Kimsooja: A Mirror Woman


Homeland Exists Only in Our Memory in This Era


The Persistence of the Void


Obvious but Problematic


Whitney Biennale

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


  • 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



  • 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.


  • 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


  • 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


  • 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.