10] Idem. > return to article >
[11] Idem. > return to article >
[12] Gerald Matt, 'Kim Sooja im Gespräch mit Gerald Matt', op. cit., 2002. > return to article >
[13] Chögyam Trungpa, 'RMDC, Route 1, Livermore', poem 49 in the book First Thought Best Thought. 108 Poems. Introduction by Allen Ginsberg, Shambhala Publications, Inc., Massachusetts, 1983, p. 85. > return to article >
[14] Gerald Matt, 'Kim Sooja im Gespräch mit Gerald Matt', op. cit., 2002. > return to article >

A Needle Woman, 1999 – 2001, video still from Delhi, 8 channel video projection, 6:33 loop, silent

Kimsooja: A Needle Woman

Morales, René

2012

  • A woman stands on the street, immersed amid a torrent of passersby, utterly motionless -- a needle sewing through the fabric of humanity. With a simple, stoic gesture, Kimsooja vividly embodies the struggle to preserve a place for the individual within society, using her body as a conduit for critical questioning. This struggle is a perennial one, but by situating herself in an array of urban centers that span the planet, she imbues it with the tenor of contemporaneity: for if there is a single experience that can be said to exemplify the urgent conditions of today's world, it is the state of being engulfed by the "global city."

  • This first version of A Needle Woman was created between 1999 and 2001. Approximately six years later, a silent but momentous event occurred: For the first time in history, the world's urban populace outnumbered the rural one. [1] Over the last 30 years, urban populations have reached staggering proportions, and their rates of growth are accelerating exponentially. In 1900, only 10% of the world's population lived in cities. Today the figure has climbed above 50%; by 2050, it will represent three-fourths of humanity. [2]

  • A Needle Woman was produced just as the full realization of this explosion of urbanization reached a fever pitch, spilling across a variety of academic disciplines as well as art and popular media. The work is particularly emblematic of the directness with which the phenomenon tended to be addressed at the turn of the new millennium. With the benefit of a little more than ten years' hindsight, it is all the more striking for how it remains relevant to the discourse that developed in the wake of those confrontations.

  • One of the most important of these discursive evolutions involves the way in which urbanism has grafted onto globalization studies. It was the rise of mega-cities throughout the world that made it no longer necessary to abstractly theorize that globalization is happening. Indeed, urbanization is increasingly seen not as an after-effect of globalization, but as its primary driving force. [3] Over the last three or four decades, the increased number and scale of cities capable of participating in the production and management of global flows of goods and capital have led to a vast expansion of those same flows. At the same time, they have produced significant populations of middle-class, cosmopolitan individuals, while mobilizing large numbers of migrant workers from the countryside as well as immigrants from poorer places. The result has been the development of cities bearing unprecedented levels of heterogeneity. The urbanization of the globe has turned out to be inseparable from the globalization of the urban.

  • The nuance and poetry with which A Needle Woman captures these complex dynamics belies the precision with which it communicates meaning. This is especially so with respect to the artist's deliberate selection of the eight sites that "pass through" the anonymous, solitary figure. The academic literature on global urbanism provides a useful entry point (one of many) through which to access the implications that arise from this particular grouping of cities. Viewed in this light, the work bears a particularly strong resonance with an important theoretical framework known as the "global city" paradigm, as well as with the critiques to which it has been subjected. Originally advanced by the urban scholar Saskia Sassen in the 1990s, this approach focuses on how specific urban centers interface with and influence the world economy, using a series of measures such as monetary exchanges, volume of trade, and the number of transnational corporations based in a given urban zone as a way of quantifying its degree of "structural relevance" within a hierarchy of cities. From this perspective, the inclusion of New York, London, and Tokyo in A Needle Woman would serve to represent the traditional command centers of the global economy. Shanghai would serve to indicate the elite class of ascendant hubs that have established themselves more recently as major financial players. Mexico City, Delhi, and Cairo might stand for the crucial "second-" and "third-tier" cities that have also managed to lay a significant claim on the global financial sphere, though at a lower level.

  • While there can be no doubt that the "global city" rubric has produced invaluable insights, in its earliest manifestations it met with heated criticism, especially from the direction of the "Global South" -- that is, from beyond Europe and North America. [4] By prioritizing economic criteria, the methodology involved in this concept had the effect of placing limits on the types of questions that were asked. Indeed, by reducing a city's relevance to its contribution to the world's financial system, it had the effect of focusing the attention of researchers onto a limited number of cities -- perhaps 30 or 40, all but three or four of them in the developed world. Advocates of these critiques also remind us of the importance of more grounded and culturally oriented lines of investigation through which we might uncover valuable means for improving city life -- from the creative productions of Rio's favela architecture, to the vibrant informal economies of Mumbai, to the socially cohesive effects of local popular culture in Kinshasa.

  • With this debate as backdrop, A Needle Woman delivers a keen insight through the inclusion of an eighth site that paradigmatically represents the reverse side of the forces of global urban change: With a population that has escalated from 300,000 in 1950 to one that is estimated to top 23 million inhabitants by 2015, the city-region of Lagos exemplifies the lot of urban agglomerations that have witnessed astonishing growth in the context of severe poverty. [5]

  • In human terms, mass urbanization has had its most powerful effects in the poorest parts of the world. Here again, the rate of the transformations is staggering: Today, about 70% of city dwellers live in developing countries, compared with less than 50% in 1970; by 2030, roughly four out of five urbanites will reside in the developing world. With much of this growth playing out against city infrastructures that remain ill-equipped to handle such expansion, unprecedented numbers have come to inhabit what are typically described as "slums." In the least developed countries, the proportion of slum residents approaches 80% of the populace; already, this figure represents one-third of the total global urban population. [6] While it is important to resist the chronic tendency to reduce the complexity of informal settlements to a single, homogenized vision of Dickensian bleakness, it is difficult not to read such mind-boggling statistics without being struck by the sense that we are in the midst of a crisis.

  • In the face of these and other challenges, a pressing need has arisen to focus at least as much energy on understanding the specific and differentiated local repercussions of globalization as on identifying the resonant scenarios that it creates throughout the world. It has become vitally important, in other words, to survey this global age from the level of the street, the neighborhood, the city, where we may hope to find concrete ways both to maximize its potentials and to mitigate its most distressing symptoms.

  • It is precisely in this sense that A Needle Woman seems so well attuned to the exigencies of the global-urban era. The figure that appears in these images confronts head-on the fearsome power of the contemporary city. At the same time, through her stillness, she expresses the possibility of making peace with it. It is worth paying attention to the mixture of resoluteness and humanism with which she looks forward to the volatile century that stretches out before us.

[1] United Nations HABITAT Office, 2006 report. > return to article >
[2] Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic, eds. The Endless City: The Urban Age Project by the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank's Alfred Herrhausen Society, pg. 9. New York: Phaidon Press, 2007. > return to article >
[3] This paragraph is indebted to J. Miguel Kanai and Edward Soja, "The Urbanization of the World," in The Endless City, pgs. 54-69. > return to article >
[4] See Jennifer Robinson, "Global and World Cities: A View from off the Map" in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 26.3, September 2002, pgs. 531-554; as well as Kris Olds and Henry Wai-Chung, "Pathways to Global City Formation: A View from the Developmental City-State of Singapore" in Review of International Political Economy 11:3 August 2004, pgs. 489-521. > return to article >
[5] Mike Davis, Planet of Slums, pg. 15. London: Verso, 2006. > return to article >
[6] Davis, pg. 51. > return to article >

Aire de Tierra / Air of Earth, 2009, 06.25 loop, sound, still from Earth – Water – Fire – Air, 8 channel video projection, Commissioned by Hermes Foundation, Paris

Calm Chaos: Kimsooja's Earth – Water – Fire – Air

Geusa, Antonio

2012

  • The modern artist is living in a mechanical age and we have a mechanical means of representing objects in nature such as the camera and photograph. The modern artist, it seems to me, is working and expressing an inner world – in other words – expressing the energy, the motion and the other inner forces.. ..the modern artist is working with space and time, and expressing his feelings rather than illustrating. [1] — Jackson Pollock

  • In the preface to the second edition of his collection of poems "Lyrical Ballads" William Wordsworth asks a simple yet crucial question "What is a Poet?" The answer he gives is probably the most truthful ever given: "He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind; a man […] who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe[.] [2]

  • Kimsooja's work as an artist is constant proof that she perfectly embodies Wordsworth's definition of a Poet. At the core of her production there is always a physical and at the same time metaphysical confrontation between the "spirit of life" that is in her and the "spirit of life" of the world surrounding her. Ultimately, her art is the result of using her body, the shell of her "comprehensive soul", to achieve a balance in the connection of inner and outer life. To quote Kimsooja's own words, her body is the "medium, mystery, hermaphrodite, abstraction, barometer, and shaman" [3] uniting her with the essence of the world. It is charged with and releases spiritual power. All her works, from 2727 kilometres Bottari Truck (1997) to A Needle Woman (1999-2001, 2005), from A Beggar Woman (2000-2001) to A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon (2008), to mention just a few, are the visualization of this flow of energy.

  • Even when Kimsooja is not physically present in the work on display in the gallery space, the reality that she offers the viewers is not a mere representation of a given natural phenomenon. It is the result of an interaction between two parts, of an exchange of energies. Her words about that production in which she is not in the frame – "When I disappear, I represent the act of nature more closely. Thus only my gaze becomes active" [4] – are self-explanatory. The objective of the video camera recording Nature is not a mechanical substitute of her eyes or an extension of her body. It is the activator of the gaze, an active participant in the process of capturing the flow of energy running in both directions between the artist and the outside world. It acts like that needle that for the first time made her sense a strong and inexplicable force emanating from her whole body when she was still a child and was helping her mother sewing together different pieces of fabric into a blanket cover. The absence of her body in the final composition of the projected images does not mean that Kimsooja was there, but she is not there any longer. Kimsooja is still there. To a certain extent, her videos are visual correspondents of what a "trace" is in Jacques Derrida's linguistic studies, that is a "mark of the absence of a presence, an always-already absent present" [5] .

  • The Earth – Water – Fire – Air project, started in 2009, is one of those instances in which Kimsooja's body is not visible in the exhibited images. Natural phenomena, or "Beautiful and permanent forms of nature" – the "Lyrical Ballads" once again – are its main "subjects". In the specific, they are video recordings taken on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands and in Guatemala – volcanic landscapes with incandescent lava, the restless sea, millenarian rocks sculptured by time, clouds of pure white on a clear blue sky. The four basic elements essential to both Eastern and Western thought as the basics of life in the Universe are not presented as single units, each of which is independent and isolated from each other. On the contrary, as suggested by the titles of the videos [6] , they are shown in binary combinations, interacting one with the other, flowing one into the other, the same way as the artist did with the space surrounding her when she recorded those images. Clearly, viewers can fully feel the strength of this energy when inside the space where the work – an eight-channel video installation in its current form – is exhibited. Without any doubts, Earth – Water – Fire – Air is first of all a work that has to be experienced. The intensity of the bond between the artist and the visible objects that she captured with the help of her camera is perceived in the gallery space where viewers are free to move around and use their senses to take in the energy coming out from the screens.

  • It is by experiencing the work as an installation that any possible references to Beauty suggested by the incontestable magnificence of the natural spectacles lose their validity. Beauty is not a keyword here. Surely, a more appropriate approach would be through the concept of the Sublime in aesthetics. To be more precise, the way the Sublime was perceived by the Neo-Kantian school of the beginning of the 20th century according to which the feelings of fear and horror – fundamental qualities for the 18th and 19th centuries (Edmund Burke and the English Romantics, amongst others) – were replaced by a sense of contentment and safety before an object of superior force.

  • Kimsooja stands with her video camera in front of an object of "superior force". The moment she presses the rec button, like a needle piercing a piece of cloth, her "superior force" starts to interact with that of Nature before her. The energy of the exchange is very strong and overwhelming. However, the effect reached – Earth, Water, Fire, and Air displayed in the exhibition space – is indisputably one of ease and wellbeing. Her works are never a methodical process of "quoting" from Nature, simply because Kimsooja is not a passive receiver. The segment called "Fire of Air" can serve as a proof of the artist's dialoguing with Nature. In it, while being driven she operates a spotlight to break the darkness of the night and illuminate the rocky fields of the landscape. Here, she in charge of what can be seen and what stays wrapped in darkness. Because of this constant dialoguing, none of the images offered to the viewers can ever be, to quote Wordsworth again, a "soulless image on the eye" [7] , a mere visual impression on the retina of the spectator. On the other hand, Kimsooja sublimates the etymological meaning of the word "video", that is "I see", first person of the present tense of videre (to see). She invests it with both spiritual and lyrical power. Simply, albeit roughly, put, it is poetry camouflaged as science.

  • As an artist Kimsooja's possess the unique ability to turn the chaos of energy exchanging during the time of performing or recording – that "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" [8] between the Poet and Nature – into a sense of tranquility and calmness for the viewers. Accordingly, the screens framing the videos lose their boundaries and a distinct feeling of oneness with Nature is strongly felt. To a certain degree, the genesis of Earth – Water – Fire – Air is not that dissimilar to that of Jackson Pollock's canvases. It is the same intensity of human artistic energy – albeit different in nature. Obviously, the outcome is at the antipodes. Kimsooja's is a calm chaos generated by the maturity of the passions of the artist's heart. And it is this proven maturity that, paraphrasing Pollock when he was asked if he worked from Nature, allows to state that Earth – Water – Fire – Air proves once and for all that Kimsooja is Nature.

[1] Pollock, Jackson. Interview by William Wright, Summer 1950. Quoted in Clifford Ross (ed.), Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, Abrahams Publishers: New York, 1990, pp. 139-140. > return to article >
[2] Eliot, Charles William (ed.). Prefaces and Prologues. Vol. XXXIX. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001. www.bartleby.com/39/. 2 May 2012. > return to article >
[3] Kim, Sung-Wong, "About Nothingness: Being Nothing and Making Nothing". Official internet site of Kimsooja. www.kimsooja.com/texts/sung_won_kim_EWFA_2009.html. 2 May 2012. > return to article >
[4] Commandeur, Ingrid. "Black Holes, Meditative Vanishings and Nature as a Mirror of the Universe". Kimsooja – Windflower: Perceptions of Nature (Catalogue). Kroller Muller Museum, The Netherlands. Interview with the artist by the author, November 2010. > return to article >
[5] Macsey, Richard and Eugenio Donato (eds). The Languages of Criticism and The Sciences of Man: the Structuralist Controversy. JHU Press: Baltimore, 1970, p. 254. > return to article >
[6] n its current version Earth – Water – Fire – Air comprises the following eight videos: “Fire of Earth”, “Water of Earth”, “Fire of Air”, “Earth of Water”, “Air of Fire”, “Air of Earth”, “Air of Water”, “Water of Air”. > return to article >
[7] Wordsworth, William. The Complete Poetical Works. London: Macmillan and Co., 1888; Bartleby.com, 1999. www.bartleby.com/145/. 2 May 2012. > return to article >
[8] Eliot. > return to article >

Deductive Object, 1993, used Korean Clothes, Installation view at PS.1, New York, Dimensions variable

The pilgrimage of our own existence

An art where nomadism and the relation with the other reveals the importance of mankind and the contemplation of the reality that we live in.

Mello, Laeticia

2012

  • Kim Soo-Ja is her full name, but she introduces herself in her web page as Kimsooja (Korea, 1957) with her own manifesto: In "A One-Word Name Is An Anarchist's Name" (2003), Kimsooja refuses gender identity, marital status, socio-political or cultural and geographical identity by not separating the family name and the first name. In this same way – without an identity or with an almost ephemeral one – she has been developing since 1992 her singular and poetic work that includes videos, performances, installations, site-specific projects and photographs.

  • To give rise to her work, Kimsooja travels to different cities, villages and small towns in search of diverse cultures. It is a pilgrimage with bottaris – Korean word that means "wrapping luggage with a wrapping cloth", the easiest and most functional way of carrying one's belongings– sometimes walking and others by truck; a nomadism that speaks about civilizations, traditions, and languages that shall be faced in the new crossing.

  • The art that she creates becomes ceremonial. She looks through her own past, present and future and through that contemplation the questions and discourses on time and space emerge. This way, Kimsooja links her work to nature and the relation with others. In her pieces the viewers are engulfed by the multiple perspectives introduced by the artist and they can participate of it lively.

  • Textiles are the media that Kimsooja chooses to develop her maps of beliefs. Despite her origins where there always existed a need of experimenting different types of media similar to fabrics, sewing became the wisest and most accurate tool. It allowed her to combine her questionings and the relation between the "I" and the "Other" over the canvas surface. Thereby, the separation between the artist and the surface disappears and transforms into a healing joint.

  • Bottaris are probably the most distinctive element in Kimsooja's art. They hold not only references to the migration of her land but also to the essence of all her work: mankind. "I've always been fascinated by nomadic minorities' life style and their rich visual culture and originality. During my youth my family also lived a nomadic life due to my father's job, although within Korea. I wasn't aware of the fact that my family had been wrapping and unwrapping bottaris all the time until I started Cities on the Move–2727 km Bottari Truck in 1997", she explains.

  • Kimsooja's bottaris are sculptural pieces. Viewers can open, touch and examine them. The artist acts as an intermediary between the owners of those clothes and old bedspreads and the observers. As they make contact with the bottaris, they embark on their own journey imagining who used these fabrics before. This way, the pieces transcend the Eastern tradition and the historical codes that were associated to them; they become channels which redefine the concept of the object. Here it doesn't matter if Kimsooja re-makes and re-contextualizes a ready-made but the way she chooses to look at her past and the transition that Korea lived from a traditional lifestyle to a modern one.

  • A Needle Woman, A Beggar Woman and A Homeless Woman are the most developed and delicate performances by Kimsooja. In them, she appears with a singular hieratic posture amongst a crowd in continuous flow that walks towards and by her sometimes observing and others questioning themselves the truth of her static stance. Anonymous and with neutral clothing, she achieves to interfere with the canons and flux of the city with one unique message: temper and truth.

  • The patience and austerity that the artist uses to introduce folklore and daily habits of Asian and Latin-American cultures in her videos is what lets her bonds so closely to their respective traditions. Each folkloric practice that Kimsooja discovers works as a talisman. First she researches the origins and encounters of the culture and then she charges herself with figures of power.

  • The spectrum and repetition which Kimsooja works with in her videos is expressed by the cities in move, in an action loop. In Thread Routes (Chapter 1. Peru) – a video that captures the routes of the threading women in Peru –, women weave again and again the colorful embroideries of their origins where generations and spiritual experiences are combined together. Mumbai: A Laundry Field was filmed in India where men shake, drain and strain against the stones the symphony of tonalities of their clothes. They are the representation of time, an intangible and unapproachable mental space, never planned.

  • "When it comes to the performative video pieces such as A Needle Woman performance series, I just had a strong desire to do a performative piece but didn't know what exactly it would be, even until the moment I started filming", Kimsooja says. That is the main reason why intuition plays such an important role in the process and meaning of her work. She rises as a medium woman, as an ethnographic canal that lets the world see the most pure forms of art. A reader of the visible and invisible worlds given by nature.

  • These projects have turned Kimsooja into one of most renowned and interesting artists from the international contemporary panorama. She lives and works in New York, and has exhibited her projects and artworks all around the world. Among them latest ones we can name NPPAP - Yong Gwang Nuclear Power Plant Art Project, commissioned by The National Museum of Contemporary Art (2010), Earth – Water – Fire – Air, Hermes (2009), Kimsooja, Baltic Center (2009) and Lotus: Zone of Zero, BOZAR, Brussels (2008), as well as other emblematic ones like Artempo: where time becomes art (2007) presented at the Venice Biennale, Cities on the Move (1997-2000) and Traditions/Tensions (1996-1998), and the participation in other biennales like Moscow (2009), Whitney Biennial (2002), Lyon (2000), São Paulo (1998), to name some.

  • Kimsooja has been working for two years on a series of a 16 mm film project called Thread Routes. She has completed the Peruvian chapter on weaving culture and the European chapter on lace making is being developed. The project about origins of textile culture includes India, Mali, China, and Native America.

A Needle Woman, 2005, Sana'a (Yemen), one of six channel video projection, 10:40 loop, silent

Kimsooja, To Breathe: Invisible Mirror/Invisible Needle

D'Ambrose, Ricky

2012

  • From blue to violet. The nine minutes of To Breathe: Invisible Mirror/Invisible Needle involve a lifecycle of the color spectrum, an electronic spiritual autobiography of red-yellow-blue sanctified at the four hard edges of the screen. These are colors that command, rather than pacify, the eye; the problem, to borrow Duchamp's phrase, of being "up to the neck in the retina," here becomes a compelling visual solution, an optical tease with metaphysical consequences. "My motivation for creating this piece was to question the depth of the surface," Kimsooja has said. "Where is the surface? What in the world is there between things?"

  • These migrating color fields, these on-screen anti-surfaces, frustrate the eye, if only temporarily; the effort here is to re-educate our visual intelligence, to make the eye more buoyant, less habituated. What Kimsooja calls her interest in in-betweens – in those enigmatic medial spaces that can be intuited but never experienced simultaneously – gives this work its itinerant sensibility, and it is this skepticism of the surface that disaffiliates To Breathe from a mid-twentieth-century aesthetics apotheosized by Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly, Anne Truitt, Robert Ryman, etc. A more suitable list of aesthetic influences might include: magic lantern shows, Stan Brakhage films, Technicolor, stained glass windows, and also Cézanne, whose attraction to what he called "the meeting of planes in the sunlight" might describe another visual corollary to this work: the sensation, the flicker of colors, produced when staring at the sun with one's closed.

  • The two channels. The inhale-exhale component of the soundtrack forms its metrical unit: the couplet. The rhyming of inhale and exhale is made possible by an activity (breathing) which, in this instance, becomes increasingly less agile, more labored and urgent. Once the last exhale is replaced by the low, monophonic sound of humming, however, we assume that a change in condition has taken place, that a transaction between physical and spiritual experience has culminated in repose. And yet, Kimsooja's colors continue their gestation; the juxtaposition of an uninterrupted, trifurcated human hum and an image with no reliable surface and no discernable visual plane is the technique of a stereoscopic aesthetics. The effort is toward two radically dissociated channels of information that cannot be unified by the eye alone, but that require a bit of imaginative thinking and mental ingenuity to grant their coalescence.

  • But to think imaginatively entails a sensorial leap of faith and a transfiguration of the commonplace that often feels peculiar and difficult, but that is also necessarily clarifying and inventive. Hence the statement by Kimsooja: "I don't believe in creating something new but in inventing new perspectives based on mundane daily life." The result plays like an ecstatic vision; a flash of light and sound that transforms Duchamp's "retinal element" into an instrument – a needle to thread and combine, a mirror to duplicate and rhyme – for achieving the movement from surface to spirit.

May 2012

Kimsooja's <A Needle Woman>, Sacred Ritual

Choi, Yoonjung

2011

I. Intro

  • This project is planned as an experiment, which introduces new arrangement from a deviated and strayed viewpoint, rather than unilaterally maintaining fixed conceptions. The Project Room, starting from the appearance of warehouse, or 'preparatory warehouse', reveals various aspects, such as 'underground - isolation from natural light'; 'concrete' wall, revealing its raw material; 'properties of road - passages and intersections.' As previous exhibition[1] showed the possibility of the Project Room as an exhibition hall, this exhibition is the result of the finding that the very aspects of the Project Room can be a main stem of a project.

  • The original form of the Project Room was composed of just eighteen columns connecting the ceiling and the floor. To make it an exhibition hall, walls were made between columns and six new ones were added, which form a skeletal space of 'passage_road' and 'intersections_center.' This basic form, which is isolated from natural light, has advantages of not only playing a basic role as an exhibition hall, but also effectively installing and producing works which utilize effects of light and the luminous intensity. Each section seen from 'intersection_center' is over six meters in width. It provides various criterion of space production and enables experimental and genre-integrating project such as concert, performance and films to be planned.
    Therefore the plan for the Project Room will be to make programs which will be able to emit 'indiscriminate' energy by concentrating on finding experimental local art, young art, and various genre related with space interpretation, as well as utilizing the characteristic form of the space.

  • This exhibition aims to introduce a 'video series' that is conceived as a work from the start for dense space interpretation and introduction of the work. So we invited Kimsooja(1957), a world renowned artist born in Daegu, and researched her video works, which have been exhibited as projects, to choose a work which not only reveals kim's proper color but also flexibly fit into the direction of interpretation on the Project Room. In this process, we start from reading the structure of intersection (cross) of the Project Room, and then we begin to imagine, during continuous discussion, the structure of symmetric labyrinth as a variant of the structure of passage. Each video, planned for a project, is placed on various screens, which is located on the designed line of flow, rather than arranged according to the established way of installation. It is the moment when the meaning of space is positively expanded through the integration of the work and the space into a work of installation. In this project, Kimsooja's representative work, <A Needle Woman(2005)>, which takes as its stages symbolic sites of religious conflict, poverty, international isolation, civil war occurring worldwide, provided the core of this research and the criterion of thinking.

  • This work, composed of six pieces, extended time through slow playing and was arranged on a wall side by side in a form of embodying the figure life-size. The artist's body as an axis of time mediates spectators with the world, and the spectators are cognitively able to experience the gap of time by borrowing the artist's body. In other words, it was intended to reflect the problem of the universality and the substance of mankind which persists after making the elements of trouble in each city naturally and psychologically resolve through this cognitive process.
    This exhibition was devised so as to expand the experience of the meaning of the work through the space interpretation, all without losing the existing intention. Therefore the road structure of this space plays a primary role of setting a physical distance for appreciation, and the line of flow leads a kind of practice walking that is a walking from work to work while connecting them. We intended psychological distance for thinking for spectators to concentrate on the work through this process, and we placed on six screens, three kinds in their size, peculiar cognitive experience in which we can recognize the artist's body as medium, aiming at more dramatic effect. At last, spectators who arrive at the last work on the line of flow go beyond being mere spectators, becoming agents who participate in the exhibition and are able to have their own trace of thinking of the work.

  • At the stage of researching the works of kimsooja, organizing articles also functions as a keyword constituting the core of this project. We selected articles - first, contextualizing kimsooja's entire work for a systematic understanding[2]; second, conceiving appropriate application and interpretation of [3]>, which is frequently mentioned with regard to kimsooja's works; third, dealing with a perspective on the meditation and memory as a starting point of 'archetypal' thinking[4]; and, finally a referential article, comparatively analyzing shamanism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism in East Asia with regard to cultural archetypes[5] - to provide various humanistic perspectives for the significance of kimsooja and her work.

II. Connecting : From Universal Space to 'Symmetric and Delusive' Space

  • 'Universal Space', a widely used architectural concept, is a starting point where we decide the direction and the standard of this project. It provides a starting point for a conscious foundation which enables the form of space to be transformed, in that simplicity and changeability of space, which is applicable to any use, let the energy, which variously visualizes the space itself, emitted. It is also a clue to imagining 'labyrinthine structure' which overcomes the existing 'passage-road' structure, a biased element would have functioned as a restriction.[6] In other words, we imagine 'universal space' in the solidity and rigidity of basic framework and decisively transform the meaning of 'passage_road' into 'labyrinth' to expand and develop the unique interface. Of course, the structure of labyrinth intend to remind us of its symmetric form and to produce a line of flow as traces rather than a maze or a wayfinding. Video works are running on screens which are placed in each dead end and vary in size, 2.4m, 3.9m and 6.8m each. Because of the mood emitted from these works, spectators may have an illusionary experience that they feel like walking into the video image while identifying themselves with Kimsooja whose back faces us. It is a kind of figurative infiltration of the role of 'labyrinth' into the ingenious unity made of the labyrinthine structure of the space and video works.

A Needle Woman, Archetypal Consciousness as Sentiment and Nullification

III. Outro

  • "Art should produce the thing itself, or the incomprehensible. However art should describe things neither as the comprehensible (the symphathizable) nor as the incomprehensible, but it should describe them as the comprehensible not yet comprehended."[18]

  • In her videos, the artist reveals herself and, at the same time, has us revealed. This is because we are freely assimilated into the crowd as we watch the artist and visually recorded behaviors of people. However, we don't stop here. We are anxious to hear stories of each person who approaches the clue of the spark of life which their individuality and their worldwide existence cause in 'relation,' and, on the other hand, we feel pity for them. It also lets us ask ourselves "how much do we understand situations where the life of others unravel, situations that exist in other countries?"[19] By means of this, it shows not only people who experience various situations in the world but also ourselves, as observers, individuals, who are abandoned in a state of indifference.
    The artist deliberately confined the space of observation and produced it into video to avoid the narcissistic concentration of the sight on 'being' of herself. [20]

  • <A Needle Woman(2005)> just sheds a light on the ritual which seeks for a proper human nature and embraces cultural differences, with an extremely simple act from which narration is removed. Starting from this, we can trigger the ethical mind of a person who encounters the uncomfortable part of our contemporary events through the artist's body projecting the axis of space-time. Left in a state where "if we know the fact that photographs bring the pain from remote places before our eyes, we don't accept the fact that the pain of others is closely related with us"[21] and we don't know what effect it has on our life, the artist's body becomes a kind of antenna, which leads the others to thought, and sacred medium, which embraces the site of injury.

  • — Exhibition Catalogue published by Daegu Art Museum, Korea, 2011

[1] Daegu Art Museum Opening Special Exhibition3 , From August 10th to November 20th, 2011

[2] [kimsooja, Thinking along the system of horizontality-verticality], 2010, Younghee Suh(Professor of Hongik University) : This article is a revised version of the article, previously published in 『Contemporary Artooo』, 2010.

[3] [Nomadism: Elements of Nomadic Life and Art], 2011, Lee Jin Kyung(autonym Park Tae Ho, Professor of Seoul National University of Science and Technology)

[4] [Cultural Memory, Cultural Archetype and Communication], 2011, Bak Sang Hwan(Professor of Sungkyunkwan University) : This article is revised and developed from 「The study of Communication and Possibility on the Cultural Contents and Humanism」,『Journal of the humanities』Vol. 41(Sungkyunkwan University Research Institute for the Humanities, 2008).

[5] [Shamanism as an Archetype of East Asian Culture], 2010, Yang hee Seok(Professor of Chonnam National University)

[6] "Striated space is a territorialized and layered space, characterized as sedentary, moving along the fixed and closed trace and in which development rather than creation(becoming) occurs. [...]the line of smooth space is vectorial and open, while the line of striated space is dimensional and closed[...]On the contrary, smooth space is nomadic and migratory, the space of speed, movement and creation, in which line is subordinated not to number or measurable decision but to vector and direction, and point is subordinated to line and trace[...]It means a space, without decided direction and course, which has no center, like a patchwork, and is able to be infinitely and formlessly connected and expanded." [Architecture and movement in time], 2009, Spacetime, Kim Won Kap : This is a philosophy of Deleuze [A Thousand Plateaus] applied to architectural concept.

[7] In [Nomadism: Elements of Nomadic Life and Art], Lee Jin Kyung is appealing his viewpoint that permeating strange things into the given existing arrangement through which the life as 'deterritorialization' is rearranged, is closer to the truth, rather than misunderstanding nomadism as a simple trace of movement.

[8] Shin Oh Hyun,「Freedom and Tragedy_Sartre's human ontology」, Moonji Publishing Co. p. 125 "Consciousness refuses to identify its existence with borrowed existence, to the extent that it doesn't exist by itself but exist in the relation with things exist by themselves, or by defining existing things as existence, so its existence is what is borrowed from things exist by themselves."

[9] Kim Yoon Sik,「Problem of inheritance of tradition in literature」,《Generation》, 1973, p. 219

[10] From the Artist's Notes in 1988

[11] Ibid.

[12] "A needle woman(Tokyo,1999), it was the first performance of this series. Video recording team and I were walking the city searching for appropriate time and place. I could not but stop walking in Shibuya where hundreds and thousands of people passing by. I was standing still while feeling the energy of the crowd and focusing on my body. I strongly felt the connection to the core of myself. At the same time, I realized what separated the crowd from myself. It was like a moment of epiphany, and I decided to record the performance showing my back to the camera." extracted from interview, Olivia Maria Rubio, 2006

[13] Mircea Eliade,「Shamanism」, translated in korean by Lee Yoon Ki, Kachi Publishing Co. p. 32

[14] Ibid., p.23

[15] In addition, it is not an objet as a simple 'readymade' but a heritage as a 'readyused', which symbolizes identity of Korea or shares cultural memory, and from which the occasion of 'meditation' on cultural awareness, or distancing could be made.

[16] Black(玄色) includes five pure colors and ultimately symbolizes 'The Supreme Polarity that is non-Polar(無極而太極), Unity of Heaven, Earth and Human(天地人一體)'. [Study on Korean's Color Sense], Park Myung Won , Vol. 4, p.297

[17] "In the performance video needle woman, at the moment when the spectator doesn't aware my body any more, they come to see the world which I see, through my body. Or my body becomes a medium of self meditation for spectators.[...]I show my world view as it is without refraction to spectators. It is a zen like work which has been evolved from thorough questions to myself. At the same time, I hope for my body to be a barometer which reflect over the condition of mankind by taking a role of axis of space-time. I want to meet every person in the crowd and to hug them. It is a kind of pity for mankind who leads a life today." _ Kimsooja

[18] [Searching for a new art], 1998, Bertolt Brecht, edited and translated by Kim Chang Joo, New Road

[19] [KimSooJa: Less is More], 2006, Olivia Maria Rubio

[20] [Experiencing A Vacuum], 2005, Emanuela De Cecco

[21] Susan Sontag,「Regarding the Pain of Others」, 2008, translated by Lee Jae Won, ewhobook, p. 150

A Mirror Woman: The Sun & the Moon, 2008, 4 channel video projection, sound, 12:33 loop.

Kimsooja: Black Holes, Meditative Vanishings and Nature as a Mirror of the Universe

Commandeur, Ingrid

2011

  • One of the best-known works by the Korean artist, Kimsooja (b. Taegu, 1957, lives and works in New York, Seoul and Paris) is the video and performance Cities on the Move: 2727 kilometres Bottari Truck (1997), created for the much-discussed exhibition, Cities on the Move. [1] It is a quiet version of a road movie. We see a blue truck, loaded with colourful bundles of textiles, called bottari in Korean, piled up on one another like a mountain. Kimsooja is sitting at the top of the pile and makes the journey together with the truck, 2727 kilometres along all the places she had lived as a child. The frame of the image is fixed: from the back, we see Kimsooja as an anonymous female figure in the lotus position, while cities and Korean mountain landscapes move past. For Cities on the Move (1997), curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Hou Hanru, artists, architects and designers investigated or reflected on urban transformations in Asia as a result of globalization and modernization. Because of the associations that the work evokes with the concepts of migration and nomadic lifestyles, Kimsooja's 2727 kilometres Bottari Truck became the ultimate metaphor for this theme. Her participation in the exhibition marked her definitive breakthrough into the international exhibition circuit. [2] Commenting on the great interest being shown in her work, she has said, 'Today, it seems that we are witnessing a "cultural war" with many issues arising in a global context, bringing together different races and beliefs, with an increasing discrepancy between rich and poor, economically powerful and less powerful countries. (…) The issues that that I address in Bottari Truck and A Needle Woman are very much related to current topics, such as migration, refugees, war, cultural conflict and different identities. I think people are interested in considering these topics through the reality of the works. This may be one reason for their success.' [3]

  • In this context, Kimsooja also expressed her criticism of the international biennial circuit, which she finds 'more and more focused on the power structure within the art world'. [4] Although Kimsooja's work, as she herself indicates, indisputably concerns the field of tension between the rise of a global culture and regional values and such themes as migration and cultural conflict, at the same time, it goes much further. Equally fascinating in her work is her utterly personal approach to performance and the representation of nature, both of which are strongly influenced by an Eastern way of looking at things.

  • A Needle Woman (1999-2001) is a multichannel video installation in which Kimsooja forms the unmoving, meditative central point. Her face turned away from the viewer, she stands in the middle of the masses of people in different urban metropolises: Tokyo, Shanghai, Mexico City, London, Delhi, New York, Cairo and Lagos. The title, A Needle Woman, describes how Kimsooja sees herself: as a needle that 'pricks through' the social, societal context of the different geographic locations. It is a handsome example of the way in which her work embraces a marriage between the characteristically Western model of participation in relational aesthetics and Eastern, meditative techniques. [5] While her work shares roots with the relational aesthetics of such artists as Maurizio Cattelan, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Pierre Huyghe and Rirkrit Tiravanija, it begins with a concept of space and time that contradicts that approach. Where, in the work of an artist such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, the encounter with the public is the central focus, as a temporary social activity, Kimsooja's performances separate themselves from this temporary character and have the objective of creating a moment of concentration and focus that is binding, revealing and in essence holistic. 'I am interested in approaching the reality that embraces everything, because it is the only way to get to the point without manipulation.' [6]

  • In the Korean art scene in which Kimsooja first defined her position as an artist in the early 1980s, there was an ongoing debate about cultural identity, a critical review of formalism and the meaning of social engagement, similar to that of the art world in the West. The need to mix art with life went hand-in-hand with attention to local, cultural traditions and the reflection on the history of one's home country. Kimsooja belongs to a new generation of artists who are interested in the body, memory, intimacy, the everyday and the marginal. She found her identity as an artist at the point when she decided to abandon paints and canvas, the media canonized by the history of Western art that she had mastered as a student at the Hong-Ik University in Seoul. Like Tiravanija, Kimsooja chose to use everyday materials and activities as her starting point. The ybulbo, a traditional piece of cloth in cotton or silk, printed with colourful motifs and which has since time immemorial had a range of everyday functions in Korea - people sleep and children are born on them and they serve to wrap up items for safekeeping or for travel - became her new 'canvas', needle and thread her 'brushes'.

  • In the 1980s, Kimsooja stitched these traditional cloths together into covers and objects, bundled them into bottari and used them in countless installations and performances. From here, she gradually developed a working method in which she saw her own body as the needle or thread and the world as 'the canvas'. Her performances were recorded with video cameras as a condensed moment of energy and interaction with the world, whereby the screen functions as a metaphor of the screen that exists between Kimsooja and the rest of the world.

  • Kimsooja came from a Catholic family, but daily life in Korea is also permeated with both Confucianism and a mix of Buddhism and shamanism. After Buddhism, Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, is the primary religion in South Korea. Korean religion is complex and eclectic in nature: it is founded in old Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist traditions but it also embraces many Christian elements. The fact that her work reveals so much in common with the principles of Zen Buddhism was something she only realized rather late in her career. Still, she does not want to refer to her work as either Eastern or Western. It is a way of thinking that confuses Western art critics. In an interview, Nicolas Bourriaud asked her, 'Do you think that oriental thought has a real impact on the contemporary art world, or is it only a postmodern kind of exoticism, a decor for western aesthetic investigations?' Kimsooja's reply was that the Eastern way of thinking inhabits every context of contemporary art history, not just as theory, but as an attitude melded into one's personality and existence, and is inseparable from Western thinking. [7]

  • Kimsooja's interventions in public space are not about an open, noncommittal social relationship. Her meditative 'disappearances' clearly make a moral appeal to the public. For her performances, A Homeless Woman - Delhi (2000) and A Homeless Woman - Cairo (2001), she set herself down on the ground in the middle of the busy, urban public spaces of Delhi and Cairo, respectively. For a new edition of the video installation of A Needle Woman (2005), she visited six cities in precarious political and social circumstances: Patan (Nepal), Jerusalem (Israel), Sana'a (Yemen), Havana (Cuba), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) and N'Djamena (Chad). Her unmoving, meditative stillness creates an emptiness and a focus of concentration that makes everything happening around her in all these different metropolises all the more visible. '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 just a self-sufficient being, or a nothingness that is free from desire.' [8] Kimsooja feels that the highest ideal that can be achieved by an artist is to be as minimal, as unprepossessing a presence as possible.

  • In her recent multichannel video installation, A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon (2008), included in the Windflower exhibition, this principle reaches an apex. In this work, the images for which were taken along the beach in Goa, India, we see an exceptional eclipse in which the sun and the moon melt together. To the left and right of this are two additional video screens showing the waves washing up on the beach and the rhythm of the tides. Kimsooja herself is no longer in the image. We can only perceive her indirectly as the person who observes the natural phenomena from behind the camera, and who by way of a technical procedure, records the sun rise and set over the moon. When I asked her if she felt that she had taken an important step towards completely disappearing out of her own work, she replied, 'I personified the mirror symbolically as my body, as an inserted action/performance in between the sun and the moon, so that my presence becomes invisible, and my body/life vanishes while it transforms as a metaphor of an object. (…) When I disappear, I represent the act of nature more closely. Thus only my gaze becomes active.' [9]

  • Late last year, and from a comparable perspective, Kimsooja created the large-scale video installation, Earth-Water-Fire-Air (2009-2010), a temporary project on location on the grounds of one of the largest nuclear reactors in the province of Yonggwang, South Korea. This scale and setting of this version of the video installation was the result of a collaboration between the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Korea, the korean Ministry of Culture and the company Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power, including Hanijin Shipping. [10] Kimsooja placed a video installation, comprised of eight large screens, each about 150 metres away from the others, on a 1200-metre long pier in the sea. Video recordings that she had taken on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands and of volcanoes in Guatemala formed the cornerstone for an abstract, visual interpretation of nirvana, in which the four elements – earth, water, fire and air – flow into one another. The fact that the character of each element is inseparably bound to the other elements is also expressed in the titles of the six videos: Fire of Earth, Water of Earth, Earth of Water, Air of Fire, Air of Earth, Air of Water, Fire of Water, Water of Fire. For a period of two weeks, the video works could be seen after sunset, in the evenings and at night, with visitors having to submit to the strict security regulations of the industrial power complex. With this work, Kimsooja wanted to draw attention to the issue of nuclear energy as a form of energy that, like the concepts of Yin and Yang [two opposite and complementary values in Chinese philosophy-Taoism with which the universe presents itself –ed.], produces positive as well as destructive energy. The work is intended as a contemplation on the use of natural sources of energy and the relationship between mankind, his origins and the earth. In light of the recent catastrophic events at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami, this work has unexpectedly become all the more poignant and topical.

  • In an earlier work, the performance and video, A Needle Woman - Kitakyushu (1999), Kimsooja lies on a rock formation in the Japanese city of Kitakyushu. It is an extremely minimalist image: heaven and earth and a woman lying on top of a rock formation, forming the line that divides the two. Kitakyushu is an industrial city in western Japan, with a million inhabitants. In the 1960s, the city had a bad reputation because of air pollution, but today, the recycling and water purification techniques that are employed there are now being adopted as a model for other major Japanese cities. It is a strange anachronism that in the video, Kitakyushu is only represented in an image of the nature present in the tattered margins of the city. The earth and the air, however, appear as universal eminences, as Yin and Yang, the dynamic powers from the natural world, as we know them from classic Chinese science and philosophy. As Kimsooja explains, 'When I was invited to make a new commissioned work at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Kitakyushu, Japan, I thought I would do a performance piece – one in the city of Tokyo, and the other one in nature. Then I would juxtapose them together. This was to examine how my body reacts and defines, in relationship to the given environmental conditions that are the human being and nature. As a result, one was standing still in the middle of a crowd, while the other was lying down on a rock, facing nature. Verticality and horizontality were a metaphor for a dynamic balance between urban and natural forces.' [11]

  • In the West, people are sometimes inclined to identify Yin and Yang in terms of opposite ideas of good and bad, but the essence of Taoist philosophy is not to think in terms of the opposites of moral judgments, but from the idea of a balance. It is primarily this spiritual principle that is deeply anchored in Kimsooja's work and is a determining factor for her perspective of nature and landscape – being present, being absent, as actively as possible, so that a black hole is created that attracts all meaning towards itself. As an artist, one becomes a mirror of the complexity of the universe, facing the viewer. In this, Kimsooja is a master.

Notes:

[1] Cities on the Move, travelling exhibition (1997-1999), successively in Vienna; CACP Bordeaux; PS1 New York; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek Denmark; Hayward Gallery London; Bangkok (various locations across the city); Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki. > return to article >
[2] Kimsooja took part in the first edition of the Kwangju Biennial (1995) and Manifesta (1996), as well as Istanbul Biennial (1997), São Paulo Biennial (1998), the Venice Biennial (1999, 2001, 2005, 2007), Tapei Biennial (2000), Busan Biennial (2002), Whitney Biennial (2002), Yokoyama Triennial (2005) and recently, the Thessaloniki Biennial (2009) and the Moscow Biennial (2009). > return to article >
[3] Olivia Sand, 'An interview with Kimsooja', Asian Art Newspaper, May 2006. > return to article >
[4] 'Although I've been in many of these international events, and have had both positive and negative experiences, in general the international Biennials scene shows very little respect for art and artists. They seem to focus more and more on the power structure of the art world, and their specific political alliances with the artists and institutions, rather than the quality of the work and its meaning,' in Petra Kaps, 'Kimsooja – A One-Word Name is An Anarchist's Name', interview, 2006, published on Kimsooja's website: www.kimsooja.com. > return to article >
[5] The concept of 'relational aesthetics' was coined by the French curator and theorist, Nicolas Bourriaud. In the late 1990s, he used this term to try to categorize a certain type of art and artists, 'a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space'. The term was first used in the catalogue for the exhibition, Traffic, at the CACP in Bordeaux, which was curated by Bourriaud and included such artists as Maurizio Cattelan, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Liam Gillick, Carsten Holler, Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno, Jorg Pardo and Rirkrit Tiravanija. They have historically become model examples of relational aesthetics. See also, Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon, Les presses du réel, 2002. > return to article >
[6] From an interview with Nicolas Bourriaud in Kimsooja: Conditions of Humanity, exhibition catalogue, Contemporary Art Museum, Lyon, 2003. The quote continues: 'Most people approach reality from analysis or "from language to colligation" which is the "truth", but I am proposing a "colligation to be analyzed" by audiences.' > return to article >
[7] Ibid. Kimsooja's response was, 'It would be unfortunate if the Western art world considered Eastern thought as a decor for Western aesthetic investigation – as if it were another element to add without noticing the fact that it is a way – in the process of making art. It is always there, as a dialectic, in all basic phenomena of art and life together. Eastern thought often functions in a passive and reserved way of expression, usually invisible, nonverbal, indirect, disguised, and immaterial. Western thought functions more with identity, controversy, gravity, construction in general, rather than deconstruction, and material rather than immaterial, compared to Eastern thought. The process finally becomes the awareness and necessity of the presence of both in contemporary art. It is the Yin and Yang, a co-existence that endlessly transforms and enriches.' > return to article >
[8] Olivia María Rubio, 'An interview with Kimsooja', Art and Context, summer 2006. > return to article >
[9] Interview with the artist by the author, November 2010. > return to article >
[10] The piece was originally created for and commissioned by the Lanzarote Biennale and Atelier Hermes in Seoul. > return to article >
[11] Op. cit, note 9. > return to article >

The Heaven and the Earth, 1984, Used clothing fragments, acrylics, Chinese ink on canvas cloth, 190 x 200 cm

Kimsooja: Contemplation on top of the Horizontal and Vertical System

Suh, Younghee

2011

  • 김수자

  • 수평-수직 체계 위에서의 사유

  • 서영희 (미술평론, 홍익대교수)

  • 수평과 수직, 구조, 상징

  • When the vertical and the horizontal meet, they form a cross. As they come together as a cross, harmony comes forth in a relation of interdependence. Even when seeing the horizontal line and the vertical line separately, we easily conjure up their intersection. From the early ages of primitive culture or ancient culture, the repetition or rearrangements of the horizontal and vertical lines were used as signs for arithmetic, or further as symbolic signs for communication and letters. The cross being formed as a result of the perpendicular intersection was considered a sign of perfection, more so than the square composed of two sets of equally measured horizontal lines and vertical lines, particularly because of the conception that its centripetal force was greater. The ┼ even when turned over to an ╳ was regarded as a sign of perfection that displayed harmony and completion. This is why the ancient Latins devised to write ╳ after the number nine, and the ancient Chinese also used ┼ as their sign for ten. The human body as a measure of the world is also in the form of a cross. The human limbs and organs are structured centripetally: the body with arms spread and legs together form ┼, and the copy of the human body drawn by Vitruvius in AD 1st century and later again by Leonardo da Vinci forms an ╳ with all the limbs spread apart. Furthermore, the cross symbolically signified the connection between the heavens - the world of the gods - and earth. Considered as a connection between the transcendental world and the secular world, the intersection of the horizontal line and the vertical line is also called the 'world's axis.' Let us look at the cross in Christianity and the swastika(卍) in Buddhism. The former signifies the tribulations on earth and glory in heaven and the latter refers to the cosmic symbol of the connection of heaven and earth; both imply psychological healing as well as religious salvation. Thus in Western culture, the cathedral - the dwelling place of God - had as its basis the floor plan of a cross as well as the cruciform vault, and the mandala in Hinduism and Buddhism had as its basic structure the cross intersection of the horizontal and the vertical, symbolizing the order of the cosmos that pointed towards the heavens and the earth. The cross structure, divided into four areas of the upper-lower hemispheres and the left-right hemispheres, also symbolized the different aspects of a human being: the cognitive and sensory, the intuitive and affective. One can find both in the Confucianist Book of Changes and in Buddhism that the four directions in the horizontal-vertical intersection symbolize the cosmic order formed by water, earth, fire and wind. As is well known, the Korean vowels also make use of the horizontal and vertical lines: ㅡ as earth, ㅣas the sky, and the middle dot as the human.

  • The horizontal-vertical form frequently appears in art as well. From the primitive arts to contemporary, from decorative art to fine art, the horizontal-vertical lines generally appears as signs that signify the universe and man. When looking at ancient art and primitive artifacts, one frequently finds horizontal-vertical intersections, cross structures, and grids on murals, ceramics, textile and basket weaving, etc. As explicated in art psychology, this phenomenon may be derived from the human effort to control and impute order upon a world, or nature, that is otherwise too vast and unpredictable. Wilhelm Worringer, too, explains the horizontal-vertical structure in his 'Abstraction and Empathy' as an order standing in contrast to the disorder of nature. Commentaries on abstract art generally mention Cezanne's attitude that reorganized nature into a sturdy order of geometry as well as the geometric abstraction of Kandinsky and Mondrian's horizontal-vertical system and Klee's hieroglyph-like symbol paintings as a way to elucidate that the context of the horizontal-vertical system is the expression of the abstract painters' worldview. This form of argument, taking the form of structuralist epistemology, argues that the horizontal-vertical structure perceived as a symbol of man and the universe has been generally inherited in artists from the primitive ages to contemporary times (i.e., ranging from the grid work in minimalist paintings to cross-like shaped-canvas). The cross as an intersection of the horizontal and vertical lines is an extremely condensed sign, implying with the lines' directions all five senses of humans, inner psychology and even spiritual content, thus rendering inevitable to admit that the artist's faculty for abstraction operates in tandem. The anthropologist Levi-Strauss, having been much interested in art, explains in his "Elementary Structures of Kinship" that the basic structure of dichotomy that formed an internal relation of interdependence is effectively at work in various cultures and arts, an argument aided by the Saussurean intersection of the diachronic and synchronic (horizontal and vertical, respectively) axes.

  • Kimsooja, the subject of this article, is surely a painter, though she does not paint on the canvas. Instead, she is an artist who takes as her premise the horizontal-vertical structure as a general order for the world and mankind, further expressing this premise by coupling it with metaphysical thought. In this respect, the works of Kim is an interesting metaphor on the world, her series a continuous metonymy on the horizontal-vertical structure. The meditation on the basic structure of the horizontal and the vertical is consistently in effect as the logic and archetype of her production, manifested from the fabric-weaving series, "Sewing," through "Deductive Objet" all the way to the "Needle Woman" series and "Earth, Water, Fire, Air" series. In this respect, it is important to remember that the artist herself has repeatedly mentioned in interviews – and especially in her master's thesis, "A Study on the Universality and Hereditariness of the Plastic Sign: A Focus on the Cruciform Sign (1984)" –that, like the Eastern yin and yang, the binary structure of the horizontal and vertical is the fundamental system which encompasses and composes the world. This article intends to examine, albeit briefly, the transition of Kim's thought from canvas to fabric as well as how the horizontal and vertical lines and their cruciform intersection are actualized in her work.

The Transition of Thought I: From Canvas to Fabric

  • For Kim, the tools for expression are no longer limited to the canvas, paint and brush. The flat surface and rectangular stretcher of the canvas is but a tool for representation, whether concrete or abstract, a rigid device that in inapt to take the place of the free flow of thought. Thus the artist selects from fabric, a flexible material among the components of the canvas. The "Sewing" series (1983-1988), the first work with fabric, brought forth works of indeterminate forms, sewing together various scraps of fabric. If one would insist on calling these pictorial art, would it be considered a kind of Color Field abstractionism? But in contrast to the hard-edge or Color Field paintings of 70s America, one does not find the homogeneity of the color surface or a precisely cut contour. Rather, the different scraps of fabric, varying in size and stained with traces of drawing, are connected without being tidied up – their surfaces rugged, edges irregular and seams tattered. In place of an artist's will for perfection, the materiality proper to fabric is wholly accentuated. Even still, this should not be categorized under a kind of Dadaist act of choosing anti-aesthetic objets or a tendency for conceptual art. Fabric and sewing is Kim's subject matter by which she expresses the world of humans like herself–entangled, knotted, and contemplating the fundamental structures of the world. Pieces of fabric are linked both horizontally and vertically, sewn in a manner that is interdependent and mutually supportive. As a result, the fact that the 'woven' scraps sustain a horizontal-vertical structure without sagging down despite the disappearance of the stretcher is called to our attention. Replacing the wooden stretcher, the source of the tautness that pulls the fabric is the relational device, that is, the 'countless stitches of sewing.' Thus is the support that holds the balance between gravity and the pieces of fabric.

  • Here, I would like to mention the source by which the work's order is formed: the binary structure between the tension of the needlework and the flexibility of the fabric. It is often regarded as merely coincidental this appearance of the working with sewn fabric pieces. As the artist repeatedly mentioned, this method suddenly crossed her mind in 1983 as she was tacking up the duvet cover with her mother. This anecdote is well known through various writings, but I reference it once more, for it offers a clue to the embarking of the artist's distinct art world: "In the quotidian act of tacking up bed sheets with my mother, I experienced an intimate yet wonderful sense of unity of my thoughts, sensibilities and actions. I found the possibility to contain such abundance of memory and pain, even the affection for life in that unity. The weaving of the weft and warp as a basic structure of the fabric, our primordial sense of color in our fabrics, the self-identification with fabric in the act of weaving through flat surface, and the strange nostalgia evoked in it… all of this was entirely mesmerizing." (The Artist's Notes, 1988 Gallery Hyundai) Later the artist reminisces this experience, remarking that the moment she tacks the pointy needle into the fabric, she feels the energy of the universe penetrating her entire body. This astounding anecdote on a rather serendipitous experience would be repeated in every of her interviews, becoming a clue that renews our awareness to what the archetype of her work is.

  • I would like to interpret the 'moment she tacks the point needle' into the duvet cover spread across the floor as a ground breaking moment of penetrating the surface screen of pictorial art that persisted for several hundred years. Like the Spatialist painter Lucio Fontana who pierced the uni-colored canvas with a sharped-edged dagger, Kim also realized pictorial art that was no longer a screen of illusion but a three-dimensional structure as she weaved through the surface of the duvet cover, piercing holes into it. What is of particular importance here is the perpendicular penetration of the needle into the sheets horizontally spread on the floor. This three-dimensional relation between horizontality and verticality is thought to be a decisive opportunity for Kim - only familiar with the illusion of the surface - to identify the reality of painting, or the hidden structure of the canvas. For some time, pictorial art has been identified as a conceptual representation of the illusion created by the screen of paint covering the canvas surface. But once the shift in thought takes place where the signifiers, or the structural elements – the materiality of color, the fabric of the canvas, the wooden stretcher that supports the screen – is thought to define the meaning of painting, the modernist equation of 'painting = flat, rectangular screen' is also rendered null. Further more, when one stretches the canvas or the bed sheets, it sees that they are also products of the horizontal-vertical system where threads are intersecting. When Kim decided to suspend the bed sheets in the exhibition center for the audience to be able to see both sides of the fabric, this method of installation was of particular importance in terms of confirming the three-dimensionality and spatial topology of fabric.

Transition of Thought II: From Sewing to Deductive Objet to Bottari

  • In any occasion of the "Sewing" series, one is able to find sewn horizontal-vertical joints. Taking "Heaven and Earth (1984)" has a representative example, the work is of a horizontal-vertical structure formed by sewing various-sized square fabric pieces. The contour is also in the form of a cross. Here we find the horizontal-vertical system, frequently encountered in the history of cultural anthropology, appearing as an component sign of the universe and the archetype of production. Other works such as "Earth," "Your Portrait," and "Wall" repeatedly display the cruciform sign, and one recognizes that this is a binary composition of the horizontal-vertical signifying the yin and yang. Around 1989, the "Deductive Objet" appears. This second series is significant in that it marks a transition from surface work to three-dimensional work. Composed of works that covers or wraps curios or everyday objects with fabric, this series is of the flexibility of fabric added to the rigidity of the objet. If the previous work was an inductive production where the needlework that gave fabric tension gradually worked towards completing a form, this series worked oppositely. The artist given from the beginning an objet already structured in a horizontal-vertical manner, then she works deductively to reveal its original form by wrapping fabric around it. The motivation behind this way of production, also known through interviews, was the allure of the plain and clear structural beauty inherent in antique articles like the carrier(ji-gae), the sliding door frame, the spool, the shuttle, the clotheshorse, the ladder, all that evoked old memories. Coincidentally enough, these everyday articles each form a horizontal-vertical structure. The simple geometric structural beauty found in the deductive objets of the laid carrier or the doorframe and the trapezoidal ladder – it is not so different from the horizontal-vertical mosaic structure found in the "Sewing" series. It may be considered different because of the shift from surface structure to three-dimensional structure and the changes in material, but the structural systems are equivalent between both series; one can say that thought made the transition from the plane geometry of the x-y axis to the solid geometry of the xyz axis where depth is added. "Untitled (1991)" a work where a large circular steel rim used by gymnasts covered by fabric may not seem like a horizontal-vertical structure. But if were to imagine this round three-dimensional objet that rolls through space to be spread out on surface, the horizontal-vertical structure of a long, narrow ladder is conjured.

  • When we notice that the rigid objet is the wooden support for the canvas and the tautly stretched canvas is the surface, the inference that this is another adaptation of the structural deconstruction of the canvas is possible. Before we go too far, it is necessary that we compare this with the analytic experimental painting movement, Supports/Surfaces, that took place in 70s France. Starting from a point of self-criticism on paintings, the artists of Supports/Surfaces revealed the very structure of the canvas in an effort based on structural epistemology to break away from the superior ideas in pictorial art, making various objets of binary oppositions by considering fabric and wood as signifiers that made meaning. It is difficult to know at the moment how much of this profound process Kim consulted, but a critical discourse that objectively reveals their inter-relation seems like a significant attempt to be made at another opportunity.

  • At any rate, the "deductive objet" series, formed from three-dimensional structures, also has a site-specific characteristic in that it acquires meaning when it is installed in a particular location. For example, cloths hung on the walls or those stacked on the floor of the exhibition hall can only form meaning by covering that particulate site called the exhibition hall. Needless to say, the hard wall and floor stand in binary opposite to the soft pieces of fabric, following the production archetype of horizontal-vertical. Rocks in nature and multifarious pieces of fabric in "Lying in Nature," which took place in the valleys of Oksan Seowon in Kyungju, and the table and bed sheets in the "Deductive objets", in which they are used as tablecloths in cafeteria and restaurant of Biennale, are another cases that they leave the exhibition halls and become reinstalled in the specific sites of nature and the city, realizing the horizontal-vertical system by covering the given structure with cloth. The "deductive objet" I found most interesting was "Encounter, Seeing through Sewing"(1998-2002). The artist's body, upright, is none but the pointed needle, and the multi-colored pieces of cloth stacked on top of her head are that bed sheets right on the verge of being pierced. The issue concerning the Korean woman's identity from the viewpoint of general feminism at the sight of the new bride, both beautiful and doleful wrapped around in multi-colored fabric, is one to be dealt elsewhere. Here, we want to take a step away from feminism and first take on the interpretive project of inferring the more fundamental structural production archetype of the horizontal and vertical.

  • Following the "Deductive Objet," the "Bottari" series, birthed in the PS1 studio in New York, is considered to be the case where the artist's thoughts transition from surface to three-dimensionality, then to location, then finally into another space. An everyday object consisting of wrapping cloth (bojagi) and miscellaneous contents, the bottari is associated with the nomadic origins of the Korean people, the moving customs of the commoner as well as the nomadic memories of the artist's childhood. Here, let us attend to the three-dimensional structure that the artist must have had to consider when wrapping the bottari each time. First, the act of taking four corners of the cloth and tying them together: The flat cloth is born into three-dimensional bottari only after the four corners of the cloth are gathered to the corner of the content and knotted cross-wise. The knot formed here is balanced only when the corners cross at right angles, and thus gives form to a proper bottari. If not, the knot of the bottari loses balance and the content inside becomes unpleasantly disfigured as if organs were spilling out. The most important moment in the transformation of the cloth into bottari (bojagi into bottari) is when the four corners of the cloth come together to form a horizontal-vertical cruciform. Anyone who has tied a bojagi would understand the important of this moment. One repeatedly ties and unties the knot to check the balance of the horizontal-vertical knot structure, also making sure with his eyes whether the bottari has enough tension to stay parallel to the ground. Only after this final inspect can we pick up the bottari and take our steps in movement.

  • As the "Bottari" series is where Kim was able to establish her reputation as an international artist, its significance is noteworthy. The rectangular surface structure of the canvas turned into a variable form of three-dimensional structure, and from the screen where the image was permanently uncovered, into a structure where revealing/concealing, opening/closing are repeated through the untying/tying of the bottari, also possessing a kind of spontaneity where revealing/concealing co-exist through glimpses of cloths caught between the gaps in the bottari. On the other hand, the force of the bojagi that adds tension by tightly tying otherwise loosely sprawled fabric is nothing but the equivalent of the stretcher of the canvas, the needlework of the bed sheets, the objets that conferred formed onto multifarious pieces of fabric, each imposing tension. Put in a different location at every turn, the bottari is a vertical structure moving parallel along the horizon as well as an objet that actively communicates with its spectators with the splendid display of Eastern color and distinct ethnic presence in its space.

  • Time and space of the horizontal and the vertical
    The place where the flowing universe and the mind stays

  • After "Wandering Cities – the Bottari Truck 2727km" in 1997, Kim presents the "Needle Woman" series and "The Laundering Woman" series consecutively. As if to weave different regions by riding the bottari truck through local highways and mountain roads, this time Kim becomes the needle (vertical axis) herself and passes through cities all over the world and throngs of people (horizontal axis), going beyond time and space to connect memory and experience as one. The artist always appears with her back against us, her long hair tightly tied, and we see in her surrounding crowds of people of various physiques and skin color passing her by in waves. But it is difficult to discern whether it is the artist who passes through the city dwellers all over the world or the other way around. When we look at water flowing, we are confused about whether we are flowing or the water. Such confusion of consciousness gives a sudden realization that whether it is the other or I that move, the logic of flowing remains the same. This brings to mind the Buddhist account that says beyond the uncertainty of human perception, all things flow and change and there is no immutable substance. The Avatamska Sutra also states that the agent of the flowing external world is one's mind. So the Needle Woman, standing still and looking at the waves of people, or the river with particles of a cremated body floating, seems to be a sign representing both the ever-renewing universe and the condition of the mind prone to change in an instant. Also, where the sky meets the earth, i.e. the horizon, the body of the artist lies at an angle with her limbs stretched horizontally. In this case the Needle Woman lies on flat ground, but in relation to the soaring mountains, trees and buildings, or even people moving around upright, her body lies at right angles. Thus it becomes relative which is horizontal and which is vertical. When one turns upside down and looks at the world, it is the world that seems turned upside down. The "Earth, Water, Fire, Air" series, her most recent work, displays the every changing landscapes of nature with 7-8 large projects installed depending on the kind of exhibition space. From Lanzarote Island in Spain and Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala, the artist recorded footage of lava erupting and solidifying, the crashing waves of the oceans and wet fog, the clouds and win, the movement of the earth and sand, and from Greenland she captured footage of glaciers – such video footage puts the spectator before the massive force of primordial nature. The artist is nowhere to be seen, but because the very viewpoint that captured the panoramic vision of nature is projected on the screen, the artist is beyond the boundaries of presence and absence. Flowing scenes of the 'Earth, Water, Fire, Air' are projected on all the walls, and the spectator who stands in the middle of the exhibition hall feels as the vertical axis, feeling as though all things in nature are continuously flowing.

  • In Buddhism, when referring to the human being, one speaks of the Five Elements: the material element of body, the spiritual elements of sentiment, imagination, volition and judgement. One can argue that in this work the artist is absent, for she is condensed into invisible spiritual elements. But because the four basic components of the material element of body are 'Earth, Water, Fire, Air', it can also be said that through the landscape of 'Earth, Water, Fire, Air', the artist and the rest of human existence is presence as a metaphor. Like the ancient Greek materialist Heraclitus argued, is not the human body born already composed of the four elements of earth, water, fire and wind, only to decompose back to the four, into nature? Then the images of nature in "Earth, Water, Fire, Air" may be like the image before a human's formation as well as the image it will return to according to the cycle of disappearance. Thus "Earth, Water, Fire, Air" series is, as mentioned in the artist's interview in February 2010, a meditative work where "questions of the unity of nature and mankind are posed." Furthermore, this serendipitous spark is that which confers the dynamism of life upon the cycle of the four elements, that is, 'Earth, Water, Fire, Air' in which earth becomes water, water becomes fire and fire becomes air; it is a spark that happens at the very moment the vertical spirit (mind or soul) intersects, fixed upright like the needle.

  • 수평선과 수직선이 서로 만나면 십자형이 된다. 이 두 선들은 종횡으로 엇갈려 십자형을 구성함으로서 서로에게 없어서 안 되는 상호 보족의 관계를 이루고 균형을 잡는다. 설혹 수평선과 수직선이 떨어져 있더라도, 우리는 이 둘을 잇는 십자형을 쉽게 머리에 떠올리게 된다. 일찍이 원시문화나 고대문화에서도 수평선과 수직선을 반복하거나 위치를 조정함으로서 셈을 세는 기호 혹은 메시지를 전하는 상징기호 나아가 문자로 사용했다. 특히 이 두 선들이 중앙에서 직각으로 마주친 십자형은 동일한 길이의 두 수평선과 두 수직선이 네 개의 직각을 이룬 정사각형보다 중앙집중의 힘이 강하다 하여 한층 더 완벽한 기호로 여겼다고 한다. 심지어 ┼형 구조가 기울어져 ╳형 구조로 되어도 균형과 완성을 상징하는 완벽한 기호로 본다. 그래서 고대 라틴인은 마지막 숫자 아홉 다음에 완성을 뜻하는 숫자로 ╳형을, 고대 중국인도 열 십자를 ┼형으로 그렸다. 또한 세상의 척도로서 인체도 십자형이다. 인체는 사지와 장기가 중심을 향하는 형태로 구성되어, 양 팔을 펴고 두 발을 모으고 있는 사람의 형태는 ┼형이며, AD1세기의 비트루비우스가 그렸고 후에 레오나르도 다빈치가 모사한 인체도는 사지를 벌려 ╳형을 이룬다.

  • 뿐만 아니라 십자형은 신들의 세계인 하늘과 땅을 연결한다는 상징적 의미도 있다. 수평과 수직의 만남을 초월적 세계와 세속적 세계의 연결로 간주해 '세계의 축'이라 부르기도 한다. 기독교의 십자가와 불교의 만(卍)자 기호를 보자. 전자는 지상의 수난과 천상의 영광을, 후자는 천지 연결을 뜻하는 우주적 상징으로, 둘 다 심리적 치유와 종교적 구원을 암시한다. 그래서 서양에서는 신의 거처인 성당을 건축할 때 십자형 도면과 십자형 교차궁륭이 기본이고, 힌두교, 불교의 만다라에서는 수평과 수직이 교차하는 십자형을 기본골격으로 삼되 이를 하늘과 땅을 가리키는 우주질서의 상징으로 보는 것이다. 상반구와 하반구, 그리고 좌반구와 우반구, 네 개의 영역을 나누는 십자형 구조를 토대로 사고와 감각, 직관과 감정으로 구분해서 인간의 격을 상징하기도 한다. 유교 주역과 불교에서는 수평-수직의 네 방위를 물, 흙, 불, 바람의 네 가지 원소로 상징하여 우주적 질서를 나타낸 것을 볼 수 있다. 잘 알고 있듯이 한글 모음도 수평선, 수직선을 이용하여 땅은 ᅳ로, 하늘은 ㅣ로 그리고 인간은 가운데 점으로 상징해서 구성된 체계이다.

  • 미술에서도 수평과 수직의 형태는 자주 등장한다. 원시미술에서부터 현대미술에 이르기까지, 장식미술에서든 순수미술에서든, 수평선과 수직선은 보편적으로 우주와 인간을 상징하는 기호로 나타난다. 고대미술과 원시공예품을 살펴보면, 수평-수직선, 십자형, 격자무늬가 벽화, 도자기화, 섬유직조, 바구니엮기 등에서 빈번하게 발견이 된다. 이는 예술심리학에서 설명하듯이 인간이 광대하고 예측불가능한 세계 내지는 자연에의 불안을 통제하고 그것에 질서를 부여하려는 의도에서 파생된 결과라고 할 수 있다. 현대에 이르러 W. 보링거의 '추상과 감정이입'에 관한 이론도 무질서한 자연에 대립한 질서로서 수평, 수직의 구조를 밝힌 바 있다. 일반적으로 추상미술과 관련한 해설들은 세잔이 자연을 견고한 기하학적 질서로 재조직한 태도를 언급하며, 나아가 칸딘스키와 몬드리안의 수직, 수평 시스템의 기하추상 그리고 클레의 기호회화를 해명하면서 수평-수직 체계의 맥락을 추상화가들의 세계관 표현이라고 설명하곤 한다. 구조주의적 인식방법을 취한 이 같은 논의는 한마디로 인간과 우주의 상징으로 인식된 수직, 수평의 구조가 원시시대부터 현대-이를테면 미니멀 회화의 격자구조나 십자형 셰이프트캔버스에 이르기까지, 미술가들 사이에 보편적으로 유전되어 왔음을 주장하게 한다. 수평선과 수직선이 교차한 십자형은 고도로 축약된 기호이며, 두 선들이 가리키는 방향에 따라 인간의 오감과 내면 심리, 정신적 내용까지 함축하므로, 미술가의 추상재능도 더불어 작동된다는 사실을 인정할 수밖에 없다. 예술에도 관심이 많았던 인류학자 레비-스트로스도 "친족관계의 기본단위"에서, 소쉬르의 공시축-통시축 즉 수평-수직의 교차하는 두 축을 토대로, 내적으로 의존관계를 맺는 이원대립의 기본구조 dichotomie가 여러 문화, 예술영역에서도 공통으로 유효한 작동인임을 가리킨 적이 있다.

  • 이 글에서 조명하려는 김수자는 화가이면서도 캔버스 화면 위에 그림을 그리지 않는다. 대신 인간을 비롯한 세계를 수평-수직 구조란 보편적 질서로 상정하고 이를 형이상학적 사유와 연동시켜 표현하는 작가이다. 그런 점에서 김수자의 작품은 세계에 대한 흥미로운 은유이고, 연작들은 수평-수직 구조에 대한 환유의 연속이라고 볼 수 있을 것이다. 실제로 수평, 수직의 기본구조에 대한 사유는 그의 천을 꿰매는 바느질 작업-"꿰매기 연작"-에서부터 출발하여 이후 "연역적 오브제" 연작을 거쳐 "바늘여인" 연작 그리고 최근의 "지수화풍 地水火風" 연작에 이르기까지, 일관된 작업논리 내지는 제작원형으로 작용하는 것이다. 이와 관련하여 작가는 수차례 인터뷰에서 특히 자신의 석사논문(<조형기호의 보편성과 유전성에 관한 고찰, 십자형 기호를 중심으로> 1984)에서 수평, 수직의 이원적 구조가 동양의 음양론과 마찬가지로 세계를 포괄하고 구성하는 근본체계임을 암시하거나 설명했음을 상기할 필요가 있다. 이 글에서는 작가의 사유가 어떻게 캔버스 화면에서 천 작업으로 이동하는지 그리고 수평선과 수직선 그리고 두 선의 연결인 십자형이 작가의 작품에서 어떻게 구체화되어 나타나는지를 간략하게나마 살펴보고자 한다.

사유의 이동 I : 캔버스에서 천으로

  • 김수자에게 있어 표현의 도구는 더 이상 캔버스와 물감 그리고 붓이 아니다. 그에게 있어 캔버스의 평평한 면과 사각 틀은 구상, 추상을 불문한 재현의 도구일 뿐이고 너무 딱딱한 장치여서, 자유로운 사유의 흐름을 대신하기에는 전혀 적합하지가 않다. 그래서 작가는 캔버스의 구성요소들 중 하나인 유연한 소재, 천을 선택했다. 최초의 천작업인 "꿰매기" 연작(1983-1988)은 각양각색의 천 조각들을 바느질로 연결하여 부정형의 외현을 갖는 작품들을 등장시켰다. 이들을 굳이 회화라고 부른다면, 색면추상이라고 할까? 하지만 1970년대 미국의 하드에지나 컬러필드 회화와는 정반대로, 여기서는 균질의 평평한 색면이나 자른 듯 선명한 윤곽은 찾아볼 수가 없다. 오히려 드로잉 흔적으로 얼룩진 크고 작은 헝겊조각들이 다소 울퉁불퉁한 표면을 보이며 연결되어 있고, 테두리는 불규칙하며 너덜대는 실밥들이 정돈되지 않은 채 붙어있다. 완성을 향한 작가의 의지보다는 재료인 천의 고유한 물질성이 전면으로 부각되어 있다. 그렇다고 해서 이를 다다이스트 같은 반미학적 오브제 선택이라든가 혹은 포괄적인 개념미술의 성향이라고 분류하지는 않겠다. 그가 고른 천과 바느질은 세계의 근본적 구조를 관조하고 그 안에서 살아가는 자기 자신처럼 얽히고 설킨 인간 세계를 표현하기 위해 선별된 소재들이다. 사각형으로 자른 천들을 수평과 수직 방향으로 잇대어 놓고 바느질로 연결하여 서로를 기대고 부축하게 하고 있다. 그래서 주목되는 것은 캔버스의 딱딱한 나무틀이 사라졌음에도 불구하고 ‘꿰매어진’ 천들은 밑으로 늘어지지 않고 수평-수직 구조를 유지한다는 사실이다. 천을 잡아당기는 팽팽한 긴장감의 근원은 나무틀을 대신한 관계의 장치 즉 '바느질의 무수한 땀들'이다. 이들이 조각천과 중력 사이의 균형을 이루게 하는 근거이다.

  • 여기서 필자는 작품의 질서를 형성하는 원천인 긴장된 바느질과 유연한 천의 이원적 구조에 대해 언급하고자 한다. 바느질한 천 작업의 발생은 우연히 이루어진 것으로 설명된다. 작가가 여러 차례 말했듯이, 1983년 어느 날 어머니와 함께 이불보를 시침하면서, 불현듯 깨닫게 된 작업방식이다. 이 일화는 그 동안 여러 글들을 통해 잘 알려진 내용이긴 하지만, 작가의 고유한 작품세계의 출발을 알리는 단초가 되므로 다시 인용한다 : “어머니와 함께 이불을 꿰매는 일상적인 행위 속에서 나의 사고와 감수성과 행위가 모두 일치하는 은밀하고도 놀라운 일체감을 체험했으며, 묻어두었던 그 숱한 기억들과 아픔, 삶의 애정까지도 그 안에 내포할 수 있는 가능성을 발견하게 되었다. 천이 갖는 기본구조로서의 날실과 씨실, 우리 천의 원초적인 색감, 평면을 넘나들며 꿰매는 행위의 천과의 자기동일성, 그리고 그것이 불러일으키는 묘한 향수... 이 모든 것들에 나 자신은 완전 매료되었다” (<작가노트>, 현대화랑, 1988). 훗날 작가는 이 경험을 다시 회상하며, 천에 뾰족한 바늘을 꽂는 순간 갑자기 온 몸을 관통하는 우주의 에너지를 느꼈다고 말한다. 이 우연한 경험의 놀라운 일화는 이후 그가 인터뷰할 때마다 반복되는 내용으로서, 그의 작업의 원형이 무엇인지 새삼 환기시켜주는 단서가 된다.

  • 작가가 방바닥에 펼쳐진 이불보 천위에 '뾰족한 바늘을 꽂는 순간'을 필자는 수 백 년 동안 지속된 회화의 평면 스크린을 꿰뚫는 획기적인 순간이라고 바꾸어 해석하고 싶다. 일찍이 단색만 칠한 캔버스를 예리한 칼로 찢고 구멍을 내었던 공간주의 화가 루치오 폰타나처럼, 그도 이불보 표면을 바늘로 넘나들어 구멍을 내면서, 회화를 더 이상 일루전의 스크린이 아닌 입체 구조물의 존재로 깨닫게 된 것이다. 특히 여기서 주목할 점은 수직의 바늘이 수평으로 펼쳐진 이불보의 천을 관통해 나가는 장면이다. 이 3차원의 수평과 수직의 관계는 평면 일루전에만 익숙했던 작가에게 회화의 실체 즉 은폐됐던 캔버스의 구조를 확인시키는 결정적 계기였다고 생각된다. 그 동안 회화는 불투명한 스크린 위에 그려진 물감의 막, 그 환영들의 관념적인 재현 내용으로 정의되곤 했었다. 하지만 환영 아래에 감춰져 있던 회화의 기표들 즉 색물감, 캔버스의 천, 그리고 나무틀 같이 화면을 지지하던 구조요소들이 곧 회화의 의미를 결정한다는 사고 전환을 이룬다면, '회화 = 사각형의 평평한 화면'이란 모더니스트 공식은 무의미해질 수밖에 없다. 또한 캔버스나 이불보를 확대해보면, 틈새가 있는 날실과 씨실로 직조된 구조물임이 드러나서, 이들도 실상 상호 교차하는 두 실들로 이뤄진 수평-수직 체계의 결과물임을 알 수 있다. 후일 그가 이불보들을 전시장 공간에 매달아 천의 앞면과 뒷면을 동시에 볼 수 있도록 한 설치법 역시 천의 입체적 구조와 공간적 위상을 증명한 이벤트였다고 생각된다.

사유의 이동 II : 바느질에서 연역적 오브제로 그리고 보따리로

  • 바느질로 완성되는 "꿰매기" 연작 작품들은 어느 경우이든 바느질로 연결된 수평-수직의 이음새들을 볼 수 있다. <하늘과 땅>(1984)이 대표적 예로, 상이한 크기의 사각형 헝겊들이 바느질에 의해 수평-수직 구조로 연결되어 있으며, 외형의 윤곽마저도 수평선과 수직선이 만나는 십자형을 이루고 있다. 인류문화사에서 보편적으로 마주칠 수 있는 수평-수직의 체계가 여기서도 우주구성의 기호로서 그리고 제작의 원형으로서 등장하고 있는 것이다. 그 외의 작품들, <대지>>, <너의 초상>, <벽>에서도 변형된 십자형 기호를 거듭 마주칠 수 있으며, 음양을 상징한 수평-수직의 이원구성임을 발견하게 된다. 1989년 즈음하여 "연역적 오브제"가 등장한다. 이 두 번째 연작은 평면 작업에서 입체 작업으로 옮아갔다는 점에서 의의를 찾을 수 있다. 오래된 골동 집기나 일상 물품을 천으로 감싸거나 덮는 이 작업은 딱딱한 골격의 오브제에 부드럽고 유연한 천이 덧붙여진 상황이다. 앞서 천에 긴장된 힘을 주던 바느질 작업이 차츰 형태를 완성해내는 귀납법식 제작이었다면, 이번에는 그 반대의 상황이 벌어진다. 처음부터 수평-수직 형태의 골격을 이룬 오브제가 주어지고 그 위에 천을 감싸서 본래 주어진 모양을 드러내는 연역법의 제작인 것이다. 제작 동기는 작가의 인터뷰를 통해 알려졌듯이, 오랜 기억을 되살리는 기물들인 지게, 창호지문틀, 얼레와 북, 빨래걸이, 사다리 등에 내재된 단순명료한 구조미에 매혹되었기 때문이다. 이 일상적 사물들은 아닌게 아니라 가만히 들여다보면, 뜻 밖에도 수평-수직의 구조를 이루고 있다. 땅바닥에 드러누운 지게의 연역적 오브제나 사각형 문틀 그리고 위로 갈수록 폭이 좁아지는 이등변 사각형의 사다리 등 그 단순한 기하학적 구조미는 '바느질' 연작에서 볼 수 있던 수평-수직의 모자이크식 구조미와 크게 다를 바 없다. 평면구조에서 입체구조로 바뀌고 재료가 달라서 이질적이랄 수 있겠지만, 구조의 체제는 등가여서, 마치 xy축의 평면기하학에서 공간의 깊이를 더한 xyz축의 입체기하학으로 사유의 이동을 했다고 말할 수 있다. 체조선수들이 사용하는 커다란 원형 강철 테에 천을 입힌 작품(<무제> 1991)은 수평-수직 구조가 아닌 것 같이 보인다. 하지만 공간을 가로질러 굴러갈 수 있는 이 둥근 입체 오브제를 풀어 평면으로 되돌린다고 상상할 경우, 좁고 긴 사다리 모양의 수평-수직 구조가 금방 눈앞에 나타나게 된다.

  • 딱딱한 오브제가 캔버스의 나무틀-support 역할을 하며, 팽팽하게 둘러싼 천이 화면의 천-surface이라고 상정해본다면, 이 역시도 캔버스의 구조적 해체에 대한 또 다른 번안이란 추론이 가능하다. 너무 멀리 가기 전에 이 같은 작업을 1970년을 전후하여 프랑스에서 전개된 분석적 실험회화운동인 쉬포르/쉬르파스 Supports/Surfaces와 비교해야 할 필요가 있다. 회화에 대한 자기비판으로 출발한 쉬포르/쉬르파스 작가들은 구조주의 인식론을 토대로 회화의 우월했던 관념과 단절하기 위해 캔버스 구조 자체를 드러내고, 각자 천/나무를 의미를 만드는 기표로 간주하여 다양한 이원대립쌍의 오브제들을 만들어내곤 했다. 이들의 의미심장한 작업을 작가가 알거나 참조했는지 지금 확인할 수 없으나, 객관적으로 상호 관련성을 밝혀내는 비평적 논의는 앞으로 또 다른 기회에 시도해 볼 의의가 있다고 생각한다.

  • 여하튼 입체 구조물로 이룩된 "연역적 오브제" 연작의 또 다른 특징은 작품이 특정 장소에 놓여짐으로서 비로소 자신의 의미를 획득하는 장소특수성을 지닌다는 점에 있다. 가령 전시장 벽면이나 바닥에 설치된 헝겊들의 축적은 바로 해당 전시장 공간의 그 특정 장소를 덮음으로서 작품의 의미를 완성시킬 수 있는 것이다. 딱딱한 벽면과 바닥이 여기서도 부드러운 천과 이원적 대응 구조를 이루며 수평-수직의 제작 원형을 따른다는 사실은 두말 할 나위도 없다. 이후 경주 옥산서원 계곡에서 이루어진 <자연에 눕다>는 자연의 바위들과 색동 천들이, 비엔날레의 카페테리아나 식당에서 테이블보로 사용된 "연역적 오브제"는 식탁과 이불보가, 각각 전시장을 떠나 자연과 도시의 특정 장소에서 주어진 골격 위에 천을 덮는 수평-수직의 체제를 실현한 경우가 된다. 필자가 보기에 가장 흥미로운 "연역적 오브제"의 예는 <만남, 바느질하여 바라보기>(1998-2002)이다. 여기서 수직으로 직립한 작가 자신의 몸은 뾰족한 바늘에 다름 아니고 그 머리 위에 겹겹이 덮인 색동 천들은 바늘이 이제 막 만나자 마자 뚫고 지나갈 바로 그 이불천들이다. 색동천들을 두른 새색시의 아름다우면서도 처연한 모습을 관찰하며 보편적인 페미니즘 관점에서 한국 여인의 정체성을 논의하는 일은 다른 지면에서 시도될 문제이다. 여기서는 페미니즘을 비켜서 보다 근본적인 수직과 수평의 구조적 제작원형을 추론하는 일이 앞선 해석의 과제라 여겨진다.

  • 뉴욕 PS1 창작스튜디오의 작업실에서 태동된 "보따리" 연작은 "연역적 오브제"에 이어 작가의 사유가 평면에서 입체, 입체에서 장소 그리고 다시 다른 공간으로 이동되는 사례라고 판단된다. 보자기와 내용물로 구성된 보따리는 지난 세대의 평범한 일상사물로, 그에 얽힌 한민족의 유랑기원과 서민들의 이삿짐 풍습 그리고 작가개인의 어린 시절 유랑기억이 기술될 수 있다. 하지만 이 글에서는 작가가 매번 보따리를 싸면서 고려했을 입체적 구조에 대해 생각해보도록 하자. 우선 사각형 보자기의 모퉁이를 손으로 거두어 잡아 싸는 행위 즉 매는 행위로부터 상기해보자. 평면의 보자기는 4개 모서리 끝의 천을 잡아 올려 중앙에 놓인 짐 위로 잔뜩 잡아당긴 다음 그 짐의 정중앙 위에서 서로 엇갈려 맬 때, 비로소 입체의 보따리로 탄생한다. 여기서 매듭은 네 손잡이 천들이 정확히 직교해야만 균형을 이루며, 보따리도 제대로 된 모습을 갖게 된다. 그렇지 않으면 보따리는 매듭의 균형을 잃고 일그러져 속에 든 내용물을 마치 내장을 드러내 듯 흉한 모양이 되어버리는 것이다. 역시 보자기가 보따리로 변신할 때, 가장 중요한 순간은 그 네 모서리 천이 한 쌍식 수직과 수평의 십자형 교차를 이룰 때이다. 이 순간이 얼마나 중요한가는 보자기를 매어본 사람이면 누구라도 이해할 것이다. 그래서 쌌다가도 풀러 다시 매기를 여러 번 하면서 수평-수직의 매듭구조가 균형을 잘 잡았는지 그래서 보따리가 팽팽한 긴장감을 가지고 지면에서 평형을 이루며 앉았는지 눈으로 거듭 확인해보게 된다. 그래야 비로소 우리는 그 보따리를 단숨에 들어 올리고 걸음을 내딛으며 이동할 수 있는 것이다.

  • 사실 "보따리" 연작에서부터 김수자의 국제작가로서의 명성이 확립됐다고 볼 수 있는 만큼, 이 연작이 갖는 의미는 크다. 캔버스의 사각형 평면구조가 가변성 있는 형태의 입체구조로 되었고, 이미지가 고정적으로 현시되던 화면 상태에서 보자기의 풀기/매기에 따라 현시/은폐, 열림/닫힘을 반복할 수 있을 뿐 아니라, 보따리 틈새로 보이는 천들에 의해 현시/은폐가 공존하기도 하는 그런 임의성을 지닌 구조물로 전환되어 있다. 다른 한편, 늘어진 천들을 팽팽히 싸매어 긴장시키는 보자기의 힘은 역시 화포를 잡아당기던 나무틀이나 이불보에 장력을 주던 바느질, 각양각색 천들에 형태를 부여하던 오브제의 또 다른 대응물에 다름 아니다. 매번 달라진 장소에 놓이는 보따리는 수평의 지평을 따라 이동하는 수직의 구조물이자, 해당 장소에서 그 화려한 동양적 색감과 독특한 민속적 존재감으로 감상자들과 적극적으로 소통의 관계맺기를 하는 오브제이기도 하다.

  • 수평과 수직의 시공간
    흐르는 삼라만상과 마음이 머무는 자리

  • 김수자는 1997년의 작품 <떠도는 도시들-보따리트럭 2727km> 이후 "바늘여인" 연작과 "빨래하는 여인" 연작을 연달아 발표한다. 이는 보따리트럭 위의 자신이 국도나 산간도로를 타고 이동하며 상이한 지역을 엮어낸 것처럼, 이번에는 자신이 바늘(수직축)이 되어 세계의 도시와 인파의 층(수평축)을 거듭 관통하며 시공간을 넘어 기억과 체험을 하나로 연결한 작업이다. 작가는 항상 긴 머리를 질끈 동여맨 뒷모습으로 등장하며, 정지해 서있는 그의 주변을 다양한 골격과 피부색의 인파가 물결처럼 스쳐 지나가는 장면을 보인다. 그런데 막상 작품 비디오나 사진을 보면, 작가가 세계 곳곳의 도시인들 사이를 뚫고 지나가는지 혹은 사람들이 그를 스치고 지나가는지 확실히 분별되지 않는다. 흐르는 물길을 가만히 바라보노라면, 물이 흐르는지 내가 흐르는지 혼돈되는 것과도 같다. 이런 의식의 헷갈림은 주체인 내가 움직이든 타자가 움직이든 궁극으로는 흐르는 이치는 동일하다는 사실을 불현듯 깨닫게 한다. 인간 지각의 불확실함 너머로 불교에서 설명하는 것처럼 만물은 흐르고 변화할 뿐 고정불변의 실체는 없음과 화엄경의 유심설(唯心說)에서 말하는 흐르는 외부세계의 주체는 바로 나의 마음자리란 사실을 떠오르게 한다. 바늘여인은 그렇게 가만히 서서 사람들의 물결 혹은 화장한 시신의 부유물이 흐르는 강물을 바라보며, 생멸변화하는 우주와 찰나로 바뀌는 마음자리를 표상하는 기호 역할을 하는 듯하다. 또한 하늘과 땅이 맞닿아 만들어낸 지평(바위산 혹은 도로면)에 몸을 모로 누이고 팔과 다리를 수평으로 길게 뻗고 있는 작가의 모습도 있다. 이 경우 바늘여인은 평평한 바닥에 누워있는 모습이지만 주변의 치솟은 산과 나무나 건물들 혹은 서서 움직이는 사람들에 대해서는 상대적으로 직교하는 자세라고 볼 수 있다. 어느 쪽이 수평으로 누어있고 수직으로 서있는지는 상대적인 문제가 될 수밖에 없다. 거꾸로 매달려 세상을 바라보면, 그 세상이 도리어 뒤집힌 모습으로 지각되지 않던가. 가장 최근 작품인 <지수화풍> 연작은 전시 장소에 따라 설치된 7개~8개의 대형 프로젝터를 통해 자연의 변화무쌍한 풍경들을 펼쳐 보인다. 작가가 스페인의 란자로테산과 콰테말라의 파카야화산에서 촬영한 용암 분출과 응고, 바다의 출렁이는 파도와 물안개, 하늘의 구름과 바람, 대지의 움직임과 모래 그리고 그린랜드에서 촬영한 빙하의 동영상들은 감상자를 원시적 자연의 엄청난 힘과 맞닥뜨리게 한다. 물론 작가는 어디에도 비추어지지 않지만, 대자연의 파노라마를 담은 작가의 시야가 곧 스크린에 투영되어 있으므로, 존재와 부재의 경계를 넘어서 있다고 할 수 있다. 사방 벽에 비추어진 동영상에는 수지화풍의 장면들이 흘러가며 전시장 가운데 서있는 감상자는 마치 자신이 세상의 수직축이고 사방으로 자연의 삼라만상이 연이어 흘러간다고 여겨질 것이다.

  • 불교에서 인간존재를 가리킬 때 5온(蘊)이란 말을 하는데, 이는 물질적 요소인 색(色)과 정신적 요소인 수(受).상(想).행(行).식(識)의 5 요소로 이루어져 있다는 뜻이다. 이 작품에서 작가는 비가시적인 정신적 요소들로 축약되어 부재한다고 이해할 수도 있지만, 실상 육체(색)의 물질적인 4가지 기본 요소들이 지수화풍이므로 자연의 지수화풍 풍경들을 통해 작가를 비롯한 인간 존재가 은유되어 있다고 생각할 수도 있다. 어차피 인간 육신은 고대 그리스 유물론자 헤라클레이토스의 말대로 흙, 물, 불, 공기의 4원소로 구성된 채 탄생했다가 다시 그들 4원소로 분해되어 자연으로 되돌아가는 것이 아니겠는가? 그렇다면 이 <지수화풍>의 자연의 모습들은 곧 인간으로 생성되기 전의 본래 모습이며 또 장차 소멸의 순환고리에 따라 돌아갈 모습이기도 하다. 따라서 <지수화풍> 연작은 작가의 2010년 2월 인터뷰에서 한 언급처럼 "자연과 인간은 하나라는 일체성을 근간으로 한 질문들을 담고" 있는 명상적 작품이다. 그리고 흙이 물이 되고 물이 불이 되며 불이 공기가 되는 이 수평으로 돌고 도는 지수화풍, 4 원소의 순환고리에 생명의 역동성을 부여하는 우연의 스파크는 바로 수직의 마음(정신 혹은 영)이 바늘처럼 꽂혀 교차하는 순간에 발생하는 것이리라.

Young Hee Suh is an art critic and Professor at Hong Ik University, Seoul.

Contemplation on the Origin of Life

Ahn, Soyeon

2010

The video installations which filmed the dormant volcanoes located at Lanzarote in the Canary Islands and Pacaya volcano in Guatemala, comprise of six separate video scenes. They were all fortuitously captured by the camera, that is, from the moving car, between stops during the walk. The random, incidental scenes of landscape happened to have caught the artist’s eyes. One wonders whether it is possible to hold the nature’s principality within the frame in accordance with the intended image map, and capture it even as the symbolic body of such as made. Should it be an impossible mission, the artist could only opt for presenting the video images as that of road signs indicative of what is beyond the framed images. Still it falls on to an artist’s scope how the coincidental images would be arranged, and by summoning up the primary elements be- yond the images, thus constructing the thoughtful relevance among the works, the seemingly contradictory concept of Empedocles’ is realized; the in- evitability of contingent occurrences.
The images of the volcanic areas in Lazarote were exhibited in a separate space within the Atelier Hermes. They were video images taken at night in- side a car as it was moving along the road. The artist lit the flashlight towards the darkish landscape, and the landscape in the dark around the dim edges of the circular torch light were thus captured. Through the nocturnal scenes, this work, titled , poses to contemplate – the root of creation – gauging the depth of the void in the invisible space. It is a metaphor of the darkness and the emptiness that are before civilization. Also it comments on the subconscious, an imaginative realm of human beings, alluding altogether to another theme, which is on the creation of fire. featured in the main exhibition space, presents the overwhelming waves crushing against the rugged rocks, with the surprising magnificence of a rainbow rising in the midst of the misty fog and finally the majestic sound of the waves. The viewers come face to face with the dramatic eruption of nature, assailed by the vivid sensation of the damp foams of the crashing waves. The work is a paradoxical approach to conveying a reflection on fire. Observing the mystical formation and the disappearance of rainbow like a mirage, one is given an opportunity to understand the birth of the symbolic world; ponder on the splendid desire of fire, Prometheus’ cheating of the Gods.
Another two works and were each filmed during the day and night from the inside of a moving car as well. They explore the landscape of light touching upon the sur- face of the objects in the scenery, reflecting the depth of changing space. The light makes contact with the surface of the landscape just as a needle does, and the artist carries out the structural search for space. It sends off the odd impression of the scenery altering despite the fact that the filmed object is nothing but the still earth: this is because the landscape was met with light and speed- both of which are mobile elements. The work Air of Earth also refers to earth rather than fire, in spite of the blazing flames of the active volcano filling up the whole screen. The artist and the camera staff took the risk of climbing up to the fire pit in close quarters as near as 200 or 300 meters from the volcano to capture the im- ages. What ultimately draws the viewer’s attention is not burning fire but the ashes that are left by the rocky exhaustion of life. When Empedocles threw his body into the Etna volcano to finish his life, it seems that he yearned to experience the metaphor of nature’s entering nirvana. Everything returns to earth, and earth evokes old age, winter and the real realm of death.
Above the blighting volcano hangs the clear and blue sky. The work is titled, , which is another paradoxical reference to water. and doubly transpose two elements in each work: fire and water and, earth and sky. is displayed across in an askew angle. The latter captures the movement of waves which looks as though it could feel hard against one’s palm, and solid enough to be touched. The goddess of Water heals all the contradictions and affront, wrapping around the hollowness of air, the ambitious energy of fire and the pessimistic resignation of earth. She promises a new beginning and a return to life.
Kimsooja believes that the foundation of life and the principle elements of nature are not as they are visually seen, but lie in the beyond, in the mystic combination of the elements and their hidden meanings. Thus her works pose as a piece of slippery puzzle that is impossible to complete. There are 128 combinations that can occur with the 4 elements; however with circumstantial chance and irregularity, they transcend the limits of the mathematical inference. Instead, as in Bachelard’s “Dreams of the Material”, or the boundlessness of the fully blossoming Mandala – they are of the nature. To Kimsooja, the completion of works means the moment has come when she does not need to create any more works. It will be exciting, until the moment comes, to watch Kim devote herself to other works relating to the release of light and the evolution of life.

  • Translated by Kate YK Lim (Arte en Fide Representative)

  • — This article was published for a review of Kimsooja’s solo exhibition at Atelier Hermes in Seoul in Wolganmisul Magazine of Feb., 2010

[1] The Korean word for a “bundle (of belongings).”

[2] In Korea, the duvet cover was sewed onto the actual mattress as bed-frames.

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

About nothingness: being nothing and making nothing

Kim, Sungwon

2009

"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.

Notes:

[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 >

Aire de Fuego / Air of Fire, 2009, 5:02 loop, sound, still from Earth - Water - Fire - Air

KIMSOOJA | Tierra - Agua - Fuego - Aire / Earth - Water - Fire - Air

Rubio, Oliva María

2009

of sea, of fire, of dreams, of earth, of air. Miguel Hernández

  • For the 2009 5th Lanzarote Biennial, Kimsooja has undertaken a project of five videos, filmed entirely on the island of Lanzarote, that tackles the subject of the four elements that have been employed by philosophers since antiquity to describe the essential components of material reality and the source of all energy and life, both in Western traditions and in the East: earth, water, fire, and air. Always charged with great symbolism, the four elements which date back to the time of Pre-Socratic philosophers and later received a more precise explanation from Empedocles, persisted through the Middle Ages to modern times and profoundly influenced the development of European thought and culture. These Western conceptions coincide with Indian, Japanese, and Buddhist traditions, which like Aristotle added a fifth element, ether (or the container of the cosmos) and with the Buddhist tradition. In some Asian countries like Korea and China, air is substituted for wind.

  • Kimsooja has uncovered, in the volcanic, ocean landscape of the island of Lanzarote, the force and inspiration of these elements, the essential energy that we all depend on as living beings, as well as an invitation to fantasy and a source of creativity. Kimsooja compels us to see fire in water, earth in water, air in water, and therefore, also the opposite: water in air, water in earth, water in fire. In a way, as the artist notes, water alone would suffice to represent all four elements, even though one might imagine that each element admits only a singular and unique representation.

  • The first three videos: Fire of Earth; Water of Earth and Fire of Air, share a common "journey" and form a trilogy. They have been filmed in different moments of day and night, in slow motion, while the artist was driving though the rocky landscape of the island. Each one of these videos evokes the elements of fire, water, and air, respectively.

  • The first video, Fire of Earth, was filmed during the day, and depicts the island's daytime landscape. The camera leads us through the island's rocky scenery, and makes us feel the body of the earth as if it were a skin. The camera's ample panoramic lens serves as a counterpoint to the partial vision of the nocturnal scene in the second video.

  • Here, the movement of the camera, sometimes sped up and other times slowed down, guides us through the rocky scene creating a trompe l'oeil effect: it looks as though the mountains in the background remain still, while the rocky terrain of the foreground moves faster, then slower, creating the illusion that the sea rocks, charred by the volcano's fire, are gliding across the landscape as if being dragged by a lava flow or a movement from deep inside the earth. At times, the mountains in the background also seem to move, but in the opposite direction as the foreground's rocky landscape; or that the fore is spinning, turning around the mountainous background in a circular motion of eternal return. The silence that envelopes everything and counters the ceaseless movement creates a mood of estrangement that is heightened by the moonscape of the boulder field, transmitting all the energy and spirituality of cosmic connection, typical of these extraordinary spaces.

  • The second video, Water of Earth, filmed at night and also in slow motion while driving, roams the nocturnal landscape of Lanzarote with a substantially different impact than the daytime film. Here we also encounter a trompe l'oeil effect. Again we experience the dynamic of mobility in the foreground and immobility in the background (in this case the sky), as in the daytime video, but here, the vista is obscured. In contrast with the complete view of the first video, our vision is now reduced by the darkness of night or absence of light. Also, due to the absence of light, the foreground takes on a larger role. Here the fore stands out against the sky, and the mountains that appear during the daytime disappear almost completely into the background. In this video the effect of movement occurs on several levels and always flows in the same direction. Altogether it resembles a deep river of dark waters moving quickly in the background and sliding slowly into the fore. The background is covered with scrub and rocky hills that appear like ghosts darkened by the night and almost completely fill the frame obscuring our view of the bottom. Sometimes the screen is pierced by poles or trees that pass across our field of vision like shooting stars. The varying degrees of acceleration evoke many other natural processes such as streams, floods, and rapids.

  • In the third video, Fire of Air, the artist illuminates the darkness with a spotlight while driving through the fields of volcanic rock. Focusing in on the center of the frame and leaving the rest of the screen dark, we see the blackness that envelops everything, except when the light collides with a physical object.

  • With the appearance and disappearance of light, and therefore the landscape, the images become unrecognizable. When the light appears, what we see is like a sort of swirling cloud, blowing in the wind. The night's darkness envelops everything until the light reappears. The light here is the source of energy that illuminates the space but is also absorbed by the darkness when it does not cross a physical object. Only when the light crosses or collides with something physical does it consume its energy. And as the artist herself notes, "darkness and distance play the roles of absorbing light in a vacuum and consuming the source/energy of light in physicality."

  • The appearance and disappearance of light creates an aura of mystery. The spotlight that the artist guides, like the sun lighting the earth, turns the landscape into something ethereal, abstract, resembling an eddy of clouds being swept away by the wind, spinning like a Ferris wheel of light. The rocky, nocturnal landscape of Lanzarote disappears and turns into a mass of light and clouds. Only every so often do tiny points of light appear on the horizon.

  • This trilogy speaks about how natural light and darkness, or lack of light, as well as the use of artificial light is associated with our modes of perception. In some way, it reveals how our visual reality is directly related to light, darkness, perspective, emptiness and physicality, simultaneously creating the mystery of our vision that goes beyond reality and lead us into the realm of fantasy. Fact and fiction are paired in these videos, opening our minds to a deeper reality that transcends habitual perceptions.

  • The movement of the earth, the movement of life, the acceleration and deceleration of events, the fleetingness of life… these elements also become manifest in contemplating this work.

  • This project is accompanied by two individual videos, Air of Fire and Earth of Water, which focus on the elements water and air and the energy generated when both come into play. To do this, Kimsooja selects two particular moments in the continuous movement of the sea and the undulating waves produced by air currents.

  • In the first, Air of Fire, the artist selects a segment of sea where the ocean joins with the earth on a cliff of black volcanic rock to depict the beautiful spectacle of a rainbow forming. When the waves of white foam, propelled by the wind, collide with the cliff, breaking and jumping through the air, the colors of the rainbow appear in their entire splendor. These waves soar to the top of the cliff, dispersing droplets as if to revive the fields of volcanic rock. In the middle of the video, the picture disappears from the screen and it goes black, leaving on our retina the image of the waves and rainbow, while we continue to hear the sound of water crashing against the cliff and dispersing with the force of the air. This separation of image and sound shows how meaning is created and reconstructed at the intersection of the auditory and visual senses. The sound of the waves breaking on the cliff, the beauty of foam leaping through the air, the appearance of a rainbow set against dark rocks, all of this is a hymn to the glory of nature, but it also drives us to question the mystery of creation.

  • In the second video, Earth of Water, Kimsooja films another section of the sea, framed as if it were a living painting. Rolling waves, continually shifting the movement and form of their own landscape, create a hypnotic mood that is enhanced by the gray scale of the sea's natural palette. One wave, gentle and repetitive, like a harmonious melody, rippling the sea.

  • Through these five videos in Lanzarote together with living volcanic and the sky scene in Guatemala that will be evolved in the future, the artist employs the reality of landscape and its materiality in order to transform beyond it. Juxtaposing fact and imagination, she imbues the series with elements of ambivalence and mystery. These works convey our diverse modes of perception and the creation of new meanings.

  • 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.

Kimsooja, A Mirror Woman - the ground of nowhere, 2003, Crossings 2003: Korea/Hawaii, in commemoration of the centennial of Korean/Hawaiian immigration, Honolulu City Hall, 57' x 21' diameter, aluminum ring, fine gauze cotton, mirror, wood, photo by Kimsooja, Courtesy of Crossings 2003: Korea/Hawaii and Kimsooja Studio. Kimsooja, A Mirror Woman - the ground of nowhere, 2003, Crossings 2003: Korea/Hawaii, in commemoration of the centennial of Korean/Hawaiian immigration, Honolulu City Hall, 57' x 21' diameter, aluminum ring, fine gauze cotton, mirror, wood, photo by Kimsooja, Courtesy of Crossings 2003: Korea/Hawaii and Kimsooja Studio.

Art & Today, Excerpt from Art & Globalism

Heartney, Eleanor

2008

  • Kimsooja, who comes from a nomadic tradition in which all of one's possessions were designed to be folded up and taken away, recalls Chen's "transexperience" in both her heritage and her current experience as a woman living between her Korean past and her Western present. Her sculpture and installation works are combined with or accompanied by performances in which she appears as an alter ego known variously as A Needle Woman, A Mirror Woman, or A Beggar Woman. In the video A Needle Woman, 1999-2001, Kimsooja sits impassively, her back to the camera, in front of a variety of bustling streets — in Cairo, Delhi, Lagos, London, Mexico City, New York, Shanghai, and Tokyo — becoming a kind of motionless center, a cosmic outsider, existing in another time and consciousness apart from the world around her.

  • A Mirror Woman: The Ground of Nowhere, 2003, a sixty-foot-high vertical cylinder of white fabric, was installed in the lobby of Honolulu's colonial-era City Hall, whose atrium roof Kimsooja arranged to have reopened. Sealing off all but the opening to the sky directly above the fabric column, she placed a mirror floor on the ground the column's center, so that visitors who stepped inside found themselves standing on a piece of sky. Meanwhile, the fabric swayed gently in the breeze, creating a seemingly living, breathing space. Clouds drifting above and reflected below suggested, paradoxically, the feeling of rolling on an open sea. As part of an arts festival celebrating Korean immigration to the United States, A Mirror Woman referenced the immigrant's sense of destabilized identity, but it also provided a universal experience of merging with earth and sky.

Originally published as:
Heartney, Eleanor - Art & Today, Published in London: Phaidon. 2008. pp. 314-319

Kimsooja, A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon (Eclipse), 2008, One of Four Channel Video Projection, 12:33 loop, Sound. This project was possible with the generous support of Shiseido Co., Ltd.

Standing at the Zero Point

von Drathen, Doris

2008

  • Within the confines of our linear notion of experience and imagination, the conjunction of sun and moon is merely an idea and, to us, unthinkable. Exceptional constellations of planets, such as the eclipses of the sun and the moon, are, by their very essence, quite different, for these do not feature the two celestial bodies at the very same time, but more the moment of shadow when the one is moving in front of the other and robbing it of light. The actual conjunction of sun and moon bursts the bounds of our reality, in a way that has always been conceived as metaphor for expressing the transgression of the impossible, the transgression of the duality of day and night that occludes all formulae and laws of time and place. The conjunction of sun and moon is the icon of impossibility.

  • When, in her video installation A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon, Kimsooja lets us experience precisely this impossibility on screen, she is not working with tricks. The sequence of images unfolds in real time, for the full duration of sunset and moonrise. One could almost say that the work of art in itself, however, remains invisible: it is the very point where Kimsooja is standing and observing the events in the sky. The artist is positioned on a spot, which is precisely gauged by seismograph, in fact at the zero point of a place, in that splice of space between the planets, in the chink between the orbits of sun and moon, on the verge of consciousness, at the brink of the mirror. The rest is waiting, with a fixed camera and an open frame, so that the rise of the moon and the setting of the sun are able to overlie one another.

  • Yet what does this say about the event, which the viewer is experiencing in that pictorial space, spanned between the four walls of Kimsooja's latest 4-channel video installation? For the fascination that takes hold of the viewer is immense; when, right at the threshold, one is caught up by the incessant sound of waves, when one gazes, transfixed, onto that horizon of the ocean which, in barely noticeable motion, traverses a silvery pane of light that has risen from the endlessly soft, shallow waves, whitely shimmering, roseate in reflection and alabaster in transparency, whilst the line of the horizon is left more and more below. And at the same time, and just as slowly, a red glowing ball of sun that glimmers in the foam moves closer to this extremely large moon, at some point touches its upper outer edge, enters into the circle of the moon, touches from inside against that selfsame edge to glide with the same slowness, yet moving freely, across the silvery surface of that circular pane and at some point, touch from inside against its lower edge and then, still touching this lower edge from the outside, gradually leaves the moon to move closer to the horizon, gradually, almost unnoticeably yet all of a sudden, immerses itself into its space of haze and disappears. There are several forms of motion that interlink in this pictorial space: not only do sun and moon draw closer to one another in the opposing orbits of their rise and fall. In ancient harmony, the waves of the ocean surge and join in with the orbits of the planets: the more the moon rises, the more the waves pull back, and over and over again wash over the sand. Shadow-like, against the light, palm leaves stir in the wind as if to tune in with the chorale in this momentous gathering of breath. For the waves that ceaselessly wash over the sands, withdraw, only to spill over the sand again, seemingly inscribed in the cosmic harmony of the huge orbital paths of the moon and those of the sun that, as we know, embody the illusion of the actual movement of the earth. The slow rhythm of the barely noticeable motion is in alignment with the shallowness of the waves, which at no single moment ever rear up into dramatic walls of water but, restrained and soft, roll on in horizontal dynamics in accompaniment to the line of horizon. The longer one is transfixed by this sequence of images, the more it appears as if the planetary orbits and the waves of the ocean are borne and pulsated by one single respiratory movement, as if one could imagine something like a cosmos, the founding principle of which lies in the simplest of movements, namely that of aspiration and exhalation, a constant contraction and expansion. This all engulfing breath is described by Hermann Broch after his contemplation of nature at night: "The quietude aroused by the drawing of breath, the night filled with the drawing of breath and, evolving from night and tranquillity, that omnipresence, that breath of the world in sleep. The dark exhaled, became more and more structured, filled with minion upon minion, ever more terrestrial, ever more abounding in shadow. (...) And that breathing being wandered through the breath of the night, over field and garden and sustenance, they too drawing their breath; and the breath of the universe opened itself to receive the creature, opened to the Oneness of the world that, in receiving love, receives its own structure." [1]

  • The singularity of the work of Kimsooja, however, is that she does not illustrate such an idea as cosmic breath or universal principle that might well apply to the creation as a whole, but vice-versa, she derives it from an "almost" everyday observation. For were one to gaze like Kimsooja and her camera, one would after all be able to observe this conjunction of sun and moon, this respiratory chorale of the planetary orbits and the movement of the ocean every single month. In fact it is this fundamental principle of breathing that correlates very distinctly here with her previous work. And it is only in viewing this new video composition that the dimension of the light and sound of her former composition To Breathe (invisible mirror / invisible needle), 2005, now becomes clearer; for this work, Kimsooja composed a genuine chorale from the sound of her own breathing and performed it at the Venetian theatre La Fenice; coloured light projections switched their respiratory rhythm as they took their cue in front of the closed stage to then roam through the audience. A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon also relates to the performance A Needle Woman, Kitakyushu, 1999, when Kimsooja, in supine position, nestles close to a rock to become part of that breathing horizon, her back turned towards the viewer whose gaze she can thus transport conjointly with her own into the far distance. Likewise related to this work is also the complex performance of A Needle Woman between 1999 and 2001, when Kimsooja placed herself as immovable vertical axis in the midst of crowds of people who are streaming by, this one single moment of an encounter gauged in an extended time. For what we see when looking at the planetary orbits of A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon is indeed this, an encounter between differing time currents that meet up at one particular point.

  • It might well seem to be symbolic of the work of Kimsooja when, on a second wall in A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon video installation, she shows the slow, gleaming approach of a shallow wave as it rolls to splay out over the sand, which has become a mirror of the returning waters and reflects the glowing spot of light from the sun. Infinitely gentle, the flat wave slinks towards the mirror of light, touching its outer edge, to spill a little more over this second sun before withdrawing, only to start again. The soft gentleness of this wave as it spreads over the sand calls to mind that fabric which in Korea traditionally has served as a Ybulbo, which is the Korean word for these artistically woven and decorated cotton or silk bedcovers that can be wrapped for multiple uses as a Bottari (a bundle). For people sleep on these spreads, children are born on them; they serve to wrap up items for safekeeping or for travel and were also used to carry the ill, or to cover and transport the deceased. Not only does this reflecting imagery relate to this fabric, one of the principal leitmotifs in Kimsooja's work, but also, and above all, the motif of the mirror emerges that in like manner is one of the recurrent elements in her work and plays a major role in her installation A Mirror Woman, 2002: here, a number of lines of these traditional bedcovers were suspended across a large interior space; the walls were mirrored, so that countless fabrics were reproduced in endless space. The performance A Laundry Woman, Yamuna River, 2000, in Delhi also could be understood as the imagery of a mirror; for once again, as immovable axis of time, the artist stands on the bank of the burial river; a few miles further down the river the dead were being burnt; and some residue of the decoration that was not combustible was borne onwards by the river together with ashes of the incinerated bodies. With her back to the viewers, her gaze carries their eyes into the distance, over the river and its horizon and the comparison with the mirror is set: whereas the river will ever continue to flow, the artist becomes conscious of her own shorter span of life. A sort of leap in time is set in scene, derived from observation of the world around us and culminating in the laws of the universe.

  • And this is exactly what is happening when in the A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon the sand is washed over, when the waves roll leisurely to the shore to play with the sun mirror: an everyday perspective that in the sequence of orbital imagery becomes an insight into cosmic motion. For the longer one contemplates this pictorial space, the more it seems as if it were the most natural thing that the motion of the waves, which at some point touch the mirrored sun, is inscribed in the imagery of wandering orbits of sun and moon. What is so breathtaking about this? Is this phenomena not related to the question of boundaries, the awesome secret of dynamics and power that seem, just as with the waves, to set constraints on the motion and expansion of the moon, the sun and the earth? Time and again, Kimsooja uses her observations of the world around us to span and create her own spatiality, one that is far removed from our understanding and touches upon the enigmas of the cosmos. Hardly any mystical train of thought would seem to open the door to such abundance of imagery as in Judaism, where those dynamics of a power, which is able to dictate here and no further, is considered as one of the divine manifestations, namely Shaddai. What is so surprising about this term, which denotes the forces of equilibrium of the universe, is that the cabalistic numerical value of its letters is 314; in other words, it corresponds exactly to the Greek pi. So that the mathematical, transcendental number for the rapport between the circumference of a circle and its diameter, i.e. the very tension and expansion of the circle, reflects the ancient mystical conceptions of Shaddai. [2] These spherical movements also coincide in the work of Kimsooja with the notion of cosmic forces, when moon and sun wander across sea and sky and, spellbound, we watch how they traverse the horizon of the earth, well knowing that this horizon, like the movement of the sun, is nothing but a deception of our own restricted range of vision. In the imagery of the 4-channel video installation A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon, the other walls, the third and the fourth, show formations of water that are immersed in the roseate silvery light of the moon as it rises at the same time as the sun sets. In one of these sequences, the camera takes a close shot of the heaving sea without shoreline or horizon. The viewer merges into the incessant breathing of the sea, as it gives forth its waves, allowing them to rise and subside in eternal circuit, as if the sea were fitted with a flywheel. On the fourth wall, shallow waves lap over some small rocks, swelling upwards to cover them, only to withdraw again to release the stones. Rather like a fixed marking, the stones appear to be parameters for the motion of the waves; here too, an encounter takes place between differing conjunctures. It is the endless repetition of the motion of the waves that gives a homogeneous sense of time; because of the persistent contraction and expansion of the ocean, the breathing of the sea, the viewer becomes susceptible to the circuit of the celestial bodies in the selfsame endlessness of their return. In this image, time is tangible; it is duration; as Bergson would say, a "homogeneous medium" which leaves behind the dimension of a succession of events. [3] It would be possible here to draw a comparison with the myths surrounding the wheel, the association of the potter's wheel, i.e. the principle of creation and the unremitting whirl of its cycles. The sole chance of escaping from this constant rotation is, as Indian and Asian sages teach, [4] by concentrating on the innermost Self. And that is why, more on a sublimed level than from a formal aspect, one could say that this work A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon has the strength of being the sum of Kimsooja's oeuvre — up to the present day.

  • However, when the works of Kimsooja consistently bring over this moment of supreme and absolute presence, this concentration on the innermost Self, then it is possible to recognise here her utter self-containment and inner repose, where quietude and meditation are more an inner position than any exceptional condition and penetrate every moment of her day. In the same way, her work is embedded in the direct, close observation of the world surrounding us.

  • This too is how the photographs The Sun - Unfolded were generated that strike as if from another world. Magical circles of spectral colours take concentric shape around the sun, like rays of light that unfold in concentric waves. The Sun - Unfolded is the name of these concentric circles that are reminiscent of a mandala. The distinctive element of the work of Kimsooja is, however, that these photographs are not manipulated; they were taken on the brink, as it were, by coincidence, whilst preparing the video A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon on Goa beach. It is paradoxical that it is in particular these photographs, which seem to complete this work; as if the sunlight itself reveals its secret and in one wave-like respiratory movement, unfolds the energy that lightens our vision day by day.

  • And it is interestingly this somewhat incidental creation, which, compared to the cosmic works of Kimsooja hitherto, comes full circle. For in the year 2003 she created A Mirror Woman: the ground of nowhere. In a room that was open to the sky the artist installed a 19-metre oscillating pillar composed of strips of muslin; on the ground she placed a mirror of the same diameter. Stepping through the wafting muslin, the visitor hence looked downwards to the sky and could watch the clouds and seagulls pass beneath his feet. On the one hand, just as with a glance into a well, there is the surprise effect of the world being upside-down; on the other, however, as so often in her work, Kimsooja broaches the sensitive topic of displacement, the fate of the emigrant who lives the experience that there is no ground any more under his feet, his only anchorage being within himself and in the sky. Yet in terms of the moon and the sun orbits, another dimension becomes apparent, namely that of the wholeness of the world, the idea of oneness that is found in the Egyptian writings of Hermes Trismegistos: "That which is above is the same as that which is below and that which is below is the same as that which is above". [5] This train of thought, which in its substance said that all is derived from The One and can be returned to The One, maintained its validity from the times of classical antiquity in the writings of Plato, of the Renaissance at the Medici court, through to the era of the Enlightenment and its philosophers, such as Leibniz. Again today, these thoughts are topical in the search for a systemic image of man and universe. In the eastern world of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, the idea of Oneness has always been at the heart of spiritual imagery. Emphasis is made of this philosophy here because in the series The Sun - Unfolded it would seem to find its icon. Peculiar as it is, these circles are identical to the drawings of Leibniz when setting down his own philosophy of The One.

  • The concentric waves of light from the work The Sun - Unfolded also come full circle in To Breathe - A Mirror Woman, which Kimsooja installed at the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid. From glass wall to glass wall, a mirror covered the flooring so that the construction of the high glass vault repeated itself beneath the feet of the visitor and swung in the bottomless space of doubled dimension. The entire cupola of the palace was covered with a transparent refractile coating, so that inside the endless space, a coloured light, such as found in church windows, set about its dancing twirls and doused the visitor in a thousand-fold splatter of spectral colours. Here too, the room was replete with the sound of the artist's breathing, the rhythm of which varied according to differing states of emotion, from joy, calm, doubt and anxiety through to a confidence reclaimed. The sound of breathing throws the visitor involuntarily back onto himself and his own rhythm of breathing. This is what is so unparalleled in the work of Kimsooja. The viewer is included in the pictorial space and an intimate dialogue is threaded between the viewer and the work of art; the artist knows how to render herself invisible and to transpose her own experience to the viewer. And this is precisely what happens in the oeuvre A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon: her position at the zero point between the orbits of the moon and the sun becomes a place in the splice of space, at the dividing wall of the mirror that generates consciousness; from here, she can view the impossible, open her range of vision into the cosmos, intensify her own sense of consciousness towards transcendence. At this moment of absolute presence, an ethical dimension reveals itself; this absolute liberty demands the relinquishment of territory, the relinquishment of an identity that is defined by belonging; it calls for an awareness that concentrates utterly and absolutely on the Self.

  • Translated from the German by Pauline Elsenheimer.

Notes:

[1] Hermann Broch, Tod des Vergil, Frankfurt, 1976, p.212 "Atmungserweckt die Stille, atemerfüllt die Nacht, wuchs aus Nacht und Stille das immer Vorhandene, der atmende Weltenschlaf. Aufatmete die Dunkelheit, wurde gestalteter und gestalteter, kreatürlicher und kreatürlicher, irdischer und irdischer, wurde schattenreicher und schattenreicher. (...) Das Atmende durchwanderte den Atem der Nacht, mitwanderten Feld und Garten und Nahrung, mitatmend auch sie, und der All-Atem öffnete sich die Kreatur zu empfangen, öffnete sich zur Welteneinheit, die liebeempfangend die eigene Gestalt empfängt." > return to article >
[2] Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Mystères de la Kabbale, Paris, 2000, p.369 cf Gershom Scholem, Die jüdische Mystik in ihren Hauptströmungen, Frankfurt, 1980, p. 152 > return to article >
[3] cf Henri Bergson, Zeit und Freiheit (Sur les données immédiates de la conscience), Frankfurt, 1989, p.76 > return to article >
[4] cf Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, Dictionnaire des Symboles, Paris, 1969, Vol. 4, p.119 ff > return to article >
[5] Hermes Trismegistos, "Verfertigt von von Alethophilo", 1786, Stuttgart 1855, p.51 ff. > return to article >

  • First published in the catalogue in conjunction with the exhibition A Mirror Woman : The Sun & The Moon at Shiseido Gallery, Tokyo, Japan, August 23, 2008 - October 19, 2008.

Encounter – Looking Into Sewing, 1998 – 2002, Vivachrome print, 83-3/4" x 49-5/8", Photo by Lee Jong Soo, Courtesy of Art & Public, Geneva, and Kimsooja Studio.

Between Existence and Non-Existence

Jung, Joonmo

2008

  • 신동아 0806호 원고 / 김수자

  • 실존과 부재의 사이
    글/정준모(미술행정, 고양문화재단 전시감독)

경계선 상의 보따리 (Bottari on the Borderline)

  • 김수자의 보따리는 매우 선명하다. 그 선명하고 화려한 색채는 눈이 부실 지경이다. 하지만 그의 보따리가 갖는 오브제로서의 선명성에도 불구하고 그의 작품은 분명한 메시지나 미학을 던져주지는 않는다. 관객에게 오랜 시간 인내하는 시간을 요구 할 뿐이다. 일상에서처럼 슬쩍 지나치지 않는다면 더욱 많은 사람들과 일상들과 인연을 맺을 수 있음에도 불구하고 바쁘다는 핑계로 외면하고 지나치는 사람들에게 김수자의 작품은 그곳에서 말을 걸어주는 사람을 기다리고 있을 뿐이다. 즉 말 걸기를 통해 관계를 맺는 것이다. 그리고 작품으로 메시지를 주려고 하기보다는 그 관계 속에서 자신을 들여다보거나 또 다른 자신을 만나도록 도와준다. 그의 작품은 그런 점에서 명료하다. 아니 단순하다. 하지만 그 관계 속에서 그냥 지나치지 않고 그의 작품을 일상으로 가지고 들어가는 일이 그리 쉬운 일이 아니다. 왜냐하면 우리는 외면하고 지나치는 일에 너무 익숙하기 때문이다. 하지만 그의 보따리를 외면하기에는 왠지 쉽지 않다. 왜냐하면 그의 보따리는 현존하는 오브제이자 현실 그 자체인 때문이다. 사실 많은 예술은 가정이자 허구인 경우가 대부분이다. 이러한 예술의 허구성은 삶의 일상성이라는 블랙 홀로 빠져들기 쉬운 인간의 속성으로부터 온갖 장치와 착시현상의 장치들을 걷어내고 순수한 예술적 대상에 몰입할 수 있도록 도와준다. 하지만 그 전제가 허구라는 점에서 김수자의 보따리와는 다르다. 사실 김수자의 작품이 여타의 작품과 구분되는 가장 중요한 요소는 보따리가 현실에 존재하는 예술품 그 자체라는 사실이다. 그러나 그 자체를 넘어 보따리가 포함하고 있는 은닉된 사물과 그 관계로 인해 또는 예술적 허구가 기미만 보여주는 불투명한 느낌의 감상 또는 예술을 위한 예술의 도구였다면 그의 보따리는 예술적 현실 그 자체로서 예술이라는 사실이다. 그의 현전하는 보따리는 예술적 존재태로서 단순하게 참과 거짓으로 분리 할 수 있는 ‘실제로 일어나지 않는 일’이 아니라 지금 이곳에 내가 서 있는 이 자리에서 ‘실제로 일어난 일’이라는 사실이다.
    그러나 그의 보따리는 현존성 그것만으로 모든 것을 말하지는 않는다. 그의 작품의 실재적 현실도 중요하지만 그 보따리의 다양한 의미를 간과해서는 안 된다. 즉 보따리가 갖는 다양한 의미와 그 변주에 관심을 가져야 한다는 것이다. 보따리는 단순하게 어느 무엇을 싼 덩어리 이상의 의미를 갖는다. 한국의 전통적인 포장방법인 보따리는 마치 물과 같은 속성을 지녔다. 무엇을 싸느냐에 따라 그 크기가 달라지고 모양 또한 변한다. 또 용도를 다하면 천으로 돌아간다. 하지만 물은 다른 용기에 담기지만 천은 담는 용기 그 자체라는 점에서 다르다. 물은 어느 곳에 담기던 물이라는 고유의 속성을 지니지만 보자기는 내용믈에 따라 그 모양이나 성격이 달리진다. 그 점에서 물은 자신을 끝내 잃어버리지 않지만 천의 하나에 불과한 보자기가 보따리라는 오브제로 변모하면 각각 다른 얼굴과 모습을 지닌다. 이렇게 다양한 얼굴을 가진 보따리를 통해 김수자는 다양한 각기 다른 사람들의 삶의 영욕을 성공과 실패를, 희망과 좌절을 투영시켜 볼 수 있도록 하는 것이다. 그는 가끔 그의 작품에 거울을 사용해서 공간을 확장시키거나 과거와 미래를 관통하도록 장치하고 있기도 하다. 그의 이런 시도는 그의 보따리가 개개인의 또는 관객하나하나의 삶을 담아내고 있는 것을 강조하기 위한 고안이라고 추측한다. 아무리 더러운 시궁창 물이 고여 있는 웅덩이도 자연을, 하늘에 떠 있는 구름을 비추어 준다. 그래서 비록 더러운 물이지만 물속에 구름이 흘러간다. 때로는 들여다보고 있는 사람의 얼굴까지도 비추어 준다. 정말 아름답고 시적이기까지 하다. 김수자는 물웅덩이의 의미보다는 수면이 비친 풍경이 어떻게 보이는지를 말하려 할뿐이며 관객들에게도 웅덩이 물의 맑고 탁함보다는 물에 비친 풍경의 아름다움을 보여주고자 한다. 하지만 여기서 간과하지 말아야 할 것은 물에 비친 풍경은 언제나 유목민처럼 움직이고 떠도는 것이지 붙박이는 아니라는 점이다.

보자기, 세계를 싸서 보따리가 되다. (Pojagi, Creating bottari by wrapping the world)

  • 김수자가 보따리에 관심을 가진 것은 이미 십 수 년 전으로 거슬러 올라간다. 천을 덧대거나 이어서 캔버스라는 사각형의 틀로부터 벗어나고자 했던 그는 대학원 시절 천이라는 매체와 바늘과 실 이라는 전통적인 규방문화적 재료와 방법론을 차용해서 작업을 시도했다. 그의 이런 작업은 당시 한국적 환원주의라는 교조적인 미술풍토에 대한 외면인 동시에 모더니즘 조차도 제대로 이해하고 실천하지 못하는 의사모더니스트들에 대한 반발이었다.
    그는 회화의 지지체로서의 평면의 의미가 강조되던 시절 평면 그 자체도 결국은 오브제라는 결론에 이르면서 그는 평면을 버리고 보다 순수한 평면적 존재에 열중하게 되었다. 그는 당시 삶과 유리된 교양 있는 부르주아 계급을 위한 모더니즘적 사고로 결별을 선언하고 민족주의를 외치는 사이비 좌파들의 ‘삶의 예술’이 아닌 삶의 진정성에 방점을 찍는 작업을 시작한 것이다.

  • "어머니와 함께 이불을 꿰매는 일상적인 행위 속에서 나의 사고와 감수성과 행위가 모두 일치하는 은밀하고도 놀라운 일체감을 체험했으며, 묻어두었던 그 숱한 기억들과 아픔, 삶의 애정까지도 그 안에 내포 할 수 있는 가능성을 발견하게 되었다. 천이 갖는 기본 구조로서의 날실과 씨실, 우리 천의 원초적인 색감, 평면을 넘나들며 꿰매는 행위의 천과의 자기 동일성, 그리고 그것이 불러일으키는 묘한 향수--- 이 모든 것들에 나 자신은 완전히 매료되었다."<1988년 현대화랑 도록-작가노트 중에서>

  • 이렇게 그의 초기 작업은 천에서 시작되었다. 그에게 있어서 천은 일상적인 옷에 다름 아니었다. 옷이란 인간이 부끄러움을 알고 나서부터 걸치기 시작한 것으로 인간에게 옷이란 자유와 그에 따른 책임을 의미하는 동시에 인간의 실존적 의미를 대체하는 상징이기도 하다. 또 옷이란 인간에게 있어서는 삶의 조건이자 삶의 향기이기도 하다. 그리고 옷은 제 2의 피부라는 말처럼 그 사람을 대변하기도 한다. 즉 옷이란 외피를 통해 사람들은 자신의 취향과 사람 됨됨이를 드러내기도 한다. 세상을 떠난 고인의 옷을 태우는 우리네 관습도 따지고 보면 옷이란 것이 갖는 인물의 대체재로서의 의미 때문일 것이다. 이런 보자기가 오브재를 이루면 보따리가 된다. 사실 보자기는 순수한 우리말이지만 우리말 외에 ‘보’(褓) ‘복’(袱) 또는 ‘복’(福)으로 불린다. 여기서 복 복자를 쓰는 경유는 보자기를 복을 싸두는 용기의 개념으로 인식하기 때문이다. 또 각 지방별로도 이름이 조금씩 달라서, 보대 밥부재 보재기 보래기 포대기 보자 보따리 등 다양하게 불린다. 보자기가 처음에는 무언가를 가리고 덥는 옷의 개념이었다고 한다. 현존하는 최고의 보자기인 선암사의 탁자보를 탁의(卓衣)라 부르고 갓난아이를 싸는 천을 강보(襁褓)라 부르는 것도 바로 옷의 의미가 지녔기 때문이다.
    이어령은 ‘서양인은 가방을 만들어냈고 동양인은 보자기를 만들어냈다’고 했다. 같은 운반용, 포장용 수단이지만 가방은 한 가지 기능만 하는 대신에 보자기는 다양한 목적과 수단을 지닌다. 또 가방은 용도가 없을 때도 자체 모양과 무게를 지니지만 보자기는 접어두면 된다. 게다가 자신을 위한 공간을 필요로 하지 않는다. 특정한 자기모양이 없기 때문에 어떤 모양이라도 다 지을 수 있다. 그리고 그 양이 많으면 많은 대로 적으면 적은 대로 두루 다 쌀 수 있다. 그래서 보자기는 그 자체가 ‘공(空)’인 까닭에 천변만화(千變萬化)가 가능한 것이다. 이런 보자기로 김수자는 세계를 싸서 보따리를 짓기 시작했다.
    그의 바느질(The Heaven & the Earth, 1984)은 연역적 오브제로 이어진다. 그에게 바느질은 바늘을 가지고 천에 구명을 내어 서로를 잇는 행위였다. 하지만 바느질이란 바늘로 상처를 내는 한편 그 상처를 치유한다는 이율배반적 행동에 다름 아니다. 그리하여 바느질이란 하나의 행동이 물질이나 사물의 성격 그리고 인간의 행동이 또 같지만 경우에 따라 그 결과와 의미가 서로 다르게 인식되고 나타나는 것처럼 이중적 의미와 가치, 상반된 성격을 갖는 것이었다.
    이후 그는 지게 등 민속적인 농기구들이나 사다리, 빨래걸이 등을 일일이 천으로 싸고 감는 행위<Untitled, 1991>를 통해 당시 물성에 대한 생각을 안료가 아닌 천을 통해 구현하기도 한다. 물질을 에워쌈으로서 새로운 물질로 치환시키는 이런 작업은 당시 매우 신선한 반응을 일으켰다. 이렇게 진화를 시작한 김수자의 천과 보자기는 사각의 틀을 벗어나 벽면에 부착되기도 하고 <어머니의 땅을 향해, 1990-91> 바닥에 놓이거나 모서리에 걸쳐지거나 또는 다른 오브제를 감싸면서 새로운 공간 즉 장소와 만나게 된다. 이 장소는 본질적이고 근본적인 만남이 일어나는 장소, 그리하여 본래의 의미가 사라지고 새로운 관계 속에서 또 다른 의미로 전이되는 곳, 새로운 변형의 장소를 만남으로서 보따리 또는 보자기도 관객도 새로운 환경에서 서로를 새롭게 들여다볼 수 있는 공간으로서의 ‘장소’가 된다.(꽃을 향하여, 1992, P.S. 1) 향후 이 장소라는 개념은 그의 보따리만큼이나 작품을 결정짓는 뼈대가 된다. 그리고 그의 보자기는 이 장소에 던져진 것처럼 널려있거나 전시장 벽면의 틈새에 끼워지는 형태의 전면적인 설치작업으로 변화한다. 그리고 더 이상 천을 자르고 꿰매는 일 대신에 천에 조그마한 힘을 가해서 있는 그대로의 천에 최소한의 형태를 부여하는 보따리를 만들기 시작한다.

치유하는 보따리 (Healing Bottari)

위무와 치유의 보따리 (Bottari that heals and mourns)

보따리를 풀면서 (Unwrapping Bottari)

  • 우리는 일상 속에서 많은 것들을 만나지만 그것들을 그냥 스쳐지나 보내기도 하고 때로는 외면하기도 하고 인식하지 못 한 채 지나치기도 한다. 왜냐하면 일상은 과거나 현재와 그렇게 깊은 관련을 가지지 않기 때문이다. 사실 사람의 삶이란 일상적인 사물들이 던지는 이야기들을 들어주는 것인 동시에 말 걸기이다. 그리고 그 말 걸기에 일상이나 사물과 나 또는 인간과의 관계맺음이다. 즉 관계란 일상성의 또 다른 말이다. 삶은 그 주변 또는 중심과 끊임없이 관계를 맺는 것을 의미한다. 하지만 이렇게 궁극적인 의미의 삶이 목표가 너무도 크고 방대하다 하더라도 가장 일상적인 상태에서 머물면서 ‘있는 그대로’ 또는 ‘되는 대로’살아가기 때문에 이런 세상과 사물과의 만남과 그 관계 속에서 자신의 존재를 인식하고 그들의 목소리를 듣기보다는 세속적인 재미나 호기심에 이끌려 자신의 삶이 유한하다는 명백한 미래는 잊어버리고 일상 속에서 머물기를 즐긴다. 즉 사람들은 일상성 속에 함몰되어 그 궁극의 의미나 실천방법을 잊어버리고 현실에 몰입한다.
    이렇게 김수자의 말 걸기는 계속된다. 일루젼에 대한 의문으로 시작에서 비롯된 바느질과 싸고 감는 행위는 자연으로 들어가 자연과 인간의, 신체와 자연과의 일체를 이루고 다시 이는 3차원의 보따리로 이어진다. 그리고 그 보따리는 때에 따라 묶이기도 싸매기도 하면서 자신의 영역을 확장시키고 빛이라는 메가 보자기를 통해 종래의 물성과 역사적 의미를 탈색시켜 새로운 치유의 산물로 환원시킨다. 이렇게 그의 작업은 일관되게 천으로 기호화된 신체이자 작품을 지지하는 바탕이자 표면이기도 하다. 이런 그의 작업은 삶과 죽음의 경계선상에 있기도 하고 때로는 차안에 때로는 피안에 존재하기도 한다. 하지만 보자기의 겉과 안이 다르지 않듯 부조리한 것들의 집합체인 모순덩어리인 인간의 현현이 김수자의 ‘보따리’이다. 그의 보따리는 존재태인 동시에 존재들로 가득 찬 존재의 그 자체이자 모순으로 점철된 인간의 욕망 덩어리이기도 하다. 하지만 보따리는 존재하는 오브제로서의 덩어리이자 곧 풀어헤치면 한 장의 천으로 돌아가는 이중적 구조가 그의 작품을 이끌어 가는 모체이다, 그리고 그는 이런 구조를 통해 예술과 삶의 경계를 분명하게 구분하지 않는다. 예술은 언제나 일상화되며 일상도 언제나 예술이 될 수 있다는 순환적 구조이기 때문에 예술과 삶의 경계를 넘나들며 약자를 힘 없는 사람을 우선 배려한다. 이런 박애주의적 태도와 함께 동양적 또는 한국적이라는 신비주의적인 로칼리즘에 천착하기보다는 서구 모더니즘이 간과했던 가치들을 찾아내어 이것들을 새롭게 회생시키면서 예술적인 삶보다는 삶과 함께 하는 일상의 예술을 실천하는 삶의 진정성이 묻어나는 예술을 실천하고 있기 때문에 그에 대한 국제적인 관심은 여전히 증폭되어 갈 것이다.

  • Originally Published in Shin DongA Magazine, June 2008.

Jung Joon Mo is a writer and curator based in Seoul, and is currently the Exhibition Director for Koyang Culture Foundation. He was chief curator of the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Korea, and was the Exhibition Director of the Gwangju Biennale.

A Needle Woman - Mexico City, 2001.

Passages and Places - The City

Adolphs, Volker

2008

  • David Claerbout's work Shadow Piece opens the view from the inside to the outside, from the house to the street. Streets and houses shape the city. The city is a space. Michel de Certeau describes space as "a web of movable elements. It is to a certain extent filled by the totality of the movements that unfold within it. It is therefore a result of activities that give it a direction, that temporalize it." [1] This result doesn't yet define identity and unity; the city manifests itself as "a single mass of pedestrians..., a web of slapdash, out‑of‑the‑way accommodations, a traversing of your assumed own places and a universe of rented places, which are beset by a non‑place or dreamed‑up places." [2] Our concepts are not clear. Do place and space stand in relation to each other like house and place to the street, like standing‑still to going on, like the closed to the open? Does the place at first seem to us to be something stable and motionless, only a point at which we come to a halt and where we linger? But as soon as something happens at the location and with the location, i.e., a movement, it expands, becomes a space that leads to other spaces. Places have the most diverse functions. They divide up the protected area I can retreat to. They are also public zones that I share with others, places where I meet confidants just as much as places that are transitory and anonymous. Places can be places of passage, transit rooms, railway stations, ticket offices, where people pass each other, where they disperse to other parts of the city via a network of streets. The city is not merely a sequence of places and not a static geometry of streets. It is, repeatedly, a newly created movement in time and space, in which the different processes of walking come together: the goal‑oriented, or meandering and strolling walk, walking around, passing‑by, lingering. The city happens. In a fancy‑free stroll through Paris, the French situationists à la Guy Debord created another, open structure of experience, i.e., their own changing topography of the city beyond any fixed plan. The activity of pedestrians who take over the city space generates an urban network, provides the city with energy and determines its velocity. The reality of growing cities encompasses both the sedentary and the nomadic. It's a reality that can bear me up or isolate me. A café, a street, a quarter are familiar to me, but at the next corner I am already a stranger. The city is like an organism, which is held together in some way or other that I cannot really make out. In order to move around in the city, I have to constantly tear up my roots; in walking, I disengage myself from a place and fail to reach it. Some live in the city; they remain, they wait, have in fact not arrived, remain underway.

  • In her four‑channel video installation A Needle Woman from 2000‑2001 (Fig. p. 110/111), Kimsooja stands with her back to the viewer as a stationary, vertical axis in the heart of four metropolises: Mexico City, Cairo, Lagos and London, in a stream of people who meet her and go past her. At first the viewer takes in the waves of intermingling passersby, the continuum of urban life, into which the artist has plunged. In the midst of the mass movement, the artist appears, in her own words, to be a "barometer", a "witness", a "compass", a "surveying pin" that records the different cultures. [3] Like a pin, she pricks into the colorful social tissue of the cities, sews different societies together. [4] Kimsooja sees the pin as an extension of her body; she overcomes in‑between spaces and disappears again. The thread remains as a binding and mediating trace of the ghost in the tissue's weave. [5]

  • The fact that people always move in the same way seems to blend cities into a global unconcern in which the artist surfaces at random, alternating locations, but a closer look also shows peoples' social identities in differing hierarchies, classes, relations to each other, different reactions to the artist that are noted or avoided and ignored. In London's cosmopolitan bustle, people walk around self‑engrossed, unreceptive, single‑minded. In Lagos they react with curiosity, laughter, irritation. In one city, Kimsooja becomes transparent, almost vanishes; in the other she appears as a counterpart. She is both present and absent, part of the cities' space and time and outside of that space and that time. She obviously stands in the way as a physical impediment and yet her physical existence is ignored. She meets the others and is isolated; she is divided from the life of the others and in the same way integrated in the passage of that Iife. The viewer looks at the back of the artist, takes up her position and also that of the people who go past her, tries to imagine Kimsooja's face that radiates self‑confidence and the safety in staying within the flow of passing life. Even when she is a perceived object, her inner nature remains closed to the others. She is the observer as such, not only of what happens around her, but also of the processes that go on inside her.

  • The speed of the video has been reduced by 50 percent. By means of this prolongation, time, the artist's encounters, the flow of people, stationary and fleeting time -all are more intensely experienced. The artist is the indicator of time and space; both make up a unit, both are physical. "Although, when I place my motionless body in space as a vertical axis, I create a form of timelessness, I simultaneously open up another movement: it is a vertical movement directed inwards; time in the form of consolidation. We cannot separate the coexistence of time and corporeality and therefore of spatiality; they will always belong together." [6] A Needle Woman thus transmits three perceptions of time, standing still in the body of the artist in which past, present and future meet, which, in comparison and despite the slowdown, incorporates the visible speed of the other passing figures plus the perspective of the viewers, who stand respectively for real‑time.

  • Kimsooja, on the one hand, opposes the acceleration of life; her motionlessness highlights the floundering, empty movement and temporal mechanism of the human stream around her. But it is also possible to see this the other way around. In this case the unceasing, endless wave of people is the stationary and enduring part and the artist is the existence that is in motion, will go on, pass away, decompose and disappear. Kimsooja speaks of the finitude and infinity of being. We are in time and timeless; we are transient and without any durable substance and thus also have access to and an experience of delimitation, of transcendence or going beyond time.

  • 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 happens to control human relationships and the desire for 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 process of a pilgrim. Nomadism in contemporary society seems to be motivated from the restless desire of human beings and its follies, rather than pursuing true meaning from nomadic life.

Notes:

[1] Kimsooja, in: Art and Context, Summer 2006. > return to article >
[2] Michel de Certeau, "L'invention du quotidian", . > return to article >
[3] Ibid. > return to article >
[4] See Kimsooja im Gespräch mit Doris von Drathen, in: Kimsooja. Künstler. Kritisches Lexikon der Gegenwartskunst, edition 4, no. 12, 2006, p.14. > return to article >
[5] Ibid. > return to article >
[6] See the statements by Kimsooja in an interview with Nicolas Bourriaud in: Kimsooja. Conditions of Humanity, cat. Musée d'art contemporain de Lyon/museum kunst palast, Düsseldorf 2003/2004, p. 56. > return to article >

  • Originally published in "Passages and Places - The City". Going Staying catalogue from the exhibition at Kuntmuseum Bonn published in Bonn: Herausgegben vom 2007. pp.106-111.

Kimsooja, Bottari - Alfa Beach, 2001, single channel video projection, 6:18 loop, silent

Kimsooja

Beccaria, Marcella

2007

  • Identifying nomadism as a condition that is inevitably linked to contemporary existence, Kimsooja draws on her own continual displacements as material that is indispensable for the creation of her work. Repeating an experience connected to her nomadic childhood, she positions herself in new contexts, in which she renegotiates the uniqueness of her identity.

  • Although directly tied to her biography, Kimsooja’s art does not indulge in narrative details, but instead strives to transform the subjective into the universal. Thus, whether she finds herself amid the crowd in Shanghai, New York, Tokyo, or Mexico City, or at the edge of a river or sea in any part of the world, whenever the artist appears in her work, she portrays herself from the back. Transforming presence into absence, her figure becomes a means, a door thrown open to the world’s infinite mutability.

  • Taking the form of videos, installations, or performances, many of Kimsooja’s works recognize the act of sewing as a powerful metaphor. Like a needle, which is capable of disappearing after having connected otherwise separate fragments, Kimsooja sees the value of her art in its possibilities for uniting individuality and multiplicity, body and spirit, East and West.

  • Sometimes the artist uses bottari, bundles of bedcover fabric traditionally employed in Korea, her native country. Usually employed for transporting objects connected to daily life, they embody the very idea of wandering and the multiple facets of elation and sorrow.

  • The word bottari also appears in a series of videos to which the work in the collection, Bottari: Alfa Beach, 2001, belongs. The video was filmed in Africa, on a Nigerian beach whose name is linked to the slave trade. The work features the inversion of the horizon line, exchanging the position of the sky with that of the sea. Seemingly simple, the reversal suggests the sudden impossibility of establishing one’s own position in the world, evoking the drama of the slaves who were kidnapped from their own land and forced to face voyages to destinations utterly unknown to them. The sense of dislocation is heightened by the lack of sound.

Text by Marcella Beccaria from "The Castle, The Collection", Castello di Rivoli Museo D’Art Contemporanea, published in 2008 by Skira.

Mandala: Zone of Zero, 2001. Jukebox detail.

Kimsooja: Electric Chants

Drobnick, Jim

2007

  • A prominent subtheme resonates throughout the works in "Listening Awry" — the contrast between the modalities of sound and vision. In Kimsooja's Mandala: Zone of Zero (2004), this contrast assumes transcultural, historical, and metaphysical dimensions. Unlike the other works in the exhibition, one first experiences Mandala indirectly, as a faint light softly diffusing around the edges of a pair of partitions. Visitors follow the glimmer through a dim transitional space to then enter a cloistered, alternative realm. The main feature is a radiant, vividly‑hued jukebox, outfitted with mirrored tesserae and flashy ornamentation, and positioned squarely to face the beholder. Carpeting hushes one's footsteps, and the overall calming effect is enhanced by serene, twilight blue walls engulfing the space, lit solely by the jukebox's incandescence. Incongruously, a soundtrack of Tibetan Buddhist, Gregorian and Islamic chants resonates in the room, providing a sacred vocal counterpoint to the visual flamboyance of the jukebox. The disparity between sound and vision could hardly be more extreme or more succinctly composed. Eastern vs. Western cultures, traditional vs. postmodern sensibilities, spiritual vs. materialistic pursuits — these and other polarities suffuse Kimsooja's installation and create a form of listening awry based on paradoxical juxtaposition.

  • In many ways, the jukebox epitomizes the materialism of American culture. Recalling the postwar optimism and economic surge of the 1950s, the jukebox serves as an icon for youthful, leisurely distraction and ephemeral popular culture. A conspicuous fixture of bars, diners, bowling alleys and other socializing venues for the past century, it still maintains a cultural relevance in the digital era in the figure of the "celestial jukebox" — the utopian repository of personal choice and universal variety. Either as a nostalgic cultural artifact or futuristic ideal for the music industry, the jukebox functions as both the object and enabler of desire. With its flickering reflections, gaudy colours, streaming bubbles, and roulette‑wheel appearance, Kimsooja's jukebox, however, would seem to be one of the last items to be associated with spirituality. Even as the readymade stands alone, disconnected from its complementary cabinet of records or CDs, hovering transcendently, its link to the superficialities of consumer culture and the escapist pleasures of mass entertainment renders it seemingly antithetical to introspection.

  • Yet, for the artist, the jukebox hears an uncanny resemblance to the geometric schema present in a number of religious traditions, specifically Tibetan Buddhism and Hindu Tantrism. Mandala, the Sanskrit term for "circle," is a sacred diagram that facilitates concentration for spiritual initiates. Symbolically, it can depict the figure of one or several deities, represent the stages of consciousness that adepts pass through on the way to enlightenment, as well as delineate an outline of the cosmos. The formal correspondences between the jukebox and mandalas are striking: both employ hands of concentric circles, a central focal point, and four equidistant markings or "gates" at the cardinal points. For Kimsooja, who moved to New York from Korea in 1998, the similarities were remarkable, if not also painfully ironic. Contrary to the discipline and profundity embodied by the mandala, the jukebox's visual cacophony is designed to amuse. Its entrancing spectacle may inspire stillness to some degree, though probably due more to hypnosis than meditation. Nevertheless, the overall effect of the lights, carpet and enveloping blue walls (blue being one of the conventional signifiers of divinity) conveys a palpable sense of tranquility and sanctuary.

  • The chanting of monks from three major world religions resound through the space and counteract the jukebox's glitzy presence. At times sonorous, at other times discordant, the chants go in and out of phase as each becomes dominant at various points in the mix. The deep, rumbling bass of Tibetan monks forms a near‑continuous drone upon which the mid‑range polyphonic melodies of a Gregorian choir glide over. At a higher register, the ecstatic vocalizations of a muezzin calling the faithful, along with the ringing of bells, pierce through to intensify the devotional collage. The outpouring of these traditional, centuries‑old chants from a commercial jukebox — instead of the expected pop, rock, hip‑hop, or country & western tunes — not only reconceives the mechanism but also the character of the museum space and those within it. No longer a neutral site for aesthetic contemplation, Mandala charges its surroundings with the mystical energies said to be evoked by the recitation of mantras, prayers and holy texts.

  • Which side prevails in this "zone of zero," as the subtitle of the piece indicates? Does the simultaneous presence of different belief systems bring forth a greater unity or effect a canceling out? Are the chants reduced to the level of commercial top ten hits, in essence nullifying their esoteric meaning, or is Mandala an object cleverly adapted for surreptitiously inserting spiritual content into a materialistic culture? In the general context of the relationship between the East and West, the artist considers their two opposing sensibilities to be engaged in a dialectic, one that brings together "all basic phenomena of art and life":

  • Eastern thought often functions as passive and reserved expression: invisible, non‑verbal, indirect, disguised and immaterial. Western thought functions more with issues of identity, controversy, gravity, construction and materiality. The process is finally the awareness and necessity of the presence of both in contemporary art and life. It is the Yin and Yang, a co‑existence that endlessly transforms and enriches.

  • But more than just a confrontation between consumerism and devotion, Mandala's creation after the invasion of Iraq informs its significance. Like her audio piece Letter from New York (2001), which collages together the chanting of Tibetan monks along with police sirens and jet engines that allude to the World Trade Center attacks, Mandala emerges out of a climate of crisis. The invasion of Iraq has been questioned by many for its dubious rationale and disastrous consequences for the Iraqi population and security around the world. The artist, disturbed by the U.S.'s unprincipled foreign policy and subsequent catastrophes, sought to identify its root causes, which she located in the materialism at the heart of the American ethos. Given this social and political context, Mandala provides both a critique and an antidote. In Kimsooja's meditative space, conflicting sonic and visual experiences combine, antithetical cultural practices interpenetrate, and polarized spiritual and secular sensibilities co‑exist to offer visitors the chance to contemplate the possibility of an improbable, but all‑too necessary, harmony within difference.

  • A striking aspect of the works discussed above is the degree to which the body is implicated. As Richard Leppert notes, a central paradox of sound lies in its contradictory semiotic status — while the product of (sometimes intense) physical activity, it nevertheless serves as a paradigm of abstraction and ephemerality. Such foregrounding of the physicality of sound's production, as well as its reception, becomes another subtheme in the practices associated with listening awry. Tse, for example, plays the cello and inserts her own body into the dialogic relationship with the natural landscape. Sierra, meanwhile, enlists buglers to stand and perform a twenty‑four‑hour aural fusillade. The simple fact of their bodily presence aggravates the metropolitan security apparatus and confirms the piece's provocational significance. For Marclay, the body is the endpoint for a series of translations that originate in music. However mute, the body conveys a version of musicality twice‑removed via gestural performance. And in the case of Kimsooja's enveloping installation, the bodies of viewers themselves become sound resonators within the sanctuary‑like space. An emphasis on corporeality in these works complements the notion of embeddedness informing "Listening Awry": The embodiment of sound correlates with the embeddedness of sound in social practice, thus completing an overall circuit between listening and being, self and other, the individual and society. Through the din of trumpets, chants, echoes, and noisome gestures can be heard the knocking of the embedded against the embodied as history, affect and politics are brought forward for artistic reflection and critique.

  • © Jim Drobnick, 2007. No part of this essay maybe reproduced without the author's permission.

Jim Drobnick's text is excerpted from his essay in Listening Awry, Hamilton, ON: McMaster Museum of Art, 2007.

To Breathe - Invisible Needle, Invisible Mirror. Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 2006.

To Breathe / Respirar

Vettese, Angela

2006

  • In her 2006 New Year's wishes to her friends, Kimsooja included a short and true story about a pair of twin girls who were born prematurely. One of the twins was not expected to live. A nurse from the hospital decided to break the rules and placed the two infants in the same incubator. Once the newborns were placed together, side by side, they embraced each other. The stronger of the two helped to regulate the body temperature and heartbeat of the weaker one, thus enabling the weaker one to survive against all expectations. Nothing could introduce this book, the second collaborative effort between La Fenice Theatre and the Bevilacqua La Masa Foundation, more poetically than the story of this metaphoric event. For the duration of one month, and preceding each opera performance at the Teatro La Fenice, the public will have the opportunity to view Kimsooja's latest video work projected on the theater's screen. The Bevilacqua La Masa Foundation is proud to be the first Italian art center to have established an agreement of this kind with an opera house. Upon viewing Kimsooja's videos, both at La Fenice and at the gallery space of the Foundation, but in particular the one selected for the theater, it seems only fitting to ask ourselves what the contents and significance of such videos are. Indeed, here is one of those rare occasions that demonstrate how the methods of interpreting contemporary art are not so dissimilar from those used for interpreting opera: the initial and instinctive pleasure one receives is deepened and made more complete only upon having learned something about the musical score and the operatic libretto. It is only after a first reading that one is then ready for a second, more competent and knowledgeable understanding.

  • The title of the video chosen for the occasion is To Breathe / Respirar. It is a succession of colors that anticipate the rhythm of breathing‑at times hurried, at times calm and composed. The video does not portray any images, rather only colors, and speaks of the need for air, emptiness, and space for filling our lungs. Breathing is an act of survival as well as a therapeutic response to the small and large troubles that life imposes on us. Breathing as an essential act explains why the video is an image reduced to its basic essence, that is, to light.

  • Although indebted to Mondrian from an artistic and theoretical point of view, as Kimsooja confirms herself, the artist does not betray her first and foremost tradition which stems from a deep relationship to Korean life and aesthetics. In this way To Breathe / Respirar leads us to look for its origins in the artist's previous works. In the 1980s Kimsooja used the fabrics and clothes that had belonged to her grandmother as a source for her geometric patchworks, which were often made in the form of a cross as in The Earth and the Heaven (1984). To the detriment of its geometry, the fortuitousness of the composition as then intensified in such later works as Toward the Mother Earth (1990‑91) and The Mind and the World (1991): pieces of material arranged like rapid brush strokes, but also like fragments of life, collected from the street and somehow brought back to life. Also the series 'Deductive Objects', created in the early 1990s, included strips of material compiled in this same way, even if scattered on the floor in a multi‑colored trail or hung like tablecloths over tiny bar tables.

  • Many of the artist's subsequent works show concepts similar to the one presented in the video at La Fenice, where the idea of pieces of fabric, or rags, has been substituted by the valuable cloth that in Korea is given to newly wed couples as a nuptial bed covering. We are speaking of Bottari, which Kimsooja has used in numerous and varied ways. On different occasions they have been displayed like ordinary clothes, or as extremely decorative and interrelated layers of colors (e.g., Bottari, 2000; A Laundry Woman, 2000; A Mirror Woman, 2002). In the early 1990s Kimsooja presented the Bottari in another form, that of a traveling bundle: a swollen fruit containing just a few of one's possessions. In the performance presented at the exhibition "Cities on the Move", Kimsooja traveled by truck for eleven days in November of 1997 through all the Korean towns and cities that had been fundamental to the formation of her own identity. She was aware that she would soon be leaving behind Korea — and her fond attachment to it — to live and work in Europe and the United States. The images produced in this performance show her standing upright, with her back against the truck cab, and supported by the mound of Bottari that also served as a psychological reminder of her burden.

  • The Bottari as a sign of bound identity, as a way to be seen but also as a way to not see, became a cascade of color that draped and spilled forth from the body of the artist in the performance Encounter: Looking into SewingA Needle Woman (1999‑2005). Here her body is presented as a needle which, although immobile and harnessing the flow of people around her, penetrates the crowd and knits the people together. In metaphorical terms, the combining of colors and pieces of cloth is no different than the "gathering" or "garnering" of people.

  • Breathing is a symmetrical act, and thus it is akin to a given aesthetic found in the majority of Kimsooja's works — both those where her own body is at play and those where objects are the central focus. Take for example the installation Lotus: Zone of Zero (2003) erected in the center of the nearly monumental greenhouse of Lille. The installation consisted of 307 lanterns in the form of lotuses, from which issued the sounds of three cultural sources: an interweaving of Tibetan, Gregorian, and Islamic chants, presented always in the spirit of sewing and binding. The symmetry also becomes a way for emphasizing the relationships therein: right / left, above / below, inner / outer. It is no coincidence that in the version of A Mirror Woman presented at the Honolulu City Hall (A Mirror Woman - the ground of nowhere, 2003), hands, emotions and friendships were sewn together in a completely symmetrical tower of gauze. Here visitors were invited to lie down on a circular mirror placed on the floor, one that reflected a portion of open sky exposed by another circle located above the tall cone of gauze. The position that Kimsooja assumes in almost all of her performances is one of symmetry, including her solitary meditation along the sacred Yamuna River, as well as her immersion in the chaos of Times Square on March 11, 2005 (A Beggar Woman). The emotional shock produced which in the first case can be seen simply by the artist's exposure to nature and to her own intimate and internal thoughts — is also felt in A Beggar Woman by all those people who notice her sitting on the ground, immobile as a lotus, like some unexpected flower that has suddenly sprung forth. Even in those images where symmetry is absent, such as in the portion of A Needle Woman in which the artist leans against a rock, or in the disjointed movements of A Wind Woman (2005), the lack of harmony is reasserted along with a desire to regain it. This also happens in the repetitive and circular passage of day into night, a cycle characterized by a conciliatory symmetry that the artist has marked out in more than one of her videos.

  • The video To Breathe / Respirar is an extreme and mature synthesis of all the themes presented in Kimsooja's works. Nothing is more symmetrical than the monochrome. These monochromes are sewn together by that electronic needle called post‑production. The color and form are similar to a kind of Asian silk, but also to Western modernism: in this way, one inhales and exhales, duality harmonizes, distant cultural traditions unite and connect like mirrored images, or like two twins helping each other to live.

Angela Vettese has been President of the Bevilacqua La Masa Foundation since 2002. She directs the Graduate Program in Visual Arts at the university IUAV of Venice, and teaches at the Universita Bocconi in Milan. She is the director of the Civic Gallery of Modena. She has published numerous essays for both national and international publications. Her published works include such books as Capire l'arte contemporanea (Allemandi, 1996), Artisti si diventa (Carocci, 1998), A cosa serve l'arte contemporanea (Allemandi, 2001), and Ma questo O un quadro? (Carocci, 2005). She has been a contributing art critic for the Sunday edition of the Italian newspaper "Il Sole 24 ore" since 1986.

Cities on the Move - 2727 KM Bottari Truck, 1997, single channle video, 7:33 min. loop, silent, Commissioned by Korean Arts and Cultural Foundation

Cultural Memory, Cultural Archetype and Communication

Bak, Sanghwan

2006

Gesture of Memory and Communication of Usual Culture

  • Kimsooja, the female artist now in her fifties, first drew attention from her performance in 1997 where she traveled around Korea on her truck loaded with hundreds of bottaries (bundles), soon rising to international fame by taking performances with themes of bottari and needles to Italy, the Seine River and the Liberation Square in France. Her main subject-matter, the bottari and the needle, reminiscent of the life of the modern people, their joys and sorrows, is apt to express issues such as the refugees, starvation, and cultural conflicts. Through the mediation of her body, Kim's performances are intended to show by reconstructing and actualizing our memories of cultural difference and the dogma of religion rising from troubling factors in any region in the world. Here, the body is functioning not as disconnection from the past but as a form of observation that connects herself to a group. The process of reconstruction of the past is proceeded in an unique frame of world interpretation not applied an individual – though one is the agent of the process – but to a group to which one belongs. Herein lies the reason why her performances become the content of communication.

  • Memory is generally produced in the process of socialization. In this sense, Kimsooja's work is fundamentally to invent a new model for 'social memory'. Social memory, or group memory, consistently influences society in the context of tradition, but it is forgotten or eradicated when the group is dissolved through political or social upheaval. Substituting this phenomena which happen when existing social conditions changes for 'cultural memory (kulturelles Gedaechtnis)', Kim also alters the process that recalls the cultural archetype universal to mankind into the process of thinking of 'timeness.' These are expressed in her works such as , a performance in which she both stays in and moves through crowds of people, and in which she is wandering to search for her archetype which has been thrown into the world. 'Cultural memory' expressed by Kimsooja, though, is quite at a distance from memory that is concocted by political power.

  • When a social group remembers a recent past they experienced, they actualize it through daily communication, acquiring a concrete identity. However the time span and social effectiveness of this 'vivid memory' is inevitably limited. A group that secures political hegemony in a give society tries to conceal the exclusiveness of their limited memory by means of casting back its origin to a far and remote past, subsequently attempting to acquire universal validity of its group that owns that memory. However, because 'origin' is separate from actual experiences and thus inevitably mythical, it is necessary to mobilize media such as, documents, texts, architecture, icon, gravestones, temples, monuments, rituals, festivals, and so on.

  • Like this, 'cultural memory' means a social memory which institutionalizes and systematically transmits the significance of culture, constituting group identity. In the sense that it is closely connected to group identity, cultural memory is differentiated from history which seeks abstract and universal knowledge. Here, culture is communication via material basis or medium where cultural memory is takes root, and the development and changes of the medium plays a role in changing the mode of culture and cultural memory. The role of text as a leading medium for memory is replaced by that of photographs, video images, and computers as a consequence of the revolutionary development of multimedia in the twentieth century.

  • The cultural memory which Kimsooja wanted to recognize, can be understood as a reinterpretation of the act of memorializing the deceased (returning to the cultural archetype). As Aleida Assmann noted, "the most essential and pervasive form of memory that connects the live and the deceased, is the respect towards the deceased"[1], also mentioning that while this tradition was maintained until the eighteenth century, it perished on the threshold of the modern period. Because the idea that the deceased occupies a legal and social status in the memory of the living has come to an end, the relation among cultural archetype, tradition and custom calls for an even closer examination.

  • Here Assmann distinguishes two forms of memory: one is 'functional memory (Funktionsgedaechtnis)', structured to function directly according to immediate needs, and the other is 'storing memory(Speichergedaechtnis)', where experiences of the past and knowledges are stored via media and accessed as necessary. History corresponds to the latter. If storing memory plays a role of basis on which functional memory is verified and corrected, then functional memory is the steerman of storing memory. With regard to this, Kimsooja's work can be defined as a kind of 'meta-memory' which performs 'the working of memory.' If history ― constructed in the form of universal or abstract discourse, which is nation-centered and elite-centered ― is an ideology which speaks for the power of authority in current society, Kim interprets the working of memory in the aspect of dissolving oppressed and forgotten truth. Instead of reflecting the experience of the past as it were, she reorganizes it in a way to appeal to the cultural identity; that is, she artificially organizes it to have the marks of the minority be understood more vividly in ordinary life. By freeing herself from the grand discourse of social or political issues and looking back on herself, she pursues diversity instead of unity and attempts a shift in the perceiving of conflict.

  • Kimsooja refuses a voluntary submission to authoritarianism and exclusivism ― self-rationalizing within collectivism ― and attempts at a social consent that takes its form in an act of rational distancing from the group to which one belongs. This is an effort to understand that the cause of contradiction and conflict as analysed in history, or remembered culture coexist within and without herself. This is not an attempt to avoid social conflicts and contradictions, but a way to resolve the problems while constantly and actively confronting(Umgang) them. This way, Kimsooja pursues the return to the 'cultural archetype.' That is, works which remind us of the archetype of mythology, primitive or universal, or works which replaces contents ― harmonized through our body-as-nature ― with sound (in Weaving factory) or with natural scenary (in Earth, Water, Fire, Air), are manifestations of her effort to approach cultural archetype in an attempt to fill the gap of social, and historical differences. For proper understanding, the keyword, 'cultural archetype' calls for a detailed examination through the process of reflecting on history.

Private Possession of Cultural Archetype and Reflection on History

  • Cultural archetype is a more confusing concept than that of culture, which itself is no less difficult to define. However we can gain some form of consensus at least in the area of art in that we are conscious of cultural propagation, cultural transmission and cultural change. Although there is conceptual vagueness, tradition, in a cultural memory that reconstructs the past, still holds an important position with regard to communicating with the past. When we cast back limited memory to a remote past, it is estranged from reality, then requiring a mythical symbol, and when the cultural archetype aspires towards traditional culture as a subject-matter of creation, it is frequently connected to mythical imagination.

  • Of course, the concept of time used in cultural memory occupies a rather peculiar position. Time contemporaneously used within a specific group is their own time, but the timeness of cultural memory as transmitted memory is operating in a 'distended situation (die zerdehnte Situation)', a situation where it is disconnected and then reconnected. Cultural memory has a cultural meaning, in which the past and present are arranged and transmitted along the same line. Myth is the memory of origins, a memory which "is directed and experienced through the monumental field of communication, such as symbols, rituals or festivals. It is thus a memory which refers to what stands in contrast with the quotidian, or rather, to the root of being(dasein) that is excluded from the quotidian; it creates the meaning of the quotidian by making known the order towards which the quotidian should aim. It is a memory that, according to Assman, cures the lack in the quotidian."[2]

  • We seek a kind of psychological comfort in the parallels of time. The discourse of memory vascillates between two contrasting axes of criticizing and enjoying the past. On the one hand, it dissolves the myth of the past, and on the other hand, it remythicizes it. Culture and cultural archetypes, and 'root-searching,' or re-mythicizing connected with tradition can eventually be reduced to the problem of modernization contained in culture. For a better understanding, here I quote a passage from the preface of The Invention of Tradition, written by Eric Hobsbawm.

  • "However, insofar as there is such reference to a historic past, the peculiarity of 'invented' traditions is that the continuity with it is largely factitious. In short, they are responses to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations, or which establish their own past by quasi-obligatory repetition. It is the contrast between the constant change and innovation of the modern world and the attempt to structure at least some parts of social life within it as unchanging and invariant, that makes the 'invention of tradition' so interesting for historians of the past two centuries."[3]

  • If custom is the living past, tradition is a mental image that is 'invented' to hide the fact that it is actually disconnected from the past. In world history, it was in the nineteenth century that nationalism suddenly surfaced and European countries advocated their own culture by setting up the virtual other; now, Korea follows in their footsteps. From the late the twentieth century, Korea has been searching from within the virtual others which was invented in Europe. It is the so-called Re-Orientalism phenomenon. Paradoxically, when we remember our culture, we are either consciously or unconsciously approaching it from the viewpoint of Orientalism, a perspective invented in the West. Culture has basically been developed in the process of searching for identity, but as is the process of modernization in Korea, the identity of science is always the object of question, and the ordinary people's pursuit of self-identity has distortedly developed under the influence of the West, Japan and U. S. A. This trend once began to be replaced with independent viewpoints triggered by the Gwangju democratization movement in 1980, but now, thirty years later, it is being reversed again. The main slogan of this period is now back to the logic of the powerful, emphasizing only warped ends rather than the reasonability of means and processes. Here we need to understand the meaning of history which is molded through the process of modernization. Starting from the late nineteenth century, modernization in the Korean peninsula intersected with westernization, and at the same time awareness of our cultural identity began to emerge in earnest. This was, however, not a situation particular to East-Asian countries such as Korea or China, but a shared historical experience among late capitalism societies.

  • Let us take Germany as an example, a late capitalist country in Europe. "The contrast between civilization and culture which was suggested by the German bourgeoisie may be considered pre-historical to the discourses of 'Chinese Substance and Western Function(中體西用, Zhongti Xiyong)' or 'Eastern Ways and Western Machines(東道西器, Tongtosoki)', both propagated by East-Asian countries when western European countries came in with imperialistic spoliation."[4] As is generally known, early modern Germany was under the influence of the spirit of the times(Zeitgeist) of the bourgeoisie, which justified their desire to compensate for their political-economical inferiority to western Europe (i.e. England and France) with spiritualism, that is, the belief that their values have intrinsic intellectual and artistic superiority[5]. 'Culture' and 'civilization' can be used interchangeably in English, but this was not possible in Germany. Kant's statement ― "We are cultivated(kultiviert) on a very high level by art and science...The ideology of morality belongs to culture(Kultur), but if we search for it only in something like the desire for fame, manners, or superficial courtesy, it would result in civilization(Zivilisierung)."[6] ― is speaking for the superiority of German culture which emphasizes inner morality in contrast to material and ostentatious civilization of Western Europe. German intellectuals since Kant in the eighteenth century understood culture in two different concepts: spiritual culture(Kultur) and material civilization(Zivilisation). Based on this understanding of the relationship between culture and civilization, Germany comprehended the First World War as bursting out from an intensified conflict between nations, as a cultural struggle of Germany, Central Europe, against the material civilization of Western Europe.

  • Originating from the Latin word 'cultura(cultivation, education)', which is derived from the verb 'colere(to take care, to enlighten)', the concept of culture accentuates human intervention and has an especially close relation to education. The usage of 'culture' in modern Germany reflects the process of self-education of the individual and society. The dichotomous reasoning which divides higher spiritual culture and lower material culture and the concept of culture related to the concept of education are usually discovered in late modern society. The ancient concept of culture in the East has also been developed in the context of education and cultivation; 文化(culture) is derived from 以文敎化(education with literature), and this stems from a Confucian spirit of the humanities along with 文治敎化(educating people without punishment) and 德治敎化(educating people with virtue). In other words, it was a device invented to inspire active human intervention in the period of social change. The reason that late developing countries, taking top-down reformation strategies, seek for people's motivation ― urgently required in the process of economic development ― particularly in spiritual or moral aspects is that it is easy to obtain social consent from in those areas to the extent that they have deep affinity with cultural memory of pre-modern society. In this context, we can say that the concept of culture is directly connected to the problem of modernization still effective today.

  • High culture formed in the German conception of culture is certainly different from folk culture, and its influence reached to Adorno, who criticized the culture industry in the middle of the twentieth century. Though Contemporary Korean society does show capitalist traits that are distinguishable from those of Western societies at that time, it is also possible to analyze Korean society in another way, according to which Korean society is relatively less classified than Western societies where culture is consumed discriminatively according to class. Instead of discriminatively accommodating or practicing culture according to class or hierarchical identity, contemporary Korean society shows a mixture of aspects that makes it difficult to discriminate cultural classes. However, when social change is analyzed in a broader perspective, considering the tendency to pursue dominant culture without forming resistant culture in the mixed state, we can find similar contrasts within the cultural traditions of East Asia, between the higher and the lower, and it has been influential until now on the process of modernization. A spirit-centered dichotomy and retrospective ways of thinking ― which are revealed in the logic of modernization, such as Chinese Substance and Western Function(中體西用, Zhongti Xiyong), Japanese Spirit and Western Techniques(和魂洋才, Wakon Yosai), Eastern Ways and Western Machines(東道西器, Tongtosoki) ― are still dominant, and in this continuous trend, the worries of returning to the spirit of the literary in this pursuit of the spirit of humanities sounds persuasive. In this tradition it is not easy for cultural memory to be free. It is necessary to examine this trend to find the root of culture. Theories of modernization in China or the later period of Chosun ― accepting social and economic modernization but refusing cultural modernization, that is, the coexistence with others ― approached contrasting relation between the old and new, the East and West from a compromising perspective. The cultural conservatism that is intrinsic in this compromise, such as Chinese Substance and Western Function, is not a phenomenon particular to the late nineteenth century. Nowadays, we heavily rely on Huntingtonian cultural essentialism when it comes to the interpretation of culture. Refusing the modern in the name of tradition on the one hand, criticizing tradition in the name of the modern on the other, the contrasting dichotomous discourse of modernism ― an all-out rejection and an all-out affirmation at the same time ― reveals our very reality.

Weaving the gap of difference with the language of the body

  • Kimsooja, becoming a needle herself, has laboriously made the effort to weave with the weft and warp the gap between the world and people, suggesting the necessity to historically and structurally approach problems such as anti-democracy, authoritarianism, exclusivism and elitism. Now, the viewpoint that defines culture as antagonistic sectors, such as 'Asian value vs. Western value' or 'Confucianism vs. Buddhism, Western Christianity, Hinduism, or Islam' and so on, should be deemed outdated, and now, culture should be understood as that which has concrete forms, as a relation of harmony and communication in which diversity is respected [7]. If an interpretation of culture starts from the supposition that each culture has an extremely different world view on a deep spiritual level, this interpretation does not veer far from cultural essentialism [8]. Dieter Senghaas put, "If, however, the difference between the value profiles of a highly modernized and a less modernized society within one civilization is far greater than between the value profiles of societies at similar stages of development in different civilizations ― certainly a verifiable, sociologically plausible situation ― then the more recent international cultural debate would appear to be unrealistic."[9] The conflict between different cultural sectors is important, but the conflict between different groups within one cultural sector may be more serious. Consequently, Kimsooja's works are actions that show the activities of accepting the diversity of values into the language of the body, by contrasting actual elements of ritual with the difference of space between different cultures, or difference of time between the pre-modern and the modern coexisting within a given cultural sector. If the awareness of otherness is the product of the modern and the pursuit of cultural archetype a means to resolve present conflicts, what meaning does Kimsooja's work confer today? The cultural archetype plays a role as a medium which properly connects the role of the individual and the role of society. At this juncture, the artist requests that, through further active gestures, society respect diverse opinions and develop otherwise disagreeable ideas into a field of communication where they are no longer mutually exclusive.

[1] Aleida Assmann, Erinnerungsräume : Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses, C. H. Beck, 1999, p. 39

[2] Hak Ie Kim, "'Cultural Memory' of Jan Assmann", The Journal of Western History, Vol. 33, 2005, p. 241

[3] Eric Hobsbawm, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. 2.

[4] Kim Jong Yup, "The Change of the Concept of Culture and a Problem of Cultural Study" The Practice of Cultural Study and Cultural Contents (Inha University College of Humanities Specialized Research Group, Inha University, 2005), p. 72.

[5] In this context, Schiller criticized the French Revolution and utopianism in the fourth letter of "On the Aesthetic Education of man in a Series of Letters". (F. Schiller, Ueber die aesthetische Erziehung des Menschen (Stuttgart, Reclam, 1965). S. 9.)

[6] Kant, 'Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbuergerlicher Absicht', in; Werke Bd.9 (Darmstadt, 1983), S. 44 (A402~403)

[7] Bak Sang Hwan "The Study of Communication and Possibility on the Cultural Contents and Humanism", Journal of the humanities, Vol. 41, (Sungkyunkwan University Research Institute for the Humanities, 2008), pp. 228-229

[8] A viewpoint that counts culture as essential in that it determines everything in human society.

[9] Dieter Senghaas, Zivilisierung wider Willen: der Konflikt der Kulturen mit sich selbst (English translation, The Clash within Civilisations: Coming to Terms with Cultural Conflicts, p. 6)

  • Bak Sang Hwan is a Professor of Confucian and Oriental Studies at Sungkyunkwan University

A Needle Woman, 2005, Patan (Nepal)

Kimsooja - A One-Word Name Is An Anarchist's Name

Kapš, Petra

2006

  • Kimsooja (b. Taegu, Korea, 1957) is a world-renowned artist, who has been living in New York since 1999. She has been included in many important contemporary art publications throughout the world, and has been exhibiting her works in Asia, America and Europe. Her work includes installation, performance, video and photography. Nomadism has been a constant in her life since childhood, and has also become a strategy that she has been using continuously to articulate her artistic work — the imperatives of the ego, passion and desire; detachment from material, and relationships with other people, are a continuous search throughout her artistic creations. The main themes she deals with are movement, totality, time and space, life, death, and the ephemeral aspect of the material world. Different interpretations of her work offer a wide spectrum of readings and several contexts — from minimalism, feminism, nomadism, buddhism, to aesthetic and political ideologies. Nevertheless, the main purpose of her work is a mode of artistic creation, her belief in intuition, and reaching balance. Compassion is an element of Kimsooja's work that manifests also as a response, not in terms of direct political activism, but as conscience and conscious presence; as witness. Kimsooja's work was presented to Slovenia at the last year's exhibition The Fifth Gospel in Celje.

  • The following text is from a conversation with the artist Kimsooja, and the intense personal experience and subsequent reflection provoked by seeing her video works. The questions that followed the primary impulse was how did the artist, with seemingly minimalistic means, succeed in opening up a new perspective for the viewer, and at the same time awaken human consciousness in a remarkably simple and fascinating way. When we are standing in front of Kimsooja's artwork, we are actually confronting ourselves.

  • A One-Word Name Is An Anarchist's Name is the first statement on your website project. At first sight, the notion of anarchism seems to be in complete contrast with your work. On the other hand, your activities in the Western art world and society in terms of minimalism, detachment, reduction of the ego, your respect to nature and all living beings and unmindfulness of self-image, they all work subversively to that first impression.

  • What I made in this comment on my website, 'A One-Word Name Is An Anarchist's Name' was a symbolic cultural statement in respect to naming an individual who lives as an outsider from one's own society, as a spectator rather than as an activist who practices anarchism in an actual political context.

  • In public you appear with the name Kimsooja, the identity of which is explained on your website with the following words: "A one word name refuses gender identity, marital status, socio-political or cultural and geographical identity by not separating the family name and the first name." Can your intentions in the art world also be indicated with these words?

  • I was actually more interested in the possibilities the art world has, which allows universal language and diversity. This is in contrast to my own limited socio-cultural daily life context from Korea — to be more independent as a human being out of hierarchy, to question and open up a new relationship to the society.

  • The symbolic meaning of the different ways a married women's name appears in different societies is quite interesting — married women's names in Western society follow after their husband's name, and that of Asian women's follow after their own father's name, both of which eventually keep the male dominant family name. This gives an interesting contrast and level of perception of what degree and hierarchy those two societies are similar as male dominant societies, and different in terms of women's status. This idea of putting my first name and last name together suddenly stimulated my desire to be free from any of social structures, and expanded my imagination to obtain an absolute independency as a human being, within the art world at least. Different from a person's name in daily life, the name presented in the art world usually represents no personality or emphasis of their gender, but functions more as a symbol of a specific art practice as a character. However, it was a symbolic gesture for me to explain my social, cultural burden from Korean society, from which I wished so much to be liberated.

  • Upon entering your website, the user reads your words: "I was hoping for an ideal society and relationship among people in the art world in which we could share real opinions with honesty, sincerity, dignity and love of art and life. I hope that my website project will not just introduce my activities but can bring more articulated discussions and criticism on art and the world." The site was published on 14 July 2003 — what are your experiences with this appeal now? Also, what do the individual responses to your 'Action Two: It Is Not Fair' mean to you?

  • It is quite a delicate issue. Around the time when I decided to start my website, I was very disappointed by the dominate big international biennale scenes. Although I've been in many of these international events, and have had both positive and negative experiences, in general these international biennale scenes show very little respect for art and the artists. They seem to focus more and more on the power structure of the art world, and their specific political alliances with the artists and institutions, rather than the quality of the work or it's meaning. The peak of this phenomenon has past, and there seems to be an effort to make some balance between the role of artists and that of curators. There must be a balance between the creator and the organizer, and neither should empower the other, but instead communicate and encourage each other in equal amounts. Although both artists and curators have different attitudes and perspectives, in the end we always learn from each other. This is just one example of the varied relationships between people that I wished to address.

  • The 'Action Two: It Is Not Fair' project was started to give an opportunity to question the notion of 'fairness' as it is related to this phenomenon in the art world, but rather than narrowing it only to the art world, I opened up a broader discussion. My position in this project functions as a 'witness' and as a 'questioner' rather than an answerer. All of the responses I've gotten gave me positive and negative questions and perceptions on the human relationship towards other humans, society, and to themselves. From the diverse and specific perspectives I've received, I have arrived at a fine balance of fairness on a broader level beyond the individual statements.

  • The fundamental creative principles, processes and concepts of Kimsooja's artistic articulation are continuously present since the beginning of her career. At first, she was mainly focusing on painting, specifically on questions about the surface. She created paintings out of pieces of fabric, combining sewing, painting and drawing. Her paintings were made of used fabric, rags, and clothing. The first clothing that she incorporated into her paintings were owned by her grandmother. She later started to collect used clothing from anonymous people, and to explore the their invisible presence in the fabric. From the early 1980's, sewing became the essential principle of her artistic process — sewing as a monotonous repetition of movement ... the possibility of a meditative gaze into the human interior (self) ... a fluid journey of mind and spirit. The processes of sewing, covering, and wrapping are tightly connected to everyday activities (mostly female activities in Korean, as well as in Western, tradition). Putting them into an artistic context creates a balance between the artistic procedures and the creative elements of everyday activities. The meditative process hidden beneath a common marginal act of sewing exposes the performative process of the reduction of the ego, already in these early works. With meditative means, the artist is reaching a certain state of consciousness, where she focuses and eradicates herself, and she simultaneously creates space for the viewers to enter. It can be present in the imprint of the body left on the used fabrics, the smell of anonymous people on clothing, and on bedcovers. This space is also 'the void' through which the viewer enters. By focusing on herself, she reaches towards the point where the ego slowly disappears. Kimsooja is creating the void, an empty space through which the viewer can reach the balance between human relationships and life.

  • With her residency in New York at the beginning of the 1990's, her experience based on living and working in Korea intermingled with that of a different view over her own artistic practice and cultural context in New York. Her artistic point of view was radically changing towards re-questioning cultural, social and political Korean traditions.

  • In talking about your work, we can use a few key words: journey (nomadism), detachment from matter or attachment to human being, existing beings, time, life, death, mobility as a necessary condition of life, totality. What is your relationship to these words?

  • I guess all these words are related to the destiny of our existence.I am questioning my own destiny in this world in various paths, but reaching to the totality of it.

  • Your works express the relationship of life and art in a very special way. Is this the prime notion for your artistic engagement - art as a tool for understanding the mobility of life? In Martin Heidegger's conversation with Shinji Hisamatsu we find a very interesting word, geido — a 'path (journey) of art', this word comprises of a deeper relation to life, to our own being. It is a word for art that has substantial importance for existence.

  • I must say, the result of art making which we call 'art work' is a secondary thing for me. The most important part in making art for me is, "questioning life, self, the other, and the world", and finding my own path for answers, which leads to another question, as always. In that sense, I find geido, as mentioned by Shinji Hisamatsu, to be a very coherent interpretation.

  • In the Korean tradition, it is quite common that bedcovers are received by newlyweds as a gift. The richly embroidered fabrics with symbolic patterns are filled with familial and social desires, expectations and demands. The bedcover is wrapped around the body in various life circumstances (among others, during birth, rest, sex, illness, death). In the eyes of a Western observer, this piece of fabric is an aesthetic object of provocative, intensely radiant colours. Colour is one of the most important constants in Kimsooja's work, contextually related to Korean tradition and Western modernism. The bedcovers that the artist includes in her work are discarded bedcovers, that have all served their time. The echos of a once present body remain as traces of smell and form.

  • By the beginning of the 1990's, Kimsooja used bedcovers as bottari (which means bundle), in which people wrap their belongings for travelling. She wrapped the clothes of anonymous people and daily objects within them. Bottari is a metaphor for the artist's life credo — a nomadism that is the basis of her creative practice. It implies the idea of a constant readiness to leave, detachment from the physical world, and is a universal metaphor for mobility. In the photo of the performance entitled Encounter, Looking Into Sewing, a figure is completely covered, with bedcovers draped over their head. This image brings several associations to the mind of the viewer — the image of a bride, a metaphor of torture. In this work, the artist has exposed strong feelings of intimate denial, abstinence (especially in the life of a woman from Korean society), and explored the relationship between the visible, and the hidden yet present. Bedcovers that imply an intimate environment are embraced in public spaces. The artist put them on café tables as table cloths in one of her projects entitled Deductive Object, presented at Manifesta 1 in 1996. By doing so she confronted an aesthetic exterior and functionality with the Korean prohibition of eating in bed.

  • In her project Sewing Into Walking - Dedicated To The Victims of Kwangju, 1995, Kimsooja piled up loose clothing, and clothing wrapped in bedcovers, and put them in a 2.5 ton heap. In the Korean tradition, clothing preserves the spirit of their owners, and are therefore burned after a person dies. In this installation, they represent the reincarnation of people, the memory and the guilt, over the massacre in Kwangju in 1980.

  • In the 11 day performance Cities On The Move - 2727 Kilometers Bottari Truck, 1997, she travelled through her childhood hometowns on a heap of bundles, bottaris loaded on a truck. In this way, her initial introspective sewing gaze manifested itself in a real journey. By later placing this truck in a gallery space (Bottari Truck In Exile, d'APERTutto, Venice, 1999) she transformed her personal experience into a universal issue of cycle and passing of life, and cohabitation of time and space. At the same time, by dedicating this installation to the victims of war in Kosovo, she took the position of a quiet yet indelible witness.

  • I am interested in your experience of suppression and endurance that you talk about in connection with the traditional Korean bedcovers. Bedcovers have a strong intimate seal for every individual. A bedcover can (un)cover the most intimate parts of an individual and the shape of life as well that is re-established by the cohabitation of two individuals.

  • It is interesting that you point out the word 'cohabitation' within the bedcover's hidden structure. Most people don't see that dimension, which involves another big issue in my life and work. People's gaze often ends up with the beauty of the fabrics or the cultural aspect of it, and imagining the couple's memory and intimacy, but there is another big issue in dealing with the 'reality of relationship' and 'self' and 'other' within this frame. Things become a question when they are problematic - it is good material to live and to question. Again this problematic 'co-habitation of duality' raises all sorts of questions on human existence.

  • Time is connected with memory and reminiscence. One of the main topics you deal with is death. We can also understand your works as 'preservers of memory' of the dead, of the sufferers who are present in clothes, ashes, bedcovers, bottari, carpets, in cessation of breathing ... They are interventions against concealment and oblivion. Where does this continuous emphasis on life and death come from?

  • I am also curious about this continuity of my own concern: my obsession on body, death, and its memory to try to reveal the truth of victimized and disappeared beings, among other dimensions of my work. I think I have a strong compassion for all ephemeral beings, including myself.

  • Aside from exploring various contexts of found objects and used fabrics, their meanings and physical presence, performance and video represent another area of Kimsooja's artistic activity. The series of video works A Needle Woman, 1999-2001 is a video record of performances carried out in eight world metropolises (London, Lagos, New York, Tokyo, Mexico City, Cairo, Delhi, Shanghai). The artist uses a consistent structure of visual imagery (a static camera frames the view, and the artist is turned away from the viewer, and is situated on the street with an extraordinarily large number of people). The artist's body is in a state of a seemingly static and deeply contemplative posture. The viewer meets the mass of moving people. The artist's body can be interpreted as the entrance door, a point of identification or watching (observing the relation of the passersby to the artist, we can only make conclusions about her responses to the people from their faces). If we focus on the pieces from Lagos and Tokyo, two extremely different realities, we can follow the whole spectrum of social, political and cultural contexts that we find in the response of people's bodies and faces. In the installation of these video works, we begin to observe particular specificities of people, small daily events recorded by the camera — unobtrusive presentation, emphasising the particularities of every individual. With her minimal intervention that is actually merely presence, the artist is documenting people in a simple way, positioning herself as observer, not an arbiter. The element of time modification causes variation in the recorded natural mobility of people and their surroundings. The minimal slowing down enables the viewer to observe details and characteristics in th continuous 'flow' of people, the image passing by remains conscious for a moment. The interpretative field of this series is extensive and applies to all Kimsooja's work. From the analogy of a sewing needle and the artist's body forming a relationship to the passersby with its immobility, exploring the responses on its presence for mental and physical personal space, to the social context of the heterogeneity of social phenomena and the role of human being in contemporary world.

  • One of the defining parameters of Kimsooja's work in this context is her research of movement, mobility. Her body seems to be immobile, completely static compared to the mass of moving people. This seemingly motionless body is also analogous with a statue, a static object.

  • The image of your body in video performances, being turned away from the viewer, addresses people in a special way. This body-image cannot be interpreted as a symbol, but as an emptiness that, on one side opens up the space for the viewer, and on the other represents mobility towards human life, to his essence. How do you comprehend your body at this particular point?

  • I find your perception of my body as a 'void' one of the most accurate and relevant descriptions of the presence of my body in my videos. The emptiness is created by turning my back towards the audiences, by not showing my personal identity, and also by allowing my body to function as a passageway for the audience to go through or enter into - this enables the audience to experience what I see and experience in situ. It is a similar function to a needle point, which has a decisive form of function, but works only through the empty hole of a needle eye, which is on the opposite side of the needle point. They can never meet each other, and they have this Yin and Yang relationship serving itself as a medium between fabrics. I weave the social and cultural fabrics with my presence and void as a medium. But I also believe that there's ego, which was not there while performing- I must say, standing there in the middle of the crowds was also a process of emptying my own ego, while receiving all of the people and their energy in my body and mind. This process of emptying the ego allows people to enter your body and create a void of your own self.

  • Your artwork A Laundry Woman - Yamuna River, India, 2000 was shown at the exhibition The Fifth Gospel in Celje. The video projection was placed inside the Catholic Church of Saint Mary. The strong context in which the work was placed added an interesting analogy. Through the body of the artist - place/point of identification/entrance - the viewer entered into the artwork in the same way as Western civilization entered the body of Christ in history. How the viewer experienced it from this point onwards was dependent upon himself. The body functioned as a mediator. What are your thoughts about this different context that has a strong 'point of possibility' to influence the work?

  • Locating my body in the midst of crowds or in nature is to question my existence and that of others on what I see, where I am, and where we are going. It is the question raised from the experiences of these performances that leads me to go forward and question further. Relating my work within the context of the Catholic Church and its history can be controversial in the sense of my way of thinking and that of Catholicism. I am interested in this kind of contradiction, as it can sometimes create an unexpected innovation, as if two different ways of mathematics can solve the same question from a different method. When those two different approaches and energies crash and merge together, they can break through the existing way of thinking. This is a fascinating side of fusion in art making and art reading.

  • When the function of one sense is prevented, for whatever reason, other senses sharpen to compensate for the missing information. The artist uses this effect for achieving special (meditative) states in the viewer, and to sharpen the human senses that are necessary in perceiving reality. Her video works mostly exclude sound. The intensity of the video image overwhelms us in the beginning, and only gradually do we become conscious of the fact that individual sounds — the flowing of a river, the dripping of water, a gust of wind, birds singing, human speech, street noise — are all missing. With this absence (and consequently, the orientation of human consciousness toward a sole level of perception) the artist directs our attention to the field of the visible and further to the field of spirit. The sharpened act of seeing centers our perception exclusively on the image. There is an obvious intertwining of artistic and meditative strategies that mostly omit sound, and focus on directing the (inner) gaze. In her work The Weaving Factory, 5.1, sound is the only element of the installation. Simple and minimal expressive means are the logical choice for achieving the goal — to direct, to sharpen the sight, and hearing. This year, the artist joined light, colour and sound in her work To Breath / Respirare, presented in La Fenice theater in Venice. The video installation was a combination of the projection of intensive monochromatic colours alternating in regular rhythm and the recorded sound of the artist's breathing. The sound element transitioned from a relaxed tempo that aroused pleasant, relaxed feelings, to an unbearably quick tempo, awakening anxious feelings verging on physical pain.

  • I have experienced your art works as a visual world, and a world of silence, where different phenomena are shown that lead the viewe into (self) consciousness. Furthermore, this consciousness of things that are outside of us aims at harmonizing and balancing the individual in life.

  • A sense of consciousness, equilibrium and harmony has played an important role in my work, but at the same time, this is nothing but my own personality. I used to raise questions from the point where the consciousness of an unbalanced and un-harmonized situation stays — that which has a lack of care or lack of fulfillment as a whole and as a oneness. The whole process of making art is about balancing the situation through a Yin and Yang perspective, like an acupuncturist. I often see the situation in the complexity of duality and try to find the necessary remedy for it.

  • On watching your video works (in Celje and Venice) I had a very interesting experience of time; with each work I had a feeling of being thrown out of the common concepts of time. Time extended, or it was as though it did not exist anymore. How do you define time?

  • I often feel that I am in a state where I am out of a specific time frame, either in the midst of concentration or in a meditative state. When I see my videos, I feel similar states of my own experiences I have in daily life. Time is not there when I am there, and when there is time I am not there anymore. Time exists when one has consciousness of the other or one's other self - when one can see the other, even oneself as the other. Time is the body that you see with your eyes of consciousness. Time exists when a separation of your body and consciousness occurs. Time is space, and space is time.

  • What are your feelings about your past projects?

  • All of my past work functions as just one 'station' towards another, as a process to reach to the final destination towards 'void', or the 'extinguishment' of my artistic and existential self.

  • What role does beauty play in your life and aesthetics? What is your relationship to this phenomenon?

  • I believe in beauty as a reflection of truthfulness, harmony, and purity — but also as a reflection of decadence, as well as in its inevitable complexity within its own contradiction. Beauty is discovered when the viewer has eyes for it, and everything in this world has its own connection to beauty.

  • Ethics, which has played an important role in the history of Western art, was not discussed in connection with art in the time of modernism. This situation is changing at the moment. Your works express strong ethical messages. What is your attitude towards these two spheres of ethics and contemporary art?

  • Ethical attitude generally comes from the pursuit of harmony and concern of others. I think art can be ethical in the pursuit of beauty and reality, although there's some contradiction between art and ethics in aesthetic methodology. Art often didn't respond much to the reality of our life and present time in modernism, and the creative process of art making often involved a de-constructive element. There are also so many different levels of ethics - ethics for ethics, ethics to prove truth and fairness, ethics that revenges the negative phenomena of society. These two aspects of being destructive in their own process and being ethical to idealism can be coherent at some level and it is inevitable to respond to present conditions of life in any form.

  • It seems that nowadays we consume art only through filters of digital technology, images in a digital camera or a movie camera. Watching through digital media is like consumption, I watch with my eyes like I use things; a commodity. But at the same time, it seems that these media membranes do not mutilate your work. The viewer doesn't need any knowledge of contemporary art for experiencing your work. Are such effects important for you?

  • I don't think much about the viewer's point of view, or have interest in guiding them to a particular way of looking at my work. What leads the viewer to access my work is probably because I am not dealing with only specific issues and questions in contemporary art, but also with essential questions on life from mundane daily life.

  • How do you develop your works from the first impulse to the final realization?

  • In most cases, the first impulse leads to another reflection that creates a concept, and the concept leads to another impulse and they fuse ... But sometimes just one intuition or concept is enough.

  • It seems as though Korean tradition is getting more and more hidden, covered in your work.

  • I left Korea at the end of 1998 after participating in the Sao Paulo Biennale, and I've been living in New York since then. As the years go by, my living and working conditions are more based in New York daily life and my travels throughout the world. I live in a somewhat different social and cultural life than in Korea, although I still question Korean culture and my own identity and relationships. I've started working with daily objects I discover in New York, communicating and thinking more in English, and being aware of the political and socio-cultural status of my present living conditions within the world.

  • I consider myself to be a cosmopolitan, which might be the reason why the Korean cultural elements I used to deal with have been disappearing little by little from my work. But I am sure, at some point, there will be another moment when I re-discover my own culture from a different perspective than when I was in Korea.

  • You have been working in the Western world for almost a decade now. What is your relationship to the Korean period today? What did the last decade give to you?

  • It gave me personal independence, financial support, social freedom, and detachment from my society and relationships.

  • What would you say about the notion that your art works are not questioning particularity of subjectivity that is so relevant today but are addressing fundamental questions of being, basic questions of life such as the balance of inside and outside, spirit and body, mind and soul, human as a natural and cultural being, being that exists in time and space of 'now'?

  • I have always been dealing with present issues around me and the society that I was in. People sometimes see it that way because I used traditional materials, but it was my and my society's reality, although diminishing, and it had symbolic cultural connotations that are part of contemporary global society's issues as well. I just didn't use Western fabrics or images as it wasn't my reality and they created strong present questions for me. If I used Western fabrics, I wouldn't have been able to create my own conceptual context as a relationship to the bedcover, body and cohabitation — that has to do with my reality within Korean culture.

  • Are there any new horizons in your art?

  • I know my work goes further and further away from the materialistic world but I am still interested in materiality itself as a strong presence of existence and a body of time. I also know that the whole process is just an endless circulation of comprehension of the world and self, and I wish one day I could be just a simple being freed from desire of making art and see as it is and live as I am within the world as it is.

Petra Kapš is an independent curator, art critic and writer. She is MA candidate at the Department of Philosophy at the University in Maribor, Slovenia.

To Breathe / Respirar. Palacio de Cristal. Parque del Retiro. Madrid.

Kimsooja: Less is More

Rubio, Oliva María

2006

  • Kimsooja (Taegu. Korea, 1957) has dedicated her long, intense artistic career to developing her own personal vision of the world through the use of installations, performances, photography, videos and site-specific projects. Her obvious singularity has tempted some to seek out links with certain Eastern philosophical and artistic traditions, but her core material is reality itself. The ideas that inform her work follow from questions she asks about life and art, about individuality and our relationship to others, about emptiness and the ephemerality of our existence. Her upbringing and life experience have helped shape her thinking into a unique blend where Christianity and Western philosophy is intimately entwined with Zen Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism and Tao. In the history of Western art, we can find several referents to her work in performance and body-art circles, where artists such as Marina Abramovic and Ulay or Valie Export parallel her concerns. But rather than allowing herself to be swayed by theoretical issues and philosophies, whether Eastern or Western, Kimsooja has followed a trajectory marked mainly by a social and political commitment ensuing from her own life story, memory and sensitivity. Her work has deep universal roots and aspires to capture the totality of human experience: her creations appeal equally to mind, body and soul.

  • From the beginning of the Nineties, after having worked with abstract collage compositions combining sewn objects with drawing and painting, Kimsooja began to create installations and spatial objects that she dubbed Deductive Objects, where sewing was both a metaphor and an activity in itself. Needles, cloths, threads, quilts and such like formed part of her creative universe. Sewing, wrapping, stretching, folding, unfolding, covering are activities to which she repeatedly returns. The materials she chooses and the way she employs them derive from the traditional use of cloths in Korea. She began to show her bottariat two exhibitions she held in New York in 1993: the first in PS.1, where she had arrived the previous year on an international residence grant, and the other at the ISE Foundation. The bottari are bundles stuffed with cloths, clothes, etc, wrapped up in well-worn traditional Korean bedcovers. As the artist explained, second-hand bed clothes "bring with them smell, memories, desires, holding the spirit and life of former owners". From then on, these commonplace objects in Korean culture became a constant in her work. In Korea they are associated with mobility (voluntary or obligatory), as they are used to carry around unbreakable domestic chattels such as clothes, books, food and gifts. Kimsooja's work presented them in all possible combinations: individually; alongside bedding laid out on the floor; against the backdrop of a landscape evoking their core function as a way of transporting necessary goods, symbolizing nomadic values; in dialog with video installation, etc.

  • The artist went on to use the term bottari as the recurrent title for a series of videos she made in several different countries during 2000 and 2001. One such was Bottari-Zócalo, where we see a huge crowd of people - tiny multicolored bundles- swarming around the Zócalo plaza in Mexico City. Another was Bottari - Alfa Beach, shot in one of the slave-trading ports of Nigeria. On a screen split in two with sea and sky inverted, the constant to-and-fro of the waves in a green-grey sea, occasionally splashed by the white foam of breaking waves, contrasts with the quiet sky of fluffy clouds underneath. It transmits the same hope and uncertainty that the slaves must have felt in the face of an unknown future that loomed before them. Then there is Bottari - drawing the snow, where dark snowflakes fall across the white screen like birds scattering from their flock in all directions. And Bottari - waiting for the sunrise, filmed in Real de Catorce, Mexico, where a fixed camera focuses on a stony road that disappears into the horizon. The day is breaking but we cannot yet see the sun. For nearly five minutes, during which nothing moves, we try to discern the landscape, feeling the slow passage of time. Suddenly, we notice white light moving at the back from the right to the left of the screen. As the light coincides with the center of the road it seems that time and space have merged; but before it can begin to dazzle us, the video ends.

  • These three videos were first presented, alongside another four, at the Bevilacqua La Masa Foundation exhibition in Venice, January 2006, and foreshadowed Kimsooja's most recent works. They emit no sound. It seems as if the artist wants us to concentrate on the space, on what the screen is showing, placing unique importance on vision. Everything else is left to our imagination. The sense of movement, traveling, transition, disorientation, uncertainty and hope — all aspects that play a vital role in our lives — is ever-present in the author's videographic output and connects them to both her earlier and her later work. Kimsooja reflects on various aspects of life in which analogy and metaphor assume special relevance.

  • Apart from the bottari, another characteristic element in her work is the employment of brightly colored, well-used traditional Korean bedclothes. For Kimsooja, they symbolize women, sex, love, the body, rest, sleep, privacy, fertility, longevity and health. Elements brimming with significance and present in human life from cradle to grave. Like the bottari, the bedclothes appear in various works, assembled in different manners: spread out on the floor in Sewing into Walking (1995); in combination with bottari in Deductive Object (1996); covering a mannequin in the photograph entitled Encounter - looking into sewing (1998-2002), which speaks to us both of loss of identity and of its weight; hanging from pegs as if hung out to dry in, for example, A Laundry Woman (2000) and A Mirror Woman (2002), another metaphor for female roles. These last two were presented in several places, including the Contemporary Art Museum in Lyon and the Peter Blum Gallery in New York, respectively.

  • As of the mid-Nineties, Kimsooja began to use video fundamentally as a way to document and record performances in which she herself played a leading role. Between 1997 and 2001 she filmed a series of videos from performances she held in various towns and places the world over. Both the process and the pictures that these generated link into her attempt to reconcile the tensions inherent in the relationship between our ego and others'. The first video she entitled Cities on the Move - 2727 Kilometers Bottari Truck. It was made in November 1997, on an eleven-day journey through Korea on a truck loaded with colorful bottari. The 7:03 minutes of footage record the trip in space and time. A metaphor for her own life — constantly crossing frontiers — but also for one of the characteristics of contemporary artists and our society as a whole: nomadism is one of the mainstays of Kimsooja's art. We find it in many works of hers: in the installations with the bottari as symbolic elements and in other video pieces.

  • The common denominator to this series of videos is the female form, a motionless woman with her back to the camera. It is presented in a myriad of settings: standing amongst passers-by in Tokyo, Shanghai, New Delhi, New York, Mexico, Cairo, Lagos and London or reclining on a rock in Kitakyushu, Japan — A Needle Woman (1999-2001); sitting on the pavement asking for alms in Cairo, Mexico and Lagos — A Beggar Woman (2000-2001); lying in the streets of New Delhi and Cairo — A Homeless Woman (2001); or standing next to a river in New Delhi — A Laundry Woman (2000). But wherever she may be, the figure of the artist is always inaccessible, her face hidden from the viewer. The viewer is thus refused what the crowds are permitted. The woman who will not let us see her face, who obliges us to ask uncomfortable questions of ourselves, becomes an abstraction. Her image, immobile before the river Yamuna, ends up merging into the current and flowing away with the debris that it carries. In these works, immobility envelops everything. However firmly the author places herself in the centre of the picture, she still manages to distance herself from it. Her simple yet oddly energizing appearance there is a kind of self-affirmation. She manages to be herself and the 'other' at one and the same time: both presence and absence. Kimsooja is simultaneously subject and object of our gaze; an individual and an abstraction; a specific woman and all women; instrument and actress; immobile and resolute. This seamless duality is something that Bernhard Fibicher described in "Obvious but Problematic", his article for the exhibition catalogue for Kimsooja, A Needle Woman, held in Kunsthalle Berne, in 2001.

  • There is no sound in the bustling streets and in the landscapes where we see the artist, so reception is reduced to pure vision. Nor do we know who is filming her, what she is like, or with what expression she might face the crowds. The passers-by, inhabitants of enormous cities, become involuntary actors. In the Needle Woman video, the artist is standing stock still in the middle of streets overflowing with people. Her absolute immobility contrasts with the hurly-burly of the metropolis and with the noise that -although we do not actually hear it — we cannot help but divine must be there. The camera films the mass of passers-by treading the streets of these cities. It shows the faces of this anonymous throng while hiding that of the artist. Thousands of people walk towards her, enter the camera's field of vision and then disappear. Like a sociologist, the camera records the reactions of this multitude in a confrontation with the 'other'. In London, New York and Mexico, people almost ignore the artist as they pass her by. In Shanghai, New Delhi and Cairo, she sparks more interest. Some people even turn round or stop a moment to look at her. But it is in Lagos that she elicits greatest curiosity. Here, the video footage shows individual faces, feelings, reactions... However, in Tokyo, a smile on the face of a woman is the only element of emotion amidst the anonymous crowd. In A Homeless Woman, it is in Cairo that people pay most attention to her. A group of men cannot resist approaching her, moving in close and staring directly into the camera.

  • For the 51st Venice Biennial in 2005, Kimsooja made a new version of A Needle Woman for which she visited a further six cities: Patan (Nepal), Havana, Rio de Janeiro, N'Djamena (Chad), Sana'a (Yemen) and Jerusalem. In six contiguous screens, presented as a video-installation in the midst of absolute silence, we can only intuit the teeming sounds of the passers-by and the noise of traffic in the distance. Once again, the artist brings us face to face with people's varied reactions to the ineffable figure she cuts. In this new set of videos, it is in Rio de Janeiro where people are most inquisitive about the artist's presence. In Jerusalem, only a small minority observe her with curiosity, although a policeman comes up to her smiling, looks at her, makes a hand-gesture to onlookers and leaves her alone. In general, however, passers-by seem more drawn to something that must be happening to her right, which is where they fix their eyes. In Patan, where flocks of birds swarm across the screen in stark contrast to the placid tranquility displayed by the inhabitants, it is mainly children who are attracted by her unmoving form. In Havana, a man pulls a face at her; many smile at her and a few can be seen making comments as their paths cross. In Sana'a, the men, especially the young men (there are hardly any women out on the street and where there are, they are fully covered by their black tunic and scarf with just a tiny slit at eye level) surround her and stop to stare at her attentively. In N'Djamena, the artist's figure merges into the mass of colorful garments and the rhythmic swarm of the passers-by — many of them carrying packages and bowls on their heads — as they surround her, then stop and gaze at her fixedly, greeting her with hand-movements, even speaking to her and apparently asking her questions. The curiosity on their faces is unmistakable. We, mere observers of their actions, look on expectantly. We cannot help but be slightly nervous of the reactions that people might have to the artist's presence. We fear the unexpected, always aware that there could be a sudden outbreak of violence at any moment. But as we watch the action unfolding, we wonder about the artist's reaction to the stares, smiles and comments to which she is subjected. We begin to feel intrigued about what the surprised passers-by could be saying, the words we cannot hear but deduce her unforeseen presence must elicit. We want to know more. We would like to be in the middle of this mass of people so that we could gather our own conclusions, evince their opinions, discover whether they are attracted by this sudden encounter with an unmoving figure in their path, or whether it has unsettled or upset them. It is true that we can observe their reactions, which in general appear to be respectful, since the camera shows their faces as they enter its field of vision, as they become unwary protagonists. But at the same time, we have an innate desire to hear their comments as they pass by. The artist exposes herself and exposes us. Observing her, we are also opened up to the crowd; with her, we merge into the surrounding mass, registering people's reactions. But we always want to know more, to have a hint of their singularity, a spark of their being in this world.

  • Through their actions, capturing their expressions and reactions as they come across her, the artist also forces us to experience the shortcomings to our understanding of the real situation in other countries as lived by other peoples. The author is investigating, seeking out the minimal differences between each country and each person, trying to put her finger on what sets one apart from the rest. She shows human beings as individual beings and as experiences. Her choice of cities and countries for the performances is not random. Kimsooja's selection reflects her awareness of the conflicts that assail them, problems stemming from post-colonialism, civil wars, border skirmishes and violence triggered by the extreme poverty of their inhabitants. However, it is in these countries, ridden by conflict, far from jaded, ageing Europe, in stark confrontation with the unknown, that her creativity seems to find moaning and inspiration.

  • In all these videos, Kimsooja makes her presence felt in this world through the continuity of reiterated situations and shots of her own unaltering image. People's physical, material being intrudes into her work in the same way as Nature. They are all a manifestation of different ways of being in this world, a statement of our alone-ness, but also a reminder that the world is ever present and that we are surrounded by others. Her work goes far beyond the gender issues, an area where she can be too simplistically pigeon-holed. She is demonstrating the manifest importance of being human in the chaotic world we inhabit, with all its solitude and its ephemerality. Directly or indirectly, through the traces that it leaves behind, people's 'footprint', humankind is always present in her work.

  • Although the artist is not interested in tackling political issues as such in her creative output, her interest in the human condition and human reality has, on occasions, led her to create installations that are clearly related to political or social events. Sometimes these are a response to what has happened, other times they constitute a memory of them or render homage to their victims: Sewing into Walking (1995), presented at the first Kwangju Biennial, consists of a set of used cloths and bundles scattered over the ground in a park. They look like bodies abandoned on the battlefield. The piece is dedicated to the victims of the massacre at Kwangju, which took place in May 1980 when hundreds died in their struggle for democracy. Deductive Object - Dedicated to my Neighbors (1996), shown at the City Art Museum of Nagoya, Japan, uses a mixture of Korean and Japanese cloths; it is dedicated to the victims of the collapse of the Sampoong department store in her neighborhood in Seoul that same year. D'APERTutto or Bottari Truck in Exile (1999), presented at the 48th Venice Biennial, shows a truck reflected from a mirror structure installed in front of it, loaded up with brightly colored bottari. The mirror creates an endless opening, but the truck is blocking its own way ahead. It is dedicated to the refugees from Kosovo, a reminder of the dreadful consequences of war: displacement, death and destruction that were occurring at that time only a few kilometers from Venice. Responding to the events of the 11th of September 2001, Kimsooja created her Epitaph (2002), a powerful, emotional and beautiful photographic image in which the artist unrolls a colorful quilt on the ground in the Greenlawn cemetery in Brooklyn. In the background we can see the gaping absence of the emblematic Twin Towers on the Manhattan skyline.

  • Throughout her career, and especially in recent years, along with her installations, photographs, performances and videos, Kimsooja has also been involved in setting up site-specific projects. Cloths, especially the eye-catching Korean bedclothes; sequences of light and color; mirrors; the chanting of Tibetan, Gregorian and Islamic monks, and the sound of her own breathing are resources that she uses for these and have become identifying characteristics. Planted Names and A Lighthouse Woman (2002), were two such projects, installed under the umbrella of the Spoleto Festival USA 2002 in Charleston, South Carolina. The artist was responding to an invitation to join in an exhibition entitled Memory of the Water, evoking the cosmopolitan character of this colonial capital and its maritime legacy. Planted Names commemorated the slaves who served in the Drayton Hall plantation. It also echoes the artist's own story as daughter of an army officer, growing up in the demilitarized zone in South Korea and continuously on the move from one town to another with her family. Four black carpets with the names of the African-origin slaves who worked in that plantation until their emancipation standing out in white lettering, transformed each of the rooms around the great hall on the first floor of Drayton Hall — the oldest plantation mansion still standing in America, conserved as a jewel of Georgian Palladian architecture. They are acts of meditation on the past and strategically placed in surroundings where the memory of these people who were deprived of freedom has special resonance. In A Lighthouse Woman, the artist uses light, color and sound to transform the abandoned lighthouse in Morris Island (Charleston, South Carolina) into a memorial. Made to commemorate the victims of the civil war fought out on Morris Island where the lighthouse is located, this work is also a tribute to the eternal relationship between light and water, symbolized in the lighthouse itself.

  • Exhibited in the Vienna Kunsthalle, A Laundry Woman (2002) comprises colorful bedclothes and the sound of Tibetan monks chanting. The bedclothes can be seen from outside through the enormous windows of the Kunsthalle: they are pegged onto ropes, as if hanging on a clothesline. They operate as a metaphor for female roles, establishing a dialogue between the interior space of the Kunsthalle and the urban landscape, between life and art, intimacy and universality.

  • The organizers of the 2nd Valencia Biennial invited the artist to set up something on an empty site in the city. The resulting Solarscope is a sequence of light with a range of changing colors projected onto a building, conferring life on what had been an abandoned plot of land. In the Rameau palace in Lille (France) her Lotus: Zone of Zero (2003) was an installation of three-hundred and seven lights with music. The red bulbs hang in a lotus-flower arrangement in the circular hall of the building. The space is flooded with the sound of Tibetan, Gregorian and Islamic chant. Over and above the eye-catching beauty of the installation, it is a call to peace, love and understanding amongst human beings.

  • A Mirror Woman - the ground of nowhere (2003) was installed on a roundabout at the Honolulu city-hall in Hawaii. The piece formed part of Crossings 2003: Korea / Hawaii, a series of activities organized to celebrate one century of Korean immigration to the United States. A fine gauze curtain hangs eighteen meters from the ground, rolled up at the base to form a huge cylindrical tube, six meters in diameter. The sky is reflected in the mirrored flooring. Walking or lying on this mirror/floor, visitors can only see the cobalt-blue sky with its white clouds and their own reflection. The piece tries to capture the atmosphere of hope, excitement and homesickness that the Korean immigrants must have felt on arriving in the United States, the sense of nothingness that must have overwhelmed this first wave of newcomers arriving on the island of Hawaii one hundred years earlier.

  • Four sound-channels broadcast Tibetan, Islamic and Gregorian chants, which inundated one of the rooms at The Project in New York, for which Kimsooja conceived Mandala: Zone of Zero, in 2003. Creating a space for isolation, meditation and daydreams, she placed a brightly colored juke-box speakers on each of the four walls of the room, exploiting their formal similarity to traditional Buddhist mandalas to imbue an object of Western pop culture with Eastern religious connotations. The mixture of chants issuing from the record-players surround and envelope the spectator with their beams of sound. Reflecting their assimilation of different cultures, social contexts and aesthetics, this installation explores the notion of unity and totality according to which mind and body are spiritually united.

  • In 2003, following up the idea of playing with light and color already used in some of her site-specific projects, such as A Lighthouse Woman and Solarscope, the artist made a set of videos experimenting with sequences of light and the color palette, employing its beauty and energy to play with different frequencies and rhythms. Invisible Mirror, Invisible Needle and A Wind Woman belong to this series. In the first, the colors change their range and intensity slowly, almost imperceptibly, until they have exhausted the entire color spectrum. In the second, the speed of sequencing increases until it becomes so frenetic that the eye can barely perceive the tonality of the colors whizzing across the screen. The third, A Wind Woman is a work on Nature. It was first shown in the United States at the Henry Art Gallery and then presented for the first time in Europe at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa exhibition in Venice. The artist created an abstract painting in the style of Gerhard Richter, using her video camera to record high-speed Nature. All three are silent videos where the only sound is in our imagination. The first two have been put together in a single video-installation into which The Weaving Factory 5.1 has been synchronized. This latter piece was made in 2004 with the sound of the artist breathing. The ensemble, entitled To Breathe / Respirare (Invisible Mirror, Invisible Needle), was presented at the Fenice Theatre in Venice on 27th January 2006 and projected during February and March before the opera performances of the Die Walkure and / Quatro Rusteghi by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, scheduled in the theatre for this time. Visitors are confronted by a large screen on which all the tonalities of the color range gradually succeed one another. They are surprised by the sound of slow breathing, whose source is intriguingly difficult to identify on entering. The colors, with their different intensities, are shown on a screen which seems to be mirroring the colors thrown back at it from the theatre. Meanwhile, the breathing becomes more intense, deeper, and seems to pervade the entire space. In the first part, the rhythm of the artist's breath speeds up and deepens until it reaches moments of real anguish. In the second, the tone, modulation and rhythm of breathing change as they reach a harmonious crescendo that turns into an anthem, a prayer, a choir, the sound of wind instruments. Visitors are impelled into this experience. Feeling that we form part of the piece, we follow the cadenza and the different rates of air-intake and expulsion. We accompany the breathing with our own feelings of anxiety or relief. As if it were a metaphor for life, we oscillate through the most diverse mood states: from uncertainty to calm, from anguish to respite, from the twinge of danger to real enjoyment. We feel health and sickness, chaos and harmony. The respiration seems to absorb us so deeply that it enters inside our very body. It is a piece that, on its own, acts through contrasts. But placed where it is placed, the simplicity of the breathing and the purity of the light emanating from the colors, harmoniously bathing the space, contrast exquisitely with the baroque style of the theatre.

  • With a minimum number of simple elements, Kimsooja achieves maximum effects, sensations, emotions and a rich onslaught of ideas and concepts. Her art appeals both to the senses and to the imagination. Its enormous beauty in no way distracts us from the disquieting questions it poses about concepts and situations in our life experience. As an artist who participates in her times and their problems, her work avoids introspection and embraces the world by subjecting it to the wordless scrutiny of her gaze.

  • Her pieces seem to be enveloped in silence. An aspiration to isolation and withdrawal seeps through videos of her performances, in the installations made with cloths and even in her video-installations with sound. They are an invitation to escape momentarily from the chaos and noise of the world around us, in order to re­encounter our selves and question our relationship with others; to reflect on our place in this world and stare the essential problems of existence in the face. Exhibition space made sanctuary.

  • For the Palace de Cristal in Madrid, Kimsooja has made To Breathe - A Mirror Woman, comprising an intervention in space and her earlier sound piece, The Weaving Factory, 2004. The project is a logical continuation of her previous works. The artist has exploited the structure of the building, leaving it intact so that it forms a whole with the installation of a mirror on the floor. This acts as a multiplier and a unifier of the original architectural space. Here, Kimsooja submerges us in a transfiguring experience that uses minimal elements: a translucent diffraction grating film covering the glazed dome and wall of the crystal palace, a mirror covering its floor and the sound of her own breathing. We are invited into an experiment with our minds and our senses, to give free rein to our sensorial perception and our imagination.

  • The title itself not only refers back to other projects in which the artist used mirrors and the sound of her breathing, but also to her work with needles and sewing. As in her video-installations, such as A Needle Woman, where she herself is the needle piercing the crowd, in A Mirror Woman the artist is the mirror; the mirror that reflects and creates reality. Like a surface returning what comes to it, the artist sucks up one reality but reflects another, creating another reality. She is the reflector and also the creator of the reality that the mirror reflects.

  • The project as a whole also takes us back to her bottari since there too she was enveloping and wrapping. In this case, the author has enveloped the Palacio de Cristal with translucent film. However, whereas the bottari wrapped and transported clothes and belongings over distance, here the building is wrapping us and transporting us through an experience of our bodies, imaginations and senses.

  • The light shining in from outside enters through the glass of the pavilion and the translucent film disseminates it into rainbow spectra. This not just transforms the view of the exterior we see from inside the palace but also the look and feel of the interior, where the entire structure and the multi-colored rays of light are reflected and re-reflected in the mirrored floor. Seen from outside, the interior of the palace is transformed by the reflection of light and trees. This effect is especially powerful on sunny days. But even when it is overcast, any break in the clouds or in stormy skies, any sunbeam that slips through, increases the contrast levels of the light, thereby creating a multiplicity of rainbows. Similarly, the direct sunlight on the diffraction film produces an additional effect of projecting its spectra onto the interior surface of the palace, where the mirror bounces back the colored light onto the visitors and throughout the interior of the building. We get the impression of being drawn into the rainbows, of forming part of them and becoming one with them. The ad infinitum reproduction of the spectrum varies throughout the day, acquiring different shapes: rays, gusts, aureolae, zigzags, etc. It not only brings to mind the colorful traditional Korean bedding so often used by the artist, but also her work with Nature in A Wind Woman. At certain times of day, depending on the intensity of the light, the glazed structure of the building becomes an abstract painting configured together with the trees in the surrounding gardens.

  • Natural light, color and sound, all such very ethereal elements, almost tangibly fill the space. There are no objects to distract our gaze. Just light and color. The artist's breathing from her The Weaving Factory performance pours into the space, bouncing back again and again from the mirroring, expanding throughout the interior of the building, becoming one with it and breaking down the barriers between time and space. As the artist explains: "The waves of light and sound, and those of the mirror, breathe and interweave together with our body within the space. I find mirroring to be another way of sewing."

  • Her slow, soft, scarcely perceptible respiration in the first part of the performance gradually becomes deeper and faster, until its pace becomes unbearable, producing a sensation of anguished discomfort. We experience rapidly changing mood states through the artist's breath pattern, which merges into ours. In the second part, we can hardly make out her breathing, except as background sound. The tone, modulation and rhythm have changed. We would think that it is an external sound, but it is still her own respiration that is creating this rhythmic crescendo, this sensation of harmony, obtaining by superimposing different notes one on top of the other. In both the first and the second part of the performance, the inspiration and expiration is exclusively nasal. She never opens her mouth. However, in the second she not just breathes but actually hums through her nose. The artist considers reflecting to be like breathing, since the structure of both operations is the same; both share the directionality from out to in and in to out so that both extract one reality and create another.

  • She uses a minimal part of her body to achieve a myriad of sounds, similar to the myriad of light beams produced by the diffraction film. The onslaught of sound and color runs visitors through an entire spectrum of emotions. During the eleven minutes, thirty-eight seconds of the audio performance, we are rocketed from puzzlement to delight, from anxiety to joy, from uncertainty to recognition. Kimsooja is inviting us to take an inward-bound trip: to the inside of the space, the inside of the rainbow, the inside of the mirror, the inside of our breathing. The final destination is inside ourselves. And on this inward trip we come face to face with the other, that other so ever-present in her work. The mirror connects the ego and the alter-ego and reflects the otherness that we always carry within. The mirror attracts and reflects. Reflecting is another way of exteriorizing the ego. Kimsooja is talking to us about the relationship between our body and space. She makes art into an experience of body and mind, of our sensory perception and of our imagination.

  • 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.

  • This text was published in Kimsooja: To Breathe - A Mirror Woman, 2006.

Kimsooja, A Mirror Woman - the ground of nowhere, 2003, Crossings 2003: Korea/Hawaii, installation view at Honolulu City Hall, 57' x 21' diameter, aluminum ring, fine gauze cotton, mirror, wood, photo by Hal Lum, Courtesy of Crossings 2003: Korea/Hawaii and Kimsooja Studio.

Living in the Present, Connecting with the Universe

Heartney, Eleanor

2005

  • Needles and mirrors are associated with femininity. They represent things done for others, or things done for oneself. But in the hands of Kimsooja, these simple objects become cosmic metaphors. Transcending the quiet confines of the domestic world, they point to new ways of thinking about our place in the universe.

  • Take the needle, for instance. When Kimsooja assumes the role of A Needle Woman, she draws on early memories of sewing with her mother and using bed clothes lovingly sewed by her grandmother. A Needle Woman makes reference to the simple actions that bind things together to sustain daily life. But this persona also reflects the fact that the first time Kim held a needle, she felt an incredible surge of energy, as if cosmic forces were converging on the needle's point. This experience has lead her to the post-Einsteinian notion that space, time and energy are interconnected. Their existence is relative rather than absolute — an insight which lies behind a work like A Needle Woman 1999-2001, in which the artist becomes a still point within a series of cityscapes marked by the swirl and chaos of urban life. In this series of videos, we see the motionless back of the standing artist, as residents of such diverse cities as Delhi, Lagos, London, Mexico City, Tokyo, Cairo and Shanghai pass before and around her like actors on a giant stage. Her long black hair, tied at her neck and dropping straight down her back, becomes a vertical force line anchoring her to the earth. This work offers three experiences of time — that of the artist, who becomes our reference point, that of the surrounding urbanites, rushing about their daily business, and that of the viewer who experiences these two very different modes simultaneously.

  • Kimsooja has extended this idea in a number of other works. For A Beggar Woman, filmed in Lagos, Nigeria in 2001, she sits on a street with her hands open like a beggar. In Homeless Woman (2001), she lies motionless and vulnerable on the bustling streets of Delhi. In this works, her transcendence of ordinary time takes on a political cast, as she identifies herself with the outcasts of society.

  • Describing her mental state as Needle Woman, Kimsooja has remarked: "it is the point of the needle which penetrates the fabric, and we can connect two different parts of the fabrics with threads, through the eye of the needle. A needle is an extension of the body, and a thread is an extension of the mind... The needle is medium, mystery, reality, hermaphrodite, barometer, a moment and a Zen." As a needle, she gathers power into herself so as to refocus it out into the world.

  • The mirror has similar complexity. In the popular mind, it symbolizes female vanity. However, a mirror is also a reflective surface in which we hope to glimpse deeper realities. The idea of painting as a mirror of the world is a mainstay of western art tradition. In the modern era, the mirror has turned inward, reflecting an interior world rather than external one.

  • But mirrors are unreliable tools. They can be misleading and even deceitful, which is why artists have so frequently employed them to play tricks on viewers. One famous example is Velazquez' Las Meninas in which a mirror in the background of a royal family portrait reflects back the image, not of present day viewer who seems positioned to be its subject, but the patrons for whom it was originally created. Something similar happens in Manet's A Bar at the Folies Bergere, in which the a frontal view of the barmaid directly confronting the viewer is transformed in the reflection of the mirror behind into an image of the woman serving a male customer.

  • More recently, artists have incorporated real mirrors into works in order to multiply or expand space, to dissolve the distance between viewer and surroundings or to destabilize the space which the viewer inhabits. Two notable practitioners of mirror art are Michelangelo Pistoletto and Yayoi Kusama. By silkscreening photographic images of men and women onto sheets of highly polished steel, Pistoletto literally brings the viewer into the image, collapsing the realms of "reality" and representation. Kusama, meanwhile, has created several completely mirrored rooms filled with hundreds of tiny lights which so multiply and distort the viewer's reflection that one begins to loose any sense of self.

  • Kim's Mirror Woman partakes of a similar disorientation. In her work mirrors dissolve distinctions between interior and exterior realities so as to allow individual consciousness to meld with the larger cosmos. In an 2002 installation titled A Mirror Woman, Kimsooja strung pairs of colorful fabrics, traditional Korean coverlets, in a room with completely mirrored walls. They created a maze through which the viewer could wend, creating a kaleidoscopic sense of fracture, as body and fabric seemed to merge into each other.

  • Needle Woman and Mirror Woman are thus two aspects of Kim's quest for cosmic integration. Needle Woman cuts through landscapes in order to stitch them up again. Mirror Woman dissolves differences between inside and out. These personas are most fully embodied in a pair of public installations which serve as precursors to Kim's installation at the Teatro La Fenice. A Lighthouse Woman was created as part of the 2002 Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. In this work, Kim created a computer synchronized nighttime display ( KS: "This was a lighting installation using actual light source and the pieces I show in La Fenice is video piece which was computer generated color spectrum rather than lighting installation." ) which bathed the exterior of a disused lighthouse with an ever changing sequence of colored light. The work was mesmerizingly beautiful as saturated veils of gold, crimson, aquamarine and purple washed slowly over the elegant nineteenth century lighthouse shaft. For Kim, the lighthouse served as a surrogate of her own body. She projected herself into the structure, which became the embodiment of all the women over the years who waited for the safe return of those who had gone to sea. This work harked back to the idea of the needle, here symbolized by the lighthouse shaft, as the collector of energy. It also echoed Kimsooja earlier works in which bottari served as both paint and canvas to transform space, and knit together memory, history and consciousness. Here, a similar effect was created by light as a tapestry of color merged past and present, sky and water, mind and matter.

  • Mirror Woman, meanwhile, reaches her fullest embodiment to date in A Mirror Woman: The Ground of Nowhere, a work created for the exhibition Crossings 2003 Korea/Hawaii. Installed in the lobby of Honolulu's colonial era City Hall, this installation consisted of a sixty foot high vertical cylinder of white fabric set in the center of an uncovered atrium. In order to create this work, Kim orchestrated the reopening of a long closed aperture in the atrium roof. She sealed off all but the area directly above her fabric column, which she left open to the elements. Inside the fabric column, Kim laid down a mirror floor, so that visitors who stepped inside the muslin walls found themselves standing on a piece of sky. Meanwhile the fabric swayed gently in the breeze, giving a sense that one was inside a living, breathing space.

  • Clouds drifting above and reflected below gave one the feeling, paradoxically, of rolling on an open sea. At night the stars flickered above and below. As part of an arts festival celebrating Korean emigration to Korea, A Mirror Woman made reference to the immigrant's sense of destabilized identity. But this hypnotic installation also provided visitors a more general experience of becoming one with earth and sky.

  • These works provide underpinnings for Kim's new installation. TO BREATHE - Invisible Mirror / Invisible Needle - 2003-2005 which has been installed in the Teatro La Fenice. This work is also a light installation. It consists of a slowly changing overlay of colored light which washes across the auditorium and audience. Accompanying this display is a chorus woven together from the sounds of human breath ( KS: "my own voice and performance" ). Here, as in Mirror Woman in Hawaii and Needle Woman in Charleston, space is infused with a sense of life. As ear and eye are taken over by the symphony of light and sound, time loses its schematic quality and distinctions between space, self and other disappear.

  • Kim's work is often discussed in relationship to her status as an immigrant, a nomad, or an Asian woman displaced into western culture. These ideas were reinforced by her use of Korean materials like the bottari, which she has often presented bound up in bundles (Bottaris in Korean), suggesting a lifestyle in which all one's worldly goods are easily gathered for easy departure. A sense of displacement permeates works like 2727 Bottari Truck (1997), a video depicting her journey through rural Korea on the back of a truck filled with bundles composed of bound bottari. Here again, the camera presents her from the back, a still center in the midst of a changing landscape. But if works like these touch on traditional concepts of home and roots and celebrate the traditional female activities which give us a sense of place, it is dangerous to oversimplify Kim's intentions.

  • On one hand, her work clearly involves a rejection of western dualisms which make distinct and irreconcilable entities of such pairs as mind/matter, space/time, or self/other. Instead, she is more attuned to Buddhist inspired ideas about the circular nature of time and the transcendence of desire and physical limitations. But she refuses the easy division of East and West. Instead, she reminds us that even in the West, there are more wholistic traditions which bear kinship to her thinking.

  • For instance, there is the notion of duration as explored by French philosopher Henri Bergson in the late 19th century. Bergson described duration as lived time, the experience in which time and space and past and future are fused with the continual present. He likens duration to the perception of dance, where prior and future movements are implied at every moment in the sweep of the performer's continuous gesture. Thus, instead of making the present disappear, as happens when the linear experience of time rushes us along a prescribed path from past to future, duration creates a consciousness of our unity with the dynamic nature of the world. This seems a satisfying description of the experience evoked by TO BREATHE.

  • A few decades after Bergson published his speculations, Albert Einstein turned to physics to propose a similar revolution in our thinking about time. His theory of relativity also rejected the notion of space and time as self sufficient and independent entities. Instead, he fused them into a single interactive entity called spacetime. More recently advances in electronic communication make it possible to experience what video artist Bill Viola calls "parallel time", the sensation of existing simultaneously in one's own body and in some far flung locale. Viola notes that it is possible to be as aware of what is happening in a loft in New York as in a street in Paris or a war zone in the middle east. This idea certainly resonates with the multiple experiences of time and space expressed by the Needle Woman.

  • Thus, in referencing ancient Asian traditions and philosophies, Sooja Kim (Kimsooja) is also presenting us with tools for thinking about the complexities of life today. Needle Woman and Mirror Woman face backward and forward, tying together history and the future, while reminding us that in the end, it is the infinite present in which we live our lives.

Bottari Truck, 2005, Kewenig Gallery Installation, Photo by Simon Vogel, Cologne

The Bottari as Time Capsule

Thoughts accompanying the exhibition, "Kimsooja - Bottari Cologne 2005", Kewenig Galerie, Cologne 29.1 - 23.4, 2005

Malsch, Friedemann

2005

  • One of the influencial topics in Western art since the late eighties is — in different facets — the issue of absence. Service art, art as curating, the nomadic existence, the anonymization of individual authorship due to collective creativity — this and more are indicators for the fact that artists have increasingly tried in the past few years to break out of the system of self-reference which has been a major influence on Western art since the Sixties. Absence is used here mainly as a strategy, in order to undermine the increasing personalization in the arts and to access fields once again, which open up a stronger connectivity between art and its social dimension. Nevertheless, these strategies always inhere the matrix of self-reflexiveness. The opening of Western art to cultural influences from other continents — due to globalization — is of special importance in this situation, because from here, beyond the discourse-safe products for the western art market, also originate important impulses for a renewed debate about how art can dedicate itself again to the general questions of the human life in a way that it fulfills contemporary aesthetic standards at the same time.

  • Kimsooja was born in 1957 in Korea, and now lives in New York. She is one of those artists who have, over the past fifteen years, contributed significantly to this re-orientation of contemporary art. She has grown up in a culture shaped by Confucianism, yet her immediate environment was dominated by Catholicism. The fact that the family had to move repeatedly, due to her fathers occupation in the military, led to the early experience of uprooting, a sentiment that has also influenced Western culture throughout the 20th century. In an interview with Gerald Matt, Kimsooja characterized herself in these words: "Travelling is not always voluntary for me. I was often forced to travel. Travelling belongs to my life, since I was a small girl (...) Settling down and being shuffled around, meeting and separation - these topics were always present for me. I have the mentality of a person living on a border line, and the materials, with which I work, correspond to that. Since my childhood I had a lot to do with 'longing' and ' homesickness' with 'memory gaps' and 'adjustment to the new environment'." [1]

  • This personal background influenced the development of Kimsooja's art and her body of consistent work has grown since the 80s. The materials refered to above were first those which belonged to the artist's grandmother. After her death, Kimsooja used the fabrics in order to create large sized murals, which are in the spirit of the painting she had initially studied in Korea. But already the use of these materials tainted with memories - with all colouredness of the individual materials, which were formed to abstract compositions focuses on absence, i.e. the loss of her grandmother. At the same time, the use of these fabrics in itself breaks a taboo, as cloths are regarded to belong to the people who wore them during their lifetimes. This double "absence" (the mental-physical of the grandmother on the one hand, the disrespect of tradition on the other hand), this ambivalence is characteristic of Kimsooja's artistic procedure altogether.

  • It cannot be the place here, to discuss in detail the development of Kimsooja's œuvre, for this I would like to point briefly to the recently published overview of her work. [2]

  • Yet, it is crucial for me, that the motif of absence can be found in the entire body of work that Kimsooja has realized so far. It is to be observed that the artist understands absence not as a motif of deficiency, but as a constructive, dialectic strategy. After her scholarship at P.S.1 in New York, Kimsooja's first new work concentrated above all on the traces of usage on objects, Deductive Objects. With this group of works the artist succeeded in detaching herself from the painting as the focus of her visual production, and consequently extended her vocabulary in rapid steps by installation, video, photo and performance.

  • Fabrics play a particular role in the group of works, Sewing Into Walking, the Bottaris, and partly also in the series, A Laundry Woman. Finally, they also form the basis for the 2004 graphic edition, Seven Wishes, featuring different motifs of Korean cloths which were used also for the Bottaris and different installations in the series of A Laundry Woman. Furthermore, works like the photo/video/performance work Encounter and the photowork Epitaph, demonstrate Kimsooja's 'souverain' handling of this topic.

  • In another group of work, absence is connected with spatiotemporal questions. In these works, the allegorical function of the above mentioned works with a stronger pictorial character step back in favor of a dialectic relationship between work and viewer. I am refering specifically to the performance series A Needle Woman, developed for the video camera (a second set of performances in this series is pending) as well as the related series A Homeless Woman and A Beggar Woman and several works from the series A Laundry Woman. In these works, Kimsooja is always located in the center of the picture, her back towards the viewer, immobile, sitting or lying. All that happens takes place around her. Either she is surrounded by streams of people in metropolises of different continents, or the slow stream of a river flows, passing before her. The dialectic of immobility and mobility in these works, already discussed by different authors, rotates around the center of absence, as it is featured in Kimsooja's work. The artist herself has highlighted it in the following statement: "Everything moves, and movement is a fundamental condition of being. The oscillation of each moment has its own rhythm. Nevertheless the difference between mobility and immobility for me is comparatively small. I have aligned my body to a certain extent to the threshold of a sensitive barometer, which differentiates between the fine borders of mobility and immobility. It is somewhat logical therefore that the mobility of my body located in certain roads, in certain cities, in different continents represents an example of immobility, while my decision to move is on the contrary completely sudden and takes place unconsciously. The decision falls within an energetic conflict between two different elements, my body and the external world. I always wanted to show reality by presenting to people things the way they really are, without doing something, making or creating something further, while most artists and actors strive to create or show something new." [3]

  • Absence is thus for the artist an important means in her art to communicate to the public an experience corresponding to her own experience and her own reflections. Therefore Kimsooja's artistic approach has not unjustifiably been called "existential minimalism", a term, she emphatically embraces for her uvre. Under this label a contemporary western current meets the timeless practices of Zen Buddhism. For Buddhists the void, i.e. absence, means abundance, inasmuch as the emptiness gives space for meditation on life. We can therefore define Kimsooja's work as a rare case of intercultural fertilization, which highlights the particular importance of her art.

The Exhibition

  • For the Kewenig Galerie in Cologne, Kimsooja conceived an exhibition which is to be understood as an installation. The center point is an old truck, loaded with Bottari bundles, further individual Bottaris, the graphic edition Seven Wishes, likewise related to the Bottari materials and 4 video projections. The exhibition title refers unmistakably to the transitory nature of the manifestation. Already three linguistic elements refer to it: The term of the Bottari itself, the date and finally the combination with the place. Bottaris are bundles, in which Korean people, in particular women, are traditionally tying together their belongings in cloths, to take with them when moving out of necessity or voluntarily - to another place. The cloths are usually bed cloths or bedspreads, given as the traditional Korean wedding gift. Thus they are closely bound to their owners, often accompany them until the end of their life, also because the motifs, inserted into the cloths, represent the well wishes of the giver, which are hoped to be fulfilled during the course of life. In Seven Wishes, Kimsooja features five of these motifs, complemented by two large size abstract motifs, i.e. by wish-motifs, which are waiting to be filled with life.

  • Directly in the entrance area of the gallery, the visitors are greeted by a Bottari bundle, but mainly in the basement of the gallery, in the areas with compact and simple vaults, individual Bottaris are to be found. The mood of these installations always inheres a tendency of loneliness, which here becomes particularly effective, not alone through the aesthetics of the space, though. Even if the Bottari bundles can always be understood as a testimony of an individual life charged by that person's personality, Kimsooja has succeeded here in creating an extraordinarily impressive reference to the special history of this place. In the neighbouring part of the building, next to the Kewenig Galerie, the secret state police maintained prison cells during the Nazi-era where systematic torture took place. The destruction of the individual sought by the Nazi regime is counteracted by Kimsooja's quiet, but indeterminable note highlighting the indestructibility of the human soul.

  • An age-old three-wheel truck Tempo, from 1938, is located in the center of the upstairs gallery, its cargo area loaded with Bottari bundles that reach over the roof of the driver's cabin. Entering the space, the visitor approaches towards the protruding and pointy bonnet, giving a morphic twist to the car. This Bottari Truck is a newer version of the original truck, in which the artist drove in 1997 for eleven days, a performance crisscrossing through Korea. If the original was later being seen "in exile" in different exhibitions, Kimsooja realised a new truck for the Cologne exhibition, a somewhat smaller version. The original performance took place in the context of the project, Cities On the Move, and illustrated the special state of mind of people who are forced due to their life circumstances to move their homes again and again. The resulting special relationship to space and time, typical for migrants, which is usually hard to comprehend for non-migrants, becomes especially apparent in the Bottari Truck. The artist described it as follows: "Bottari Truck is a processing object throughout space and time / locating and dislocating / ourselves to the place / where we came from / and where we are going to." [4] There are few works, which focus on the topic of migration and how it seizes people again and again in the same way, with such precision, yet, without falling into any kind of the ideology.

  • The artist has placed four video projections in the same gallery, which transpose the emotional motif of the Bottari Truck onto a more abstract, philosophical level. All video work originates from the years 2000 and 2001 and has so far only been shown rarely. Only one work features a crowd, immediately drawing an association to the performance series A Needle Woman. There is however no connection between the work Bottari - Zocalo and the performance series. Here the artist herself cannot be recognized, she is not surrounded by the flow of people as in A Needle Woman, the crowd is nearly static, it does not move in a superordinate direction. The spectator only recognizes single, individual movements, which go into different directions. The majority of people remain unrecognizable on the spot, similarly as in large concerts in football arenas. Because the image is projected somewhat accelerated and is at the same time also blurred, strangely abstract effects arise. The optical proximity to other abstract cyclographic pictures, in which the origin of the elements' movement is not evident, transposes the perception of the concrete situation, in which people are in the recording, on a general level, and which the emphasis is placed on the dialectic between static of the crowd and the movement of its individual components.

  • Something similar takes place in the work Bottari - drawing the snow, which shows the falling snow on a winter night. The camera looks up into the falling snow, and like before, the image contains no orientation coordinates. What remains is the apparently coincidental direction of motion of each individual snow flake in contrast to the seemingly immovable flakes disappearing into the darkness of the space behind. This image has such a high degree of abstraction that it already reaches the dimension of the concrete, into which the viewer immerses. Is it an image of meditation?

  • The work Bottari - wrapping the thunderstorm takes up the Bottari - drawing the snow motif again, breaking however from any kind of natural image. The viewer only sees the electronic "snow" that develops on-screen if the screen does not receive a proper signal. The term for the title of this work, taken out of nature, supplies the starting point for an interpretation in this case. Because the "storm" here is on a more micrological level, reaching such high speed, it appears nearly motionless again for the human perception. Also the depth of the area which can still be suspected in " Bottari - drawing the snow " is here left exclusively to the imagination of the viewer.

  • The fourth video projection, Bottari - Alfa Beach, however, features 'natural space'. The image of the barely moving sea and a piece of sky is projected upsidedown. The horizon lies in the center of the picture, and watching it, the question emerges regarding the coordinates having led to this picture. Upwards downwards, surface and depth — all these terms become questionable in view of this simple gesture of a reversal and are begging for reassurance.

  • With one exception (Seven Wishes) all works in this exhibition carry the first title Bottari, including the video projections. If one accepts the ambivalent representational character of the bound "bundles" — to be on the one hand a metaphor of migrating, concomitantly the internal state of migrants, on the other hand a concrete, nearly magic component of a lived life — as meaningful basis, then once more this installation refers to absence as endowied with meaning, emptiness as abundance, because it becomes apparent, "that Kimsooja's art is directed towards another kind of void — neither the void of art history nor the void of today's split in human consciousness, but the void of the self, the concept of 'no mind'." [5]

  • Robert Morgan's words turn into a nearly soothsaying dimension given Kimsooja's exhibition at the Kewenig Galerie in Cologne. The Bottari gains thereby a further level of meaning, which has not been recognized in Kimsooja's œuvre so far. It becomes a time capsule, which, in contrast to the linear temporality of Andy Warhol's Time Capsules, connects time with those dimensions, which extract themselves from our conscious and controlled access. Kimsooja already expressed this in 1997 with the following words: "Time is mental space whose physical presence can never be grasped, space from which we can never escape. Whenever we want to, we can always recall a particular time, but we can never relocate our body with respect to that moment." [6]

  • Vaduz, June 2005

Notes:

[1] Kimsooja talking to Gerald Matt, in:
[2] Gerald Matt (ed). "Kimsooja - A Needle Woman", Vienna 2002, p. 7 - 33, here pp 8. > return to article >
[3] "Kimsooja - Conditions of Humanity", exhib. Cat. Musée d'art Contemporain, Lyon and Museum KunstPalast, Düsseldorf, 5 Continents Edition, Milan 2003. > return to article >
[4] see Gerald Matt, pp.7 > return to article >
[5] Exhibition catalogue "Kimsooja - A Needle Woman", Kunsthalle Bern, 2001, pp. 35-43, here p. 36. > return to article >
[6] Robert Morgan, Kim Sooja - The Persistence of the Void, in: "Kimsooja - A Needle Woman", exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Bern 2001, pp. 47-56, here, p. 55. > return to article >
[7] "Kimsooja - A Needle Woman", exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Bern 2001, p. 36. > return to article >

  • Friedemann Malsch is the Director of Kunstmuseum Lichtenstein, Vaduz, and served as a curator there from 1996-2000. Among the many shows he has curated, he assembled the show Migration in 2003, which Kimsooja participated in. At Kunstmuseum Lichtenstein, under the title Dialogue, Malsch has established a forum for rapidly changing collection presentations, on which historical and stylistic demarcations are set aside in favor of thematic aspects. Malsch is considered, among other things, as a specialist in video art.

'Always A Little Further', the 51st Venice Biennale in Arsenale, Venice.

Concrete Metaphysics

von Drathen, Doris

2005

  • 'The space is nowhere. The space is within itself like honey in a comb.' [1] The enigmatic quality of this image lies in the special powers of honey — first to accrue and then to spread out, and, resistant to being sealed off, to transform and expand space with its light and scent. This observation can assume broader implications as an analogy for a universal outlook that from the Renaissance through to the present has been formulated by philosophers and poets alike. Namely, that the way we experience exterior space, its boundlessness and its limits depends on the inner space of the subject experiencing it. It is this inner space alone that determines the extent and expansion of space and things, an insight Rilke couched in the words 'the one space stretches through all beings, an inner cosmos', and, elsewhere, 'Space spreads transposingly from us to things: / to properly feel how a tree upsprings, cast around it space from that which inwardly / abides within in you. Surround it with retention. / It has no bounds. Not until its reascension / in your renouncing is it truly tree.' [2]

  • To examine experience and objects in terms of their dynamic power to seize and occupy space, to think through time and space in terms of their capacity to expand, in other words to give visual form to the potent equivalence between substance and 'extance' [3] is probably the most important creative principle propelling Kimsooja's work.

  • Born in Taegu in 1957 and a resident of New York since 1999, the Korean artist has no need to impress through heroic gestures. The barest means — needle and thread, and a few pieces of used cloth — are quite enough for her. These can, for example, end up as The Heaven and the Earth, one of her first works from 1984. Kimsooja was 27 years old when she stitched together the scraps of material left over from those of her deceased grandmother's old silk dresses that were not fully worn-out and faded. Here, echoing the title, the entire universe is laid out before us — the earth's four quadrants designated by the four points of the compass and at their centre, as described in many ancient cultures, the fifth realm where the 'world mountain' or the site of the 'column of heaven' [4] is located. That this can indeed be understood to represent a universe is confirmed if one closely examines and elucidates the full body of Kimsooja's art and its underlying coherence.

  • Having studied painting in Seoul and lithography in Paris, the artist was concerned from the outset with finding means of abandoning the frame encompassing the canvas and the image. In the early nineties she stitched together patches of coloured fabric into relief-like, freely proliferating forms, mounting onto walls a rich spectrum of semi-circular shapes or tondi. Cloth, needle and thread in lieu of canvas, paints and brushes. But these are fabrics that once 'had a life': worn garments or traditional Korean bedspreads. Kimsooja seeks out these pieces of cloth because they 'retain the smells of others' lives, memories and histories, though their bodies are no longer there — embracing and protecting people, celebrating their lives and creating a network of existences.' [5] These works also have titles that allude to something far beyond the borders of the object and fill it with interior space, such as Toward the Mother Earth.

Stepping beyond

  • For Kimsooja the act of sewing quickly became far more than a mere departure from painting, as this shift gave her the means to evolve a cognitive approach and a world view, spawning a central idea that was soon to animate her entire work. All the works she has produced since then can be considered part of an exploratory quest to fathom this mythical universe spun around needle and thread. Indeed, unlike any other instrument the needle is able to hold 'the thread, drawing it through the surface into the lower layers, into an underworld of downward motion. There is the needle that moves along the boundary, between the panels it is about to join together. It overcomes intermediary space. But the needle has no existence of its own. It is an instrument, a means; once the work is done, the needle disappears.' [6] When Kimsooja — who even sewed her own name together from her forename Sooja and her family name Kim — describes the needle's attributes one clearly sees how closely she identifies with this instrument of artistic labour. At the time she was making her large and increasingly expansive relief-like textile collages, she also began working on objects which she modified by covering their surfaces with fabrics. There are, for instance, the large runged wheels some 185 cm high, steel structures made by the artist and assembled together with discarded farming tools; these interest her less as ready-mades than as objects which once had a purpose and are thus imbued with their own time and history. The fabric cover softens the sharp edges and points, transforming the work tool into a feminine and visual object. [7] While these experimental pieces are perhaps less striking than Kimsooja's other work they nonetheless assume a pivotal function within her artistic development in the sense that they mark the point of transfer of her textile surfaces into the third dimension.

  • This is the basis on which Kimsooja then founded a wholly new understanding of her role as an artist. In her subsequent works she no longer treated the needle as an extension of her hand but increasingly regarded herself and her own body as the needle, using it as a sewing tool to move between layers of textile. It was this new awareness that led her to make her first bottari, the Korean word for the cloth bundles that are so deeply part of Korean tradition. Even today the large, richly coloured and decorative bedcovers woven in silk or cotton are still used in Korea to transport clothes, books and household articles on journeys or as storage around the home. But these bundles are also the expression of a culture exposed to colonialist threat and repression, one whose constant preparedness for departure and escape has become fully ingrained in the habits of everyday life. A large cover of this kind still represents a typical wedding gift for young couples. Its functions mark the poles of human existence: as a bedspread it is equated with tranquillity, tenderness and birth; as a suspended stretcher it is used as a cradle for carrying the sick and the dead. But besides its place in Korean tradition a further significant aspect becomes evident if one considers the position textiles have held in age-old African-Arab culture. When a woven fabric is removed from the loom and the threads are cut the women pronounce the same ritual blessing as they would at the severance of a baby's umbilical cord. Thus in terms not only of its function but also of its manufacture a cloth could be likened to a bridge spanning the entire breadth of human existence, with the four sides of the loom signifying the four ends of the world.

Being alien

  • The idea of or awareness for the bottari arose during the period of Kimsooja's artistic residency at P.S. 1 in New York in 1992—93. In her studio she caught sight of the bundle in which she kept her clothes, as she had commonly done in Korea. Living in alien surroundings had changed her perception: 'Suddenly the bundle meant something entirely new to me. It was a sculpture and a painting in one and I realized that by the simple act of tying it together I could shift from two to three dimensions', she noted. [8] At the P.S. 1 open studio in 1992 and the New Museum in New York a year later Kimsooja created her first installation made of bottari. On her return to Korea she exhibited them for the first time in her home country. In the village Yangdong in the Kyungju region she came across a deserted house which she chose as the site to install this work — brilliantly coloured cloth bundles spread out over the floor. Not only did this manifest an alien view of her own culture but it also instantly set the course for her adoption of alienness as a way of life. Within Kimsooja's oeuvre the bottari evolved into a kind of module that would recur in ever-changing variations in altogether different contexts during her travels over the following years.

  • At the same time, however, in 1995, she used fabrics to construct an ephemeral monument commemorating the two thousand Koreans who were shot dead in Kwangju. In May 1988 students and others who demonstrated against the imposition of martial law were brutally murdered by the government. For this work Kimsooja covered the ground of a wooded terrain with two and a half tons of cotton clothes, some bundled up into bottari, others piled in loose heaps. Visitors were able to walk over the laid-out clothing. As the installation ran its two-month course and the seasons progressed the items of clothing became increasingly intermingled with the earth of the forest floor. Called Sewing into Walking, a piece in which first she and then each of the visitors acted as needles gradually stitching together not only the past and the present but also the man-made and the naturally grown, the dead and the living.

  • This new dimension, whereby 'sewing' is extended to the outside world, gave rise to a spectacular image in her 1997 performance titled Cities on the Move — 2727 Kilometer Bottari Truck. For this work Kimsooja heaped piles of bottari onto the uncovered loading area of a lorry, fastening them with a crisscrossed web of strong elastic rope and then, seated on top of this bundle of bundles, travelled for eleven days though Korea visiting all the places she had ever lived in and which for her were thus loaded with memory. To reach these towns and villages the truck climbed sinuous roads over mountains and through valleys, boarded ferries to cross from seashore to seashore. Kimsooja explains why it was so important for her to sit on top of these itinerant bundles of belongings: 'my body — which is just another bottari on the move — is in the present, is tracing the past and, at the same time, is heading for the future, non-stop movement by sitting still on the truck. And though I used myself in this work, I tried to locate a more universal point where time and space coincide.' [9]

Universe

  • This journey encompassed two extremes at once: the more or less conscious act of bidding farewell to her home country before moving completely to the US and the starting-point of a life that was to be increasingly shaped by the rhythm and her personal awareness of being on the move. But the 'universal point' Kimsooja was seeking might, arguably, reside in the perception of these folded clothes and tightly tied bundles as metaphors for the universe. The bundles could be seen as an altogether concrete expression of Leibniz's notion of the universe as a vast cloth that, however many new folds it acquires, always remains one and the same piece of cloth. 'The entire universe is a continuous body that is not divided but like wax can assume various forms and like a tunic can be folded in a variety of ways.' [10] Even if Kimsooja herself, who is familiar in like degrees with eastern and western culture, would not draw such a reference to Leibniz, her work nonetheless offers evidence of a sensibility which grasps cloth as a phenomenon and takes account of its pronounced cultural-historical and philosophical connotations. Indeed, her work seems almost to have been woven from all the different contrasting manifestations of this same phenomenon, whether packed together in round, thick, heavy bundles placed on the ground or as pictorial surfaces fluttering gently and delicately against the wall — in the manner of how she went on to work with cloth. Besides fabric, there is hardly another material so rich in associative potential: it is capable of being one and many at the same time, yet can be returned to being one. But the particular quality of Kimsooja's work lies in how she takes the spiritual-corporeal dual nature of cloth, which for so long has fascinated philosophers and poets alike, and transposes it into a constantly revitalized and ever-evolving exploration of time and space.

  • The broad scope of her travel performance Cities on the Move — 2727 Kilometer Bottari Truck came full circle when she parked her lorryload of bottari in the 'd'Apertutto' [11] hall during the Venice Biennale in 1999. The truck was installed in front of a large mirrored wall — as though her notion of living in exile were characterized by this dual vision of things. In this particular setting the installation was indeed titled Exile. The fact of departure is irrevocably sealed by the fact of arrival. In another performance, which felt almost like an inverted echo of her Venice installation, Kimsoojaspread one of these magnificently coloured fabrics over the grass between the gravestones of a cemetery in Brooklyn, where the cloth was billowed out by the wind like a sail. Looming behind her was the silhouette of New York with its towers looking as stone-carved as the tombstones. Performed in 2002, just a year after the terror attack on September 11, the piece she titled Epitaph was nothing further than a fluttering gravestone inscription. The Greek word epitaphion means 'at the grave', and it is precisely this embodiment of nothing more than the prepositional gesture of 'at', of hovering in the intermediate realm, of being suspended on the edge that constitutes the poetry of her work. This single gesture might also evoke Rilke's call to cast one's own immeasurable inward space around things so as to free them from their limits, to grasp them concretely in one's vision. But in this instance it was not just any object that she had taken to expand the space of experience. This too is why the 'ybulbo' — the name for large Korean bedcovers steeped in history and tradition — were able to 'spread open' their own space when long rows of them were suspended on washing lines traversing the room in the work A Mirror Woman (2002). Here, not only was the viewer's gaze immersed in a swirl of colour but his ears were also awash with sound, with the chants of Tibetan monks. But the covers were also hung between two walls of mirrors, incorporating the viewer into a never-ending reflection as he wandered through the floating, wafting walls of fabric, these swaying pictorial panels that in endless repetition constantly unfurled new fata morganas and chimerical spatial realms.

  • This installation was one of the works that again centrally featured fabrics, which are capable of filling space and creating space of their own. At the same time this work acted as a seam, a threshold and a turning point for a new stage in Kimsooja's work. Hereafter she began to envisage the entire space of her surroundings, the world she observes and experiences, as an immense piece of cloth through which she herself travels as a needle.

Unity

  • A Needle Woman (1999) is the name Kimsooja gave herself in the performance she held in Kitakyushu in Japan when she reclined on top of a cliff with her back to the viewer. She lay on her side, her body nestling against the curves of the rock, one of her arms outstretched, cushioning her head, the other clasped along the length of her body. With her legs closed, her body traced a single line starting at the tip of her outstretched feet. She did not support herself: this reclining horizontal posture is not an expression of passivity but a sign of balance and alertness. The colour of the pale limestone echoed that of her gown, reinforcing the sense of unity between the human body and the geological body. This is probably one of her quietest, most peaceful works. 'Nothing changes in this video except the natural light from the sky and a little bit of breeze, and at the end there is one fly that is just passing by against the slow movement of the clouds. Of course, I had to control my breath, so my shoulders wouldn't move; I taught myself how to breathe with my stomach. I was there a pretty long time. The rock was a little bit cold, but it was just so peaceful. I was completely abandoning my will and desire to nature and I was at such a peace.' [12] Her words may have the ring of Far Eastern meditative culture, but Kimsooja actually expounds a world view that is more a fusion of eastern and western culture and treats meditation as part of everyday life. [13] Hence, as the horizontal Needle Woman lying on the mountainside of Kitakyushu she can equally associate herself with the crucifix. For her body is 'located at the central point of four different elements which are in-between the sky and the earth, nature and human beings. I located myself on the borderline of the earth and the sky, facing nature and away from the viewers'. [14] Here one can sense the vision of the universe alluded to in the cross of cloth called The Earth and the Heaven that was mentioned at the outset which, when set in proper context, increasingly reveals its true dimensions.

  • The further one probes the logic woven into Kimsooja's work — following the weave, as it were — the more it appears to be oriented towards forming an image of the world with universal scope. One year later, with a quietness similar to that witnessed in Kitakyushu, but now tipped into a vertical axis, the artist stood on the steep slopes of the Yamuna river in India near Delhi, not far from where the dead are cremated. She can be seen peering across the water, watching the blossom, ornaments and other remains of incinerated ritual objects drifting away towards the horizon. Again Kimsooja is observed from the rear, the viewer's gaze following hers into the space that to her resembled a painting, a space holding 'anonymous people's life and death, including mine.' [15] The fact that she is viewed from behind has been frequently commented upon. Yet how else is such a pictorial space meant to arise, one that allows the viewer to participate in what is seen and experienced? Is it not precisely through this distending glance that space and meaning can be generated? [16]

Axis

  • Kimsooja's appearance in her own pictorial spaces is evidence of 'being in the world', a state that absorbs and incorporates its audience, as opposed to the viewer being excluded and treated as 'other'. Moreover, her presence in these spaces is not that of a melancholy dreamer but of an active axis. Whether in a horizontal or a vertical position, she is always the one who, as she says, condenses movement and time. The artist transforms time into corporeality that not only circumscribes space but actually opens it up: 'For me, space is time — time is space. Every single movement and any physicality is time. If we draw a line from a given point, time runs exactly parallel to it. A line is the physical expression of movement in time. And through this movement space is also opened up. When I position my body as a stationary, vertical axis in space I am to some degree creating a form of timelessness, but I am simultaneously opening up another kind of movement — a vertical, inwardly directed movement, time in the form of condensation. We cannot separate the coexistence of time and corporeality, and hence spatiality; they are for ever immutably fused.' [17] This conception of time and space as corporeal entities can be witnessed not only in Kimsooja's living images of devotion to the structures of the cosmos and nature, but also in her performances in the open spaces of collective experience in the world's cities. In A Homeless Woman she can be seen lying on the ground in the same posture as she assumed on the Kitakyushu mountain, but now directly on the streets of cities like Delhi and Cairo. As a needle, barometer, seismograph and compass she seems to be doing more than just personifying time and space, she is also indicating the everyday dramas that usually go undetected in our habit-formed lives. The social fabric has now become her material. Her gown is as grey as the dusty road; her presence evolves into silent, physical testimony.

  • This performance also has a vertical equivalent. As in her extensive performance series A Needle Woman (1999-2001), which she resumed in 2005, urban residents become the cloth in which Kimsooja wraps herself when she travels to large cities and implants herself as a perpendicular axis amid teeming passers-by, standing bolt upright and motionless in the very places where the crowds are densest. The videos on which these performances are recorded are silent; the viewer can fully concentrate on the image and its time and space. Here again the artist's gaze is directed at events before her and the people passing by. People in Delhi, Lagos, Tokyo, New York, London, Mexico City, Shanghai and Cairo. Here we see people with time to notice the artist, to smile at her, to turn around and look back; or others who are focused wholly on their own purposes and hurry onward without registering her. Immobile and with steady gaze, the artist stands in the surging floods of people, stems herself against the current, her motionlessness acting as a gauge of passing time. Similar to how she stood as a vertical living axis by the Yamuna river, fully aware that even if she were no longer there the vast horizontal current would outlast the arc of her existence and continue to flow onward, here it seems much the same, that the broad currents of surging humanity will never cease to flow, will outlast this corporeal needle measuring the present.

Horizon

  • In her most recent performances series A Needle Woman from 2005 Kimsooja turned to examine an entirely different theme, even though she barely altered her pictorial means. For this she travelled to trouble spots around the world, places with a background of prolonged struggle against colonialism, regions that have been plagued by war, civil strife, economic conflict and dire poverty, that have been decimated by ancient feuds between warring ethnic groups. She visited Havana where the scars of colonial experience are still keenly felt; she went into the favelas in Rio de Janeiro where everyday life is constantly menaced by street warfare; she travelled to N'Djamena in Chad, the poorest country in Africa and to Sana'a in Yemen, a country currently embroiled in conflict with both the US and Israel — not to mention Patan in Nepal and Jerusalem. These journeys were more tokens of physical testimony than of the possibility of physically experiencing time; the purpose and implications of this testimony are made clear by the high degree of risk to which Kimsooja exposed herself in these places and on her travels. While the viewer again witnesses her as a calm and stationary pole standing in the midst of milling crowds, among which are also variously uniformed soldiers, she herself can hear the rattling of machine-guns from all around her and on more than one occasion has feared she might be shot in the back.

  • This video installation was shown on six screens at the 2005 Venice Biennale. For the first time the video's speed was not real time but cut by fifty per cent, thereby stretching the duration of the performance, distending the moment of encounter between Kimsooja as an immobile axis and the passing people. Only when time is expanded does the encounter between standstill and flowing time become properly visible. This gives rise to three different time zones within the pictorial space. First there is the form of timelessness embodied by the stationary vertical pole of A Needle Woman. Very similar to her performance Cities on the Move — 2727 Kilometer Bottari Truck where, seated on top of the lorry's fastened load of bundles like a human bottari, she acted as a sign of the present travelling through the past while constantly moving towards the future, here again she is a stationary pole that personifies past, present and future in one. Holding the past within her, Kimsooja encounters the present and looks into the future. Secondly, besides this form of condensed time there is also the motion of the passers-by who are the concrete manifestation of a time composed of countless juxtaposed moments of the present. Finally, a third time zone is introduced into the image by the viewers themselves, for it is they who embody the link to real time. To a greater extent than the physical experience of space, this work manifests the physical experience of time. [18] It offers concrete evidence of the degree to which our relational systems are determined by both space and time. Time, like space, can isolate or connect. By expanding time Kimsooja's video work emphasizes the encounter, but is more than just a phenomenon of simultaneity. What instead transpires is similar to what happens when we observe the expanded space in her Kitakyushu and Yamuna river performances: the viewer is drawn into a state of consciousness comparable to that of experiencing the horizon. Expanded time opens up the experience of one's own boundary. While the viewer is watching the videos of these six spaces of conflict filled with teeming human crowds he is looking in the same direction as the artist, is standing motionless as her and experiences his own time, its limitation and thereby the possibility of imagining how this boundary might be surpassed.

  • With the Venice piece the role of A Needle Woman visibly evolved into the political role of a witness, of someone who 'was there', who was in the midst of everything, who also suffered, who partook in need and hardship and is now able to report about it. Here she has become a needle that gauges reality, a clock hand registering the events of our time. But in this role A Needle Woman also embodies our relationship to current events, our unshielded vulnerability towards the moment, an exposure that lacks reflective distance. It is the dislocating filter of imagery that offers the means of overcoming such blind, mute and excessive proximity in our experience of the present. For even if the viewer himself experiences events from the same perspective and, conceivably, with the same inner calm as the artist it is the distance established by the image that provides him with a filter of time and space, thereby engendering insight. Kimsooja has created a profoundly ethical anthropological work. The universe she stretched open when she started out as an artist has evolved into a truly committed condition of 'being in the world', which for the artist herself only makes sense as a political embodiment of our spatial and temporal experience. The full dimensions of her pictorial world are only properly revealed when one perceives it as fostering a sphere of concrete metaphysics — but one which seeks its raison d'être in ethics.

  • This essay was first published in German in Künstler Kritisches Lexikon der Gegenwartskunst, Nr. 74, vol. 12, II quarter, Munich, 2006.

  • Translated from the German by Matthew Partridge.

  • Doris von Drathen is a German art historian who lives in both Paris and New York. Since the publication of her book Vortex of Silence: a proposition for an art criticism beyond aesthetic categories (Charta, 2004), she teaches art theory at Cornell University — an art theory which she coins as: Ethical Iconology. Her latest publication is a monograph on Pat Steir (Charta, 2006).

  • Notes:

[1] Joë Bousquet, 'La neige d'un âge', quoted in: Gaston Bachelard, La poétique de l'espace, Paris, 1957/2004, p. 183. > return to article >
[2] Rainer Maria Rilke, Sämtliche Werke, vol. II, Frankfurt/M., 1991, p. 168: 'Raum greift aus uns und übersetzt die Dinge / dass dir das Dasein eines Baumes gelinge, wirf Innenraum um ihn, / von jenem Raum, der in dir west. Umgib ihn mit Verhaltung. / Er grenzt sich nicht. Erst in der Eingestaltung / in dein Verzichten wird er wirklich Baum.' > return to article >
[3] Bachelard, ibid. > return to article >
[4] Otto Friedrich Bollnow, Mensch und Raum, Stuttgart, 1963/2004, p. 64. > return to article >
[5] Kimsooja in conversation with Mary Jane Jacob in In the Space of Art: Buddha and the Culture of Now, 2004; see: www.kimsooja.com/texts/jacob.html. > return to article >
[6] Kimsooja in conversation with Doris von Drathen in June 2005; see Künstler Kritisches Lexikon der Gegenwartskunst, Nr. 74, vol.12, Munich, 2006, pp.14—15. > return to article >
[7] Kimsooja in an email to the author, 5 January 2006. > return to article >
[8] Kimsooja in conversation with Mary Jane Jacob, ibid. > return to article >
[9] Ibid. > return to article >
[10] Horst Bredekamp, Die Fenster der Monade, Berlin 2004, p. 16. ('Totum universum est unum corpus continuum. Neque dividitur, sed instar certae transfiguratur, instar tunicae varie plicatur.') > return to article >
[11] The name coined by Harald Szeemann for the exhibition of young artists staged in the Arsenale during the Venice Biennale he directed. > return to article >
[12] Kimsooja in conversation with Mary Jane Jacob, ibid. > return to article >
[13] Cf. Kimsooja in conversation with Doris von Drathen, reproduced in this publication. > return to article >
[14] Kimsooja in conversation with Mary Jane Jacob, loc. cit. > return to article >
[15] Ibid. > return to article >
[16] Cf. Rilke, loc. cit. > return to article >
[17] Kimsooja in conversation with Doris von Drathen, reproduced in this publication. > return to article >
[18] Ibid. > return to article >

A Laundry Woman - Yamuna river, India, 2000, 10:30 video loop, Silent.

Museion - The Perception of the Horizonta

Regaglia, Letizia

2005

  • The artist stands immobile with her back to us, and the river flows slowly by. It's the Yamuna River, in Delhi, and the flowers, ashes and charred remains afloat in it come from a nearby crematory. Since the middle of the 1980s, the Korean artist Kimsooja has been using installations, performances and video for poetic transformations of various elements of the culture from which she comes into metaphors of the human condition. The contrast between fixity and motion, particularly in relation to the human body, is one of the constants of her work. In the performance A Needle Woman, she dresses in a stern, dark suit, erect and motionless in the middle of the street, offering resistance to the surging energy of a crowd of passers-by. In A Homeless Woman, she lies stretched out along the ground. In A Beggar Woman she sits with crossed legs in the midst of urban traffic. In all of these positions and situations she confronts us with the metaphor of a life that withdraws from the hubbub around it.

  • The body that faces away from us revises the notion of the artist as protagonist or predominant actor: this is a body on a search for otherness, while nonetheless unable to oppose the order of things, and even less to alter it. In an interview in which Kimsooja describes her state of mind while filming A Laundry Woman, she remarks that there was a moment when she came to understand that movement, here, belonged not to the river, which would always remain, whereas her body would disappear from the world. The contemplation of a landscape situation that evokes the endlessness of nature and the finitude of the human condition refers necessarily to the compositions of C. D. Friedrich where a figure generally seen from behind stands out against sublime landscapes which emphasize and underline the incommensurability of the horizon. The contemporary context has doubtless changed, but the confrontation between the subject and a horizon — cultural no less than environmental — once again brings existential questions to the foreground: questions on permeability and impermeability, on the separateness and intimate inter-relationship of the human being and the world.

Bottari with the Artist, 1994, used Korean clothes and bedcovers, Yang Dong village, Korea. Photo by Ju Myung Duk.

Kimsooja: Journey into the World

Kafetsi, Anna

2005

  • Kimsooja's Bottari Truck has begun its new journey...

  • With the baggage of the present bearing silent witness to multicoloured journeys, the artist, immobile and free, crosses time, wanders amongst familiar places and memories, visits histories and fragments of histories, returns to the world of singularity and difference. To her own body.

  • Her reconciliation is like the rhythmic fluidity of the Needle-Woman on the curve of the rock, there where earth meets the heavens; it is also like the poetic meditation of the immobile woman before the painting of the River Yamuna.

  • Kimsooja's journey is our journey, too.

  • Alone, with her back to us, but with her gaze on a level with our own, she invites us to journey into ourselves through her eyes. She becomes the in between space that unites the self with the other. Which is why any similarity with Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer is confined to contrast. She counterposes the sanctity of her anonymity and the unity with the antagonistic gulf between the romantic ego and the Sublime. Female mystery with male conquest. Alterity with identity; the alterity of her self and of her gender. Of her exile and of her nomadic wanderings.

  • The same desire for reconciliation brings her and brings us into the world, into the heart of its metropolises. Silent and immobile once more, she penetrates powerfully and resolutely into the body of the crowd, always against the tide. With her difference interrupting and bridging the flow at one and the same time. With her poetic subtlety revealing the counter forces, but neutralizing them, too. Daring to dramatize human conditions and situations she fights. Social and political exclusion, isolation, want, marginalization. Using the persona of the foreigner, the homeless woman, the beggar woman, to break through to the Other side.

  • It is Kimsooja's journey into herself and others. Through the others. A journey into the world.

  • Anna Kafetsi —
    BA in Philosophy (University of Athens), PhD in Aesthetics and History of Art at Paris 1 - Sorbonne. Formal Curator of National Museum of Modern Art, Founding Director of the National Museum of Contemporary Art since 2000.

— Preface of the catalogue, 'Kimsooja: Journey into the World' from the artist's solo show at The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, 2005

The Weaving Factory, 5.1 Surround sound installation, voice by Kimsooja, International Artists Mueseum, Lodz Biennale 2004.

Experiencing A Vacuum

De Cecco, Emanuela

2005

  • As the feet of man take up a small space on the earth, it is thanks to the space that they do not occupy that man can walk on the immense earth.
    — Zhuang-zi

  • One of the most salient aspects to emerge in the works of certain artists over the last decade regards a return to dialogue with minimalist language. Looking at the works of Mona Hatoum, Doris Salcedo, Rachel Whiteread, Felix Gonzalez Torres, Miroslaw Balka,in this perspective, it is quite clear how their work finds a sort of common denominator in this linguistic base. It is not a relationship based on subjection, nor on a form of citation. The significant point - which marks a departure from the past and offers the possibility to return to a strong connection with contemporary urgencies - is the assumption of a tradition, turning its meaning upside down from within. Minimalism lends itself, for its presumed liberated universality, freed from subjective tensions (in reality far from universal, far from neutral, more precisely expression of the very Western sense of the dominant thought in modernity), to be reread, re-interpreted, re-proposed in order to face the desire to recover a close contact with reality in all its aspects. Forms that appear simple, appeasing, in fact bear dramatic, intimate contents, capable of introducing searing themes, aimed at giving form to the shadowy areas of a society that is more interested in celebrating its own potency.

  • The frontal methods of protest are substituted with a transversal method which adopts a much subtler strategy, in which the artist's attention is equally divided between the sense of his own discourse and the dialogue with the language of art.

  • It is within this context that Kimsooja's work finds a natural collocation. During the first half of the last decade, her work begins to be known and recognized. While this is only one of many perspectives, it is evident in many of her works.

  • The return to a comparison with minimalism at the beginning of the '90's marks an important step, as it gives voice to various forms of differences that lived in silence throughout History: the cultural difference of those who come from non-Western contexts, sexual differences, the differences in the way information has treated some difficult themes (death, conflict, illness), the different ways in which aspects related to the body, to sentiments, and to intimacy are treated by mass communication (such as the promises of well-being and earthly paradise upon which advertising is based). The extraordinary pathways outlined in these artists' work consist in suggesting another way, another possibility to deconstruct the rules of a seemingly mastered language , stabilized in art history manuals.

  • While other works created during the last decades contained a clear "anti-" statement, such as in the first phase of feminist art in which women artists needed to affirm their right to exist in an art scene that was prevalently masculine, in this case the revolution develops in overcoming the logic of "with me or against me". A third hypothesis is visible, alongside the choice between working within tradition or departing from it: Us and Them, rather than Us or Them.

  • Thanks to these artists, the non-Western eye, the sexual difference, the personal history, death, violence, themes which are dear only to minorities, acquire a new centrality, and the works speak to those who come near to them with a language that is able to speak to the soul of the individual and to the collective, in a form of rapport that includes the public as well as the private, which was previously unheard of.

  • In Kimsooja's installations, the cold, minimalist floors, created with solid materials that are not ruined when walked upon, become colored surfaces, made up of a patchwork of Korean family bedspreads.

  • They bear the memories, the wishes, the stories of those who once owned them and used them daily. At the same time, the monochrome canvases in the artist's installations remind one of the laundry hung out to dry. The canvases are still bedcoverings, elements that belong to the Korean culture, and yet evoke the more intimate dimension, rarely visible, non-official, hardly an object of attention.

  • Kimsooja's work takes form based on her experience. Her personal vocabulary is full of objects that come from her culture: not only the bedcoverings, but also bottari — the Korean word for bundles — that the artist creates by filling canvases with used clothes that she arranges randomly about the exhibition space, evoking the nomadic condition, her own, but also that of an entire people.

  • These presences give life to a statement aimed not only at those who are able to understand the specific aspects of a culture as they touch themes that are part of everyone's lives.

  • The introduction of personal experience, the poetic reflection on birth, death, the intimacy that Kimsooja's work speaks of, all have the ability to create a larger statement that we can all relate to. From the specific one passes to a possible form of universality which is no longer abstract and distant — typical of the project of modernity - but is a contemporary form of universality soaked in the singular stories of the people who once owned the objects, that become part of the piece, ready to take in the world of the observer.

  • It is a work that is strongly marked by a subjective point of view with respect to the artist's own condition, cultural, historical, gender, and at the same time able to create a space in order to avoid remaining centered on herself in a narcissistic way. There is no doubt that, in her case, the heredity of minimalism consists in the adoption of an essential language, where there is nothing more than what is necessary to center in on the core of the issue.

  • But, as I mentioned earlier, this is only one of the perspectives. In fact, Kimsooja lives with an autonomy that renders this relationship relative and which speaks with references from another provenance.

  • It is a work which - as many others have written — maintains an active dialogue with both the Korean culture and with the Zen Buddhist practices, with which it shares the tension of the creation of an empty/dense space where a contradiction is resolved, a contradiction which only appears as such, between the presence and the absence of the artist.

  • In one of her most famous pieces — A Needle Woman (1999-2001), eight performances (filmed on video) carried out in eight major cities around the world (Cairo, Lagos, Tokyo...), Kimsooja simply "is", standing in the midst of the crowds of people that pass by and react in different ways to her presence.

  • In this, as in all her actions, she is exposed in the first person but, with her back to the camera, immobile, exposed to the external world without protection, doing nothing, her presence loses its subjective connotation and becomes "the other". It is in this passage — in the reduction of the ego, which does not mean disappearing but rather a different way of being present — that the artist creates the conditions for an empty space in which she becomes the instrument and not the ends of the action that she carries out, and element of transmission and not the protagonist, an element which connects but does not center on.

  • With this, the title of the work is emblematic. A Needle Woman, which she explains as a needle is "an extension of the body, and a thread is the extension of the mind. The traces of mind stay always in the fabric, but the needle leaves the site which its medialization is complete. The needle is a medium, a mystery, a reality, a hermaphrodite, a barometer, a moment, a Zen." during an interview with Nicolas Bourriaud, published in the catalogue of her exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum in Lyon in 2003.

  • In her doing nothing, each time the surrounding scenario becomes the protagonist with the different reactions of the people passing by, finding themselves before this silent, concentrated presence. The camera view is such that, in watching the video we have the feeling that we are a part of the group of passers-by.

  • Standing before each of Kimsooja's works we find ourselves standing before ourselves. It is in these terms that another aspect of the artist's work emerges, which takes on a significant connection with Buddhism. Where "demolishing the reasons that feed the 'I' of the individual conscience means attacking the basis of all the mental constructions that derive from the presumption of this subjective 'I' and thus avoiding the psychic and physical damage that those constructions generate and host: to embrace and practice emptiness of the 'I' means emptying all opposition which is unbearable, each conflict that feels irremediable, each dualism that seems absolute, of its weight. Positively speaking, this means transforming the body and mind into constellations of interacting elements, in structures of interdependent parts, in nets with interconnected knots, where interdependence and connections guarantee the absence of multiple 'I's, the eclipse of absolute identities and fixed identifications." [1] These words seem written to describe the work of Kimsooja. In an historical phase in which individualism prevails, where the dominating declination of the "desire" is "desire to consume", and the growing revendications of belonging and of identity are fed by a dangerous logic of exclusion, the practice of an artist who with her silent presence alone suggests something else, taking existence from these predominating perspectives resounds with a further meaning. On additional meaning.

  • Furthermore, in A Beggar Woman, the artist sits in the street with her hand out, in the act of asking money from passers-by, in A Homeless Woman, she puts herself in the shoes of the homeless, again doing nothing in the midst of the crowds... Her rigorous testimony, her intentionally not adding anything to the world, the use she makes of her body, leave space to the world, in all its moving intensity.

  • [1] Giangiorgio Pasqualotto, Estetica del vuoto, Venezia, Marsilio, 2004, p. 50.

Translated from Italian by Donna Fox Page.

A Laundry Woman - Yamuna river, India, 2000, 10:30 video loop, Silent.

The Discipline of Looking

Morgan, David

2005

  • Kimsooja’s video, A Laundry Woman (2000), places the viewer before a silent screen across which a river passes, its surface carrying refuse and fragments of branches, plants, and flowers swept from unseen banks. At the top of the screen, the river vanishes in a white glare, perhaps from the morning sun that hangs just above the river and greets an anonymous Indian woman who has come to the edge of the Yamuna River at Delhi to wash laundry. We see her only from the back, and she never moves. She is the only thing that does not move. After a few moments, the viewer wonders if she is really there. Perhaps she has been burned into the video tape by some mechanical process, or inserted by digital editing. In the age of Photoshop, is anything actually real? Not a hair flutters on her head, her clothing registers no wind or motion.

  • Yet she is human, and the eye returns to her stalwart, central figure again and again. She stands with her immovable back to the viewer, an Asian version of the so-called Rückenfigur, the familiar device of placing a figure seen from the rear in the foreground of a picture, a favorite contrivance of Romantic painters in Europe in the early nineteenth century. It lures viewers into the painting, directing their vision and pulling them to the picture plane, which tends to vanish as they compare themselves to the figure, perhaps even regarding the figure as another version of themselves, or as their fictive counterpart within the work of art. A Laundry Woman recalls this iconographical motif by freezing the figure in the video. The artist used the same motif in another silent video, A Needle Woman (1999-2001), which she has performed by standing motionless in the crowded streets of Tokyo, Shanghai, Delhi, Cairo, Lagos, and London, among others. In doing so, Kimsooja blurs the distinction between painting and video as media, a move bolstered by the absence of sound.

  • Why engage in this sort of ambivalence in her medium? Is it one more tired involution of art referring to art? A much better purpose may be at work. The artist pushes her medium to the limits of its ontology, one might say. She extends video to the point where it threatens to turn into something it's not — in this case, painting. She cloaks the imagery in silence in order to deprive the viewer of the effect of sound, which would clearly distinguish video from non-moving visual media. Even though the water never ceases to flow, and the cloudy surface is continually disrupted by flotsam that ambles by, moving from left to right, I found myself repeatedly rediscovering that it was a river. The white glare across the top of the screen strongly tends to flatten the image, which is affirmed by the lack of shadows and depth in the water. The motionless figure might be staring into a snowstorm, or a scrim, but for the lolling gait of lily pads and fragments of vegetation, plastic bags, and the shadows of birds. Even now as I remember the scene, I find myself dubbing in sound — the distant call of the birds, the drop of water, the skitter of water bugs, the hushed lapping of water at the shoreline out of sight. By depriving us of so much, Kimsooja asks us to look hard and to question the very act of looking. By pressing a visual medium to its threshold, an artist tests the nature of seeing, probes especially the elusive seams where a medium stitches itself to the airy fabric of consciousness.

  • A medium is never stable, despite what we may wish to think about it. The imagination animates drawings, photographs, and films, supplying what is not there, ignoring what is, and sometime even subverting what one expects or wants to find present. The very same holds true of the mind itself, which is the fundamental medium of consciousness. It is not a stony blank slate on which is etched the secure features and principles of reality. The mind is the very surface of water that the artist envisions in her video. And the mind is anything but stable. The Dhammapada, one of the oldest and most widely revered Buddhist sutras, describes the mind as "wavering and restless, difficult to guard and restrain". "Fickle and flighty, [the mind] flies after fancies wherever it likes." [1] Yet the wisdom of many religions is that our greatest problem can become our most powerful means of salvation. The mind and the body are trainable. Hinduism regards the individual ego or self as something like the larger self, the atman, the being or essence of all things that expresses the ultimate, but ineffable reality called Brahman. Christianity can speak of the individual self as hiding within Christ, who becomes the truer aspect of the self (Colossians 3: 3). The redeemed are those whom another New Testament text describes as "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1: 4).

  • To be sure, the world’s religions should not be melted down to a stew with one taste. Yet, because they all grapple with the same material — the human struggle with selfishness, suffering, and mortality — it is not surprising that a number of parallels may be discerned in very different religious traditions. In each of those cited, the human self, embedded in the mortal body, is the place where longing for deliverance begins as well as the locale in which it is realized —l by albeit starkly different means. For many Christians, body and mind become deeply engaged in transforming suffering into an imitation of God’s presence in Christ. For Hindus, body and mind are engaged in mitigating the cause of suffering by training the body in yoga, in dietary practices, and in prayer and ritual offerings. According to The Dhammapada, the person "whose mind in calm self-control is free from the lust of desires, who has risen above good and evil, ... is awake and has no fear". And so begins the rigorous discipline of Buddhist training, to steal the mind against the frailty of the body in order to dismantle the manifold attachments to the fear, lust, anger, and ignorance that propel the illusion of the self-centered self.

  • Even this lightly comparative consideration of three religions may help us consider Kimsooja’s video and, by extension, a great deal of art work today, which explores aspects of religion or addresses parallels between art and religion. As with the comparison of different religions to one another, the task is not to reduce art to religion or vice versa, but to ask in what manner the two appear to operate similarly, and what that means for artistic practice today. Is art a replacement for religion? The claim is not a new one. In the early nineteenth century, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer described two forms of transcendence that might release human beings from suffering: aesthetic contemplation and the life of asceticism. Both were ways of renouncing what Schopenhauer called the will, the blind force that drives all things in the universe. In delineating the two means, Schopenhauer set the stage for subsequent reflection about the relation of art and religion as two roughly parallel, though not equivalent practices.

  • Aesthetic contemplation, he claimed, is the means of saying no to the will, of becoming a "pure, will-less subject of knowledge", an eye surveying a work of art or an object of nature from beyond the grip of the will and seeing only the essence of the thing, the timeless being manifest in the phenomenon. Beauty is the experience of this transcendental reality. Schopenhauer described the operation of aesthetic experience as follows, which merits quotation at length:

  • Raised up by the power of the mind, we relinquish the ordinary way of considering things... we do not let abstract thought, the concepts of reason, take possession of our consciousness, but, instead of all this, devote the whole power of our mind to perception, sink ourselves completely therein, and let our whole consciousness be filled by the calm contemplation of the natural object actually present, whether it be a landscape, a tree, a rock, a crag, a building, or anything else [such as a river]. We lose ourselves entirely in this object, to use a pregnant expression; in other words, we forget our individuality, our will, and continue to exist only as pure subject, as clear mirror of the object, so that it is as though the object alone existed without anyone to perceive it, and thus we are no longer able to separate the perceiver from the perception, but the two have become one, since the entire consciousness is filled and occupied by a single image of perception. If, therefore, the object has to such an extent passed out of all relation to something outside it, and the subject has passed out of all relation to the will, what is thus known is no longer the individual thing as such, but the Idea, the eternal form, the immediate objectivity of the will at this grade. Thus at the same time, the person who is involved in this perception is no longer an individual, for in such perception the individual has lost himself; he is pure will-less, painless, timeless subject of knowledge. [2]

  • Schopenhauer went on to cite Byron's experience of the oneness of landscape and soul in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and the utterance of Brahman in the Upanishads: "I am all this creation collectively, and besides me there exists no other being." [3] The Upanishads or Vedanta presented the absolute, Brahman, as the imperishable soul (atman) that exists behind all appearances as the ground of everything. It was this reality that Schopenhauer identified with the state of consciousness achieved in aesthetic experience. But art was less permanent than the renunciant’s way of denying the will. Art, in the end, was not equal to religion, but a passing version of it.

  • Certain versions of Buddhism have accorded an important place to artistic practice, regarding activities like painting, pottery, calligraphy, flower arrangement, gardening, and the performance of the tea ceremony meditative forms of practice. Making things and doing things can be absorptive activities that release the mind from its attachments and train it to attend singularly to immediate tasks, without the flitting distractions the Dhammapada noted. But it is important not to mistake the purpose of these creative forms of meditation. They are not merely an alternative way of making art. Buddhism is often romanticized by those who wish to see in it no more than a serene aesthetic and amusingly paradoxical witticisms. This fantasized version of Buddhism is never up to the challenge of actual practice. Skimming the mere look of Buddhism (or any religion) from the torso of lived practice is something that art — in tandem with commerce — is all too capable of doing. Artists, curators, and art historians are sometimes happy to indulge in aestheticizing a religion because they operate on the presumption that art is neatly separable from religion, as if art were the flower to be plucked from the otherwise irrelevant plant of pious practice.

  • Is that what we encounter in the ten silent moments of Kimsooja’s video? Are we urged to clip from Buddhism or Hinduism or from the daily life of an anonymous laborer some universal essence that can be imported into the marketplace of our lives and appropriated as if it were a commodity in global tourist trade? Does she invite us to peel off the picturesque exterior of a life-world and chuck the irrelevant innards into the passing river — all in the liberal name of Art? These are important questions to ask in the age of hyper-capitalism, when anything may be commoditized to supply the self-construction of inexhaustibly acquisitive consumers. Is nothing sacred? Absolutely not, the marketplace answers.

  • An instructive catalogue essay by Elizabeth Brown informs us that the figure at riverside is not a laundry woman, but the artist herself. [4] The artist also appeared as herself in A Needle Woman, having herself spent several years engaged in the practice of needlework. These videos are not, therefore, ethnographic documents. A Laundry Woman is the artist’s portrayal of a laborer who watches fragments of a Hindu funeral rite pass by her on the river’s murky surface, contemplating human fate (as she told Brown). The artist constructs the work of art as a literal projection of herself into the place of another, and invites viewers to follow her lead. In doing so, she acts on the belief that the human situation as diagnosed by Hinduism or by Buddhism is also available to the rigors of artistic practice. She may assume that the boundaries separating the two are blurred. The AWAKE project, in which Kimsooja has participated, asserts in its webpage, that Buddhism need not be construed as a religion, but as a science of the mind, whose principles, it follows, can be productively exported and applied by non-Buddhists in works of art. [5]

  • If Buddhism’s analysis of human consciousness produces penetrating insights, particularly insights that are comparable in striking ways to artistic practice, is it an act of cultural skimming for artists to act like Buddhists (or Hindus or Christians or Zoroastrians)? As the brief foray into the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer might suggest, the modern project of establishing the independently revelatory power of art and the autonomy of artistic genius argues resolutely that aesthetic experience is an embodied operation that parallels religious experience because it proceeds from the underlying structure of human consciousness. Religion happens the way it does, like art in its right, because of the nature of the mind-body on which they are built as human activities. But Schopenhauer did not propose a religion of art. He regarded art as a consolation, not an explanation of life or a therapy for curing its ills. Art is no other than the short-lived result of looking at the world disinterestedly, aesthetically. Art, therefore, cannot claim to get things more right than religion, any more than the reverse, but only differently.

  • If there is any truth to this, Kimsooja is not acting like a Hindu or Buddhist in her video (she was born in Korea, but is not a practicing Buddhist). By paring itself away to the silent presence of a painting, as suggested above, the video recalls Korean or Chinese ink paintings of poets lost in thought before mist-covered lakes. Yet the video exchanges the aristocrat-poet for a common laborer, perhaps in order to urge that enlightenment is for everyone, not just poets and artists. A Laundry Woman immerses the viewer, any viewer, in a sustained act of looking, an absorbed state in which consciousness fills up with the object of perception such that one no longer thinks about what one sees, but think as it, having overcome the subject-object distinction that Schopenhauer identified as the basic structure of rational knowledge or reason. In this absorbed state of mind, which one finds in all religions as well as in the transfixed stare of the beach comber, the ego and its small sphere of suffering fade blissfully away.

  • We have in this slowly moving visual field only a single frame, which is repeatedly penetrated by flotsam and gentle eddies. The mind is directed to the world off-screen, the world we can only infer by the passing objects and shimmering reflections that appear and then vanish. At its undisciplined level, human consciousness is just this single frame, a fragile apparatus imposed on a welter of events. But the discipline of looking that art and meditation pursue brings the viewer to rest, suspends one in silence to find the world taking shape in the small bounds of the human frame. As Buddha put it in a famous sermon, "Within this fathom-long sentient body itself, I postulate the world, the arising of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path leading to the cessation of the world." [6] The instrument of suffering is also the instrument to end suffering.

  • For the millions of people who worship Buddha as a divine being who assists them in attaining higher rebirth and progressing toward ultimate release, Buddhism is clearly a religion. For others, however, Buddhist meditation is essentially a science of mind, and not a religion. For the latter, art-making and viewing may act as a non-religious form of meditation. Although he may have separated art and life more than many artists today would prefer, Schopenhauer regarded art as a way of looking at life. As such, art is a special form of consciousness, operating like meditation and teaching us to simplify our lives and to loosen the hold that our fears and desires exert over us. Such art does not save us. It is not a religion. But like meditation, it can help us see clearly.

  • Art may not last long in its brief epiphanies. As I’ve tried to suggest, that is because its task is different than religion’s. Art is sensuous thinking, what might be called embodied or sensate cognition. It thinks in the sensations that flood the field of perception and it seeks to change and deepen the registers of thought and feeling that we bring to our experience — all experience. Religion also traffics in transcendence, but its final aim is to keep us there — whether it is in this world or the next. Given this similar content, it is not surprising that religion has always made use of art (for this reason and many others) or that artists find fascinating parallels between their creative practices and those of religious believers. But the two are not reducible to one another. Kimsooja is not trying to make believers of us, but better seers.

Notes:
[1] The Dhammapada: The Path of Perfection, tr. Juan Mascaró (London: Penguin, 1973), 40. > return to article >
[2] Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, tr. E. F. J. Payne, 2 vols. (New York: Dover, 1969), vol. 1, 178-79, §34. Emphasis in original. > return to article >
[3] Ibid., 181. > return to article >
[4] Elizabeth A. Brown, “Exploring WOW; or, How Works of Art Work,” in WOW: The Work of the Work, exhibition catalogue (Seattle : Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, 2005), 15. > return to article >
[5] www.artandbuddhism.org, p. 1. > return to article >
[6] In the Pali canon’s Añguttara-nikāya,quoted in Walpola Sri Rahula, What the Buddha Taught (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1997), 42. > return to article >

  • From Curator: The Museum Journal, vol. 49, no. 3 (2006): 295-300. David Morgan.

  • David Morgan is the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Professor of Christianity and the Arts at Valparaiso University. Author of many essays on contemporary art, he has also published several books, including Visual Piety (California, 1998) and most recently The Sacred Gaze (California, 2005).

A Lighthouse Woman, Spoleto Festival USA, 2002, lighting sequence, Morris Island, Charleston. Photo by Rian King.

Kimsooja: A Lighthouse Woman, A Needle in the World

Morgan, Robert C.

2005

  • As a writer coming from a Westernized context, I regard the work of Kimsooja with a great deal of specificity, rarefied thought, and emotion. At the same time, I understand her need to relinquish desire — first in herself, and then, in relation to her work. If desire offers a means to grapple with the emotional realities that exist in relation to the external visual and material world, then the sensory cognitive aspect of the human body serves as its refining conduit. In this respect, Kimsooja posits the sensorium of the body, together with the cognitive apparatus of the mind, as a kind of actionist sanctuary. Her persona — "a needle woman" — suggests that our bodies are where we stand — as she stands anonymously facing the momentum of people walking towards her in the crowded streets of Shanghai and London — or where we lie down — as she lies down under the shade tree in a public place in Cairo. In such circumstances, the artist's body acts as a conduit between the interior realm of the spirit and the external world of perennial chaos. A Needle Woman suggests that by focusing on the body without desire, we offer ourselves the potential to make ourselves whole. The body is what nourishes us and gives us substance. The Fakirs in India have known this for centuries. The body is capable of nourishing itself over extended periods of time. And this notion of self-nourishment is far from the narcissistic desires that have come to possess human beings in the storm of illusory wealth, provided by the monarchs and moguls of globalization.

  • When I look at the works of Kimsooja — whether her early "deductive objects" as in the wrapping of ordinary household objects, or her brilliant installations of suspended ybulbo, or her magnificent still-body interventions in crowds of people in various major cities, or even in her spinning jukebox wheels overlaid with the mixed sounds of Buddhist chant, Gregorian, and Islamic chants, I begin to see a pattern of recognition. When I observe her video of A Beggar Woman performance in Lagos, I cannot refrain from having an emotional response. I never know exactly how to respond to the kind of aesthetic/anti-aesthetic whirl that spins in my head upon seeing these works by Kimsooja. How do I respond to this feeling of a language that is exorbitant, ineluctable, and mysterious? Yet somehow I discover an unexpected relief from the sensory burden of everyday life, the existential reality that I share with others who feel as I do. I have to admit to a certain beauty in all of this, the kind of beauty that gives strength to carry on. I reflect on Sooja's image of light projected against the lighthouse tower on Morris Island, Charleston (during the Spoleto Festival) in 2002 as a kind of double entendre as symbolizing both doubt and hope. It is here that Sooja becomes "A Lighthouse Woman". I think to myself — Is this not what art is supposed to do? Isn't art supposed to carry the mind and body into a different realm of being, an elevated state of contemplation and understanding of the world in which we inhabit?

  • Kimsooja is a woman on a journey. She is an artist and a human being like everyone else. Her hanging polychrome ybulbo (traditional Korean bedcoverings) and her bottari bundles transmit moments of enlightenment and redefinition. They reclaim the space that has been lost to ideology, fashion, mass media, and commerce. They transform the habitation of public space to a place of solace and intimacy that gives substance to everyday life. One may ask upon seeing these works whether the polarities of East and West still mean anything in our postmodern world torn by violent struggles between the rich and poor nations of the world, or even by nations who divide the rich from the poor.

  • Sooja's persona is "the needle woman" or "the laundry woman"; — and here is the point where my emotions start to swell. I am filled with a sense that life is, in fact, a journey, with a purpose and that compassion is more important then passion. Sooja's video projections — the needle women poised on a rock in Kitakyushu, and her laundry woman on the edge of the Yamuna River in Delhi where the burnt ashes of deceased human beings float to eternity — were made within two years of one another, in 1999 and 2000 respectively. These works asserted a turning-point in her career where the performance and video became an essential component in her work.

  • Earlier, in 1995 — when asked to participate in the first Gwangju Biennial — Sooja did a second version (first performed in 1994) of Sewing into Walking - Dedicated to the Victims of Gwangju. Her ybulbo were scattered in a forest — used cotton cloth in rumpled piles in chaotic bundles strewn to the winds. Here fabric was returned to nature, one given back to the other. Here she commemorates the struggle for democracy in 1980 where six hundred Korean were gunned down for insisting on their human rights.

  • The sensory / cognition domain of human beings causes much internal strife and is too often projected outward — violently released into the environment. While this may be part of her message or her mission, she is after all an artist. I express her calling in this way, only to suggest that Kimsooja carries a certain demeanor of gregarious humility. At the same time, I recognize that she is shrewd, sensitive, resilient, brilliant, humble, yet without self-effacement. Art is the focus of her attention. While one may read various phenomenological or minimal dimensions of "being in the world" in her work, there is scarcely a predetermined aspect in her work. I would argue that because she is so clearly in touch with her intuition, a wide breadth ofaesthetic and political speculations may appear as having ideological intentions.

  • For example, there are those who want to see her work in terms of Buddhism or feminism or minimalism or nomadism. There are those, particularly in Korea, who want to read her work as an anti-Confucianism statement, as a revolt against the way women have been treated in her culture through the manipulation of a distorted Confucian morality at the outset of the Chosun Dynasty.

  • While these arguments may be well-founded as part of the context in which her work may be understand, none of these issues are the central issue. Through her desire to relinquish the burden of the ego when necessary, to understand compassion as a human practice and necessity, and to allow her body to create an absolute stillness in the universe whether on the rock in Kitakyushu or on the banks of the Yamuna River, here we must return to the central issue. As an artist, Kimsooja has taken advantage of the signifier of self-liberation to free herself from unnecessary worldly restraints and encumbrances, while at the same time she is willing to give art an ethical dimension according to the context of her immediate actions, not according to an overarching principle of rightness, The signifier of freedom in her art also requires something of equal importance, and that is where Kimsooja enters into a transglobal history. She understands that freedom is also the ability to take responsibility for one's own life, and to know that — ecologically speaking — every action has a reaction. Call is Buddhism, if you will — but from another angle of vision, her presence as an artist offers a pragmatic vision for those in search of a better world where happiness and justice will be shared by all.

Robert C. Morgan is an independent critic, curator, writer, and artist. He holds a graduate degree in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in art history. He writes for several international magazines and is author of numerous books, including The End of the Art World (1998), Bruce Nauman (2002), and Vasarely (2004). He lives in New York City.

A Laundry Woman - Yamuna river, India, 2000, 10:30 video loop, Silent.

From Exploring WOW; or, How Works of Art Work

Brown, Elizabeth A.

2004

  • The Western rationality of Munoz’s classicism establishes a provocative comparison to the videos of Kimsooja, particularly A Laundry Woman (2000). This beautifully resolved piece originates in a meditation, dependent on the artist’s quiet and mindful presence in time and the world. Each component of the simple composition gradually progresses from minimal form to comprehended detail to immutable: there is a silhouette centered in the frame, which we first realize is an actual person (the artist herself), then see her to be a part of the scene contained within the stable camera frame. Her back to us, she faces a soft field of pale blue, which we soon discern is a river flowing from left to right. With the horizon above the camera’s frame, all detailing, information, and visual incident is contained in the river currents. Occasionally a bird flies overhead or a cloud passes, visible only by their reflections in the water. Material also floats by, including pieces of wood, scraps of fabric, or flowers bobbing in the water. Kim never moves, although wind sometimes ruffles her dress or hair. Nothing changes yet everything changes, as in the Buddhist view of life: it is always the same river, yet it is never the same river twice.

  • The image, projected life-size on a wall in a darkened room, places the viewer in the position of both observer and participant, as the artists vantage point becomes the viewer’s own. Stated another way, Kim’s body becomes a middle ground between the viewer and the landscape. She describes it as "actually three different layers of the image: the nature, the body, the viewer, and my body functions as the medium of both nature and the viewer relating my and [the] viewer’s spirituality to eternity." Spend time with this work and you slow down, finding yourself increasingly at ease with its deliberate pace and enjoying its patient unfolding.

  • The Yamuna River is even more sacred in Hindu ritual than is the Ganges. The mysterious clumps of material and fragments of flowers are the remains of funeral pyres from Hindu rituals. Kim thus compares "the destiny of our life with the element of cremated body floating on the river."

  • Despite its very different rhythm, A Wind Woman engages both contemporary painting and a Buddhist understanding of the world in a similar way. For A Wind Woman the artist holds a camera steady as a segment of the world passes by and through it. She helps us to be present by modeling the action: remaining stable and focused while the busy drama of the momentary floods in. In A Laundry Woman we see the artist; in A Wind Woman we see what the artist sees. Her body is no longer present. The subject is less spiritual, more focused on the essence of things in the world. Kim characterizes it as "trying to investigate the depth of the borderline which exists in-between things...the fine line of co-existing space of the in-betweenness."

  • Kim's videos are disarming in their simplicity. There is no elaborate production. The artist does not insist on a precise installation structure, as do her video colleagues in the exhibition, who stipulate that walls and ceilings frame their images precisely. Rather, the work screens at a certain scale that presents the artist’s body at approximately the same size as ours.

  • This work teaches a way of seeing. Its meaning becomes clear if one gives it time — the duration of the tape, or even the temporal space to allow for an experience. Your body is engaged by empathy with the person in the image or behind the camera, who is upright, disposed vertically like the viewer. After a short while your shoulders might begin to rebel, acknowledging the difficulty of standing still, or you might feel a push-pull in your spine or feet. Your relationship to the video becomes somatic—felt because of the interaction of stable vertical and moving horizontal. At times a reversal may be felt, where it seems that your move, rather than the wind or the water.

  • Up to this point, "the work of the work is discussed in regard to its ability to represent abstract functions, such as isolating a precise sort of experience or evoking a certain affect. In some cases, however, the notion of function can be seen much more concretely. For example, Mandala: Zone of Zero would make an ideal meditation room. It employs a series of rotating jukeboxes that both convey Tibetan, Gregorian, and Islamic chants and act as a visual object for meditation. The artist describes the center of the space, where the three soundtracks combine, as the Zone of Zero. To stand there is to find yourself entering a meditative state. Elements flash and revolve, casting lighted slices of yellow, red, blue. Even though this work comprises several parts, its effect is precise and economical; the lit structures are quite small in relation to their impact.

Mandala: Zone of Zero, 2003, 9:50 loop, dimensions variable. 4-channel sound installation with jukebox, mixed sound from Tibetan monk chant, Gregorian chant, and Islamic chant.

Kimsooja at The Project

Princenthal, Nancy

2004

  • In the beginning, readymades were chosen for their dumb simplicity: a bicycle wheel, a bottle rack, a shovel. Kimsooja, on the other hand, has chosen an object that is spectacular in its own right. The circular jukebox speaker that appeared four times in the installation Mandala: Zone of Zero features concentric bands of colored plastic, circulating bubbles, mirrored tiles and colored lights, all surrounding a brocade-covered audio element. A rotating knob at the center supports the resemblance to a roulette wheel; vaguely pagoda-shaped brackets give it a generic Asian accent. In the exhibition, the speakers were each centered on a wall in a room painted a deep soothing indigo and unlit, except for the audio units' multihued glow. Carpeting enhanced the serenity.

  • But it was a jangly calm, which matched the east/west discordance of the glitzy object itself, a sensory buzz amplified by the sound composition Kimsooja assembled. Mixing Gregorian chant, Muslim singing and Tibetan bells, the music was, like the bubbling speakers, almost embarrassingly engrossing. The mutually subversive and anyway kitsch-challenged spirituality of the three soundtracks produced genitive dissonance where an unlikely and altogether gorgeous aural harmony reigned.

  • The connection Kimsooja saw between the jukebox speakers and Tibetan mandalas is evident in this installation's title. Implicit in the subtitle is the question of whether its musical mixed messages transcend sectarianism to attain a higher level of spirituality than any one faith can offer (a zone of zero where striving particularity can be sublimated), or if the work points to the crass commercialism of which every religion can, at times, be found guilty (a zero zone of spiritual aridity).

  • A Korean artist now in her 40's, Kimsooja is a past master of imperturbable resistance to conclusive statement. Her previous work includes installations of filmy Korean textiles hung on lines like drying laundry and, perhaps best known, an international series of performances called A Needle Woman. Standing sentinel in London, Cairo, New Delhi, Lagos, Mexico City, Shanghai, and elsewhere, Kimsooja was the unmoving obstacle around which pedestrian traffic swirled. In the video documentation that followed, she is always shown from the back. It's possible to read committed asceticism in her posture, but also frank refusal to engage.

  • The same disinclination to take sides is evident in Mandala. Somewhere between the aggressive irreverence of Jason Rhoades's imaginary trip to Mecca, documented in his rapturously messy recent installation Meccatuna, and the prim eroticism of Duchamp's Precision Optics, with their hypnotic rotating geometries, is the null zone of quietly pulsing intransigence where Kimsooja has taken up residence.

— From Art in America, April, 2004.

A Laundry Woman - Yamuna river, India, 2000, 10:30 video loop, Silent.

KIMSOOJA

Matilsky, Barabara

2003

  • "My work explores the awakening of the self and the other... It is an awakening of the hidden meanings in elements of our mundane lives, to which the viewers previously haven't paid much attention."

  • Growing up in South Korea, Kimsooja describes her complex spiritual background informed by Buddhism, Catholicism, and a code of moral conduct influenced by Confucianism. After high school, she intentionally "stepped out of organized religion in order to experience the real world". The artist felt uncomfortable with the systematization of beliefs and behavior within the faith traditions. Although Kimsooja does not practice Buddhism formally, her beliefs and personal practices strongly parallel this philosophy of life.

  • A Laundry Woman (2002) is a video projection that suggests the harmony of the universe through its stillness and tranquility (figs. 25 and 26). It documents a meditative performance by the artist along the Yamuna River in North India. Videotaped from a slightly elevated vantage point and seen from the back, Kimsooja's figure is silhouetted against blue, opalescent waters. Although the sky is not visible, the viewer is made conscious of its presence by the reflections of flying birds in the water. The artist remains perfectly still while the video captures her state of quiet mindfulness.

  • Kimsooja describes her experience during this meditation: "In the middle of the performance, I was completely confused...[about] whether it is the river which is running and moving or myself." The artist's perceptions of space and time were turned upside down and mentally she became completely immersed in and at one with the water. She later realized that it is not the river that constantly changes but her body, which is transforming all the time: "My body will disappear while the river is still flowing."

  • While watching the video, the viewer slowly becomes aware of the ritual offerings and ashes of deceased people who were cremated at a site along the river. The cycle of life and death becomes a powerful theme in the work. Kimsooja began thinking of the decomposed bodies that floated before her. She meditated on "their lives and their memories and was trying to purify their bodies as well as mine. Praying for their future life with compassion for human beings." The artist experienced a heightened sense of what she describes as "awakeness", particularly in her awareness of the relationship between nature and the body, stillness and movement, life and death.

  • By interpreting the confluence of river and atmosphere, Kimsooja highlights an idea embraced by many artists in the exhibition: the unity of life. She describes the effect of blending water and sky as a mirror presenting both reality and its opposite dimension. From a formal perspective, the artist conceives the river as a surface that is similar to a two-dimensional canvas. There is a strong impulse towards abstraction in A Laundry Woman, which reflects Kimsooja's early career as a painter.

  • Through the video, the artist invites the viewer to share her meditative experience. As she explains, "That is why my body is facing against the viewer. Look at what I look at. I do not present my ego, my identity." Kimsooja's desire for the viewer to "wear" her body suggests the idea of the artist as mediator in order to open possibilities for other people to participate in a "certain awareness and awakening." She points out that there are few opportunities in daily life to achieve this concentrated state of mind.

  • In A Laundry Woman, Kimsooja's body in essence becomes an offering for others to use in order to achieve an expanded consciousness. "Some people referred to me as a shaman who mediates between the dead and the living. I sometimes feel that way too because, in a way, I am doing that all the time. I think it comes from compassion. Understanding others' suffering. Sharing suffering. Sharing love." For many people familiar with India, the title of the work may conjure images of the low-caste women whose livelihood revolves around the river. In this interpretation, the artist becomes the laundry woman in an act of empathy.

  • While discussing the idea of pairing A Laundry Woman with a small sculpture of Buddha Shakyamuni touching the earth to witness his enlightenment, Kimsooja immediately responded to the shared symbolic gesture in the two works of art (fig. 4). She noted that her video establishes connections between the individual and nature; similarly, the Buddha links himself to the land. Through the body, she also connects herself with other human beings from all cultures. As she explains, "All human activities are about linking the self to the other."

  • Relationships are a central theme in a group of installations that depict sewing as a metaphor for threading together different aspects of life. Kimsooja conceives her video works as "invisible sewing." The artist created another work with the title of Laundry Woman (exhibited at the Kunsthalle in Vienna and the Zacheta Gallery of Art in Warsaw, 2002), an installation consisting of suspended fabrics that suggest linens drying outdoors. These materials become symbols of women, love, the body, and sleep. On a social level, they are associated with women's roles in society. For Kim, cloth transcends its materiality and functions as "a container for the spirit"; people are swathed at birth and at death in cloth, and it is also used ceremonially in weddings and other rites of passage.

  • The Laundry Woman also relates to a group of works called Bottari — beautifully wrapped bundles of used Korean bedcovers, fabrics that are either manufactured or sewn by mothers and daughters as shared experiences. These pieces of cloth remind us of the cycle of life; they are used to bundle together household possessions when leaving home, and they help to establish domestic comfort in the absence of a true shelter. Their stitches bind people together.

  • Kimsooja insists that what is most essential is not the body of work but the questions that it raises. She hopes that the viewer will participate in her works by sharing this inquiring state of mind. When asked what her hopes were for the museum visitor, she replied, "I would like the audience to share with me the experience I had during my performance, question and answer, and really put each one's state of mind and body into that position."

  • — Kimsooja, interviewed by Barbara Matilsky, August 2003.

Barbara Matilsky, Curator of Exhibitions Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Formerly curator at the Queens Museum of Art, New York City, where she organized the traveling exhibition, Fragile Ecologies: Contemporary Artists' Interpretations and Solutions (1992).

Mandala: Zone of Zero. 2003, 4-channel sound installation with jukebox, mixed sound from Tibetan monk chant, Gregorian chant, and Islamic chant, 9:50 loop.

Mandala: Zone of Zero

Yablonsky, Linda

2003

  • Visitors arriving at this gallery, recently relocated to midtown from Harlem, will step into a darkened room carpeted and painted meditative, deep-space blue. Sitting down risks becoming entranced by the little bubbles moving around one of the four circular red-yellow-and-blue jukebox speakers placed on each wall, where they emit a warm, tap-room glow.

  • Some viewers may be as struck by the speakers' resemblance to Tibetan mandalas (symbolizing the design of the universe) as was Kimsooja, who arrived in New York from South Korea in 1998 and saw in these artifacts of American pop culture a perfect meld of East and West. Others maybe reminded of stained-glass windows, since what pours out is an ethereal mix of Gregorian, Islamic and Tibetan chants that circulate, like those bubbles, in an endless loop of male voices, both rumbling and sweet.

  • In her previous installations and videos, Kimsooja focused on the body as a protective cover for powerful emotions. Korean textiles figured prominently, wrapping immigrants or outcasts as they moved from place to place with belongings that survived them and were passed to others. It is the unmoving viewer being wrapped this time, in waves of sound and light. But because there is more here to experience internally than to see, viewers may dismiss the work as a literalized notion of the-gallery-as-chapel in which to worship at the altar of art, without realizing that they are part of the ritual.

— From TimeOut, New York: November 27 - December 4, 2003.

Kimsooja

Ahn, Soyeon

2003

  • Kimsooja transforms the quotidian act of sewing and traditional cloths into art that embraces life and society. She has exhibited her art all over the world, including many prominent international art biennales such as Venice, Sao Paolo, and Lyon. It was sometime in the early 1980s, Kim recalls, that she came to realize cloth as a new artistic medium, while sewing a blanket cover with her mother. In the act of sewing, which necessarily accompanies the material of cloth, Kim also discovered a possibility of overcoming the limitations of the "surface plane" — the concept to which the modernist-dominated art world still was fettered. Through the late 1980s, she produced a series of works — drawings and paintings done on unstretched cloths — to break away from the painting canvas, but these works were still an extension of 2-dimensional painting. In the early 1990s, Kim began to produce the series titled Deductive Objects; she took traditional everyday objects such as a doorframe, an A-frame, and a bobbin, and swathed them with cloths, in the process reassuring the objects’ basic structures. With this series of works, Kim reached a turning point in her art, in which cloth is no longer treated as a 2-dimensional pictorial surface, but a material open to many 3-dimensional potentials.

  • Kim’s encounter with the bottari (a bundle of household belongings wrapped in traditional Korean bedcovers), for which she would be widely known, took place rather fortuitously when she was in artist’s residency at P.S.1, New York. One day, Kim began to see wrapped bundles"bottaris"she had collected in a corner of her studio with a new eye. Kim states that the bottari turns flat cloths into a three-dimensional object through the simple act of "wrapping" — a method of making that is both painterly and sculptural; the bottari is a flat surface turned into a volumetric object, and can also further evoleve into an installation when located in specific place. Although she was initially interested in cloth as an alternative to the modernist flat surface, Kimsooja soon came to understand the material’s infinite possibilities through her exploration of its multi-faceted character. It was through her discovery of the bottari, the form that can flexibly adapt to different environments, that her work began to develop spatially.

  • In her 1997 video work Cities on the Move - 2727 km bottari truck, she traveled throughout the countryside of Korea for 11 days in a small truck piled high with bottaris in the back. This work is an eloquent testimony to how her work went through the processes of painting, object, and installation, gradually exploding out of the gallery walls. Kim moved often when she was a child because her father, who was a serviceman, had frequent job transfers. In that sense, Cities on the move is a travel through the memories of her own childhood. At the same time, it is a metaphor for her current state of being, an artist who constantly travels for work to different places in the world, and the work expresses the sensibilities of "on the move" and "itinerant" inherent in the bottari. When the video protion of the work, accompanied by the bottari truck, were shown at the 1998 Bienal do Sao Paolo and the 1999 La Biennale di Venezia, Kimsooja became known in the art world as the so-called bottari artist who poses the questions of identity, mobility, borderlessness, and nomadism.

  • The main methodology of her artmaking"sewing"also went through subsequent evolutionary processes. In more recent years, sewing for Kim has become a conceptual act, without an actual needle or thread, of forming and mediating relations. Pointing to the function of "healing" which the needle possesses, the artist compares her own being to the needle. For Kim, sewing is "like breathing, or communicating" and is an act of bringing separate beings together by linking them, one stitch at a time. The needle is a mediator that travels in the gap, closing it. But when the needle completes its work, the trace of its labor remains only as the thread which it was attached to. The artist identifies with the needle, then in the sense that when her role as mediator is finished, her being becomes "Nothing".

  • The artist as the needle appears again and again in A Needle Woman (1999-2000), a series of video works which records Kim’s repeated performances on the streets of Shibuya (Tokyo), Shanghai, Delhi, and New York. In all these videos, Kimsooja stands motionless, with her back facing the camera and her front facing the oncoming traffic of pedestrians. The bypassing people’s responses captured by the camera’s eye are varied depending on the location of the performance. The work is a manifestation of the artist’s wish to sew the self and the others, and the self and the world into relationships, using her own body as the medium. Kim explains A Needle Woman as follows: "the artist’s body, as a medium, or a barometer or a compass, forms only unseen links between people passing by it, but in the end, it becomes alienated and almost disappears into the state of nothingness, like an invisible man." Earlier, Kimsooja’s art developed cloths (an irreplaceable part of our lives) and sewing (traditionally women’s labor) into the general human context through her art. Now, she sees her art as a metaphor, and in it, she wishes to make relationships of healing, cleansing, and ultimately, embrace.

Mind Space, Samsung Museum of Modern Art

Cities on the Move - 2727 Kilometers Bottari Truck, 1997, 7:03 video loop, Silent.

An Incantation to Presence

"The body itself is the most complicated bundle." — Kim Sooja

Zugazagoitia, Julia

2003

I. Sewing beyond space and time

  • Since the 1980s, between thread and needle, Kim Sooja's work has been developing; from Korea to New York, via Paris and a number of other cities across the different continents, like an avowed metaphor of the act of sewing. But it is less a question of sewing as such than linking up and uniting fragments of varied realities that were previously disparate. From her first works, with pieces laid end to end and sewn together, like a sort of collage involving both hand, body and mind in relation to matter, up to the recent videos of A Needle Woman, where the artist herself becomes a needle and integrates into the urban fabric, sewing has been the guiding thread in a subtle research project from which a language has evolved, and where a unique commitment can be read, with references that are first of all local, but whose scope has become global.

  • Over the course of time, Kim Sooja went from matter and the plane of the painting to the conquest of a liberating third dimension, and this allowed her to acquire greater mobility with the works entitled Bottari. In her videos and performances, her language subsequently became ever more economical, pursuing as though by incursion the possibility of the emergence of her oeuvre. The artist would like to be a needle that leaves no mark, that sews and disappears after closing the wound; after joining two bits of cloth, two continents or states of consciousness. Her discretion is consubstantial with her research, and her self-effacement facilitates revelation: to the appearance of the other, and to his presence. This path starts out from an approach to textiles, and a practice, that are rooted in Korean tradition but go beyond these local references through a language which is that of wandering, exchange and openness to the other, the unknown.

  • Kim Sooja's training as a painter predisposed her to consider the plane surface of the canvas as a field of exploration. Her first compositions were formal, based on grids and interlinking motifs. She had a penchant for the art of the 20th-century avant-gardes, and notably Mondrian, both in her practice and in the theoretical spirit that informed all her work. But the physical dimension of her sewn canvases dominated her work. The very act of making a picture with pieces of fabric became predominant, and this opened the way to gestures that were simpler, though just as emblematic.

  • Sewing thus became the essential element of her artistic process in the 1980s, to the point where it overshadowed pictorial considerations as such, and introduced the emotional charge that she had discovered while sewing by her mother's side. The act of sewing is one of intimacy, of withdrawing into oneself, close to symbiosis with a state of being that represents both tradition and family memory. This activity — almost passive, enthralling — locks the artist into a sequence of slow movements that repeat to infinity and are conducive to meditation. It is to be one with oneself, the fact of saturating oneself in one's own history. And the blankets made by Kim Sooja and her mother brought together two worlds that had previously been dissociated: the ancestral Korean tradition and her own pictorial quest.

  • Kim Sooja's first works were an introspection turned towards herself, and a way of calling herself into question so as to become a totality. In this sense, the action she accomplished could be seen as the denouement of the self. Skein, bobbin or hank: the thread has to be unwound.

  • The process begins with choosing pieces of cloth. To collect different textiles is to recompose one's being as one would reconstruct the fragments of a past: bits of individual stories that are becoming a new wholeness. The assemblage of these lacerations retains the marks and stigmata of the bodies that have borne them, with their dreams and daily sufferings. These recomposed entities become offerings, surrogates through which the memory of the other can act.

  • To salvage materials, assemble them, and sew them together is an intoxicating, almost ecstatic act of patience and repetition (from immobility to rapture). By the monotony of the gesture, this process makes it possible, also, to create a void within oneself — a void which can become a plenitude. For Kim Sooja, a work like Portrait of Yourself (1990-1991) is a solitary confession, an incessant and infinite conversation with oneself. The process is as important as the result. The production of this particular work is something like a meditation, and if one approaches it with the required intimacy it becomes a mandala. Iso it is both a self-portrait and a profound expression, a communication of the artist's humours, which shows how she carried out an apprenticeship on herself, how she matured through experiencing the passage of time and stepping aside from its onward movement. Despite the repetition of a movement that could become tiresome, the artist claims to have derived a great deal of energy from the experience. Through it she renewed her resources, as is suggested by the title of a work dating from this period, Towards the Mother Earth (1990-1991).

  • The back-and-forth movement of the needle through the material, from front to back, again and again, ended up by going beyond the plane surface, surreptitiously opening up towards a third dimension. Applying a reductionist logic to her work, Kim Sooja began covering objects with fabric, and thereby conquering space.

  • At the beginning of the 1990s came the first constructions of this order (Untitled, 1991). Two hoops connected by rods made the shift from the line to the third dimension. These constructions were then enveloped in pieces of fabric as a way of freeing them from the wall (which indicated a transition in the oeuvre), and from the plane surface of the painting, without giving up the symbolic charge of the first sewn works. For a time, the artist moved away from the act of sewing, strictly speaking, and transposed her metaphor into the simple act of covering objects.

II. Enveloping memory

  • Always seeking greater simplicity, Kim Sooja has rendered this emancipating act more radical still over the last decade, with works which now constitute, in a way, her signature: the bundles entitled Bottari.

  • The first of these date from 1992. They were created in the Open Studio at the P.S.1 (a contemporary art centre in New York, now associated with MOMA), and came into being, according to the artist, spontaneously, unrelated to any particular consciousness of things. But though nothing anticipated the event, everything announced the simplification of the procedure that had already been set up, in the direction of its essence and its highest degree of efficacy, with the abolition of all artifice, accessory or substrate in favour of the fabric alone. Cloth became the content and the container of the work, its structure and its surface, inside and outside. The Bottari provided an aesthetic solution to the question of the surface by stepping outside it, with a structure which was both open and closed; which revealed and concealed at the same time.

  • The bundle corresponds as much to a reference within the Korean tradition as to a universal metaphor of displacement, or even adventure, and a Bottari can hold all an individual's belongings. Originally, the custom was to use still-serviceable scraps of bright-coloured, precious silk from worn-out clothing, something of which was thus preserved.

  • In Korea, fabrics are traditionally used for multiple common functions such as storing bedding and clothing, or moving it around, notably when it has to be washed, as well as transporting food, or even wrapping gifts. For Koreans, the Bottari is both intimate and familiar, and is used on a daily basis. It is a sign of time-honoured aesthetic refinement, and is often an object of great value. It carries a strong affective charge, and is passed down from generation to generation.

  • It is symptomatic that Kim Sooja first explored the Bottari's possibilities while living outside Korea. She marked her return from her memorable stay at the P.S.1, where she had been a guest artist, with a Bottari installation in an abandoned house in Kyunju (1994). Bottari symbolize, in a way, the migrant who can put all his material goods in a bundle and be ready to set off at any moment. So when she came back and placed her bundles on a floor, Kim Sooja was reclaiming the space, but she was also indicating her readiness for an imminent departure. The inclination to travel is constant, or even necessary, when one has been elsewhere.

  • The "elsewhere" through which the artist found herself confronted with another perception of woman remains implicit as an underlying theme in her work: the body is torn between the modern Western world and her Eastern ancestral universe. This ambivalence would be irreconcilable if travelling did not offer a possibility of agreement between two different universes, in their alternation.

  • The resulting tension, which is latent in all her work, was laid bare by an installation, Deductive Object / Dedicated to my Neighbors, presented at Nagoya in 1996, where two forms amongst her productions were brought together in the exhibition space. For the first time, Kim Sooja made a contrast between the placing of the bundles and an arrangement of Korean bedspreads on the floor.

  • These are often given as presents to accompany a bride's trousseau, and are one of a household's most treasured possessions. In their folds they silently attest to the history of the couple. The motifs are symbolic references and exhortations to a happy life full of love, children and health.

  • Between the revelation of the bedspreads' symbolic motifs and the mystery of the bundles, with the precious contents that can be imagined, there is a tension which is all the stronger when one realizses the particular importance of the traditional bedspread in the Korean context; and it goes beyond a purely formal interpretation of the opposition between the flat surface of the bedspreads and the sculptural dimension of the bundles. The installation thus makes it possible to appreciate, simultaneously, the unveiling of a private life and the intensity of a retreat into oneself.

  • The bedspread is a witness-object whose day-to-day contact everyone can feel, It accompanies love, sex, dreams, nightmares, childbirth... and finally, at the moment of death, it becomes a shroud. So this envelope is a sort of skin, carrying in its folds what could be considered as a sort of portrait of its owner(s). Folded onto itself as a Bottari, the bedspread gathers up intimate possessions and protects them from inquisitive eyes. Opened out, it gives itself up in its flatness, and suggests the dreams that are incorporated into its traditional motifs.

  • In this sense, the Nagoya installation, so simple and pure in its expression, contained an entire mode of thinking about time, and the cycle of life and death. Later, exploiting the charged nature of such references, the artist used the bedspreads by themselves in various situations, as restaurant tablecloths and lines stretched out for washing to be hung on. With each installation, the visitor's participation is decisive, since it is up to him to activate the mechanism. In the case of a tablecloth, it is the actual use of the table by the visitor, in a museum restaurant, that makes the work exist. In the Korean context, this almost-reverse use of the bedspread as a tablecloth is of the order of thea transgression, since tradition prohibits eating in the place where one sleeps. For the duration of a meal, the tablecloth is an integral part of the table companions' life. It is imprinted with the stains they leave, the traces of this slice of existence that it will have subtly transformed by its presence.

  • As in most of Kim Sooja's other installations, the onlooker is thus a protagonist — a constitutive element of the space in question. When he moves around to look at the work from different viewpoints, it is renewed at each step. Pursuing this logic so as to extend it ever further, in a recent presentation of the Laundry installations at the Peter Blum gallery in New York, A Mirror Woman (2002) had mirrors on all the walls with lines stretched out for hanging up washing. The spectator's contemplation of the work was eroded by his discovery of himself in the mirrors, which projected the field of the work into an infinite space. This visual confrontation with oneself is a curious, singular fact in a work that is characterizsed rather by the inconspicuousness of the artist in the interest of internalizsed reflection. In general, when a figure appears in her work (and in her more recent videos it is often herself), it has its back turned, as if to suggest a presence, but not a particular individuality. This is the case, for example, in the video of her performance Cities on the Move - 2727 Kilometers.

  • In November 1997, rejoining the nomadic life of contemporary artists, the better to in order to better reinforce it (but also enlarging the field of action of her work and its semantic purview), Kim Sooja decided to take her bundles on the road. She spent eleven days going round towns and other places in Korea that held specific memories for her. This meant that her bundles were loaded with new content: the memory of her past history and travels. In the filmed performance she is seen from behind, hieratic and impassive, sitting above firmly-attached Bottari in a truck driving through ever-changing scenery.

  • The idea of moving around becomes a reality in this video, which combines, for the first time in such an obvious way, a sense of the intimate and with a public dimension. The artist's silhouette, in its sobriety and black clothes, unlike the Bottari with their vivid, varied colours, stands up straight, like a needle.

  • The fact that she presents us only her back is a procedure that challenges us and thrusts us into the middle of the landscape. As in Caspar David Friedrich's romantic paintings, the silhouette of a back becomes our bodily referent, and we project onto it. This transfer gives extra substance to the work, and confers on it a shape for us, so that we become the subject. (The phenomenon is clearer still in the later videos of towns, which this performance adumbrates). Perched high up on the bundles, while the road goes by, the needle-woman both cuts through the landscape and sews it up again, the way a wound closes up. Finally, this Calvary of memory is a way for Kim Sooja to forge a link with her history and re-inject an emotional charge into her itinerary. So the Bottari that she takes round with her are phantoms of time gone by, to which this itinerary pays tribute. Each of them can be related to a person, and the journey takes on the character of a pilgrimage in honour of dear, loved beings.

  • This dimension of personal ritual was transcended when the artist presented her Bottari Truck in major festivals of contemporary art. What was of the order of the intimate then took on a universal, even denunciatory dimension with regard to its context.

  • She has taken part in the biennials which are the focal points of artistic nomadism: São Paulo (the 24th, in 1998), Venice (the 48th, in 1999), and Lyon (the 5th, in 2000). Arriving as in a bazaar upon which groups from different regions converge to exchange merchandise and cultures, the truck filled with Bottari of every colour accentuates the idea of displacement at the very moment when the international press is taking an interest in the situation of populations forced into exile across the world. But if Kim Sooja's installation can express displacement as a positive value, a search for a new paradise, it cannot cancel out the premises that any change of place is firstly seen as the breakup of a unity that has been lost forever. Displacement always implies cutting oneself off from one's birthplace and ancestral roots. There are voluntary exiles who have struck it lucky and found a better life. But deep in the soul of the uprooted person there is always a secret, persistent wound.

  • The historical context of the Bottari Truck cannot fail to recall the atrocities committed at the time of its creation in the Balkans, Africa and the Near East (to mention only those that made the headlines).

  • It is often never-ending struggles, and more rarely natural disasters, that force entire populations to pack up their bundles and set out from home, into the unknown. The Bottari, with their shimmering colours, convey all these paradoxical feelings, which are stirring memories but also as well as deep wounds.

III. The simultaneous elsewhere

  • Following the thread of her wanderings, Kim Sooja's recent series of videos are both at once subtle in their poetry, strong in their presentation, and complex in their social implications. They are grouped together by generic title. A Needle Woman alludes to her desire to disappear like a needle in a haystack, but also to be the needle that insinuates itself into the urban fabric. These performances, and the ones that derive from them, like A Beggar Woman, were presented for the first time in a solo exhibition at P.S.1 in 2001.

  • A Needle Woman (1999-2001) is a set of eight videos projected simultaneously on the four walls of a room. Each shows Kim Sooja from behind, dressed identically in the most neutral possible way, immobile, facing the human wave that is rushing round her in a busy street in one of the world's most populous cities: New York, Tokyo, London, Mexico City, Cairo, Delhi, Shanghai and Lagos.

  • The artist transports us into cities in every continent by taking them into a place where we become active participants. The large-format projections bring us face to face with life-size people, justifying a total immersion in the space of the work. The artist's back — as we said above — allows us to pass through into the work, into the depths of metropolises, and to narrowly avoid the abyss. This illustrates, more or less, the Kantian definition of the sublime: to feel an emotion through the devices the artist offers us as she opens up her own experience so that we can enter into it without risk or peril. The unobtrusiveness of the artist, in spite of her presence, could produce a multitude of approaches in which individuality would give way to the essence of our own thinking.

  • Kim Sooja's discretion eliminates every psychological aspect of the ordeal she has taken on. The whole point is what occurs around her, which appears as a catalyst. Taking our place in this installation, we realizse what is intimate and personal about the ordeal, for anyone who goes through it. Evidently the physical side of it begins with a meditation that leads to a sort of ecstasy. And in this sense, the artist, as an individual, is outside herself. She abstracts herself and becomes like a keyhole, or a negative image of herself, which makes perception possible for us.

  • Her interest in the elsewhere makes her central to the generation of migratory artists who, at the dawn of the new millenium, are questioning the limits of globalizsation. As an artist, she is invited to present her work in cultural institutions around the globe, while the art world has gone beyond the rich countries — where there are people who take an interest in such creative activity — to include less favoured countries. The result is that artistic discourse is becomes enriched by other voices, and the circulation of works finds new perspectives.

  • The simultaneity of her presence in these no more than a hunch: distant though they are from one another, and different as the historical and economic contexts may be, apart from their urbanistic and architectural characteristics, these cities are alike in the steady streams of individuals people going about their business, moving towards an inevitable meeting with their destiny. And so a continuum of races and peoples finds itself virtually at the centerre of the space. Simultaneity of presentation makes the common features of the beings in movement in these eight videos obvious at a glance. Only an attentive eye will be able to discern what differentiates them.

  • While the time of the work is acting on us, our body replaces that of the artist, and becomes the needle that leads the guiding thread. A Needle Woman, as Kim Sooja likes to define herself, weaves, as much as she rends, the urban fabric. The fine needle pierces the world, but the whole universe passes through the eye of the needle. In certain contexts, in spite of her self-effacement, the artist cannot escape her otherness: she is the foreigner, the observer, the element that can split apart as well as bind together. In fact she cuts the human flow, which has to pass around her, avoid her like an obstacle, open up before her. The specificity of each particular population appears in this encounter. And the encounter is the indicator of the specificity.

  • The characteristics of towns come out through contrast, according to what opposes them. Each possesses a distinct rhythm that is demonstrated by the perfect immobility of the artist as an immutable reference. Her proper time seems to be in suspension, while the rest of the town swirls round her. Kim Sooja's passivity is a source of worry and tension. One expects something to happen: an intrusion, something violent... Possible violence, like a specterre haunting life in these metropolises at every moment.

  • The reactions of the passers-by (or their total absence of reaction) are archetypes of the imaginative profile that a given city suggests. And thus, without wanting to paint a sociological portrait, the videos comprise a number of elements that make it possible to characterizse the people and their surroundings: their clothes, their way of occupying the street, their attitude in urban space... For example, passers-by in New York, London and Tokyo are distinguished by their rapid, determined gait. They have an objective, and their walk is a "power walk": they are efficacious, and scarcely notice the artist's presence. They have an individual goal, outside the range of the camera, in the direction of a horizon that protects them and immunizses them against everything that could deflect them from their path. Their life is traced out, and there is no place for the unexpected. The street is only a vector, and not a place of sociability.

  • In these cosmopolitan cities, all racial differences seem to fade. The artist goes almost unnoticed, and her features do not mark her out in places where there are people of all origins, and where hybrids are common. Modernity asserts itself here as an exacerbation of individuality, a sort of autism that tends towards homogeneity. Such cities are so full of stimuli and diverse fantasies that the intervention of an artist attracts little attention.

  • In places like Cairo, Delhi, Mexico, and especially Lagos, on the other hand, there is a tension between the modern and the traditional which means that existence is highly charged. The individual finds his full dimensions in an open space where he is attentive to those around him, because he seeks to evaluate his position and rank in the immense gamut of social classes and traditional hierarchies that are an essential part of these cultures.

  • The members of different castes and social classes mix in the street. They are wary of one another; they keep an eye on one another and expose themselves to situations in which there is always tension. Here, the street becomes a place of both coexistence and distinctions.

  • In these cities where the contrasts are strong, individuals want to assert themselves across the cleavages. They look at one another so as to make comparisons between one another, and every look contains a question (Am I from the same class or not? How am I to position myself, and where, in such a wide spectrum?); so it is not surprising that these are the cities where the immobile presence of Kim Sooja gets garners the most reactions. They are still preserved from blasé mundanity, and the artist stands out more strongly as a stranger. But it is above all her passivity and her determination to abstract herself that arouse curiosity, along with a desire to make her react, to draw her out of herself, so as to bring her back to everyday life and the flux of the community. In all these cities, it is the ever-present children who are the least hesitant about teasing the artist and turning her performance into a game.

  • The virtual meeting-point of eight streets in a unique space plunges us into the improbable river of the human continuum. Engulfed in the multitude, the artist is invisible, as she often aspires to being. This takes her work beyond the nature-culture cleavage, or the opposition of the contemporary urban to original nature. In natural settings, as in the performance A Needle Woman / Kitakyushu (1999), where she is stretched out on a rock, or in A Laundry Woman / Yamuna River, India (2000), where she is facing the river in question, she strives for the same contemplative detachment as in urban settings. Perhaps her deepest desire is to reconcile perfect immobility and perpetual motion. And is this not what she seems to be seeking when she indicates her wish to disappear for an entire month, as she dreamt of doing during the last Whitney Biennial? Is there not a paradox in the fact of wanting to be simultaneously everywhere and nowhere?

  • Kim Sooja embodies the complexity of the kind of globalizsation which both proclaims and denies the local spirit. Her work with textiles had a specificity that was linked to the Korean context of her origins. This opened up in the course of her peregrinations, gaining in breadth without cutting itself off from its roots, or disowning them. Her videos combine nature and the urban, the individual and the collective, the global and the local. The richness of her approach, in its discretion and subtlety, lies no doubt in her unique way of transcending divisions and resolving them in works that place the spectator at the heart of an extreme questioning process, which for each individual becomes personal and intimate.

  • — From the exhibition catalogue of Kimsooja: Conditions of Humanity, Contemporary Art Museum, Lyon, 2003:

  • Julian Zugazagoitia is the Director of El Museo del Barrio in New York which is the foremost cultural institution for Latinos in New York.

  • Prior to this engagement he was the Executive Assistant to the Guggenheim Museum Director where, among other projects he curated the exhibition Brazil: Body and Soul.

  • He received his Ph.D in Aesthetics from the Sorbonne and graduated in art history from the Ecole du Louvre, Paris. H e was involved with the Getty for 8 years developing conservation and cultural projects in Benin, Egypt, Yemen, Italy and Spain. He was also responsible for establishing a long-term collaboration with UNESCO and curating the traveling exhibition Nefertari Light of Egypt that drew over a million visitors.

  • As independent curator, he was responsible for the 1997 presentation of Mexican 20th-century art in Naples, the exhibition Pasione per la Vita and was the artistic director for exhibitions for the Spoleto Festival in Italy. In 2002 he was guest curator of the 25th Sao Paolo Biennial, where he curated the New York section.

His recent publication, L'oeuvre d'art Totale, Gallimard, Paris 2003, a collective book on the Total Work of Art, springs from his Ph.D thesis and a lecture series organized with Jean Galard, presented at the Louvre and Guggenheim museums in 2002.

Encounter - Looking into Sewing, 1998/2002, digital c-print. Photo by Lee Jong Soo.

Being and Sewing

Brewinska, Maria

2003

  • The trace of a body. Not long ago, maybe just a while ago, there was a body here. It lived in a rhythm of everyday behaviour and actions, shaping the values and sense requisite to the existence of the objects surrounding it; clothes above all, the obvious, but usually trivialized signs of life, which remain in the body's place, in the place vacated by it, empty and useless. The independent existence of clothes, alongside the body's life, begins at birth, starting with little baby clothes and moving on to bigger and bigger ones. Clothes — there are always some bodies putting them on, wearing them, desiring them, striving to get them, taking possession of them, discarding, storing, inheriting. Nearly all their life bodies never part with what clothes, adorns and protects them, what is closest to them, next to the skin, what absorbs its smell, grime and sweat.

  • The objects left by the body, the clothes saturated with its physicality — are they not the most obvious and tangible traces of its reality, the proof of its existence? Is the material world coexisting with the body not its most faithful memory? The sense of this world disappears with the passing of a particular life, although it can be reborn with the life of new bodies. One moment, a freeze frame of the stream of life changes forever the state of the subject and object. It is maybe the most strongly felt — physically and psychically — end of the stream of the time of life, flowing in between, in space and time..

  • Kim Sooja: "We are wrapped in cotton cloth at birth, we wear it until we die, and we are again wrapped in it for burial. Especially in Korea, we use cloth as a symbolic material on important occasions such as coming of age ceremonies, weddings, funerals, and rites for ancestors. Therefore cloth is thought to be more than a material, being identified with the body - that is, as a container for the spirit. When a person dies, his family burns the clothes and sheets he used. This may have the symbolic meaning of sending his body and spirit to the sky, the world of the sky, the world of the unknown."

  • Scattered clothes and bottari, bundles stuffed with clothes, made of traditional Korean fabrics, are spread on the ground in a forest during the First Biennial in Kwangju in 1995. This installation, made of 2.5 tonnes of second-hand clothes and entitled Sewing into Walking was dedicated by Kim Sooja to the victims of the suppression of a democratic protest in Kwangju in 1980. The tragedy of those victims was expressed by an installation made of a mass of used clothes, those most obvious signs of the presence of a body.

  • Kim Sooja, e-mail, April 1, 2003:

  • The Kwangju Massacre happened in the 1980 and hundreds of people died for their democracy movement. When I was invited from Kwangju, I couldn't do anything before I commemorate their lives...

  • Deductive Object-dedicated to my neighbours was done in 1996 when the department store was completely collapsed and killed hundreds of people and I was in that building with my son 30 mins before collapse, and we used to live in the same block. I had to comment and commemorate the victims of my neighbours especially when I had an occasion to install my piece in Japan which had a lot to do with Korea in the history (war, colonization, conflict ...). So the neighbour means both my own neighbour in Seoul but also Korea-Japan relationship, so I mixed the Korean used clothes with Japanese.

  • Kwangju, Seoul and Kosovo are just a few of the many places in the world which have been marked forever by the death of many beings. Kim Sooja sees it, but she does not get involved in political conflicts. So when she presents Bottari Truck — in Exile, a truck loaded with colourful bottari, at the Venice biennial and dedicates that event to the [victims of] the war going on at the same time in Kosovo (so close to Venice), that gesture is just an expression of concern for the lot of other people.

  • Kim Sooja conceptualizes political events through installations in which an important element are bottari and traditional Korean bedcovers, objects strongly associated with women and the roles they play (in Korea considerably limited by Confucianism). Another key element of the installation are used clothes, which in Korean tradition are carriers of the spiritual element, and in Kim Sooja's works also become a representation of the human body. Those are, it seems, the only three projects with implied political, social and emotional meanings; all the others are creative acts made concrete as objects, installations, performances and videos; recently, those are becoming increasingly minimalist. An attitude of conscious "inaction" is articulated ever more plainly in the performances realized and registered on video in different places around the world and shown in exhibition rooms.

  • In an essay published in this catalogue Adam Szymczyk proposes a new interpretation of the artist's work. Giving descriptions of journalist's reports of the war in Iraq, he confronts Kim's quiet presence with the media clamour accompanying the current political situation in the world. Kim Sooja's media personality is radically different from the way the media operate. In her video performances she shows her body, but remains silent and conceals her face, turning away from the viewers. She seems to be protesting against the noise made by the media and against all acts directed against human beings, including accidental tragedies (such as the collapse of the supermarket in Seoul), expressing her opposition to the pain and suffering accumulated in the clothes.

  • Kim Sooja consciously cultivates this attitude by a contemplative perception of the world and a rejection of excess information (e.g. deciding not to read books). She is a nomadic artist, constantly on the move, but she seems to stand firmly on the ground. In fact, her attitude may be interpreted, in a simplified way, as a practical exemplification of Heidegger's being-in-the-world, an existence cast into the world, but conscious of its "spatiality"; concerned, but not frightened; a being open to cognition and "the world's worldliness"; a being which accepts other "beings".

  • Kim Sooja: "When I look back over my more than twenty years of handling bedcovers, I feel that I have always been performing, guided by the piles of cloth I haved live among. What in the world have I stitched and patched. What have I tied up in bundles. When will the journey of my needle end, my silkworm unwrap its flesh. Will it in the end slough off its skin. Will the boundless with no destinations find theirs ways to go."

  • Looking at the twenty years of Kim Sooja's work we can see that they form a consistent process. After art studies in Seoul, until about 1992, Kim Sooja makes abstract collage using traditional Korean fabrics and clothes. She combines sewing as a technique with drawing and painting. In those pieces sewing becomes not only a direct way of creating form, but a constitutive element defining her work. The use of this unique technique, associated rather with gender art, women's art, is blends with the artist's personal experience, taken from her family home, of sewing the traditional bedspreads together with her mother and grandmother. She sews her first objects from inherited clothes and bedspreads.

  • Kim Sooja's early collages come in different geometrical shapes, as flat reliefs, their surfaces made of bits of fabric sewn together, painted in ink or covered with abstract drawings — The Earth and the Heaven (1984), Blue (1987), Black (1987). In the 1990s they are gradually transformed into three-dimensional objects, assemblages, which, although they can be hung like paintings, have a richer texture, as they consist of larger pieces of cloth, creased, draped in a baroque fashion, fastened to the base. They form a crumpled, crammed, multicoloured mass, suggestive of an abstract flower (Toward the Flower, 1992), of earth, (Toward the Mother Earth, 1990-1991), of a portrait (Portrait, 1991), or carrying even more metaphorical meanings (Mind and the World, 1991). Some of them are objects leaning against the wall or propped up with bamboo sticks. As such, they already belong to the genre of installation — between the reality of a two-dimensional wall and space.

  • At the same time, from about 1991 Kim Sooja starts creating spatial objects and installations, leaving the painting and more or less flat textile compositions almost entirely behind. Those new compositions feature ready-made objects, always covered, wrapped up, rolled up in cloth (among others, a ladder, part of a rowing boat, a table, some tools and many old-fashioned objects of everyday use, which the artist treats with nostalgia, as the most precious traces of life and also as beautiful forms.) A series of those objects is called Deductive Object; it was afterwards expanded to include spatial objects made solely of fabrics. Needles, cloth, threads, sewing, sewing together, wrapping, covering, unfolding and spreading define Kim Sooja's artistic activities.

  • Kim Sooja, e-mail, April 2, 2003

  • "Korean traditional wrapping cloth is 'Bojagi'( I prefer to use this way although people used to call it Pojagi - now Koreans try to match with the actual pronunciation of (Po)jagi and (Bo)ttari is same letter and pronunciation in Korea. Bojagi is traditionally used as wrapping cloth which was made out of small pieces of cloth sawn by anonymous women. But I used only used bedcovers which are made for the newly married couples.

  • 'Bottari' is a wrapped bundle but normally people wrap households, cloth, clothes, books, gifts,...whatever, but my bundle is wrapped used clothes from anonymous people — I used yellow pages and white pages from New York in 1993 before I leave NYC as if wrapping people in New York."

  • A turning point in Kim Sooja's work was her exhibition in P.S. 1 Studio in New York in 1992. There, beside earlier work, she presented bottari made of traditional Korean bedspreads, filled with clothes. She also exhibited pictures, assemblage and even a kind of "tableau" made of crumpled fabrics, stuck to a surface and partly extending beyond the frame, as if pulled out of the inside of the picture. It was through those objects that a symbolic disruption of frames was effected. A year later at the Ise Art Foundation in New York Kim Sooja shows only a massive bottari, provocative not only in its shape, but also through the intensive red of the rectangular piece of fabric.

  • In the early 1990s Kim Sooja departs completely from the closed form of "tableau" with its limitations, and devotes herself to multi-directional exploration of space. The group exhibition "In Their Own Images" at the P.S.1 Museum in New York (1994) marks the starting point of Kim Sooja's new experiment with the "spatiality" and intimacy of a wall. Deductive Object — scraps of cloth filling cracks in a wall — is used by her at the 5th Biennial in Istanbul in 1997. While at the P.S.1 Museum colourful bits of fabrics protruded blithely beyond the wall, in Istanbul the blend discreetly with the old walls of the Hagia Eireni museum, becoming no more than patches of colour, hardly visible in the arcaded corridor. The association between those scraps stuck in the cracks of a wall with the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem is rather obvious.

  • Since the exhibitions at the P.S.1 Studio (1992) and the ISE Art Foundation (1993) Kim Sooja increasingly often exhibits bottari entitled Deductive Object, arranging them in different ways: a solitary bottari in a gallery (Museum Fridericianum, Kasel, 1998), one combined with bedcovers spread on the floor (Akira Ikeda Gallery, Nagoya, 1996 and the 5th Biennial in Lyon, 2000); crammed (Kwanhoon Gallery, Seoul, 1994), or against the background of a landscape, where they evoke their basic function: a practical means of transporting the most necessary things or one's all belongings, thus becoming a symbol of nomadism (Yongyou, Korea, 1995), and finally in combination with a video installation at the Seomi Gallery in Seoul (1994), consisting of bottari, monitors and scattered clothes. It was that installation, entitled Sewing into Walking, that anticipated the one dedicated to the victims of the Kwangju Massacre.

  • Apart form bottari, the most important thing are the traditional Korean bedspreads — to the artist, symbols of woman, of sex, love, the body at rest, sleep, privacy, fertility, longevity and health. They can also be interpreted as a special kind of traces of life. They are used fabrics — extraordinary witnesses of life, birth and death. At the artist's second individual exhibition at the Hyunday Gallery (1991) a single one of those is hung, together with old, sentimental objects. Then we encounter a whole mass of them, forming a patch of colourful fabrics. Long before, Sooja ties them into bottari, spreads them on the grass with deliberately slow gestures (performance Sewing into Walking, 1994). In recent years, they most often appear in installations such as A Laundry Woman, a simple presentation of a number of cloths hung out in the gallery to resemble drying linen. Is that not a metaphor for the roles of woman in Korean society, and women's roles in general? All the time Kim Sooja imitates women's activities in spare, minimalist gestures: she spreads, ties, folds, hangs out.

  • In November 1997 Kim Sooja takes an 11-day performance-trip around Korea in a truck. The 33-minute video from that trip is a record of the views of the truck with its load of colourful bottari. Possibly, Kim Sooja is making a journey into the past, going back to the journeys which her family was obliged to embark on following her father, an Army man working in the demilitarized zone. At the same time it is a metaphor for her current life — the life of a nomad artist, crossing ever new borders in order to meet new people. That aspect of nomadism, shown in Kim Sooja's performances, in installations using the symbolic bottari and in videos, is one of the key points of her art. Such nomadism takes place in open spaces and needs them to come into being, although it is confronted with the horizontal plan of the world and the limitations imposed by the organization of space by the "state".

  • Kim Sooja's videos are a record of performances happening in various cities and places around the world. Kim appears in them with her back to the camera. She is the woman who stands among passers-by or lies on a rock in Kitakyushu (A Needle Woman); the woman who sits on the pavement and begs in Cairo and Mexico (A Beggar Woman); the woman lying in the street in Delhi and Cairo (A Homeless Woman) and standing by the river in Delhi (A Laundry Woman).

  • As a figure against the background of the filmed spaces and people she is clearly distinct from their rhythm, their movement, their image. That is an effect of the medium of communication — video, which produces a flat and illusion-like picture. It is also due to the artist taking on the role of the "other" or even "stranger", and the position of the motionless figure — in the foreground — further prevents her from integrating with the surroundings. There is no sound from the crowded streets and the landscapes in which we see Kim Sooja; she reduces the reception to pure vision. We do not know who's filming her; if it were not for the artist's figure in the centre of the picture, it could be perceived as the record of an anonymous security camera, continuously controlling the streets, filming live with no scenario. All the passers-by, inhabitants of great cities, are filmed and become unwitting actors.

  • In the video A Needle Woman (1999-2001) the artist stands in crowded streets. Her complete immobility contrasts with the movement and noise of the metropolis, but the noise we can only guess at. The camera films the masses of bodies making their way along the streets of London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Lagos, New York, Cairo, Mexico City, Delhi. In Tokyo, the crowd does not get thinner even during the sultry summer. It moves smoothly, pattering and shuffling in a characteristic Japanese way. In the evenings, what sounds like one huge conversation hovers over the city, intermingled with street sounds.

  • In Kim Sooja's video, however, we will not hear Tokyo. In this, as in other films, instead of the sounds and the artist's face, we are shown her body and the face of the anonymous crowd. Thousands of people walk towards her, enter the frame and disappear after a moment. The video takes on the role of a sociologist's record — it shows the reactions of the crowd in confrontation with "another". In London, New York and Mexico City that crowd passes Kim Sooja ignoring her almost entirely. Similarly in Tokyo — here the indifference is greatest (no wonder many street performances were held here, for example by the group HiRed Center, to "activate" the street and the crowd). In Shanghai, Delhi and Cairo the crowd shows more interest; sometimes somebody turns, or stops for a while to stare. It is in Lagos that Kim Sooja arouses the greatest curiosity. Freeze frames from the video show not a crowd, but individual faces, feelings, reactions. In Tokyo, a smiling Japanese woman's face appearing for a moment is the only instance of emotion in the anonymous crowd. In Cairo the camera registers little events: somebody meets somebody, there is a warm greeting etc. Those are the most fascinating observations that Kim Sooja presents us with. On the other hand, it is well known what hostility and aggression a "crowd" can show: against itself as a whole, but also against the individuals that constitute it. Those video records and the artist's attitude express a sort of protest and something that stems from her affirmation of the world and total "being-in-the-world". There is also something innocent and naïve about them, and certainly something brave. Kim Sooja may not pose the question, but it would be difficult not to ask ourselves: why do stranger bodies incite so much hatred in us?

  • In A Beggar Woman Sooja begs on the streets of Lagos, Cairo, Mexico. In Cairo, two issues coincide: the problem of gender and of cultural differences. Kim — a woman, an "other" is surrounded solely by men, younger and older; a crowd of them encircle her body so that at times the motionless figure is no longer visible. In A Homeless Woman, shot in Delhi and Cairo, it is in Cairo that the homeless woman excites greatest interests. A group of men can not restrain their curiosity: they talk, they stare, even directly into the camera.

  • Kim Sooja makes her presence in the world noticeable through the continuity of repeated situations and shots of her own unchanging image: a figure standing among people or against a natural background. People bring in their own physicality and materiality into her works, and so does nature. It is a manifestation of various ways of being in the world. In that way Kim Sooja points to the basic problems of existence: that we are always alone, but also, that we always have the world and people around us.

  • — From the exhibition catalogue kimsooja solo show at the Zacheta Gallery of Art, Warsaw 2003.

Maria Brewinska worked as a curator at Contemporary Art Center in Warsaw. She currently works as a curator at the Zacheta gallery of Art, Warsaw.
She curated Chinese Artist show in 2004 and the Yayoi Kusama solo show 2004 including the Kimsooja solo show 2003.

A Beggar Woman-Cairo. 2001 Single Channel Video. 6:33 loop, Silent.

Kim Sooja: March 24, 2003

Szymczyk, Adam

2003

  • On March 24, 2003 the police in New York arrested a hundred and forty participants of an anti-war demonstration, who had lain down in Fifth Avenue, blocking traffic and bringing the city to a standstill.

  • The demonstrators lay motionless on their backs; some were holding photographs of civilian war casualties in Iraq. Police officers lifted them off the ground and carried them into cars, slowly making their way along the body-strewn street. That "die-in" demonstration was one of hundreds of bigger and smaller manifestations of civil disobedience which swept over cities in all parts of the world in response to the war waged under American leadership in Iraq.

  • An act of civil disobedience consists in an ostentatious and consistent breach of the existing law. The disturbance is deliberate and limited in scope. Such an act of disobedience may be compared to a well-posed question. When it is one carefully chosen element of the system that becomes the object of criticism, the act is expressive and effective in exposing a false, albeit legally sanctioned, state of affairs.

  • A special form of civil disobedience are demonstrations in which a group of people temporarily occupies a section of public space to which they have no right at that moment. This includes such forms of protest as "sit-in", popularized by the American movement against racial segregation in the 1960s (the iconic sit-in by four black citizens, known as the "Greensboro Four", started at the counter of a white-only bar in Woolworth's department store on the first of February 1960) and then adopted by the student revolt of 1968, or "be-in", demonstration through being together (creatively) in a certain area - from mass gatherings of hippies (the most famous one took place in the Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, on the 14 of January 1967) to the occupation of premises, which is also a form of pressure through occupying space the right to which is disputed. Occupying a place in defiance of the norms regulating its use is an expression of the wish to be able to decide maters important to that place and to the people in it. New York's "die-in" dramatizes the risk of participants being run over by cars, but its main point is made through the clash between the concrete image of demonstrators lying in a street symbolizing ultimate material wealth and the vision of a heap of bodies - the clich image of how war affects civilians in a poor country. The renunciation of violence expressed in the form of a theatrical death on an improvised stage acquires the force of an ultimatum.

  • Quiet and persevering like stones which no one throws, Kim Sooja's works inevitably resonate with various forms of symbolic behaviour through which active members of civil society respond to the definitions of war put forward in media commentaries, using military metaphors of movement, and to the summary interpretations which politicians direct through the same media - always downwards, like bombs, leaflets and food supplies. One of the most suggestive images revealing this one-way movement - from the top down - is the agency photo of a truck, from which charity workers are throwing food parcels directly into the outstretched hands of hungry people. At the very top, on the roof of the truck, a group of reporters are standing, pointing their cameras down. It is easy to imagine what this scene, filmed from the roof of the truck, would look like on a TV screen: it would be us, the kindly viewers, who would be handing out food through other's hands to the people in need.

  • Kim Sooja stages her presence as a gap: motionless "being-in", which is gradually removed from the onlooker's field of vision, becoming something as known and obvious as the place itself. Being in a place becomes the place. Like the surface of water closes over a stone, like the eye fills in a blind spot for us. By remaining in a place, being gains a right to it, not through some special title located outside the place, in the space of ideology and codified law, but because it becomes a place, for some time a certain place in uncertain times and in places of uncertainty, in cities on the move. Sewing and travelling across (borders), begging in (the streets), lying on (a rock) and under (the sky), sitting under (a tree), standing in front of (a marching crowd). Sewing the top to the bottom, sewing with oneself, with a disappearing stitch, a blind stitch.

  • A typical TV report from the front lines: after many hardships a journalist managed to get there; his tired, happy face confirms the truth of his account. Wearing a helmet and a bullet-proof vest, the reporter grips a microphone. Although he's often dressed in camouflage, he is unarmed and that's why we should trust him. The reporter looks us in the eye and speaks to us. Behind him there is action, or just an epilogue or prologue to action. The movement of vehicles, of soldiers, of civilians, burnt-out ruins, wrecked equipment, a captured bridge, some children. The caption on the screen removes all doubt as to the place: a specific geographical name combined with a concrete person who is there and is talking to us now. There can be no more doubt: this is presence and we are experiencing it.

  • In a series of films shot in different cities around the world Kim Sooja does not show her face. A static camera films a motionless, standing figure from behind. The black vertical shape in the centre of the screen partially blocks the view. On the edges of the screen a crowd throngs; we see it fragmentarily, between the edge of the frame and the dark figure in the middle, on which it is hard to focus. Our view of the scene taking place here is as if "delegated" to that person, about whom we don't know much, not being able to see her face. We don't even know if her eyes are open, if she is looking. She's just a stubborn presence, a gap in our field of vision, standing between us and the image we want to see in its entirety. It's someone who is standing in front of us and whom we want to push aside to be able to see more. Kim Sooja leaves us with this sense of partial knowledge, which will not be made complete.

  • Her works make one think of the analogies between ways of working with human presence in the conceptual art of the 1960s and 70s and various forms of demonstrating civil disobedience through a political staging of human presence with reference to a given context.

  • In 1970 Adrian Piper decided to "become the object of art" and to stop making objects. In a series of performances realized in various public places (street, bar, bus stop etc.) the artist used herself as a "persona" slightly disrupting the usual order of things and testing the reactions of onlookers to the appearance of the Other. In Catalysis III (1970) she entered a department store wearing clothes covered in white paint, with the sign WET PAINT. The situations arranged by Adrian Piper were direct interventions by the black artist in the falsified sphere of aesthetics and custom, which conceal violence.

  • Kim Sooja also confronts the possibility of violence and responds to it with her directed personality. In Beggar Woman (Lagos, Nigeria) Kim Sooja sits in the street with her hand outstretched, in a beggar's pose. At the beginning the hand is empty; then someone puts some coins into it; the hand does not close, so somebody else steals them. In this microsituation, apart from economic motivations, issues of trust and responsibility emerge. The beggar's hand becomes a place of transit, an intermediate point/spot in the transit of money. It accepts and offers a gift. The beggar creates a certain community. Abstaining from the usual begging activity - the game of persuasion and resistance - she establishes a network of relations, sets a whole business operation in motion around herself. Kim Sooja's work is also reminiscent of the Real Money Piece (1969) be Lee Lozano, who started with 585 dollars in a jar. The people she met could either take out or add money to the jar; the circumstances, names and sums were recorded. An economic circulation was created, undermining the economy from inside.

  • If we define art stemming from a minimalist syndrome of progressive self-questioning of the object and focusing on the conditions of its presentation as, using Dennis Oppenheim's words, "displacement of sensory pressures from object to place", Kim Sooja's works certainly initiate a move of attention from object to place. Kim Sooja attracts our attention only to transfer it entirely to the place where she is.

  • — From the Zacheta Gallery exhibition catalogue, 2003:

Adam Szymczyk: Born 1970, curator and writer. Co-founder and curator of the Foksal Gallery Foundation in Warsaw 1997-2003. Since 2003, he is the director of the Kunsthalle Basel.

A Mirror Woman, 2002. Korean bedcovers, mirror structure walls, 4 fans, cables, clothespins, Tibetan monk chant. Installation view at Peter Blum Gallery, New York, 2002. Photo by Bill Orcutt.

Kimsooja: A Mirror Woman

Roca, José

2002

  • From February 23 to May 18, 2002, the Peter Blum Gallery of New York presents the exhibition A Mirror Woman by the Korean artist Kimsooja. At the same time, her work can be seen as part of the Whitney Biennial (which this year has overflowed the physical limits of the Marcel Breuer building, taking over part of the public space of Central Park). The work of Kimsooja in the Biennial is titled Deductive Object, and is in the Leaping Frog Cafe in the Central Park Zoo.

  • The notion of nomadism has been privileged in the discussion and practice of the visual arts in the last decade, coinciding with the phenomenon of globalization and the effects that this has had on the circulation of goods and ideas — as much in economic as cultural terms — and the "mutual contamination" that this traffic implies. Kimsooja, a Korean artist living in New York, is one of those artists who exemplify in a complex way the paradoxes of globalization. While she works with deeply local materials and references, her work has been inserted comfortably into the international scene, holding a position of resistance against being digested into an aseptic internationalism but taking care, in these days of multiculturalism, to hyperbolize the characteristics of its difference to become more "exotic" in a medium eager for otherness.

  • Kimsooja is not a new face in New York. A year ago, P.S.1. (the "alternative" space par excellence of the 90s, nowadays associated to MoMA) presented an individual exhibition of her work, which had been shown already in that same space shortly before, within the framework of the very publicized Cities on the Move. Perhaps the work that has given her the greatest international visibility is her series of videos titled A Needle Woman, initiated in 1999. The artist traveled to eight cities in several continents, among them some of the most populated cities of the world: Cairo, New Delhi, Lagos, London, Mexico City, New York, Shangai and Tokyo. Generally, they are presented / displayed as large-format projections, in whose image is seen the artist from the back in a crowded city street.

  • The passers-by look in the direction of the camera — which they encounter from a considerable distance — and this depth of field has the effect of "leveling" the image on which figure and background are based and is difficult to calculate the proximity between the artist and the locals that encounter her. The artist is immovable in a meditative attitude, totally passive to the reaction of the people. This passivity generates a tension: at any moment we are hoping that she is interrupted, bothered, or even attacked. One of the immediate readings provoked by this work is one of the uncomfortable relation of the individual with society, a personal act of meditation facing the collective interaction in a public space. The artist opposes the slowness of individual, metaphysical time, at the speed of the collective time, whose rate is marked by conventions. A Needle Woman is, in the words of Paulo Herkenhoff, "the cartography of a 'displaced being.'" The needle, the artist reminds us, is an ambiguous image, as much masculine as feminine: "it can inflict a wound and at the same time be used to heal it." When facing the human river in the streets of these great cities, Kimsooja is penetrating the social weave and is simultaneously being permeated by its particularities. This tension is clearly perceivable in the videos, in which there is always a latent sensation of violence — implicit in the confrontation between individual and society, foreigner and locals, the woman and a phallocentric society; the confrontation is literalized by the formal disposition of the performance.

  • The status of a foreigner in another country and the condition of the urban immigrant is also invoked here. The tension between the urban landscape, full of color and vitality, and the immovable image of the artist, always dressed in the same grey tunic (which recalls the clothes of indigents and the poor, unavoidable presences in all contemporary metropolises) adds a political reading to this confrontation between individual and society. It is worth noting that the use of an indefinite article to title the work, "A" Needle Woman instead of "The" Needle Woman, testifies to the will of Kimsooja to allude more to the human condition than to a particular history, presenting / displaying "the lost soul to us of globalized modernity," as the critic Ken Jonson wrote in the New York Times.

  • The work of Kimsooja is in the tradition of the performance, though the body remains immovable here. But it is also in the tradition of the landscape and, why not, of the urban documentary. These videos are pictures of the local life in each one of the selected contexts: the chaotic architecture in which tradition and modernity mix in cities like Delhi and Shangai; the human rivers in New York or Tokyo. Each video incorporates abundant sociological information on the "local color": clothes, means of transport, forms to be related in the public space. In New York and London people ignore each other (and the artist) but simultaneously speak on cellular phones, establishing an alternative relational plot in which the notion of the street as the space of social interaction par excellence is challenged by the technological and social reality of the great contemporary large cities.

  • The images of the eight cities vary significantly, in their color, texture and, as was already said, in the attitude of the passers-by with respect to the artist, confirming that in the base of national stereotypes much truth exists: in London and New York, cultures in where individuality is an appraised good, people pass to the side without becoming jumbled, minding their own business, doing something that is not there. In the cities of Asia a similar attitude is perceived, although the furtive glances attest more to a timid nature than of an affirmation of individuality. And readings could be made still more particular: as the critic Gregory Volk writes, in Tokyo the artist could just as well not be there, because the people ignore her completely, "before which it is inevitable to think about how the Korean minority in Japan has long suffered from cultural invisibility and discrimination." In Sao Paolo or Mexico City, people were more direct in satisfying the curiosity generated by this unusual urban presence (an Asian woman completely immovable in a sidewalk is without a doubt an unexpected appearance), whereas in Lagos, the performance caused a true collapse in the circulation of this large African city, when a group of boys crowded itself around the artist to watch her, to ask her questions and to try to obtain some type of reaction. And so on in each case.

  • From 1994 the artist has used multicolored fabrics presented/displayed in several ways: spread on the ground, folded in piles, hung on lines as if they were being dried in the sun or in bunches (called Bottaris), which have become one of her more characteristic visual resources. In their different uses, these colorful fabrics have a great evocative capacity; they recall the clothes hung in the patios, or put out to dry on the banks of rivers in the rural areas of many countries — no only in the Third World. The bunches have more complex readings; it is inevitable to think of displaced urbanites with their properties in the hills, or of associations even more macabre, because many of them are the size to wrap a human body. The fabric in this case is a delicate limit between interior and outside, spirit and materiality, the individual and the world that surrounds it. The Bottaris are made from fabrics traditionally used in Korea to surround domestic objects like clothes or books. These bulks symbolize the historical displacement of the Korean population, but they touch upon a global preoccupation, the phenomenon of internal migrants and the immigrants, displaced from their places of origin for diverse reasons — religious, political, economic — one of the subjects of greatest importance in the postindustrial societies. The Bottaris are the house in the absence of the house, indices of a left or lost place, that guarantee a connection with history.

  • A Mirror Woman, the installation in the Peter Blum Gallery, consists of a kind of multicolor labyrinth formed by the fabrics that hang from cables like the ones used to dry clothes, that cross - extended across the rectangular space of the gallery. In the two sidewalls the artist has placed mirrors that cover the entire surface of the walls, with which one has the sensation to be immersed in an infinite space. For Kim, the mirror is "another way to surround the world". These textiles are associated with the condition of the woman in Korean society, and to domestic rites like sewing and embroidering bedcovers as marriage gifts. Kimsooja has described how she arrived at this material: "I was sewing bedcovers for my mother and after a while I had a strange sensation in which my thoughts, my feelings and my actions seemed to get to be on [with the fabric and the act of sewing it]." These fabrics are all the same form and size (a regular square), but vary significantly in their color, texture and composition, because they are made in many cases from pieces of used dresses or other blankets. Most of them belonged to somebody, and this "biographical load" is perceivable in the installation, in where they are a stirring presence.

  • The intervention in the Leap Frog Cafe in Central Park is very subtle, because as it is not an artistic space, the fabrics tend to merge with the colorful atmosphere of the park. When using the bedcovers like tablecloths in the restaurant, Kimsooja incorporates in this scope of socialization the presence of experiences lived in other times and other contexts; apparently this displacement is a transgressive act, because in Korea it is taboo to eat upon the bed. Probably a casual person at the table does not perceive the presence of "the work", but this is the risk associated with all intervention that is not codified by its inclusion in a museological space. What is certain is that for many others the social act around the table (eating, talking, drinking coffee) will be mediated by their presence, and by the consciousness that these fabrics have been dumb witnesses of many other lives. Like the mirrors.

Cities on the Move - 2727 KM Bottari Truck, 1997, single channle video, 7:33 min. loop, silent, Commissioned by Korean Arts and Cultural Foundation

Homeland Exists Only in Our Memory in This Era

Fibicher, Bernard

2002

"HOMELAND EXISTS ONLY IN OUR MEMORY IN THIS ERA" [1]

  • The work "2727 kilometers Bottari Truck" (1997) by the Korean artist Kimsooja has prompted many commentaries – on the Internet too – that are full of inaccurate quotes and half-truths, but that also include some quite imaginative interpretations. For example, there is talk of the "video loop of her sojourn throughout Seoul and the surrounding countryside" (I am deliberately excluding source references here.) In the film itself, however, there is nothing to be seen of the metropolis of Seoul. In another commentary: "In 1997, Kimsooja toured Korea for eleven days in a truck containing a large number of 'bottari' made from clothing she had gathered from all over the world." This universalistic interpretation is contradicted by the following reduction to local history in another text: "The mountain of colorful, knotted cloths in the truck alludes to the troubled episodes of Korean history, in which city dwellers and the inhabitants of the countryside alike were forced to flee their homes, carrying their valuables in similar large 'bottari'." However, it is impossible to examine the content of the bundles in the film, and inconceivable – at least for the lay person – to deduce the forced nomadism of the Korean people from the truck journey performance. What I am attempting here, therefore, is to allow the images to speak for themselves and at the same time take account of the written information which the artist has provided in her film.

  • A woman is sitting on a truck loaded with bundles. The bundles are tightly secured with thick ropes; they also serve as a seat for the woman. Throughout the whole film this female figure is shown only from behind. Occasionally, at a bend in the road, her concealed profile appears momentarily. She is wearing a neutral black dress that defies classification, either chronologically or geographically, and her hair is bound up. The camera following her tries to vary as little as possible the distance it keeps from her and to always keep her at the centre of the frame. Accordingly, in the lower half of the frame we see the heap of colorful bundles (only once does the rear of the truck sways briefly into the image), and in the upper half, we see the woman and the passing scenery [2]. The truck first travels upwards along a mountain road, then, having crossed a pass, down again into the valley. The road winds, with fairly sharp bends, through a landscape which during the ascent looks quite barren, but on the descent turns out to be wooded. Traces of snow can be seen at the road-side and around several groups of buildings. The landscape is geographically unidentifiable. There could be places like this in almost any continent of the world. The script on one of the passing road-signs, however, indicates the Asian region.

  • The information directly available from the images is complemented by some written data. The almost seven-minute video begins with a fade-in followed by the title "Cities on the Move". This refers to the context in which the work originated – namely, the exhibition "Cities on the Move", which was created by Hou Hanru and Hans Ulrich Obrist and, in keeping with the theme, was shown in different formats in different cities and continents [3].

  • Right from the beginning, this fade-in also provides a pointer to the general problem of how cities are developing. What is specifically "on the move" is the truck fully loaded with bundles. The truck must, therefore, be associated with "cities." And yet only a mountain road is visible in the frames. Do the bundles come from cities? Are they being transported to cities? Throughout the whole film, the word "cities" lodges in our mind like a foreign body, forming the conceptual counterpart to the landscape, which is visible all the time in the background. The general title "Cities on the Move" implies that the journey passes through city and country. Shortly before the end of the film, its actual title appears: "2727 kilometers Bottari Truck". Only now do we realize that the seven-minute sequence is no more than an extract from a much longer journey. The final credits contain information on the director (Kimsooja), the year the film was made (1997) and the location. Thus the point in time (the present) and the place where the action occurs (Korea) become clear. Yet we still feel confused. As image and text mutually influence each other, there is a tense interplay at several levels: between city and country, part and whole, now and (almost) any time, here and (almost) everywhere – or, in contemporary terms: the local and the global. Furthermore, the linear structure of the film and the journey is weakened by its repetition (the video runs in a loop). Although the journey is the central theme of this work by Kimsooja, stasis proves to be just as vital.
    "2727 kilometers Bottari Truck" can be seen as a minimalist road movie. The classical road movie simultaneously depicts a physical and a spiritual journey: a person, but mostly two people, travel the country in a car or on a motorcycle in order to find both the true America and themselves [4]. Though the road movie refers to the past and suggests a future, it concentrates on the in-between, the road, the distance between past and future, city and country, civilization and nature, immobility and movement. In an e-mail interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Kimsooja writes: " 'Bottari Truck' is…a loaded in –between"[5]. The road promises not only release from the bonds of the past but also the adventure of a new beginning. The reasons that drive someone onto the road have a lasting effect on the plot of the road movie. In Kimsooja's film there is neither action nor motivation. The woman dressed in black is traveling alone. She remains seated, while still moving forward. Deleuze and Guattari refer to the progress in repose of the nomad in their Nomadology: "The nomad distributes himself in a smooth space; he occupies, inhabits, holds that space; that is his territorial principle. It is therefore false to define the nomad by movement. Toynbee is profoundly right to suggest that the nomad is on the contrary he who does not move. …Of course, the nomad moves, but while seated, and he is only seated while moving (the Bedouin galloping, knees on the saddle, sitting on the soles of his upturned feet, 'a feat of balance')." [6] We do not know where the dark female figure comes from or where she is going to. We are not informed about her reasons for making the journey, why she has tied up her bundles. She exists only in this in-between space constituted by the road. Deleuze and Guattari emphasize this in-between space as a further characteristic of nomadism: "The nomad has a territory; he follows customary paths, he goes from one point to another, he is not ignorant of points (water points, dwelling points, assembly points, etc). …A path is always between two points, but the in-between has taken on all the consistency and enjoys both an autonomy and a direction of its own. The life of the nomads is the intermezzo." [7] The classical road movie operates with the opposition between space and place. Space – abstract space, wide open space –symbolizes inestimable freedom, while place – the precisely localized place – means civilization, the norm, the rule, i.e., restriction. In Kimsooja's film the two terms coincide in the concept of the bundle. This temporary place, the bundle, on which the woman is sitting, is simultaneously space and movement. It thus integrates the opposites of stasis and displacement, bondage and freedom. In the interview with Obrist, the artist puts this paradox as follows: " 'Bottari truck' is a development-object through space and time, an object that brings us to and from the place from which we came and to which we will return." [8] Kimsooja uses the elementary bundle – literally a "transitory object" – as a complex, contradictory symbol of location and placeless-ness.

  • At first sight, everything in "2727 kilometers Bottari Truck" seems to be in motion, flowing: the truck with the bundles roped onto it, the woman swaying slightly on the bends and at times shaken because of the bumpy road, the passing landscape. Meanwhile, the woman is taken as a fixed point (the heaped bundles function as a mere "plinth"); she is the referential object, although almost all we see of her is a cloth covering. The woman cannot be identified and is thus as anonymous as the bundles, whose contents remain concealed. This makes her a genuine identification figure. She can be anyone. Her body is a bundle, a container of many things, a corpus. In the interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Kimsooja remarks: " 'Bottari Truck' is a laden self, a laden other." [9] The body as bundle enables the transfer between "me" and "the other in me", between "me" and "the other". [10] The travelling woman seated on the bundles is not least a symbol both of primitive and of modern man, of nomadism and of the mobility and flexibility that have been raised to the new ideal and are often linked with values such as non-identity, placeless-ness, migration, cultural hybridism, etc. Yet this woman radiated an immense loneliness – melancholy? Marc Auge analyses the loneliness of modern cartography and in so doing, he investigates both those "places" which are characterized by identity, relation and history, and those "non-places" which have no anthropological identity. His conclusion is: "Movement adds a special experience, a form of loneliness, to the juxtaposition of the worlds and the experience of the anthropological place." As the images pass by, loneliness manifests itself in them "as a going beyond individuality, in short, the flickering of the hypothesis of a past and the possibility of a future." [11] Is loneliness perhaps the unexpected price to be paid for being open to the world?

  • Translated from the German by Pauline Cumbers

[1] "Gerald Matt interviewing Kimsooja", p. 12, in: exhibition catalogue: Kim Sooja. A Laundry Woman, Kunsthalle Wien, 2002, p. 7-33.

[2] å pendant to Kimsooja's women in black seeen only from behind in Michelangelo Pistoletto's "La Venere degli stracci" (Rag Venus, 1967). In it, a replica of a classical female nude with her white back turned to the viewer snuggles up to a heap of clothing and pieces of fabric that towers above her. There is a clashhere between the ideal form and the attraction of the informal. Thirty years later, Kimsooja no longer needs this shock effect: the woman and the cloth bundles belong in one and the same universe.

[3] Cities on the Move, exhibition catalogue Secession, Vienna, Musée d'art contemporain, Bordeaux, ed.: Hatje Verlag, Ostfildern, 1997/98.

[4] Several interesting essays on the theme are contained in the reader The Road Movie Book, ed.: Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark, London, New York: Routledge, 1997.

[5] Reprint and German translation of the interview in: Kim Sooja. A Needle Woman, exhibition catalogue Kunsthalle Bern, 2001, no page numbers.

[6] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi, London: The Athlone Press, 1987, p. 381, chapter 12, A Threatise on Nomadology: The War Machine.

[7] Ibid., p.380

[8] Kimsooja, 2001.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Little wonder that of all things a female body assumes this mediating role.

[11] Marc Augé, Orte und Nicht-Orte. Vorüberlegungen zu einer Phänomenologie der Einsamkeit, Frankfurt am Main, 1994, p. 103.

A Laundry Woman - Yamuna river, India, 2000, 10:30 video loop, Silent.

The Persistence of the Void

Morgan, Robert C.

2002

  • Having followed the work of Kim SooJa for nearly a decade, I have become increasingly aware of her focus and commitment in developing a unique vision of the world through art. Her vision is, of course, a subjective one. It is subjective in relation to the conjugation of mind and body. As with any refined manner of subjectivity, SooJa depends on a type of alertness based on the sensing of her immediate environment. While performing in relation to the video camera, whether in an urban metropolis or in the wilderness of nature, she maintains a relaxed aura. Her demeanor reveals a purposeful intensity combined with the sensitivity of observation. To develop one's sense of the world through art — indeed, to develop a perception of oneself — is initially contingent on observation, and later, on a phenomenological reduction of what one sees through the process of reflection; in essence, it is the search for an intentionality.

  • In working with brightly colored textiles in various contexts, SooJa has discovered a ground for her recent observations. She has discovered a way of making sense, of finding an order, regardless of the chaos that intervenes on the surface. In recent years she has extended the meaning of her textile installations ('deductive objects') and bottaris (wrapped bundles of cloth) through a series of remarkable video performances, collectively known as A Needle Woman. Through her process of engagement in the world — in other people's worlds, in specific places and cultures, such as Tokyo, Shanghai, Delhi, New York, Mexico City and Cairo — Kim SooJa has gone deeply within herself in order to find a new transcultural reality.

  • As an artist, she is not concerned with repeating hypothetical universals borrowed from the Modernist past. This is clearly antithetical to her position, to her ethos. As with her ongoing work, A Needle Woman, SooJa searches for a structural invisibility as the means by which to communicate her intention. To be deeply personal (which is also to be spiritual) opens up the possibility of significant communication — a human transmission — on a transcultural level. By going deeply within oneself, below the surface of narcissism (as defined in Western terms), one discovers the invisible self paradoxically asserting itself within a transcultural, transglobal world.

  • As is sometimes the case, and I am thinking specifically of Yves Klein, the most radical departures at any given moment in art are often confused with traditional ideas (l'ancien et l'ultramoderne ). What changes, of course, is the context in which the ideas are felt. One might consider that certain ideas in art retain an accelerating force as they evolve within a perpetually shifting globalized environment. Kim SooJa's bottaris have this potential. They refer to a certain kind of transport, a personal history, a private vision of one's own space, a nomadic space, going from one place to another. In the process of going from one place to another, there is a momentum that builds, a certain engagement with the transition of the present. Within this transition of present time — what the philosopher Husserl calls 'internal time-consciousness' — there is the possibility to reflect on the space of the moment. In Zen Buddhism, this is the place of samadhi or the contemplation of a single thought, a sense of oneness, that is often used in meditation. Samadhi offers the possibility of feeling a sense of wholeness, of bringing one's thought into focus, into a single thought, of entering into the space of that thought with full consciousness. This was used by Yves Klein in a manner quite differently from Kim SooJa. Even so, one cannot ignore the affinity — though at a different time and place, a different culture, to be sure.

  • If anything, A Needle Woman — already emphasizing a kind of anonymity by using the article 'A' as opposed to 'The'— is about the space of samadhi on one level, but only on one level. Contrary to the position of Arthur Danto, not all art exists at the service of philosophy. While the spirit of samadhi is close to A Needle Woman, it cannot operate as its raison d'etre. It can only function as a parallel system, as a personal motivation that the artist feels. In essence, Zen Buddhism may offer an affinity with SooJa's work — particular, it would seem, in A Needle Woman — but it cannot become her art. It is precisely for this reason that Kim SooJa rejects the lamination of theoretical rhetoric against her art. This is particularly true given the varieties of feminist theory, exported from the West, that often usurps the possibility for her art to speak on its own terms, and thereby suggest other parallel systems of thought. Kim SooJa is not interested in making her art an air-tight case and is certainly not a gender-case; it is about the significance of the human being in a chaotic world, how to survive the virtual excess and abandonment of the self, through a rejuvenation of mind/body awareness. Rather than following the theoretical pre-occupations of the West, she follows her own course of social and political engagement emanating from her own history, memory, and intelligence of feeling.

  • While Western rhetoric may have taken the foreground of attention in much recent art — more intent on "investigations" and visual anthropology than upon the phenomenology of experience — SooJa's position is more related to the nomadic artist, the human being who moves at will (not as a refugee), but within the another context of globalized reality. In doing so, she confronts excesses of all kinds, prematurely archaic or obsolescent structures that have devolved through overabundant information, tabloid-receptive populations who feel devalued in their everyday work and without a sense of history. This puts her art in opposition to the prevailing cynicism of the day, the ultimate detachment that is de rigeur /span>in the fashion world, the failing present where time exists without duration, without memory, and without any sense of a cause-and-effect impact on the proverbial future.

  • The poet and critic T.S. Eliot has spoken of the "perfect artist" as one who is so committed to his (her) art, with such ineluctable consistency, that the personality becomes less the issue than what is being transmitted through the art. I find Eliot's paradigm interesting in relation to Kim SooJa. One could say that the emphasis in her work has always been one of non-emphasis; instead of a presence we get an absence. The absence is always more profound, more subtle, and somehow more durable. The terms of absence are literally true, specifically in her rediscovery of bottari in 1992 as a kind of ready-made gesture, and most recently in her video projections.

  • The feeling of absence is also true in her earlier work. Going back to an earlier work, such as Portrait of Yourself (1985), SooJa ingeniously reverses the gaze of the viewer through the presentation of sewn pieces of cloth into a colorful garment. The work suggests that she is there, somehow within the space of the garment. By identifying the trace of her body within a form of representation, the viewer becomes complicit with the intimacy of the work. One may sense the transmission of memory as the cloth has been sewn, painted, and constructed. Absence exists as a condition of memory — a 'trace' of what is being represented. The process leads inevitably to the maker, to the one perceiving what is being made, in essence, to the craft of its making. This is an intimate, more than a social act(ion); yet it is consistent with what SooJa has recounted on afternnon in 1983 while she was sewing a bedcover with her mother: "I made a surprising discovery, whereby my thoughts, my feelings, and my activities of the moment seemed to come into harmony. And I discovered new possibilities for conveying buried memories and pain along with the quiet passions of life."

  • In the West, art historians are fond of saying that no artist or movement in art comes from the void, that there are always cause-and-effect linkages, relationships, motivations, and consequences. This is, to some extent, true; but its truth is isolated within the discipline of art history, not necessarily within the process of how an artist thinks. What is happening in today's "art world" — the transcultural satellite of globalization — is relevant only to the following extent. Most of these objects and events are academicized into oblivion by the time they hit the market. They are merely symptomatic of the bifurcation between advanced technologies and the socioeconomic well-being of people's lives, particularly those living outside of the Western world.

  • Here is the crux of the issue: Many artists live in an environment of high transition filled with enormous frustrations. They spend hours in front of the computer. They are dependent on mobile phones and internet data. Traffic on city streets and airport terminals is greater than ever before. They cannot keep us with the piles of work that confront them in the studio. When do they have time to think about the direction of our work? Or, more relevant, when do they have time to think of their lives as forming the substance of their work? These questions, by the way, are not only germane to artists. Many of us are in a similar boat. And this boat seems more often than not to be floating in an empty void — a Western schism that is far removed from the nature of the self.

  • This is to suggest that Kim SooJa's art is directed towards another kind of void — neither the void of art history nor the void of the today's split in human consciousness, but the void of the self, the concept of "no mind" as described by the Japanese Zen teacher (Sensei) Daisetz Suzuki. When we look at the interwoven elements — material, visual, conceptual — as presented between SooJa's tactile and virtual images, we get a sense of her vision. Somewhere in the interstices between the bottari and the video projections, there is a profound coherence to everything we know. We are exhilarated as human beings to know that we are allowed to "unknow" the burden that constitutes much of our superficial identity. The temptation is always there — to avoid the void. In confronting the crowds of Shanghai, Delhi, or Istanbul, we may become aware that the feelings of the void so clearly articulated in the performances of Kim SooJa, are endangered in a world of chaotic excess. We can only look to the void that she has created, the cancellation of the chaos around her, and ultimately receive the infinite joy of being who we are.

  • — From Kunsthalle Bern exhibition catalogue, 2001:

Robert C. Morgan is a writer, critic, curator, poet, and artist. He holds an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in contemporary art history. He is the author of some 1500 essays and reviews. His books include Art into Ideas (Cambridge, 1996), Between Modernism and Conceptual Art (McFarland, 1997), The End of the Art World (Allworth, 1998), Gary Hill (Johns Hopkins, 2000), and Bruce Nauman (John Hopkins 2000). Among his many exhibitions, he curated Komar and Melamid: A Retrospective (Ulrich Museum of Art, 1979), Women on the Verge (Elga Wimmer, 1995), and Clear Intentions (The Rotunda, 2003). His performance work was shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1976) and in numerous other galleries and museums until he stopped producing art in 1990. He travels and lectures frequently and is completing a book on Eastern thought and contemporary art.

A Needle Woman - Delhi, 2000, part of the 8 cities performances (1999-2001), 6:33 video loop.

Obvious but Problematic

Fibicher, Bernard

2002

  • Reactions to Kim Sooja's silent video projections tend to be just as soundless - indeed speechless - as the works themselves. We have little trouble recognizing what is shown; there is no "plot" whatsoever, nor does any new information crop up at any point during a sequence. In short, there is hardly food for discussion. This makes it all the more tempting to seek some sort of exegesis with respect to the work of this Korean artist, to link it historically with certain artistic or philosophic traditions, in order to define it in words. To that end, certain catchwords represent particularly appealing departure points: Zen Buddhism, meditation, yoga, the suspension of the body, the emptying of the mind, ecstasy through asceticism, becoming one with the cosmic forces, and so forth. Kim's art may well touch upon any or all of these. Public response to her work, however, has repeatedly proven that viewers who balk at Eastern philosophy are nonetheless capable of empathizing with what she presents.

  • This leads us to consider linking Kim's work with Western Existentialist or phenomenological trends, prone as they are to claiming universalism. For instance, then, the mere fact of the artist's Da-Sein (that is, her being + there) in her videos might to some extent relate to Heidegger's notion of Ek-sistenz as analyzed in Being and Time . His "being-in-the-world" means to exist, from the Latin ex-sistere, the equivalent of standing outside one's self in a state of being that has always preexisted. In other words, it is precisely the most innocuously quotidien aspect of life that allows us to be and become what we already are, enabling the pure "what is and is to be" to emerge while "wherefrom and whereto" remain shrouded in mystery. To Heidegger, the body is inconsequential, simply there, a mere background for our acts, never standing in the foreground; the body is an instrument of transcendence. Might we not say as much of the artist's body, as it appears in her videos? By contrast, for Maurice Merleau-Ponty, author of a most important Phénoménologie de la perception, our perception of things always depends on a standpoint, namely that of our body. To be body means to be linked to a certain world ("Etre corps, c'est être noué à un certain monde..."). And that world is what makes me aware of my body "at the center of the world," as "the unperceived end point towards which all objects turn their face" ("le terme inaperçu vers lequel tous les objets tournent leur face"), "the hub of the world" ("le pivot du monde"). By way of illustration, see the four-part video installation A Needle Woman !

  • Several art-historical contexts might lend themselves to "explaining" Kim Sooja's work. Traditional Chinese landscape painting, for instance, uses the dialectical relationship between solid and liquid: the landscapes reflect the reciprocal influence of rock and water, mountain and clouds, as captured by the interplay of brush and India ink. Although painting is not her medium, Kim does seem to follow these roughly sketched principles, allowing the stiff bodies she presents to interact with flows found in nature or streaming crowds.

  • Western art history, too, offers several frameworks within which it would be feasible to position Kim's work. "Forerunners" of sorts easily come to mind in the realms of performance and body art: one thinks of the Marina Abramovic/Ulay pair's experiments with the basic positions of the human body - standing, lying, sitting - or the statue-like and aura-pervaded standing role into which James Lee Byars enjoyed casting himself. However, art historians also tend to link Kim's stance in her videos with the back-view figures that so frequently appear in Caspar David Friedrich's paintings of around 1818. The title figures of two of these - his Woman before the Setting Sun (Museum Folkwang, Essen) and Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (Kunsthalle Hamburg) - each stand full-length, parallel to the painting and in the foreground, exactly in the middle of the composition. Both turn their back to the viewer: solitary individuals, they stand confronted by the endless breadth and immeasurable magnitude of Nature. Just as in Kim's work, through their anonymity, these figures seen from behind serve as substitutes - within the painting - for the viewer. They are at once subject and object of our gaze.

  • It would certainly be interesting to carry some of these ideas a few steps further, or to explore still others, such as the concept of the sublime, or Baudelaire's notion of the " bain de foule" (to revel in crowds). For the purposes of this essay, however, we shall focus on the video images themselves, attempting to discover what constitutes their definition-defying fascination. The common denominator for most of Kim's works is the standing or lying female figure, motionless and seen from the back. In the first place, the figure is inaccessible because the woman turns her face away, that is, away from the viewer. It is the crowd streaming towards the "Needle Woman," in the video sequence by that name, who can see her from the front; they see something we are denied. Were we to take the place of the female figure, we would discover nothing more than what we already see as viewers. Hence, to identify with the back-view figure is relatively beside the point. It would be far more interesting to adopt the standpoint of one of the passersby. In the last analysis, it seems that the figure "invisible" to us holds the key to the whole scene. Why are the passersby looking at her or ignoring her? Is she crying or laughing, speaking or holding her silence? Are her eyes open or shut? Is she pretty or ugly? The gazes of the passersby offer no clue in the matter. This woman is no individual (she can be multiplied) but an abstraction. Clad in neutral gray, the artist's figure seems incorporeal, silhouette-like, a shadow of ourselves, a Doppelgänger. And yet she stands her ground with respect to the crowd, tacitly but nonetheless forcefully asserting her presence. In fact, the artist strikes a delicate balance between presence and absence; she is at once herself and the "other."

  • A second factor rendering inaccessible the figure viewed from behind is that the viewer is incapable of sharing her standpoint. The "Needle Woman" on the rocks lies above the viewer's eye level and above the horizon; no pathway leads to her. Moreover, deprived of a foreground, she cannot be situated in depth. The landscape lying ahead of her is invisible to us. We wonder if the woman is sleeping or meditating with closed eyes, whether she even deigns to cast a glance at what is hidden from us. Not content with refusing to show herself, she further denies us the possibility of seeing things from her standpoint, thus cutting off our view ahead. This female figure represents unattainable distance. The "Laundry Woman" presents similar spatial problems, inviting us to wonder where it is that she is standing. Very near the river bank? High above the river? The water forms a wall in front of her: instead of mirroring the artist herself, it reflects the sky above and its flock of whirring birds. On the other hand, the viewer is refused her standpoint, prevented from sharing her space. Here, the female figure is invisible to us from the waist down, with only her upper body jutting out into the image. (The reclining figure, too, does not seem to be in the picture but to project itself onto the picture from the side, shoving itself in between the rocks and the sky.) This "upper-body figure" is impossible to pin down in any fixed spatial terms. Nevertheless, the figure seems "grounded" in the literal sense of the word, standing as it does exactly at the center of the image, which it divides symmetrically into two. It is this figure that determines and creates the spatial coordinates. Everything starts out from it, relates to it: it is the center, the alpha and the omega.

  • The third reason that this back-view figure is inaccessible has to do with the space itself — the space the figure faces, to which it is exposed. This space is unstable, constantly changing, liquid. A longer look makes even the supposedly solid rocks in Kitakyushu, upon which the "Needle Woman" reclines, seem subject to "change": the ridges look like the flow of hair that has been let down. Anthropomorphic elements begin appearing in the rocks, something like the features of a human skull lying about. The woman sitting on the bundles in Cities on the Move may be shaken about a bit by the potholes in the street, but it is nonetheless she who remains the static element in the sequence. The street winds its way through the images before our eyes, and the landscape comes towards us. Yet, despite the space's instability — its dynamic quality to put it more positively — no uneasiness or menace is suggested (by contrast, for instance, with the progressive deformation and narrowing of the lead character's living quarters in Boris Vian's Froth on the Daydream. The female figure not only exists in space that is anisotropic, but also belongs to another time — an extremely slow-motion version of our own world. Kim's video imagery portrays the world's continuous transformation as an inexorable but altogether natural turn of events. However, the strength of the individuals exposed to this unending transformation is equally inexorable: through the simple fact of their presence-laden Da-Sein, they are capable of neutralizing it.

  • Here we have what most probably explains the fascination of Kim Sooja's video works. Refusing to draw her systematic play of contrasts into any sort of tension-charged dialectical relationship, she instead achieves such a delicate equilibrium that opposite poles are brought to the fore as a natural basis for harmony. Although what she stages is commonplace, her video imagery does not come across as believable. The balance struck between presence and absence exists not only in her images, but in our head as well, inasmuch as the back-view figure can show itself as soon as the video projector is switched off. Kim Sooja: at once subject and object of our gaze, an individual and an abstraction, a specific woman and every(wo)man, instrument and actress, motionless and purposeful. In theories of perception, the fact that the eye sees what moves is a truism. In Kim's work, it is immobility that catches the eye. While setting herself at the center of the imagery, the artist distances herself from it. Her forceful but simple appearance is an incredible manner of self-assertion, proving that it is possible here and now, and with a strict economy of means, to adventure into new spatial and temporal dimensions.

  • — From Kunsthalle Bern exhibition catalogue, 2001:

Bernard Fibicher's special fields of expertise are the art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and public art. He was curator of the Cantonal Art Museum in Sion and chief curator at the Zürich Kunsthaus (1995-97) in the prints, drawings and video department where he was responsible for the exhibitions "Erotica", "Wall Drawings" (with Maria Eichhorn, Simon Patterson and Gary Simmons) and shows by Gillian Wearing, Callum Innes, Pierrick Sorin, Inez van Lamsweerde etc. At Kunsthalle Bern, he has specialized in exhibitions of contemporary artists from all over the world (especially Africa and Asia), presented a number of group shows such as "Genius Loci", "White Noise", "South Meets West", "I Never Promised You a Rosegarden", "Basics", "Danger Zone", etc., as well as solo shows by the following artists: Marie-José Burki, Thomas Hirschhorn, "Big Tail Elephant Group", Cecilia Edefalk, Callum Innes, Christoph Rütimann, Ceal Floyer, Martin Kersels, Michel François, Rémy Zaugg, Kim Sooja, Anne Katrine Dolven, Gregor Zivic, Richard Wright, Maria Eichhorn, Pascale Marthine Tayou, Ilona Ruegg, Meschac Gaba, Maria Eichhorn, Salla Tykkä, Mark Lewis, Tomoko Takahashi, Brian Tolle, Marjetica Potrc, Kay Hassan, Serge Spitzer, Ann Veronica Janssens, Martin Creed, Chloe Piene and Ai Weiwei. He will be director of this institution until the end of 2004.

Deductive Object, 2002. Used Korean bed covers, Central Park, New York. Photo by Matthew Suib.

Whitney Biennale

Rinder, Lawrence

2002

  • Kim Sooja's installations, videos, and performances link art with everyday life by transforming common materials and concise gestures into poetic commentaries on the human condition. One key body of work involves the use of traditional Korean bedcoverings as sculptural elements. These textiles, traditionally given to newly married couples, are typically embroidered with symbolic patterns and made of contrasting colors, such as red and blue, which together signify the unification of yin and yang. In Kim's works, the bedcovers are laid flat on the ground, hung in rows like laundry on a line, or filled with old clothing and knotted in clusters of bottari, flexible bundles traditionally used to transport household goods. The becoverings are always used, artifacts of anonymous lives.

  • Kim's bedcover pieces are deceptively simple in form, yet resonate with multiple layers of experience and meaning. On one level, they are strikingly sensuous compositions, spreading out before the viewer in an array of color, pattern, and texture. These fabrics are also immediately accessible: we all use bedcoverings virtually every night, from birth to death. They are fraught with feelings and emotions from comfort and desire to solitude and exhaustion. Bedcovers, in Kim's words, "are frames of our bodies and lives." When bundled as bottari, the bedcovers become a kind of universal symbol of human movement, hinting at migration, nomadism, and the experience of refugees. Bottari are also metaphors for the human form. "I find the body to be the most complicated bundle," explains Kim.

  • On their most abstract level, which is the level most important for Kim herself, the bedcovers are veils that divide one state of being from another, inside from outside, the hidden from the seen. "Through the quite present and simultaneously distance engagement of cloth," comments curator Harald Szeeman, "she challenges us to reflection on our most basic conduct: consciousness of the ephemera of our existence, of enjoying the moment, of change, migration, resettlement, adventure, suffering, of having to leave behind the familiar. She masterfully sets her fabrics, rich in memory and narrative, into the situation of the moment, as zones of beauty and affecting associations. With a grace that knows ever so much."

  • — From the Whitney Biennale 2002 catalogue:

  • Lawrence Rinder
    Anne & Joel Ehrenkranz Curator of Contemporary Art,
    Whitney Museum

  • Mr. Rinder was chief curator of the 2002 Whitney Biennial. He curated, with Debra Singer, the Museum's groundbreaking exhibition BitStreams, which explored the impact of digital technology on contemporary art in 2001, and in 2003, The American Effect, which surveyed global perspectives on America from 1990 to 2003. Mr. Rinder was founding director of the CCAC Institute at the California College of Arts and Crafts, San Francisco and Oakland, California, and was Assistant Director for Exhibitions and Programs and curator for twentieth-century art and MATRIX curator at the Berkeley Art Museum. He is an Adjunct Professor of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University.

Kimsooja's Bottari and Her Journey

Kim, Sunjung

2001

  • Bottari is the traditional wrapping cloth of Korea. Bottari, or bundle, has had many uses. Traditionally made by women of all classes of society, they were used to cover food and store things, wrap clothing, move house, or for sending as gifts and other precious items. One translation of bottari is 'wrapping luggage with a wrapping cloth'. Such cloths may be embroidered, painted, made from oiled paper, patchwork, or just plain cloth. The most popular wrapping cloths used patchwork designs, and were made from small pieces of discarded scraps. Similar to the practice of quilting, these bottaris were made by stitching patches of bright cloth onto the surface of a blanket. A simple sheet could be transformed into a colourful blanket, and later used as a bed cover. Kimsooja is a Korean artist who has deliberately chosen to work with the meanings and traditions of bottari made by ordinary people, so as to create new works of art. As the artist related to me in my interview with her:

  • 'As a medium, bottari is traditionally feminine. In Korean, the expression to 'bundle up a bottari' means that a woman has lost her status in the household and has been forced out. Bottari also has significance as a container, or vessel, for carrying and transporting all sorts of goods. It can be unwrapped just as it can be bundled up, and in this regard I see our body as being, in the subtlest kind of way, a kind of bottari'. [1]

  • In this essay, I will discuss some of the ways in which Kimsooja has used bottaris in her work, and also touch on some feminist elements that are implicated in her practice. My discussion can be viewed within the context and transformations that have taken place in her work since the 1980s.

  • Korean women are taught from an early age to sew and develop needlework skills. Consequently, making wrapping cloths can never be separated from women's everyday life, just as the blankets and bedclothes they make are indispensable objects in daily use. As such, bottaris hold a special place for 'conveying buried memories and pain, as well as life's quiet passions'. [2] Blankets and bedclothes offer a place for rest when one is tired. As humans, we are born on a blanket and die in one. Cloth protects and decorates: it is an essential element of life. The blanket is a site for human life and a place of its joy, anger, grief and pleasure. In Korea, traditional folk belief suggests that good luck and happiness can be preserved inside the cloth. The patterns on the blanket are ornaments and symbols that encompass our aspirations, such as fertility, health and longevity. The colours also have symbolic meaning. [3]

  • As I have already mentioned, Kimsooja is an artist who has visually and consciously combined tradition with contemporary art in an effective way. In my view, many contemporary artists have tried to offer new ways of working with conventional materials and concepts, whilst still retaining their traditional distinctive character, but I think none have been as successful as Kimsooja. In many works, women artists refer to the traditional labour associated with sewing and material. They introduce craft skills such as quilting and knitting into their work, and these elements have often referred to their individual lives and memories. This approach has been associated with tendencies in feminist art, but I do not think I would define Kimsooja simply as a feminist artist, although feminist traits can be found in her work.

The Works Prior to Bottari

  • Kimsooja graduated from an art college and graduate school in Korea in the 1970s. At that time, 'monochrome' was the dominant form of art, along with other styles and experiments. During her studies, Kim was mainly influenced by formalism and conceptual art and, keeping these various trends of modern art in mind, her conceptual work was initially concerned with questions of 'the surface'. Although she experimented with various styles and expressions, she struggled to expand her vision and find her voice. In 1983, an incident occurred which had a new and lasting influence on her work. While sewing a blanket with her mother, Kim gained a new insight into cloth. She experienced a feeling of complete immersion in the realm of infinity. This experience led her to experiment with cloth and its surface, and resulted in a two dimensional work which she has described as follows:

  • 'In the midst of a common act of sewing blankets with my mother, I had a clandestine and surprising experience in which all of my senses, thoughts and activities all coincided with one another. In this experience, I discovered the possibility that so many memories, pains and affection of life buried unnoticed so far could be connoted in it. I was totally fascinated by the lines of longitude and latitude as the basic structure of cloth; its primordial colour; the feeling of identity between the cloth and me while it was being sewn; and the curious nostalgia evoked by those things'. [4]

  • While sewing blankets, Kim found a new possibility of overcoming the limits of the two dimensional surface through the process of moving the needle above and beneath the cloth, and began to use this experience in her work. Such works were significant in that they connected women's everyday life to artwork through the use of the material of cloth and the activity of sewing. Many Korean women artists use 'sewing' in their work, while others reference the human body. Kimsooja's early works use sewing as representative of these early ideas about women's work and labour. More recently, she has consciously used the body:

  • 'I regard bottari as the body itself. Like bottari, which can be bundled and unwrapped, the presence of the body lingers and departs. The cloth, in my view, is like our skin'. [5]

  • For me, her sewing works evoke a sense of femininity, labour and healing. However, there is also a difference between Kimsooja's early work and many other feminist art forms, since she uses fabric as a canvas, which is a surface. In addition, she uses needlework as a tool, which asks endless questions on this border of surface, trying to identify the subject and the object.

  • In the 1980s, many Korean artists began to escape from the formalist, minimal monochrome art of the 1970s and related their works to social issues. They began to treat reality as a basis for a critical practice that represented social and political ideas. These practices presented a resistance to existing art activities and to the social system. The Minjoong Art movement was established by a number of Korean artists who shared these ideals. [6]

  • As a consequence many artists turned their backs on the individualistic works of the 1970s and began to deal with real life, to develop a critical vision about their society and its politics. One of the great influences of Minjoong Art was that it made people think about art in terms of communication. Kimsooja's introduction of everyday life into her practice through sewing processes can be seen as a result of this influence. But she never joined the group, since she did not agree with group activism and the fixed ideas, systems and power it holds over the individual. She continued to work on pieces in which canvas and painting were replaced by cloth and sewing. Such works can be described as modernist, in that the work of sewing and cloth was done within the two dimensional surface.

  • The act of sewing necessarily accompanies the material of cloth. The action is repeated across the surface above and beneath. Kim attempted to overcome the limitations of the 'surface' through repetitive horizontal and vertical stitching. Paints were applied over the colours and patterns of the cloth with brush strokes, line drawings and stitched marks. These showed the variation of space. The action of sewing enabled the artist to interact with the material of cloth. In sewing, Kim engages with the surface, simultaneously extending the space. I think that the introduction of cloth and sewing into her artwork brings the realm of the feminine into the art world, and overcomes the exclusion of ideas and practices that were prevented by modernism in a Confucian society. Kim seeks to transcend gender difference and to celebrate the universal value of the human being.

  • Kim also produced collage works that used cloth and needle instead of canvas and paint. Although she added drawing or paint to the cloth in "Dans Ma Chambre" (1988), the cloth work still sticks to the square surface.

  • Since the early 1990s, Kim has wrapped her objects, using the title "Deductive Object". In such works, Kim wrapped the cloth or hung it around common objects such as farming tools, sticks, ladders and laundry bars.

  • These works were significant in that Kim attempted to escape materiality and the frame imposed upon it by the painting. She still called these attempts 'deductive' because she wanted to get out of her earlier inductive works, in which materials were assembled and connected by sewing. Deductive works reconfirm the structure of the object through the activity of wrapping it. As Kim has observed:

  • 'With my objects, it's as though I'm bandaging a wound. I wrap the object as if I was treating a wound, and through the wrapping and bandaging, the objects are transformed into something feminine'. [7]