Kimsooja: A Mirror Woman


Homeland Exists Only in Our Memory in This Era


Kim Sooja at Peter Blum


Cloth and Life


Kim Sooja


The Persistence of the Void


Obvious but Problematic




Whitney Biennale

A Mirror Woman, 2002. Korean bedcovers, mirror structure walls, 4 fans, cables, clothespins, Tibetan monk chant. Installation view at Peter Blum Gallery, New York, 2002. Photo by Bill Orcutt.

Kimsooja: A Mirror Woman

Roca, José


  • From February 23 to May 18, 2002, the Peter Blum Gallery of New York presents the exhibition A Mirror Woman by the Korean artist Kimsooja. At the same time, her work can be seen as part of the Whitney Biennial (which this year has overflowed the physical limits of the Marcel Breuer building, taking over part of the public space of Central Park). The work of Kimsooja in the Biennial is titled Deductive Object, and is in the Leaping Frog Cafe in the Central Park Zoo.

  • The notion of nomadism has been privileged in the discussion and practice of the visual arts in the last decade, coinciding with the phenomenon of globalization and the effects that this has had on the circulation of goods and ideas — as much in economic as cultural terms — and the "mutual contamination" that this traffic implies. Kimsooja, a Korean artist living in New York, is one of those artists who exemplify in a complex way the paradoxes of globalization. While she works with deeply local materials and references, her work has been inserted comfortably into the international scene, holding a position of resistance against being digested into an aseptic internationalism but taking care, in these days of multiculturalism, to hyperbolize the characteristics of its difference to become more "exotic" in a medium eager for otherness.

  • Kimsooja is not a new face in New York. A year ago, P.S.1. (the "alternative" space par excellence of the 90s, nowadays associated to MoMA) presented an individual exhibition of her work, which had been shown already in that same space shortly before, within the framework of the very publicized Cities on the Move. Perhaps the work that has given her the greatest international visibility is her series of videos titled A Needle Woman, initiated in 1999. The artist traveled to eight cities in several continents, among them some of the most populated cities of the world: Cairo, New Delhi, Lagos, London, Mexico City, New York, Shangai and Tokyo. Generally, they are presented / displayed as large-format projections, in whose image is seen the artist from the back in a crowded city street.

  • The passers-by look in the direction of the camera — which they encounter from a considerable distance — and this depth of field has the effect of "leveling" the image on which figure and background are based and is difficult to calculate the proximity between the artist and the locals that encounter her. The artist is immovable in a meditative attitude, totally passive to the reaction of the people. This passivity generates a tension: at any moment we are hoping that she is interrupted, bothered, or even attacked. One of the immediate readings provoked by this work is one of the uncomfortable relation of the individual with society, a personal act of meditation facing the collective interaction in a public space. The artist opposes the slowness of individual, metaphysical time, at the speed of the collective time, whose rate is marked by conventions. A Needle Woman is, in the words of Paulo Herkenhoff, "the cartography of a 'displaced being.'" The needle, the artist reminds us, is an ambiguous image, as much masculine as feminine: "it can inflict a wound and at the same time be used to heal it." When facing the human river in the streets of these great cities, Kimsooja is penetrating the social weave and is simultaneously being permeated by its particularities. This tension is clearly perceivable in the videos, in which there is always a latent sensation of violence — implicit in the confrontation between individual and society, foreigner and locals, the woman and a phallocentric society; the confrontation is literalized by the formal disposition of the performance.

  • The status of a foreigner in another country and the condition of the urban immigrant is also invoked here. The tension between the urban landscape, full of color and vitality, and the immovable image of the artist, always dressed in the same grey tunic (which recalls the clothes of indigents and the poor, unavoidable presences in all contemporary metropolises) adds a political reading to this confrontation between individual and society. It is worth noting that the use of an indefinite article to title the work, "A" Needle Woman instead of "The" Needle Woman, testifies to the will of Kimsooja to allude more to the human condition than to a particular history, presenting / displaying "the lost soul to us of globalized modernity," as the critic Ken Jonson wrote in the New York Times.

  • The work of Kimsooja is in the tradition of the performance, though the body remains immovable here. But it is also in the tradition of the landscape and, why not, of the urban documentary. These videos are pictures of the local life in each one of the selected contexts: the chaotic architecture in which tradition and modernity mix in cities like Delhi and Shangai; the human rivers in New York or Tokyo. Each video incorporates abundant sociological information on the "local color": clothes, means of transport, forms to be related in the public space. In New York and London people ignore each other (and the artist) but simultaneously speak on cellular phones, establishing an alternative relational plot in which the notion of the street as the space of social interaction par excellence is challenged by the technological and social reality of the great contemporary large cities.

  • The images of the eight cities vary significantly, in their color, texture and, as was already said, in the attitude of the passers-by with respect to the artist, confirming that in the base of national stereotypes much truth exists: in London and New York, cultures in where individuality is an appraised good, people pass to the side without becoming jumbled, minding their own business, doing something that is not there. In the cities of Asia a similar attitude is perceived, although the furtive glances attest more to a timid nature than of an affirmation of individuality. And readings could be made still more particular: as the critic Gregory Volk writes, in Tokyo the artist could just as well not be there, because the people ignore her completely, "before which it is inevitable to think about how the Korean minority in Japan has long suffered from cultural invisibility and discrimination." In Sao Paolo or Mexico City, people were more direct in satisfying the curiosity generated by this unusual urban presence (an Asian woman completely immovable in a sidewalk is without a doubt an unexpected appearance), whereas in Lagos, the performance caused a true collapse in the circulation of this large African city, when a group of boys crowded itself around the artist to watch her, to ask her questions and to try to obtain some type of reaction. And so on in each case.

  • From 1994 the artist has used multicolored fabrics presented/displayed in several ways: spread on the ground, folded in piles, hung on lines as if they were being dried in the sun or in bunches (called Bottaris), which have become one of her more characteristic visual resources. In their different uses, these colorful fabrics have a great evocative capacity; they recall the clothes hung in the patios, or put out to dry on the banks of rivers in the rural areas of many countries — no only in the Third World. The bunches have more complex readings; it is inevitable to think of displaced urbanites with their properties in the hills, or of associations even more macabre, because many of them are the size to wrap a human body. The fabric in this case is a delicate limit between interior and outside, spirit and materiality, the individual and the world that surrounds it. The Bottaris are made from fabrics traditionally used in Korea to surround domestic objects like clothes or books. These bulks symbolize the historical displacement of the Korean population, but they touch upon a global preoccupation, the phenomenon of internal migrants and the immigrants, displaced from their places of origin for diverse reasons — religious, political, economic — one of the subjects of greatest importance in the postindustrial societies. The Bottaris are the house in the absence of the house, indices of a left or lost place, that guarantee a connection with history.

  • A Mirror Woman, the installation in the Peter Blum Gallery, consists of a kind of multicolor labyrinth formed by the fabrics that hang from cables like the ones used to dry clothes, that cross - extended across the rectangular space of the gallery. In the two sidewalls the artist has placed mirrors that cover the entire surface of the walls, with which one has the sensation to be immersed in an infinite space. For Kim, the mirror is "another way to surround the world". These textiles are associated with the condition of the woman in Korean society, and to domestic rites like sewing and embroidering bedcovers as marriage gifts. Kimsooja has described how she arrived at this material: "I was sewing bedcovers for my mother and after a while I had a strange sensation in which my thoughts, my feelings and my actions seemed to get to be on [with the fabric and the act of sewing it]." These fabrics are all the same form and size (a regular square), but vary significantly in their color, texture and composition, because they are made in many cases from pieces of used dresses or other blankets. Most of them belonged to somebody, and this "biographical load" is perceivable in the installation, in where they are a stirring presence.

  • The intervention in the Leap Frog Cafe in Central Park is very subtle, because as it is not an artistic space, the fabrics tend to merge with the colorful atmosphere of the park. When using the bedcovers like tablecloths in the restaurant, Kimsooja incorporates in this scope of socialization the presence of experiences lived in other times and other contexts; apparently this displacement is a transgressive act, because in Korea it is taboo to eat upon the bed. Probably a casual person at the table does not perceive the presence of "the work", but this is the risk associated with all intervention that is not codified by its inclusion in a museological space. What is certain is that for many others the social act around the table (eating, talking, drinking coffee) will be mediated by their presence, and by the consciousness that these fabrics have been dumb witnesses of many other lives. Like the mirrors.

Cities on the Move - 2727 KM Bottari Truck, 1997, single channle video, 7:33 min. loop, silent, Commissioned by Korean Arts and Cultural Foundation

Homeland Exists Only in Our Memory in This Era

Fibicher, Bernard



  • The work "2727 kilometers Bottari Truck" (1997) by the Korean artist Kimsooja has prompted many commentaries – on the Internet too – that are full of inaccurate quotes and half-truths, but that also include some quite imaginative interpretations. For example, there is talk of the "video loop of her sojourn throughout Seoul and the surrounding countryside" (I am deliberately excluding source references here.) In the film itself, however, there is nothing to be seen of the metropolis of Seoul. In another commentary: "In 1997, Kimsooja toured Korea for eleven days in a truck containing a large number of 'bottari' made from clothing she had gathered from all over the world." This universalistic interpretation is contradicted by the following reduction to local history in another text: "The mountain of colorful, knotted cloths in the truck alludes to the troubled episodes of Korean history, in which city dwellers and the inhabitants of the countryside alike were forced to flee their homes, carrying their valuables in similar large 'bottari'." However, it is impossible to examine the content of the bundles in the film, and inconceivable – at least for the lay person – to deduce the forced nomadism of the Korean people from the truck journey performance. What I am attempting here, therefore, is to allow the images to speak for themselves and at the same time take account of the written information which the artist has provided in her film.

  • A woman is sitting on a truck loaded with bundles. The bundles are tightly secured with thick ropes; they also serve as a seat for the woman. Throughout the whole film this female figure is shown only from behind. Occasionally, at a bend in the road, her concealed profile appears momentarily. She is wearing a neutral black dress that defies classification, either chronologically or geographically, and her hair is bound up. The camera following her tries to vary as little as possible the distance it keeps from her and to always keep her at the centre of the frame. Accordingly, in the lower half of the frame we see the heap of colorful bundles (only once does the rear of the truck sways briefly into the image), and in the upper half, we see the woman and the passing scenery [2]. The truck first travels upwards along a mountain road, then, having crossed a pass, down again into the valley. The road winds, with fairly sharp bends, through a landscape which during the ascent looks quite barren, but on the descent turns out to be wooded. Traces of snow can be seen at the road-side and around several groups of buildings. The landscape is geographically unidentifiable. There could be places like this in almost any continent of the world. The script on one of the passing road-signs, however, indicates the Asian region.

  • The information directly available from the images is complemented by some written data. The almost seven-minute video begins with a fade-in followed by the title "Cities on the Move". This refers to the context in which the work originated – namely, the exhibition "Cities on the Move", which was created by Hou Hanru and Hans Ulrich Obrist and, in keeping with the theme, was shown in different formats in different cities and continents [3].

  • Right from the beginning, this fade-in also provides a pointer to the general problem of how cities are developing. What is specifically "on the move" is the truck fully loaded with bundles. The truck must, therefore, be associated with "cities." And yet only a mountain road is visible in the frames. Do the bundles come from cities? Are they being transported to cities? Throughout the whole film, the word "cities" lodges in our mind like a foreign body, forming the conceptual counterpart to the landscape, which is visible all the time in the background. The general title "Cities on the Move" implies that the journey passes through city and country. Shortly before the end of the film, its actual title appears: "2727 kilometers Bottari Truck". Only now do we realize that the seven-minute sequence is no more than an extract from a much longer journey. The final credits contain information on the director (Kimsooja), the year the film was made (1997) and the location. Thus the point in time (the present) and the place where the action occurs (Korea) become clear. Yet we still feel confused. As image and text mutually influence each other, there is a tense interplay at several levels: between city and country, part and whole, now and (almost) any time, here and (almost) everywhere – or, in contemporary terms: the local and the global. Furthermore, the linear structure of the film and the journey is weakened by its repetition (the video runs in a loop). Although the journey is the central theme of this work by Kimsooja, stasis proves to be just as vital.
    "2727 kilometers Bottari Truck" can be seen as a minimalist road movie. The classical road movie simultaneously depicts a physical and a spiritual journey: a person, but mostly two people, travel the country in a car or on a motorcycle in order to find both the true America and themselves [4]. Though the road movie refers to the past and suggests a future, it concentrates on the in-between, the road, the distance between past and future, city and country, civilization and nature, immobility and movement. In an e-mail interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Kimsooja writes: " 'Bottari Truck' is…a loaded in –between"[5]. The road promises not only release from the bonds of the past but also the adventure of a new beginning. The reasons that drive someone onto the road have a lasting effect on the plot of the road movie. In Kimsooja's film there is neither action nor motivation. The woman dressed in black is traveling alone. She remains seated, while still moving forward. Deleuze and Guattari refer to the progress in repose of the nomad in their Nomadology: "The nomad distributes himself in a smooth space; he occupies, inhabits, holds that space; that is his territorial principle. It is therefore false to define the nomad by movement. Toynbee is profoundly right to suggest that the nomad is on the contrary he who does not move. …Of course, the nomad moves, but while seated, and he is only seated while moving (the Bedouin galloping, knees on the saddle, sitting on the soles of his upturned feet, 'a feat of balance')." [6] We do not know where the dark female figure comes from or where she is going to. We are not informed about her reasons for making the journey, why she has tied up her bundles. She exists only in this in-between space constituted by the road. Deleuze and Guattari emphasize this in-between space as a further characteristic of nomadism: "The nomad has a territory; he follows customary paths, he goes from one point to another, he is not ignorant of points (water points, dwelling points, assembly points, etc). …A path is always between two points, but the in-between has taken on all the consistency and enjoys both an autonomy and a direction of its own. The life of the nomads is the intermezzo." [7] The classical road movie operates with the opposition between space and place. Space – abstract space, wide open space –symbolizes inestimable freedom, while place – the precisely localized place – means civilization, the norm, the rule, i.e., restriction. In Kimsooja's film the two terms coincide in the concept of the bundle. This temporary place, the bundle, on which the woman is sitting, is simultaneously space and movement. It thus integrates the opposites of stasis and displacement, bondage and freedom. In the interview with Obrist, the artist puts this paradox as follows: " 'Bottari truck' is a development-object through space and time, an object that brings us to and from the place from which we came and to which we will return." [8] Kimsooja uses the elementary bundle – literally a "transitory object" – as a complex, contradictory symbol of location and placeless-ness.

  • At first sight, everything in "2727 kilometers Bottari Truck" seems to be in motion, flowing: the truck with the bundles roped onto it, the woman swaying slightly on the bends and at times shaken because of the bumpy road, the passing landscape. Meanwhile, the woman is taken as a fixed point (the heaped bundles function as a mere "plinth"); she is the referential object, although almost all we see of her is a cloth covering. The woman cannot be identified and is thus as anonymous as the bundles, whose contents remain concealed. This makes her a genuine identification figure. She can be anyone. Her body is a bundle, a container of many things, a corpus. In the interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Kimsooja remarks: " 'Bottari Truck' is a laden self, a laden other." [9] The body as bundle enables the transfer between "me" and "the other in me", between "me" and "the other". [10] The travelling woman seated on the bundles is not least a symbol both of primitive and of modern man, of nomadism and of the mobility and flexibility that have been raised to the new ideal and are often linked with values such as non-identity, placeless-ness, migration, cultural hybridism, etc. Yet this woman radiated an immense loneliness – melancholy? Marc Auge analyses the loneliness of modern cartography and in so doing, he investigates both those "places" which are characterized by identity, relation and history, and those "non-places" which have no anthropological identity. His conclusion is: "Movement adds a special experience, a form of loneliness, to the juxtaposition of the worlds and the experience of the anthropological place." As the images pass by, loneliness manifests itself in them "as a going beyond individuality, in short, the flickering of the hypothesis of a past and the possibility of a future." [11] Is loneliness perhaps the unexpected price to be paid for being open to the world?

  • Translated from the German by Pauline Cumbers

[1] "Gerald Matt interviewing Kimsooja", p. 12, in: exhibition catalogue: Kim Sooja. A Laundry Woman, Kunsthalle Wien, 2002, p. 7-33.

[2] å pendant to Kimsooja's women in black seeen only from behind in Michelangelo Pistoletto's "La Venere degli stracci" (Rag Venus, 1967). In it, a replica of a classical female nude with her white back turned to the viewer snuggles up to a heap of clothing and pieces of fabric that towers above her. There is a clashhere between the ideal form and the attraction of the informal. Thirty years later, Kimsooja no longer needs this shock effect: the woman and the cloth bundles belong in one and the same universe.

[3] Cities on the Move, exhibition catalogue Secession, Vienna, Musée d'art contemporain, Bordeaux, ed.: Hatje Verlag, Ostfildern, 1997/98.

[4] Several interesting essays on the theme are contained in the reader The Road Movie Book, ed.: Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark, London, New York: Routledge, 1997.

[5] Reprint and German translation of the interview in: Kim Sooja. A Needle Woman, exhibition catalogue Kunsthalle Bern, 2001, no page numbers.

[6] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi, London: The Athlone Press, 1987, p. 381, chapter 12, A Threatise on Nomadology: The War Machine.

[7] Ibid., p.380

[8] Kimsooja, 2001.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Little wonder that of all things a female body assumes this mediating role.

[11] Marc Augé, Orte und Nicht-Orte. Vorüberlegungen zu einer Phänomenologie der Einsamkeit, Frankfurt am Main, 1994, p. 103.

A Mirror Woman, 2002. Korean bedcovers, mirror structure walls, 4 fans, cables, clothespins, Tibetan monk chant. Installation view at Peter Blum Gallery, New York, 2002. Photo by Bill Orcutt.

Kim Sooja at Peter Blum

Wei, Lily


  • New York-based since 1998, Kim Sooja here exhibited a new installation titled A Mirror Woman. The artist, who was much praised last year for her riveting video A Needle Woman, seen at P.S.1 and later at this year's Whitney Biennial, has said that in her native Korea, her work is sometimes not seen as art, since it so closely approximates the look of daily life. For this show, she presented the best-looking room of laundry you're ever likely to see: gaily colored silk bedspreads, 14 rows deep, pinned to clothes-lines strung across the gallery, whose walls had been mirrored from floor to ceiling for the occasion. The coverlets, elaborately embroidered with phoenixes, dragons, fruits and flowers — symbols of long life and fertility — were strikingly festive, with their high-pitched color schemes of fuchsia, emerald green, sour lime, royal blue, golden yellow, ripe plum, hot pink and cherry red. The mirrors extended the installation in endless, repetitive sequences.

  • Traditionally given as gifts to newly married couples, these salvaged wedding bedspreads are domestic objects that can be folded, wrapped and carried away, if need be; indeed, like tents, these covers can create a dwelling, an emblematic compound of sorts, in which women perform centuries-old, conventional domestic tasks, like hanging out the wash, attending to fabrics they have woven and embellished in considered acts of art and meditation. "A fundamental site," the artist says, "these bedcovers refer to marriage beds and shrouds, birth and death, love and pain, hope and despair, sleep and awakenings, cycles of incarnation and dreams, a delicate but comprehensive view of a woman's world."

  • Hung, with the exception of the first and the last two rows, in pairs, the bedcovers were strategically positioned. Entering the installation was a little like entering a painting. As you negotiated the space, which resembled a maze, you had to choose your route, your subsequent progress gently controlled in a ritual of passage both profoundly symbolic and quite ordinary. Small unobtrusive ceiling fans set the silk aflutter as if it were animated by chi, the breath of life. Encompassed by planes of color, you were soothed by the faint hum of recorded Tibetan mantras interrupted by the tinkling of bells — a spiritual version of pillow talk, perhaps. This was a comely, courteous kind of feminism, from an Asian Buddhist perspective seen lightly, self-consciously, through artfully arrayed mirrors.

  • — From Art in America, September 2002:

Lilly Wei is a New York-based independent curator, essayist and critic who writes for several publications in the United States and abroad. A frequent contributor to Art in America, she is also a contributing editor at ARTnews and Art Asia Pacific.

Lie on the Nature / Sewing into Walking, used bed covers, Oksanseowon Valley, Korea, 1994. Photo by Ju Myung Duk.

Cloth and Life



  • We are wrapped in cotton cloth at birth, we wear it until we die, and we are again wrapped in it for burial. Especially in Korea, we use cloth as a symbolic material on important occasions such as coming of age ceremonies, weddings, funerals, and rites for ancestors. Therefore, cloth is thought to be more than a material, being identified with the body — that is, as a container for the spirit.

  • When a person dies, his family burns the clothes and sheets he used. This may have the symbolic meaning of sending his body and spirit to the sky, the world of the unknown. When I look back over my more than twenty years of handling bedcovers, I feel that I have always been performing, guided by the piles of cloth I have lived among.

  • What in the world have I stitched and patched. What have I tied up in bundles. When will the journey of my needle end, my silkworm unwrap its flesh. Will it in the end slough off its skin. Will the bundles with no destination find their way to go.

  • — Kim Sooja

  • Artist statement accompanying "Kim Sooja: A Mirror Woman", Peter Blum gallery, New York City.
    Exhibition from February 23 to May 18, 2002.

Bottari, 1998, installation view from Kunsthalle Kassel.

Kim Sooja

Sand, Olivia


  • 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.

  • Olivia Sand is a correspondent for the Asian Art Newspaper based in New York, and Strasbourg, France. She contributes to The Asian Art Newspaper on a monthly basis, covering the Asian contemporary art scene. The newspaper, published out of London, serves as a thorough information source on the world of Asian art.

— From Asian Art Newspaper, London, 2002.

A Laundry Woman - Yamuna river, India, 2000, 10:30 video loop, Silent.

The Persistence of the Void

Morgan, Robert C.


  • Having followed the work of Kim SooJa for nearly a decade, I have become increasingly aware of her focus and commitment in developing a unique vision of the world through art. Her vision is, of course, a subjective one. It is subjective in relation to the conjugation of mind and body. As with any refined manner of subjectivity, SooJa depends on a type of alertness based on the sensing of her immediate environment. While performing in relation to the video camera, whether in an urban metropolis or in the wilderness of nature, she maintains a relaxed aura. Her demeanor reveals a purposeful intensity combined with the sensitivity of observation. To develop one's sense of the world through art — indeed, to develop a perception of oneself — is initially contingent on observation, and later, on a phenomenological reduction of what one sees through the process of reflection; in essence, it is the search for an intentionality.

  • In working with brightly colored textiles in various contexts, SooJa has discovered a ground for her recent observations. She has discovered a way of making sense, of finding an order, regardless of the chaos that intervenes on the surface. In recent years she has extended the meaning of her textile installations ('deductive objects') and bottaris (wrapped bundles of cloth) through a series of remarkable video performances, collectively known as A Needle Woman. Through her process of engagement in the world — in other people's worlds, in specific places and cultures, such as Tokyo, Shanghai, Delhi, New York, Mexico City and Cairo — Kim SooJa has gone deeply within herself in order to find a new transcultural reality.

  • As an artist, she is not concerned with repeating hypothetical universals borrowed from the Modernist past. This is clearly antithetical to her position, to her ethos. As with her ongoing work, A Needle Woman, SooJa searches for a structural invisibility as the means by which to communicate her intention. To be deeply personal (which is also to be spiritual) opens up the possibility of significant communication — a human transmission — on a transcultural level. By going deeply within oneself, below the surface of narcissism (as defined in Western terms), one discovers the invisible self paradoxically asserting itself within a transcultural, transglobal world.

  • As is sometimes the case, and I am thinking specifically of Yves Klein, the most radical departures at any given moment in art are often confused with traditional ideas (l'ancien et l'ultramoderne ). What changes, of course, is the context in which the ideas are felt. One might consider that certain ideas in art retain an accelerating force as they evolve within a perpetually shifting globalized environment. Kim SooJa's bottaris have this potential. They refer to a certain kind of transport, a personal history, a private vision of one's own space, a nomadic space, going from one place to another. In the process of going from one place to another, there is a momentum that builds, a certain engagement with the transition of the present. Within this transition of present time — what the philosopher Husserl calls 'internal time-consciousness' — there is the possibility to reflect on the space of the moment. In Zen Buddhism, this is the place of samadhi or the contemplation of a single thought, a sense of oneness, that is often used in meditation. Samadhi offers the possibility of feeling a sense of wholeness, of bringing one's thought into focus, into a single thought, of entering into the space of that thought with full consciousness. This was used by Yves Klein in a manner quite differently from Kim SooJa. Even so, one cannot ignore the affinity — though at a different time and place, a different culture, to be sure.

  • If anything, A Needle Woman — already emphasizing a kind of anonymity by using the article 'A' as opposed to 'The'— is about the space of samadhi on one level, but only on one level. Contrary to the position of Arthur Danto, not all art exists at the service of philosophy. While the spirit of samadhi is close to A Needle Woman, it cannot operate as its raison d'etre. It can only function as a parallel system, as a personal motivation that the artist feels. In essence, Zen Buddhism may offer an affinity with SooJa's work — particular, it would seem, in A Needle Woman — but it cannot become her art. It is precisely for this reason that Kim SooJa rejects the lamination of theoretical rhetoric against her art. This is particularly true given the varieties of feminist theory, exported from the West, that often usurps the possibility for her art to speak on its own terms, and thereby suggest other parallel systems of thought. Kim SooJa is not interested in making her art an air-tight case and is certainly not a gender-case; it is about the significance of the human being in a chaotic world, how to survive the virtual excess and abandonment of the self, through a rejuvenation of mind/body awareness. Rather than following the theoretical pre-occupations of the West, she follows her own course of social and political engagement emanating from her own history, memory, and intelligence of feeling.

  • While Western rhetoric may have taken the foreground of attention in much recent art — more intent on "investigations" and visual anthropology than upon the phenomenology of experience — SooJa's position is more related to the nomadic artist, the human being who moves at will (not as a refugee), but within the another context of globalized reality. In doing so, she confronts excesses of all kinds, prematurely archaic or obsolescent structures that have devolved through overabundant information, tabloid-receptive populations who feel devalued in their everyday work and without a sense of history. This puts her art in opposition to the prevailing cynicism of the day, the ultimate detachment that is de rigeur /span>in the fashion world, the failing present where time exists without duration, without memory, and without any sense of a cause-and-effect impact on the proverbial future.

  • The poet and critic T.S. Eliot has spoken of the "perfect artist" as one who is so committed to his (her) art, with such ineluctable consistency, that the personality becomes less the issue than what is being transmitted through the art. I find Eliot's paradigm interesting in relation to Kim SooJa. One could say that the emphasis in her work has always been one of non-emphasis; instead of a presence we get an absence. The absence is always more profound, more subtle, and somehow more durable. The terms of absence are literally true, specifically in her rediscovery of bottari in 1992 as a kind of ready-made gesture, and most recently in her video projections.

  • The feeling of absence is also true in her earlier work. Going back to an earlier work, such as Portrait of Yourself (1985), SooJa ingeniously reverses the gaze of the viewer through the presentation of sewn pieces of cloth into a colorful garment. The work suggests that she is there, somehow within the space of the garment. By identifying the trace of her body within a form of representation, the viewer becomes complicit with the intimacy of the work. One may sense the transmission of memory as the cloth has been sewn, painted, and constructed. Absence exists as a condition of memory — a 'trace' of what is being represented. The process leads inevitably to the maker, to the one perceiving what is being made, in essence, to the craft of its making. This is an intimate, more than a social act(ion); yet it is consistent with what SooJa has recounted on afternnon in 1983 while she was sewing a bedcover with her mother: "I made a surprising discovery, whereby my thoughts, my feelings, and my activities 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."

  • In the West, art historians are fond of saying that no artist or movement in art comes from the void, that there are always cause-and-effect linkages, relationships, motivations, and consequences. This is, to some extent, true; but its truth is isolated within the discipline of art history, not necessarily within the process of how an artist thinks. What is happening in today's "art world" — the transcultural satellite of globalization — is relevant only to the following extent. Most of these objects and events are academicized into oblivion by the time they hit the market. They are merely symptomatic of the bifurcation between advanced technologies and the socioeconomic well-being of people's lives, particularly those living outside of the Western world.

  • Here is the crux of the issue: Many artists live in an environment of high transition filled with enormous frustrations. They spend hours in front of the computer. They are dependent on mobile phones and internet data. Traffic on city streets and airport terminals is greater than ever before. They cannot keep us with the piles of work that confront them in the studio. When do they have time to think about the direction of our work? Or, more relevant, when do they have time to think of their lives as forming the substance of their work? These questions, by the way, are not only germane to artists. Many of us are in a similar boat. And this boat seems more often than not to be floating in an empty void — a Western schism that is far removed from the nature of the self.

  • This is to suggest that Kim SooJa's art is directed towards another kind of void — neither the void of art history nor the void of the today's split in human consciousness, but the void of the self, the concept of "no mind" as described by the Japanese Zen teacher (Sensei) Daisetz Suzuki. When we look at the interwoven elements — material, visual, conceptual — as presented between SooJa's tactile and virtual images, we get a sense of her vision. Somewhere in the interstices between the bottari and the video projections, there is a profound coherence to everything we know. We are exhilarated as human beings to know that we are allowed to "unknow" the burden that constitutes much of our superficial identity. The temptation is always there — to avoid the void. In confronting the crowds of Shanghai, Delhi, or Istanbul, we may become aware that the feelings of the void so clearly articulated in the performances of Kim SooJa, are endangered in a world of chaotic excess. We can only look to the void that she has created, the cancellation of the chaos around her, and ultimately receive the infinite joy of being who we are.

  • — From Kunsthalle Bern exhibition catalogue, 2001:

Robert C. Morgan is a writer, critic, curator, poet, and artist. He holds an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in contemporary art history. He is the author of some 1500 essays and reviews. His books include Art into Ideas (Cambridge, 1996), Between Modernism and Conceptual Art (McFarland, 1997), The End of the Art World (Allworth, 1998), Gary Hill (Johns Hopkins, 2000), and Bruce Nauman (John Hopkins 2000). Among his many exhibitions, he curated Komar and Melamid: A Retrospective (Ulrich Museum of Art, 1979), Women on the Verge (Elga Wimmer, 1995), and Clear Intentions (The Rotunda, 2003). His performance work was shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1976) and in numerous other galleries and museums until he stopped producing art in 1990. He travels and lectures frequently and is completing a book on Eastern thought and contemporary art.

A Needle Woman - Delhi, 2000, part of the 8 cities performances (1999-2001), 6:33 video loop.

Obvious but Problematic

Fibicher, Bernard


  • Reactions to Kim Sooja's silent video projections tend to be just as soundless - indeed speechless - as the works themselves. We have little trouble recognizing what is shown; there is no "plot" whatsoever, nor does any new information crop up at any point during a sequence. In short, there is hardly food for discussion. This makes it all the more tempting to seek some sort of exegesis with respect to the work of this Korean artist, to link it historically with certain artistic or philosophic traditions, in order to define it in words. To that end, certain catchwords represent particularly appealing departure points: Zen Buddhism, meditation, yoga, the suspension of the body, the emptying of the mind, ecstasy through asceticism, becoming one with the cosmic forces, and so forth. Kim's art may well touch upon any or all of these. Public response to her work, however, has repeatedly proven that viewers who balk at Eastern philosophy are nonetheless capable of empathizing with what she presents.

  • This leads us to consider linking Kim's work with Western Existentialist or phenomenological trends, prone as they are to claiming universalism. For instance, then, the mere fact of the artist's Da-Sein (that is, her being + there) in her videos might to some extent relate to Heidegger's notion of Ek-sistenz as analyzed in Being and Time . His "being-in-the-world" means to exist, from the Latin ex-sistere, the equivalent of standing outside one's self in a state of being that has always preexisted. In other words, it is precisely the most innocuously quotidien aspect of life that allows us to be and become what we already are, enabling the pure "what is and is to be" to emerge while "wherefrom and whereto" remain shrouded in mystery. To Heidegger, the body is inconsequential, simply there, a mere background for our acts, never standing in the foreground; the body is an instrument of transcendence. Might we not say as much of the artist's body, as it appears in her videos? By contrast, for Maurice Merleau-Ponty, author of a most important Phénoménologie de la perception, our perception of things always depends on a standpoint, namely that of our body. To be body means to be linked to a certain world ("Etre corps, c'est être noué à un certain monde..."). And that world is what makes me aware of my body "at the center of the world," as "the unperceived end point towards which all objects turn their face" ("le terme inaperçu vers lequel tous les objets tournent leur face"), "the hub of the world" ("le pivot du monde"). By way of illustration, see the four-part video installation A Needle Woman !

  • Several art-historical contexts might lend themselves to "explaining" Kim Sooja's work. Traditional Chinese landscape painting, for instance, uses the dialectical relationship between solid and liquid: the landscapes reflect the reciprocal influence of rock and water, mountain and clouds, as captured by the interplay of brush and India ink. Although painting is not her medium, Kim does seem to follow these roughly sketched principles, allowing the stiff bodies she presents to interact with flows found in nature or streaming crowds.

  • Western art history, too, offers several frameworks within which it would be feasible to position Kim's work. "Forerunners" of sorts easily come to mind in the realms of performance and body art: one thinks of the Marina Abramovic/Ulay pair's experiments with the basic positions of the human body - standing, lying, sitting - or the statue-like and aura-pervaded standing role into which James Lee Byars enjoyed casting himself. However, art historians also tend to link Kim's stance in her videos with the back-view figures that so frequently appear in Caspar David Friedrich's paintings of around 1818. The title figures of two of these - his Woman before the Setting Sun (Museum Folkwang, Essen) and Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (Kunsthalle Hamburg) - each stand full-length, parallel to the painting and in the foreground, exactly in the middle of the composition. Both turn their back to the viewer: solitary individuals, they stand confronted by the endless breadth and immeasurable magnitude of Nature. Just as in Kim's work, through their anonymity, these figures seen from behind serve as substitutes - within the painting - for the viewer. They are at once subject and object of our gaze.

  • It would certainly be interesting to carry some of these ideas a few steps further, or to explore still others, such as the concept of the sublime, or Baudelaire's notion of the " bain de foule" (to revel in crowds). For the purposes of this essay, however, we shall focus on the video images themselves, attempting to discover what constitutes their definition-defying fascination. The common denominator for most of Kim's works is the standing or lying female figure, motionless and seen from the back. In the first place, the figure is inaccessible because the woman turns her face away, that is, away from the viewer. It is the crowd streaming towards the "Needle Woman," in the video sequence by that name, who can see her from the front; they see something we are denied. Were we to take the place of the female figure, we would discover nothing more than what we already see as viewers. Hence, to identify with the back-view figure is relatively beside the point. It would be far more interesting to adopt the standpoint of one of the passersby. In the last analysis, it seems that the figure "invisible" to us holds the key to the whole scene. Why are the passersby looking at her or ignoring her? Is she crying or laughing, speaking or holding her silence? Are her eyes open or shut? Is she pretty or ugly? The gazes of the passersby offer no clue in the matter. This woman is no individual (she can be multiplied) but an abstraction. Clad in neutral gray, the artist's figure seems incorporeal, silhouette-like, a shadow of ourselves, a Doppelgänger. And yet she stands her ground with respect to the crowd, tacitly but nonetheless forcefully asserting her presence. In fact, the artist strikes a delicate balance between presence and absence; she is at once herself and the "other."

  • A second factor rendering inaccessible the figure viewed from behind is that the viewer is incapable of sharing her standpoint. The "Needle Woman" on the rocks lies above the viewer's eye level and above the horizon; no pathway leads to her. Moreover, deprived of a foreground, she cannot be situated in depth. The landscape lying ahead of her is invisible to us. We wonder if the woman is sleeping or meditating with closed eyes, whether she even deigns to cast a glance at what is hidden from us. Not content with refusing to show herself, she further denies us the possibility of seeing things from her standpoint, thus cutting off our view ahead. This female figure represents unattainable distance. The "Laundry Woman" presents similar spatial problems, inviting us to wonder where it is that she is standing. Very near the river bank? High above the river? The water forms a wall in front of her: instead of mirroring the artist herself, it reflects the sky above and its flock of whirring birds. On the other hand, the viewer is refused her standpoint, prevented from sharing her space. Here, the female figure is invisible to us from the waist down, with only her upper body jutting out into the image. (The reclining figure, too, does not seem to be in the picture but to project itself onto the picture from the side, shoving itself in between the rocks and the sky.) This "upper-body figure" is impossible to pin down in any fixed spatial terms. Nevertheless, the figure seems "grounded" in the literal sense of the word, standing as it does exactly at the center of the image, which it divides symmetrically into two. It is this figure that determines and creates the spatial coordinates. Everything starts out from it, relates to it: it is the center, the alpha and the omega.

  • The third reason that this back-view figure is inaccessible has to do with the space itself — the space the figure faces, to which it is exposed. This space is unstable, constantly changing, liquid. A longer look makes even the supposedly solid rocks in Kitakyushu, upon which the "Needle Woman" reclines, seem subject to "change": the ridges look like the flow of hair that has been let down. Anthropomorphic elements begin appearing in the rocks, something like the features of a human skull lying about. The woman sitting on the bundles in Cities on the Move may be shaken about a bit by the potholes in the street, but it is nonetheless she who remains the static element in the sequence. The street winds its way through the images before our eyes, and the landscape comes towards us. Yet, despite the space's instability — its dynamic quality to put it more positively — no uneasiness or menace is suggested (by contrast, for instance, with the progressive deformation and narrowing of the lead character's living quarters in Boris Vian's Froth on the Daydream. The female figure not only exists in space that is anisotropic, but also belongs to another time — an extremely slow-motion version of our own world. Kim's video imagery portrays the world's continuous transformation as an inexorable but altogether natural turn of events. However, the strength of the individuals exposed to this unending transformation is equally inexorable: through the simple fact of their presence-laden Da-Sein, they are capable of neutralizing it.

  • Here we have what most probably explains the fascination of Kim Sooja's video works. Refusing to draw her systematic play of contrasts into any sort of tension-charged dialectical relationship, she instead achieves such a delicate equilibrium that opposite poles are brought to the fore as a natural basis for harmony. Although what she stages is commonplace, her video imagery does not come across as believable. The balance struck between presence and absence exists not only in her images, but in our head as well, inasmuch as the back-view figure can show itself as soon as the video projector is switched off. Kim Sooja: at once subject and object of our gaze, an individual and an abstraction, a specific woman and every(wo)man, instrument and actress, motionless and purposeful. In theories of perception, the fact that the eye sees what moves is a truism. In Kim's work, it is immobility that catches the eye. While setting herself at the center of the imagery, the artist distances herself from it. Her forceful but simple appearance is an incredible manner of self-assertion, proving that it is possible here and now, and with a strict economy of means, to adventure into new spatial and temporal dimensions.

  • — From Kunsthalle Bern exhibition catalogue, 2001:

Bernard Fibicher's special fields of expertise are the art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and public art. He was curator of the Cantonal Art Museum in Sion and chief curator at the Zürich Kunsthaus (1995-97) in the prints, drawings and video department where he was responsible for the exhibitions "Erotica", "Wall Drawings" (with Maria Eichhorn, Simon Patterson and Gary Simmons) and shows by Gillian Wearing, Callum Innes, Pierrick Sorin, Inez van Lamsweerde etc. At Kunsthalle Bern, he has specialized in exhibitions of contemporary artists from all over the world (especially Africa and Asia), presented a number of group shows such as "Genius Loci", "White Noise", "South Meets West", "I Never Promised You a Rosegarden", "Basics", "Danger Zone", etc., as well as solo shows by the following artists: Marie-José Burki, Thomas Hirschhorn, "Big Tail Elephant Group", Cecilia Edefalk, Callum Innes, Christoph Rütimann, Ceal Floyer, Martin Kersels, Michel François, Rémy Zaugg, Kim Sooja, Anne Katrine Dolven, Gregor Zivic, Richard Wright, Maria Eichhorn, Pascale Marthine Tayou, Ilona Ruegg, Meschac Gaba, Maria Eichhorn, Salla Tykkä, Mark Lewis, Tomoko Takahashi, Brian Tolle, Marjetica Potrc, Kay Hassan, Serge Spitzer, Ann Veronica Janssens, Martin Creed, Chloe Piene and Ai Weiwei. He will be director of this institution until the end of 2004.

A Laundry Woman, 2002, used korean bed covers, tibetan monk chant, fans, Kunsthalle Wien, Karlsplatz. Photo by Christian Wachter.


Matt, Gerald


  • 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.

  • — From the Kunsthalle Wien solo show catalog, 2002.

Gerald Matt is the director of the Kunsthalle Wien.

Deductive Object, 2002. Used Korean bed covers, Central Park, New York. Photo by Matthew Suib.

Whitney Biennale

Rinder, Lawrence


  • Kim Sooja's installations, videos, and performances link art with everyday life by transforming common materials and concise gestures into poetic commentaries on the human condition. One key body of work involves the use of traditional Korean bedcoverings as sculptural elements. These textiles, traditionally given to newly married couples, are typically embroidered with symbolic patterns and made of contrasting colors, such as red and blue, which together signify the unification of yin and yang. In Kim's works, the bedcovers are laid flat on the ground, hung in rows like laundry on a line, or filled with old clothing and knotted in clusters of bottari, flexible bundles traditionally used to transport household goods. The becoverings are always used, artifacts of anonymous lives.

  • Kim's bedcover pieces are deceptively simple in form, yet resonate with multiple layers of experience and meaning. On one level, they are strikingly sensuous compositions, spreading out before the viewer in an array of color, pattern, and texture. These fabrics are also immediately accessible: we all use bedcoverings virtually every night, from birth to death. They are fraught with feelings and emotions from comfort and desire to solitude and exhaustion. Bedcovers, in Kim's words, "are frames of our bodies and lives." When bundled as bottari, the bedcovers become a kind of universal symbol of human movement, hinting at migration, nomadism, and the experience of refugees. Bottari are also metaphors for the human form. "I find the body to be the most complicated bundle," explains Kim.

  • On their most abstract level, which is the level most important for Kim herself, the bedcovers are veils that divide one state of being from another, inside from outside, the hidden from the seen. "Through the quite present and simultaneously distance engagement of cloth," comments curator Harald Szeeman, "she challenges us to reflection on our most basic conduct: consciousness of the ephemera of our existence, of enjoying the moment, of change, migration, resettlement, adventure, suffering, of having to leave behind the familiar. She masterfully sets her fabrics, rich in memory and narrative, into the situation of the moment, as zones of beauty and affecting associations. With a grace that knows ever so much."

  • — From the Whitney Biennale 2002 catalogue:

  • Lawrence Rinder
    Anne & Joel Ehrenkranz Curator of Contemporary Art,
    Whitney Museum

  • Mr. Rinder was chief curator of the 2002 Whitney Biennial. He curated, with Debra Singer, the Museum's groundbreaking exhibition BitStreams, which explored the impact of digital technology on contemporary art in 2001, and in 2003, The American Effect, which surveyed global perspectives on America from 1990 to 2003. Mr. Rinder was founding director of the CCAC Institute at the California College of Arts and Crafts, San Francisco and Oakland, California, and was Assistant Director for Exhibitions and Programs and curator for twentieth-century art and MATRIX curator at the Berkeley Art Museum. He is an Adjunct Professor of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University.