From Plane to Three Dimensions: A Bundle
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.