Kimsooja's <A Needle Woman>, Sacred Ritual


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


Kimsooja: Contemplation on top of the Horizontal and Vertical System

Kimsooja's <A Needle Woman>, Sacred Ritual

Choi, Yoonjung


I. Intro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Needle Woman, Archetypal Consciousness as Sentiment and Nullification

III. Outro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[10] From the Artist's Notes in 1988

[11] Ibid.

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

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

[14] Ibid., p.23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commandeur, Ingrid


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Kimsooja: Contemplation on top of the Horizontal and Vertical System

Suh, Younghee


  • 김수자

  • 수평-수직 체계 위에서의 사유

  • 서영희 (미술평론, 홍익대교수)

  • 수평과 수직, 구조, 상징

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

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

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

The Transition of Thought I: From Canvas to Fabric

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

사유의 이동 I : 캔버스에서 천으로

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

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

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

사유의 이동 II : 바느질에서 연역적 오브제로 그리고 보따리로

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

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

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

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

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

  • 수평과 수직의 시공간
    흐르는 삼라만상과 마음이 머무는 자리

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

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

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