Mandala: Zone of Zero
Conditions of Anonymity: The Performance Art of Kim Sooja
Mind Space - Samsung Museum of Modern Art
An Incantation to Presence "The body itself is the most complicated bundle." — Kim Sooja
Being and Sewing
'In the Space of Art: Buddha and the Culture of Now' Interview
March 24, 2003
A One-Word Name Is An Anarchist's Name.
"My work explores the awakening of the self and the other... It is an awakening of the hidden meanings in elements of our mundane lives, to which the viewers previously haven't paid much attention."
Growing up in South Korea, Kimsooja describes her complex spiritual background informed by Buddhism, Catholicism, and a code of moral conduct influenced by Confucianism. After high school, she intentionally "stepped out of organized religion in order to experience the real world". The artist felt uncomfortable with the systematization of beliefs and behavior within the faith traditions. Although Kimsooja does not practice Buddhism formally, her beliefs and personal practices strongly parallel this philosophy of life.
A Laundry Woman (2002) is a video projection that suggests the harmony of the universe through its stillness and tranquility (figs. 25 and 26). It documents a meditative performance by the artist along the Yamuna River in North India. Videotaped from a slightly elevated vantage point and seen from the back, Kimsooja's figure is silhouetted against blue, opalescent waters. Although the sky is not visible, the viewer is made conscious of its presence by the reflections of flying birds in the water. The artist remains perfectly still while the video captures her state of quiet mindfulness.
Kimsooja describes her experience during this meditation: "In the middle of the performance, I was completely confused...[about] whether it is the river which is running and moving or myself." The artist's perceptions of space and time were turned upside down and mentally she became completely immersed in and at one with the water. She later realized that it is not the river that constantly changes but her body, which is transforming all the time: "My body will disappear while the river is still flowing."
While watching the video, the viewer slowly becomes aware of the ritual offerings and ashes of deceased people who were cremated at a site along the river. The cycle of life and death becomes a powerful theme in the work. Kimsooja began thinking of the decomposed bodies that floated before her. She meditated on "their lives and their memories and was trying to purify their bodies as well as mine. Praying for their future life with compassion for human beings." The artist experienced a heightened sense of what she describes as "awakeness", particularly in her awareness of the relationship between nature and the body, stillness and movement, life and death.
By interpreting the confluence of river and atmosphere, Kimsooja highlights an idea embraced by many artists in the exhibition: the unity of life. She describes the effect of blending water and sky as a mirror presenting both reality and its opposite dimension. From a formal perspective, the artist conceives the river as a surface that is similar to a two-dimensional canvas. There is a strong impulse towards abstraction in A Laundry Woman, which reflects Kimsooja's early career as a painter.
Through the video, the artist invites the viewer to share her meditative experience. As she explains, "That is why my body is facing against the viewer. Look at what I look at. I do not present my ego, my identity." Kimsooja's desire for the viewer to "wear" her body suggests the idea of the artist as mediator in order to open possibilities for other people to participate in a "certain awareness and awakening." She points out that there are few opportunities in daily life to achieve this concentrated state of mind.
In A Laundry Woman, Kimsooja's body in essence becomes an offering for others to use in order to achieve an expanded consciousness. "Some people referred to me as a shaman who mediates between the dead and the living. I sometimes feel that way too because, in a way, I am doing that all the time. I think it comes from compassion. Understanding others' suffering. Sharing suffering. Sharing love." For many people familiar with India, the title of the work may conjure images of the low-caste women whose livelihood revolves around the river. In this interpretation, the artist becomes the laundry woman in an act of empathy.
While discussing the idea of pairing A Laundry Woman with a small sculpture of Buddha Shakyamuni touching the earth to witness his enlightenment, Kimsooja immediately responded to the shared symbolic gesture in the two works of art (fig. 4). She noted that her video establishes connections between the individual and nature; similarly, the Buddha links himself to the land. Through the body, she also connects herself with other human beings from all cultures. As she explains, "All human activities are about linking the self to the other."
Relationships are a central theme in a group of installations that depict sewing as a metaphor for threading together different aspects of life. Kimsooja conceives her video works as "invisible sewing." The artist created another work with the title of Laundry Woman (exhibited at the Kunsthalle in Vienna and the Zacheta Gallery of Art in Warsaw, 2002), an installation consisting of suspended fabrics that suggest linens drying outdoors. These materials become symbols of women, love, the body, and sleep. On a social level, they are associated with women's roles in society. For Kim, cloth transcends its materiality and functions as "a container for the spirit"; people are swathed at birth and at death in cloth, and it is also used ceremonially in weddings and other rites of passage.
The Laundry Woman also relates to a group of works called Bottari — beautifully wrapped bundles of used Korean bedcovers, fabrics that are either manufactured or sewn by mothers and daughters as shared experiences. These pieces of cloth remind us of the cycle of life; they are used to bundle together household possessions when leaving home, and they help to establish domestic comfort in the absence of a true shelter. Their stitches bind people together.
Kimsooja insists that what is most essential is not the body of work but the questions that it raises. She hopes that the viewer will participate in her works by sharing this inquiring state of mind. When asked what her hopes were for the museum visitor, she replied, "I would like the audience to share with me the experience I had during my performance, question and answer, and really put each one's state of mind and body into that position."
Barbara Matilsky, Curator of Exhibitions Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Formerly curator at the Queens Museum of Art, New York City, where she organized the traveling exhibition, Fragile Ecologies: Contemporary Artists' Interpretations and Solutions (1992).
Visitors arriving at this gallery, recently relocated to midtown from Harlem, will step into a darkened room carpeted and painted meditative, deep-space blue. Sitting down risks becoming entranced by the little bubbles moving around one of the four circular red-yellow-and-blue jukebox speakers placed on each wall, where they emit a warm, tap-room glow.
Some viewers may be as struck by the speakers' resemblance to Tibetan mandalas (symbolizing the design of the universe) as was Kimsooja, who arrived in New York from South Korea in 1998 and saw in these artifacts of American pop culture a perfect meld of East and West. Others maybe reminded of stained-glass windows, since what pours out is an ethereal mix of Gregorian, Islamic and Tibetan chants that circulate, like those bubbles, in an endless loop of male voices, both rumbling and sweet.
In her previous installations and videos, Kimsooja focused on the body as a protective cover for powerful emotions. Korean textiles figured prominently, wrapping immigrants or outcasts as they moved from place to place with belongings that survived them and were passed to others. It is the unmoving viewer being wrapped this time, in waves of sound and light. But because there is more here to experience internally than to see, viewers may dismiss the work as a literalized notion of the-gallery-as-chapel in which to worship at the altar of art, without realizing that they are part of the ritual.
— From TimeOut, New York: November 27 - December 4, 2003.
NB: In Buddhist philosophy, there is a notion which has a great importance: the impermanence of the world we live in. The needle woman stands in front of passing-by elements, like as if you were stressing on this impermanence, or on the fluidity of things. How does the Eastern way of thinking match contemporary art history, in you work?
KS: The impermanence of our lives is an important notion in my work and thinking and with this perception, comes a deeper compassion for human beings. Meditation about impermanence has been shading in my work since I first started the sewing pieces in the early 80's — connecting fragments of my deceased grandmother's clothes.
Buddhist philosophy, especially Zen Buddhism is similar to the way I perceive and function in the world. However, the ideas in my work are created from my own questions and experiences, not from Buddhist theory itself. (It is more complicated — as I was brought up formally a catholic, and practiced also Christian for some time, but Korean daily life practice is greatly dominated by Confucianism, mixture of Buddhism, and Shamanism.)
Certainly, where my immediate perceptions and decisions in art making meets the disciplines of Buddhism — making art and living my life are not consciously borrowed from theories. I intentionally stopped reading over a decade ago to concentrate and follow my own thoughts, but I recently started reading again especially on Buddhism as I find amazing similarities in my work and perception of life in it.
I might add that, the Eastern way of thinking inhabits every context of contemporary art history not just as a theory but as attitude melded in ones personality and existence and is inseparable with Western thinking.
NB: Do you think that oriental (eastern) thought has a real impact on the contemporary art world, or is it only a postmodern kind of exoticism, a decor for western aesthetic investigations?
KS: It would be unfortunate if the Western art world considered Eastern thought as a decor for Western aesthetic investigation — as if it were another element to add without noticing the fact that it is a way — in the process of making art. It is always there — as a dialectic — in all basic phenomena of art and life together. Eastern thought often functions in a passive and reserved way of expression, usually invisible, non verbal, indirect, disguised, and immaterial. Western thought functions more with identity, controversy, gravity, construction in general rather than de-construction, and material than immaterial compared to Eastern. The process finally becomes the awareness and necessity of the presence of both in contemporary Art. It is the 'Yin' and 'Yang' — a co-existence that endlessly transforms and enriches.
NB: You could have chosen to ignore your Korean cultural background, but you decided to use it as a material. In a way, especially the Bottari series, your work Post-produces formal elements from this already existing Korean shapes and patterns. But formally speaking, your exhibitions are playing with minimal art. Would minimalism play a special role onto this connection between East and West? And which movements or artists were the most influential for you?
KS: I have always used my personal life as the basic material for my work — hoping it would embrace the other. If I hadn't grown up and lived as a married woman in a Korean society, I wouldn't have chosen these traditional bedcovers. In Korea, they have a special meaning as the bed is the site of birth and death — of sleeping, loving, suffering, dreaming dying — it frames our existence. The bedcover is given to and used by newly married couples in Korea with messages beautifully embroidered and emblematic of wishes for love, fortune, happiness, many sons, and a long life.... it is so easy to notice it's contradiction when we see these symbols. I can't interpret my own culture with other culture's materials in the same way..... I try to find materials in their own context, but it always ended up with me bringing materials from Korea as theirs looked so neutral and hard to get the sense of the energy I feel from ours.
As for minimalism, I agree with you as a part of the nature of my practice but in the sense of extension of it's interpretation to the life as well as formalistic terms. The Japanese art critic Keiji Nakamura perceives my work as 'existential minimalism,' and this makes sense to me also. I greatly respect minimalism in the sense of the process of making art as well as it's vision. However the contents minimalists deal with are often maximal. It's hard to name any particular artist who was influential to me as I've been influenced in a way from anyone whom I have an opinion on their work-even from the ones we don't agree with. Yet, there is one statement by John Cage I saw it written in the bottom corners of an empty container at the 1985 Paris Biennale; that has reverberated for a long time in my mind. "Whether we try to make it or not, the sound is heard.".
NB: You are partly working with objects and surfaces made by other people. Of course the readymade is not a stake anymore, but in your case it could be questioned on a social or psychological level. The notion of existential minimalism could bring us to this direction, too, because it carries the idea of humanity, concrete people making products in a particular context. So what is the status of those objects in your mind and in your work in general? Is it a neutral process to use those bedcovers, or do you consider their context of production and the condition of the workers? And, more generally, what is the status of pre-existing things in an artwork?
KS: Analyzing the nature of my already-mades, can give a significant clue to the context of my work. I've been using objects from Korean domestic daily life significantly in my series, 'Deductive Object' from the early 90's. Here, I chose traditional Korean domestic already-mades; wooden window frames, reels, drums, and agricultural tools; a saw, shovels, forks, hooks... and wrapped them with old Korean clothes and bedcovers.
Now, I as am working exclusively in New York, I'm using objects found here; a child's toilet, a swing, vessels and an old directory board from a department store...etc. I've been thinking more about people who owned and used the objects and their traces rather than the people who made or manufactured them in those objects and I'm noticing that they are symbolically genderized in form and function.
Perhaps we need to re-define the notion of readymade in a larger context than relying on Marcel Duchamp's investigation — especially in this mass producing, global networking era which needs constant re-definition. My work is about pre-existing things buried into our daily lives — not mentioned nor conceptualized in art history.
My work also includes a presentation of the daily life of women's labor and her domestic performance trying to re-define the social, cultural and esthetic meaning of it to create it's own context in contemporary art history.
NB: This concept of pre-existence of things is very interesting. In a way, one could say that you are working with the ghosts of the objects, their aura, trying to turn the invisible into a shared experience. The anonymous is supposed to be invisible; so is the past, mostly. Is that important for you to make them visible?
KS: Yes. Depending on the nature of the already-made objects, my interest lies on different issues; for example, when I work with bed covers, I am working with pre-existing objects focusing more on the fact of 'pre-used' rather than 'pre-made' as I am more focused on anonymity of the bodies and the destinies of the couples rather than on anonymity who made the bed covers, although I am concern about the people who made them.
On the other hand, the folklore objects I've used, my interest lies more on the genderized nature and esthetic structure of the object and it's function in daily life rather than the anonymous beings who made or used them. But when I made a series of carpets which embeded names of the African American slaves who used to work for the plantation houses in the US, I was trying to combine the nature of the painstaking labor of carpet weavers and that of the African American plantation slaves emphasizing both of theirs hardships as I find carpet weaving and plantation job is similar jobs in different dimension. I wish to reveal this anonymity — as myself — one of the anonymous.
NB: The Needle woman is a central figure in your video works: You are standing in front of people and objects, right in the middle of a maelstrom of things, as if you were out of the world. Is that another figure of anonymity (the voyeur? Or are you even more into the world by watching it pass?)
KS: It is the point of the needle which penetrates the fabric, and we can connect two different parts of the fabrics with threads, through the eye of the needle.
A needle is an extension of the body, and a thread is an extension of mind. The traces of mind stays always in the fabric, but the needle leaves the site when it's medialization is complete. The needle is a medium, a mystery, a reality, a hermaphrodite, a barometer, a moment, and a Zen.
NB: Watching the needle woman, I was also thinking about a negative image of the baudelairian flaneur, an archetypal figure of the occidental modernity. Are you inscribing your work in the field of modernity, or is it a notion that is totally irrelevant for you?
KS: It is interesting to see my work discussed in this way — being compared to others from a completely different culture and social identity and also born at different time and space. My work is focused on the totality of life and art. One can see different realities in one persona or in art. Perhaps that is why one sees diverse similarities in my work.
NB: in a way, you are trying to capture the totality of human experience, which is quite rare. As you said, your work is not about any particular issue? Can you tell me what this ambition implies, and means?
KS: Totality is the truth and the reality of things. And it takes time to clarify in language as a whole. I am interested in approaching the reality that embraces everything because it is the only way to get to the point without manipulations. Most people approach reality from analysis or 'from language to colligation' which is the truth', but I am proposing a 'colligation to be analyzed' by audiences. My working process is intuitive and I believe it's own logic. If I have an ambition, it is to be just a 'being' who has no need to be anyone special, but is freed from human follies and desires — without doing anything particular. 'Being nothing/nothingness' and 'making nothing/nothingness' is my goal. It is a long process.
NB: To be "freed from desires" sounds very buddhistic. Is the artist a kind of boddhisattva, who tries to free himself/herself and to liberate the viewer?
KS: I remember the way desire was talked about in the 80's through the work of "simulationnist" artists such as Jeff Koons or Haim Steinbach : art was the absolute object of desire, a "pure merchandise," a perfect exchange value. Desire was examined in terms of compulsion and acquisition. So today, what would be the relationships between art and desire?
In any case, artists have been constantly dealing with their own desire and audience. For me, artists' practices are similar to that of Buddhist monks' in the sense that they both try to liberate and to become beyond themselves. In this era of globalization and technology however, the self, the body, the spirit, and the other can be perused in many ways -Artists deal with different types of desires depending on their social and cultural context. Desire can be visualized in a physical object form which satisfies sense of 'possession' or in a psychological and metaphorical way that deals desire as another 'subject'. When Claud Viallat said 'Desire leads', I think he referred to another origin of art instinct which links and visualizes these two different source of desires. Artists cannot help ask what is the origin of their desire, and what role desire plays in their work. To understand that this is 'the subject' an artist confronts in the end, and to extinguish it.
In the art of Korean-born, New York-based Kim Sooja, we see an entire career built upon the notion of the anonymous as a metaphor for the wish to merge with forces and circumstances usually acting against the forthright assertion of self. Kim's art inverts expectations as a way of embracing the world. Her performance of self is at once oppositional and acquiescent, fated and willed. There is a tremendous strength and assertion in her apparently anonymous actions, which are not so much transgressions as they are recognitions of fate. It may well be that the very circumstances Kim addresses, presenting as oppositions, are what the self needs to define itself — in much the same way the whole defines the part. Kim stands alone, unnamed, in her struggle to achieve a consolidated awareness, whose definitions may be seen as Buddhist in their unboundaried flow. In the elaborations of her anonymity, then, Kim presents a sensibility acutely aware of the warring contradictions between her desire for an erasure of self and the kind of resolve necessary to confront the environment she so eloquently, albeit silently, strives against.
When, in the performance A Needle Woman (1999-2001), Kim stands against waves of Japanese passersby on a street in Shibuya, Tokyo, her pose begins as antithesis but becomes, over time, a wordless affirmation of human resilience, even of individual worth, despite the conditions of anonymity she imposes upon herself. In a remarkable transformation of value, her actions quite literally embody the progress of a self increasingly cognizant of its mortal limits — it is as though Kim is mourning death, which is always ahead of its time. Yet the overall thrust of her vision is far from dark or macabre; her art demonstrates a knowing perception of life's circumstances that is by implication assenting, and her engagement with different cultures — Kim has performed A Needle Woman in eight cities throughout the world (in order: Tokyo, Shanghai, Delhi, New York, Mexico City, Cairo, Lagos, and London) — amounts to an affirmation of existence no matter what the environment.
Kim's development as an artist has been steady and assured. Born in 1957 in Taegu, Korea, she studied painting at Hong-Ik University in Seoul, where she completed graduate school in 1984. She spent half a year in France, on a grant from the French government. In 1992-93, Kim came to New York as an artist-in-residence at the contemporary art center P.S. 1. Deciding on cultural exile, Kim again returned to New York in 1998; this move marked her permanent stay in America, where she has received more and more recognition, becoming an artist of international reputation. Although Kim did not stay long as a painter, she remains interested in investigating the issue of surface, an activity she has continued throughout her career. Indeed, Kim comments, "This pursuit [of the surface], along with my will towards artistic freedom, enabled me to open up new horizons in my art." The change in expression came quickly to Kim; as early as 1983, while still in graduate school, she first "discovered the methodology of sewing as a means of questioning art and life while I was sewing a traditional bedspread in 1983." Kim made the decision to use fabric in daily life as a new kind of canvas. But the act of sewing was also personal, being tied to mourning: "My first attempt at sewing used clothes was done with the remains of my grandmother's clothing, left behind after her death a year before."
Kim began as a painter who questioned the surface of her canvas, seeing it as "a wall and barrier that painters wish to overcome." Over the course of a decade, she moved into new developments incorporating different media and strategies — videos and performances — in which the emphasis shifted from a treatment of surface to her now recognized language of wrapped used clothes and bedding: an image bundle. The changes in her art revolved around an increasingly emblematic use of materials; when asked why she makes use of bedcovers, Kim replies: "The bedcover is a symbolic site. It is where we are born, where we rest and love, where we dream and suffer and finally die. It keeps memories of the body alive, which result in another dimension." Now that she is concentrating on the world of performance and video, Kim has turned toward an increasingly allegorical reading of her environment, in which her life and actions function as an existence representative of ours. The human condition is taken up as essentially anonymous because Kim comprehends that all of us share the recognition that our actions reveal a deep-seated isolation, as well as an unconscious awareness that behavior takes on paradigmatic meaning in the face of our limited span of time. In Kim's art our understanding of death becomes enlightened by her mediation as an individual toward her audience; her actions resonate because they enter into an existential dialogue with their viewers, replete with the high moral seriousness the presence of death inevitably calls to mind.
A Needle Woman enacts the isolation we all feel by offering a resonant silence, contemplational in nature, in the midst of the crowd. Kim, who is not a practicing Buddhist, nevertheless sees Zen Buddhist affinities in her recent performances. Her art is suggestive of meditational mind in the encompassing awareness of its practice. She disavows her sense of herself in favor of a stance that heals and binds by taking in the energy, or noise, of the world. As Kim herself has said, "After a decade of sewing practice [since 1983], I came to see myself as a needle weaving the fabric of nature."
The artist intends to bring together disparate parts of the real as an act of selflessness represented by the precise metaphor of needle and silk. Her silent, even prayerful, interactions with the amused, bemused crowds in eight cities show a tenacity of purpose as well as a self deliberately obliterated so as to take in, out of harm's way, the various responses her stillness and silence create. Video witnesses her activities, creating an archive of interactions. Interestingly, Kim sees the use of video, which documents her activities in different places, metaphorically as well: "Another encounter occurs when audiences see the video resulting from my performance. My body functions as a barometer, as a needle connecting people from a different time and space." She means to emphasize the ties that bind people, by extinguishing, for the duration of the performance, the illusion that the self is primary.
Kim's epic eleven-day journey Cities on the Move — 2727 Kilometers Bottari Truck (November 1997) retraced sites in her memory; she traveled to different cities and villages where she used to live, carrying colorful bottari on a flat-bed truck. Kim considers the performance "a social sculpture, loaded with memory and history, which locates and then equalizes physical and mental space." The video, witnessing Kim's transit in Korea's Taebek Mountains, movingly and also literally presents the baggage she carries with her as she seeks to face her past. The performance presents her travels as a metaphor for the narrative of our existence; as Kim states in a catalogue accompanying the piece, "Bottari Truck is a processing object throughout space and time/locating and dislocating ourselves to the place/where we come from/and where we are going to." The figurative language engages the viewer on a metaphysical plane, demanding that we read her journey as emblematic of our own. Kim is particularly strong when her imagery is offered as a symbolic representation of awareness; the notion of moving along a path resonates in sympathy with the inevitable determination that the path will end when the person is gone. Asked in the catalogue to comment on unrealized projects, Kim replies, "I contain my projects in my body which I find as my studio, and I don't try to remember or describe them all." The statement returns us to the idea that Kim holds within her body a wellspring of creativity, which acts as the counterpart to the anonymous public self she so carefully presents. If it is true that we never see her face in her performance videos, it is because her anonymity is large enough to incorporate whatever occurs in the world around her.
As one follows the steps left by Kim in her sojourns of memory, it becomes clear that the implications of her path — itself a Buddhist term — suggest deep affinities with Buddhism. Kim comments that her "attitude and way of looking are similar to that of Buddhists." At the same time, she reserves the right to remain "an independent individual, who looks at the world in one's own way and who recognizes that one's own path can sometimes meet with a broad stream of thought." In the isolation of her artwork, Kim seeks out a generalized correspondence with the world, but on her own terms and from her own experience. Her allegories are successful because they originate, despite seeming otherwise, from a highly individuated sense of purpose. In a way, Kim's anonymity is a subterfuge, a manner of relating a sense of self whose boundaries are so extended as to do away with the notions of limit entirely. The odd thing about Kim's isolation is that it in fact completely engages with her audience; just as she offers solitude as a way of emphasizing universal implications, so she underscores her autonomy as a way of proceeding toward a wide involvement with others. Indeed, her lonely actions appear to call for help — in the video A Beggar Woman, done in Lagos in 2001, she sits crosslegged, her palm extended for alms. Someone gives her some change, and the muteness of the scene intensifies the artist's vulnerability. We read the interaction as evidence of need everywhere; in her dramatization of want, Kim reduces herself — and us as well — to a egoless composite of desires, an enactment of utter poverty.
As a result, Kim objectifies our intuitive knowledge in a language of actions stripped to the bare essence of their intent. There are of course feminist implications to her devotions, accomplished with a purposeful humility. In a remarkable performance, entitled A Needle Woman-Kitakyushu, done in 1999 in Japan, Kim stretched out on top of a limestone mountain, her curving body echoing the stony rise. The video confirms the artist's procedure, whereby her interaction with her surroundings envelops them in a unified will. The suggestion of the earth mother comes into play; there is a sense of limitless identification with nature. At the same time, some of the other performances have political implications, as suggested by A Beggar Woman or A Homeless Woman — Delhi (2000), in which Kim lies down on the sidewalk of a busy street. The lack of a direct message advocating social change does not affect the two pieces, which render suffering as intrinsic to our condition. Indeed, the indirectness of Kim's premises actually enhances her expression, which feels inevitable in light of its universality.
In the recent installation A Mirror Woman (2002), Kim hung used bedcovers across the width of the Peter Blum Gallery in New York City. She also placed mirrored surfaces on both of the side walls, reflecting the path of visitors as they made their way through a labyrinth of colorful cloth. There was a sound element as well — the chants of Tibetan monks accompanied the exhibition. Overall, the experience of the piece was otherworldly to the point of being disturbing. Perhaps, in the largest sense, Kim's interventions are indeed disturbing, for they remind us of our mortality. In Epitaph (2002), Kim waves a bedcover in the midst of a cemetery in Greenpoint, Brooklyn; it is a moment that merges life with its apparent opponent, death. As such, the work suggests that the interpretation between existence and nonbeing may be forced; sometimes, a seeming dichotomy is actually two surfaces of a single idea. Kim's great strength as an artist is to find the moment wherein passion and calm, action and passivity, merge.
She would have us understand that art is the great equalizer of false dualities; our mind is a place capable of including most everything. In the generosity of her vision, Kim reiterates the great truths of the unknown, what lies above and beyond our lives. She takes what we implicitly know and bestows upon it a public grace. As she grows larger in her art, so do we, so completely are we included in her generous expanse of her imagination.
— From Art AsiaPacific, Fall 2003
Jonathan Goodman is a poet, an editor, teacher, and writer who specializes in contemporary Asian art. He is the New York editorial adviser to Art Asia Pacific.
Kimsooja transforms the quotidian act of sewing and traditional cloths into art that embraces life and society. She has exhibited her art all over the world, including many prominent international art biennales such as Venice, Sao Paolo, and Lyon. It was sometime in the early 1980s, Kim recalls, that she came to realize cloth as a new artistic medium, while sewing a blanket cover with her mother. In the act of sewing, which necessarily accompanies the material of cloth, Kim also discovered a possibility of overcoming the limitations of the "surface plane" — the concept to which the modernist-dominated art world still was fettered. Through the late 1980s, she produced a series of works — drawings and paintings done on unstretched cloths — to break away from the painting canvas, but these works were still an extension of 2-dimensional painting. In the early 1990s, Kim began to produce the series titled Deductive Objects; she took traditional everyday objects such as a doorframe, an A-frame, and a bobbin, and swathed them with cloths, in the process reassuring the objects’ basic structures. With this series of works, Kim reached a turning point in her art, in which cloth is no longer treated as a 2-dimensional pictorial surface, but a material open to many 3-dimensional potentials.
Kim’s encounter with the bottari (a bundle of household belongings wrapped in traditional Korean bedcovers), for which she would be widely known, took place rather fortuitously when she was in artist’s residency at P.S.1, New York. One day, Kim began to see wrapped bundles"bottaris"she had collected in a corner of her studio with a new eye. Kim states that the bottari turns flat cloths into a three-dimensional object through the simple act of "wrapping" — a method of making that is both painterly and sculptural; the bottari is a flat surface turned into a volumetric object, and can also further evoleve into an installation when located in specific place. Although she was initially interested in cloth as an alternative to the modernist flat surface, Kimsooja soon came to understand the material’s infinite possibilities through her exploration of its multi-faceted character. It was through her discovery of the bottari, the form that can flexibly adapt to different environments, that her work began to develop spatially.
In her 1997 video work Cities on the Move - 2727 km bottari truck, she traveled throughout the countryside of Korea for 11 days in a small truck piled high with bottaris in the back. This work is an eloquent testimony to how her work went through the processes of painting, object, and installation, gradually exploding out of the gallery walls. Kim moved often when she was a child because her father, who was a serviceman, had frequent job transfers. In that sense, Cities on the move is a travel through the memories of her own childhood. At the same time, it is a metaphor for her current state of being, an artist who constantly travels for work to different places in the world, and the work expresses the sensibilities of "on the move" and "itinerant" inherent in the bottari. When the video protion of the work, accompanied by the bottari truck, were shown at the 1998 Bienal do Sao Paolo and the 1999 La Biennale di Venezia, Kimsooja became known in the art world as the so-called bottari artist who poses the questions of identity, mobility, borderlessness, and nomadism.
The main methodology of her artmaking"sewing"also went through subsequent evolutionary processes. In more recent years, sewing for Kim has become a conceptual act, without an actual needle or thread, of forming and mediating relations. Pointing to the function of "healing" which the needle possesses, the artist compares her own being to the needle. For Kim, sewing is "like breathing, or communicating" and is an act of bringing separate beings together by linking them, one stitch at a time. The needle is a mediator that travels in the gap, closing it. But when the needle completes its work, the trace of its labor remains only as the thread which it was attached to. The artist identifies with the needle, then in the sense that when her role as mediator is finished, her being becomes "Nothing".
The artist as the needle appears again and again in A Needle Woman (1999-2000), a series of video works which records Kim’s repeated performances on the streets of Shibuya (Tokyo), Shanghai, Delhi, and New York. In all these videos, Kimsooja stands motionless, with her back facing the camera and her front facing the oncoming traffic of pedestrians. The bypassing people’s responses captured by the camera’s eye are varied depending on the location of the performance. The work is a manifestation of the artist’s wish to sew the self and the others, and the self and the world into relationships, using her own body as the medium. Kim explains A Needle Woman as follows: "the artist’s body, as a medium, or a barometer or a compass, forms only unseen links between people passing by it, but in the end, it becomes alienated and almost disappears into the state of nothingness, like an invisible man." Earlier, Kimsooja’s art developed cloths (an irreplaceable part of our lives) and sewing (traditionally women’s labor) into the general human context through her art. Now, she sees her art as a metaphor, and in it, she wishes to make relationships of healing, cleansing, and ultimately, embrace.
Since the 1980s, between thread and needle, Kim Sooja's work has been developing; from Korea to New York, via Paris and a number of other cities across the different continents, like an avowed metaphor of the act of sewing. But it is less a question of sewing as such than linking up and uniting fragments of varied realities that were previously disparate. From her first works, with pieces laid end to end and sewn together, like a sort of collage involving both hand, body and mind in relation to matter, up to the recent videos of A Needle Woman, where the artist herself becomes a needle and integrates into the urban fabric, sewing has been the guiding thread in a subtle research project from which a language has evolved, and where a unique commitment can be read, with references that are first of all local, but whose scope has become global.
Over the course of time, Kim Sooja went from matter and the plane of the painting to the conquest of a liberating third dimension, and this allowed her to acquire greater mobility with the works entitled Bottari. In her videos and performances, her language subsequently became ever more economical, pursuing as though by incursion the possibility of the emergence of her oeuvre. The artist would like to be a needle that leaves no mark, that sews and disappears after closing the wound; after joining two bits of cloth, two continents or states of consciousness. Her discretion is consubstantial with her research, and her self-effacement facilitates revelation: to the appearance of the other, and to his presence. This path starts out from an approach to textiles, and a practice, that are rooted in Korean tradition but go beyond these local references through a language which is that of wandering, exchange and openness to the other, the unknown.
Kim Sooja's training as a painter predisposed her to consider the plane surface of the canvas as a field of exploration. Her first compositions were formal, based on grids and interlinking motifs. She had a penchant for the art of the 20th-century avant-gardes, and notably Mondrian, both in her practice and in the theoretical spirit that informed all her work. But the physical dimension of her sewn canvases dominated her work. The very act of making a picture with pieces of fabric became predominant, and this opened the way to gestures that were simpler, though just as emblematic.
Sewing thus became the essential element of her artistic process in the 1980s, to the point where it overshadowed pictorial considerations as such, and introduced the emotional charge that she had discovered while sewing by her mother's side. The act of sewing is one of intimacy, of withdrawing into oneself, close to symbiosis with a state of being that represents both tradition and family memory. This activity — almost passive, enthralling — locks the artist into a sequence of slow movements that repeat to infinity and are conducive to meditation. It is to be one with oneself, the fact of saturating oneself in one's own history. And the blankets made by Kim Sooja and her mother brought together two worlds that had previously been dissociated: the ancestral Korean tradition and her own pictorial quest.
Kim Sooja's first works were an introspection turned towards herself, and a way of calling herself into question so as to become a totality. In this sense, the action she accomplished could be seen as the denouement of the self. Skein, bobbin or hank: the thread has to be unwound.
The process begins with choosing pieces of cloth. To collect different textiles is to recompose one's being as one would reconstruct the fragments of a past: bits of individual stories that are becoming a new wholeness. The assemblage of these lacerations retains the marks and stigmata of the bodies that have borne them, with their dreams and daily sufferings. These recomposed entities become offerings, surrogates through which the memory of the other can act.
To salvage materials, assemble them, and sew them together is an intoxicating, almost ecstatic act of patience and repetition (from immobility to rapture). By the monotony of the gesture, this process makes it possible, also, to create a void within oneself — a void which can become a plenitude. For Kim Sooja, a work like Portrait of Yourself (1990-1991) is a solitary confession, an incessant and infinite conversation with oneself. The process is as important as the result. The production of this particular work is something like a meditation, and if one approaches it with the required intimacy it becomes a mandala. Iso it is both a self-portrait and a profound expression, a communication of the artist's humours, which shows how she carried out an apprenticeship on herself, how she matured through experiencing the passage of time and stepping aside from its onward movement. Despite the repetition of a movement that could become tiresome, the artist claims to have derived a great deal of energy from the experience. Through it she renewed her resources, as is suggested by the title of a work dating from this period, Towards the Mother Earth (1990-1991).
The back-and-forth movement of the needle through the material, from front to back, again and again, ended up by going beyond the plane surface, surreptitiously opening up towards a third dimension. Applying a reductionist logic to her work, Kim Sooja began covering objects with fabric, and thereby conquering space.
At the beginning of the 1990s came the first constructions of this order (Untitled, 1991). Two hoops connected by rods made the shift from the line to the third dimension. These constructions were then enveloped in pieces of fabric as a way of freeing them from the wall (which indicated a transition in the oeuvre), and from the plane surface of the painting, without giving up the symbolic charge of the first sewn works. For a time, the artist moved away from the act of sewing, strictly speaking, and transposed her metaphor into the simple act of covering objects.
Always seeking greater simplicity, Kim Sooja has rendered this emancipating act more radical still over the last decade, with works which now constitute, in a way, her signature: the bundles entitled Bottari.
The first of these date from 1992. They were created in the Open Studio at the P.S.1 (a contemporary art centre in New York, now associated with MOMA), and came into being, according to the artist, spontaneously, unrelated to any particular consciousness of things. But though nothing anticipated the event, everything announced the simplification of the procedure that had already been set up, in the direction of its essence and its highest degree of efficacy, with the abolition of all artifice, accessory or substrate in favour of the fabric alone. Cloth became the content and the container of the work, its structure and its surface, inside and outside. The Bottari provided an aesthetic solution to the question of the surface by stepping outside it, with a structure which was both open and closed; which revealed and concealed at the same time.
The bundle corresponds as much to a reference within the Korean tradition as to a universal metaphor of displacement, or even adventure, and a Bottari can hold all an individual's belongings. Originally, the custom was to use still-serviceable scraps of bright-coloured, precious silk from worn-out clothing, something of which was thus preserved.
In Korea, fabrics are traditionally used for multiple common functions such as storing bedding and clothing, or moving it around, notably when it has to be washed, as well as transporting food, or even wrapping gifts. For Koreans, the Bottari is both intimate and familiar, and is used on a daily basis. It is a sign of time-honoured aesthetic refinement, and is often an object of great value. It carries a strong affective charge, and is passed down from generation to generation.
It is symptomatic that Kim Sooja first explored the Bottari's possibilities while living outside Korea. She marked her return from her memorable stay at the P.S.1, where she had been a guest artist, with a Bottari installation in an abandoned house in Kyunju (1994). Bottari symbolize, in a way, the migrant who can put all his material goods in a bundle and be ready to set off at any moment. So when she came back and placed her bundles on a floor, Kim Sooja was reclaiming the space, but she was also indicating her readiness for an imminent departure. The inclination to travel is constant, or even necessary, when one has been elsewhere.
The "elsewhere" through which the artist found herself confronted with another perception of woman remains implicit as an underlying theme in her work: the body is torn between the modern Western world and her Eastern ancestral universe. This ambivalence would be irreconcilable if travelling did not offer a possibility of agreement between two different universes, in their alternation.
The resulting tension, which is latent in all her work, was laid bare by an installation, Deductive Object / Dedicated to my Neighbors, presented at Nagoya in 1996, where two forms amongst her productions were brought together in the exhibition space. For the first time, Kim Sooja made a contrast between the placing of the bundles and an arrangement of Korean bedspreads on the floor.
These are often given as presents to accompany a bride's trousseau, and are one of a household's most treasured possessions. In their folds they silently attest to the history of the couple. The motifs are symbolic references and exhortations to a happy life full of love, children and health.
Between the revelation of the bedspreads' symbolic motifs and the mystery of the bundles, with the precious contents that can be imagined, there is a tension which is all the stronger when one realizses the particular importance of the traditional bedspread in the Korean context; and it goes beyond a purely formal interpretation of the opposition between the flat surface of the bedspreads and the sculptural dimension of the bundles. The installation thus makes it possible to appreciate, simultaneously, the unveiling of a private life and the intensity of a retreat into oneself.
The bedspread is a witness-object whose day-to-day contact everyone can feel, It accompanies love, sex, dreams, nightmares, childbirth... and finally, at the moment of death, it becomes a shroud. So this envelope is a sort of skin, carrying in its folds what could be considered as a sort of portrait of its owner(s). Folded onto itself as a Bottari, the bedspread gathers up intimate possessions and protects them from inquisitive eyes. Opened out, it gives itself up in its flatness, and suggests the dreams that are incorporated into its traditional motifs.
In this sense, the Nagoya installation, so simple and pure in its expression, contained an entire mode of thinking about time, and the cycle of life and death. Later, exploiting the charged nature of such references, the artist used the bedspreads by themselves in various situations, as restaurant tablecloths and lines stretched out for washing to be hung on. With each installation, the visitor's participation is decisive, since it is up to him to activate the mechanism. In the case of a tablecloth, it is the actual use of the table by the visitor, in a museum restaurant, that makes the work exist. In the Korean context, this almost-reverse use of the bedspread as a tablecloth is of the order of thea transgression, since tradition prohibits eating in the place where one sleeps. For the duration of a meal, the tablecloth is an integral part of the table companions' life. It is imprinted with the stains they leave, the traces of this slice of existence that it will have subtly transformed by its presence.
As in most of Kim Sooja's other installations, the onlooker is thus a protagonist — a constitutive element of the space in question. When he moves around to look at the work from different viewpoints, it is renewed at each step. Pursuing this logic so as to extend it ever further, in a recent presentation of the Laundry installations at the Peter Blum gallery in New York, A Mirror Woman (2002) had mirrors on all the walls with lines stretched out for hanging up washing. The spectator's contemplation of the work was eroded by his discovery of himself in the mirrors, which projected the field of the work into an infinite space. This visual confrontation with oneself is a curious, singular fact in a work that is characterizsed rather by the inconspicuousness of the artist in the interest of internalizsed reflection. In general, when a figure appears in her work (and in her more recent videos it is often herself), it has its back turned, as if to suggest a presence, but not a particular individuality. This is the case, for example, in the video of her performance Cities on the Move - 2727 Kilometers.
In November 1997, rejoining the nomadic life of contemporary artists, the better to in order to better reinforce it (but also enlarging the field of action of her work and its semantic purview), Kim Sooja decided to take her bundles on the road. She spent eleven days going round towns and other places in Korea that held specific memories for her. This meant that her bundles were loaded with new content: the memory of her past history and travels. In the filmed performance she is seen from behind, hieratic and impassive, sitting above firmly-attached Bottari in a truck driving through ever-changing scenery.
The idea of moving around becomes a reality in this video, which combines, for the first time in such an obvious way, a sense of the intimate and with a public dimension. The artist's silhouette, in its sobriety and black clothes, unlike the Bottari with their vivid, varied colours, stands up straight, like a needle.
The fact that she presents us only her back is a procedure that challenges us and thrusts us into the middle of the landscape. As in Caspar David Friedrich's romantic paintings, the silhouette of a back becomes our bodily referent, and we project onto it. This transfer gives extra substance to the work, and confers on it a shape for us, so that we become the subject. (The phenomenon is clearer still in the later videos of towns, which this performance adumbrates). Perched high up on the bundles, while the road goes by, the needle-woman both cuts through the landscape and sews it up again, the way a wound closes up. Finally, this Calvary of memory is a way for Kim Sooja to forge a link with her history and re-inject an emotional charge into her itinerary. So the Bottari that she takes round with her are phantoms of time gone by, to which this itinerary pays tribute. Each of them can be related to a person, and the journey takes on the character of a pilgrimage in honour of dear, loved beings.
This dimension of personal ritual was transcended when the artist presented her Bottari Truck in major festivals of contemporary art. What was of the order of the intimate then took on a universal, even denunciatory dimension with regard to its context.
She has taken part in the biennials which are the focal points of artistic nomadism: São Paulo (the 24th, in 1998), Venice (the 48th, in 1999), and Lyon (the 5th, in 2000). Arriving as in a bazaar upon which groups from different regions converge to exchange merchandise and cultures, the truck filled with Bottari of every colour accentuates the idea of displacement at the very moment when the international press is taking an interest in the situation of populations forced into exile across the world. But if Kim Sooja's installation can express displacement as a positive value, a search for a new paradise, it cannot cancel out the premises that any change of place is firstly seen as the breakup of a unity that has been lost forever. Displacement always implies cutting oneself off from one's birthplace and ancestral roots. There are voluntary exiles who have struck it lucky and found a better life. But deep in the soul of the uprooted person there is always a secret, persistent wound.
The historical context of the Bottari Truck cannot fail to recall the atrocities committed at the time of its creation in the Balkans, Africa and the Near East (to mention only those that made the headlines).
It is often never-ending struggles, and more rarely natural disasters, that force entire populations to pack up their bundles and set out from home, into the unknown. The Bottari, with their shimmering colours, convey all these paradoxical feelings, which are stirring memories but also as well as deep wounds.
Following the thread of her wanderings, Kim Sooja's recent series of videos are both at once subtle in their poetry, strong in their presentation, and complex in their social implications. They are grouped together by generic title. A Needle Woman alludes to her desire to disappear like a needle in a haystack, but also to be the needle that insinuates itself into the urban fabric. These performances, and the ones that derive from them, like A Beggar Woman, were presented for the first time in a solo exhibition at P.S.1 in 2001.
A Needle Woman (1999-2001) is a set of eight videos projected simultaneously on the four walls of a room. Each shows Kim Sooja from behind, dressed identically in the most neutral possible way, immobile, facing the human wave that is rushing round her in a busy street in one of the world's most populous cities: New York, Tokyo, London, Mexico City, Cairo, Delhi, Shanghai and Lagos.
The artist transports us into cities in every continent by taking them into a place where we become active participants. The large-format projections bring us face to face with life-size people, justifying a total immersion in the space of the work. The artist's back — as we said above — allows us to pass through into the work, into the depths of metropolises, and to narrowly avoid the abyss. This illustrates, more or less, the Kantian definition of the sublime: to feel an emotion through the devices the artist offers us as she opens up her own experience so that we can enter into it without risk or peril. The unobtrusiveness of the artist, in spite of her presence, could produce a multitude of approaches in which individuality would give way to the essence of our own thinking.
Kim Sooja's discretion eliminates every psychological aspect of the ordeal she has taken on. The whole point is what occurs around her, which appears as a catalyst. Taking our place in this installation, we realizse what is intimate and personal about the ordeal, for anyone who goes through it. Evidently the physical side of it begins with a meditation that leads to a sort of ecstasy. And in this sense, the artist, as an individual, is outside herself. She abstracts herself and becomes like a keyhole, or a negative image of herself, which makes perception possible for us.
Her interest in the elsewhere makes her central to the generation of migratory artists who, at the dawn of the new millenium, are questioning the limits of globalizsation. As an artist, she is invited to present her work in cultural institutions around the globe, while the art world has gone beyond the rich countries — where there are people who take an interest in such creative activity — to include less favoured countries. The result is that artistic discourse is becomes enriched by other voices, and the circulation of works finds new perspectives.
The simultaneity of her presence in these no more than a hunch: distant though they are from one another, and different as the historical and economic contexts may be, apart from their urbanistic and architectural characteristics, these cities are alike in the steady streams of individuals people going about their business, moving towards an inevitable meeting with their destiny. And so a continuum of races and peoples finds itself virtually at the centerre of the space. Simultaneity of presentation makes the common features of the beings in movement in these eight videos obvious at a glance. Only an attentive eye will be able to discern what differentiates them.
While the time of the work is acting on us, our body replaces that of the artist, and becomes the needle that leads the guiding thread. A Needle Woman, as Kim Sooja likes to define herself, weaves, as much as she rends, the urban fabric. The fine needle pierces the world, but the whole universe passes through the eye of the needle. In certain contexts, in spite of her self-effacement, the artist cannot escape her otherness: she is the foreigner, the observer, the element that can split apart as well as bind together. In fact she cuts the human flow, which has to pass around her, avoid her like an obstacle, open up before her. The specificity of each particular population appears in this encounter. And the encounter is the indicator of the specificity.
The characteristics of towns come out through contrast, according to what opposes them. Each possesses a distinct rhythm that is demonstrated by the perfect immobility of the artist as an immutable reference. Her proper time seems to be in suspension, while the rest of the town swirls round her. Kim Sooja's passivity is a source of worry and tension. One expects something to happen: an intrusion, something violent... Possible violence, like a specterre haunting life in these metropolises at every moment.
The reactions of the passers-by (or their total absence of reaction) are archetypes of the imaginative profile that a given city suggests. And thus, without wanting to paint a sociological portrait, the videos comprise a number of elements that make it possible to characterizse the people and their surroundings: their clothes, their way of occupying the street, their attitude in urban space... For example, passers-by in New York, London and Tokyo are distinguished by their rapid, determined gait. They have an objective, and their walk is a "power walk": they are efficacious, and scarcely notice the artist's presence. They have an individual goal, outside the range of the camera, in the direction of a horizon that protects them and immunizses them against everything that could deflect them from their path. Their life is traced out, and there is no place for the unexpected. The street is only a vector, and not a place of sociability.
In these cosmopolitan cities, all racial differences seem to fade. The artist goes almost unnoticed, and her features do not mark her out in places where there are people of all origins, and where hybrids are common. Modernity asserts itself here as an exacerbation of individuality, a sort of autism that tends towards homogeneity. Such cities are so full of stimuli and diverse fantasies that the intervention of an artist attracts little attention.
In places like Cairo, Delhi, Mexico, and especially Lagos, on the other hand, there is a tension between the modern and the traditional which means that existence is highly charged. The individual finds his full dimensions in an open space where he is attentive to those around him, because he seeks to evaluate his position and rank in the immense gamut of social classes and traditional hierarchies that are an essential part of these cultures.
The members of different castes and social classes mix in the street. They are wary of one another; they keep an eye on one another and expose themselves to situations in which there is always tension. Here, the street becomes a place of both coexistence and distinctions.
In these cities where the contrasts are strong, individuals want to assert themselves across the cleavages. They look at one another so as to make comparisons between one another, and every look contains a question (Am I from the same class or not? How am I to position myself, and where, in such a wide spectrum?); so it is not surprising that these are the cities where the immobile presence of Kim Sooja gets garners the most reactions. They are still preserved from blasé mundanity, and the artist stands out more strongly as a stranger. But it is above all her passivity and her determination to abstract herself that arouse curiosity, along with a desire to make her react, to draw her out of herself, so as to bring her back to everyday life and the flux of the community. In all these cities, it is the ever-present children who are the least hesitant about teasing the artist and turning her performance into a game.
The virtual meeting-point of eight streets in a unique space plunges us into the improbable river of the human continuum. Engulfed in the multitude, the artist is invisible, as she often aspires to being. This takes her work beyond the nature-culture cleavage, or the opposition of the contemporary urban to original nature. In natural settings, as in the performance A Needle Woman / Kitakyushu (1999), where she is stretched out on a rock, or in A Laundry Woman / Yamuna River, India (2000), where she is facing the river in question, she strives for the same contemplative detachment as in urban settings. Perhaps her deepest desire is to reconcile perfect immobility and perpetual motion. And is this not what she seems to be seeking when she indicates her wish to disappear for an entire month, as she dreamt of doing during the last Whitney Biennial? Is there not a paradox in the fact of wanting to be simultaneously everywhere and nowhere?
Kim Sooja embodies the complexity of the kind of globalizsation which both proclaims and denies the local spirit. Her work with textiles had a specificity that was linked to the Korean context of her origins. This opened up in the course of her peregrinations, gaining in breadth without cutting itself off from its roots, or disowning them. Her videos combine nature and the urban, the individual and the collective, the global and the local. The richness of her approach, in its discretion and subtlety, lies no doubt in her unique way of transcending divisions and resolving them in works that place the spectator at the heart of an extreme questioning process, which for each individual becomes personal and intimate.
— From the exhibition catalogue of Kimsooja: Conditions of Humanity, Contemporary Art Museum, Lyon, 2003:
Julian Zugazagoitia is the Director of El Museo del Barrio in New York which is the foremost cultural institution for Latinos in New York.
Prior to this engagement he was the Executive Assistant to the Guggenheim Museum Director where, among other projects he curated the exhibition Brazil: Body and Soul.
He received his Ph.D in Aesthetics from the Sorbonne and graduated in art history from the Ecole du Louvre, Paris. H e was involved with the Getty for 8 years developing conservation and cultural projects in Benin, Egypt, Yemen, Italy and Spain. He was also responsible for establishing a long-term collaboration with UNESCO and curating the traveling exhibition Nefertari Light of Egypt that drew over a million visitors.
As independent curator, he was responsible for the 1997 presentation of Mexican 20th-century art in Naples, the exhibition Pasione per la Vita and was the artistic director for exhibitions for the Spoleto Festival in Italy. In 2002 he was guest curator of the 25th Sao Paolo Biennial, where he curated the New York section.
His recent publication, L'oeuvre d'art Totale, Gallimard, Paris 2003, a collective book on the Total Work of Art, springs from his Ph.D thesis and a lecture series organized with Jean Galard, presented at the Louvre and Guggenheim museums in 2002.
The trace of a body. Not long ago, maybe just a while ago, there was a body here. It lived in a rhythm of everyday behaviour and actions, shaping the values and sense requisite to the existence of the objects surrounding it; clothes above all, the obvious, but usually trivialized signs of life, which remain in the body's place, in the place vacated by it, empty and useless. The independent existence of clothes, alongside the body's life, begins at birth, starting with little baby clothes and moving on to bigger and bigger ones. Clothes — there are always some bodies putting them on, wearing them, desiring them, striving to get them, taking possession of them, discarding, storing, inheriting. Nearly all their life bodies never part with what clothes, adorns and protects them, what is closest to them, next to the skin, what absorbs its smell, grime and sweat.
The objects left by the body, the clothes saturated with its physicality — are they not the most obvious and tangible traces of its reality, the proof of its existence? Is the material world coexisting with the body not its most faithful memory? The sense of this world disappears with the passing of a particular life, although it can be reborn with the life of new bodies. One moment, a freeze frame of the stream of life changes forever the state of the subject and object. It is maybe the most strongly felt — physically and psychically — end of the stream of the time of life, flowing in between, in space and time..
Kim Sooja: "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 sky, the world of the unknown."
Scattered clothes and bottari, bundles stuffed with clothes, made of traditional Korean fabrics, are spread on the ground in a forest during the First Biennial in Kwangju in 1995. This installation, made of 2.5 tonnes of second-hand clothes and entitled Sewing into Walking was dedicated by Kim Sooja to the victims of the suppression of a democratic protest in Kwangju in 1980. The tragedy of those victims was expressed by an installation made of a mass of used clothes, those most obvious signs of the presence of a body.
Kim Sooja, e-mail, April 1, 2003:
The Kwangju Massacre happened in the 1980 and hundreds of people died for their democracy movement. When I was invited from Kwangju, I couldn't do anything before I commemorate their lives...
Deductive Object-dedicated to my neighbours was done in 1996 when the department store was completely collapsed and killed hundreds of people and I was in that building with my son 30 mins before collapse, and we used to live in the same block. I had to comment and commemorate the victims of my neighbours especially when I had an occasion to install my piece in Japan which had a lot to do with Korea in the history (war, colonization, conflict ...). So the neighbour means both my own neighbour in Seoul but also Korea-Japan relationship, so I mixed the Korean used clothes with Japanese.
Kwangju, Seoul and Kosovo are just a few of the many places in the world which have been marked forever by the death of many beings. Kim Sooja sees it, but she does not get involved in political conflicts. So when she presents Bottari Truck — in Exile, a truck loaded with colourful bottari, at the Venice biennial and dedicates that event to the [victims of] the war going on at the same time in Kosovo (so close to Venice), that gesture is just an expression of concern for the lot of other people.
Kim Sooja conceptualizes political events through installations in which an important element are bottari and traditional Korean bedcovers, objects strongly associated with women and the roles they play (in Korea considerably limited by Confucianism). Another key element of the installation are used clothes, which in Korean tradition are carriers of the spiritual element, and in Kim Sooja's works also become a representation of the human body. Those are, it seems, the only three projects with implied political, social and emotional meanings; all the others are creative acts made concrete as objects, installations, performances and videos; recently, those are becoming increasingly minimalist. An attitude of conscious "inaction" is articulated ever more plainly in the performances realized and registered on video in different places around the world and shown in exhibition rooms.
In an essay published in this catalogue Adam Szymczyk proposes a new interpretation of the artist's work. Giving descriptions of journalist's reports of the war in Iraq, he confronts Kim's quiet presence with the media clamour accompanying the current political situation in the world. Kim Sooja's media personality is radically different from the way the media operate. In her video performances she shows her body, but remains silent and conceals her face, turning away from the viewers. She seems to be protesting against the noise made by the media and against all acts directed against human beings, including accidental tragedies (such as the collapse of the supermarket in Seoul), expressing her opposition to the pain and suffering accumulated in the clothes.
Kim Sooja consciously cultivates this attitude by a contemplative perception of the world and a rejection of excess information (e.g. deciding not to read books). She is a nomadic artist, constantly on the move, but she seems to stand firmly on the ground. In fact, her attitude may be interpreted, in a simplified way, as a practical exemplification of Heidegger's being-in-the-world, an existence cast into the world, but conscious of its "spatiality"; concerned, but not frightened; a being open to cognition and "the world's worldliness"; a being which accepts other "beings".
Kim Sooja: "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 haved live 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 boundless with no destinations find theirs ways to go."
Looking at the twenty years of Kim Sooja's work we can see that they form a consistent process. After art studies in Seoul, until about 1992, Kim Sooja makes abstract collage using traditional Korean fabrics and clothes. She combines sewing as a technique with drawing and painting. In those pieces sewing becomes not only a direct way of creating form, but a constitutive element defining her work. The use of this unique technique, associated rather with gender art, women's art, is blends with the artist's personal experience, taken from her family home, of sewing the traditional bedspreads together with her mother and grandmother. She sews her first objects from inherited clothes and bedspreads.
Kim Sooja's early collages come in different geometrical shapes, as flat reliefs, their surfaces made of bits of fabric sewn together, painted in ink or covered with abstract drawings — The Earth and the Heaven (1984), Blue (1987), Black (1987). In the 1990s they are gradually transformed into three-dimensional objects, assemblages, which, although they can be hung like paintings, have a richer texture, as they consist of larger pieces of cloth, creased, draped in a baroque fashion, fastened to the base. They form a crumpled, crammed, multicoloured mass, suggestive of an abstract flower (Toward the Flower, 1992), of earth, (Toward the Mother Earth, 1990-1991), of a portrait (Portrait, 1991), or carrying even more metaphorical meanings (Mind and the World, 1991). Some of them are objects leaning against the wall or propped up with bamboo sticks. As such, they already belong to the genre of installation — between the reality of a two-dimensional wall and space.
At the same time, from about 1991 Kim Sooja starts creating spatial objects and installations, leaving the painting and more or less flat textile compositions almost entirely behind. Those new compositions feature ready-made objects, always covered, wrapped up, rolled up in cloth (among others, a ladder, part of a rowing boat, a table, some tools and many old-fashioned objects of everyday use, which the artist treats with nostalgia, as the most precious traces of life and also as beautiful forms.) A series of those objects is called Deductive Object; it was afterwards expanded to include spatial objects made solely of fabrics. Needles, cloth, threads, sewing, sewing together, wrapping, covering, unfolding and spreading define Kim Sooja's artistic activities.
Kim Sooja, e-mail, April 2, 2003
"Korean traditional wrapping cloth is 'Bojagi'( I prefer to use this way although people used to call it Pojagi - now Koreans try to match with the actual pronunciation of (Po)jagi and (Bo)ttari is same letter and pronunciation in Korea. Bojagi is traditionally used as wrapping cloth which was made out of small pieces of cloth sawn by anonymous women. But I used only used bedcovers which are made for the newly married couples.
'Bottari' is a wrapped bundle but normally people wrap households, cloth, clothes, books, gifts,...whatever, but my bundle is wrapped used clothes from anonymous people — I used yellow pages and white pages from New York in 1993 before I leave NYC as if wrapping people in New York."
A turning point in Kim Sooja's work was her exhibition in P.S. 1 Studio in New York in 1992. There, beside earlier work, she presented bottari made of traditional Korean bedspreads, filled with clothes. She also exhibited pictures, assemblage and even a kind of "tableau" made of crumpled fabrics, stuck to a surface and partly extending beyond the frame, as if pulled out of the inside of the picture. It was through those objects that a symbolic disruption of frames was effected. A year later at the Ise Art Foundation in New York Kim Sooja shows only a massive bottari, provocative not only in its shape, but also through the intensive red of the rectangular piece of fabric.
In the early 1990s Kim Sooja departs completely from the closed form of "tableau" with its limitations, and devotes herself to multi-directional exploration of space. The group exhibition "In Their Own Images" at the P.S.1 Museum in New York (1994) marks the starting point of Kim Sooja's new experiment with the "spatiality" and intimacy of a wall. Deductive Object — scraps of cloth filling cracks in a wall — is used by her at the 5th Biennial in Istanbul in 1997. While at the P.S.1 Museum colourful bits of fabrics protruded blithely beyond the wall, in Istanbul the blend discreetly with the old walls of the Hagia Eireni museum, becoming no more than patches of colour, hardly visible in the arcaded corridor. The association between those scraps stuck in the cracks of a wall with the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem is rather obvious.
Since the exhibitions at the P.S.1 Studio (1992) and the ISE Art Foundation (1993) Kim Sooja increasingly often exhibits bottari entitled Deductive Object, arranging them in different ways: a solitary bottari in a gallery (Museum Fridericianum, Kasel, 1998), one combined with bedcovers spread on the floor (Akira Ikeda Gallery, Nagoya, 1996 and the 5th Biennial in Lyon, 2000); crammed (Kwanhoon Gallery, Seoul, 1994), or against the background of a landscape, where they evoke their basic function: a practical means of transporting the most necessary things or one's all belongings, thus becoming a symbol of nomadism (Yongyou, Korea, 1995), and finally in combination with a video installation at the Seomi Gallery in Seoul (1994), consisting of bottari, monitors and scattered clothes. It was that installation, entitled Sewing into Walking, that anticipated the one dedicated to the victims of the Kwangju Massacre.
Apart form bottari, the most important thing are the traditional Korean bedspreads — to the artist, symbols of woman, of sex, love, the body at rest, sleep, privacy, fertility, longevity and health. They can also be interpreted as a special kind of traces of life. They are used fabrics — extraordinary witnesses of life, birth and death. At the artist's second individual exhibition at the Hyunday Gallery (1991) a single one of those is hung, together with old, sentimental objects. Then we encounter a whole mass of them, forming a patch of colourful fabrics. Long before, Sooja ties them into bottari, spreads them on the grass with deliberately slow gestures (performance Sewing into Walking, 1994). In recent years, they most often appear in installations such as A Laundry Woman, a simple presentation of a number of cloths hung out in the gallery to resemble drying linen. Is that not a metaphor for the roles of woman in Korean society, and women's roles in general? All the time Kim Sooja imitates women's activities in spare, minimalist gestures: she spreads, ties, folds, hangs out.
In November 1997 Kim Sooja takes an 11-day performance-trip around Korea in a truck. The 33-minute video from that trip is a record of the views of the truck with its load of colourful bottari. Possibly, Kim Sooja is making a journey into the past, going back to the journeys which her family was obliged to embark on following her father, an Army man working in the demilitarized zone. At the same time it is a metaphor for her current life — the life of a nomad artist, crossing ever new borders in order to meet new people. That aspect of nomadism, shown in Kim Sooja's performances, in installations using the symbolic bottari and in videos, is one of the key points of her art. Such nomadism takes place in open spaces and needs them to come into being, although it is confronted with the horizontal plan of the world and the limitations imposed by the organization of space by the "state".
Kim Sooja's videos are a record of performances happening in various cities and places around the world. Kim appears in them with her back to the camera. She is the woman who stands among passers-by or lies on a rock in Kitakyushu (A Needle Woman); the woman who sits on the pavement and begs in Cairo and Mexico (A Beggar Woman); the woman lying in the street in Delhi and Cairo (A Homeless Woman) and standing by the river in Delhi (A Laundry Woman).
As a figure against the background of the filmed spaces and people she is clearly distinct from their rhythm, their movement, their image. That is an effect of the medium of communication — video, which produces a flat and illusion-like picture. It is also due to the artist taking on the role of the "other" or even "stranger", and the position of the motionless figure — in the foreground — further prevents her from integrating with the surroundings. There is no sound from the crowded streets and the landscapes in which we see Kim Sooja; she reduces the reception to pure vision. We do not know who's filming her; if it were not for the artist's figure in the centre of the picture, it could be perceived as the record of an anonymous security camera, continuously controlling the streets, filming live with no scenario. All the passers-by, inhabitants of great cities, are filmed and become unwitting actors.
In the video A Needle Woman (1999-2001) the artist stands in crowded streets. Her complete immobility contrasts with the movement and noise of the metropolis, but the noise we can only guess at. The camera films the masses of bodies making their way along the streets of London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Lagos, New York, Cairo, Mexico City, Delhi. In Tokyo, the crowd does not get thinner even during the sultry summer. It moves smoothly, pattering and shuffling in a characteristic Japanese way. In the evenings, what sounds like one huge conversation hovers over the city, intermingled with street sounds.
In Kim Sooja's video, however, we will not hear Tokyo. In this, as in other films, instead of the sounds and the artist's face, we are shown her body and the face of the anonymous crowd. Thousands of people walk towards her, enter the frame and disappear after a moment. The video takes on the role of a sociologist's record — it shows the reactions of the crowd in confrontation with "another". In London, New York and Mexico City that crowd passes Kim Sooja ignoring her almost entirely. Similarly in Tokyo — here the indifference is greatest (no wonder many street performances were held here, for example by the group HiRed Center, to "activate" the street and the crowd). In Shanghai, Delhi and Cairo the crowd shows more interest; sometimes somebody turns, or stops for a while to stare. It is in Lagos that Kim Sooja arouses the greatest curiosity. Freeze frames from the video show not a crowd, but individual faces, feelings, reactions. In Tokyo, a smiling Japanese woman's face appearing for a moment is the only instance of emotion in the anonymous crowd. In Cairo the camera registers little events: somebody meets somebody, there is a warm greeting etc. Those are the most fascinating observations that Kim Sooja presents us with. On the other hand, it is well known what hostility and aggression a "crowd" can show: against itself as a whole, but also against the individuals that constitute it. Those video records and the artist's attitude express a sort of protest and something that stems from her affirmation of the world and total "being-in-the-world". There is also something innocent and naïve about them, and certainly something brave. Kim Sooja may not pose the question, but it would be difficult not to ask ourselves: why do stranger bodies incite so much hatred in us?
In A Beggar Woman Sooja begs on the streets of Lagos, Cairo, Mexico. In Cairo, two issues coincide: the problem of gender and of cultural differences. Kim — a woman, an "other" is surrounded solely by men, younger and older; a crowd of them encircle her body so that at times the motionless figure is no longer visible. In A Homeless Woman, shot in Delhi and Cairo, it is in Cairo that the homeless woman excites greatest interests. A group of men can not restrain their curiosity: they talk, they stare, even directly into the camera.
Kim Sooja makes her presence in the world noticeable through the continuity of repeated situations and shots of her own unchanging image: a figure standing among people or against a natural background. People bring in their own physicality and materiality into her works, and so does nature. It is a manifestation of various ways of being in the world. In that way Kim Sooja points to the basic problems of existence: that we are always alone, but also, that we always have the world and people around us.
Maria Brewinska worked as a curator at Contemporary Art Center in Warsaw. She currently works as a curator at the Zacheta gallery of Art, Warsaw.
She curated Chinese Artist show in 2004 and the Yayoi Kusama solo show 2004 including the Kimsooja solo show 2003.
FG: In your work you have been using very consistently two media: fabrics and video. The most immediate connection one makes comes out from the title of one of your video works: the series Needle woman. Who is the needle woman? Is she a metaphor? Does she represents a condition of humanity, as the title of your show in Lyon would suggest? And what is the relationship between the needle woman and the fabrics use have been using?
KSJ: The fabrics I've been using for my sewn work, Object, and installation were used Korean traditional costumes, bedcovers and used clothes which I found from anonymous people. These fabrics represent presence of body whose smell, memory and time is still there. On the other hand, a series of my video pieces represent and wrap the actual human body in immaterial way, while the fabric installations are materialistic way of representing and wrapping human body — yet it represents the invisible body.
In my recent video performance A Needle Woman (1999-2001), my body stands as a medium between the viewers of the video and the people in the street where my performance is taking place, as if it functions as a barometer while weaving/woven (by) different nation, races, culture, society and economy by standing still in the middle of the busy streets in 8 different metropolitans in the world.
Apart from A Needle Woman video, I've been also examining the conditions of human being by putting myself in one of the lowest state of human being as A Homeless Woman, A Beggar Woman, A Laundry Woman and as a refugee by making Bottari installations — refugee as a persona, as a woman, and as a collective group of people in a broad sense of refugee in existential, social, cultural, and political context.
FG: The needle woman might take different positions, like in Needle Woman - Kitayashu, in which she lies on a rock facing the sky perfectly still. Or she might take different names, like in Laundry Woman, where, in the same position, she faces the Yamuna river in Delhi...
KSJ: As I mentioned earlier, the Needle Woman signifies a medium which connects different parts of the fabrics of society, culture and landscape — in that sense, A Needle Woman - Kitakyshu divides and links four different element of the world which are the earth and the sky, the human side and that of the nature. As long as my body functions as a mediator, A Laundry Woman is not different from the other performances although the position is different depending on the structure of the landscape and cityscapes. But I could say my work has also a parallel relationship to the structure of the painting in formalistic reading.
FG: In these works you stand perfectly still, in crowded cities in different parts of the world, or in the landscape. Watching them one cannot but think about how you managed to reach such an immobility and concentration. And also they made me think about the goal of so many meditation practices: the ability to live the present moment to its ultimate intensity, or the notion of impermanence. However you said that zen theory has not been important in your work...
KSJ: Immobility comes out of mobility. I could reach to the immobility only by practicing mobility in my life. I was always thinking every moment is a meditation and the moment when a perception and an artistic decision comes up to my mind was Zen, but I'd never practiced Zen meditation.
FG: In all of your video installations the viewer is faced with your back, so that he shares your point of view. In Needle Woman the viewer is immersed in a 8 channels installation in which he witnesses you standing still in the middle of the most crowded streets of the world. Do you imagine the viewers standing on your back when you do your video performances? What kind of visual and emotional experience you project on your viewers?
KSJ: It would have been very interesting if someone on the street stood right behind me posing exactly the same way I do. I would say the person who is standing behind me is the camera which is eyes of myself. This idea can be compared to my video I made in a crowed street in Istanbul in 1997 which takes people coming and going in Istiklal street by setting a fixed frame for an hour wrapping people into the camera lens which can be juxtaposed to my body.
FG: Time, it seems to me, is a crucial element in your work. Not only because of the duration of the videos but also because in all of them you watch transient elements: people in the streets, clouds in the sky or flowers in the river. Time and past experiences seem to be crucial also in your work with fabrics in which you use tissues which have been used already and carry with them the sign of past experiences.
KSJ: The idea of impermanency of existences gives me a deep compassion for human being and has been embedded in my work since the beginning of my sewing practice till now — the fabrics I first sewn together were the remained fragments from my grandmother's clothes when she passed away — memorizing her presence. I've been living such mobile life from my childhood wrapping and unwrapping household and luggage and the strong memory I have from my childhood were the huge mountain in front which I was looking in the dark from our house yard and the passing by landscapes I used to see on our way to somewhere else from a bus or a train. Leaving people behind us from where I live and meeting new people in a strange city was part of my family life.
FG: You have been using the fabrics in a variety of contexts and often in public places, like in a old post office in Trieste (am I right?) and in the open air cafè in Central Park New York. You also took them, as Bottari, to different parts of the world in a work eventually dedicated to the Kosovo refugees. What is the relation, if there is, between private memory and public place, function and aesthetics?
KSJ: Presenting private materials in public spaces sometimes provokes intimate questions such as table cloths and laundry installation I made with newly married couple's bedcover cloth from Korea. Eating in the bed, or Wrapping bundle/Bottari ( especially when it's refered to a woman) are Taboo in Korea. I am questioning this site of birth, sleep, love, suffer, and death considering as our frame of life and its reality in sexuality, morality, conflicts in humanity as well as its impermanency. On the contrary, the color and embroideries of those fabrics are brilliant and beautiful, while showing contradiction in reality of life which is not always same as these symbols signify and the esthetic structures I present in situ.
FG: Lately you have been working with lights and sound, like in Charleston or like in a lighted mandala you showed in Lyon. Is this a new direction in your work?
A permanent question and desire I have has a lot to do with possession and its void in Yin and Yang relationship in our world. The whole process of my work has to do with process of void in life and art and its extinguishment at the end.
Flaminia Gennari Santori is research coordinator at the Fondazione Adriano Olivetti in Rome and adjunct professor of Italian Art History at New Hampshire University Italian Program. She holds a PhD from the European University Institute, in Fiesole and she was a Fullbright Scholar at the University of Chicago. She published 'The Melancholy of Masterpieces'. Old Master Paintings in America 1900-1914, Milan, 5continents editions 2003 and articles in Italian and British journals and books. With Annie Claustres and Anne Pontegnie she coordinates the research "Une Nouvelle Scène de l'Art", to be published by Les Presses du Réel in 2005. She contributes book and exhibitions reviews to the Italian daily newspaper il Manifesto.
M.J.: Let's talk about how sewing has been a contemplative practice for you and a way of connecting your body to a greater whole?
K.S.: One day in 1983, I was sewing a bedcover with my mother and then at the very moment when I passed the needle through the fabric's surface, I had a sensation like an electric shock, the energy of my body channeled through the needle, seeming to connect to the energy of the world. From that moment, I understood the power of sewing: the relationship of needle to fabric is like my body to the universe, and the fundamental relationship of things and structure were in it. From this experience, for about ten years, I worked with cloth and clothes, sewing and wrapping them, processes shared with contemplation and healing. By 1992, I started making bundles or bottari in Korean — I always used old clothes and traditional Korean bedcovers — that retain the smells of other's lives, memories, and histories, though their bodies are no longer there — embracing and protecting people, celebrating their lives and creating a network of existences.
M.J.: Korea was not a very visible part of the contemporary art world. You yourself came to the U.S. in 1992 on a residency at P.S. 1 in New York. Then Korea joined the ranks of international biennale presenters in the southwestern city of Kwangju, a place where Korean and American identity is sadly linked.
[In May 1980 students and other demonstrators against martial law were killed by government forces with brutal force, the death toll mounting to 2000, though officials claim only 191. The U.S. was implicated in support of President Chun who seized power in a military junta and a wave of botched diplomatic that followed.]
K.S.: This is the site of a national tragedy. It is marked by anniversary reenactments each year. With my work for the first biennale there, Sewing into Walking: Dedicated to the Victims of Kwangju, I placed 2.5 tons of clothes in bundles on a mountainside at the Biennale site. It was the image of the sacrificed bodies. People could walk on them, listening to the "Imagine" song by John Lennon which, through the audiences' bodies, evoked the confrontation of stepping on bodies and guilty conscience, as well as memorializing the victims' lives. Over the two months of the show, the seasons changed and the clothes became mixed with the soil, rain, and fallen leaves, becoming like dead bodies: this was the installation scene I wished to create for the viewers. The audience — the Korean people — opened the bundles and removed nearly one ton of clothes; they hung some onto the trees and took others away with them.
M.J.: Have your works, as a means of healing and connecting, been autobiographical?
K.S.: When I went back to Korea in 1993, after spending time in the U.S. and having a different perspective on my own culture and gender roles in Korean life, I re-confronted the society as a woman and a woman artist. I started realizing my own personal history in bottari projects, using them more as real bottari than for an aesthetic context. My first video performance piece, Sewing into Walking-kyung ju (1994), resulted from an installation; in its documentation I recognized that my own body was a sewing tool, a needle that invisibly wraps, weaves, and sews different fabrics and people together in nature. For my next video performance, Cities on the Move — 2727 Kilometers Bottari Truck in 1997, I made an eleven-day journey throughout Korea atop a truck loaded with bottaris, visiting cities and villages where I used to live and have memories. Because the bottari truck is constantly moving around and through this geography, viewers question the location of my body: my body — which is just another bottari on the move — is in the present, is tracing the past and, at the same time, is heading for the future, non-stop movement by sitting still on the truck. And though I used myself in this work, I tried to locate a more universal point where time and space coincide.
I realize now that Cities on the Move — 2727 Kilometers Bottari Truck emerged from the history of my family that moved from one place to another almost every two years, mostly near the DMZ area, because of my father's job in the military. We were wrapping and unwrapping bundles all the time; we were endlessly in a new environment, leaving people whom we loved behind and meeting new neighbors, as we passed from one city to another, one village to another. We were, in fact, nomads, and I am continuing the nomadic life as an artist, a condition which has become one of the main issues in contemporary art and society. Yet I am also aware that migration is just an extension of nature and we are literally in a state of migration at every moment.
M.J.: It seems like sites — out in the world — have become your studio for making art?
K.S.: Usually, I don't like to make or create anything in nature because I am really afraid of damaging it. Instead, I decided to use existing elements which can be related to my idea of location/dislocation and its gravity and energy towards the future. In 1997 I did another work in the series, Sewing into Walking-Istiklal Cadessi, a video shoot in Istanbul. I experimented with documenting peoples' coming and going through the fixed frame of the lens; it was an invisible way of sewing and wrapping people. Then, with A Needle Woman project (1999-2001), I inserted myself in the middle of the busy street and looked towards the people of eight different metropolises in the world: Tokyo, Shanghai, Berlin, New York, Mexico City, Cairo, Lagos, and London. I considered my body to be a needle that weaves different people, societies, and cultures together by just standing still. Inverting the notion of performing and remaining fixed within the crowd, my body functioned like a barometer, showing more by doing nothing. The needle is an evident yet ambiguous tool, androgynous, maintaining contradiction within it. The needle functions only as a medium; it never remains at the site and disappears at the end. It just leaves traces, connecting or healing things.
Each performance lasted 25-30 minutes, during which I just stared straight ahead. I eventually cut each tape to an unedited section 6-minutes and 30-second in length. In the beginning I had a difficulty resisting all the energies from people coming at me. By the middle of the performance I was centered and focused, and could become liberated from them. In the beginning my body was very, very intense, but in the end I was just smiling, liberated from all attention. I could see the light coming from the back, far from the front, over these waves of people. I was in complete enlightenment.
I didn't know where the smile came from but I was just smiling. Maybe it was the moment when I was freed from my self-consciousness and engaged with the whole picture of the world and people as oneness and totality beyond this stream or ocean of people in the street. I think enlightenment can be gained by seeing reality as it is, as a whole which is a harmonious state within contradiction that requires no more intentional adjustment or healing.
M.J.: Your personal posture as well as the overall stance of your art, seems to aim to profoundly communicate experience. So while we do not have your experience as it was in the real time of making the video, it is still more than our experience of an artwork; you become this portal through which we pass to have our own experience in real time. At the same time you are a conduit for others' experience, the needle through which they pass, the empathetic locus. And like Buddhism, these works are about relationality, not just of human beings but among all beings and with nature.
K.S.: I did another performance called A Needle Woman at Kitakishu in Japan, laying down my body on a limestone mountain, the front of my body away from the viewer. Nothing changes in this video except the natural light from the sky and a little bit of breeze, and at the end there is one fly that is just passing by against the slow movement of the clouds. Of course, I had to control my breath, so my shoulders wouldn't move; I taught myself how to breathe with my stomach. I was there a pretty long time. The rock was a little bit cold, but it was just so peaceful. I was completely abandoning my will and desire to nature and I was at such a peace. There is one face of nature that caresses the human being in the most harmless way. So we feel at absolute peace in this mild nature. Of course, when it becomes harmful, nothing can compete with its absolute damage.
In a way this work looks a little bit like the reclining Buddha, parinirvana; but, abandoning my ego, at the same time, in a different way, I consider it as a form of crucifix. My body is located at the central point of four different elements which are in-between the sky and the earth, nature and human beings. I located myself on the borderline of the earth and the sky, facing nature and away from the viewers. In the beginning of the video I think my body looks fragile and dramatic, feminine and provocative: an organic body or a body of desire. Over time, I find that my body, with its duration of stillness — breathing in the rhythm of nature — becomes a part of nature as matter itself, neutral, a transcendent state. To me it is like offering and serving my body to nature.
M.J.: Has performance become an actual practice of meditation for you, focusing and centering, to attain something for you, perhaps enlightenment, as well as give an experience to the viewer?
K.S.: For me, the most important thing (to arise out of) these performances is my own experience of self, and awakenness, rather than the video as an artwork. That's how I continue to ask deeper questions to the world and to myself. That is the enlightenment I encounter while doing this kind of performance. One such experience occurred with A Laundry Woman — Yamuna River, India (2000) I was just looking at some different locations for a performance, but when I passed by this riverside, I immediately felt the energy and decided, “Let's do it.” Again I put my back to the viewer and looked to the river. It was right next to the cremation place on the Yamuna, so the floating images on the surface of the river were all flowers and debris from cremations. While I was facing the river, I was actually looking at anonymous people's life and death, including mine. It was a purifying experience, praying and celebrating. There's a lot of detail on the surface of the river, so I consider this piece as a painting. It's all reflection: there is no sky, but it looks like sky; there are no real birds passing, only reflections of birds from above. So, in a way, the river functions as a mirror of reality.
I decided to be there until the limit of my body. I was there for almost an hour in total. In the middle of standing there, I was completely confused: is it the river that is moving, or myself? My sense of time and space were turned completely upside-down. I was asking and asking and asking again, is it the river or myself? I finally realized that it is river that is changing all the time in front of this still body, but it is my body that will be changed and vanish very soon, while the river will remain there, moving slowly, as it is now. In other words, the changing of our body into a state of death is like floating on the big stream of river of the universe. Doing this performance gave me an important awakenness. It suddenly reminded me of one unforgettable dream that I had in my early twenties. I was looking down at Han River from a hillside in Seoul. After looking at the surface of the river for some time, my vision was fixed on the river and the movement of water inside it, showing me the bottom of the river with sand and round stones. Then I started seeing the dancing and spinning stones touch and hit together, mashing and breaking them into pebbles and dust, which eventually will become part of the river itself: "Stone is Water, Water is Stone!" I screamed in the dream and woke up being shocked by this awakenness as if my brain was hit by a strong metal bell.
M.J.: Your awareness of the impermanence of all things and embodiment of compassion--which is key to the teachings of Buddha--have brought your earlier expressions of healing to another level. I now recognize that this was at the root of our work together for the Spoleto Festival USA in 2002: Planted Names--four unique carpets at the 1742 Drayton Hall, bearing the names of enslaved Africans and African-Americans who built and cultivated this Palladian plantation--and A Lighthouse Woman in which you used the Morris Island Lighthouse.
K.S.: When I was filming A Needle Woman in Lagos, I happened to visit to an island offshore from which slaves were put on ships to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Standing there, looking out, I could feel the enormous pain of those who departed. The horizontal line of the ocean looked like the saddest line I had ever seen in my life. Then when I visited Drayton Hall and learned about the history of African-American slaves from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, I immediately saw this plantation site as a vast carpet where enslaved bodies were embedded. There are so many sad stories behind these colonial places. Carpets are not about the beauty of an artist's design, but about the labor of the carpet maker, so I chose carpets as the form to celebrate their labor and time.
In the companion work, I considered this lighthouse on Morris Island as a witness of water, witnessing all the histories and memories standing still there. When I first visited it, I was so impressed by this lighthouse's loneliness. I related its loneliness to a woman's body and to women who wait for their sons, lovers, brothers and fathers to come home from the sea, who stand by the sea, waiting for them. I programmed a one-hour sequence of nine saturated colors that illuminated the whole tower, spilling onto and reflecting in the surrounding water, changing its rhythm as if it was breathing with the same rhythm of the ocean tides — in and out, inhale and exhale. It wasn't captured in video this time: it was important to experience in the site with the sound of the waves, and the air, and the real sequence of the rhythm of change. I miss the lighthouse.
M.J.: Yvonne Rand has spoken about how we can develop our capacity to be with suffering, as it arises, by developing our ability to be in attention. A way to develop this capacity is to continually, over and over, come back to the posture of the body that goes with being in attention. This arrangement of the body entails having the three energy centers in the torso in alignment: the head energy center for perception, the heart energy center for emotions, and the energy center in the belly, the hara, for spiritual strength and stability. When these three energy centers (located in the center of the body just in front of the spine) are lined up, then one is in the posture of attention or presence. This centered posture, in combination with a breath, allows one to be present. When I am fully present, in the moment, I can then be in the field of energy that I stand in with others. Here, in this field, I can more easily put myself in another's shoes, imagine their point of view--not in the "either/or" way of thinking but "both/and": I can hold both what is true in my experience and what is so for the other person. This is what it means to be present and, out of that, to have the skillfulness to develop the capacity to experience another person's suffering. So, Yvonne recognized that you had developed your capacity to become present in your breath with your own suffering as it arose and fell, and simultaneously experiencing the suffering of others, not as separate from yourself but as one: as you stood at the shore of the Yamuna River, on that coast of the island off Lagos, and in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.
Mary Jane Jacob is an independent curator whose exhibition programs test the boundaries of public space and relationship of contemporary art to audiences. She has worked closely with artists creating over 50 exhibitions and commissioning over 100 new artists' projects as chief curator at MCA/Chicago and MoCA/Los Angeles; as consulting curator for Fabric Workshop and Museum/Philadelphia; and for such public projects as "Places with a Past" (Charleston, 1991), "Culture in Action" (Chicago, 1993), "Points of Entry" (Pittsburgh, 1996), and "Conversations at The Castle" (Atlanta, 1996). Currently, she is curator for the Spoleto Festival USA's ongoing "Evoking History" program in Charleston, South Carolina. She is co-editor of an upcoming recent book — Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art (University of California Press, fall 2004) — for which she has conducted insightful with a dozen leading figures about their artmaking practices. This volume is the culminating work of "Awake: Art and Buddhism, and The Dimensions of Consciousness", a consortium research effort based in the Bay Area, which she co-organized. Ms. Jacob is Adjunct Professor at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and on the adjunct faculty of Bard College's Graduate Center for Curatorial Studies in New York.
On March 24, 2003 the police in New York arrested a hundred and forty participants of an anti-war demonstration, who had lain down in Fifth Avenue, blocking traffic and bringing the city to a standstill.
The demonstrators lay motionless on their backs; some were holding photographs of civilian war casualties in Iraq. Police officers lifted them off the ground and carried them into cars, slowly making their way along the body-strewn street. That "die-in" demonstration was one of hundreds of bigger and smaller manifestations of civil disobedience which swept over cities in all parts of the world in response to the war waged under American leadership in Iraq.
An act of civil disobedience consists in an ostentatious and consistent breach of the existing law. The disturbance is deliberate and limited in scope. Such an act of disobedience may be compared to a well-posed question. When it is one carefully chosen element of the system that becomes the object of criticism, the act is expressive and effective in exposing a false, albeit legally sanctioned, state of affairs.
A special form of civil disobedience are demonstrations in which a group of people temporarily occupies a section of public space to which they have no right at that moment. This includes such forms of protest as "sit-in", popularized by the American movement against racial segregation in the 1960s (the iconic sit-in by four black citizens, known as the "Greensboro Four", started at the counter of a white-only bar in Woolworth's department store on the first of February 1960) and then adopted by the student revolt of 1968, or "be-in", demonstration through being together (creatively) in a certain area - from mass gatherings of hippies (the most famous one took place in the Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, on the 14 of January 1967) to the occupation of premises, which is also a form of pressure through occupying space the right to which is disputed. Occupying a place in defiance of the norms regulating its use is an expression of the wish to be able to decide maters important to that place and to the people in it. New York's "die-in" dramatizes the risk of participants being run over by cars, but its main point is made through the clash between the concrete image of demonstrators lying in a street symbolizing ultimate material wealth and the vision of a heap of bodies - the clich image of how war affects civilians in a poor country. The renunciation of violence expressed in the form of a theatrical death on an improvised stage acquires the force of an ultimatum.
Quiet and persevering like stones which no one throws, Kim Sooja's works inevitably resonate with various forms of symbolic behaviour through which active members of civil society respond to the definitions of war put forward in media commentaries, using military metaphors of movement, and to the summary interpretations which politicians direct through the same media - always downwards, like bombs, leaflets and food supplies. One of the most suggestive images revealing this one-way movement - from the top down - is the agency photo of a truck, from which charity workers are throwing food parcels directly into the outstretched hands of hungry people. At the very top, on the roof of the truck, a group of reporters are standing, pointing their cameras down. It is easy to imagine what this scene, filmed from the roof of the truck, would look like on a TV screen: it would be us, the kindly viewers, who would be handing out food through other's hands to the people in need.
Kim Sooja stages her presence as a gap: motionless "being-in", which is gradually removed from the onlooker's field of vision, becoming something as known and obvious as the place itself. Being in a place becomes the place. Like the surface of water closes over a stone, like the eye fills in a blind spot for us. By remaining in a place, being gains a right to it, not through some special title located outside the place, in the space of ideology and codified law, but because it becomes a place, for some time a certain place in uncertain times and in places of uncertainty, in cities on the move. Sewing and travelling across (borders), begging in (the streets), lying on (a rock) and under (the sky), sitting under (a tree), standing in front of (a marching crowd). Sewing the top to the bottom, sewing with oneself, with a disappearing stitch, a blind stitch.
A typical TV report from the front lines: after many hardships a journalist managed to get there; his tired, happy face confirms the truth of his account. Wearing a helmet and a bullet-proof vest, the reporter grips a microphone. Although he's often dressed in camouflage, he is unarmed and that's why we should trust him. The reporter looks us in the eye and speaks to us. Behind him there is action, or just an epilogue or prologue to action. The movement of vehicles, of soldiers, of civilians, burnt-out ruins, wrecked equipment, a captured bridge, some children. The caption on the screen removes all doubt as to the place: a specific geographical name combined with a concrete person who is there and is talking to us now. There can be no more doubt: this is presence and we are experiencing it.
In a series of films shot in different cities around the world Kim Sooja does not show her face. A static camera films a motionless, standing figure from behind. The black vertical shape in the centre of the screen partially blocks the view. On the edges of the screen a crowd throngs; we see it fragmentarily, between the edge of the frame and the dark figure in the middle, on which it is hard to focus. Our view of the scene taking place here is as if "delegated" to that person, about whom we don't know much, not being able to see her face. We don't even know if her eyes are open, if she is looking. She's just a stubborn presence, a gap in our field of vision, standing between us and the image we want to see in its entirety. It's someone who is standing in front of us and whom we want to push aside to be able to see more. Kim Sooja leaves us with this sense of partial knowledge, which will not be made complete.
Her works make one think of the analogies between ways of working with human presence in the conceptual art of the 1960s and 70s and various forms of demonstrating civil disobedience through a political staging of human presence with reference to a given context.
In 1970 Adrian Piper decided to "become the object of art" and to stop making objects. In a series of performances realized in various public places (street, bar, bus stop etc.) the artist used herself as a "persona" slightly disrupting the usual order of things and testing the reactions of onlookers to the appearance of the Other. In Catalysis III (1970) she entered a department store wearing clothes covered in white paint, with the sign WET PAINT. The situations arranged by Adrian Piper were direct interventions by the black artist in the falsified sphere of aesthetics and custom, which conceal violence.
Kim Sooja also confronts the possibility of violence and responds to it with her directed personality. In Beggar Woman (Lagos, Nigeria) Kim Sooja sits in the street with her hand outstretched, in a beggar's pose. At the beginning the hand is empty; then someone puts some coins into it; the hand does not close, so somebody else steals them. In this microsituation, apart from economic motivations, issues of trust and responsibility emerge. The beggar's hand becomes a place of transit, an intermediate point/spot in the transit of money. It accepts and offers a gift. The beggar creates a certain community. Abstaining from the usual begging activity - the game of persuasion and resistance - she establishes a network of relations, sets a whole business operation in motion around herself. Kim Sooja's work is also reminiscent of the Real Money Piece (1969) be Lee Lozano, who started with 585 dollars in a jar. The people she met could either take out or add money to the jar; the circumstances, names and sums were recorded. An economic circulation was created, undermining the economy from inside.
If we define art stemming from a minimalist syndrome of progressive self-questioning of the object and focusing on the conditions of its presentation as, using Dennis Oppenheim's words, "displacement of sensory pressures from object to place", Kim Sooja's works certainly initiate a move of attention from object to place. Kim Sooja attracts our attention only to transfer it entirely to the place where she is.
Adam Szymczyk: Born 1970, curator and writer. Co-founder and curator of the Foksal Gallery Foundation in Warsaw 1997-2003. Since 2003, he is the director of the Kunsthalle Basel.
New York, July 14, 2003
When I decided to open a website using my name — which I hesitated to do for years because of its commercial aspect — I was hoping for an ideal society and relationship among people in the art world in which we could share real opinions with honesty, sincerity, dignity and love of art and life. I hope that my website project will not just introduce my activities but can bring more articulated discussions and criticism on art and the world.
I am careful to open this site, as mass media is one of the most influential media and another form of power which often leads this (art)world unfairly and untruthfully. But this is also what I wanted to work out and to bring out the true face of it — by opening another critical mass media to balance the public opinions. Think how much internet information and how many discussions are going on in this world — it is excessive. But I find most of them nothing but consuming information which have no content or true concern about art and the world.
I feel a responsibility now to put my endeavor to the (art)world in a modest way, even with one single person in this whole world to share and to support the real concerns — which I've been thinking for sometime, experiencing how the opinion of the society can be twisted by leading the public with wrong information or by not giving information, or by manipulating the reality mainly using mass media — partly because they are ignorant, partly because they are insecure, and are serving themselves for money and power. I wish to see the real art and meet real spirit, and to create something real with real people, and share it with every single person one to one, mostly discovering the ideas that have not been revealed or appreciated enough in this world.
One night, I suddenly discovered an important aspect in naming the website domain which keeps mostly one-word name — and it drove me to make up my decision to open a website for the public which I've been hesitating to do for years — like others, <www.kimsooja.com>. I was struck by the fact that it shows no reference of the name which has two or three words put together, with the first name and the family name, sometimes with a middle name.
A one word name refuses gender identity, marital status, socio-political or cultural and geographical identity by not separating the family name and the first name. Action One: "A One-Word Name Is An Anarchist's Name" is my first statement for opening my website project.
You are invited to my station to share any concern or critical ideas and I will communicate with you one to one, posing questions, inviting significant artists, writers and thinkers, as well as curators in the near future.
Thanks very much for your concern and support for this project.
Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or ideas to share.
I look forward to communicating with you soon.