About nothingness: being nothing and making nothing


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

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

About nothingness: being nothing and making nothing

Kim, Sungwon


"Whether we try to make it or not, the sound is heard" [1]

  • The new work of Kimsooja, Earth-Water-Fire-Air (2009), which is based on the four elements of nature—earth, water, fire and air—and their organic combination, seems to consist only of typical natural landscapes of a volcanic area, when seen in just a visual context. These landscapes capture the "natural phenomenon" itself, without any deliberate intervention, artificial transformation or staging on the artist's part. The artist silently brings the spectators before nature, as she previously took them amidst the numerous people in various places of the world such as Tokyo, Shanghai, New Delhi, New York City, Mexico City, Cairo, London, Lagos (Needle Woman, 1999-2001), Patan, Havana, Jerusalem, Sana'a, Rio de Janeiro, and N'Djamena (Needle Woman, 2005). However, the rear view of the artist, who had guided spectators to witness the diverse lives taking place in every corner of the world, is no longer visible. "If the perspective in Needle Woman was me looking at myself from behind, my perspective in this work exists beyond the bodies of spectators and me, and is a perspective that sees more than simply the landscape. In other words, it is the gaze of the 'third eye'." [2] The back view of the artist is replaced by the eye of the camera in Earth-Water-Fire-Air, and the perspective of the artist becomes the "third eye," which gazes through the eye of the camera. The "eye of the camera" is mobilized in the same context as "bottari"—the tied bundles in her well-known works—existed as a gigantic frame (bottari-frame) to encompass or spread out people's invisible lives. Her "eye of the camera" (bottari-frame), rotating 360 degrees, captures the sky, land, lightning, snow and fog of New York and Mexico City (2000-2001), while the stationary eye of the camera stares at the eclipse, the sunlight and moonlight reflecting off the dark blue surface of the sea (Mirror Woman: Sun and Moon, 2008). In Earth-Water-Fire-Air (2009), it captures directly the natural phenomena of volcanic areas in the Canary Islands and Guatemala. These works, in which the back view of the artist moves to the position of the camera, and the eye of the camera works at the same line as the "bottari-frame," conceptually transverse all Kimsooja's previous works, in search of a connection with the infinite energy hidden in humans' invisible lives and in nature. Now in Earth-Water-Fire-Air, Kim is turned into the "third eye," which exists everywhere but cannot be seen anywhere, withholding direct comment or interpretation on the "greater theme" of the relationship between nature and humans, or fundamental reflection on this, but opening up infinite possibilities to spectators to participate in the eloquent speech of nature.

  • To what kind of world does the "third eye" of Earth-Water-Fire-Air invite viewers? It is a world of principles of nature, origins of matter, essence of humans and life, and mutuality and coexistence of all such qualities. The four elements of nature—earth, water, fire and air—are the roots of western philosophy, but also related to the five elements (metal, water, wood, fire and earth) that form everything in the universe according to the eastern theory of yin, yang and wu xing, or the five elements of creation (earth, water, fire, wind and void) according to Buddhist philosophy. Such elements, which are the core of Eastern and Western thought, and the energy created by their mutual combination enable us to think about the recurrent structure of circulation known as the birth and death of all things, to realize the mysterious relationship between nature (matter) and humans, and to ponder on the life of humans. "As water has an element of fire and the earth has the elements of fire, water and air, each element is in a relationship of mutual circulation and connection. In the process of looking at them separately as four elements, I intended to reveal their 'inability to stand alone, and dependency'." [3] In extension of such thought, through this work Kimsooja visualizes the dynamic relations of "water, fire, earth and air" and their infinite energy through "the natural phenomenon itself." Each of the seven landscapes taken of the dead volcano of Lanzarote in the Spanish Canary Islands, and of the live volcano of Pacaya in Guatemala, has an independent title. In these works, the relations between the titles and images suggest a different element hidden within a certain element based on a permutation or combination structure of sets of two elements, or visualize the organic relation between two elements and their energy. Blazing red lava (Air of Earth), the clear blue sky looking down upon the lava (Air of Water), dark blue waves of the sea (Earth of Water), a rainbow emerging from the waves breaking against the volcano (Air of Fire), three different landscapes taken while slowly driving along the same volcanic terrain in the day, evening and night (Fire of Air, Fire of Earth, Water of Earth)... But the combination of these elements does not allow direct reference to any particular ideology of East or West. The artist wants to contemplate not on the persuasiveness of such ideology, but rather on nature, the elements that form nature, and the origin and methods of existence of humans, through free combination and exchange among the elements.

  • One of the characteristics of Kimsooja's work, regardless of what it deals with—city, people, life, the world, or nature—can be found in the perspectives or ways of thinking about these, and the attitude of raising questions about them. This indicates that her work does not communicate the artist/subject's viewpoint of this world to others one-sidedly, and that the world seen by the artist/subject no longer aims at a consistent message. If so, how is the "subject," which encompasses the "landscapes" of the world as a compound collective of different elements, reflected in her works? This "artist-subject," who pays attention to the world's diverse cities, nature, people and their lives, is neither a romantic subject who reflects inner tension and conflict before colossal nature, nor a heroic subject of American abstract expressionism who pursues absolute sublimity transcending this world, nor a phenomenological subject who presents perceptional phenomena by connecting sensuous experience and visual sense, nor an archeological subject who excavates social-cultural vestiges. The work of Soo-ja Kim no longer pursues or reflects a "single subject" that has emerged in the history of art. Her work announces the coexistence of numerous subject-spectators within time-space, and the birth of those anonymous subjects' multilateral perspectives. The moment the spectator focuses on the "rear view" of Needle Woman or Woman Washing Clothes, he/she will wear "the clothes of the artist's body," stand exactly where the artist stands, and see beyond the world the artist sees. The relationship between subject and spectators of the work Bottari, in which discarded old clothes are wrapped in a blanket cover once used by someone of unknown origin and are carried all over the world in search of something, can also be read in the same context. In Kimsooja's work the spectator is no longer a passive subject who accepts a single perspective presented by the artist. In her work the spectator is an active subject who lives positively within the forms of life through the guidance of the artist. Thus, the spectator can leave together with the artist on a long journey to understand and embrace even more and different lives, and can share the world's diverse realities, different people, and their lives.

  • Most of Kimsooja's works are extremely static, continent, and extraordinarily simple, having no narrative or dramatic plot. They present amazing eloquence, however, through the speeches of the objects (bottari, needle, and mirror) in her works, which slowly dominate the spectator through persuasive powers reminiscent of the prosopopea of ancient orators. This "personification" is not simply confined to personified imagery, but is one of the rare oratories that start from the idea that personified objects can think, and that they can be made to talk. This method of personification, which generally has made objects speak about the wisdom of god to enlighten people about their arrogance, ignorance or limitations, now seems to reveal its effect through the experiences of the objects in Kimsooja's works, which start from compassion and love for humankind, and attempt to understand and embrace humans and their lives. As a child, while sewing blanket covers together with her mother, the artist reports feeling a mysterious energy flow through her body at the moment the point of the needle pierced the cloth; as she connected the different pieces of cloth together one by one, she smelled the delicate scent of life from the gigantic blanket cover. With the artist's declaration—"The needle is the medium, mystery, hermaphrodite, abstraction, barometer, and shaman. And so is my body" [4] —the quiet, eloquent speech begins. The artist's body becomes a needle connecting different cultures, diverse lives, people's love, compassion, agony, loneliness, etc., throughout the world as if she were taking stitches one by one, finally giving birth to the "wrapping cloth (bojagi) of life," in a variety of colors. All sorts of races, culture, and traces of their "differences" are marked on the bojagi, which attempts to meet with more stories in other time-spaces.

  • The needle becomes the "axis" of time-space, which allows "connections" among many other subjects, and serves as a medium that makes simultaneous communication with spectators possible. Along with the joy, anger, sorrow and pleasure of human life contained in the bottari (Bottari Truck series), the "needle," which enables encounters among all human beings in the world (Needle Woman, Woman Washing Clothes series), meets with the "mirror" (Mirror Woman series), which enables thought about me and others, the group and the individual, and the human and the world, once more bringing spectators into the paths of these objects in a natural manner. The mirrors spread across the entire floor of the Crystal Palace become a "spread-out needle," attempting to sew together the false image and the real image (To Breathe — A Mirror Woman, 2006), and the monochrome projection of primary colors and the recorded sounds of the artist's own inhalation and exhalation, performed at the Teatro la Fenice, Venice in the same year under the "same title," invite spectators to a mediation of life and death. Through To Breathe: Invisible Needle/Invisible Mirror (2006), performed at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, which seeks merging of material and spirit through the complete dematerialization of body/needle/mirror, and through Mirror Woman: Sun and Moon (2008), which captures the sun and moon during an eclipse, the natural phenomenon of sun and moon light reflecting off the surface of the dark blue sea, the artist ultimately aims to become one with the breath of humans and the cosmos, opening questions about the origin of all creation and the principles of nature. And abundant questions on this matter are continued in Earth-Water-Fire-Air. The artist's body penetrates the lives of the world through the "needle," connects the dualities of the inner and outer aspects of the human, as well as of existence and non-existence, by being a "mirror," and this needle and mirror breathe in and breathe out as they talk about life and death, going back and forth between the worlds of material and nonmaterial. The paths of the needle and the mirror then expand from the human to nature and the universe, beginning a journey to the world of the origin and essence of all creation.

  • From the early 90s until now, spectators have participated in Kimsooja's world of work together with the endlessly mobile body of the artist through "needle" and "bottari." Some read post-modern nomadism or global culture in her performances and objects, while others have made connections between the Korean objects, colors and references to Eastern culture that appear in her work, and national identity or feminism. Of course, in today's culture, which pursues movement, cultural diversity and difference, each cultural code and reference reflects the identity of the concerned group. If, however, we assume the state of art now as the effort to preserve the autonomy of each of the differences, and to pursue their mere coexistence, ironically, such identities will be destined to remain as folklore or exotic elements. Artists' work today is based on references to their unique culture and regional codes, and Kimsooja's world of work is no exception. But what is important is that such elements in her work transcend the local and construct significance in the global dimension, forming a circuit. That is, her work seeks cooperation among the multiplicity of different cultural seeds, and proposes continuous adaptation among their peculiarities. Minimalist aesthetics and the "ready-used" concept, which can be sensed throughout her work, connect Korean objects, local culture and Eastern thought to the Western history of art, undergo new adaptations, and form extraordinary and creative routes that enable us to journey through the life of humankind.

  • Kimsooja's bottari, blanket covers, needle work, etc., have created a new model that traverses Korean tradition, Eastern philosophy and art-historical codes. All of Kimsooja's objects are ready-made. Of course the "readymade concept" is no longer an issue of interest for us today. The point is not the fact that Kim took the readymade objects, but how she expanded and transformed the concept of readymade. "My work redefines the already existing concept of the object. This preexistence is hidden within daily life, particularly in the perspective of the West. Art history does not speak of such preexistence, and does not conceptualize this idea. It is only conceptualized when someone makes it break away from its original production, and shows it in the frame of representation/performance. To create a context of its own in art history: this is the work I do. So my work has nothing to do with making a new object without a previous life." [5] Her interest in bottari, blanket covers and other objects is not in the "already made (action/result)," but in how it has been used (time/experience). In other words, when the artist uses old clothes or blanket covers that were worn or used by someone, she is using that someone's "life." Kimsooja transforms blankets, wrapping cloths and bottari, permeated with the colorful lives of anonymous people, into unique objects with diachronic aspects of time; follows the traces of our lives; feels the breath of the people; and sets out in search of the love of humanity. The transfer from "readymade" to "readyused" in her works is carried out through a certain "acetic practice," stitching blanket covers, wrapping bottari, meeting many people, and participating in their life journeys. This ascetic attitude and practice enable the artist to become an anonymous being, wrapping and unveiling other anonymous life, revealing and re-contextualizing the preexisting but invisible tracks of life. The colorful blanket-wrap becomes a frame of life embellished with all deeds of life; the flamboyant, multicolored bottari becomes a flexible vessel that embraces such anonymous life; and the needle-body, which connects all of this, becomes a gesture to visualize the anonymous subjects while extinguishing itself in the process. Moreover, the artist/subject, who has disappeared from the picture-plane, becomes the "third eye," beginning contemplation on fundamental life. The process of contextualizing the present through the times, lives and traces of objects once used by someone is always born with minimum intervention and minimum action in Kimsooja's work. Such aesthetics of the least in her work process is a kind of meditation, "making nothing and being nothing." Making nothing but revealing something more powerful, visualizing perpetuity through extinction, and saying the most with the least — this is Kimsooja's world of work.


[1] John Cage, cited from interview of Kimsooja by Nicolas Bourriaud in Cat. Kim Sooja: Condition of Humanity, 2003. > return to article >
[2] Cited from interview of Kimsooja by Byoung-hak Yoo, Art in Culture, March 2010. > return to article >
[3] Cited from interview of Kimsooja by Byoung-hak Yoo, Art in Culture, March 2010. > return to article >
[4] Cited from interview of Kimsooja by Nicolas Bourriaud, in Cat. Kim Sooja: Condition of Humanity, 2003. > return to article >
[5] Cited from interview of Kimsooja by Nicolas Bourriaud, in Cat. Kim Sooja: Condition of Humanity, 2003. > return to article >

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

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

Rubio, Oliva María


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Oliva María Rubio is an art historian, curator, and writer, who has been director of exhibitions at La Fábrica, since 2004. She was the Artistic Director of PHotoEspaña (PHE), an International Festival of Photography and Visual Arts celebrated in Madrid (2001-2003), where she programmed around 60 exhibitions. She is a member of numerous juries on art and photography, and a member of the Committee of Visual Arts “Culture 2000 programme”, European Commission, Culture, Audiovisual Policy and Sport, Brussels (2003), the Purchasing Committee at Fonds National d’Art Contemporain (FNAC), Paris 2004-2006, and artistic advisor of the Prix de Photography at Fondation HSBC pour la Photograhie, Paris, 2005.

  • Oliva María Rubio is also the author of La mirada interior. El surrealismo y la pintura (Madrid, Tecnos, 1994), and writes articles for catalogues, magazines and newspapers. She recently curated Kimsooja's exhibition at Crystal Palace, Madrid, in collaoboration with the Reina Sofia Museum, and the travelling show of Andres Serrano: Salt on the wound, 2006.

She was the curator of Kimsooja's To Breathe: A Mirror Woman at the Crystal Palace, organized by Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in 2006.