Soo-Ja Kim: A solitary performance with old fabric
To abolish the distance separating art from life is the most constant desire found in the art of this century. However this doesn't mean that art should be dissolved in life but rather the desire to link art to the concrete areas of life and everyday experience. The prestige of the artist lies in his capacity to reveal our relationship to the world and our existence in it through signals developed through reason and sensitivity.
In the 80's there was an abundance of artists who wanted to base their art on the most immediate and mundane. They rejected altogether sterile and formalism and facile expressionism. The new generation of artists started to be interested in the body, the memory, the intimacy, the vernacular, the marginal, the unstable, the despicable, and the infamous.
In Korea, Soo-Ja Kim's home country, this period was marked by the debate about cultural identity, by the criticism of formalism, by political commitment. Korean art started to reflect on the country's history, present reality and tradition. It was in this context that Soo-Ja Kim made the discovery which was to become the origin of her art.
"One day while sewing a bedcover with my mother, I had a surprising experience in which my thought, sensibility and action at that moment all seemed to converge. And I discovered new possibilities for conveying buried memories and pain, as well as life's quiet passions. I was fascinated by the fundamental orthogonal structure of the fabric, the needle and thread moving through the plane surface, the emotive and evocative power of colourful traditional fabric."
She made a complete break with established medium i.e. blank canvas stretched over a frame. From then on, her canvas was made by assembling a variety of fabrics. From the beginning of the 90's, the materialism becomes ever more prominent and the work develops a direct relation to actual space. The assembling becomes more heterogeneous and less dependent on the wall. When she establishes a relationship with the wall, it's inside it, the narrow spaces of holes and cracks. The fabric spreads out, hangs and wraps various objects. This gave rise to a series called Deductive Object. Unlike assembling built by adding elements, wrapping an object in fabric confirms the initial form of that object. Hence the name: Deductive Object. The artist analyses the important moment of the relationship between the materials, the work process and the result.
The first Deductive Objects are the tools and frames covered with strips of fabric. They become bodies made of a skeleton and skin. In spite of the desire to find a new relationship between the material elements of painting, i.e. the medium and the structure, these objects are seen as fetishes. Toward the Flower (1992) is a work which synthesises assembling, sewing and Deductive Object. The emotional current is so strong that the work tends toward "Art Brut". At this precise moment, Soo-Ja Kim chooses to minimise gesture instead of giving way to the ceremonial of nostalgia and dreams. The following year she shows a piece of bedcover spread over the ground, bundles of anonymous clothes, pieces of fabric inserted into cracks in the wall. Physical structure is eliminated and the materials used consist only of the worn clothing and the bedspread. The artist gives them structure using only the ordinary, time-honoured gestures for handling fabrics: spreading, folding, enveloping, wrapping, knotting...
Thus she has undone for her own purpose the picture object and its function as a screen surface. There is no longer a question of relationship between parts and the whole, between form and substance; there is only a mobile medium which is at the same time substance and form, surface and volume. This materialistic concept of pictorial construction is close to the work of the French Supports Surfaces group. However, Soo-Ja Kim doesn't limit herself to the strictly material aspect of painting: she allows the old fabrics to tell their own story and memories.
The big rectangles of fabric used by Soo-Ja Kim are the decorative covers of Korean bedding. These bedcovers are in fact "the basic field of birth and death". In the Koreans' daily environment, these fabrics with their bright colours and symbolic motifs belong to their hidden private life. The contrast of red and green symbolises newlyweds; flowers, butterflies and birds depict a happy married life; symbols of long life, happiness, joy and riches spread like prayers all over the surface. The women make bedding for their homes using this material. They too unfold them each evening and fold them back each morning. The bedcovers are a reminder of night-time, bodies in repose, dreams, woman, and intimacy. Their manifestation is significant in itself in a society where ancestral Confucian ethics still dominate human relationships on all levels. Soo-Ja Kim spreads them on the ground and on the table; she uses them to wrap other object; she hangs them on washing lines. A square of fabric on a table shown at the PS 1 Studio, New York in 1993 has developed into a large-scale set-up at Edinburgh's Fruit Market Gallery, at the Boysmans van Beuningen Museum at Rotterdam and at the Setagaya Art Museum in Tokyo. At these three sites, she has covered all the tables in the cafeterias with her multicoloured bedcovers. Covering the table with a cloth is a universal sign of invitation.
"I tried to invite people to express themselves right on the table cloths (...) Spreading bedcovers on the tables is like creating canvas which is invisibly wrapping the whole space." Since she's used textile objects in their original state, Soo-Ja Kim seems to be interested in reducing the intervention of the artist. She allows herself to be guided by the logic of things and remains attentive to what is happening. By using banal movements of housework she creates a situation where the spectator, in turn, lives out his everyday movements and actions differently. Soo-Ja Kim's works often attract attention because of the eccentricity of the materials but they refuse to become objects in themselves, a creation. Open and modifiable, they take their part in creating a meeting place. Other examples where interaction is created are Sewing into Walking at the Seomi Gallery (1994) and her work at the Kwangju Biennial 1995. Sewing, by which means the artist discovered unrestricted and flexible medium, is freed of its function of linking separate pieces and begins to be perceived as a dallying between two sides of a fabric. When sewing is viewed in this way, the universal symbol of feminine work represents all repetitive and reciprocal movement — walking, breathing, seeing and communicating. The first set-up Sewing into Walking is conceived as a successive fitting together of spaces and times. The bundles containing clothes, the video screens which the artist calls "bottari of images", the clothes sewn on the ground, and the spectator whose body is considered the most complex bottari, are reflected in one another creating the effect of being lost in space. This labyrinthine device can only work with the spectator's participation.
At Kwangju, the set-up is outdoors. The artist places at the spectators' disposal 2.5 tons of worn clothes and numerous bundles of clothing. They are invited to walk on the path covered with clothes and are free to touch them or even to take them. As he walks, the participating spectator forms the imaginary seam which links the memory of the site (the Kwangju massacre) and each individual's history.
The bottari which has become Soo-Ja Kim's trademark is a bundle containing objects which are usually flexible and unbreakable such as clothes, bedding, books. The bundle is a form of improvised container which is very common in Korea; as with the idea of a bundle, bottari implies that it wraps things of little value. But for those leaving their homes, their bundle contains the absolute essentials. The artist remembers discovering bottari:
"Everyone has bundles around. I had them in my studio before I started to incorporate them into my work, but I didn't notice them. In 1992, when I was working at the PS 1studio, I happened to see a bundle put there. I put clothes in a bundle and didn't realise it. The bundle was something new to me. It was a sculpture and a painting."
What fascinated her in this mundane artifact was firstly the possibility of moving from a flat surface to a volume simply by making knots. But the bottari opened up an unexpected field. Unlike the ready made article, Soo-Ja Kim's bottari is a real bundle fulfilling its function of container and at the same time a symbolic object conceptualizing the mundane gesture of wrapping with a square of fabric. Its function and status are not changed for good. The border between the bottari-artefact and the bottari-work of art is mobile and temporary. Even if Soo-Ja Kim's bottari is in itself an expressive object by its form gathered in towards the middle, and its bright colour it only becomes a work of art when set in context (installation).
It should be considered as a state or a moment rather than a fixed thing. The video performance Lying on the Nature (1994) shows the artist picking up multicoloured bedcovers from the floor, making them into a bundle and leaving the scene. The film doesn't show the arrival at the site but it is easy to imagine that the piece shown is symmetrical to the piece we don't see. The bundle of bedcovers will be opened somewhere, its contents spread out and then again gathered into a bundle. Here the transformation is continual: repetition doesn't mean a return to the original state. Life unfolds in perpetual movement.
The bottari is the symbol of wandering. For Koreans who have moved home so often to flee war and poverty and also to find work, bottari are part of the country's history scenes. We remember bottari seen on the shoulders of refugees, on the heads of traveling merchants, on removal lorries. The bottari is a form of mobility in an unlimited space and at the same time a receptacle closed round its contents. With just this difference, it asks the sometimes worrying question about the journey's purpose: where are we coming from and where are we going?
In November 1997, Soo-Ja Kim made a performance trip across her country, North to South and East to West with a lorry loaded with several dozen bottari. From her 11-day trip she made a 33-minute film: Bottari - Truck. The view of the lorry going through towns and countryside is accompanied by the artist's voice repeating the name of the place she's travelling through. There is something of the ceremonial in this call: incantation or anamnesis bringing the past up to the present. But the lorry doesn't stop either in the past or the present; it continues on its way. Even if it returns to the starting point, it must go on. The artist says that Bottari - Truck is in memory of her family who moved house frequently and also that it is her story as an artist going from town to town to discover new places and meet different people. This performance, which in fact shows pure mobility, causes us to reflect on contemporary society whose technology and networks are creating nomadism on a planetary scale.
From sewing, the secular, woman's work, Soo-Ja Kim develops a spatiotemporal dimension in which all vital, social or imaginary activity is inscribed. Through the fabric she forges a link with the past and expresses the memory of women and of the community without falling into nostalgia. Whilst apparently celebrating colour and matter, she develops her reflection on the invisible links which weave today's world. By doing this solitary performance with old fabric she opens up to us places where we can meet the Other and can find ourselves.
 Artist's notes, catalogue of a solo exhibition, Hyundai Gallery, Seoul, 1988
 Interview by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Flash Art p. 70, Jan. - Feb., 1997
 Ibid p. 72
 Bottari is a Korean word which means a bundle. As this refers to a typically Korean bundle, it would seem more precise to use the original term. In addition, the Toronto Dance Theatre gave the name Bottari to their show created with Soo-Ja Kim's collaboration. The show was produced at the Premiere Dance Theatre at Toronto from Dec. 2 no 6, 1997.
 Interview by Bahk Young-Taik, Space, p. 117, June 1996.
Kim Airyung was born in 1957 in Korea and lives and works in Paris since 1979. After BA at Hong Ik University, Seoul and finishing her MA at Ecole National Superieure des Arts Decoratif, and Esthetics at Paris I University for BFA and DEA, she continued her study in Auoditor in History and Theory of Art at Ecole des Hautes Etudes des Sciences Sociales, Paris.
As a Free-lancer curator and editor, she is in charge of the artistic director of the Editions Cercle d'Art, Paris, and curated numerous shows such as 'Un lieu, sept espaces' 7 young artists from Korea and France, 1996, Manufacture des Oeillets, Ivry-sur-Seine, France, 1997, 'Open Air Sculpture Symposium', Tongyong, Korea, 1997, 'Resonance-Korean contemporary art' OECD-Korea, Paris, 1998 and worked as the director of 'Suite coréenne' Korean year of International Geography Festival, Saint-Dié-des-Vosges, France, 1999, Assistant curator of 'Gwangju Biennale', Gwangju, Korea, 2000, artistic director of 'Busan Biennale', Busan, Korea, 2002.
Her recent projects are 'In Movement-Unesco salutes women video artists of the world', Unesco, Paris,2004 and 'Officina-Asia' young contemporary art from China, Japan and Korea, Bologna Galleria d'arte moderna, Cesena Palazzo del Ridotto, Rimini, Palazzo dell'Arengo in May 2004.
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).