Sewing into Walking, an interview from 1994
Formative Characteristics Shown In Kimsooja's Sewing And Deductive Object Works
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.
"All painting is the art of space, and the history of modern painting has been regarded as a struggle for and against space." — Barnett Newman (1905-1970)
The formative works of Kimsooja show different expressive formats, such as abstract expressionist style paintings, collages in relief, and sculptural expression using objects. In her works, we see her tenacity for a handicraft character, and for pure form in her sewing of cloth. They are lyrical "combined paintings", which involve the true features of life.
Working for more than ten years in collage, combining the techniques of sewing and drawing with cloth, Kimsooja has focused on reflecting life in her art. In the early stages of her art, she pursued "pure abstract form" through sewing cloth and drawing. From the beginning of the 1990s, she changed her format into "object works in unity with life tools", pursuing open form in three-dimensions. And through her works at the P.S.1 Museum in New York City, she moved to three-dimensional works by which she achieved a "harmony with given space", together with picturesque expressions of objects. Recently her works have evolved into installation works, which accomplish a "unity with nature".
Kimsooja's work with cloth starts with the techniques of sewing and drawing. Her art life started, she says, with the "unity of my thoughts, sensitivity, and activity. They were caused by the everyday act of sewing bedcovers with my mother."
Kimsooja's formative language comes from her tenacity, either conscious or unconscious, for life. For her, formative works are life itself. She visualizes the essence and specialty of life from repeated flower-patterned cloth and cloth striped in red, yellow, and blue. Her formative language expresses not just simple sewing but her internal world as well. Emphasizing the unity of the activity, of sewing and her thinking, she makes them involve the "various memories, pains, and affections which have been intentionally forgotten." For her, this expresses "the meaning of desperate self-salvation."
Her collages and object works, expressed in lyric abstraction, are intended to sincerely expose her "tenacity and nostalgia for prototypical things". After her sewing and drawing works, Kimsooja's interest moved from the two dimensional plane to three dimensions, to "object works making unity with life tools", "unity with given space", and "unity with nature". We find a sense of history and a feeling of locality in the general character underlying her works — descriptions of many unforgettable memories, beautiful colors and abstract forms of lyricism, and experiments beyond the artificial frames of forms: there we can read a new change in vision after Modernism.
"My object and installation works are extensions of the act of sewing." — from Kimsooja's Art Notes
Kimsooja's early Sewing works, which she started in 1983, had a strong trend of color plane abstractionism, free from frames. Trying to escape from the frame, but still being attached to the character of the plane, has something in common with Post-Abstractionism along the lines of Modernism. The quadrangular or triangular patches of cloth she sewed show a strict geometrical beauty of abstraction, and they make a picturesque world directly exposing human senses, like that of Expressionism.
The color plane of her Sewing works, like the structural relief, is neither concrete nor descriptive. Viewers should be satisfied just by their pure formative composition and various colors. Her Sewing works, with descriptive titles like The Earth and the Heaven, The Earth, Portrait, and The Inevitability of Life, continued until 1988. If we look at her works in this series, such as Fall 1983 or The Earth and the Heaven 1984, we can easily understand the evolution of her art work during that period.
Kimsooja's colors are ready-made, artificial ones. The colors (red, yellow, black, and white) are smudged onto cloth, and they reject any arbitrary happenings. The features on her screen are also artificial ones in repeating patterns. Moreover, she tries to escape from the plane of the frame and from quadrangles in her works.
The above works are variations of "combined painting". Kimsooja's formative specialty arises just from this. It is not constituted in a restricted space of canvas, and it announces a birth of open space and open forms. Her canvases, accordingly, escape from formal frames and restricted areas to acquires a liberal way of thinking.
The formative traits of her early Sewing series are irregular basic forms of "X", 'W", "T", "+", or triangles. We come to see various aspects of life from these unexpected basic forms. They are never made by chance. Kimsooja says, "They have something to do with the homogeneous character of Korean culture, like the latticework of construction and of letters." Variations of the basic forms make new spaces available. Above all, "since it is a result of my wretched trials to overcome the contradiction of existence, it means a desperate self-salvation."
The unexpected liberal forms show, as completely independent abstract paintings, the beauty of purely formative composition, and there we see a trait of action. She wants to unify the trait of action with our identity. It can be called a work of Modernism, in which a purely formative beauty is pursued in "the paintings themselves" and it is also a creative formative language which emphasizes the acts of human beings.
The Sewing series continued during her study in France in the mid 80s. Representative works of this period, like Blue 1987 and Black 1987, show more tension, with heavy blues and blacks and with big quadrangular planes. The general feeling of these is dark, from the big quadrangles and dark grey and black colors. But the large and small mosaic color-planes pursue one goal in the open space.
These works have a darker feeling than her early works, in which she portrayed life more brightly. The divisions of the color planes are no longer clear. Distinctions among planes are erased. Kim makes a formative search which depends upon expression of the sense of Abstractionism rather than of spatial composition. The cloth patches are not smooth as they were, and they portray the pains of life like scars. The divisions of the color planes are not clear, and the thick black color makes the bright planes of pure colors merge into a melancholy sentiment.
"Deductiveness means reaching individual recognitions from general ones; inductiveness means reaching general recognitions from individual ones." — Dictionary of Philosophical Terms
From Kimsooja's early Sewing series, we see the problem modern painting has with two-dimensional quadrangles. That is to say, it makes us realize that paintings do not have to stay in the restricted frames of quadrangles. The peculiarity of Kimsooja's formative works are the various forms which have unexpected transformations of space and which are free from quadrangles. But from the point of view of form, we find that the transformation she tried to apply did not overcome the two-dimensional restriction of conventional paintings. Though she relieved herself from the forms of quadrangle picture frames, her works where she keeps to two dimensions still force viewers to find an illusion.
When an artist wants to establish a more concrete human relationship and present the features of things in a way free of the visual imagination of illusion, he chooses, without any hesitation, to get out of two dimensions into three dimensions. This, as in Kimsooja's non-illusionist Sewing works, bears a peculiar formative language of the artist himself. It is an object of special life which leads into individual recognition from the generally recognized daily-life objects.
Kimsooja's Deductive Object shows folk customs and natural factors as they are. The daily-life tools she chooses provide viewers with a unity with life, and makes them feel the stream of ages-long time. In the 90s with Wall in the Wall and Toward the Earth 1990-91, Kimsooja started a new structure of formative works, Deductive Object. She says that this experiment is an "act of self-salvation resulted from the pressures of life", like the Sewing works, in which she wanted to show Korea's unity and uniqueness.
The full sense of her Deductive Object started in 1991. Many commonplace objects like Deductive Object - Memory, Deductive Object - Reel and Spool, and Golden Flag were made into works of special meaning. The meaning of objects and subjects in her early works can be interpreted easily with their concrete objects. Lattices, A-frames, kites, reels, small spools, and long pieces of color-striped cloth are changed into objects of the Deductive Object and invoke old stories.
"There is nostalgia for village landscapes and trains and old and mysterious small pieces of furniture and utensils found in the attic. Looking at that old stuff, I find a structural beauty." This is a nostalgia anybody can have, but Kimsooja unbinds and breaks them up as if she were unifying knots and formalizes them into concrete art works.
Not like the Sewing works, which were full of hidden meanings and a search for abstract pure formativity, the everyday objects in her recent works approach us as independent figures. Kimsooja takes old stories from the traditional tools and changes them into three-dimensional structures, not into two-dimensional mosaic paintings. It is what our daily lives are. They look lovely and even poetic, inspiring our nostalgia.
When Kimsooja continued her work in America, at the invitation of P.S.1 Studio, a big change in her Deductive Object occurred. Rather than being satisfied with the classical expression of life, she pursued a unity with given spaces. Her work began to consider the age she lived in. Though this was experimental work for the short period of one year, it meant a struggle to search for a "unity with given spaces" to actively show current life. Ladders, daily-life stories transcending the character of time and space, American objects, exotic colors, and some Korean features appeared in her work, and she tackled open spaces in three-dimensional ways.
After she came back to Korea, these changes persisted. In her recent works, nature appears in relation of unity with given space. It is not an accidental encounter with nature but an intentional communication with nature. The unity of human beings with nature is emphasized. Lying in the Nature 1994, which was made in the valley of Oksanseowon in Kyungju, shows the unity of color-striped cloth objects with nature. It is a feature of life which transcends time and space.
Now Kimsooja's Deductive Object works have started in earnest. I think she wants to revisit the past and also to emphasize current life. The endlessly changing nature of Kimsooja's pure forms show our past and present reality, as well as the open world of our future.
In conclusion, Kimsooja's "combined paintings" — Sewing and Deductive Object — might look unfinished. But they can be recognized as independent formative languages which Kim alone possesses from her encounters with given spaces or with nature. She does not stay still, and portrays the features of life confidently. She frees herself from habitual aesthetic notions and concepts, and portrays the features of liberal life. All of this make me more attached to her works.