Contemplation on the Origin of Life
To be Born, Love, Suffer and Die
Woman / Needle
The video installations which filmed the dormant volcanoes located at Lanzarote in the Canary Islands and Pacaya volcano in Guatemala, comprise of six separate video scenes. They were all fortuitously captured by the camera, that is, from the moving car, between stops during the walk. The random, incidental scenes of landscape happened to have caught the artist’s eyes. One wonders whether it is possible to hold the nature’s principality within the frame in accordance with the intended image map, and capture it even as the symbolic body of such as made. Should it be an impossible mission, the artist could only opt for presenting the video images as that of road signs indicative of what is beyond the framed images. Still it falls on to an artist’s scope how the coincidental images would be arranged, and by summoning up the primary elements be- yond the images, thus constructing the thoughtful relevance among the works, the seemingly contradictory concept of Empedocles’ is realized; the in- evitability of contingent occurrences.
The images of the volcanic areas in Lazarote were exhibited in a separate space within the Atelier Hermes. They were video images taken at night in- side a car as it was moving along the road. The artist lit the flashlight towards the darkish landscape, and the landscape in the dark around the dim edges of the circular torch light were thus captured. Through the nocturnal scenes, this work, titled
Another two works
Above the blighting volcano hangs the clear and blue sky. The work is titled,
Kimsooja believes that the foundation of life and the principle elements of nature are not as they are visually seen, but lie in the beyond, in the mystic combination of the elements and their hidden meanings. Thus her works pose as a piece of slippery puzzle that is impossible to complete. There are 128 combinations that can occur with the 4 elements; however with circumstantial chance and irregularity, they transcend the limits of the mathematical inference. Instead, as in Bachelard’s “Dreams of the Material”, or the boundlessness of the fully blossoming Mandala – they are of the nature. To Kimsooja, the completion of works means the moment has come when she does not need to create any more works. It will be exciting, until the moment comes, to watch Kim devote herself to other works relating to the release of light and the evolution of life.
 The Korean word for a “bundle (of belongings).”
 In Korea, the duvet cover was sewed onto the actual mattress as bed-frames.
Ryu Byounghak: I'd like to say, your recent series of art works feels slightly different on the surface from Bottari and A Needle Woman, which are well known to us. So before we look into the new work, I think it is very important to retrace one by one your footsteps in the making of these earlier works.
Kimsooja: People who have seen my Bottari pieces and A Needle Woman series — works that deal with humans — may think that my recent works — Earth-Water-Fire-Air, are only about nature. Nevertheless, I have continued to make a series of video works that deal with the themes of humans and nature simulateneously; which is something that has been present in my work since the beginning of my career. From my perspective, nature is an extension of a fabric and the needle is an extension of a body. In this sense, I think the relation between the fabric and the needle has evolved through the contemplation of nature as fabric, and a human body as a needle, that meditates towards humanity. In the end, these two are one.
Ryu: So it seems we need to shed some light on this path to understand your work thoroughly. To start the conversation, let's discuss the motive of Bottari. In the mid-1990s, you once said, Keeping bottari (bundle) is a very common domestic practice in Korea, and bottaris have been around me my whole life, especially, since I began working on sewn pieces using used cloth and clothes in the 80s. I became aware of new possibilities for conceptualizing bottari from a mundane daily object to a completely new way of making painting, sculpture and installation. This opened up a new vision of its cultural, aesthetic, socio-political, and philosophical dimensions. One day in my P.S.1 studio in 1992, I turned my head and there was a bottari that I had put there a while before, which I used to look at everyday. When I gazed at this bottari in that moment, a completely different perspective emerged; a totally new bottari was sitting there. I had been wrapping and unwrapping bottaris for my clothes for sewn pieces, but I hadn't seen its hidden formalism and meanings before that moment. That bottari in front of my eyes was a completely new object and discovery. It was a sculpture and a painting and a ready made and a used object — all without doing anything except simply making a knot. Through this simple act of tying up, bottari making opens up a possibility for transforming two dimensions into three; which simultaneously transforms the object into both a pictorial plane and a sculptural volume.
Ryu: With this content, we can say you already found that bottari can be a sculpture and, in this way, your work Bottari is a sort of ready-made.
Kimsooja: Yes. 'ready-made', in the sense that it has been existing as an object and a form, and at the same time, a 'ready-used' object, in the sense that it is made from materials which have already been used by people.
Bottari is a fluid and transformable ready made and ready used. However, both contexts co-exist as a oneness in my bottari. As the nature of both a painting and a sculpture exists in one single body of bottari, and this object reveals the reality of life, it also has a diachronic temporality. To me, bottari contains radical aspects in many senses, but in Korea it is just an object that is so embedded in daily life, that this work might have been hard to understand and recognize distinctly as an artwork because it is so closely tied to daily life practices. My work is all about recognizing new artistic value and contextualizing and recontextualizing mundane daily life objects, and daily life actions with the least maniplulation. In fact I see the bottari that I rediscovered at P.S.1 in 1992 as more pro forma. I was focusing on the moment of transformation that the fabric, the two dimensional tableau, becomes the three dimensional object and sculpture by the ordinary act of tying. I have shown the installation Bottari also at the New Museum and Ise Art Foundation, New York, in 1993 but my vision changed around the time when I came back to Korea and prepared for my solo exhibition (1994). I had a new understanding of Korean society as a woman, and also as a person who had experienced the reality of an open society. That is to say, I came to understand that bottari wasn't just an aesthetic or formal object, but one made of the "reality of our lives". Since then, I started to use not only fragments of fabrics and clothes of various colors and patterns, but also used clothes from anonymous people as a pre-existing form. I began to work with the thought of wrapping humans, our life and memories rather than simply taking a formalist approach.
Ryu: Looking at your works from late 1990s, I had a thought about formality. They are ready-mades for sure, but they are different from the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp had fixed a urinal, a common product, into Fountain, the artwork, but Bottari travels back and forth between the common product and the artwork. You also transform a common product: bottari into the artwork Bottari, then after a certain period of time the art work is disassembled and turned back to a common product, and then a common product bottari appears again as an artwork in a different form. Through the 1990s your exhibitions were about wrapping the bottari, then going to another place and unwrapping it again, by doing this its mobility is emphasized. Looking at the successors of Duchamp's ready-made, like Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII also known as The Bricks, Dan Flavin's Monument made with fluorescent lights and Jeff Koons' New Shelton Wet/Dry Double Decker arrangement of vacuum cleaners, we can see that they are each fixed. But your works are fluid. Interestingly, you can wrap all three items: the brick, the fluorescent light and the vacuum cleaner, with the fabric and the shape changes differently in each case. Bottari is read as the work of a certain kind of magic. I think that is the other aspect of formality in your works.
Kimsooja: The fabric naturally possesses fluidity, so I hope that my works can be expanded to transcend all its limits.
Ryu: Especially in the works after 1994, you used bedcovers a lot. In a past interview, you once said the bedcover holds the contents that covers us from birth to death, I think this symbolic content is telling of a sense of place.
Kimsooja: Actually when I was working on Bottari, many people thought I wrapped the bottari with Korean traditional wrapping fabric (bojagi), but I only used bedcovers. More precisely, I used traditional Korean bedcovers for newlywed couples. I think the bedcover is a field in which function and specific meaning coexist; in the sense that it is a place where we are born, love, dream, suffer and die. It is a frame for our life. Within this frame is the wishes of our whole lifetime — love, long life, wealth, and fertility are embroidered as forms and letters. Perhaps this might be considered a contradiction when we consider that this everyday, almost mundane yet colorful object — the bedcover — is covered with aspirations and festive elements. So, when the bedcover is unfolded, it is a tableau that has a place to stay. It is a two dimensional surface that implies memories of the loving life of a couple, sex, rest, stability, or family and comfort. However, the context gets reversed when it is tied into a bottari; suddenly it suggests dislocation, mobility, departing, migration and separation. The tableau (bedcover) that wraps and forms the bottari acts as a 'border' determining the dichotomy in life and art.
Ryu: Let's talk about the work you installed at the cafe in Central Park, for the Whitney Biennial, in 2002. You used bedcovers as tablecloths. Did the local audience know they were bedcovers?
Kimsooja: If I did not provide an explanation about the work, they would not have known. As a matter of fact, I showed the tablecloth installation first at Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh in 1995, then in Manifesta 1, and again at Setagaya Museum in Japan in 1998 as well as at the Central Park café for the Whitney Biennale 2002. At that time, after a series of bottari works, the meaning of unfolding the bottari became connected to the process of returning them into the original form of a canvas. In other words, the idea of using a bedcover as a tablecloth was to wrap invisible elements in the space, with mind and gaze, by turning the bedcovers back into a canvas. By unfolding the bottari and presenting it as a tableau, it folds invisible activities around the table into the tableau. For example, in cafes, people meet, talk to each other, share food and drinks, listen to the music and so on. I presented the tablecloth installation to wrap all these intangible communicational interactions, under the concept of an invisible wrapping. Ephemeral elements that appeared in the work are connected to the site-specific installation called To Breathe - A Mirror Woman, shown at Crystal Palace in Spain. At Crystal Palace, I intended to juxtapose the illusion of the mirror and the reality of space together — mirroring as a sewing activity — by covering the entire floor in mirrors. I also installed translucent film on all the glass windows of the architectural structure, in order to diffract the sunlight into a rainbow's spectrum when it penetrates the interior space from its source in the exterior space. Also, I unified all the elements of the notion of sewing by installing the amplified sound of my breathing — inhaling and exhaling — as voice performance. Holding the void of the space attached to the skin of the architecture, I presented the mirrored structure of the building itself, like a double-sided crystal palace with a division of a mirror surface on the ground so that it creates a negative space of the palace as a sewn architecture — a closed bottari — with the sound of my breathing creating a bottari of light and sound. In that, this work maximizes the immaterial character of the concept of bottari.
Ryu: I see. Although, I didn't see the installation of the bedcovers on the cafe tables firsthand, I did see it in a catalog. It was shocking. Especially after you mentioned that the bedcovers you used were intended for newlyweds. And bedcovers, by their characteristics, immediately convey the love making of newlyweds. In human natural desires, there are appetites and the libido. In that work, the two just fell into place. I wondered did the local public know that these were bedcovers, and how did they react to them.
Kimsooja: At the first exhibition in Edinburgh, an audience member came to see the installation and she said that I was brave (laugh). In a way this work is provocative, but on the other hand it is presented in a very passive form. Some of the Korean bedcovers are quite exquisite and have delicate needlework, and there I used many beautifully preserved examples, so that the work drew a lot of attention. Yet the true meaning of the work that I am concentrating on is not just the cultural and aesthetic value of the bedcover.
Ryu: I want to connect the next question to our earlier conversation about the ready-made. Once you said, "I don't believe in the aphorism that the artist is the person who makes a new thing. I think the role of the artist is to find a new way of reading the existing world with specific observations, and by providing new contexts or concepts. However, whatever material I used at that time, it was mostly to refer to the life of the user." Based on my feeling, I made the connection that your video works, like A Needle Woman, had come about as you turn yourself into the ready-made. Like the Deleuzian notion of becoming, your works came to me as becoming a needle woman and becoming a laundry woman, in a fashion. It is known that A Needle Woman started in Tokyo, Japan, in 1999. How did you come to start this work?
Kimsooja: When I was commissioned to do a project with CCA KITAKYUSHU, I simply thought that I would like to do some kind of performative piece. In my first year living in New York City as an artist in exile, I felt that personally I was standing on the edge of a cliff — which kept me mentally very sharp. So, as I was becoming more aware and concentrating on my body more sensitively, I began to think deeply about subjects like isolation, the self and the other. Initially, I had been walking around downtown Tokyo for a couple of hours, waiting for a certain decisive time and place. Then I arrived at Shibuya, the street where hundreds of thousands of people flood in and out, and I experienced a moment in which I could not walk one step more. In Zen Buddhism, there is a sound which expresses awakening, "Ak!". I was shouting the inner scream, "Ak!" in a silence that I kept inside of me, and I couldn't move my feet but just had to stand still right at that specific moment in that location. Having that experience of standing still in that place, I have come to understand the meaning of walking. In other words, the relation between my body and the presence of a crowd accumulated in the bottari (my body), through the accumulated time and energy in the act of walking. I set that place for the first performance of A Needle Woman. Without even time to reconsider, I thought "This is it!" and started the performance right away and told the cameraman to record my appearance and the crowd in a certain frame from behind. I remember that performance was one of the most special experiences of my life. Over the waves of oceans of people, beyond the horizon of the people, I saw bright white light rising beyond the horizon of humanity. My mind was filled with love, joy and peace as well as compassion for all humanity. Through this unforgettable experience, I reached the point where I felt that "I wish to meet every single human being in the world." To meet everyone in the world, I continued the project A Needle Woman visiting eight metropolises on each continent. Looking back at all these events, I realized that all of these attempts to meet others was only a way to meet my own true self.
Ryu: The eight cities were Tokyo, Shanghai, Deli, New York, Cairo, Lagos and London. After that, I remember you continued to other cities, such as Patan, Nepal, Havana, Cuba, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, N'Djamena, Chad, Sana'a, Yemen and Jerusalem, Israel.
Kimsooja: These are the cities I performed in for the second series of A Needle Woman. In the first series, I placed my body as an axis of the space in the 8 metropolises in different continents, while in the second series, I presented my body as an axis of time. From my experiences visiting the first eight cities which were facing severe political, religious, economic and social conflicts within the country or with other ones, I decided to visit and confront the conflicting reality of the world choosing these 6 cities. Especially when I was visiting Patan, in the Kathmandu valley in Nepal, the country was in the midst of a civil war so I heard a lot of gunshots during the working process and saw many armed soldiers. These works, different from the first series, were made in slow motion so that the world I see as an equal value and delicate emotional relationship between my body and passers by, is more pronounced. In the first version which was shot in real time, the performative aspect of my body and the tension between my body and the passers by was more visible. I think the intersection of the times; the psychological relationship of the bodies and the passers by stand out more in the second version (2005) and my body reacts more as an axis of time rather than space. Because my body is in the time zone of zero — stillness — I was wondering "what kind of time it is when zero is expanded within this stillness showing in slow motion?". In fact, it is eternity. We can see the three different temporalities — my body as the extended point of zero (in the zone of zero); the time of the people who are walking in the street (in slow motion); and the time of the audience who watch the relation of these (in real time), and how they coexist and relate to each other.
Ryu: Most of the places that were mentioned earlier, posess a historic sense of place like Patan, Nepal and Havana, Cuba. In the case of A Lighthouse Woman, you wrapped the lighthouse of Morris Island, Charleston, with various colored lights. In this way I discovered that Charleston, the capitol of South Carolina, was where the United States Civil War began. In other works, there are cities whose sense of place oddly has an alternating point of life and death, too, like the sense of place of the bottari and the bedcover. Also there is a feeling of a certain significance in the sense of place of Earth-Water-Fire-Air. Is there a reason you chose Lanzarote, the volcanic island in the Canary Islands, Spain, and the volcano in Guatemala?
Kimsooja: Surely an invitation from Lanzarote Contemporary Art Museum and a subsequent visit to Lanzarote Biennale, 2009, served as momentum, but I had been dreaming of a project about the four elements of nature for years, so I explored this exceptional location without hesitation. Looking back on it now, the choice of the place where the fire — the lifeforce of the volcano — is completely extinguished, is more meaningful when considering that the extinct volcano was the nirvana of nature.
Ryu: I had a funny experience earlier when I was looking at the work. When you look at a video work, the lens of the projector sometimes gets covered by a viewer, and a shadow appears on the screen. So by approaching the work closely, my shadow rose in the middle of the sea waves.
Kimsooja: In fact when I screen A Needle Woman or A Laundry Woman, from time to time audiences overlap their bodies on the screen by standing in front of the work. When viewers are watching my back on the screen, at some point my figure is removed, and they replace my body — and my point of view — with their own. It's like the magic of foreshortening. For me, what the multilayered point of sight in A Needle Woman suggests is very interesting. I sometimes see that the different perspectives of A Needle Woman affects the audiences' point of view in analyzing a photographic or videographic image in terms of the relationship between the artist, the subject and the viewer, by establishing three different perspectives which is an approach that hasn't been examined or discussed before in photography and video or film making.
Ryu: All eight titles of each work in Earth-Water-Fire-Air are metaphoric. They are different from common titles. For example, the title of the video of the sea of waves is not waves of ocean but Earth of Water. So I studied it carefully, and could see then that the waves looked like a mountain on Earth if I looked at the water in the ocean as a landscape. Was that your intention?
Kimsooja: As I looked at it, water has the element of fire, as well as air and earth, and earth has the elements of fire, water and air as well. Therefore, each element circulates and connects to the others. In the process of looking at them as four separate elements, I intended to reveal that they cannot stand alone and are leaning on each other as humans. As a method of addressing their connectivity and internal dynamics, as a means of defining the element of earth in water, I also looked at the relationship of fire and air by switching them (Air of Fire). When permutated the combinations are 16, and when two elements in each pair are alternated there can be as many as 32 combinations. In other words, this can be considered as a starting point for trying to contemplate the four elements. In that sense, the work comes from feeling the power and weakness of nature; understanding that in the end, each of the elements are one and unified within our body. This led me to ask: what is the humanity of fire, or what is the humanity in water, earth and air? The work contains these questions based on the unifying principle that humans and nature are, after all, one. Notably, when confronted with the lava, which becomes stone and falls apart in reality, I witnessed the boiling magma spurting out from deep in the Earth, running and becoming the lava stone; soon after turning into dust. Stepping on the hot ground and feeling the heat while working on a plateau 3000 meters high, I realized that the ground that we all walk on is a hot, breathing, physical organism. In the disappearance of the heat, a tableau vivant was created, and as that occurred, I had the opportunity to recognize one by one all the elements of nature: from the small lava stone that evaporates into dust, into 'nothing'; just like human destiny.
Ryu: In one of the works, a car is driving through a dark place and shining a flashlight on and off so that only the place where the light is on can be seen and vanished again. At first I was wondering what that was, but soon I found out the scene centered on the volcano and was lit and shot in the place where the flashlight you lit towards the landscape from the car. The thing that appears and disappears is made from the cooled down lava (a fireball of lust) spewed from the volcano. In the video, I could feel the brevity in which every human must turn to ashes. Lastly, for the audience, may I ask how you would like them to appreciate the work?
Kimsooja: Well, rather than mentioning how to question, I would like to say that I want to observe, and share this with you. With a question for the endless pictorial journey, I want to ask once again the first and the last question: what is the matter that this life is made of?
This article was originally published in Korean in Art in Culture magazine, February 2010. English translation was published in Art in Asia magazine, June, 2013.
MZ: Your work is concerned with boundaries between the self and the other. Cloth, the needle, and the activity of wrapping, sewing, walking, and breathing have become not only methods, but philosophical tools to investigate the liminal space of where the self ends and the other begins. I would like to start this interview with two of your works, the multi-channel video installations A Needle Woman (1999ñ2001, 2005) and then work our way back to your early bottari sculptures. In a way, this interview will work like a Russian doll in which the largest part includes the smallest, which in turn already anticipates that in which it is nesting. As your work is not linear, but cyclical and interconnected, I thought that this would be an appropriate way to gain insight into the relationship between content and method in your complex practice. The first and second versions of A Needle Woman are eight- and six-channel video installations respectively, which show a woman standing still in a crowd in different metropolises around the globe.
KS: Yes, the first series was performed and filmed beginning with Tokyo, then continued to Shanghai, Mexico City, London, Delhi, New York, Cairo, and Lagos (Nigeria). When I traveled around the world performing this first series, I learned a lot about the reality of the political and cultural differences around the world. When I was invited to present a piece for the Venice Biennale in 2005, the whole world was facing conflicts caused by the Iraq war, which created tensions between Muslim countries and the United States, and this conflict contaminated the rest of the world. I felt the urgency to create the same performance, focusing on cities in conflict, to witness the world, while keeping the same form and frame as in earlier performances. I decided to place my body in the middle of conflicted cities that were suffering from poverty, violence, postcolonialism, civil war, and religious conflicts. This is how I chose Patan (Nepal), Jerusalem, Sana (Yemen), Havana, Rio de Janeiro, and NíDjamena (Chad). I performed and documented all six cities in a few months in 2005. There is also a third, single-channel video made in 2009, which was commissioned by Nuit Blanche, Paris. With this version, separate from the first two versions, I decided to focus on different realities in Paris, performing in three neighborhoods that represented multi-cultural communities such as the BarbËs marketplace, a typical Parisian community on Rue de Montreuil, and a touristic location, the Champs-ElysÈes.
MZ: I would like to quote the German curator Volker Adolphs who very eloquently wrote about the first A Needle Woman: ìLike a needle, she pricks into the colorful social tissue of the cities, sewing different societies together. Kimsooja sees the needle as an extension of her body; she overcomes in-between spaces and disappears again. The thread remains as a binding and mediating trace of the ghost in the fabricís weave. . . . But it is also possible to see this the other way around. In this case the unceasing, endless wave of people is the stationary and enduring part, and the artist is the being in motion, who will go on, pass away, decompose, and disappear.î Can you talk about how you developed this extraordinary series of videos?
KS: Before I started using video as a medium for my performative practice, I was painting using Korean bedcovers and traditional clothing. I have always retained my artistic position as a painter. All of my experiments in different media have been a continuous evolution of my painting practice. Iíve always been aware of Western art history and I have been writing my own painting history by contemplating my reality and condition as a Korean woman in a larger society. Iíve been searching for my own methodology, one that articulates my questions about the structure of the canvas, nature, and the worldófocusing on horizontality, verticality, and dualityóbut at the same time questioning the self and the other to unite them. I continued my sewing practice for almost a decade (1983ñ92). My documentary video about my daily practice of working with Korean bedcovers in nature, Sewing into Walking ñ Kyungju (1994) was the first video when I discovered that my body functions as a symbolic needle that weaves the great fabric of nature. That is how I started using videoónot because I was particularly interested in image making, but because the cameraís gaze weaves the reality of the world and the videoís frame is an immaterial way of wrapping objectsóa bottari.
In 1999, when the Center for Contemporary Art, Kitakyushu, commissioned me, I thought to make walking performances using my body, one in the city, the other in nature. I began by walking for a couple of hours in different parts of Tokyo, but I couldnít find the right moment and energy to define it, nor the precise methodology to film it. At last, I arrived in the Shibuya area where hundreds of thousands of people were coming and going. I was completely overwhelmed by the huge crowd and its accumulated energyóI was screaming inside and had to stop and stand still right there. At that very moment, I realized the meaning of my hours of walking: I immediately decided to perform standing still and document the performance from behind.
MZ: So A Needle Woman is not so much about being a global citizen, but rather it developed out of a moment of personal crisis?
KS: Yes, it was a very personal encounter and contemplation of myself, others, and humanity. At first, I didnít think about the global citizen. I started the performance more as an existential question, but Iíve been more and more engaged with the world since this first performanceócontemplating humanityís destiny and feeling compassion for it. At the beginning of the performance it was very difficult to resist all the energy on the street and I was truly vulnerable, standing still, as a womanótotally naked, psychologically. But during the performance I found my own space and time and I learned how to breathe, how to be still, how to relax different parts of my body, and how to focus. It was like being in a vortex that created an enormous sound, but was silent at its core.
I experienced an amazing transformation and transcendence while performing in Tokyo. While the crowd was walking toward me, I perceived a white light coming from behind them, like a light coming through the eye of the needle. By the end, my mind was full of love, happiness and peace, and I was enlightened while looking at the waves of people coming and going. After the powerful experience of that performance, I was eager to continue the same performance on other continents and to ìmeetî everyone in the world.
MZ: In these performance videos, you stand in for the needle that stitches all these different pieces of the world together, your long black hair becoming the eye of the needle. Over the many years of your sewing, wrapping, and performing art practices you have developed your own philosophical topology of the needle.
KS: In the first performance video, I used my body as a symbolic needle that weaves the great fabric of nature, but I was also conscious of the needle as an object having many dualities. A needle is used in healing, but itís also used to connect separated partsóboth actions performing pain. The needle is a hermaphrodite, and has a void, the eye of the needle, which allows the thread through, which in a way represents our soul and spirit. At the same time, the needle is an extension of our hands and body, so it combines the body, the spirit, the physical and the void, the material and the immaterial.
MZ: In what way is the second version different from the first?
KS: In the second version, I chose cities that were in conflict. For example, Patan was caught up in a civil war at the time; I saw soldiers with guns everywhere and heard many gunshots. Through colonialism, Havana is related to the United States, which later blocked free travel between the two countries. Rio de Janeiro has issues of violence and poverty, as well as postcolonial issues; I visited the favelas and experienced severe violence and danger there. NíDjamena is in Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world and one with post-independence problems. Sana is in Yemen, which has political and religious conflicts with Israel. I had to travel from Sana via Jordan to Jerusalem, as there was no other way. We think we live in a global society and believe that we should be able to travel freely, but in fact, it is more and more difficult to travel freely and we have to take risks to live our lives.
In the second version of A Needle Woman, I considered my body more as an axis in time, whereas in the first version, I considered my body as an axis in space. I wove in different societies, economies, and cultures by positioning myself at zero timeóslowing down the movement of people on the street in relation to the real time of the audience. In this way, I created three different durational modes: real time where the audience is located, zero time where I stand still, and a slowed-down time as the passersby move around me. I am still questioning what happened when I stood still at point zero and I keep thinking about the permanency in it.
MZ: I want to talk about the relationship between the passersby and the camera. Sometimes people approach the camera and, through the lens, look directly at us, the audience.
KS: In terms of photographic perspectives in performance and video, itís like having a third, hidden eye. Before I made the first A Needle Woman, I did another video, Sewing into Walking ñ ?stikl‚l Caddesi (1997), in Istanbul. I positioned the camera (without myself) within a fixed frame so that people on this main street would be framed (wrapped) when they are coming and going, without manipulating them. If I compare the relationships to the A Needle Woman performance, the camera could be replaced with my body and the lens with my eyes. I wasnít aware of it while performing the first A Needle Woman, but Sewing into Walking was one of A Needle Womanís origins, which I might have to revisit at some point. I tend to go back and forth from different boundaries of my practice, away from and back to the central question. I think this enables me to grasp how I relate my eyes and my body to the audience, myself, and the location, creating different layered viewpoints. Itís interesting for me to place my body in the center and as an observer.
MZ: Letís talk about the role of your body in these performances. By positioning your back and not your front to the camera, you complicate the relationship between yourself and the stream of people walking toward you, the camera, and the viewer. In a way, it is through the reaction of the passersby that we come to identify with you, that we ìseeî your front.
KS: By positioning the camera away from the audience, I was able to stay anonymous; conversely, the audience could assume my position and focus on what I was experiencing. For example, in Lagos, I performed in the middle of the marketplace and there were kids and adults carrying the goods they were selling on their heads. They stood still, watching me from start to finish, a mirroring of what I was doing. At the same time, the audience in the exhibition space viewing this performance/video can also enter my body at a certain moment and experience what I perform.
MZ: In other words, by becoming the mirror and the needle between the audience and the world, you remove yourself.
KS: In a way, I objectify myself as a needle and as a mirror to the audience. I believe that painters are always trying to find their own mirror on the surface of their canvases in order to find their own identity. I was also trying to question where the boundary lies in To Breathe ñ Invisible Mirror/Invisible Needle (2003ñ2005), a video, and The Weaving Factory (2004), a sound performance work; the two were presented at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. We can never stop gazing at the endlessly transforming color field in To Breathe ñ Invisible Mirror/Invisible Needle because we cannot truly measure its depth or define its surface. This is also related to my early painting practice. The bottari represents a physical wrapping practice, as a canvas, an object, and a sculpture; however, I use the mirror as a physical and symbolic material having a similar function to video in terms of framing the images. Similar perceptions exist also in sound and light worksóideas about wrapping immateriality within space. There are materialized and dematerialized elements that run parallel in my work, but in the end, they coexist as one.
MZ: I recently read Jean-Luc Nancyís text on the Noli me Tangere story in the Gospel of St. John in which the resurrected Christ encounters Mary Magdalene and says to her, ìTouch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father.î In A Needle Woman you serve as a sort of apparition; you produce difference by inserting your body in these particular environments. The reactions range from indifference to a rather threatening curiosityóbut nobody touches you, as if you are saying, ìNoli me tangere.î
KS: I think it has to do with the transcendent element of performances that deal with time. This is also true of A Laundry Woman ñ Yamuna River, India, the performance I did in Delhi in 2000 on the bank of the Yamuna River, right next to a shmasana, a Hindu cremation site. The debris that you see on the river is from the cremationsóburnt body parts, flowers, and pieces of wood are slowly floating and passing by my body. I was contemplating human destiny, the purification of the burnt bodies and myself. In the middle of the performance, I experienced an unbelievable confusionóI couldnít figure out if the river was moving, or if my body was moving while standing still. After a while, I found myself back in the center of the flow and away from the confusion. After this performance, I learned from the confusion. My inner and physical gaze was so focused that there was no boundary between myself and the other, like a needleís point that has no physical dimension, but only a location, and is open to the void. It was not the river that was in motion, but my body in time, which seemed to be a solid, physical entity that flowed and then disappears.
MZ: I think that this experience also applies to the viewer. Speaking for myself, I entered a trance-like state in your exhibition at Baltic, Gateshead, England (2009), where you presented the A Needle Woman and A Laundry Woman installations.
KS: Yes, there is a kind of hypnotic element to timeís passing. Time is a repetition of each moment of breathingóinhaling and exhalingóand this repetition creates a hypnotic state. I was so concentrated and focused on one pointówhich was nowhere. There are no orienting points at the very tip of the needle, so you cannot relate yourself to anywhere, but at the same time you can relate yourself to everywhere. I learn from each performance, which offers deeper questions, and thatís why I cannot but continue my work.
MZ: The needle is like a threshold or an interfaceólike a skin.
KS: Yes, thatís why I consider the mirror as an unfolded needle as it has a similarity in its nature.
MZ: Your understanding of the mirror as an unwrapped, unfolded needle is fascinating. Earlier you mentioned To Breathe ñ Invisible Needle/Invisible Mirror. Could you tell me about the particular needle-mirror relationship in this work?
KS: I find the needle and the mirror very interesting in that their identities are not revealed. The needle always functions dually as a medium that connects things, but at the same time it can also hurt. Only by hurting can it heal, and thatís when its function as a medium manifests. In the end, the needle leaves the site.
Like the needle, the mirror is also an interesting object in terms of identity because it reflects everything but itself. The mirror creates a plane that reflects the self, and the illusion of the self. Itís similar to the surface in painting, something I was always aware of because of the approach I had in my sewing practice. I did not begin my sewing practice because I was particularly interested in sewing, or the feminist aspects of the medium, or because I was a skilled seamstress, but because I was interested in the question of the fabricís surface as a canvasóand in the questions about the Other, the self, and their relationship.
The whole process of questioning and answering is like pushing a needle into the fabric (canvas) and pulling it through as a repetitive action. This circular movement of sewing-as-dialogue led to my wrapping fabrics around Korean folkloric objects and to bottari pieces as a three-dimensional form of sewing. The moment I discovered bottari was very intuitive and astonishing. I was staring at the ordinary bottari in my studio when suddenly it presented itself as a new painting, a new sculpture, and a new object. The journey with the bottari truck in Cities on the Move ñ 2,727 Kilometers Bottari Truck (1997), and the whole idea of the mirror concerns the mirror as a border. I spent much of my childhood near the Korean Demilitarized Zone where I heard casualties on the border; this must have drawn my attention to the idea of borders. Itís not unrelated to the constantly changing spectrum in To Breathe ñ Invisible Mirror/Invisible Needle.
When I was invited to create a piece for La Fenice, I knew that itís an opera house and discovered that singing is all about breathing. I wanted to emphasize that element, but I also realized that breathing is the same as sewingóinhale and exhaleóand it can be the defining moment of life and death. So breathing is related to sewing and defining a surfaceís depth. With the changing spectrum I wanted to incorporate my breathing with the audienceís within the architecture, so I could embrace the architecture as a living, breathing body.
MZ: To Breathe ñ A Mirror Woman, also made in 2006, is clearly related to the La Fenice installation. Can you tell us about this large-scale intervention in this extraordinary space?
KS: It was in the Palacio de Cristal, Madrid, and organized by the Reina SofÌa. When I saw the space I was stunned by its beauty; I thought it was an absolutely beautiful object in itself that didnít need anything added. So instead, I decided to empty the space in order to push the void out, all the way to the exterior of the building. I covered the entire glass faÁade with diffraction grating film, which diffused the light into a rainbow spectrum, and placed mirrors across the whole floor to reflect the structure of the building, creating a virtual space.
I also added the sound of breathing from La Fenice, The Weaving Factory: there are two different stages, the sound of inhaling and exhaling, and the sound of humming. The result sounds like a chorus of my own voice echoing and bouncing on the mirrored floor. Depending on the light and time of day, the color spectrum changed endlessly and amazingly. In a way it was a bottari of light and sound, combining all the different concepts of needle, mirroring, breathing, and wrappingóall of these elements together in one space.
MZ: I want to return to Sewing into Walking ñ Kyungju, a key work that connects your architectural installations, the color and video projections of the 2000s, and your early bottari works. In that work, you use breathing and walking as an extension of the sewing and wrapping practices in the bottari.
KS: I didnít intend it to be a video. I just wanted to make a documentary record of how I related to fabric in my daily practice, so it was done quite naturally. But when I reviewed the video, especially in slow motion, I discovered the transitional nature of the performative element in my daily life.
The fabrics I use are mainly bedcovers for newly married couples in Korea, and are gifted to the bride and groom by the brideís parents. The performance ended with me wrapping all the bedcovers together, tying them into bundles, and then leaving the site.
The bed is the frame of our lives: where we are born, where we dream, love, suffer, and die. So wrapping and unwrapping the bedcover has a symbolic meaning for me: wrapping life and death, in the end. When unfolded, the bedcover signifies a couple, family, love, settlement, and location. When wrapped into a bundle, the bedcover suggests the opposite, separation and dislocation, migration, and the status of refugees. When a Korean woman says, ìWrap the bundle,î it means she is about to leave her family to pursue her own lifeóso in Korean society it has a feminist element as well. By working with the boundaries of wrapping and folding, I have been able to create different perspectives and dimensions in my work.
The first bottari I made (or rather discovered) was in 1992 in my studio in P.S. 1, New York. Bottari were always with me in my studio and as part of the Korean household, I used them to store things and fabrics from the beginning of my sewing practice, which started in 1983óbut I didnít pay much attention to it until later. I was turning my head and looking around at my studio and there was this unusual object, so familiar but totally distinctive. It was a unique painting and at the same time a sculpture made with one very simple knot, a readymade, and a ready-used object. So it was a surprising new discovery: a three-dimensional sewn object made by wrapping which was a three-dimensional canvasóa painting and a sculpture. Since then, Iíve developed projects and installations that defined different dimensions and concepts of bottaris.
MZ: These bottari also raise questions related to modernist practices of medium-specificity: what is a canvas? What can be done with a canvas?
KS: Bottari are very much linked to our bodies and our daily lives. I consider our bodies as the most complicated bottari, so for me the bedcover is like a skin. Without that close link to reality, it would be less meaningful, more abstract, and I wouldnít have been able to create a broader question and concept for my work. Itís quite interesting for me to discover the parallels between aesthetic and formalistic evolution and the physical, psychological, and philosophical examination of our body, sexuality, human relations to the world in general, even political problems within bottari.
MZ: Earlier you mentioned your upbringing close to the Demilitarized Zone. Can you share some details about this time in your life?
KS: My father was in the military service from the Korean War until he retired. We moved from one city to another, one village to another every other year, wrapping and unwrapping. As a nomad, I have always been aware of the border, not only in my own work, but also physically and psychologically. I always felt a certain awareness of the Other, or a danger when I lived in that region. Since I was a little child, I have been very sensitive to the pain of others, which could be related to my experience near the DMZ. I was always aware of places other than my own, which is not unrelated to my use of fabric and questions on boundaries in different practices. Without realizing it, I began to discover more about my own history and destiny through my work. At the Venice Biennale in 1999 I installed DíApertutto, or Bottari Truck in Exile, a bottari truck installed in front of a mirrored wall and dedicated it to the refugees of the Kosovan War. The mirror opened up a virtual exit, but it was a road that you could not pass throughóso it also represented the frustrations and conditions of the refugees.
MZ: Traveling also features in your video Cities on the Move ñ 2,727 Kilometers Bottari Truck for the exhibition of the same title.
KS: I was very inspired by the exhibitionís title, which was linked to my life. The distance traveled for over eleven days in Cities on the Move was very meaningful to meóthe bottari truck and my body as another bottari sitting on topóendlessly moving like a line on a graph, in time and space. I was very much aware of time in this performance, looking back at my past and forward to the future, and drawing lines along the journey onto the topology of the South Korean land.
MZ: Is that why the video is in slow motion?
KS: Not necessarily, but I think slow motion can reveal much more of the realities around us, ones that donít often get much attention. In a way it resembled my inner rhythm or my mindís wavelength.
MZ: Your work is not linear, but as I said in my introduction, moves in different directions, all of which are interconnected. It has a somewhat crystalline structure. As a last question, I would like to ask you about the relationship between the different stages in your early practice.
KS: In one of the earlier pieces, The Heaven and the Earth, a crucifix shape from 1984, I used pieces of my grandmotherís clothing, which I sewed togetheróIím still using remnants in other works. In another piece, Portrait of Yourself from 1991, I assembled parts of used clothing from anonymous people, it was like a network of invisible existences. In the sense of human bodily traces and relations, it can be compared to A Needle Woman. In Mind and the World (1991), I wrapped a bamboo pole with used clothing and then leaned it against the center of the sewn surface pieces. Looking back, I think of this pole, in relation to the sewn fragments of used clothing, as being like my mind and body leaning toward humanity and the world, just as A Needle Woman stands in front of the world.
Retrospectively, I realize that I was able to evolve all these earlier practices with used fabrics because wrapping fabrics onto objects, or bottari, in the end was the same methodology as sewing: wrapping the surface of a fabric with threads around. The cruciform and circular structures were already there, and that might have been how I could continue this work, without a pre-conception, responding directly to the physicality of the materials, only following my intuition and the urgency of my desire.
— Edited transcript of an interview held at Tate Modern, London, February 20, 2010, in collaboration with Art Monthly; first published as part of Talking Art Series, London: Art Monthly and Ridinghouse, 2017, pp. 316ñ26. It is republished here with the kind permission of Maxa Zoller.