Kim Sooja, Epitaph, 2002, digital c-print. Performed at Greenlawn Cemetery NYC, courtesy of Peter Blum Gallery, New York. Photo by Jason Schmidt.

Conditions of Anonymity: The Performance Art of Kim Sooja

Jonathan Goodman, 2003

In the art of Korean-born, New York-based Kim Sooja, we see an entire career built upon the notion of the anonymous as a metaphor for the wish to merge with forces and circumstances usually acting against the forthright assertion of self. Kim's art inverts expectations as a way of embracing the world. Her performance of self is at once oppositional and acquiescent, fated and willed. There is a tremendous strength and assertion in her apparently anonymous actions, which are not so much transgressions as they are recognitions of fate. It may well be that the very circumstances Kim addresses, presenting as oppositions, are what the self needs to define itself — in much the same way the whole defines the part. Kim stands alone, unnamed, in her struggle to achieve a consolidated awareness, whose definitions may be seen as Buddhist in their unboundaried flow. In the elaborations of her anonymity, then, Kim presents a sensibility acutely aware of the warring contradictions between her desire for an erasure of self and the kind of resolve necessary to confront the environment she so eloquently, albeit silently, strives against.

When, in the performance A Needle Woman (1999-2001), Kim stands against waves of Japanese passersby on a street in Shibuya, Tokyo, her pose begins as antithesis but becomes, over time, a wordless affirmation of human resilience, even of individual worth, despite the conditions of anonymity she imposes upon herself. In a remarkable transformation of value, her actions quite literally embody the progress of a self increasingly cognizant of its mortal limits — it is as though Kim is mourning death, which is always ahead of its time. Yet the overall thrust of her vision is far from dark or macabre; her art demonstrates a knowing perception of life's circumstances that is by implication assenting, and her engagement with different cultures — Kim has performed A Needle Woman in eight cities throughout the world (in order: Tokyo, Shanghai, Delhi, New York, Mexico City, Cairo, Lagos, and London) — amounts to an affirmation of existence no matter what the environment.

Kim's development as an artist has been steady and assured. Born in 1957 in Taegu, Korea, she studied painting at Hong-Ik University in Seoul, where she completed graduate school in 1984. She spent half a year in France, on a grant from the French government. In 1992-93, Kim came to New York as an artist-in-residence at the contemporary art center P.S. 1. Deciding on cultural exile, Kim again returned to New York in 1998; this move marked her permanent stay in America, where she has received more and more recognition, becoming an artist of international reputation. Although Kim did not stay long as a painter, she remains interested in investigating the issue of surface, an activity she has continued throughout her career. Indeed, Kim comments, "This pursuit [of the surface], along with my will towards artistic freedom, enabled me to open up new horizons in my art." The change in expression came quickly to Kim; as early as 1983, while still in graduate school, she first "discovered the methodology of sewing as a means of questioning art and life while I was sewing a traditional bedspread in 1983." Kim made the decision to use fabric in daily life as a new kind of canvas. But the act of sewing was also personal, being tied to mourning: "My first attempt at sewing used clothes was done with the remains of my grandmother's clothing, left behind after her death a year before."

Kim began as a painter who questioned the surface of her canvas, seeing it as "a wall and barrier that painters wish to overcome." Over the course of a decade, she moved into new developments incorporating different media and strategies — videos and performances — in which the emphasis shifted from a treatment of surface to her now recognized language of wrapped used clothes and bedding: an image bundle. The changes in her art revolved around an increasingly emblematic use of materials; when asked why she makes use of bedcovers, Kim replies: "The bedcover is a symbolic site. It is where we are born, where we rest and love, where we dream and suffer and finally die. It keeps memories of the body alive, which result in another dimension." Now that she is concentrating on the world of performance and video, Kim has turned toward an increasingly allegorical reading of her environment, in which her life and actions function as an existence representative of ours. The human condition is taken up as essentially anonymous because Kim comprehends that all of us share the recognition that our actions reveal a deep-seated isolation, as well as an unconscious awareness that behavior takes on paradigmatic meaning in the face of our limited span of time. In Kim's art our understanding of death becomes enlightened by her mediation as an individual toward her audience; her actions resonate because they enter into an existential dialogue with their viewers, replete with the high moral seriousness the presence of death inevitably calls to mind.

A Needle Woman enacts the isolation we all feel by offering a resonant silence, contemplational in nature, in the midst of the crowd. Kim, who is not a practicing Buddhist, nevertheless sees Zen Buddhist affinities in her recent performances. Her art is suggestive of meditational mind in the encompassing awareness of its practice. She disavows her sense of herself in favor of a stance that heals and binds by taking in the energy, or noise, of the world. As Kim herself has said, "After a decade of sewing practice [since 1983], I came to see myself as a needle weaving the fabric of nature."

The artist intends to bring together disparate parts of the real as an act of selflessness represented by the precise metaphor of needle and silk. Her silent, even prayerful, interactions with the amused, bemused crowds in eight cities show a tenacity of purpose as well as a self deliberately obliterated so as to take in, out of harm's way, the various responses her stillness and silence create. Video witnesses her activities, creating an archive of interactions. Interestingly, Kim sees the use of video, which documents her activities in different places, metaphorically as well: "Another encounter occurs when audiences see the video resulting from my performance. My body functions as a barometer, as a needle connecting people from a different time and space." She means to emphasize the ties that bind people, by extinguishing, for the duration of the performance, the illusion that the self is primary.

Kim's epic eleven-day journey Cities on the Move — 2727 Kilometers Bottari Truck (November 1997) retraced sites in her memory; she traveled to different cities and villages where she used to live, carrying colorful bottari on a flat-bed truck. Kim considers the performance "a social sculpture, loaded with memory and history, which locates and then equalizes physical and mental space." The video, witnessing Kim's transit in Korea's Taebek Mountains, movingly and also literally presents the baggage she carries with her as she seeks to face her past. The performance presents her travels as a metaphor for the narrative of our existence; as Kim states in a catalogue accompanying the piece, "Bottari Truck is a processing object throughout space and time/locating and dislocating ourselves to the place/where we come from/and where we are going to." The figurative language engages the viewer on a metaphysical plane, demanding that we read her journey as emblematic of our own. Kim is particularly strong when her imagery is offered as a symbolic representation of awareness; the notion of moving along a path resonates in sympathy with the inevitable determination that the path will end when the person is gone. Asked in the catalogue to comment on unrealized projects, Kim replies, "I contain my projects in my body which I find as my studio, and I don't try to remember or describe them all." The statement returns us to the idea that Kim holds within her body a wellspring of creativity, which acts as the counterpart to the anonymous public self she so carefully presents. If it is true that we never see her face in her performance videos, it is because her anonymity is large enough to incorporate whatever occurs in the world around her.

As one follows the steps left by Kim in her sojourns of memory, it becomes clear that the implications of her path — itself a Buddhist term — suggest deep affinities with Buddhism. Kim comments that her "attitude and way of looking are similar to that of Buddhists." At the same time, she reserves the right to remain "an independent individual, who looks at the world in one's own way and who recognizes that one's own path can sometimes meet with a broad stream of thought." In the isolation of her artwork, Kim seeks out a generalized correspondence with the world, but on her own terms and from her own experience. Her allegories are successful because they originate, despite seeming otherwise, from a highly individuated sense of purpose. In a way, Kim's anonymity is a subterfuge, a manner of relating a sense of self whose boundaries are so extended as to do away with the notions of limit entirely. The odd thing about Kim's isolation is that it in fact completely engages with her audience; just as she offers solitude as a way of emphasizing universal implications, so she underscores her autonomy as a way of proceeding toward a wide involvement with others. Indeed, her lonely actions appear to call for help — in the video A Beggar Woman, done in Lagos in 2001, she sits crosslegged, her palm extended for alms. Someone gives her some change, and the muteness of the scene intensifies the artist's vulnerability. We read the interaction as evidence of need everywhere; in her dramatization of want, Kim reduces herself — and us as well — to a egoless composite of desires, an enactment of utter poverty.

As a result, Kim objectifies our intuitive knowledge in a language of actions stripped to the bare essence of their intent. There are of course feminist implications to her devotions, accomplished with a purposeful humility. In a remarkable performance, entitled A Needle Woman-Kitakyushu, done in 1999 in Japan, Kim stretched out on top of a limestone mountain, her curving body echoing the stony rise. The video confirms the artist's procedure, whereby her interaction with her surroundings envelops them in a unified will. The suggestion of the earth mother comes into play; there is a sense of limitless identification with nature. At the same time, some of the other performances have political implications, as suggested by A Beggar Woman or A Homeless Woman — Delhi (2000), in which Kim lies down on the sidewalk of a busy street. The lack of a direct message advocating social change does not affect the two pieces, which render suffering as intrinsic to our condition. Indeed, the indirectness of Kim's premises actually enhances her expression, which feels inevitable in light of its universality.

In the recent installation A Mirror Woman (2002), Kim hung used bedcovers across the width of the Peter Blum Gallery in New York City. She also placed mirrored surfaces on both of the side walls, reflecting the path of visitors as they made their way through a labyrinth of colorful cloth. There was a sound element as well — the chants of Tibetan monks accompanied the exhibition. Overall, the experience of the piece was otherworldly to the point of being disturbing. Perhaps, in the largest sense, Kim's interventions are indeed disturbing, for they remind us of our mortality. In Epitaph (2002), Kim waves a bedcover in the midst of a cemetery in Greenpoint, Brooklyn; it is a moment that merges life with its apparent opponent, death. As such, the work suggests that the interpretation between existence and nonbeing may be forced; sometimes, a seeming dichotomy is actually two surfaces of a single idea. Kim's great strength as an artist is to find the moment wherein passion and calm, action and passivity, merge.

She would have us understand that art is the great equalizer of false dualities; our mind is a place capable of including most everything. In the generosity of her vision, Kim reiterates the great truths of the unknown, what lies above and beyond our lives. She takes what we implicitly know and bestows upon it a public grace. As she grows larger in her art, so do we, so completely are we included in her generous expanse of her imagination.


— From Art AsiaPacific, Fall 2003

Jonathan Goodman is a poet, an editor, teacher, and writer who specializes in contemporary Asian art. He is the New York editorial adviser to Art Asia Pacific.

* All quotations are taken from a written interview with the artist in Summer 2002.