The Weaving Factory, 5.1 Surround sound installation, voice by Kimsooja, International Artists Mueseum, Lodz Biennale 2004.

Experiencing A Vacuum

Emanuela De Cecco, 2005

As the feet of man take up a small space on the earth, it is thanks to the space that they do not occupy that man can walk on the immense earth.
— Zhuang-zi

One of the most salient aspects to emerge in the works  of certain artists over the last decade regards a return to dialogue with minimalist language. Looking at the works of Mona Hatoum, Doris Salcedo, Rachel Whiteread, Felix Gonzalez Torres, Miroslaw Balka,in this perspective, it is quite clear how their work finds a sort of common denominator in this linguistic base. It is not a relationship based on subjection, nor on a form of citation. The significant point - which marks a departure from the past and offers the possibility to return to a strong connection with contemporary urgencies - is the assumption of a tradition, turning its meaning upside down from within. Minimalism lends itself, for its presumed liberated universality, freed from subjective tensions (in reality far from universal, far from neutral, more precisely expression of the very Western sense of the dominant thought in modernity), to be reread, re-interpreted, re-proposed in order to face the desire to recover a close contact with reality in all its aspects. Forms that appear simple, appeasing, in fact bear dramatic, intimate contents, capable of introducing searing themes, aimed at giving form to the shadowy areas of a society that is more interested in celebrating its own potency.

The frontal methods of protest are substituted with a transversal method which adopts a much subtler strategy, in which the artist's attention is equally divided between the sense of his own discourse and the dialogue with the language of art.

It is within this context that Kimsooja's work finds a natural collocation. During the first half of the last decade, her work begins to be known and recognized. While this is only one of many perspectives, it is evident in many of her works.

The return to a comparison with minimalism at the beginning of the '90's marks an important step, as it gives voice to various forms of differences that lived in silence throughout History: the cultural difference of those who come from non-Western contexts, sexual differences, the differences in the way information has treated some difficult themes (death, conflict, illness), the different ways in which aspects related to the body, to sentiments, and to intimacy are treated by mass communication (such as the promises of well-being and earthly paradise upon which advertising is based). The extraordinary pathways outlined in these artists' work consist in suggesting another way, another possibility to deconstruct the rules of a seemingly mastered language , stabilized in art history manuals.

While other works created during the last decades contained a clear "anti-" statement, such as in the first phase of feminist art in which women artists needed to affirm their right to exist in an art scene that was prevalently masculine, in this case the revolution develops in overcoming the logic of "with me or against me". A third hypothesis is visible, alongside the choice between working within tradition or departing from it: Us and Them, rather than Us or Them.

Thanks to these artists, the non-Western eye, the sexual difference, the personal history, death, violence, themes which are dear only to minorities, acquire a new centrality, and the works speak to those who come near to them with a language that is able to speak to the soul of the individual and to the collective, in a form of rapport that includes the public as well as the private, which was previously unheard of.

In Kimsooja's installations, the cold, minimalist floors, created with solid materials that are not ruined when walked upon, become colored surfaces, made up of a patchwork of Korean family bedspreads.

They bear the memories, the wishes, the stories of those who once owned them and used them daily. At the same time, the monochrome canvases in the artist's installations remind one of the laundry hung out to dry. The canvases are still bedcoverings, elements that belong to the Korean culture, and yet evoke the more intimate dimension, rarely visible, non-official, hardly an object of attention.

Kimsooja's work takes form based on her experience. Her personal vocabulary is full of objects that come from her culture: not only the bedcoverings, but also bottari — the Korean word for bundles — that the artist creates by filling canvases with used clothes that she arranges randomly about the exhibition space, evoking the nomadic condition, her own, but also that of an entire people.

These presences give life to a statement aimed not only at those who are able to understand the specific aspects of a culture as they touch themes that are part of everyone's lives.

The introduction of personal experience, the poetic reflection on birth, death, the intimacy that Kimsooja's work speaks of, all have the ability to create a larger statement that we can all relate to. From the specific one passes to a possible form of universality which is no longer abstract and distant — typical of the project of modernity - but is a contemporary form of universality soaked in the singular stories of the people who once owned the objects, that become part of the piece, ready to take in the world of the observer.

It is a work that is strongly marked by a subjective point of view with respect to the artist's own condition, cultural, historical, gender, and at the same time able to create a space in order to avoid remaining centered on herself in a narcissistic way. There is no doubt that, in her case, the heredity of minimalism consists in the adoption of an essential language, where there is nothing more than what is necessary to center in on the core of the issue.

But, as I mentioned earlier, this is only one of the perspectives. In fact, Kimsooja lives with an autonomy that renders this relationship relative and which speaks with references from another provenance.

It is a work which - as many others have written — maintains an active dialogue with both the Korean culture and with the Zen Buddhist practices, with which it shares the tension of the creation of an empty/dense space where a contradiction is resolved, a contradiction which only appears as such, between the presence and the absence of the artist.

In one of her most famous pieces — A Needle Woman (1999-2001), eight performances (filmed on video) carried out in eight major cities around the world (Cairo, Lagos, Tokyo...), Kimsooja simply "is", standing in the midst of the crowds of people that pass by and react in different ways to her presence.

In this, as in all her actions, she is exposed in the first person but, with her back to the camera, immobile, exposed to the external world without protection, doing nothing, her presence loses its subjective connotation and becomes "the other". It is in this passage — in the reduction of the ego, which does not mean disappearing but rather a different way of being present — that the artist creates the conditions for an empty space in which she becomes the instrument and not the ends of the action that she carries out, and element of transmission and not the protagonist, an element which connects but does not center on.

With this, the title of the work is emblematic. A Needle Woman, which she explains as a needle is "an extension of the body, and a thread is the extension of the mind. The traces of mind stay always in the fabric, but the needle leaves the site which its medialization is complete. The needle is a medium, a mystery, a reality, a hermaphrodite, a barometer, a moment, a Zen." during an interview with Nicolas Bourriaud, published in the catalogue of her exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum in Lyon in 2003.

In her doing nothing, each time the surrounding scenario becomes the protagonist with the different reactions of the people passing by, finding themselves before this silent, concentrated presence. The camera view is such that, in watching the video we have the feeling that we are a part of the group of passers-by.

Standing before each of Kimsooja's works we find ourselves standing before ourselves. It is in these terms that another aspect of the artist's work emerges, which takes on a significant connection with Buddhism. Where "demolishing the reasons that feed the 'I' of the individual conscience means attacking the basis of all the mental constructions that derive from the presumption of this subjective 'I' and thus avoiding the psychic and physical damage that those constructions generate and host: to embrace and practice emptiness of the 'I' means emptying all opposition which is unbearable, each conflict that feels irremediable, each dualism that seems absolute, of its weight. Positively speaking, this means transforming the body and mind into constellations of interacting elements, in structures of interdependent parts, in nets with interconnected knots, where interdependence and connections guarantee the absence of multiple 'I's, the eclipse of absolute identities and fixed identifications." (1) These words seem written to describe the work of Kimsooja. In an historical phase in which individualism prevails, where the dominating declination of the "desire" is "desire to consume", and the growing revendications of belonging and of identity are fed by a dangerous logic of exclusion, the practice of an artist who with her silent presence alone suggests something else, taking existence from these predominating perspectives resounds with a further meaning. On additional meaning.

Furthermore, in A Beggar Woman, the artist sits in the street with her hand out, in the act of asking money from passers-by, in A Homeless Woman, she puts herself in the shoes of the homeless, again doing nothing in the midst of the crowds... Her rigorous testimony, her intentionally not adding anything to the world, the use she makes of her body, leave space to the world, in all its moving intensity.


1. Giangiorgio Pasqualotto, Estetica del vuoto, Venezia, Marsilio, 2004, p. 50.

Translated from Italian by Donna Fox Page.