Kim Sooja



Bottari, 1998, installation view from Kunsthalle Kassel.

Kim Sooja

Sand, Olivia


  • Compared to the sixties and the seventies when performance as a visual arts medium was in its initial stages as a popular medium to explore, today, very few contemporary artists rely on performance as their primary medium of artistic expression. Kim Sooja (b. 1957 in Korea) is one of the leading contemporary artists in the field, combining her performances with video and photography. In her latest project A Needle Woman and as a performance artist, Kim Sooja could almost be described as an 'non-performance artist': silently standing still in the street with her back towards the camera, the audience appearing to be the actual performer.

  • Over the past years, the work of Kim Sooja has gone through important transitions. However, the idea of sewing remains central to all of her pieces, in a more figurative way at first in her early work, and recently, in a more abstract way. What started as a remnant, as a static patchwork of several individual lives (the sewing together of traditional Korean used clothes gathered by the artist or brought together as bundles on a truck, as in Cities on the Move - Bottari Truck), turned into the tailoring of a garment larger than life, that on a global level would include the existence of millions of people from different continents.

  • Kim Sooja, now based in New York, gained critical acclaim with her Bottari Truck, which was shown in the Sao Paulo Biennale in 1998 and the Venice Biennale in 1999 based on her performance of driving a truck loaded with bottari bundles through Korea. Kim Sooja's performances are very subtle and never does she impose any conclusions on the viewer. On the contrary, it is the flow of her deliberate 'inaction,' her silence that over time creates an almost meditative state of mind or religious experience for the viewer. With minimal action, Kim Sooja's performances include aesthetics, poetry and contemplation, qualities that often appear to be missing in contemporary art today.

  • In the following interview, Kim Sooja discusses her recent projects, performance art, as well as the contemporary art scene in Korea.

  • OS: You are one the very few non-US artists that has been selected for the Whitney Biennial opening in New York (Whitney Museum of American Art). What type of work will you be showing?

  • KS: We were talking about a project in Central Park, but it is not confirmed yet. The first proposal I made was actually rejected because that specific space in Central Park was already being used (a space similar to a stage close to the fountain). I was going to install theatre curtains in relationship to the piece. I was planning on entitling it Invisible Woman, where I would disappear for the whole month. That was my plan, but it is not going to be realized. However, we are still trying to find another location and I might install table-cloths in one of the cafeterias of the zoo. The museum is very excited about the project. I was also given a space within the museum to do an installation. We nevertheless have to confirm whether I can use both spaces.

  • OS: How did you select the various sites for your performances of A Needle Woman, your latest work?

  • KS: I tended to select cities that had a very large population, where I would meet many people on the street. I did not really plan to go to mega cities, located in different continents, but this is what actually happened. After my first performance in Tokyo, people told me I should go to Shanghai where I would meet a lot of people. In order to complete my project, I ended up going there. Following that, I, of course, also thought of India as a place for a performance. I chose Delhi, then Mexico City, another city with a large population, then Cairo and Lagos. All these cities in different continents are very unique. In a way, A Needle Woman addresses globalism, but also localism. At the same time, it is interesting to witness how people from various cultures react differently towards my work. For me, this project created fascinating interactions.

  • OS: More specifically, how was the reaction to the performance in these various places?

  • KS: Of course, the reaction was very different from one place to another. In Tokyo, when I was standing in the street, nobody dared to look at me. It was as if I was an invisible person. In the beginning, my body was very tense, but at the end, since nobody was looking at me anyway, my body became lighter and lighter, and I was in a state of meditation. As people were just ignoring me and passing by, my body became like a ghost. In Shanghai, the people showed more interest. They looked at me with curiosity, but without really approaching me. They just went on their way. In Delhi, it was more intense because people on the street were so curious. They stopped in front of me trying to understand what I did, and who I was. Needless to say, I caused a lot of traffic problems! Many people inquired with my cameraperson whether I was a sculpture or a Buddha. I think that in a way, they were just so innocent and didn't have many experiences of that kind with foreigners. It was a very intense encounter. Mexico City was more like a mixture between Shanghai and Tokyo. The people didn't overtly show their interest, but they still found me 'strange'. They would look back, and sometimes laugh and talk about me, but without ever touching my body.

  • Cairo was a very different experience because people were very curious, and tried to provoke me. For example, a man just ran into my performance and sprayed some perfume at me in order to wake me up, and see how I would react. Also, a woman started walking around me. She suddenly approached me and grabbed my hair. The audience just played with me like a doll, and of course, I couldn't move. It was interesting the way they reacted. They were very eager to communicate with me, coming into the camera frame, talking to the camera people. There was always some interaction going on. The next stop was in Lagos. It was the most static performance as far as the relationship with the audience goes. People on the marketplace stood in front of me as if they were taking a group photo that included me. They were trying to provoke me by waving their hands in front of me to see if I would react or not. They wanted to find out whether I was a ghost. Children were always standing there, laughing. Sometimes they were curious, sometimes they became very serious about what I was doing. At the end of the performance, they all took a photograph. With them, it was similar to a humanistic relationship. London was also very similar to New York. People were just following their way, coming and going, walking fast, talking on their cell phones. Also, a lot of people were having their lunch on the street while was performing, and they tried to find some information about my presence. Sometimes, they were even trying to imitate what I was doing.

  • OS: Do you welcome the interaction with the audience?

  • KS: Most performers are doing and showing something which involves moving their body, with people watching in a static position. Instead, I wanted to show different reactions from people towards my performance by standing still, and not moving my body.

  • OS: Throughout your latest projects, how did you become 'a needle woman'?

  • KS: Initially, I was sewing together used clothing from my grandmother, mother and family. Then, I started collecting anonymous clothing, used clothing. They kept people's smells and the shape of their body. The sewing process enabled me to become a needle itself. In the beginning, I was sewing with my hands with the needle, but then, I started my 'wrapping series.' This also deals with sewing because I see sewing as a wrapping process of the fabric with the thread. Then, I developed the wrapping series of the bundles. I feel that the bundle is another type of sewing. It is almost three-dimensional sewing that wraps together. In 1994, I started connecting my body as a symbol of a needle with a piece called Sewing into Walking where I was performing in nature. On the ground, I put bed covers, and I would then walk around to collect these fabrics one by one. So this walking process, the collecting and gathering of all these things is about the meaning of the needle which my body is serving. From that point, I started to focus more on the invisible character of the needle like in Sewing into Looking: I see people's way of looking, communicating, eating, loving. In a way, everything that implies a connecting process is sewing. When I did Laundry woman, Looking into Sewing, Laundry Field, it was related to my sewing, looking, and walking process all together as one function of the needle. My body became the needle itself. Of course, it is symbolic but I find I don't really need to do needle-work by hand anymore. I am now more interested in the invisible daily activities of people. Putting myself in the middle of people is like a weaving process. Over the years, my work has become more abstract, different from the work I was previously showing. I am discovering a new horizon.

  • OS: Most of the time you have used cloth both in a positive and in a negative way. Are you planning on further exploring the negative side of cloth?

  • KS: I did that kind of performance / video / photo work in 1998. I covered myself with cloth, I was completely hidden. I am actually thinking of doing more performances in a hidden situation. Overall, the cloth and clothing that we wear living together for our whole life deals with my basic question on life, and also with my question on surface which is canvas, since I started out as a painter. For example, the Korean bed cover is a symbol of our body and stands as the frame of our life. It is the site where we are born, where we love, dream, sleep, suffer and die. So it is a symbolic field of human life. Wrapping and unwrapping inside is more about questioning our own way and our own destiny. Putting clothes in it was also very much related to my earlier sewn pieces, but also it is completely related to my recent needle woman performances.

  • OS: So your early training was as a painter?

  • KS: I studied painting so my questions came through the painting issues in contemporary painting. Of course, I was examining oil painting, objects, doing all these different experimental paintings and exploring various processes. Still, I was always wondering how I could really get into the object I was dealing with, and become one with this object? That was my main question. However, I could never feel the oneness when I was dealing with canvas, paper, or any other medium. I was always trying to find the level where I can completely overlap myself. I had a great desire to melt with this object. The sewing process is all about desire, which can also be love in a way. I discovered the tactility in the sewing process in 1998 when I was making bed covers: putting the needlepoint to the fabric, I almost felt an electric shock, which intrigued me. I felt that I had found what I was looking for, this was the way I could explore the question of surface, the question of life itself. Sewing was a very important starting point which then led me to use my body as a needle.

  • OS: During your studies, you traveled extensively. Which trip was the most influential?

  • KS: I received a grant from the French government to study in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. It was also an important opportunity for me to discover Europe, and I traveled to Italy, Germany and Denmark. These trips just confirmed what I had learnt from books, but they were not that influential to my work. The one most important trip to me was the one to Japan. I went there in 1979. Until then, in Korea, one was not allowed to travel abroad, and consequently we didn't have much information about our neighbours. Before going to Japan, I thought all Asian countries were the same culture. When I went to Japan, I found it was very different from my country, Korea. In Japan, the structure, the culture and architecture are all very humble and 'simple'. Although I was fascinated by what I saw in Japan, I also felt that there were some limitations in terms of aesthetic quality. Their art is very sophisticated, and I find it very interesting. However, I also found my own reality from that trip, and I started to appreciate our culture in Korea with its colourful, and almost 'shamanistic' elements. I became very interested in further discovering the Korean aspects dealing with structure and aesthetic. That is one reason why I was very keen to use typical Korean fabrics as material in my work.

  • OS: The Bottari Truck project is one of your most famous pieces. How did it come about? Which cities did you cover?

  • KS: It was started in 1997 in Korea. I made a trip in Korea to visit old cities and villages I used to live in, and in which I had memories. It took 11 days to make the whole trip. Out of this trip, I made one video called Cities on the Move, 2727 km which was showing my back passing through the mountains. It explores the question of time and space, and their coexistence. Initially, while I was sewing, my mind would always travel somewhere else. I would always dream of traveling. The Bottari Truck performance was my actual traveling, with my mind going back towards the past, looking back on my life in Korea.

  • OS: Recently more and more curators and dealers travel to Korea to find "new talent".

  • KS: Over the past decades, there were two important changing points: the Olympics in 1988 and the first Kwangju Biennale in the mid 1990's. Following the Olympics, more people from abroad started coming to Korea, and after the Biennale, more and more people could come to visit artists studios and exhibitions. Today, there are numerous contemporary art exhibitions taking place, and the artists get to show their work abroad. There has been a major transition from the time when it used to be very closed to today where it is completely open.

  • Olivia Sand is a correspondent for the Asian Art Newspaper based in New York, and Strasbourg, France. She contributes to The Asian Art Newspaper on a monthly basis, covering the Asian contemporary art scene. The newspaper, published out of London, serves as a thorough information source on the world of Asian art.

— From Asian Art Newspaper, London, 2002.

A Laundry Woman, 2002, used korean bed covers, tibetan monk chant, fans, Kunsthalle Wien, Karlsplatz. Photo by Christian Wachter.


Matt, Gerald


  • GM: When I visited you for the first time in your apartment in downtown Manhattan I felt as if I had just been transported into another world; an enclave of contemplation and concentration in a city whose maxim is the acceleration of the pace of life. Have you brought your world from Korea with you and transplanted it into the city context of New York (almost like a Bottari-Bundle ) or do you rather see this Korean world as an alternative design/parallel universe to an accelerated existential rhythm which has almost exceeded the human being's biological capacities?

  • KS: Whether I live in Korea or in New York, I live in my own world which is isolated from outer world, and that's the way I keep distance from the other. In the sense of isolation, New York can be more isolated place than Korea in physical way, but I felt much more isolation in Korea in intellectual, and psychological way, in a society which is overwhelmed by mass consumption which often happens in developing counties. This idea obviously influences to the art world in Korea.

  • GM: Is it a splendid isolation?

  • KS: Well, sometimes. It often fulfils different part of my desire and this loneliness and isolation enables me to reach to the absolute world.

  • GM: Travelling plays a central role in your work. The continu ous ly changing new locations in which you place yourself and your art continue to change the context of your work. (In this respect, one might almost characterize your work as context art.) Would you say that traveling is a sort of means of survival for you - an activity which evokes positive feelings or do you think what Paul Virilio called "the small death of departure" has a role to play here?

  • KS: Travelling for me is not always voluntary one but was often forced ones. It's been part of my life since I was a little girl. My father used to be in military service since Korean War and our family had to move from one village to another, one city to another almost every two years. We've been lived and moving around near DMZ area for many years... It was a surprise for me to realize that we have been packing and unpacking bundles all the time which is my actual body of work since early '90s and how clear and strong the passing by landscape images from train was in my childhood like it was presented in my recent videos. Location and dislocation, encounter and separation were always there and I find myself who has a borderline mentality and think the fabric I deal with in a way is doing that role. I had to carry on a great deal of 'longing' and 'nostalgia' as well as 'laps of memory' and 'adjustment to the new environment' since little girl. When I wasn't traveling somewhere and stayed in these mountain villages, I was always looking at the black big mountain which was standing in front of me as if an obstacle and longing to go beyond these mountains to discover another world.

  • GM: But do you feel at home when you travel? Or do you miss home?

  • KS: I don't think too much about home when I travel as I know I am going back. I think we tend to have different attitude to travel according to the ways we travel. When we are in a train or a bus, our memories left behind stay in our mind longer than when we are in the plane. Airplane separates us digitally to nowhere to the place where there is no life, creating a moment of disconnection.

  • Everlasting location and dislocation, leaving people behind, and meeting strangers in a strange place, of course, were a strong impact to my growth, and I had to deal with these heavy memories of people and the place as well as dealing with new condition of life.

  • GM: Your artistic journeys imply a double-code: On the one hand, you introduce (of whatever disposition) a Korean identity into a new milieu and, in doing so , exercise an influence on your immediate environment, on the other hand, you subject your own sensibility to new impressions thereby potentially altering your own conscious experience of the world. A theorist once remarked that it is at once the curse and delight of travelling that it makes 'readable' places which formerly seemed boundless. Would you say that, for you this process is generally one of the disillusionment or over fulfillment of dreams?

  • KS: My interest on travel lies on my own perception on the world and it's awakening but not about sentimental fulfillment of dreams, and I think disillusionment is the nature of encounter if there were any illusion.

  • GM: For your work Cities on the Move - 2727 kilometers Bottari Truck you loaded the back of a lorry with Bottaris and drove through Korea in 1997, and in Venice Biennial in 1999, you made a journey from Korea to Venice which was titled Bottari Truck in exile / or d'Apperttuto dedicated to the Kosovo refugees. Which role does the political dimension play or, more precisely, political intervention, in your aesthetics?

  • KS: In the sense that my interest lies tremendously on human condition and its reality, I would say it is inevitable to be connected to political dimension, but basically, I am not so interested in dealing demonstrative political issues in a direct way in contemporary art. My work is more related to the dimension of pure humanity and it's affection, and contemplation towards mankind rather than revealing political problems. I always hated political attitude in human behavior and this idea made me even stay away from political issues as I simply don't like people who deals politics whom I often find dishonest. Of course, I don't want to generalize my personal attitude toward politicians and there are people who sacrifice themselves for this issue with dignity.

  • GM: You dedicated it to Kosovo refugees.

  • KS: The Kosovo war was still going on near Venice during the Biennale and I simply couldn't do anything else without mentioning this tragedy and memorizing the victims of the war which never ends in this world, especially which was happening right nearby Venice. Same situation happened to my piece at the 1 st Kwnagju Biennale which was dedicated to Kwangju Messacre in the 80's and for the piece at Nagoya City Art Museum when the Sampoong Department store building was collapsed in Seoul and killed hundreds of people in my neighbourhood.

  • War was always next to me since I was a little girl, the time when my family lived near DMZ. My friends and I used to wander collecting empty bullets and fragments of mine in the wild field and played with them often.

  • GM: What is your attitude towards the theme of the native and the foreign? Do you feel yourself today to be a New Yorker, a Korean in exile or a nomadic citizen of the world. Do you think that the concept native homeland continues to have relevance when describing contemporary modern conditions?

  • KS: All of them. Homeland exists no more in reality but only in our memory in this era.

  • GM: In your work "A Needle Woman" but also in A Laundry Woman you present yourself schematically from behind, statue-like and in various milieus and geographical contexts. The global nomad, which generally implies an activism, is rendered immobile whereas the surrounding alien world continues to move. How do you define this dialectic of motion and immobility?

  • And what role does the Zen Buddhist concept of the samadhi play here — the ideas of contemplation and unity, which are often used in meditation?

  • KS: Nothing is immobile... and mobility is the fundamental state of existing being. Any moment is in vibration in it's own rhythm.

  • It is a relative fine line which divides mobility and immobility and this hypothetical standard functions only within a certain perspective. I located my body to the limit to the fine barometer which divides immobility and mobility. It is in a way logical that the mobility of my body which enabled to locate in a specific street of the cities in different continents functions as an example of immobility, while my instant decision of being immobility is made in a brief moment with no reasoning. It is made in the midst of conflict of energy of the intense mobility happening between two different elements, the one which is my body, and the other which is outer world.

  • I always wanted to show the reality of the world more by 'doing nothing' 'without making something' and showing 'as it is' while most performers try to show and create something new by doing or acting something.

  • I've never practiced meditation in my life but I find every moment for me was a meditation itself. I reached to the similar state of Zen Buddhism through completely my own way of meditation on life and art and its practice without referring any model or a text. I even haven't read any book for over a decade since I decided not to in the late 80's and I recently started to read some books again. I had no time to follow other's perception and didn't want to be influenced. Now I find extreme similarities between my practice and Zen Buddhism.

  • GM: In your video performances you either stand sit or lie — statue-like — with your back to the audience at the centre of the image - a schematic, faintly delineated presence. You become a template-like form drawing the gaze of the observer towards the centre of the image and then confront him with an empty space. Is your intention here to select as a central theme the idea of the "invisible self"; to delineate an area that must first be filled by the vibrations of a feminine elan vital?

  • A critic for the New York Times experienced your presence in the videos as mythical and melancholic. He characterises you as a "lost soul in a globalised modernity". Do you find this diagnosis appropriate?

  • KS: I don't think about my gender while I am performing and my body stays completely in neutral state during this performance and it only functions as a tool which witnesses the world. Maybe it is the reason the critic characterises me as a lost soul in a globalised modernity as I am the only being in the scene who separates my body from the rest of the people on the street and look at the whole world while others are relate their gaze and concern within themselves .Audiences who see the video in the show has another layer of distance as video is already edited frame which shows only upper waist back part of myself and the audiences gaze replaces the camera's eye.

  • I don't doubt it could be seen as a mythical presence but regarding his perception 'melancholic', I would say 'yes' if only standing still in the middle of the crowd means melancholic. It is a very provocative act and decision.

  • GM: Contexts / environments play a central role in your work as, to a certain extent, you form the dialogue partner in the exchange between art and life.

  • How do you select these environments: How, for example, do you work within the specific framework that the Kunsthalle Vienna provides?

  • KS: Well, I've been always making site-specific installations so I had to consider the character of the space which is unique glass pavilion.

  • I find the elements of the cityscape of Wien around this building quite interesting and unusual for an art space so I decided to take this as a positive elements to invite the city-scape to the space and reflect and overlap my installation to the city-scape using this glass. I thought laundry installation could work quite well giving an interesting contrast to the city.

  • GM: The installation A Laundry Woman will be hanging out washing on a line in Vienna — a common sight in Mediterranean and tropical countries and yet, in Vienna, much less common. Does this concern the demarcation of cultural differences; perhaps also the idea of making the public space more intimate by means of the public spectacle of personal pieces of clothing?

  • KS: Laundries, especially hung with used bedcovers can be very much intimate material not only because they are personal items but also bedcover itself is about our body and intimacy. I am using this universal way of laundry (it is disappearing, though) as my own statement which has been related to everlasting subject on life for me. Each laundry hung on the cloth line is a big question for me.

  • GM: Could you give more idea about this input of your private life, your biography, in terms of your work or relation to your work?

  • KS: I never mentioned about my private life in my work or in interviews but in fact, my work is all about my private life, its sexual suppression and liberation, its insight and sympathy, and its contextualisation in contemporary art.

  • You asked earlier about the reason why I use only Korean bedcovers and if it is to create a cultural and visual contrast in Western society. The meaning of bedcover and it's fantasy and social context is different from Koreans and westerners. Bedcovers I use are mostly abandoned used ones and those are the ones made for the newly marriage couples. As you see, these bedcovers have embroideries and patterns with it's unique opposite colour combination which signifies Yin and Yang, and has symbols of love, happiness, wealth, long life and many sons which most Koreans wish and carry on* through their lives. Wishing many sons is typical wishes in Confucian society.

  • I am using these fabrics as these are my own reality and social, aesthetical environment which influenced my life so much but western bedcovers do not have such diverse meanings and relationship to me and there's not such a strong suppression and endurance in private life in western society. It is same reason that I wrap the Bottari with Korean bedcover as it embraces and questions so many different issues and has private, social, cultural context to me. Bedcover for me is nothing but a frame of our bodies and lives and it is the most fundamental site of human being where we get born, love and dream, rest, we suffer, and we finally die there.

  • GM: A work situation you often like to choose is the artist performing in front of the desiring video eye; a standard situation in environments in which the individual must continually reflect on his or her suitability within the framework of advanced media conditions. (Something which, through the music video, has become a general social form of communication). Could we interpret this as an investigative project, in which the relationship of the subject, media representation and the existential concentration to the surrounding milieus is subjected to a visual analysis?

  • KS: Probably. Locating my body in the crowd in different part of the world is an act of posing question (catechism) to myself and to the others who are in the milieus in an intimate but strange and direct way as well as to the viewers for the videos in the exhibition space in much more neutral way through framing and filtering by media locating audiences body to the backside of my body which was located camera's eye.

  • GM: You have been working with decorated ordinary Korean bedcovers for many years now: sewn-together and printed fabrics. It is these objects, which in Korea have been allocated to a feminine sphere. Was it important for you, in a male-oriented Confucian society to place these objects at the center of your art; thereby ascribing to yourself an aura-like presence, which you do not have in an everyday context? By doing that and putting it out of the female circle or the household, you put it on a totally different level, in a way, it worked like a emancipation strategy.

  • KS: It is true. Sewing, wrapping, hanging laundry, cleaning house, spreading table cloths, cooking... these are all domestic female activities which never considered as meaningful important activities as high art. I find these activities to be most amazing fundamental art activities in terms of aesthetic, cultural, social, psychological dimension which most people are not aware much and which art historians are not mentioning much. But please don't misunderstand that I am doing this as a feminist artist as my interest lies on totality in perception and it's realization.

  • Women's domestic activities are fully composed with activities of painting, sculpture, installation and performances and we can analyse each activity in the contemporary art context.I am trying to create and expend my own concept of women's and everyday's activity in contemporary art context by focusing mundane domestic female activities as well as everyday activities .I found the methodology of 'sewing' while I was searching for a methodology which enables to express my structural vision of the world in the early 80's (structure of surface and the world and that of life), by practicing this methodology with this particular gaze, I was able to extend and come back again to the vision toward the whole world which is broad mundane act of human being. That is how my 'sewing' clothes transformed into 'A Needle Woman' video performance.

  • GM: The Pojagi are commonly made from already used, worn out pieces of material, which are sewn together. So biographies, personal life histories, are written into them. A procedure is thus realised in everyday usage which became dominant in Western art during the nineties, namely, in the form of Remix / Recycling / Sampling. Naturally, although it is not possible to compare the conditions of production and milieus, it is possible to compare the way of processing the material. also, all these materials tell at least some stories about the people who used them- and you put all these stories, in a way, together, by linking them and so on. You recycle material which was already used for certain functions now, for another function, an artistic function to tell a story. Did this similarity play a role in the design of your own types? So when you started and felt this effect?

  • KS: First of all, I have to make a clear definition between my wrapping cloth which was originally 'bedcover', which supposed not to be made to wrap things but people often use it when they move as it is the biggest cloth we can find in household, but this is originally made for covering our body to keep worm. 'Pojagi' which is sewn with left over cloths in household mainly called for 'Korean wrapping cloth' is made as means of wrapping and when it is used for covering as well, usually for food. My bedcover functions as Pojagi, in broad meaning of wrapping cloth, as the term 'Pojagi' is used as a symbol of wrapping cloth in Korea but Pojagi doesn't function as a bedcover, so the 'Pojagi' is not the 'Bedcover' which I am using as wrapping cloth.

  • As I mentioned before, my recycling idea especially for using used clothes was started from 1983 when I first made a sewn work with my grandmother's left over traditional Korean clothes when she passed away. Since then, I always collected used clothes and used for my sewn pieces, but this was not just to recycle the material but recycling rather our body and life itself.

  • GM: In this connection: the Senegalese fashion designer Oumou Sy, famous for her wild combinations of Western and African styles and materials, calls her globally coloured designs "Metissage", a combination of everything, which pays little attention to tradition and origins. Are such ideas also important for you?

  • KS: What I saw in my earlier carrier was used traditional Korean clothes from my grandmother, from my mother, and since 90's I also collected used modern clothes from friends and from unknown people. So most important issue for me was the persons who used to wear the clothes remained though these physicality of cloths but not just an aesthetical aspect of the materials.

  • The first sewn piece I made in 1983 was from my grandmother's remains after she passed away and I was so much attached by the texture of the cloth and her own woven silk which seems to be a skin her body which keeps all memories and love of herself. I expended my materials later on with unknown people's clothes which kept human smell always, so my sewing practice was in a way invisible networking of human being and it's morning and my aesthetic concern went always parallel to it.

  • When I ask to myself, what in the world, did I sew and wrap over 20 years, I can say now it was the scars, pain, longing, love, passion, tear parts of my psychology and body as well as my loneliness which needed to be attached. My sympathy towards others is nothing but a self-love, I find.

  • GM: In Africa a non-verbal form of communication is unfolded in the pattern, colours and symbols on textiles — a non-idiomatic language competence, so to speak. Are such elements of language / segments of communication "woven" into your pastiches, which include, as they do, completely new combinations of traditional patterns and embroidery?

  • KS: Absolutely. As I mentioned earlier, these bedcovers have symbolic patterns and rich embroideries — since they are specially made for the newly marriage couples, there are always meaningful signs and wishes of our lives such as birds (especially peacock or a Chinese Phoenix) and butterflies together with flowers which signify love, turtles for long life, purses for wealth, dears for many kids and happiness of family, and there are also written words such as 'happiness', 'pleasure', 'long life'... in fact, the fabrics are full of these life long wishes we carry on. But the fabrics I find are mostly abandoned ones which means the couple thrown it away or they are not together anymore.

  • With all these symbols, I always find empty bodies which were left which used to stay there for a while in their own history and memories.

  • GM: In the abstract quality of traditional Korean fabrics, critics have pointed out the similarities to Mondrian or the abstract Expressionists. Would you agree with this and do you play with these superficial similarities or would this be a mistaken interpretation?

  • KS: I find that there's great similarities in the colour combinations and formal structure between Korean Pojagi and Mondrian painting. But Korean Pojagi was made 500 years earlier than Mondrian's if we compare the dates. And they are mostly made by anonymous Korean women who divert their minds from sorrow, loneliness, their hardship and tedious life.

  • GM: The work with fabrics / textiles / colours implies a hands-on aesthetics, a direct physical contact with materials, which was common in earlier forms of art (sculpture/painting) but which has since assumed a much less significant position. Does one aspect of your work concern the retrieval of the material as such, in a world which is becoming increasingly less material? As a metaphor is the "Needle" preferred to the computer mouse?

  • KS: One could say 'Yes' if one create a concept which computer mouse can replace our body. But computer mouse is already part of our body and I know how the tool can replace our body through my own process of needle work. Needle could have been replaced to my body as it is a tool which is extension of our body, then why not computer mouse?

  • GM: In this connection, the body, or more especially, the disappearance of the body, belongs to one of the central themes of contemporary art. In a time of digital production the physical is often reduced to a trace element of its material presence; think of the online-chats, in which digital shadows communicate with each other. Could your work over the last ten years be understood as an attempt to make conscious and realise the fleeting nature of the bodily and visceral in an age where the body is itself disappearing?

  • KS: My disappearance and immaterialization is nothing to do with global digital issues but from my own vision and for my own necessity of being light. I've been dealing with so much weights of bodies which was tremendous heaviness to me. I guess the whole clothes I've been dealing with was at least many dozens of tons, and they are basically from millions of anonymous people. I wish I could have payed some amount of my Karma and to liberate myself.

  • I really wish to disappear at some point with my own decision, and I've been planning 'A Disappearing Woman' piece since last year, although we have to someday.

  • GM: It sounds like you are a magician.

  • KS: Magician? It is interesting because one Korean-American writer called Joan Kee sent me a message saying that there's a hypnotic element in my work which I find very interesting perception.

  • GM: What does the wrapping of objects as something you often work with, signify (Deductive Objects). Should the object be made to disappear or through visible invisibility (the fabric coverings emphasise the contours) be especially aura-like and erotically charged?

  • KS: Maybe you are right. The reason why I call these object works as 'Deductive Object' is to make difference between sewn series and object series in terms of its process. If the sewn pieces were inductive methodology of creating a secondary surface which was already planned in form, the object pieces was the opposite way, so to speak, examining the existing structure by wrapping or covering with accumulating action but is ending off to the original form. That's how I titled the object pieces as 'Deductive Object'.

  • GM: As part of your communication with the public, the visitors may open the Bottaris and examine the contents. Is this a conscious attempt to establish the difference to Western reception, where such "interventions" are interpreted as damaging or sacrilegious and, as such, sanctioned?

  • KS: I didn't particularly allow people to touch Bottaries or any other fabric installations but people just do it as they are so curious about this colourful Korean tactile materials and about the content what's inside Bottaries even though they were installed in the museums. Since it is happening all the time even if there's a guard, I decided to accept the fact and the changes by public.

  • In 1995, when I installed two tons and a half used cloth es for the 1 st Kwangju Biennale on outdoor woods w hich was dedicated to Kwangju Messacre, almost o ne ton has has been disappeared — the show went for two months and during this period people opened Bottaries and took used clothings - so at the end, with change of the season from summer into fall, with rain and people's foot steps on the clothes —, it looked almost like a ruin. And I thought that was the point the piece was done.

  • I find the perception on used items, on the contrary to what you mentioned, is different from Koreans and Westerners especially for the used clothes. You say western people might think audiences' intervention as sanctioned but I find westerners are more familiar with used items. For example, they buy and wear used clothes worn by unknown people without hesitation (I guess that's why there's so many second hand markets in western countries), but Koreans believe that the spirit of the person who used to wear the clothes is remained in it, so they are resistant to wear unknown person's clothes. We have a tradition to burn his or her clothes when the person dies and believe the person's body and soul is sent to the heaven.

  • GM: Also, in your video performances you allow people to take part of it, isn't it? And you have named your current work cycle A Needle Woman and not 'The Needle Woman'. The choice of the indefinite article implies a certain indeterminate quality while, at the same time, a drifting away from a sharply defined individuality to an imaginary collective. Through the focus of your artistic sensibility, would you say your intention is to themetize the specificities of the Korean woman in general?

  • KS: Not at all. But maybe I wanted to hide myself... The title 'A Needle Woman' is nothing to do with emphasis on woman but to describe myself who is a person who cannot be named as a man. When I make indefinite identity for my presence as 'A Needle Woman', it means it can be anybody, like an inexplicable neutral icon, and it's not necessary to define my presence and I wanted to keep distance between myself and the performer who is in the video and who will be seen to myself later on but not to imply any Korean women issue. There is no evidence that I am a Korean woman in that video and I don't even wear a Korean dress.

  • GM: Your work is often discussed within the framework of a differentiated Western feminism. Would this be an appropriate theoretical foundation or is it lacking its object, namely, the role of the female artist in contemporary Korean society?

  • KS: As I mentioned earlier, I've been denying to be called as a Feminist ever since I started my carrier. I would accept it only in the sense that Feminism is all about Humanism. Of course women's role in contemporary Korean society is so important and we have to be treated equally with no prejudice and movement for women's right should be continued in our society. But my philosophical and artistic aim is to achieve the totality which absorbs and unites the whole questions of the world.

  • GM: When did you initially envision yourself to be an artist? When did you first think you wanted to be an artist? Or to study art?

  • KS: When I was 11 years old, my homeroom teacher at elementary school asked us to write two different occupations we want to be in the future.

  • I wrote 'painter' and 'philosopher'. My passion for art was so strong when I was in high school and I was almost trying to quit the school to be just an artist. At the same time I had a strong conflict between the desire of being an artist and being a religious person, for example, a Catholic sister, or someone who devote her life for the people in need. The time I felt I was already an artist was when I was 13 years old in middle school, when I decided not to participate any art competition which gives prize which I could win easily and which was common process for the students who want to be an artist or to go to collage in Korean society.

  • GM: You first began as a painter. You now work exclusively with installations and moving pictures. Does this have to do with the step from the two-dimensional to the three-dimensional, with the aspect of motion as opposed to immobility? Or was painting simply too far away from the realities of life? Now you add acoustic dimension in your work.

  • KS: I was interested in sound piece since 1992 and acoustic element in my video and installation has been tried since 1994 and I used to use popular music and monk chanting. I've been also making single sound pieces which I want to develop more.

  • Ever changing my vision on space and time enabled to open up new horizon but I only followed the logic of sensibility and my inspiration that led me to make artistic decision. The way I develop my idea from two-dimensional stage into three-dimensional and then to video which allowed to deal with time and space is originated from my concept of sewing, wrapping and unwrapping. I think 'Nature of Sewing and wrapping' already have elements of opening new dimension to time, so to speak, it was already there.

  • GM: Do you "paint" today with an 'extended' brush: A metaphorical needle that sews together the material, mediums, cultures and epochs and, in the form of an extended bricolage, creates continually new combinations of object connections?

  • KS: In terms of methodology, yes.

  • GM: If someone ask you a commission to do a new work, and give you one million dollars, what would you do?

  • KS: I would donate the money to support children in famine and pain in this world.

  • GM: So you would give the money to those children; you wouldn't use it for your work?

  • KS: It's my work.

  • GM: In what way would you say your attitude to the media has changed over the years? TVs used to be integral elements of installations — in some senses, television bottaris. Today, for example, in Laundry Woman, video is only used in its function as conserving or recording material, namely exterritorialised. On the other hand, the earlier silent works now have an acoustic dimension. Are these changes in the use of media possibilities intuitive decisions or conscious aesthetic priorities?

  • KS: Although there's moments where I consider aesthetic and logical aspect of work, my artistic decision is always made at intuitive and instant moment. I think the moment of making artistic decision is similar to the state of 'Zen' which transforms the whole world to another dimension.

  • Of course, I started video works as I consider video as an 'Image Bottari' or a 'Wrapped Image' to show my concept of 'wrapping' and I wasn't so interested in creating images when I first started video in 1994, so my intension to use video was completely different from other video artists.

  • GM: Were you — or are you — interested in western or European philosophy? And are there any philosophers you are especially interested in?

  • KS: Until around late 80's, I was interested in Structuralism as I was focused on fundamental structure of the world, so I was interested in Wittgenstein's linguistic approach, Levi Strauss's research on cultural and geographical examples and structure, C.G. Jung's psychological structure, and I was also interested in Heidegger related to existential subjects... and now I find how similar their thoughts were in relationship to Zen Buddhism which I had no concrete idea around the time. So my interests on Western thoughts actually stopped at that period as I decided not to read books and information since late 80's and I haven't read books for over decade and I didn't want to be influenced by outer information. And I had also no time to follow other's thoughts. I recently started reading books again. I was of course aware of De-Structuralism and following recent issues although I haven't read as it is logical to create this idea following Structuralism.

  • GM: What was the last book you read most recently?

  • KS: I read a book called Western Philosophy and Zen Buddhism by John Stephanie, a comparison between Zen Buddhism and Western philosophy and I find it very interesting. I'd never read any book which compared literally, word to word, Zen Buddhism with Western philosophy, the differences and the similarities. But I think this issue should be researched and developed much further as there's a huge gap between Western and Oriental thoughts and methodology.

  • GM: So, as you told me, when you were young, you were asked what you wanted to be and you said, "a painter or a philosopher" — If one were to ask you today what you want to be, what would you answer?

  • KS: A lover, or a monk.

  • GM: Thank you.

  • — From the Kunsthalle Wien solo show catalog, 2002.

Gerald Matt is the director of the Kunsthalle Wien.