The Grammar and Expression of "Sewing" - On the first solo exhibition of work by Kimsooja

Lie on the Nature, 1994, Used Bedcovers, Oksanseowon Valley, Korea. Photo by Joo Myung Duck.

The Grammar and Expression of "Sewing"
On the first solo exhibition of work by Kimsooja

Suh, Sungrok


  • Every artist has his (or her) own distinctive idiom. An artist expresses and communicates by the idiom, and his (or her) artistic realm is characterized by it. For example, it was "Spraying" for Wassily Kandinsky, "Vertical bands of color" for Barnett Newman, and "Dripping" for Jackson Pollock. This idiom becomes a device for work production and at times becomes a goal in itself. Artists have manifested creative processes and intentions through these idioms within their own schematic use of color.

  • From this perspective, what then is Kimsooja's idiom? If she has her own idiom, what are her motives, justifications, and intentions? My interest lies in these issues.

  • Clearly, Kimsooja’s idiomatic expression is "Sewing". She gathers a variety of cherished cloths, some of them inherited from her mother and grandmother, such as satins, linens, color-striped silks, and fine silk gossamers, and then successfully incorporates them into an artistic composition. Once a variety of cloth pieces are in her hands, they are joined, torn, quilted, folded, and stitched into a work of art.

  • At a glance, the jointed cloths seem like heavily patched up rags. Looking closely, however, one notices each has its own unique character: floral and or geometric patterns on multicolored cloths, slight crumples on obscure and gloomily colored cloths, drawings on plain cloths, etc. These cloths, spread out and woven together in joints and seams, assume a structural narrative. In other words, individual cloths which have distinct expressions of their own create illusions within a new material structure. What kind of illusions do they evoke? According to Kimsooja, they are about nostalgia resulting from the numerous pains, affections, and emotional attachments long buried within the primordial memory.

  • Accompanying the illusions produced by the patchwork is a spiritual facet and origin focused on human relationships. Kimsooja reveals her personal experience in the mundane gesture of sewing. She feels a certain intimacy and an amazing oneness in which her thoughts, sensitivity and gesture are all fused, thus empathizing with the cloth itself.

  • With this unique experience as a foundation, the artist concentrates on the basic pattern of using horizontals and verticals to symbolize the primordial order of existence. She acknowledges the horizontal and vertical structure as an essential and universal framework in which nature and man meet. She tries to induce another state, by fusing both subject and object. Of course the artistic process leading to the oneness of bodily gesture and thought the infusion of nature and man is, in her case, the gesture of "Sewing". Graphically, the gesture of sewing exists as a medium which connects the subject and the object, at times inducing an empathy between the two.

  • Having already mentioned the unique attributes of Kimsooja’s "Sewing" and its underlying logic, I will explain the characteristic appearance of her work. Overall, her works yield dim and obscure impressions, revealing her own personal view of the object, as if the works intend to envelope the viewer in darkness. They overwhelm and block the viewer, reflecting the artist’s experience as a child living in a mountain village, while at the same time, expressing the weight of everyday life. Whatever the origin of such impressions may be, in her works we observe the suppression of bright colors, the regression of form, self-containment and two-dimensional construction. In her recent works, along with the expansion of an expressive vocabulary, elements gradually collapse while others are firmly established. Consistently manifested, however, is the artist's quest for the control of life and her search for a relationship between existences through the joining and sewing of cloths. Through the gesture of sewing, Kimsooja continuously measures the depths of planarity, while at the same time artistically exploring other aspects of the world she lives in.