An Interview with Kimsooja


Interview with Kimsooja


Art & Today, Excerpt from Art & Globalism


Standing at the Zero Point


Between Existence and Non-Existence


Passages and Places - The City

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

An Interview with Kimsooja

Kim, Sunjung


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Please describe the new works you are planning.

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

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

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

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

Interview with Kimsooja

Gordon, Kelly


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kimsooja, A Mirror Woman - the ground of nowhere, 2003, Crossings 2003: Korea/Hawaii, in commemoration of the centennial of Korean/Hawaiian immigration, Honolulu City Hall, 57' x 21' diameter, aluminum ring, fine gauze cotton, mirror, wood, photo by Kimsooja, Courtesy of Crossings 2003: Korea/Hawaii and Kimsooja Studio. Kimsooja, A Mirror Woman - the ground of nowhere, 2003, Crossings 2003: Korea/Hawaii, in commemoration of the centennial of Korean/Hawaiian immigration, Honolulu City Hall, 57' x 21' diameter, aluminum ring, fine gauze cotton, mirror, wood, photo by Kimsooja, Courtesy of Crossings 2003: Korea/Hawaii and Kimsooja Studio.

Art & Today, Excerpt from Art & Globalism

Heartney, Eleanor


  • Kimsooja, who comes from a nomadic tradition in which all of one's possessions were designed to be folded up and taken away, recalls Chen's "transexperience" in both her heritage and her current experience as a woman living between her Korean past and her Western present. Her sculpture and installation works are combined with or accompanied by performances in which she appears as an alter ego known variously as A Needle Woman, A Mirror Woman, or A Beggar Woman. In the video A Needle Woman, 1999-2001, Kimsooja sits impassively, her back to the camera, in front of a variety of bustling streets — in Cairo, Delhi, Lagos, London, Mexico City, New York, Shanghai, and Tokyo — becoming a kind of motionless center, a cosmic outsider, existing in another time and consciousness apart from the world around her.

  • A Mirror Woman: The Ground of Nowhere, 2003, a sixty-foot-high vertical cylinder of white fabric, was installed in the lobby of Honolulu's colonial-era City Hall, whose atrium roof Kimsooja arranged to have reopened. Sealing off all but the opening to the sky directly above the fabric column, she placed a mirror floor on the ground the column's center, so that visitors who stepped inside found themselves standing on a piece of sky. Meanwhile, the fabric swayed gently in the breeze, creating a seemingly living, breathing space. Clouds drifting above and reflected below suggested, paradoxically, the feeling of rolling on an open sea. As part of an arts festival celebrating Korean immigration to the United States, A Mirror Woman referenced the immigrant's sense of destabilized identity, but it also provided a universal experience of merging with earth and sky.

Originally published as:
Heartney, Eleanor - Art & Today, Published in London: Phaidon. 2008. pp. 314-319

Kimsooja, A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon (Eclipse), 2008, One of Four Channel Video Projection, 12:33 loop, Sound. This project was possible with the generous support of Shiseido Co., Ltd.

Standing at the Zero Point

von Drathen, Doris


  • Within the confines of our linear notion of experience and imagination, the conjunction of sun and moon is merely an idea and, to us, unthinkable. Exceptional constellations of planets, such as the eclipses of the sun and the moon, are, by their very essence, quite different, for these do not feature the two celestial bodies at the very same time, but more the moment of shadow when the one is moving in front of the other and robbing it of light. The actual conjunction of sun and moon bursts the bounds of our reality, in a way that has always been conceived as metaphor for expressing the transgression of the impossible, the transgression of the duality of day and night that occludes all formulae and laws of time and place. The conjunction of sun and moon is the icon of impossibility.

  • When, in her video installation A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon, Kimsooja lets us experience precisely this impossibility on screen, she is not working with tricks. The sequence of images unfolds in real time, for the full duration of sunset and moonrise. One could almost say that the work of art in itself, however, remains invisible: it is the very point where Kimsooja is standing and observing the events in the sky. The artist is positioned on a spot, which is precisely gauged by seismograph, in fact at the zero point of a place, in that splice of space between the planets, in the chink between the orbits of sun and moon, on the verge of consciousness, at the brink of the mirror. The rest is waiting, with a fixed camera and an open frame, so that the rise of the moon and the setting of the sun are able to overlie one another.

  • Yet what does this say about the event, which the viewer is experiencing in that pictorial space, spanned between the four walls of Kimsooja's latest 4-channel video installation? For the fascination that takes hold of the viewer is immense; when, right at the threshold, one is caught up by the incessant sound of waves, when one gazes, transfixed, onto that horizon of the ocean which, in barely noticeable motion, traverses a silvery pane of light that has risen from the endlessly soft, shallow waves, whitely shimmering, roseate in reflection and alabaster in transparency, whilst the line of the horizon is left more and more below. And at the same time, and just as slowly, a red glowing ball of sun that glimmers in the foam moves closer to this extremely large moon, at some point touches its upper outer edge, enters into the circle of the moon, touches from inside against that selfsame edge to glide with the same slowness, yet moving freely, across the silvery surface of that circular pane and at some point, touch from inside against its lower edge and then, still touching this lower edge from the outside, gradually leaves the moon to move closer to the horizon, gradually, almost unnoticeably yet all of a sudden, immerses itself into its space of haze and disappears. There are several forms of motion that interlink in this pictorial space: not only do sun and moon draw closer to one another in the opposing orbits of their rise and fall. In ancient harmony, the waves of the ocean surge and join in with the orbits of the planets: the more the moon rises, the more the waves pull back, and over and over again wash over the sand. Shadow-like, against the light, palm leaves stir in the wind as if to tune in with the chorale in this momentous gathering of breath. For the waves that ceaselessly wash over the sands, withdraw, only to spill over the sand again, seemingly inscribed in the cosmic harmony of the huge orbital paths of the moon and those of the sun that, as we know, embody the illusion of the actual movement of the earth. The slow rhythm of the barely noticeable motion is in alignment with the shallowness of the waves, which at no single moment ever rear up into dramatic walls of water but, restrained and soft, roll on in horizontal dynamics in accompaniment to the line of horizon. The longer one is transfixed by this sequence of images, the more it appears as if the planetary orbits and the waves of the ocean are borne and pulsated by one single respiratory movement, as if one could imagine something like a cosmos, the founding principle of which lies in the simplest of movements, namely that of aspiration and exhalation, a constant contraction and expansion. This all engulfing breath is described by Hermann Broch after his contemplation of nature at night: "The quietude aroused by the drawing of breath, the night filled with the drawing of breath and, evolving from night and tranquillity, that omnipresence, that breath of the world in sleep. The dark exhaled, became more and more structured, filled with minion upon minion, ever more terrestrial, ever more abounding in shadow. (...) And that breathing being wandered through the breath of the night, over field and garden and sustenance, they too drawing their breath; and the breath of the universe opened itself to receive the creature, opened to the Oneness of the world that, in receiving love, receives its own structure." [1]

  • The singularity of the work of Kimsooja, however, is that she does not illustrate such an idea as cosmic breath or universal principle that might well apply to the creation as a whole, but vice-versa, she derives it from an "almost" everyday observation. For were one to gaze like Kimsooja and her camera, one would after all be able to observe this conjunction of sun and moon, this respiratory chorale of the planetary orbits and the movement of the ocean every single month. In fact it is this fundamental principle of breathing that correlates very distinctly here with her previous work. And it is only in viewing this new video composition that the dimension of the light and sound of her former composition To Breathe (invisible mirror / invisible needle), 2005, now becomes clearer; for this work, Kimsooja composed a genuine chorale from the sound of her own breathing and performed it at the Venetian theatre La Fenice; coloured light projections switched their respiratory rhythm as they took their cue in front of the closed stage to then roam through the audience. A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon also relates to the performance A Needle Woman, Kitakyushu, 1999, when Kimsooja, in supine position, nestles close to a rock to become part of that breathing horizon, her back turned towards the viewer whose gaze she can thus transport conjointly with her own into the far distance. Likewise related to this work is also the complex performance of A Needle Woman between 1999 and 2001, when Kimsooja placed herself as immovable vertical axis in the midst of crowds of people who are streaming by, this one single moment of an encounter gauged in an extended time. For what we see when looking at the planetary orbits of A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon is indeed this, an encounter between differing time currents that meet up at one particular point.

  • It might well seem to be symbolic of the work of Kimsooja when, on a second wall in A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon video installation, she shows the slow, gleaming approach of a shallow wave as it rolls to splay out over the sand, which has become a mirror of the returning waters and reflects the glowing spot of light from the sun. Infinitely gentle, the flat wave slinks towards the mirror of light, touching its outer edge, to spill a little more over this second sun before withdrawing, only to start again. The soft gentleness of this wave as it spreads over the sand calls to mind that fabric which in Korea traditionally has served as a Ybulbo, which is the Korean word for these artistically woven and decorated cotton or silk bedcovers that can be wrapped for multiple uses as a Bottari (a bundle). For people sleep on these spreads, children are born on them; they serve to wrap up items for safekeeping or for travel and were also used to carry the ill, or to cover and transport the deceased. Not only does this reflecting imagery relate to this fabric, one of the principal leitmotifs in Kimsooja's work, but also, and above all, the motif of the mirror emerges that in like manner is one of the recurrent elements in her work and plays a major role in her installation A Mirror Woman, 2002: here, a number of lines of these traditional bedcovers were suspended across a large interior space; the walls were mirrored, so that countless fabrics were reproduced in endless space. The performance A Laundry Woman, Yamuna River, 2000, in Delhi also could be understood as the imagery of a mirror; for once again, as immovable axis of time, the artist stands on the bank of the burial river; a few miles further down the river the dead were being burnt; and some residue of the decoration that was not combustible was borne onwards by the river together with ashes of the incinerated bodies. With her back to the viewers, her gaze carries their eyes into the distance, over the river and its horizon and the comparison with the mirror is set: whereas the river will ever continue to flow, the artist becomes conscious of her own shorter span of life. A sort of leap in time is set in scene, derived from observation of the world around us and culminating in the laws of the universe.

  • And this is exactly what is happening when in the A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon the sand is washed over, when the waves roll leisurely to the shore to play with the sun mirror: an everyday perspective that in the sequence of orbital imagery becomes an insight into cosmic motion. For the longer one contemplates this pictorial space, the more it seems as if it were the most natural thing that the motion of the waves, which at some point touch the mirrored sun, is inscribed in the imagery of wandering orbits of sun and moon. What is so breathtaking about this? Is this phenomena not related to the question of boundaries, the awesome secret of dynamics and power that seem, just as with the waves, to set constraints on the motion and expansion of the moon, the sun and the earth? Time and again, Kimsooja uses her observations of the world around us to span and create her own spatiality, one that is far removed from our understanding and touches upon the enigmas of the cosmos. Hardly any mystical train of thought would seem to open the door to such abundance of imagery as in Judaism, where those dynamics of a power, which is able to dictate here and no further, is considered as one of the divine manifestations, namely Shaddai. What is so surprising about this term, which denotes the forces of equilibrium of the universe, is that the cabalistic numerical value of its letters is 314; in other words, it corresponds exactly to the Greek pi. So that the mathematical, transcendental number for the rapport between the circumference of a circle and its diameter, i.e. the very tension and expansion of the circle, reflects the ancient mystical conceptions of Shaddai. [2] These spherical movements also coincide in the work of Kimsooja with the notion of cosmic forces, when moon and sun wander across sea and sky and, spellbound, we watch how they traverse the horizon of the earth, well knowing that this horizon, like the movement of the sun, is nothing but a deception of our own restricted range of vision. In the imagery of the 4-channel video installation A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon, the other walls, the third and the fourth, show formations of water that are immersed in the roseate silvery light of the moon as it rises at the same time as the sun sets. In one of these sequences, the camera takes a close shot of the heaving sea without shoreline or horizon. The viewer merges into the incessant breathing of the sea, as it gives forth its waves, allowing them to rise and subside in eternal circuit, as if the sea were fitted with a flywheel. On the fourth wall, shallow waves lap over some small rocks, swelling upwards to cover them, only to withdraw again to release the stones. Rather like a fixed marking, the stones appear to be parameters for the motion of the waves; here too, an encounter takes place between differing conjunctures. It is the endless repetition of the motion of the waves that gives a homogeneous sense of time; because of the persistent contraction and expansion of the ocean, the breathing of the sea, the viewer becomes susceptible to the circuit of the celestial bodies in the selfsame endlessness of their return. In this image, time is tangible; it is duration; as Bergson would say, a "homogeneous medium" which leaves behind the dimension of a succession of events. [3] It would be possible here to draw a comparison with the myths surrounding the wheel, the association of the potter's wheel, i.e. the principle of creation and the unremitting whirl of its cycles. The sole chance of escaping from this constant rotation is, as Indian and Asian sages teach, [4] by concentrating on the innermost Self. And that is why, more on a sublimed level than from a formal aspect, one could say that this work A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon has the strength of being the sum of Kimsooja's oeuvre — up to the present day.

  • However, when the works of Kimsooja consistently bring over this moment of supreme and absolute presence, this concentration on the innermost Self, then it is possible to recognise here her utter self-containment and inner repose, where quietude and meditation are more an inner position than any exceptional condition and penetrate every moment of her day. In the same way, her work is embedded in the direct, close observation of the world surrounding us.

  • This too is how the photographs The Sun - Unfolded were generated that strike as if from another world. Magical circles of spectral colours take concentric shape around the sun, like rays of light that unfold in concentric waves. The Sun - Unfolded is the name of these concentric circles that are reminiscent of a mandala. The distinctive element of the work of Kimsooja is, however, that these photographs are not manipulated; they were taken on the brink, as it were, by coincidence, whilst preparing the video A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon on Goa beach. It is paradoxical that it is in particular these photographs, which seem to complete this work; as if the sunlight itself reveals its secret and in one wave-like respiratory movement, unfolds the energy that lightens our vision day by day.

  • And it is interestingly this somewhat incidental creation, which, compared to the cosmic works of Kimsooja hitherto, comes full circle. For in the year 2003 she created A Mirror Woman: the ground of nowhere. In a room that was open to the sky the artist installed a 19-metre oscillating pillar composed of strips of muslin; on the ground she placed a mirror of the same diameter. Stepping through the wafting muslin, the visitor hence looked downwards to the sky and could watch the clouds and seagulls pass beneath his feet. On the one hand, just as with a glance into a well, there is the surprise effect of the world being upside-down; on the other, however, as so often in her work, Kimsooja broaches the sensitive topic of displacement, the fate of the emigrant who lives the experience that there is no ground any more under his feet, his only anchorage being within himself and in the sky. Yet in terms of the moon and the sun orbits, another dimension becomes apparent, namely that of the wholeness of the world, the idea of oneness that is found in the Egyptian writings of Hermes Trismegistos: "That which is above is the same as that which is below and that which is below is the same as that which is above". [5] This train of thought, which in its substance said that all is derived from The One and can be returned to The One, maintained its validity from the times of classical antiquity in the writings of Plato, of the Renaissance at the Medici court, through to the era of the Enlightenment and its philosophers, such as Leibniz. Again today, these thoughts are topical in the search for a systemic image of man and universe. In the eastern world of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, the idea of Oneness has always been at the heart of spiritual imagery. Emphasis is made of this philosophy here because in the series The Sun - Unfolded it would seem to find its icon. Peculiar as it is, these circles are identical to the drawings of Leibniz when setting down his own philosophy of The One.

  • The concentric waves of light from the work The Sun - Unfolded also come full circle in To Breathe - A Mirror Woman, which Kimsooja installed at the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid. From glass wall to glass wall, a mirror covered the flooring so that the construction of the high glass vault repeated itself beneath the feet of the visitor and swung in the bottomless space of doubled dimension. The entire cupola of the palace was covered with a transparent refractile coating, so that inside the endless space, a coloured light, such as found in church windows, set about its dancing twirls and doused the visitor in a thousand-fold splatter of spectral colours. Here too, the room was replete with the sound of the artist's breathing, the rhythm of which varied according to differing states of emotion, from joy, calm, doubt and anxiety through to a confidence reclaimed. The sound of breathing throws the visitor involuntarily back onto himself and his own rhythm of breathing. This is what is so unparalleled in the work of Kimsooja. The viewer is included in the pictorial space and an intimate dialogue is threaded between the viewer and the work of art; the artist knows how to render herself invisible and to transpose her own experience to the viewer. And this is precisely what happens in the oeuvre A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon: her position at the zero point between the orbits of the moon and the sun becomes a place in the splice of space, at the dividing wall of the mirror that generates consciousness; from here, she can view the impossible, open her range of vision into the cosmos, intensify her own sense of consciousness towards transcendence. At this moment of absolute presence, an ethical dimension reveals itself; this absolute liberty demands the relinquishment of territory, the relinquishment of an identity that is defined by belonging; it calls for an awareness that concentrates utterly and absolutely on the Self.

  • Translated from the German by Pauline Elsenheimer.


[1] Hermann Broch, Tod des Vergil, Frankfurt, 1976, p.212 "Atmungserweckt die Stille, atemerfüllt die Nacht, wuchs aus Nacht und Stille das immer Vorhandene, der atmende Weltenschlaf. Aufatmete die Dunkelheit, wurde gestalteter und gestalteter, kreatürlicher und kreatürlicher, irdischer und irdischer, wurde schattenreicher und schattenreicher. (...) Das Atmende durchwanderte den Atem der Nacht, mitwanderten Feld und Garten und Nahrung, mitatmend auch sie, und der All-Atem öffnete sich die Kreatur zu empfangen, öffnete sich zur Welteneinheit, die liebeempfangend die eigene Gestalt empfängt." > return to article >
[2] Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Mystères de la Kabbale, Paris, 2000, p.369 cf Gershom Scholem, Die jüdische Mystik in ihren Hauptströmungen, Frankfurt, 1980, p. 152 > return to article >
[3] cf Henri Bergson, Zeit und Freiheit (Sur les données immédiates de la conscience), Frankfurt, 1989, p.76 > return to article >
[4] cf Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, Dictionnaire des Symboles, Paris, 1969, Vol. 4, p.119 ff > return to article >
[5] Hermes Trismegistos, "Verfertigt von von Alethophilo", 1786, Stuttgart 1855, p.51 ff. > return to article >

  • First published in the catalogue in conjunction with the exhibition A Mirror Woman : The Sun & The Moon at Shiseido Gallery, Tokyo, Japan, August 23, 2008 - October 19, 2008.

Encounter – Looking Into Sewing, 1998 – 2002, Vivachrome print, 83-3/4" x 49-5/8", Photo by Lee Jong Soo, Courtesy of Art & Public, Geneva, and Kimsooja Studio.

Between Existence and Non-Existence

Jung, Joonmo


  • 신동아 0806호 원고 / 김수자

  • 실존과 부재의 사이
    글/정준모(미술행정, 고양문화재단 전시감독)

경계선 상의 보따리 (Bottari on the Borderline)

  • 김수자의 보따리는 매우 선명하다. 그 선명하고 화려한 색채는 눈이 부실 지경이다. 하지만 그의 보따리가 갖는 오브제로서의 선명성에도 불구하고 그의 작품은 분명한 메시지나 미학을 던져주지는 않는다. 관객에게 오랜 시간 인내하는 시간을 요구 할 뿐이다. 일상에서처럼 슬쩍 지나치지 않는다면 더욱 많은 사람들과 일상들과 인연을 맺을 수 있음에도 불구하고 바쁘다는 핑계로 외면하고 지나치는 사람들에게 김수자의 작품은 그곳에서 말을 걸어주는 사람을 기다리고 있을 뿐이다. 즉 말 걸기를 통해 관계를 맺는 것이다. 그리고 작품으로 메시지를 주려고 하기보다는 그 관계 속에서 자신을 들여다보거나 또 다른 자신을 만나도록 도와준다. 그의 작품은 그런 점에서 명료하다. 아니 단순하다. 하지만 그 관계 속에서 그냥 지나치지 않고 그의 작품을 일상으로 가지고 들어가는 일이 그리 쉬운 일이 아니다. 왜냐하면 우리는 외면하고 지나치는 일에 너무 익숙하기 때문이다. 하지만 그의 보따리를 외면하기에는 왠지 쉽지 않다. 왜냐하면 그의 보따리는 현존하는 오브제이자 현실 그 자체인 때문이다. 사실 많은 예술은 가정이자 허구인 경우가 대부분이다. 이러한 예술의 허구성은 삶의 일상성이라는 블랙 홀로 빠져들기 쉬운 인간의 속성으로부터 온갖 장치와 착시현상의 장치들을 걷어내고 순수한 예술적 대상에 몰입할 수 있도록 도와준다. 하지만 그 전제가 허구라는 점에서 김수자의 보따리와는 다르다. 사실 김수자의 작품이 여타의 작품과 구분되는 가장 중요한 요소는 보따리가 현실에 존재하는 예술품 그 자체라는 사실이다. 그러나 그 자체를 넘어 보따리가 포함하고 있는 은닉된 사물과 그 관계로 인해 또는 예술적 허구가 기미만 보여주는 불투명한 느낌의 감상 또는 예술을 위한 예술의 도구였다면 그의 보따리는 예술적 현실 그 자체로서 예술이라는 사실이다. 그의 현전하는 보따리는 예술적 존재태로서 단순하게 참과 거짓으로 분리 할 수 있는 ‘실제로 일어나지 않는 일’이 아니라 지금 이곳에 내가 서 있는 이 자리에서 ‘실제로 일어난 일’이라는 사실이다.
    그러나 그의 보따리는 현존성 그것만으로 모든 것을 말하지는 않는다. 그의 작품의 실재적 현실도 중요하지만 그 보따리의 다양한 의미를 간과해서는 안 된다. 즉 보따리가 갖는 다양한 의미와 그 변주에 관심을 가져야 한다는 것이다. 보따리는 단순하게 어느 무엇을 싼 덩어리 이상의 의미를 갖는다. 한국의 전통적인 포장방법인 보따리는 마치 물과 같은 속성을 지녔다. 무엇을 싸느냐에 따라 그 크기가 달라지고 모양 또한 변한다. 또 용도를 다하면 천으로 돌아간다. 하지만 물은 다른 용기에 담기지만 천은 담는 용기 그 자체라는 점에서 다르다. 물은 어느 곳에 담기던 물이라는 고유의 속성을 지니지만 보자기는 내용믈에 따라 그 모양이나 성격이 달리진다. 그 점에서 물은 자신을 끝내 잃어버리지 않지만 천의 하나에 불과한 보자기가 보따리라는 오브제로 변모하면 각각 다른 얼굴과 모습을 지닌다. 이렇게 다양한 얼굴을 가진 보따리를 통해 김수자는 다양한 각기 다른 사람들의 삶의 영욕을 성공과 실패를, 희망과 좌절을 투영시켜 볼 수 있도록 하는 것이다. 그는 가끔 그의 작품에 거울을 사용해서 공간을 확장시키거나 과거와 미래를 관통하도록 장치하고 있기도 하다. 그의 이런 시도는 그의 보따리가 개개인의 또는 관객하나하나의 삶을 담아내고 있는 것을 강조하기 위한 고안이라고 추측한다. 아무리 더러운 시궁창 물이 고여 있는 웅덩이도 자연을, 하늘에 떠 있는 구름을 비추어 준다. 그래서 비록 더러운 물이지만 물속에 구름이 흘러간다. 때로는 들여다보고 있는 사람의 얼굴까지도 비추어 준다. 정말 아름답고 시적이기까지 하다. 김수자는 물웅덩이의 의미보다는 수면이 비친 풍경이 어떻게 보이는지를 말하려 할뿐이며 관객들에게도 웅덩이 물의 맑고 탁함보다는 물에 비친 풍경의 아름다움을 보여주고자 한다. 하지만 여기서 간과하지 말아야 할 것은 물에 비친 풍경은 언제나 유목민처럼 움직이고 떠도는 것이지 붙박이는 아니라는 점이다.

보자기, 세계를 싸서 보따리가 되다. (Pojagi, Creating bottari by wrapping the world)

  • 김수자가 보따리에 관심을 가진 것은 이미 십 수 년 전으로 거슬러 올라간다. 천을 덧대거나 이어서 캔버스라는 사각형의 틀로부터 벗어나고자 했던 그는 대학원 시절 천이라는 매체와 바늘과 실 이라는 전통적인 규방문화적 재료와 방법론을 차용해서 작업을 시도했다. 그의 이런 작업은 당시 한국적 환원주의라는 교조적인 미술풍토에 대한 외면인 동시에 모더니즘 조차도 제대로 이해하고 실천하지 못하는 의사모더니스트들에 대한 반발이었다.
    그는 회화의 지지체로서의 평면의 의미가 강조되던 시절 평면 그 자체도 결국은 오브제라는 결론에 이르면서 그는 평면을 버리고 보다 순수한 평면적 존재에 열중하게 되었다. 그는 당시 삶과 유리된 교양 있는 부르주아 계급을 위한 모더니즘적 사고로 결별을 선언하고 민족주의를 외치는 사이비 좌파들의 ‘삶의 예술’이 아닌 삶의 진정성에 방점을 찍는 작업을 시작한 것이다.

  • "어머니와 함께 이불을 꿰매는 일상적인 행위 속에서 나의 사고와 감수성과 행위가 모두 일치하는 은밀하고도 놀라운 일체감을 체험했으며, 묻어두었던 그 숱한 기억들과 아픔, 삶의 애정까지도 그 안에 내포 할 수 있는 가능성을 발견하게 되었다. 천이 갖는 기본 구조로서의 날실과 씨실, 우리 천의 원초적인 색감, 평면을 넘나들며 꿰매는 행위의 천과의 자기 동일성, 그리고 그것이 불러일으키는 묘한 향수--- 이 모든 것들에 나 자신은 완전히 매료되었다."<1988년 현대화랑 도록-작가노트 중에서>

  • 이렇게 그의 초기 작업은 천에서 시작되었다. 그에게 있어서 천은 일상적인 옷에 다름 아니었다. 옷이란 인간이 부끄러움을 알고 나서부터 걸치기 시작한 것으로 인간에게 옷이란 자유와 그에 따른 책임을 의미하는 동시에 인간의 실존적 의미를 대체하는 상징이기도 하다. 또 옷이란 인간에게 있어서는 삶의 조건이자 삶의 향기이기도 하다. 그리고 옷은 제 2의 피부라는 말처럼 그 사람을 대변하기도 한다. 즉 옷이란 외피를 통해 사람들은 자신의 취향과 사람 됨됨이를 드러내기도 한다. 세상을 떠난 고인의 옷을 태우는 우리네 관습도 따지고 보면 옷이란 것이 갖는 인물의 대체재로서의 의미 때문일 것이다. 이런 보자기가 오브재를 이루면 보따리가 된다. 사실 보자기는 순수한 우리말이지만 우리말 외에 ‘보’(褓) ‘복’(袱) 또는 ‘복’(福)으로 불린다. 여기서 복 복자를 쓰는 경유는 보자기를 복을 싸두는 용기의 개념으로 인식하기 때문이다. 또 각 지방별로도 이름이 조금씩 달라서, 보대 밥부재 보재기 보래기 포대기 보자 보따리 등 다양하게 불린다. 보자기가 처음에는 무언가를 가리고 덥는 옷의 개념이었다고 한다. 현존하는 최고의 보자기인 선암사의 탁자보를 탁의(卓衣)라 부르고 갓난아이를 싸는 천을 강보(襁褓)라 부르는 것도 바로 옷의 의미가 지녔기 때문이다.
    이어령은 ‘서양인은 가방을 만들어냈고 동양인은 보자기를 만들어냈다’고 했다. 같은 운반용, 포장용 수단이지만 가방은 한 가지 기능만 하는 대신에 보자기는 다양한 목적과 수단을 지닌다. 또 가방은 용도가 없을 때도 자체 모양과 무게를 지니지만 보자기는 접어두면 된다. 게다가 자신을 위한 공간을 필요로 하지 않는다. 특정한 자기모양이 없기 때문에 어떤 모양이라도 다 지을 수 있다. 그리고 그 양이 많으면 많은 대로 적으면 적은 대로 두루 다 쌀 수 있다. 그래서 보자기는 그 자체가 ‘공(空)’인 까닭에 천변만화(千變萬化)가 가능한 것이다. 이런 보자기로 김수자는 세계를 싸서 보따리를 짓기 시작했다.
    그의 바느질(The Heaven & the Earth, 1984)은 연역적 오브제로 이어진다. 그에게 바느질은 바늘을 가지고 천에 구명을 내어 서로를 잇는 행위였다. 하지만 바느질이란 바늘로 상처를 내는 한편 그 상처를 치유한다는 이율배반적 행동에 다름 아니다. 그리하여 바느질이란 하나의 행동이 물질이나 사물의 성격 그리고 인간의 행동이 또 같지만 경우에 따라 그 결과와 의미가 서로 다르게 인식되고 나타나는 것처럼 이중적 의미와 가치, 상반된 성격을 갖는 것이었다.
    이후 그는 지게 등 민속적인 농기구들이나 사다리, 빨래걸이 등을 일일이 천으로 싸고 감는 행위<Untitled, 1991>를 통해 당시 물성에 대한 생각을 안료가 아닌 천을 통해 구현하기도 한다. 물질을 에워쌈으로서 새로운 물질로 치환시키는 이런 작업은 당시 매우 신선한 반응을 일으켰다. 이렇게 진화를 시작한 김수자의 천과 보자기는 사각의 틀을 벗어나 벽면에 부착되기도 하고 <어머니의 땅을 향해, 1990-91> 바닥에 놓이거나 모서리에 걸쳐지거나 또는 다른 오브제를 감싸면서 새로운 공간 즉 장소와 만나게 된다. 이 장소는 본질적이고 근본적인 만남이 일어나는 장소, 그리하여 본래의 의미가 사라지고 새로운 관계 속에서 또 다른 의미로 전이되는 곳, 새로운 변형의 장소를 만남으로서 보따리 또는 보자기도 관객도 새로운 환경에서 서로를 새롭게 들여다볼 수 있는 공간으로서의 ‘장소’가 된다.(꽃을 향하여, 1992, P.S. 1) 향후 이 장소라는 개념은 그의 보따리만큼이나 작품을 결정짓는 뼈대가 된다. 그리고 그의 보자기는 이 장소에 던져진 것처럼 널려있거나 전시장 벽면의 틈새에 끼워지는 형태의 전면적인 설치작업으로 변화한다. 그리고 더 이상 천을 자르고 꿰매는 일 대신에 천에 조그마한 힘을 가해서 있는 그대로의 천에 최소한의 형태를 부여하는 보따리를 만들기 시작한다.

치유하는 보따리 (Healing Bottari)

위무와 치유의 보따리 (Bottari that heals and mourns)

보따리를 풀면서 (Unwrapping Bottari)

  • 우리는 일상 속에서 많은 것들을 만나지만 그것들을 그냥 스쳐지나 보내기도 하고 때로는 외면하기도 하고 인식하지 못 한 채 지나치기도 한다. 왜냐하면 일상은 과거나 현재와 그렇게 깊은 관련을 가지지 않기 때문이다. 사실 사람의 삶이란 일상적인 사물들이 던지는 이야기들을 들어주는 것인 동시에 말 걸기이다. 그리고 그 말 걸기에 일상이나 사물과 나 또는 인간과의 관계맺음이다. 즉 관계란 일상성의 또 다른 말이다. 삶은 그 주변 또는 중심과 끊임없이 관계를 맺는 것을 의미한다. 하지만 이렇게 궁극적인 의미의 삶이 목표가 너무도 크고 방대하다 하더라도 가장 일상적인 상태에서 머물면서 ‘있는 그대로’ 또는 ‘되는 대로’살아가기 때문에 이런 세상과 사물과의 만남과 그 관계 속에서 자신의 존재를 인식하고 그들의 목소리를 듣기보다는 세속적인 재미나 호기심에 이끌려 자신의 삶이 유한하다는 명백한 미래는 잊어버리고 일상 속에서 머물기를 즐긴다. 즉 사람들은 일상성 속에 함몰되어 그 궁극의 의미나 실천방법을 잊어버리고 현실에 몰입한다.
    이렇게 김수자의 말 걸기는 계속된다. 일루젼에 대한 의문으로 시작에서 비롯된 바느질과 싸고 감는 행위는 자연으로 들어가 자연과 인간의, 신체와 자연과의 일체를 이루고 다시 이는 3차원의 보따리로 이어진다. 그리고 그 보따리는 때에 따라 묶이기도 싸매기도 하면서 자신의 영역을 확장시키고 빛이라는 메가 보자기를 통해 종래의 물성과 역사적 의미를 탈색시켜 새로운 치유의 산물로 환원시킨다. 이렇게 그의 작업은 일관되게 천으로 기호화된 신체이자 작품을 지지하는 바탕이자 표면이기도 하다. 이런 그의 작업은 삶과 죽음의 경계선상에 있기도 하고 때로는 차안에 때로는 피안에 존재하기도 한다. 하지만 보자기의 겉과 안이 다르지 않듯 부조리한 것들의 집합체인 모순덩어리인 인간의 현현이 김수자의 ‘보따리’이다. 그의 보따리는 존재태인 동시에 존재들로 가득 찬 존재의 그 자체이자 모순으로 점철된 인간의 욕망 덩어리이기도 하다. 하지만 보따리는 존재하는 오브제로서의 덩어리이자 곧 풀어헤치면 한 장의 천으로 돌아가는 이중적 구조가 그의 작품을 이끌어 가는 모체이다, 그리고 그는 이런 구조를 통해 예술과 삶의 경계를 분명하게 구분하지 않는다. 예술은 언제나 일상화되며 일상도 언제나 예술이 될 수 있다는 순환적 구조이기 때문에 예술과 삶의 경계를 넘나들며 약자를 힘 없는 사람을 우선 배려한다. 이런 박애주의적 태도와 함께 동양적 또는 한국적이라는 신비주의적인 로칼리즘에 천착하기보다는 서구 모더니즘이 간과했던 가치들을 찾아내어 이것들을 새롭게 회생시키면서 예술적인 삶보다는 삶과 함께 하는 일상의 예술을 실천하는 삶의 진정성이 묻어나는 예술을 실천하고 있기 때문에 그에 대한 국제적인 관심은 여전히 증폭되어 갈 것이다.

  • Originally Published in Shin DongA Magazine, June 2008.

Jung Joon Mo is a writer and curator based in Seoul, and is currently the Exhibition Director for Koyang Culture Foundation. He was chief curator of the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Korea, and was the Exhibition Director of the Gwangju Biennale.

A Needle Woman - Mexico City, 2001.

Passages and Places - The City

Adolphs, Volker


  • David Claerbout's work Shadow Piece opens the view from the inside to the outside, from the house to the street. Streets and houses shape the city. The city is a space. Michel de Certeau describes space as "a web of movable elements. It is to a certain extent filled by the totality of the movements that unfold within it. It is therefore a result of activities that give it a direction, that temporalize it." [1] This result doesn't yet define identity and unity; the city manifests itself as "a single mass of pedestrians..., a web of slapdash, out‑of‑the‑way accommodations, a traversing of your assumed own places and a universe of rented places, which are beset by a non‑place or dreamed‑up places." [2] Our concepts are not clear. Do place and space stand in relation to each other like house and place to the street, like standing‑still to going on, like the closed to the open? Does the place at first seem to us to be something stable and motionless, only a point at which we come to a halt and where we linger? But as soon as something happens at the location and with the location, i.e., a movement, it expands, becomes a space that leads to other spaces. Places have the most diverse functions. They divide up the protected area I can retreat to. They are also public zones that I share with others, places where I meet confidants just as much as places that are transitory and anonymous. Places can be places of passage, transit rooms, railway stations, ticket offices, where people pass each other, where they disperse to other parts of the city via a network of streets. The city is not merely a sequence of places and not a static geometry of streets. It is, repeatedly, a newly created movement in time and space, in which the different processes of walking come together: the goal‑oriented, or meandering and strolling walk, walking around, passing‑by, lingering. The city happens. In a fancy‑free stroll through Paris, the French situationists à la Guy Debord created another, open structure of experience, i.e., their own changing topography of the city beyond any fixed plan. The activity of pedestrians who take over the city space generates an urban network, provides the city with energy and determines its velocity. The reality of growing cities encompasses both the sedentary and the nomadic. It's a reality that can bear me up or isolate me. A café, a street, a quarter are familiar to me, but at the next corner I am already a stranger. The city is like an organism, which is held together in some way or other that I cannot really make out. In order to move around in the city, I have to constantly tear up my roots; in walking, I disengage myself from a place and fail to reach it. Some live in the city; they remain, they wait, have in fact not arrived, remain underway.

  • In her four‑channel video installation A Needle Woman from 2000‑2001 (Fig. p. 110/111), Kimsooja stands with her back to the viewer as a stationary, vertical axis in the heart of four metropolises: Mexico City, Cairo, Lagos and London, in a stream of people who meet her and go past her. At first the viewer takes in the waves of intermingling passersby, the continuum of urban life, into which the artist has plunged. In the midst of the mass movement, the artist appears, in her own words, to be a "barometer", a "witness", a "compass", a "surveying pin" that records the different cultures. [3] Like a pin, she pricks into the colorful social tissue of the cities, sews different societies together. [4] Kimsooja sees the pin as an extension of her body; she overcomes in‑between spaces and disappears again. The thread remains as a binding and mediating trace of the ghost in the tissue's weave. [5]

  • The fact that people always move in the same way seems to blend cities into a global unconcern in which the artist surfaces at random, alternating locations, but a closer look also shows peoples' social identities in differing hierarchies, classes, relations to each other, different reactions to the artist that are noted or avoided and ignored. In London's cosmopolitan bustle, people walk around self‑engrossed, unreceptive, single‑minded. In Lagos they react with curiosity, laughter, irritation. In one city, Kimsooja becomes transparent, almost vanishes; in the other she appears as a counterpart. She is both present and absent, part of the cities' space and time and outside of that space and that time. She obviously stands in the way as a physical impediment and yet her physical existence is ignored. She meets the others and is isolated; she is divided from the life of the others and in the same way integrated in the passage of that Iife. The viewer looks at the back of the artist, takes up her position and also that of the people who go past her, tries to imagine Kimsooja's face that radiates self‑confidence and the safety in staying within the flow of passing life. Even when she is a perceived object, her inner nature remains closed to the others. She is the observer as such, not only of what happens around her, but also of the processes that go on inside her.

  • The speed of the video has been reduced by 50 percent. By means of this prolongation, time, the artist's encounters, the flow of people, stationary and fleeting time -all are more intensely experienced. The artist is the indicator of time and space; both make up a unit, both are physical. "Although, when I place my motionless body in space as a vertical axis, I create a form of timelessness, I simultaneously open up another movement: it is a vertical movement directed inwards; time in the form of consolidation. We cannot separate the coexistence of time and corporeality and therefore of spatiality; they will always belong together." [6] A Needle Woman thus transmits three perceptions of time, standing still in the body of the artist in which past, present and future meet, which, in comparison and despite the slowdown, incorporates the visible speed of the other passing figures plus the perspective of the viewers, who stand respectively for real‑time.

  • Kimsooja, on the one hand, opposes the acceleration of life; her motionlessness highlights the floundering, empty movement and temporal mechanism of the human stream around her. But it is also possible to see this the other way around. In this case the unceasing, endless wave of people is the stationary and enduring part and the artist is the existence that is in motion, will go on, pass away, decompose and disappear. Kimsooja speaks of the finitude and infinity of being. We are in time and timeless; we are transient and without any durable substance and thus also have access to and an experience of delimitation, of transcendence or going beyond time.

  • Although the nomadic lifestyle is a characteristic phenomena of this era, it could also be one's choice; we can still live without moving around much and be rooted in one's own place. Human curiosity and the desire for communication expands its physical dimension and happens to control human relationships and the desire for possessions, and pursuing the establishment of a global community, which includes the virtual world. But a true nomadic life wouldn't need many possessions, or control and it doesn't need to conquer any territory; it's rather an opposite way of living from a contemporary lifestyle, with the least amount of possessions, no fear of disconnection, and being free from the desire of establishment. It is a lifestyle that is a witness of nature and life, as a kind of process of a pilgrim. Nomadism in contemporary society seems to be motivated from the restless desire of human beings and its follies, rather than pursuing true meaning from nomadic life.


[1] Kimsooja, in: Art and Context, Summer 2006. > return to article >
[2] Michel de Certeau, "L'invention du quotidian", . > return to article >
[3] Ibid. > return to article >
[4] See Kimsooja im Gespräch mit Doris von Drathen, in: Kimsooja. Künstler. Kritisches Lexikon der Gegenwartskunst, edition 4, no. 12, 2006, p.14. > return to article >
[5] Ibid. > return to article >
[6] See the statements by Kimsooja in an interview with Nicolas Bourriaud in: Kimsooja. Conditions of Humanity, cat. Musée d'art contemporain de Lyon/museum kunst palast, Düsseldorf 2003/2004, p. 56. > return to article >

  • Originally published in "Passages and Places - The City". Going Staying catalogue from the exhibition at Kuntmuseum Bonn published in Bonn: Herausgegben vom 2007. pp.106-111.