To Breathe / Respirar


Cultural Memory, Cultural Archetype and Communication


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


Kimsooja: Less is More

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

To Breathe / Respirar

Vettese, Angela


  • 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


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


  • 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


  • 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.