A Journey through Immobility

To Breathe, 2017-2021, Rendering of the Site Specific Permanent Installation, Mairie de Saint-Ouen Metro Staion, Paris, France. Commission of the RATP Régie autonome des transports parisiens. Courtesy of the RATP and Kimsooja Studio

A Journey through Immobility

Jérôme Sans


  • JS : How would you define your work?

  • K : I view my work as a threshold: “any place or point of entering or beginning, a magnitude or intensity that must be exceeded for a certain reaction, phenomenon, result, or condition to occur or be manifested.”

  • JS : Would you call some of your works self-portraits? Is it important that you yourself are in some works?

  • K : In some ways, my work could be viewed as a self-portrait. I do not wish to display my personal identity in my work—especially in the video performances when my back is facing the viewer—but the position demonstrated does show a certain kind of identity. I think a person’s back can be one of the most evocative parts of the human body; it isn’t dynamic, but it presents a profound and abstract encapsulation of a person.

  • JS : How do you consider the globalized world?

  • K : A globalized world sounds very positive, dynamic, interconnected: a constant flow of cultural, economic, technological, and intellectual interactions. But we face many visible and invisible divisions created by constant border crossings: racial, economic, political, and religious conflicts. The standardization of daily life under globalism could benefit those who need it most, but we lose the authenticity, spirituality, and the myth of a land and its people. Globalism reduces the uniqueness and specificity of humanity, although new technology will bring a new facet.

  • JS : What do you think of migration today?

  • K : More than five million Syrians have migrated to Greece, Turkey, Germany, and nearby countries; there is a constant flow from Africa to Southern Italy and Spain; people from Mexico and Central and Latin America try to get to the United States. As an artist who has always been concerned with borders, migration, and refugee issues, especially from living near the Korean Demilitarized Zone during my childhood, I am shocked by President Trump’s decision to block borders, deny immigrants a new life in the United States, and deport second-generation immigrants.
    American citizens have to pay attention to this humanitarian issue, especially since only a few organizations and individuals are focused on the refugee crisis. Major European countries are taking risks to support and help the refugees. Along with global warming, it is the most urgent issue of our time.

  • JS : Your work deals with exile and displacement. Do you feel exiled too?

  • K : Definitely. I have considered myself a cultural exile since 1999. Recently, I’ve collaborated with Korean-specific projects, such as Année France-Corée for a solo show at the Centre Pompidou-Metz in 2015 and the MMCA Hyundai Motor 2016 project. Still, my position as an artist remains that of an outsider rather than insider, even though I’ve been well received. Perhaps it is the fundamental nature of being an artist?

  • JS : You have lived in New York for several years, how have things changed for you?

  • K :Thanks to support from Arts Council Korea in 1992, I was able to participate in the P.S. 1 studio residency program in New York. I met people who understood my work and viewed it objectively, with enthusiasm and generosity. It really opened up possibilities for me. Due to the Korean financial crisis in the late 1990s, I was not able to receive financial and intellectual support for my work. It truly disappointed me and made me realize that I needed to find support outside Korea.
    In the last ten years, this has changed dramatically and Korea is now one of the most supportive countries in the world. However, when I go back to Korea, I am too established to get support from my country. The level of professionalism still needs to be raised, especially in governmental organizations.
    Where to live, work, and die are big questions. You need a nation to live—but you don’t need a nation to die.

  • JS : The idea of displacement is very present within your work.

  • K : All good art is made from thinking outside the box. In that sense, having displacement as a condition of life is not a bad choice for an artist.

  • JS : In some of your works, like A Needle Woman (1999–2001, 2005, 2009), immobility rather than displacement is present. Is it a way to show personal identity toward the global world?

  • K : In my practice, the notion of duality and its complex geometry and disorder are always present through my understanding of the world. While I am presenting my immobility, which is impossible in literal terms, a lot of mobility happens in my body and mind, allowing me to reach to the place and moment of my performances. This immobility gives me an anchor to hold onto, so my journey flows through immobility.

  • JS : Some of your works and installations are made with bottari, meaning, “to pack for a trip.” Which trip are you addressing?

  • K : The bottari represent our body and skin, their agony and memory as a wrapped frame for life. Bottari are the simplest way of holding objects or belongings that embody many meanings and temporal dimensions. A trip could be a simple A-to-B, or a relocation, or a separation of a couple in feminist terms, wrapping only the most essential belongings in an emergency—migration, exile, or our final journey: death.

  • JS : Do you consider yourself as a nomad?

  • K : Yes, fundamentally.

  • JS : Your work is an invitation to a sensorial and visual trip—a way to travel without moving.

  • K : We can easily grasp what is going on in this hyper-informed society, but we can’t experience true reality, not in depth. All experiences are limited by the conditions of space and time; I am determined to witness the here and now, living through my eyes and body, sharing my experiences with the audiences.

  • JS : In the emblematic work, A Needle Woman, you stand in moving crowds. Who was this needle woman? And who is she now?

  • K : A Needle Woman is a woman who gazes at the world, gazing at and witnessing the world without acting. She allows us to take a journey to reality and reach for the ontological root—our destiny. She is there as a tool, a question, a permanency; I am here as a temporality.

  • JS : In your installation To Breathe – A Mirror Woman (2006), shown in Madrid, we can hear your own breathing, filling the space. What is your relationship to the body and the act of breathing?

  • K : I’ve always reinterpreted and recontextualized existing concepts, depending on the site, the questions I had, and the relationship to other works and sites. This installation has three different components from past projects. The Weaving Factory (2004), was my first sound performance, I overlapped my breathing and humming; it developed from the idea of my body as a weaving machine, inspired by an old textile factory in Lodz, Poland, for the First Lodz Biennale. Later, I worked on a video installation commissioned by Teatro La Fenice, Venice, called To Breathe (2006), which incorporated The Weaving Factory. La Fenice is an opera house and singing is about breathing. When I was invited to make a work for the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid, I brought all of these elements together, contextualized as a bottari and as a void. Attaching the diffraction film to the architecture was an act of wrapping and unfolding the daylight into a rainbow spectrum.

  • JS : One of your upcoming projects is a work for the new subway station at Mairie de Saint-Ouen in Paris.

  • K : Although it is a site-specific and permanent installation, this project brings me back to the body/work and audience/pedestrian relationships in A Needle Woman. This installation will symbolize another body of mine, one that witnesses the station’s pedestrians. The diffraction film installation will function as my body, standing still in the station and witnessing the pedestrians, while offering the public a forum.

  • JS : You were teaching at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. What is your connection to Paris?

  • K : Paris was the first western city I visited; I stayed for six months in the mid-1980s. A scholarship from the French government allowed me to work at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in the lithography studio. Whenever I had a project in Europe in past thirty years, I’ve also visited Paris, even if I didn’t have any particular reason.
    During my six-month stay in Paris, I traveled to other European cities for the first time, visiting major museums in Germany, Italy, Holland, and England. I was 27 years old. I absorbed the language, art, culture, and life in Paris, they are forever in my memory. In 1985 at the Biennale de Paris, I first encountered John Cage’s work. Although I knew of him as an avant-garde composer, I had never heard his music live, or seen any of his visual works. With great curiosity, I entered an empty railway car to hear his sound piece, but there was only silence and a simple written statement, “Que vous essayez de le faire ou pas, le son est entendu” (“Whether we try to make it or not, the sound is heard”).
    It was interesting that I learned so much from an American avant-garde composer, rather than from European art or artists, although I was aware of the French Supports/Surfaces group and the influential artists at the time. After my encounter with Cage’s work, I became curious about American art and culture for the first time.
    I’ve shown quite often in France, the French government and institutions have supported many of my works, and I owe them a lot. I was admitted to the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the Minister of Culture for my modest contribution to French culture. I have a love for Paris and French culture and want to spend more time working there.

  • JS : What new avenues are you exploring?

  • K : Since 2010 I’ve been working on a 16mm film series titled Thread Routes, filming textile cultures from around the world: Peruvian weavings (chapter I), European lacemaking (chapter II), Nomadic Indian textiles (chapter III), Chinese embroidery (chapter IV), Native American weaving (chapter V), and African textiles (chapter VI). I can’t wait to visit Africa to film soon. Since 2016, I have realized a large-scale participatory installation titled Archive of Mind, firstly for a solo exhibition at the National Museum for Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, as part of the MMCA Hyundai Motor Series. This project is evolving and was presented at the Intuition exhibition at Palazzo Fortuny in Venice this year, and opens up to explore the sculptural aspect of my practice from the position of a painter.
    There is also a new installation at Nijo Castle, Kyoto, commissioned by the Culture City of East Asia, with the title Asian Corridor; it’s a ten-panel folding mirror screen on a mirrored floor, entitled Encounter – A Mirror Woman (2017). This is my second East Asian City project, the first, in Nara, was Deductive Object (2016), a black sculpture, inspired by an Indian ritual stone called Brahmanda (a cosmic egg in Hindu culture), installed on top of a mirror panel.
    These works redefine the geometry of bottari and the surface of the symbolic bottari that represents the totality of the universe. I want to explore further what this could bring to my future practice. I am also starting new clay works. All of these are exciting, new directions to keep exploring, and I am very curious about the outcome.

  • JS : How do you see the future?

  • K : The future doesn’t exist anymore—it is past.

— Kimsooja: Interviews Exhibition Catalogue published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König in association with Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, 2018
This interview was conducted in summer 2017 via email in conjunction with one of Kimsooja’s upcoming projects, a work for a new subway station in Paris.