Cities on the Move - 2727 Kilometers Bottari Truck, 1997, 7:03 video loop, Silent.

An Incantation to Presence
"The body itself is the most complicated bundle." — Kim Sooja

Julian Zugazagoitia, 2003

I. Sewing beyond space and time

Since the 1980s, between thread and needle, Kim Sooja's work has been developing; from Korea to New York, via Paris and a number of other cities across the different continents, like an avowed metaphor of the act of sewing. But it is less a question of sewing as such than linking up and uniting fragments of varied realities that were previously disparate. From her first works, with pieces laid end to end and sewn together, like a sort of collage involving both hand, body and mind in relation to matter, up to the recent videos of A Needle Woman, where the artist herself becomes a needle and integrates into the urban fabric, sewing has been the guiding thread in a subtle research project from which a language has evolved, and where a unique commitment can be read, with references that are first of all local, but whose scope has become global.

Over the course of time, Kim Sooja went from matter and the plane of the painting to the conquest of a liberating third dimension, and this allowed her to acquire greater mobility with the works entitled Bottari. In her videos and performances, her language subsequently became ever more economical, pursuing as though by incursion the possibility of the emergence of her oeuvre. The artist would like to be a needle that leaves no mark, that sews and disappears after closing the wound; after joining two bits of cloth, two continents or states of consciousness. Her discretion is consubstantial with her research, and her self-effacement facilitates revelation: to the appearance of the other, and to his presence. This path starts out from an approach to textiles, and a practice, that are rooted in Korean tradition but go beyond these local references through a language which is that of wandering, exchange and openness to the other, the unknown.

Kim Sooja's training as a painter predisposed her to consider the plane surface of the canvas as a field of exploration. Her first compositions were formal, based on grids and interlinking motifs. She had a penchant for the art of the 20th-century avant-gardes, and notably Mondrian, both in her practice and in the theoretical spirit that informed all her work. But the physical dimension of her sewn canvases dominated her work. The very act of making a picture with pieces of fabric became predominant, and this opened the way to gestures that were simpler, though just as emblematic.

Sewing thus became the essential element of her artistic process in the 1980s, to the point where it overshadowed pictorial considerations as such, and introduced the emotional charge that she had discovered while sewing by her mother's side. The act of sewing is one of intimacy, of withdrawing into oneself, close to symbiosis with a state of being that represents both tradition and family memory. This activity — almost passive, enthralling — locks the artist into a sequence of slow movements that repeat to infinity and are conducive to meditation. It is to be one with oneself, the fact of saturating oneself in one's own history. And the blankets made by Kim Sooja and her mother brought together two worlds that had previously been dissociated: the ancestral Korean tradition and her own pictorial quest.

Kim Sooja's first works were an introspection turned towards herself, and a way of calling herself into question so as to become a totality. In this sense, the action she accomplished could be seen as the denouement of the self. Skein, bobbin or hank: the thread has to be unwound.

The process begins with choosing pieces of cloth. To collect different textiles is to recompose one's being as one would reconstruct the fragments of a past: bits of individual stories that are becoming a new wholeness. The assemblage of these lacerations retains the marks and stigmata of the bodies that have borne them, with their dreams and daily sufferings. These recomposed entities become offerings, surrogates through which the memory of the other can act.

To salvage materials, assemble them, and sew them together is an intoxicating, almost ecstatic act of patience and repetition (from immobility to rapture). By the monotony of the gesture, this process makes it possible, also, to create a void within oneself — a void which can become a plenitude. For Kim Sooja, a work like Portrait of Yourself (1990-1991) is a solitary confession, an incessant and infinite conversation with oneself. The process is as important as the result. The production of this particular work is something like a meditation, and if one approaches it with the required intimacy it becomes a mandala. Iso it is both a self-portrait and a profound expression, a communication of the artist's humours, which shows how she carried out an apprenticeship on herself, how she matured through experiencing the passage of time and stepping aside from its onward movement. Despite the repetition of a movement that could become tiresome, the artist claims to have derived a great deal of energy from the experience. Through it she renewed her resources, as is suggested by the title of a work dating from this period, Towards the Mother Earth (1990-1991).

The back-and-forth movement of the needle through the material, from front to back, again and again, ended up by going beyond the plane surface, surreptitiously opening up towards a third dimension. Applying a reductionist logic to her work, Kim Sooja began covering objects with fabric, and thereby conquering space.

At the beginning of the 1990s came the first constructions of this order (Untitled, 1991). Two hoops connected by rods made the shift from the line to the third dimension. These constructions were then enveloped in pieces of fabric as a way of freeing them from the wall (which indicated a transition in the oeuvre), and from the plane surface of the painting, without giving up the symbolic charge of the first sewn works. For a time, the artist moved away from the act of sewing, strictly speaking, and transposed her metaphor into the simple act of covering objects.

II. Enveloping memory

Always seeking greater simplicity, Kim Sooja has rendered this emancipating act more radical still over the last decade, with works which now constitute, in a way, her signature: the bundles entitled Bottari.

The first of these date from 1992. They were created in the Open Studio at the P.S.1 (a contemporary art centre in New York, now associated with MOMA), and came into being, according to the artist, spontaneously, unrelated to any particular consciousness of things. But though nothing anticipated the event, everything announced the simplification of the procedure that had already been set up, in the direction of its essence and its highest degree of efficacy, with the abolition of all artifice, accessory or substrate in favour of the fabric alone. Cloth became the content and the container of the work, its structure and its surface, inside and outside. The Bottari provided an aesthetic solution to the question of the surface by stepping outside it, with a structure which was both open and closed; which revealed and concealed at the same time.

The bundle corresponds as much to a reference within the Korean tradition as to a universal metaphor of displacement, or even adventure, and a Bottari can hold all an individual's belongings. Originally, the custom was to use still-serviceable scraps of bright-coloured, precious silk from worn-out clothing, something of which was thus preserved.

In Korea, fabrics are traditionally used for multiple common functions such as storing bedding and clothing, or moving it around, notably when it has to be washed, as well as transporting food, or even wrapping gifts. For Koreans, the Bottari is both intimate and familiar, and is used on a daily basis. It is a sign of time-honoured aesthetic refinement, and is often an object of great value. It carries a strong affective charge, and is passed down from generation to generation.

It is symptomatic that Kim Sooja first explored the Bottari's possibilities while living outside Korea. She marked her return from her memorable stay at the P.S.1, where she had been a guest artist, with a Bottari installation in an abandoned house in Kyunju (1994). Bottari symbolize, in a way, the migrant who can put all his material goods in a bundle and be ready to set off at any moment. So when she came back and placed her bundles on a floor, Kim Sooja was reclaiming the space, but she was also indicating her readiness for an imminent departure. The inclination to travel is constant, or even necessary, when one has been elsewhere.

The "elsewhere" through which the artist found herself confronted with another perception of woman remains implicit as an underlying theme in her work: the body is torn between the modern Western world and her Eastern ancestral universe. This ambivalence would be irreconcilable if travelling did not offer a possibility of agreement between two different universes, in their alternation.

The resulting tension, which is latent in all her work, was laid bare by an installation, Deductive Object / Dedicated to my Neighbors, presented at Nagoya in 1996, where two forms amongst her productions were brought together in the exhibition space. For the first time, Kim Sooja made a contrast between the placing of the bundles and an arrangement of Korean bedspreads on the floor.

These are often given as presents to accompany a bride's trousseau, and are one of a household's most treasured possessions. In their folds they silently attest to the history of the couple. The motifs are symbolic references and exhortations to a happy life full of love, children and health.

Between the revelation of the bedspreads' symbolic motifs and the mystery of the bundles, with the precious contents that can be imagined, there is a tension which is all the stronger when one realizses the particular importance of the traditional bedspread in the Korean context; and it goes beyond a purely formal interpretation of the opposition between the flat surface of the bedspreads and the sculptural dimension of the bundles. The installation thus makes it possible to appreciate, simultaneously, the unveiling of a private life and the intensity of a retreat into oneself.

The bedspread is a witness-object whose day-to-day contact everyone can feel, It accompanies love, sex, dreams, nightmares, childbirth... and finally, at the moment of death, it becomes a shroud. So this envelope is a sort of skin, carrying in its folds what could be considered as a sort of portrait of its owner(s). Folded onto itself as a Bottari, the bedspread gathers up intimate possessions and protects them from inquisitive eyes. Opened out, it gives itself up in its flatness, and suggests the dreams that are incorporated into its traditional motifs.

In this sense, the Nagoya installation, so simple and pure in its expression, contained an entire mode of thinking about time, and the cycle of life and death. Later, exploiting the charged nature of such references, the artist used the bedspreads by themselves in various situations, as restaurant tablecloths and lines stretched out for washing to be hung on. With each installation, the visitor's participation is decisive, since it is up to him to activate the mechanism. In the case of a tablecloth, it is the actual use of the table by the visitor, in a museum restaurant, that makes the work exist. In the Korean context, this almost-reverse use of the bedspread as a tablecloth is of the order of thea transgression, since tradition prohibits eating in the place where one sleeps. For the duration of a meal, the tablecloth is an integral part of the table companions' life. It is imprinted with the stains they leave, the traces of this slice of existence that it will have subtly transformed by its presence.

As in most of Kim Sooja's other installations, the onlooker is thus a protagonist — a constitutive element of the space in question. When he moves around to look at the work from different viewpoints, it is renewed at each step. Pursuing this logic so as to extend it ever further, in a recent presentation of the Laundry installations at the Peter Blum gallery in New York, A Mirror Woman (2002) had mirrors on all the walls with lines stretched out for hanging up washing. The spectator's contemplation of the work was eroded by his discovery of himself in the mirrors, which projected the field of the work into an infinite space. This visual confrontation with oneself is a curious, singular fact in a work that is characterizsed rather by the inconspicuousness of the artist in the interest of internalizsed reflection. In general, when a figure appears in her work (and in her more recent videos it is often herself), it has its back turned, as if to suggest a presence, but not a particular individuality. This is the case, for example, in the video of her performance Cities on the Move - 2727 Kilometers.

In November 1997, rejoining the nomadic life of contemporary artists, the better to in order to better reinforce it (but also enlarging the field of action of her work and its semantic purview), Kim Sooja decided to take her bundles on the road. She spent eleven days going round towns and other places in Korea that held specific memories for her. This meant that her bundles were loaded with new content: the memory of her past history and travels. In the filmed performance she is seen from behind, hieratic and impassive, sitting above firmly-attached Bottari in a truck driving through ever-changing scenery.

The idea of moving around becomes a reality in this video, which combines, for the first time in such an obvious way, a sense of the intimate and with a public dimension. The artist's silhouette, in its sobriety and black clothes, unlike the Bottari with their vivid, varied colours, stands up straight, like a needle.

The fact that she presents us only her back is a procedure that challenges us and thrusts us into the middle of the landscape. As in Caspar David Friedrich's romantic paintings, the silhouette of a back becomes our bodily referent, and we project onto it. This transfer gives extra substance to the work, and confers on it a shape for us, so that we become the subject. (The phenomenon is clearer still in the later videos of towns, which this performance adumbrates). Perched high up on the bundles, while the road goes by, the needle-woman both cuts through the landscape and sews it up again, the way a wound closes up. Finally, this Calvary of memory is a way for Kim Sooja to forge a link with her history and re-inject an emotional charge into her itinerary. So the Bottari that she takes round with her are phantoms of time gone by, to which this itinerary pays tribute. Each of them can be related to a person, and the journey takes on the character of a pilgrimage in honour of dear, loved beings.

This dimension of personal ritual was transcended when the artist presented her Bottari Truck in major festivals of contemporary art. What was of the order of the intimate then took on a universal, even denunciatory dimension with regard to its context.

She has taken part in the biennials which are the focal points of artistic nomadism: São Paulo (the 24th, in 1998), Venice (the 48th, in 1999), and Lyon (the 5th, in 2000). Arriving as in a bazaar upon which groups from different regions converge to exchange merchandise and cultures, the truck filled with Bottari of every colour accentuates the idea of displacement at the very moment when the international press is taking an interest in the situation of populations forced into exile across the world. But if Kim Sooja's installation can express displacement as a positive value, a search for a new paradise, it cannot cancel out the premises that any change of place is firstly seen as the breakup of a unity that has been lost forever. Displacement always implies cutting oneself off from one's birthplace and ancestral roots. There are voluntary exiles who have struck it lucky and found a better life. But deep in the soul of the uprooted person there is always a secret, persistent wound.

The historical context of the Bottari Truck cannot fail to recall the atrocities committed at the time of its creation in the Balkans, Africa and the Near East (to mention only those that made the headlines).

It is often never-ending struggles, and more rarely natural disasters, that force entire populations to pack up their bundles and set out from home, into the unknown. The Bottari, with their shimmering colours, convey all these paradoxical feelings, which are stirring memories but also as well as deep wounds.

III. The simultaneous elsewhere

Following the thread of her wanderings, Kim Sooja's recent series of videos are both at once subtle in their poetry, strong in their presentation, and complex in their social implications. They are grouped together by generic title. A Needle Woman alludes to her desire to disappear like a needle in a haystack, but also to be the needle that insinuates itself into the urban fabric. These performances, and the ones that derive from them, like A Beggar Woman, were presented for the first time in a solo exhibition at P.S.1 in 2001.

A Needle Woman (1999-2001) is a set of eight videos projected simultaneously on the four walls of a room. Each shows Kim Sooja from behind, dressed identically in the most neutral possible way, immobile, facing the human wave that is rushing round her in a busy street in one of the world's most populous cities: New York, Tokyo, London, Mexico City, Cairo, Delhi, Shanghai and Lagos.

The artist transports us into cities in every continent by taking them into a place where we become active participants. The large-format projections bring us face to face with life-size people, justifying a total immersion in the space of the work. The artist's back — as we said above — allows us to pass through into the work, into the depths of metropolises, and to narrowly avoid the abyss. This illustrates, more or less, the Kantian definition of the sublime: to feel an emotion through the devices the artist offers us as she opens up her own experience so that we can enter into it without risk or peril. The unobtrusiveness of the artist, in spite of her presence, could produce a multitude of approaches in which individuality would give way to the essence of our own thinking.

Kim Sooja's discretion eliminates every psychological aspect of the ordeal she has taken on. The whole point is what occurs around her, which appears as a catalyst. Taking our place in this installation, we realizse what is intimate and personal about the ordeal, for anyone who goes through it. Evidently the physical side of it begins with a meditation that leads to a sort of ecstasy. And in this sense, the artist, as an individual, is outside herself. She abstracts herself and becomes like a keyhole, or a negative image of herself, which makes perception possible for us.

Her interest in the elsewhere makes her central to the generation of migratory artists who, at the dawn of the new millenium, are questioning the limits of globalizsation. As an artist, she is invited to present her work in cultural institutions around the globe, while the art world has gone beyond the rich countries — where there are people who take an interest in such creative activity — to include less favoured countries. The result is that artistic discourse is becomes enriched by other voices, and the circulation of works finds new perspectives.

The simultaneity of her presence in these no more than a hunch: distant though they are from one another, and different as the historical and economic contexts may be, apart from their urbanistic and architectural characteristics, these cities are alike in the steady streams of individuals people going about their business, moving towards an inevitable meeting with their destiny. And so a continuum of races and peoples finds itself virtually at the centerre of the space. Simultaneity of presentation makes the common features of the beings in movement in these eight videos obvious at a glance. Only an attentive eye will be able to discern what differentiates them.

While the time of the work is acting on us, our body replaces that of the artist, and becomes the needle that leads the guiding thread. A Needle Woman, as Kim Sooja likes to define herself, weaves, as much as she rends, the urban fabric. The fine needle pierces the world, but the whole universe passes through the eye of the needle. In certain contexts, in spite of her self-effacement, the artist cannot escape her otherness: she is the foreigner, the observer, the element that can split apart as well as bind together. In fact she cuts the human flow, which has to pass around her, avoid her like an obstacle, open up before her. The specificity of each particular population appears in this encounter. And the encounter is the indicator of the specificity.

The characteristics of towns come out through contrast, according to what opposes them. Each possesses a distinct rhythm that is demonstrated by the perfect immobility of the artist as an immutable reference. Her proper time seems to be in suspension, while the rest of the town swirls round her. Kim Sooja's passivity is a source of worry and tension. One expects something to happen: an intrusion, something violent... Possible violence, like a specterre haunting life in these metropolises at every moment.

The reactions of the passers-by (or their total absence of reaction) are archetypes of the imaginative profile that a given city suggests. And thus, without wanting to paint a sociological portrait, the videos comprise a number of elements that make it possible to characterizse the people and their surroundings: their clothes, their way of occupying the street, their attitude in urban space... For example, passers-by in New York, London and Tokyo are distinguished by their rapid, determined gait. They have an objective, and their walk is a "power walk": they are efficacious, and scarcely notice the artist's presence. They have an individual goal, outside the range of the camera, in the direction of a horizon that protects them and immunizses them against everything that could deflect them from their path. Their life is traced out, and there is no place for the unexpected. The street is only a vector, and not a place of sociability.

In these cosmopolitan cities, all racial differences seem to fade. The artist goes almost unnoticed, and her features do not mark her out in places where there are people of all origins, and where hybrids are common. Modernity asserts itself here as an exacerbation of individuality, a sort of autism that tends towards homogeneity. Such cities are so full of stimuli and diverse fantasies that the intervention of an artist attracts little attention.

In places like Cairo, Delhi, Mexico, and especially Lagos, on the other hand, there is a tension between the modern and the traditional which means that existence is highly charged. The individual finds his full dimensions in an open space where he is attentive to those around him, because he seeks to evaluate his position and rank in the immense gamut of social classes and traditional hierarchies that are an essential part of these cultures.

The members of different castes and social classes mix in the street. They are wary of one another; they keep an eye on one another and expose themselves to situations in which there is always tension. Here, the street becomes a place of both coexistence and distinctions.

In these cities where the contrasts are strong, individuals want to assert themselves across the cleavages. They look at one another so as to make comparisons between one another, and every look contains a question (Am I from the same class or not? How am I to position myself, and where, in such a wide spectrum?); so it is not surprising that these are the cities where the immobile presence of Kim Sooja gets garners the most reactions. They are still preserved from blasé mundanity, and the artist stands out more strongly as a stranger. But it is above all her passivity and her determination to abstract herself that arouse curiosity, along with a desire to make her react, to draw her out of herself, so as to bring her back to everyday life and the flux of the community. In all these cities, it is the ever-present children who are the least hesitant about teasing the artist and turning her performance into a game.

The virtual meeting-point of eight streets in a unique space plunges us into the improbable river of the human continuum. Engulfed in the multitude, the artist is invisible, as she often aspires to being. This takes her work beyond the nature-culture cleavage, or the opposition of the contemporary urban to original nature. In natural settings, as in the performance A Needle Woman / Kitakyushu (1999), where she is stretched out on a rock, or in A Laundry Woman / Yamuna River, India (2000), where she is facing the river in question, she strives for the same contemplative detachment as in urban settings. Perhaps her deepest desire is to reconcile perfect immobility and perpetual motion. And is this not what she seems to be seeking when she indicates her wish to disappear for an entire month, as she dreamt of doing during the last Whitney Biennial? Is there not a paradox in the fact of wanting to be simultaneously everywhere and nowhere?

Kim Sooja embodies the complexity of the kind of globalizsation which both proclaims and denies the local spirit. Her work with textiles had a specificity that was linked to the Korean context of her origins. This opened up in the course of her peregrinations, gaining in breadth without cutting itself off from its roots, or disowning them. Her videos combine nature and the urban, the individual and the collective, the global and the local. The richness of her approach, in its discretion and subtlety, lies no doubt in her unique way of transcending divisions and resolving them in works that place the spectator at the heart of an extreme questioning process, which for each individual becomes personal and intimate.

— From the exhibition catalogue of Kimsooja: Conditions of Humanity, Contemporary Art Museum, Lyon, 2003:

Julian Zugazagoitia is the Director of El Museo del Barrio in New York which is the foremost cultural institution for Latinos in New York.

Prior to this engagement he was the Executive Assistant to the Guggenheim Museum Director where, among other projects he curated the exhibition Brazil: Body and Soul.

He received his Ph.D in Aesthetics from the Sorbonne and graduated in art history from the Ecole du Louvre, Paris. H e was involved with the Getty for 8 years developing conservation and cultural projects in Benin, Egypt, Yemen, Italy and Spain. He was also responsible for establishing a long-term collaboration with UNESCO and curating the traveling exhibition Nefertari Light of Egypt that drew over a million visitors.

As independent curator, he was responsible for the 1997 presentation of Mexican 20th-century art in Naples, the exhibition Pasione per la Vita and was the artistic director for exhibitions for the Spoleto Festival in Italy. In 2002 he was guest curator of the 25th Sao Paolo Biennial, where he curated the New York section.

His recent publication, L'oeuvre d'art Totale, Gallimard, Paris 2003, a collective book on the Total Work of Art, springs from his Ph.D thesis and a lecture series organized with Jean Galard, presented at the Louvre and Guggenheim museums in 2002.