“Mirror image: Kimsooja’s self-reflective installations take over the French city of Poitiers”


Encounter with a City


Transforming a city’s memories

Left, South Korean artist Kimsooja with one of her To Breathe installations at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, UK. Right, Kimsooja’s To Breathe in the chapel at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Photography: Harry Mitchell

“Mirror image: Kimsooja’s self-reflective installations take over the French city of Poitiers”

Andy Saint Louis


  • For more than 25 years, South Korean artist Kimsooja has focused her practice on a specific element in her country’s visual culture: the bottari, a colourful bundle of cloth used to wrap and transport items by hand. It is a traditional and timeless component of life in Korea, where bottari fabrics are often recycled from old silk bedcovers, a repurposing that inverts domestic and public spheres, conventional gender roles and power structures. It is in this context that Kimsooja began using this material in her work: ‘I’ve always started from my own reality and my own culture,’ she says. ‘It’s not that I like them, necessarily. I use them because it’s my reality.’

  • Kimsooja (who goes by a single-word name, in defiance of cultural conventions) has spent the better part of the past two decades peripatetically, based between New York, Paris and Seoul, and realising projects around the world. Her meditative works explore the self, the other, and the narratives woven through life’s journeys. ‘The whole world I was viewing has been, in a way, wrapping and unwrapping the bottari,’ she reflects. Across sculpture, installation, performance and video, the bottari has served as a visual metaphor for the artist’s own decentred existence and a longer history of human transience, migration and now displacement in a globalised society.

  • This year, the 62-year-old artist has translated the handheld bottari to an urban scale, wrapping the French city of Poitiers in a bundle of public art installations that activate its medieval architecture and foreground its rich history. Traversées is a sprawling contemporary art event in this old Roman town southwest of Paris, where Kimsooja inaugurates a new ten- year cultural and urban heritage initiative. More than a dozen works by the artist transform the city’s historic sites into sensorial experiences.

  • ‘We wanted to put the city in motion, starting from its iconic sites of memory while looking to the future, which Kimsooja understood perfectly,’ explains the event’s co-artistic director Emmanuelle de Montgazon. ‘This constellation of works resonates together and allows visitors to chart their own course.’

  • As the birthplace of Michel Foucault, Poitiers is an apt locale for an in- depth presentation of Kimsooja’s work. The influential 20th-century philosopher’s premise of heterotopia – a socio-cultural space of otherness theorised as a self-contained ‘world within a world’ that exists in parallel to our lived experience – seems a fitting description of Kimsooja’s bottari. The organisers of Traversées were drawn to the duality conveyed by Kimsooja’s works: ‘They exist only in relation to the places they take over, but they come with a very strong introspective dimension, says de Montgazon. ‘They belong as much to their own history as to the history of the places and people to which they are addressed.’

  • Kimsooja was originally drawn to bottari in 1992, during an artist residency in New York at PS1 Contemporary Art Center. She adopted it as a colourful, readymade, three-dimensional canvas and alternative platform for art-making that she quickly expanded in multiple directions. ‘I also started working in video, considering the video frame as a wrapping method – wrapping the world or wrapping nature – rather than image- making,’ she recalls. A representative series of her video performance works, collectively titled A Needle Woman (1999-2001), depicts the artist standing motionless in the midst of busy pedestrian thoroughfares around the world, with her back to the camera. In these simple yet compelling works, her body acts as a needle, the unceasing flow of passers-by serving to wrap her stationary form. For Kimsooja, video offers ‘an immaterial way of wrapping the reality of the world’.

  • In 2006, Kimsooja received a commission from the Museo Nacional de Reina Sofía in Madrid in which she introduced a different approach to wrapping reality: a site-specific installation at the city’s iron-and-glass Crystal Palace, built in 1887. Titled To Breathe: A Mirror Woman (2006), this large-scale architectural intervention covered the building’s glass exterior with a translucent film that diffracts white light into a spectrum of colours, swathing the interior space in an ethereal prismatic environment. A floor-covering of mirrors multiplied the refractions, completely enveloping the audience in her luminous bottari.

  • Similar bottaris of light and sound were subsequently unveiled at the 55th in 2013 (where Kimsooja represented her country at the Korean Pavilion) and earlier this year at the . In Yorkshire, Kimsooja transformed the art centre’s 18th-century chapel into a vertiginous space of reflection, both literally and metaphorically, softening the solid interior surfaces of its historic masonry, to convey a lightness that contrasted with its rigid exterior. In Poitiers, she unveils her first mirror installations to be exhibited in France, including one that reveals the stunning vaulted ceiling of the Maubergeon tower in the medieval Palais des Ducs d’Aquitaine.

  • Similar bottaris of light and sound were subsequently unveiled at the 55th in 2013 (where Kimsooja represented her country at the Korean Pavilion) and earlier this year at the . In Yorkshire, Kimsooja transformed the art centre’s 18th-century chapel into a vertiginous space of reflection, both literally and metaphorically, softening the solid interior surfaces of its historic masonry, to convey a lightness that contrasted with its rigid exterior. In Poitiers, she unveils her first mirror installations to be exhibited in France, including one that reveals the stunning vaulted ceiling of the Maubergeon tower in the medieval Palais des Ducs d’Aquitaine.

  • For Traversées, Kimsooja approaches the city of Poitiers as a tapestry, its medieval streets and historic sites forming paths that intersect, converge and separate as visitors trace their own journeys while traversing its contours. Not only are her works installed throughout the city, but she has invited an array of other creators – among them composer Myriam Boucher, choreographer Min Tanaka, and artists , Tadashi Kawamata and Rirkrit Tiravanija – to contribute to the project, incorporating their own threads to the warp and weft of Kimsooja’s cultural fabric. §

— Wallpaper, October 2019

Archive of Mind, 2019, participatory site-specific installation consisting of clay balls, 18m elliptical wooden table, and sound performance Unfolding Sphere, 2016. Installation view at Palais des ducs d'Aquitane, 2019. Courtesy of the City of Poitiers, Axel Vervoordt Gallery and Kimsooja Studio. Photos by Jaeho Chong.

Encounter with a City

Emma Lavigne & Emmanuelle de Montgazon


  • During her first visit to the Musée Sainte-Croix of Poitiers, Kimsooja stopped at length in front of Francois Nautré’s painting, Le siège de Poitiers par l’amiral Gaspard de Coligny en 1569 [The Siege of Poitiers by Admiral Gaspard de Coligny in 1569] (1619), a true pictorial account and faithful portrait of the city. She was moved by the representation of the besieged city, by the precision of the narrative, and was overwhelmed by this seeming detail: how the inhabitants sought to survive and protect themselves in this context of war. She was particularly drawn to the large swaths of white cloth protecting the inhabitants’ movements from the enemies on the lookout, and referencing the work of the drapers and weavers in the region.

  • Her visits were closely tied to the history of the city, a history that is inseparable from its cultural and social fabric, which makes it so rich.

  • “It is only one step from memory to encounter,” wrote Marc Augé2. Thus Kimsooja focuses on personal stories that are often forgotten by History. From the splendor of Eleanor of Aquitaine to the famous passage of Joan of Arc, Kimsooja preferred the tutelary figure of Saint Radegund (520-587), Queen of the Francs, “divorced” from a tyrant, who devoted the rest of her life as nun to the disenfranchised. In the church of Sainte-Radegonde, Kimsooja was moved by the sobriety of her tomb and the many votive plaques, some of which are still recent, that cover the dark crypt and the choir. She was also attached to the figure of Jean-Richard Bloch, a politically-engaged poet and writer, friend of Louis Aragon and André Malraux, “exiled in his own city,” who opened his house in La Mérigotte—which has become the Villa Bloch 2019 artists’ residency—to writers, political refugees, poets and musicians.

  • Kimsooja was born in Korea, a country where Christianity is at its most influential in Asia, while co-existing with Confucianism, Shamanism, Taoism, and Buddhism. By choosing a nomadic life, she carries with her the origins of her culture, whose belief in the “Spirit heart” is founded on the pursuit of harmony. This cultural identity mixed with family history leads to the encounter with the Other, the necessary mirror to one’s own existence.

  • In the majestic Palace of the dukes of Aquitaine, the center of spirituality and contemporary culture, Kimsooja conceived a crossing of the City based on the very principles of co-existence and harmony that have inspired all of her work for over thirty years.

  • “Travelling reaffirms that the world is not a flawless process.” These are the words of philosopher Jean-Godeffroy Bidima, whose works on African identity are built around this notion, which he deems to be resolutely plural. His definition is a promise that looks to the future and to growth, opening the fertile ground between identity, travel and memory to a constellation of new possibilities. With the issue of migration occupying a central place in society, and the West still struggling to break free from postcolonial discourse, the Traversées project questions the factors behind the acts of travel, movement and uprooting that fuel the work of Kimsooja and her fellow artists who, through personal experiences and without bias, are able to capture and portray the perceptible and invisible flows of an increasingly unsettled contemporary world. The common thread between voluntary nomadism and forced migration is probably found in the act of being uprooted.

  • To symbolically hand over the keys of Poitiers to Kimsooja is to accept that the city’s memories will be transformed into a space in which to imagine the future. But it is also to offer the artist the opportunity to re-frame her work; to imbed it in a new time and space, that of a city steeped in history; to imperceptibly sketch out new lines, influenced by the ideas of Michel Foucault, by the memory of the former Palais de Justice, by the spirituality of places of worship, and by the generosity of the Villa Bloch. These “traversées” will open our eyes to new paths and will write a new chapter in this rich story, one that will not only be recounted but lived and shared, turning local residents and visitors alike into wanderers, following the paths left by the artists, routes that fork and multiply into a disorienting infinity. The catalogue accompanying Traversées / Kimsooja aims to guide the viewer through this journey, and to suggest through certain key works, including Bottari, A Needle Woman, and To Breathe, pathways that connect Kimsooja’s work to that of other invited artists, and invent a new geography.

  • Jung Marie’s Korea meets Subodh Gupta’s India. Rirkrit Tiravanija nests a tea house inside a scaffolding of bamboo from Thailand, with a ceremony led by Mai Ueda. New Yorker Stephen Vitiello reveals the buried sounds of the city of Poitiers, while Sammy Baloji slows down the monotonous chants of a children’s choir inside the Chapel of the Augustins, drawing out the role played by the Church in the colonial enterprise.

  • A “traversée” is an experience of otherness and hospitality and the paths of Traversées / Kimsooja are outlined, everyone can create their own journey. Similarly, the artists accompanying Kimsooja “advance life, activate it, intensify it, renew it”.3 The city, transformed by these unique works, as the shared meals of Thomas Ferrand or Subodh Gupta, progressively reveals its various historical, social, collective and individual dimensions. In this kaleidoscope, every movement, every action, every breath, every glance becomes another possibility for physical and metaphysical discovery, and constitutes a shared memory, woven together by the gestures, as the danced portraits or choreographies of Lenio Kaklea, that comprise – just like Kimsooja’s Thread Routes – this “slow and silent journey”.

  • Space is transfigured in Kimsooja’s work, becoming a sensory experience. She hollows out the architecture of the different sites, letting new sensations in, disturbing their stability. She instils a void in the heart of the stone, that interstitial space essential to the dialectics of Yin and Yang, to the rhythm of breathing, the beat at the core of life.

  • Inspired by Michel Foucault and his definition of heterotopia, which “has the power to juxtapose in a single real space, several spaces, several locations which are in themselves incompatible,”4 Kimsooja disperses space using light diffraction and mirrors, as seen in her work To Breathe. Her spaces are dematerialised; they shake the weight of history to become – like the artist herself – nomadic, as the nests of Tadashi Kawamata. They are spaces without space and thus, in Foucault’s eyes, produce the shift required to make the coexistence of utopias possible. Kimsooja metonymically inverses the world order, her aesthetic response to the turbulence and violence she perceives. Our sense of horizontality is disturbed as it becomes warped by the effect of the mirrors into abyss-like depths, while the space takes on an atmospheric quality. “I’d like to make works that are like water and air, that cannot be owned but can be shared by everyone,” explains Kimsooja. Like the miniature world contained in the “bottari”, the lines between Kimsooja’s work and the space that it inhabits become blurred. Fabrics, films and mirrors – the artist’s vocabulary – take on the appearance of bodies or membranes, skins that sense, react and reveal, that filter and diffract the commotion of urban life, the ashes of light, energy and electric short circuits that punctuate the outside world, transforming them into a constantly self-renewing visual and pictorial experience.

  • The works by the guest artists infiltrate city life, offering shared vessels for beleaguered bodies, worn down by the inconsistencies of the world, gradually breathing in unison or moulding, as is the case with the clay spheres of Archive of Mind. An emotion is released from these works; the realisation that we can now conceive, to borrow the words of Jean-Paul Sartre on the eve of the Second World War, “what an emotion is. It is a transformation of the world.”

— Traversees\Kimsooja Exhibition Catalogue, October 2019

Artist Kimsooja stands with a truck used for her 2007 performance video “Bottari-Truck Migrateurs” inside Saint-Louis Chapel in Poitiers, France. The work is part of the initial edition of the French city’s new art biennale “Traversées / Kimsooja.”

Transforming a city’s memories

So-Young Moon


  • POITIERS, France — In front of many historic places in the western French city of Poitiers — including the Palace of the Dukes of Aquitaine, the former home of the medieval celebrity Eleanor, the queen consort of France and then of England — stand big boards announcing a three-month citywide contemporary art festival that runs through Jan. 19.
    Surprisingly, the boards are decorated with obangsaek, or the Korean traditional spectrum of five cardinal colors, which represent the four directions and the center. Moreover, the event’s title is “Traversées / Kimsooja,” including the name of the Korean contemporary artist of international renown.
    There is also a shipping container covered with obangsaek in the square of the city’s landmark Poitiers Cathedral. It is Kimsooja’s new work titled “Bottari 1999-2019,” which carries her personal belongings that she amassed in her New York apartment over the last 20 years. Now that she is leaving the apartment, the container is a symbol of her migratory, nomadic and in-between state. Bottari means traditional Korean cloth bundles used to carry belongings.
    The inaugural edition of Poitiers’ new art festival “Traversées,” which translates to traverses or acts of crossing, has not taken the typical form of the international art biennials that have saturated the world. Instead, it let one artist interact with and change the city by installing her works in the new contexts of the city’s old buildings and streets.
    The artist was also encouraged to invite other artists to join the citywide exhibition. Sixteen artists from all around the world, including big names like Indian artist Subodh Gupta, Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata and Congolese artist Sammy Baloji, have joined.

  • “It was the idea of the festival’s co-curator Emma Lavigne,” Kimsooja told the Korea JoongAng Daily at the opening on Oct. 12. Lavigne, the new president of the prestigious Palais de Tokyo museum in Paris, and Emmanuelle de Montgazon, an art historian born in Poitiers, are co-curators of the art event.
    “This might be the most inspiring, challenging and ambitious project I’ve done so far, mainly focusing on site-specificity responding to the notion of Traversées, to which I’ve been devoted for so many years,” Kimsooja said.
    Indeed, throughout her oeuvre, the 62-year-old artist has explored borders and crossed borders, sometimes with performances and films that symbolically allude to migration in the real world and sometimes with abstract installations that visualize moving through the borders between cosmic dualities such as yin and yang and material and non-material.
    The very work that propelled the artist to international fame in 1997 was also about migration. For the performance and video work “Cities on the Move: 2,727 kilometers Bottari Truck,” she traveled throughout Korea for 11 days on top of a truck loaded with bottari. Its 2007 version, commissioned by a French museum, was set in Paris and is now projected on a wall of Saint-Louis Chapel in Poitiers, with the truck used for the performance parked inside the chapel near its gracefully-arched and painted altar.
    According to Lavigne and de Montgazon, the colorful bottari on the truck “reveals the tension between perpetual displacement and a desire for familiarity” and the performance is “an allegory of migration but also an appeal for empathy and peaceful co-existence.” Such elements of the work gain more resonance in the new context of the old Catholic chapel, which could have been either a place of religious exclusivism or a refuge for alienated people.
    “To symbolically hand over the keys of Poitiers to an artist is to accept that the city’s memories will be transformed into a space in which to imagine the future,” Lavigne and de Montgazon said in a joint statement. “Poitiers is a city famous for its rich heritage and its university,” said Alain Claeys, the mayor of the city. “Our wish is to build a relationship between heritage and contemporary art, which will allow heritage to have a new life. In particular, with artist Kimsooja’s works, we can talk about the very important topic of our time : migration"

  • Kimsooja has dealt with crossing geopolitical and cultural borders, as well as abstract borders between dualities such as light and darkness, with the motifs of sewing, weaving and bottari. In sewing, a needle and thread penetrate the borders of fabric. And bottari, which is two-dimensional when spread out and three-dimensional when bundled up, makes a very flexible boundary between inside and outside.
    The artist has used the motifs sometimes in literal forms and sometimes in abstract and symbolic forms. The latter is seen in the “To Breathe” series now installed at the cloister of Chapelle des Augustins and the catacomb of Sainte-Radegonde Church in Poitiers.
    Their windows have been wrapped by Kimsooja with translucent diffraction film sheets, so that sunlight coming through them and falling on the walls and floors make planes of iridescent light that constantly change, just like “breathing obangsaek bottari,” the artist said.
    “The works lead the viewers to stay for a long time and meditate, while perceiving the changes of the spaces over time,” Lavigne said.
    Not only Kimsooja but also some of the artists invited to “Traversées” have transformed the historic spaces of Poitiers into those of new perception and imagination with relatively simple physical interventions. When Korean artist Jung Marie sang a jeongga, or an elegant song enjoyed by the aristocracy in the Joseon era (1392-1910), a cappella at Sainte-Radegonde Church, her clear voice resounded even better under the church’s high vaults, sending the audience to an ethereal and spiritual space in between the East and the West. Meanwhile, Gupta’s installation and performance art piece “Cooking the World” attracted many people at the opening of the festival. In a house-shaped installation that consists of used Indian pots and pans hanging from the ceiling, the artist himself cooked popular street foods from several Indian cities and served them to the viewers.
    “Inspired by the book ‘Cooking the World’ by Charles Malamoud about how food is essential in Indian ceremonies and rituals, I thought I can do something with food, as I love to cook myself and have created artworks with utensils for more than 20 years,” the Indian artist said. One of the highlights of the exhibits is Kimsooja’s performance installation “Archive of Mind” at the Palace of the Dukes of Aquitaine. There’s a giant, oval-shaped wooden table. Visitors are encouraged to take lumps of clay in four shades, roll them into spheres and then place them on the table to dry. The table with finished balls of clay resembles the landscape of a desolate alien planet, giving a cosmic feel.

  • When Kimsooja introduced the work in Seoul in 2016, she said the forms of the spheres would reflect the symmetrical forces of the palms of the participants and their minds. The clay balls would have edges, because of the impossibility to make a perfect sphere and because of gravity’s effect when they are dried on the table.
    The dried clay balls make sounds when they are rolled and the sounds represent their geometric forms — the forms caused by the dual forces of the participants’ palms, their minds and gravity.
    “Poitiers, which was important in international politics in medieval times but then was dormant for quite a time, is now opening itself up to the world again” Kimsooja told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “Responding to the city’s wish, I have weaved the city with other parts of the world through my works based in the notions of crossing borders and works by other artists from all around the world.”

— Korea Joongang Daily, October 2019