A Needle Woman - Shanghai, 1999. Part of the 8 cities performances (1999-2001). 6:33 loop, Silent.

Review from Kim Sooja: A Needle Woman at ICC Tokyo

Paul Ardenne, 2000

Soo Ja Kim (Korea, 1957) first got out there in Europe at Manifesta 1 in Rotterdam in 1995. Since then people have gotten used to her installations made up of sheets and blankets laid out on the floor or rolled up into bundles. Seen at Venice last year and the Lyon Biennale this summer, these somber metaphors provoke reflection on the body and its finalities (the sheet as envelope wrapping a newborn child, lovers, a corpse).

But Soo's A Needle Woman represents a singular achievement. This video installation presented at the InterCommunication Center (ICC) in Tokyo is the finished version; an earlier and less worked-out one was shown at Basel art fair in June 1999. The theme is our relationship to space and time, treated here with great subtlety. On six screens laid out in a rectangle, the artist shows herself filmed from behind, wearing a long black dress and set in the middle of urban and natural landscapes: standing in the middle of busy streets in New York, Delhi, Shanghai and Tokyo, stretched out on a rock by herself in Kitakyushu in Japan; and finally standing again, and again alone, by the Jamuna river in India. The needle in the piece's title is a reference to that gender-specific tool but also, and more importantly, to the compass needle evoked by her immobile position, this being particularly striking in the street scenes where passers by bustle all around her.

The initial impact of A Needle Woman is very powerful. The viewer is struck by the image of her solitary body stationed amid people and things moving all about her, highlighted and amplified by the artist's completely rigid pose and the silent projection. It brings to mind a question which is never answered: why this isolated body, torn away from all contingency, from its earthly attachments? Then there is the powerful process of identification that this piece sets off in the viewer. This body standing proud in stubborn self-affirmation despite the power of the crowd or of nature, has to be me. A third strong point is the simultaneous use of two kinds of time. The street scenes are infused with humanity's time, the stuff of active lives, a temporality driven by doing.

The two nature sequences, in contrast, are governed by a different kind of time, a temporality where we are torn out of our common condition as individuals in which activity alienates us. The river as a reference to a Heraclitus's metaphor, and the rock with its extreme mineral hardness — these images take their distance from all too human time and instead opt for the rhythm of the earth and the cosmos. Soo's prone position on the rocks, in opposition to her standing station, evokes rest and contemplation, a state of contained tension in which human beings, confronted with that which is beyond them, relearn their own measure. It may make us think of the languid Buddha, the parinirvana, observing the world and Creation. An earlier video, Sewing into Walking (1997), shows a street scene in Istanbul and suggests the adoption of the simplest view one can have of things: simply noting them. This sequence can also be read by weighing, on the one hand, the reality of the world, with its density and rhythms far beyond human understanding, and on the other hand our own position as we search eternally for fusion and harmony. Speaking of A Needle Woman, the curator of the ICC exhibition, Keiji Nakamura, summed it up perfectly: "existential minimalism".


— From 'Art Press' 261, 2000, solo show at the InterCommunication Center (ICC) May 26 June 18, 2000

Translated by L-S Torgoff.