Transcultural Weaving

Transcultural Weaving

Malene Vest Hansen


  • A certain memory is still clear as day to the Korean artist Kimsooja many years after the fact: one day when she was helping her mother sew bed covers, a common occupation for Korean women, a shock ran through her body as the needle punctured the fabric. As she sewed it felt like energy from the whole universe was collected in the tip of the needle: she became the energy conduit of the needle's circular motions; the needle which simultaneously hurts and heals.[1] This image can be seen as formative to Kimsooja's oeuvre with her examinations of textiles and textures, her exploration of the senses, symbols and structures in art, gender, and culture.

  • When you experience Weaving the Light, which Kimsooja has created for Cisternerne, with spectral patterns of rainbow light dancing in the damp dark chambers beneath Søndermarken in Frederiksberg, the new immersive installation can perhaps seem miles away from Kimsooja's memory of the electrifying encounter with the fabric during intimate housework with needle and thread. However, there are clear threads that can be drawn through the conceptual artist's oeuvre across the decades; here I will follow significant tracks through Kimsooja's examinations of visible crossings in the fabrics of the world.
    The title Weaving the Light is characteristic of Kimsooja, an inter- weaving of concrete and abstract symbolic meanings. The title establishes a duality of the material and static with the immaterial and procedural. As for the technical side, we encounter a rather simple idea in Cisternerne: In the underground chambers, a series of transparent acrylic sheets have been hung up, whose smooth surfaces are covered with diffraction grating film. In the damp darkness of the old water reservoir, the new textures of the acrylic sheets act as prisms to the electric light sources that are placed behind the screens. This light is visibly split into the colours of the rainbow and because the film is woven into nets of varying density, the light forms different patterns. The title is therefore descriptive: The installation consists of the weaving of light.

  • But even if it seems simple to explain at first what we are seeing, it is not so easy to catch the meanings that open them- selves to us when we sense the dance of the light patterns in the installation. For what is light? How do we sense it? And how do we understand the colours of the light? Weaving the Light becomes like a laboratory of light and opens to interpretations of wonderful sights and visions in the subterranean darkness. An archive of light is hiding in the old, damp water reservoir beneath Søndermarken.

  • Kimsooja sees her acrylic sheets covered with diffraction film as a kind of canvas on which she paints with light. Kimsooja has become a well-known figure on the global contemporary art scene through her work with a diverse array of materials and media and is typically characterized as a conceptual multi- media artist. But her insistence on using the canvas in a kind of extended painting is significant.
    Kimsooja was born in 1957, grew up in Korea, and was educated as a painter in Seoul where she studied Western painting. As such she is schooled in the tradition of the modern Western concept of art in a Korean culture. In Korean culture the colour spectrum known as obangsaek (a direct translation would be five-orientation-colour) plays a very central role – it figures in traditional art, and everywhere from cooking to architecture, fashion, and textile patterns.

  • Obangsaek consists of the five colours: blue, red, yellow, white, and black, which are to be balanced to achieve a good life, a healthy body, and a good society. The five colours each symbolize a direction – blue is east, red is south, yellow is centre, white is west, and black is north – but they are also interpreted as symbols of what is considered the five fundamental elements of life: wood (blue), fire (red), earth (yellow), metal (white), and water (black). Obangsaek permeates Korean art and culture through the centuries and this too is a part of Kimsooja's palette.
    But Kimsooja works with rather than in the tradition – or rather traditions, plural. She works transculturally and chooses her subjects, patterns, and media from the canon and culture of Asia and Korea as well as the West.

  • She moulds familiar signs, symbols, and canons into new patterns, she reinterprets prescribed shapes, discreetly but disobediently, so that the usual and formal is seen in a new light, familiar yet alien.

  • Kimsooja is a Korean pioneer on the international art scene. Through the decades she has travelled, lived, and worked trans- nationally, lived in Seoul, Paris, and New York, and as a nomad artist she embodies globalization. Kimsooja has thematised nomadic refractions between nations, cultures, and traditions in a series of works focusing on the bottari: the Korean word for a bundle consisting of wrapping cloth tied around belongings so they can be brought on the road. Kimsooja has worked with bottaris, made from brightly coloured traditional Korean bed covers, through paintings, photos, videos, and installations where the beautiful patterned fabric bundles envelop memories, loss, and unknown goals.

  • Like many other female artists' work with textiles, Kimsooja's work with fabric and sewing can also be seen as 'subversive stitches', as the British feminist art historian Rozsika Parker has termed it.[2] Textile work wasn't traditionally considered as fine art on par with painting and sculpture, but rather as typically female handicraft and labour. Art works involving textile can therefore be said to bring both mundane as well as gendered connotations with it to the field of contemporary art. With that said, Kimsooja’s motivation behind working with textile was not to address it as a textile art form, but instead to investigate the historical Western canvas as a textile, circling the question of the tableau, the painting, and the structure of its surface.
    Still, Kimsooja searches the gendered and cultural connotations – she has therefore changed her name from Kim Soo-Ja to Kimsooja, a name that doesn't appear to signal gender or marital status.

  • Transcultural weaving is the theme in a series of Kimsooja’s first film Thread Routes, where Kimsooja focuses on traditional textile cultures and techniques across the globe – in South American, European, Indian, Chinese, North American, and North African local workshops.

  • In parallel with these explorations, she has examined the more abstract interweaving of forms and shapes. Here, architecture is what is being transformed by the dance of the rainbow prism, buildings wrapped in colours as if they were enormous bottaris into which we as visitors can immerse and explore.
    In 2006, for the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid, Kimsooja created To Breathe: A Mirror Woman, which had the glass building wrapped in diffraction film and the floor covered with mirrors such that the site-specific installation transformed the exhibition building into a space vibrating with dancing colours of the rainbow, along with rhythmic breathing sounds in the auditory piece The Weaving Factory. 'Painting' with the 'immaterial' prismatic rainbow colours is something Kimsooja has worked with variations on in a series of site-specific installations, among them several Catholic churches, where the connection to traditional Christian metaphors of divine light in the stained-glass mosaics clearly link Eastern and Western colour symbolism. The works of Kimsooja thereby circulate methods and elements that appear again and again in new constellations in new places – repetitions such as the basic rhythmic movements of life, like breathing and weaving.
    Weaving the Light is the latest in a series of installations where Kimsooja expands something site-specific into a new meaning. Kimsooja explains that she is simply responding to a place when she works with a specific location.
    She is a transformer; she receives and reacts to what she can see the place is calling for.[3] This is in line with the role of the artist as the British art historian and writer John Berger describes it in the text Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible.

  • According to Berger, the idea of understanding the artist as a 'creator' is a modern illusion. The artist is rather a 'receiver' who relates to the world and collaborates with the observer who meets the work.[4] When Kimsooja works with painting in a generalized scope, she examines the visible and invites us to join this examination.
    Daylight has played an essential role to the dance of the prism light in Kimsooja's earlier site-specific installations with diffraction film; the sun has set the installations in motion with its daily walk across the sky. In the gloom of Cisternerne we have left daylight behind and descended into the subterranean darkness.
    Here there is no moving light from the sun, here it is the movement of electricity which puts light in the prisms. In Cisternerne we, the visitors, become 'performers' in Kimsooja's immersive installation. As we walk around the damp, dark, and echoing halls we become moving shadows making the light wave in the colours of the rainbow when it is reflected in a surface of water. It feels strange yet simple, like walking through a dream vision, without a sense of where you are, sensing ourselves in a subterranean sea of lights, as we together weave the light in Kimsooja's archive of lights.

Malene Vest Hansen
Art Historian, Associate Professor, PhD

— From the Solo Exhibition Weaving the Light, Cisternerne, Frederiksberg Museum, Reader, pp.20-25.

[1] Malene Vest Hansen: interview with Kimsooja, Frederiksberg 17 January 2023.
[2] Rozsika Parker: The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, 2019.
[3] Malene Vest Hansen: interview with Kimsooja, Frederiksberg 17 January 2023
[4] John Berger: Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible, 2020, s. 84.