A Beggar Woman-Cairo. 2001 Single Channel Video. 6:33 loop, Silent.

March 24, 2003

Adam Szymczyk, 2003

On March 24, 2003 the police in New York arrested a hundred and forty participants of an anti-war demonstration, who had lain down in Fifth Avenue, blocking traffic and bringing the city to a standstill.

The demonstrators lay motionless on their backs; some were holding photographs of civilian war casualties in Iraq. Police officers lifted them off the ground and carried them into cars, slowly making their way along the body-strewn street. That "die-in" demonstration was one of hundreds of bigger and smaller manifestations of civil disobedience which swept over cities in all parts of the world in response to the war waged under American leadership in Iraq.

An act of civil disobedience consists in an ostentatious and consistent breach of the existing law. The disturbance is deliberate and limited in scope. Such an act of disobedience may be compared to a well-posed question. When it is one carefully chosen element of the system that becomes the object of criticism, the act is expressive and effective in exposing a false, albeit legally sanctioned, state of affairs.

A special form of civil disobedience are demonstrations in which a group of people temporarily occupies a section of public space to which they have no right at that moment. This includes such forms of protest as "sit-in", popularized by the American movement against racial segregation in the 1960s (the iconic sit-in by four black citizens, known as the "Greensboro Four", started at the counter of a white-only bar in Woolworth's department store on the first of February 1960) and then adopted by the student revolt of 1968, or "be-in", demonstration through being together (creatively) in a certain area - from mass gatherings of hippies (the most famous one took place in the Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, on the 14 of January 1967) to the occupation of premises, which is also a form of pressure through occupying space the right to which is disputed. Occupying a place in defiance of the norms regulating its use is an expression of the wish to be able to decide maters important to that place and to the people in it. New York's "die-in" dramatizes the risk of participants being run over by cars, but its main point is made through the clash between the concrete image of demonstrators lying in a street symbolizing ultimate material wealth and the vision of a heap of bodies - the cliché image of how war affects civilians in a poor country. The renunciation of violence expressed in the form of a theatrical death on an improvised stage acquires the force of an ultimatum.

Quiet and persevering like stones which no one throws, Kim Sooja's works inevitably resonate with various forms of symbolic behaviour through which active members of civil society respond to the definitions of war put forward in media commentaries, using military metaphors of movement, and to the summary interpretations which politicians direct through the same media - always downwards, like bombs, leaflets and food supplies. One of the most suggestive images revealing this one-way movement - from the top down - is the agency photo of a truck, from which charity workers are throwing food parcels directly into the outstretched hands of hungry people. At the very top, on the roof of the truck, a group of reporters are standing, pointing their cameras down. It is easy to imagine what this scene, filmed from the roof of the truck, would look like on a TV screen: it would be us, the kindly viewers, who would be handing out food through other's hands to the people in need.

Kim Sooja stages her presence as a gap: motionless "being-in", which is gradually removed from the onlooker's field of vision, becoming something as known and obvious as the place itself. Being in a place becomes the place. Like the surface of water closes over a stone, like the eye fills in a blind spot for us. By remaining in a place, being gains a right to it, not through some special title located outside the place, in the space of ideology and codified law, but because it becomes a place, for some time a certain place in uncertain times and in places of uncertainty, in cities on the move. Sewing and travelling across (borders), begging in (the streets), lying on (a rock) and under (the sky), sitting under (a tree), standing in front of (a marching crowd). Sewing the top to the bottom, sewing with oneself, with a disappearing stitch, a blind stitch.

A typical TV report from the front lines: after many hardships a journalist managed to get there; his tired, happy face confirms the truth of his account. Wearing a helmet and a bullet-proof vest, the reporter grips a microphone. Although he's often dressed in camouflage, he is unarmed and that's why we should trust him. The reporter looks us in the eye and speaks to us. Behind him there is action, or just an epilogue or prologue to action. The movement of vehicles, of soldiers, of civilians, burnt-out ruins, wrecked equipment, a captured bridge, some children. The caption on the screen removes all doubt as to the place: a specific geographical name combined with a concrete person who is there and is talking to us now. There can be no more doubt: this is presence and we are experiencing it.

In a series of films shot in different cities around the world Kim Sooja does not show her face. A static camera films a motionless, standing figure from behind. The black vertical shape in the centre of the screen partially blocks the view. On the edges of the screen a crowd throngs; we see it fragmentarily, between the edge of the frame and the dark figure in the middle, on which it is hard to focus. Our view of the scene taking place here is as if "delegated" to that person, about whom we don't know much, not being able to see her face. We don't even know if her eyes are open, if she is looking. She's just a stubborn presence, a gap in our field of vision, standing between us and the image we want to see in its entirety. It's someone who is standing in front of us and whom we want to push aside to be able to see more. Kim Sooja leaves us with this sense of partial knowledge, which will not be made complete.

Her works make one think of the analogies between ways of working with human presence in the conceptual art of the 1960s and 70s and various forms of demonstrating civil disobedience through a political staging of human presence with reference to a given context.

In 1970 Adrian Piper decided to "become the object of art" and to stop making objects. In a series of performances realized in various public places (street, bar, bus stop etc.) the artist used herself as a "persona" slightly disrupting the usual order of things and testing the reactions of onlookers to the appearance of the Other. In Catalysis III (1970) she entered a department store wearing clothes covered in white paint, with the sign WET PAINT. The situations arranged by Adrian Piper were direct interventions by the black artist in the falsified sphere of aesthetics and custom, which conceal violence.

Kim Sooja also confronts the possibility of violence and responds to it with her directed personality. In Beggar Woman (Lagos, Nigeria) Kim Sooja sits in the street with her hand outstretched, in a beggar's pose. At the beginning the hand is empty; then someone puts some coins into it; the hand does not close, so somebody else steals them. In this microsituation, apart from economic motivations, issues of trust and responsibility emerge. The beggar's hand becomes a place of transit, an intermediate point/spot in the transit of money. It accepts and offers a gift. The beggar creates a certain community. Abstaining from the usual begging activity - the game of persuasion and resistance - she establishes a network of relations, sets a whole business operation in motion around herself. Kim Sooja's work is also reminiscent of the Real Money Piece (1969) be Lee Lozano, who started with 585 dollars in a jar. The people she met could either take out or add money to the jar; the circumstances, names and sums were recorded. An economic circulation was created, undermining the economy from inside.

If we define art stemming from a minimalist syndrome of progressive self-questioning of the object and focusing on the conditions of its presentation as, using Dennis Oppenheim's words, "displacement of sensory pressures from object to place", Kim Sooja's works certainly initiate a move of attention from object to place. Kim Sooja attracts our attention only to transfer it entirely to the place where she is.


— From the Zacheta Gallery exhibition catalogue, 2003:

Adam Szymczyk: Born 1970, curator and writer. Co-founder and curator of the Foksal Gallery Foundation in Warsaw 1997-2003. Since 2003, he is the director of the Kunsthalle Basel.