Bottari Truck, 2005, Kewenig Gallery Installation, Photo by Simon Vogel, Cologne

The Bottari as Time Capsule
Thoughts accompanying the exhibition, "Kimsooja - Bottari Cologne 2005", Kewenig Galerie, Cologne 29.1 - 23.4, 2005

Friedemann Malsch, 2005

One of the influencial topics in Western art since the late eighties is — in different facets — the issue of absence. Service art, art as curating, the nomadic existence, the anonymization of individual authorship due to collective creativity — this and more are indicators for the fact that artists have increasingly tried in the past few years to break out of the system of self-reference which has been a major influence on Western art since the Sixties. Absence is used here mainly as a strategy, in order to undermine the increasing personalization in the arts and to access fields once again, which open up a stronger connectivity between art and its social dimension. Nevertheless, these strategies always inhere the matrix of self-reflexiveness. The opening of Western art to cultural influences from other continents — due to globalization — is of special importance in this situation, because from here, beyond the discourse-safe products for the western art market, also originate important impulses for a renewed debate about how art can dedicate itself again to the general questions of the human life in a way that it fulfills contemporary aesthetic standards at the same time.

Kimsooja was born in 1957 in Korea, and now lives in New York. She is one of those artists who have, over the past fifteen years, contributed significantly to this re-orientation of contemporary art. She has grown up in a culture shaped by Confucianism, yet her immediate environment was dominated by Catholicism. The fact that the family had to move repeatedly, due to her fathers occupation in the military, led to the early experience of uprooting, a sentiment that has also influenced Western culture throughout the 20th century. In an interview with Gerald Matt, Kimsooja characterized herself in these words: "Travelling is not always voluntary for me. I was often forced to travel. Travelling belongs to my life, since I was a small girl (...) Settling down and being shuffled around, meeting and separation - these topics were always present for me. I have the mentality of a person living on a border line, and the materials, with which I work, correspond to that. Since my childhood I had a lot to do with 'longing' and ' homesickness' with 'memory gaps' and 'adjustment to the new environment'." [1]

This personal background influenced the development of Kimsooja's art and her body of consistent work has grown since the 80s. The materials refered to above were first those which belonged to the artist's grandmother. After her death, Kimsooja used the fabrics in order to create large sized murals, which are in the spirit of the painting she had initially studied in Korea. But already the use of these materials tainted with memories - with all colouredness of the individual materials, which were formed to abstract compositions – focuses on absence, i.e. the loss of her grandmother. At the same time, the use of these fabrics in itself breaks a taboo, as cloths are regarded to belong to the people who wore them during their lifetimes. This double "absence" (the mental-physical of the grandmother on the one hand, the disrespect of tradition on the other hand), this ambivalence is characteristic of Kimsooja's artistic procedure altogether.

It cannot be the place here, to discuss in detail the development of Kimsooja's œuvre, for this I would like to point briefly to the recently published overview of her work. [2]

Yet, it is crucial for me, that the motif of absence can be found in the entire body of work that Kimsooja has realized so far. It is to be observed that the artist understands absence not as a motif of deficiency, but as a constructive, dialectic strategy. After her scholarship at P.S.1 in New York, Kimsooja's first new work concentrated above all on the traces of usage on objects, Deductive Objects. With this group of works the artist succeeded in detaching herself from the painting as the focus of her visual production, and consequently extended her vocabulary in rapid steps by installation, video, photo and performance.

Fabrics play a particular role in the group of works, Sewing Into Walking, the Bottaris, and partly also in the series, A Laundry Woman. Finally, they also form the basis for the 2004 graphic edition, Seven Wishes, featuring different motifs of Korean cloths which were used also for the Bottaris and different installations in the series of A Laundry Woman. Furthermore, works like the photo/video/performance work Encounter and the photowork Epitaph, demonstrate Kimsooja's 'souverain' handling of this topic.

In another group of work, absence is connected with spatiotemporal questions. In these works, the allegorical function of the above mentioned works with a stronger pictorial character step back in favor of a dialectic relationship between work and viewer. I am refering specifically to the performance series A Needle Woman, developed for the video camera (a second set of performances in this series is pending) as well as the related series A Homeless Woman and A Beggar Woman and several works from the series A Laundry Woman. In these works, Kimsooja is always located in the center of the picture, her back towards the viewer, immobile, sitting or lying. All that happens takes place around her. Either she is surrounded by streams of people in metropolises of different continents, or the slow stream of a river flows, passing before her. The dialectic of immobility and mobility in these works, already discussed by different authors, rotates around the center of absence, as it is featured in Kimsooja's work. The artist herself has highlighted it in the following statement: "Everything moves, and movement is a fundamental condition of being. The oscillation of each moment has its own rhythm. Nevertheless the difference between mobility and immobility for me is comparatively small. I have aligned my body to a certain extent to the threshold of a sensitive barometer, which differentiates between the fine borders of mobility and immobility. It is somewhat logical therefore that the mobility of my body located in certain roads, in certain cities, in different continents represents an example of immobility, while my decision to move is on the contrary completely sudden and takes place unconsciously. The decision falls within an energetic conflict between two different elements, my body and the external world. I always wanted to show reality by presenting to people things the way they really are, without doing something, making or creating something further, while most artists and actors strive to create or show something new." [3]

Absence is thus for the artist an important means in her art to communicate to the public an experience corresponding to her own experience and her own reflections. Therefore Kimsooja's artistic approach has not unjustifiably been called "existential minimalism", a term, she emphatically embraces for her œuvre. Under this label a contemporary western current meets the timeless practices of Zen Buddhism. For Buddhists the void, i.e. absence, means abundance, inasmuch as the emptiness gives space for meditation on life. We can therefore define Kimsooja's work as a rare case of intercultural fertilization, which highlights the particular importance of her art.

The Exhibition

For the Kewenig Galerie in Cologne, Kimsooja conceived an exhibition which is to be understood as an installation. The center point is an old truck, loaded with Bottari bundles, further individual Bottaris, the graphic edition Seven Wishes, likewise related to the Bottari materials and 4 video projections. The exhibition title refers unmistakably to the transitory nature of the manifestation. Already three linguistic elements refer to it: The term of the Bottari itself, the date and finally the combination with the place. Bottaris are bundles, in which Korean people, in particular women, are traditionally tying together their belongings in cloths, to take with them when moving – out of necessity or voluntarily - to another place. The cloths are usually bed cloths or bedspreads, given as the traditional Korean wedding gift. Thus they are closely bound to their owners, often accompany them until the end of their life, also because the motifs, inserted into the cloths, represent the well wishes of the giver, which are hoped to be fulfilled during the course of life. In Seven Wishes, Kimsooja features five of these motifs, complemented by two large size abstract motifs, i.e. by wish-motifs, which are waiting to be filled with life.

Directly in the entrance area of the gallery, the visitors are greeted by a Bottari bundle, but mainly in the basement of the gallery, in the areas with compact and simple vaults, individual Bottaris are to be found. The mood of these installations always inheres a tendency of loneliness, which here becomes particularly effective, not alone through the aesthetics of the space, though. Even if the Bottari bundles can always be understood as a testimony of an individual life charged by that person's personality, Kimsooja has succeeded here in creating an extraordinarily impressive reference to the special history of this place. In the neighbouring part of the building, next to the Kewenig Galerie, the secret state police maintained prison cells during the Nazi-era where systematic torture took place. The destruction of the individual sought by the Nazi regime is counteracted by Kimsooja's quiet, but indeterminable note highlighting the indestructibility of the human soul.

An age-old three-wheel truck Tempo, from 1938, is located in the center of the upstairs gallery, its cargo area loaded with Bottari bundles that reach over the roof of the driver's cabin. Entering the space, the visitor approaches towards the protruding and pointy bonnet, giving a morphic twist to the car. This Bottari Truck is a newer version of the original truck, in which the artist drove in 1997 for eleven days, a performance crisscrossing through Korea. If the original was later being seen "in exile" in different exhibitions, Kimsooja realised a new truck for the Cologne exhibition, a somewhat smaller version. The original performance took place in the context of the project, Cities On the Move, and illustrated the special state of mind of people who are forced due to their life circumstances to move their homes again and again. The resulting special relationship to space and time, typical for migrants, which is usually hard to comprehend for non-migrants, becomes especially apparent in the Bottari Truck. The artist described it as follows: "Bottari Truck is a processing object throughout space and time / locating and dislocating / ourselves to the place / where we came from / and where we are going to." [4] There are few works, which focus on the topic of migration and how it seizes people again and again in the same way, with such precision, yet, without falling into any kind of the ideology.

The artist has placed four video projections in the same gallery, which transpose the emotional motif of the Bottari Truck onto a more abstract, philosophical level. All video work originates from the years 2000 and 2001 and has so far only been shown rarely. Only one work features a crowd, immediately drawing an association to the performance series A Needle Woman. There is however no connection between the work Bottari - Zocalo and the performance series. Here the artist herself cannot be recognized, she is not surrounded by the flow of people as in A Needle Woman, the crowd is nearly static, it does not move in a superordinate direction. The spectator only recognizes single, individual movements, which go into different directions. The majority of people remain unrecognizable on the spot, similarly as in large concerts in football arenas. Because the image is projected somewhat accelerated and is at the same time also blurred, strangely abstract effects arise. The optical proximity to other abstract cyclographic pictures, in which the origin of the elements' movement is not evident, transposes the perception of the concrete situation, in which people are in the recording, on a general level, and which the emphasis is placed on the dialectic between static of the crowd and the movement of its individual components.

Something similar takes place in the work Bottari - drawing the snow, which shows the falling snow on a winter night. The camera looks up into the falling snow, and like before, the image contains no orientation coordinates. What remains is the apparently coincidental direction of motion of each individual snow flake in contrast to the seemingly immovable flakes disappearing into the darkness of the space behind. This image has such a high degree of abstraction that it already reaches the dimension of the concrete, into which the viewer immerses. Is it an image of meditation?

The work Bottari - wrapping the thunderstorm takes up the Bottari - drawing the snow motif again, breaking however from any kind of natural image. The viewer only sees the electronic "snow" that develops on-screen if the screen does not receive a proper signal. The term for the title of this work, taken out of nature, supplies the starting point for an interpretation in this case. Because the "storm" here is on a more micrological level, reaching such high speed, it appears nearly motionless again for the human perception. Also the depth of the area which can still be suspected in " Bottari – drawing the snow " is here left exclusively to the imagination of the viewer.

The fourth video projection, Bottari - Alfa Beach, however, features 'natural space'. The image of the barely moving sea and a piece of sky is projected upsidedown. The horizon lies in the center of the picture, and watching it, the question emerges regarding the coordinates having led to this picture. Upwards downwards, surface and depth — all these terms become questionable in view of this simple gesture of a reversal and are begging for reassurance.

With one exception (Seven Wishes) all works in this exhibition carry the first title Bottari, including the video projections. If one accepts the ambivalent representational character of the bound "bundles" — to be on the one hand a metaphor of migrating, concomitantly the internal state of migrants, on the other hand a concrete, nearly magic component of a lived life — as meaningful basis, then once more this installation refers to absence as endowied with meaning, emptiness as abundance, because it becomes apparent, "that Kimsooja's art is directed towards another kind of void — neither the void of art history nor the void of today's split in human consciousness, but the void of the self, the concept of 'no mind'." [5]

Robert Morgan's words turn into a nearly soothsaying dimension given Kimsooja's exhibition at the Kewenig Galerie in Cologne. The Bottari gains thereby a further level of meaning, which has not been recognized in Kimsooja's œuvre so far. It becomes a time capsule, which, in contrast to the linear temporality of Andy Warhol's Time Capsules, connects time with those dimensions, which extract themselves from our conscious and controlled access. Kimsooja already expressed this in 1997 with the following words: "Time is mental space whose physical presence can never be grasped, space from which we can never escape. Whenever we want to, we can always recall a particular time, but we can never relocate our body with respect to that moment." [6]

Vaduz, June 2005


Notes:

  1. Kimsooja talking to Gerald Matt, in:
    Gerald Matt (ed). "Kimsooja - A Needle Woman", Vienna 2002, p. 7 - 33, here pp 8.
     > return to article >
  2. "Kimsooja – Conditions of Humanity", exhib. Cat. Musée d'art Contemporain, Lyon and Museum KunstPalast, Düsseldorf, 5 Continents Edition, Milan 2003.  > return to article >
  3. see Gerald Matt, pp.7  > return to article >
  4. Exhibition catalogue "Kimsooja - A Needle Woman", Kunsthalle Bern, 2001, pp. 35-43, here p. 36.  > return to article >
  5. Robert Morgan, Kim Sooja – The Persistence of the Void, in: "Kimsooja - A Needle Woman", exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Bern 2001, pp. 47-56, here, p. 55.  > return to article >
  6. "Kimsooja - A Needle Woman", exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Bern 2001, p. 36.  > return to article >


Friedemann Malsch is the Director of Kunstmuseum Lichtenstein, Vaduz, and served as a curator there from 1996-2000. Among the many shows he has curated, he assembled the show Migration in 2003, which Kimsooja participated in. At Kunstmuseum Lichtenstein, under the title Dialogue, Malsch has established a forum for rapidly changing collection presentations, on which historical and stylistic demarcations are set aside in favor of thematic aspects. Malsch is considered, among other things, as a specialist in video art.