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

Doris von Drathen, 2008

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.