Kimsooja 'To Breathe' in Centre Pompidou Metz "My work has always been a response to violence and inhumanity"

To Breathe, 2015, site-specific installation consisting of video projection To Breathe: Invisible Mirror, Invisible Needle, 2005, mirror, diffraction grating film, and sound performance The Weaving Factory, 2004, at Centre Pompidou-Metz, photograph by Jaeho Chong. Commissioned by Centre Pompidou-Metz, Courtesy of Institut français/Année France Corée, Kukje Gallery, Seoul and Kimsooja Studio

Kimsooja 'To Breathe' in Centre Pompidou Metz

"My work has always been a response to violence and inhumanity"

Thomas Van Loocke


  • Visiting an exhibition preview can impede an uninhibited view at the art at hand, but in the event of a large-scale installation that opens to the invitees at a specific time, it can also have a magical shine, as if you enter and explore a shrine together. However, this heightened sense of wonder can only partly explain why I was overwhelmed by a wave of goose flesh, even before I fully set foot in Kimsooja's latest installation. That is the impact her art can have.

  • Kimsooja's 'To Breathe' in Centre Pompidou Metz is a part of the 2015-2016 Korea-France Billateral Exchange, an event to celebrate 130 years diplomatic of relations between the two countries. The Korean artist, who lives and works in New York, Seoul and Paris, is known for her simple visual language and her deep humanism, a combination of core features, which led Olivia María Rubio to label her art as existential minimalism.

  • In Metz she presents the next chapter in her To Breathe series. How to describe and assess an installation that immerses you instantaneous and do justice to its total experience? One immediately feels the limitations of language. It seems that the only way is to chop it into manageable components and in Kimsooja's case a possible path is to deal with these components in a chronological order.

  • The oldest one is the recording of her humming and breathing. For her participation in the Lodz Biennale of 2004 she was inspired by her assigned location: a former weaving factory. The rhythmic and cyclic movement of a loom made her think of the inhaling and exhaling of the human body. In other words, in her sound performance she replaced mechanical movement with bodily motion and mechanical sound with human humming.

  • The aural facet of her installation in Metz is similar to the one in Lodz. First we hear a skin-tingling humming. Then her soft nasal sounds develop into a polyphonic flirt on the edge of harmony and dissonance. They suddenly fade away and after a few silent seconds, we hear the artist breathing, from calm to agitated. It goes crescendo to a climax which we do not know the content of. Is it the angst of gasping for life or is it the rapture of la petite morte?

  • The affective force of the soundscape is soothed by the second component of her installation: the slow projection of color fields on a floor screen. She first experimented with this in 2006, when she presented 'To Breathe / Respirare (Invisible Mirror, Invisible Needle)' at the Teatro la Fenice in Venice and the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris.

  • The monochromes, more or less in the middle of the installation, are an oasis of serenity where the look can linger. They are surrounded by a sea of glittering mirrors that is bounded by the bay windows on both sides of the 80 meters long Gallery 2. The mirrors and the diffraction grid film on the windows are the more recent components in 'To Breathe'. In 2006 she transformed the Palacio de Cristal, a glass pavilion in the heart of the Buen Retiro Park in Madrid, with them.

  • Whereas the film folds and blurs Metz's skyline and landmarks into a fairy-like rainbow spectrum, the mirror stickers unfold the space and the self. The ripples where they stick together and the reflection of the grid ceiling are dizzying and disorientating. Strolling while looking in the mirrors has a vertigo-like effect, but it also sharpens your sense of self-awareness. Something that was already ignited by the breathing.

  • The abstraction of the alternating color projection, the virtuality of the mirrors and the reality of the cityscape and changing light melt together to an immersing experience that is as confronting as it is comforting. Here's an artist who is confident in her simple visual language and whose modest power is exposed to those who are open to it.

  • Thomas Van Loocke : How difficult is it to create intimate art that can host a lot of visitors, like your installation in Metz? How do you feel about this tension?

  • Kimsooja : I think all art can be intimate as long as the audience takes it as such. My breathing performance might be intimidating to some visitors, as it evokes a strong physical reaction because of its intimate, physical and sexual aspects. However, when you take it serious enough to go beyond those dimensions, you start to question the borderline between the moments of life and death.

  • TVL : What are the best conditions to view and experience your installation? All alone or with a few or even a lot of others?

  • K : All alone is interesting, but so is having someone else's presence, as the other's body serves as a measurement of scale to the installation. Even if there are several others, you can always be focused as long as you find an element to focus onto. At the moment, the number of visitors is limited to fifteen.

  • TVL : In an earlier interview you said that "the whole of (your) practice has always been a journey of searching for a self-awareness". Do you think visitors can enter that state of mind when they're more and more preoccupied with their smartphones and shooting the most likeable Instagram photos?

  • K : It is one of the symptoms of our contemporary technological society. Most people are not able to focus on the here and now. Instead of experiencing the now, they record it, so that they can replay it later. There's no corporeality and mindfulness to the time they spend. However, I was surprised to see many of the visitors very much engaging with the installation. Walking slowly, contemplating the moment. Visitors can experience whatever they want, as long as they don't do anything dangerous or disturb the others. I know you can't control your audience. The piece is there for the ones who are ready for and open to it.

  • TVL : Regarding that lack of control and the ability to experience your spatial installations, how do you look back on your participation in the Venice Biennale of 2013? One reviewer noted that "the impact of the installation itself (was) far outweighed by the bureaucratic procedure one (had) to transition through".

  • K : I agree that the opening period of the Biennale was not ideal to fully experience this particular piece. The Biennale attracts such a large number of visitors that we needed a procedure to ensure that everything ran as smooth as possible. Without it could have been dangerous for some people to enter the anechoic darkroom, just as walking on the mirror floor could have been for seniors or for people who suffer from vertigo. Although I am grateful for the enthusiasm and patience of the people who waited to experience both spaces in the Korean Pavilion, I still regret that we couldn't give more time in the anechoic chamber to the visitors. If I were able to recreate the piece, I think that more time would make it possible to delve deeper in one's inner space and to have a richer experience.

  • TVL : Your work is based on displacement and humanness. What is your view on the biggest refugee and migration crisis since the Second World War?

  • K : I personally think the Third World War is already happening. It was ignited by America's reaction to 9/11. In an endless cycle of violence, the whole world is now drenched in human blood. It threatens our freedom, sanity and daily life. We all have to witness this incessant violence, as mass media shows it non-stop in this era. It numbs us and makes us more and more indifferent, which is a huge problem. Contemplating our own individual problems will be the key to solve this, I think. We need to recover our heart, love and peace, now more than ever. The key is in our mind.
    Equally distressing is the unbelievable desperation of the refugees crossing oceans and borders. In this time we need art that can comfort and heal the human mind that has been hurt so much. We have to rethink how to lead our life and how to respect, embrace and share with the other, instead of arguing with or attacking him or her – to save ourselves, the others and the next generations and to save this globe.

  • TVL : Are politicians tackling it in the right way? Do they show enough humanness in their approach?

  • K : I am so disappointed by all measures taken by politicians in the name of the nation and humanity. What they do is exactly the same as what the ones they condemn are doing: killing. There's no better solution in history than Mahatma Ghandi's resistance, as there can be no excuse for taking someone's life. What are religious leaders teaching to their followers? Why can't we hear them speak up? What are influential thinkers doing nowadays? I was touched by the speech of the Princess of Jordan: she proposed to open her country for the huge number of refugees and to educate the immigrant kids. As she is one of the most powerful figures in Jordan, her words have a huge impact. I wished all nations showed this kind of courage, responsibility and humanity. Americans and Asians hesitate to act, as they think it is someone else's problem. Especially America should welcome refugees, given every citizen descends from immigrants all over the world.

  • TVL : Has this crisis affected your work?

  • K : My work has always been a response to violence and inhumanity and this will never change. I answer it by means of healing. Either by showing society's reality as a witness or by proposing a harmonious way of co-existence, questioning who we are and where we're going. I wish people find equilibrium and peace in my work that comes from their own empathy.
    As a child, I spent some important years near DMZ areas in South Korea, as my father served in the military. I came to realize lately that experiencing the specific geographical condition as well as the daily danger and DMZ border issues, must have given me a sensitive and vulnerable attitude to any kind of violence, be it verbal, visual or physical. Although my father was forced to serve during the Korean War and continued his responsibility until he retired as a general, he didn't believe in physical force and often showed anger over the military conduct towards civilians, especially the Gwangju massacre on May 21, 1980. I am sure the whole condition of my childhood has influenced my thoughts and my work a lot. Not only the environment in which we lived, but the education my parents gave me. There was love and care and they always emphasized and demonstrated the equality of every human being.
    As a teenager, I suffered a lot not being able to help people in need. I wished to quit high school and to become a social worker or labourer, as I was burdened by the thought that I was a privileged individual, although we were just a normal middle class family in Korean society. I chose to go to college, to be financially independent and to gain the strength to help others, while pursuing art as a tool for my contemplation on life and the world. My engagement with social issues in different forms is the basis of my art.

  • TVL : What are your prospects?

  • K : I'm doing extensive research for the last chapter of the Thread Routes, a film project that consists of six chapters, each one in a different location around the globe. I hope the political situation in Africa becomes stabilized so that I can travel more freely in the coming years to create it. This is the most important project on my mind right now.
    Another big plan is to find the right location for 'A Needle Woman – Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir', a 46-foot-taal needle-shaped sculpture in iridescent steel and polymer that I developed in collaboration with architect Jaeho Chong – my son – and Cornell University nano material engineer Ulirich Wiesner last year.