Mandala: Chant For Auschuwitz, 2000, Installation at Poznan Biennial in Hitler's former Office at Zamek, Poznan

Essential Empathy

Mary Jane Jacob, 2013

Kimsooja gives herself to us. She does so through her art—not simply because she is an artist, but because through art she can give to others. This exchange between artist and viewer has its rewards, offering access to the essence of human communication as well as essential connections to the larger reality of which we are a part. So following Kimsooja's path of communion among peoples and realms, empathy will be the focus of this essay.

When we look at Kimsooja's art and see her standing there, we experience her aliveness and partake of her vitality along with our own. Her art makes us feel our aliveness. When we see Kimsooja there, completely still, we also see beyond her and beyond ourselves. Along with her presence in the wind, with the sun and the moon, we sense something more. She endeavors not so much to represent so we can see, but to be one with the world through her work so we can recognize our being too.

In this way she participates in what cultures have always done. The names of those makers have not come down to us, so we praise past societies without individual recognition. But as she takes up her ancient charge we know her name….or do we? To be her art, she consciously steps out of self, taking on a one-word name that "refuses gender identity, marital status, socio-political or cultural and geographical identity by not separating the family name and the first name.[1]"

Making art as one's way of being, or more accurately way of becoming, is to see art as a path. It can also be a reminder of our shared path, and in that way art is like religion and philosophy. But unlike these other fields of endeavor, art alone can be an experience that words on a page can never quite be. More than explaining a connection between the mundane and spiritual realms, between what is perceived by the senses and what is sensed by the mind, in art these can unite and be one. Making art with this aim of ultimate meaning is an act of hubris (punishable by the ancient Greeks), and a dicey claim in our world today. So this is a precarious start for an essay, though for the work of Kimsooja, a necessary one. Her ambition calls for no less.

Artists, like philosophers and theologians, are in the business of understanding the relation of the everyday to something greater: ideas, values, the ethereal…. But it's not just a professional thing. It's what we do as humans and have done since the beginning of time. This is how we live and must. Each generation, each individual must find their meaning or live a life without it. Kimsooja's concerns are both with the here and now and beyond this place and time. Consciousness overtakes self-consciousness. How can we talk of this? "Spiritual" conjures notions too religious or new age-y for those in contemporary art, while the "unconscious" had a place earlier in the twentieth century, with the birth of psychology. The ambiguity of the ethereal, the other worldly, or unknown, means that it tends to be left out of discussion or to remain tacitly unspoken. "Universal" is a word banished by postmodernism. The claim to represent humanity is a totalizing concept that makes the use of this word suspicious; the complexity of social and cultural difference makes it taboo.

An understanding of Eastern philosophy, religions, and culture are ways to think about for Kimsooja's art; they clearly enter into the very nature of who she is. Some have expertly written of this, and these references remain central sources for knowing for her art, but there is more, not just because she is a person of our times who lives and works across cultures, but also because there has been a rich cross-pollination between Eastern and Western thought for centuries now. So, while Kimsooja's work is grounded in Asian philosophy[2], I have chosen to write about her work through the lens of the Western pragmatist philosophy of John Dewey, who was himself influenced by Taoist and Buddhist philosophy[3]. Turning to Dewey, we encounter the ideas of a humanist not embarrassed to venture into the wholeness of the enterprise that is life, because he, like Kimsooja, believed that a wide view is necessary and that art is the most meaningful way to achieve it.

As Dewey saw it, life compartmentalized into high and low, and values categorized as profane or spiritual, material or ideal, betrays the nature of things. Likewise, he felt that dividing occupations or interests into practice and insight, imagination from doing, significant purpose from work, and emotion from thought and doing, is to mistake human nature. But when they come together, are one, as in Kimsooja's work, we can experience "deep realizations of intrinsic meanings," " the sense of reality that is in them and behind them," as they tell "a common and enlarged story," and Dewey believed, the ideal can be embodied and realized[4]. Then distinctions of mind and body, soul and matter fade away.

To Dewey, this sense of continuity between the mundane world and something greater comes with experience, not just by living over time but by living life in a reflective, consciousness way[5]. For Kimsooja, her body is her medium and instrument—conscious experience for others, not merely for expression or representation. And Dewey firmly believed, as Kimsooja demonstrates, that the senses, our own bodily capacity can be used directly to access the "spiritual, eternal and universal."[6] In Taoism, these realms are understood as one universal and ubiquitous vital energy. For Dewey we can know this through art.[7] The aliveness and vitality that art produces makes sense of life's experiences as it generates continuity between the earthly and eternal.

Thus, the experience of art (and for Dewey, art is an experience rather than an entity or object ) puts us in touch with the spiritual, non-physical world. But just as not all experience possesses insight or continuity, not all art rises to the level where it achieve a union of the material and the ideal. Yet when looking at Kimsooja's work, we understand Dewey when he says: "The depth of the responses stirred by works of art shows their continuity with the operations of this enduring experience" because such "works and the responses they evoke are continuous with the very processes of living…." Her works affect what this philosopher called: "The mystic aspect of acute esthetic surrender, that renders it so akin as an experience to what religionists term ecstatic communion…." [9]

Being consciously alive rises to the level of the aesthetic. It occurs, to Dewey, when we are fully and completely present in the experience of making and perceiving, but this does not only happen in the act of making art; it can happen in life.[10] For him, like Kimsooja, to live well, in an aesthetic or art way, is to be fully conscious, open, awake. As we are continually evolving in a state of becoming, we need to continually practice awareness. In Dewey's system of thought, in which each individual is responsible for themselves and for advancing society, practice involves putting one's values to work. His concept of the aware individual for his Pragmatist philosophy finds alignment with Buddhism's concept of buddha mind—an awakened state of consciousness—which respects both everyday action and the search to enlightenment as the same path. But whereas in Buddhism and Taoism this is achieved through meditation, Dewey advocated art. The work of art, in Dewey's view, as an object of practice can be a path to self-realization.

This path includes understanding others, and in experiencing art, we can experience others. On one level, in viewing art we can share the feelings of others, what we commonly call empathy. On another level, in art we can be with others, something we might describe as an experience of humanity. Dewey knew that empathy was the basis for any social enterprise. Art, for Dewey, had this great capacity for empathetic experience because, he believed, experiencing art is an act of re-creation:

Works of art are the means by which we enter, through imagination and the emotions they evoke, into other forms of relationship and participation than our own…We understand it in the degree in which we make it a part of our own attitudes, not just by collective information concerning the conditions under which it was produced. We accomplish this result when, to borrow a term from Bergson, we install ourselves in modes of apprehending nature that at first are strange to us. To some degree we become artists ourselves as we undertake this integration, and, by bringing it to pass, our own experience is reoriented…This insensible melting is far more efficacious than the change effected by reasoning, because it enters directly into attitude. [11]

How might this apply in the art of Kimsooja? A Homeless Woman—Cairo (2001) becomes an object of interest, even of compassion, on the part of passersby who pause to consider her manifestation of a human condition that till then had been almost invisible. In A Beggar Woman the artist presented herself to people in the streets of Delhi (2000), Mexico City (2000), Cairo (2001), and Lagos (2001). A different manifestation of this work occurred with Beggar Woman: Times Square (2005). Misinterpreted in the press as a gesture flying in the face if this city's truly needy, we might contemplate the questions, How do we draw attention to need? Can we experience others throughout a city, beyond just one city, holding in our hearts their hunger? Is acknowledgment of them acceptance without change? Who is in need? Who is present? Who offers what to whom?

Have you ever received a comment from a homeless person that stayed with you even though you gave nothing, while a thank you in return for money given on another occasion was not a memorable moment? Here the hands of Kimsooja's sitters are in a gesture simultaneously receiving and offering, being needy and charitable, troubled and wise. A practice in many religious traditions—including Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Christianity, in which beneficence is manifested through both giving and receiving—this act of engagement contains all things. [12]

Other empathetic works, beginning in 1995 with Sewing into Walking – Dedicated to the Victims of Gwangju, have taken the form of memorials. Clothes stood in for persons, spread out on a mountainside where tragedy had struck. It was a commemoration of as many at 2000 killed there as they rose up against the dictatorship of then-president Chun Doo-hwan. And it was a poultice for the earth. This incident, called 518 to signify its start date of May 18, found a parallel in 9/11 when later Kimsooja was moved to a enact a loving gesture of remembrance. In Epitaph (2002) she laid a single bedspread at Greenlawn cemetery in view of New York's skyline. Clothes, used as in Gwangju, were laid out on the floor of Hitler's former office in Poznan, Poland, to form Mandala: Chant for Auschwitz (2010), while cloth in all its colors and forms flow through four screens of Mumbai: A Laundry Field (2007-08), standing "for human presences and the questions that concern us all," [13] and creating a wider circle of life, not just of this place but many. On this occasion, as in other works, she also draws upon the ancient form of the mandala as a symbol of the universe and a vehicle of practice for focusing attention and bringing one in touch with a realm beyond the profane.

Carpets of clothes led to newly fashioned carpets with Planted Names (2002). Four woven works memorialize those who made the Middle Passage, packed in rows aboard ships, and then planted in rows the vast carpet of the former rice fields of the plantation site for which they were made [14]. In part inspired by the artist's experience the year before in Nigeria, this work was preceded by Bottari: Alfa Beach (2001) in which the sea sits atop the sky. This inversion is an empathetic response, she said, to "the saddest line I've ever seen in my life, thinking of the destiny of the slaves and their deprived freedom. Thus the flipped horizon was, for me, a disturbed horizon, a disoriented sense of gravity and of the slaves' psychological return I perceived in the curls of the waves reaching the same shore from which they had left." [15]

Kimsooja embraces the many associations of water: purification and cleansing, the depth of the womb and the vastness of the universe, its lunar cycles or the mind, and fluidity, as Taoism tells us, is the flow of energies and the inevitability of impermanence. In A Lighthouse Woman (2002), a companion to Planted Names, she created a witness to the waters' histories of pain through an oversized needle-like object surrounded by water. Its repeating, hour-long sequence of nine hues projected onto the lighthouse caused it to change as if breathing, saturating it and spilling into a pool the color. Viewers gave time to see this work, participated in being witnesses to time. And in experiencing A Lighthouse Woman they could experience empathy, not as an idea but, as Dewey said, through their individual senses they could actually experience "the spiritual, eternal and universal." Visited communally, there was communion.

The empathy of each of these works was made real through the use of historical and geographic reference and the artist's astute choice of tangible, material form, yet became the embodiment of others. In perceiving these works, as Dewey knew, we come to understand the wider story of humanity over time and to appreciate others' struggles. This happens across cultures, and even if we think we are more critical and aware of cultural differences than Dewey's generation, there's some truth as he says: "when the art of another culture enters into attitudes that determine our experience genuine continuity is effected. Our own experience does not thereby lose its individuality but it takes unto itself and weds elements that expand its significance"; then experience is one of "complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events," transforming into "participation and communication." [16]

In Kimsooja's work empathy of specific moments and situations gives way to a greater sense of oneness in humanity. This is the experience we have of Kimsooja's magnum opus, A Needle Woman. Begun in 1999, it is the embodiment of the fluidity of ourselves and our self into others, of time flowing into time, of place flowing into place, of oneness. She is the needle and yet the eye of the needle. She is the key that opens our vision, yet at the same moment the keyhole through which we pass. She shifts seamlessly, fluidly, between being solid and there, to empty, a shadow. Thus, in Needle Woman, we have two sides, too—spectator and participant, as we looking at and moving into the scene, seeing others flowing along, being in the flow. Here our full participation is the transformation through the experience of art.

It has often been remarked that here the artist remains anonymous by not revealing her face. But it is more: she and all the persons in the frame are part of a larger, unframed whole: everything, everywhere. We understand this when this artist says, "I have an ambition as an artist: it is to consume myself to the limit where I will be extinguished. From that moment, I won't need to be an artist anymore, but just a self-sufficient being, or a nothingness that is free from desire." [17] Thus, Kimsooja aspires to a level beyond that of the experience of others and their story, and even beyond humanity as she seeks to approach the experience of a greater realm. To do this, art is a path not a goal, and a way to achieve full self-realization.

Taoism says the human mind before creation is pure emptiness, and that within this emptiness or void resides all potential. With awareness our mind can return to this state of emptiness, once again becoming part of it, connecting us to the universe and, during moments of insight, producing a sense of oneness with all things. This mental state is not a matter of representing reality; it is a state of being. This all-inclusive reality connects with our own mundane self because it is already ours or, better, it is already us. When Kimsooja speaks of "being consumed to the limit," she participates in that wholeness and is one with it. Art that evokes this multi-dimensional connection possesses an empathetic essentialism that goes beyond coming in touch with the emotions of others to achieve true identification, an understanding of being.

This level of empathy has been called by Gonzalo Obelleiro "imaginative empathy." It "is concerned with the essence of emotion, not the specifics of its manifestations," he writes, finding Dewey's philosophy of experience useful to ground a pedagogy imaginative empathy [18]. It is true that in addition to art's practical social roles of producing empathy, hence, creating an empathetic state of awareness, Dewey also felt that imagination through art played a social role [19]. But imagination in art and in common parlance has a sense of flights of fancy rather than of truth of experience, so here I prefer to recast this empathy found in the essence of emotion, as "essential empathy."

In A Needle Woman—Kitakysuhu (1999) the artist lies on an exposed rock of a mountain. Her stillness between earth and sky allows us to perceive the connected transitoriness of all nature, human as well as earthly and heavenly. Moving beyond self, she says: "Over time, I find that my body, with its duration of stillness—breathing in the rhythm of nature—becomes itself a part of nature as matter, neutral, a transcendent state. To me it is like offering and serving my body to nature. [20]" Likewise in Laundry woman—Yamuna River, India (2000), we experience, as she did, a similar oneness. Standing downriver from a cremation site, she faces the ephemeral joining the eternal. She des not represents or expresses this moment of passage but achieves it in a complete enlightened state of awakeness. And when this was achieved, she said, she "finally realized that it is the river that is changing all the time in front of this still body, but it is my body that will be changed and vanish very soon, while the river will remain there, moving slowly, as it is now. [21]" Our life is fluid, always changing, as we float in the river of the universe. As with A Needle Woman, she is in the picture yet evaporates from it, opening up the space for us to enter. As viewers, she gives us a glimpse of an awakened state: initially what it looks like, then with time, if we can achieve a deeper state of consciousness and presence, the chance to fuse and become one with her, replacing the artist, participating ourselves. So her art, like potent, sacred objects of cultures throughout time immemorial are not representations but means to this state of essential empathy, not the picture of it.

One of the primary aims of perceptual awareness for Dewey is for us to become conscious of the consequences of our actions, on other peoples and humankind, and for the planet. Today we think "planetary" in regard to ecological and environmental stewardship, but Dewey was also thinking in less tangible ways. With an understanding our individual effect on the greater whole, Dewey modeled a responsive and elastic web of consciousness in co-existent, recalling the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness as envisioned as Indra's Net: all things are a part; each reflects the whole; each affects and is affected by every other part.. With a belief that art was useful in guiding personal development toward social good, Dewey seized upon art's exceptional ability to create feelings of empathy and, thus, deeper understanding of the human condition and existential condition. For this he depended on art, for he knew it was essential to imagine a better future.

In other works, such as A Wind Woman (2003), Kimsooja becomes nature. In Earth—Water—Fire—Air (2010) she works at the site of a nuclear plant in Korea. For A Mirror Woman: The Sun & the Moon (2008), filmed on a beach in Goa, India, she created the moment of eclipse, when the sun and moon become one. The artist, it could be said, is gone in these works, but rather she is fully present with everything. Doris von Drathen has so aptly written of this work when she says the space the artist occupies is "the dividing wall of the mirror that generates consciousness," from which "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," whish is at once "the relinquishment of an identity that is defined by belonging" and "an awareness that concentrates utterly and absolutely on the Self." And here, too, we participate as: "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...the viewer becomes susceptible to the circuit of the celestial bodies in the selfsame endlessness of their return [22]. Our full existence demands this connection to something larger.

Artists can be insightful and make insightful art. If we are perceptive, art can give glimpses of insight. But rarely is art insight. Yet this happens when Kimsooja embodies oneness or, Dewey's terms, continuity, giving herself to us and, when we experience it as we give ourselves to her art and fully participate in it. Participation. It's a word Dewey chose [23], but which has taken on a new meaning in art today as we have lost the capability to participate with art objects, and talk about engaging viewers in modes of participation such as collaborative authorship or other forms of making. Spectatorship connotes detachment, looking at the surface of things or actions. In American and European contemporary life the spectacle society is one of superficial and mediated relationships [24]. The spectator does not feel empathy, but the participant does. And only as a participant can we partake on yet another level of the essential empathy that Kimsooja experiences and which become her art.

To be a participant in Kimsooja's art does not require sitting in Times Square or being with the artist on a beach in India. It can happen in front of a video in a gallery. To an exceptional degree her art revives the experience of art Dewey knew—where being with art makes all the difference. If we think about the viewer as involved in empathetic relation to the artist's experience, to others' experiences, and to the essence of empathy, then as participants we are caring, hence engaged. Caring, the engaged audience functions like the artist, invested in the moment [25]. This parallel of artist-to-audience is so fundamental that as we experience art we "become artists ourselves." [26] Kimsooja gives us the possibility to do this with her art. If we fully participate, the experience is ours.



[1] http://www.kimsooja.com/action1.html

[2] See Interview with Kimsooja in Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, Eds. Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacob (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 212-219.

[3] In dealing with a wider realm, Dewey advocated a philosophy that "accepts life and experience in all its uncertainty, mystery, doubt, and half-knowledge and turns that experience upon itself to deepen and intensify its own qualities—to imagination and art." John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934; New York: Penguin, 2005), 35.

For a discussion of Dewey's personal connections to Eastern philosophy, see the author's essay "Like-Minded: Jane Addams, John Dewey, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy," in Chicago Makes Modern: How Creative Minds Changed Society, Eds. Mary Jane Jacob and Jacquelynn Baas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 23-25.

[4] Ibid., 21, 28

[5] Dewey wrote: "The existence of art is the concrete proof…that man uses the materials and energies of nature with intent to expand his own life….Art is the living and concrete proof that man is capable of restoring consciously, and thus on the plane of meaning, the union of sense, need, impulse and action characteristic of the live creature. The intervention of consciousness adds regulation, power of selection, and redisposition. Thus it varies the arts in ways without end. But its intervention also leads in time to the idea of art as a conscious idea—the greatest intellectual achievement in the history of humanity." Ibid., 26.

[6] Ibid., 32.

[7] Dewey wrote: "The conception of man as the being that uses art became at once the ground of the distinction of man from the rest of nature and of the bond that ties him to nature…art itself is the best proof of the existence of a realized and therefore realizable, union of material and ideal...There is no limit to the capacity of immediate sensuous experience to absorb into itself meanings and values that in and of themselves—that is in the abstract—would be designated 'ideal' and 'spiritual.'" Ibid., 26, 29, 28.

[8] Ibid., 344.

[9] Ibid., 28-29

[10] We might think here of when someone remarks they are "living the project," being so fully engaged. We see it in the excitement or focus someone give sot what they are doing, their skillful command but with the presence of the moment that is each time lived anew. This Dewey called esthetic. By way of example, he wrote: "An angler may eat his catch without thereby losing the esthetic satisfaction he experienced in casting and playing. It is the degree of living in the experience of making and of perceiving that makes the difference between what is fine or esthetic in art and what is not. Whether the thing made is out to use…is, intrinsically, speaking, a matter of indifference….Whenever conditions are such as to prevent the act of production from being an experience in which the whole creature is alive and in which he possesses his living through enjoyment, the product will lack something of being esthetic. No matter how useful it is for special and limited ends, it will not be useful in the ultimate degree—that of contributing directly and liberally to an expanding and enriched life." Ibid., 27.

[11] Dewey, Ibid., 347 - 348. This proceeds from Dewey's premise that: "Without an act of recreation the object is not perceived as a work of art." Ibid., 56

[12] See also http://www.dharmasculpture.com/buddha-varada-mudra-sanskrit-boon-granting-charity-hand-gesture.html

[13] Rosa Martinez, "A Disappearing Woman," in Kimsooja: To Breathe (Seoul: Kukje Gallery, 2012), 22.

[14] Planted Names was made for and exhibited at Drayton Hall, Charleston, South Carolina, commissioned by the author for the Spoleto Festival USA in 2002. Interestingly one of the descendents of this plantation family, Bill Drayton is the founder of the progressive social entrepreneurship organization Ashoka that uses empathy-based ethics as a keystone to working together to make change.

[15] Martinez, 21.

[16] Dewey, 349, 22-23

[17] Ingrid Commandeur, "Kimsooja: Black Holes, Meditative Vanishings and Nature as a Mirror of the Universe," in Kimsooja: To Breathe, 9.

[18] See Gonzalo Obelleiro, “Imaginative Empathy in Daisaku Ikeda’s Philosophy of Soka Education,” conference paper for Soka Education: Leadership for Sustainable Development, Soka University of America, February 11-12, 2006, 39-51. www.sokaeducation.org/images/4/48/Imaginative_Empathy-Obelleiro.pdf

Obelleiro argued that empathy, in line with Buddhist tradition, is not the mere act of re-experiencing one’s own sufferings, but when “[w]e feel empathy when we partake on the essence of the emotions that person is experiencing.” To the author, this is supported by Dewey’s philosophy of experience because it “shares with Buddhism the basic epistemological premise of the oneness of self and environment and oneness of mind and body,” and because “in its clear humanistic approach, it privileges human interactions and regards ethics as not as fixated in a particular framework of rules and maxims, but as the art of creative, inner dialogue between primary experience and critical reflection.” To Obelleiro, “Dewey makes it clear that concepts like imaginative empathy are not simply theoretical concepts but are modes of praxis or manifestations of philosophy as art, which can only be learned in experience, particularly in interaction with other human beings.” So he concludes: “it is only through the creative integration of the two, direct experience and cultivation of mind and spirit, that imaginative empathy can be attained. The kind of artistic skill required for this integration can only be learned from another human being, for it is the quintessential human quality. Some call it wisdom.”

[19] Dewey wrote: “The first stirrings of dissatisfaction and the first intimations of a better future are always found in works of art.” Ibid., 360.

[20] Kimsooja, Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, 217.

[21] Ibid., 217.

[22] Doris von Drathen, "Standing at the Zero Point," in A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon (Tokyo, Shiseido Gallery, 2008).

[23] As stated previously, Dewey said, experience “when carried to the full, is a transformation of interaction into participation and communication”; and also: “Works of art are means by which we enter, through imagination and the emotions they evoke, into other forms of relationship and participation than our own.”

[24] Here, of course, I am referring to Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books, 1994, originally published in French 1967).

[25] Robert M. Pirsig, in his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, distinguishes between being involved and being a spectator. Care, for Pirsig, is what makes one’s work or actions an art. See Robert M. Pirsig Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York: Harper and Collins, 1974), 34-35.

[26] Dewey, Art As Experience, 348