A Place to Be - A Conversation with Kimsooja

To Breathe: Bottari, 2013, mixed media installation, partial installation view of the Korean Pavilion, The 55th Biennale di Venezia, photograph by Jaeho Chong

A Place to Be - A Conversation with Kimsooja

Gautherot, Franck


  • FG: In 2005 Seungduk Kim, your present commissioner for the Pavilion, invited you to participate in a Korean group show she curated at the Vienna Kunsthalle. You didn't agree to take part in such an exhibition. What led you to accept her invitation for Venice? How do you feel about this national identity when you have been a 'self-exiled' artist for so long?

  • KSJ: I think 'national exhibition' refers to so many different categories and connotations. For an artist who considers herself a 'self-exile' and a cosmopolitan, the notion of a 'nation', or 'national' is not that simple. The particular concept of the nation or national has to be defined before one can address its criteria. The historical, political, economic and cultural specificities of a society and a nation have a lot to do with an artist in terms of her/his personal and collective identity. These factors define how an artist has built up her/his own perceptions of the world and artistic criteria within the international art scene. A nation is like ones' parents by whom you were raised and who have influenced your life with given conditions and perceptions. When it comes to a collective identity, an artist who pursues his or her own unique and individual vocabularies must have their own point of view as to what category they fit into within a specific group show, or an exhibition as a national representative.
    Over the years I had to decline a number of national group shows including biennales that weren't in line with my personal artistic practice and my beliefs. For example, I declined to participate in a national group exhibition which was an exchange between Korea and China in Beijing a couple of years ago. That decision was a reaction against the constant violence inflicted on an artist Ai Wei Wei by his government. I have no personal relationship with Ai Wei Wei, but I don't believe that a government can deprive an artist of their freedom of expression and perform violent actions towards them regardless of who they are. The decision I made not to participate in this exhibition had nothing to do with the curator, organizer or invited artists and their artistic values but was solely a humanitarian and ethical action; in the attitude of taking a position as an outsider.
    My reaction to the Korean Exhibition at the Kunsthalle Vienna was also an action to declare my position as an outsider. That was still a time when I was questioning "Koreanness". As far as I know, the show examined and juxtaposed two opposite poles in Korean art: the Modern Art group and the Minjung Art group. These two groups were usually not curated together, because they had a certain kind of political conflict between each other and also due to their respective interests in Korean society. As an artist who had tried to keep a distance from any group activities or any hierarchical structures in Korean society, I didn't want to return to that particular political context in a national exhibition such as this, as it was something that I had consciously avoided for much of my career. I have worked hard to retain my autonomy and independence as an artist, although it has not been an easy path for me over the years. Besides which, I had already been introduced to the audiences in Kunsthalle Vienna during a solo show just a few years before and an international group show in Vienna Seccession in the past. It is more to do with my own personal history and position rather than with the show itself. When I saw the catalogue, I thought the show looked quite interesting as a spectator.
    I guess being invited to represent my own country's national pavilion is the most exceptional recognition I can achieve as an artist who considers herself in self-exile. Without a doubt, it is an honor and it is a challenging question for me to work on this particular biennale, so I was willing to develop the best possible project for the Korean Pavilion.

  • FG: Seungduk Kim expressed, from the beginning, her wish to focus on the pavilion as an architecturally strong component that the artist will have to play with. How did you take her invitation to mainly connect to this given architectural situation?

  • KSJ: I understand how much the nature of the particular architectural elements of the Korean Pavilion has raised questions for the commissioners and invited artists in the past, and we are no exception. However, I value Seungduk Kim's approach to the pavilion, as it has never been examined from a solely architectural perspective. This certainly coincided with my immaterial way of approaching the site specific project and I tried to preserve the original structure of the pavilion while challenging its specific qualities and problems.
    Leaving the whole space empty without installing any objects in it, the installation expands the void to the maximum by taking the architecture of the Korean Pavilion itself as a Bottari (Korean word for bundle). I tried to transform the entire pavilion into 'A Bottari of Light and Sound, Darkness and Soundlessness' that inhales and exhales; as if the architecture itself were my body. I have chosen not to install any objects in the space so that the audience's body may be embraced by the sound of my breathing. The Weaving Factory (2004-2013) sound performance fills the pavilion and proposes a unified experience, together with the yang energy which enters as sunlight, and extending all the way to the yin energy of the black hole in the anechoic chamber.
    The skin of the glass windows is wrapped with the diffraction grating film fabric that defuses the sunlight into a rainbow color spectrum. What we see is the unfolded sunlight and the shadows of nature that shower into the pavilion and are translated into a color spectrum. This light and shadow reflects onto the white walls and simultaneously bounces endlessly back and forth from the mirrored skin of the ceiling and the floor; folding and unfolding into infinity. The darkness in light and the light in darkness is stretched to an extreme into waves of light and sound. The audience's body resides within mine as a whole, wrapping and unwrapping, communicating with each other. The light waves and the sound waves together with my humming and the inhaling and exhaling of my own breath, question the moment of life and death while the mirrors bounce light off their surfaces breathing in and out.
    It was significant that Hurricane Sandy happened in New York right at the moment when we were discussing this project. The experience of living without power, electricity, heat and conveniences for one week with the whole community, was a humbling and contemplative moment. At the same time, this special moment gave me an insight into the Korean pavilion project by encouraging me to construct an anechoic chamber to explore a state of complete darkness and soundlessness. In this way, the visual knowledge of infinite reflection in the main space—which is constructed from purely natural light, finds a counterpoint in the space of the 'unknown' or 'unseen' in the anechoic chamber.

  • FG: In general how do you picture your contribution to any exhibition situation: Is it the space that calls first? The people? The context? The location and its history?

  • KSJ: I am aware of all the factors and consider them all simultaneously. The artist's job is done by an omnipresent gaze and mind that looks at both the visible and the invisible.

  • FG: You have been invited many times to exhibit at the Venice Biennale. So the biennale is no longer an issue for you, but the Korean Pavilion is a new challenge. How do you locate yourself within its specific history? You said you have seen many of the shows there over the years.

  • KSJ: I have been invited to participate in the main Venice Biennale exhibition twice. The first time for Harald Szeemann's d'APERTutto (1999), and the second time for Rosa Martinez's exhibition Always a little further (2005), both were shown in the Arsenale. I have also participated in other official exhibitions at the biennale such as the Tiger's Tail (1995) curated by Soyeon Ahn and organized by The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea, in the Palazzo Vendramin. Nam June Paik had been at the German pavilion in 1993; this was the following biennale for which he contributed to present large scale Korean Contemporary Art in Venice. It was the first time I had presented my installation with bottaris in Venice. I also participated in Markers (2001) curated by Ryszard Waskow on Garibaldi Street; and ArtTempo (2007) at the Palazzo Fortuni organized by Axel Vervorrdt, and curated by Jean-Hubert Martin and Matijs Visser. This exhibition became an inspiration for many curators to create a historical return of the Gutai group through exhibitions such as the show Daniel Birnbaum invited Matijs Visser to curate at the following Venice biennale. They are now introduced everywhere around the world.
    Most of the biennale projects were marvelous experiences for me, especially when my work was in a context that opens a new dimensionality, was re-contextualized, or when I could create a meaningful new piece that opens up new possibilities. Many of the Biennales I participated in served these kinds of opportunities, and each time I have also been able to see the Korean Pavilion and its projects and other pavilions. This certainly helped me to understand what was going on in the world at that time. It also helped me to form an approach to the Korean Pavilion and an understanding of what position the Korean pavilion has on the contemporary art map, along with its relationship with other pavilions. Therefore, this provided me with some insight as to how to approach the Korean pavilion project and the practicality of dealing with specific local conditions. Most of the biennales I have participated in have given me opportunities to create new commissioned works with challenging themes and audiences. However, I am always interested in challenging new projects that I am inspired by—whether it is a biennale that gets more attention, or a small, remote local project—as long as there exists the possibility to realize work and develop from it.
    This project was inspired not only by Seungduk Kim's approach to the architecture, which assured me the chance to pursue the site-specificity, but also by contemplating Massimiliano Gioni 's title Encyclopidia di Palazzo. For me, this title immediately connects with my thoughts on the notion of bottari and Gioni's reference reiterated a certain common knowledge which is in line with the evolution of my practice. National Pavilions don't always correspond directly to the biennale's main theme, but rather present their artists' own theme independently. However, even if I am not invited to participate in certain projects, I always take curatorial positions as my question and contemplate how I would answer. So I have a number of unrealized projects that are related to projects I was not invited to, but which I considered from my artistic position. Without exception, each time I come to the biennale as a visitor or as an exhibitor, I have examined the Korean Pavilion, asking myself "How could I answer if I were using this space or this theme?" You know, it has already been almost twenty years since I saw the opening of the Korean Pavilion.

  • FG: You have been quite familiar with biennales around the world. What stays with you after all these participations? In your work? What are your ideas about biennales and why did you kindly agree to be part of this one?

  • KSJ: I must say that many of my projects were developed not only by my own thoughts, but also by interesting themes and questions that have been posed by each of the national or international curators with whom I have worked. Biennales have been one of the exhibition frames that has enabled me to realize a number of my important new projects, as they present a supportive model for new work—rather than showing existing works—either by posing inspiring questions or offering specific spaces and challenging ideas to contemplate. I value all these opportunities for developing new projects and expanding or contextualizing my ideas and practices in new ways. I am always interested in trying to find the best answer I can deliver through my perspective in response to the current aesthetic, philosophical, psychological or political questions posed by curators through their exhibitions, and also in response to the work of writers. Although biennales are often tough, most biennales I have participated in have examined broad and specific current issues of this era, and obviously they fulfill an important role as agents for re-contextualizing contemporary art history. The fabric of my practice and my approach in general has threads that relate directly and indirectly to many current issues in life and art. In fact, any theme can be discussed with my approach towards the 'totality in life and art'.
    For three consecutive biennales, I turned down kind invitations to participate. My decision to decline the invitations had nothing to do with the curatorship, or any other matter, it was purely because I couldn't accept the title of the biennale, which I felt was no longer relevant in this era. As I defined my position, I also couldn't participate in subsequent editions, even if a good friend of mine was inviting me and the show was nothing to do with the problem I found in that biennale's title. I don't serve the biennale itself but instead I participate as a communicator for those whose question is valuable—to find my own answer and experiment with it. I must say, most biennales served my practice so well by opening up my artistic paths and giving me opportunities that I hadn't had before.
    I am skeptical about the current boom of biennales around the world and their political power structures. Sometimes it seems more like manufacturing an industry in order to promote a city as an international destination through a focus on the tourism and economic benefits of staging a biennale. I don't blame cities for this, but I do think sometimes there is a lack of awareness and reflection on the origin of the art biennale model as a structure to examine the cutting edge of contemporary art. Maybe that is also a current symptom that we face in this era that reveals the reality of the commercially driven art world.

  • FG: Concerning your project, I am very impressed by your precise way of following the 'brief' to propose, within this framework, a very original environmental creation filling the entire space. How did you come to this solution?

  • KSJ: My practice has been increasingly dematerializing since the early days until now. My ultimate goal as an artist is to be liberated from materiality, including my body. To become self-sufficient and freed from desire—for me—is the highest achievement in my art. I wish to be liberated from doing art or making art by extinguishing my artistic energy to the limit. This cannot be achieved by simply stopping the act of making art—paradoxically, it can only be achieved by doing art, living fully, in the most profound and poignant way.
    Since I created To Breathe: A Mirror Woman (2006) at the Crystal Palace in Madrid (curated by Oliva Maria Rubio and commissioned by the Reina Sofia Museum), I reached the point where I could contextualize three decades of my sewing practice process in the most immaterial and conceptual manner. The notion of sewing and that of wrapping and unwrapping in this context, defines the identity of a bottari in the most open and immaterial manner. By emptying the whole space and filling the void only with my breathing, I can address the whole architectural structure as a bottari of light and sound.
    The experience of the Crystal Palace installation helped me to envisage the transformation of the Korean Pavilion into a bottari of light and sound. What differentiates this installation from the Cyrstal Palace installation is the addition of the added element of 'parallel mirror surfaces'. That is; the installation of mirrors on the ceiling as well as the floor, which expands the visual void into infinity. This addition opens up the entire space into an infinite rainbow spectrum—a 'breathing pavilion'. The complete darkness of the anechoic chamber is another important component that I have never examined in conjunction with the parameters of light and sound.
    I hope that all of these elements of immateriality will together create a sensational physical and audio-visual experience for the audiences.

  • FG: Seungduk Kim in her text points out something rather new in the comment and analysis of your work: the centripetal nature and forces at work in the pavilion. Are you aware of this idea?

  • KSJ: I think the word 'centripetal' serves very well to define the formal and mental structure of my perspective in time and space. Since the beginning of my awareness and art practice, I've been investigating the origins of the cruciform structure in analyzing tableaux, daily objects, physical, psychological human activities and body, and the natural phenomena in its relationship to the cosmic world. During the whole course of my experimentation since the late 1970s, I've been digging into the core structure, even before sewing and wrapping or performing. My piercing gaze and focus naturally transmits into a spiral force. This force has also been embodied in the 'standing still' performance in A Needle Woman (1999-2009) where the stillness of my body functions as an axis of time and space. Standing still can represent the inner turmoil of chaos, speed, the scream and also rebirth.

  • FG: You compose the pavilion as a succession of ambient artworks: the main space hosts the diffractions of light in endless reflecting effects through the mirrored floor and ceiling; the semi-circular space at the front of the building is reshaped into an infinite cylindrical room. There is no composition, as you created the conditions with the materials (films, mirrors). You submit to randomness (sunny or cloudy days) and the intensity of effects. It is not the viewer who completes the painting, but the weather in its uncertainty. How did you open up your formal strategy to include such unpredictable and variable elements?