Kimsooja: A Modern Day Global Nomad Transcending boundaries, re-constructing a global identity

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

Kimsooja: A Modern Day Global Nomad

Transcending boundaries, re-constructing a global identity

Christina Arum Sok



  • In this digital era of instant information and communication, a new level of cultural globalization has allowed disparate groups to come together, forming a familiar and shared culture. This idea of 'global harmony' is not suggestive of an idealized and naïve state of international utopia, but rather should be considered as a platform for increased understanding of shared human traits, states of being, conditions and emotions, which are ultimately, universal.

  • Contemporary Korean artist, Kimsooja, is an embodiment of this concept of transcending boundaries, distinctions and limiting categories, as she is a true modern day global nomad. She is a multidisciplinary and multi-faceted artist, who, in fact, rejects prescriptive identity groups such as gender and marital status as well as socio-political, socio-economic, cultural and geographical identity constructs. Kimsooja's visual language may be rooted in Korean cultural traditions and mediums often associated with women and craft such as sewing, embroidery and textiles; however, she resolves to re-construct her identity and weaves herself into a global landscape. She achieves a delicate balance of leaving her mark as well as absorbing what is out there in the world, integrating into the fabric of different realities.

  • This paper examines Kimsooja's selected conceptual works to understand how she critically overcomes the shadows and burdens of identity constraints. Kimsooja is able to ground herself to issues of real value and genuine stories that are concerned with the world, and artistic practices that uncover ideas that are neglected or overshadowed by the commercial gloss of the global art market. Furthermore, her body is neither the site of sexuality nor the fantasized/fetishized female body of the 1960s and 1970s Euro American Feminist context. Alternatively, her body can be seen as a needle weaving through disparate cultures, in an act of re-construction, unification and investigation of what it means to be a human being in the 21st century. As such, Kimsooja is an exemplary contemporary woman artist who strives to deliver her stance on true human equality and honesty, going back to basic story telling through highly sophisticated and intellectual visual mediums that nonetheless remain humble in its true intentions.

  • "Without a needle, there would be no fabric, and without each individual, no fabric of society."

  • In today's inter-connected contemporary context of hyper permeability and fluidity between disparate cultures, Kimsooja, can be seen as a multifaceted woman artist, a global citizen and a critical voice for humankind. She presents pressing and engaging works that touch upon the very essence of the human spirit and the physical body, particularly as it relates to and intersects with nature and the real world. Her works are existential and spiritual explorations of humankind's basic and fundamental relationship with the environment around them. Furthermore, her artistic practice investigates formal qualities and aesthetics, engaging in a unique method of story telling and creation. In addition, Kimsooja has an innate ability to balance oppositions and paradoxes in complementary and poetically sensitive ways, setting her apart as a contemporary artist of international caliber. Her works are empathetic and deeply concerned with humankind at large. As such, the decisive word for Kimsooja is transcendence. Ultimately, Kimsooja is the personification and embodiment of transcending boundaries as well as re-constructing identities beyond limiting categories or binaries, into a new type of cultural hybridity.

  • In this paper, I will investigate how Kimsooja strikes an inherent balance of co-existences on multiple levels: firstly, in her early inquiries of form and aesthetics, and subsequently, in conceptual explorations of gender, nationality and identity. The latter ultimately results in dialogic awareness amongst humankind as well as the unity of the human spirit, the human body and nature. By weaving through these multifarious layers and demonstrating how they all function as variegated tools of expression, I will present the framework that grounds Kimsooja's presence as a modern day global nomadic artist, who speaks a language derived from her unique experiences, that resonates with all of humankind. I will be focusing mainly on Kimsooja's video series titled A Needle Woman, which was first done between 1999 and 2001, followed by a second set of works done in 2005, and a final iteration in 2009 in Paris, which was commissioned by La Nuit Blanche and projected onto the façade of the Hôtel de Ville, Paris. The reading of these works will be complemented with a number of other images including a late-19th century photograph and other historically significant images from the rich span of Korean art history. Kimsooja's modes of expression may have changed over the course of her artistic career; however, her core interest and concept of being a voice for humankind, a window into the human spirit and ultimately, a true modern day global nomad has always remained steadfast.

Kimsooja's early formal and aesthetic inquiries

  • Kimsooja's works have evolved in a step-by-step process, with one artistic practice and aesthetic investigation resulting in another, providing critical building blocks for her oeuvre. Kimsooja's works were recently displayed in its chronological entirety for the first time at the Vancouver Art Gallery's exhibition Kimsooja Unfolding (October 2013 – January 2014). This survey exhibition displayed her work with 3 specific foci: her interest in time, memory and displacement; the relationship between the human body and the physical, material world; and last but not least, her engagement with the expressive and conceptual qualities of colour, light and form.

  • Kimsooja studied Western painting at the prestigious Hong-Ik University in Seoul, and her origin as a painter was a crucial starting point for the development of her art. Beginning her professional career in the 1980s, Kimsooja had a heightened level of consciousness about the concept of tableau. From the very onset, she was interested in the intersection of art and life, as for her, art was not a paradigm disconnected from real life – not just her own life but also the world around her. In fact, Kimsooja was inspired by her childhood experiences as a young girl sewing bedcovers with her mother, which brought about the revelation of unity between her thoughts, sensitivity and activity, forming her artistic tenet. Her early aesthetic investigations in formative works such as The Earth and the Heaven (Plate 1) allowed for varied expressive formats that followed the legacy of abstract expressionist style painting, collage and the ready-made, or 'ready-used' as she calls them. The use of textiles and the act of sewing were not so much a demonstration of a feminist, activist standpoint, as it may at first seem, but rather, as the artist states, "the engagement with methodologies based on female domestic labour was more about avant-garde action in relation to contemporary painting and the concept of tableau," following in the tradition of modernist inquiry.

  • Having rationalized the needle as the tool that breaks through the surface of the 'canvas' or piece of cloth, Kimsooja was able to penetrate the barrier that separated art from life. As Suh Young-Hee elaborates, having punctured the surface of pictorial art of the preceding centuries, like Lucio Fontana, who slashed his monochromatic canvases, Kimsooja is no longer bound to the two-dimensional screen of illusion but rather, engaged in a process of creating three-dimensional as well as four-dimensional structures that her 'needle' passes through and conjoins. As the act of sewing intertwines art and life, a renewed reality and experience is forged for the artist. Therefore, the fabric and the act of sewing become the forms to which Kimsooja expresses the world of human beings like herself. A pivotal moment for Kimsooja was her 1992-1993 residency in New York City at MoMA PS1, where she was roused to re-assign meaning to used traditional Korean bedcovers as a ready-used aesthetic formation. At this time, being away from her native land, Kimsooja conceived of her iconic bottari (Plate 2), which aggregates a wrapped two-dimensional 'tableau' into a three-dimensional sculptural form through the act of filling the tableau up with used clothes and tying a knot to unite the contents together. As such, this action of wrapping bodies and memories was seen as a true formalistic and aesthetic statement that provided a breakthrough for Kimsooja's artistic practice.

  • Kimsooja's early inquiry into form and fashioning new methods of expression is similar to the pioneers of Korean modern art, the forefathers of Monochrome art. These artists in the 1970s pursued new modes of expression that were connected to their personal experiences, contemplating the exigency of a Korean modernism. Kimsooja marks a significant presence in this continuum of Korean art history as she is carving out another mode of artistic expression. The Monochrome artists, however, were trying to define a Korean identity solely in the realm of modern painting. To take an example, Monochrome artist, Ha Chong-hyun was concerned with the materials' physical qualities (Plate 3), as he pushed pigment back and forth between the linen, until the paint and the surface became intermeshed, breaking the distinction between material and surface. In contrast, moving far beyond the confines of Monochrome artists' contemplations on the 'surface,' Kimsooja is not merely concerned with material and form. For her, it is more about using her newfound relationship with artistic creation and renewed engagement with formalistic structures and aesthetic qualities as a tool for expression. This unique mode of expression for Kimsooja allows her to pursue art-making that is closely intermeshed with real life; there is no separation between the two dimensions.

  • Moreover, as her artistic career has evolved beyond the three-dimensional structure into video, installation and performance, Kimsooja's role as an artist has further sophisticated. Her performances are on the complete opposite spectrum to the often violent, sexually charged performances of Marina Abramovic and Lee Bul (Plate 4) where the female body is the site of exploitation and extreme forms of expression. Rather, Kimsooja emphasizes "inverting the notion of an artist as a predominant actor through 'non-doing' and 'non-making' in order to reveal a critical point that is without heroism and without violent action or aggression." In other words, art-making has become a meditative journey for Kimsooja; through the repetitive voyage of the needle piercing through material surfaces and her body as a metaphorical needle weaving through different environments, Kimsooja achieves an absolute sense of self-awareness. This philosophy of course is tied to Zen Buddhism and Eastern philosophies with the practice of meditation as an act of emptying oneself, resulting in a connection between the mind, body and soul, to ultimately attain enlightenment. In fact, Kimsooja describes A Needle Woman series to be a critical, transformative experience when she transitioned from a vulnerable state of mind to a focused, meditative and enlightened state of mind. In this way, Kimsooja's works focus on the process and act of art-making rather than the end result, as well as subjective experience rather than objective articulation.

  • Therefore, in Kimsooja's art, the physical, material and spiritual dimensions coincide, while co-existence of creation and non-creation, of doing and non-doing is also prevalent. Kimsooja transcends the essentialized inquiries in formalistic qualities that are only concerned with art in its singular dimension and purpose. Instead, utilizing her diversified artistic methods of exploring form and aesthetics as a way to move into greater self-awareness, she connects her mind, body and soul with the outer world in order to understand what it means to be truly human. Moreover, she is in sync with the many different human realities as well as the 'conditions of humanity' she encounters through her artistic journeys as a Needle Woman across 14 cities, which results in acute contemplations on the differences in ethnicities, geography, economics and cultural, religious, political tensions.

Cultural and gender-specific roots of Kimsooja's nomadic existence

  • At the core, Kimsooja moves beyond traditional epistemology, transcending familiar and expected categorizations. Kimsooja's ontological manifestation is explicated in her one-word name, without distinction between surname and given name, which as she declares, becomes an anarchist's name. This defiant act of changing her name to be one entity is symbolic of her rejecting gender, marital status, socio-political, socio-economic, cultural and geographical identity constructs. Her discord with categories allows her existence to be free, moving seamlessly through time, place and ideas. However, aesthetically there are clear connections to her being a woman and a Korean native.

  • When examining Kimsooja's oeuvre there are unavoidable implications and associations with regards to gender. Encounter – Looking into Sewing (Plate 5) is an appropriate segue into this discussion of her role as a woman artist. This arresting photograph suggests a woman's figure completely veiled by multiple layers of traditional bedcovers, capturing the multi-layered complexity of the female identity, not only questioning its societal construct but also moving beyond conventional gender paradigms. The female figure hinted by the gomusin shrouded by cloths represents tradition, signifying the weight of Confucian values that to varying extents still govern gender roles in Korean society today. Yet the gomusin is taking a step forward, seemingly an allusion to the position of women today striving to re-define their status and position at large. At this point, we can compare Kimsooja's photograph with a late-Choson dynasty photograph (Plate 6) of a young Korean woman in street costume. Not so different from the burka, in late-19th century Korea, women were expected to cover their body and head in public as a sign of propriety. The incredibly similar form of the cloths engulfing the female figure insinuates gender politics, gender roles in society and issues concerned with women's rights.

  • However, Kimsooja consciously chooses to disassociate with the confines of 'feminism,' even despite the changing landscape of global feminisms, a sub-domain of global contemporary art today. She clearly states that she is neither operating within the traditions of the feminist movement nor within the practices of performance artists who use their body as sites of sexuality and violence in staged performances or grotesque actions. We can read her bottari works (Plate 2) in particular, as art for women by women, in the sense that these textiles and the act of sewing, as well as the tradition of wrapping bottaris, are historically, functionally and aesthetically associated with women. These works inevitably bring about questions of women's position in society, simultaneously underscoring the important role of women in the family domain, perhaps also intimating their conditions as alienated housewives.

  • Admittedly, Kimsooja recounts that though she had been predominantly influenced by the avant-garde aesthetic engagements in New York City, which inspired the formation of the bottari, that in actual fact, upon return to Korea, she came to a critical realization of Korean society and Korean women's role bundled up in her formerly-mere aesthetic 'ready-used' object. Notably, it was after this grounding to socio-cultural issues and awareness of the real world that further evolved Kimsooja's bottari works to a critical level, as it is seen as a site of intersection of the physical body, Kimsooja's own conditions as a woman as well as Korean women at large, and further, human destiny. Therefore, she moved on to wrap the bottari with used clothing, as a way of reinforcing fragments of reality in her 'ready-used' object. It is important to acknowledge Kimsooja's feminine sensibilities and recognize that these visual motifs associated with the female gender are tools for expression. Furthermore, although her contribution to visual culture is as a woman artist, she is ultimately interested in the physical and spiritual interactions with nature and the realm of human reality, which transcends gender identity and constructs. Her art is a phenomenological experience for both herself and the audience, rooted in a feminine aesthetic.

  • As always, Kimsooja mediates between polarizing movements or philosophies. She has married the interest in form and problematic of art-making with a spiritual dimension – art becoming more of an 'experience,' for both herself and her audiences. Her solid foundation and higher consciousness and sensitivity to perceiving the intricate connection between the human body, spirit and the earth allows her to move into the realm of existentialism. In A Needle Woman, we are able to understand how harmony, balance and unity is achieved between the human body, spirit and nature.

  • Although Kimsooja's aesthetics are based on feminine sensibilities and rooted in Korean cultural traditions, she is neither celebrating individuality nor predominantly on a quest to discover her 'inner-self,' articulating her unique 'identity.' Instead, Kimsooja's visual roots become tools for expression, as well as points of entry into her narrative. What becomes the universal appeal and deeper criticality of Kimsooja's work is the fact that through her meditative approach to art-making, she provides an engaging platform that becomes a window to humanity. Her work is a universal lens to perceive the human spirit and to have awareness of the modern day conditions of being a human being.

Transcending boundaries

  • Fundamentally, Kimsooja goes back to the core of human existence. Her work transcends its singular purpose as an aesthetic object, in order to enhance our understanding of our position in the world. She provides us with insight as to how art is sincerely intertwined with our own existence and experience of the world. Kimsooja, therefore, provides a platform for critical dialogue related to identities in a globalized world. No doubt her work emerges from a Korean cultural context, yet again, her work transcends a singular, local context having a much broader impact to a global audience. In other words, Kimsooja's art is all about human expression and basic human emotions that knows no boundaries.

  • In a work that deals with globalization at the core – A Needle Woman (Plate 7) – Kimsooja places herself in 15 different cities around the world over the course of 10 years. Her body and physical presence is the constant in these works, as she blends in or sticks out of the crowd. She describes herself as a needle that weaves through the different cities and experiences the diversity, building a tapestry of global inter-connectedness. She becomes either an expression of the all-too-familiar global citizen or a stranger/foreigner who does not belong. While presenting this contradiction, she also desires to reconcile "perfect immobility and perpetual motion," wanting to exist simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. This notion is a fundamental questioning of existence and identity in globalization. Through her works, the social identities of people in the different locations can be examined, as people go about their daily existence, responding to the artist's body in vastly different ways. Concurrently, her own identity is questioned as she simultaneously embodies and rejects her indigenous culture, constantly altering and blending into the global, social fabric. Kimsooja is influenced by her Korean roots, yet she takes these elements of culture to befit her patchwork identity, her skin wrapping and re-wrapping her body, just like a bottari, as it passes through the world.

  • In A Needle Woman, Tokyo (Plate 8), the movement and the pace at which people are passing by is entirely unsettling, chaotic, disruptive and jarring for the audience. The endless crowd walks in front of the camera lens, while the chaos of traffic and lights of the ambulance murmur past in the distance, unfocused. Although the people walking by constantly change, and individuals only stay in the focus of the camera lens for a split second, the viewer cannot help but feel the monotony of the crowd. There is no individual within this mass. It quickly becomes exhausting to look at, our eyes become tired and restless. All the while, Kimsooja remains still, meditative in the hectic chaos, where people are barely stopping and noticing her presence. Kimsooja's presence becomes the constant, her long black hair flowing down her back, creating a perfect symmetry to her body. Her presence intersects the flow of people and the entire experience. She remains inconspicuous in her monk-like attire, not ostentatious, yet she is also highly conspicuous – the only stillness in the constant movement.

  • Complementing this Tokyo work is A Needle Woman, Kitakyushu (Plate 9), which has Kimsooja lying horizontally on a rock formation. In stark contrast, to the hustle and bustle of a great metropolis, here, Kimsooja is becoming one with nature. The distinction between her body and the natural environment begin to merge as the video progresses in stillness and silence. We begin to look beyond the specific shapes of her body's contour laying on the rock, and in turn, we begin to see the unity between the body, the rock and the sky, as our spirit connects with this specific time and place on a contemplative level. Kimsooja states that the most important thing to arise out of these performances is her own experience of 'self' and awareness as a process, rather than the video as a result.

  • In 2005, Kimsooja continued her video works in A Needle Woman series in 6 new cities. In complete contrast to her presence in the bustling streets of Tokyo, the public reaction in Havana (Plate 10) is vastly different. These second set of video works had been deliberately slowed down so that the passersby's interactions with her body could be accentuated. When the video begins the first thing we notice is an elderly man standing right in front of Kimsooja, trying humorously to illicit a response from her, while another man stands on the right corner of the frame, staring from a safe distance for a prolonged period of time. Throughout the work, the people strolling by all slow down to take a look and there is a general sense of reaction to Kimsooja's presence. As such, this then becomes a sociological experiment, providing insight into the cultural differences between Cubans and Japanese, to say the very least.

  • Kimsooja desires to be "like a needle that leaves no mark," connecting two pieces of cloth, two continents or states of consciousness. Kimsooja's openness to the world is what makes her a global, nomadic artist, embodying a hybrid identity. She weaves seamlessly through different cultures, leaving her mark but more importantly absorbing what is out there. Synchronously, she is mesmerized by the sense of unity felt through this act of sewing and weaving, as she equates it to a process of emptying and connecting with the inner self. In A Needle Woman, this process of weaving is like a continuous act of repetition, which becomes a form of meditation and contemplation. The greater function and purpose of Kimsooja's art is for us to question what it actually means to be human. The power of her art is that the different layers in her work stimulate thought and engage the mind, to cultivate "mindfulness of what human beings encounter by virtue of being human," similar to the goal of meditation practice.


  • Kimsooja challenges societal as well as art historical constructs and categories, operating as a free-agent of change. It is through her practice, modus operandi and philosophy that a new epistemology of contemporary art takes place, as she escapes from being pinned down to any movement, style, or group of artistic practice. Kimsooja has created a unique language of expression, fusing her deep-rooted cultural influences with her feminine sensibility, filtering through her personal history and communicating her innate empathy towards humankind and the greater human spirit. Her art opens us up to see the world from totally unexpected perspectives, as she herself truly feels with her body, transcending the artistic medium, the actual performance as well as the time and place to sensuously experience the world around her.

  • There is already so much conflict, negativity, criticism and problems in the world; in Kimsooja's works, her belief is apparent that there does not need to be anymore negative energy expended on inculpating existing systems. Instead of focusing on the failures and injustices, she does what is most human, she feels great empathy for humankind, her art being a heartfelt gesture of reaching out to the common human spirit that we all share. She engages with matters, issues and state of realities in the most basic human way, opening her heart, which in turn, inspires us to open our hearts, to come to a common, shared understanding and experience of the world. Her works re-discover what has always existed in nature but that has never really been 'found,' as she goes beyond painting methodology to "[reveal] visual realities in nature that have always been there." To conclude, Kimsooja desires art to be the world fine-tuned to make us conscious of place – "our place, the place of others and the place of art, arising in the interstices of culture."


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