A Needle Woman - Lagos, 2001, 6:33 video loop, Silent.

One Woman’s Serenity in the Thick of Things

Ken Johnson, 2001

An art form of chameleonesque elasticity, video can adapt to a bewildering variety of formats, from tiny television monitors to whole-wall, wraparound projections. It can mimic narrative approaches from real world documentation to surrealistic montage to Hollywood-style fantasy, and it can readily absorb the colors and patterns of digital abstraction.

Still, as the works of Kim Sooja demonstrate in "A Needle Woman", on view at P.S. 1, one of video's most effective uses in the gallery is the creation of rectangular pictures on the wall — like old-fashioned photographs or paintings, but with moving parts.

Ms. Kim, who was born in South Korea in 1957 and moved to New York in 1998, uses video with bare bones directness yet uncommon elegance to document her quietly provocative performances. In each of her works, the artist stands, sits or lies very still with her back to the camera while the world around her rushes by. The best have a surprising emotional impact.

In the main installation, eight projections show Ms. Kim standing on busy sidewalks in different cities: New York, Cairo, Tokyo, London, Mexico City, New Delhi, Shanghai and Lagos. Pedestrians hurry by while this enigmatic, unprepossessing figure with a long black ponytail stands like a statue, a motionless stone in a river of humanity.

Most people ignore her; some glance at her quizzically; some stop and stare or take pictures. In Lagos, mischievous children study her as though considering what they might do to get a rise out of her.

The tension between the colorful, all-over busyness of the crowd and the stillness of the central figure makes these works captivating pictorially and as a real-time narratives.

In addition, the still woman has a mythic and curiously melancholy presence. She might be the lost soul of globalized modernity.

Two other large projections in other galleries shift the setting from city to country. In one, we look down from a slightly perspective onto the artist, who stands with her back to us facing a glassy, slowly flowing river. Spatially this is the most interesting of Ms. Kim's works because the reflective surface of the river appears at first to be far away; then you realize it is almost at the artist's feet. The collapse of distance is breathtaking.

In the other video, the artist reclines on her side on the rocky summit of a hill holding still as clouds drift slowly by. Both videos have a soothing, meditative effect.

The image of the lone artist facing cosmic spaces calls to mind the lone wanderers that Casper David Friedrich painted, and video adds the dimension of time. Just as the protagonist in the video contemplates the flow of time in nature, viewers in the gallery contemplate the flow of time not only as represented in the video by flowing water or shifting clouds, but also in the real-time flow of the video itself. And again, as in the artist-in-the-madding-crowd videos, the centered figure embodies an inspirational equanimity of spirit in the face of what must lead, after all, to death.

Ms. Kim goes wrong in a piece called "A Beggar Woman" that she performed in Nigeria. At P.S. 1 a video monitor shows her sitting cross-legged on a patch of public ground holding out one hand as if begging for money. Some people put money into her hand; one man steals money out of her hand. While the image of the beggar is not without resonance and the events captured by the camera are not without interest, the element of deception is troubling. Unlike the other works, in which the artist's enigmatic presence casts no judgment on the crowd, this one shines a light of moral inquisition on passerby, implicitly questioning their relationship to people in need; yet the artist herself is behaving with an ethically questionable duplicity.

One wonders where Ms. Kim might go from here. Can — or should — she venture beyond this one idea of the motionless, anonymous woman in tension with worldly movement? Might new performance ideas lead to new formal possibilities? Repeated too often, the performance of motionlessness could start to seem like a gimmick, but who knows? Maybe it could be extended and deepened through ritualistic repetition into a powerfully spiritual enterprise.


— From The New York Times - Friday September 7, 2001.

Ken Johnson is the art critic for The New York Times and Art in America.