Living in the Present, Connecting with the Universe


The Bottari as Time Capsule - Thoughts accompanying the exhibition, "Kimsooja - Bottari Cologne 2005", Kewenig Galerie, Cologne 29.1 - 23.4, 2005


Concrete Metaphysics


Museion - The Perception of the Horizonta


Kimsooja: Journey into the World


Experiencing A Vacuum


The Discipline of Looking


Kimsooja: A Lighthouse Woman, A Needle in the World

Kimsooja, A Mirror Woman - the ground of nowhere, 2003, Crossings 2003: Korea/Hawaii, installation view at Honolulu City Hall, 57' x 21' diameter, aluminum ring, fine gauze cotton, mirror, wood, photo by Hal Lum, Courtesy of Crossings 2003: Korea/Hawaii and Kimsooja Studio.

Living in the Present, Connecting with the Universe

Heartney, Eleanor


  • Needles and mirrors are associated with femininity. They represent things done for others, or things done for oneself. But in the hands of Kimsooja, these simple objects become cosmic metaphors. Transcending the quiet confines of the domestic world, they point to new ways of thinking about our place in the universe.

  • Take the needle, for instance. When Kimsooja assumes the role of A Needle Woman, she draws on early memories of sewing with her mother and using bed clothes lovingly sewed by her grandmother. A Needle Woman makes reference to the simple actions that bind things together to sustain daily life. But this persona also reflects the fact that the first time Kim held a needle, she felt an incredible surge of energy, as if cosmic forces were converging on the needle's point. This experience has lead her to the post-Einsteinian notion that space, time and energy are interconnected. Their existence is relative rather than absolute — an insight which lies behind a work like A Needle Woman 1999-2001, in which the artist becomes a still point within a series of cityscapes marked by the swirl and chaos of urban life. In this series of videos, we see the motionless back of the standing artist, as residents of such diverse cities as Delhi, Lagos, London, Mexico City, Tokyo, Cairo and Shanghai pass before and around her like actors on a giant stage. Her long black hair, tied at her neck and dropping straight down her back, becomes a vertical force line anchoring her to the earth. This work offers three experiences of time — that of the artist, who becomes our reference point, that of the surrounding urbanites, rushing about their daily business, and that of the viewer who experiences these two very different modes simultaneously.

  • Kimsooja has extended this idea in a number of other works. For A Beggar Woman, filmed in Lagos, Nigeria in 2001, she sits on a street with her hands open like a beggar. In Homeless Woman (2001), she lies motionless and vulnerable on the bustling streets of Delhi. In this works, her transcendence of ordinary time takes on a political cast, as she identifies herself with the outcasts of society.

  • Describing her mental state as Needle Woman, Kimsooja has remarked: "it is the point of the needle which penetrates the fabric, and we can connect two different parts of the fabrics with threads, through the eye of the needle. A needle is an extension of the body, and a thread is an extension of the mind... The needle is medium, mystery, reality, hermaphrodite, barometer, a moment and a Zen." As a needle, she gathers power into herself so as to refocus it out into the world.

  • The mirror has similar complexity. In the popular mind, it symbolizes female vanity. However, a mirror is also a reflective surface in which we hope to glimpse deeper realities. The idea of painting as a mirror of the world is a mainstay of western art tradition. In the modern era, the mirror has turned inward, reflecting an interior world rather than external one.

  • But mirrors are unreliable tools. They can be misleading and even deceitful, which is why artists have so frequently employed them to play tricks on viewers. One famous example is Velazquez' Las Meninas in which a mirror in the background of a royal family portrait reflects back the image, not of present day viewer who seems positioned to be its subject, but the patrons for whom it was originally created. Something similar happens in Manet's A Bar at the Folies Bergere, in which the a frontal view of the barmaid directly confronting the viewer is transformed in the reflection of the mirror behind into an image of the woman serving a male customer.

  • More recently, artists have incorporated real mirrors into works in order to multiply or expand space, to dissolve the distance between viewer and surroundings or to destabilize the space which the viewer inhabits. Two notable practitioners of mirror art are Michelangelo Pistoletto and Yayoi Kusama. By silkscreening photographic images of men and women onto sheets of highly polished steel, Pistoletto literally brings the viewer into the image, collapsing the realms of "reality" and representation. Kusama, meanwhile, has created several completely mirrored rooms filled with hundreds of tiny lights which so multiply and distort the viewer's reflection that one begins to loose any sense of self.

  • Kim's Mirror Woman partakes of a similar disorientation. In her work mirrors dissolve distinctions between interior and exterior realities so as to allow individual consciousness to meld with the larger cosmos. In an 2002 installation titled A Mirror Woman, Kimsooja strung pairs of colorful fabrics, traditional Korean coverlets, in a room with completely mirrored walls. They created a maze through which the viewer could wend, creating a kaleidoscopic sense of fracture, as body and fabric seemed to merge into each other.

  • Needle Woman and Mirror Woman are thus two aspects of Kim's quest for cosmic integration. Needle Woman cuts through landscapes in order to stitch them up again. Mirror Woman dissolves differences between inside and out. These personas are most fully embodied in a pair of public installations which serve as precursors to Kim's installation at the Teatro La Fenice. A Lighthouse Woman was created as part of the 2002 Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. In this work, Kim created a computer synchronized nighttime display ( KS: "This was a lighting installation using actual light source and the pieces I show in La Fenice is video piece which was computer generated color spectrum rather than lighting installation." ) which bathed the exterior of a disused lighthouse with an ever changing sequence of colored light. The work was mesmerizingly beautiful as saturated veils of gold, crimson, aquamarine and purple washed slowly over the elegant nineteenth century lighthouse shaft. For Kim, the lighthouse served as a surrogate of her own body. She projected herself into the structure, which became the embodiment of all the women over the years who waited for the safe return of those who had gone to sea. This work harked back to the idea of the needle, here symbolized by the lighthouse shaft, as the collector of energy. It also echoed Kimsooja earlier works in which bottari served as both paint and canvas to transform space, and knit together memory, history and consciousness. Here, a similar effect was created by light as a tapestry of color merged past and present, sky and water, mind and matter.

  • Mirror Woman, meanwhile, reaches her fullest embodiment to date in A Mirror Woman: The Ground of Nowhere, a work created for the exhibition Crossings 2003 Korea/Hawaii. Installed in the lobby of Honolulu's colonial era City Hall, this installation consisted of a sixty foot high vertical cylinder of white fabric set in the center of an uncovered atrium. In order to create this work, Kim orchestrated the reopening of a long closed aperture in the atrium roof. She sealed off all but the area directly above her fabric column, which she left open to the elements. Inside the fabric column, Kim laid down a mirror floor, so that visitors who stepped inside the muslin walls found themselves standing on a piece of sky. Meanwhile the fabric swayed gently in the breeze, giving a sense that one was inside a living, breathing space.

  • Clouds drifting above and reflected below gave one the feeling, paradoxically, of rolling on an open sea. At night the stars flickered above and below. As part of an arts festival celebrating Korean emigration to Korea, A Mirror Woman made reference to the immigrant's sense of destabilized identity. But this hypnotic installation also provided visitors a more general experience of becoming one with earth and sky.

  • These works provide underpinnings for Kim's new installation. TO BREATHE - Invisible Mirror / Invisible Needle - 2003-2005 which has been installed in the Teatro La Fenice. This work is also a light installation. It consists of a slowly changing overlay of colored light which washes across the auditorium and audience. Accompanying this display is a chorus woven together from the sounds of human breath ( KS: "my own voice and performance" ). Here, as in Mirror Woman in Hawaii and Needle Woman in Charleston, space is infused with a sense of life. As ear and eye are taken over by the symphony of light and sound, time loses its schematic quality and distinctions between space, self and other disappear.

  • Kim's work is often discussed in relationship to her status as an immigrant, a nomad, or an Asian woman displaced into western culture. These ideas were reinforced by her use of Korean materials like the bottari, which she has often presented bound up in bundles (Bottaris in Korean), suggesting a lifestyle in which all one's worldly goods are easily gathered for easy departure. A sense of displacement permeates works like 2727 Bottari Truck (1997), a video depicting her journey through rural Korea on the back of a truck filled with bundles composed of bound bottari. Here again, the camera presents her from the back, a still center in the midst of a changing landscape. But if works like these touch on traditional concepts of home and roots and celebrate the traditional female activities which give us a sense of place, it is dangerous to oversimplify Kim's intentions.

  • On one hand, her work clearly involves a rejection of western dualisms which make distinct and irreconcilable entities of such pairs as mind/matter, space/time, or self/other. Instead, she is more attuned to Buddhist inspired ideas about the circular nature of time and the transcendence of desire and physical limitations. But she refuses the easy division of East and West. Instead, she reminds us that even in the West, there are more wholistic traditions which bear kinship to her thinking.

  • For instance, there is the notion of duration as explored by French philosopher Henri Bergson in the late 19th century. Bergson described duration as lived time, the experience in which time and space and past and future are fused with the continual present. He likens duration to the perception of dance, where prior and future movements are implied at every moment in the sweep of the performer's continuous gesture. Thus, instead of making the present disappear, as happens when the linear experience of time rushes us along a prescribed path from past to future, duration creates a consciousness of our unity with the dynamic nature of the world. This seems a satisfying description of the experience evoked by TO BREATHE.

  • A few decades after Bergson published his speculations, Albert Einstein turned to physics to propose a similar revolution in our thinking about time. His theory of relativity also rejected the notion of space and time as self sufficient and independent entities. Instead, he fused them into a single interactive entity called spacetime. More recently advances in electronic communication make it possible to experience what video artist Bill Viola calls "parallel time", the sensation of existing simultaneously in one's own body and in some far flung locale. Viola notes that it is possible to be as aware of what is happening in a loft in New York as in a street in Paris or a war zone in the middle east. This idea certainly resonates with the multiple experiences of time and space expressed by the Needle Woman.

  • Thus, in referencing ancient Asian traditions and philosophies, Sooja Kim (Kimsooja) is also presenting us with tools for thinking about the complexities of life today. Needle Woman and Mirror Woman face backward and forward, tying together history and the future, while reminding us that in the end, it is the infinite present in which we live our lives.

Bottari Truck, 2005, Kewenig Gallery Installation, Photo by Simon Vogel, Cologne

The Bottari as Time Capsule

Thoughts accompanying the exhibition, "Kimsooja - Bottari Cologne 2005", Kewenig Galerie, Cologne 29.1 - 23.4, 2005

Malsch, Friedemann


  • One of the influencial topics in Western art since the late eighties is — in different facets — the issue of absence. Service art, art as curating, the nomadic existence, the anonymization of individual authorship due to collective creativity — this and more are indicators for the fact that artists have increasingly tried in the past few years to break out of the system of self-reference which has been a major influence on Western art since the Sixties. Absence is used here mainly as a strategy, in order to undermine the increasing personalization in the arts and to access fields once again, which open up a stronger connectivity between art and its social dimension. Nevertheless, these strategies always inhere the matrix of self-reflexiveness. The opening of Western art to cultural influences from other continents — due to globalization — is of special importance in this situation, because from here, beyond the discourse-safe products for the western art market, also originate important impulses for a renewed debate about how art can dedicate itself again to the general questions of the human life in a way that it fulfills contemporary aesthetic standards at the same time.

  • Kimsooja was born in 1957 in Korea, and now lives in New York. She is one of those artists who have, over the past fifteen years, contributed significantly to this re-orientation of contemporary art. She has grown up in a culture shaped by Confucianism, yet her immediate environment was dominated by Catholicism. The fact that the family had to move repeatedly, due to her fathers occupation in the military, led to the early experience of uprooting, a sentiment that has also influenced Western culture throughout the 20th century. In an interview with Gerald Matt, Kimsooja characterized herself in these words: "Travelling is not always voluntary for me. I was often forced to travel. Travelling belongs to my life, since I was a small girl (...) Settling down and being shuffled around, meeting and separation - these topics were always present for me. I have the mentality of a person living on a border line, and the materials, with which I work, correspond to that. Since my childhood I had a lot to do with 'longing' and ' homesickness' with 'memory gaps' and 'adjustment to the new environment'." [1]

  • This personal background influenced the development of Kimsooja's art and her body of consistent work has grown since the 80s. The materials refered to above were first those which belonged to the artist's grandmother. After her death, Kimsooja used the fabrics in order to create large sized murals, which are in the spirit of the painting she had initially studied in Korea. But already the use of these materials tainted with memories - with all colouredness of the individual materials, which were formed to abstract compositions focuses on absence, i.e. the loss of her grandmother. At the same time, the use of these fabrics in itself breaks a taboo, as cloths are regarded to belong to the people who wore them during their lifetimes. This double "absence" (the mental-physical of the grandmother on the one hand, the disrespect of tradition on the other hand), this ambivalence is characteristic of Kimsooja's artistic procedure altogether.

  • It cannot be the place here, to discuss in detail the development of Kimsooja's œuvre, for this I would like to point briefly to the recently published overview of her work. [2]

  • Yet, it is crucial for me, that the motif of absence can be found in the entire body of work that Kimsooja has realized so far. It is to be observed that the artist understands absence not as a motif of deficiency, but as a constructive, dialectic strategy. After her scholarship at P.S.1 in New York, Kimsooja's first new work concentrated above all on the traces of usage on objects, Deductive Objects. With this group of works the artist succeeded in detaching herself from the painting as the focus of her visual production, and consequently extended her vocabulary in rapid steps by installation, video, photo and performance.

  • Fabrics play a particular role in the group of works, Sewing Into Walking, the Bottaris, and partly also in the series, A Laundry Woman. Finally, they also form the basis for the 2004 graphic edition, Seven Wishes, featuring different motifs of Korean cloths which were used also for the Bottaris and different installations in the series of A Laundry Woman. Furthermore, works like the photo/video/performance work Encounter and the photowork Epitaph, demonstrate Kimsooja's 'souverain' handling of this topic.

  • In another group of work, absence is connected with spatiotemporal questions. In these works, the allegorical function of the above mentioned works with a stronger pictorial character step back in favor of a dialectic relationship between work and viewer. I am refering specifically to the performance series A Needle Woman, developed for the video camera (a second set of performances in this series is pending) as well as the related series A Homeless Woman and A Beggar Woman and several works from the series A Laundry Woman. In these works, Kimsooja is always located in the center of the picture, her back towards the viewer, immobile, sitting or lying. All that happens takes place around her. Either she is surrounded by streams of people in metropolises of different continents, or the slow stream of a river flows, passing before her. The dialectic of immobility and mobility in these works, already discussed by different authors, rotates around the center of absence, as it is featured in Kimsooja's work. The artist herself has highlighted it in the following statement: "Everything moves, and movement is a fundamental condition of being. The oscillation of each moment has its own rhythm. Nevertheless the difference between mobility and immobility for me is comparatively small. I have aligned my body to a certain extent to the threshold of a sensitive barometer, which differentiates between the fine borders of mobility and immobility. It is somewhat logical therefore that the mobility of my body located in certain roads, in certain cities, in different continents represents an example of immobility, while my decision to move is on the contrary completely sudden and takes place unconsciously. The decision falls within an energetic conflict between two different elements, my body and the external world. I always wanted to show reality by presenting to people things the way they really are, without doing something, making or creating something further, while most artists and actors strive to create or show something new." [3]

  • Absence is thus for the artist an important means in her art to communicate to the public an experience corresponding to her own experience and her own reflections. Therefore Kimsooja's artistic approach has not unjustifiably been called "existential minimalism", a term, she emphatically embraces for her uvre. Under this label a contemporary western current meets the timeless practices of Zen Buddhism. For Buddhists the void, i.e. absence, means abundance, inasmuch as the emptiness gives space for meditation on life. We can therefore define Kimsooja's work as a rare case of intercultural fertilization, which highlights the particular importance of her art.

The Exhibition

  • For the Kewenig Galerie in Cologne, Kimsooja conceived an exhibition which is to be understood as an installation. The center point is an old truck, loaded with Bottari bundles, further individual Bottaris, the graphic edition Seven Wishes, likewise related to the Bottari materials and 4 video projections. The exhibition title refers unmistakably to the transitory nature of the manifestation. Already three linguistic elements refer to it: The term of the Bottari itself, the date and finally the combination with the place. Bottaris are bundles, in which Korean people, in particular women, are traditionally tying together their belongings in cloths, to take with them when moving out of necessity or voluntarily - to another place. The cloths are usually bed cloths or bedspreads, given as the traditional Korean wedding gift. Thus they are closely bound to their owners, often accompany them until the end of their life, also because the motifs, inserted into the cloths, represent the well wishes of the giver, which are hoped to be fulfilled during the course of life. In Seven Wishes, Kimsooja features five of these motifs, complemented by two large size abstract motifs, i.e. by wish-motifs, which are waiting to be filled with life.

  • Directly in the entrance area of the gallery, the visitors are greeted by a Bottari bundle, but mainly in the basement of the gallery, in the areas with compact and simple vaults, individual Bottaris are to be found. The mood of these installations always inheres a tendency of loneliness, which here becomes particularly effective, not alone through the aesthetics of the space, though. Even if the Bottari bundles can always be understood as a testimony of an individual life charged by that person's personality, Kimsooja has succeeded here in creating an extraordinarily impressive reference to the special history of this place. In the neighbouring part of the building, next to the Kewenig Galerie, the secret state police maintained prison cells during the Nazi-era where systematic torture took place. The destruction of the individual sought by the Nazi regime is counteracted by Kimsooja's quiet, but indeterminable note highlighting the indestructibility of the human soul.

  • An age-old three-wheel truck Tempo, from 1938, is located in the center of the upstairs gallery, its cargo area loaded with Bottari bundles that reach over the roof of the driver's cabin. Entering the space, the visitor approaches towards the protruding and pointy bonnet, giving a morphic twist to the car. This Bottari Truck is a newer version of the original truck, in which the artist drove in 1997 for eleven days, a performance crisscrossing through Korea. If the original was later being seen "in exile" in different exhibitions, Kimsooja realised a new truck for the Cologne exhibition, a somewhat smaller version. The original performance took place in the context of the project, Cities On the Move, and illustrated the special state of mind of people who are forced due to their life circumstances to move their homes again and again. The resulting special relationship to space and time, typical for migrants, which is usually hard to comprehend for non-migrants, becomes especially apparent in the Bottari Truck. The artist described it as follows: "Bottari Truck is a processing object throughout space and time / locating and dislocating / ourselves to the place / where we came from / and where we are going to." [4] There are few works, which focus on the topic of migration and how it seizes people again and again in the same way, with such precision, yet, without falling into any kind of the ideology.

  • The artist has placed four video projections in the same gallery, which transpose the emotional motif of the Bottari Truck onto a more abstract, philosophical level. All video work originates from the years 2000 and 2001 and has so far only been shown rarely. Only one work features a crowd, immediately drawing an association to the performance series A Needle Woman. There is however no connection between the work Bottari - Zocalo and the performance series. Here the artist herself cannot be recognized, she is not surrounded by the flow of people as in A Needle Woman, the crowd is nearly static, it does not move in a superordinate direction. The spectator only recognizes single, individual movements, which go into different directions. The majority of people remain unrecognizable on the spot, similarly as in large concerts in football arenas. Because the image is projected somewhat accelerated and is at the same time also blurred, strangely abstract effects arise. The optical proximity to other abstract cyclographic pictures, in which the origin of the elements' movement is not evident, transposes the perception of the concrete situation, in which people are in the recording, on a general level, and which the emphasis is placed on the dialectic between static of the crowd and the movement of its individual components.

  • Something similar takes place in the work Bottari - drawing the snow, which shows the falling snow on a winter night. The camera looks up into the falling snow, and like before, the image contains no orientation coordinates. What remains is the apparently coincidental direction of motion of each individual snow flake in contrast to the seemingly immovable flakes disappearing into the darkness of the space behind. This image has such a high degree of abstraction that it already reaches the dimension of the concrete, into which the viewer immerses. Is it an image of meditation?

  • The work Bottari - wrapping the thunderstorm takes up the Bottari - drawing the snow motif again, breaking however from any kind of natural image. The viewer only sees the electronic "snow" that develops on-screen if the screen does not receive a proper signal. The term for the title of this work, taken out of nature, supplies the starting point for an interpretation in this case. Because the "storm" here is on a more micrological level, reaching such high speed, it appears nearly motionless again for the human perception. Also the depth of the area which can still be suspected in " Bottari - drawing the snow " is here left exclusively to the imagination of the viewer.

  • The fourth video projection, Bottari - Alfa Beach, however, features 'natural space'. The image of the barely moving sea and a piece of sky is projected upsidedown. The horizon lies in the center of the picture, and watching it, the question emerges regarding the coordinates having led to this picture. Upwards downwards, surface and depth — all these terms become questionable in view of this simple gesture of a reversal and are begging for reassurance.

  • With one exception (Seven Wishes) all works in this exhibition carry the first title Bottari, including the video projections. If one accepts the ambivalent representational character of the bound "bundles" — to be on the one hand a metaphor of migrating, concomitantly the internal state of migrants, on the other hand a concrete, nearly magic component of a lived life — as meaningful basis, then once more this installation refers to absence as endowied with meaning, emptiness as abundance, because it becomes apparent, "that Kimsooja's art is directed towards another kind of void — neither the void of art history nor the void of today's split in human consciousness, but the void of the self, the concept of 'no mind'." [5]

  • Robert Morgan's words turn into a nearly soothsaying dimension given Kimsooja's exhibition at the Kewenig Galerie in Cologne. The Bottari gains thereby a further level of meaning, which has not been recognized in Kimsooja's œuvre so far. It becomes a time capsule, which, in contrast to the linear temporality of Andy Warhol's Time Capsules, connects time with those dimensions, which extract themselves from our conscious and controlled access. Kimsooja already expressed this in 1997 with the following words: "Time is mental space whose physical presence can never be grasped, space from which we can never escape. Whenever we want to, we can always recall a particular time, but we can never relocate our body with respect to that moment." [6]

  • Vaduz, June 2005


[1] Kimsooja talking to Gerald Matt, in:
[2] Gerald Matt (ed). "Kimsooja - A Needle Woman", Vienna 2002, p. 7 - 33, here pp 8. > return to article >
[3] "Kimsooja - Conditions of Humanity", exhib. Cat. Musée d'art Contemporain, Lyon and Museum KunstPalast, Düsseldorf, 5 Continents Edition, Milan 2003. > return to article >
[4] see Gerald Matt, pp.7 > return to article >
[5] Exhibition catalogue "Kimsooja - A Needle Woman", Kunsthalle Bern, 2001, pp. 35-43, here p. 36. > return to article >
[6] Robert Morgan, Kim Sooja - The Persistence of the Void, in: "Kimsooja - A Needle Woman", exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Bern 2001, pp. 47-56, here, p. 55. > return to article >
[7] "Kimsooja - A Needle Woman", exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Bern 2001, p. 36. > return to article >

  • Friedemann Malsch is the Director of Kunstmuseum Lichtenstein, Vaduz, and served as a curator there from 1996-2000. Among the many shows he has curated, he assembled the show Migration in 2003, which Kimsooja participated in. At Kunstmuseum Lichtenstein, under the title Dialogue, Malsch has established a forum for rapidly changing collection presentations, on which historical and stylistic demarcations are set aside in favor of thematic aspects. Malsch is considered, among other things, as a specialist in video art.

'Always A Little Further', the 51st Venice Biennale in Arsenale, Venice.

Concrete Metaphysics

von Drathen, Doris


  • 'The space is nowhere. The space is within itself like honey in a comb.' [1] The enigmatic quality of this image lies in the special powers of honey — first to accrue and then to spread out, and, resistant to being sealed off, to transform and expand space with its light and scent. This observation can assume broader implications as an analogy for a universal outlook that from the Renaissance through to the present has been formulated by philosophers and poets alike. Namely, that the way we experience exterior space, its boundlessness and its limits depends on the inner space of the subject experiencing it. It is this inner space alone that determines the extent and expansion of space and things, an insight Rilke couched in the words 'the one space stretches through all beings, an inner cosmos', and, elsewhere, 'Space spreads transposingly from us to things: / to properly feel how a tree upsprings, cast around it space from that which inwardly / abides within in you. Surround it with retention. / It has no bounds. Not until its reascension / in your renouncing is it truly tree.' [2]

  • To examine experience and objects in terms of their dynamic power to seize and occupy space, to think through time and space in terms of their capacity to expand, in other words to give visual form to the potent equivalence between substance and 'extance' [3] is probably the most important creative principle propelling Kimsooja's work.

  • Born in Taegu in 1957 and a resident of New York since 1999, the Korean artist has no need to impress through heroic gestures. The barest means — needle and thread, and a few pieces of used cloth — are quite enough for her. These can, for example, end up as The Heaven and the Earth, one of her first works from 1984. Kimsooja was 27 years old when she stitched together the scraps of material left over from those of her deceased grandmother's old silk dresses that were not fully worn-out and faded. Here, echoing the title, the entire universe is laid out before us — the earth's four quadrants designated by the four points of the compass and at their centre, as described in many ancient cultures, the fifth realm where the 'world mountain' or the site of the 'column of heaven' [4] is located. That this can indeed be understood to represent a universe is confirmed if one closely examines and elucidates the full body of Kimsooja's art and its underlying coherence.

  • Having studied painting in Seoul and lithography in Paris, the artist was concerned from the outset with finding means of abandoning the frame encompassing the canvas and the image. In the early nineties she stitched together patches of coloured fabric into relief-like, freely proliferating forms, mounting onto walls a rich spectrum of semi-circular shapes or tondi. Cloth, needle and thread in lieu of canvas, paints and brushes. But these are fabrics that once 'had a life': worn garments or traditional Korean bedspreads. Kimsooja seeks out these pieces of cloth because they 'retain the smells of others' lives, memories and histories, though their bodies are no longer there — embracing and protecting people, celebrating their lives and creating a network of existences.' [5] These works also have titles that allude to something far beyond the borders of the object and fill it with interior space, such as Toward the Mother Earth.

Stepping beyond

  • For Kimsooja the act of sewing quickly became far more than a mere departure from painting, as this shift gave her the means to evolve a cognitive approach and a world view, spawning a central idea that was soon to animate her entire work. All the works she has produced since then can be considered part of an exploratory quest to fathom this mythical universe spun around needle and thread. Indeed, unlike any other instrument the needle is able to hold 'the thread, drawing it through the surface into the lower layers, into an underworld of downward motion. There is the needle that moves along the boundary, between the panels it is about to join together. It overcomes intermediary space. But the needle has no existence of its own. It is an instrument, a means; once the work is done, the needle disappears.' [6] When Kimsooja — who even sewed her own name together from her forename Sooja and her family name Kim — describes the needle's attributes one clearly sees how closely she identifies with this instrument of artistic labour. At the time she was making her large and increasingly expansive relief-like textile collages, she also began working on objects which she modified by covering their surfaces with fabrics. There are, for instance, the large runged wheels some 185 cm high, steel structures made by the artist and assembled together with discarded farming tools; these interest her less as ready-mades than as objects which once had a purpose and are thus imbued with their own time and history. The fabric cover softens the sharp edges and points, transforming the work tool into a feminine and visual object. [7] While these experimental pieces are perhaps less striking than Kimsooja's other work they nonetheless assume a pivotal function within her artistic development in the sense that they mark the point of transfer of her textile surfaces into the third dimension.

  • This is the basis on which Kimsooja then founded a wholly new understanding of her role as an artist. In her subsequent works she no longer treated the needle as an extension of her hand but increasingly regarded herself and her own body as the needle, using it as a sewing tool to move between layers of textile. It was this new awareness that led her to make her first bottari, the Korean word for the cloth bundles that are so deeply part of Korean tradition. Even today the large, richly coloured and decorative bedcovers woven in silk or cotton are still used in Korea to transport clothes, books and household articles on journeys or as storage around the home. But these bundles are also the expression of a culture exposed to colonialist threat and repression, one whose constant preparedness for departure and escape has become fully ingrained in the habits of everyday life. A large cover of this kind still represents a typical wedding gift for young couples. Its functions mark the poles of human existence: as a bedspread it is equated with tranquillity, tenderness and birth; as a suspended stretcher it is used as a cradle for carrying the sick and the dead. But besides its place in Korean tradition a further significant aspect becomes evident if one considers the position textiles have held in age-old African-Arab culture. When a woven fabric is removed from the loom and the threads are cut the women pronounce the same ritual blessing as they would at the severance of a baby's umbilical cord. Thus in terms not only of its function but also of its manufacture a cloth could be likened to a bridge spanning the entire breadth of human existence, with the four sides of the loom signifying the four ends of the world.

Being alien

  • The idea of or awareness for the bottari arose during the period of Kimsooja's artistic residency at P.S. 1 in New York in 1992—93. In her studio she caught sight of the bundle in which she kept her clothes, as she had commonly done in Korea. Living in alien surroundings had changed her perception: 'Suddenly the bundle meant something entirely new to me. It was a sculpture and a painting in one and I realized that by the simple act of tying it together I could shift from two to three dimensions', she noted. [8] At the P.S. 1 open studio in 1992 and the New Museum in New York a year later Kimsooja created her first installation made of bottari. On her return to Korea she exhibited them for the first time in her home country. In the village Yangdong in the Kyungju region she came across a deserted house which she chose as the site to install this work — brilliantly coloured cloth bundles spread out over the floor. Not only did this manifest an alien view of her own culture but it also instantly set the course for her adoption of alienness as a way of life. Within Kimsooja's oeuvre the bottari evolved into a kind of module that would recur in ever-changing variations in altogether different contexts during her travels over the following years.

  • At the same time, however, in 1995, she used fabrics to construct an ephemeral monument commemorating the two thousand Koreans who were shot dead in Kwangju. In May 1988 students and others who demonstrated against the imposition of martial law were brutally murdered by the government. For this work Kimsooja covered the ground of a wooded terrain with two and a half tons of cotton clothes, some bundled up into bottari, others piled in loose heaps. Visitors were able to walk over the laid-out clothing. As the installation ran its two-month course and the seasons progressed the items of clothing became increasingly intermingled with the earth of the forest floor. Called Sewing into Walking, a piece in which first she and then each of the visitors acted as needles gradually stitching together not only the past and the present but also the man-made and the naturally grown, the dead and the living.

  • This new dimension, whereby 'sewing' is extended to the outside world, gave rise to a spectacular image in her 1997 performance titled Cities on the Move — 2727 Kilometer Bottari Truck. For this work Kimsooja heaped piles of bottari onto the uncovered loading area of a lorry, fastening them with a crisscrossed web of strong elastic rope and then, seated on top of this bundle of bundles, travelled for eleven days though Korea visiting all the places she had ever lived in and which for her were thus loaded with memory. To reach these towns and villages the truck climbed sinuous roads over mountains and through valleys, boarded ferries to cross from seashore to seashore. Kimsooja explains why it was so important for her to sit on top of these itinerant bundles of belongings: 'my body — which is just another bottari on the move — is in the present, is tracing the past and, at the same time, is heading for the future, non-stop movement by sitting still on the truck. And though I used myself in this work, I tried to locate a more universal point where time and space coincide.' [9]


  • This journey encompassed two extremes at once: the more or less conscious act of bidding farewell to her home country before moving completely to the US and the starting-point of a life that was to be increasingly shaped by the rhythm and her personal awareness of being on the move. But the 'universal point' Kimsooja was seeking might, arguably, reside in the perception of these folded clothes and tightly tied bundles as metaphors for the universe. The bundles could be seen as an altogether concrete expression of Leibniz's notion of the universe as a vast cloth that, however many new folds it acquires, always remains one and the same piece of cloth. 'The entire universe is a continuous body that is not divided but like wax can assume various forms and like a tunic can be folded in a variety of ways.' [10] Even if Kimsooja herself, who is familiar in like degrees with eastern and western culture, would not draw such a reference to Leibniz, her work nonetheless offers evidence of a sensibility which grasps cloth as a phenomenon and takes account of its pronounced cultural-historical and philosophical connotations. Indeed, her work seems almost to have been woven from all the different contrasting manifestations of this same phenomenon, whether packed together in round, thick, heavy bundles placed on the ground or as pictorial surfaces fluttering gently and delicately against the wall — in the manner of how she went on to work with cloth. Besides fabric, there is hardly another material so rich in associative potential: it is capable of being one and many at the same time, yet can be returned to being one. But the particular quality of Kimsooja's work lies in how she takes the spiritual-corporeal dual nature of cloth, which for so long has fascinated philosophers and poets alike, and transposes it into a constantly revitalized and ever-evolving exploration of time and space.

  • The broad scope of her travel performance Cities on the Move — 2727 Kilometer Bottari Truck came full circle when she parked her lorryload of bottari in the 'd'Apertutto' [11] hall during the Venice Biennale in 1999. The truck was installed in front of a large mirrored wall — as though her notion of living in exile were characterized by this dual vision of things. In this particular setting the installation was indeed titled Exile. The fact of departure is irrevocably sealed by the fact of arrival. In another performance, which felt almost like an inverted echo of her Venice installation, Kimsoojaspread one of these magnificently coloured fabrics over the grass between the gravestones of a cemetery in Brooklyn, where the cloth was billowed out by the wind like a sail. Looming behind her was the silhouette of New York with its towers looking as stone-carved as the tombstones. Performed in 2002, just a year after the terror attack on September 11, the piece she titled Epitaph was nothing further than a fluttering gravestone inscription. The Greek word epitaphion means 'at the grave', and it is precisely this embodiment of nothing more than the prepositional gesture of 'at', of hovering in the intermediate realm, of being suspended on the edge that constitutes the poetry of her work. This single gesture might also evoke Rilke's call to cast one's own immeasurable inward space around things so as to free them from their limits, to grasp them concretely in one's vision. But in this instance it was not just any object that she had taken to expand the space of experience. This too is why the 'ybulbo' — the name for large Korean bedcovers steeped in history and tradition — were able to 'spread open' their own space when long rows of them were suspended on washing lines traversing the room in the work A Mirror Woman (2002). Here, not only was the viewer's gaze immersed in a swirl of colour but his ears were also awash with sound, with the chants of Tibetan monks. But the covers were also hung between two walls of mirrors, incorporating the viewer into a never-ending reflection as he wandered through the floating, wafting walls of fabric, these swaying pictorial panels that in endless repetition constantly unfurled new fata morganas and chimerical spatial realms.

  • This installation was one of the works that again centrally featured fabrics, which are capable of filling space and creating space of their own. At the same time this work acted as a seam, a threshold and a turning point for a new stage in Kimsooja's work. Hereafter she began to envisage the entire space of her surroundings, the world she observes and experiences, as an immense piece of cloth through which she herself travels as a needle.


  • A Needle Woman (1999) is the name Kimsooja gave herself in the performance she held in Kitakyushu in Japan when she reclined on top of a cliff with her back to the viewer. She lay on her side, her body nestling against the curves of the rock, one of her arms outstretched, cushioning her head, the other clasped along the length of her body. With her legs closed, her body traced a single line starting at the tip of her outstretched feet. She did not support herself: this reclining horizontal posture is not an expression of passivity but a sign of balance and alertness. The colour of the pale limestone echoed that of her gown, reinforcing the sense of unity between the human body and the geological body. This is probably one of her quietest, most peaceful works. 'Nothing changes in this video except the natural light from the sky and a little bit of breeze, and at the end there is one fly that is just passing by against the slow movement of the clouds. Of course, I had to control my breath, so my shoulders wouldn't move; I taught myself how to breathe with my stomach. I was there a pretty long time. The rock was a little bit cold, but it was just so peaceful. I was completely abandoning my will and desire to nature and I was at such a peace.' [12] Her words may have the ring of Far Eastern meditative culture, but Kimsooja actually expounds a world view that is more a fusion of eastern and western culture and treats meditation as part of everyday life. [13] Hence, as the horizontal Needle Woman lying on the mountainside of Kitakyushu she can equally associate herself with the crucifix. For her body is 'located at the central point of four different elements which are in-between the sky and the earth, nature and human beings. I located myself on the borderline of the earth and the sky, facing nature and away from the viewers'. [14] Here one can sense the vision of the universe alluded to in the cross of cloth called The Earth and the Heaven that was mentioned at the outset which, when set in proper context, increasingly reveals its true dimensions.

  • The further one probes the logic woven into Kimsooja's work — following the weave, as it were — the more it appears to be oriented towards forming an image of the world with universal scope. One year later, with a quietness similar to that witnessed in Kitakyushu, but now tipped into a vertical axis, the artist stood on the steep slopes of the Yamuna river in India near Delhi, not far from where the dead are cremated. She can be seen peering across the water, watching the blossom, ornaments and other remains of incinerated ritual objects drifting away towards the horizon. Again Kimsooja is observed from the rear, the viewer's gaze following hers into the space that to her resembled a painting, a space holding 'anonymous people's life and death, including mine.' [15] The fact that she is viewed from behind has been frequently commented upon. Yet how else is such a pictorial space meant to arise, one that allows the viewer to participate in what is seen and experienced? Is it not precisely through this distending glance that space and meaning can be generated? [16]


  • Kimsooja's appearance in her own pictorial spaces is evidence of 'being in the world', a state that absorbs and incorporates its audience, as opposed to the viewer being excluded and treated as 'other'. Moreover, her presence in these spaces is not that of a melancholy dreamer but of an active axis. Whether in a horizontal or a vertical position, she is always the one who, as she says, condenses movement and time. The artist transforms time into corporeality that not only circumscribes space but actually opens it up: 'For me, space is time — time is space. Every single movement and any physicality is time. If we draw a line from a given point, time runs exactly parallel to it. A line is the physical expression of movement in time. And through this movement space is also opened up. When I position my body as a stationary, vertical axis in space I am to some degree creating a form of timelessness, but I am simultaneously opening up another kind of movement — a vertical, inwardly directed movement, time in the form of condensation. We cannot separate the coexistence of time and corporeality, and hence spatiality; they are for ever immutably fused.' [17] This conception of time and space as corporeal entities can be witnessed not only in Kimsooja's living images of devotion to the structures of the cosmos and nature, but also in her performances in the open spaces of collective experience in the world's cities. In A Homeless Woman she can be seen lying on the ground in the same posture as she assumed on the Kitakyushu mountain, but now directly on the streets of cities like Delhi and Cairo. As a needle, barometer, seismograph and compass she seems to be doing more than just personifying time and space, she is also indicating the everyday dramas that usually go undetected in our habit-formed lives. The social fabric has now become her material. Her gown is as grey as the dusty road; her presence evolves into silent, physical testimony.

  • This performance also has a vertical equivalent. As in her extensive performance series A Needle Woman (1999-2001), which she resumed in 2005, urban residents become the cloth in which Kimsooja wraps herself when she travels to large cities and implants herself as a perpendicular axis amid teeming passers-by, standing bolt upright and motionless in the very places where the crowds are densest. The videos on which these performances are recorded are silent; the viewer can fully concentrate on the image and its time and space. Here again the artist's gaze is directed at events before her and the people passing by. People in Delhi, Lagos, Tokyo, New York, London, Mexico City, Shanghai and Cairo. Here we see people with time to notice the artist, to smile at her, to turn around and look back; or others who are focused wholly on their own purposes and hurry onward without registering her. Immobile and with steady gaze, the artist stands in the surging floods of people, stems herself against the current, her motionlessness acting as a gauge of passing time. Similar to how she stood as a vertical living axis by the Yamuna river, fully aware that even if she were no longer there the vast horizontal current would outlast the arc of her existence and continue to flow onward, here it seems much the same, that the broad currents of surging humanity will never cease to flow, will outlast this corporeal needle measuring the present.


  • In her most recent performances series A Needle Woman from 2005 Kimsooja turned to examine an entirely different theme, even though she barely altered her pictorial means. For this she travelled to trouble spots around the world, places with a background of prolonged struggle against colonialism, regions that have been plagued by war, civil strife, economic conflict and dire poverty, that have been decimated by ancient feuds between warring ethnic groups. She visited Havana where the scars of colonial experience are still keenly felt; she went into the favelas in Rio de Janeiro where everyday life is constantly menaced by street warfare; she travelled to N'Djamena in Chad, the poorest country in Africa and to Sana'a in Yemen, a country currently embroiled in conflict with both the US and Israel — not to mention Patan in Nepal and Jerusalem. These journeys were more tokens of physical testimony than of the possibility of physically experiencing time; the purpose and implications of this testimony are made clear by the high degree of risk to which Kimsooja exposed herself in these places and on her travels. While the viewer again witnesses her as a calm and stationary pole standing in the midst of milling crowds, among which are also variously uniformed soldiers, she herself can hear the rattling of machine-guns from all around her and on more than one occasion has feared she might be shot in the back.

  • This video installation was shown on six screens at the 2005 Venice Biennale. For the first time the video's speed was not real time but cut by fifty per cent, thereby stretching the duration of the performance, distending the moment of encounter between Kimsooja as an immobile axis and the passing people. Only when time is expanded does the encounter between standstill and flowing time become properly visible. This gives rise to three different time zones within the pictorial space. First there is the form of timelessness embodied by the stationary vertical pole of A Needle Woman. Very similar to her performance Cities on the Move — 2727 Kilometer Bottari Truck where, seated on top of the lorry's fastened load of bundles like a human bottari, she acted as a sign of the present travelling through the past while constantly moving towards the future, here again she is a stationary pole that personifies past, present and future in one. Holding the past within her, Kimsooja encounters the present and looks into the future. Secondly, besides this form of condensed time there is also the motion of the passers-by who are the concrete manifestation of a time composed of countless juxtaposed moments of the present. Finally, a third time zone is introduced into the image by the viewers themselves, for it is they who embody the link to real time. To a greater extent than the physical experience of space, this work manifests the physical experience of time. [18] It offers concrete evidence of the degree to which our relational systems are determined by both space and time. Time, like space, can isolate or connect. By expanding time Kimsooja's video work emphasizes the encounter, but is more than just a phenomenon of simultaneity. What instead transpires is similar to what happens when we observe the expanded space in her Kitakyushu and Yamuna river performances: the viewer is drawn into a state of consciousness comparable to that of experiencing the horizon. Expanded time opens up the experience of one's own boundary. While the viewer is watching the videos of these six spaces of conflict filled with teeming human crowds he is looking in the same direction as the artist, is standing motionless as her and experiences his own time, its limitation and thereby the possibility of imagining how this boundary might be surpassed.

  • With the Venice piece the role of A Needle Woman visibly evolved into the political role of a witness, of someone who 'was there', who was in the midst of everything, who also suffered, who partook in need and hardship and is now able to report about it. Here she has become a needle that gauges reality, a clock hand registering the events of our time. But in this role A Needle Woman also embodies our relationship to current events, our unshielded vulnerability towards the moment, an exposure that lacks reflective distance. It is the dislocating filter of imagery that offers the means of overcoming such blind, mute and excessive proximity in our experience of the present. For even if the viewer himself experiences events from the same perspective and, conceivably, with the same inner calm as the artist it is the distance established by the image that provides him with a filter of time and space, thereby engendering insight. Kimsooja has created a profoundly ethical anthropological work. The universe she stretched open when she started out as an artist has evolved into a truly committed condition of 'being in the world', which for the artist herself only makes sense as a political embodiment of our spatial and temporal experience. The full dimensions of her pictorial world are only properly revealed when one perceives it as fostering a sphere of concrete metaphysics — but one which seeks its raison d'être in ethics.

  • This essay was first published in German in Künstler Kritisches Lexikon der Gegenwartskunst, Nr. 74, vol. 12, II quarter, Munich, 2006.

  • Translated from the German by Matthew Partridge.

  • Doris von Drathen is a German art historian who lives in both Paris and New York. Since the publication of her book Vortex of Silence: a proposition for an art criticism beyond aesthetic categories (Charta, 2004), she teaches art theory at Cornell University — an art theory which she coins as: Ethical Iconology. Her latest publication is a monograph on Pat Steir (Charta, 2006).

  • Notes:

[1] Joë Bousquet, 'La neige d'un âge', quoted in: Gaston Bachelard, La poétique de l'espace, Paris, 1957/2004, p. 183. > return to article >
[2] Rainer Maria Rilke, Sämtliche Werke, vol. II, Frankfurt/M., 1991, p. 168: 'Raum greift aus uns und übersetzt die Dinge / dass dir das Dasein eines Baumes gelinge, wirf Innenraum um ihn, / von jenem Raum, der in dir west. Umgib ihn mit Verhaltung. / Er grenzt sich nicht. Erst in der Eingestaltung / in dein Verzichten wird er wirklich Baum.' > return to article >
[3] Bachelard, ibid. > return to article >
[4] Otto Friedrich Bollnow, Mensch und Raum, Stuttgart, 1963/2004, p. 64. > return to article >
[5] Kimsooja in conversation with Mary Jane Jacob in In the Space of Art: Buddha and the Culture of Now, 2004; see: www.kimsooja.com/texts/jacob.html. > return to article >
[6] Kimsooja in conversation with Doris von Drathen in June 2005; see Künstler Kritisches Lexikon der Gegenwartskunst, Nr. 74, vol.12, Munich, 2006, pp.14—15. > return to article >
[7] Kimsooja in an email to the author, 5 January 2006. > return to article >
[8] Kimsooja in conversation with Mary Jane Jacob, ibid. > return to article >
[9] Ibid. > return to article >
[10] Horst Bredekamp, Die Fenster der Monade, Berlin 2004, p. 16. ('Totum universum est unum corpus continuum. Neque dividitur, sed instar certae transfiguratur, instar tunicae varie plicatur.') > return to article >
[11] The name coined by Harald Szeemann for the exhibition of young artists staged in the Arsenale during the Venice Biennale he directed. > return to article >
[12] Kimsooja in conversation with Mary Jane Jacob, ibid. > return to article >
[13] Cf. Kimsooja in conversation with Doris von Drathen, reproduced in this publication. > return to article >
[14] Kimsooja in conversation with Mary Jane Jacob, loc. cit. > return to article >
[15] Ibid. > return to article >
[16] Cf. Rilke, loc. cit. > return to article >
[17] Kimsooja in conversation with Doris von Drathen, reproduced in this publication. > return to article >
[18] Ibid. > return to article >

A Laundry Woman - Yamuna river, India, 2000, 10:30 video loop, Silent.

Museion - The Perception of the Horizonta

Regaglia, Letizia


  • The artist stands immobile with her back to us, and the river flows slowly by. It's the Yamuna River, in Delhi, and the flowers, ashes and charred remains afloat in it come from a nearby crematory. Since the middle of the 1980s, the Korean artist Kimsooja has been using installations, performances and video for poetic transformations of various elements of the culture from which she comes into metaphors of the human condition. The contrast between fixity and motion, particularly in relation to the human body, is one of the constants of her work. In the performance A Needle Woman, she dresses in a stern, dark suit, erect and motionless in the middle of the street, offering resistance to the surging energy of a crowd of passers-by. In A Homeless Woman, she lies stretched out along the ground. In A Beggar Woman she sits with crossed legs in the midst of urban traffic. In all of these positions and situations she confronts us with the metaphor of a life that withdraws from the hubbub around it.

  • The body that faces away from us revises the notion of the artist as protagonist or predominant actor: this is a body on a search for otherness, while nonetheless unable to oppose the order of things, and even less to alter it. In an interview in which Kimsooja describes her state of mind while filming A Laundry Woman, she remarks that there was a moment when she came to understand that movement, here, belonged not to the river, which would always remain, whereas her body would disappear from the world. The contemplation of a landscape situation that evokes the endlessness of nature and the finitude of the human condition refers necessarily to the compositions of C. D. Friedrich where a figure generally seen from behind stands out against sublime landscapes which emphasize and underline the incommensurability of the horizon. The contemporary context has doubtless changed, but the confrontation between the subject and a horizon — cultural no less than environmental — once again brings existential questions to the foreground: questions on permeability and impermeability, on the separateness and intimate inter-relationship of the human being and the world.

Bottari with the Artist, 1994, used Korean clothes and bedcovers, Yang Dong village, Korea. Photo by Ju Myung Duk.

Kimsooja: Journey into the World

Kafetsi, Anna


  • Kimsooja's Bottari Truck has begun its new journey...

  • With the baggage of the present bearing silent witness to multicoloured journeys, the artist, immobile and free, crosses time, wanders amongst familiar places and memories, visits histories and fragments of histories, returns to the world of singularity and difference. To her own body.

  • Her reconciliation is like the rhythmic fluidity of the Needle-Woman on the curve of the rock, there where earth meets the heavens; it is also like the poetic meditation of the immobile woman before the painting of the River Yamuna.

  • Kimsooja's journey is our journey, too.

  • Alone, with her back to us, but with her gaze on a level with our own, she invites us to journey into ourselves through her eyes. She becomes the in between space that unites the self with the other. Which is why any similarity with Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer is confined to contrast. She counterposes the sanctity of her anonymity and the unity with the antagonistic gulf between the romantic ego and the Sublime. Female mystery with male conquest. Alterity with identity; the alterity of her self and of her gender. Of her exile and of her nomadic wanderings.

  • The same desire for reconciliation brings her and brings us into the world, into the heart of its metropolises. Silent and immobile once more, she penetrates powerfully and resolutely into the body of the crowd, always against the tide. With her difference interrupting and bridging the flow at one and the same time. With her poetic subtlety revealing the counter forces, but neutralizing them, too. Daring to dramatize human conditions and situations she fights. Social and political exclusion, isolation, want, marginalization. Using the persona of the foreigner, the homeless woman, the beggar woman, to break through to the Other side.

  • It is Kimsooja's journey into herself and others. Through the others. A journey into the world.

  • Anna Kafetsi —
    BA in Philosophy (University of Athens), PhD in Aesthetics and History of Art at Paris 1 - Sorbonne. Formal Curator of National Museum of Modern Art, Founding Director of the National Museum of Contemporary Art since 2000.

— Preface of the catalogue, 'Kimsooja: Journey into the World' from the artist's solo show at The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, 2005

The Weaving Factory, 5.1 Surround sound installation, voice by Kimsooja, International Artists Mueseum, Lodz Biennale 2004.

Experiencing A Vacuum

De Cecco, Emanuela


  • As the feet of man take up a small space on the earth, it is thanks to the space that they do not occupy that man can walk on the immense earth.
    — Zhuang-zi

  • One of the most salient aspects to emerge in the works of certain artists over the last decade regards a return to dialogue with minimalist language. Looking at the works of Mona Hatoum, Doris Salcedo, Rachel Whiteread, Felix Gonzalez Torres, Miroslaw Balka,in this perspective, it is quite clear how their work finds a sort of common denominator in this linguistic base. It is not a relationship based on subjection, nor on a form of citation. The significant point - which marks a departure from the past and offers the possibility to return to a strong connection with contemporary urgencies - is the assumption of a tradition, turning its meaning upside down from within. Minimalism lends itself, for its presumed liberated universality, freed from subjective tensions (in reality far from universal, far from neutral, more precisely expression of the very Western sense of the dominant thought in modernity), to be reread, re-interpreted, re-proposed in order to face the desire to recover a close contact with reality in all its aspects. Forms that appear simple, appeasing, in fact bear dramatic, intimate contents, capable of introducing searing themes, aimed at giving form to the shadowy areas of a society that is more interested in celebrating its own potency.

  • The frontal methods of protest are substituted with a transversal method which adopts a much subtler strategy, in which the artist's attention is equally divided between the sense of his own discourse and the dialogue with the language of art.

  • It is within this context that Kimsooja's work finds a natural collocation. During the first half of the last decade, her work begins to be known and recognized. While this is only one of many perspectives, it is evident in many of her works.

  • The return to a comparison with minimalism at the beginning of the '90's marks an important step, as it gives voice to various forms of differences that lived in silence throughout History: the cultural difference of those who come from non-Western contexts, sexual differences, the differences in the way information has treated some difficult themes (death, conflict, illness), the different ways in which aspects related to the body, to sentiments, and to intimacy are treated by mass communication (such as the promises of well-being and earthly paradise upon which advertising is based). The extraordinary pathways outlined in these artists' work consist in suggesting another way, another possibility to deconstruct the rules of a seemingly mastered language , stabilized in art history manuals.

  • While other works created during the last decades contained a clear "anti-" statement, such as in the first phase of feminist art in which women artists needed to affirm their right to exist in an art scene that was prevalently masculine, in this case the revolution develops in overcoming the logic of "with me or against me". A third hypothesis is visible, alongside the choice between working within tradition or departing from it: Us and Them, rather than Us or Them.

  • Thanks to these artists, the non-Western eye, the sexual difference, the personal history, death, violence, themes which are dear only to minorities, acquire a new centrality, and the works speak to those who come near to them with a language that is able to speak to the soul of the individual and to the collective, in a form of rapport that includes the public as well as the private, which was previously unheard of.

  • In Kimsooja's installations, the cold, minimalist floors, created with solid materials that are not ruined when walked upon, become colored surfaces, made up of a patchwork of Korean family bedspreads.

  • They bear the memories, the wishes, the stories of those who once owned them and used them daily. At the same time, the monochrome canvases in the artist's installations remind one of the laundry hung out to dry. The canvases are still bedcoverings, elements that belong to the Korean culture, and yet evoke the more intimate dimension, rarely visible, non-official, hardly an object of attention.

  • Kimsooja's work takes form based on her experience. Her personal vocabulary is full of objects that come from her culture: not only the bedcoverings, but also bottari — the Korean word for bundles — that the artist creates by filling canvases with used clothes that she arranges randomly about the exhibition space, evoking the nomadic condition, her own, but also that of an entire people.

  • These presences give life to a statement aimed not only at those who are able to understand the specific aspects of a culture as they touch themes that are part of everyone's lives.

  • The introduction of personal experience, the poetic reflection on birth, death, the intimacy that Kimsooja's work speaks of, all have the ability to create a larger statement that we can all relate to. From the specific one passes to a possible form of universality which is no longer abstract and distant — typical of the project of modernity - but is a contemporary form of universality soaked in the singular stories of the people who once owned the objects, that become part of the piece, ready to take in the world of the observer.

  • It is a work that is strongly marked by a subjective point of view with respect to the artist's own condition, cultural, historical, gender, and at the same time able to create a space in order to avoid remaining centered on herself in a narcissistic way. There is no doubt that, in her case, the heredity of minimalism consists in the adoption of an essential language, where there is nothing more than what is necessary to center in on the core of the issue.

  • But, as I mentioned earlier, this is only one of the perspectives. In fact, Kimsooja lives with an autonomy that renders this relationship relative and which speaks with references from another provenance.

  • It is a work which - as many others have written — maintains an active dialogue with both the Korean culture and with the Zen Buddhist practices, with which it shares the tension of the creation of an empty/dense space where a contradiction is resolved, a contradiction which only appears as such, between the presence and the absence of the artist.

  • In one of her most famous pieces — A Needle Woman (1999-2001), eight performances (filmed on video) carried out in eight major cities around the world (Cairo, Lagos, Tokyo...), Kimsooja simply "is", standing in the midst of the crowds of people that pass by and react in different ways to her presence.

  • In this, as in all her actions, she is exposed in the first person but, with her back to the camera, immobile, exposed to the external world without protection, doing nothing, her presence loses its subjective connotation and becomes "the other". It is in this passage — in the reduction of the ego, which does not mean disappearing but rather a different way of being present — that the artist creates the conditions for an empty space in which she becomes the instrument and not the ends of the action that she carries out, and element of transmission and not the protagonist, an element which connects but does not center on.

  • With this, the title of the work is emblematic. A Needle Woman, which she explains as a needle is "an extension of the body, and a thread is the extension of the mind. The traces of mind stay always in the fabric, but the needle leaves the site which its medialization is complete. The needle is a medium, a mystery, a reality, a hermaphrodite, a barometer, a moment, a Zen." during an interview with Nicolas Bourriaud, published in the catalogue of her exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum in Lyon in 2003.

  • In her doing nothing, each time the surrounding scenario becomes the protagonist with the different reactions of the people passing by, finding themselves before this silent, concentrated presence. The camera view is such that, in watching the video we have the feeling that we are a part of the group of passers-by.

  • Standing before each of Kimsooja's works we find ourselves standing before ourselves. It is in these terms that another aspect of the artist's work emerges, which takes on a significant connection with Buddhism. Where "demolishing the reasons that feed the 'I' of the individual conscience means attacking the basis of all the mental constructions that derive from the presumption of this subjective 'I' and thus avoiding the psychic and physical damage that those constructions generate and host: to embrace and practice emptiness of the 'I' means emptying all opposition which is unbearable, each conflict that feels irremediable, each dualism that seems absolute, of its weight. Positively speaking, this means transforming the body and mind into constellations of interacting elements, in structures of interdependent parts, in nets with interconnected knots, where interdependence and connections guarantee the absence of multiple 'I's, the eclipse of absolute identities and fixed identifications." [1] These words seem written to describe the work of Kimsooja. In an historical phase in which individualism prevails, where the dominating declination of the "desire" is "desire to consume", and the growing revendications of belonging and of identity are fed by a dangerous logic of exclusion, the practice of an artist who with her silent presence alone suggests something else, taking existence from these predominating perspectives resounds with a further meaning. On additional meaning.

  • Furthermore, in A Beggar Woman, the artist sits in the street with her hand out, in the act of asking money from passers-by, in A Homeless Woman, she puts herself in the shoes of the homeless, again doing nothing in the midst of the crowds... Her rigorous testimony, her intentionally not adding anything to the world, the use she makes of her body, leave space to the world, in all its moving intensity.

  • [1] Giangiorgio Pasqualotto, Estetica del vuoto, Venezia, Marsilio, 2004, p. 50.

Translated from Italian by Donna Fox Page.

A Laundry Woman - Yamuna river, India, 2000, 10:30 video loop, Silent.

The Discipline of Looking

Morgan, David


  • Kimsooja’s video, A Laundry Woman (2000), places the viewer before a silent screen across which a river passes, its surface carrying refuse and fragments of branches, plants, and flowers swept from unseen banks. At the top of the screen, the river vanishes in a white glare, perhaps from the morning sun that hangs just above the river and greets an anonymous Indian woman who has come to the edge of the Yamuna River at Delhi to wash laundry. We see her only from the back, and she never moves. She is the only thing that does not move. After a few moments, the viewer wonders if she is really there. Perhaps she has been burned into the video tape by some mechanical process, or inserted by digital editing. In the age of Photoshop, is anything actually real? Not a hair flutters on her head, her clothing registers no wind or motion.

  • Yet she is human, and the eye returns to her stalwart, central figure again and again. She stands with her immovable back to the viewer, an Asian version of the so-called Rückenfigur, the familiar device of placing a figure seen from the rear in the foreground of a picture, a favorite contrivance of Romantic painters in Europe in the early nineteenth century. It lures viewers into the painting, directing their vision and pulling them to the picture plane, which tends to vanish as they compare themselves to the figure, perhaps even regarding the figure as another version of themselves, or as their fictive counterpart within the work of art. A Laundry Woman recalls this iconographical motif by freezing the figure in the video. The artist used the same motif in another silent video, A Needle Woman (1999-2001), which she has performed by standing motionless in the crowded streets of Tokyo, Shanghai, Delhi, Cairo, Lagos, and London, among others. In doing so, Kimsooja blurs the distinction between painting and video as media, a move bolstered by the absence of sound.

  • Why engage in this sort of ambivalence in her medium? Is it one more tired involution of art referring to art? A much better purpose may be at work. The artist pushes her medium to the limits of its ontology, one might say. She extends video to the point where it threatens to turn into something it's not — in this case, painting. She cloaks the imagery in silence in order to deprive the viewer of the effect of sound, which would clearly distinguish video from non-moving visual media. Even though the water never ceases to flow, and the cloudy surface is continually disrupted by flotsam that ambles by, moving from left to right, I found myself repeatedly rediscovering that it was a river. The white glare across the top of the screen strongly tends to flatten the image, which is affirmed by the lack of shadows and depth in the water. The motionless figure might be staring into a snowstorm, or a scrim, but for the lolling gait of lily pads and fragments of vegetation, plastic bags, and the shadows of birds. Even now as I remember the scene, I find myself dubbing in sound — the distant call of the birds, the drop of water, the skitter of water bugs, the hushed lapping of water at the shoreline out of sight. By depriving us of so much, Kimsooja asks us to look hard and to question the very act of looking. By pressing a visual medium to its threshold, an artist tests the nature of seeing, probes especially the elusive seams where a medium stitches itself to the airy fabric of consciousness.

  • A medium is never stable, despite what we may wish to think about it. The imagination animates drawings, photographs, and films, supplying what is not there, ignoring what is, and sometime even subverting what one expects or wants to find present. The very same holds true of the mind itself, which is the fundamental medium of consciousness. It is not a stony blank slate on which is etched the secure features and principles of reality. The mind is the very surface of water that the artist envisions in her video. And the mind is anything but stable. The Dhammapada, one of the oldest and most widely revered Buddhist sutras, describes the mind as "wavering and restless, difficult to guard and restrain". "Fickle and flighty, [the mind] flies after fancies wherever it likes." [1] Yet the wisdom of many religions is that our greatest problem can become our most powerful means of salvation. The mind and the body are trainable. Hinduism regards the individual ego or self as something like the larger self, the atman, the being or essence of all things that expresses the ultimate, but ineffable reality called Brahman. Christianity can speak of the individual self as hiding within Christ, who becomes the truer aspect of the self (Colossians 3: 3). The redeemed are those whom another New Testament text describes as "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1: 4).

  • To be sure, the world’s religions should not be melted down to a stew with one taste. Yet, because they all grapple with the same material — the human struggle with selfishness, suffering, and mortality — it is not surprising that a number of parallels may be discerned in very different religious traditions. In each of those cited, the human self, embedded in the mortal body, is the place where longing for deliverance begins as well as the locale in which it is realized —l by albeit starkly different means. For many Christians, body and mind become deeply engaged in transforming suffering into an imitation of God’s presence in Christ. For Hindus, body and mind are engaged in mitigating the cause of suffering by training the body in yoga, in dietary practices, and in prayer and ritual offerings. According to The Dhammapada, the person "whose mind in calm self-control is free from the lust of desires, who has risen above good and evil, ... is awake and has no fear". And so begins the rigorous discipline of Buddhist training, to steal the mind against the frailty of the body in order to dismantle the manifold attachments to the fear, lust, anger, and ignorance that propel the illusion of the self-centered self.

  • Even this lightly comparative consideration of three religions may help us consider Kimsooja’s video and, by extension, a great deal of art work today, which explores aspects of religion or addresses parallels between art and religion. As with the comparison of different religions to one another, the task is not to reduce art to religion or vice versa, but to ask in what manner the two appear to operate similarly, and what that means for artistic practice today. Is art a replacement for religion? The claim is not a new one. In the early nineteenth century, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer described two forms of transcendence that might release human beings from suffering: aesthetic contemplation and the life of asceticism. Both were ways of renouncing what Schopenhauer called the will, the blind force that drives all things in the universe. In delineating the two means, Schopenhauer set the stage for subsequent reflection about the relation of art and religion as two roughly parallel, though not equivalent practices.

  • Aesthetic contemplation, he claimed, is the means of saying no to the will, of becoming a "pure, will-less subject of knowledge", an eye surveying a work of art or an object of nature from beyond the grip of the will and seeing only the essence of the thing, the timeless being manifest in the phenomenon. Beauty is the experience of this transcendental reality. Schopenhauer described the operation of aesthetic experience as follows, which merits quotation at length:

  • Raised up by the power of the mind, we relinquish the ordinary way of considering things... we do not let abstract thought, the concepts of reason, take possession of our consciousness, but, instead of all this, devote the whole power of our mind to perception, sink ourselves completely therein, and let our whole consciousness be filled by the calm contemplation of the natural object actually present, whether it be a landscape, a tree, a rock, a crag, a building, or anything else [such as a river]. We lose ourselves entirely in this object, to use a pregnant expression; in other words, we forget our individuality, our will, and continue to exist only as pure subject, as clear mirror of the object, so that it is as though the object alone existed without anyone to perceive it, and thus we are no longer able to separate the perceiver from the perception, but the two have become one, since the entire consciousness is filled and occupied by a single image of perception. If, therefore, the object has to such an extent passed out of all relation to something outside it, and the subject has passed out of all relation to the will, what is thus known is no longer the individual thing as such, but the Idea, the eternal form, the immediate objectivity of the will at this grade. Thus at the same time, the person who is involved in this perception is no longer an individual, for in such perception the individual has lost himself; he is pure will-less, painless, timeless subject of knowledge. [2]

  • Schopenhauer went on to cite Byron's experience of the oneness of landscape and soul in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and the utterance of Brahman in the Upanishads: "I am all this creation collectively, and besides me there exists no other being." [3] The Upanishads or Vedanta presented the absolute, Brahman, as the imperishable soul (atman) that exists behind all appearances as the ground of everything. It was this reality that Schopenhauer identified with the state of consciousness achieved in aesthetic experience. But art was less permanent than the renunciant’s way of denying the will. Art, in the end, was not equal to religion, but a passing version of it.

  • Certain versions of Buddhism have accorded an important place to artistic practice, regarding activities like painting, pottery, calligraphy, flower arrangement, gardening, and the performance of the tea ceremony meditative forms of practice. Making things and doing things can be absorptive activities that release the mind from its attachments and train it to attend singularly to immediate tasks, without the flitting distractions the Dhammapada noted. But it is important not to mistake the purpose of these creative forms of meditation. They are not merely an alternative way of making art. Buddhism is often romanticized by those who wish to see in it no more than a serene aesthetic and amusingly paradoxical witticisms. This fantasized version of Buddhism is never up to the challenge of actual practice. Skimming the mere look of Buddhism (or any religion) from the torso of lived practice is something that art — in tandem with commerce — is all too capable of doing. Artists, curators, and art historians are sometimes happy to indulge in aestheticizing a religion because they operate on the presumption that art is neatly separable from religion, as if art were the flower to be plucked from the otherwise irrelevant plant of pious practice.

  • Is that what we encounter in the ten silent moments of Kimsooja’s video? Are we urged to clip from Buddhism or Hinduism or from the daily life of an anonymous laborer some universal essence that can be imported into the marketplace of our lives and appropriated as if it were a commodity in global tourist trade? Does she invite us to peel off the picturesque exterior of a life-world and chuck the irrelevant innards into the passing river — all in the liberal name of Art? These are important questions to ask in the age of hyper-capitalism, when anything may be commoditized to supply the self-construction of inexhaustibly acquisitive consumers. Is nothing sacred? Absolutely not, the marketplace answers.

  • An instructive catalogue essay by Elizabeth Brown informs us that the figure at riverside is not a laundry woman, but the artist herself. [4] The artist also appeared as herself in A Needle Woman, having herself spent several years engaged in the practice of needlework. These videos are not, therefore, ethnographic documents. A Laundry Woman is the artist’s portrayal of a laborer who watches fragments of a Hindu funeral rite pass by her on the river’s murky surface, contemplating human fate (as she told Brown). The artist constructs the work of art as a literal projection of herself into the place of another, and invites viewers to follow her lead. In doing so, she acts on the belief that the human situation as diagnosed by Hinduism or by Buddhism is also available to the rigors of artistic practice. She may assume that the boundaries separating the two are blurred. The AWAKE project, in which Kimsooja has participated, asserts in its webpage, that Buddhism need not be construed as a religion, but as a science of the mind, whose principles, it follows, can be productively exported and applied by non-Buddhists in works of art. [5]

  • If Buddhism’s analysis of human consciousness produces penetrating insights, particularly insights that are comparable in striking ways to artistic practice, is it an act of cultural skimming for artists to act like Buddhists (or Hindus or Christians or Zoroastrians)? As the brief foray into the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer might suggest, the modern project of establishing the independently revelatory power of art and the autonomy of artistic genius argues resolutely that aesthetic experience is an embodied operation that parallels religious experience because it proceeds from the underlying structure of human consciousness. Religion happens the way it does, like art in its right, because of the nature of the mind-body on which they are built as human activities. But Schopenhauer did not propose a religion of art. He regarded art as a consolation, not an explanation of life or a therapy for curing its ills. Art is no other than the short-lived result of looking at the world disinterestedly, aesthetically. Art, therefore, cannot claim to get things more right than religion, any more than the reverse, but only differently.

  • If there is any truth to this, Kimsooja is not acting like a Hindu or Buddhist in her video (she was born in Korea, but is not a practicing Buddhist). By paring itself away to the silent presence of a painting, as suggested above, the video recalls Korean or Chinese ink paintings of poets lost in thought before mist-covered lakes. Yet the video exchanges the aristocrat-poet for a common laborer, perhaps in order to urge that enlightenment is for everyone, not just poets and artists. A Laundry Woman immerses the viewer, any viewer, in a sustained act of looking, an absorbed state in which consciousness fills up with the object of perception such that one no longer thinks about what one sees, but think as it, having overcome the subject-object distinction that Schopenhauer identified as the basic structure of rational knowledge or reason. In this absorbed state of mind, which one finds in all religions as well as in the transfixed stare of the beach comber, the ego and its small sphere of suffering fade blissfully away.

  • We have in this slowly moving visual field only a single frame, which is repeatedly penetrated by flotsam and gentle eddies. The mind is directed to the world off-screen, the world we can only infer by the passing objects and shimmering reflections that appear and then vanish. At its undisciplined level, human consciousness is just this single frame, a fragile apparatus imposed on a welter of events. But the discipline of looking that art and meditation pursue brings the viewer to rest, suspends one in silence to find the world taking shape in the small bounds of the human frame. As Buddha put it in a famous sermon, "Within this fathom-long sentient body itself, I postulate the world, the arising of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path leading to the cessation of the world." [6] The instrument of suffering is also the instrument to end suffering.

  • For the millions of people who worship Buddha as a divine being who assists them in attaining higher rebirth and progressing toward ultimate release, Buddhism is clearly a religion. For others, however, Buddhist meditation is essentially a science of mind, and not a religion. For the latter, art-making and viewing may act as a non-religious form of meditation. Although he may have separated art and life more than many artists today would prefer, Schopenhauer regarded art as a way of looking at life. As such, art is a special form of consciousness, operating like meditation and teaching us to simplify our lives and to loosen the hold that our fears and desires exert over us. Such art does not save us. It is not a religion. But like meditation, it can help us see clearly.

  • Art may not last long in its brief epiphanies. As I’ve tried to suggest, that is because its task is different than religion’s. Art is sensuous thinking, what might be called embodied or sensate cognition. It thinks in the sensations that flood the field of perception and it seeks to change and deepen the registers of thought and feeling that we bring to our experience — all experience. Religion also traffics in transcendence, but its final aim is to keep us there — whether it is in this world or the next. Given this similar content, it is not surprising that religion has always made use of art (for this reason and many others) or that artists find fascinating parallels between their creative practices and those of religious believers. But the two are not reducible to one another. Kimsooja is not trying to make believers of us, but better seers.

[1] The Dhammapada: The Path of Perfection, tr. Juan Mascaró (London: Penguin, 1973), 40. > return to article >
[2] Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, tr. E. F. J. Payne, 2 vols. (New York: Dover, 1969), vol. 1, 178-79, §34. Emphasis in original. > return to article >
[3] Ibid., 181. > return to article >
[4] Elizabeth A. Brown, “Exploring WOW; or, How Works of Art Work,” in WOW: The Work of the Work, exhibition catalogue (Seattle : Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, 2005), 15. > return to article >
[5] www.artandbuddhism.org, p. 1. > return to article >
[6] In the Pali canon’s Añguttara-nikāya,quoted in Walpola Sri Rahula, What the Buddha Taught (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1997), 42. > return to article >

  • From Curator: The Museum Journal, vol. 49, no. 3 (2006): 295-300. David Morgan.

  • David Morgan is the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Professor of Christianity and the Arts at Valparaiso University. Author of many essays on contemporary art, he has also published several books, including Visual Piety (California, 1998) and most recently The Sacred Gaze (California, 2005).

A Lighthouse Woman, Spoleto Festival USA, 2002, lighting sequence, Morris Island, Charleston. Photo by Rian King.

Kimsooja: A Lighthouse Woman, A Needle in the World

Morgan, Robert C.


  • As a writer coming from a Westernized context, I regard the work of Kimsooja with a great deal of specificity, rarefied thought, and emotion. At the same time, I understand her need to relinquish desire — first in herself, and then, in relation to her work. If desire offers a means to grapple with the emotional realities that exist in relation to the external visual and material world, then the sensory cognitive aspect of the human body serves as its refining conduit. In this respect, Kimsooja posits the sensorium of the body, together with the cognitive apparatus of the mind, as a kind of actionist sanctuary. Her persona — "a needle woman" — suggests that our bodies are where we stand — as she stands anonymously facing the momentum of people walking towards her in the crowded streets of Shanghai and London — or where we lie down — as she lies down under the shade tree in a public place in Cairo. In such circumstances, the artist's body acts as a conduit between the interior realm of the spirit and the external world of perennial chaos. A Needle Woman suggests that by focusing on the body without desire, we offer ourselves the potential to make ourselves whole. The body is what nourishes us and gives us substance. The Fakirs in India have known this for centuries. The body is capable of nourishing itself over extended periods of time. And this notion of self-nourishment is far from the narcissistic desires that have come to possess human beings in the storm of illusory wealth, provided by the monarchs and moguls of globalization.

  • When I look at the works of Kimsooja — whether her early "deductive objects" as in the wrapping of ordinary household objects, or her brilliant installations of suspended ybulbo, or her magnificent still-body interventions in crowds of people in various major cities, or even in her spinning jukebox wheels overlaid with the mixed sounds of Buddhist chant, Gregorian, and Islamic chants, I begin to see a pattern of recognition. When I observe her video of A Beggar Woman performance in Lagos, I cannot refrain from having an emotional response. I never know exactly how to respond to the kind of aesthetic/anti-aesthetic whirl that spins in my head upon seeing these works by Kimsooja. How do I respond to this feeling of a language that is exorbitant, ineluctable, and mysterious? Yet somehow I discover an unexpected relief from the sensory burden of everyday life, the existential reality that I share with others who feel as I do. I have to admit to a certain beauty in all of this, the kind of beauty that gives strength to carry on. I reflect on Sooja's image of light projected against the lighthouse tower on Morris Island, Charleston (during the Spoleto Festival) in 2002 as a kind of double entendre as symbolizing both doubt and hope. It is here that Sooja becomes "A Lighthouse Woman". I think to myself — Is this not what art is supposed to do? Isn't art supposed to carry the mind and body into a different realm of being, an elevated state of contemplation and understanding of the world in which we inhabit?

  • Kimsooja is a woman on a journey. She is an artist and a human being like everyone else. Her hanging polychrome ybulbo (traditional Korean bedcoverings) and her bottari bundles transmit moments of enlightenment and redefinition. They reclaim the space that has been lost to ideology, fashion, mass media, and commerce. They transform the habitation of public space to a place of solace and intimacy that gives substance to everyday life. One may ask upon seeing these works whether the polarities of East and West still mean anything in our postmodern world torn by violent struggles between the rich and poor nations of the world, or even by nations who divide the rich from the poor.

  • Sooja's persona is "the needle woman" or "the laundry woman"; — and here is the point where my emotions start to swell. I am filled with a sense that life is, in fact, a journey, with a purpose and that compassion is more important then passion. Sooja's video projections — the needle women poised on a rock in Kitakyushu, and her laundry woman on the edge of the Yamuna River in Delhi where the burnt ashes of deceased human beings float to eternity — were made within two years of one another, in 1999 and 2000 respectively. These works asserted a turning-point in her career where the performance and video became an essential component in her work.

  • Earlier, in 1995 — when asked to participate in the first Gwangju Biennial — Sooja did a second version (first performed in 1994) of Sewing into Walking - Dedicated to the Victims of Gwangju. Her ybulbo were scattered in a forest — used cotton cloth in rumpled piles in chaotic bundles strewn to the winds. Here fabric was returned to nature, one given back to the other. Here she commemorates the struggle for democracy in 1980 where six hundred Korean were gunned down for insisting on their human rights.

  • The sensory / cognition domain of human beings causes much internal strife and is too often projected outward — violently released into the environment. While this may be part of her message or her mission, she is after all an artist. I express her calling in this way, only to suggest that Kimsooja carries a certain demeanor of gregarious humility. At the same time, I recognize that she is shrewd, sensitive, resilient, brilliant, humble, yet without self-effacement. Art is the focus of her attention. While one may read various phenomenological or minimal dimensions of "being in the world" in her work, there is scarcely a predetermined aspect in her work. I would argue that because she is so clearly in touch with her intuition, a wide breadth ofaesthetic and political speculations may appear as having ideological intentions.

  • For example, there are those who want to see her work in terms of Buddhism or feminism or minimalism or nomadism. There are those, particularly in Korea, who want to read her work as an anti-Confucianism statement, as a revolt against the way women have been treated in her culture through the manipulation of a distorted Confucian morality at the outset of the Chosun Dynasty.

  • While these arguments may be well-founded as part of the context in which her work may be understand, none of these issues are the central issue. Through her desire to relinquish the burden of the ego when necessary, to understand compassion as a human practice and necessity, and to allow her body to create an absolute stillness in the universe whether on the rock in Kitakyushu or on the banks of the Yamuna River, here we must return to the central issue. As an artist, Kimsooja has taken advantage of the signifier of self-liberation to free herself from unnecessary worldly restraints and encumbrances, while at the same time she is willing to give art an ethical dimension according to the context of her immediate actions, not according to an overarching principle of rightness, The signifier of freedom in her art also requires something of equal importance, and that is where Kimsooja enters into a transglobal history. She understands that freedom is also the ability to take responsibility for one's own life, and to know that — ecologically speaking — every action has a reaction. Call is Buddhism, if you will — but from another angle of vision, her presence as an artist offers a pragmatic vision for those in search of a better world where happiness and justice will be shared by all.

Robert C. Morgan is an independent critic, curator, writer, and artist. He holds a graduate degree in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in art history. He writes for several international magazines and is author of numerous books, including The End of the Art World (1998), Bruce Nauman (2002), and Vasarely (2004). He lives in New York City.