Kimsooja: Electric Chants
Identifying nomadism as a condition that is inevitably linked to contemporary existence, Kimsooja draws on her own continual displacements as material that is indispensable for the creation of her work. Repeating an experience connected to her nomadic childhood, she positions herself in new contexts, in which she renegotiates the uniqueness of her identity.
Although directly tied to her biography, Kimsooja’s art does not indulge in narrative details, but instead strives to transform the subjective into the universal. Thus, whether she finds herself amid the crowd in Shanghai, New York, Tokyo, or Mexico City, or at the edge of a river or sea in any part of the world, whenever the artist appears in her work, she portrays herself from the back. Transforming presence into absence, her figure becomes a means, a door thrown open to the world’s infinite mutability.
Taking the form of videos, installations, or performances, many of Kimsooja’s works recognize the act of sewing as a powerful metaphor. Like a needle, which is capable of disappearing after having connected otherwise separate fragments, Kimsooja sees the value of her art in its possibilities for uniting individuality and multiplicity, body and spirit, East and West.
Sometimes the artist uses bottari, bundles of bedcover fabric traditionally employed in Korea, her native country. Usually employed for transporting objects connected to daily life, they embody the very idea of wandering and the multiple facets of elation and sorrow.
The word bottari also appears in a series of videos to which the work in the collection, Bottari: Alfa Beach, 2001, belongs. The video was filmed in Africa, on a Nigerian beach whose name is linked to the slave trade. The work features the inversion of the horizon line, exchanging the position of the sky with that of the sea. Seemingly simple, the reversal suggests the sudden impossibility of establishing one’s own position in the world, evoking the drama of the slaves who were kidnapped from their own land and forced to face voyages to destinations utterly unknown to them. The sense of dislocation is heightened by the lack of sound.
Text by Marcella Beccaria from "The Castle, The Collection", Castello di Rivoli Museo D’Art Contemporanea, published in 2008 by Skira.
A prominent subtheme resonates throughout the works in "Listening Awry" — the contrast between the modalities of sound and vision. In Kimsooja's Mandala: Zone of Zero (2004), this contrast assumes transcultural, historical, and metaphysical dimensions. Unlike the other works in the exhibition, one first experiences Mandala indirectly, as a faint light softly diffusing around the edges of a pair of partitions. Visitors follow the glimmer through a dim transitional space to then enter a cloistered, alternative realm. The main feature is a radiant, vividly‑hued jukebox, outfitted with mirrored tesserae and flashy ornamentation, and positioned squarely to face the beholder. Carpeting hushes one's footsteps, and the overall calming effect is enhanced by serene, twilight blue walls engulfing the space, lit solely by the jukebox's incandescence. Incongruously, a soundtrack of Tibetan Buddhist, Gregorian and Islamic chants resonates in the room, providing a sacred vocal counterpoint to the visual flamboyance of the jukebox. The disparity between sound and vision could hardly be more extreme or more succinctly composed. Eastern vs. Western cultures, traditional vs. postmodern sensibilities, spiritual vs. materialistic pursuits — these and other polarities suffuse Kimsooja's installation and create a form of listening awry based on paradoxical juxtaposition.
In many ways, the jukebox epitomizes the materialism of American culture. Recalling the postwar optimism and economic surge of the 1950s, the jukebox serves as an icon for youthful, leisurely distraction and ephemeral popular culture. A conspicuous fixture of bars, diners, bowling alleys and other socializing venues for the past century, it still maintains a cultural relevance in the digital era in the figure of the "celestial jukebox" — the utopian repository of personal choice and universal variety. Either as a nostalgic cultural artifact or futuristic ideal for the music industry, the jukebox functions as both the object and enabler of desire. With its flickering reflections, gaudy colours, streaming bubbles, and roulette‑wheel appearance, Kimsooja's jukebox, however, would seem to be one of the last items to be associated with spirituality. Even as the readymade stands alone, disconnected from its complementary cabinet of records or CDs, hovering transcendently, its link to the superficialities of consumer culture and the escapist pleasures of mass entertainment renders it seemingly antithetical to introspection.
Yet, for the artist, the jukebox hears an uncanny resemblance to the geometric schema present in a number of religious traditions, specifically Tibetan Buddhism and Hindu Tantrism. Mandala, the Sanskrit term for "circle," is a sacred diagram that facilitates concentration for spiritual initiates. Symbolically, it can depict the figure of one or several deities, represent the stages of consciousness that adepts pass through on the way to enlightenment, as well as delineate an outline of the cosmos. The formal correspondences between the jukebox and mandalas are striking: both employ hands of concentric circles, a central focal point, and four equidistant markings or "gates" at the cardinal points. For Kimsooja, who moved to New York from Korea in 1998, the similarities were remarkable, if not also painfully ironic. Contrary to the discipline and profundity embodied by the mandala, the jukebox's visual cacophony is designed to amuse. Its entrancing spectacle may inspire stillness to some degree, though probably due more to hypnosis than meditation. Nevertheless, the overall effect of the lights, carpet and enveloping blue walls (blue being one of the conventional signifiers of divinity) conveys a palpable sense of tranquility and sanctuary.
The chanting of monks from three major world religions resound through the space and counteract the jukebox's glitzy presence. At times sonorous, at other times discordant, the chants go in and out of phase as each becomes dominant at various points in the mix. The deep, rumbling bass of Tibetan monks forms a near‑continuous drone upon which the mid‑range polyphonic melodies of a Gregorian choir glide over. At a higher register, the ecstatic vocalizations of a muezzin calling the faithful, along with the ringing of bells, pierce through to intensify the devotional collage. The outpouring of these traditional, centuries‑old chants from a commercial jukebox — instead of the expected pop, rock, hip‑hop, or country & western tunes — not only reconceives the mechanism but also the character of the museum space and those within it. No longer a neutral site for aesthetic contemplation, Mandala charges its surroundings with the mystical energies said to be evoked by the recitation of mantras, prayers and holy texts.
Which side prevails in this "zone of zero," as the subtitle of the piece indicates? Does the simultaneous presence of different belief systems bring forth a greater unity or effect a canceling out? Are the chants reduced to the level of commercial top ten hits, in essence nullifying their esoteric meaning, or is Mandala an object cleverly adapted for surreptitiously inserting spiritual content into a materialistic culture? In the general context of the relationship between the East and West, the artist considers their two opposing sensibilities to be engaged in a dialectic, one that brings together "all basic phenomena of art and life":
Eastern thought often functions as passive and reserved expression: invisible, non‑verbal, indirect, disguised and immaterial. Western thought functions more with issues of identity, controversy, gravity, construction and materiality. The process is finally the awareness and necessity of the presence of both in contemporary art and life. It is the Yin and Yang, a co‑existence that endlessly transforms and enriches.
But more than just a confrontation between consumerism and devotion, Mandala's creation after the invasion of Iraq informs its significance. Like her audio piece Letter from New York (2001), which collages together the chanting of Tibetan monks along with police sirens and jet engines that allude to the World Trade Center attacks, Mandala emerges out of a climate of crisis. The invasion of Iraq has been questioned by many for its dubious rationale and disastrous consequences for the Iraqi population and security around the world. The artist, disturbed by the U.S.'s unprincipled foreign policy and subsequent catastrophes, sought to identify its root causes, which she located in the materialism at the heart of the American ethos. Given this social and political context, Mandala provides both a critique and an antidote. In Kimsooja's meditative space, conflicting sonic and visual experiences combine, antithetical cultural practices interpenetrate, and polarized spiritual and secular sensibilities co‑exist to offer visitors the chance to contemplate the possibility of an improbable, but all‑too necessary, harmony within difference.
A striking aspect of the works discussed above is the degree to which the body is implicated. As Richard Leppert notes, a central paradox of sound lies in its contradictory semiotic status — while the product of (sometimes intense) physical activity, it nevertheless serves as a paradigm of abstraction and ephemerality. Such foregrounding of the physicality of sound's production, as well as its reception, becomes another subtheme in the practices associated with listening awry. Tse, for example, plays the cello and inserts her own body into the dialogic relationship with the natural landscape. Sierra, meanwhile, enlists buglers to stand and perform a twenty‑four‑hour aural fusillade. The simple fact of their bodily presence aggravates the metropolitan security apparatus and confirms the piece's provocational significance. For Marclay, the body is the endpoint for a series of translations that originate in music. However mute, the body conveys a version of musicality twice‑removed via gestural performance. And in the case of Kimsooja's enveloping installation, the bodies of viewers themselves become sound resonators within the sanctuary‑like space. An emphasis on corporeality in these works complements the notion of embeddedness informing "Listening Awry": The embodiment of sound correlates with the embeddedness of sound in social practice, thus completing an overall circuit between listening and being, self and other, the individual and society. Through the din of trumpets, chants, echoes, and noisome gestures can be heard the knocking of the embedded against the embodied as history, affect and politics are brought forward for artistic reflection and critique.
Jim Drobnick's text is excerpted from his essay in Listening Awry, Hamilton, ON: McMaster Museum of Art, 2007.