A Needle Woman Weaves the World - ‘바늘 여인’, 세계를 직조하다, 2020
A Journey through Immobility
Create A New Light
Kimsooja 'To Breathe' in Centre Pompidou Metz "My work has always been a response to violence and inhumanity"
Kimsooja: Ways of Being - A Conversation between Daina Augaitis and Kimsooja
A Place to Be - A Conversation with Kimsooja
The Unaltered Reality of the World
Points of Convergence - Part I: Other-Self-World
Points of Convergence - Part 2: Mirror-Void-Other
To be Born, Love, Suffer and Die
Woman / Needle
An Interview with Kimsooja
Interview with Kimsooja
An interview with Kimsooja
An Interview with Kimsooja
An Interview with Kimsooja
'In the Space of Art: Buddha and the Culture of Now' Interview
Wrapping Bodies and Souls
From Plane to Three Dimensions: A Bundle
Sewing into Walking, an interview from 1994
글로벌 아티스트 김수자(金守子). 그가 매머드 전시를 열고 있다. 프랑스의 중세도시 푸아티에에서 열리고 있는 비엔날레 형식의 제1회〈트라베르세/김수자 (Traversées/Kimsooja)〉(2019. 10. 12~ 2020. 1. 19). 전시제목인 ‘트라베르세’는 ‘통과(crossing)’ 또는 ‘가로지르기 (traverse)’라는 뜻이다. 전쟁 이주 망명 등 오늘의 ‘글로벌 위기’를 반영하는 주제다. 여기에, 유목(nomad)의 표상인 ‘보따리 작가’ 김수자를 주인공으로 내세웠다. 그는 사운드를 아우르는 장소특정적 설치와 퍼포먼스 오브제 비디오 필름 라이트설치 등 총 15점의 대형 작품을 발표했다. 또 주제에 부합하는 글로벌 작가를 초대하는 큐레이터 역할까지 맡았다. 실로 김수자 예술의 빛나는 무대가 아닐 수 없다. 김수자와 초대작가 14명은 도시 곳곳에 흩어져 있는 13개의 역사적인 기념 건축에 작품을 선보였다. 이 전시에 주목해 작가와 인터뷰를 가졌다. 내용은 크게 두 갈래다. 하나는, 〈트라베르세/김수자〉의 전시 개념과 공간 매핑, ‘글로벌 위기’에 대응하는 개별 작품을 소개했다. 국제적으로 널리 알려진 참여작가 간의 조형적 연계성을 리뷰했다. 또 하나는, 김수자의 ‘관객-주체’ 퍼포먼스, 무지갯빛 스펙트럼, 실재와 가상이 혼재하는 거울 설치 등 근자의 작품에 주목해 그 조형론을 깊게 파고들었다. 그리하여 바느질과 보따리 같은 모국주의 개인사에서 출발해 인간의 존재론 같은 보편적 예술 성취로 이어지는 작품 여정을 조망한다.
Art : 김수자는 작년 연말에 뉴욕 스튜디오를 철수했다. 한국으로 캠프를 이동하는 중이다. 작가로서 큰 전기를 맞고 있다. 작가 이전에 자연인으로 본다면, 수구초심(首丘初心)이라고나 할까, 고향으로의 회귀의식이 발동한 것인가. 그 소회를 듣고 싶다.
Kim : 수구초심으로 한국으로 돌아온 건 아니고, 그저 한 자연인으로서 나를 필요로 하는 가족의 일원을 돌보기 위해 한국에 와 있을 수밖에 없는 상황이 됐다. 정확하게 말하면 ‘돌아왔다’기보다는 ‘와 있다’고 해야 할 것 같다. 한국에 있다 해도 과연 얼마나 한국에서 산다고 할 수 있을지 모르겠다. 한국선 거의 섬에 살듯이 지내기 때문이다. 나는 오랜 기간 뉴욕에서 화상이나 컬렉터, 미술관의 아무런 지원 없이 주로 유럽의 지원에 의존해 작업해 왔다. 2000년대 이후 점점 상업성이 극으로 치닫고 있는 뉴욕이 더 이상 나에게 의미가 없다고 판단해 떠날 계획을 이미 갖고 있었다.(사실 인텔렉추얼한 측면에서 뉴욕을 아끼는 부분이 아직도 남아 있다. 뉴욕은 역시 내가 그 속에서 죽고 싶은 마지막 도시이다.) 1년 전만 해도 파리를 유럽의 베이스로 삼아 그곳으로 스튜디오를 옮기려 했다. 이번에 근 20년간 거주한(그래 봐야 실제로는 10년도 채 못 살았지만) 뉴욕의 이스트빌리지 아파트 짐을 모두 컨테이너에 실어 프랑스의 푸아티에로 운송하는 새로운 작업 〈보따리 1999-2019〉은 애초 파리에 정착하기 위해 계획된 것이었다. 그런데 그 사이에 한국으로 돌아와야 하는 상황이 벌어진 것이다. 그 이전에 보다 경제적인 도시 베를린으로 옮겨 보려고 6개월간 오가며 지내 봤지만, 정붙이기 어려웠다. 여러 우여곡절도 있었지만, 역시 나는 파리가 수월하다. 프랑스 정부나 자치단체, 그리고 미술관으로부터 많은 지원을 받아 오고 있다.
Art : 이번 인터뷰에서 다룰 중점 사안은 현재 프랑스 중부 도시 푸아티에 전역에서 열리고 있는 대규모 프로젝트 〈트라베르세/김수자(Traversées/Kimsooja)〉다. 우선 ‘트라베르세(traversées)’는 ‘통과(crossing)’ 또는 ‘가로지르기(traverse)’라는 뜻이다. 이게 바로 전시 주제인데, 무엇보다 이 전시의 시스템이 아주 특별하다. 여느 국제전과 달리 한 명의 예술가를 선정해, 그 예술가가 자신의 작품뿐만 아니라 다른 작가들의 작품까지 도시 전역에 전시하는 방식이다. 그 첫 번째 축제의 〈트라베르세〉를 이끄는 주인공으로 김수자가 선정됐다. 그러니까 김수자는 작품 발표뿐만 아니라 큐레이터 역할까지 맡았다. 주연배우와 감독을 겸하는 일이니, 작가로서 이보다 더 큰 영광이 또 있을까 싶다. 푸아티에 예술축제의 설립 배경, 미션과 비전은 무엇인가?
Kim : 푸아티에는 파리에서 보르도 방향인 남서쪽으로 1시간 반 거리에 있는 인구 9만 5,000명 정도의 작은 중세도시다. 한국인에게는 다소 생소하지만 한때 프랑스의 수도이기도 했고, 푸아티에 전투로 유명했던 아랍권과의 전쟁 등을 겪으며 끊임없이 외부의 도전을 받았다. 그러니까 실제로 과거에 수많은 주변국가와 그 문화의 트라베르세가 일어났던 곳이다. 또 이 푸아티에 전투로 인해 ‘유럽’이라는 개념이 탄생한 곳으로도 유명하다. 또한 현대미술에 지대한 영향을 미친 프랑스 철학자 미셸 푸코(Michel Foucault)의 탄생지이기도 하며, 종교와 교육도시로도 널리 알려져 있다. 그래서 애초에 40여 명이 참여하는 비엔날레로 기획한 이 프로젝트의 전체 제목이 〈트라베르세〉이고, 초대작가를 한 명으로 압축하여 트라베르세의 의미를 오래 탐구해 온 작가에게 전시 콘텐츠를 전권위임(Carte Blanche)함으로써, 그 첫 에디션의 제목을 〈트라베르세/김수자〉로 시작한 것은 이 비엔날레의 독특한 성격을 대변한다. 특히 도시의 진보적인 정치 성향과 현 시장의 이민과 난민 수용의 포용정책이 프로젝트의 추진 동력이 됐다. 무엇보다 도시 전체를 하나의 무대로 삼아 한 작가의 작업으로 매핑(mapping)할 뿐 아니라, 작가와 이번 전시에 연계될 수 있는 다른 작가의 작업을 초대할 수 있는 권한과 지원을 해 준 것은 세계 어디서도 유례를 찾아볼 수 없는 비엔날레 형식이라고 할 수 있겠다. 〈트라베르세/김수자〉는 푸아티에 시장인 알랭 클래이(Alain Claeys)가 푸아티에 출신이며 전 루브르미술관 관장이자 2015년 한불수교 130주년 기념행사를 총지휘한 앙리 루아레트(Henri Loyrette)의 제의를 받아들임으로써 만들어졌다. 전 퐁피두센터-메스 디렉터이자 현재 팔레드도쿄 관장인 엠마 라비뉴(Emma Lavigne)와 독립큐레이터 엠마누엘 드 몽가종(Emmanuelle de Montgazon)을 공동 예술감독에 임명함으로써 그 첫발을 내딛게 됐다. 시장은 이 행사를 통해 푸아티에를 국제사회와 국제미술의 지형 속에 자리매김한다는 취지와 함께 최근 유럽의 가장 첨예한 이슈인 전쟁, 난민, 이주 문제를 전적으로 포용하는 입장을 표명하고자 했다. 또한 푸아티에에는 매우 흥미로운 콩포르모데른(Confort Moderne)아트센터가 있지만 아직 현대미술관이 없다. 중세도시에 활력을 불어넣을 수 있는 도시의 중심에 자리잡은 상징적인 건물이며 최근까지 법원으로 사용된 아키텐 공국의 궁전(Palais des ducs d’Aquitaine)을 새로운 현대미술 공간으로 전환해 시민에게 선사한다는 의미도 크다.
Art : ‘트라베르세’, 이른바 ‘경계 넘기’ ‘가로지르기’는 익히 잘 알려져 있듯이, 그동안 김수자가 견지해 온 작품 주제다. 1992∼93년 뉴욕 PS1창작스튜디오 작업실에서 태동된 〈보따리〉 시리즈 이후 김수자의 작품은 유목(nomad)의 표상으로 세계의 주목을 받았다. 이번 푸아티에 예술 축제에서는 이 트라베르세의 개념이 어떻게 구체적으로 작품에 실현되었는가. 〈보따리〉가 푸아티에라는 사이트에서 어떻게 새롭게 구현되었는가. 전시 내용을 구체적으로 살펴보자.
Kim : 우선, 두 명의 공동디렉터는 유서 깊은 중세도시 전체를 하나의 거대한 캔버스로 삼아 작업할 수 있도록 전적으로 나를 믿고 지원하며 〈트라베르세/김수자〉의 길 안내자가 되어 주었다. 나로서는 큰 영광이었다. 또한 푸아티에라는 도시의 ‘열쇠’를 한 작가에게 넘겨줄 수 있는 시장과 디렉터들의 용기와 실험정신이 없었다면, 이런 대규모 비엔날레 형식의 개인/공공 프로젝트가 이처럼 새롭게 탄생될 수는 없었을 것이다. 말 그대로 ‘드림 큐레이터(Dream Curator)팀’이었다.(Curator는 ‘신경쓰다’ ‘돌봐 주다’를 뜻하는 라틴어 ‘curare’에서 나왔다.) 우선 트라베르세라는 타이틀을 받았을 때, 국제적인 지형도에서 제일 먼저 떠오른 아이디어는 그동안 내가 오래 계획해 온 유럽으로의 베이스 이동, 특히 뉴욕에서 파리로의 이주를 실행할 가장 적절한 시점이라는 것이었다. 나의 삶 자체를 옮기는 작업인 〈보따리 1999-2019〉는 지난 20년간 살아온 뉴욕 이스트빌리지의 아파트에 쌓인 나의 일상생활의 모든 짐을 오방색 컨테이너에 싣고 푸아티에로 옮겨 피난처로서의 상징성을 지닌 성당(Cathedrale de Saint-Pierre) 앞에 내려놓는 여정이었다. 반면 푸아티에 도시 내의 지형도는 팔레(Palais des ducs d’Aquitaine)를 중심축으로 십자를 그으며 구도시와 맞닿는다는 생각으로 팔레로부터 매핑을 했다. 그래서 팔레의 중심에 〈마음의 기하학(Archive of Mind)>을 설치해 시민이 함께 모이는 중심축으로 상정했고, 구도심을 관통하는 오래 닫힌 팔레의 문을 열어 중세부터 중심 길이었던 카테드랄 길(rue de Cathedrale)을 통과해 성십자미술관(Musée Saint-Croix)과 콩포르모데른 아트센터에 이르는 긴 산책로의 좌우측 군데군데에 산재한 성당과 교육시설, 회랑 등 도시의 역사적 건물들을 문맥에 따라 경험하도록 계획했다. 각 사이트가 전체와 서로 연계를 가지면서도 각기 하나의 시각적 의미론적 중심으로서 내러티브를 갖도록 했다.
Art : 《e-flux》에 실린 컨테이너 〈보따리 1999-2019〉가 인상적이다. 한국의 보따리가 컨테이너로 치환된 작품이다. 한마디로 보따리의 변주인데, 이 작품의 함의가 대단히 중요하다. 이주 이동 유목의 의미를 담고 있는 보따리라는 이름을 유지하면서도 실제 보따리 형상은 컨테이너로 바뀌었다. 보따리의 ‘문화 번역’이라고 해야 할까. 컨테이너 표면은 5가지 원소(목 화 토 금 수)를 표상하는 한국의 전통 오방색으로 색띠를 그려 넣었다. 보따리의 원천을 유지하면서도 실제 작가 자신의 이주 상황을 그대로 드러내는, 그래서 리얼리티가 강한 작품으로 보였다. 사실 2016년부터 〈연역적 오브제〉라는 입체작품을 발표했는데, 이 역시 색동천의 변주가 아닌가. 강철을 용접한 난형(卵形)의 형태에 기본 방향(동 남 중앙 서 북)과 전통 오방색으로 아주 현대적으로 입체화한 작품으로 보인다.
〈보따리 1999-2019〉는 지난 8월 말 뉴욕의 짐을 컨테이너에 실어 푸아티에로 보내면서 말 그대로대서양을 횡단해 설치한 작품이다.
Art : 김수자는 큐레이터 자격으로 일본의 타다시 가와마타(Tadashi Kawamata), 인도의 수보드 굽타(Subodh Gupta)를 초대했다. 이 작가들은 우리나라에서도 개인전을 개최한 바 있고, 세계적으로도 널리 알려져 있다. 또 콩고의 새미 발로지(Sammy Baloji)도 참가했다. 그 외 초대작가와 김수자 작품과의 개연성이랄까, 이번 전시 프로젝트와의 관련성에서 들여다보는 일이 중요할 것 같다.
Kim : 이번 전시에서 개인적으로 대단히 흥미로웠고 영감을 준 요소는 내가 이번 테마와 연계되는, 혹은 나의 작업과 연계되는 다른 동료작가를 초대해, 내 작업과의 연계성을 공유하며 〈트라베르세〉의 의미를 심화하고 확장하는 과정이었다. 예를 들자면, 나는 타다시 가와마타의 작업을 남성적 직조 행위로 본다. 그의 작업은 내가 2010년부터 진행해 오고 있는 〈실의 궤적(Thread Routes)〉 16mm 필름 프로젝트를 맨 처음 발상할 당시인 2002년, 벨기에의 브루주(Brugge)에서 보빈 레이스(Bobbin Lace)를 짜고 있는 한 여성을 보면서 바로 병치하게 된 남성적 직조 행위로서의 건축 행위를 연상시킨다. 텍스타일에서 여성적 직조 행위와 건축에서 남성적 직조 행위는 그동안 내가 〈실의 궤적〉 필름 속에 병치해 왔다. 이러한 건축적 요소를 이번에 팔레의 입구 기둥에 설치한 가와마타의 〈둥지〉를 통해 물리적으로 잘 병치할 수 있었다.
Art : 가와마타는 기존의 건축에 기생하는 나무로 된 집 혹은 둥지 같은 형상의 설치작품을 통해 구축과 해체의 모호한 풍경을 연출한다. 시작도 끝도 아닌, 일종의 이항대립의 중간지대와 같은 차원은 마치 김수자의 〈보따리〉가 이제 막 떠나려는 상황과 이제 막 도착한 상황, 그 두 상황의 사이 혹은 공존과도 통한다.
Kim : 공감한다. 관객들이 가와마타의 〈둥지〉를 지나 팔레 내부로 들어가면 중심에 설치된 〈마음의 기하학〉(2019)을 체험할 수 있다. 여기서 보따리와 구(球)로의 이행을 보다 더 구체적이고 물리적으로, 또 심리학적으로 이해하게 된다. 이것은 지적한 대로 형식적으로 하나의 가능태로서의 보따리가 형성과 해체의 가능성을 공유하고 있는 동시에 이 전시가 강조하는 중요한 요소인 ‘환대와 보호(Hospitality and Protection)’라는 측면, 즉 미셀 푸코가 말하는 헤테로토피아(Heterotopia)의 특수한 장소성을 가지면서도 질 들뢰즈(Gilles Deleuze)가 말하는 환대와 환영의 의미를 동시에 지닌다. 그래서 이번 전시의 첫 입구에 가와마타의 작업을 선보였다. 전시의 중심축이 되는 18m 길이의 타원형 테이블 위에서의 퍼포먼스 〈마음의 기하학〉은 팔레 내의 다른 두 설치, 과거 재판관들의 개인 사무실 공간이었던 투르 모베르종(Tour Maubergeon)의 〈숨쉬기(To Breathe)〉 거울과 숨소리 설치에서 다시 아치형 천장과 그 구조의 반사로 인해 조성된 타원형의 가상적 공간을 만든다.
Art : 김수자 예술에서 퍼포먼스의 중요성을 빼놓을 없다. 흔히 ‘작가-주체’의 퍼포먼스로는 〈바늘 여인〉이나 〈빨래하는 여인〉처럼 작가 스스로를 공간의 축이자 시간의 축으로 설정하는 작품이 있다. 그런데 근자의 〈마음의 기하학〉에서는 ‘관객-주체’의 퍼포먼스로 이동했다. 〈마음의 기하학〉은 많은 사람이 작은 찰흙 구(球)를 빚어 텅 빈 거대한 타원형 테이블을 채우는 작업이다. 단순히 관객 참여형이라고만 평가하기에는 작품의 의미가 대단히 깊고 넓다. 작품의 주제가우주라든가 우리 인간의 존재론과 같은 문제로 이동했다. 각기 다른 사람이 만들어 낸 각기 다른 형태의 찰흙 구는 인간의 마음이라는 소우주이고, 그 소우주가 모여 은하수와 같은 대우주를 만들어 낸다. 여기에 우주의 소리를 연상시키는 사운드 〈구의 궤적〉이 조합된다. ‘오디오 퍼포먼스’라고 해야 할까. 결국 촉각 시각 청각이 총동원되는 작품이다.
Kim : 팔레에는 특별히 이번에 푸아티에시에서 커미션하여 모로코에서 새로 제작한 아프리카 챕터인 〈실의 궤적 Vl〉과 함께 전체 프로젝트의 하나의 센터로서 각기 다른 형식(설치 퍼포먼스 사운드 필름 라이트)으로 전체 프로젝트의 스펙트럼을 대변하게끔 설치하였다. 또한 가와마타의 〈터널〉은 오랜 세월 막혀 있던 구도시로 통로를 열어 주는 매개 작업이었다. 이렇게 다다른 카테드랄 길은 2012년 런던올림픽 때 참가국으로만 제작된 〈숨쉬기: 깃발〉 이후 국가를 상징하는 모든 존재하는 국기를(공식적이든 비공식적이든 차별 없이 알파벨 순서로, 여기서 남한과 북한의 국기가 오브랩된다) 사용해 재편집한 비디오 작업에서 추출한 이미지들로 초국가적 깃발을 제작해, 카테드랄 길을 따라 컨테이너 보따리가 있는 생피에르 성당까지 설치되어 뮤지엄 쪽으로 안내하게 된다. 여기서 또 시리아 난민의 도착 장소 중 하나이고 근년에 가장 회자되었던 그리스의 레스보아 섬에서 발견한 난민의 구명조끼로 제작한, 그리스 작가이자 건축가 아킬레아스 수라스(Achilleas Souras)의 돔 형식의 설치 〈SOS(Save our Souls)〉를 만나게 된다. 바다 내음과 소금기가 그대로 묻어 있는 이 작업은 성탄절 전날 밤 설치 일부가 불에 타는 안타까운 일이 발생했다. 좀 더 지켜봐야겠지만 현 시점의 유럽과 프랑스의 여러 정치 종교 사회적 문제를 암시한다고 생각한다. 결국 이 사건은 불안정한 시대를 대변하는 이 작업의 의미를 더욱 강화하는 사건이 됐다.
Art : 구명조끼를 작품에 끌어들이는 다른 작가도 있지만, 아킬레아스 수라스의 경우 건축가여서인지 단순히 구명조끼를 난민의 상징으로 외형적으로 돋보이게 하기보다는 대단히 구축적인 조형이 돋보인다. 가와마타의 작품 〈둥지〉와 〈터널〉과도 구조적으로 잘 어울린다.
Kim : 19세의 젊은 그리스 건축가 아킬레아스 수라스의 작업 역시 이민과 난민의 문제, 또 환대의 문제를 제기한다. 나는 그의 작업과 〈보따리〉의 의미와 형식적 유형을 여기서 또 한번 연계하면서 내용적 유사성을 제시했다. 내가 초대한 작가들에게서는 여타의 유사한 재료를 쓰거나 작업을 하는 작가들에게 흔히 발견되는 오리지널리티에 대한 의문은 들지 않았다. 그 의미의 진정성과 형식과 내용의 일관성 때문이다. 일단 뮤지엄 광장에 들어서면 리크리트 티라바냐(Rirkrit Travanija)의 수직수평 구조로 대나무를 사용한 건축적 미로와 중심에 위치한 찻집 설치와 다도(茶道)를 아우른 작업 〈무제(the infinite dimension of smallness)〉(2018) 역시 그가 오래 유지해 온 헤테로토피아적 공간 제시와 환대를 대변하는 나눔의 퍼포먼스의 연장선에 있는 작업이다.
Art : 이번 프로젝트에 입체 설치작품 이외에 퍼포먼스의 비중도 높은 것 같다. 리밍웨이(Lee Mingwei)의 〈수선 프로젝트〉는 한눈에 봐도 김수자의 작품과 연결된다. 바느질, 이른바 직조라는 개념인데, 남성작가의 바느질이 흥미롭다.
Kim : 미술관 내부에 설치한 리밍웨이의 〈수선 프로젝트〉 역시 비폭력주의와 환대 내지는 관용적 태도와 맥을 같이 하는 남성의 바느질 작업이다. 그의 작업은 전자의 남성적 직조라기보다는 여성성에 기초한 남성의 직조로 보이는 러빙 케어(Loving Care)의 의미를 늘 추구하고 있다. 그의 예술적 접근 역시 비폭력주의와 나눔, 포용, 그리고 상처 치유와 통합과 하모니를 추구한다. 그런 점에서 내 작업과 맥락이 가까이 다가와 있다. 그러한 일련의 접근은 미술관 2층에 설치된 〈실의 궤적 l, ll, lll〉에서 바느질, 마름질, 염색, 레이스 뜨기, 직조, 쿠킹, 노마딕 생활상과 각 챕터의 지역성에 기초한 역사적 건축물과 자연과 현지의 수공예적 감수성과 미학의 병치를 통해 종합적으로 통합되어 선보인다. 콩고 출신의 작가 세미 발로지 역시 구리 탄피를 녹여 십자가를 만드는 일련의 과정과 그 십자가를 목에 매단 교회의 소년합창단을 통해 과거 콩고의 식민지배의 역사와 문화를 성스러운 안무와도 같은 필름과 설치작업 〈Tales of the Copper Cross Garden〉(2017)에 담아냈다. 폭력을 치유로 전환시키고 있는 이 작가의 작업 역시 나의 감수성과 방향성과 결을 함께한다고 생각된다.
Art : 식기를 소재로 삼아 다양한 입체 설치작품을 펼치는 인도작가 수보드 굽타는 이번에 요리 퍼포먼스로 각광을 받았다.
Kim : 굽타는 푸아티에 건축센터(Maison d’Architecture)에서 오래된 부엌의 소스팬과 냄비 등을 이용하여 하나의 투과성 있는 독특한 집을 만들고 그 안을 부엌 겸 식당으로 꾸며 인도음식 퍼포먼스 〈요리 세계〉(2017)를 펼쳤다. 작가가 관객과 대화하며 본인의 레시피를 가미한 인도의 거리음식을 나누는 퍼포먼스는 문화적 건축적 미학적이었고, 이식된 공동체를 오감과 함께 느낄 수 있는 풍부한 경험이었다. 나 역시 2018년 중국의 인촨비엔날레(Yinchuan Biennale)에서 시도한 장소특정적인 죽(porridge) 프로젝트를 푸아티에 현지 조건에 맞추어 실행하고 싶었지만, 10여 개의 프로젝트를 준비하느라 겨를이 없어 포기했다. 굽타와 한 공간의 블랙박스에 나는 뭄바이의 슬럼가와 공공빨래터 도비갓(dhobighat), 또 인산인해를 이루며 기차로 출퇴근하는 모습을 담은 〈뭄바이: 빨래터〉(2007)를 병치했다. 인도의 문화와 사회적 현주소를 편견 없이 있는 그대로 보여 주어 시너지 효과를 가져 온 프로젝트였다. 사실 이 작업은 나의 이불보 설치작업의 연장으로 보면 된다. 한편 유럽에서 가장 오래된 세례성당(Baptistère Saint-Jean)에서는 한국의 국악인 정마리가 정가를 불렀다. 지고한 순수미와 독특한 창법으로 〈영속하는 기쁨의 노래〉를 60분간 쉼 없이 노래하며 관객 모두에게 명상과 초월적 경험을 선사했다. 끊일 둣 이어지는 그녀의 숨막힐 듯 가녀린 목소리의 풀림은 마치 직조행위를 비물질화하여 바라보는 것 같은 연상작용을 불러일으켰다. 나는 그녀의 소리를 이 프로젝트의 미학적 정점에 놓고 싶었다.
Art : 이번에도 무지갯빛 효과를 자아내는 빛 작업을 선보였다. 김수자가 빛을 작품에 끌어들인 것은 2006년 스페인의 마드리드 크리스털 궁전의 설치작품 〈숨쉬기–거울여인〉(2016)에 이어 2013년 베니스비엔날레 한국관에서였다. 유리창에 회절격자 필름을 부착해 빛이 스며들면 무지갯빛 효과를 낼 수 있다. 전시공간은 마치 우주와 같은 스펙터클한 환경으로 바뀐다. 김수자가 비물질을 작품 재료로 끌어들인 것은 획기적인 변화다. 베니스에서는 빛이 스며드는 공간과는 대조적으로 빛과 소리가 완전히 차단된 적막한 공간을 조성하기도 했다. 외부 공간을 내부로 끌어들이는 빛 작업이 지속되고 있다. 빛을 작품에 끌어들이는 근본적인 이유는? 빛은 김수자 예술에서 어떤 역할을 맡고 있는가?
Kim : 이 답변을 위해서는 색의 스펙트럼 이상의 의미를 갖고 있는 오방색과 십자, 보따리에 대한 내 생각을 먼저 이야기하는 것이 순서다. 근 40년 가까이 내가 끊임없이 실험해 온 지속적인 문제 중 하나는 화가로서의 시각을 견지하며 질문해 온 캔버스의 표면(surface), 나아가 경계(border), 캔버스를 지탱하고 있는 십자구조이다. 이 십자구조는 1980년 홍익대 대학원 졸업논문으로 발표했던 〈조형기호의 유전성–십자형 기호를 중심으로〉에서도 다루었다. 나는 칼 구스타브 융(Carl Gustav Jung, 1875∼961)의 만다라에서 보인 마음의 원형(Archive of Mind)에서 그 구조적 심리적 근원을 찾았다. 십자는 고대부터 현대에 이르기까지 구조적으로도 많은 작가가 거치지 않을 수 없는 터널과도 같은 것이다. 색의 기본적인 스펙트럼으로서의 오방색은 그 방향성과 계절, 맛과 물질의 성질을 포함하는 우주의 스펙트럼이라고 해야 옳다. 이보다 더 풍부한 의미를 내포하는 색의 정의가 있을까.
Art : 예나 지금이나 화가에게 색채에 대한 물음은 결국 그 시작과 끝이 빛의 세계로 귀결된다. 무지갯빛의 스펙트럼은 결과는 비물질이지만, 실상 회절격자의 물질이 매개가 된 것이다. 김수자가 보여 준 물질과 비물질이라는 이중구조에의 관심에서 본다면 당연한 귀결이라고 할 수 있다. 그렇다. 기본적으로 바로 이 오방색(빛에 내재하는)과 십자구조인 회절격자 필름의 만남이 내가
Kim : 사용하는 무지개 스펙트럼의 핵심이다. 이 필름은 1cm에 거의 수천 개의 수직수평 스크래치로 긁혀져 특수 제작된 것이다. 거의 나노스케일이어서 눈에 감지되지 않지만, 그 자체로 하나의 투명한 천이다. 나의 작업 그 자체라고 해도 과언이 아니다. 이 필름이 유리창에 부착되어 외부의 빛을 통과할 때 유리창 면과 하나가 된 필름 표면은 프리즘처럼 빛을 굴절시킨다. 결국 유리창은 하나의 빛의 타블로인 셈이다. 날씨 변화에 따라 빛을 호흡하고 변주하면서 벽과 바닥, 또는 천장과 사람의 신체에 빛의 페인팅을 실현하는 것이다. 이때 바닥에 설치된 거울은 또 한번의 반사굴절로 내부 공간을 무지갯빛으로 물들인다. 이 필름이 부착된 표면을 처음 사용할 때는 투명하고 아름다운 구조의 궁전 건축물 자체를 아무런 오브제도 설치하지 않고 하나의 ‘보따리로 싼다’는 개념이었다. 여기에서 바닥의 거울도 보따리 천에 해당된다. 허의 공간을 건축 표면까지 밀어낸 것, 즉 공(vide)의 공간과 나의 숨소리(삶과 죽음의 경계로서의)가 바로 보따리의 구조물이 됐던 것이다. 관람객들은 기존 보따리의 상징적인 인물인 헌옷 대신 살아 있는 퍼포머로 그 안에 싸여지는 것이다. 또 바닥의 거울설치를 통해 그 건축물마저도 이중성을 갖게 되며 하나의 완전성인 구(球)를 지향하는 것이다.
Art : 반사의 매개체인 거울은 실제와 가상이 혼재하는 확장된 공간을 만들어 내고 있다. 투과성을 띠는 빛과 함께 거울을 자주 사용하는 이유는?
Kim : 거울을 처음 사용한 것은 하랄트 제만이 감독을 맡았던 1999년 제48회 베니스비엔날레의 본전시 아페르투토(d’Aperttuto)에서였다. 그때의 거울은 코소보 난민에게 헌정한 〈아페르투토, 혹은 보따리트럭(d’Aperttuto, or Bottari Truck in Exile)〉(1999)을 위한 하나의 가상의 길을 여는 작업이자 동시에 아르세날레의 전체 공간을 거울로 싸서 보여 주는 보따리 작업이었다. 거울의 운용은 그때그때 사이트가 요구하는 질문에 응답하며 새로운 개념을 만들어 왔다. 돌이켜 보면, 젊은 시절로 거슬러 올라간다. 내가 1979년에 지금은 없어진 그로리치화랑에서 동료 이윤동 작가와 〈호흡전〉이라는 2인전을 열었다. 그때 창호지를 제거한 한국 가옥의 투명한 격자구조의 문짝을 들고 서서 홍익대 뒷쪽 와우산을 배경으로 일련의 퍼포먼스 사진(흥미롭게도 그때 입었던 스커트가 무지개 색의 사선으로 된 줄무늬 스커트였다)을 흑백 네거티브로 프린트한 투명필름을 빨랫줄에 걸어 한 공간에 설치했다. 또 검은 카펫이 깔려 있던 갤러리 바닥에는 지름 10~15cm 정도의 두 개의 길고 가는 나무둥지를 거의 40~50cm 간격으로 잘라 조금씩 어긋나게 드로잉을 하고, 그 어긋난 나이테 사이에 30cm 정방형의 투명 플렉시글라스를 끼워 넣었던 설치작업이 있었다. 지금 생각하면 그것이 바늘땀이었던 것 같다. 수직수평의 개념도 함축되어 있었고. 내가 회화의 평면성을 질문하던 그때부터 투명성에 관심을 갖게 된 것 같다. 필름의 투명성이나 투과성, 나 자신과 세상을 비추는 거울의 상징적 투명성과 대상성에 관심을 가지고 있었던 것이다. 최근에는 푸아티에의 거울 작업처럼 있는 그대로의 특정 공간의 바닥에 거울을 설치해 공간의 구조를 거울이라는 경계를 통해 재해석하기도 하고, 관객을 의도되지 않은 자율적인 퍼포머로 바라보기도 한다. 또한 10폭 거울 병풍을 새로운 회화 형식으로 제시하기도 했다. 거울은 아직도 나의 조형적 질문의 대상이다. 앞으로도 새로운 개념이 발견될 것만 같은 거울을 기회 있을 때마다 지속적으로 실험할 계획이다.
Art : ‘경계 넘기’ ‘가로지르기’는 1990년대 광주비엔날레의 ‘경계를 넘어서’ 같은 주제나, 1993년 베니스비엔날레에서 보니토 올리버가 내세웠던 ‘유목성’ 같은 주제를 떠올린다.김수자의 〈보따리〉가 이 시기에 태동된 것은 참으로 절묘하다. 이 시기의 경계나 노마드는 글로벌리제이션으로 쏠려 있다. 동서 냉전 이데올로기의 해체 이후 복합문화주의의 도래, 비서구권 미술의 약진 등 여러 환경 변화와도 밀접한 관계를 맺고 있다.
Kim : 보따리가 1992년에 탄생했다고 할 때, 노마디즘이나 글로벌리즘의 이슈가 미술과 사회에 거의 동시에 등장했다는 것은 매우 흥미롭다. 단지 내 작업에서의 유목적 특성은 지극히 개인적인 가족사에 기인하며, 그 당시 글로벌리즘은 생각조차 하지 않았다. 그리고 나는 어떤 ‘이즘(ism)’ 등의 프레임워크에는 현재까지도 별 관심이 없다. 보따리는 한순간 직관적으로 발견된 것이지만, 하나의 전체(totality)로서 그 안에 논리적 형식적 내용과 삶의 본질적인 철학과 정서가 내포되어 있기 때문에 지속성을 가지고 진화할 수 있었다고 생각한다. 다만 보는 이의 관점이 낭만적일 때 작업도 더 낭만적으로 보일 것이고, 그것이 더 이상 낭만적일 수 없는 시점에서의 감상은 보다 리얼해 보일 것이다.
Art : 돌이켜보면, 1992년 〈보따리〉가 나오면서 김수자의 작가적 행보가 급속하게 분주해졌다. ‘물꼬가 터졌다’는 말은 이럴 때 사용해야 하리라. 1995년 베니스비엔날레 특별전 〈호랑이 꼬리〉, 1995년 광주비엔날레, 1996년 도쿄국립근대미술관의 한일교류전 〈1990년대 한국미술 이야기〉 등에서 ‘보따리의 변주’가 이어졌다. 보따리야말로 천변만화의 가변성을 지닌 입체 구조다. 묶기/풀기, 닫음/열림, 구축/해체, 수직성/수평성, 3차원/2차원, 긴장/이완, 수축/팽창, 채움/비움, 정지/이동 등의 조형 체계와 사유의 임의성을 지니고 있다. 이불보를 바닥에 가지런히 깔거나, 테이블보로 설치하거나, 빨랫줄에 널듯이 걸거나…. 〈보따리〉는 이 다양한 얼굴이 무엇보다 매력이다. 1997년에 〈떠도는 도시들-보따리 트럭 2727km〉를 제작하고, 그 이후 1999년부터 〈바늘 여인〉〈빨래하는 여인〉 시리즈가 이어졌다. 〈바늘 여인〉은 서영희가 지적했듯이 “자신이 바늘(수직축)이 되어 세계의 도시와 인파의 층(수평축)을 거듭 관통하며 시공간을 넘어 기억과 체험을 하나로 연결한 작업이다.” 각 대륙의 8개 도시를 방문하면서 〈바늘 여인〉 시리즈를 이어 갔다. 긴 머리를 동여맨 김수자의 뒷모습이 등장한다. 이 뒷모습은 천상 바늘로 보인다. 1999년 김수자는 뉴욕으로 삶의 무대를 옮겼다. 작품도 작가도 이동, 이주가 본격화되었다.
Kim : 때때로 글로벌리즘의 이슈로 읽히기도 했던 〈바늘 여인(1999∼2001)의 첫 번째 시리즈는 마침 9.11테러가 일어난 바로 그날도 뉴욕 MoMA PS1 개인전에서 전시 중이었다. 그 이후 이라크전쟁 발발과 함께 전 세계가 불신과 증오와 혼란에 빠지고 이슬람권과 기독교권과의 대립이 심화된 상황은 나의 작업에도 영향을 미쳤다. 그래서 시작한 첫 작업이 지금은 사라진 뉴욕의 전설적인 갤러리 더프로젝트(The Project)에서 처음 선보였던 〈Mandala: Zone of Zero〉(2004)였다. 이 작품에는 이라크전쟁에 대한 비판적인 시각이 암묵적으로 깔려 있고, 동시에 세계의 평화와 화합을 암시하는 작업으로 부시(Bush)정책의 폭력성에 대한 발언을 담았다. 키치한 미국의 겜블링 오브제 상점에서 착상한 주크박스 스피커 3개에 티벳과 그레고리언, 그리고 애초엔 이슬람의 성가들이 각각 푸른 벽의 공간에 섞여 다소 혼란스러운 불협화음이 나도록 병치시킨 설치였다. 하지만 실상 이 불협한 세계의 종교와 이념을 모아 들어보면, 매우 공평하고 조화롭다고 생각하게 되지 않는가. 거의 베이스와 바리톤, 그리고 테너의 성악적 체계가 공존하며 나름의 음색으로 대화하듯이 조화로운 코러스를 이룬다. 이번 〈트라베르세/김수자〉에서도 싱글 주크박스에 3개의 성가가 혼합되어 들리도록 제작한 싱글채널 에디션을 콩포르모데른(Confort Moderne) 아트센터에 선보였다. 현재 로마의 21세기미술관 MAXXI에서도 다른 에디션이 선보이고 있고, 시애틀아시아미술관(Seattle Asian Art Museum)에서도 곧 초기 에디션이 동시 다발적으로 선보이게 된다. 이제야 이 작업이 제도권에서 폭넓게 받아들여지고 있다고 생각한다.
Art : T. J. 디모스 같은 이론가는 1980, 90년대의 진행되었던 글로벌리제이션 속의 현대미술의 패러다임은 대단히 로맨틱한 ‘노마디즘’이었다고 간주하는 한편, 2000년대에 와서는 글로벌리제이션에 의해 일어났던 다양한 갈등을 되묻는 물음으로 패러다임이 변했다고 주장한다. 그는 9.11이후의 상황을 ‘글로벌 위기(Crisis Globalization)’이라 부르고, 그것이 내포하는 여러 모순과 아티스트들의 실천 관계를 묻는다. 그것은 오늘의 세계 상황에 대한 미술의 대응이라 요약할 수 있다. 국경을 뛰어넘는 자본주의 경제의 끊임없는 유동, 정보기술의 발전으로 태어난 글로벌 사회는 냉전 종식과 함께 세계 질서의 새로운 유토피아를 꿈꾸었지만, 그 꿈은 결과적으로 무너지고 있다. 이 와중에 진행되었던 경제 불균형의 확대, 난민의 증가, 새로운 정치적 대립은 서구중심주의에서 벗어나 글로벌 아트를 지향해 왔던 아티스트와 큐레이터들의 활동에도 큰 영향을 미쳤다. 작금은 글로벌한 규모로 이동하는 삶의 양태 그 자체, 이를테면 망명, 디아스포라, 난민에 개입해 상상력을 갖춘 비판적 도큐멘터리로서의 아트가 전면에 나왔다. 2017년의 카셀도쿠멘타(여기에 김수자의 〈보따리〉가 출품되었다), 2018년 광주와 부산의 비엔날레에서도 크게 보면, ‘글로벌 위기’가 주제였다. 여기서, 좀 거칠게 묻는다. ‘트라베르세’ 혹은 김수자의 작품은 오늘의 세계 상황에 어떻게 대응하는가.
Kim : T. J. 디모스의 해석에 공감한다. 2005년 베니스비엔날레 본전시 프로젝트를 위해 〈바늘 여인〉의 두 번째 시리즈를 제작할 때, 나는 첫 번째 시리즈(1999~2001)와 달리 세계의 중심적 대도시가 아니라 경제적 종교적 정치적 문화적 충돌이 발생하는 각 대륙의 문제의 도시와 후기식민주의 문제를 안고 있던 도시를 찾아 나섰다. 그럴 필요를 강력하게 느꼈다. 첫 번째 퍼포먼스를 통해 세계가 무엇으로 고통받고 있는지 내 눈으로 확인했다면, 9.11 이후에 폭력과 대립이 만연한 전 세계의 이중삼중의 충돌현상, 그 혼란의 파고를 목격했기 때문이었다. 이렇듯 나는 현 시대에 살며 한 개인사에서 출발해 확장된 인간의 조건들에 천착해 왔다. 세계에 던지는 나의 존재론적 질문들, 혹은 정치사회적 인류학적 질문들은 언제나 비폭력과 평화, 정의와 진실, 사랑과 화해, 즉 휴머니즘과 유토피아 정신에 뿌리를 두고 있다고 말할 수 있다.
Art : 앞으로 작품 활동 계획은?
Kim : 뉴욕 스튜디오의 짐도 한국으로 돌아오고 있다. 새로운 스튜디오도 마련해야 하는데 뜻대로 할 수 있을지 아직은 모든 것이 불확실하다. 늘 불확정적인 삶을 살아서인지 스튜디오가 없어도 걱정되지 않는다. 현재도 뉴욕에서 일하는 어시스턴트가 있고 오랫동안 일해 온 협업자들이 있다. 파리는 파리대로 일을 도와주는 어시스턴트가 있어 모든 프랑스 프로젝트를 현지의 협업자들과 함께 일하고 있다. 한국에서도 협업자를 찾고 있다. 한국을 기반으로 멀리 여행하지 않아도 할 수 있는, 그동안 관심을 가졌던 아시아 지역을 중심으로 한 프로젝트를 펼치고 싶다. 사실 그동안 글로벌하게 협업자들과 일해서 어디를 가더라도 더 이상 거주지가 문제시되지는 않는다. 앞으로 한국 관객들과 더 자주 만나고 참여하며, 작업 외에 한국 미술계의 발전을 위해 내가 할 수 있는 역할을 조금이라도 할 수 있으면 좋겠다. 그간 잘 뒤쫓아 가지 못했던 한국미술도 좀 속속들이 보고 싶다. 늘 낯설고 쉽지 않지만 한국에 조금씩 적응해 봐야 할 것 같다.
— Art in Culture, January 2020
JS : How would you define your work?
K : I view my work as a threshold: “any place or point of entering or beginning, a magnitude or intensity that must be exceeded for a certain reaction, phenomenon, result, or condition to occur or be manifested.”
JS : Would you call some of your works self-portraits? Is it important that you yourself are in some works?
K : In some ways, my work could be viewed as a self-portrait. I do not wish to display my personal identity in my work—especially in the video performances when my back is facing the viewer—but the position demonstrated does show a certain kind of identity. I think a person’s back can be one of the most evocative parts of the human body; it isn’t dynamic, but it presents a profound and abstract encapsulation of a person.
JS : How do you consider the globalized world?
K : A globalized world sounds very positive, dynamic, interconnected: a constant flow of cultural, economic, technological, and intellectual interactions. But we face many visible and invisible divisions created by constant border crossings: racial, economic, political, and religious conflicts. The standardization of daily life under globalism could benefit those who need it most, but we lose the authenticity, spirituality, and the myth of a land and its people. Globalism reduces the uniqueness and specificity of humanity, although new technology will bring a new facet.
JS : What do you think of migration today?
K : More than five million Syrians have migrated to Greece, Turkey, Germany, and nearby countries; there is a constant flow from Africa to Southern Italy and Spain; people from Mexico and Central and Latin America try to get to the United States. As an artist who has always been concerned with borders, migration, and refugee issues, especially from living near the Korean Demilitarized Zone during my childhood, I am shocked by President Trump’s decision to block borders, deny immigrants a new life in the United States, and deport second-generation immigrants.
American citizens have to pay attention to this humanitarian issue, especially since only a few organizations and individuals are focused on the refugee crisis. Major European countries are taking risks to support and help the refugees. Along with global warming, it is the most urgent issue of our time.
JS : Your work deals with exile and displacement. Do you feel exiled too?
K : Definitely. I have considered myself a cultural exile since 1999. Recently, I’ve collaborated with Korean-specific projects, such as Année France-Corée for a solo show at the Centre Pompidou-Metz in 2015 and the MMCA Hyundai Motor 2016 project. Still, my position as an artist remains that of an outsider rather than insider, even though I’ve been well received. Perhaps it is the fundamental nature of being an artist?
JS : You have lived in New York for several years, how have things changed for you?
K :Thanks to support from Arts Council Korea in 1992, I was able to participate in the P.S. 1 studio residency program in New York. I met people who understood my work and viewed it objectively, with enthusiasm and generosity. It really opened up possibilities for me. Due to the Korean financial crisis in the late 1990s, I was not able to receive financial and intellectual support for my work. It truly disappointed me and made me realize that I needed to find support outside Korea.
In the last ten years, this has changed dramatically and Korea is now one of the most supportive countries in the world. However, when I go back to Korea, I am too established to get support from my country. The level of professionalism still needs to be raised, especially in governmental organizations.
Where to live, work, and die are big questions. You need a nation to live—but you don’t need a nation to die.
JS : The idea of displacement is very present within your work.
K : All good art is made from thinking outside the box. In that sense, having displacement as a condition of life is not a bad choice for an artist.
JS : In some of your works, like A Needle Woman (1999–2001, 2005, 2009), immobility rather than displacement is present. Is it a way to show personal identity toward the global world?
K : In my practice, the notion of duality and its complex geometry and disorder are always present through my understanding of the world. While I am presenting my immobility, which is impossible in literal terms, a lot of mobility happens in my body and mind, allowing me to reach to the place and moment of my performances. This immobility gives me an anchor to hold onto, so my journey flows through immobility.
JS : Some of your works and installations are made with bottari, meaning, “to pack for a trip.” Which trip are you addressing?
K : The bottari represent our body and skin, their agony and memory as a wrapped frame for life. Bottari are the simplest way of holding objects or belongings that embody many meanings and temporal dimensions. A trip could be a simple A-to-B, or a relocation, or a separation of a couple in feminist terms, wrapping only the most essential belongings in an emergency—migration, exile, or our final journey: death.
JS : Do you consider yourself as a nomad?
K : Yes, fundamentally.
JS : Your work is an invitation to a sensorial and visual trip—a way to travel without moving.
K : We can easily grasp what is going on in this hyper-informed society, but we can’t experience true reality, not in depth. All experiences are limited by the conditions of space and time; I am determined to witness the here and now, living through my eyes and body, sharing my experiences with the audiences.
JS : In the emblematic work, A Needle Woman, you stand in moving crowds. Who was this needle woman? And who is she now?
K : A Needle Woman is a woman who gazes at the world, gazing at and witnessing the world without acting. She allows us to take a journey to reality and reach for the ontological root—our destiny. She is there as a tool, a question, a permanency; I am here as a temporality.
JS : In your installation To Breathe – A Mirror Woman (2006), shown in Madrid, we can hear your own breathing, filling the space. What is your relationship to the body and the act of breathing?
K : I’ve always reinterpreted and recontextualized existing concepts, depending on the site, the questions I had, and the relationship to other works and sites. This installation has three different components from past projects. The Weaving Factory (2004), was my first sound performance, I overlapped my breathing and humming; it developed from the idea of my body as a weaving machine, inspired by an old textile factory in Lodz, Poland, for the First Lodz Biennale. Later, I worked on a video installation commissioned by Teatro La Fenice, Venice, called To Breathe (2006), which incorporated The Weaving Factory. La Fenice is an opera house and singing is about breathing. When I was invited to make a work for the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid, I brought all of these elements together, contextualized as a bottari and as a void. Attaching the diffraction film to the architecture was an act of wrapping and unfolding the daylight into a rainbow spectrum.
JS : One of your upcoming projects is a work for the new subway station at Mairie de Saint-Ouen in Paris.
K : Although it is a site-specific and permanent installation, this project brings me back to the body/work and audience/pedestrian relationships in A Needle Woman. This installation will symbolize another body of mine, one that witnesses the station’s pedestrians. The diffraction film installation will function as my body, standing still in the station and witnessing the pedestrians, while offering the public a forum.
JS : You were teaching at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. What is your connection to Paris?
K : Paris was the first western city I visited; I stayed for six months in the mid-1980s. A scholarship from the French government allowed me to work at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in the lithography studio. Whenever I had a project in Europe in past thirty years, I’ve also visited Paris, even if I didn’t have any particular reason.
During my six-month stay in Paris, I traveled to other European cities for the first time, visiting major museums in Germany, Italy, Holland, and England. I was 27 years old. I absorbed the language, art, culture, and life in Paris, they are forever in my memory. In 1985 at the Biennale de Paris, I first encountered John Cage’s work. Although I knew of him as an avant-garde composer, I had never heard his music live, or seen any of his visual works. With great curiosity, I entered an empty railway car to hear his sound piece, but there was only silence and a simple written statement, “Que vous essayez de le faire ou pas, le son est entendu” (“Whether we try to make it or not, the sound is heard”).
It was interesting that I learned so much from an American avant-garde composer, rather than from European art or artists, although I was aware of the French Supports/Surfaces group and the influential artists at the time. After my encounter with Cage’s work, I became curious about American art and culture for the first time.
I’ve shown quite often in France, the French government and institutions have supported many of my works, and I owe them a lot. I was admitted to the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the Minister of Culture for my modest contribution to French culture. I have a love for Paris and French culture and want to spend more time working there.
JS : What new avenues are you exploring?
K : Since 2010 I’ve been working on a 16mm film series titled Thread Routes, filming textile cultures from around the world: Peruvian weavings (chapter I), European lacemaking (chapter II), Nomadic Indian textiles (chapter III), Chinese embroidery (chapter IV), Native American weaving (chapter V), and African textiles (chapter VI). I can’t wait to visit Africa to film soon. Since 2016, I have realized a large-scale participatory installation titled Archive of Mind, firstly for a solo exhibition at the National Museum for Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, as part of the MMCA Hyundai Motor Series. This project is evolving and was presented at the Intuition exhibition at Palazzo Fortuny in Venice this year, and opens up to explore the sculptural aspect of my practice from the position of a painter.
There is also a new installation at Nijo Castle, Kyoto, commissioned by the Culture City of East Asia, with the title Asian Corridor; it’s a ten-panel folding mirror screen on a mirrored floor, entitled Encounter – A Mirror Woman (2017). This is my second East Asian City project, the first, in Nara, was Deductive Object (2016), a black sculpture, inspired by an Indian ritual stone called Brahmanda (a cosmic egg in Hindu culture), installed on top of a mirror panel.
These works redefine the geometry of bottari and the surface of the symbolic bottari that represents the totality of the universe. I want to explore further what this could bring to my future practice. I am also starting new clay works. All of these are exciting, new directions to keep exploring, and I am very curious about the outcome.
JS : How do you see the future?
K : The future doesn’t exist anymore—it is past.
— Kimsooja: Interviews Exhibition Catalogue published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König in association with Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, 2018
This interview was conducted in summer 2017 via email in conjunction with one of Kimsooja’s upcoming projects, a work for a new subway station in Paris.
H.H : Letís start with travel. Today, we are constantly traveling: last week we were in New York and now youíre in Berlin and Iím in Rome. Traveling has become a norm of contemporary life, both in the everyday and in the artistic. . . .
K : Yes, traveling has become increasingly common in this era. In a way, we are living and working on the move.
H.H : So this is really a state of being. Traveling is also a very important aspect in your work. From the beginning, you reflected on the question of identity from a female perspective, using traditional Korean textiles with your Bottari works. This question is also addressed from another perspective, that of an artist who is constantly traveling and moving. You look at the world through the lens of a nomad. Traveling has become a common motivation for people to reflect on the subject of identity.
K : Yes, definitely.
H.H : On the other hand, travel has become a way of life, donít you think?
K : Traveling has always been a part of my life. From a young age, I lived in various cities and villages, moving every couple of years within South Korea, including the Demilitarized Zone where my father served. Sorok Island, where my husband and I lived during his military service as a psychiatrist, was especially isolated from the public because it was used as a national hospital for leprosy patients. As a member of a nomadic family, traveling became my reality. My visual experience and perspective on nature and humanity have developed significantly from these transitory places and moments. One important experience was in 1978 when Hongik University, which I attended, started an exchange program with Osaka University; it was an eye opening experience about Korea and Korean cultural identity. Although Japan is only a short distance away, the trip altered my perception of Asian cultures and their differences. This began my investigation of my culture, such as the structural elements of architecture, furniture, language, nature, and sense of colors. I rediscovered that the aesthetics, the sensibilities of colors and forms, are very different in Korea and Japan. This period coincided with my investigation of the horizontal and vertical structures in nature, canvas, and all types of cruciform visual elements. This was the subject of my thesis, focusing on the cross in ancient and contemporary art. In 1984, I received a scholarship to the …cole nationale supÈrieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, to study printmaking for six months. It was my first exposure to European art and ancient culture; as a result, I started to inquire what is new in art and culture after European art history, and became interested in learning about American culture.
H.H : This led to a new direction in your life and work. Also, your traveling changed from national to international, from local to global. In the meantime, the image of bottari was introduced to represent this tension, between trying to be at home and travelling across the world. . . .
K : I didnít realize that my family had been wrapping and unwrapping bottaris all the time until I worked on Cities on the Move ñ 2,727 km Bottari Truck (1997), a performance and video project for the Cities on the Move exhibition, which you and Hans Ulrich Obrist curated in 1997. It marked a turning point in my work from local to global travel. I hadnít considered that I was dealing with global travel, as the journey was deeply personal. It was a record of my familyís roots, but many people thought the project was dealing with globalism. Maybe thatís true, in the sense that the performance can represent migration. Cities on the Move traveled to so many cities; the title served as its destiny and global exchange in the arts had been launched.
H.H : Can you talk about your move to New York?
K : I consider my move to New York as a ìcultural exileî from Korean society. It was the moment when I made more critical performances: the series A Needle Woman (1999ñ2001), A Homeless Woman (2000ñ2001), and A Beggar Woman (2000ñ2001). I made them right after I moved to New York during a transitional periodóI felt like I was stepping off a cliff, with one foot already in the air. This risky move made me reflect on my surroundings and the human condition more critically. I started living in Berlin recently, although I am not sure if it will be for the long term. Itís interesting because it brings me back to when I established myself in New York in the late 1990s. That was a very difficult moment for me, every single step of the way, adjusting to a new society. Currently I am located in the Moabit area, which is a multicultural neighborhood. I like it, but I feel alienated. As an artist, I cherish this ambiguous state; distance and alienation bring me to a more objective and critical perception. I want to keep that critical distance all the time and New York provides that. Each time I arrive back in New York, I find a new definition, or have a specific feeling about New York, one that I havenít had before. When I feel that Iím losing perspective, I relocate myself, but I cannot deny that I somewhat respect the familiarity and rhythms of mundane life.
H.H : You have spoken of being a Korean woman growing up in a family influenced by Confucianism. Obviously, you were aware of very important social and political changes in Korea in the 1980s and 1990s. Maybe growing up in a military family allowed you to experience this change in a way that other people would not? How much has this background influenced your way of thinking and art making? Was there was a moment of emancipation from this background?
K : Both of my parents were from Catholic families and very open-minded; however, as my father was the only son, he had to follow the traditional Confucian ways, which were deeply rooted in Korean society.
As a military family, we lived in temporary and sometimes dangerous places, like refugees, migrating from one place to another. During my elementary school years, I lived near the Demilitarized Zone, in and around Cheorwon and Daegwang-ri, the second to last stop on the Kyung-Eui train line, which used to run all the way to North Korea. We often heard stories about North Korean spies who snuck into South Korea, and there were casualties every now and then. We didnít live far from a mined area; kids played with the spent bullets and would get injured by the landmines. I am of the generation, born a few years after the Korean War, who really experienced the conditions of the war and the conflict that it brought to our daily lives. Iíve always been aware of the Other, because of my daily experience with the border. My thoughts on borders and those living on the other side made me question the relationship between myself and the Other. The idea of a border and questioning it had to do with being a painteróreacting to the canvas as another border. I tried to overcome this border, or limit, in front of me, and connect with the Other. This was also part of the psychology in my sewing practice. The act of wrapping, with bottaris, is a way of three-dimensional sewing; it is unifying in that sense. Borders have always been part of an underlying psychology and challenge in my work.
H.H : In the 1980s Korea transitioned from a military dictatorship to a democracy. You began exhibiting your work during this period, can you describe your early exhibition experiences?
I started showing in 1978 when I was in my third year at Hongik University; it was a two-person show at the Growrich Gallery in Seoul. I hung a series of transparent films on a laundry line; they were silkscreened with images of a traditional Korean doorframe taken in a forest, one showed me holding it from behind and one was without me. I also installed two pieces of wood, inserting Plexiglas between them, with the wood blocks slightly tilted and following the curves of the wood. The other artist was my classmate Lee Yoon-Dong, who experimented by dripping black coal tar pigment on canvas; the work questioned gravity and materiality and its rhythm. I showed a few times in Japan and Taiwan in the mid- to late-1980s and in the US after the early 1990s, but it was not until the mid-1990s that I started to exhibit more globally. Some shows included Division of Labor: Womenís Work in Contemporary Art at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, which traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1995), the First Gwangju Biennale (1995), and Manifesta 1 at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam (1996).
Globalism has expanded and affected much of our thinking about our way of making art, and our way of living. It seems almost inevitable to work globally, especially as I work a lot with site-specific performances, installations, and videos.
Many female artists were extremely active and audacious in their workóoften performancesóduring this transitional period in the 1990s. Lee Bul is another well-known female artist. How did you feel about this? And why did you decide to leave Korea in 1999, right after participating in the Twenty-fourth S„o Paulo Biennial (1998)?
K : In the 1990s, female artists, including myself, were engaged in performances using their bodies. I think that had to do with womenís social status in Korea at that time. Many female artists were associated with feminism. But performance art was already popular in the 1970s and 1980s in Korea, under the rubric of Happenings or Events, mostly by the Avant-Garde group, or the S. T group, which was entirely male, except one female artist, Chung Kang-Ja. During the mid-1990s, women did not have the equality they have nowómuch of our daily lives was governed by a patriarchal Confucian value system.
After my residency at P.S. 1, Long Island City, NY (1992ñ93), my first solo show was at Seomi Gallery in Seoul; I showed three of my first performance videos Sewing into Walking ñ Kyungju, Yang Dong Village, and Mai Mountain (1994), and a Bottari installation. Used clothes were also installed on the gallery floor together with rows of TV monitors with Bottaris as a ìmedia Bottari,î and surveillance camera footage of re-wrapping the space of the wrapped Bottaris. These works could have been easily associated with feminism, but I refused the feminist label, owing to the formal and conceptual elements of my Bottaris, and my approach to universality. As a female artist, it was not easy to survive in this hierarchical and patriarchal society, or even in the global art world, until now. I noticed Korean social and cultural issues more clearly after my return from the P.S 1 residency. At the same time, economic development changed Korean society, which was quickly shaken by the financial crisis starting in 1997. I was chosen to represent Korea for the Twenty-fourth S„o Paulo Biennial, but I couldnít get any state support, only from a couple of individuals and a commission from ARCO. Korea wasnít able to ship my Cities on the Move ñ 11,633 Miles Bottari Truck (1998) from Korea to S„o Paulo. I felt hopeless and disappointed by my country, and I had to accept personal support from Korean-Brazilian immigrants who had heard about my situation. This situation confirmed my decision to find support elsewhere, so I moved to New York.
I established myself as an artist without much support from my home country until recently. After the late 1990s financial crisis, the slowly growing Korean art market and Korean journalism often misled audiences by promoting marketable and status-oriented artists. My career trajectory is totally different from that of older and younger generations, who constantly receive support from the state and their galleries.
H.H : Around that period, several important art movements were created by students to oppose the power of the establishment.
K : Minjung Art was one and there were many modernist and postmodernist group activities that were against the established movements, such as Nanjido and Metavox from the mid-1980s. The newer groups were organized by artists from Hongik University, where I studied. Other groupsóMuseum, TARA, Logos and Pathówere also around. I kept myself completely independent, although I was friends with some of the members.
H.H : Minjung Art and artists from your generation represented a tendency toward conceptual and experimental forms of creation, especially performance and installation. What was your role?
K : Prior to my generation, there were experimental modernist group movements, such as the Avant-Garde and S. T. groups, which coexisted with the Dansaekhwa artists. I didnít follow Dansaekhwa art theory or practice, although the theories were predominant at Hongik University. Also, there was a big age gap between my generation and the Dansaekhwa members.
When I was at Hongik University attending undergraduate and graduate school (1976ñ1980 and 1982ñ84), the Minjung Art movement was slowly happening and I knew a few of the leading members. We would meet casually in a study group, as I was intellectually interested for some time, but when they wanted me to join, I couldnít because I always had a certain resentment about focusing only on political issues and such dogmatism. I couldnít connect with the aggression of some of the political art. At that time I was making art that was abstract, performative, conceptual, and spiritual.
I had zero interest in any group or collective activities. I always kept myself independent by questioning the monopoly of the Dansaekhwa group, to which most of my professors belonged. I voiced my opinions in classes to open up the dialogue, offering my fellow students different possibilities and perspectives. I kept myself completely isolated, to be independent from political and artistic hierarchies, to preserve my own integrity. It has been a long and lonely path. To address further your question about my role in performance and installation in a Korean art context: the large scale of my site-specific installations and global performance projects in the 1990s and early 2000s might have influenced a younger generation in Korea, as I see many are expanding their practices. Iíve noticed that some of my interestsóthe notion of the needle, thread, wrapping, and unfoldingóhave achieved wider currency in current contemporary art, particularly in art concerned with the body, textiles, and everyday life.
H.H : People often identify you as a leading figure, together with a few younger artists such as Lee Bul or Choi Jeong-Hwa. They express similar positions, confronting the status quo, social and political situations. Lee Bulís work is a kind of counter-violence against oppression, while your work is much more related to meditation and transcendence. You use intimate materials such as textiles and bottaris. How did you arrive at this language?
K : I cannot associate with any type of violence or raw expression. In that sense, Iíve been working closely with non-violence and that is my position to the individual and society. I couldnít and didnít engage directly with political issues. The artistic language that I created has always stemmed from a healing perspective, maybe because of my compassion for humanity and my vulnerability to violence.
This vulnerability might be rooted in my childhood experience of living near the Korean border, among others. I felt innately vulnerable. I cannot watch scenes of violence and my inclination has always been to embrace and connect with those around me. However, it is true that I gain strength through resistance and patience. Maybe this mindset originated when I discovered sewing and needlework as a methodology for healingódespite the violent potential of a needle. Searching for my own medium, I focused on vertical, horizontal, and cruciform structures in the world. In 1983, when I was making a bedcover with my mother, I was about to push the needle into the brilliant, soft, and silky fabricóbut when the needle touched the fabric, I experienced a revelation, as if the whole universeís energy passed through my body to the tip of the needle. I immediately recognized the relation with this border, the surface, and the vertical and horizontal woven structure that was penetrated by the needle. The fabric had a woven vertical and horizontal pattern (warp and weft) and I saw this as a way to investigate the surface of a structure as a painting. This action and experience was the moment that I ìinterwoveî myself as a person who is innately vulnerable, seeking to connect with and embrace those around me.
At the same time this experience coincided with my artistic struggle to redefine the structure of the surface of a canvas. Iíd been trying to find an original painting methodology for a number of years, since beginning college. That was the moment I discovered sewing as a methodology for painting, using the fabric of life as a canvas and the needle as a brush. The concept of needle and sewing evolved naturally into social, cultural, and political dimensions and has expanded with a broader context into my current practice.
H.H : For many years, you have developed this process of wrapping and unwrapping bedcovers, carrying them on your travels, and showing them as installations. They are more than luggage, more like real companions. They have become your partner as you travel. Itís like having a life that you can carry around with you in your global displacements. During the last few years you extended this interest, engaging with textiles from other cultures and places. For example, you went to Peru to work with the local women and filmed the weaving culture, called Thread Routes ñ Chapter I (2010).
K : Yes, Thread Routes continued with Chapter II (2011) filming lace making in European countries, block printing, embroideries and weavings in India (Chapter III, 2012), embroideries in China (Chapter IV, 2014), and basket weavings in Native American communities (Chapter V, 2016). I am also planning to film weaving in African cultures (Chapter VI).
H.H : That gives your vision broader cultural dimensions.
-K : I consider the Thread Routes films as a retrospective of my formal practices related to thread and needle, with the textile as a canvas and a structural investigation. It was conceived in 2002 in Bruges, when I first saw a bobbin lace maker on a street. It immediately inspired me to juxtapose it with the local architectural structures, as a sort of masculine lacemaking, but it took a long time to start the actual film. I finally started, using 16 mm film, with textiles in Peruvian culture. Itís a non-narrative documentary film, using only visual juxtapositions with minimal environmental sound. I wanted to approach this project as ìanthropological poetry,î capturing the long, silent journey of textile cultures around the world, revealing similarities and differences, different production methods. Through the cameraís lens, I wanted to reveal each cultureís craftsmanship as a living form in textile, in architecture, and in nature.
I didnít use Korean secondhand bedcovers because I was interested in orientalism or local aesthetics, but because they were part of my daily life in Korean society. Itís the same reason that Europeans or Americans use their local materials, so there is nothing exotic about them, although Westerners might view them that way. The material I chose for the Bottari works was not originally wrapping cloth. Initially, I chose a bedcover for wrapping as the bed is the place for our bodies to rest, as a frame of life where we are born, love, dream, suffer, and die. This symbolic site carries all of our dreams, love, agony, pain, and despair throughout our lives. The colors are striking and have extreme contrasts, but I didnít choose the colors for aesthetic reasons, they just came with the fabric as cultural symbols, symbols of the daily life that I lived. I accepted what was created and what was handed down from our parents upon marriage. The wrapping and unwrapping is another language I discovered when looking at an existing bottari bundle in 1993. Bottaris are common universal objects, existing in all cultures, but the bottaris I discovered at my P.S. 1 studio appeared to me in a completely different context: a totally different object that was a painting in the form of a wrapped canvas, a ready-used object, a sculpture, and a performed object that unifies the form as a totality.
H.H : One of your recent projects, An Album: Sewing into Borderlines (2013), is on the American-Mexican border, initiated a few years ago under the federal General Services Administration Art in Architecture Program. In the beginning, you wanted to work with people who had been deported from the US, but since the GSA could not accommodate that project, you shifted to working with migrants who cross the US-Mexican border every day to work.
K : In the end, I focused more on the positive, welcoming aspects of migration for the different generations of Mexican immigrants traveling to the US. It was during the Obama administration, when artists were supported during the economic crisisómore about hospitality than despair.
H.H : But now the policy of the new government forces you to raise new questions about the issue. The political structure under Trump is a different situation. How will this change influence your project? You have been interested in female migrants, who have a very different life and experience with migration than men do.
K : Women are central to the migration chain; they are the major nexus, connecting everyone in the family. Women travel on more visible routes like trains, cars, and buses, which makes them more vulnerable to arrest. Generally one-third of women are deported. Men use riskier methods, on foot through the desert or by boat. There are even tunnels dug under the border. Female migration is more transitional. Women work for others, generally in homes or little stores during their migrations. They stay in one place for a short time, earn some money, and then move on.
H.H : You developed this project along the US-Mexican border, where migrants are both caught and detained.
K : The GSA project, which is a permanent installation at the land port of entry in Mariposa, Arizona, was installed right on the border. I installed large LED screens with portraits of the immigrants who cross the border, commuting to work every day. I filmed each portrait from the front and back, showing each personís psychological journey in a durational gaze. I would call their names and they would turn to the camera, creating a psychological border between themselves and the Otherófirst the camera and then the public. I focused on the juxtaposition of their psychological borders with the political border where the work is installed.
I learned a lot about the border situation between Mexico and the US. Lately, the social, political, and cultural geography has shifted because of Trumpís immigration policies, especially with Mexico. This new view on immigration is the most urgent and critical issue to address right now.
I began to research the new reality Mexican immigrants are facing since last year. There are interesting organizations that support womenís migration, including El Instituto para la Mujeres en la Migr·cion (Institute for Women in Migration). Interestingly, the organization is supported mainly by American non-profit organizations. I researched the conditions of women migrating in South America, especially in Mexico. Thereís a constant migration through Mexico. The organizations support detained family members, women, or children, by providing shelter, educational programs, and further support. Families get separated, sometimes women are detained and sent back to Mexico, but if their kids were born in the US, then the children enter the care of these organizations. The children are then moved to a shelter where their mothers cannot see them. Once in the shelters, American families can adopt the children and change their names. Basically the mothers no longer have any rights to their children after they are adopted. So, there are efforts to reunite these families. It is not only a migration issue; itís also a whole family-related issue.
The importance of the womenís role in a family experiencing migration made me think of dealing with women as central figures. For this new Mexican immigration project, yet untitled, I want to have female performers wearing national flags. The location will be a former route from where the Spanish conquered Mexico. Iíll film the performance between two volcanoes in the Valley of Mexico, one of which, IztaccÌhuatl, is also know as the Mujer Dormida or the Sleeping Woman. There is a myth surrounding these two volcanoes (the other one is PopocatÈpetl): they symbolize grief and the eternal love between a man and a woman.
H.H : Obviously, this covers issues far beyond the specific question of immigrant families. It should be extended to explore the question of all relationships, the human family. For your new exhibition in Seoul, Kimsooja: Archive of Mind, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), Seoul, you installed a huge oval table covered with clay balls that are made by the audience. Can you explain this project and its participatory aspect?
K : Iíve been interested in clay and ceramics for a long time. My interest is more in the void that the vessels create, rather than the vessel itself. I was invited to participate in Water Event for Yoko Onoís solo show, LumiËre de líAube, at the MusÈe díart contemporain, Lyon, 2016; the Biennale de Lyon invited artists to create water containers. At the time, I was thinking about the clay ball as a Bottari, but also as the Earth, as a container. So rather than creating a void to contain water, I decided to make a clay ball as a pre-existing water container and address environmental issues. I sent a small clay ball that was still drying. Since then, I have been contemplating the formation of clay balls, how its creation has a psychological and meditative effect on the maker. When you make a clay ball you have to push your fingers and palms toward the center. A sphere is made by pushing from every point on the surface. Itís not easy to make a perfect sphere because you need to smooth every angle. The action of pushing opposing sides toward the center is similar to producing gravity within the sphere. To make the smoothest sphere, you roll the clay ball between your palms. Itís like a wrapping action, similar to making Bottari. This repetitive rolling action creates a spherical shape in your mind. I was working with my assistants with this clay and we reacted to it instinctively, enthusiastically touching it, rolling it. I found this instant reaction and concentration very interesting. It made me think that this project is not only for me to experience, but might even be more important for the viewers as participants. I decided to make an enormous communal table, bringing everyone together, sharing this experience at this elliptical wooden table, 62 feet (19 m) long. Each person has his or her space and time, but the work also creates a communal space, a communal society, working together toward a certain state of mind, creating a kind of cosmic landscape, a mind-galaxy.
H.H : Like a field?
K : Yes. I made the large table out of 68 smaller tables, which are made from irregular shapes to construct the elliptical geometric shapes. I also installed a sound piece, Unfolding Spheres (2016), with thirty-two speakers under the table, and a 16-channel soundtrack. One part is the sounds of the dried clay balls rolling, crushing, and touching, recorded with 4 or 5 different microphones. Because sound is only made when the ball touches an angled corner, it reveals the geometry of the clay ball. At the same time, it creates a cosmic sound: when the balls bang loudly, it produces a sound like a thunderstorm. I also made an audio performance, gargling with water in my throat, like a ìgrrrî sound. Sometimes it sounds like a stream, then it reveals more of the verticality of the rolling spheres, pushing air against gravity. It has a vertical force or movement, while the sound of the clay balls rolling reveals a horizontal axis. Iíve engaged in this vertical-horizontal structural relationship since the late 1970s. I also showed Structure ñ A Study on Body (1981); for this series of prints, I moved my arms at 90? to create geometric shapes, such as a triangle, circle, octagon, or square, to connect my body to the earth and the sky. I also included different colors to create different geometric shapes between my body and to determine the space around it. These prints directly connect to my sewn works, which have vertical-horizontal structures.
H.H : You mentioned a cosmic sensation, the connection between the body and the world. I think one interesting aspect of this work is the relation between the body and architecture, highlighted through your use of light. For example, with your installations, Respirar ñ Una Mujer Espejo / To Breathe ñ A Mirror Woman, at the Palacio de Cristal, Madrid (2006), To Breathe: Bottari for the Korean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2013), and now To Breathe (2016) in the exhibition at the MMCA, you have created beautiful environments with diffraction grating film applied to the windows. The light enters and creates a rainbow spectrum; it transforms the interior, giving it a cosmic feeling. On the other hand, in the Korean Pavilion there was an additional room, which was completely dark and silent. This is a fascinating contrast between the two aspects of cosmic existence. It seems to be a new dimension of your work developed in the last few years.
K : In the MMCA courtyard I used the same film as in the Palacio Cristal and the Korean Pavilion. In a way, the painting or pigment was transmitted into light. This particular film has thousands of vertical and horizontal lines in every inch. It has a woven structure and functions like a prism, creating iridescent light when light passes through it. This is one of my investigations into the structure of painting, of canvas, and of color and pigment in relation to light. I created a completely dark and silent space, an anechoic room, to define the nature of light and sound. It was the opposite state of visualization, operating in connection with my questions of duality in both life and art. My questioning of dualityóthe vertical and horizontal structure of the canvasórelates to the psychological structures, the mandalas in our mind.
My Masterís thesis was on the symbol of cross, from antiquity up to contemporary painting and sculpture. This cross and the horizontal-vertical structure are always present in art. Iím curious how it constantly reappears despite contemporary artís desire for creativity and innovation. Many artists reach this point, confronting this very basic structure: Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich, Joseph Beuys, Antoni T‡pies, Lucio Fontana, Frank Stella, and many more. Iíve always questioned the inner structures of our world and our psychology. In my thesis I identified a relationship with psychological geometry of the Mandala, which utilizes cross structures and Carl Jungís archetypal phenomena theory. This isnít unrelated to my question of duality in art and life.
When I was planning the Korean Pavilion, I experienced Hurricane Sandy in New York. I was living in complete darkness without any electricity for more than a week. I questioned the fear I had while walking in the dark in my building and on the streets, especially when someone is walking toward you. I realized that the fear occurs in our mind because of the ìunknownîóignorance of the Other. The unknown and the ignorance in the human mind were the questions I had at that time. Eventually, the relationship between light and darkness, sound and silence forming an architecture of bottari was what I created in the Korean Pavilion.
H.H : This can be a perfect conclusion. Now we all live in a kind of darkness, and we need to find a way out, to create new light.
K : Precisely.
— Kimsooja: Archive of Mind. Exhibition Catalogue published by National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, 2017
Visiting an exhibition preview can impede an uninhibited view at the art at hand, but in the event of a large-scale installation that opens to the invitees at a specific time, it can also have a magical shine, as if you enter and explore a shrine together. However, this heightened sense of wonder can only partly explain why I was overwhelmed by a wave of goose flesh, even before I fully set foot in Kimsooja's latest installation. That is the impact her art can have.
Kimsooja's 'To Breathe' in Centre Pompidou Metz is a part of the 2015-2016 Korea-France Billateral Exchange, an event to celebrate 130 years diplomatic of relations between the two countries. The Korean artist, who lives and works in New York, Seoul and Paris, is known for her simple visual language and her deep humanism, a combination of core features, which led Olivia María Rubio to label her art as existential minimalism.
In Metz she presents the next chapter in her To Breathe series. How to describe and assess an installation that immerses you instantaneous and do justice to its total experience? One immediately feels the limitations of language. It seems that the only way is to chop it into manageable components and in Kimsooja's case a possible path is to deal with these components in a chronological order.
The oldest one is the recording of her humming and breathing. For her participation in the Lodz Biennale of 2004 she was inspired by her assigned location: a former weaving factory. The rhythmic and cyclic movement of a loom made her think of the inhaling and exhaling of the human body. In other words, in her sound performance she replaced mechanical movement with bodily motion and mechanical sound with human humming.
The aural facet of her installation in Metz is similar to the one in Lodz. First we hear a skin-tingling humming. Then her soft nasal sounds develop into a polyphonic flirt on the edge of harmony and dissonance. They suddenly fade away and after a few silent seconds, we hear the artist breathing, from calm to agitated. It goes crescendo to a climax which we do not know the content of. Is it the angst of gasping for life or is it the rapture of la petite morte?
The affective force of the soundscape is soothed by the second component of her installation: the slow projection of color fields on a floor screen. She first experimented with this in 2006, when she presented 'To Breathe / Respirare (Invisible Mirror, Invisible Needle)' at the Teatro la Fenice in Venice and the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris.
The monochromes, more or less in the middle of the installation, are an oasis of serenity where the look can linger. They are surrounded by a sea of glittering mirrors that is bounded by the bay windows on both sides of the 80 meters long Gallery 2. The mirrors and the diffraction grid film on the windows are the more recent components in 'To Breathe'. In 2006 she transformed the Palacio de Cristal, a glass pavilion in the heart of the Buen Retiro Park in Madrid, with them.
Whereas the film folds and blurs Metz's skyline and landmarks into a fairy-like rainbow spectrum, the mirror stickers unfold the space and the self. The ripples where they stick together and the reflection of the grid ceiling are dizzying and disorientating. Strolling while looking in the mirrors has a vertigo-like effect, but it also sharpens your sense of self-awareness. Something that was already ignited by the breathing.
The abstraction of the alternating color projection, the virtuality of the mirrors and the reality of the cityscape and changing light melt together to an immersing experience that is as confronting as it is comforting. Here's an artist who is confident in her simple visual language and whose modest power is exposed to those who are open to it.
Thomas Van Loocke : How difficult is it to create intimate art that can host a lot of visitors, like your installation in Metz? How do you feel about this tension?
Kimsooja : I think all art can be intimate as long as the audience takes it as such. My breathing performance might be intimidating to some visitors, as it evokes a strong physical reaction because of its intimate, physical and sexual aspects. However, when you take it serious enough to go beyond those dimensions, you start to question the borderline between the moments of life and death.
TVL : What are the best conditions to view and experience your installation? All alone or with a few or even a lot of others?
K : All alone is interesting, but so is having someone else's presence, as the other's body serves as a measurement of scale to the installation. Even if there are several others, you can always be focused as long as you find an element to focus onto. At the moment, the number of visitors is limited to fifteen.
TVL : In an earlier interview you said that "the whole of (your) practice has always been a journey of searching for a self-awareness". Do you think visitors can enter that state of mind when they're more and more preoccupied with their smartphones and shooting the most likeable Instagram photos?
K : It is one of the symptoms of our contemporary technological society. Most people are not able to focus on the here and now. Instead of experiencing the now, they record it, so that they can replay it later. There's no corporeality and mindfulness to the time they spend. However, I was surprised to see many of the visitors very much engaging with the installation. Walking slowly, contemplating the moment. Visitors can experience whatever they want, as long as they don't do anything dangerous or disturb the others. I know you can't control your audience. The piece is there for the ones who are ready for and open to it.
TVL : Regarding that lack of control and the ability to experience your spatial installations, how do you look back on your participation in the Venice Biennale of 2013? One reviewer noted that "the impact of the installation itself (was) far outweighed by the bureaucratic procedure one (had) to transition through".
K : I agree that the opening period of the Biennale was not ideal to fully experience this particular piece. The Biennale attracts such a large number of visitors that we needed a procedure to ensure that everything ran as smooth as possible. Without it could have been dangerous for some people to enter the anechoic darkroom, just as walking on the mirror floor could have been for seniors or for people who suffer from vertigo. Although I am grateful for the enthusiasm and patience of the people who waited to experience both spaces in the Korean Pavilion, I still regret that we couldn't give more time in the anechoic chamber to the visitors. If I were able to recreate the piece, I think that more time would make it possible to delve deeper in one's inner space and to have a richer experience.
TVL : Your work is based on displacement and humanness. What is your view on the biggest refugee and migration crisis since the Second World War?
K : I personally think the Third World War is already happening. It was ignited by America's reaction to 9/11. In an endless cycle of violence, the whole world is now drenched in human blood. It threatens our freedom, sanity and daily life. We all have to witness this incessant violence, as mass media shows it non-stop in this era. It numbs us and makes us more and more indifferent, which is a huge problem. Contemplating our own individual problems will be the key to solve this, I think. We need to recover our heart, love and peace, now more than ever. The key is in our mind.
Equally distressing is the unbelievable desperation of the refugees crossing oceans and borders. In this time we need art that can comfort and heal the human mind that has been hurt so much. We have to rethink how to lead our life and how to respect, embrace and share with the other, instead of arguing with or attacking him or her – to save ourselves, the others and the next generations and to save this globe.
TVL : Are politicians tackling it in the right way? Do they show enough humanness in their approach?
K : I am so disappointed by all measures taken by politicians in the name of the nation and humanity. What they do is exactly the same as what the ones they condemn are doing: killing. There's no better solution in history than Mahatma Ghandi's resistance, as there can be no excuse for taking someone's life. What are religious leaders teaching to their followers? Why can't we hear them speak up? What are influential thinkers doing nowadays? I was touched by the speech of the Princess of Jordan: she proposed to open her country for the huge number of refugees and to educate the immigrant kids. As she is one of the most powerful figures in Jordan, her words have a huge impact. I wished all nations showed this kind of courage, responsibility and humanity. Americans and Asians hesitate to act, as they think it is someone else's problem. Especially America should welcome refugees, given every citizen descends from immigrants all over the world.
TVL : Has this crisis affected your work?
K : My work has always been a response to violence and inhumanity and this will never change. I answer it by means of healing. Either by showing society's reality as a witness or by proposing a harmonious way of co-existence, questioning who we are and where we're going. I wish people find equilibrium and peace in my work that comes from their own empathy.
As a child, I spent some important years near DMZ areas in South Korea, as my father served in the military. I came to realize lately that experiencing the specific geographical condition as well as the daily danger and DMZ border issues, must have given me a sensitive and vulnerable attitude to any kind of violence, be it verbal, visual or physical. Although my father was forced to serve during the Korean War and continued his responsibility until he retired as a general, he didn't believe in physical force and often showed anger over the military conduct towards civilians, especially the Gwangju massacre on May 21, 1980. I am sure the whole condition of my childhood has influenced my thoughts and my work a lot. Not only the environment in which we lived, but the education my parents gave me. There was love and care and they always emphasized and demonstrated the equality of every human being.
As a teenager, I suffered a lot not being able to help people in need. I wished to quit high school and to become a social worker or labourer, as I was burdened by the thought that I was a privileged individual, although we were just a normal middle class family in Korean society. I chose to go to college, to be financially independent and to gain the strength to help others, while pursuing art as a tool for my contemplation on life and the world. My engagement with social issues in different forms is the basis of my art.
TVL : What are your prospects?
K : I'm doing extensive research for the last chapter of the Thread Routes, a film project that consists of six chapters, each one in a different location around the globe. I hope the political situation in Africa becomes stabilized so that I can travel more freely in the coming years to create it. This is the most important project on my mind right now.
Another big plan is to find the right location for 'A Needle Woman – Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir', a 46-foot-taal needle-shaped sculpture in iridescent steel and polymer that I developed in collaboration with architect Jaeho Chong – my son – and Cornell University nano material engineer Ulirich Wiesner last year.
A fundamental presence in much of Kimsooja's work is that of the body. Over decades of production, beginning with the sewn works of the eighties, in which the body was merely implied through the presence of cloth, followed by the bottari works of the nineties that served as metaphors for intimate coverings of the body, to her canonical video works recording the artist's bold physical presence in the world and some of her most recent works implicating the human presence of others, the body has been one of the underpinnings of an artistic practice that addresses large issues of our time—primarily, how we relate as human beings, and the physical/spiritual/social nature of such relations. After all, it is through the body that we perceive and act in the world, and it is also through our bodies, as viewers of Kimsooja's work, that we come to gain a perspective on her ideas. The following dialogue with the artist focuses on four points of entry into to the performative aspects of her work: body, place, time and participation.
Daina Augaitis : One of your earliest works, Structure – A Study on Body (1981), is a set of prints that explores the idea of a universal body—but in this case you were already, as a young artist in 1981, inserting the specificities of your own subjective body into your work, as if to counter a universal stereotype. Can you describe the impetus for making this work?
Kimsooja : After graduating from college in 1980, I continued investigating questions of tableau as a place in which painters spend their lives trying to find their own mirror. I especially focused on its woven horizontal and vertical system—and with this, the structure of the world and the universe at large. I valued this cruciform structure as a means for understanding the inner structure of aesthetics and human psychology, and it also gave me a perspective from which to approach natural phenomena. This also led to my master's thesis: "A Study on the Universality and Hereditariness of the Plastic Sign: A Focus on the Cruciform Sign" (1984). It was an investigation of the transcendent examples of ancient archetypes through to modern and contemporary painting and sculpture in relation to anthropological and psychological aspects. For example, my enthusiasm for Korean culture at that time extended to the Korean alphabets that were constructed by three symbolic Taoist elements: earth (horizontal line), sky (vertical line) and the human being (dot), a system invented by King Sejong of the Joseon dynasty in the fifteenth century that has an intrinsic horizontality and verticality. I've been focusing totally on this cruciform structure in Korean architecture, furniture, objects and alphabets—even in traditional garments and human psychology—as a basis for understanding the world. During my first trip to Japan in the late 1970s, I came to recognize the uniqueness of Korean visual culture in terms of its own sensibility of colour, especially in relation to Japanese, Chinese and other Asian cultures, which I had previously thought had greater similarities. This interest then expanded to include the body as a tool for the formal examination of horizontal and vertical structures, in a way that is similar to how it is incorporated in our alphabet. My intention in these performative prints was to explore my body within a circular framework as a geometric axis, using images of my arms, hands and legs stretched and folded in various poses to create spatial dimensions that were highlighted with different colour tones. Leonardo da Vinci created a certain universal stereotype in his Vitruvian Man, but for me it was less about proportion than about the dimensionality of the space extended into the world through the cross-like structures of my own body. That was the starting point for this project, which ended up as a series of serigraph prints. It was only a few years later that I escaped from Christianity/Catholicism, and while I won't disagree that I have had a psychological association with cruciform shapes in the artistic domain, that was not the motivation behind exploring the cross shape in my sewn work.
DA : You were conscious of the specificities of your culture and exploring those, but what about the specificity of gender? Were you consciously making work as a female? What was the situation for women in Seoul in the eighties?
K : When I was young I understood the position of women in our society to a limited degree, but I became much more aware of it after I married in 1983, when the different roles and positions of women in the family and in society became clearer to me and I began to explore identity issues. However, I looked at my own culture through completely different eyes when I returned to Seoul at the end of 1993 from New York (after finishing a one-year residency at PS1), a place where many different roles, ethnicities, cultures and value systems were in action.
At times I am conscious that I am a female when it comes to domestic daily-life relationships, and in a political sense, but not as much in art-making, even though I realize I implicate the traditional female domain by using tools like the needle and activities like sewing. However, I believe these elements have evolved conceptually beyond contexts of femininity. It's not that I wish to emphasize my gender, but I am simply not a man, and I can't make my titles A Needle Man or A Mirror Man or A Beggar Man. I started a "sewing" practice in the early eighties neither as a female artist nor as a female specifically interested in sewing nor as someone who was particularly good at sewing. Rather, I was questioning the surface of the tableau and measuring its bodily and psychological depth, binding myself to it (the other) and taking it as a mirror with which to reflect myself, which was also a healing process for me and for others. I discovered experimental artistic value in women's domestic labour—especially in Korea, where female and male labour were clearly separated until the late nineties. Even now, tasks such as cleaning the house, doing laundry, cooking, decorating the home, shopping and educating children are divided along gender lines, although the younger generation has become more open to sharing domestic responsibilities and there are more female professionals in Korean society in recent years. In the late nineties I was compelled to refer to the context of women's labour in performative painting, sculpture and installation. And the discovery of the bottari (Korean word for "bundle") as a form of tableau—a sculpture and a "ready-used" object—made me continue to extend this notion of women's "labour" in contemporary art practice. I was increasingly engaged with my symbolic works made from bedcover fabrics, which had a parallel meaning in my personal life after I got married. It is not unrelated to the cultural and ethical position or expectations that Korean women have in our society. Nevertheless, I never wished my practice to demonstrate a feminist or an activist position, although I certainly accept my own femininity and the strong feminine aspect of my work. More importantly, I believe in a basis of humanity, and while feminism stands alongside humanism, I am less interested in gender-oriented power struggles. In hindsight, I still think my engagement with methodologies based on female domestic labour was more about avant-garde action in relation to contemporary painting and the concept of tableau.
The short period I spent in New York was instrumental, because that's when I discovered a new meaning in the used traditional Korean bedcovers of newly married couples as a ready-made/ready-used aesthetic formation. By wrapping fragments of used traditional clothing in these colourful bedcovers, the bottari constituted a wrapped two-dimensional "tableau" that had been transformed into a three-dimensional sculpture simply by tying one knot and encasing all the contents, as if hugging them all inwardly or being pregnant. It is an action of wrapping bodies and memories. While I was in New York, these bottari objects were a formalistic and aesthetic statement, but when I returned to Korea, I saw our society and women's roles in it from a more critical perspective, and the bottari was no longer just an aesthetic object. Rather, it became tied to notions of the body, to my own conditions and to those of women in general in Korean society, and also to human destiny in a broader sense. After that, I no longer used fragments of coloured fabrics inside of the bottari as a way of creating a type of "pigment." Instead, I began to wrap used clothing in its entirety in order to emphasize elements of reality.
DA : When you're using fabric and clothing as the material for many of your works, it implies an absent body. As you think back on these early works, what body were you referring to? Is it your body? Is it a metaphorical body of society?
K : Looking back at my earlier practice, it seems interesting that I've been so focused on associating fabric and clothing with the skin and the body; even now I realize how much I've been conscious of its presence and connotation. The question began with the conditions of my own body, but I must say it was translated and transformed into somebody else's and then, ultimately, into an anonymous body. I try to use my body more objectively than subjectively and don't wish to make it about personal revelation.
DA : Thinking about when you began to make bottari in New York, could you further describe the implication of the memory of their previous owners?
K : I had been making large sewn pieces since 1983, stitching square- or rectangleshaped parts of used clothes together into a flexible and not pre-determined "canvas." A few of them were cross-shaped—which of course can be a reference to a body or have a religious connotation—while others were triangular or irregularly shaped, based on verticality and horizontality. I started with the old clothes of my grandmother and then I used anonymous people's clothing. At that time, I worked mostly with traditional clothing not only because I was fascinated with the nature of the fabric, but also because the practices of Korean daily life were very much ruled by tradition—that is to say, by Confucianism, which created a strong hierarchy in domestic life and in our society. However, this was also one of the reasons that non-verbalized suppression and contradictions were present in our society. I was never actively engaged with feminism or with any particular groups or isms in my private life or in my art. It was my goal to maintain an independent stance while pursuing a sense of totality in my practice. What happened was that these social concerns merged with my existential and aesthetic problems.
After 1990, I moved away from the square shapes and made irregularly assembled forms with the same materials on a larger scale, which brought a more open dimension to my work. My last sewn piece made at PS1, Towards the Flower (1992), is a large, sewn assemblage wall piece consisting of a long pole wrapped with reused bedcovers and scraps of clothing leaning against the tableau together with my first wrapped bottari as another component. The piece combines three elements: the wall tableau as a painting; the pole leaning onto the painting, which replaces my (or the audience's) hand and gaze and is an extended body; and the first bottari I had made as a sculpture that enfolds and wraps up all the sewn pieces I had made in the past. In the end, the bottari seemed to encapsulate everything inside of it and became a complex symbol. I didn't make any more sewn pieces after that.
DA : How did you make the transition from the bottari works to the video works in which you begin to use your own body as subject matter?
K : My first video was actually intended as a documentary film of my methodical working process with the bedcovers at a chosen site in Oksanseowon Valley in Kyungju. There I laid the bedcovers out on the ground like a field of laundry and then slowly collected them in my arms and wrapped them into bottari. The film shows every single step and interaction with these flexible fabrics (or "canvases"). At the end, I wrapped everything into two bottari and carried them away. When I was reviewing the footage, I immediately noticed that my body walking on the fabric signified a symbolic needle and I furthermore discovered that the camera's lens and the video's frame served as another form of immaterial framing within the screen. The video thus became a wrapping of the wrapping. The juxtaposition of such opposites—the physicality of the bottari, which evokes a body, together with the video frame as another immaterial way of wrapping—has been a component of my work ever since.
DA : As you began to move into this field of performance centred on your own living body as an essential aspect of the work were you thinking at all about some of the experiments of Valie Export, Marina Abramović or Yoko Ono? Were you interested in the history of performance art as you began to use your own body?
K : I had only seen a few historical performance images, but I was not interested at all in the staged performances or violent actions of Western performers. Instead I wished to interact directly with nature or in the realm in which real life occurs—not to show something to the audience, but rather to offer an experience for both the audience and myself… In 1979, while I was still at art school, there was an "event" as part of the Daegu Contemporary Art Festival that I was invited to be a part of. It was an interactive "Two-Person Event" organized by Kim Yong-Min for which we ravelled from Seoul to the Gangjeong riverside in Daegu. We wore identical orange workers' vests and departed from the Seoul train station for Daegu, my home town. We took notes on the journey (mainly done by Kim Yong-Min) and each one of us collected preferred objects along the river that were installed in two small adjacent spaces with primitive walls constructed from gathered branches. I collected small objects, such as stones, small piles of sand, little tree branches, flowers, a tiny soju (Korean sake) glass, fresh garlic cloves, etc. I placed the garlic and the soju glass on top of a small installation of branches and leaves atop a tiny sand dune, as if it were a small shrine offering in a shamanistic ceremony. Each of us hung our clothes on the wall and left our travel notes that recorded the entire journey from the train station in Seoul to the Gangjeong riverside and the exhibition space in Daegu. This journey together was unplanned, and was guided completely by each of our individual desires. I realized then that this raw energy of daily life would become the essence of my performances. I wanted to establish a totally different way of doing performances by inverting the notion of an artist as a predominant actor through "non-doing" and "nonmaking" in order to reveal a critical point that is without heroism and without violent action or aggression. I was quite vulnerable and disturbed by the violent performance actions of some performance artists in relation to their own bodies or those of others. I've always questioned a violent exploitation of the body, as it is something I am completely against, even if it is intended to demonstrate the infliction of violence upon the body. I have always believed that there is a way to demonstrate critical ideas without being aggressive.
DA : Your earliest performance-based works occurred when you began to travel with the bottari works in the mid nineties. Was this to explore different places as a way of locating specific contexts and histories that would emerge out of them?
K : I was inspired by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Hou Hanru's exhibition Cities on the Move, a project in which I participated. When I was young, my family was always moving from one city or village to another due to my father's job. I often enjoyed playing with my school friends in my teenage years by writing down all the names of the cities and villages in which I had lived, connecting them to one another with lines like long sewn stitches in between the names of the towns. The title of Cities on the Move reminded me of our family's nomadic life and inspired me to do the Cities on the Move – 2727 Kilometers Bottari Truck (1997) performance, revisiting all of the villages and cities of my youth in an eleven-day trip across Korea.
DA : By now you have worked in a vast number of cities throughout Asia and around the world. What are your thoughts about the idea of place now? Are you using those locations as a way to root your experience in them? How do you choose where you'll be going?
K : When I chose Tokyo as the location for the first performance of A Needle Woman (1999), I only had the idea that I would do a performance piece in the city followed by one in nature, without any more specific plans. Clearly, I didn't want to be an actor on stage, and it was a new challenge for me to pursue this experience as an anonymous performer. This work was intended as the first performance piece that I would record and show to the public, working together with the CCA Kitakyushu. I follow my instinct in terms of the energy that I feel from a place—it is an energy that has a lot to do with either people or nature. I often choose the place intuitively, otherwise I am not inspired and can't perform.
In order to experience my body defined by different realities, the enlightening experience in Shibuya of standing solitarily in the middle of humanity was followed by the opposite axis of standing with a performance of lying horizontally in solitude in nature.
DA : When you work in different locations, does your work change? And how do you intersect with the social, cultural, political and economic dimensions of each place?
K : I had an incredible experience performing in Tokyo. The performance started the moment in which I became aware of my body in an extreme state of conflict in the middle of a big crowd. I couldn't walk anymore and just had to stop right there and be still in order to tame the inner scream building in my body from the energy of all the people around me. As it became more and more extreme it felt as if I were getting wrapped up inside my own body like a bundle—an absolute sense of self-awareness. That's how the performances of A Needle Woman (1999–2001, 2005, 2009) began. While I was standing still and remaining centred, I experienced an incredible transition in my mind from vulnerability to a focused, meditative and enlightened state of mind. This is when my mind and eyes entered the reality of a large universe, seeing the white light beyond the horizon of the waves of people coming and going. This powerful experience of enlightenment enabled me to meet the people of the world's most crowded cities. For the first series of A Needle Woman performances, I chose the most populated locations in the world in order to meet oceans of people—Shanghai, Delhi, Cairo, New York, Mexico City, London and Lagos, all metropolises on different continents.
DA : When you arrived in these cities did you think in advance about what the politics of each place were?
K : Before this work, I hadn't witnessed the conflicts, violence or poverty that exist around the world. But after visiting Delhi, Lagos and Cairo, those places really made me reconsider differences in ethnicities, geography, cultural and religious tensions, politics and economics. When I finished all eight cities in the series in 2001, I realized how problematic the entire world had become. The more I travel,the more challenging and violent the world seems. Eventually, for the 2005 Venice Biennale I decided to create another series of A Needle Woman performances dedicated to cities in conflict, whether this was economic, ethnic, religious, violent or post-colonial in nature. The condition of humanity in each place and my growing inner awareness intersect, leading to deeper and broader questions.
DA : Do you work with local people? And is community collaboration important? It seems that the notion of collaboration has evolved in your work.
K : Actually, I'm not big on collaborating with large groups; I almost have a fear of it. I prefer one-on-one relationships rather than group relationships. But I am getting more involved in collaborative work, and it does offer me valuable experiences. Recent collaborations with communities include working on An Album: Hudson Guild (2009), for which I collaborated with the Hudson Guild Senior Center. Another example is my most recent ongoing film project, Thread Routes (2010–), which focuses on specific weaving communities around the world. In these works I am now physically removed from the viewers, but through my gaze, I explore my perspective through the specific communities that perform their passions, desires and rituals. In Thread Routes these are captured in their textile-related performances, implicating local environmental conditions and the aesthetics of movement that unfold in the actions of their bodies. It goes back to my earlier work displaying an interest in sewing, spinning, wrapping and unwrapping. In a sense, I unwrap their bodies and minds, creating drawings of their movements and life. I feel the psychological dimensions of our bodies are demonstrated when they are unfolding in a performative state.
DA : The passage of time is a significant aspect of your work. How do you think about time and impermanence in relation to your work?
K : I believe not in permanency but in constant transition. Everything is in process and is ephemeral, including my own body. In my earlier works the process of sewing was a journey to the past, present and future, as an internal voyage through space and time. The performance of A Needle Woman afforded me the awakening experience of an internal journey by locating/dislocating the physicality of my own body, which in turn posed questions and suggested different perceptions of time in both my mind and that of the viewer. Yet another special state of perception occurred in A Laundry Woman – Yamuna River, India (2000), the performance in which I was standing on the bank of the Yamuna River. At one point I became confused to such a degree that I could not determine whether it was my body or the river that was moving. How could I be so confused about the relationship between my body and the river? A while after finishing the performance, I came to realize that the reason was because I had been so focused—to the extreme, like the point of a needle, which has no space but only location. And when there is no space but only location, you're open to all dimensionality; you cannot relate your physical body to any particular thing or direction because you are simultaneously unrelated and entirely related within. I had become confused in that zero point of time and space, and it was a profound and humbling moment of awareness of my own ephemerality.
Also, when I did the second version of A Needle Woman (2005) I focused more on my body as an axis of time: it has more emphasis as a video piece rather than a performance in comparison to the previous version and is presented in slow motion, whereas the first version focuses on my body as an axis of space in a realtime performance. I accentuated a temporal aspect and reduced the tension of the world in this second version by slowing down the video so that passersby have a longer interaction with my body, and this smoothed out even aggressive actions. Also, the viewers' experience of a slightly longer duration during these moments of interaction allows the delicate psychological threads woven into this video to become apparent. Slowing down the video's speed produces an expansion of time and creates a stretched stillness as a result. My body in stillness slows down to the degree of permanency, a zero point of time, the central needle point of a clock. I have been increasingly interested in extending time while observing the phenomenon of duration.
In An Album : Hudson Guild, the camera focuses on each individual's face for a certain length of time and freezes their movement at one point, thereby seeming to transform a moment into eternity. An awareness of time becomes more obvious in this video through the psychological journeys visible on the faces of each individual, whom I filmed closely for many minutes. It is as if I had stopped each person walking by me in A Needle Woman to give my gaze—carefully and closely, one person at a time—to them and all the individuals who pass through my life. I must say, this creates a continuum linking this work with A Needle Woman, and there is still much to explore in what time can reveal. But time reveals things to us only when we have consciousness.
DA : What about the psychological dimension of duration? What's going on in your mind and what connection do you make with the people around you, especially in a piece like A Beggar Woman (2000–2001)?
K : When I did A Needle Woman, I felt a great empathy for the humanity around me just by gazing at people coming and going. It's a short moment, but in it one can grasp the essence of the ephemerality of human reality. Also I felt a great amount of affection toward the people I encountered. All of those emotions about people were accumulating in my body and embracing me. By the end, I was filled with such fulfilment, peace and happiness. The performance of A Needle Woman was a truly amazing experience for me.
In the various performances of A Beggar Woman, in contrast to those of A Needle Woman, I relate directly to the specific social reality in a suggestive way by sitting in a pose with my hand outstretched like a beggar. I was not asking for money by posing as a beggar, but instead asking questions by opening my palm to the audience. I didn't expect that people would react by giving real money in this performance. However, I was given money in most places, and I was extremely touched and humbled by this action, as it was a moment of personal communication for me. The interaction and psychology of reacting to a beggar and giving something to him is complicated for both of the people involved. It is a moment of sympathy/expectation, doubt/anti-doubt, hesitation/frustration, willingness/request, withdrawal/disappointment, anxiety/anger and regret/relief—all of which are tensions that are generated between the giver and the receiver. The only place I wasn't given money was in Cairo, but instead I was given an even more valuable gift there: someone placed a baby chick in my hand, and I was so shocked to have this small, warm, moving life in my outstretched palm—in my bottari. Even if it was a playful gesture, the person who gave me the bird had responded to my open question with a profound answer, "A life." Another special experience was the first performance of A Beggar Woman that I did in Mexico City (2000), where I saw and connected with a man from a distance. I had already felt his presence in advance, and I had the intuition that he would give me his money. As soon as I sensed this, I was very touched and couldn't stop weeping as I awaited his action. I tried hard to maintain my stillness. As he slowly approached, he searched for money in his various pockets. Once he found a coin, he slowly came to me and put it carefully into my palm and then left. This was a real response to me, not to a performer. I have learned a great deal from my performances, about people and cultures.
DA : I wonder about a piece like Encounter (1998), which is a photograph. As a photographic document, is it therefore more about gesture rather than performance?
K : Encounter is actually a performative photograph I made in connection with another performative sculpture called Encounter – Looking into Sewing, which I made in 1998 at the Kunsthalle Fridericianum in Kassel. For this work, I placed a mannequin covered with silk bedcovers at the central intersection of the crossshaped room in the museum's tower and I declared it to be "A Performance." People came and waited, watching the figure/sculpture for a while, expecting some sort of action. When the figure didn't move after a long time, instead of assuming the figure was a performer, the audiences started walking around the figure to try to understand. So I interpreted this interaction on the part of the audience as a kind of "relational performance." That was the original work; the photograph is a re-creation or a record of a similar performative sculpture covering an actual woman inside.
DA : The idea of speed is one that Western society is both enthralled with and dependent on. Your work seems to function in the opposite way. Is it your intention to slow things down, to change the speed of engagement?
K : Rather than being against speed, I suppose my work sets up a certain kind of observation in relation to speed. However, sometimes a speeded-up action can also open up reality. For example, I was in Hawaii for a site-specific installation and then ended up making the video A Wind Woman (2003). I was filming while driving along a mountaintop and at a certain point, when the speed of the camera and the car coincided, the lens captured the hidden threads between the sky and the trees—the border between things and space (something I've always been curious about and wished to define), stretching it into a brushstroke of wind/speed. Stretching space and time enables different relationships to be noticeable and awakens us to see the world from totally different perspectives. So by observing how quickly or slowly I look at things through changing speeds, I have discovered a series of historical phases of abstract painting—Realism, Impressionism, Expressionism and even Minimalism—as a series of momentary transitions of painting practices. It took many centuries in the history of painting to arrive at the point where Gerhard Richter's brushstroke is recognized as a unique painting methodology; however, A Wind Woman, for example, demonstrates different movements of painting in the history of modern painting, revealing visual realities in nature that have always been there.
I began my practice as a painter, and most of my evolution stems from my position as a painter.
DA : It seems that your work is very much about the connections you make with humanity, but can you imagine a performance in which there is a surrogate body in place of your own?
K : It is inevitable that I perform A Needle Woman, as it is about not just the visual representation but also the unique experience I have as a person and a practitioner whose body has been contextualizing the notion of a needle for thirty years now. Most of my performances were about not just the form but also my inner experience. The state of mind I achieve while I stand there comes from a particular motivation and autonomy of the status of my body and mind. I notice that my back reveals the neutral identity and my state of mind at the time. The back is actually one of the most honest parts of our body. When I'm not stable or focused, I feel it is visible in my back. It's critical for me to be centred, with a focused state of mind and body. If someone else did this piece, the results as an experience and the tension of the performance would be completely different. I did direct and re-perform a version of A Beggar Woman as the project Conditions of Anonymity (2005) with a group of about twenty-two volunteers, a work that was commissioned by Creative Time in New York. The performance was done in Times Square while the videos A Laundry Woman – Yamuna River, India (2000) and A Beggar Woman – Cairo (2001) were being presented on an LED screen. I couldn't repeat myself by doing the same performance while my videos were presented on-site, but I was able to direct a group performance of the same action. I thought this performance could be experienced by any individual without pretention, and it worked out very well, with participants sharing amazing individual experiences and the interactions of the performance.
DA : You speak about your back revealing the truth, but there is also truth in the gaze. Who is the primary audience for you in the case of A Needle Woman? Is it the sea of people walking by you in real life, or are you already thinking of the video projection and the audience that will be behind you?
K : Both of those are my audiences, and so am I—I, too, am observing from my back while looking forward. At the same time, in order to maintain my body as balanced, I never lock eyes with the passersby. I continuously gaze at a perspective point—a distant needle point. For those watching the video, my body becomes like a vertical needle with a symbolic void in it that allows viewers to enter or erase my body after watching my back for a while, almost like weaving. In the end, it is as if I become an invisible woman whose physicality is erased by waves of people on the street and by audiences—by being watched.
DA : At what point does the spectator become part of your work? I was reading Jacques Rancière's Emancipated Spectator, and he writes about the need for theatre to mobilize the viewers as much as the actors. When I watched Hudson Guild, I felt that you had activated the participants and that the border between actor, viewer and action had been blurred.
K : In a way, An Album: Hudson Guild was an extended version of A Needle Woman but with my body removed and the roles reversed. In the first part of the video, I am watching each individual community member via the camera as he or she stares into its lens, and in the moment each enters his or her own imaginary world—regardless of what he or she is looking at—and looks back at the camera, that gaze answers my voice when I call his or her name. Rather than being anonymous people in the street, here people from the street come and sit and perform their own personality during their psychological journey, which allows their specific individuality to emerge. One might think this video has something to do with Andy Warhol's screen tests, but Warhol's approach to celebrities that had personal relationships with him is just the opposite of mine and has totally different associations to each of the performers in relationship to the audience. The gazes of the people in Hudson Guild become a parallel to A Needle Woman's gaze, because now they observe themselves from a fixed position, although I give them the freedom to be who they are and do what they wish. In the second part of the video, I placed them all together in the audience's seats of a theatre for a group video portrait and filmed them from the centre of the stage—treating the audience as performers and placing the camera in the same position of A Needle Woman. As performers of themselves, they seem like a sort of constellation of humanity in their own embodied bottari in the theatre. The frozen gaze of each individual turns the continuity into discontinuity, and at the same time, it transforms a moment into eternity.
Once I screened this video in the same theatre in which I had filmed it and invited the performers to attend. Doing so mirrored the audience, raising questions about who is the viewer and who is the performer; what is performed and what is activated/de-activated; who is watched and who is watching; and what are we looking at and what do we really see.
DA : This brings our discussion back to the activation of the individual in society. We are all performers in the theatre of life.
FG: In 2005 Seungduk Kim, your present commissioner for the Pavilion, invited you to participate in a Korean group show she curated at the Vienna Kunsthalle. You didn't agree to take part in such an exhibition. What led you to accept her invitation for Venice? How do you feel about this national identity when you have been a 'self-exiled' artist for so long?
KSJ: I think 'national exhibition' refers to so many different categories and connotations. For an artist who considers herself a 'self-exile' and a cosmopolitan, the notion of a 'nation', or 'national' is not that simple. The particular concept of the nation or national has to be defined before one can address its criteria. The historical, political, economic and cultural specificities of a society and a nation have a lot to do with an artist in terms of her/his personal and collective identity. These factors define how an artist has built up her/his own perceptions of the world and artistic criteria within the international art scene. A nation is like ones' parents by whom you were raised and who have influenced your life with given conditions and perceptions. When it comes to a collective identity, an artist who pursues his or her own unique and individual vocabularies must have their own point of view as to what category they fit into within a specific group show, or an exhibition as a national representative.
Over the years I had to decline a number of national group shows including biennales that weren't in line with my personal artistic practice and my beliefs. For example, I declined to participate in a national group exhibition which was an exchange between Korea and China in Beijing a couple of years ago. That decision was a reaction against the constant violence inflicted on an artist Ai Wei Wei by his government. I have no personal relationship with Ai Wei Wei, but I don't believe that a government can deprive an artist of their freedom of expression and perform violent actions towards them regardless of who they are. The decision I made not to participate in this exhibition had nothing to do with the curator, organizer or invited artists and their artistic values but was solely a humanitarian and ethical action; in the attitude of taking a position as an outsider.
My reaction to the Korean Exhibition at the Kunsthalle Vienna was also an action to declare my position as an outsider. That was still a time when I was questioning "Koreanness". As far as I know, the show examined and juxtaposed two opposite poles in Korean art: the Modern Art group and the Minjung Art group. These two groups were usually not curated together, because they had a certain kind of political conflict between each other and also due to their respective interests in Korean society. As an artist who had tried to keep a distance from any group activities or any hierarchical structures in Korean society, I didn't want to return to that particular political context in a national exhibition such as this, as it was something that I had consciously avoided for much of my career. I have worked hard to retain my autonomy and independence as an artist, although it has not been an easy path for me over the years. Besides which, I had already been introduced to the audiences in Kunsthalle Vienna during a solo show just a few years before and an international group show in Vienna Seccession in the past. It is more to do with my own personal history and position rather than with the show itself. When I saw the catalogue, I thought the show looked quite interesting as a spectator.
I guess being invited to represent my own country's national pavilion is the most exceptional recognition I can achieve as an artist who considers herself in self-exile. Without a doubt, it is an honor and it is a challenging question for me to work on this particular biennale, so I was willing to develop the best possible project for the Korean Pavilion.
FG: Seungduk Kim expressed, from the beginning, her wish to focus on the pavilion as an architecturally strong component that the artist will have to play with. How did you take her invitation to mainly connect to this given architectural situation?
KSJ: I understand how much the nature of the particular architectural elements of the Korean Pavilion has raised questions for the commissioners and invited artists in the past, and we are no exception. However, I value Seungduk Kim's approach to the pavilion, as it has never been examined from a solely architectural perspective. This certainly coincided with my immaterial way of approaching the site specific project and I tried to preserve the original structure of the pavilion while challenging its specific qualities and problems.
Leaving the whole space empty without installing any objects in it, the installation expands the void to the maximum by taking the architecture of the Korean Pavilion itself as a Bottari (Korean word for bundle). I tried to transform the entire pavilion into 'A Bottari of Light and Sound, Darkness and Soundlessness' that inhales and exhales; as if the architecture itself were my body. I have chosen not to install any objects in the space so that the audience's body may be embraced by the sound of my breathing. The Weaving Factory (2004-2013) sound performance fills the pavilion and proposes a unified experience, together with the yang energy which enters as sunlight, and extending all the way to the yin energy of the black hole in the anechoic chamber.
The skin of the glass windows is wrapped with the diffraction grating film fabric that defuses the sunlight into a rainbow color spectrum. What we see is the unfolded sunlight and the shadows of nature that shower into the pavilion and are translated into a color spectrum. This light and shadow reflects onto the white walls and simultaneously bounces endlessly back and forth from the mirrored skin of the ceiling and the floor; folding and unfolding into infinity. The darkness in light and the light in darkness is stretched to an extreme into waves of light and sound. The audience's body resides within mine as a whole, wrapping and unwrapping, communicating with each other. The light waves and the sound waves together with my humming and the inhaling and exhaling of my own breath, question the moment of life and death while the mirrors bounce light off their surfaces breathing in and out.
It was significant that Hurricane Sandy happened in New York right at the moment when we were discussing this project. The experience of living without power, electricity, heat and conveniences for one week with the whole community, was a humbling and contemplative moment. At the same time, this special moment gave me an insight into the Korean pavilion project by encouraging me to construct an anechoic chamber to explore a state of complete darkness and soundlessness. In this way, the visual knowledge of infinite reflection in the main space—which is constructed from purely natural light, finds a counterpoint in the space of the 'unknown' or 'unseen' in the anechoic chamber.
FG: In general how do you picture your contribution to any exhibition situation: Is it the space that calls first? The people? The context? The location and its history?
KSJ: I am aware of all the factors and consider them all simultaneously. The artist's job is done by an omnipresent gaze and mind that looks at both the visible and the invisible.
FG: You have been invited many times to exhibit at the Venice Biennale. So the biennale is no longer an issue for you, but the Korean Pavilion is a new challenge. How do you locate yourself within its specific history? You said you have seen many of the shows there over the years.
KSJ: I have been invited to participate in the main Venice Biennale exhibition twice. The first time for Harald Szeemann's d'APERTutto (1999), and the second time for Rosa Martinez's exhibition Always a little further (2005), both were shown in the Arsenale. I have also participated in other official exhibitions at the biennale such as the Tiger's Tail (1995) curated by Soyeon Ahn and organized by The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea, in the Palazzo Vendramin. Nam June Paik had been at the German pavilion in 1993; this was the following biennale for which he contributed to present large scale Korean Contemporary Art in Venice. It was the first time I had presented my installation with bottaris in Venice. I also participated in Markers (2001) curated by Ryszard Waskow on Garibaldi Street; and ArtTempo (2007) at the Palazzo Fortuni organized by Axel Vervorrdt, and curated by Jean-Hubert Martin and Matijs Visser. This exhibition became an inspiration for many curators to create a historical return of the Gutai group through exhibitions such as the show Daniel Birnbaum invited Matijs Visser to curate at the following Venice biennale. They are now introduced everywhere around the world.
Most of the biennale projects were marvelous experiences for me, especially when my work was in a context that opens a new dimensionality, was re-contextualized, or when I could create a meaningful new piece that opens up new possibilities. Many of the Biennales I participated in served these kinds of opportunities, and each time I have also been able to see the Korean Pavilion and its projects and other pavilions. This certainly helped me to understand what was going on in the world at that time. It also helped me to form an approach to the Korean Pavilion and an understanding of what position the Korean pavilion has on the contemporary art map, along with its relationship with other pavilions. Therefore, this provided me with some insight as to how to approach the Korean pavilion project and the practicality of dealing with specific local conditions. Most of the biennales I have participated in have given me opportunities to create new commissioned works with challenging themes and audiences. However, I am always interested in challenging new projects that I am inspired by—whether it is a biennale that gets more attention, or a small, remote local project—as long as there exists the possibility to realize work and develop from it.
This project was inspired not only by Seungduk Kim's approach to the architecture, which assured me the chance to pursue the site-specificity, but also by contemplating Massimiliano Gioni 's title Encyclopidia di Palazzo. For me, this title immediately connects with my thoughts on the notion of bottari and Gioni's reference reiterated a certain common knowledge which is in line with the evolution of my practice. National Pavilions don't always correspond directly to the biennale's main theme, but rather present their artists' own theme independently. However, even if I am not invited to participate in certain projects, I always take curatorial positions as my question and contemplate how I would answer. So I have a number of unrealized projects that are related to projects I was not invited to, but which I considered from my artistic position. Without exception, each time I come to the biennale as a visitor or as an exhibitor, I have examined the Korean Pavilion, asking myself "How could I answer if I were using this space or this theme?" You know, it has already been almost twenty years since I saw the opening of the Korean Pavilion.
FG: You have been quite familiar with biennales around the world. What stays with you after all these participations? In your work? What are your ideas about biennales and why did you kindly agree to be part of this one?
KSJ: I must say that many of my projects were developed not only by my own thoughts, but also by interesting themes and questions that have been posed by each of the national or international curators with whom I have worked. Biennales have been one of the exhibition frames that has enabled me to realize a number of my important new projects, as they present a supportive model for new work—rather than showing existing works—either by posing inspiring questions or offering specific spaces and challenging ideas to contemplate. I value all these opportunities for developing new projects and expanding or contextualizing my ideas and practices in new ways. I am always interested in trying to find the best answer I can deliver through my perspective in response to the current aesthetic, philosophical, psychological or political questions posed by curators through their exhibitions, and also in response to the work of writers. Although biennales are often tough, most biennales I have participated in have examined broad and specific current issues of this era, and obviously they fulfill an important role as agents for re-contextualizing contemporary art history. The fabric of my practice and my approach in general has threads that relate directly and indirectly to many current issues in life and art. In fact, any theme can be discussed with my approach towards the 'totality in life and art'.
For three consecutive biennales, I turned down kind invitations to participate. My decision to decline the invitations had nothing to do with the curatorship, or any other matter, it was purely because I couldn't accept the title of the biennale, which I felt was no longer relevant in this era. As I defined my position, I also couldn't participate in subsequent editions, even if a good friend of mine was inviting me and the show was nothing to do with the problem I found in that biennale's title. I don't serve the biennale itself but instead I participate as a communicator for those whose question is valuable—to find my own answer and experiment with it. I must say, most biennales served my practice so well by opening up my artistic paths and giving me opportunities that I hadn't had before.
I am skeptical about the current boom of biennales around the world and their political power structures. Sometimes it seems more like manufacturing an industry in order to promote a city as an international destination through a focus on the tourism and economic benefits of staging a biennale. I don't blame cities for this, but I do think sometimes there is a lack of awareness and reflection on the origin of the art biennale model as a structure to examine the cutting edge of contemporary art. Maybe that is also a current symptom that we face in this era that reveals the reality of the commercially driven art world.
FG: Concerning your project, I am very impressed by your precise way of following the 'brief' to propose, within this framework, a very original environmental creation filling the entire space. How did you come to this solution?
KSJ: My practice has been increasingly dematerializing since the early days until now. My ultimate goal as an artist is to be liberated from materiality, including my body. To become self-sufficient and freed from desire—for me—is the highest achievement in my art. I wish to be liberated from doing art or making art by extinguishing my artistic energy to the limit. This cannot be achieved by simply stopping the act of making art—paradoxically, it can only be achieved by doing art, living fully, in the most profound and poignant way.
Since I created To Breathe: A Mirror Woman (2006) at the Crystal Palace in Madrid (curated by Oliva Maria Rubio and commissioned by the Reina Sofia Museum), I reached the point where I could contextualize three decades of my sewing practice process in the most immaterial and conceptual manner. The notion of sewing and that of wrapping and unwrapping in this context, defines the identity of a bottari in the most open and immaterial manner. By emptying the whole space and filling the void only with my breathing, I can address the whole architectural structure as a bottari of light and sound.
The experience of the Crystal Palace installation helped me to envisage the transformation of the Korean Pavilion into a bottari of light and sound. What differentiates this installation from the Cyrstal Palace installation is the addition of the added element of 'parallel mirror surfaces'. That is; the installation of mirrors on the ceiling as well as the floor, which expands the visual void into infinity. This addition opens up the entire space into an infinite rainbow spectrum—a 'breathing pavilion'. The complete darkness of the anechoic chamber is another important component that I have never examined in conjunction with the parameters of light and sound.
I hope that all of these elements of immateriality will together create a sensational physical and audio-visual experience for the audiences.
FG: Seungduk Kim in her text points out something rather new in the comment and analysis of your work: the centripetal nature and forces at work in the pavilion. Are you aware of this idea?
KSJ: I think the word 'centripetal' serves very well to define the formal and mental structure of my perspective in time and space. Since the beginning of my awareness and art practice, I've been investigating the origins of the cruciform structure in analyzing tableaux, daily objects, physical, psychological human activities and body, and the natural phenomena in its relationship to the cosmic world. During the whole course of my experimentation since the late 1970s, I've been digging into the core structure, even before sewing and wrapping or performing. My piercing gaze and focus naturally transmits into a spiral force. This force has also been embodied in the 'standing still' performance in A Needle Woman (1999-2009) where the stillness of my body functions as an axis of time and space. Standing still can represent the inner turmoil of chaos, speed, the scream and also rebirth.
FG: You compose the pavilion as a succession of ambient artworks: the main space hosts the diffractions of light in endless reflecting effects through the mirrored floor and ceiling; the semi-circular space at the front of the building is reshaped into an infinite cylindrical room. There is no composition, as you created the conditions with the materials (films, mirrors). You submit to randomness (sunny or cloudy days) and the intensity of effects. It is not the viewer who completes the painting, but the weather in its uncertainty. How did you open up your formal strategy to include such unpredictable and variable elements?
C.G: I just arrived on the island of Møen in Denmark, where your work will shortly be shown. Last night I spoke with a young Swedish traveler and he said, “I am interested in learning everything by doing nothing.” His statement brought your practice to mind. You have made a series of performance videos that elaborate on each other. A Beggar Woman (2000–2001), A Homeless Woman (2000–2001), and A Needle Woman (1999–2001, 2005, 2009): all present stillness in the midst of chaotic activity. In the latter you inhabit a fixed performative posture within various urban environments, blurring the boundaries between private and public space. In a sense, your body seems to be the place that you inhabit. Could you speak about the relationship between the place of the body (the performative posture) and the geographical place?
K: You can imagine zooming in, the way a needle engages with a piece of fabric. My body’s mobility comes to represent its immobility, locating it in different geographies and socio-cultural contexts. Immobility can only be revealed by mobility, and vice versa. There is a constant interaction between the mobility of people on the street and the immobility of my body during the performance, depending on the society, people, nature of the city and the streets. Different elements inhabit the site as the qualities of the city and the presence of my body appear as an accumulated container of my own gaze toward humanity, and other gazes reacting to my body. While the decision of the location is based on research of its populations, conflicts, culture, economy, and history, the idea of the immobile performance arrived all of a sudden, like a thunderclap or a Zen moment: the conflict between the extreme mobility of the outer world and my mind’s silence coalesced in my body. I always had the desire to present the unaltered reality of the world, by presenting bodies, objects, and nature without manipulating them or making something new. Instead, I want the audience’s and my experiences to reveal new perceptions of the reality of the world and our existence. I pose ontological questions by juxtaposing my body and the outer world in a relational condition to space/body and time/consciousness.
C.G: Your video Bottari Truck – Migrateurs (2007) and the sculptural work Deductive Object (2007) will both come to Kunsthal 44 Møen. Both of these works include bottari. In your work Bottari appears as brightly colored fabric bundles, loaded onto carts or trucks, or placed on the floor. The different contexts draw out various metaphors, representing a journey when loaded on a truck, or exile when displayed half-open and scattered. Once you said, “The body is the most complicated bundle.” What are the imagined and symbolic contents of these bottari and how do they relate to the body?
K: In modern society, bottari (bundles in Korean) have changed into bags; they are the most flexible container in which we carry the minimum of valuables, their use is universal throughout history. We hold onto precious things in dangerous times, such as war, migration, exile, separation, or during an urgent move. Anyone can make a bottari using any kind of fabric. However, I’ve been intentionally using abandoned Korean bedcovers that were made for newly married couples, covered with symbols and embroideries and mostly wrapping used clothing inside—these have significant meanings and questions on life. In other words, my bottari contains husks of our bodies, wrapped with a fabric that is the place of birth, love, dream, suffering, and death—a framing of life.
While a bottari wraps bodies and souls, containing the past, present, and future, a bottari truck is more a process than a product, or rather it oscillates between process and object as a social sculpture. It represents an abstraction of the individual, of society, of time, and memory. It is a loaded self, a loaded other, a loaded history, and a loaded in-between. My Bottari Truck is an object operating in time and space, locating and dislocating ourselves to the place where we came from, and to where we are going. I consider a Bottari as a womb and a tomb, globe and universe. Bottari Truck is a bundle of a bundle of a bundle, folding and unfolding our mind and geography, time and space.
C.G: Sewing into Walking (1995) is dedicated to the victims of Gwangju. In this work, piles of clothing and fabric covered the ground and the Bottari were scattered.
K: It’s a metaphor for the victims of Gwangju uprising in the mid-1980s. The bottari represent people with no power and those forced to remain silent.
C.G: There seems to be both very private and public aspects to your practice. Many of your early works are meticulously sewn, an activity both intimate and meditative. Yet in your films you work with large crews in public spaces. How do these two methodologies affect your process?
K: I made the sewn works alone in my studio; the A Needle Woman performances were shot spontaneously, inserting myself into the general public. I traveled alone to meet people in about fifteen large cities on different continents—except Shanghai and Cairo where I couldn’t easily find a videographer in time. It was not always safe and easy. I am the only witness to all of my performances.
Recently, I started making a film series, Thread Routes (2010–), shot on 16mm film in many locations of different continents. It’s not about my own experience, but instead other men and women who performed the needlework and threadwork respectively. For this project I had to work with a team. It’s been very inspiring for me to work with a team and travel together, communicating with the group. I’ve learned from them and their research. It’s a different process of production, requiring me to work toward an objective, with a collective way of seeing revealing production process. But in the end it is still an intimate process, where I can revise through editing—that is the next step in the process.
C.G: The sculpture Encounter – Looking into Sewing (1998–2011) is also a part of your show at Kunsthal 44 Møen. In this work a mannequin, beneath layers of fabric, stands in for a body. Can you tell me about your concept, what happens when this work is looked “into”?
K: It originated with an installation I made in the Museum Fridericianum, Kassel, 1998, for the exhibition Echolot, also curated by René Block. I conceived the work as a performance, but without any performing. An immobile mannequin was fully covered with used Korean bedcovers, and I documented the performative actions made by the audiences, who tried to locate the covered figure. Thus, a visible and invisible interaction is happening, peeling off the fabric by looking. I consider this “invisible sewing.”
I wanted to create a tension between the audience and the ambiguous figure, the sculptural object. The audience looked at this figure waiting for a performance—but of course there was no movement. I used the immobile figure as a performer for the first time, before using my own body, without planning, A Needle Woman performance at that time, so the audience members themselves become the performers, through their own curiosity and reactions.
This piece is one of the earliest manifestations of the ideas that led to A Needle Woman. It’s a fundamental moment: a strange encounter occurs between the figure and the audience, marked by this intense gaze.
— Kimsooja: Interviews Exhibition Catalogue published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König in association with Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, 2018, pp 151 - 154
This is the revised version of the unpublished interview conducted on the occasion of the exhibition Kimsooja at Kunsthal 44 Møen, Askeby, Denmark, in 2012. It is published here with the kind permission of Chiara Giovando.
In 1999, in Tokyo's bustling Shibuya neighborhood, Kimsooja produced the first in a series of performance videos collectively titled A Needle Woman (1999-2001). Standing still in the middle of the oncoming crowds, the artist achieved a minimal but not insignificant intervention into the rhythm of local daily life. Simultaneously confrontational and vulnerable, her action opened a window onto the collective humanity of the passersby - viewed from the advantage of hindsight, it is perhaps they who were the vulnerable ones that day. The first version of A Needle Woman eventually led Kimsooja to make similar performances in seven other international metropolises, while in 2005 she revisited the piece by traveling to an additional six zones of conflict and social tension, among them Jerusalem, N'Djamena and Patan.
A Needle Woman is part of a larger body of work investigating themes ranging from memory and form to nature and consciousness. Often invoking images related to fabric - namely, the Korean bottari cloth bundle, but also threads and needles - such works ask viewers to reconsider their bodily relations to social structures, and reflect about what it means to be both an individual and a member of a community. Realized and exhibited in cities across the world, they offer a universal perspective, but also reflect the unique conditions of specific times and places.
ART iT met with Kimsooja in Tokyo to discuss her practice to date and how she relates to issues of globalism, locality and site-specificity.
ART iT: You've done projects in cities around the world, ranging from Lagos and Delhi to New York, Paris and Tokyo. Given that experience, what does locality mean to you, and has its significance for you changed over time?
Kimsooja: First of all, I must say that I was never interested in globalism and that was not my starting point for traveling around the world doing site-specific performances and video pieces. I was mostly interested in locality. In the mid-1990s my Cities on the Move-2727km Bottari Truck (1997) performance video piece coincided with the emergence of global issues in the international art scene, and my work received exposure in the context of globalism from curators who were trying to understand the phenomenon as it relates to contemporary art. However, as an artist, I was only focused on each city and its own locality. I valued the beauty of the pure authenticity and reality of each city.
I have witnessed the development and transformation of many metropolises over the years. When I visited Lagos in 2000, the city had very tough living conditions, yet maintained authentic cultural realities. Now I hear the rough areas have been smoothed out and completely developed. For example, there was the Oshodi open-air marketplace that had been established along active railway tracks, which stretched for miles almost to the horizon. When a train arrived, people selling goods on the railway tracks would immediately clear out and then return once the train had passed. The marketplace was constantly moving and taking on different forms and dynamics. If it rained, the sellers would still stand there with their goods, even when the water reached their knees. It was the most amazing marketplace I had ever seen, and I’ve always wanted to return there to work again, but I hear now the market no longer exists as before. I understand that for the local economy it might be more productive to be modernized, but in terms of the authenticity of the local way of living and culture, I think it's a shame. With globalization, everything has become so standardized.
ART iT: What was the impetus for you wanting to make the video pieces in different cities?
Kimsooja: The motivation began with the A Needle Woman performance I did in Tokyo in 1999 for a commission by CCA Kitakyushu. I was thinking of doing a walking performance piece, but didn't have a definite idea, so I walked around the city waiting to find the right moment and energy in the right place. After walking for several hours I arrived at Shibuya. When I saw the hundreds and thousands of people coming and going, I was so overwhelmed that I couldn't walk any further and had to stop there immediately, hearing my own silent inner scream right at that moment. Once I stopped, I also realized the meaning of walking.
I asked the videographer to film me from behind. At the beginning of the performance it was very difficult to stand in the middle of a crowded street with all the people's energy coming toward me. I was determined to stand still; at the same time, I was in a vulnerable situation. I was totally exposed, but as time passed, I found my own center. I became very focused and entered a meditative state. As I stood there, I felt myself begin to mentally embrace and wrap the people who were passing me. I entered a state of mind of total concentration and peace, which allowed me to experience a certain kind of enlightenment. When I looked at the horizon of the waves of oncoming people, I could see a bright light coming from beyond them, and I found myself looking at the entire humanity of the world.
From this special experience, I determined to continue making A Needle Woman performances around the world in order to meet, possibly, every single person in the world. That was the starting point. For the first version of A Needle Woman (1999-2001), I was interested in major metropolises where I could meet many people on the street. In addition to Tokyo, I made performances in Shanghai, New Delhi, Mexico City, Lagos, Cairo, London and New York.
ART iT: You've spoken about the needle as a hermaphroditic tool that is both aggressive and passive. To stand in the middle of the crowd is both a vulnerable and a confrontational action, all the more so in a city where you're not a local. Is the confrontation an important part of the work?
Kimsooja: Every performance is a confrontation, both with one's self and the other. In this performance, the confrontation moved from the people on the street to myself and then slowly extended to the whole world, until ultimately I achieved a level of compassion whereby self and other became one. During the performances, these transformations were happening in my mind rather than in my body.
Of course, there were many different physical reactions from the different cities. Tokyo was the most critical experience I had - people in Tokyo were aware of others next to them, but they pretended not to see them. When you see the video from Tokyo, my body is there, but it seems as if I myself am not there. I am totally ignored or isolated from the crowd, as they don't pay attention to me or acknowledge my presence. I'm an invisible person, yet this is one of the most crowded streets in the world. The time-based video makes apparent this phenomenon. It's as if I am a ghost, or my body becomes increasingly transparent. It's also interesting how my state of mind changed during the course of the performance, because the more I embraced the people into my mind, the more I was also liberated from them, and could empty myself. The visual and physical processed and the psychological, spiritual process were moving in opposite directions.
Your comment on confrontation interests me not only in regard to my performance pieces but also in regard to earlier sewing pieces and installations. These were also very much related to a confrontation with "the other," through the medium of the canvas.
ART iT: How did the experience change from city to city? Did you see different things about yourself in different cities?
Kimsooja: Yes. It depended on the location and the energy of the place. In New Delhi, people found an Asian woman standing in the middle of the street to be very odd and mysterious, perhaps because of their associations with religious imagery in Indian culture. They would stop and look at me for a few minutes, trying to find out who I was and what I was doing. Some people would ask the camera crew whether I was a Buddha or a sculpture.
During the performances, I never engaged anybody in a direct gaze. I would focus on a single, vanishing point. This helped to keep myself stable, although I knew what was happening and how people looked at me. In New Delhi, the inner gazes shared between my mind and their minds were very intense. In Shanghai, people were only half-interested and would quickly return to their own business after glancing at me. In Cairo, people were playful and curious. Some people would stand in front of me, mirroring my position for a few minutes. There was also a man who brought a bottle of cologne and sprayed it in front of me to get my attention, and a woman who grabbed my ponytail and move it around my body. The reactions tended to be direct and very provocative.
In New York, people were always interested in looking all around, searching for new information on the street, so their heads were constantly moving - eating, walking, talking, laughing, sometimes mimicking me. In London, where there is a similar multinational population, they were more turned in on themselves, and their gazes tended to be directed downwards at a 45-degree angle, rather than looking up. So these performances gave me insight into the mentality of the people in each city and different cultures in various geographies.
ART iT: Have you ever done A Needle Woman or a similar kind of performance in Korea?
Kimsooja: No. I didn't want to position myself in the same place where I’ve lived for over 40 years. I wanted to have a degree of separation from and objectivity to the cities where I performed. Had I done it in Korea, everything would have been too familiar, with less tension. It would have been difficult to create a distinction between my body and the others - even if there were a visible distinction - because mentally and historically we share so much together. This was a piece that had to be examined outside of my own context.
ART iT: But you have done other projects and of course exhibitions in Korea, such as the Earth - Water - Fire - Air (2010) installation of videos along the breakwater of the Yeonggwang Nuclear Power Plant. What is your relationship - through your creative process - with Korea?
Kimsooja: Passions and troubles can feed creativity. All my problems are good resources. My private life, my family, my friends, my country - cultural, political and social relationships can all be material for me to work with. The more I know my own culture, the more I actually feel estranged from it because I know where it comes from and yet I know that I'm not fully part of it. It was interesting for me to have grown up in a society that was undergoing economic and political turbulence. But then I thought that living in the same homeland for about 40 years is more than enough to learn what you can from one place. I thought that if I continued to live there I would just repeat myself, and I needed another vital ground. Another factor in leaving Korea was that even until the late 1990s it was difficult for female artists to receive recognition or support in the male-dominated social hierarchy.
ART iT: Did this idea that you were moving away from your homeland at all affect the dynamic of doing projects in other cities and countries? For example, what keeps your practice from acting out a kind of artistic globalization?
Kimsooja: I think of globalization as being related to things like the profusion of a few brands across the world, or a process in which everything becomes standardized and preexisting cultures or ways of thinking and living are slowly eradicated. My intention with A Needle Woman was more about inner experience rather than expressing myself or showing off. For me, the performance inevitably became a kind of ontological question about living in the world, and the world in which I am living became my canvas - a backdrop, rather than a market. I’ve always been interested in experiencing the wakefulness of being in the world, rather than necessarily transforming my experience for the audience. Simply, the latter came naturally as a result of my being an artist.
If there is a certain global aspect in my work, it's perhaps more in that I present the performances together in multi-channel video installations so that viewers can simultaneously see the different momentums of each city around the world. But I don't know if I recreate the standardized format of globalization. I am the same person and I am doing the same performance, but my inner transformation has always been there. Is it possible for me to become a global item? I don't know. It could be interesting if that were so. Obviously, in the current era artists can take on brand-name value. I never thought of that in my own practice because for me it's not about the product or a work of art but the artist as a being. Art is a methodology of living for me.
ART iT: Maybe it's no coincidence, though, that in the age of globalization we have seen a rise in site-specific commissions asking artists to fly some place, do research and produce a project in that context. Sometimes this approach can produce powerful works, but it can also become an empty gesture towards an idealized notion of locality.
Kimsooja: Yes, it is true, and depending on the practices such commissions can take shape in different ways. Performance can be very different from installation, sculpture or even painting, which normally has less site-specificity in terms of interaction and can travel anywhere. A space-oriented site-specificity will be different from a time-oriented specificity, and a politically-oriented specificity will also be different from the other two. It varies so much with each project that it's very difficult to generalize.
This article was published in Art iT magazine, June, 2011.
Kimsooja on the performance of non-action.
ART iT: We were just discussing your understanding of the dynamic between globalism and locality, particularly with regard to your performance videos for A Needle Woman (1999-2001/2005). Your work is often discussed in terms of displacement. Is there any place to which your works return or come home?
Kimsooja: I tend to work on the move, mostly while I'm traveling. For the works themselves there is no sense of "home." The context changes each time they travel. When the same performance piece is shown in India it is different from when it is shown in Peru or Kenya. It elicits different connotations from the viewers, and in response to each specific time and geography.
I don't intend to make displacement a theme in my work but the constant nature of moving from one place to another in my life automatically creates that phenomenon. Also, the notion of displacement is already there in bottari making. As a physical container of bodies, memory, history and society, the bottari holds together many different notions of time, space, culture, society and gender, but at the same time it is also made with a single piece of square-shaped fabric, so formalistically it's a transformed painting that becomes a three-dimensional sculpture the moment you tie it up with a knot.
It was from this formalistic aspect that I first began working with bottari, and then in 1993 when I returned to Korea from my residency at PS 1 in New York, my interest evolved towards more personal, social and cultural significances. I was able to see my own culture and society differently after my stay in New York, and this created a different reality that could offset the formalistic aspect of the work. The notion of displacement in the bottari also relates to time. The bottari is a container of different tenses - the past, present and future - which are collapsed together all at once the moment I wrap it up.
In a way, the presence represented by the bottari can also be represented by the artist's body, which is similarly a container of all those problems. Maybe I'm unfolding them through my relationship to the nature and humanity of each city. For example, in the first version of A Needle Woman (1999-2001), I visited all the major world metropolises, but in the second version (2005) I went mainly to cities in war zones or to those that were sites of political and religious conflict. I visited Havana and Rio de Janeiro in order to witness issues of post-colonialism, exploitation and violence. I went to Patan, in the Kathmandu Valley, while a civil war was taking place, and it was a very dangerous moment. I wanted also to go to Afghanistan and Iraq, although ultimately it was too risky and I didn't want to gamble my life to that extent. But these were some of the symbolic locations that drew my attention at that time.
ART iT: Regarding the similarities between the bottari and the body, one thing that interests me about your works is posture. It's incredibly difficult to stand or sit still for any amount of time. To do so, your body has to assume almost architectural qualities. Is posture something that you've thought about over the years - not just the body itself, but also the shape of the body and the mechanics of how you hold it up or lay it down?
Kimsooja: In fact, even to stand still can be a production. When I did the first A Needle Woman performance in Shibuya I had to learn right at that moment how to stand still and how to breathe and be grounded. I had never practiced any meditation or yoga, but because of this urge that drove me to do the performance, I was able to start learning meditation practice on my own. In order not to move my shoulder, I had to learn how to breathe from my stomach, as I could only move horizontally. In order to be grounded, I had to stand solidly and rigidly, but also had to find a way to relax in order to maintain my circulation over the course of the performance. The only thing I could do was to order myself to relax my head, relax my left shoulder, relax my feet, relax my neck - and it worked. I learned to circulate my own body by practicing this performance. Looking at it, I see the body, as you say, as an architectural element. I see it very objectively rather than identifying with it.
The idea of a standing performance also developed from my awareness of and reaction against the aggressive and violent exposure of the self that often happens in performance practices in history. I was very aware of that, and I wanted to create a performance that is nonviolent that could show more by doing "nothing."
ART iT: In Chinese philosophy there is the concept of "wu wei" - acting without acting, a kind of non-expression or non-action. I think this concept is fascinating to explore further in an art context.
Kimsooja: In my performances, non-expression often creates a measure or barometer for understanding the other, similarity and difference. In A Needle Woman, viewers see the same performance of non-action taking place in all these different cities, and then become aware of the clear distinctions between the behavior of the people in the different cities and the different landscapes. After a certain point the viewers tend to forget my image and begin to see what I am seeing. My body begins to function as a void that is replaced by the bodies of the viewers, allowing them to experience each performance in each location. I think it would be very different if I excluded myself and showed only the cityscapes with people. There would be no entry point for viewers.
ART iT: You're both the needle and the fabric?
Kimsooja: I am both the needle and the bottari. There are all these folding and unfolding processes going on in my art and mind and body, but also through my gaze and the relationship between my body and the people and the world, there is this other dimension of a needle that is weaving together different societies, geographies and cultures. I feel that my body becomes an axis of time and space. However, the first version of A Needle Woman was filmed in real time, and shows more of the axis of space than of time. The second version was filmed in slow motion, so it emphasizes the comparison in time. The people moving in slow motion appear to engage more sensitively and personally with my body, but at the same time my body, as a zero point of time, becomes an extended zero. What is that time? That is my question.
ART iT: It's like you are constructing a series of mirrors.
Kimsooja: I have worked with mirrors on several projects since 1999, but it was while I was preparing my solo show in 2008 at Shiseido Gallery in Tokyo, "A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon," that I realized the mirror is also an unfolded needle. My work dealing with nature unfolds as an extended fabric, while the needle is an extended tool of the human body that signifies the nature of humanity. Everything to do with the relationship between the needle/body, fabric/mirror evolves from my earlier pieces. In fact, the motivation behind my earlier work with sewing came from an awareness of the mirrorical aspect in painting. As a painter, I had always questioned problems regarding the surface of the canvas. I think the painter's life is all about wandering onto the canvas searching for different methodologies of producing one's own mirror. The notion of the mirror and one's identity has always been there, transformed through different media and methodologies.
ART iT: One of the major issues that we will continue to face in the future, and which we've already been dealing with for past centuries, is how to deal with the other. Maybe your way of dealing with this issue is to put yourself in the place of the other, rather than that of the self?
Kimsooja: That's very true. It's an interesting perception. The artist's main subject somehow is based on the self and the other. The confrontation with the canvas is always about how to deal with the other and how to project oneself. But I want to expand that issue to communication with the other, and embracing the other, and, finally, reaching a ground of oneness. This is an issue that ultimately everyone has to face.
ART iT: Now you are working on a new project called Thread Routes (2010- ). In conclusion, can you explain about how this project relates to your earlier work?
Kimsooja: Compared to A Needle Woman, the Thread Routes project is all about searching for the questions and roots of threads in an anthropological approach. It focuses on weaving, lace making, knitting and spinning - all actions with threads - in relation to the geographical, agricultural and architectural structures in various regions around the world. One inspiration for this project came from a visit to Bruges, where I saw a lace-making woman in the street, and immediately connected the structural and performative element of this action with local architectural practices. I began filming in Peru as the first chapter to this project. There, I juxtaposed different weaving communities' performances with the local landscapes, as well as architecture and archaeological structures. It was my first time shooting with 16mm film and I discovered a more special relationship with the camera than when I use digital film.
"Thread Routes" is a retrospective project in that I am looking back at my earlier sewing practices up till now, searching for the structural, cultural and psychological roots of my own interest. I will continue to film in Bruges, Burano, Croatia, Prague and Alhambra. I also can't help thinking of countries in the Middle East that have strong decorative architectural elements. Other locations include Mali and Rajasthan in India, where there are clay houses decorated with circular mirrors, which also recalls the Indian tradition of fabrics decorated with mirrors. I also plan to film the weaving culture of the Miao people in Sichuan, who have a unique garment tradition of pleated skirts that to me seems to be strongly related to their agricultural cultivation using mountainside terraces and the layers of traditional architecture that are built along the local landscape. Then there are also traditional Japanese stone gardens - the structure of which I can easily relate to weaving. Native American archeological sites are another planned location.
I'm also working on a site-specific commission by GSA that will take place right on the US-Mexico border in Arizona. I am making a video piece using a LED screen right on top of the first gate for entering the US, addressing the political problems and violence that occur with immigration and drug trafficking issues in the Mariposa Land Port of Entry. Again, this is a very delicate and vulnerable location with which to deal.
This article was published in Art iT magazine, July, 2011.
Ryu Byounghak: I'd like to say, your recent series of art works feels slightly different on the surface from Bottari and A Needle Woman, which are well known to us. So before we look into the new work, I think it is very important to retrace one by one your footsteps in the making of these earlier works.
Kimsooja: People who have seen my Bottari pieces and A Needle Woman series — works that deal with humans — may think that my recent works — Earth-Water-Fire-Air, are only about nature. Nevertheless, I have continued to make a series of video works that deal with the themes of humans and nature simulateneously; which is something that has been present in my work since the beginning of my career. From my perspective, nature is an extension of a fabric and the needle is an extension of a body. In this sense, I think the relation between the fabric and the needle has evolved through the contemplation of nature as fabric, and a human body as a needle, that meditates towards humanity. In the end, these two are one.
Ryu: So it seems we need to shed some light on this path to understand your work thoroughly. To start the conversation, let's discuss the motive of Bottari. In the mid-1990s, you once said, Keeping bottari (bundle) is a very common domestic practice in Korea, and bottaris have been around me my whole life, especially, since I began working on sewn pieces using used cloth and clothes in the 80s. I became aware of new possibilities for conceptualizing bottari from a mundane daily object to a completely new way of making painting, sculpture and installation. This opened up a new vision of its cultural, aesthetic, socio-political, and philosophical dimensions. One day in my P.S.1 studio in 1992, I turned my head and there was a bottari that I had put there a while before, which I used to look at everyday. When I gazed at this bottari in that moment, a completely different perspective emerged; a totally new bottari was sitting there. I had been wrapping and unwrapping bottaris for my clothes for sewn pieces, but I hadn't seen its hidden formalism and meanings before that moment. That bottari in front of my eyes was a completely new object and discovery. It was a sculpture and a painting and a ready made and a used object — all without doing anything except simply making a knot. Through this simple act of tying up, bottari making opens up a possibility for transforming two dimensions into three; which simultaneously transforms the object into both a pictorial plane and a sculptural volume.
Ryu: With this content, we can say you already found that bottari can be a sculpture and, in this way, your work Bottari is a sort of ready-made.
Kimsooja: Yes. 'ready-made', in the sense that it has been existing as an object and a form, and at the same time, a 'ready-used' object, in the sense that it is made from materials which have already been used by people.
Bottari is a fluid and transformable ready made and ready used. However, both contexts co-exist as a oneness in my bottari. As the nature of both a painting and a sculpture exists in one single body of bottari, and this object reveals the reality of life, it also has a diachronic temporality. To me, bottari contains radical aspects in many senses, but in Korea it is just an object that is so embedded in daily life, that this work might have been hard to understand and recognize distinctly as an artwork because it is so closely tied to daily life practices. My work is all about recognizing new artistic value and contextualizing and recontextualizing mundane daily life objects, and daily life actions with the least maniplulation. In fact I see the bottari that I rediscovered at P.S.1 in 1992 as more pro forma. I was focusing on the moment of transformation that the fabric, the two dimensional tableau, becomes the three dimensional object and sculpture by the ordinary act of tying. I have shown the installation Bottari also at the New Museum and Ise Art Foundation, New York, in 1993 but my vision changed around the time when I came back to Korea and prepared for my solo exhibition (1994). I had a new understanding of Korean society as a woman, and also as a person who had experienced the reality of an open society. That is to say, I came to understand that bottari wasn't just an aesthetic or formal object, but one made of the "reality of our lives". Since then, I started to use not only fragments of fabrics and clothes of various colors and patterns, but also used clothes from anonymous people as a pre-existing form. I began to work with the thought of wrapping humans, our life and memories rather than simply taking a formalist approach.
Ryu: Looking at your works from late 1990s, I had a thought about formality. They are ready-mades for sure, but they are different from the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp had fixed a urinal, a common product, into Fountain, the artwork, but Bottari travels back and forth between the common product and the artwork. You also transform a common product: bottari into the artwork Bottari, then after a certain period of time the art work is disassembled and turned back to a common product, and then a common product bottari appears again as an artwork in a different form. Through the 1990s your exhibitions were about wrapping the bottari, then going to another place and unwrapping it again, by doing this its mobility is emphasized. Looking at the successors of Duchamp's ready-made, like Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII also known as The Bricks, Dan Flavin's Monument made with fluorescent lights and Jeff Koons' New Shelton Wet/Dry Double Decker arrangement of vacuum cleaners, we can see that they are each fixed. But your works are fluid. Interestingly, you can wrap all three items: the brick, the fluorescent light and the vacuum cleaner, with the fabric and the shape changes differently in each case. Bottari is read as the work of a certain kind of magic. I think that is the other aspect of formality in your works.
Kimsooja: The fabric naturally possesses fluidity, so I hope that my works can be expanded to transcend all its limits.
Ryu: Especially in the works after 1994, you used bedcovers a lot. In a past interview, you once said the bedcover holds the contents that covers us from birth to death, I think this symbolic content is telling of a sense of place.
Kimsooja: Actually when I was working on Bottari, many people thought I wrapped the bottari with Korean traditional wrapping fabric (bojagi), but I only used bedcovers. More precisely, I used traditional Korean bedcovers for newlywed couples. I think the bedcover is a field in which function and specific meaning coexist; in the sense that it is a place where we are born, love, dream, suffer and die. It is a frame for our life. Within this frame is the wishes of our whole lifetime — love, long life, wealth, and fertility are embroidered as forms and letters. Perhaps this might be considered a contradiction when we consider that this everyday, almost mundane yet colorful object — the bedcover — is covered with aspirations and festive elements. So, when the bedcover is unfolded, it is a tableau that has a place to stay. It is a two dimensional surface that implies memories of the loving life of a couple, sex, rest, stability, or family and comfort. However, the context gets reversed when it is tied into a bottari; suddenly it suggests dislocation, mobility, departing, migration and separation. The tableau (bedcover) that wraps and forms the bottari acts as a 'border' determining the dichotomy in life and art.
Ryu: Let's talk about the work you installed at the cafe in Central Park, for the Whitney Biennial, in 2002. You used bedcovers as tablecloths. Did the local audience know they were bedcovers?
Kimsooja: If I did not provide an explanation about the work, they would not have known. As a matter of fact, I showed the tablecloth installation first at Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh in 1995, then in Manifesta 1, and again at Setagaya Museum in Japan in 1998 as well as at the Central Park café for the Whitney Biennale 2002. At that time, after a series of bottari works, the meaning of unfolding the bottari became connected to the process of returning them into the original form of a canvas. In other words, the idea of using a bedcover as a tablecloth was to wrap invisible elements in the space, with mind and gaze, by turning the bedcovers back into a canvas. By unfolding the bottari and presenting it as a tableau, it folds invisible activities around the table into the tableau. For example, in cafes, people meet, talk to each other, share food and drinks, listen to the music and so on. I presented the tablecloth installation to wrap all these intangible communicational interactions, under the concept of an invisible wrapping. Ephemeral elements that appeared in the work are connected to the site-specific installation called To Breathe - A Mirror Woman, shown at Crystal Palace in Spain. At Crystal Palace, I intended to juxtapose the illusion of the mirror and the reality of space together — mirroring as a sewing activity — by covering the entire floor in mirrors. I also installed translucent film on all the glass windows of the architectural structure, in order to diffract the sunlight into a rainbow's spectrum when it penetrates the interior space from its source in the exterior space. Also, I unified all the elements of the notion of sewing by installing the amplified sound of my breathing — inhaling and exhaling — as voice performance. Holding the void of the space attached to the skin of the architecture, I presented the mirrored structure of the building itself, like a double-sided crystal palace with a division of a mirror surface on the ground so that it creates a negative space of the palace as a sewn architecture — a closed bottari — with the sound of my breathing creating a bottari of light and sound. In that, this work maximizes the immaterial character of the concept of bottari.
Ryu: I see. Although, I didn't see the installation of the bedcovers on the cafe tables firsthand, I did see it in a catalog. It was shocking. Especially after you mentioned that the bedcovers you used were intended for newlyweds. And bedcovers, by their characteristics, immediately convey the love making of newlyweds. In human natural desires, there are appetites and the libido. In that work, the two just fell into place. I wondered did the local public know that these were bedcovers, and how did they react to them.
Kimsooja: At the first exhibition in Edinburgh, an audience member came to see the installation and she said that I was brave (laugh). In a way this work is provocative, but on the other hand it is presented in a very passive form. Some of the Korean bedcovers are quite exquisite and have delicate needlework, and there I used many beautifully preserved examples, so that the work drew a lot of attention. Yet the true meaning of the work that I am concentrating on is not just the cultural and aesthetic value of the bedcover.
Ryu: I want to connect the next question to our earlier conversation about the ready-made. Once you said, "I don't believe in the aphorism that the artist is the person who makes a new thing. I think the role of the artist is to find a new way of reading the existing world with specific observations, and by providing new contexts or concepts. However, whatever material I used at that time, it was mostly to refer to the life of the user." Based on my feeling, I made the connection that your video works, like A Needle Woman, had come about as you turn yourself into the ready-made. Like the Deleuzian notion of becoming, your works came to me as becoming a needle woman and becoming a laundry woman, in a fashion. It is known that A Needle Woman started in Tokyo, Japan, in 1999. How did you come to start this work?
Kimsooja: When I was commissioned to do a project with CCA KITAKYUSHU, I simply thought that I would like to do some kind of performative piece. In my first year living in New York City as an artist in exile, I felt that personally I was standing on the edge of a cliff — which kept me mentally very sharp. So, as I was becoming more aware and concentrating on my body more sensitively, I began to think deeply about subjects like isolation, the self and the other. Initially, I had been walking around downtown Tokyo for a couple of hours, waiting for a certain decisive time and place. Then I arrived at Shibuya, the street where hundreds of thousands of people flood in and out, and I experienced a moment in which I could not walk one step more. In Zen Buddhism, there is a sound which expresses awakening, "Ak!". I was shouting the inner scream, "Ak!" in a silence that I kept inside of me, and I couldn't move my feet but just had to stand still right at that specific moment in that location. Having that experience of standing still in that place, I have come to understand the meaning of walking. In other words, the relation between my body and the presence of a crowd accumulated in the bottari (my body), through the accumulated time and energy in the act of walking. I set that place for the first performance of A Needle Woman. Without even time to reconsider, I thought "This is it!" and started the performance right away and told the cameraman to record my appearance and the crowd in a certain frame from behind. I remember that performance was one of the most special experiences of my life. Over the waves of oceans of people, beyond the horizon of the people, I saw bright white light rising beyond the horizon of humanity. My mind was filled with love, joy and peace as well as compassion for all humanity. Through this unforgettable experience, I reached the point where I felt that "I wish to meet every single human being in the world." To meet everyone in the world, I continued the project A Needle Woman visiting eight metropolises on each continent. Looking back at all these events, I realized that all of these attempts to meet others was only a way to meet my own true self.
Ryu: The eight cities were Tokyo, Shanghai, Deli, New York, Cairo, Lagos and London. After that, I remember you continued to other cities, such as Patan, Nepal, Havana, Cuba, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, N'Djamena, Chad, Sana'a, Yemen and Jerusalem, Israel.
Kimsooja: These are the cities I performed in for the second series of A Needle Woman. In the first series, I placed my body as an axis of the space in the 8 metropolises in different continents, while in the second series, I presented my body as an axis of time. From my experiences visiting the first eight cities which were facing severe political, religious, economic and social conflicts within the country or with other ones, I decided to visit and confront the conflicting reality of the world choosing these 6 cities. Especially when I was visiting Patan, in the Kathmandu valley in Nepal, the country was in the midst of a civil war so I heard a lot of gunshots during the working process and saw many armed soldiers. These works, different from the first series, were made in slow motion so that the world I see as an equal value and delicate emotional relationship between my body and passers by, is more pronounced. In the first version which was shot in real time, the performative aspect of my body and the tension between my body and the passers by was more visible. I think the intersection of the times; the psychological relationship of the bodies and the passers by stand out more in the second version (2005) and my body reacts more as an axis of time rather than space. Because my body is in the time zone of zero — stillness — I was wondering "what kind of time it is when zero is expanded within this stillness showing in slow motion?". In fact, it is eternity. We can see the three different temporalities — my body as the extended point of zero (in the zone of zero); the time of the people who are walking in the street (in slow motion); and the time of the audience who watch the relation of these (in real time), and how they coexist and relate to each other.
Ryu: Most of the places that were mentioned earlier, posess a historic sense of place like Patan, Nepal and Havana, Cuba. In the case of A Lighthouse Woman, you wrapped the lighthouse of Morris Island, Charleston, with various colored lights. In this way I discovered that Charleston, the capitol of South Carolina, was where the United States Civil War began. In other works, there are cities whose sense of place oddly has an alternating point of life and death, too, like the sense of place of the bottari and the bedcover. Also there is a feeling of a certain significance in the sense of place of Earth-Water-Fire-Air. Is there a reason you chose Lanzarote, the volcanic island in the Canary Islands, Spain, and the volcano in Guatemala?
Kimsooja: Surely an invitation from Lanzarote Contemporary Art Museum and a subsequent visit to Lanzarote Biennale, 2009, served as momentum, but I had been dreaming of a project about the four elements of nature for years, so I explored this exceptional location without hesitation. Looking back on it now, the choice of the place where the fire — the lifeforce of the volcano — is completely extinguished, is more meaningful when considering that the extinct volcano was the nirvana of nature.
Ryu: I had a funny experience earlier when I was looking at the work. When you look at a video work, the lens of the projector sometimes gets covered by a viewer, and a shadow appears on the screen. So by approaching the work closely, my shadow rose in the middle of the sea waves.
Kimsooja: In fact when I screen A Needle Woman or A Laundry Woman, from time to time audiences overlap their bodies on the screen by standing in front of the work. When viewers are watching my back on the screen, at some point my figure is removed, and they replace my body — and my point of view — with their own. It's like the magic of foreshortening. For me, what the multilayered point of sight in A Needle Woman suggests is very interesting. I sometimes see that the different perspectives of A Needle Woman affects the audiences' point of view in analyzing a photographic or videographic image in terms of the relationship between the artist, the subject and the viewer, by establishing three different perspectives which is an approach that hasn't been examined or discussed before in photography and video or film making.
Ryu: All eight titles of each work in Earth-Water-Fire-Air are metaphoric. They are different from common titles. For example, the title of the video of the sea of waves is not waves of ocean but Earth of Water. So I studied it carefully, and could see then that the waves looked like a mountain on Earth if I looked at the water in the ocean as a landscape. Was that your intention?
Kimsooja: As I looked at it, water has the element of fire, as well as air and earth, and earth has the elements of fire, water and air as well. Therefore, each element circulates and connects to the others. In the process of looking at them as four separate elements, I intended to reveal that they cannot stand alone and are leaning on each other as humans. As a method of addressing their connectivity and internal dynamics, as a means of defining the element of earth in water, I also looked at the relationship of fire and air by switching them (Air of Fire). When permutated the combinations are 16, and when two elements in each pair are alternated there can be as many as 32 combinations. In other words, this can be considered as a starting point for trying to contemplate the four elements. In that sense, the work comes from feeling the power and weakness of nature; understanding that in the end, each of the elements are one and unified within our body. This led me to ask: what is the humanity of fire, or what is the humanity in water, earth and air? The work contains these questions based on the unifying principle that humans and nature are, after all, one. Notably, when confronted with the lava, which becomes stone and falls apart in reality, I witnessed the boiling magma spurting out from deep in the Earth, running and becoming the lava stone; soon after turning into dust. Stepping on the hot ground and feeling the heat while working on a plateau 3000 meters high, I realized that the ground that we all walk on is a hot, breathing, physical organism. In the disappearance of the heat, a tableau vivant was created, and as that occurred, I had the opportunity to recognize one by one all the elements of nature: from the small lava stone that evaporates into dust, into 'nothing'; just like human destiny.
Ryu: In one of the works, a car is driving through a dark place and shining a flashlight on and off so that only the place where the light is on can be seen and vanished again. At first I was wondering what that was, but soon I found out the scene centered on the volcano and was lit and shot in the place where the flashlight you lit towards the landscape from the car. The thing that appears and disappears is made from the cooled down lava (a fireball of lust) spewed from the volcano. In the video, I could feel the brevity in which every human must turn to ashes. Lastly, for the audience, may I ask how you would like them to appreciate the work?
Kimsooja: Well, rather than mentioning how to question, I would like to say that I want to observe, and share this with you. With a question for the endless pictorial journey, I want to ask once again the first and the last question: what is the matter that this life is made of?
This article was originally published in Korean in Art in Culture magazine, February 2010. English translation was published in Art in Asia magazine, June, 2013.
MZ: Your work is concerned with boundaries between the self and the other. Cloth, the needle, and the activity of wrapping, sewing, walking, and breathing have become not only methods, but philosophical tools to investigate the liminal space of where the self ends and the other begins. I would like to start this interview with two of your works, the multi-channel video installations A Needle Woman (1999ñ2001, 2005) and then work our way back to your early bottari sculptures. In a way, this interview will work like a Russian doll in which the largest part includes the smallest, which in turn already anticipates that in which it is nesting. As your work is not linear, but cyclical and interconnected, I thought that this would be an appropriate way to gain insight into the relationship between content and method in your complex practice. The first and second versions of A Needle Woman are eight- and six-channel video installations respectively, which show a woman standing still in a crowd in different metropolises around the globe.
KS: Yes, the first series was performed and filmed beginning with Tokyo, then continued to Shanghai, Mexico City, London, Delhi, New York, Cairo, and Lagos (Nigeria). When I traveled around the world performing this first series, I learned a lot about the reality of the political and cultural differences around the world. When I was invited to present a piece for the Venice Biennale in 2005, the whole world was facing conflicts caused by the Iraq war, which created tensions between Muslim countries and the United States, and this conflict contaminated the rest of the world. I felt the urgency to create the same performance, focusing on cities in conflict, to witness the world, while keeping the same form and frame as in earlier performances. I decided to place my body in the middle of conflicted cities that were suffering from poverty, violence, postcolonialism, civil war, and religious conflicts. This is how I chose Patan (Nepal), Jerusalem, Sana (Yemen), Havana, Rio de Janeiro, and NíDjamena (Chad). I performed and documented all six cities in a few months in 2005. There is also a third, single-channel video made in 2009, which was commissioned by Nuit Blanche, Paris. With this version, separate from the first two versions, I decided to focus on different realities in Paris, performing in three neighborhoods that represented multi-cultural communities such as the BarbËs marketplace, a typical Parisian community on Rue de Montreuil, and a touristic location, the Champs-ElysÈes.
MZ: I would like to quote the German curator Volker Adolphs who very eloquently wrote about the first A Needle Woman: ìLike a needle, she pricks into the colorful social tissue of the cities, sewing different societies together. Kimsooja sees the needle as an extension of her body; she overcomes in-between spaces and disappears again. The thread remains as a binding and mediating trace of the ghost in the fabricís weave. . . . But it is also possible to see this the other way around. In this case the unceasing, endless wave of people is the stationary and enduring part, and the artist is the being in motion, who will go on, pass away, decompose, and disappear.î Can you talk about how you developed this extraordinary series of videos?
KS: Before I started using video as a medium for my performative practice, I was painting using Korean bedcovers and traditional clothing. I have always retained my artistic position as a painter. All of my experiments in different media have been a continuous evolution of my painting practice. Iíve always been aware of Western art history and I have been writing my own painting history by contemplating my reality and condition as a Korean woman in a larger society. Iíve been searching for my own methodology, one that articulates my questions about the structure of the canvas, nature, and the worldófocusing on horizontality, verticality, and dualityóbut at the same time questioning the self and the other to unite them. I continued my sewing practice for almost a decade (1983ñ92). My documentary video about my daily practice of working with Korean bedcovers in nature, Sewing into Walking ñ Kyungju (1994) was the first video when I discovered that my body functions as a symbolic needle that weaves the great fabric of nature. That is how I started using videoónot because I was particularly interested in image making, but because the cameraís gaze weaves the reality of the world and the videoís frame is an immaterial way of wrapping objectsóa bottari.
In 1999, when the Center for Contemporary Art, Kitakyushu, commissioned me, I thought to make walking performances using my body, one in the city, the other in nature. I began by walking for a couple of hours in different parts of Tokyo, but I couldnít find the right moment and energy to define it, nor the precise methodology to film it. At last, I arrived in the Shibuya area where hundreds of thousands of people were coming and going. I was completely overwhelmed by the huge crowd and its accumulated energyóI was screaming inside and had to stop and stand still right there. At that very moment, I realized the meaning of my hours of walking: I immediately decided to perform standing still and document the performance from behind.
MZ: So A Needle Woman is not so much about being a global citizen, but rather it developed out of a moment of personal crisis?
KS: Yes, it was a very personal encounter and contemplation of myself, others, and humanity. At first, I didnít think about the global citizen. I started the performance more as an existential question, but Iíve been more and more engaged with the world since this first performanceócontemplating humanityís destiny and feeling compassion for it. At the beginning of the performance it was very difficult to resist all the energy on the street and I was truly vulnerable, standing still, as a womanótotally naked, psychologically. But during the performance I found my own space and time and I learned how to breathe, how to be still, how to relax different parts of my body, and how to focus. It was like being in a vortex that created an enormous sound, but was silent at its core.
I experienced an amazing transformation and transcendence while performing in Tokyo. While the crowd was walking toward me, I perceived a white light coming from behind them, like a light coming through the eye of the needle. By the end, my mind was full of love, happiness and peace, and I was enlightened while looking at the waves of people coming and going. After the powerful experience of that performance, I was eager to continue the same performance on other continents and to ìmeetî everyone in the world.
MZ: In these performance videos, you stand in for the needle that stitches all these different pieces of the world together, your long black hair becoming the eye of the needle. Over the many years of your sewing, wrapping, and performing art practices you have developed your own philosophical topology of the needle.
KS: In the first performance video, I used my body as a symbolic needle that weaves the great fabric of nature, but I was also conscious of the needle as an object having many dualities. A needle is used in healing, but itís also used to connect separated partsóboth actions performing pain. The needle is a hermaphrodite, and has a void, the eye of the needle, which allows the thread through, which in a way represents our soul and spirit. At the same time, the needle is an extension of our hands and body, so it combines the body, the spirit, the physical and the void, the material and the immaterial.
MZ: In what way is the second version different from the first?
KS: In the second version, I chose cities that were in conflict. For example, Patan was caught up in a civil war at the time; I saw soldiers with guns everywhere and heard many gunshots. Through colonialism, Havana is related to the United States, which later blocked free travel between the two countries. Rio de Janeiro has issues of violence and poverty, as well as postcolonial issues; I visited the favelas and experienced severe violence and danger there. NíDjamena is in Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world and one with post-independence problems. Sana is in Yemen, which has political and religious conflicts with Israel. I had to travel from Sana via Jordan to Jerusalem, as there was no other way. We think we live in a global society and believe that we should be able to travel freely, but in fact, it is more and more difficult to travel freely and we have to take risks to live our lives.
In the second version of A Needle Woman, I considered my body more as an axis in time, whereas in the first version, I considered my body as an axis in space. I wove in different societies, economies, and cultures by positioning myself at zero timeóslowing down the movement of people on the street in relation to the real time of the audience. In this way, I created three different durational modes: real time where the audience is located, zero time where I stand still, and a slowed-down time as the passersby move around me. I am still questioning what happened when I stood still at point zero and I keep thinking about the permanency in it.
MZ: I want to talk about the relationship between the passersby and the camera. Sometimes people approach the camera and, through the lens, look directly at us, the audience.
KS: In terms of photographic perspectives in performance and video, itís like having a third, hidden eye. Before I made the first A Needle Woman, I did another video, Sewing into Walking ñ ?stikl‚l Caddesi (1997), in Istanbul. I positioned the camera (without myself) within a fixed frame so that people on this main street would be framed (wrapped) when they are coming and going, without manipulating them. If I compare the relationships to the A Needle Woman performance, the camera could be replaced with my body and the lens with my eyes. I wasnít aware of it while performing the first A Needle Woman, but Sewing into Walking was one of A Needle Womanís origins, which I might have to revisit at some point. I tend to go back and forth from different boundaries of my practice, away from and back to the central question. I think this enables me to grasp how I relate my eyes and my body to the audience, myself, and the location, creating different layered viewpoints. Itís interesting for me to place my body in the center and as an observer.
MZ: Letís talk about the role of your body in these performances. By positioning your back and not your front to the camera, you complicate the relationship between yourself and the stream of people walking toward you, the camera, and the viewer. In a way, it is through the reaction of the passersby that we come to identify with you, that we ìseeî your front.
KS: By positioning the camera away from the audience, I was able to stay anonymous; conversely, the audience could assume my position and focus on what I was experiencing. For example, in Lagos, I performed in the middle of the marketplace and there were kids and adults carrying the goods they were selling on their heads. They stood still, watching me from start to finish, a mirroring of what I was doing. At the same time, the audience in the exhibition space viewing this performance/video can also enter my body at a certain moment and experience what I perform.
MZ: In other words, by becoming the mirror and the needle between the audience and the world, you remove yourself.
KS: In a way, I objectify myself as a needle and as a mirror to the audience. I believe that painters are always trying to find their own mirror on the surface of their canvases in order to find their own identity. I was also trying to question where the boundary lies in To Breathe ñ Invisible Mirror/Invisible Needle (2003ñ2005), a video, and The Weaving Factory (2004), a sound performance work; the two were presented at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. We can never stop gazing at the endlessly transforming color field in To Breathe ñ Invisible Mirror/Invisible Needle because we cannot truly measure its depth or define its surface. This is also related to my early painting practice. The bottari represents a physical wrapping practice, as a canvas, an object, and a sculpture; however, I use the mirror as a physical and symbolic material having a similar function to video in terms of framing the images. Similar perceptions exist also in sound and light worksóideas about wrapping immateriality within space. There are materialized and dematerialized elements that run parallel in my work, but in the end, they coexist as one.
MZ: I recently read Jean-Luc Nancyís text on the Noli me Tangere story in the Gospel of St. John in which the resurrected Christ encounters Mary Magdalene and says to her, ìTouch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father.î In A Needle Woman you serve as a sort of apparition; you produce difference by inserting your body in these particular environments. The reactions range from indifference to a rather threatening curiosityóbut nobody touches you, as if you are saying, ìNoli me tangere.î
KS: I think it has to do with the transcendent element of performances that deal with time. This is also true of A Laundry Woman ñ Yamuna River, India, the performance I did in Delhi in 2000 on the bank of the Yamuna River, right next to a shmasana, a Hindu cremation site. The debris that you see on the river is from the cremationsóburnt body parts, flowers, and pieces of wood are slowly floating and passing by my body. I was contemplating human destiny, the purification of the burnt bodies and myself. In the middle of the performance, I experienced an unbelievable confusionóI couldnít figure out if the river was moving, or if my body was moving while standing still. After a while, I found myself back in the center of the flow and away from the confusion. After this performance, I learned from the confusion. My inner and physical gaze was so focused that there was no boundary between myself and the other, like a needleís point that has no physical dimension, but only a location, and is open to the void. It was not the river that was in motion, but my body in time, which seemed to be a solid, physical entity that flowed and then disappears.
MZ: I think that this experience also applies to the viewer. Speaking for myself, I entered a trance-like state in your exhibition at Baltic, Gateshead, England (2009), where you presented the A Needle Woman and A Laundry Woman installations.
KS: Yes, there is a kind of hypnotic element to timeís passing. Time is a repetition of each moment of breathingóinhaling and exhalingóand this repetition creates a hypnotic state. I was so concentrated and focused on one pointówhich was nowhere. There are no orienting points at the very tip of the needle, so you cannot relate yourself to anywhere, but at the same time you can relate yourself to everywhere. I learn from each performance, which offers deeper questions, and thatís why I cannot but continue my work.
MZ: The needle is like a threshold or an interfaceólike a skin.
KS: Yes, thatís why I consider the mirror as an unfolded needle as it has a similarity in its nature.
MZ: Your understanding of the mirror as an unwrapped, unfolded needle is fascinating. Earlier you mentioned To Breathe ñ Invisible Needle/Invisible Mirror. Could you tell me about the particular needle-mirror relationship in this work?
KS: I find the needle and the mirror very interesting in that their identities are not revealed. The needle always functions dually as a medium that connects things, but at the same time it can also hurt. Only by hurting can it heal, and thatís when its function as a medium manifests. In the end, the needle leaves the site.
Like the needle, the mirror is also an interesting object in terms of identity because it reflects everything but itself. The mirror creates a plane that reflects the self, and the illusion of the self. Itís similar to the surface in painting, something I was always aware of because of the approach I had in my sewing practice. I did not begin my sewing practice because I was particularly interested in sewing, or the feminist aspects of the medium, or because I was a skilled seamstress, but because I was interested in the question of the fabricís surface as a canvasóand in the questions about the Other, the self, and their relationship.
The whole process of questioning and answering is like pushing a needle into the fabric (canvas) and pulling it through as a repetitive action. This circular movement of sewing-as-dialogue led to my wrapping fabrics around Korean folkloric objects and to bottari pieces as a three-dimensional form of sewing. The moment I discovered bottari was very intuitive and astonishing. I was staring at the ordinary bottari in my studio when suddenly it presented itself as a new painting, a new sculpture, and a new object. The journey with the bottari truck in Cities on the Move ñ 2,727 Kilometers Bottari Truck (1997), and the whole idea of the mirror concerns the mirror as a border. I spent much of my childhood near the Korean Demilitarized Zone where I heard casualties on the border; this must have drawn my attention to the idea of borders. Itís not unrelated to the constantly changing spectrum in To Breathe ñ Invisible Mirror/Invisible Needle.
When I was invited to create a piece for La Fenice, I knew that itís an opera house and discovered that singing is all about breathing. I wanted to emphasize that element, but I also realized that breathing is the same as sewingóinhale and exhaleóand it can be the defining moment of life and death. So breathing is related to sewing and defining a surfaceís depth. With the changing spectrum I wanted to incorporate my breathing with the audienceís within the architecture, so I could embrace the architecture as a living, breathing body.
MZ: To Breathe ñ A Mirror Woman, also made in 2006, is clearly related to the La Fenice installation. Can you tell us about this large-scale intervention in this extraordinary space?
KS: It was in the Palacio de Cristal, Madrid, and organized by the Reina SofÌa. When I saw the space I was stunned by its beauty; I thought it was an absolutely beautiful object in itself that didnít need anything added. So instead, I decided to empty the space in order to push the void out, all the way to the exterior of the building. I covered the entire glass faÁade with diffraction grating film, which diffused the light into a rainbow spectrum, and placed mirrors across the whole floor to reflect the structure of the building, creating a virtual space.
I also added the sound of breathing from La Fenice, The Weaving Factory: there are two different stages, the sound of inhaling and exhaling, and the sound of humming. The result sounds like a chorus of my own voice echoing and bouncing on the mirrored floor. Depending on the light and time of day, the color spectrum changed endlessly and amazingly. In a way it was a bottari of light and sound, combining all the different concepts of needle, mirroring, breathing, and wrappingóall of these elements together in one space.
MZ: I want to return to Sewing into Walking ñ Kyungju, a key work that connects your architectural installations, the color and video projections of the 2000s, and your early bottari works. In that work, you use breathing and walking as an extension of the sewing and wrapping practices in the bottari.
KS: I didnít intend it to be a video. I just wanted to make a documentary record of how I related to fabric in my daily practice, so it was done quite naturally. But when I reviewed the video, especially in slow motion, I discovered the transitional nature of the performative element in my daily life.
The fabrics I use are mainly bedcovers for newly married couples in Korea, and are gifted to the bride and groom by the brideís parents. The performance ended with me wrapping all the bedcovers together, tying them into bundles, and then leaving the site.
The bed is the frame of our lives: where we are born, where we dream, love, suffer, and die. So wrapping and unwrapping the bedcover has a symbolic meaning for me: wrapping life and death, in the end. When unfolded, the bedcover signifies a couple, family, love, settlement, and location. When wrapped into a bundle, the bedcover suggests the opposite, separation and dislocation, migration, and the status of refugees. When a Korean woman says, ìWrap the bundle,î it means she is about to leave her family to pursue her own lifeóso in Korean society it has a feminist element as well. By working with the boundaries of wrapping and folding, I have been able to create different perspectives and dimensions in my work.
The first bottari I made (or rather discovered) was in 1992 in my studio in P.S. 1, New York. Bottari were always with me in my studio and as part of the Korean household, I used them to store things and fabrics from the beginning of my sewing practice, which started in 1983óbut I didnít pay much attention to it until later. I was turning my head and looking around at my studio and there was this unusual object, so familiar but totally distinctive. It was a unique painting and at the same time a sculpture made with one very simple knot, a readymade, and a ready-used object. So it was a surprising new discovery: a three-dimensional sewn object made by wrapping which was a three-dimensional canvasóa painting and a sculpture. Since then, Iíve developed projects and installations that defined different dimensions and concepts of bottaris.
MZ: These bottari also raise questions related to modernist practices of medium-specificity: what is a canvas? What can be done with a canvas?
KS: Bottari are very much linked to our bodies and our daily lives. I consider our bodies as the most complicated bottari, so for me the bedcover is like a skin. Without that close link to reality, it would be less meaningful, more abstract, and I wouldnít have been able to create a broader question and concept for my work. Itís quite interesting for me to discover the parallels between aesthetic and formalistic evolution and the physical, psychological, and philosophical examination of our body, sexuality, human relations to the world in general, even political problems within bottari.
MZ: Earlier you mentioned your upbringing close to the Demilitarized Zone. Can you share some details about this time in your life?
KS: My father was in the military service from the Korean War until he retired. We moved from one city to another, one village to another every other year, wrapping and unwrapping. As a nomad, I have always been aware of the border, not only in my own work, but also physically and psychologically. I always felt a certain awareness of the Other, or a danger when I lived in that region. Since I was a little child, I have been very sensitive to the pain of others, which could be related to my experience near the DMZ. I was always aware of places other than my own, which is not unrelated to my use of fabric and questions on boundaries in different practices. Without realizing it, I began to discover more about my own history and destiny through my work. At the Venice Biennale in 1999 I installed DíApertutto, or Bottari Truck in Exile, a bottari truck installed in front of a mirrored wall and dedicated it to the refugees of the Kosovan War. The mirror opened up a virtual exit, but it was a road that you could not pass throughóso it also represented the frustrations and conditions of the refugees.
MZ: Traveling also features in your video Cities on the Move ñ 2,727 Kilometers Bottari Truck for the exhibition of the same title.
KS: I was very inspired by the exhibitionís title, which was linked to my life. The distance traveled for over eleven days in Cities on the Move was very meaningful to meóthe bottari truck and my body as another bottari sitting on topóendlessly moving like a line on a graph, in time and space. I was very much aware of time in this performance, looking back at my past and forward to the future, and drawing lines along the journey onto the topology of the South Korean land.
MZ: Is that why the video is in slow motion?
KS: Not necessarily, but I think slow motion can reveal much more of the realities around us, ones that donít often get much attention. In a way it resembled my inner rhythm or my mindís wavelength.
MZ: Your work is not linear, but as I said in my introduction, moves in different directions, all of which are interconnected. It has a somewhat crystalline structure. As a last question, I would like to ask you about the relationship between the different stages in your early practice.
KS: In one of the earlier pieces, The Heaven and the Earth, a crucifix shape from 1984, I used pieces of my grandmotherís clothing, which I sewed togetheróIím still using remnants in other works. In another piece, Portrait of Yourself from 1991, I assembled parts of used clothing from anonymous people, it was like a network of invisible existences. In the sense of human bodily traces and relations, it can be compared to A Needle Woman. In Mind and the World (1991), I wrapped a bamboo pole with used clothing and then leaned it against the center of the sewn surface pieces. Looking back, I think of this pole, in relation to the sewn fragments of used clothing, as being like my mind and body leaning toward humanity and the world, just as A Needle Woman stands in front of the world.
Retrospectively, I realize that I was able to evolve all these earlier practices with used fabrics because wrapping fabrics onto objects, or bottari, in the end was the same methodology as sewing: wrapping the surface of a fabric with threads around. The cruciform and circular structures were already there, and that might have been how I could continue this work, without a pre-conception, responding directly to the physicality of the materials, only following my intuition and the urgency of my desire.
— Edited transcript of an interview held at Tate Modern, London, February 20, 2010, in collaboration with Art Monthly; first published as part of Talking Art Series, London: Art Monthly and Ridinghouse, 2017, pp. 316ñ26. It is republished here with the kind permission of Maxa Zoller.
I would like to begin with a question about your video installation, A Needle Woman, perhaps your best-known work. It was made from 1999 until 2001, and was shot in various locations, such as Tokyo, Shanghai, Delhi, New York, Mexico City, Cairo, Lagos, and London. Could you describe your experiences in those cities and countries, and the background of the work?
When the CCA (Center for Contemporary Art) Kitakyushu [in Japan] approached me about a new project, I had the idea of making a performance video that would show the relationship between my body and the people on the streets of Tokyo. But it wasn't clear what form it would eventually take. At first, I got on and off crowded subway trains, and walked around for two hours. After this two-hour-long period, when I arrived to a street in Shibuya, where hundreds of thousands of people were constantly passing through, like waves of a human ocean ebbing and flowing - I suddenly became aware of the meaning of my ‘walking'. It was a breathtaking moment. I had to stop on the spot and stand still- creating a contradictory position against the flow of the pedestrians, like a needle or an axis, observing and contemplating them coming and going, weaving through and against my body as a medium, like a symbolic needle. I determined to record this experience of standing motionless in a crowd, viewed from behind. I immediately let the cameraman know and documented the performance. As if facing and sustaining a giant surf, my body was completely exposed to everyone in the middle of this street, and in the course of this intense standoff, my body and mind gradually transcended to another state. In other words, as I accelerated the state of my isolation, the presence of my body seemed to be gradually erased by the crowd. Simultaneously, as the sustained immobility of my body was leading me toward state of peace and balance in my mind, I passed the state of tension between the self and others and reached the point in which I could bring and breathe others into my own body and mind. My heart began to slowly fill with compassion and affection for all human beings living today. Experiencing the extreme state that the body and mind could reach and embrace sympathies for humankind, paradoxically, liberated my mind and body from the crowd. I saw the aura of a bright white light emerging from an unknown source beyond the horizon, and I cannot help but feel that it was a mysterious, transcendental experience.
After the Tokyo performance, I had a desire to see all of the people in the world, and the series A Needle Woman came out of this desire, in which I visited eight metropolises on five different continents. The relationship between my body and the crowd of each city was different in each instance, and the responses I got were also quite diverse. According to the geographical, cultural, religious, and socio-economic conditions, people responded completely differently to the body of the performer as an other—or an Asian female—and my inner reaction also manifested itself in various ways.
In this work, I established the immobility of my body as a symbolic needle, and further questioned my relationships with others through the act of a social, cultural sewing. At the same time, I see this video series as an extension of my bottari work, in which I tried to embrace the humanity within myself.
A new version of A Needle Woman was made for the 2005 Venice Biennale, with footage you shot in rather dangerous places riddled with many social and political problems. I'm curious about the reasons why you selected those cities and what kinds of issues you wanted to address in such backgrounds.
The first series of A Needle Woman consisted of real-time videos that focused on the spatial dimensions created by the body as a symbolic needle, or an axis within various spaces, in the midst of densely populated metropolises. The new version I presented at the 2005 Venice Biennale takes more of an interest in the cities that are experiencing poverty, violence, post-colonialism, civil wars, and religious conflicts—Patan, within Kathmandu Valley (Nepal), Havana (Cuba), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), N'Djamena (Chad), Sana (Yemen), and Jerusalem (Israel). My intention was to present a critical perspective on current conditions of humanity. Created in slow motion, this new series places my body at the zero point on the axis of time, and explores temporal dimensions by showing the contrast between my motionless body and the others' slow motion. This work also shows the subtlety of the relationship between bodies, and their emotional transitions and psychologies. This was another opportunity for me to explore the question of time, which has been important to me since my first video, Sewing into Walking.
To Breathe: A Mirror Woman, which was presented in your solo exhibition in the Palacio de Cristal, commissioned by The Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, was a work that changed the context of a given space and its spatiality. It seems that the work places emphasis on changing a space, and on the experience one may have in that space. If your earlier work had been about the two-dimensional experience of visiting different places via performance translated into video, this work asks viewers to experience the very space in which it is shown. Could you discuss the background and intention of this piece?
To Breathe: A Mirror Woman is a site specific project that brings together and amplifies the relationships between yin and yang ,and the concepts of the needle and sewing, that I have been developing for two decades. - from sewing into wrapping, sewing into walking, sewing into looking, and sewing into breathing. The idea of this project is based on wrapping the transparent architecture of Palacio de Cristal building into a bottari of light and sound. I incorporated the diffraction grating film with the entire glass pavilion of the Palacio de Cristal, to create a constantly changing spectrum of colors; the sound element consisted of a chorus blended from my own breathing and humming. Both elements were absorbed in and reflected out onto the mirror that covered the whole floor of the building, expanding a "void" within the skin of the architecture, and even becoming one with viewers' bodies and breaths as a sanctuary.
The body is an important element in your work. If A Needle Woman substitutes your own body for the needle, what does A Mirror Woman do? What kinds of metaphorical functions are performed by the needle and the mirror?
If A Needle Woman featured my body as a tool, which symbolizes the needle, in A Mirror Woman, the mirror functions in lieu of the body, that observes and reflects the "other." One can see the linguistic operations of anthropomorphizing the "needle" and the "mirror," which draw out the meaning of the works.
I didn't have a chance to visit your public project A Lighthouse Woman, and only got to see photographs of it. How did you start this project?
The piece was commissioned as part of the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2002, under the theme of "Witness of Water, Witness of Land". Charleston was one of the coastal cities of importation for African slaves. My work consisted of projecting a lighting sequence onto a lighthouse that had been out of commission for almost forty years in Morris Island, , where the devastating Civil War began. The piece was intended to breathe life back into the lighthouse and to commemorate the numerous lives lost in the war. The lighthouse was wrapped with a spectrum of nine colors, which gradually changed in a thirty-minute cycle in rhythm with the waves. A Lighthouse Woman structurally symbolized the body of a woman waiting for her husband and lover, children and brothers, who had gone off to war. I installed another work at the Drayton Hall Plantation House: four black carpets embroidered with the names of the slaves who worked there, which were placed in front of the fireplaces of the house.
Your Bottari Truck addresses mobile globalism. Does the importance of this work lie in the concept of globalism in mobility? Or is it the notion of identity or "being" in the global era?
I wasn't thinking about globalism when I made Bottari Truck, as I have never made a work related to a particular "ism" or category. I was always interested in the notion of body, personal histories and memories, and the questions of human despair and desire. I think this particular piece began to be interpreted from the perspective of globalism because the notions inherent in it came to be considered an important point of departure for globalism —such as location/dislocation and locality — and the work evolved with this social change. While I was performing 11 days throughout Korea, I was paying attention to the mobility of the bottari truck, and the continuity of both the bottari truck and the stillness of my body on the move. The truck was a moving sculpture, loaded with histories and memories, and its constant mobility, and the immobility of my body, co-incided on a temporal and spatial grid.
It seems to me that works such as Bottari Truck and A Needle Woman are located on a "border." They also encompass dualities such as inside and outside, life and death, pleasure and sadness. What would you say constitutes your interest in the border?
One might say that a consciousness about the "border" forms a sensitive spiritual axis in my thoughts. The idea connects with Eastern spirituality, which interprets all of existence in terms of yin and yang. Awareness of "border" in my work can refer to the question of the surface in painting, which was one of the starting points in my earlier sewing work. I consider the canvas as a mirror of identity, upon which artists are searching for their whole lives.
Perhaps, my obsession with "border" also has to do with my childhood, which was spent near the dangerous border of the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ).
In your 1994 solo exhibition Sewing into Walking, you developed the concept of "sewing" into "walking" by transforming "sewing stitch by stitch" into "walking step by step." Did your engagement with sewing start from a feminist point of view, or would you say that it started from personal experience?
This sewing practice didn't arise from a feminist point of view, or because I was particularly fond of, or good at, sewing. At that time I was exploring the structure of two-dimensionality and the world and its methodologies. One day in 1983, I was sewing a bedcover with my mother and suddenly came to realize possible formal, aesthetic, psychological, and cultural anthropological implications of the act of sewing. It was a question and an answer that came to me like a lightening bolt, or a divine revelation. I have to say that it was like a fated encounter between the universe and the needle, my hands and my body, that became an unforgettable event. This realization was completely unrelated to works that were made as part of the feminist art movements taking place in the United States and other places. As the notions of the "needle" and "wrapping" developed, the notion of sewing also expanded and evolved to relate to other acts of daily life, such as walking, looking, breathing, and mirroring.
Please describe the new works you are planning.
In the long term, my wish is to make my artistic desire disappear. In the short term, I'd like to make works that are like water and air, works that, like most of my works, cannot be possessed, but can be shared by everyone. I'd still like to wander around the world and answer questions that come to me at each moment, freely using any media. I will continue to be working without any preconceived plan, and answer questions that come to me through the evolution of my ideas.
What do "Korea" and "Korean" mean for you?
My Korean identity and my life in Korea are my main source of inspiration, but this source isn't always a positive one. Korea seems to me to be a land of shamanistic energy. I will continue to live as an anonymous outsider, as an anarchistic cosmopolitan.
Kelly Gordon: What is your process when you make video works? Do you begin with notes, diagrams, sketches, or storyboarding? How much does it change on site?
Kimsooja: I basically refuse to "make" things, and I try to keep everything as it is and as natural as possible. My ideas are almost never written down or based on stories. For example, when I was trying to do a commissioned video performance for CCA Kitakyushu, I had in mind a walking performance but I wasn't completely sure how to realize it in that particular environment. I was walking around the city with the videographer for a couple of hours because I couldn't find an idea for doing the performance in that cityscape in relation to my body and spirit. Finally, when I arrived at a street in Shibuya, where hundreds of thousands of people were constantly passing through, like waves of a human ocean ebbing and flowing, I immediately understood the significance of my walking. I had a clear awareness of the contrast created between my body and the environment around me. It was a breathtaking moment. I had to stop and stand right there, remaining motionless against the flow of the people walking. I became like an axis, observing and contemplating the moment of people's coming and going, weaving past my body as a medium, like a symbolic needle. This is the moment when the standing still performance that occurs in A Needle Woman first happened.
This is also how I worked for A Laundry Woman - Yamuna River, India. I stopped while passing by the Yamuna, next to a cremation facility, where all the debris was floating by. In that moment, I found the connection to the location and time within my spirit and body, and I immediately asked my videographer to start documenting my performance.
Usually the performance lasts a maximum of thirty minutes, as that is the threshold of how long I can keep my body still. By the time my body reaches its limit, and through intense focus on the relationship of the self and the other, I experience different stages of awareness and a new perception of the status of my body and the world around me. For example, there was a moment during the A Laundry Woman performance when I was completely confused whether it was the river moving, or me. Then I came to the awareness that my concrete body was standing motionless but that, in another sense, it was also running and would burn to ash very soon.
KG: In several of your videos, including A Laundry Woman - Yamuna River, India, you appear with your back to the camera in a dark, featureless outfit, almost like a silhouette. Is this to suggest that you represent an "everywoman" character? Or a Sprecher figure, like those in Renaissance paintings who bear witness and offer authenticity to a scene? Do you draw from other literary or artistic inspirations? During the shoot, how do you retain the expression on your face that the viewer cannot see?
K: There have been interesting comparisons made between Casper David Friedrich's paintings and my performance videos, especially with A Laundry Woman and A Needle Woman. Actually, the Museum Folkwang in Germany exhibited my work next to Casper David Friedrich's paintings. As I turn my back towards the audience, my body functions as a void through which viewers can look and contemplate what I am gazing at, placing themselves in my position. Yet I still have to create a corporeal figure that witnesses, mediates, and contemplates on the here and now in each location.
I am not interested in showing my identity, but I can't imagine ever using a surrogate to replace me. The work should be performed with my own awareness of the energy of the location. If I were to substitute someone else, the figure would become empty, and would have no connection to this idea of the here and now. The most important aspect of my performance videos is what I experience within myself during the process. I actually don't care much about the resulting video piece, but when the experience is strong and special, the actual video seems to be strong and special too, so I just focus on the moment. To concentrate on the here and now I need inner silence and motionlessness. The performance comes from my awareness of other people or the river passing by rather than from my intention. I don't perform in order to make videos; rather, I make videos to document the moment of performance and my awareness.
Most audiences are curious about my facial expression while my back is turned. I don't want to show my face as it will draw people's attention to my identity rather than what I am experiencing as an anonymous figure. My approach in making these videos is not to guide the audience in a specific direction but to leave the experience open. I do not borrow or reference things in my work. The pieces usually develop from my intuition, which is based on my experiences and the conditions of my life, rather than from logic. At the same time, I believe in the logic of intuition.
KG: Which comes first, the idea or the site? You have filmed all over the world but the sites often feel very similar and have a trance-inducing quality. Do these attributes inform how you select the sites? What is your technique for making the viewer feel vividly there—present with you?
K: I usually don't plan things in advance; I just let it happen—sometimes waiting, sometimes wandering around until the right moment arrives. It arrives when I feel the energy, accumulated from that precise time and place, in my body. Then I immediately start a performance. It is a temporary mobile temple that I establish. This only happens when I am ready and have been searching for some connection between my mind and body and a specific context of space, culture, geography, and the conditions of nature and human beings within a place. The whole process feels true to myself. The performances and videos seem to be vivid and engaging to the viewer as a result.
KG: Your video works suggest a timeless dimension on several levels. While the works typically have ambient or minimal sound, one can imagine a voice-over beginning with "Once upon a time..." Yet even the videos from ten years ago seem very current.
K: Your perception of my work with regards to the spectrum of time is interesting. It is true that it looks current but at the same time quite old. I think this is because through most of my work I've been pursuing a sense of universality that is timeless and fundamentally truth—general human experiences. I also think that the present tense is created as the presence of my body as it functions as a medium or a void, through which the audiences gaze, rather than as an static and iconic representation. I don't believe in creating something new but in inventing new perspectives based on mundane daily life as it relates to contemporary art.
KG: What are you working on now, and how is it like or unlike A Laundry Woman - Yamuna River, India and your other video works?
K: All my projects can look similar and at the same time be totally different. I've been working on a project called Mumbai: A Laundry Field since 2006, and am adding a couple more channels now. I've been to Mumbai again this year to film in another slum area where many people sleep on the streets, and I plan to go back this summer to film during the monsoon season. It is quite different from the other videos I've made so far, closer to a documentary format, without commentary but with edits. This piece brings together many of my previous practices relating to fabrics, the human body, and humanity, so it has a retrospective element to it.
Another video I am making now is called A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon, which is a four channel video I filmed in Goa, showing the parallel relationship with The Sun and The Moon overlapped on top of the ocean waves and its reflections. I still have a series of videos I've been working on since 2005, involving architectural cityscapes around the world, which I haven't been able to finish yet. Other than that, I have a few other site-specific architectural projects I am currently working on in Europe, as well as a few other site-specific projects.
I actually don't think about consistency and the pieces' relationship to my other work. I believe they must be related naturally in the larger scheme. I only focus on trying to break my own boundaries by constantly questioning and opening up new horizons.
KG: Your work often explores the physical and metaphorical aspects of materials and threads. What is the source of your fascination with textiles? How has this been manifest as your practice has evolved?
K: My fascination with fabric as a medium began when I was sewing a Korean bedspread with my mother in 1983. At this time I was questioning the "dimension of the surface on painting," and also searching for a methodology that could reveal the horizontal and vertical structure of the world in a way not yet examined in the history of painting. When I put a needle into the structure of the fabric, which has both a vertical and horizontal surface, I was thrilled and exhilarated, as if a ray of energy that seemed to come from the whole universe was penetrating through my body and my hands, and reaching to the needle point where it met the surface of the fabric. I was also interested in the fact that sewing layers on top of the structure of the fabric in a circular, performative way. This was the moment of my encounter with the yin and yang energy that has evolved in many different paths and levels in my practices.
Kelly Gordon is an Associate Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC.
Kimsooja (Taegu, Korea in 1957) is one of the most acclaimed Korean artists in the international artistic panorama. Currently, she lives and works in New York. Her works have been exhibited at biennials such as Venice, Whitney (New York), Lyon, Kwangju (Korea), as well as in the most relevant museums around the world. In our country, she has participated in important exhibitions such as Mujeres que hablan de mujeres included in the program of Fotonoviembre (Tenerife, 2001), PhotoEspaña, Valencia Biennial in 2002, MUSAC (2005), among others. She makes installations, photographs, performances, videos and site specific projects, the most recent of which was presented in Madrid's Palacio de Cristal: To Breathe: A Mirror Woman. Not long before, she had presented another site-specific project at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. Since 1993, one of the most distinguishable elements in her work are the bottari, a kind of bundle made of traditional Korean lively colored bedcovers, which is often used for packing old clothes. Nomadism is a key subject for her, but she also tackles issues such as the relation with the other and the feminine roles, revealing not only the importance of the human being in the chaotic world we are living in but also her loneliness and fugacity.
Studying your work over time, we can say that it is a very singular work. Nevertheless, you are always dealing with present issues, such as nomadism or the relationship with the others. What are the sources of your work?
I guess the reason why my work has been engaged to present issues, regardless of a continuous singular context, is because I've been questioning old and fundamental issues on art and life. All human activities and problems come from the same root, which are old questions that have no answer, and endlessly repeat in history in one form or another. When we are planted in our own root, one can grow naturally from one's own source without trying to search another resources branches of temporary issues come out of this root in the end.
Has this singularity anything to do with an education such as yours, where Asian ways of thinking are mixed with the Western philosophy Christianity, Zen Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism and Taoism?
In general, the complicated religious background in Korean society might confuse one's identity rather than keeping it in singular mind. It seems to be more connected with one's personality and individual history rather than social tendency. I can say that I wanted to be firmly rooted in my own culture and my own perspectives. I noticed many Korean artists in my generation were imitating and easily adopting Western practices and philosophies without question, just by reading magazines and books. At that time, in the late 80's, I decided to stop reading for almost a decade. This allowed me to question, by myself, issues on art, and to pull out ideas from my own self, rather than exterior resources. Another reason I stopped reading books was that there were so many things to read in the world besides books and magazines life and nature. My mind was always active reading all of the visible and invisible world.
The bottari and the Korean traditional bedspreads with lively colours are characteristic elements of your work and have a strong presence in your installations. What do these elements represent for you?
There are two different dimensions in my use of traditional Korean bedcovers: one is the formalistic aspect as a tableau and as a potential sculpture. The other is as a dimension of body and it's destiny that embraces my personal questions as well as social, cultural and political issues. The bright colourful bedcovers that celebrate newly married couples for happiness, love, fortune, many sons and long life are contradictory symbols for life in Korean society, for a country that is going through such a transitional period: from a traditional way of life to a modern one.
Despite the fact that you say you are not political matters, you have created several installations or pictures that are clearly related to political or social events, such as "Bottari Truck in Exile" (1999), presented in the 48th Biennial exhibition of Venice, or "Epitaph" (2002), a photograph taken after the September 11th attack against the World Trade Center in New York. What are the reasons for you tackle these subjects?
My practices were started solely on my personal issues and structural questions on tableau, which can be seen in the beginning of my earlier 'sewing' work and my 'wrapping' series of Bottari. However, my artwork has gradually embraced basic human problems, which have recently become a bigger part of my questions and concerns. My own vulnerability and agony on life had a presence in my earlier work, which was an important part of the healing process for me to survive. It then transformed naturally into 'compassion' for others, and turned to the healing process for others. All of my works that relate to political issues and problems originate from 'compassion for the human being', people who suffer by violence, poverty, war and injustice, which often stem from individual problems and conflicts. I would say one can categorize some of my work as a political reaction, but it is more from concern on humanity, rather than as a direct political statement as an activist.
Between 1999 and 2001 you created one of your most relevant video installations, "A Needle Woman". A product of performances where you are the protagonist, always in the middle of a crowd in Tokyo, Shanghai, New Deli, New York, Mexico, Cairo, Lagos and London. For the 51st Biennial exhibition of Venice (2005) you did a new version traveling to another six cities: Patan (Nepal), Havana, Rio de Janeiro, N'Djamena (Chad), Sana'a (Yemen) and Jerusalem. Taking into account that many of these countries undergo serious problems, have you ever felt that something could happen to you? Which has been the strongest experience you have lived through while you were doing these performances?
In terms of the performance itself, the A Needle Woman performance I did in Tokyo (1999) was the strongest experience I had. It was the first performance of the series. I was walking around the city with a camera crew to find the right moment and place where I could find the energy of my own body in it. When I arrived in the Shibuya area there were hundreds of thousand of people sweeping towards me, and I was totally overwhelmed and charged by the strong energy of the crowd. I couldn't help but to stop in the middle of the street amongst the heavy traffic of pedestrians. Being overwhelmed by the energy of the crowd, I focused on my body and stood still, and felt a strong connection to my own center. At the same time, I was aware of a distinguishable separation between the crowd and my body. It was a moment of 'Zen' when a thunderbolt hit my head, as I continued to stand still there, and I decided to film the performance with my back facing the camera. During the performance there were moments I was conscious of my presence, but with the passage of time, I was able to liberate myself from the tension between the crowd and my body. Furthermore, I felt such a peaceful, fulfilling, and enlightened moment, growing with white light, brightening over the waves of people walking towards me.
The first series of "A Needle Woman" was focused on encountering people in eight Metropolises around the world. The second version, made in 2005 with the same title, was focused on cities in trouble, from poverty, political injustice, colonialism, religious and political conflict in between countries and within a country, civil war, and violence.
I chose the most difficult cities in the world, although I couldn't make it to a few of the cities I wished to visit, such as 'Darfur' in Sudan, and 'Kabul' in Afghanistan. It was one of the most difficult trips I've ever experienced in my life. The difficulties with this series of performances were more about the conditions of traveling, rather than during performance time.
When I first visited Nepal, the country was in a state of emergency, and there was no phone service in between the cities and even countries, with no internet connection during most of my stay. Foreign ambassadors were being called back to their own countries, gunshots were heard from different parts of the country while traveling, and armed soldiers were occupying every corner of the streets in Kathmandu. Even in my video, there's a scene with armed soldiers passing by. To be able to travel to Havana in Cuba, I had to travel through Jamaica, as there was no direct airline service, and no collaboration whatsoever between the US and Cuba. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I went to a huge favela area called Rocinha, where I heard a series of gun shots from one mountain side to another, as if they were shooting directly from the back of me. I was standing on the roof of the central part of the area surrounded by mountains of poverty although local people considered it to be signals between the drug dealers. I also saw a number of young men carrying guns in the middle of narrow alleys to control the people in that neighbourhood. I also witnessed more poverty in N'Djamena in Chad, which is known as one of the poorest countries in the world. I witnessed conflicts between Yemen and Israel. I could only travel from Sana'a in Yemen to Jerusalem via Jordan, as there's no direct airline service in between these two countries, and the Yemeni people wouldn't allow me to enter their country if I was traveling from Israel.
When you are in these types of situations, there is no room for fear.
People believe we live in an era of globalism, which allows us to travel freely and that we are connected to anywhere in the world, but in fact, it is not true, and the world is still full of discrimination, hatred, and conflict.
When I finished these pieces, in slow motion, they turned out to be quite similar from one city to another, regardless of the problems within. We have a very shallow perception of ourselves in terms of our notion of time, and how we perceive an extreme situation in our own time frame, but in fact, all of these cities could be seen as a similar situation in a larger perception of time.
According to works such as "A Needle Woman" or even according to the symbolism of using the bottari, travel and changing places is very present in your career, both personal and professional. Could we say that the contemporary man is a nomadic being that is forced to go from one place to another without a rest?
Although the nomadic lifestyle is a characteristic phenomena of this era, it could also be one's choice. We can still live without moving around much and be rooted in one's own place. Human curiosity and the desire for communication expands its physical dimension and happen to control human relationships and the desire of possessions, and pursuing the establishment of a global community, which includes the virtual world. But a true nomadic life wouldn't need many possessions, or control, and it doesn't need to conquer any territory; it's rather an opposite way of living from a contemporary lifestyle, with the least amount of possessions, no fear of disconnection, and being free from the desire of establishment. It is a lifestyle that is a witness of nature and life, as a kind of a process of a pilgrim. Nomadism in contemporary society seems to be motivated from the restless desire of human beings and it's follies, rather than pursuing true meaning from nomadic life.
During these past years you are going for site-specific projects. You have just finished one at La Fenice Theatre in Venice, and now this one in Madrid. What is the most attractive thing about this kind of projects?
I wouldn't say site specific installation projects are more intriguing for me than other projects such as video, performance, and photos, as these were also site specific projects from my point of view. The difference is, for this type of site-specific installation, there's a solid question already existing, which I am interested in pondering. But the answer may raise another question to the audience. Other projects, such as video, performance or photos, are those I am questioning from myself, my own problems either in art practice or life, and the questioning goes both ways, to myself and to the audiences. I am interested in problems, questioning, and responding to the conditions of the site.
Once having seen the results of your project for the Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace) in the Retiro Park in Madrid, "To Breathe: A Mirror Woman", a work that consists of an intervention in the palace [a diffraction grating film that covers all the crystal part of the building and a mirror on the ground that works as the unifier and multiplier of the space and an audio with your own breathing from the performance "The Weaving Factory" (2004)], have your expectations been met? Is the result very different from your initial idea?
Not totally, but only in terms of some technical issues. I've never used the diffraction grating film in my work before, and I'd been experimenting with its effects on a small scale model. The effect coming from the Crystal Palace, with actual sunlight, and its degree and direction, created a much more spectacular environment than from the model. I could envision the effect of the mirror floor and the effect of the sound within the Palacio de Cristal, as I had already experimented with both mirror and sound in other installations.
Considering that this new project for Crystal Palace is both a logical continuation and a new step in the development of your artistic career, what does it mean for you?
From this project, I discovered 'Breathing', not only as a means of 'sewing' the moment of 'Life' and 'Death', but 'Mirroring' as a 'Breathing self' that bounces and questions in and out of our reality. Evolving the concept from my earlier 'sewing practice' into another perspective, 'Breathing' and 'Mirroring' as a continuous dialogue to my work was the most interesting achievement of a new possibility in experimenting with waves of light, sound, and mirror as a result of the space of emptiness.
What is the relationship between this installation and other previous needle and sewing works?
To Breathe: A Mirror Woman is related to my earlier practices such as 'sewing', 'wrapping', and the question of 'surface', as well as the notion of 'reflection', that was always a part of my work in the metaphysical sense. Interestingly, a mirror can be another tool of 'sewing' as an 'unfolded needle' to me, as a medium that connects the self and the other self. If 'mirroring' can be a form of 'sewing the self', which means questioning the self, and connecting the self, 'breathing' is, in its dimension of action, a similar activity of 'sewing' that questions our moment of 'Life' and 'Death'. In mirroring, our gaze serves as a sewing thread that bounces back and forth, going deeply into oneself and to the other self, re connecting ourselves to its reality and fantasy. A mirror is a fabric that is sewn by our gaze, breathing in and out.
What is the relationship between "A Needle Woman" and "A Mirror Woman"?
Again this goes back to the idea of surface, a continual question. A needle / body, which questions and defines the depth of fabric / surface, and a mirror that embodies the depth of body and mind, defining our existence, through a needle. I am standing as a needle to show A Needle Woman video as a mirror of the world, to question my own identity amongst others. At the same time, I am standing as a mirror that reflects the world, gazing myself from the reflected reaction the audience bounces back to me. A needle is a hermaphroditic tool that can be a subject and an object, and this theory can be applied similarly to a mirror. In that sense, I can consider a 'needle' as a 'mirror', by definition and a psychological healing tool, and a 'mirror' as a multiple and unfolded needle woven with the gaze, as a field of questions.
This intervention in the Palacio de Cristal is visually very beautiful but one may even feel some kind of anguish or have the feeling that he or she is in prison. How would you explain this effect?
People may feel as if they are in my body, as the Palacio de Cristal seems to breathe, or in a cathedral bathed with stained glass, or in a space of fantasy, while walking on a mirror floor that feels like a liquid surface. Hearing my breathing and humming within the space might cause the audience to hold its breath, and they may become conscious of their own body and breathing. Maybe this feeling of being imprisoned comes from the prison of ones' own body?
Inside and outside, life and death, disruption and joy, anguish and delight, uncertainty and acknowledgement, these are aspects of feelings we feel when we are inside the Palace. Why are you interested in this idea of opposites, and duality?
From the beginning of my career, back in the late 70's when I was at college, I was already intrigued by the dualities existing in the structure of the world, that are the combination of 'Yin' and 'Yang' elements. I've been looking at all existing things and the structure of the world from this perspective. An example from my earliest sewn piece Portrait of Yourself, 1983, and also The Heaven and The Earth, 1994, have vertical and horizontal elements, or a cross shape. I've been establishing my structure of perception and creation through this perspective. There was a series of assemblage based on random shapes in my work from 1990, such as Toward the Mother Earth, 1990-91, and Mind and the World, 1991, where 'duality' as 'yin' and 'yang functioned as a hidden structure. On another level of the surface, there comes another layer of yin and yang relationships, and this phenomenon goes on and on in each dimension of structure.
But this doesn't mean that I was doing art mathematically or logically most of my works were created by the most irrational decisions and a sudden intuition rather than building up theories or logic itself, and I have always believed in the logic of sensibility within the process of creation. Duality can be one way to start understanding existences of the world, although there are so many different factors that surround and define the structure of the world. When the creation process starts, this duality theory doesn't work anymore, and it goes beyond the logic, and leads it's own life and process.
Your works aspire to capture the whole of the human experience: the body and the soul, the mind and the body are appealed to in the same extent in your creations. Why is it so important for you to make art a nothingness that experience of the body and the senses, as well as of the mind and the imagination?
Ever since I was aware of the totality of the world, I had to work on it, and it naturally involved different aspects of ways of existences, structure of metaphysics, and that of frustration and fantasy. That's what I know, what we live, and what I can express.
Throughout your career, we can see that your new pieces refer to other previous works. Each of your new installations has a trace, an element, something that relates it with previous works. Do you conceive the whole of your artistic career as a kind of 'work in progress'?
For me, there is no concept of a completion. I am just moving towards a future where I find a better answer than the previous answer. This is totally against commercialism, as the art market requires a finished object to be sold and to collect. My work is still evolving and unfinished, and is just a process.
And in this sense, where are you heading to? What is your ambition as an artist?
If I have an ambition as an artist, it is to consume myself to the limit where I will be extinguished. From that moment, I won't need to be an artist anymore, but to be just a self-sufficient human being, or a nothingness that is free from desire.
Oliva María Rubio is an art historian, curator, and writer, who has been director of exhibitions at La Fábrica, since 2004. She was the Artistic Director of PHotoEspaña (PHE), an International Festival of Photography and Visual Arts celebrated in Madrid (2001-2003), where she programmed around 60 exhibitions. She is a member of numerous juries on art and photography, and a member of the Committee of Visual Arts “Culture 2000 programme”, European Commission, Culture, Audiovisual Policy and Sport, Brussels (2003), the Purchasing Committee at Fonds National d’Art Contemporain (FNAC), Paris 2004-2006, and artistic advisor of the Prix de Photography at Fondation HSBC pour la Photograhie, Paris, 2005.
Oliva María Rubio is also the author of La mirada interior. El surrealismo y la pintura (Madrid, Tecnos, 1994), and writes articles for catalogues, magazines and newspapers. She recently curated Kimsooja's exhibition at Crystal Palace, Madrid, in collaoboration with the Reina Sofia Museum, and the travelling show of Andres Serrano: Salt on the wound, 2006.
She was the curator of Kimsooja's To Breathe: A Mirror Woman at the Crystal Palace, organized by Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in 2006.
Francesca Pasini: Space, light and the body are the elements with which you give form to the world. In all your works the purity of the images might seem to situate the vision in metaphysical space, but you accomplish this in the physical dimension.
Kimsooja: Physical and metaphysical states coexist simultaneously as one, rather than as separate or parallel entities. Physicality represents the metaphysical, in the similar state of space as time, and time as space, I believe.
FP: How important is the idea of the "void" in your process of "making space"?
K: For me, making space means creating a different space, rather than "making" a new one. The space is always there in a certain form and fluidity, which can be transformed into a completely different substance. For example, our brain cells or mental space construct a physical and visual tableau, sculpture, or environment, which are transformed spaces. My interest in "void" is as a negative space in relationship to "Yin" and "Yang," as a way of inhaling and exhaling, which is the natural process of "breathing" as a rule of living. This idea of duality can be found in all of my working methods from the beginning of my practice.
FP: In the audio work The Weaving Factory, which accompanies the projection presented on the screen at the Theater La Fenice in Venice, what is the link between the "breathing" that comes from the color spectrum, versus the one that is created by your breathing?
K: The breathing element in my video projection To Breathe: Invisible Mirror / Invisible Needle is based on the abstract of the phenomena of nature, which was generated by a digital color spectrum. This creates a clear distinction from the video pieces I've shown at Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, which are captured from the existing phenomena within nature, as part of my study on nature. The sound for the vocal performance for The Weaving Factory was made from my own breathing at different speeds and depth, and humming different notes through my nose and, in the end, by opening and closing my mouth. Both audio and visual breathing is performed within the body of La Fenice Theater, which I took as my own body, which breathes in and out, connecting the bodies of the audience to that of the theater. It was also interesting to relate the nature of the lyrical theater, which is all about singing, which in turn, is breathing.
FP: In your current project at Palacio de Cristal in Madrid, you also use the same combination of color and breathing "to make space."
K: The glass pavilion is covered with translucent diffraction film, that diffuses the light coming through the structure into rainbow spectrums, which is then reflected by the mirrored floor, while the breathing from the audio piece The Weaving Factory fills the space, bouncing back and forth onto the mirror. The waves of light and sound, and that of the mirror, breathe and interweave together with the viewers' bodies within the space.
FP: What kind of relationship is there with the project in Venice?
K: Both To Breathe: Invisible Mirror / Invisible Needle and To Breathe: A Mirror Woman are related in terms of the notion of "surface", "sewing", and "wrapping". Interestingly, a mirror is another tool for sewing, as an "unfolded needle," that connects the self and the other self. Mirroring is sewing and to sew is, in the end, to breathe.
FP: I see a progression with respect to your previous works. To an increasing extent, the visible loses its perspective limits: in Bottari - Throwing the globe, as well as in A Wind Woman, we have the perception of colors' movement without any distinct image; meanwhile, in To Breathe: Invisible Mirror / Invisible Needle we have only a color spectrum.
K: Most of the videos I showed at Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa are entitled "Bottari...". The word "Bottari" means "bundle" in Korean. A Bottari is wrapped fabric that contains daily objects, for carrying one's belongings and moving households. It is the easiest and simplest way to locate and dislocate one's belongings. When Koreans say, "Wrap the bundle," and Westerners say "Wrap it up," it means, finish the relationship or move on. But when it is used by women in a specific way in Korea, it means she is "leaving her own husband and family to pursue her own life." In the series of those videos with subtitles, I applied the general meaning of Bottari as a wrapped image rather than focusing on the feminist connotation. The works at Fondazione Bevilaqua La Masa in Venice are studies on nature where the boundaries are ambiguous and continuous, except for the frame of the video. Especially in To Breathe: Invisible Mirror / Invisible Needle, there seems to be no surface that remains in our gaze as the color spectrum light from the projection is constantly changing and transforming from one color into another, so there is no definition of surface in this "painting." My motivation for creating this piece was to question the depth of the surface, as well as questioning its definition, and this has been one of my constant themes since the sewing pieces earlier in my career. Where is the surface? What in the world is there between things?
FP: And the distance between what we see, and what we perceive, is it important? You mentioned your sewing pieces, could you explain the development in relation to the videos?
K: My work is based in part on questions of perception — it can be found continually in my practice. In making art, I am particularly interested in getting close to the most accurate answer to the questions on the relationship and reality of things and life. I started working in video in 1994 from my interest in its "frame" as a means of "wrapping," rather than focusing on the image-making quality of the video. In the context that "wrapping" is, in fact, three dimensional sewing, it is all connected and influenced by the notion of "sewing" and "wrapping", in which the camera lens plays the part of the needle's eye.
FP: In other videos at Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, such as Bottari -Waiting for the Sunrise, as well as in Bottari - Chasing the fog, or in Bottari - Drawing the Snow, the viewer must wait in front of an image that changes very slowly, and in doing so, captures the perception of time itself, inside a sort of immobility. Does the concept of time take on the function of an emotional state?
K: The immobility of the audience's body occurs while watching what is taking place in the video, and its relationship to the passage of time. The body of the video camera and the body of the audience take on the same barometric role, to measure and capture the passage of time. Our waves of emotion and perception of the video move along with the transition of time and the changing landscape within the video.
Time exists in our minds only when we are conscious of what we think, feel or act. To percieve what we see, we need to focus on moments that extend the duration of time with our own consciousness.
Kimsooja came to international fame in the 1990's following a P.S.1 residency in New York, which paved the way for one of her most famous pieces to date, Bottari Truck, a video that was subsequently shown in numerous exhibitions and biennales. Bottari Truck consisted of a truck loaded with bottari, the Korean word for bundle, and traveled throughout Korea for 11 days. The bundles were actually made of bed covers, an item accompanying the key moments of our existence from birth, marriage, sickness, to death. A Needle Woman, a video performance showing the artist from the back standing in the middle of a mainstream avenue in various cities throughout the world, further developed the concept of sewing towards abstraction bringing together people, cultures and civilizations. In a subtle way Kimsooja (b. 1957 in Korea), who works primarily in video, performance, installation, and photography has advanced to a premier artist in her discipline taking up sensitive issues like migration, integration or poverty. Besides taking us on her journey, Kimsooja's work is an invitation to question our existence, and the major challenges we are facing. In the interview below, she looks back at the past decade, and discusses her latest projects and undertakings. Olivia Sand reports.
Asian Art Newspaper: Certain pieces you completed are seminal pieces (see above), and have toured numerous biennales and museums over past years. What mikes these pieces so important and why do you think people feel attracted to them?
Kimsooja: The formal and the aesthetic aspects may draw people to these pieces, but I believe their success is also based on their content and the topics they address. Today, it seems that we are witnessing a 'cultural war' with many, issues arising in a global context bringing together different races and beliefs with an increasing discrepancy between rich and poor, economically powerful and less powerful countries. Needless to say, the present power structure causes many problems and disasters around the world. The issues that I address in Bottari Truck and A Needle Woman are very much related to current topics, such as migration, refugees, war, cultural conflict, and different identities. I think people are interested in considering these topics through the reality of the work; this may be one reason for their success. In addition, the aesthetics and some elements of the form in A Needle Woman, for example, are things with which people can identify. The piece demonstrates a different approach towards performance compared to what has been done in performance so far. It is a different format and a different perspective from a 'classical' performance, where the artist is 'doing' an action. I believe that you can connect people and bring them together to question our condition without aggressive actions.
AAN: You learnt to sew with your family. Is sewing actually the element that led you to pursue an artistic career, ultimately serving as a means of expression, which remains to this day in your work?
KS: Definitely. The practice and my concept of sewing represent the constant basis of all of my work, from the beginning until today. The concept of sewing is always redefined, redeveloped and regenerated in different forms. After sewing pieces on the wall, or the Bottari pieces, which represent another way of three-dimensional sewing, I began to connect the relationship between people, my body, and another way — actually an invisible way — of sewing, like weaving the fabric of society and culture for example. My practice of sewing is always evolving, generating new ideas to redefine concepts.
AAN: You recently started a website, www.kimsooja.com. While presenting the site, you come to the conclusion that 'a one word name is an anarchist's name'. What do you mean by that?
KS: I do not think of myself as an anarchist with any critical political meaning. I see myself as a completely independent person, independent from any belief, country, or religious background. I want to stand as a free individual, who is open to the world.
I had thought about starting a website for some time, but I was reluctant to do so because of the commercial aspect linked to such an undertaking. One day, however, I decided to move forward, and I began to carefully think about a website address. With the rapid growth of the internet, an email address is the key to getting access to the world to a universe without boundaries. I wanted to present myself as a free individual from any connotations (which exist around a name — the affiliation through marriage, for example), but not as an aggressive anarchist activist trying to change the world.
AAN: On your website you talk about 'twisted information', and your desire to promote ideas that have not been given the importance they deserve. To what are you referring?
KS: I realize that the media cannot be objective towards all the topics they cover, and personal points of view and experiences are also of great importance in the way the news is presented. However, I frequently witnessed how the media failed to acknowledge the relevance of an artist, which also resulted in ignoring or misunderstanding some of their existing art works. Through the website, which I launched in 2003, my goal was to open a forum for people to communicate openly and honestly about the art world, and the world in general. I am aware that it is a very modest undertaking, but I nevertheless wanted to offer a place where people could share their thoughts. All too often, people find themselves in a situation where they have no power, where they are manipulated, and they have no means to access or reveal the truth. So far, there have not been many people from the curatorial side, but there are many ordinary people, and a few artists, who use the site.
AAN: It seems that people are used to getting distorted information...
KS: In a certain way, yes. I think this can mainly be attributed to the fact that whatever is written becomes true, and people tend to believe whatever is written. I just want to provide a forum for people who want to speak up.
AAN: It seems that we are living in a strange time: never has the access to information been so great and the sources so diverse, but a lot of people just seem to be getting and relying in 'distorted' information. Do you agree?
KS: We just need to consider our domestic television networks (in the US), which provide very little information on foreign countries, on their view and response regarding the status of America in the world today. One needs to rely on the European and Asian channels to get a better awareness of what is going on in the world. As an artist, there is always a dilemma: should an artist take action following certain political decisions or should an artist stay away from politics? In my case, I want to open the floor for people to discuss and exchange ideas. In a way, I am a witness and I am not making any direct comments or statements. I do not see my role as to judge people, but rather as to raise awareness about certain topics. The response will be in the hands of each individual.
AAN: Do you feel that today artist have the power to set things in motion?
KS: Yes and no. Yes, artists could set things in motion, and can be very 'loud', but artists do not have enough power to persuade people to change the world. However, we are responsible for our own example and how we perform them. It is not necessary to make political statements, for example, but we can make a statement in a beautiful, peaceful, and spiritual way. In my opinion, artists can do something to resolve certain problems, but it is not easy, and it tends to remain a modest attempt of a very different scale than the head of a political section. Within a few seconds, they can give instructions to empower certain people, yet take it away from others. As modest as our attempt may he, I think it is important to bring attention to the suffering and death caused by unconditional unfairness. We cannot just neglect that.
AAN: Nam June Paik passed away at the beginning of this year. Do you feel that in terms of contemporary art, he has left a legacy behind in Korea?
KS: Absolutely. Before the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, he had no presence in Korea, nobody knew him except for some art insiders, and none of his works were shown. Although since 1988 things have changed dramatically, and Nam June Paik has been widely seen in Korea, still I do not think he received enough recognition or support from the Korean government. Throughout his career, he did a lot for Korea, and for the Korean people. He was very influential on Korean artists, and he contributed to creating a good image of Korea. He should have been more appreciated and supported by Korea, the Korean people, and by Korean museums. However, I am glad that ultimately the county where Nam June Paik was born has decided to build a museum dedicated to his work. The county has been acquiring hundreds of his pieces, and I consider it a great gesture — all the more so as it is based on the initiative of a provincial political officer and not a museum. This is very encouraging, as the museum will permanently be dedicated to Nam June Paik.
AAN: Has Nam June Paik changed the attitude of museums in Korea, encouraging them to collect the work of contemporary Korean artist like you, who are mainly working in video and performance?
KS: Presently, only one of my pieces is in a Korean museum: A Needle Woman, which belongs to the Samsung Museum. This specific piece caused many difficulties when the museum decided to acquire it, as my video piece was purchased by the museum, the Korean government charged considerable tax on it because it was considered a commercial movie. Consequently, the Samsung Museum and the Korean tax customs were in a lawsuit for many years. Korean law makes no differentiation between contemporary art works like my video pieces and a mass production commercial movie. Ironically, the tax authorities believed my video work was similar to Nam June Paik's work, which is considered the father of video art. The museum finally won the lawsuit last year, but it took over five years to settle the dispute. My case set a precedent, and today, artists can sell their video pieces without paying these enormous taxes. So far, A Needle Woman remains the only piece from my work in a museum collection in Korea.
AAN: What is the reason for your 'under representation' in museum collections in Korea?
KS: It is difficult to say. Perhaps it has a lot to do with the way the system (the galleries, the museums etc.) work, or perhaps they simply do not like my work.
AAN: Is your work widely represented in American museums?
KS: My work is represented in some American museums (P.S.1, some West Coast museums, etc.), but most of my projects are actually taking place in Europe.
AAN: Do you think your work is 'too different' for an American audience?
KS: I think the perception on art is very different in America and in Europe. If we take a closer look at the gallery scene in New York, most of the shows taking place in Chelsea are based on 'products' and people buy these 'products' rather than artworks that inspire them. I think the materialistic perception and the environment in the US clearly influence the collectors and their taste. There are always some exceptions, but I personally tend to find European audiences more sensitive, often more knowledgeable, and perceptive.
AAN: You presently have a show in Madrid that runs until July. Can you describe the piece?
KS: The exhibition is at the Crystal Palace, which is run by Reina Sofía. It is a beautiful glass pavilion, and I decided to create one large single installation. I covered the whole glass pavilion with a diffraction grid film, which creates a rainbow like effect all over the surface. The effect varies quite dramatically over the glass depending on the light source, the direction of the light, and its sharpness. In addition, there is a mirror structure over the floor, which reflects the entire structure of the building below the feet of the audience. I also installed the Weaving Factory, which I previously showed in Venice.
AAN: How would you say your work has evolved since your residency at P.S.1 in New York?
KS: For me, P.S.1 was one of the most influential experiences: it opened my career to the international art world. It led me to create my Bottari piece, and I started to do more installations based on my work from P.S.1. When I went back after a stay abroad, I became aware of the cultural conflicts within Korean society because by that time, I had the experience that things could be different. I had even more difficulties after coming back following a one year and a half stay in New York. I had to struggle because I had different perspectives, while the society was still very closed, stressful, and not supportive. I decided to leave the country to settle in New York, which was difficult, but at the same time very challenging. Putting myself on the edge of my life was a great challenge, and in retrospect, I think it made my professional practice even more focused, and more in depth. Since then, everything has been positive with museum shows around the world, participation in the most prestigious international shows and biennales, and good reviews.
AAN: Has religion, Buddhism, had an impact on your projects?
KS: I am not a practicing Buddhist, but I am very interested in Buddhism. It is very similar to the way I am thinking and to the way I perceive life, death, and daily life. I believe it carries great truth, but I do not want to represent any specific religious belief. I want to go beyond that, and embrace everyone's beliefs.
AAN: Which projects are closest to your heart?
KS: The sewing piece, the Bottari piece, and, of course, A Needle Woman. The Lighthouse Woman was also one of my favorite projects, in part because it was temporary and site specific with a very special environment and collaboration. I am strongly drawn to the idea of completing additional site specific and temporary installations, especially in Europe, where there are numerous very interesting sites.
This text was published in Asian Art Newspaper, May 2006.
NB: In Buddhist philosophy, there is a notion which has a great importance: the impermanence of the world we live in. The needle woman stands in front of passing-by elements, like as if you were stressing on this impermanence, or on the fluidity of things. How does the Eastern way of thinking match contemporary art history, in you work?
KS: The impermanence of our lives is an important notion in my work and thinking and with this perception, comes a deeper compassion for human beings. Meditation about impermanence has been shading in my work since I first started the sewing pieces in the early 80's — connecting fragments of my deceased grandmother's clothes.
Buddhist philosophy, especially Zen Buddhism is similar to the way I perceive and function in the world. However, the ideas in my work are created from my own questions and experiences, not from Buddhist theory itself. (It is more complicated — as I was brought up formally a catholic, and practiced also Christian for some time, but Korean daily life practice is greatly dominated by Confucianism, mixture of Buddhism, and Shamanism.)
Certainly, where my immediate perceptions and decisions in art making meets the disciplines of Buddhism — making art and living my life are not consciously borrowed from theories. I intentionally stopped reading over a decade ago to concentrate and follow my own thoughts, but I recently started reading again especially on Buddhism as I find amazing similarities in my work and perception of life in it.
I might add that, the Eastern way of thinking inhabits every context of contemporary art history not just as a theory but as attitude melded in ones personality and existence and is inseparable with Western thinking.
NB: Do you think that oriental (eastern) thought has a real impact on the contemporary art world, or is it only a postmodern kind of exoticism, a decor for western aesthetic investigations?
KS: It would be unfortunate if the Western art world considered Eastern thought as a decor for Western aesthetic investigation — as if it were another element to add without noticing the fact that it is a way — in the process of making art. It is always there — as a dialectic — in all basic phenomena of art and life together. Eastern thought often functions in a passive and reserved way of expression, usually invisible, non verbal, indirect, disguised, and immaterial. Western thought functions more with identity, controversy, gravity, construction in general rather than de-construction, and material than immaterial compared to Eastern. The process finally becomes the awareness and necessity of the presence of both in contemporary Art. It is the 'Yin' and 'Yang' — a co-existence that endlessly transforms and enriches.
NB: You could have chosen to ignore your Korean cultural background, but you decided to use it as a material. In a way, especially the Bottari series, your work Post-produces formal elements from this already existing Korean shapes and patterns. But formally speaking, your exhibitions are playing with minimal art. Would minimalism play a special role onto this connection between East and West? And which movements or artists were the most influential for you?
KS: I have always used my personal life as the basic material for my work — hoping it would embrace the other. If I hadn't grown up and lived as a married woman in a Korean society, I wouldn't have chosen these traditional bedcovers. In Korea, they have a special meaning as the bed is the site of birth and death — of sleeping, loving, suffering, dreaming dying — it frames our existence. The bedcover is given to and used by newly married couples in Korea with messages beautifully embroidered and emblematic of wishes for love, fortune, happiness, many sons, and a long life.... it is so easy to notice it's contradiction when we see these symbols. I can't interpret my own culture with other culture's materials in the same way..... I try to find materials in their own context, but it always ended up with me bringing materials from Korea as theirs looked so neutral and hard to get the sense of the energy I feel from ours.
As for minimalism, I agree with you as a part of the nature of my practice but in the sense of extension of it's interpretation to the life as well as formalistic terms. The Japanese art critic Keiji Nakamura perceives my work as 'existential minimalism,' and this makes sense to me also. I greatly respect minimalism in the sense of the process of making art as well as it's vision. However the contents minimalists deal with are often maximal. It's hard to name any particular artist who was influential to me as I've been influenced in a way from anyone whom I have an opinion on their work-even from the ones we don't agree with. Yet, there is one statement by John Cage I saw it written in the bottom corners of an empty container at the 1985 Paris Biennale; that has reverberated for a long time in my mind. "Whether we try to make it or not, the sound is heard.".
NB: You are partly working with objects and surfaces made by other people. Of course the readymade is not a stake anymore, but in your case it could be questioned on a social or psychological level. The notion of existential minimalism could bring us to this direction, too, because it carries the idea of humanity, concrete people making products in a particular context. So what is the status of those objects in your mind and in your work in general? Is it a neutral process to use those bedcovers, or do you consider their context of production and the condition of the workers? And, more generally, what is the status of pre-existing things in an artwork?
KS: Analyzing the nature of my already-mades, can give a significant clue to the context of my work. I've been using objects from Korean domestic daily life significantly in my series, 'Deductive Object' from the early 90's. Here, I chose traditional Korean domestic already-mades; wooden window frames, reels, drums, and agricultural tools; a saw, shovels, forks, hooks... and wrapped them with old Korean clothes and bedcovers.
Now, I as am working exclusively in New York, I'm using objects found here; a child's toilet, a swing, vessels and an old directory board from a department store...etc. I've been thinking more about people who owned and used the objects and their traces rather than the people who made or manufactured them in those objects and I'm noticing that they are symbolically genderized in form and function.
Perhaps we need to re-define the notion of readymade in a larger context than relying on Marcel Duchamp's investigation — especially in this mass producing, global networking era which needs constant re-definition. My work is about pre-existing things buried into our daily lives — not mentioned nor conceptualized in art history.
My work also includes a presentation of the daily life of women's labor and her domestic performance trying to re-define the social, cultural and esthetic meaning of it to create it's own context in contemporary art history.
NB: This concept of pre-existence of things is very interesting. In a way, one could say that you are working with the ghosts of the objects, their aura, trying to turn the invisible into a shared experience. The anonymous is supposed to be invisible; so is the past, mostly. Is that important for you to make them visible?
KS: Yes. Depending on the nature of the already-made objects, my interest lies on different issues; for example, when I work with bed covers, I am working with pre-existing objects focusing more on the fact of 'pre-used' rather than 'pre-made' as I am more focused on anonymity of the bodies and the destinies of the couples rather than on anonymity who made the bed covers, although I am concern about the people who made them.
On the other hand, the folklore objects I've used, my interest lies more on the genderized nature and esthetic structure of the object and it's function in daily life rather than the anonymous beings who made or used them. But when I made a series of carpets which embeded names of the African American slaves who used to work for the plantation houses in the US, I was trying to combine the nature of the painstaking labor of carpet weavers and that of the African American plantation slaves emphasizing both of theirs hardships as I find carpet weaving and plantation job is similar jobs in different dimension. I wish to reveal this anonymity — as myself — one of the anonymous.
NB: The Needle woman is a central figure in your video works: You are standing in front of people and objects, right in the middle of a maelstrom of things, as if you were out of the world. Is that another figure of anonymity (the voyeur? Or are you even more into the world by watching it pass?)
KS: It is the point of the needle which penetrates the fabric, and we can connect two different parts of the fabrics with threads, through the eye of the needle.
A needle is an extension of the body, and a thread is an extension of mind. The traces of mind stays always in the fabric, but the needle leaves the site when it's medialization is complete. The needle is a medium, a mystery, a reality, a hermaphrodite, a barometer, a moment, and a Zen.
NB: Watching the needle woman, I was also thinking about a negative image of the baudelairian flaneur, an archetypal figure of the occidental modernity. Are you inscribing your work in the field of modernity, or is it a notion that is totally irrelevant for you?
KS: It is interesting to see my work discussed in this way — being compared to others from a completely different culture and social identity and also born at different time and space. My work is focused on the totality of life and art. One can see different realities in one persona or in art. Perhaps that is why one sees diverse similarities in my work.
NB: in a way, you are trying to capture the totality of human experience, which is quite rare. As you said, your work is not about any particular issue? Can you tell me what this ambition implies, and means?
KS: Totality is the truth and the reality of things. And it takes time to clarify in language as a whole. I am interested in approaching the reality that embraces everything because it is the only way to get to the point without manipulations. Most people approach reality from analysis or 'from language to colligation' which is the truth', but I am proposing a 'colligation to be analyzed' by audiences. My working process is intuitive and I believe it's own logic. If I have an ambition, it is to be just a 'being' who has no need to be anyone special, but is freed from human follies and desires — without doing anything particular. 'Being nothing/nothingness' and 'making nothing/nothingness' is my goal. It is a long process.
NB: To be "freed from desires" sounds very buddhistic. Is the artist a kind of boddhisattva, who tries to free himself/herself and to liberate the viewer?
KS: I remember the way desire was talked about in the 80's through the work of "simulationnist" artists such as Jeff Koons or Haim Steinbach : art was the absolute object of desire, a "pure merchandise," a perfect exchange value. Desire was examined in terms of compulsion and acquisition. So today, what would be the relationships between art and desire?
In any case, artists have been constantly dealing with their own desire and audience. For me, artists' practices are similar to that of Buddhist monks' in the sense that they both try to liberate and to become beyond themselves. In this era of globalization and technology however, the self, the body, the spirit, and the other can be perused in many ways -Artists deal with different types of desires depending on their social and cultural context. Desire can be visualized in a physical object form which satisfies sense of 'possession' or in a psychological and metaphorical way that deals desire as another 'subject'. When Claud Viallat said 'Desire leads', I think he referred to another origin of art instinct which links and visualizes these two different source of desires. Artists cannot help ask what is the origin of their desire, and what role desire plays in their work. To understand that this is 'the subject' an artist confronts in the end, and to extinguish it.
FG: In your work you have been using very consistently two media: fabrics and video. The most immediate connection one makes comes out from the title of one of your video works: the series Needle woman. Who is the needle woman? Is she a metaphor? Does she represents a condition of humanity, as the title of your show in Lyon would suggest? And what is the relationship between the needle woman and the fabrics use have been using?
KSJ: The fabrics I've been using for my sewn work, Object, and installation were used Korean traditional costumes, bedcovers and used clothes which I found from anonymous people. These fabrics represent presence of body whose smell, memory and time is still there. On the other hand, a series of my video pieces represent and wrap the actual human body in immaterial way, while the fabric installations are materialistic way of representing and wrapping human body — yet it represents the invisible body.
In my recent video performance A Needle Woman (1999-2001), my body stands as a medium between the viewers of the video and the people in the street where my performance is taking place, as if it functions as a barometer while weaving/woven (by) different nation, races, culture, society and economy by standing still in the middle of the busy streets in 8 different metropolitans in the world.
Apart from A Needle Woman video, I've been also examining the conditions of human being by putting myself in one of the lowest state of human being as A Homeless Woman, A Beggar Woman, A Laundry Woman and as a refugee by making Bottari installations — refugee as a persona, as a woman, and as a collective group of people in a broad sense of refugee in existential, social, cultural, and political context.
FG: The needle woman might take different positions, like in Needle Woman - Kitayashu, in which she lies on a rock facing the sky perfectly still. Or she might take different names, like in Laundry Woman, where, in the same position, she faces the Yamuna river in Delhi...
KSJ: As I mentioned earlier, the Needle Woman signifies a medium which connects different parts of the fabrics of society, culture and landscape — in that sense, A Needle Woman - Kitakyshu divides and links four different element of the world which are the earth and the sky, the human side and that of the nature. As long as my body functions as a mediator, A Laundry Woman is not different from the other performances although the position is different depending on the structure of the landscape and cityscapes. But I could say my work has also a parallel relationship to the structure of the painting in formalistic reading.
FG: In these works you stand perfectly still, in crowded cities in different parts of the world, or in the landscape. Watching them one cannot but think about how you managed to reach such an immobility and concentration. And also they made me think about the goal of so many meditation practices: the ability to live the present moment to its ultimate intensity, or the notion of impermanence. However you said that zen theory has not been important in your work...
KSJ: Immobility comes out of mobility. I could reach to the immobility only by practicing mobility in my life. I was always thinking every moment is a meditation and the moment when a perception and an artistic decision comes up to my mind was Zen, but I'd never practiced Zen meditation.
FG: In all of your video installations the viewer is faced with your back, so that he shares your point of view. In Needle Woman the viewer is immersed in a 8 channels installation in which he witnesses you standing still in the middle of the most crowded streets of the world. Do you imagine the viewers standing on your back when you do your video performances? What kind of visual and emotional experience you project on your viewers?
KSJ: It would have been very interesting if someone on the street stood right behind me posing exactly the same way I do. I would say the person who is standing behind me is the camera which is eyes of myself. This idea can be compared to my video I made in a crowed street in Istanbul in 1997 which takes people coming and going in Istiklal street by setting a fixed frame for an hour wrapping people into the camera lens which can be juxtaposed to my body.
FG: Time, it seems to me, is a crucial element in your work. Not only because of the duration of the videos but also because in all of them you watch transient elements: people in the streets, clouds in the sky or flowers in the river. Time and past experiences seem to be crucial also in your work with fabrics in which you use tissues which have been used already and carry with them the sign of past experiences.
KSJ: The idea of impermanency of existences gives me a deep compassion for human being and has been embedded in my work since the beginning of my sewing practice till now — the fabrics I first sewn together were the remained fragments from my grandmother's clothes when she passed away — memorizing her presence. I've been living such mobile life from my childhood wrapping and unwrapping household and luggage and the strong memory I have from my childhood were the huge mountain in front which I was looking in the dark from our house yard and the passing by landscapes I used to see on our way to somewhere else from a bus or a train. Leaving people behind us from where I live and meeting new people in a strange city was part of my family life.
FG: You have been using the fabrics in a variety of contexts and often in public places, like in a old post office in Trieste (am I right?) and in the open air cafè in Central Park New York. You also took them, as Bottari, to different parts of the world in a work eventually dedicated to the Kosovo refugees. What is the relation, if there is, between private memory and public place, function and aesthetics?
KSJ: Presenting private materials in public spaces sometimes provokes intimate questions such as table cloths and laundry installation I made with newly married couple's bedcover cloth from Korea. Eating in the bed, or Wrapping bundle/Bottari ( especially when it's refered to a woman) are Taboo in Korea. I am questioning this site of birth, sleep, love, suffer, and death considering as our frame of life and its reality in sexuality, morality, conflicts in humanity as well as its impermanency. On the contrary, the color and embroideries of those fabrics are brilliant and beautiful, while showing contradiction in reality of life which is not always same as these symbols signify and the esthetic structures I present in situ.
FG: Lately you have been working with lights and sound, like in Charleston or like in a lighted mandala you showed in Lyon. Is this a new direction in your work?
A permanent question and desire I have has a lot to do with possession and its void in Yin and Yang relationship in our world. The whole process of my work has to do with process of void in life and art and its extinguishment at the end.
Flaminia Gennari Santori is research coordinator at the Fondazione Adriano Olivetti in Rome and adjunct professor of Italian Art History at New Hampshire University Italian Program. She holds a PhD from the European University Institute, in Fiesole and she was a Fullbright Scholar at the University of Chicago. She published 'The Melancholy of Masterpieces'. Old Master Paintings in America 1900-1914, Milan, 5continents editions 2003 and articles in Italian and British journals and books. With Annie Claustres and Anne Pontegnie she coordinates the research "Une Nouvelle Scène de l'Art", to be published by Les Presses du Réel in 2005. She contributes book and exhibitions reviews to the Italian daily newspaper il Manifesto.
M.J.: Let's talk about how sewing has been a contemplative practice for you and a way of connecting your body to a greater whole?
K.S.: One day in 1983, I was sewing a bedcover with my mother and then at the very moment when I passed the needle through the fabric's surface, I had a sensation like an electric shock, the energy of my body channeled through the needle, seeming to connect to the energy of the world. From that moment, I understood the power of sewing: the relationship of needle to fabric is like my body to the universe, and the fundamental relationship of things and structure were in it. From this experience, for about ten years, I worked with cloth and clothes, sewing and wrapping them, processes shared with contemplation and healing. By 1992, I started making bundles or bottari in Korean — I always used old clothes and traditional Korean bedcovers — that retain the smells of other's lives, memories, and histories, though their bodies are no longer there — embracing and protecting people, celebrating their lives and creating a network of existences.
M.J.: Korea was not a very visible part of the contemporary art world. You yourself came to the U.S. in 1992 on a residency at P.S. 1 in New York. Then Korea joined the ranks of international biennale presenters in the southwestern city of Kwangju, a place where Korean and American identity is sadly linked.
[In May 1980 students and other demonstrators against martial law were killed by government forces with brutal force, the death toll mounting to 2000, though officials claim only 191. The U.S. was implicated in support of President Chun who seized power in a military junta and a wave of botched diplomatic that followed.]
K.S.: This is the site of a national tragedy. It is marked by anniversary reenactments each year. With my work for the first biennale there, Sewing into Walking: Dedicated to the Victims of Kwangju, I placed 2.5 tons of clothes in bundles on a mountainside at the Biennale site. It was the image of the sacrificed bodies. People could walk on them, listening to the "Imagine" song by John Lennon which, through the audiences' bodies, evoked the confrontation of stepping on bodies and guilty conscience, as well as memorializing the victims' lives. Over the two months of the show, the seasons changed and the clothes became mixed with the soil, rain, and fallen leaves, becoming like dead bodies: this was the installation scene I wished to create for the viewers. The audience — the Korean people — opened the bundles and removed nearly one ton of clothes; they hung some onto the trees and took others away with them.
M.J.: Have your works, as a means of healing and connecting, been autobiographical?
K.S.: When I went back to Korea in 1993, after spending time in the U.S. and having a different perspective on my own culture and gender roles in Korean life, I re-confronted the society as a woman and a woman artist. I started realizing my own personal history in bottari projects, using them more as real bottari than for an aesthetic context. My first video performance piece, Sewing into Walking-kyung ju (1994), resulted from an installation; in its documentation I recognized that my own body was a sewing tool, a needle that invisibly wraps, weaves, and sews different fabrics and people together in nature. For my next video performance, Cities on the Move — 2727 Kilometers Bottari Truck in 1997, I made an eleven-day journey throughout Korea atop a truck loaded with bottaris, visiting cities and villages where I used to live and have memories. Because the bottari truck is constantly moving around and through this geography, viewers question the location of my body: my body — which is just another bottari on the move — is in the present, is tracing the past and, at the same time, is heading for the future, non-stop movement by sitting still on the truck. And though I used myself in this work, I tried to locate a more universal point where time and space coincide.
I realize now that Cities on the Move — 2727 Kilometers Bottari Truck emerged from the history of my family that moved from one place to another almost every two years, mostly near the DMZ area, because of my father's job in the military. We were wrapping and unwrapping bundles all the time; we were endlessly in a new environment, leaving people whom we loved behind and meeting new neighbors, as we passed from one city to another, one village to another. We were, in fact, nomads, and I am continuing the nomadic life as an artist, a condition which has become one of the main issues in contemporary art and society. Yet I am also aware that migration is just an extension of nature and we are literally in a state of migration at every moment.
M.J.: It seems like sites — out in the world — have become your studio for making art?
K.S.: Usually, I don't like to make or create anything in nature because I am really afraid of damaging it. Instead, I decided to use existing elements which can be related to my idea of location/dislocation and its gravity and energy towards the future. In 1997 I did another work in the series, Sewing into Walking-Istiklal Cadessi, a video shoot in Istanbul. I experimented with documenting peoples' coming and going through the fixed frame of the lens; it was an invisible way of sewing and wrapping people. Then, with A Needle Woman project (1999-2001), I inserted myself in the middle of the busy street and looked towards the people of eight different metropolises in the world: Tokyo, Shanghai, Berlin, New York, Mexico City, Cairo, Lagos, and London. I considered my body to be a needle that weaves different people, societies, and cultures together by just standing still. Inverting the notion of performing and remaining fixed within the crowd, my body functioned like a barometer, showing more by doing nothing. The needle is an evident yet ambiguous tool, androgynous, maintaining contradiction within it. The needle functions only as a medium; it never remains at the site and disappears at the end. It just leaves traces, connecting or healing things.
Each performance lasted 25-30 minutes, during which I just stared straight ahead. I eventually cut each tape to an unedited section 6-minutes and 30-second in length. In the beginning I had a difficulty resisting all the energies from people coming at me. By the middle of the performance I was centered and focused, and could become liberated from them. In the beginning my body was very, very intense, but in the end I was just smiling, liberated from all attention. I could see the light coming from the back, far from the front, over these waves of people. I was in complete enlightenment.
I didn't know where the smile came from but I was just smiling. Maybe it was the moment when I was freed from my self-consciousness and engaged with the whole picture of the world and people as oneness and totality beyond this stream or ocean of people in the street. I think enlightenment can be gained by seeing reality as it is, as a whole which is a harmonious state within contradiction that requires no more intentional adjustment or healing.
M.J.: Your personal posture as well as the overall stance of your art, seems to aim to profoundly communicate experience. So while we do not have your experience as it was in the real time of making the video, it is still more than our experience of an artwork; you become this portal through which we pass to have our own experience in real time. At the same time you are a conduit for others' experience, the needle through which they pass, the empathetic locus. And like Buddhism, these works are about relationality, not just of human beings but among all beings and with nature.
K.S.: I did another performance called A Needle Woman at Kitakishu in Japan, laying down my body on a limestone mountain, the front of my body away from the viewer. Nothing changes in this video except the natural light from the sky and a little bit of breeze, and at the end there is one fly that is just passing by against the slow movement of the clouds. Of course, I had to control my breath, so my shoulders wouldn't move; I taught myself how to breathe with my stomach. I was there a pretty long time. The rock was a little bit cold, but it was just so peaceful. I was completely abandoning my will and desire to nature and I was at such a peace. There is one face of nature that caresses the human being in the most harmless way. So we feel at absolute peace in this mild nature. Of course, when it becomes harmful, nothing can compete with its absolute damage.
In a way this work looks a little bit like the reclining Buddha, parinirvana; but, abandoning my ego, at the same time, in a different way, I consider it as a form of crucifix. My body is located at the central point of four different elements which are in-between the sky and the earth, nature and human beings. I located myself on the borderline of the earth and the sky, facing nature and away from the viewers. In the beginning of the video I think my body looks fragile and dramatic, feminine and provocative: an organic body or a body of desire. Over time, I find that my body, with its duration of stillness — breathing in the rhythm of nature — becomes a part of nature as matter itself, neutral, a transcendent state. To me it is like offering and serving my body to nature.
M.J.: Has performance become an actual practice of meditation for you, focusing and centering, to attain something for you, perhaps enlightenment, as well as give an experience to the viewer?
K.S.: For me, the most important thing (to arise out of) these performances is my own experience of self, and awakenness, rather than the video as an artwork. That's how I continue to ask deeper questions to the world and to myself. That is the enlightenment I encounter while doing this kind of performance. One such experience occurred with A Laundry Woman — Yamuna River, India (2000) I was just looking at some different locations for a performance, but when I passed by this riverside, I immediately felt the energy and decided, “Let's do it.” Again I put my back to the viewer and looked to the river. It was right next to the cremation place on the Yamuna, so the floating images on the surface of the river were all flowers and debris from cremations. While I was facing the river, I was actually looking at anonymous people's life and death, including mine. It was a purifying experience, praying and celebrating. There's a lot of detail on the surface of the river, so I consider this piece as a painting. It's all reflection: there is no sky, but it looks like sky; there are no real birds passing, only reflections of birds from above. So, in a way, the river functions as a mirror of reality.
I decided to be there until the limit of my body. I was there for almost an hour in total. In the middle of standing there, I was completely confused: is it the river that is moving, or myself? My sense of time and space were turned completely upside-down. I was asking and asking and asking again, is it the river or myself? I finally realized that it is river that is changing all the time in front of this still body, but it is my body that will be changed and vanish very soon, while the river will remain there, moving slowly, as it is now. In other words, the changing of our body into a state of death is like floating on the big stream of river of the universe. Doing this performance gave me an important awakenness. It suddenly reminded me of one unforgettable dream that I had in my early twenties. I was looking down at Han River from a hillside in Seoul. After looking at the surface of the river for some time, my vision was fixed on the river and the movement of water inside it, showing me the bottom of the river with sand and round stones. Then I started seeing the dancing and spinning stones touch and hit together, mashing and breaking them into pebbles and dust, which eventually will become part of the river itself: "Stone is Water, Water is Stone!" I screamed in the dream and woke up being shocked by this awakenness as if my brain was hit by a strong metal bell.
M.J.: Your awareness of the impermanence of all things and embodiment of compassion--which is key to the teachings of Buddha--have brought your earlier expressions of healing to another level. I now recognize that this was at the root of our work together for the Spoleto Festival USA in 2002: Planted Names--four unique carpets at the 1742 Drayton Hall, bearing the names of enslaved Africans and African-Americans who built and cultivated this Palladian plantation--and A Lighthouse Woman in which you used the Morris Island Lighthouse.
K.S.: When I was filming A Needle Woman in Lagos, I happened to visit to an island offshore from which slaves were put on ships to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Standing there, looking out, I could feel the enormous pain of those who departed. The horizontal line of the ocean looked like the saddest line I had ever seen in my life. Then when I visited Drayton Hall and learned about the history of African-American slaves from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, I immediately saw this plantation site as a vast carpet where enslaved bodies were embedded. There are so many sad stories behind these colonial places. Carpets are not about the beauty of an artist's design, but about the labor of the carpet maker, so I chose carpets as the form to celebrate their labor and time.
In the companion work, I considered this lighthouse on Morris Island as a witness of water, witnessing all the histories and memories standing still there. When I first visited it, I was so impressed by this lighthouse's loneliness. I related its loneliness to a woman's body and to women who wait for their sons, lovers, brothers and fathers to come home from the sea, who stand by the sea, waiting for them. I programmed a one-hour sequence of nine saturated colors that illuminated the whole tower, spilling onto and reflecting in the surrounding water, changing its rhythm as if it was breathing with the same rhythm of the ocean tides — in and out, inhale and exhale. It wasn't captured in video this time: it was important to experience in the site with the sound of the waves, and the air, and the real sequence of the rhythm of change. I miss the lighthouse.
M.J.: Yvonne Rand has spoken about how we can develop our capacity to be with suffering, as it arises, by developing our ability to be in attention. A way to develop this capacity is to continually, over and over, come back to the posture of the body that goes with being in attention. This arrangement of the body entails having the three energy centers in the torso in alignment: the head energy center for perception, the heart energy center for emotions, and the energy center in the belly, the hara, for spiritual strength and stability. When these three energy centers (located in the center of the body just in front of the spine) are lined up, then one is in the posture of attention or presence. This centered posture, in combination with a breath, allows one to be present. When I am fully present, in the moment, I can then be in the field of energy that I stand in with others. Here, in this field, I can more easily put myself in another's shoes, imagine their point of view--not in the "either/or" way of thinking but "both/and": I can hold both what is true in my experience and what is so for the other person. This is what it means to be present and, out of that, to have the skillfulness to develop the capacity to experience another person's suffering. So, Yvonne recognized that you had developed your capacity to become present in your breath with your own suffering as it arose and fell, and simultaneously experiencing the suffering of others, not as separate from yourself but as one: as you stood at the shore of the Yamuna River, on that coast of the island off Lagos, and in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.
Mary Jane Jacob is an independent curator whose exhibition programs test the boundaries of public space and relationship of contemporary art to audiences. She has worked closely with artists creating over 50 exhibitions and commissioning over 100 new artists' projects as chief curator at MCA/Chicago and MoCA/Los Angeles; as consulting curator for Fabric Workshop and Museum/Philadelphia; and for such public projects as "Places with a Past" (Charleston, 1991), "Culture in Action" (Chicago, 1993), "Points of Entry" (Pittsburgh, 1996), and "Conversations at The Castle" (Atlanta, 1996). Currently, she is curator for the Spoleto Festival USA's ongoing "Evoking History" program in Charleston, South Carolina. She is co-editor of an upcoming recent book — Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art (University of California Press, fall 2004) — for which she has conducted insightful with a dozen leading figures about their artmaking practices. This volume is the culminating work of "Awake: Art and Buddhism, and The Dimensions of Consciousness", a consortium research effort based in the Bay Area, which she co-organized. Ms. Jacob is Adjunct Professor at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and on the adjunct faculty of Bard College's Graduate Center for Curatorial Studies in New York.
Compared to the sixties and the seventies when performance as a visual arts medium was in its initial stages as a popular medium to explore, today, very few contemporary artists rely on performance as their primary medium of artistic expression. Kim Sooja (b. 1957 in Korea) is one of the leading contemporary artists in the field, combining her performances with video and photography. In her latest project A Needle Woman and as a performance artist, Kim Sooja could almost be described as an 'non-performance artist': silently standing still in the street with her back towards the camera, the audience appearing to be the actual performer.
Over the past years, the work of Kim Sooja has gone through important transitions. However, the idea of sewing remains central to all of her pieces, in a more figurative way at first in her early work, and recently, in a more abstract way. What started as a remnant, as a static patchwork of several individual lives (the sewing together of traditional Korean used clothes gathered by the artist or brought together as bundles on a truck, as in Cities on the Move - Bottari Truck), turned into the tailoring of a garment larger than life, that on a global level would include the existence of millions of people from different continents.
Kim Sooja, now based in New York, gained critical acclaim with her Bottari Truck, which was shown in the Sao Paulo Biennale in 1998 and the Venice Biennale in 1999 based on her performance of driving a truck loaded with bottari bundles through Korea. Kim Sooja's performances are very subtle and never does she impose any conclusions on the viewer. On the contrary, it is the flow of her deliberate 'inaction,' her silence that over time creates an almost meditative state of mind or religious experience for the viewer. With minimal action, Kim Sooja's performances include aesthetics, poetry and contemplation, qualities that often appear to be missing in contemporary art today.
In the following interview, Kim Sooja discusses her recent projects, performance art, as well as the contemporary art scene in Korea.
OS: You are one the very few non-US artists that has been selected for the Whitney Biennial opening in New York (Whitney Museum of American Art). What type of work will you be showing?
KS: We were talking about a project in Central Park, but it is not confirmed yet. The first proposal I made was actually rejected because that specific space in Central Park was already being used (a space similar to a stage close to the fountain). I was going to install theatre curtains in relationship to the piece. I was planning on entitling it Invisible Woman, where I would disappear for the whole month. That was my plan, but it is not going to be realized. However, we are still trying to find another location and I might install table-cloths in one of the cafeterias of the zoo. The museum is very excited about the project. I was also given a space within the museum to do an installation. We nevertheless have to confirm whether I can use both spaces.
OS: How did you select the various sites for your performances of A Needle Woman, your latest work?
KS: I tended to select cities that had a very large population, where I would meet many people on the street. I did not really plan to go to mega cities, located in different continents, but this is what actually happened. After my first performance in Tokyo, people told me I should go to Shanghai where I would meet a lot of people. In order to complete my project, I ended up going there. Following that, I, of course, also thought of India as a place for a performance. I chose Delhi, then Mexico City, another city with a large population, then Cairo and Lagos. All these cities in different continents are very unique. In a way, A Needle Woman addresses globalism, but also localism. At the same time, it is interesting to witness how people from various cultures react differently towards my work. For me, this project created fascinating interactions.
OS: More specifically, how was the reaction to the performance in these various places?
KS: Of course, the reaction was very different from one place to another. In Tokyo, when I was standing in the street, nobody dared to look at me. It was as if I was an invisible person. In the beginning, my body was very tense, but at the end, since nobody was looking at me anyway, my body became lighter and lighter, and I was in a state of meditation. As people were just ignoring me and passing by, my body became like a ghost. In Shanghai, the people showed more interest. They looked at me with curiosity, but without really approaching me. They just went on their way. In Delhi, it was more intense because people on the street were so curious. They stopped in front of me trying to understand what I did, and who I was. Needless to say, I caused a lot of traffic problems! Many people inquired with my cameraperson whether I was a sculpture or a Buddha. I think that in a way, they were just so innocent and didn't have many experiences of that kind with foreigners. It was a very intense encounter. Mexico City was more like a mixture between Shanghai and Tokyo. The people didn't overtly show their interest, but they still found me 'strange'. They would look back, and sometimes laugh and talk about me, but without ever touching my body.
Cairo was a very different experience because people were very curious, and tried to provoke me. For example, a man just ran into my performance and sprayed some perfume at me in order to wake me up, and see how I would react. Also, a woman started walking around me. She suddenly approached me and grabbed my hair. The audience just played with me like a doll, and of course, I couldn't move. It was interesting the way they reacted. They were very eager to communicate with me, coming into the camera frame, talking to the camera people. There was always some interaction going on. The next stop was in Lagos. It was the most static performance as far as the relationship with the audience goes. People on the marketplace stood in front of me as if they were taking a group photo that included me. They were trying to provoke me by waving their hands in front of me to see if I would react or not. They wanted to find out whether I was a ghost. Children were always standing there, laughing. Sometimes they were curious, sometimes they became very serious about what I was doing. At the end of the performance, they all took a photograph. With them, it was similar to a humanistic relationship. London was also very similar to New York. People were just following their way, coming and going, walking fast, talking on their cell phones. Also, a lot of people were having their lunch on the street while was performing, and they tried to find some information about my presence. Sometimes, they were even trying to imitate what I was doing.
OS: Do you welcome the interaction with the audience?
KS: Most performers are doing and showing something which involves moving their body, with people watching in a static position. Instead, I wanted to show different reactions from people towards my performance by standing still, and not moving my body.
OS: Throughout your latest projects, how did you become 'a needle woman'?
KS: Initially, I was sewing together used clothing from my grandmother, mother and family. Then, I started collecting anonymous clothing, used clothing. They kept people's smells and the shape of their body. The sewing process enabled me to become a needle itself. In the beginning, I was sewing with my hands with the needle, but then, I started my 'wrapping series.' This also deals with sewing because I see sewing as a wrapping process of the fabric with the thread. Then, I developed the wrapping series of the bundles. I feel that the bundle is another type of sewing. It is almost three-dimensional sewing that wraps together. In 1994, I started connecting my body as a symbol of a needle with a piece called Sewing into Walking where I was performing in nature. On the ground, I put bed covers, and I would then walk around to collect these fabrics one by one. So this walking process, the collecting and gathering of all these things is about the meaning of the needle which my body is serving. From that point, I started to focus more on the invisible character of the needle like in Sewing into Looking: I see people's way of looking, communicating, eating, loving. In a way, everything that implies a connecting process is sewing. When I did Laundry woman, Looking into Sewing, Laundry Field, it was related to my sewing, looking, and walking process all together as one function of the needle. My body became the needle itself. Of course, it is symbolic but I find I don't really need to do needle-work by hand anymore. I am now more interested in the invisible daily activities of people. Putting myself in the middle of people is like a weaving process. Over the years, my work has become more abstract, different from the work I was previously showing. I am discovering a new horizon.
OS: Most of the time you have used cloth both in a positive and in a negative way. Are you planning on further exploring the negative side of cloth?
KS: I did that kind of performance / video / photo work in 1998. I covered myself with cloth, I was completely hidden. I am actually thinking of doing more performances in a hidden situation. Overall, the cloth and clothing that we wear living together for our whole life deals with my basic question on life, and also with my question on surface which is canvas, since I started out as a painter. For example, the Korean bed cover is a symbol of our body and stands as the frame of our life. It is the site where we are born, where we love, dream, sleep, suffer and die. So it is a symbolic field of human life. Wrapping and unwrapping inside is more about questioning our own way and our own destiny. Putting clothes in it was also very much related to my earlier sewn pieces, but also it is completely related to my recent needle woman performances.
OS: So your early training was as a painter?
KS: I studied painting so my questions came through the painting issues in contemporary painting. Of course, I was examining oil painting, objects, doing all these different experimental paintings and exploring various processes. Still, I was always wondering how I could really get into the object I was dealing with, and become one with this object? That was my main question. However, I could never feel the oneness when I was dealing with canvas, paper, or any other medium. I was always trying to find the level where I can completely overlap myself. I had a great desire to melt with this object. The sewing process is all about desire, which can also be love in a way. I discovered the tactility in the sewing process in 1998 when I was making bed covers: putting the needlepoint to the fabric, I almost felt an electric shock, which intrigued me. I felt that I had found what I was looking for, this was the way I could explore the question of surface, the question of life itself. Sewing was a very important starting point which then led me to use my body as a needle.
OS: During your studies, you traveled extensively. Which trip was the most influential?
KS: I received a grant from the French government to study in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. It was also an important opportunity for me to discover Europe, and I traveled to Italy, Germany and Denmark. These trips just confirmed what I had learnt from books, but they were not that influential to my work. The one most important trip to me was the one to Japan. I went there in 1979. Until then, in Korea, one was not allowed to travel abroad, and consequently we didn't have much information about our neighbours. Before going to Japan, I thought all Asian countries were the same culture. When I went to Japan, I found it was very different from my country, Korea. In Japan, the structure, the culture and architecture are all very humble and 'simple'. Although I was fascinated by what I saw in Japan, I also felt that there were some limitations in terms of aesthetic quality. Their art is very sophisticated, and I find it very interesting. However, I also found my own reality from that trip, and I started to appreciate our culture in Korea with its colourful, and almost 'shamanistic' elements. I became very interested in further discovering the Korean aspects dealing with structure and aesthetic. That is one reason why I was very keen to use typical Korean fabrics as material in my work.
OS: The Bottari Truck project is one of your most famous pieces. How did it come about? Which cities did you cover?
KS: It was started in 1997 in Korea. I made a trip in Korea to visit old cities and villages I used to live in, and in which I had memories. It took 11 days to make the whole trip. Out of this trip, I made one video called Cities on the Move, 2727 km which was showing my back passing through the mountains. It explores the question of time and space, and their coexistence. Initially, while I was sewing, my mind would always travel somewhere else. I would always dream of traveling. The Bottari Truck performance was my actual traveling, with my mind going back towards the past, looking back on my life in Korea.
OS: Recently more and more curators and dealers travel to Korea to find "new talent".
KS: Over the past decades, there were two important changing points: the Olympics in 1988 and the first Kwangju Biennale in the mid 1990's. Following the Olympics, more people from abroad started coming to Korea, and after the Biennale, more and more people could come to visit artists studios and exhibitions. Today, there are numerous contemporary art exhibitions taking place, and the artists get to show their work abroad. There has been a major transition from the time when it used to be very closed to today where it is completely open.
— From Asian Art Newspaper, London, 2002.
GM: When I visited you for the first time in your apartment in downtown Manhattan I felt as if I had just been transported into another world; an enclave of contemplation and concentration in a city whose maxim is the acceleration of the pace of life. Have you brought your world from Korea with you and transplanted it into the city context of New York (almost like a Bottari-Bundle ) or do you rather see this Korean world as an alternative design/parallel universe to an accelerated existential rhythm which has almost exceeded the human being's biological capacities?
KS: Whether I live in Korea or in New York, I live in my own world which is isolated from outer world, and that's the way I keep distance from the other. In the sense of isolation, New York can be more isolated place than Korea in physical way, but I felt much more isolation in Korea in intellectual, and psychological way, in a society which is overwhelmed by mass consumption which often happens in developing counties. This idea obviously influences to the art world in Korea.
GM: Is it a splendid isolation?
KS: Well, sometimes. It often fulfils different part of my desire and this loneliness and isolation enables me to reach to the absolute world.
GM: Travelling plays a central role in your work. The continu ous ly changing new locations in which you place yourself and your art continue to change the context of your work. (In this respect, one might almost characterize your work as context art.) Would you say that traveling is a sort of means of survival for you - an activity which evokes positive feelings or do you think what Paul Virilio called "the small death of departure" has a role to play here?
KS: Travelling for me is not always voluntary one but was often forced ones. It's been part of my life since I was a little girl. My father used to be in military service since Korean War and our family had to move from one village to another, one city to another almost every two years. We've been lived and moving around near DMZ area for many years... It was a surprise for me to realize that we have been packing and unpacking bundles all the time which is my actual body of work since early '90s and how clear and strong the passing by landscape images from train was in my childhood like it was presented in my recent videos. Location and dislocation, encounter and separation were always there and I find myself who has a borderline mentality and think the fabric I deal with in a way is doing that role. I had to carry on a great deal of 'longing' and 'nostalgia' as well as 'laps of memory' and 'adjustment to the new environment' since little girl. When I wasn't traveling somewhere and stayed in these mountain villages, I was always looking at the black big mountain which was standing in front of me as if an obstacle and longing to go beyond these mountains to discover another world.
GM: But do you feel at home when you travel? Or do you miss home?
KS: I don't think too much about home when I travel as I know I am going back. I think we tend to have different attitude to travel according to the ways we travel. When we are in a train or a bus, our memories left behind stay in our mind longer than when we are in the plane. Airplane separates us digitally to nowhere to the place where there is no life, creating a moment of disconnection.
Everlasting location and dislocation, leaving people behind, and meeting strangers in a strange place, of course, were a strong impact to my growth, and I had to deal with these heavy memories of people and the place as well as dealing with new condition of life.
GM: Your artistic journeys imply a double-code: On the one hand, you introduce (of whatever disposition) a Korean identity into a new milieu and, in doing so , exercise an influence on your immediate environment, on the other hand, you subject your own sensibility to new impressions thereby potentially altering your own conscious experience of the world. A theorist once remarked that it is at once the curse and delight of travelling that it makes 'readable' places which formerly seemed boundless. Would you say that, for you this process is generally one of the disillusionment or over fulfillment of dreams?
KS: My interest on travel lies on my own perception on the world and it's awakening but not about sentimental fulfillment of dreams, and I think disillusionment is the nature of encounter if there were any illusion.
GM: For your work Cities on the Move - 2727 kilometers Bottari Truck you loaded the back of a lorry with Bottaris and drove through Korea in 1997, and in Venice Biennial in 1999, you made a journey from Korea to Venice which was titled Bottari Truck in exile / or d'Apperttuto dedicated to the Kosovo refugees. Which role does the political dimension play or, more precisely, political intervention, in your aesthetics?
KS: In the sense that my interest lies tremendously on human condition and its reality, I would say it is inevitable to be connected to political dimension, but basically, I am not so interested in dealing demonstrative political issues in a direct way in contemporary art. My work is more related to the dimension of pure humanity and it's affection, and contemplation towards mankind rather than revealing political problems. I always hated political attitude in human behavior and this idea made me even stay away from political issues as I simply don't like people who deals politics whom I often find dishonest. Of course, I don't want to generalize my personal attitude toward politicians and there are people who sacrifice themselves for this issue with dignity.
GM: You dedicated it to Kosovo refugees.
KS: The Kosovo war was still going on near Venice during the Biennale and I simply couldn't do anything else without mentioning this tragedy and memorizing the victims of the war which never ends in this world, especially which was happening right nearby Venice. Same situation happened to my piece at the 1 st Kwnagju Biennale which was dedicated to Kwangju Messacre in the 80's and for the piece at Nagoya City Art Museum when the Sampoong Department store building was collapsed in Seoul and killed hundreds of people in my neighbourhood.
War was always next to me since I was a little girl, the time when my family lived near DMZ. My friends and I used to wander collecting empty bullets and fragments of mine in the wild field and played with them often.
GM: What is your attitude towards the theme of the native and the foreign? Do you feel yourself today to be a New Yorker, a Korean in exile or a nomadic citizen of the world. Do you think that the concept native homeland continues to have relevance when describing contemporary modern conditions?
KS: All of them. Homeland exists no more in reality but only in our memory in this era.
GM: In your work "A Needle Woman" but also in A Laundry Woman you present yourself schematically from behind, statue-like and in various milieus and geographical contexts. The global nomad, which generally implies an activism, is rendered immobile whereas the surrounding alien world continues to move. How do you define this dialectic of motion and immobility?
And what role does the Zen Buddhist concept of the samadhi play here — the ideas of contemplation and unity, which are often used in meditation?
KS: Nothing is immobile... and mobility is the fundamental state of existing being. Any moment is in vibration in it's own rhythm.
It is a relative fine line which divides mobility and immobility and this hypothetical standard functions only within a certain perspective. I located my body to the limit to the fine barometer which divides immobility and mobility. It is in a way logical that the mobility of my body which enabled to locate in a specific street of the cities in different continents functions as an example of immobility, while my instant decision of being immobility is made in a brief moment with no reasoning. It is made in the midst of conflict of energy of the intense mobility happening between two different elements, the one which is my body, and the other which is outer world.
I always wanted to show the reality of the world more by 'doing nothing' 'without making something' and showing 'as it is' while most performers try to show and create something new by doing or acting something.
I've never practiced meditation in my life but I find every moment for me was a meditation itself. I reached to the similar state of Zen Buddhism through completely my own way of meditation on life and art and its practice without referring any model or a text. I even haven't read any book for over a decade since I decided not to in the late 80's and I recently started to read some books again. I had no time to follow other's perception and didn't want to be influenced. Now I find extreme similarities between my practice and Zen Buddhism.
GM: In your video performances you either stand sit or lie — statue-like — with your back to the audience at the centre of the image - a schematic, faintly delineated presence. You become a template-like form drawing the gaze of the observer towards the centre of the image and then confront him with an empty space. Is your intention here to select as a central theme the idea of the "invisible self"; to delineate an area that must first be filled by the vibrations of a feminine elan vital?
A critic for the New York Times experienced your presence in the videos as mythical and melancholic. He characterises you as a "lost soul in a globalised modernity". Do you find this diagnosis appropriate?
KS: I don't think about my gender while I am performing and my body stays completely in neutral state during this performance and it only functions as a tool which witnesses the world. Maybe it is the reason the critic characterises me as a lost soul in a globalised modernity as I am the only being in the scene who separates my body from the rest of the people on the street and look at the whole world while others are relate their gaze and concern within themselves .Audiences who see the video in the show has another layer of distance as video is already edited frame which shows only upper waist back part of myself and the audiences gaze replaces the camera's eye.
I don't doubt it could be seen as a mythical presence but regarding his perception 'melancholic', I would say 'yes' if only standing still in the middle of the crowd means melancholic. It is a very provocative act and decision.
GM: Contexts / environments play a central role in your work as, to a certain extent, you form the dialogue partner in the exchange between art and life.
How do you select these environments: How, for example, do you work within the specific framework that the Kunsthalle Vienna provides?
KS: Well, I've been always making site-specific installations so I had to consider the character of the space which is unique glass pavilion.
I find the elements of the cityscape of Wien around this building quite interesting and unusual for an art space so I decided to take this as a positive elements to invite the city-scape to the space and reflect and overlap my installation to the city-scape using this glass. I thought laundry installation could work quite well giving an interesting contrast to the city.
GM: The installation A Laundry Woman will be hanging out washing on a line in Vienna — a common sight in Mediterranean and tropical countries and yet, in Vienna, much less common. Does this concern the demarcation of cultural differences; perhaps also the idea of making the public space more intimate by means of the public spectacle of personal pieces of clothing?
KS: Laundries, especially hung with used bedcovers can be very much intimate material not only because they are personal items but also bedcover itself is about our body and intimacy. I am using this universal way of laundry (it is disappearing, though) as my own statement which has been related to everlasting subject on life for me. Each laundry hung on the cloth line is a big question for me.
GM: Could you give more idea about this input of your private life, your biography, in terms of your work or relation to your work?
KS: I never mentioned about my private life in my work or in interviews but in fact, my work is all about my private life, its sexual suppression and liberation, its insight and sympathy, and its contextualisation in contemporary art.
You asked earlier about the reason why I use only Korean bedcovers and if it is to create a cultural and visual contrast in Western society. The meaning of bedcover and it's fantasy and social context is different from Koreans and westerners. Bedcovers I use are mostly abandoned used ones and those are the ones made for the newly marriage couples. As you see, these bedcovers have embroideries and patterns with it's unique opposite colour combination which signifies Yin and Yang, and has symbols of love, happiness, wealth, long life and many sons which most Koreans wish and carry on* through their lives. Wishing many sons is typical wishes in Confucian society.
I am using these fabrics as these are my own reality and social, aesthetical environment which influenced my life so much but western bedcovers do not have such diverse meanings and relationship to me and there's not such a strong suppression and endurance in private life in western society. It is same reason that I wrap the Bottari with Korean bedcover as it embraces and questions so many different issues and has private, social, cultural context to me. Bedcover for me is nothing but a frame of our bodies and lives and it is the most fundamental site of human being where we get born, love and dream, rest, we suffer, and we finally die there.
GM: A work situation you often like to choose is the artist performing in front of the desiring video eye; a standard situation in environments in which the individual must continually reflect on his or her suitability within the framework of advanced media conditions. (Something which, through the music video, has become a general social form of communication). Could we interpret this as an investigative project, in which the relationship of the subject, media representation and the existential concentration to the surrounding milieus is subjected to a visual analysis?
KS: Probably. Locating my body in the crowd in different part of the world is an act of posing question (catechism) to myself and to the others who are in the milieus in an intimate but strange and direct way as well as to the viewers for the videos in the exhibition space in much more neutral way through framing and filtering by media locating audiences body to the backside of my body which was located camera's eye.
GM: You have been working with decorated ordinary Korean bedcovers for many years now: sewn-together and printed fabrics. It is these objects, which in Korea have been allocated to a feminine sphere. Was it important for you, in a male-oriented Confucian society to place these objects at the center of your art; thereby ascribing to yourself an aura-like presence, which you do not have in an everyday context? By doing that and putting it out of the female circle or the household, you put it on a totally different level, in a way, it worked like a emancipation strategy.
KS: It is true. Sewing, wrapping, hanging laundry, cleaning house, spreading table cloths, cooking... these are all domestic female activities which never considered as meaningful important activities as high art. I find these activities to be most amazing fundamental art activities in terms of aesthetic, cultural, social, psychological dimension which most people are not aware much and which art historians are not mentioning much. But please don't misunderstand that I am doing this as a feminist artist as my interest lies on totality in perception and it's realization.
Women's domestic activities are fully composed with activities of painting, sculpture, installation and performances and we can analyse each activity in the contemporary art context.I am trying to create and expend my own concept of women's and everyday's activity in contemporary art context by focusing mundane domestic female activities as well as everyday activities .I found the methodology of 'sewing' while I was searching for a methodology which enables to express my structural vision of the world in the early 80's (structure of surface and the world and that of life), by practicing this methodology with this particular gaze, I was able to extend and come back again to the vision toward the whole world which is broad mundane act of human being. That is how my 'sewing' clothes transformed into 'A Needle Woman' video performance.
GM: The Pojagi are commonly made from already used, worn out pieces of material, which are sewn together. So biographies, personal life histories, are written into them. A procedure is thus realised in everyday usage which became dominant in Western art during the nineties, namely, in the form of Remix / Recycling / Sampling. Naturally, although it is not possible to compare the conditions of production and milieus, it is possible to compare the way of processing the material. also, all these materials tell at least some stories about the people who used them- and you put all these stories, in a way, together, by linking them and so on. You recycle material which was already used for certain functions now, for another function, an artistic function to tell a story. Did this similarity play a role in the design of your own types? So when you started and felt this effect?
KS: First of all, I have to make a clear definition between my wrapping cloth which was originally 'bedcover', which supposed not to be made to wrap things but people often use it when they move as it is the biggest cloth we can find in household, but this is originally made for covering our body to keep worm. 'Pojagi' which is sewn with left over cloths in household mainly called for 'Korean wrapping cloth' is made as means of wrapping and when it is used for covering as well, usually for food. My bedcover functions as Pojagi, in broad meaning of wrapping cloth, as the term 'Pojagi' is used as a symbol of wrapping cloth in Korea but Pojagi doesn't function as a bedcover, so the 'Pojagi' is not the 'Bedcover' which I am using as wrapping cloth.
As I mentioned before, my recycling idea especially for using used clothes was started from 1983 when I first made a sewn work with my grandmother's left over traditional Korean clothes when she passed away. Since then, I always collected used clothes and used for my sewn pieces, but this was not just to recycle the material but recycling rather our body and life itself.
GM: In this connection: the Senegalese fashion designer Oumou Sy, famous for her wild combinations of Western and African styles and materials, calls her globally coloured designs "Metissage", a combination of everything, which pays little attention to tradition and origins. Are such ideas also important for you?
KS: What I saw in my earlier carrier was used traditional Korean clothes from my grandmother, from my mother, and since 90's I also collected used modern clothes from friends and from unknown people. So most important issue for me was the persons who used to wear the clothes remained though these physicality of cloths but not just an aesthetical aspect of the materials.
The first sewn piece I made in 1983 was from my grandmother's remains after she passed away and I was so much attached by the texture of the cloth and her own woven silk which seems to be a skin her body which keeps all memories and love of herself. I expended my materials later on with unknown people's clothes which kept human smell always, so my sewing practice was in a way invisible networking of human being and it's morning and my aesthetic concern went always parallel to it.
When I ask to myself, what in the world, did I sew and wrap over 20 years, I can say now it was the scars, pain, longing, love, passion, tear parts of my psychology and body as well as my loneliness which needed to be attached. My sympathy towards others is nothing but a self-love, I find.
GM: In Africa a non-verbal form of communication is unfolded in the pattern, colours and symbols on textiles — a non-idiomatic language competence, so to speak. Are such elements of language / segments of communication "woven" into your pastiches, which include, as they do, completely new combinations of traditional patterns and embroidery?
KS: Absolutely. As I mentioned earlier, these bedcovers have symbolic patterns and rich embroideries — since they are specially made for the newly marriage couples, there are always meaningful signs and wishes of our lives such as birds (especially peacock or a Chinese Phoenix) and butterflies together with flowers which signify love, turtles for long life, purses for wealth, dears for many kids and happiness of family, and there are also written words such as 'happiness', 'pleasure', 'long life'... in fact, the fabrics are full of these life long wishes we carry on. But the fabrics I find are mostly abandoned ones which means the couple thrown it away or they are not together anymore.
With all these symbols, I always find empty bodies which were left which used to stay there for a while in their own history and memories.
GM: In the abstract quality of traditional Korean fabrics, critics have pointed out the similarities to Mondrian or the abstract Expressionists. Would you agree with this and do you play with these superficial similarities or would this be a mistaken interpretation?
KS: I find that there's great similarities in the colour combinations and formal structure between Korean Pojagi and Mondrian painting. But Korean Pojagi was made 500 years earlier than Mondrian's if we compare the dates. And they are mostly made by anonymous Korean women who divert their minds from sorrow, loneliness, their hardship and tedious life.
GM: The work with fabrics / textiles / colours implies a hands-on aesthetics, a direct physical contact with materials, which was common in earlier forms of art (sculpture/painting) but which has since assumed a much less significant position. Does one aspect of your work concern the retrieval of the material as such, in a world which is becoming increasingly less material? As a metaphor is the "Needle" preferred to the computer mouse?
KS: One could say 'Yes' if one create a concept which computer mouse can replace our body. But computer mouse is already part of our body and I know how the tool can replace our body through my own process of needle work. Needle could have been replaced to my body as it is a tool which is extension of our body, then why not computer mouse?
GM: In this connection, the body, or more especially, the disappearance of the body, belongs to one of the central themes of contemporary art. In a time of digital production the physical is often reduced to a trace element of its material presence; think of the online-chats, in which digital shadows communicate with each other. Could your work over the last ten years be understood as an attempt to make conscious and realise the fleeting nature of the bodily and visceral in an age where the body is itself disappearing?
KS: My disappearance and immaterialization is nothing to do with global digital issues but from my own vision and for my own necessity of being light. I've been dealing with so much weights of bodies which was tremendous heaviness to me. I guess the whole clothes I've been dealing with was at least many dozens of tons, and they are basically from millions of anonymous people. I wish I could have payed some amount of my Karma and to liberate myself.
I really wish to disappear at some point with my own decision, and I've been planning 'A Disappearing Woman' piece since last year, although we have to someday.
GM: It sounds like you are a magician.
KS: Magician? It is interesting because one Korean-American writer called Joan Kee sent me a message saying that there's a hypnotic element in my work which I find very interesting perception.
GM: What does the wrapping of objects as something you often work with, signify (Deductive Objects). Should the object be made to disappear or through visible invisibility (the fabric coverings emphasise the contours) be especially aura-like and erotically charged?
KS: Maybe you are right. The reason why I call these object works as 'Deductive Object' is to make difference between sewn series and object series in terms of its process. If the sewn pieces were inductive methodology of creating a secondary surface which was already planned in form, the object pieces was the opposite way, so to speak, examining the existing structure by wrapping or covering with accumulating action but is ending off to the original form. That's how I titled the object pieces as 'Deductive Object'.
GM: As part of your communication with the public, the visitors may open the Bottaris and examine the contents. Is this a conscious attempt to establish the difference to Western reception, where such "interventions" are interpreted as damaging or sacrilegious and, as such, sanctioned?
KS: I didn't particularly allow people to touch Bottaries or any other fabric installations but people just do it as they are so curious about this colourful Korean tactile materials and about the content what's inside Bottaries even though they were installed in the museums. Since it is happening all the time even if there's a guard, I decided to accept the fact and the changes by public.
In 1995, when I installed two tons and a half used cloth es for the 1 st Kwangju Biennale on outdoor woods w hich was dedicated to Kwangju Messacre, almost o ne ton has has been disappeared — the show went for two months and during this period people opened Bottaries and took used clothings - so at the end, with change of the season from summer into fall, with rain and people's foot steps on the clothes —, it looked almost like a ruin. And I thought that was the point the piece was done.
I find the perception on used items, on the contrary to what you mentioned, is different from Koreans and Westerners especially for the used clothes. You say western people might think audiences' intervention as sanctioned but I find westerners are more familiar with used items. For example, they buy and wear used clothes worn by unknown people without hesitation (I guess that's why there's so many second hand markets in western countries), but Koreans believe that the spirit of the person who used to wear the clothes is remained in it, so they are resistant to wear unknown person's clothes. We have a tradition to burn his or her clothes when the person dies and believe the person's body and soul is sent to the heaven.
GM: Also, in your video performances you allow people to take part of it, isn't it? And you have named your current work cycle A Needle Woman and not 'The Needle Woman'. The choice of the indefinite article implies a certain indeterminate quality while, at the same time, a drifting away from a sharply defined individuality to an imaginary collective. Through the focus of your artistic sensibility, would you say your intention is to themetize the specificities of the Korean woman in general?
KS: Not at all. But maybe I wanted to hide myself... The title 'A Needle Woman' is nothing to do with emphasis on woman but to describe myself who is a person who cannot be named as a man. When I make indefinite identity for my presence as 'A Needle Woman', it means it can be anybody, like an inexplicable neutral icon, and it's not necessary to define my presence and I wanted to keep distance between myself and the performer who is in the video and who will be seen to myself later on but not to imply any Korean women issue. There is no evidence that I am a Korean woman in that video and I don't even wear a Korean dress.
GM: Your work is often discussed within the framework of a differentiated Western feminism. Would this be an appropriate theoretical foundation or is it lacking its object, namely, the role of the female artist in contemporary Korean society?
KS: As I mentioned earlier, I've been denying to be called as a Feminist ever since I started my carrier. I would accept it only in the sense that Feminism is all about Humanism. Of course women's role in contemporary Korean society is so important and we have to be treated equally with no prejudice and movement for women's right should be continued in our society. But my philosophical and artistic aim is to achieve the totality which absorbs and unites the whole questions of the world.
GM: When did you initially envision yourself to be an artist? When did you first think you wanted to be an artist? Or to study art?
KS: When I was 11 years old, my homeroom teacher at elementary school asked us to write two different occupations we want to be in the future.
I wrote 'painter' and 'philosopher'. My passion for art was so strong when I was in high school and I was almost trying to quit the school to be just an artist. At the same time I had a strong conflict between the desire of being an artist and being a religious person, for example, a Catholic sister, or someone who devote her life for the people in need. The time I felt I was already an artist was when I was 13 years old in middle school, when I decided not to participate any art competition which gives prize which I could win easily and which was common process for the students who want to be an artist or to go to collage in Korean society.
GM: You first began as a painter. You now work exclusively with installations and moving pictures. Does this have to do with the step from the two-dimensional to the three-dimensional, with the aspect of motion as opposed to immobility? Or was painting simply too far away from the realities of life? Now you add acoustic dimension in your work.
KS: I was interested in sound piece since 1992 and acoustic element in my video and installation has been tried since 1994 and I used to use popular music and monk chanting. I've been also making single sound pieces which I want to develop more.
Ever changing my vision on space and time enabled to open up new horizon but I only followed the logic of sensibility and my inspiration that led me to make artistic decision. The way I develop my idea from two-dimensional stage into three-dimensional and then to video which allowed to deal with time and space is originated from my concept of sewing, wrapping and unwrapping. I think 'Nature of Sewing and wrapping' already have elements of opening new dimension to time, so to speak, it was already there.
GM: Do you "paint" today with an 'extended' brush: A metaphorical needle that sews together the material, mediums, cultures and epochs and, in the form of an extended bricolage, creates continually new combinations of object connections?
KS: In terms of methodology, yes.
GM: If someone ask you a commission to do a new work, and give you one million dollars, what would you do?
KS: I would donate the money to support children in famine and pain in this world.
GM: So you would give the money to those children; you wouldn't use it for your work?
KS: It's my work.
GM: In what way would you say your attitude to the media has changed over the years? TVs used to be integral elements of installations — in some senses, television bottaris. Today, for example, in Laundry Woman, video is only used in its function as conserving or recording material, namely exterritorialised. On the other hand, the earlier silent works now have an acoustic dimension. Are these changes in the use of media possibilities intuitive decisions or conscious aesthetic priorities?
KS: Although there's moments where I consider aesthetic and logical aspect of work, my artistic decision is always made at intuitive and instant moment. I think the moment of making artistic decision is similar to the state of 'Zen' which transforms the whole world to another dimension.
Of course, I started video works as I consider video as an 'Image Bottari' or a 'Wrapped Image' to show my concept of 'wrapping' and I wasn't so interested in creating images when I first started video in 1994, so my intension to use video was completely different from other video artists.
GM: Were you — or are you — interested in western or European philosophy? And are there any philosophers you are especially interested in?
KS: Until around late 80's, I was interested in Structuralism as I was focused on fundamental structure of the world, so I was interested in Wittgenstein's linguistic approach, Levi Strauss's research on cultural and geographical examples and structure, C.G. Jung's psychological structure, and I was also interested in Heidegger related to existential subjects... and now I find how similar their thoughts were in relationship to Zen Buddhism which I had no concrete idea around the time. So my interests on Western thoughts actually stopped at that period as I decided not to read books and information since late 80's and I haven't read books for over decade and I didn't want to be influenced by outer information. And I had also no time to follow other's thoughts. I recently started reading books again. I was of course aware of De-Structuralism and following recent issues although I haven't read as it is logical to create this idea following Structuralism.
GM: What was the last book you read most recently?
KS: I read a book called Western Philosophy and Zen Buddhism by John Stephanie, a comparison between Zen Buddhism and Western philosophy and I find it very interesting. I'd never read any book which compared literally, word to word, Zen Buddhism with Western philosophy, the differences and the similarities. But I think this issue should be researched and developed much further as there's a huge gap between Western and Oriental thoughts and methodology.
GM: So, as you told me, when you were young, you were asked what you wanted to be and you said, "a painter or a philosopher" — If one were to ask you today what you want to be, what would you answer?
KS: A lover, or a monk.
GM: Thank you.
Gerald Matt is the director of the Kunsthalle Wien.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: Your "Cities on the Move" project takes place on several layers: as a real-time event, as videos, as a sound installation, as an exhibition on airplanes, as a book. Marcel Broodthaers said, "The Museum is one truth which is surrounded by many other truths which are worth being explored."
Kim Soo-Ja: Cities on the Move is our mind and spirit, sewing this whole globe. It is my oxygen - it is my being.
HUO: Alighiero e Boetti wrote, "It all moves across waves and waves are made of high and low intervals, pauses, and silences."
KSJ: Across the waves of mountains and valleys, across the waves of our body and spirit, a breath.
HUO: Do you see the "Bottari Truck" as a social sculpture?
KSJ: Bottari Truck is a loaded self, a loaded others, a loaded meanings, a loaded history, a loaded in-between.
HUO: Everything is in-between.
KSJ: Nothing is in-between.
HUO: Time has become more important than space throughout the '90's in art. Could you tell me about the way your "Cities on the Move" projects in progress are happening in time — rather a process than a product, or rather oscillating between the process and the object?
KSJ: Time is mental space we can never grab, as physical presence is space we can never escape from. We can always recall the time when we want, but can never locate our body the moment we want to.
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.
HUO: Could you tell me about the "Cities on the Move" sound piece you created in Vienna? You told me that you had previously recorded the sounds of "Cities" in Asia.
KSJ: Since 1993, I used to record the environmental sound including my footsteps and vehicles, people chatting on the street and in the restaurant, as well as the sound of train stations in New York, Paris, Tokyo, Milan... etc.
Actually, since my stay in New York in 1992, I was very much aware of all those different languages and communication sounds weaving in the public spaces. Once we had a table of friends from Russia, Finland, Ireland, Norway, Germany, France, England, Korea...in a Vietnamese restaurant. It was great to be in the middle of these languages sharing food together, and I recorded that day's sounds on the table.
For the sound piece at the Secession, I recorded a series of sounds from a subway circulation in Seoul from one station to another, including sounds of compartments of the train, station announcements, people's footsteps and conversations with continuous chattering sound of the train. In this piece, I tried to relocate this drawing sound of Seoul to the Secession space, Vienna, which I perceive as another kind of "Bundles on the Move."
HUO: Who are your heroes?
KSJ: Unfamiliar word for me... but if there are, they will be anonymous victims of heroism, hierarchy, customs, fixed ideas, discrimination, ignorance, and untruth of the society. It could be me, it could be you.
HUO: Helio Oiticica referred to marginal heroes, Deleuze to minor heroes.
HUO: Could you tell me how the magazine exhibition on all Asiana Airlines happened? Through the fact that you exhibit on all board bulletin magazines, the show is on view 1000 meters altitude. Andreas Slominski called the page of a board bulletin on a plane "A Flying Carpet" in his show for Museum in Progress on board Austrian Airlines.
KSJ: Asiana Airlines in-flight magazine project was possible with the support of SSAMZIE, which asked me to do an advertisement in Asiana Magazine for their company with the image of my work. A plane is an interesting object and site which connects one city to another, containing people on the move. So instead of doing a usual advertisement, I asked the company if I could do this as my Cities on the Move project and they accepted my idea.
I've been thinking of realizing a project in the plane for many years — it could be on monitors, magazines, seats, carpets, foods, sounds, costumes of the crews in the plane. It is always exciting to imagine the incredible altitude from the plane — also from the ground.
HUO: Has the art world in Korea changed since the economic crash last year? I heard from Chitti-Kasemkitvatana that in Bangkok there are recently lots of new initiatives popping up in empty buildings, but also exhibitions in cafes. Are there similar new structures in Seoul?
KSJ: There are some cafes where concerts, performances, exhibitions are happening, yet more on commercial levels... but I have a feeling that these will bring more alternative space activities in Seoul. Artists whose work is not saleable have no place to show their work.
HUO: Do you have unrealized projects? Projects which were too expensive to realize? Projects which were censored? Projects you forgot to realize?
KSJ: There are projects which were not possible because of economics, time, space, and technical problems. Some forgotten projects will come back to my mind when it is needed. I contain my projects in my body which I find as my studio and I don't try to remember or describe them all.
HUO: You exhibit in museums, on the street, in an airplane magazine, etc. etc. What seems very important with your "Cities on the Move" project is that there is no hierarchy of these spaces. As de Certeau said, "Space is practiced place (or vice versa)."
KSJ: If Bottari Truck is a bundle with clothes, an airplane is a bundle of people, same as the compartment of a subway train. Bottari is everywhere, body and mind, womb and tomb, globe and universe, bundle of bundle of bundle... folding and unfolding our mind and geography, time and space.
HUO: Do you like to be on planes?
KSJ: I like the non-gravitation like state of time and space on the plane where I situate myself nowhere, in-between, and apart from all relationships... but it's phobic.
HUO: About mobile housing, Buckminster Fuller made a statement for housing as a service rather than a propriety.
HUO: I just saw your catalogue from Kassel. Could you tell me about the show there?
KSJ: I made three different installations in the Museum Fridericianum. One with bundles, another space with video and sound, and in the tower space as a performance piece with covered mannequins and the video documentation of performance. For the Bottari piece, I installed 13 Bottari in a room which has a small window toward outside.
The video piece titled Sewing into Walking - Istiklal Caddesi was the one I made in Istanbul last year. I captured people's walk coming and going on Istiklal Caddesi in Taxim, by just locating the camera beside the tramway, and I left it for an hour without changing any format, angle, or focus. This is an "Image Bottari", wrapped real people's walk by looking through the camera lense and capturing... and I put Tibetan monk chanting sounds onto these images of people.
The third one was a performance piece in relation to the covered figure in the audience, installing mannequin which was fully covered with used bed covers in circular structure of arrangement onto its body from the top to the bottom, in the middle of the cross-shaped room in the tower. I see the audience as performers who are trying to figure out this feature by peeling off these barriers of fabrics which hide the figure by "looking." So the title is Encounter - Sewing into Looking.
It was my intention to set up an unmovable figure as a performer instead of myself, so that people automatically become performers by their movements. I tried to create a kind of tension between audience, and the uncertain figure, while the audience looks at the covered uncertain figure waiting for a performing movement from it which isn't supposed to move. This is the moment when a strange encounter is happening between this unknown figure and the audience with intense look.
HUO: How do you see the bundles in time? Is it a personified abstraction?
KSJ: Bottari in time, Bottari as personified abstraction... Bottari is an abstraction of a personage, an abstraction of society and history, and that of time and memory. It is past, present, and future.
Hans Ulrich Obrist was born in May 1968 in Zurich, Switzerland, and currently lives and works in Paris. In 1993, he founded the migratory Museum Robert Walser and began to run the Migrateurs programme at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris where he now serves as a curator for contemporary art. He is editor in chief of the hybrid artist pages Point d'Ironie, published by agnés b and begun in collaboration with her in 1997. He has been a frequent curator for the Museum in Progress, Vienna and lecturer at Facolta delle Arti, IUAV in Venice. Accompanying his curatorial projects, he has edited the writings of Gerhard Richter, Louise Bourgeois, Gilbert and George, Maria Lassnig and Leon Golub. The first volume of his ongoing interview project was recently collected in Hans Ulrich Obrist: Interviews (Milan: Edizioni Charta, 2003, produced by Pitti Imagine).
Hans Ulrich Obrist: How did you start working with clothes?
Soo-Ja Kim: In 1983, I spent some time sewing bed covers with my mother. At that time, I was looking for a proper methodology with which to examine both the ideas of surface and life. Painters always struggle with surfaces which, to me, seem like walls that we can hardly overcome. I wanted to overcome that wall and to reach the other side of its surface. When my grandmother passed away, I saved all the traditional Korean clothes she used to wear. They reminded me of her presence. Then, when I decided to create my own form of art by sewing, I started using these worn clothes as my preferred material.
HUO: Was your grandmother close to you?
SJK: Yes, her fascination with fabrics influenced me a lot; then, my mother taught me how to represent this closeness through my work. One day, while I was sewing a bed cover with my mother, I put a needle right in the middle of the texture of the fabric. At that moment, I realized that I had found the methodology I was searching for. In the texture of the fabric I discovered the answer to all my questions; in sewing I learned to nurture my emotions and pains.
HUO: I'm very interested in the different uses of the same object and also by the different relations to clothes in eastern and western contexts. In Japan, when a grandmother or grandfather dies, the family saves the clothes: throwing away the clothes of a dead person is a taboo. In Europe it is very different, people want to get rid of them as soon as possible. How is it in Korea?
SJK: In Korea they usually ceremonially burn cloths used by the dead person. But it really depends on the family; in my case I wanted to keep all the clothes with me.
HUO: You often mention the relation between painting and sewing. Could we say, in terms of material too, that painting is a very male dominated form of expression?
SJK: Yes, I think so. I was not conscious of doing "feminist work." But of course I do, as I live as a woman artist in a country like Korea. For me, the most important material is my life. I cannot escape from the feminist issue because that is my reality, but I don't want to define myself as a feminist artist; I would like to reach the totality of life and art.
HUO: The issue of women artists is now emerging in Korea too. When I first visited Korea, it was very obvious that the most interesting work within the younger generation of contemporary artists, was being done by women...
SJK: Yes, this is a very recent development. I, for example, try to solve my own difficulties and pressures within our society through my work, in a very indirect way.
HUO: Tell me more about this notion of "wrapping the bundle."
SJK: In Korean society, when we say "wrap the bundle," it generally means leaving or moving. My bundles, instead, have nowhere to go. Instead of wrapping the bundle for leaving, I prefer to accumulate them.
HUO: The issue of clothes and the choice of material lead, somehow, to the question of the ready-made. You said that you exhibited clothes that have all already been used.
SJK: 1 usually wrap clothing that has been used; so, in a way, it's like hugging the people who wore them.
HUO: The frequent use you make of bedcovers is striking. The bed is basically the place where we are born and where we die.
SJK: Yes, it is the basic field of birth and death. And the human body, the most complicated bundle, lies on and under this bedcover. Making bundles is like wrapping bodies and souls within your own skin. The skin represents another kind of fabric, while the bedcover is like our skin. It protects and isolates you from the world outside. It is hugging; it is rejecting.
HUO: When you showed me the images of the work you exhibited at the Kwangju Biennial, the skin seemed to me to be a particular kind of fluid. The skin represents the barrier from the inside to the outside; but the skin is also a porous surface...
SJK: Yes, it is always a question of going back and forth, in-between the woven fabric which is made of horizontal and vertical structures. Also, the process of sewing is composed of a series of vertical and horizontal acts, moving against and beyond the fabric itself.
HUO: It is like sewing through boundaries.
SJK: When you see the sewn work from the surface, it looks like a complete structure. But when you see the whole series of processes, they remind you more of a circulating spiral shape. My work, which is wrapping the fabric on the object, is a similar process to sewing. Sewing is like wrapping fabric with threads. Sewing also entails a series of circular processes, just like my objects and my installation with wrapped rings. This time, the ring sews the space itself.
HUO: These big rings can be moved by people. It is very interesting to compare them to sewing: going from plane to round implies a transition. Could we say that the rings mark the moment when you actually go into the space and transform it in an installation?
SJK: For me the process of wrapping and sewing is like holding or hugging with the intention of keeping things to myself. Whenever I make bundles, it's like inviting things to become part of my skin. Things can be visible but also invisible. It is really a symbolic act, more symbolic than actually wrapping and binding.
HUO: When I saw your bundles I thought of migration in terms of homelessness, refugees, or immigrants of any sort, a nomadic population with all of their objects and belongings carried in the bundle.
SJK: In the moderm society, bundles have been changing into bags. For me this is like a symbolic ghost that can't be thrown away; a ghost representing our life. A bundle is the minimum we carry through our lives. When I was little, we moved a lot from village to village, city to city, and it influences my work. This is a nomadic body of work.
HUO: Jonas Mekas distinguishes the voluntary migrant from the involuntary migrant, the refugee, the person who is not able to choose his/her emigrating destiny. In a conversation I had with Paul Virilio, he talked about all these travelers, homeless, refugees, and about an increasingly mobile society. How do you feel about this notion of migration right now?
SJK: It is linked to the opening up of a world of information and a world of interaction between cultures and people. A global sewing... But it seems also to be a question of the hesitation of living here or not, of being or not being; that is why there is all this moving around.
HUO: So one could say that, somehow, it's all a general "in-between-ness." Jean-Luc Godard said: "everything is in between."
SJK: I think so too. We can be in, we can be out. I wrap my bundle, I open it up, as I need... When I feel full of energy, I open up my bundles, as I need them, to liberate and release my body. When I did a wall piece at P.S.1 in New York, I put small pieces of fabrics into the holes of the wall and it was like burying fragments of my body. After taking out the fabrics, I felt as though I was being released from the wall, from the intensity. I am very fascinated by that kind of energy that flows in between an object and myself.
HUO: In your most recent work, the object seems always related to the subject. People are encouraged to walk on your piece, or to open the bundles, where they are allowed to put some of the clothes and make their own monuments. In the piece you made in Edinburgh for the cafeteria you covered the table with bed covers: the objects seem increasingly placed in relation to people.
SJK: You are talking about Information and Reality, the show at the Fruitmarket. I tried to invite people to express themselves right on the table cloths, communicating, eating, drinking, arranging glasses and dishes... Spreading bedcovers on the tables is like creating a canvas which is invisibly wrapping the whole space.
HUO: How did it happen in the Kwangju installation with millions of people walking on it? Did it really work?
SJK: I think so. I didn't imagine that so many people could interact within the installation. The visitors opened up all the bundles and took the clothes wrapped inside. At the beginning, I brought 2.5 tons of clothes, and almost 1 ton was taken away by the audiences. This was an outdoor project, but when I presented it in a museum the audience touched and took some fabrics from the bundles, even while the guards were there.
HUO: At the exhibition in Nagoya you are showing the same thing in three different forms.
SJK: On the floor at the entrance, I put several piles of used clothes; in between I installed some bundles; then I covered the piles with used Korean bedcovers: it was like putting my hands on dead bodies. For me, these different stages of using fabrics represent three different kinds of planes. But they also represent three different stages of mind.
HUO: Were the transitions fluid?
SJK: Mostly. I also put Japanese clothes like Kimonos, and ordinary everyday Japanese clothes together, and I wrapped the bundles with Korean clothes. The day after the opening, somebody, I don't know who, came and spread one big sheet of Japanese cloth on the piles.
HUO: On the Korean clothes?
SJK: It seemed like that, yes.
HUO: Were they initially separated?
SJK: There were some Korean and Japanese clothes mixed together, but I think he or she considered it as a nationalistic statement.
HUO: When I saw your bundles, I clearly understood that your work deals with the concept of participation. This is that notion of object-subject that, as we said, can he found in your work.
SJK: The clothes spread on the mountain hill in Kwangju are meant to be like one big sheet of fabric covering nature. I let people walk on this fabric which is somewhere between nature and the body. Here our body represents the needle with which I am sewing the fabric of nature.
HUO: I can see this notion also in those big photographs where the clothes seem to be like an organic element.
SJK: In the work I did in 1994 for the show Sewing into Walking in Seoul, I tried to connect the concept of "sewing" to that of "walking." I transferred my concepts from the field of painting to that of daily life.
You have been invited to participate in many exhibitions recently; it seems that you’ve been particularly productive. Why do you think you’ve been invited to so many exhibitions on modern Korean art and have attracted the attention of so many foreign curators and critics?
Westerners seem to assign particular importance to the concept of originality, the artist’s unique voice in his or her work. Also, they seem to be interested in the way I approach subjects related to life and art. My work deals with various issues and has the capacity to address new, complex issues. Recently, I was invited to an exhibition titled De-Genderism, a new concept additional to the exhibitions of feminist art, at the Setagaya Art Museum in Tokyo that will open in February 1997. Gender, both sides, is an important element in my work. I also relate my work to issues of everyday life, which is why I think the viewers might find my work interesting.
As you mentioned, your work deals with important current issues. Viewers are attracted to your work in part because it deals with issues like culture, identity, and feminism, and because you create not just installation art, but art in all dimensions. Do you create your works addressing all these issues equally, or is there a specific issue you focus on primarily?
I started my practice as a way to solve conflicts generated by emotion and logic. Artists are always struggling with a blank surface, continually searching for a concept that relates to their identities. I give a lot of thought to the concept, how I approach my work, which is not easy. In the early 1980s, I used various materials—paper, wood, and acrylic panels—to create geometric shapes in my installation and silkscreen works, but I could not find my identity in these works. I was always troubled by the fact that I couldn’t express myself fully. One day as I was sewing a quilt with my mother, I felt that my long search for a way to express fully thought and emotion in my work might have reached its conclusion. I noticed that the horizontal warp and weft of the fabric and the vertical in-and-out movement of the threaded needle solved my questions about the surface. The horizontal and vertical repetitions aligned with the human body’s basic movement of walking, looking, and speaking.
Do you mean that you began using cloth as a result of dealing with the modernist concerns with the surface and emotion, that you support modernism by using cloth?
Like many artists who were skeptical about modernism until the early 1980s, I doubted that I could find my identity outside of myself in the external world. So, I decided to trust my emotions and desires without following artistic trends or methods others were using. I only listened to the voice within myself, and in the process, my work evolved to form its own structure. At the same time, I allowed myself to be open to the possibility of questions posed by modern art.
Given the atmosphere in the Korean art world at that time, I imagine it must have been difficult to make your own interpretation of modernism and find ways of expressing it in your art. Was there a reason or an event that led you to interpret modernism in your own way?
In 1978, I took a trip to Japan and discovered that there was a big difference between Japanese and Korean cultures. Before that trip, I had a vague impression that they were quite similar. In observing the differences, I started to think about my own identity more objectively. Finally, I realized that I needed to understand my culture and my roots if I wanted to be an artist with integrity. I began to look closely at the use of color in Korean art and architecture and paid attention only to Korean elements in formative art, architecture, and language. Modernist artists searched for themselves in their use of two-dimensional surfaces. I was skeptical of schools where ideas about art were too rigid and inflexible, I didn’t want to be a part of that. Until the early 1980s, while I was still in graduate school, there was only one acceptable way of looking at art. I resisted and tried to expand my perspective and use my emotions to find a way through this rigid and inflexible attitude using free-association drawing.
After finishing graduate studies at Hongik University, you stayed in Paris for a while and also lived in New York for a year on a P.S. 1 studio residency. Do you think these experiences had an impact on your work?
In Paris, I did not have significant experiences that impacted my work, except for a special encounter with John Cage’s piece at the 1985 Nouvelle Biennale de Paris, and in New York, I made new discoveries related to space and my perception of it expanded. It was as if my five senses were awakened and pent-up emotions were released, maybe because the atmosphere was more positive and genuine in New York.
Can you explain the process in the series Deductive Objects? At first, you attached a cloth to a surface and left traces of a drawing. Later, you added another piece of cloth, or an object, and sometimes you installed clothes on the wall or on the floor. Recently, you even wrapped them in a bundle like a bottari. Why did you title these works Deductive Objects?
When I started working, I had three different shapes and directions in mind. Firstly, I wanted to work on a flat surface, as in sewing; secondly, I wanted to make three-dimensional objects by wrapping them with fabrics; thirdly, I wanted to create installations. Working on a two-dimensional surface is inductive, while an object is deductive. I incorporated a coiling technique by wrapping objects with fabrics, but I didn’t change the structure of these familiar objects of daily life, only the surface was modified. That’s why I titled them Deductive Objects. However, over time, I placed less emphasis on titles.
How should a bottari be understood?
A bottari is also a three-dimensional object. When I place it in a certain location, it becomes an installation.
Do you work on two-dimensional surfaces, three-dimensional objects, and installations at the same time? I wonder how those three are related, since recently, you added the bottari as an artwork.
I consider the surface as skin, the object as the nerves, and the installation as the body. My work is related to the human body, and a bottari represents a body. You could say that the human body is a moving bundle. The act of coiling could be compared with the relationship between the skin and what lies beneath it. When I first used cloth I didn’t expect it to have such diverse qualities. I just used it as a two-dimensional surface, but it has endless possibilities to explore. If I compare cloth to the female gender, it’s like the womb, because it is used to cover and protect us before birth and after death. It’s not inherently beautiful, and I don’t think of it as decorative. Anyway, there’s a similarity between beauty and a lack of decorative qualities.
You seem to have varied ways of using cloth. Do you prefer specific types of cloth? What criteria do you use when selecting your materials?
I don’t have specific criteria; my tendency is to follow my intuition and energy. I am drawn to materials that have a history, as well as certain intrinsic qualities. I am captivated by art from Tibet, Mongolia, and Siberia. I feel that same enthrallment when I work with cloth. There is a strong energy that comes from a quilt or cloth when it has been used, therefore I rarely use new fabrics, only old ones.
Was there a particular rationale behind the use of bottari?
In 1992, when I had a residency at P.S. 1, I was observing my studio from a distance. Slowly, I gazed upon a bottari in the corner of my studio; I never considered it to be an art object, only a functional object to store my fabrics. It suddenly occurred to me that the bottari was a sculpture and a painting in one. Just by tying the cloth together, I could transform the bottari from a flat surface into a three-dimensional sculpture. It was a revelatory moment for me.
The bottari is an attempt to create a work that is both a painting and a sculpture?
Yes, and I’ll continue working like this. I create work from the painter’s point of view. If I cannot do that, I cannot find any particular meaning in using cloth.
Since the late 1980s, some people would view your work as feminist art. The use of sewing and cloth relates to feminism. Your way of working has become fashionable among female artists. Would you label yourself as a feminist?
I have never thought of myself as a feminist artist. Feminism is just one aspect of my work and does not define my entire practice.
How would you respond to people who categorize your work as feminist?
To a certain extent I agree. I am a woman, as well as a human being. My art has feminist elements not just because of my gender but also because of my personality. Since I am a Korean woman, I’m also a Korean woman artist. In Korea, being a female artist comes with a certain amount of social suppression and limitation.
As I mentioned earlier, a lot of artists have been using cloth recently. What is your opinion of this?
When I first began to work with cloth, I was told that my work had the shape of wrapping cloth or swaddling cloth. I heard that there was a big exhibition on wrapping cloth in the National Museum of Korea, Seoul, in 1984 and that the works on exhibit looked similar to mine. But I didn’t have a chance to see the exhibition. My surfaces changed from square to round from wrapping the cloth. Other artists also have good reasons for working with this material, since it has numerous possibilities, although I’d like to see them interpret cloth from their own perspectives. I believe that real professionals will not just be imitating others: it is important to have your own way of working.
In fact, imitation is a widespread problem in the Korean art world. What do you think is needed so that artists won’t imitate or be overly influenced by prevailing trends?
I think energy or desire is very important in that regards. I was quite impressed with Claude Viallat’s statement “Desire leads,” but the type of desire matters.
What desire do you have?
For me, desire is something I have without effort, like an intuition. I use thought as a kind of desire, although there are times I am led by something else.
You mention emotion, instinct, and desire frequently. Are these feminine concepts, or are they both feminine and masculine?
I think they are part of a person’s identity rather than feminine traits. Identity can refer to a woman, an artist, or a human being.
Your bottari remind us of many things. They stimulate the imaginations because they contain something that is not visible. At the same time, they remind us of departure, structure, and death.
Departure and arrival have elements of nomadism, and a bottari protects our belongings and concludes a journey. Psychologically, it can open up internal emotions that are hidden away. A bottari carries minimal belongings that we hold on to until death, the shadow of life, arrives. It carries with it histories and memories.
Your works remind us of a nomadic spirit and attitude. I think this is something an artist should express. Artists need to search for that fine line where the difference between art and everyday life disappears. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I think that is the ideal pursuit for artists today. What do you think?
I agree. The movement from one style to another can be regarded as the process of starting anew instead of sticking to the past. This is a process every artist has to undergo. In fact, when I was a little girl, I used to live like a nomad. I have lived in the city, the countryside, and villages.
Finally, I’d like to hear about your future plans.
Making art is similar to studying philosophy. The process of thinking something through is more important than leaving something behind. This process teaches me unexpected things. For example, I could not have come to the bottari concept without the initial sewing experience. We start with a dot and over time, the dot accumulates to create a line. All of a sudden, it becomes a cosmic element. Life is an accumulation of dots and experiences.
— This is a revised version of an interview first published in Korean and English in SPACE, (June 1996), pp. 112–19. It is republished here with the kind permission of Park Young Taik.
H.I: I’d like this interview to address your ideas of the art world, your peers, and interpretations of art and life as they intersect. To begin with, the title of the installation exhibited at Gallery Seomi, Seoul, is Sewing into Walking (1994). Can you explain the title and the meaning behind the work?
K: Sewing into Walking is an installation that combines my sewn works from 1983 with my Bottari works from 1992. The concept of sewing is transformed by walking, with the viewers acting as the needle that connects and sews the clothes that are laid on the gallery floor. This experience will allow the viewers to experience sewing in their conscious state.
H.I: On the video monitors, you are seen walking along a road toward Mount Mai in the distance.
K: In past exhibitions, my sewn works were physically made with needle and thread. In this exhibition, my body acts as the needle, sewing together the fabric of nature. With my walking, the relationship between the ground and my breathing process is comparable to the in-and-out motion of a threaded needle. Before, while sewing, I walked in my conscious state; now, I sew in my conscious state while walking.
H.I: Can you explain how your work developed and transitioned from your sewn works to the current “walking” works?
K: Working with old and used cloth is my way of connecting with life. When I first worked with cloth, I accepted it as a two-dimensional structure. I was absorbed in the process of identifying the systematic structure of cloth, with shapes that were horizontal, vertical, cruciform, and T-shaped. As I continued my sewn works, I began to simplify and pare down the colors and patterns; as a result, the cloth’s material quality was foregrounded. I experimented and assembled sewn works into square and circular shapes, as well as wrapping daily objects, thus transforming them into a tableau or sculpture. This way of working is a way of connecting to life and nature; I think of this process as a logic of desire, not a certain logical conclusion.
H.I: Your work has transitioned from two- to three-dimensions, as well as transforming space. In this current exhibition, your body alters the space, creating a different energy. Perhaps I could call this “the artist’s entrance into space”?
K: Certainly. I needed to reinterpret the gallery space to fit my work, or look elsewhere for a more appropriate space—which is why I chose the traditional village, Yangdong near Gyeongju, to be the place I would install the Bottaris, and Oksanseowon Valley and Mount Mai to install used bedcovers and have my walking performance. The encounter with nature was very meaningful to me, so I wanted to think of other ideas where I could make the natural landscape in the gallery space. As a result, the concept of “image bundle” led to the use of TV monitors in my work.
H.I: In Sewing into Walking, monitors are lined up like trees on an avenue with used clothes laid on the ground to form a path or road. As viewers walk along the path toward the corner of the room, they encounter five monitors, stacked on top of each other with one Bottari at the very top. On one of the monitors, a scene of the sound installation in one room appears within a scene of the second room. Can you elaborate on the relationship between the two spaces?
K: The installation I created in nature are “wrapped” on the monitors that are installed on the gallery floor. The first space is wrapped by the Bottari of the second space by means of a closed circuit camera. Installations in the second room and the monitor, televising the first room, are seen on another closed circuit camera in the second room. Thus viewers going into the gallery are able to stand in front of the monitors and see their own backs. That is how I try to convey the two spaces through several processes of wrapping.
H.I: Regarding your Bottaris, sometimes you would spread them out flat like a bedcover and at other times, you wrap them up in a bundle. Can you talk more about the concept behind your Bottaris?
K: A bottari can be wrapped or unwrapped. I consider the human body as the most complicated bottari. Just as a bottari can be wrapped and unwrapped, my body can stay and leave in a continuous manner. So cloth symbolizes skin by creating a border between the inside of the body and the outside. The relationship between tension and relaxation and the dual structure of working may confuse viewers; however, I’m not perplexed at all, because all this happens inside my body.
H.I: As wrapping and unwrapping of bottaris can symbolize a body staying and leaving, can’t sewing also belong to the same category?
K: Yes, sewing is like the act of breathing or communicating. I would move the threaded needle into the rear side of the cloth and then the needle’s point pushes upward, towards the side that faces me. Similarly, in conversation the same process takes place continually, where the act of speaking is enacted back and forth between two people. It is an in-and-out act or movement.
H.I: The art we have seen so far requires the existence of concrete objects, whether they are two-dimensional, three-dimensional, or an installation. These concrete objects can contain the spirit of the artist’s body, but they do not identify the artist. Your work, transcending the boundary of a gallery space, is attributable to your identity. Conversely, the space of working is expanded without limit, inevitably, causing the artist to be completely immersed in the creative process. This is seen as a new effort to dismantle the conventional conflict between the artist and the artist’s work. As a result, art is closer to the human body, like music or dance. This attempt may appear to relate to the culture of nomads; it could be called nomadic art.
K: Maybe so. I have always worked in a comprehensive manner to connect closer to life. Artists are the ones who have overcome their own contradictions, desires, and limitations with their artistic language. The formation of an artistic language is created through the artist’s solitary and intimate encounter with the world.
H.I: Another element of Sewing into Walking is the introduction of sound. How do you interpret the sound of the first space and the thumping sound in the second space?
K: The thump sound is created by placing a bottari on the ground of a traditional Korean house; it is connected to the monitor of another room. The sound symbolizes the burden of life as I experience it. In the next room, a popular jazz song and applause are interpreted as a serious appeal to each bottari and also a gesture to lighten the burden of life.
H.I: Part of Nina Simone’s concert performance was played repeatedly. Do you have a special reason for including this?
K: I feel that she interprets songs, like “Ne me quitte pas” and “Please don’t let me be misunderstood” with their themes of ordinary life, in a raw and honest way. I wanted to capture her passion for life and have part of her performance interact with the Bottaris. The concert and the thumping sounds of bottaris falling are good to be heard together and separately in each room. In the future, I would like to use a female black singer’s performance for a sound piece, more realistic and beyond racism.
H.I: After speaking with you, I find that your work has a dual meaning. Although it seems to be an awkward encounter at first, one image permeates another image, thus creating a new concept. That’s the beauty of formative art, isn’t it? Today’s conversation may be as light as a stitch in sewing, but I hope that it will be the place a needle must pass through.
— Kimsooja: Interviews Exhibition Catalogue published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König in association with Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, 2018, pp 15 - 18
This is the revised version of an interview first published in SPACE, (January 1995), pp. 35–37. It is published here with the kind permission of Hwang In.