From Exploring WOW; or, How Works of Art Work
Kimsooja at The Project
The Western rationality of Munoz’s classicism establishes a provocative comparison to the videos of Kimsooja, particularly A Laundry Woman (2000). This beautifully resolved piece originates in a meditation, dependent on the artist’s quiet and mindful presence in time and the world. Each component of the simple composition gradually progresses from minimal form to comprehended detail to immutable: there is a silhouette centered in the frame, which we first realize is an actual person (the artist herself), then see her to be a part of the scene contained within the stable camera frame. Her back to us, she faces a soft field of pale blue, which we soon discern is a river flowing from left to right. With the horizon above the camera’s frame, all detailing, information, and visual incident is contained in the river currents. Occasionally a bird flies overhead or a cloud passes, visible only by their reflections in the water. Material also floats by, including pieces of wood, scraps of fabric, or flowers bobbing in the water. Kim never moves, although wind sometimes ruffles her dress or hair. Nothing changes yet everything changes, as in the Buddhist view of life: it is always the same river, yet it is never the same river twice.
The image, projected life-size on a wall in a darkened room, places the viewer in the position of both observer and participant, as the artists vantage point becomes the viewer’s own. Stated another way, Kim’s body becomes a middle ground between the viewer and the landscape. She describes it as "actually three different layers of the image: the nature, the body, the viewer, and my body functions as the medium of both nature and the viewer relating my and [the] viewer’s spirituality to eternity." Spend time with this work and you slow down, finding yourself increasingly at ease with its deliberate pace and enjoying its patient unfolding.
The Yamuna River is even more sacred in Hindu ritual than is the Ganges. The mysterious clumps of material and fragments of flowers are the remains of funeral pyres from Hindu rituals. Kim thus compares "the destiny of our life with the element of cremated body floating on the river."
Despite its very different rhythm, A Wind Woman engages both contemporary painting and a Buddhist understanding of the world in a similar way. For A Wind Woman the artist holds a camera steady as a segment of the world passes by and through it. She helps us to be present by modeling the action: remaining stable and focused while the busy drama of the momentary floods in. In A Laundry Woman we see the artist; in A Wind Woman we see what the artist sees. Her body is no longer present. The subject is less spiritual, more focused on the essence of things in the world. Kim characterizes it as "trying to investigate the depth of the borderline which exists in-between things...the fine line of co-existing space of the in-betweenness."
Kim's videos are disarming in their simplicity. There is no elaborate production. The artist does not insist on a precise installation structure, as do her video colleagues in the exhibition, who stipulate that walls and ceilings frame their images precisely. Rather, the work screens at a certain scale that presents the artist’s body at approximately the same size as ours.
This work teaches a way of seeing. Its meaning becomes clear if one gives it time — the duration of the tape, or even the temporal space to allow for an experience. Your body is engaged by empathy with the person in the image or behind the camera, who is upright, disposed vertically like the viewer. After a short while your shoulders might begin to rebel, acknowledging the difficulty of standing still, or you might feel a push-pull in your spine or feet. Your relationship to the video becomes somatic—felt because of the interaction of stable vertical and moving horizontal. At times a reversal may be felt, where it seems that your move, rather than the wind or the water.
Up to this point, "the work of the work is discussed in regard to its ability to represent abstract functions, such as isolating a precise sort of experience or evoking a certain affect. In some cases, however, the notion of function can be seen much more concretely. For example, Mandala: Zone of Zero would make an ideal meditation room. It employs a series of rotating jukeboxes that both convey Tibetan, Gregorian, and Islamic chants and act as a visual object for meditation. The artist describes the center of the space, where the three soundtracks combine, as the Zone of Zero. To stand there is to find yourself entering a meditative state. Elements flash and revolve, casting lighted slices of yellow, red, blue. Even though this work comprises several parts, its effect is precise and economical; the lit structures are quite small in relation to their impact.
In the beginning, readymades were chosen for their dumb simplicity: a bicycle wheel, a bottle rack, a shovel. Kimsooja, on the other hand, has chosen an object that is spectacular in its own right. The circular jukebox speaker that appeared four times in the installation Mandala: Zone of Zero features concentric bands of colored plastic, circulating bubbles, mirrored tiles and colored lights, all surrounding a brocade-covered audio element. A rotating knob at the center supports the resemblance to a roulette wheel; vaguely pagoda-shaped brackets give it a generic Asian accent. In the exhibition, the speakers were each centered on a wall in a room painted a deep soothing indigo and unlit, except for the audio units' multihued glow. Carpeting enhanced the serenity.
But it was a jangly calm, which matched the east/west discordance of the glitzy object itself, a sensory buzz amplified by the sound composition Kimsooja assembled. Mixing Gregorian chant, Muslim singing and Tibetan bells, the music was, like the bubbling speakers, almost embarrassingly engrossing. The mutually subversive and anyway kitsch-challenged spirituality of the three soundtracks produced genitive dissonance where an unlikely and altogether gorgeous aural harmony reigned.
The connection Kimsooja saw between the jukebox speakers and Tibetan mandalas is evident in this installation's title. Implicit in the subtitle is the question of whether its musical mixed messages transcend sectarianism to attain a higher level of spirituality than any one faith can offer (a zone of zero where striving particularity can be sublimated), or if the work points to the crass commercialism of which every religion can, at times, be found guilty (a zero zone of spiritual aridity).
A Korean artist now in her 40's, Kimsooja is a past master of imperturbable resistance to conclusive statement. Her previous work includes installations of filmy Korean textiles hung on lines like drying laundry and, perhaps best known, an international series of performances called A Needle Woman. Standing sentinel in London, Cairo, New Delhi, Lagos, Mexico City, Shanghai, and elsewhere, Kimsooja was the unmoving obstacle around which pedestrian traffic swirled. In the video documentation that followed, she is always shown from the back. It's possible to read committed asceticism in her posture, but also frank refusal to engage.
The same disinclination to take sides is evident in Mandala. Somewhere between the aggressive irreverence of Jason Rhoades's imaginary trip to Mecca, documented in his rapturously messy recent installation Meccatuna, and the prim eroticism of Duchamp's Precision Optics, with their hypnotic rotating geometries, is the null zone of quietly pulsing intransigence where Kimsooja has taken up residence.
— From Art in America, April, 2004.