Soo-Ja Kim: A solitary performance with old fabric

'Lie on the Nature', 1994, used bed covers, Oksanseowon Valley, Korea. Photo by Ju Myung Duk

Soo-Ja Kim: A solitary performance with old fabric

Kim, Airyung


  • To abolish the distance separating art from life is the most constant desire found in the art of this century. However this doesn't mean that art should be dissolved in life but rather the desire to link art to the concrete areas of life and everyday experience. The prestige of the artist lies in his capacity to reveal our relationship to the world and our existence in it through signals developed through reason and sensitivity.

  • In the 80's there was an abundance of artists who wanted to base their art on the most immediate and mundane. They rejected altogether sterile and formalism and facile expressionism. The new generation of artists started to be interested in the body, the memory, the intimacy, the vernacular, the marginal, the unstable, the despicable, and the infamous.

  • In Korea, Soo-Ja Kim's home country, this period was marked by the debate about cultural identity, by the criticism of formalism, by political commitment. Korean art started to reflect on the country's history, present reality and tradition. It was in this context that Soo-Ja Kim made the discovery which was to become the origin of her art.

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

  • She made a complete break with established medium i.e. blank canvas stretched over a frame. From then on, her canvas was made by assembling a variety of fabrics. From the beginning of the 90's, the materialism becomes ever more prominent and the work develops a direct relation to actual space. The assembling becomes more heterogeneous and less dependent on the wall. When she establishes a relationship with the wall, it's inside it, the narrow spaces of holes and cracks. The fabric spreads out, hangs and wraps various objects. This gave rise to a series called Deductive Object. Unlike assembling built by adding elements, wrapping an object in fabric confirms the initial form of that object. Hence the name: Deductive Object. The artist analyses the important moment of the relationship between the materials, the work process and the result.

  • The first Deductive Objects are the tools and frames covered with strips of fabric. They become bodies made of a skeleton and skin. In spite of the desire to find a new relationship between the material elements of painting, i.e. the medium and the structure, these objects are seen as fetishes. Toward the Flower (1992) is a work which synthesises assembling, sewing and Deductive Object. The emotional current is so strong that the work tends toward "Art Brut". At this precise moment, Soo-Ja Kim chooses to minimise gesture instead of giving way to the ceremonial of nostalgia and dreams. The following year she shows a piece of bedcover spread over the ground, bundles of anonymous clothes, pieces of fabric inserted into cracks in the wall. Physical structure is eliminated and the materials used consist only of the worn clothing and the bedspread. The artist gives them structure using only the ordinary, time-honoured gestures for handling fabrics: spreading, folding, enveloping, wrapping, knotting...

  • Thus she has undone for her own purpose the picture object and its function as a screen surface. There is no longer a question of relationship between parts and the whole, between form and substance; there is only a mobile medium which is at the same time substance and form, surface and volume. This materialistic concept of pictorial construction is close to the work of the French Supports Surfaces group. However, Soo-Ja Kim doesn't limit herself to the strictly material aspect of painting: she allows the old fabrics to tell their own story and memories.

  • The big rectangles of fabric used by Soo-Ja Kim are the decorative covers of Korean bedding. These bedcovers are in fact "the basic field of birth and death". In the Koreans' daily environment, these fabrics with their bright colours and symbolic motifs belong to their hidden private life. The contrast of red and green symbolises newlyweds; flowers, butterflies and birds depict a happy married life; symbols of long life, happiness, joy and riches spread like prayers all over the surface. The women make bedding for their homes using this material. They too unfold them each evening and fold them back each morning. The bedcovers are a reminder of night-time, bodies in repose, dreams, woman, and intimacy. Their manifestation is significant in itself in a society where ancestral Confucian ethics still dominate human relationships on all levels. Soo-Ja Kim spreads them on the ground and on the table; she uses them to wrap other object; she hangs them on washing lines. A square of fabric on a table shown at the PS 1 Studio, New York in 1993 has developed into a large-scale set-up at Edinburgh's Fruit Market Gallery, at the Boysmans van Beuningen Museum at Rotterdam and at the Setagaya Art Museum in Tokyo. At these three sites, she has covered all the tables in the cafeterias with her multicoloured bedcovers. Covering the table with a cloth is a universal sign of invitation.

  • "I tried to invite people to express themselves right on the table cloths (...) Spreading bedcovers on the tables is like creating canvas which is invisibly wrapping the whole space." Since she's used textile objects in their original state, Soo-Ja Kim seems to be interested in reducing the intervention of the artist. She allows herself to be guided by the logic of things and remains attentive to what is happening. By using banal movements of housework she creates a situation where the spectator, in turn, lives out his everyday movements and actions differently. Soo-Ja Kim's works often attract attention because of the eccentricity of the materials but they refuse to become objects in themselves, a creation. Open and modifiable, they take their part in creating a meeting place. Other examples where interaction is created are Sewing into Walking at the Seomi Gallery (1994) and her work at the Kwangju Biennial 1995. Sewing, by which means the artist discovered unrestricted and flexible medium, is freed of its function of linking separate pieces and begins to be perceived as a dallying between two sides of a fabric. When sewing is viewed in this way, the universal symbol of feminine work represents all repetitive and reciprocal movement — walking, breathing, seeing and communicating. The first set-up Sewing into Walking is conceived as a successive fitting together of spaces and times. The bundles containing clothes, the video screens which the artist calls "bottari of images", the clothes sewn on the ground, and the spectator whose body is considered the most complex bottari, are reflected in one another creating the effect of being lost in space. This labyrinthine device can only work with the spectator's participation.

  • At Kwangju, the set-up is outdoors. The artist places at the spectators' disposal 2.5 tons of worn clothes and numerous bundles of clothing. They are invited to walk on the path covered with clothes and are free to touch them or even to take them. As he walks, the participating spectator forms the imaginary seam which links the memory of the site (the Kwangju massacre) and each individual's history.

  • The bottari which has become Soo-Ja Kim's trademark is a bundle containing objects which are usually flexible and unbreakable such as clothes, bedding, books. The bundle is a form of improvised container which is very common in Korea; as with the idea of a bundle, bottari implies that it wraps things of little value. But for those leaving their homes, their bundle contains the absolute essentials. The artist remembers discovering bottari:

  • "Everyone has bundles around. I had them in my studio before I started to incorporate them into my work, but I didn't notice them. In 1992, when I was working at the PS 1studio, I happened to see a bundle put there. I put clothes in a bundle and didn't realise it. The bundle was something new to me. It was a sculpture and a painting."

  • What fascinated her in this mundane artifact was firstly the possibility of moving from a flat surface to a volume simply by making knots. But the bottari opened up an unexpected field. Unlike the ready made article, Soo-Ja Kim's bottari is a real bundle fulfilling its function of container and at the same time a symbolic object conceptualizing the mundane gesture of wrapping with a square of fabric. Its function and status are not changed for good. The border between the bottari-artefact and the bottari-work of art is mobile and temporary. Even if Soo-Ja Kim's bottari is in itself an expressive object by its form gathered in towards the middle, and its bright colour it only becomes a work of art when set in context (installation).

  • It should be considered as a state or a moment rather than a fixed thing. The video performance Lying on the Nature (1994) shows the artist picking up multicoloured bedcovers from the floor, making them into a bundle and leaving the scene. The film doesn't show the arrival at the site but it is easy to imagine that the piece shown is symmetrical to the piece we don't see. The bundle of bedcovers will be opened somewhere, its contents spread out and then again gathered into a bundle. Here the transformation is continual: repetition doesn't mean a return to the original state. Life unfolds in perpetual movement.

  • The bottari is the symbol of wandering. For Koreans who have moved home so often to flee war and poverty and also to find work, bottari are part of the country's history scenes. We remember bottari seen on the shoulders of refugees, on the heads of traveling merchants, on removal lorries. The bottari is a form of mobility in an unlimited space and at the same time a receptacle closed round its contents. With just this difference, it asks the sometimes worrying question about the journey's purpose: where are we coming from and where are we going?

  • In November 1997, Soo-Ja Kim made a performance trip across her country, North to South and East to West with a lorry loaded with several dozen bottari. From her 11-day trip she made a 33-minute film: Bottari - Truck. The view of the lorry going through towns and countryside is accompanied by the artist's voice repeating the name of the place she's travelling through. There is something of the ceremonial in this call: incantation or anamnesis bringing the past up to the present. But the lorry doesn't stop either in the past or the present; it continues on its way. Even if it returns to the starting point, it must go on. The artist says that Bottari - Truck is in memory of her family who moved house frequently and also that it is her story as an artist going from town to town to discover new places and meet different people. This performance, which in fact shows pure mobility, causes us to reflect on contemporary society whose technology and networks are creating nomadism on a planetary scale.

  • From sewing, the secular, woman's work, Soo-Ja Kim develops a spatiotemporal dimension in which all vital, social or imaginary activity is inscribed. Through the fabric she forges a link with the past and expresses the memory of women and of the community without falling into nostalgia. Whilst apparently celebrating colour and matter, she develops her reflection on the invisible links which weave today's world. By doing this solitary performance with old fabric she opens up to us places where we can meet the Other and can find ourselves.

  • — From the exhibition Catalogue 'Echolot' at Kunsthalle Fredericianum, Kassel, 1998
    Translated by Agnes Flandrin

[1] Artist's notes, catalogue of a solo exhibition, Hyundai Gallery, Seoul, 1988
[2] Interview by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Flash Art p. 70, Jan. - Feb., 1997
[3] Ibid p. 72
[4] Bottari is a Korean word which means a bundle. As this refers to a typically Korean bundle, it would seem more precise to use the original term. In addition, the Toronto Dance Theatre gave the name Bottari to their show created with Soo-Ja Kim's collaboration. The show was produced at the Premiere Dance Theatre at Toronto from Dec. 2 no 6, 1997.
[5] Interview by Bahk Young-Taik, Space, p. 117, June 1996.

  • Kim Airyung was born in 1957 in Korea and lives and works in Paris since 1979. After BA at Hong Ik University, Seoul and finishing her MA at Ecole National Superieure des Arts Decoratif, and Esthetics at Paris I University for BFA and DEA, she continued her study in Auoditor in History and Theory of Art at Ecole des Hautes Etudes des Sciences Sociales, Paris.

  • As a Free-lancer curator and editor, she is in charge of the artistic director of the Editions Cercle d'Art, Paris, and curated numerous shows such as 'Un lieu, sept espaces' 7 young artists from Korea and France, 1996, Manufacture des Oeillets, Ivry-sur-Seine, France, 1997, 'Open Air Sculpture Symposium', Tongyong, Korea, 1997, 'Resonance-Korean contemporary art' OECD-Korea, Paris, 1998 and worked as the director of 'Suite coréenne' Korean year of International Geography Festival, Saint-Dié-des-Vosges, France, 1999, Assistant curator of 'Gwangju Biennale', Gwangju, Korea, 2000, artistic director of 'Busan Biennale', Busan, Korea, 2002.

Her recent projects are 'In Movement-Unesco salutes women video artists of the world', Unesco, Paris,2004 and 'Officina-Asia' young contemporary art from China, Japan and Korea, Bologna Galleria d'arte moderna, Cesena Palazzo del Ridotto, Rimini, Palazzo dell'Arengo in May 2004.