A Needle Woman, 1999-2001. 8-Channel video Projection, 6:33 loop, Silent. P.S.1 installation view, 2001. Photo by Marty Heitner.

Kim Sooja at P.S.1

Gregory Volk, 2001

This first solo New York exhibition by Korean artist Kim Sooja featured recent videos, but her work is really a mixture of video, performance, sculpture (involving Kim's own body) and private acts of meditation in outdoor public spaces. The centerpiece was A Needle Woman (1999 — 2001), for which Kim traveled to eight major population centers — Cairo, Delhi, Lagos, London, Mexico City, New York, Shanghai and Tokyo — only to stand motionless, with her back to the camera, on downtown thoroughfares packed with pedestrians and sundry vehicles. At P.S.1, the silent videos of these actions, taken from a stationary camera several yards behind Kim, were projected on the walls of one large hall. Wearing a simple gray dress, Kim stands amid human motion and commotion, as people surge toward her and around her. Sometimes she seems about to be overwhelmed, perhaps even struck or otherwise menaced, and you fear for her safety. At other times, she is a strong enigmatic presence who simply waits in one place while everyone else goes every which way.

Always visually lush, these videos tap into the uneasy relationship between the individual and mass society, the dislocation of being a foreigner engulfed by another culture, and questions of how to maintain one's own equilibrium in a swirling, destabilizing world. Even though you never see Kim's facial expression, it is clear that her actions required courage and intense inner vitality. Throughout everything, she exudes a patient acceptance and a spiritual calm which is deeply affecting. Also part of the performance is the life of the streets — i.e., hundreds of anonymous people striding, pedaling or driving toward Kim, then disappearing from view: on-the-go New Yorkers too preoccupied to notice, multiethnic Londoners yammering into cell phones, Shanghai residents stealing surreptitious glances.

What's particularly impressive is how such minimal actions on Kim's part result in provocative portraits of the different cities. In Tokyo, Kim is so completely ignored that she could be a ghost, and you can't help but think how the Korean minority in Japan has long suffered from cultural invisibility and discrimination. Just the opposite is Lagos, where people cluster around her with a lively curiosity.

Also included in the show were videos of related actions, sometimes projected and sometimes on monitors. Lying on her side in Cairo while surrounded by staring men and young boys, Kim becomes a female "other" par excellence, her unobtrusive yet bewildering behavior confounding the onlookers. As she stands on the bank of the Yamuna River in Delhi, the river lows from left to right, its surface festooned with slow-moving flotsam. This is garbage moving past, but you think of memories passing, of wishes and losses, the dazzling scraps of a life. Kim Sooja's unassuming actions really draw you in with their complex and evocative power.

— From Art in America, December 2001.