A Disappearing Woman


Kimsooja: A Needle Woman


Calm Chaos: Kimsooja's Earth – Water – Fire – Air


The pilgrimage of our own existence


Kimsooja, To Breathe: Invisible Mirror/Invisible Needle

A Needle Woman – Kitakyushu, 1999, Single channel video projection, 6:33 loop, silent, Commissioned by CCA Kitakyushu

A Disappearing Woman

Martinez, Rosa


  • During the twentieth century the desire to build bridges of spiritual intelligence between East and West has helped balance the excesses of the rationalist mind while it has eased the suffering imposed on the planet in the name of progress. The growing popularisation of Buddhist philosophy, the critical questioning of counterculture and non-violent dissidence and the continuous diaspora of Asian artists have resulted in new perspectives that extend and illuminate the global horizon.

  • In this landscape of exchanges, The Secret of the Golden Flower, a Taoist text written almost two thousand years ago, arrived in the West thanks to psychologist Carl Gustav Jung and sinologist Richard Wilhelm, who published the first English version in 1931. Jung and Wilhelm suggested the interconnection between gnosis (as a hermetic tradition of the profound knowledge of the Self), methods of physical and emotional healing such as yoga, and processes in the collective unconscious understood as a psychic substratum common to mankind as a whole. The Secret of the Golden Flower is also an alchemical treatise on inner transformation, which is something pursued by the masters of all mystical traditions. 'The Golden Flower is the Light, and the Light of Heaven is the Tao.' [1]

  • In another book, Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino, we learn of the adventures of the legendary Venetian traveller Marco Polo, who arrived at the Mongolian court of Kublai Kahn in the thirteenth century. Remaining at the court as an ambassador for seventeen years, the story reveals how he entertained the Kahn with the tales of the cities he had visited during his travels, many of them imaginary. The book ends with an instructive reflection: 'The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by living together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno and make them endure, give them space.' [2]

  • The work by Kimsooja is inscribed in this very context of learning and wisdom, as for over three decades her proposals have sought new forms of connection between East and West and have created spaces of beauty, healing and awakening. On her travels as an international artist Kimsooja has visited the most varied places, carrying out performances, making documentary films, holding exhibitions of her works and producing site-specific interventions. Her oeuvre has connected the genealogy of Korean culture to the linguistic systems of global contemporary art in a synthesis that, as José Roca has put it, maintains 'a position of resistance against being digested into an aseptic internationalism,' while it intends, 'in these days of multiculturalism, to hyperbolize the characteristics of its difference to become more "exotic" in a medium eager for otherness.' [3]

  • Kimsooja has prioritised intuition as a means of knowledge, linking different cultures with threads that can be visible or invisible, always seeking a common anthropological substratum as, from a clearly universalistic vision, she considers that everything about human nature concerns her. 'My philosophical and artistic aim is to achieve the totality which absorbs and unites the whole question of self and the world.' [4]

  • The cities, paths and landscapes travelled by Kimsooja are neither fantastic nor imaginary. Her metropolises are real, overpopulated, impoverished by war, colonial exploitation or ideological embargoes. The streets she chooses are paths travelled by beings that survive within the limits determined by their geopolitical position. She also chooses ancient places or contexts in which the primeval forces of nature unfold. Very often her firm slender body appears amidst the crowds or on the silhouette of a rock, either standing up or lying down, but always motionless and with her back to the spectator. This generic and at once recognisable body, the lank hair tied back, remains static and contemplative, allowing the world—be it India's River Yamuna or Cairo's human sea—to flow before or around her. 'For me the most important thing to arise out of these performances is my own experience of self and awareness as a process rather than the video as a result. That's how I continue to ask questions to the world and to myself.' [5]

  • These works have the intensity of a hypnotic trance. They manage to draw spectators out of their mental dispersion, making them momentarily identify with the artist's own experience. Their titles are apposite for focusing on her philosophical and archetypal concerns. The Earth and the Heaven (1984), Toward the Mother Earth (1990-1991) and The Mind and the World (1991) speak of cosmological connections. A Needle Woman (1999-2009), A Beggar Woman (2000-2001), A Laundry Woman (2000), A Mirror Woman (2002) and A Wind Woman (2003) allude to woman's role as healer and mediator. To Breathe/Respirar (2006) addresses key emotions through breathing and the diffraction of light, while Earth-Water-Fire-Air (2009-2010) returns to the contemplation of the fundamental elements of nature.

  • In formal terms, Kimsooja's evolution reveals how she was surrounded by, and yet remained independent from, the dominant forces in Korea from the late seventies to the nineties, i.e., monochrome painting and the Minjung movement, turning instead to two-dimensional sewn works in the eighties and sculptural objects, Bottari installations and time-based performances and videos in the nineties. Her iconic Bottari, her mysterious 'deductive' objects and her installations evince how her mature artistic language falls into the field of expanded sculpture. Since Joseph Beuys said that even a thought can be considered sculpture insofar as it plastically shapes the spectator's mind, and Piero Manzoni converted the world into a giant ready-made when he built his Socle du Monde (1961), artists have explored, reconstructed or reinvented reality starting from its fundamental materials: people, nature, desire and destruction.

  • Kimsooja fixes her gaze on the world and intervenes in it, always in an extremely delicate way for, juxtaposing terminology, she considers what exists more a 'ready-used' than a 'ready-made'. She used clothes belonging to her grandmother for the very first time in 1983, and since then traditional Korean clothes and bedcovers have been a means of recycling 'our body and life itself.' [6]

  • Whether they compose Bottari or unfold in space, these used Korean bedcovers, as canvases and as frames of our life, have appeared as a constant feature in her work, just as her own body has been a performative sculpture, a symbolic needle that abandons the place once its healing mediation is over. 'Sewing and wrapping clothes have always been processes shred with contemplation and healing,' says the artist, adding, 'The relationship of the needle to the fabric is same as my body to the universe.' [7]

  • As well as having close ties with the Korean female domestic roles, Kimsooja's work bears similarities with the visions of other artists such as Louise Bourgeois, who has also considered the ambivalent power of the needle and its ability to heal. When Kimsooja stands with her back to the camera, her work can be visually associated with that by Caspar David Friedrich, and yet she establishes a conceptual difference: for while the character depicted by Friedrich is immersed in cosmic solitude, her gaze offers us a non-tragic proximity in which stillness is a form of knowledge. Her continuous search for sacred geometry connects the horizontal with the vertical—the earth, the sky, and the human being, the same three basic elements of Taoism—and with yin and yang as energies that structure the world, all of which bears similarities with the theosophical and abstract research by painters such as Piet Mondrian.

  • Among the works on display in this exhibition are a few essential pieces in her creative itinerary that had not hitherto been shown in Korea. In Bottari: Alfa Beach (2001) the inverted arrangement of the horizon between the sea and the sky visualises the artist's consciousness and feelings: 'The inversion happened when I saw the horizon from the Alfa Beach in Nigeria where African slaves were sent to Atlantic ocean—this was the saddest line I've ever seen in my life, thinking of the destiny of the slaves and their deprived freedom. Thus the flipped horizon was, for me, a disturbed horizon, a disorientated sense of gravity and of the slaves' psychological return I perceived in the curls of the waves reaching the same shore from which they had left." [8]

  • In the trilogy Mirror of Water, Mirror of Air, Mirror of Wind (2010), filmed in Greenland, the texture of the natural elements takes the viewer back to the idea of a pictorial surface that connects so many of her works. A Needle Woman is no doubt one of her masterpieces and a significant icon in the history of contemporary art. In the first edition of the piece (1999-2001) the artist stood with her back to the crowds of Tokyo, Shanghai, Mexico City, London, Delhi, New York, Cairo and Lagos. In the edition made especially for her participation in the Venice Biennale of 2005 she travelled to the cities of Patan, Jerusalem, Sana'a, Havana, Rio de Janeiro and N'Djamena, appearing again as a cosmic needle sewing human tissue to space and timelessness. In A Wind Woman (2003) the fleeting landscapes filmed at high speed by her camera look as if they had been painted by brushstrokes of wind and threads of time in order to extend interstitial spaces. They also betray traces of different pictorial styles such as Impressionism, Expressionism and even Minimalism, as when the landscape is completely dark, light or pervaded by a bright blue sky. In An Album: Havana (2007), a sequence filming the parallel lines of the malecón and the seafront horizon, people and landscape gradually merge to create an abstract, dynamic and yet ethereal composition that ends up dissolving into the light and wind. In these works the artist's body appears elliptical, outside of the screen's field of vision, just as it is in To Breathe – Invisible Needle/Invisible Mirror, a projection of saturated monochrome colours, the changing spectrum of which is synchronised with the sound of the artist's peaceful or strained breathing and with meditative humming. Presented at La Fenice theatre in Venice, it is a return to the issue of canvas and asks 'Where is surface?', along the lines of Minimalist abstraction. 'When the digital colour spectrum is constantly changing, we don't grasp the reality of surface,' [9] says the artist. At the same time, the signs and iconographic motifs of Korean bedcovers and clothes dematerialise as forms and colours dissolve into pure light and breathing sound. The audience breathes visually, in harmony with the artist's sound performance.

  • Verging on the ethnographic documentary and yet preserving the spatial format of a four-screen video installation, Mumbai: A Laundry Field (2008) is a visual stroll through overpopulated Mumbai. The camera shows the arduous work of washing laundry: it travels along the narrow streets of the slums, captures dwellings filled with rubble in which people sleep on tarmac and draws up close to the overcrowded trains on an ongoing and oppressive circuit: 'This piece juxtaposes rich visual experience with extremely tough living conditions for mankind. It follows the aesthetics of fabrics as transformed canvases and, at the same time, reveals the harsh reality of daily life in slum areas of Mumbai. … For me it is a retrospective version of older works for it has the dimensions of the fabrics I used to make, both visually and symbolically; clothes and fabrics stand here for human presences and the questions that concern us all.' [10] Thread Routes. Chapter 1. Peru (2010) is the first 16mm film in an ongoing series in which the artist captures the material and immaterial threads woven by different cultures. Chapter 1: Peru begins with a panorama that covers the mountain peaks of the Andes. In the middle of a circular amphitheatre a standing woman turns a spindle. A long downward travelling shot reveals a landscape of farmed fields that resemble woven earth, as do the lines of sedimented sand under the water of a lake, women's plaits and the threads of wool in a loom. In this work the artist uses reiteration as a rhetorical figure, insisting on the slowness of the gaze and committing herself to lengthy descriptions that highlight the poetry of Peruvian thread works and the pictorial juxtaposition of the elements she interconnects. Her intention is for the gaze 'to link weaving and knitting activities to geometrical, agricultural and architectural forms, to the fabric of landscapes and to meditative repetitive actions and festivities that reveal their primeval truth and aesthetics.' [11]

  • Art and artists are proven to have a key function—to offer relevant interpretations of the time and place in which they emerge, to shape a path that will penetrate mirages and draw us towards the profound essence of reality. Relevant artists like as Kimsooja act as bridges, mediators, channels that offer the truth of their visions, arresting noise and clearing confusion. Like all other human beings, artists experience thousands of phenomena along their existential paths, but through creative practice they are gradually able to purify them. Kimsooja's oeuvre is characterised by a firm will to reach the deepest spheres of awareness by means of the most accurate of artistic procedures. She does so through works that transport memories, emotions, distances and universal realities; proposals for connecting heaven and earth; gestures that require coming together, alms or silence. The artist has even declared that one of her wishes is to disappear, to become invisible: 'I want to disappear at some point with my own decision, and I've been planning "A Disappearing Woman" piece …". [12] This disappearance has to do with both her own need to become increasingly slight and subtle after having travelled the world burdened by the memories of so many people, and with her reflections on her own ontological question.

  • The epitaph the Greek poet Nikos Kazantzakis chose for his tombstone, 'I hope nothing. I fear nothing. I am free,' coincides with the Buddhist teachings of Crazy Wisdom, that declares that this spiritual practice is related to 'all that is free of hope and fear.' [13] Indeed, losing one's fear of not having is to have, and losing one's fear of disappearing is to remain.

  • In her oeuvre Kimsooja wishes to find new ways of perception in 'doing' by 'non-doing', for 'doing nothing' may reveal something meaningful as 'the moment of awareness or a moment of light that results from artistic practice itself.' [14] Thanks to this wise balance we may discover a third eye with which to contemplate the true foundations of art and life without fearing we shall dissolve or disappear, as we shall go back to being air, water, earth and fire, fully aware that every practice conveys a possibility of light and every death implies a new rebirth.

[1] Carl Gustav Jung and Richard Wilhelm, The Secret of the Golden Flower. A Chinese Book of Life, Routledge, London, 1999 (p. 21). First published in 1931 by Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., London. > return to article >
[2] Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Division of Educational Studies, Emory University, Georgia. Quoted from > return to article >
[3] José Roca, 'Kimsooja: A Mirror Woman,' Peter Blum Gallery, New York, 2002. > return to article >
[4] Gerald Matt, 'Kim Sooja im Gespräch mit Gerald Matt', in Kim Sooja: A Laundry Woman (exh. cat.), Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, 2002. > return to article >
[5] Mary Jane Jacob, 'Interview with Kimsooja' in Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacob (Eds.), Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 2003. > return to article >
[6] Gerald Matt, 'Kim Sooja im Gespräch mit Gerald Matt', op. cit., 2002. > return to article >
[7] Mary Jane Jacob, 'In the Space of Art: Buddha and the Culture of Now,' op. cit., 2003. > return to article >
[8] Kimsooja in conversation with Rosa Martínez, 2012. > return to article >
[9] Idem. > return to article >
[10] Idem. > return to article >
[11] Idem. > return to article >
[12] Gerald Matt, 'Kim Sooja im Gespräch mit Gerald Matt', op. cit., 2002. > return to article >
[13] Chögyam Trungpa, 'RMDC, Route 1, Livermore', poem 49 in the book First Thought Best Thought. 108 Poems. Introduction by Allen Ginsberg, Shambhala Publications, Inc., Massachusetts, 1983, p. 85. > return to article >
[14] Gerald Matt, 'Kim Sooja im Gespräch mit Gerald Matt', op. cit., 2002. > return to article >

A Needle Woman, 1999 – 2001, video still from Delhi, 8 channel video projection, 6:33 loop, silent

Kimsooja: A Needle Woman

Morales, René


  • A woman stands on the street, immersed amid a torrent of passersby, utterly motionless -- a needle sewing through the fabric of humanity. With a simple, stoic gesture, Kimsooja vividly embodies the struggle to preserve a place for the individual within society, using her body as a conduit for critical questioning. This struggle is a perennial one, but by situating herself in an array of urban centers that span the planet, she imbues it with the tenor of contemporaneity: for if there is a single experience that can be said to exemplify the urgent conditions of today's world, it is the state of being engulfed by the "global city."

  • This first version of A Needle Woman was created between 1999 and 2001. Approximately six years later, a silent but momentous event occurred: For the first time in history, the world's urban populace outnumbered the rural one. [1] Over the last 30 years, urban populations have reached staggering proportions, and their rates of growth are accelerating exponentially. In 1900, only 10% of the world's population lived in cities. Today the figure has climbed above 50%; by 2050, it will represent three-fourths of humanity. [2]

  • A Needle Woman was produced just as the full realization of this explosion of urbanization reached a fever pitch, spilling across a variety of academic disciplines as well as art and popular media. The work is particularly emblematic of the directness with which the phenomenon tended to be addressed at the turn of the new millennium. With the benefit of a little more than ten years' hindsight, it is all the more striking for how it remains relevant to the discourse that developed in the wake of those confrontations.

  • One of the most important of these discursive evolutions involves the way in which urbanism has grafted onto globalization studies. It was the rise of mega-cities throughout the world that made it no longer necessary to abstractly theorize that globalization is happening. Indeed, urbanization is increasingly seen not as an after-effect of globalization, but as its primary driving force. [3] Over the last three or four decades, the increased number and scale of cities capable of participating in the production and management of global flows of goods and capital have led to a vast expansion of those same flows. At the same time, they have produced significant populations of middle-class, cosmopolitan individuals, while mobilizing large numbers of migrant workers from the countryside as well as immigrants from poorer places. The result has been the development of cities bearing unprecedented levels of heterogeneity. The urbanization of the globe has turned out to be inseparable from the globalization of the urban.

  • The nuance and poetry with which A Needle Woman captures these complex dynamics belies the precision with which it communicates meaning. This is especially so with respect to the artist's deliberate selection of the eight sites that "pass through" the anonymous, solitary figure. The academic literature on global urbanism provides a useful entry point (one of many) through which to access the implications that arise from this particular grouping of cities. Viewed in this light, the work bears a particularly strong resonance with an important theoretical framework known as the "global city" paradigm, as well as with the critiques to which it has been subjected. Originally advanced by the urban scholar Saskia Sassen in the 1990s, this approach focuses on how specific urban centers interface with and influence the world economy, using a series of measures such as monetary exchanges, volume of trade, and the number of transnational corporations based in a given urban zone as a way of quantifying its degree of "structural relevance" within a hierarchy of cities. From this perspective, the inclusion of New York, London, and Tokyo in A Needle Woman would serve to represent the traditional command centers of the global economy. Shanghai would serve to indicate the elite class of ascendant hubs that have established themselves more recently as major financial players. Mexico City, Delhi, and Cairo might stand for the crucial "second-" and "third-tier" cities that have also managed to lay a significant claim on the global financial sphere, though at a lower level.

  • While there can be no doubt that the "global city" rubric has produced invaluable insights, in its earliest manifestations it met with heated criticism, especially from the direction of the "Global South" -- that is, from beyond Europe and North America. [4] By prioritizing economic criteria, the methodology involved in this concept had the effect of placing limits on the types of questions that were asked. Indeed, by reducing a city's relevance to its contribution to the world's financial system, it had the effect of focusing the attention of researchers onto a limited number of cities -- perhaps 30 or 40, all but three or four of them in the developed world. Advocates of these critiques also remind us of the importance of more grounded and culturally oriented lines of investigation through which we might uncover valuable means for improving city life -- from the creative productions of Rio's favela architecture, to the vibrant informal economies of Mumbai, to the socially cohesive effects of local popular culture in Kinshasa.

  • With this debate as backdrop, A Needle Woman delivers a keen insight through the inclusion of an eighth site that paradigmatically represents the reverse side of the forces of global urban change: With a population that has escalated from 300,000 in 1950 to one that is estimated to top 23 million inhabitants by 2015, the city-region of Lagos exemplifies the lot of urban agglomerations that have witnessed astonishing growth in the context of severe poverty. [5]

  • In human terms, mass urbanization has had its most powerful effects in the poorest parts of the world. Here again, the rate of the transformations is staggering: Today, about 70% of city dwellers live in developing countries, compared with less than 50% in 1970; by 2030, roughly four out of five urbanites will reside in the developing world. With much of this growth playing out against city infrastructures that remain ill-equipped to handle such expansion, unprecedented numbers have come to inhabit what are typically described as "slums." In the least developed countries, the proportion of slum residents approaches 80% of the populace; already, this figure represents one-third of the total global urban population. [6] While it is important to resist the chronic tendency to reduce the complexity of informal settlements to a single, homogenized vision of Dickensian bleakness, it is difficult not to read such mind-boggling statistics without being struck by the sense that we are in the midst of a crisis.

  • In the face of these and other challenges, a pressing need has arisen to focus at least as much energy on understanding the specific and differentiated local repercussions of globalization as on identifying the resonant scenarios that it creates throughout the world. It has become vitally important, in other words, to survey this global age from the level of the street, the neighborhood, the city, where we may hope to find concrete ways both to maximize its potentials and to mitigate its most distressing symptoms.

  • It is precisely in this sense that A Needle Woman seems so well attuned to the exigencies of the global-urban era. The figure that appears in these images confronts head-on the fearsome power of the contemporary city. At the same time, through her stillness, she expresses the possibility of making peace with it. It is worth paying attention to the mixture of resoluteness and humanism with which she looks forward to the volatile century that stretches out before us.

[1] United Nations HABITAT Office, 2006 report. > return to article >
[2] Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic, eds. The Endless City: The Urban Age Project by the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank's Alfred Herrhausen Society, pg. 9. New York: Phaidon Press, 2007. > return to article >
[3] This paragraph is indebted to J. Miguel Kanai and Edward Soja, "The Urbanization of the World," in The Endless City, pgs. 54-69. > return to article >
[4] See Jennifer Robinson, "Global and World Cities: A View from off the Map" in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 26.3, September 2002, pgs. 531-554; as well as Kris Olds and Henry Wai-Chung, "Pathways to Global City Formation: A View from the Developmental City-State of Singapore" in Review of International Political Economy 11:3 August 2004, pgs. 489-521. > return to article >
[5] Mike Davis, Planet of Slums, pg. 15. London: Verso, 2006. > return to article >
[6] Davis, pg. 51. > return to article >

Aire de Tierra / Air of Earth, 2009, 06.25 loop, sound, still from Earth – Water – Fire – Air, 8 channel video projection, Commissioned by Hermes Foundation, Paris

Calm Chaos: Kimsooja's Earth – Water – Fire – Air

Geusa, Antonio


  • The modern artist is living in a mechanical age and we have a mechanical means of representing objects in nature such as the camera and photograph. The modern artist, it seems to me, is working and expressing an inner world – in other words – expressing the energy, the motion and the other inner forces.. ..the modern artist is working with space and time, and expressing his feelings rather than illustrating. [1] — Jackson Pollock

  • In the preface to the second edition of his collection of poems "Lyrical Ballads" William Wordsworth asks a simple yet crucial question "What is a Poet?" The answer he gives is probably the most truthful ever given: "He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind; a man […] who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe[.] [2]

  • Kimsooja's work as an artist is constant proof that she perfectly embodies Wordsworth's definition of a Poet. At the core of her production there is always a physical and at the same time metaphysical confrontation between the "spirit of life" that is in her and the "spirit of life" of the world surrounding her. Ultimately, her art is the result of using her body, the shell of her "comprehensive soul", to achieve a balance in the connection of inner and outer life. To quote Kimsooja's own words, her body is the "medium, mystery, hermaphrodite, abstraction, barometer, and shaman" [3] uniting her with the essence of the world. It is charged with and releases spiritual power. All her works, from 2727 kilometres Bottari Truck (1997) to A Needle Woman (1999-2001, 2005), from A Beggar Woman (2000-2001) to A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon (2008), to mention just a few, are the visualization of this flow of energy.

  • Even when Kimsooja is not physically present in the work on display in the gallery space, the reality that she offers the viewers is not a mere representation of a given natural phenomenon. It is the result of an interaction between two parts, of an exchange of energies. Her words about that production in which she is not in the frame – "When I disappear, I represent the act of nature more closely. Thus only my gaze becomes active" [4] – are self-explanatory. The objective of the video camera recording Nature is not a mechanical substitute of her eyes or an extension of her body. It is the activator of the gaze, an active participant in the process of capturing the flow of energy running in both directions between the artist and the outside world. It acts like that needle that for the first time made her sense a strong and inexplicable force emanating from her whole body when she was still a child and was helping her mother sewing together different pieces of fabric into a blanket cover. The absence of her body in the final composition of the projected images does not mean that Kimsooja was there, but she is not there any longer. Kimsooja is still there. To a certain extent, her videos are visual correspondents of what a "trace" is in Jacques Derrida's linguistic studies, that is a "mark of the absence of a presence, an always-already absent present" [5] .

  • The Earth – Water – Fire – Air project, started in 2009, is one of those instances in which Kimsooja's body is not visible in the exhibited images. Natural phenomena, or "Beautiful and permanent forms of nature" – the "Lyrical Ballads" once again – are its main "subjects". In the specific, they are video recordings taken on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands and in Guatemala – volcanic landscapes with incandescent lava, the restless sea, millenarian rocks sculptured by time, clouds of pure white on a clear blue sky. The four basic elements essential to both Eastern and Western thought as the basics of life in the Universe are not presented as single units, each of which is independent and isolated from each other. On the contrary, as suggested by the titles of the videos [6] , they are shown in binary combinations, interacting one with the other, flowing one into the other, the same way as the artist did with the space surrounding her when she recorded those images. Clearly, viewers can fully feel the strength of this energy when inside the space where the work – an eight-channel video installation in its current form – is exhibited. Without any doubts, Earth – Water – Fire – Air is first of all a work that has to be experienced. The intensity of the bond between the artist and the visible objects that she captured with the help of her camera is perceived in the gallery space where viewers are free to move around and use their senses to take in the energy coming out from the screens.

  • It is by experiencing the work as an installation that any possible references to Beauty suggested by the incontestable magnificence of the natural spectacles lose their validity. Beauty is not a keyword here. Surely, a more appropriate approach would be through the concept of the Sublime in aesthetics. To be more precise, the way the Sublime was perceived by the Neo-Kantian school of the beginning of the 20th century according to which the feelings of fear and horror – fundamental qualities for the 18th and 19th centuries (Edmund Burke and the English Romantics, amongst others) – were replaced by a sense of contentment and safety before an object of superior force.

  • Kimsooja stands with her video camera in front of an object of "superior force". The moment she presses the rec button, like a needle piercing a piece of cloth, her "superior force" starts to interact with that of Nature before her. The energy of the exchange is very strong and overwhelming. However, the effect reached – Earth, Water, Fire, and Air displayed in the exhibition space – is indisputably one of ease and wellbeing. Her works are never a methodical process of "quoting" from Nature, simply because Kimsooja is not a passive receiver. The segment called "Fire of Air" can serve as a proof of the artist's dialoguing with Nature. In it, while being driven she operates a spotlight to break the darkness of the night and illuminate the rocky fields of the landscape. Here, she in charge of what can be seen and what stays wrapped in darkness. Because of this constant dialoguing, none of the images offered to the viewers can ever be, to quote Wordsworth again, a "soulless image on the eye" [7] , a mere visual impression on the retina of the spectator. On the other hand, Kimsooja sublimates the etymological meaning of the word "video", that is "I see", first person of the present tense of videre (to see). She invests it with both spiritual and lyrical power. Simply, albeit roughly, put, it is poetry camouflaged as science.

  • As an artist Kimsooja's possess the unique ability to turn the chaos of energy exchanging during the time of performing or recording – that "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" [8] between the Poet and Nature – into a sense of tranquility and calmness for the viewers. Accordingly, the screens framing the videos lose their boundaries and a distinct feeling of oneness with Nature is strongly felt. To a certain degree, the genesis of Earth – Water – Fire – Air is not that dissimilar to that of Jackson Pollock's canvases. It is the same intensity of human artistic energy – albeit different in nature. Obviously, the outcome is at the antipodes. Kimsooja's is a calm chaos generated by the maturity of the passions of the artist's heart. And it is this proven maturity that, paraphrasing Pollock when he was asked if he worked from Nature, allows to state that Earth – Water – Fire – Air proves once and for all that Kimsooja is Nature.

[1] Pollock, Jackson. Interview by William Wright, Summer 1950. Quoted in Clifford Ross (ed.), Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, Abrahams Publishers: New York, 1990, pp. 139-140. > return to article >
[2] Eliot, Charles William (ed.). Prefaces and Prologues. Vol. XXXIX. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001. www.bartleby.com/39/. 2 May 2012. > return to article >
[3] Kim, Sung-Wong, "About Nothingness: Being Nothing and Making Nothing". Official internet site of Kimsooja. www.kimsooja.com/texts/sung_won_kim_EWFA_2009.html. 2 May 2012. > return to article >
[4] Commandeur, Ingrid. "Black Holes, Meditative Vanishings and Nature as a Mirror of the Universe". Kimsooja – Windflower: Perceptions of Nature (Catalogue). Kroller Muller Museum, The Netherlands. Interview with the artist by the author, November 2010. > return to article >
[5] Macsey, Richard and Eugenio Donato (eds). The Languages of Criticism and The Sciences of Man: the Structuralist Controversy. JHU Press: Baltimore, 1970, p. 254. > return to article >
[6] n its current version Earth – Water – Fire – Air comprises the following eight videos: “Fire of Earth”, “Water of Earth”, “Fire of Air”, “Earth of Water”, “Air of Fire”, “Air of Earth”, “Air of Water”, “Water of Air”. > return to article >
[7] Wordsworth, William. The Complete Poetical Works. London: Macmillan and Co., 1888; Bartleby.com, 1999. www.bartleby.com/145/. 2 May 2012. > return to article >
[8] Eliot. > return to article >

Deductive Object, 1993, used Korean Clothes, Installation view at PS.1, New York, Dimensions variable

The pilgrimage of our own existence

An art where nomadism and the relation with the other reveals the importance of mankind and the contemplation of the reality that we live in.

Mello, Laeticia


  • Kim Soo-Ja is her full name, but she introduces herself in her web page as Kimsooja (Korea, 1957) with her own manifesto: In "A One-Word Name Is An Anarchist's Name" (2003), Kimsooja refuses gender identity, marital status, socio-political or cultural and geographical identity by not separating the family name and the first name. In this same way – without an identity or with an almost ephemeral one – she has been developing since 1992 her singular and poetic work that includes videos, performances, installations, site-specific projects and photographs.

  • To give rise to her work, Kimsooja travels to different cities, villages and small towns in search of diverse cultures. It is a pilgrimage with bottaris – Korean word that means "wrapping luggage with a wrapping cloth", the easiest and most functional way of carrying one's belongings– sometimes walking and others by truck; a nomadism that speaks about civilizations, traditions, and languages that shall be faced in the new crossing.

  • The art that she creates becomes ceremonial. She looks through her own past, present and future and through that contemplation the questions and discourses on time and space emerge. This way, Kimsooja links her work to nature and the relation with others. In her pieces the viewers are engulfed by the multiple perspectives introduced by the artist and they can participate of it lively.

  • Textiles are the media that Kimsooja chooses to develop her maps of beliefs. Despite her origins where there always existed a need of experimenting different types of media similar to fabrics, sewing became the wisest and most accurate tool. It allowed her to combine her questionings and the relation between the "I" and the "Other" over the canvas surface. Thereby, the separation between the artist and the surface disappears and transforms into a healing joint.

  • Bottaris are probably the most distinctive element in Kimsooja's art. They hold not only references to the migration of her land but also to the essence of all her work: mankind. "I've always been fascinated by nomadic minorities' life style and their rich visual culture and originality. During my youth my family also lived a nomadic life due to my father's job, although within Korea. I wasn't aware of the fact that my family had been wrapping and unwrapping bottaris all the time until I started Cities on the Move–2727 km Bottari Truck in 1997", she explains.

  • Kimsooja's bottaris are sculptural pieces. Viewers can open, touch and examine them. The artist acts as an intermediary between the owners of those clothes and old bedspreads and the observers. As they make contact with the bottaris, they embark on their own journey imagining who used these fabrics before. This way, the pieces transcend the Eastern tradition and the historical codes that were associated to them; they become channels which redefine the concept of the object. Here it doesn't matter if Kimsooja re-makes and re-contextualizes a ready-made but the way she chooses to look at her past and the transition that Korea lived from a traditional lifestyle to a modern one.

  • A Needle Woman, A Beggar Woman and A Homeless Woman are the most developed and delicate performances by Kimsooja. In them, she appears with a singular hieratic posture amongst a crowd in continuous flow that walks towards and by her sometimes observing and others questioning themselves the truth of her static stance. Anonymous and with neutral clothing, she achieves to interfere with the canons and flux of the city with one unique message: temper and truth.

  • The patience and austerity that the artist uses to introduce folklore and daily habits of Asian and Latin-American cultures in her videos is what lets her bonds so closely to their respective traditions. Each folkloric practice that Kimsooja discovers works as a talisman. First she researches the origins and encounters of the culture and then she charges herself with figures of power.

  • The spectrum and repetition which Kimsooja works with in her videos is expressed by the cities in move, in an action loop. In Thread Routes (Chapter 1. Peru) – a video that captures the routes of the threading women in Peru –, women weave again and again the colorful embroideries of their origins where generations and spiritual experiences are combined together. Mumbai: A Laundry Field was filmed in India where men shake, drain and strain against the stones the symphony of tonalities of their clothes. They are the representation of time, an intangible and unapproachable mental space, never planned.

  • "When it comes to the performative video pieces such as A Needle Woman performance series, I just had a strong desire to do a performative piece but didn't know what exactly it would be, even until the moment I started filming", Kimsooja says. That is the main reason why intuition plays such an important role in the process and meaning of her work. She rises as a medium woman, as an ethnographic canal that lets the world see the most pure forms of art. A reader of the visible and invisible worlds given by nature.

  • These projects have turned Kimsooja into one of most renowned and interesting artists from the international contemporary panorama. She lives and works in New York, and has exhibited her projects and artworks all around the world. Among them latest ones we can name NPPAP - Yong Gwang Nuclear Power Plant Art Project, commissioned by The National Museum of Contemporary Art (2010), Earth – Water – Fire – Air, Hermes (2009), Kimsooja, Baltic Center (2009) and Lotus: Zone of Zero, BOZAR, Brussels (2008), as well as other emblematic ones like Artempo: where time becomes art (2007) presented at the Venice Biennale, Cities on the Move (1997-2000) and Traditions/Tensions (1996-1998), and the participation in other biennales like Moscow (2009), Whitney Biennial (2002), Lyon (2000), São Paulo (1998), to name some.

  • Kimsooja has been working for two years on a series of a 16 mm film project called Thread Routes. She has completed the Peruvian chapter on weaving culture and the European chapter on lace making is being developed. The project about origins of textile culture includes India, Mali, China, and Native America.

A Needle Woman, 2005, Sana'a (Yemen), one of six channel video projection, 10:40 loop, silent

Kimsooja, To Breathe: Invisible Mirror/Invisible Needle

D'Ambrose, Ricky


  • From blue to violet. The nine minutes of To Breathe: Invisible Mirror/Invisible Needle involve a lifecycle of the color spectrum, an electronic spiritual autobiography of red-yellow-blue sanctified at the four hard edges of the screen. These are colors that command, rather than pacify, the eye; the problem, to borrow Duchamp's phrase, of being "up to the neck in the retina," here becomes a compelling visual solution, an optical tease with metaphysical consequences. "My motivation for creating this piece was to question the depth of the surface," Kimsooja has said. "Where is the surface? What in the world is there between things?"

  • These migrating color fields, these on-screen anti-surfaces, frustrate the eye, if only temporarily; the effort here is to re-educate our visual intelligence, to make the eye more buoyant, less habituated. What Kimsooja calls her interest in in-betweens – in those enigmatic medial spaces that can be intuited but never experienced simultaneously – gives this work its itinerant sensibility, and it is this skepticism of the surface that disaffiliates To Breathe from a mid-twentieth-century aesthetics apotheosized by Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly, Anne Truitt, Robert Ryman, etc. A more suitable list of aesthetic influences might include: magic lantern shows, Stan Brakhage films, Technicolor, stained glass windows, and also Cézanne, whose attraction to what he called "the meeting of planes in the sunlight" might describe another visual corollary to this work: the sensation, the flicker of colors, produced when staring at the sun with one's closed.

  • The two channels. The inhale-exhale component of the soundtrack forms its metrical unit: the couplet. The rhyming of inhale and exhale is made possible by an activity (breathing) which, in this instance, becomes increasingly less agile, more labored and urgent. Once the last exhale is replaced by the low, monophonic sound of humming, however, we assume that a change in condition has taken place, that a transaction between physical and spiritual experience has culminated in repose. And yet, Kimsooja's colors continue their gestation; the juxtaposition of an uninterrupted, trifurcated human hum and an image with no reliable surface and no discernable visual plane is the technique of a stereoscopic aesthetics. The effort is toward two radically dissociated channels of information that cannot be unified by the eye alone, but that require a bit of imaginative thinking and mental ingenuity to grant their coalescence.

  • But to think imaginatively entails a sensorial leap of faith and a transfiguration of the commonplace that often feels peculiar and difficult, but that is also necessarily clarifying and inventive. Hence the statement by Kimsooja: "I don't believe in creating something new but in inventing new perspectives based on mundane daily life." The result plays like an ecstatic vision; a flash of light and sound that transforms Duchamp's "retinal element" into an instrument – a needle to thread and combine, a mirror to duplicate and rhyme – for achieving the movement from surface to spirit.

May 2012