Folds and Loose Threads
Cities on the Move
Kim Soo-Ja's art is either some of the most humble, open, context-sensitive work that exists, or else some of the most self-consistent, implacable, and inner-directed: take your pick.
First approximation: Kim makes no objects, neither builds nor constructs, transforms nothing. She simply takes some ordinary quotidian things, namely pieces of used fabric, primarily colorful embroidered Korean bedcovers, moves them around, and places them into situations. Although these rectangles of fabric are juxtaposed with sites to which they may be alien, they neither hide the site, interfere with it, nor contest it: perhaps it would be most accurate to say they assay it. The site shows the cloth and the cloth shows the site. Nothing is ever denied. It's not that there is a "work" that can be installed in the space, and then reinstalled differently or similarly somewhere else. There is a supply of materials which the artists carries from place to place, and which she will dispose differently or similarly, depending on her perception of what is already there, a perception that may take into account aesthetic, architectural, functional, social, or any other noticeable factors.
Second approximation: the work is self-consistent, for instance, in regard to precisely the question of materials. And isn't it interesting that, in English, the word "material" means both matter or substance, generally, and cloth, fabric in particular, as though cloth were a natural synecdoche for matter. Kim is, so to speak, married to her fabric. Yes, she uses other media from time to time (video, recorded sound), but only insofar as she can deal with them as not-material. Whatever it is she's going to articulate, she's got to do it through those same means. As for implacability, these humble textiles are really loud, strident. Just as their bright colors clash among themselves, they cut against the grain of the situations in which they are placed, producing a distinct tension. For all the work's sensitivity to its varying situations, in another way what it is asserting is just the opposite, the importance of having a project that can be developed, unfolded, in as many circumstances as possible, unattached to any one of them. Just bundle up your stuff and move on. No nostalgia, no regrets, just self-containment. When I asked her, recently, about the studio she'd found in New York, having moved here at the beginning of the new year, she shrugged. "Well, since I'm not making things anymore, it's more of a symbolic studio..." And when asked by curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist to comment about her unrealized projects, she replied, "I contain my projects in my body which I find as my studio, and I don't try to remember or describe them all." A videotape Kim showed in Cities on the Move, the exhibition Obrist and Hou Hanru organized for the Secession in Vienna in 1997, and which I saw in its reduced version at P.S. 1 in New York the next year, showed the artist sitting atop a load of bright cloth bundles strapped to a truck traveling the highways of Korea: a scenario of nomadism, of endless movement, certainly, but because the camera filming it was mounted on a vehicle following Kim's truck at a constant distance, a view of immobility, of constancy as well. The artist remains as she is, allowing the landscape to move around her.
Kim, born in 1957 in Taegu, Korea, was educated both in Korea and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1984-85). In France, she undoubtedly became aware of the Supports / Surfaces artists, whose analysis of painting into material components, including fabric, is echoed in her own early work. (Patrick Saytour, in particular, used readymade printed fabrics with minimal painterly intervention in ways that anticipate aspects of Kim's work.) From her years in Paris through the end of the decade, Kim's work consisted of "combine paintings", as one Korean critic called them, echoing Robert Rauschenberg's usage. In them, rectangles of differently colored and patterned textiles were roughly sewn together, and used as surfaces for drawing and painting. These works, which were usually not rectangular in format but rather cruciform, T-shaped, or in some other way irregular yet rectilinear, were hung unstretched.
In 1989, Kim began using cloth in a more sculptural way, as wrapping or sometimes as stuffing for mundane objects. With these works, the parallels with Supports / Surfaces began to diminish, while those with Arte Povera began to increase — most obviously, with Michelangelo Pistoletto's works incorporating rags. She began giving all these works the same title, Deductive Object. (An echo, perhaps, of Pistoletto's Minus-Objects?) Yet the reiterated title masks the diversity in the way the objects were made, at least from 1992 on. In some, the cloth functioned essentially as color applied to an object; these works are still indebted to the Supports / Surfaces-inflected analysis of painting (especially since the objects, among them window frames, wheels, and so on, could often easily be seen as stand-ins for the idea of stretcher bars). But in others, cloths were simply draped across objects. For instance, a Deductive Object shown in 1992 at P.S. 1 in New York, where Kim was in the visiting artists' studio program, consisted of a chair whose legs were wrapped with cloth, as with the earlier Deductive Objects, but whose seat and back were simply loosely draped with a single sheet of gaudy pink and gold fabric. It was at this time, too, that Kim sometimes began showing her cloths tied up in large bundles.
These bundles, I think, are the key to everything Kim has done since. For one thing, they definitively withdrew her use of textiles from an essentially pictorial notion of them as surfaces upon which something would be visible; in the bundles, it is more important that something is contained, that is, subtracted from the realm of the visible. They speak to the notion of potential more than to that of accomplishment, of departure more than arrival, storage rather than use, and of the body and its obscurity rather than the field of vision and its lucidity. "The human body is the most complicated bundle," as Kim says.
Kim began with an understanding of fabric as surface which developed into a treatment of it as object, and the bundles take their beginning within the field of objects, certainly, but do not end up there, and I would question whether Kim's continued use of the title Deductive Object is really justified as she is now working with situations more than with objects. Perhaps, like Lygia Clark in her last phase, it would be better for Kim to speak of "propositions" (as long as it is understood that Kim's work is not burdened with the therapeutic pretensions behind Clark's). When she unbundles her cloths and, for instance, lays them out on the tables of a museum café, as she has, for instance, at the Boymans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, or at the Setagayara Art Museum in Tokyo (for the exhibitions Manifesta I, 1996, and De-Genderism, 1997, respectively), she is hardly presenting an object in anything like the usual sense. She is decorating a space by overloading it with color, and she is displacing assumed distinctions between the realms of art and everyday life (and not necessarily in the sense of relaxing those relations: I assume that a common reaction among viewer / diners at these museums must have been a heightened self-consciousness about the act of consuming drinks and snacks, since a residual quantum of "respect" for art would have led them to be more than ordinarily careful about soiling the cloths — a care, which could well have resulted in the opposite effect, a clumsiness leading to even more spills than usual.) And not only between art and everyday life, but within different orders of everyday life: if your mother brought you up not to eat in bed, or at least to be a little embarrassed by it, then the idea that you are eating on what is in fact a bedspread and not a tablecloth may induce peculiar ruminations about the connections between what goes on in bed and what goes on at table, and even about the mixing of the various sorts of stains that can come to cloth in the two different situations.
Not only does Kim's work heighten one's sense of the tensions between art and life, and between one order of quotidian activity and another, it can heighten the tensions between one work of art and another, as I came to understand when she participated in Ceremonial, a group show I organized in 1996 at the non-profit exhibition space Apex Art in New York. Her work for the exhibition was a Deductive Object consisting of a single bright-green fringed bedspread on the floor; with the traces of its having been folded into a small square visible, it was something like a verdant landscape with a cartographer's grid superimposed on it. A striking landscape, but not a welcoming one: I had the damnedest time situating the other works so that they did not clash with its garish hue. By the time I'd figured out how to do that, I'd realized that this work, which ought to have been unrecognizable as an art work except by its context, was actually, so to speak, forcing the other works to react to it, and thereby imposing its own identity on the entire exhibition. Later on, when I gave a lecture about the show and heard myself saying that, basically, the show's subject was "folds and loose threads," I realized that I was implicitly equating the show with this one work.
"That green as the colour of a tablecloth has this, red that effect, does not allow us to draw any conclusions as to their effect in a picture," as Wittgenstein observed in his notations "On Colour". The point of Wittgenstein's remark depends on the dichotomy between the way color functions in art work and in daily life, a presumption that is somewhat surprising coming from a man who is known to have been fanatically sensitive to the aesthetics of ordinary living as expressed in, for example, architecture. Kim's humble / implacable, sensitive / detached, gaudy / austere, mundane / extravagant work reminds us that art may not be so much a separate realm as a way of posing questions to any realm in which it may occur.
— From Art/Text 65, May - July 1999
Cities on the Move is a globally conceived and constantly widening project by Korean artist Soo-Ja Kim being realized in different media and contexts. It consists of an 11-day performance, the two videos that resulted from it, a sound-installation, a contribution to the in-flight magazine of Asian Airlines, a catalogue, and several art exhibitions. She borrowed the title of her project by agreement with Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Hou Han-Ru, whose migrating exhibition of the same name brings together, against the background of the profound structural changes in Asia, recent architectural vision with the work of younger artists, predominantly of Asian origin.
From November 4 to 14, 1997, Soo-Ja Kim traveled through Korean cities to which she has a direct per-sonal relationship, criss-crossing her homeland from north to south and east to west as she did so. The videos of this performance show the small Bottari Truck, on the bed of which a mountain of cloth bundles (bottari) is lashed together, as it slowly makes its way through town and country. In one of the videos Kim sits atop the pile loaded onto the truck, traveling through the changing landscape. One sees the artist only as a background figure, which conveys the feeling that one is traveling in her stead through the countryside. The cloth bundles are an essential component of the performance. Classical bottari designates a bundle in which unbreakable objects like pieces of clothing, bed-linens, household utensils, and books can be kept. For the Korean critic Airung Kim, the bottari symbolizes restlessness.
In Korea espe-cially, where the population has often been forced to leave their homes in order to flee war or famine or to look for work, the bundles are historically charged and emblematic objects. They were used both by refugees and merchants, who transported their wares in them. On a metaphorical level, the bottari also functions as a signifier of mobility in unbound space, and is thus at the same time a container that includes its own contents.
With her performance, Soo-Ja Kim is not merely thematizing mobility, whether voluntary or forced by external circumstances. The textiles also refer to the condition of women in Asian society, for Korean women sew bed-linens from these pieces of cloth. These spreads, sewn by the artist herself from tradi-tional textiles, may thus be interpreted as an allusion to the discrepancy between an emancipated con-sciousness and restrictions on specific female activities. Starting from references to her own cultural identity, [Kim's] bottari join feminist concerns to very personal matters. Kim describes her motives for the use of these textiles as follows: 'One day, as my mother was sewing a bedsheet, I made a surprising discovery, whereby my my thoughts, my feelings, and my activitities of the moment seemed to come into harmony. And I discovered new possibilities for conveying buried memories and pain along with the quiet passions of life. I was fascinated by the primal, orthogonal structure of the fabric, the needle and thread moving through its smooth surface, and with the expressive powers of the brightly colored traditional cloth.'
Soo-Ja Kim has been using this cloth since the middle of the 1980s. Although at the beginning, she emphasized more strongly the abstract, formal qualities, and thus the imagistic character, of the cloth, it already contained within it memories of its work on walls, and allusions to its own past and to its former owners. Subsequently, Kim developed a stronger interest in more performative and interactive processes, as in the installations where she used the fabrics for tablecloths in the museum cafe. Viewers were also actively involved in her installation for the Kwangju Biennial, where they could walk on and take home with them pieces of cloth spread out through a forest. The once private fabric thereby became a public Memento mori. At the same time, Kim sketches out an allegory of global migration, and, by thus reflecting back on her own cultural tradition, creates work of contemporary relevance.
Translated by Warren Niesluchowski.
— From the exhibition catalog Art-Worlds in Dialogue:
From Gauguin to the Global Present,
Museum Ludwig Cologne, 2000.
Yilmaz Dziewior is the curator of the Museum Ludwig Cologne, Germany.