An Interview with Kimsooja


Interview with Kimsooja

A Needle Woman, 1999 - 2001, video still from New York, 8 channel video projection, 6:33 loop, silent.

An Interview with Kimsooja

Kim, Sunjung


  • I would like to begin with a question about your video installation, A Needle Woman, perhaps your best-known work. It was made from 1999 until 2001, and was shot in various locations, such as Tokyo, Shanghai, Delhi, New York, Mexico City, Cairo, Lagos, and London. Could you describe your experiences in those cities and countries, and the background of the work?

  • When the CCA (Center for Contemporary Art) Kitakyushu [in Japan] approached me about a new project, I had the idea of making a performance video that would show the relationship between my body and the people on the streets of Tokyo. But it wasn't clear what form it would eventually take. At first, I got on and off crowded subway trains, and walked around for two hours. After this two-hour-long period, when I arrived to a street in Shibuya, where hundreds of thousands of people were constantly passing through, like waves of a human ocean ebbing and flowing - I suddenly became aware of the meaning of my ‘walking'. It was a breathtaking moment. I had to stop on the spot and stand still- creating a contradictory position against the flow of the pedestrians, like a needle or an axis, observing and contemplating them coming and going, weaving through and against my body as a medium, like a symbolic needle. I determined to record this experience of standing motionless in a crowd, viewed from behind. I immediately let the cameraman know and documented the performance. As if facing and sustaining a giant surf, my body was completely exposed to everyone in the middle of this street, and in the course of this intense standoff, my body and mind gradually transcended to another state. In other words, as I accelerated the state of my isolation, the presence of my body seemed to be gradually erased by the crowd. Simultaneously, as the sustained immobility of my body was leading me toward state of peace and balance in my mind, I passed the state of tension between the self and others and reached the point in which I could bring and breathe others into my own body and mind. My heart began to slowly fill with compassion and affection for all human beings living today. Experiencing the extreme state that the body and mind could reach and embrace sympathies for humankind, paradoxically, liberated my mind and body from the crowd. I saw the aura of a bright white light emerging from an unknown source beyond the horizon, and I cannot help but feel that it was a mysterious, transcendental experience.

  • After the Tokyo performance, I had a desire to see all of the people in the world, and the series A Needle Woman came out of this desire, in which I visited eight metropolises on five different continents. The relationship between my body and the crowd of each city was different in each instance, and the responses I got were also quite diverse. According to the geographical, cultural, religious, and socio-economic conditions, people responded completely differently to the body of the performer as an other—or an Asian female—and my inner reaction also manifested itself in various ways.

  • In this work, I established the immobility of my body as a symbolic needle, and further questioned my relationships with others through the act of a social, cultural sewing. At the same time, I see this video series as an extension of my bottari work, in which I tried to embrace the humanity within myself.

  • A new version of A Needle Woman was made for the 2005 Venice Biennale, with footage you shot in rather dangerous places riddled with many social and political problems. I'm curious about the reasons why you selected those cities and what kinds of issues you wanted to address in such backgrounds.

  • The first series of A Needle Woman consisted of real-time videos that focused on the spatial dimensions created by the body as a symbolic needle, or an axis within various spaces, in the midst of densely populated metropolises. The new version I presented at the 2005 Venice Biennale takes more of an interest in the cities that are experiencing poverty, violence, post-colonialism, civil wars, and religious conflicts—Patan, within Kathmandu Valley (Nepal), Havana (Cuba), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), N'Djamena (Chad), Sana (Yemen), and Jerusalem (Israel). My intention was to present a critical perspective on current conditions of humanity. Created in slow motion, this new series places my body at the zero point on the axis of time, and explores temporal dimensions by showing the contrast between my motionless body and the others' slow motion. This work also shows the subtlety of the relationship between bodies, and their emotional transitions and psychologies. This was another opportunity for me to explore the question of time, which has been important to me since my first video, Sewing into Walking.

  • To Breathe: A Mirror Woman, which was presented in your solo exhibition in the Palacio de Cristal, commissioned by The Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, was a work that changed the context of a given space and its spatiality. It seems that the work places emphasis on changing a space, and on the experience one may have in that space. If your earlier work had been about the two-dimensional experience of visiting different places via performance translated into video, this work asks viewers to experience the very space in which it is shown. Could you discuss the background and intention of this piece?

  • To Breathe: A Mirror Woman is a site specific project that brings together and amplifies the relationships between yin and yang ,and the concepts of the needle and sewing, that I have been developing for two decades. - from sewing into wrapping, sewing into walking, sewing into looking, and sewing into breathing. The idea of this project is based on wrapping the transparent architecture of Palacio de Cristal building into a bottari of light and sound. I incorporated the diffraction grating film with the entire glass pavilion of the Palacio de Cristal, to create a constantly changing spectrum of colors; the sound element consisted of a chorus blended from my own breathing and humming. Both elements were absorbed in and reflected out onto the mirror that covered the whole floor of the building, expanding a "void" within the skin of the architecture, and even becoming one with viewers' bodies and breaths as a sanctuary.

  • The body is an important element in your work. If A Needle Woman substitutes your own body for the needle, what does A Mirror Woman do? What kinds of metaphorical functions are performed by the needle and the mirror?

  • If A Needle Woman featured my body as a tool, which symbolizes the needle, in A Mirror Woman, the mirror functions in lieu of the body, that observes and reflects the "other." One can see the linguistic operations of anthropomorphizing the "needle" and the "mirror," which draw out the meaning of the works.

  • I didn't have a chance to visit your public project A Lighthouse Woman, and only got to see photographs of it. How did you start this project?

  • The piece was commissioned as part of the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2002, under the theme of "Witness of Water, Witness of Land". Charleston was one of the coastal cities of importation for African slaves. My work consisted of projecting a lighting sequence onto a lighthouse that had been out of commission for almost forty years in Morris Island, , where the devastating Civil War began. The piece was intended to breathe life back into the lighthouse and to commemorate the numerous lives lost in the war. The lighthouse was wrapped with a spectrum of nine colors, which gradually changed in a thirty-minute cycle in rhythm with the waves. A Lighthouse Woman structurally symbolized the body of a woman waiting for her husband and lover, children and brothers, who had gone off to war. I installed another work at the Drayton Hall Plantation House: four black carpets embroidered with the names of the slaves who worked there, which were placed in front of the fireplaces of the house.

  • Your Bottari Truck addresses mobile globalism. Does the importance of this work lie in the concept of globalism in mobility? Or is it the notion of identity or "being" in the global era?

  • I wasn't thinking about globalism when I made Bottari Truck, as I have never made a work related to a particular "ism" or category. I was always interested in the notion of body, personal histories and memories, and the questions of human despair and desire. I think this particular piece began to be interpreted from the perspective of globalism because the notions inherent in it came to be considered an important point of departure for globalism —such as location/dislocation and locality — and the work evolved with this social change. While I was performing 11 days throughout Korea, I was paying attention to the mobility of the bottari truck, and the continuity of both the bottari truck and the stillness of my body on the move. The truck was a moving sculpture, loaded with histories and memories, and its constant mobility, and the immobility of my body, co-incided on a temporal and spatial grid.

  • It seems to me that works such as Bottari Truck and A Needle Woman are located on a "border." They also encompass dualities such as inside and outside, life and death, pleasure and sadness. What would you say constitutes your interest in the border?

  • One might say that a consciousness about the "border" forms a sensitive spiritual axis in my thoughts. The idea connects with Eastern spirituality, which interprets all of existence in terms of yin and yang. Awareness of "border" in my work can refer to the question of the surface in painting, which was one of the starting points in my earlier sewing work. I consider the canvas as a mirror of identity, upon which artists are searching for their whole lives.

  • Perhaps, my obsession with "border" also has to do with my childhood, which was spent near the dangerous border of the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ).

  • In your 1994 solo exhibition Sewing into Walking, you developed the concept of "sewing" into "walking" by transforming "sewing stitch by stitch" into "walking step by step." Did your engagement with sewing start from a feminist point of view, or would you say that it started from personal experience?

  • This sewing practice didn't arise from a feminist point of view, or because I was particularly fond of, or good at, sewing. At that time I was exploring the structure of two-dimensionality and the world and its methodologies. One day in 1983, I was sewing a bedcover with my mother and suddenly came to realize possible formal, aesthetic, psychological, and cultural anthropological implications of the act of sewing. It was a question and an answer that came to me like a lightening bolt, or a divine revelation. I have to say that it was like a fated encounter between the universe and the needle, my hands and my body, that became an unforgettable event. This realization was completely unrelated to works that were made as part of the feminist art movements taking place in the United States and other places. As the notions of the "needle" and "wrapping" developed, the notion of sewing also expanded and evolved to relate to other acts of daily life, such as walking, looking, breathing, and mirroring.

  • Please describe the new works you are planning.

  • In the long term, my wish is to make my artistic desire disappear. In the short term, I'd like to make works that are like water and air, works that, like most of my works, cannot be possessed, but can be shared by everyone. I'd still like to wander around the world and answer questions that come to me at each moment, freely using any media. I will continue to be working without any preconceived plan, and answer questions that come to me through the evolution of my ideas.

  • What do "Korea" and "Korean" mean for you?

  • My Korean identity and my life in Korea are my main source of inspiration, but this source isn't always a positive one. Korea seems to me to be a land of shamanistic energy. I will continue to live as an anonymous outsider, as an anarchistic cosmopolitan.

Kimsooja, A Laundry Woman - Yamuna River, India, 2000, Single Channel Video Projection, 10:30 loop, Silent. Courtesy of the artist.

Interview with Kimsooja

Gordon, Kelly


  • Kelly Gordon: What is your process when you make video works? Do you begin with notes, diagrams, sketches, or storyboarding? How much does it change on site?

  • Kimsooja: I basically refuse to "make" things, and I try to keep everything as it is and as natural as possible. My ideas are almost never written down or based on stories. For example, when I was trying to do a commissioned video performance for CCA Kitakyushu, I had in mind a walking performance but I wasn't completely sure how to realize it in that particular environment. I was walking around the city with the videographer for a couple of hours because I couldn't find an idea for doing the performance in that cityscape in relation to my body and spirit. Finally, when I arrived at a street in Shibuya, where hundreds of thousands of people were constantly passing through, like waves of a human ocean ebbing and flowing, I immediately understood the significance of my walking. I had a clear awareness of the contrast created between my body and the environment around me. It was a breathtaking moment. I had to stop and stand right there, remaining motionless against the flow of the people walking. I became like an axis, observing and contemplating the moment of people's coming and going, weaving past my body as a medium, like a symbolic needle. This is the moment when the standing still performance that occurs in A Needle Woman first happened.
    This is also how I worked for A Laundry Woman - Yamuna River, India. I stopped while passing by the Yamuna, next to a cremation facility, where all the debris was floating by. In that moment, I found the connection to the location and time within my spirit and body, and I immediately asked my videographer to start documenting my performance.
    Usually the performance lasts a maximum of thirty minutes, as that is the threshold of how long I can keep my body still. By the time my body reaches its limit, and through intense focus on the relationship of the self and the other, I experience different stages of awareness and a new perception of the status of my body and the world around me. For example, there was a moment during the A Laundry Woman performance when I was completely confused whether it was the river moving, or me. Then I came to the awareness that my concrete body was standing motionless but that, in another sense, it was also running and would burn to ash very soon.

  • KG: In several of your videos, including A Laundry Woman - Yamuna River, India, you appear with your back to the camera in a dark, featureless outfit, almost like a silhouette. Is this to suggest that you represent an "everywoman" character? Or a Sprecher figure, like those in Renaissance paintings who bear witness and offer authenticity to a scene? Do you draw from other literary or artistic inspirations? During the shoot, how do you retain the expression on your face that the viewer cannot see?

  • K: There have been interesting comparisons made between Casper David Friedrich's paintings and my performance videos, especially with A Laundry Woman and A Needle Woman. Actually, the Museum Folkwang in Germany exhibited my work next to Casper David Friedrich's paintings. As I turn my back towards the audience, my body functions as a void through which viewers can look and contemplate what I am gazing at, placing themselves in my position. Yet I still have to create a corporeal figure that witnesses, mediates, and contemplates on the here and now in each location.
    I am not interested in showing my identity, but I can't imagine ever using a surrogate to replace me. The work should be performed with my own awareness of the energy of the location. If I were to substitute someone else, the figure would become empty, and would have no connection to this idea of the here and now. The most important aspect of my performance videos is what I experience within myself during the process. I actually don't care much about the resulting video piece, but when the experience is strong and special, the actual video seems to be strong and special too, so I just focus on the moment. To concentrate on the here and now I need inner silence and motionlessness. The performance comes from my awareness of other people or the river passing by rather than from my intention. I don't perform in order to make videos; rather, I make videos to document the moment of performance and my awareness.
    Most audiences are curious about my facial expression while my back is turned. I don't want to show my face as it will draw people's attention to my identity rather than what I am experiencing as an anonymous figure. My approach in making these videos is not to guide the audience in a specific direction but to leave the experience open. I do not borrow or reference things in my work. The pieces usually develop from my intuition, which is based on my experiences and the conditions of my life, rather than from logic. At the same time, I believe in the logic of intuition.

  • KG: Which comes first, the idea or the site? You have filmed all over the world but the sites often feel very similar and have a trance-inducing quality. Do these attributes inform how you select the sites? What is your technique for making the viewer feel vividly there—present with you?

  • K: I usually don't plan things in advance; I just let it happen—sometimes waiting, sometimes wandering around until the right moment arrives. It arrives when I feel the energy, accumulated from that precise time and place, in my body. Then I immediately start a performance. It is a temporary mobile temple that I establish. This only happens when I am ready and have been searching for some connection between my mind and body and a specific context of space, culture, geography, and the conditions of nature and human beings within a place. The whole process feels true to myself. The performances and videos seem to be vivid and engaging to the viewer as a result.

  • KG: Your video works suggest a timeless dimension on several levels. While the works typically have ambient or minimal sound, one can imagine a voice-over beginning with "Once upon a time..." Yet even the videos from ten years ago seem very current.

  • K: Your perception of my work with regards to the spectrum of time is interesting. It is true that it looks current but at the same time quite old. I think this is because through most of my work I've been pursuing a sense of universality that is timeless and fundamentally truth—general human experiences. I also think that the present tense is created as the presence of my body as it functions as a medium or a void, through which the audiences gaze, rather than as an static and iconic representation. I don't believe in creating something new but in inventing new perspectives based on mundane daily life as it relates to contemporary art.

  • KG: What are you working on now, and how is it like or unlike A Laundry Woman - Yamuna River, India and your other video works?

  • K: All my projects can look similar and at the same time be totally different. I've been working on a project called Mumbai: A Laundry Field since 2006, and am adding a couple more channels now. I've been to Mumbai again this year to film in another slum area where many people sleep on the streets, and I plan to go back this summer to film during the monsoon season. It is quite different from the other videos I've made so far, closer to a documentary format, without commentary but with edits. This piece brings together many of my previous practices relating to fabrics, the human body, and humanity, so it has a retrospective element to it.
    Another video I am making now is called A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon, which is a four channel video I filmed in Goa, showing the parallel relationship with The Sun and The Moon overlapped on top of the ocean waves and its reflections. I still have a series of videos I've been working on since 2005, involving architectural cityscapes around the world, which I haven't been able to finish yet. Other than that, I have a few other site-specific architectural projects I am currently working on in Europe, as well as a few other site-specific projects.
    I actually don't think about consistency and the pieces' relationship to my other work. I believe they must be related naturally in the larger scheme. I only focus on trying to break my own boundaries by constantly questioning and opening up new horizons.

  • KG: Your work often explores the physical and metaphorical aspects of materials and threads. What is the source of your fascination with textiles? How has this been manifest as your practice has evolved?

  • K: My fascination with fabric as a medium began when I was sewing a Korean bedspread with my mother in 1983. At this time I was questioning the "dimension of the surface on painting," and also searching for a methodology that could reveal the horizontal and vertical structure of the world in a way not yet examined in the history of painting. When I put a needle into the structure of the fabric, which has both a vertical and horizontal surface, I was thrilled and exhilarated, as if a ray of energy that seemed to come from the whole universe was penetrating through my body and my hands, and reaching to the needle point where it met the surface of the fabric. I was also interested in the fact that sewing layers on top of the structure of the fabric in a circular, performative way. This was the moment of my encounter with the yin and yang energy that has evolved in many different paths and levels in my practices.

Kelly Gordon is an Associate Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC.