Sewing into Life


Essential Empathy


A Place to Be - A Conversation with Kimsooja


Centripetal Acceleration


Kimsooja and the Art of Place


Gnomon of Place, Gnomon of Foreignness


55th Venice Biennale: Il Palazzo Enciclopedico | The Encyclopedic Palace


삼라만상을 하나로 묶는 김수자의 보따리

A Laundry Woman, 2000, used Korean bedcovers and clothing, dimensions variable, installation at the Kimsooja, A Needle Woman - A Woman Who Weaves the World, Rodin Gallery (Plateau Samsung Museum of Art)

Sewing into Life

Wendt, Selene


  • An artist is not an isolated system. In order to survive he has to continuously interact with the world around him…Theoretically there are no limits to his involvement – Hans Haacke

  • Interacting with the world around her is precisely what Kimsooja does throughout her work. Since the early eighties, she has relied on the power of the needle, literally and metaphorically, as a means of expressing the direct interaction between art and life. This is the golden thread that binds her work together. Although educated as a painter in Seoul with a short printmaking scholarship in Paris, Kimsooja quickly discovered the unique possibilities associated with the use of needle and fabric as opposed to brush and canvas. She first discovered fabric as a powerful artistic medium, as a young girl, while sewing a bedcover with her mother. The act of stitching through the surface with a needle made her mind wander; philosophy, artistic process, and history all seemed to converge with the fabric.

  • When she first began sewing, Kimsooja wanted to overcome the limited surface of painting by reaching to the other side. She was drawn to the idea of getting in and beyond the membrane of cloth with a needle, and subsequently realized the significance of sewing as a process of wrapping fabric with threads. Kimsooja was intrigued by the continuous and mesmerizing back and forth action involved in sewing, and its inherent creative or mending purpose. From the outset, the process of sewing allowed her to identify herself with the object being sewn, which simultaneously represented an extension of the self. With needle and thread in hand, the mind can wander while the hand goes through the motions of a precise and monotonous craft. Quite simply, Kimsooja had discovered the possibility of sewing meaning into life.

  • From the start, the cultural relevance of traditional Korean cloths has been an integral aspect of Kimsooja’s work. The fabrics implemented throughout her work function as powerful traces of the countless personal stories that, when purposefully brought together, speak of the ultimate interconnectedness of all humanity. Her fascination with the formal structure of fabric and the implications of the needle and thread moving through its surface translate to a silent conversation with the fabric, one that also involves an investigation of issues related to craft and traditional women’s roles. Kimsooja’s earliest works involved collage-like techniques that were, for the most part, more formal than conceptual. These delicate, sewn works hinted at important aspects that would unfold in later work. For example, a plain beige t-shirt decorated with roughly sewn patches of red, yellow and green fragments of clothing comprises a study in color, form and composition, and an underlying meaning is woven into the loose threads and rough unfinished edges. While patchwork, quilting, needlework and stitching are implemented in textile works that speak of pain, loss and vulnerability, sewing itself is simply a means of expression, not the end goal. Through the years, Kimsooja’s approach to sewing has become increasingly conceptual; the complete absence of thread or fabric in some works is as important as the bright textiles featured in other works. The power of sewing as metaphor, and the symbolism associated with a sewing needle in particular, relate to universal issues of identity and existentialism that tie all of Kimsooja’s work neatly together.

  • Kimsooja’s Deductive Object series from the early nineties is also highly indicative of later developments in her work, particularly in terms of the possibilities associated with conveying life stories through common objects. For this series, Kimsooja made use of culturally specific everyday items, such as kites, reels, shovels, forks, or window frames that she wrapped with swatches of Korean bedcovers and clothes, in works that pushed formal and conceptual boundaries. These ‘already-mades’[1] are strongly linked to issues of domesticity and women’s labor, and are rich with social, cultural and aesthetic implications. In her work with found objects, and bedcovers in particular, Kimsooja stresses that she is most interested in the fact that the cloth or objects are ‘pre-used’ rather than ‘pre-made’. The history of the cloth as connected to its owner is underlined, rather than the significance of the anonymous person who may have sewn the bedcover in the first place. The soul, aura and memory of the objects and fabrics she uses are of utmost importance, both spiritually and conceptually.

  • Kimsooja subsequently widened the context of her Deductive Object series by placing emphasis on how the objects relate to the surrounding space. In 1993, she had an important exhibition at PS1 in New York, and one particular installation really stood out. As is so often the case with Kimsooja, ‘complex simplicity’ is precisely what makes the work so powerful. Imagine a white washed brick wall, scattered with small holes, the kind of exhibition wall that most artists and curators would want to smooth out or cover up. Kimsooja engaged directly with this wall, in a beautiful introduction to the idea of sewing as intervention. Hiding in the cracks of the wall, and nestled between the threads of the work, are some very important clues about the direction that Kimsooja’s work was taking – sewing into life. The colorful scraps of fabric scattered around the wall play with the concept of sewing, as each hole in the wall relates to the eye of a needle metaphorically threaded with tiny pieces of cloth. While the overall pattern echoes a textile work in progress, the true essence of the work lies in the space in between, in the connection between the invisible threads that join humanity together. By placing emphasis on metaphor rather than material, Kimsooja reveals the bare threads of her ongoing investigation of existential issues while simultaneously embracing and challenging the possibilities connected with textiles and the practice of sewing.

  • In the early nineties, Kimsooja started making bottari, and the underlying conceptual issues that bring art and life together became even more evident. This raised her work to an entirely new level. Kimsooja gained international recognition for these colorful fabric bundles made from traditional Korean cloths, used to wrap and carry one’s possessions. Although bottari can be made using any kind of fabric, Kimsooja intentionally uses abandoned Korean bedcovers made for newlyweds that she subsequently wraps around used clothing. As such, her use of bottari involves a fascinating double entendre. The bottari function as art objects that relate directly to the Korean tradition of wrapping ones possessions, conveying the idea of being on the move, while also functioning as real bottari that contain something of personal value. A perfect balance between pure form and function, they are beautifully situated on the boundary between art and life. Kimsooja’s interest in bottari also signaled a logical transition from a painterly interest in surface planes to the use of fabric as sculptural mass. This gradually led to a more abstract realm, where sewing is implied within the context of various spaces and environments. So, although she had started out with a traditional needle, Kimsooja freed herself from being bound by the needle by purposefully, yet almost imperceptibly, deconstructing the process of sewing, to the extent that the connection to a needle, thread or fabric eventually becomes barely discernable. Ultimately, all that is left in relation to real sewing are conceptual traces of the needle, or the metaphor of a needle as a tool of empowerment and liberation.

  • With or without a needle and thread, Kimsooja relays captivating stories through art that relates to life as it relates to the concept of sewing. Sewing as an artistic process, sewing as a quiet contemplative activity, sewing as a conversation with the surface of fabric, sewing as a formal investigation, sewing as a meditative process, sewing as it relates to traditional women’s roles, sewing as craft, sewing as intervention, sewing as wrapping, and sewing as a connective act, are all part of the complex fabric of Kimsooja’s singular artistic approach. Reflections about life and art are spun from a seemingly endless thread that weaves in and out of time and space, where past, present and future are melded into one.

  • Around the same time that Kimsooja realized that she could use bottari to effectively express the notion of the totality of art and life, Suzi Gablik was investigating similar themes in her research about connective aesthetics. What Gablik would describe as participative, empathetic and relational modalities of engagement are the defining factors of Kimsooja’s approach to art. Gablik’s theory of connective aesthetics, as outlined in her book The Reenchantment of Art, reads almost as an ode to Kimsooja’s artistic practice. If art should somehow help us to understand our place in the world, if art should work beyond its immediate role as an object and truly relate to our own existence, Kimsooja certainly provides the kind of approach that Gablik was interested in. Mindfulness, consciousness, compassion, and empathy are words that consistently appear in Gablik’s writing, and these words also come to mind in relation to Kimsooja’s practice. Gablik’s search for an enveloping relational vision that would embrace a feminine approach is definitely found in Kimsooja’s work. As Gablik writes, “The sense of everything being in opposition rather than in relation is the essence of the old point of view, whereas the world view that is now emerging demands that we enter into a union with what we perceive, so that we can see with the eyes of compassion.” [2] Twenty years later, Kimsooja’s art is as compassionate and relevant as ever.

  • In retrospect, we can see the visible and invisible traces of an artistic practice that has been consistently defined by a very conscious and determined use of the same materials or approach, set within different contexts where new layers of meaning emerge with each new project. The intricate pattern of Kimsooja’s work is created from a needle that keeps pointing towards concepts that are as fluid as they are static, simultaneously material and immaterial, visible and invisible, simple and complex. Louise Bourgeois once said that fibers, whether spun by spiders or created on a spinning wheel, have deep significance, and that threads weave important memories and emotional connections for us all. This truly captures the essence of Kimsooja’s fascination with the stories that are permanently imbedded in the fabrics that have provided an ongoing source of artistic and even spiritual inspiration for Kimsooja.

  • Through the years, Kimsooja’s bottari have appeared in many different contexts around the world, almost magical in the way they fit into almost any gallery space or natural environment. Like seasoned world travelers, Kimsooja’s bottari are constantly on the move; whether in a museum space or a forest, appearing in multitudes, or all alone, they have been arranged in a meticulously arranged row, or strewn about in a more chaotic manner, they have remained completely still, or moved 2727 kilometers on a truck. With each new setting, added depth and meaning unfolds.

  • In beautiful contrast to the bottari, Kimsooja is equally renowned for her textile installations where the bedcovers are unwrapped, unfolded, laid out, or carefully hung in gorgeous labyrinths of shiny, vibrant fabric. The vividly colored textile work A Laundry Woman, 2000, is a perfect example of this approach. On entering the installation, the viewer is completely surrounded by textiles and is invited to walk through an intricate web of color where pattern and meaning converge. Kimsooja has often compared sewing and walking as similar activities, and describes how this first came about, “In 1994, I started connecting my body as a symbol of a needle in the moment that I was viewing the documentary footage of my daily working process undertaken at Oksanseowon Valley near Kyungju, Korea. I decided to make this as a video performance piece called Sewing into Walking - Kyungju. I identified this walking process in nature—the collecting and gathering of all these bedcovers—as a symbolic needlework which my body was serving.” [3] To walk through A Laundry Woman is to understand the inherent communicative power of textiles, and the underlying meanings are seemingly endless. With each step, as with each stitch, the viewer is one step closer to understanding the metaphysical aspect of work. In this case, the viewer plays the metaphorical role of the needle, winding in and out, betwixt and between these gorgeous fabrics that have a story to tell. The specific choice of decorative Korean bedcovers as intimate possessions that tell life stories of pain, loss, love, and desire is, of course, as significant as ever. These fabrics, colored by cultural and personal histories, are narratives that are literally left hanging for the viewer to unravel as they delicately float between the worlds of art and craft.

  • In Kimsooja’s work, each project is inextricably bound to the thread of the next project. From project to project, the conceptual thread is picked up and re-sewn into a complex and interwoven vision of reality. A perfect example of this is seen in the similarities and differences between A Laundry Woman and A Mirror Woman, 2002. These works appear to be quite similar, both formally and conceptually, and they both relate to a wide range of existential issues; yet the simple addition of mirrors that cover the walls is all it takes to set these works dramatically apart. The mirrors contribute to a heightened sense of infinite space, thereby shifting the focus from the immediate reality of the viewer’s experience to an endless space that can be understood as relating more to the universe than the individual. Similar to separate threads in an intricate piece of fabric, even if they don’t touch each other, they are still bound to the same fabric, and every single thread plays an equally important role in contributing to the overall effect. These works are cut from the same cloth, and stand as powerful symbols for the place of each individual in the universe. The message is abundantly clear; without a needle there would be no fabric, without each individual, no fabric of society.

  • As we follow the needle to its most abstract form, the significance of sewing as metaphor becomes abundantly clear. A needle is easily understood as an extension of the body, and nowhere is this more evident than in the two-screen video installation A Needle Woman, 1999 where the needle moves in a completely theoretical direction. In one projection Kimsooja stands motionless within various urban environments; in the other she lies immobile on a rock. The two projections create a compelling dialogue of opposites typical of her work in general. In the bustling city streets of Tokyo, Shanghai or Delhi, her role is non-changing; she stands alone, straight as a needle. She sews herself into the fabric of society, disappearing periodically just as a needle would. In the accompanying projection she lies upon a colossal rock in natural surroundings. In contrast to the fast paced city scenes, the only changing elements are the drifting clouds against a clear blue sky, and subtle nuances of light. Clearly, Kimsooja is a metaphor for the needle—she connects two parts and in the end disappears. Her role, or the role of her body, is to interact with the fabric of society and to direct our focus; then she disappears, just as a needle does after it’s job is done.

  • In A Needle Woman the body is understood as a needle within the fabric of life. Kimsooja elaborates on this important aspect; ”The mobility of my body comes to represent the immobility of it, locating it in different geographies and socio-cultural contexts. Immobility can only be revealed by mobility, and vice versa. Constant interaction between the mobility of people on the street and the immobility of my body in-situ are activated during the course of the performance depending on the context of the society, the people, nature of the city and that of the streets…I pose ontological questions by juxtaposing my body and outer world in ‘relational condition’ to space/body and time/consciousness.” [4] This captures the essence of Kimsooja’s overall approach, which ultimately relates to the idea of the singularity of the individual as part of an endless multiplicity. Looking at the world through Kimsooja’s eyes, we find ourselves looking at the universe through the eye of a needle. As Kimsooja ‘sews into life’ she simultaneously unravels the thread that is the entire conceptual basis for her work. Imbedded in the visible and invisible seams of her work we see how the traces of migration, war and cultural conflict necessarily affect ones identity and perception of reality—conveyed by an artist who is fully aware of the power of connective aesthetics. Her vision of the totality of art and life is beautifully conveyed through the symbolic power of the needle to mend, heal and connect. She uses a needle to guide us towards awareness and understanding in an approach to art that is intricately spun around the literal and conceptual practice of sewing.

[1] Kimsooja consciously uses the term already-made instead of readymade.

[2] Suzi Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art, Thames and Hudson, NY, 1991. Page 130.

[3] From an interview with Olivia Sand that appeared in Asian Art Newspaper, 2002

[4] From an interview with Chiara Giovando, 2012 featured on Kimsooja's website. www.kimsooja.com

Mandala: Chant For Auschuwitz, 2000, Installation at Poznan Biennial in Hitler's former Office at Zamek, Poznan

Essential Empathy

Jacob, Mary Jane


  • Kimsooja gives herself to us. She does so through her art not simply because she is an artist, but because through art she can give to others. This exchange between artist and viewer has its rewards, offering access to the essence of human communication as well as essential connections to the larger reality of which we are a part. So following Kimsooja's path of communion among peoples and realms, empathy will be the focus of this essay.

  • When we look at Kimsooja's art and see her standing there, we experience her aliveness and partake of her vitality along with our own. Her art makes us feel our aliveness. When we see Kimsooja there, completely still, we also see beyond her and beyond ourselves. Along with her presence in the wind, with the sun and the moon, we sense something more. She endeavors not so much to represent so we can see, but to be one with the world through her work so we can recognize our being too.

  • In this way she participates in what cultures have always done. The names of those makers have not come down to us, so we praise past societies without individual recognition. But as she takes up her ancient charge we know her name or do we? To be her art, she consciously steps out of self, taking on a one-word name that "refuses gender identity, marital status, socio-political or cultural and geographical identity by not separating the family name and the first name.[1]"

  • Making art as one's way of being, or more accurately way of becoming, is to see art as a path. It can also be a reminder of our shared path, and in that way art is like religion and philosophy. But unlike these other fields of endeavor, art alone can be an experience that words on a page can never quite be. More than explaining a connection between the mundane and spiritual realms, between what is perceived by the senses and what is sensed by the mind, in art these can unite and be one. Making art with this aim of ultimate meaning is an act of hubris (punishable by the ancient Greeks), and a dicey claim in our world today. So this is a precarious start for an essay, though for the work of Kimsooja, a necessary one. Her ambition calls for no less.

  • Artists, like philosophers and theologians, are in the business of understanding the relation of the everyday to something greater: ideas, values, the ethereal. But it's not just a professional thing. It's what we do as humans and have done since the beginning of time. This is how we live and must. Each generation, each individual must find their meaning or live a life without it. Kimsooja's concerns are both with the here and now and beyond this place and time. Consciousness overtakes self-consciousness. How can we talk of this? "Spiritual" conjures notions too religious or new age-y for those in contemporary art, while the "unconscious" had a place earlier in the twentieth century, with the birth of psychology. The ambiguity of the ethereal, the other worldly, or unknown, means that it tends to be left out of discussion or to remain tacitly unspoken. "Universal" is a word banished by postmodernism. The claim to represent humanity is a totalizing concept that makes the use of this word suspicious; the complexity of social and cultural difference makes it taboo.

  • An understanding of Eastern philosophy, religions, and culture are ways to think about for Kimsooja's art; they clearly enter into the very nature of who she is. Some have expertly written of this, and these references remain central sources for knowing for her art, but there is more, not just because she is a person of our times who lives and works across cultures, but also because there has been a rich cross-pollination between Eastern and Western thought for centuries now. So, while Kimsooja's work is grounded in Asian philosophy[2], I have chosen to write about her work through the lens of the Western pragmatist philosophy of John Dewey, who was himself influenced by Taoist and Buddhist philosophy[3]. Turning to Dewey, we encounter the ideas of a humanist not embarrassed to venture into the wholeness of the enterprise that is life, because he, like Kimsooja, believed that a wide view is necessary and that art is the most meaningful way to achieve it.

  • As Dewey saw it, life compartmentalized into high and low, and values categorized as profane or spiritual, material or ideal, betrays the nature of things. Likewise, he felt that dividing occupations or interests into practice and insight, imagination from doing, significant purpose from work, and emotion from thought and doing, is to mistake human nature. But when they come together, are one, as in Kimsooja's work, we can experience "deep realizations of intrinsic meanings," " the sense of reality that is in them and behind them," as they tell "a common and enlarged story," and Dewey believed, the ideal can be embodied and realized[4]. Then distinctions of mind and body, soul and matter fade away.

  • To Dewey, this sense of continuity between the mundane world and something greater comes with experience, not just by living over time but by living life in a reflective, consciousness way[5]. For Kimsooja, her body is her medium and instrument conscious experience for others, not merely for expression or representation. And Dewey firmly believed, as Kimsooja demonstrates, that the senses, our own bodily capacity can be used directly to access the "spiritual, eternal and universal."[6] In Taoism, these realms are understood as one universal and ubiquitous vital energy. For Dewey we can know this through art.[7] The aliveness and vitality that art produces makes sense of life's experiences as it generates continuity between the earthly and eternal.

  • Thus, the experience of art (and for Dewey, art is an experience rather than an entity or object ) puts us in touch with the spiritual, non-physical world. But just as not all experience possesses insight or continuity, not all art rises to the level where it achieve a union of the material and the ideal. Yet when looking at Kimsooja's work, we understand Dewey when he says: "The depth of the responses stirred by works of art shows their continuity with the operations of this enduring experience" because such "works and the responses they evoke are continuous with the very processes of living." Her works affect what this philosopher called: "The mystic aspect of acute esthetic surrender, that renders it so akin as an experience to what religionists term ecstatic communion." [9]

  • Being consciously alive rises to the level of the aesthetic. It occurs, to Dewey, when we are fully and completely present in the experience of making and perceiving, but this does not only happen in the act of making art; it can happen in life.[10] For him, like Kimsooja, to live well, in an aesthetic or art way, is to be fully conscious, open, awake. As we are continually evolving in a state of becoming, we need to continually practice awareness. In Dewey's system of thought, in which each individual is responsible for themselves and for advancing society, practice involves putting one's values to work. His concept of the aware individual for his Pragmatist philosophy finds alignment with Buddhism's concept of buddha mind an awakened state of consciousness which respects both everyday action and the search to enlightenment as the same path. But whereas in Buddhism and Taoism this is achieved through meditation, Dewey advocated art. The work of art, in Dewey's view, as an object of practice can be a path to self-realization.

  • This path includes understanding others, and in experiencing art, we can experience others. On one level, in viewing art we can share the feelings of others, what we commonly call empathy. On another level, in art we can be with others, something we might describe as an experience of humanity. Dewey knew that empathy was the basis for any social enterprise. Art, for Dewey, had this great capacity for empathetic experience because, he believed, experiencing art is an act of re-creation:

  • Works of art are the means by which we enter, through imagination and the emotions they evoke, into other forms of relationship and participation than our own. We understand it in the degree in which we make it a part of our own attitudes, not just by collective information concerning the conditions under which it was produced. We accomplish this result when, to borrow a term from Bergson, we install ourselves in modes of apprehending nature that at first are strange to us. To some degree we become artists ourselves as we undertake this integration, and, by bringing it to pass, our own experience is reoriented. This insensible melting is far more efficacious than the change effected by reasoning, because it enters directly into attitude. [11]

  • How might this apply in the art of Kimsooja? A Homeless Woman - Cairo (2001) becomes an object of interest, even of compassion, on the part of passersby who pause to consider her manifestation of a human condition that till then had been almost invisible. In A Beggar Woman the artist presented herself to people in the streets of Delhi (2000), Mexico City (2000), Cairo (2001), and Lagos (2001). A different manifestation of this work occurred with Beggar Woman: Times Square (2005). Misinterpreted in the press as a gesture flying in the face if this city's truly needy, we might contemplate the questions, How do we draw attention to need? Can we experience others throughout a city, beyond just one city, holding in our hearts their hunger? Is acknowledgment of them acceptance without change? Who is in need? Who is present? Who offers what to whom?

  • Have you ever received a comment from a homeless person that stayed with you even though you gave nothing, while a thank you in return for money given on another occasion was not a memorable moment? Here the hands of Kimsooja's sitters are in a gesture simultaneously receiving and offering, being needy and charitable, troubled and wise. A practice in many religious traditions including Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Christianity, in which beneficence is manifested through both giving and receiving this act of engagement contains all things. [12]

  • Other empathetic works, beginning in 1995 with Sewing into Walking - Dedicated to the Victims of Gwangju, have taken the form of memorials. Clothes stood in for persons, spread out on a mountainside where tragedy had struck. It was a commemoration of as many at 2000 killed there as they rose up against the dictatorship of then-president Chun Doo-hwan. And it was a poultice for the earth. This incident, called 518 to signify its start date of May 18, found a parallel in 9/11 when later Kimsooja was moved to a enact a loving gesture of remembrance. In Epitaph (2002) she laid a single bedspread at Greenlawn cemetery in view of New York's skyline. Clothes, used as in Gwangju, were laid out on the floor of Hitler's former office in Poznan, Poland, to form Mandala: Chant for Auschwitz (2010), while cloth in all its colors and forms flow through four screens of Mumbai: A Laundry Field (2007-08), standing "for human presences and the questions that concern us all," [13] and creating a wider circle of life, not just of this place but many. On this occasion, as in other works, she also draws upon the ancient form of the mandala as a symbol of the universe and a vehicle of practice for focusing attention and bringing one in touch with a realm beyond the profane.

  • Carpets of clothes led to newly fashioned carpets with Planted Names (2002). Four woven works memorialize those who made the Middle Passage, packed in rows aboard ships, and then planted in rows the vast carpet of the former rice fields of the plantation site for which they were made [14]. In part inspired by the artist's experience the year before in Nigeria, this work was preceded by Bottari: Alfa Beach (2001) in which the sea sits atop the sky. This inversion is an empathetic response, she said, to "the saddest line I've ever seen in my life, thinking of the destiny of the slaves and their deprived freedom. Thus the flipped horizon was, for me, a disturbed horizon, a disoriented sense of gravity and of the slaves' psychological return I perceived in the curls of the waves reaching the same shore from which they had left." [15]

  • Kimsooja embraces the many associations of water: purification and cleansing, the depth of the womb and the vastness of the universe, its lunar cycles or the mind, and fluidity, as Taoism tells us, is the flow of energies and the inevitability of impermanence. In A Lighthouse Woman (2002), a companion to Planted Names, she created a witness to the waters' histories of pain through an oversized needle-like object surrounded by water. Its repeating, hour-long sequence of nine hues projected onto the lighthouse caused it to change as if breathing, saturating it and spilling into a pool the color. Viewers gave time to see this work, participated in being witnesses to time. And in experiencing A Lighthouse Woman they could experience empathy, not as an idea but, as Dewey said, through their individual senses they could actually experience "the spiritual, eternal and universal." Visited communally, there was communion.

  • The empathy of each of these works was made real through the use of historical and geographic reference and the artist's astute choice of tangible, material form, yet became the embodiment of others. In perceiving these works, as Dewey knew, we come to understand the wider story of humanity over time and to appreciate others' struggles. This happens across cultures, and even if we think we are more critical and aware of cultural differences than Dewey's generation, there's some truth as he says: "when the art of another culture enters into attitudes that determine our experience genuine continuity is effected. Our own experience does not thereby lose its individuality but it takes unto itself and weds elements that expand its significance"; then experience is one of "complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events," transforming into "participation and communication." [16]

  • In Kimsooja's work empathy of specific moments and situations gives way to a greater sense of oneness in humanity. This is the experience we have of Kimsooja's magnum opus, A Needle Woman. Begun in 1999, it is the embodiment of the fluidity of ourselves and our self into others, of time flowing into time, of place flowing into place, of oneness. She is the needle and yet the eye of the needle. She is the key that opens our vision, yet at the same moment the keyhole through which we pass. She shifts seamlessly, fluidly, between being solid and there, to empty, a shadow. Thus, in Needle Woman, we have two sides, too spectator and participant, as we looking at and moving into the scene, seeing others flowing along, being in the flow. Here our full participation is the transformation through the experience of art.

  • It has often been remarked that here the artist remains anonymous by not revealing her face. But it is more: she and all the persons in the frame are part of a larger, unframed whole: everything, everywhere. We understand this when this artist says, "I have an ambition as an artist: it is to consume myself to the limit where I will be extinguished. From that moment, I won't need to be an artist anymore, but just a self-sufficient being, or a nothingness that is free from desire." [17] Thus, Kimsooja aspires to a level beyond that of the experience of others and their story, and even beyond humanity as she seeks to approach the experience of a greater realm. To do this, art is a path not a goal, and a way to achieve full self-realization.

  • Taoism says the human mind before creation is pure emptiness, and that within this emptiness or void resides all potential. With awareness our mind can return to this state of emptiness, once again becoming part of it, connecting us to the universe and, during moments of insight, producing a sense of oneness with all things. This mental state is not a matter of representing reality; it is a state of being. This all-inclusive reality connects with our own mundane self because it is already ours or, better, it is already us. When Kimsooja speaks of "being consumed to the limit," she participates in that wholeness and is one with it. Art that evokes this multi-dimensional connection possesses an empathetic essentialism that goes beyond coming in touch with the emotions of others to achieve true identification, an understanding of being.

  • This level of empathy has been called by Gonzalo Obelleiro "imaginative empathy." It "is concerned with the essence of emotion, not the specifics of its manifestations," he writes, finding Dewey's philosophy of experience useful to ground a pedagogy imaginative empathy [18]. It is true that in addition to art's practical social roles of producing empathy, hence, creating an empathetic state of awareness, Dewey also felt that imagination through art played a social role [19]. But imagination in art and in common parlance has a sense of flights of fancy rather than of truth of experience, so here I prefer to recast this empathy found in the essence of emotion, as "essential empathy."

  • In A Needle Woman—Kitakysuhu (1999) the artist lies on an exposed rock of a mountain. Her stillness between earth and sky allows us to perceive the connected transitoriness of all nature, human as well as earthly and heavenly. Moving beyond self, she says: "Over time, I find that my body, with its duration of stillness—breathing in the rhythm of nature—becomes itself a part of nature as matter, neutral, a transcendent state. To me it is like offering and serving my body to nature. [20]" Likewise in Laundry woman—Yamuna River, India (2000), we experience, as she did, a similar oneness. Standing downriver from a cremation site, she faces the ephemeral joining the eternal. She des not represents or expresses this moment of passage but achieves it in a complete enlightened state of awakeness. And when this was achieved, she said, she "finally realized that it is the 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. [21]" Our life is fluid, always changing, as we float in the river of the universe. As with A Needle Woman, she is in the picture yet evaporates from it, opening up the space for us to enter. As viewers, she gives us a glimpse of an awakened state: initially what it looks like, then with time, if we can achieve a deeper state of consciousness and presence, the chance to fuse and become one with her, replacing the artist, participating ourselves. So her art, like potent, sacred objects of cultures throughout time immemorial are not representations but means to this state of essential empathy, not the picture of it.

  • One of the primary aims of perceptual awareness for Dewey is for us to become conscious of the consequences of our actions, on other peoples and humankind, and for the planet. Today we think "planetary" in regard to ecological and environmental stewardship, but Dewey was also thinking in less tangible ways. With an understanding our individual effect on the greater whole, Dewey modeled a responsive and elastic web of consciousness in co-existent, recalling the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness as envisioned as Indra's Net: all things are a part; each reflects the whole; each affects and is affected by every other part.. With a belief that art was useful in guiding personal development toward social good, Dewey seized upon art's exceptional ability to create feelings of empathy and, thus, deeper understanding of the human condition and existential condition. For this he depended on art, for he knew it was essential to imagine a better future.

  • In other works, such as A Wind Woman (2003), Kimsooja becomes nature. In Earth—Water—Fire—Air (2010) she works at the site of a nuclear plant in Korea. For A Mirror Woman: The Sun & the Moon (2008), filmed on a beach in Goa, India, she created the moment of eclipse, when the sun and moon become one. The artist, it could be said, is gone in these works, but rather she is fully present with everything. Doris von Drathen has so aptly written of this work when she says the space the artist occupies is "the dividing wall of the mirror that generates consciousness," from which "she can view the impossible, open her range of vision into the cosmos, intensify her own sense of consciousness towards transcendence. At this moment of absolute presence, an ethical dimension reveals itself," whish is at once "the relinquishment of an identity that is defined by belonging" and "an awareness that concentrates utterly and absolutely on the Self." And here, too, we participate as: "The viewer merges into the incessant breathing of the sea, as it gives forth its waves, allowing them to rise and subside in eternal circuit...the viewer becomes susceptible to the circuit of the celestial bodies in the selfsame endlessness of their return [22]. Our full existence demands this connection to something larger.

  • Artists can be insightful and make insightful art. If we are perceptive, art can give glimpses of insight. But rarely is art insight. Yet this happens when Kimsooja embodies oneness or, Dewey's terms, continuity, giving herself to us and, when we experience it as we give ourselves to her art and fully participate in it. Participation. It's a word Dewey chose [23], but which has taken on a new meaning in art today as we have lost the capability to participate with art objects, and talk about engaging viewers in modes of participation such as collaborative authorship or other forms of making. Spectatorship connotes detachment, looking at the surface of things or actions. In American and European contemporary life the spectacle society is one of superficial and mediated relationships [24]. The spectator does not feel empathy, but the participant does. And only as a participant can we partake on yet another level of the essential empathy that Kimsooja experiences and which become her art.

  • To be a participant in Kimsooja's art does not require sitting in Times Square or being with the artist on a beach in India. It can happen in front of a video in a gallery. To an exceptional degree her art revives the experience of art Dewey knew—where being with art makes all the difference. If we think about the viewer as involved in empathetic relation to the artist's experience, to others' experiences, and to the essence of empathy, then as participants we are caring, hence engaged. Caring, the engaged audience functions like the artist, invested in the moment [25]. This parallel of artist-to-audience is so fundamental that as we experience art we "become artists ourselves." [26] Kimsooja gives us the possibility to do this with her art. If we fully participate, the experience is ours.

[1] http://www.kimsooja.com/action1.html

[2] See Interview with Kimsooja in Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, Eds. Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacob (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 212-219.

[3] In dealing with a wider realm, Dewey advocated a philosophy that "accepts life and experience in all its uncertainty, mystery, doubt, and half-knowledge and turns that experience upon itself to deepen and intensify its own qualities—to imagination and art." John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934; New York: Penguin, 2005), 35.

For a discussion of Dewey's personal connections to Eastern philosophy, see the author's essay "Like-Minded: Jane Addams, John Dewey, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy," in Chicago Makes Modern: How Creative Minds Changed Society, Eds. Mary Jane Jacob and Jacquelynn Baas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 23-25.

[4] Ibid., 21, 28

[5] Dewey wrote: "The existence of art is the concrete proof…that man uses the materials and energies of nature with intent to expand his own life….Art is the living and concrete proof that man is capable of restoring consciously, and thus on the plane of meaning, the union of sense, need, impulse and action characteristic of the live creature. The intervention of consciousness adds regulation, power of selection, and redisposition. Thus it varies the arts in ways without end. But its intervention also leads in time to the idea of art as a conscious idea—the greatest intellectual achievement in the history of humanity." Ibid., 26.

[6] Ibid., 32.

[7] Dewey wrote: "The conception of man as the being that uses art became at once the ground of the distinction of man from the rest of nature and of the bond that ties him to nature…art itself is the best proof of the existence of a realized and therefore realizable, union of material and ideal...There is no limit to the capacity of immediate sensuous experience to absorb into itself meanings and values that in and of themselves—that is in the abstract—would be designated 'ideal' and 'spiritual.'" Ibid., 26, 29, 28.

[8] Ibid., 344.

[9] Ibid., 28-29

[10] We might think here of when someone remarks they are "living the project," being so fully engaged. We see it in the excitement or focus someone give sot what they are doing, their skillful command but with the presence of the moment that is each time lived anew. This Dewey called esthetic. By way of example, he wrote: "An angler may eat his catch without thereby losing the esthetic satisfaction he experienced in casting and playing. It is the degree of living in the experience of making and of perceiving that makes the difference between what is fine or esthetic in art and what is not. Whether the thing made is out to use…is, intrinsically, speaking, a matter of indifference….Whenever conditions are such as to prevent the act of production from being an experience in which the whole creature is alive and in which he possesses his living through enjoyment, the product will lack something of being esthetic. No matter how useful it is for special and limited ends, it will not be useful in the ultimate degree—that of contributing directly and liberally to an expanding and enriched life." Ibid., 27.

[11] Dewey, Ibid., 347 - 348. This proceeds from Dewey's premise that: "Without an act of recreation the object is not perceived as a work of art." Ibid., 56

[12] See also http://www.dharmasculpture.com/buddha-varada-mudra-sanskrit-boon-granting-charity-hand-gesture.html

[13] Rosa Martinez, "A Disappearing Woman," in Kimsooja: To Breathe (Seoul: Kukje Gallery, 2012), 22.

[14] Planted Names was made for and exhibited at Drayton Hall, Charleston, South Carolina, commissioned by the author for the Spoleto Festival USA in 2002. Interestingly one of the descendents of this plantation family, Bill Drayton is the founder of the progressive social entrepreneurship organization Ashoka that uses empathy-based ethics as a keystone to working together to make change.

[15] Martinez, 21.

[16] Dewey, 349, 22-23

[17] Ingrid Commandeur, "Kimsooja: Black Holes, Meditative Vanishings and Nature as a Mirror of the Universe," in Kimsooja: To Breathe, 9.

[18] See Gonzalo Obelleiro, “Imaginative Empathy in Daisaku Ikeda’s Philosophy of Soka Education,” conference paper for Soka Education: Leadership for Sustainable Development, Soka University of America, February 11-12, 2006, 39-51. www.sokaeducation.org/images/4/48/Imaginative_Empathy-Obelleiro.pdf

Obelleiro argued that empathy, in line with Buddhist tradition, is not the mere act of re-experiencing one’s own sufferings, but when “[w]e feel empathy when we partake on the essence of the emotions that person is experiencing.” To the author, this is supported by Dewey’s philosophy of experience because it “shares with Buddhism the basic epistemological premise of the oneness of self and environment and oneness of mind and body,” and because “in its clear humanistic approach, it privileges human interactions and regards ethics as not as fixated in a particular framework of rules and maxims, but as the art of creative, inner dialogue between primary experience and critical reflection.” To Obelleiro, “Dewey makes it clear that concepts like imaginative empathy are not simply theoretical concepts but are modes of praxis or manifestations of philosophy as art, which can only be learned in experience, particularly in interaction with other human beings.” So he concludes: “it is only through the creative integration of the two, direct experience and cultivation of mind and spirit, that imaginative empathy can be attained. The kind of artistic skill required for this integration can only be learned from another human being, for it is the quintessential human quality. Some call it wisdom.”

[19] Dewey wrote: “The first stirrings of dissatisfaction and the first intimations of a better future are always found in works of art.” Ibid., 360.

[20] Kimsooja, Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, 217.

[21] Ibid., 217.

[22] Doris von Drathen, "Standing at the Zero Point," in A Mirror Woman: The Sun & The Moon (Tokyo, Shiseido Gallery, 2008).

[23] As stated previously, Dewey said, experience “when carried to the full, is a transformation of interaction into participation and communication”; and also: “Works of art are means by which we enter, through imagination and the emotions they evoke, into other forms of relationship and participation than our own.”

[24] Here, of course, I am referring to Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books, 1994, originally published in French 1967).

[25] Robert M. Pirsig, in his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, distinguishes between being involved and being a spectator. Care, for Pirsig, is what makes one’s work or actions an art. See Robert M. Pirsig Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York: Harper and Collins, 1974), 34-35.

[26] Dewey, Art As Experience, 348

To Breathe: Bottari, 2013, mixed media installation, partial installation view of the Korean Pavilion, The 55th Biennale di Venezia, photograph by Jaeho Chong

A Place to Be - A Conversation with Kimsooja

Gautherot, Franck


  • FG: In 2005 Seungduk Kim, your present commissioner for the Pavilion, invited you to participate in a Korean group show she curated at the Vienna Kunsthalle. You didn't agree to take part in such an exhibition. What led you to accept her invitation for Venice? How do you feel about this national identity when you have been a 'self-exiled' artist for so long?

  • KSJ: I think 'national exhibition' refers to so many different categories and connotations. For an artist who considers herself a 'self-exile' and a cosmopolitan, the notion of a 'nation', or 'national' is not that simple. The particular concept of the nation or national has to be defined before one can address its criteria. The historical, political, economic and cultural specificities of a society and a nation have a lot to do with an artist in terms of her/his personal and collective identity. These factors define how an artist has built up her/his own perceptions of the world and artistic criteria within the international art scene. A nation is like ones' parents by whom you were raised and who have influenced your life with given conditions and perceptions. When it comes to a collective identity, an artist who pursues his or her own unique and individual vocabularies must have their own point of view as to what category they fit into within a specific group show, or an exhibition as a national representative.
    Over the years I had to decline a number of national group shows including biennales that weren't in line with my personal artistic practice and my beliefs. For example, I declined to participate in a national group exhibition which was an exchange between Korea and China in Beijing a couple of years ago. That decision was a reaction against the constant violence inflicted on an artist Ai Wei Wei by his government. I have no personal relationship with Ai Wei Wei, but I don't believe that a government can deprive an artist of their freedom of expression and perform violent actions towards them regardless of who they are. The decision I made not to participate in this exhibition had nothing to do with the curator, organizer or invited artists and their artistic values but was solely a humanitarian and ethical action; in the attitude of taking a position as an outsider.
    My reaction to the Korean Exhibition at the Kunsthalle Vienna was also an action to declare my position as an outsider. That was still a time when I was questioning "Koreanness". As far as I know, the show examined and juxtaposed two opposite poles in Korean art: the Modern Art group and the Minjung Art group. These two groups were usually not curated together, because they had a certain kind of political conflict between each other and also due to their respective interests in Korean society. As an artist who had tried to keep a distance from any group activities or any hierarchical structures in Korean society, I didn't want to return to that particular political context in a national exhibition such as this, as it was something that I had consciously avoided for much of my career. I have worked hard to retain my autonomy and independence as an artist, although it has not been an easy path for me over the years. Besides which, I had already been introduced to the audiences in Kunsthalle Vienna during a solo show just a few years before and an international group show in Vienna Seccession in the past. It is more to do with my own personal history and position rather than with the show itself. When I saw the catalogue, I thought the show looked quite interesting as a spectator.
    I guess being invited to represent my own country's national pavilion is the most exceptional recognition I can achieve as an artist who considers herself in self-exile. Without a doubt, it is an honor and it is a challenging question for me to work on this particular biennale, so I was willing to develop the best possible project for the Korean Pavilion.

  • FG: Seungduk Kim expressed, from the beginning, her wish to focus on the pavilion as an architecturally strong component that the artist will have to play with. How did you take her invitation to mainly connect to this given architectural situation?

  • KSJ: I understand how much the nature of the particular architectural elements of the Korean Pavilion has raised questions for the commissioners and invited artists in the past, and we are no exception. However, I value Seungduk Kim's approach to the pavilion, as it has never been examined from a solely architectural perspective. This certainly coincided with my immaterial way of approaching the site specific project and I tried to preserve the original structure of the pavilion while challenging its specific qualities and problems.
    Leaving the whole space empty without installing any objects in it, the installation expands the void to the maximum by taking the architecture of the Korean Pavilion itself as a Bottari (Korean word for bundle). I tried to transform the entire pavilion into 'A Bottari of Light and Sound, Darkness and Soundlessness' that inhales and exhales; as if the architecture itself were my body. I have chosen not to install any objects in the space so that the audience's body may be embraced by the sound of my breathing. The Weaving Factory (2004-2013) sound performance fills the pavilion and proposes a unified experience, together with the yang energy which enters as sunlight, and extending all the way to the yin energy of the black hole in the anechoic chamber.
    The skin of the glass windows is wrapped with the diffraction grating film fabric that defuses the sunlight into a rainbow color spectrum. What we see is the unfolded sunlight and the shadows of nature that shower into the pavilion and are translated into a color spectrum. This light and shadow reflects onto the white walls and simultaneously bounces endlessly back and forth from the mirrored skin of the ceiling and the floor; folding and unfolding into infinity. The darkness in light and the light in darkness is stretched to an extreme into waves of light and sound. The audience's body resides within mine as a whole, wrapping and unwrapping, communicating with each other. The light waves and the sound waves together with my humming and the inhaling and exhaling of my own breath, question the moment of life and death while the mirrors bounce light off their surfaces breathing in and out.
    It was significant that Hurricane Sandy happened in New York right at the moment when we were discussing this project. The experience of living without power, electricity, heat and conveniences for one week with the whole community, was a humbling and contemplative moment. At the same time, this special moment gave me an insight into the Korean pavilion project by encouraging me to construct an anechoic chamber to explore a state of complete darkness and soundlessness. In this way, the visual knowledge of infinite reflection in the main space—which is constructed from purely natural light, finds a counterpoint in the space of the 'unknown' or 'unseen' in the anechoic chamber.

  • FG: In general how do you picture your contribution to any exhibition situation: Is it the space that calls first? The people? The context? The location and its history?

  • KSJ: I am aware of all the factors and consider them all simultaneously. The artist's job is done by an omnipresent gaze and mind that looks at both the visible and the invisible.

  • FG: You have been invited many times to exhibit at the Venice Biennale. So the biennale is no longer an issue for you, but the Korean Pavilion is a new challenge. How do you locate yourself within its specific history? You said you have seen many of the shows there over the years.

  • KSJ: I have been invited to participate in the main Venice Biennale exhibition twice. The first time for Harald Szeemann's d'APERTutto (1999), and the second time for Rosa Martinez's exhibition Always a little further (2005), both were shown in the Arsenale. I have also participated in other official exhibitions at the biennale such as the Tiger's Tail (1995) curated by Soyeon Ahn and organized by The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea, in the Palazzo Vendramin. Nam June Paik had been at the German pavilion in 1993; this was the following biennale for which he contributed to present large scale Korean Contemporary Art in Venice. It was the first time I had presented my installation with bottaris in Venice. I also participated in Markers (2001) curated by Ryszard Waskow on Garibaldi Street; and ArtTempo (2007) at the Palazzo Fortuni organized by Axel Vervorrdt, and curated by Jean-Hubert Martin and Matijs Visser. This exhibition became an inspiration for many curators to create a historical return of the Gutai group through exhibitions such as the show Daniel Birnbaum invited Matijs Visser to curate at the following Venice biennale. They are now introduced everywhere around the world.
    Most of the biennale projects were marvelous experiences for me, especially when my work was in a context that opens a new dimensionality, was re-contextualized, or when I could create a meaningful new piece that opens up new possibilities. Many of the Biennales I participated in served these kinds of opportunities, and each time I have also been able to see the Korean Pavilion and its projects and other pavilions. This certainly helped me to understand what was going on in the world at that time. It also helped me to form an approach to the Korean Pavilion and an understanding of what position the Korean pavilion has on the contemporary art map, along with its relationship with other pavilions. Therefore, this provided me with some insight as to how to approach the Korean pavilion project and the practicality of dealing with specific local conditions. Most of the biennales I have participated in have given me opportunities to create new commissioned works with challenging themes and audiences. However, I am always interested in challenging new projects that I am inspired by—whether it is a biennale that gets more attention, or a small, remote local project—as long as there exists the possibility to realize work and develop from it.
    This project was inspired not only by Seungduk Kim's approach to the architecture, which assured me the chance to pursue the site-specificity, but also by contemplating Massimiliano Gioni 's title Encyclopidia di Palazzo. For me, this title immediately connects with my thoughts on the notion of bottari and Gioni's reference reiterated a certain common knowledge which is in line with the evolution of my practice. National Pavilions don't always correspond directly to the biennale's main theme, but rather present their artists' own theme independently. However, even if I am not invited to participate in certain projects, I always take curatorial positions as my question and contemplate how I would answer. So I have a number of unrealized projects that are related to projects I was not invited to, but which I considered from my artistic position. Without exception, each time I come to the biennale as a visitor or as an exhibitor, I have examined the Korean Pavilion, asking myself "How could I answer if I were using this space or this theme?" You know, it has already been almost twenty years since I saw the opening of the Korean Pavilion.

  • FG: You have been quite familiar with biennales around the world. What stays with you after all these participations? In your work? What are your ideas about biennales and why did you kindly agree to be part of this one?

  • KSJ: I must say that many of my projects were developed not only by my own thoughts, but also by interesting themes and questions that have been posed by each of the national or international curators with whom I have worked. Biennales have been one of the exhibition frames that has enabled me to realize a number of my important new projects, as they present a supportive model for new work—rather than showing existing works—either by posing inspiring questions or offering specific spaces and challenging ideas to contemplate. I value all these opportunities for developing new projects and expanding or contextualizing my ideas and practices in new ways. I am always interested in trying to find the best answer I can deliver through my perspective in response to the current aesthetic, philosophical, psychological or political questions posed by curators through their exhibitions, and also in response to the work of writers. Although biennales are often tough, most biennales I have participated in have examined broad and specific current issues of this era, and obviously they fulfill an important role as agents for re-contextualizing contemporary art history. The fabric of my practice and my approach in general has threads that relate directly and indirectly to many current issues in life and art. In fact, any theme can be discussed with my approach towards the 'totality in life and art'.
    For three consecutive biennales, I turned down kind invitations to participate. My decision to decline the invitations had nothing to do with the curatorship, or any other matter, it was purely because I couldn't accept the title of the biennale, which I felt was no longer relevant in this era. As I defined my position, I also couldn't participate in subsequent editions, even if a good friend of mine was inviting me and the show was nothing to do with the problem I found in that biennale's title. I don't serve the biennale itself but instead I participate as a communicator for those whose question is valuable—to find my own answer and experiment with it. I must say, most biennales served my practice so well by opening up my artistic paths and giving me opportunities that I hadn't had before.
    I am skeptical about the current boom of biennales around the world and their political power structures. Sometimes it seems more like manufacturing an industry in order to promote a city as an international destination through a focus on the tourism and economic benefits of staging a biennale. I don't blame cities for this, but I do think sometimes there is a lack of awareness and reflection on the origin of the art biennale model as a structure to examine the cutting edge of contemporary art. Maybe that is also a current symptom that we face in this era that reveals the reality of the commercially driven art world.

  • FG: Concerning your project, I am very impressed by your precise way of following the 'brief' to propose, within this framework, a very original environmental creation filling the entire space. How did you come to this solution?

  • KSJ: My practice has been increasingly dematerializing since the early days until now. My ultimate goal as an artist is to be liberated from materiality, including my body. To become self-sufficient and freed from desire—for me—is the highest achievement in my art. I wish to be liberated from doing art or making art by extinguishing my artistic energy to the limit. This cannot be achieved by simply stopping the act of making art—paradoxically, it can only be achieved by doing art, living fully, in the most profound and poignant way.
    Since I created To Breathe: A Mirror Woman (2006) at the Crystal Palace in Madrid (curated by Oliva Maria Rubio and commissioned by the Reina Sofia Museum), I reached the point where I could contextualize three decades of my sewing practice process in the most immaterial and conceptual manner. The notion of sewing and that of wrapping and unwrapping in this context, defines the identity of a bottari in the most open and immaterial manner. By emptying the whole space and filling the void only with my breathing, I can address the whole architectural structure as a bottari of light and sound.
    The experience of the Crystal Palace installation helped me to envisage the transformation of the Korean Pavilion into a bottari of light and sound. What differentiates this installation from the Cyrstal Palace installation is the addition of the added element of 'parallel mirror surfaces'. That is; the installation of mirrors on the ceiling as well as the floor, which expands the visual void into infinity. This addition opens up the entire space into an infinite rainbow spectrum—a 'breathing pavilion'. The complete darkness of the anechoic chamber is another important component that I have never examined in conjunction with the parameters of light and sound.
    I hope that all of these elements of immateriality will together create a sensational physical and audio-visual experience for the audiences.

  • FG: Seungduk Kim in her text points out something rather new in the comment and analysis of your work: the centripetal nature and forces at work in the pavilion. Are you aware of this idea?

  • KSJ: I think the word 'centripetal' serves very well to define the formal and mental structure of my perspective in time and space. Since the beginning of my awareness and art practice, I've been investigating the origins of the cruciform structure in analyzing tableaux, daily objects, physical, psychological human activities and body, and the natural phenomena in its relationship to the cosmic world. During the whole course of my experimentation since the late 1970s, I've been digging into the core structure, even before sewing and wrapping or performing. My piercing gaze and focus naturally transmits into a spiral force. This force has also been embodied in the 'standing still' performance in A Needle Woman (1999-2009) where the stillness of my body functions as an axis of time and space. Standing still can represent the inner turmoil of chaos, speed, the scream and also rebirth.

  • FG: You compose the pavilion as a succession of ambient artworks: the main space hosts the diffractions of light in endless reflecting effects through the mirrored floor and ceiling; the semi-circular space at the front of the building is reshaped into an infinite cylindrical room. There is no composition, as you created the conditions with the materials (films, mirrors). You submit to randomness (sunny or cloudy days) and the intensity of effects. It is not the viewer who completes the painting, but the weather in its uncertainty. How did you open up your formal strategy to include such unpredictable and variable elements?

To Breathe: Bottari, 2013, mixed media installation, partial installation view of the Korean Pavilion, The 55th Biennale di Venezia, photograph by Jaeho Chong

Centripetal Acceleration

Kim, Seungduk


  • "The proper place of the inner life is defined solely by the failure to establish any satisfactory relationship with external reality." - Jean Starobinski, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction, 1957

  • What has not yet occurred cannot be described, of course... even though we have all the information imaginable on materials, the construction plans, and the display. We experimented with every aspect separately in a highly visual manner: checking samples of aluminium mirror panel for the floor and ceiling; sticking portions of diffraction grating film on the windows of the pavilion on a cold November day; testing the sound-absorbing foam for the anechoic dark room; spending hours on Chinese websites to find ideas for the "by-products": bags, socks, USB keys; going to Dongdaemum night market in Seoul to look for bojagi fabric. In fact if we had already done similar things for previous shows, this time was rather special since all the elements were mass-produced and the entire display is handled by a local construction team. Nothing directly implies an artwork, but there is a huge volume of material for an intangible installation.

  • Paradoxes are common in art, but in Kimsooja's case, it comes close to the wire. Which is exactly what makes it exciting, and challenging. Nothing can be gauged in advance, it has to be completed to be delivered and experienced properly. No model, no CGI can offer the final vision... For the artist, it is a method and a life-long involvement, but for the curator there is a certain amount of suspended action. Slowly we will perceive the strengths and effects of the materials, patiently we will figure out the reflections on the ceiling and on the floor, gradually we will begin to fathom the sounds absorbed by layers of thick and heavy rockwool, plasterboard, rubber coatings and sharp foam pyramids. Virtuality will be at play all through the weeks of April and May until the last touch is added by the sound installation. The voice of the artist will imbue the whole environment with organic bodily breathing.

  • In order to work within Sukchul Kim's architecture for the Pavilion with no structural modifications, additions or alterations [1], Kimsooja decided that the metal skeleton of the pavilion would receive several skins to shape it into a consistent body: diffraction grating films will cover the glass windows (walls and roof); aluminium mirror panels will be stuck on the floor and fixed to the ceiling; the artist's voice will wrap the main space; an anechoic chamber will occupy the brick pavilion on the South side. The volume of the space will thus be opened out; the skins provide the mutation of the initial transparent cage-like space into a translucent web of light diffracted into rainbow colours, which speed up through an infinity of reflections. Humming and breathing will fill the space with kaleidoscopic volume. A dark anechoic chamber will bury the coloured experience deep inside the visitor's body. Kimsooja's project for the Biennale, To Breathe: Bottari, is original and perfectly fitting within her body of work.


  • Bringing nurturing air into our lungs, exhaling impoverished air, in a constant balanced movement. Our body is run by capturing the fuel for life. Bringing it in and sending it out. It takes the best and rejects the weakened part of the gas.

Diffracting / Reflecting

  • Light will be driven around from surface to surface and it will already be multiple in its diffracted state. Will it be rainbow-like and packed with art historical reminiscences? An infinity mirror à-la-Kusama? A kaleidoscope on an adult scale? Architecture as an engine to provide a kind of light therapy? Viewers are included by definition. If no one is there, then there is nothing! The traditional Korean use of bright colours, plain colours, primary colours is at work everywhere in everyday life, in the past and still now. Red, yellow, blue, white and black, these five colours – or Obangsaek – were considered to be closely related to the five cardinal directions. In Korean, Obang means "five directions" and saek means "colour". Obang consists of north, south, east, west, and the centre of these cardinal points. Each direction has its own colour. North is associated with the colour black. Black stands for winter, water, kidneys, a salty taste, sorrow and knowledge. The colour for south is red. Red means summer, fire, the heart, bitterness, pleasure and propriety. East was assigned the colour blue. Blue represents spring, trees, the liver, sourness, delight and benevolence. West was associated with the colour white. White signifies fall, gold, lungs, pungency, anger and righteousness. Lastly, the centre was attributed the colour yellow. Yellow denotes the spleen, soil, sweetness, greed and wisdom. Beyond such symbolism, these colours (found in fabrics for bedcovers and cushions among other uses) equally strongly address those whose background has been bathed in the utopia of the De Stijl patterns: primary colours in geometric patterns and order. The ghosts of Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg are alive in Korea. Naturally Kimsooja has dealt, and keeps dealing, with these traditional and modernist issues of colour. It helps when tradition, which is often a burden of authoritarian limitations, is aligned with avant-garde references.


  • In Kimsooja's work, Bottari reads as seminal, motherly, warm, storytelling, formalist, matrix-like, basic, vintage & kitsch, cheap & precious, flexible, endless. Bottari is the result of rolling up pieces of fabric in bundles. A package, a wrapped object. Though they may consist of several pieces of fabric rolled up together in a tautological bag. In the 1990s, Deductive Objects were shown in different locations and particularly in New York at PS1 during a residency programme in 1992-1993. Some works bear the diffused influence of the Paris time while others found their way out and captured the cultural and artistic specificity of the New World. There is one piece (see pp. 117, 132) that can be seen as a turning point for her work – away from the sculptural objects or bidimensional canvas-like pieces, towards site specific environments: it took up an entire wall for a discreet and precise installation of small torn pieces of multicoloured fabric inserted in tiny holes between the bricks of the wall. This piece reminds me of a sacred place. There are traditions in different religions – jewish or buddhist– to use written words as support for prayers or meditation: placing slips of paper containing written prayers in the crevices of the Wall in Jerusalem is much publicised or hanging Lokta paper prayer flag garlands on trees in Tibet. In this instance, slips of fabric replaced the paper, and colours instead of written prayers. As such, the piece deals with memory's narratives and secrets.

Transparency and Obstruction

  • Kimsooja's work could also perhaps be qualified as acts of unveiling and disclosing: slips of papers are left behind, a corpus of secrets is wrapped in bundles, she is seen from the back in the video works. Kimsooja does not willingly participate in the transparency of the present world, where everything is supposed to be accessible, revealed, only to be forgotten a moment later. She is keeping layers of narratives deep within the knotted fabric. If she does not show her face in the videos, it means that we will never see the way she looks at the crowds of human beings in the noisy streets of the cities of the world. She stands as an obstacle in the flow, like in Etienne-Jules Marey's poetic science experiences – such as the mechanics of fluids visualised by using a square object (obstacle). Does Kimsooja mean to study how much an obstacle – here a still and quiet standing woman – may slow down the pace of humanity on the move? What will such a woman in grey outfits cause to the movement of a crowd? Often she stays invisible and does not produce any slow down. Swiss professor of French Literature and Historian of Ideas, Jean Starobinski, analysed the constant unbalanced position in the case of Jean-Jacques Rousseau between his sincere desire for "transparency" and his frustration that created "obstruction" and led him to passive resignation.

  • Contradiction in form usually creates unsolved situations. In Kimsooja's works, paradox is an engine, a tool for building shelters and places for relief. Neither an "art aid", nor a comfort spot for exhausted art travellers, her places are energy batteries. Transparency is not invisibility. But rather, turning transparent is the ultimate dream of the voyeur: nothing is kept secret, everything is visible, accessible to desire. Architecture in modern times has fought for this since glass could be mass produced in large sizes and reinforced to resist [2]. The combination of clarity (glass) and blurring via a colourgenerating device is one step further than stained-glass in churches, where light comes through coloured glass windows and projects onto the stone paving in a complex palette of colour tones [3].

  • For the 2013 Korean Pavilion, with a formal strategy of non-doing, Kimsooja will allow the random good fortune of the changing lights to shape and reshape the whole building. The composition will not be controlled, leaving chance and mischance to create the coloured ambiance. Mirrors on the floor and ceiling will multiply to infinity the reflected coloured lights contained inside the pavilion showering the visitors with jets of diffracted violet, blue, green, yellow, orange and red pure light colours.

Centripetal Acceleration

  • The proposed environment will function as a centripetal engine, an unplugged energy plant absorbing energies of any kind like the ever-changing daylight and the empathy left behind by the viewer. Every single component and effect will be sucked up by the centre, by the nucleus. The Korean Pavilion will be turned into a large scale experiential generator.

  • The additional room could be described either as the total opposite or as the end result of chromatic light experiences. This anechoic chamber is a darkened space designed to completely absorb the reflections of sound waves and be insulated from exterior sources of noise. It is designed to accommodate just a few people at a time who are prepared to lose their sense of auditory stability and dwell in their own heartbeat or the turmoil of their blood circulation. To complete the Korean Pavilion visit as if attracted and absorbed into a black hole.

  • Somehow this could be envisaged as a summary of a number of Kimsooja's previous works in which the elements of the composition have been captured, absorbed, wrapped. We have decided to take the visitors to a region of space from which nothing can escape, neither light, nor sound. A perfect hijacking. For the greater good.

[1] The framework and its limitation to the architecture isn't a curator's caprice to challenge the artist, but rather a rooted project deeply attached to the specificity – in style and in meaning – of this particular and significant edifice: the Korean Pavilion looks like a temporary World Expotype national pavilion. For this reason, the visitor's journey needed to be cast as an immersive art experience. Since La Biennale di Venezia is a gigantic theme park with contemporary art as the core, it was absolutely obvious to stay within that very format. There was no point in mimicking museums or art centres but instead it seemed important to follow the World Expo style as a natural place and moment for the participation of avant-garde artistic movements and individuals. Osaka Expo 1970 was the last edition to be really in tune with such a practical utopia.

[2] Different to the Crystal Palace, erected for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, the Glass Pavilion by Bruno Taut in Cologne in 1914 and La Maison de verre (1927-1931) by Pierre Chareau in Paris, which used glass bricks as a light provider more than as a source of transparency.

[3] In Theo van Doesburg's Stained-Glass Composition II (1917) and Stained-Glass Composition V (1917-1918) designed for the Villa Allegonda, the projection of diffracted light is already planned at the design stage, having organised the nonobjective distribution of rainbow-coloured units (primary and complementary colours) in the vertical format. Daniel Buren's Passages Under a Colored Sky in 2007 in Anyang in Korea operates in a similar way: using the pergola structure with coloured glass casting coloured shadows on the ground.

A Homeless Woman- Delhi, 2000, 6:33 video loop, Silent.

Kimsooja and the Art of Place

Morgan, David


  • Place is important in the work of Kimsooja. The Bottari Truck in Exile (1999) was a work on the road, a truck heaped with bundles of clothing and bedcovers wrapped in brilliant silk fabric, travelling from one place to the next. In video work from 1999 to 2001, she traveled to many places around the world to produce pieces such as A Needle Woman (1999-2001) and A Laundry Woman (2000). More recently, she has devoted much effort to site-specific work that transforms an existing place such as the Crystal Palace in Madrid (2005) or the Teatro la Fenice in Venice (2006) through the graceful calibrations of light and color. In many ways, Kimsooja’s art may be described as a searching meditation on the nature of place—asking a number of questions such as what a place is, how it is defined, how long it lasts, who makes it, what the relation of place is to body, and how places are experienced. A Homeless Woman (2001) and A Beggar Woman (2001), videos that document her emplacement within teeming urban crowds as an anonymous female figure dressed in gray, whose silent, immovable presence is literally out of place, disrupting the traffic of befuddled pedestrians, if only for a moment. Some respond by pausing to inspect her, others are bemused by the camera that witnesses their presence. Still others fail to notice her at all, for whom she is nothing but the blurred place through which they hurry on their way to work.

  • The signals of critique, whether political or economic or geared to considerations of ethnicity or gender, are not hard to see. One could readily give Kimsooja’s art of place a reading that stresses an incisive reflection on the politics of identity, the social construction of gender and race, the economics of power and agency. Clearly, the crafting of place relies fundamentally on the coordinates of authority, social relations, and hierarchies keyed to ethnicity, race, and gender. And one need not look far in her discussions of her own work to find the artist’s corroboration of a political reading. She dedicated Bottari Truck in Exile, exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1999, to refugees of the current war in Kosovo. Exile is an apt theme in regard to place because it means the loss of one’s native setting or milieu, one’s homeland. Kimsooja brought the truck loaded with bottari (Korean for “bundle”) from Korea to Venice for the Biennale. The work was not simply the truck, but the process of getting it from one place to another. She traversed countless national and international boundaries to transport bundles of laundry, the baggage in which exiles haul the traces of their existence. One thinks of transnationalism and the global flows of labor; of forced migrations; of international traffic in contraband; or of worldwide circuitry of capital pulsing through networks of markets.

  • The politics of power and powerlessness, of loss and theft are there, yet one senses that this framework does not exhaust what the work has to offer, where it wants to go. Kimsooja has spoken of the “dimension of pure humanity” as the special interest that drives her work[1]. She wants to ponder what she calls “the human condition and its reality” rather than indict political and economic systems. So she laments the refugees of the war in Kosovo rather than scrutinizing the conditions of the war’s existence. As an artist, human suffering concerns her in the first place, before the failure of social institutions and political will. An artist does not have to choose between the two, of course, but rather than critique and jeremiad, Kimsooja explores the intimate connection of art and moral sensibilities. She is a passionate observer of human beings. All of the work mentioned so far is evidence of an eye bent on the daily routines of human life, using them to register a wistful but wistfully beautiful sense of “the human condition and its reality.”

  • One might say that the common and principal function of religion, morality, and traditional philosophy is to posit a human condition as a way of explaining suffering and proposing a solution to it, or at least a way of enduring it. Kimsooja does not want her art to engage viewers as a religion or morality or philosophy. But it is clear that she wants her work to elicit profound aesthetic reflection. Everything she works with is something that bears the traces of human touch—the things women gather and clean, launder and stretch for the wind to dry. The clothing and bedding that touch us everyday, like a second skin. The things we bundle and carry from place to place, the things we save when the house is burning, when the village is destroyed, when the economy collapses. The things that are left when we are gone, that lie scattered on the ground, as in Sewing into Walking (1994) or in Portrait (1991), where a massive cloak of discarded fragments of cloth rises like a monumental gravestone, a mortuary icon of lives whose flesh is remembered in a dense clutter of castoff artifacts. It is the way of all flesh, this scatter of clothing. Sewing into Walking traces a walk through time as a patchy fabric of strewn memories, if even that. This is an elegiac work, bound to evoke in many viewers a sense of what the artist calls “the human condition.”

  • According to Buddhist teaching, everything, every feeling, is marked by impermanence, holding no place and passing away. Impermanence joins suffering and non-self as the three characteristics of existence, according to Buddhist thought. As one scholar has summarized the matter, “change, degeneration, and non-essentialism are fundamental features of everything.” [2] Nothing lasts, everything fails to satisfy, and there is no soul or self or substance that abides above it all. In short, there is no place to hold us that will not itself crumble into something else—except the dharma of release, or nirvana. Religions often describe a human condition because they want to diagnose the cause of suffering and to prescribe its solution—either through methods like the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism or the redemption that any number of salvific faiths offer their adherents.

  • But Kimsooja does not craft an art tasked with human salvation—either by divine means or by human politics. Her work is not preachy or propagandistic or doctrinaire because what really drives her art is the power of things to provoke thought, to arrest the mind and to fix it on something elusive and mysterious, something we want to take for a truth. Kimsooja wants to cultivate a mindfulness of what human beings encounter by virtue of being human. She ponders what is human—loss, yearning, beauty, routine, work—and does so in the sensuous terms of art that define the places of everyday life. Art is a heightened sensory consciousness, a poignant awareness of the world that opens up in the place that watching, touching, hearing, and making afford. “I’ve never practiced meditation in my life,” she once said in an interview, “but I found every moment for me was a meditation in itself. I reached a similar Zen Buddhism completely through my own way of meditation on life and art and its practice.” [3]

  • What does this make of art? The arts used to operate in the service of institutional religion, contributing to devotional life, decorating the altars of churches, shrines, pilgrimage sites, bodying forth the sacred in the daily exchanges between earthly mortals and heavenly powers in a sacred economy of pledge and favor, petition and reward. Popular imagery in everyday religious life still does that for believers today. But fine art has arisen over the last two centuries to occupy a different space in Western culture. For some people, art is a kind of therapy. It conducts a service of comfort, diversion, or uplifting pleasure. For others, however, the benefit must be described in terms of the meditative absorption to which Kimsooja alludes. Art is a way of refining or honing perception, for use as the means of introspection and as a social and cultural lens. In this approach, “aesthetic” does not mean beauty for the sake of beauty, but something more like sensuous cognition, a delicate tooling of the senses to scrutinize the world for the sake of a penetrating take on its weight and heat and chaos. And so we have Kimsooja’s artistic postulation of the human condition. This is neither religion nor politics; neither preaching nor moral reform. It is a limbic way of seeing, a projection of sensation into the larger world for the sake of feeling it vicariously in the skin of an artwork.

  • What does that mean? Kimsooja’s art is about the cultural work of looking. You may behold A Needle Woman in at least two ways. First, as a video projected on a screen in a gallery over the course of an exhibition for a few weeks. In this instance the video acts as a documentary, recording human actions at another place and time. The scene is a street, far away, a place that is not here, where you and I are standing. We look upon the place with curiosity. An image of the video’s installation in a gallery shows how this works: a bench invites you to sit down and watch an image projected from above. The image appears, as if through a rectangular aperture that has opened up in the gallery wall. In the dimly lit space, you are urged to sit or stand quietly and gaze upon the scene. You devote yourself to the task, if you have time, because you hope to see something interesting, something you’ve not seen before. You wait for something to happen. It’s art, after all. It’s supposed to do something. But when very little happens, the second way of seeing the piece begins to take shape. You glance furtively about the gallery at those standing near you. You glance at your watch, you wonder how long this will go on. Ineluctably, your perception shifts from looking at a video image-window in the wall to looking at people in your vicinity looking at a video image-window in the wall. You become aware of the discomforts of your body. If you’ve ever meditated, the feeling will be familiar. The scene moves from there, on the other side of the wall, to here, in and around you, and you realize that you are part of the art. The piece takes your time, your body, your patience and invests it in a work that includes you. You might look for the door. You might want to get out of here. Yet you’re intrigued by the two sets of looking—on the screen and in this room, and you wonder what you feel.

  • The boundaries of a work of art dissolved in the twentieth century. Art went from hanging on walls and perching on pedestals to happening in deserts and junkyards, on street corners and human bodies. With the dissolution of conventional boundaries came a redefinition of the place of art. So looking at A Needle Woman and A Laundry Woman, we ask: where is the artwork? Is it there, in the crowd’s response to or unawareness of the stolid presence around which they move? Or is it here, among us? Perhaps the two modalities are really one: we are yet another crowd in which the impassive worker woman stands. Perhaps our wandering eye is no different than the urban crowds in Tokyo, Cairo, Mexico City, London, or Delhi. Perhaps Kimsooja lures us into the gallery to sew the art world into the larger fabric of far-flung cities. To see her work is to be transported into a global work of art that shows us to ourselves. The boundaries demarcating the place of this art are disorienting, sublime. There is no getting out of it or away from it. Its center is everywhere, marked by the visual field that pivots on the gray figure of the artist standing steadfastly at the intersection of blinking gazes.

  • The steady feature of the artist in these videos is the structure that configures our visual field. Even when she is engulfed by the crowd that weaves obliviously about her, she remains our point of reference. Kimsooja transcends the world out there by holding her back irresolutely toward us, here. The camera is never forgotten. The people there are placed on a stage stretching before us. They were filmed for the purpose of being screened elsewhere. Place as local site is not singular, but part of a larger set of places that only the art viewer is allowed to see. The folks in Delhi don’t know or ever see the people in Mexico City or Shanghai—or us. We do, thanks to Kimsooja’s back. If she only wanted to be a needle, to transform her body into an inanimate object, it would not matter if we saw her from the side or front or any other angle. But we never see her face. This device structures the work of art by showing its proper side, where it is to be viewed—in a gallery. The place of art is a critical moment, a step back in space or time to see anew. Kimsooja wants art to be the world tweaked to make us conscious of place—our place, the place of others, and the place of art, arising in the interstices of culture. Place matters to her because she loves the beguiling way that art seizes our attention and invites our devoted scrutiny.

  • The appropriation of place for artistic purposes is something we see elsewhere in Kimsooja’s oeuvre. In the haunting beauty of An Album: Havana (2007), a ten-minute silent video created on site in Cuba. The camera runs for nearly three minutes down a pier overlooking the ocean and a cloudy horizon as lovers, tourists, and fishermen saunter along or sit on a stonewall. The video repeats for a second and third time, but each iteration increasingly blurs focus until in the final run the screen is a blank flicker that gradually transforms into bright light. In the second run we can still recognize the figures, but in the third sequence they evaporate in brownish haze. Deprived of sound and focus, the result is a lushly beautiful portrait of a place that steadily vanishes. What seems at first solid melts into the air, leaving viewers to wonder what their relation is to place that is no more. Memory of place may not be as sure as we’d like to think. With each replay, what we once stood before fades until finally it is gone. With nothing to see, it is not clear that the seer abides.

  • In an altogether different piece, Mandala: Zone of Zero (2003), the sound of Tibetan, Gregorian, and Islamic chant animates a scintillating object, a large target-shaped series of concentric circles composed of mirrors, fabric, and colored plastic. Circular mandalas are familiar to North Americans because of the “wheel of time” rituals conducted by lamas who created elaborate sand forms, often in museums [4]. Kimsooja’s Mandala resembles the Tibetan Wheel of Existence, a teaching tool used by itinerant Buddhist teachers who unfurled their charts to explicate the doctrines of Buddhism. The chrome ornaments that mark the four directions on the mandala even recall the jaws of the Lord of Death who holds the wheel in Tibetan tangkas. And like the wheel of dharma set in motion by the Buddha, and the samsaric cycle of rebirth and the circular arrangement of teachings illustrating the Wheel of Existence, Kimsooja’s wheel turns, too.

  • But the use of Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim chant in Mandala suggests that the artist has something broader in mind than the traditional Tibetan mandala. The object itself resembles a monumental roulette wheel more than a religious device—the star motifs recall the four-armed spindles at the center of roulette tables. Its glittering mirrors, sumptuous fabrics, gleaming chrome, and loud colors celebrate the ephemeral character of sensation, the flutter of fond feelings one associates with a jukebox full of favorite songs. All of this is very different from Buddhism’s diagnosis of the flitting mind’s need for the discipline of meditation to tame and control it. Yet although the art deco chrome ornamentation of the jukebox in Mandala reminds one of soda fountains and dance halls more than anything in a mediation hall, it does resemble popular Buddhist shrines and temples. One thinks of shiny golden statuettes of bodhisattvas, or of the long lines of brightly colored lanterns that appear each year at temples to celebrate Buddha’s birthday. Mandala spins and flashes like an incandescent turntable as the sound of chanting fills the room. Perhaps the mission of art, if it has one, is to reconnect introspection to the body and the senses. Whether you are in a disco or a Zen hall, you are in your body, and that is the means by which religion, mediation or art take place.

  • Both Havana and Mandala invoke Buddhist tradition in different ways. Mandala uses a familiar motif in Tibetan tangkas; Havana recalls the three features of all phenomena: impermanence, dissatisfaction, and no-self. Yet neither piece can be said to emulate Buddhism by offering itself as a tool for Buddhist practice. Both are about the power and place of art in modern life. Where Havana blurs, and finally erases a sense of place, Mandala seems to transpose the viewer from the body of the Buddha enthroned in the mental architecture of an imagined shrine to the splendor of the human body awash in sensation. The point is not therapy or religion or meditation technique, but a refinement of perception, the aesthetic cultivation of imaginative, felt life. Kimsooja’s work is not art in the place of religion, but art as sensory reflection on the places where life happens in the way it does.

  • Author Bio
    David Morgan is an art historian and Professor of Religion at Duke University. He has written on contemporary art, including such artists as Bill Viola, Magdalena Abakanowicz, and Ed Paschke. He is also author of several books on the history and theory of religious visual culture: Visual Piety (1997), Protestants & Pictures (1999), The Sacred Gaze (2005), The Lure of Images (2007), and The Embodied Eye (2012).

[1] Gerald Matt, "Interview" in Kimsooja. To Breathe/Respirare (Milan: Charta, 2005), 87.

[2] Brian Black, "Senses of Self and Not-Self in the Upanishads and Nikayas," in Irina Kuznetsova, Jonardon Ganeri, and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, eds., Hindu and Buddhist Ideas in Dialogue: Self and No-Self (Abingdon, England: Ashgate, 2012), 18.

[3] Matt, "Interview", 91.

[4] Pratapaditya Pal, Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure (Art Institute of Chicago in association with the University of California Press and Mapin Publishing, 2003), 256.

A Needle Woman, 2005, Sana'a (Yemen), one of six channel video projection, 10:40 loop, silent

Gnomon of Place, Gnomon of Foreignness

Madoff, Steven Henry


  • "Hospitality is certainly, necessarily, a right, a duty, an obligation, the greeting of the foreign other as a friend but on the condition that the host, the Wirt, the one who receives, lodges or gives asylum remains the patron, the master of the household, on the condition that he maintains his own authority in his own home, that he looks after himself and sees to and considers all that concerns him and thereby affirms the law of hospitality as the law of the household, oikonomia, the law of his household, the law of a place…." —Jacques Derrida, "Hostipitality" [1]

  • The six videos projected simultaneously that comprise the Korean artist Kimsooja's A Needle Woman (2005) present the artist wearing precisely the same clothes, standing precisely the same way, and, it would seem, at the same time of day, the sun shining down. She is absolutely still amid passing crowds of inhabitants in Patan, Nepal; Havana, Cuba; N'Djamena, Chad; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Sana'a, Yemen; and Jerusalem, Israel. The crowds react differently to this odd figure, clearly a foreigner. They are presented in slow motion, with no sound, which only emphasizes the sense of movement, instant reaction, passage.

  • A Needle Woman has been written about many times, and Kimsooja is often described in these writings as a nomadic figure in this work, traveling across the world to come to rest in a crowded thoroughfare and then move on to the next. The needle referred to in the title is Kimsooja theorizing herself as a needle that passes through the fabric of a place and its people; and there is that other sense of a needle, that it sews together, is an instrument of suture, of healing, which could not be more appropriate because the locations that are visited in the work are all places of violence, disrepair or unresolved conflict. But as the light falls on her vertical figure, I would suggest another instrument that she can be interpreted to represent, and that is the gnomon.

  • A gnomon is the standing element of a sundial that casts the shadow and indicates the hour. It is an index of the sun's passage over the surface of the earth, but not an index of the sun for itself, so to speak, but the sun as a sign of time, and time not for itself but as the sign of what happens ultimately to each of us. Time is the marker of our transition through aging, the marker of our passage, we at the center; and the gnomon, therefore, indicates not only surfaces but human interiority, not only an exterior of sunlight and shadow but time in us, of us, and for us. (The old Greek word gnomon means "indicator," "the one who discerns," or "that which reveals.") This is to say that light and shadow begin on the surface of things, and we inscribe them in a symbolic regime; they become elements in the narrative of our rise in time and our fading, of our moral troubles, our ethical thresholds and flaws. These lights and shadows work their ways into us, embed themselves, and are indicated by the marks our actions leave.

  • Kimsooja, who plants herself in the middle of place, which is the activation of space as a locus of meaning, is this gnomon figure, this gnomon of place, against whom the physical light and its symbolic presence falls—an indexical instrument recording human passage and transition. This is on the level of the anthropocentric, of the human as the root of all occasion, all meaningfulness. [2] But the index here does not simply regard the internalization of knowledge, an epistemological dominion of its own self-reflexive primacy. No, Kimsooja, whose face is always unseen in this work, who stands like statuary, a flesh monument to the human, offers us the face of everyone else. These faces are the signifying engines of each tableau. They reflect light passing, of movement that is notated in time, of shadows, of a narrative unspooling, telling the story of a transitory exchange, of the value of the transitory in its opposite: that which leaves a mark. Where is this exchange? It is transacted within that "law of a place" Derrida suggests, which is a place of exchange, with its oikonomia, its discipline of the household's inventory. It is an economy of relations that, like hospitality, assumes an exchange, and it happens here, in A Needle Woman, among a triad of nodes:

1 ) There are the individual faces in the crowd.
2 ) There is Kimsooja, the one who discerns.
3 ) There are the viewers, us, the ones toward whom these faces move.

  • The author Susan Stewart has written that a face is a "‘deep' text, a text whose meaning is complicated by change and by a constant series of alterations between a reader and an author," [3] and this is what we find here. These texts are read by Kimsooja, as they read hers. They write each other and read each other, and these trajectories of reciprocity extend to us, the third node of the triad. Kimsooja is the indicator of meaning, that which reveals, which she reads on the faces of these foreigners, who are not foreigners in this place where she is the foreigner, but to her and to us are themselves foreigners in foreign lands, who she instigates to project meaning, and we receive it. Our position, of course, is the same as the artist's. Our expressions, our knowledges, our dispositions are not seen, since we too face forward, away from others. If she is the index of these texts, then we who receive the meanings of these faces are the archive. In us lie the accumulation of their expressions and perceived meanings. They leave notations, marks.

  • In each of these places where Kimsooja has come, she writes herself into another book, another register: the book of guests. As such she has the right to be treated decently, without aggression, by the people of any foreign land, as Immanuel Kant says. He says it plainly in his tract from 1795, "Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch," of which the third section is entitled, "The Law of World Citizenship Shall Be Limited to Conditions of Universal Hospitality." He writes that hospitality is "not a question of philanthropy but of right. Hospitality means the right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy when he arrives on the soil of another." Her position is one of cosmopolitan demand. International law supports this principle of cosmopolitanism: If I intend to do you no harm, I will not be the subject of hostility when I cross into your territory. That is the right of cosmopolitanism, of hospitality.

  • But of course note that hostility has the word "host" within it, so it is buried within the genealogy of human praxis that to be host may also mean to be an aggressor. So it is that this turning of tables, this inversion of meaning, is embedded within the figure of Kimsooja herself. She would seem to be the guest here in Jerusalem, Patan, Havana, and so forth, an open receptor of her hosts' reactions to her presence. But there is always this possibility of inversion in these terms of host and guest. In her presencing, she is the aggressor, the one who makes a demand, the one who claims by her indexical stance an ownership of place, this space of meaning-making, a directive presence, an emanation of control projected onto her guests, who instantaneously and therefore unwittingly enter into her symbolic territory and offer up to her, as guests do, something of themselves that she requires for their entrance. As the gnomon, she records these passages, her monitoring of time's essence as the passage of the body, its consciousness, and its disposition of knowledge and meaning. This is what we see. This is what then enters into us and is stored in our memories.

  • There is another machine at work in A Needle Woman because what I have been describing are machines, mechanisms that produce end-products through their labors—in this case, writing machines and reading machines, machines that record each place's citizens caught in the encounter of revealing their reaction to foreignness and leaving their text for the artist, for us. The task the artist has given herself is to be the apparatus of this textuality, to perform it in each of these spaces where, as Henri Lefebvre states, space "is the shifting intersection between that which touches, penetrates, threatens or benefits my body on the one hand, and all other bodies on the other." [4] It is in this spatial situation that Kimsooja's body performs the act of a particular inscription: this revealing of difference. For as I've said, each of these places she has chosen to stand in is a conflict zone, and violence can be defined as a foreignness alien to a first state of being in its tolerance of difference that is Edenic peace. These are then places alien to themselves, and Kimsooja is an alien in these lands of alienation, an index of Otherness in which everyone is an Other as long as there is no resolution of difference or in which difference has not been an accepted resolution in itself. The artist has loaded her meaning-machine with the data of geopolitics and history. And with that data stored, she adds the element of the foreign irritant (herself), the virus, the possibility of another data set with which this first data set must interact.

  • If Kimsooja's first machine is the performance-body in the operative process of revealing the text of foreignness, this other machine is a byproduct of her body's performance: a different kind of machine, a self-referential machine, an aesthetic machine—the machine of Modernism, built in the nineteenth century, dominant in the twentieth, and still working today. Its operating principle is the self-conscious unveiling of an artwork's mechanism, as Mallarmé unveiled the workings of the poem through a poetry about the self-consciousness of making a poem; as the Cubists made representational illusion on a painted surface a problem of painting to be observed, broken down, and rebuilt, etc. This machine is made manifest in the form that it takes before us here: A Needle Woman as video, as a time-based transition of images that hosts time while denying time the ultimacy of its ongoing forward movement. Her video's slow motion distends time and then keeps stopping, refusing it continuity because the video implies that time goes on, then cuts it off over and over in a loop of suspension. The continuity of time in A Needle Woman lasts for precisely ten minutes and thirty seconds. Then it begins again. Nor is it one time that starts and stops; its six places present six times starting and stopping simultaneously.

  • It does not contradict my argument to say, "Well, that's true of any film, video, TV show, streaming webcast, radio program, even a theater play." That may be so, but nonetheless it is here the matter of specific artistic choice that is crucial. In the first performance video of A Needle Woman, executed in 1999, Kimsooja did not use slow motion; it was presented in "real" time. But here she purposefully does so, availing herself of the medium's technical self-consciousness of time, revealing the medium's unwillingness to surrender to the time-ness of time, to its continuity, and instead overwhelms it, denies it, commands it, erupts it. (Modernism counts among its hallmarks discontinuity and eruption.) In this sense, her video is a parasite of time, a foreign guest who overtakes its host, just as Derrida says that the host can become the hostage. [5]

  • This self-referential aesthetic machine is a ghostly presence, for ghost and guest are also words that share the same root in their signifying of the one who visits. This machine of representation hovers, being hosted by time and yet taking time hostage, revealing this internal conflict that remains unresolved—an echo, a shadow laid down over the video's first presence as the record of bodies as meaning-machines whose subject, too, is the encounter of conflict that remains unresolved, the question of the foreigner. Subject and mechanism share the double-position of the aporia, of an internal confrontation of contradictory forces who are both hosts and guests, just as Kimsooja's figure in A Needle Woman stands in this double-position, this double-imposition of silent entreaty and power's requisition of others for one's own purpose. Her figure, then, belongs to the discourse of hospitality. She is the steward of the aporia, the body of supplicant and sovereign, of visitor and imposing owner of place, a needle piercing time, not healing it, but holding it in suspension. Yet we, who are the third node in this transaction, are not outside of time, not held in place. The gnomon of foreignness falls across us and enters us. Time continues in us as foreignness does, with its demands on hosts and guests, its questions of domination, its juridications, its texts, its burdens and pleasures that enter us again, now held by us: an inquiry, an offering, a mirror, a virus of troubled rights.

[1] Jacques Derrida, "Hospitality," trans. Barry Stocker and Forbes Morlock, Angelaki, volume 5, number 3, December 2000, 4. > return to article >
[2] I will not address here the agency and autonomy of nonhuman things because that is not Kimsooja's subject in this work. > return to article >
[3] Susan Stewart, On Longing (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 127. > return to article >
[4] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1991), 184. > return to article >
[5] As Derrida says: "So it is indeed the master, the one who invites, the inviting host, who becomes the hostage—and who really always has been. And the guest, the invited hostage, becomes the one who invites the one who invites, the master of the host." Of Hostipitality, trans. Rachel Bowlby (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 123-25. > return to article >

To Breathe: Bottari, 2013, mixed media installation, partial installation view of the Korean Pavilion, The 55th Biennale di Venezia, photograph by Jaeho Chong

55th Venice Biennale: Il Palazzo Enciclopedico | The Encyclopedic Palace

Prapoglou, Kostas


  • This year's Venice Biennale's subject, the 'Encyclopedic Palace', is conceived by Biennale director Massimiliano Gioni after M. Auriti's 'Il Enciclopedico Palazzo del Mondo' in the 1950s. Auriti's model built on a 1:200 scale, welcomes guests at the central Pavilion of Giardini. The original 136 floor skyscraper-to-be would have occupied a vast area in Washington DC and would have played host to an international knowledge database from all times.

  • In a similar fashion to Auriti, Kippenberger's utopic 'Metro-Net World Connection' series (1993-7) envisaging a vast network of tube lines connecting the entire world, materialised with the production of only but a few real-life metro-like entrances (such as the one on the Greek island of Syros). His work was posthumously exhibited at the German Pavilion of the 50th Biennale in 2003 and although it did not become the subject of the entire Biennale back then, the profound romanticism, idealisation and conceptualisation of both arcadian cases inspired artists and philosophers on a grand scale.

  • This year's 88 national participations scattered at the Arsenale, Giardini and various other sites as well as other independent exhibitions around Venice, have tailor made their shows to fit and survey this year's theme.

  • How can art evolve and expand along the lines of "what could knowledge be or become"? The answer derives from the spectrum of what the modern world may accept as valuable piece of information; consequently, that is knowledge-worth extracting and distilling from today's reality. Needless to catalogue the valuable portion of data from the non-valuable, perhaps it all deserves to fall into the 'universal' category of encyclopedic knowledge. This would include pretty much everything in the Platonic and Aristotelian domain.

  • For the art enthusiast and critic, the national pavilion behaviourism is always an interesting factor. The perception and acuity of knowledge filtered through national identity and social layering proves to be rather pronounced in this year's Biennale. While several national participations seem to establish their artistic locus via certain political and socio-economic routes, probably in the hope that their chosen narrative will create international awareness, some others free themselves from analogous needs and effectively represent an artistic oeuvre and calibre worth revisiting and investigating further.

  • The unique environment of the Korean Pavilion, 'To Breathe: Bottari' (curated by Seungduk Kim), encapsulates both the long artistic tradition of its creator Kimsooja and diverse elements of Korean culture. The transformation of the entire pavilion space into a bubble-like enclosure allows light and sound to dominate throughout, instantly activating the viewer's senses. We are invited to experience the given domain and increasingly become part of it. But by entering a small dark anechoic chamber and remaining there in a state of blandness for just one minute the visitor is vulgarly amputated from their senses. Kimsooja's exploration of senses via the stern process of 'total voidance' created by introducing this black hole reaches (via manipulating our living environment) a state of realisation and, therefore, total appreciation of our current known situation. By actively involving the viewer with this experience, the artist succeeds in producing an ongoing mass performance thus generating a living intervention.

  • Konrad Smolen愀ki of the Polish Pavilion works along the same lines of understanding our senses in a natural and non-natural, controlled environment. His installation, 'Everything Was Forever, Until it Was No More' (curated by Daniel Muzyczuk and Agnieszka Pindera), encompasses the assessment of sound produced by a traditional instrument (two bronze handmade ecclesiastical bells), its reproduction by loudspeakers and its processing with a special technique that re-transmits a delayed, altered resounding sound wave. Smolen愀ki's lengthy research on the properties of sound and time has not only achieved to de-characterise and separate a source from its very own physical sound but also to free and re-baptise the latter with a brand new hypostasis. The 'newly born' abstract sound echoing forcefully among the pavilion walls voids the original pre-sound minimalistic locus and introduces a surreal time lapse domain. I personally found extremely intriguing how eager visitors were to investigate the soundless space before the activation of the two bells, and how keen they were to abandon it shortly after the production of the reverberating noise despite the earplugs provided. This intense discomfort may be explained as the natural result of the process of deconstruction of senses through deanalysing and decoding noise against time. It all proves how complex it can be to re-register in our collective unconscious a modified detail in one of our senses. Coincidentally enough, the artist has been recently asked by the Biennale organisers to pause the installation until further notice.

  • Outside the borders of Biennale proper, the Azerbaijan Pavilion situated at Campo San Stefano presents a group exhibition of six young artists focusing on aspects of cultural existence, ethnic distinctiveness and social discourse. 'Ornamentation', the title of Azerbaijan's show (curated by Hervé Mikaeloff), is an amalgamation of decorative arts, religion and tradition infused with contemporary vision. Rashad Alakbarov's installations, 'Intersection' and 'Miniature', are assemblages of random objects made of wood or metal organised in -what appears to be- unsystematic fashion. Only when a projector light hits the mass of objects we witness the hidden imagery forming on the opposite wall. Although sharing a very similar technique with other highly acclaimed artists such as Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Alakbarov's chosen shadow iconography is profound; from the traditional shebeke designs and patterns to a human reclining figure and an optical illusion that reveals its message only when you use a camera.

  • "It is not chaos" appears through the camera lens pointing out to the [semi]obvious oxymoron, that the actual appearance of things can only be subjective, the mass of knowledge generated from the conscious world can only be interpreted through the de-construction and re-construction of its individual components.

  • Auriti's vision can only depart from its limbo by praising the value of senses. This year's Biennale has had several strong participants, whose artistic oeuvre and exploration have gone a step further and, undoubtedly, increased our expectations in the fields of research, technological development and medium advancement, and in absolute synchronicity with the latest psychoanalytic, philosophical and scientific impetus.

To Breathe: Bottari, 2013, mixed media installation, partial installation view of the Korean Pavilion, The 55th Biennale di Venezia, photograph by Jaeho Chong

삼라만상을 하나로 묶는 김수자의 보따리

Han, Heng-Gil


한국관 건축양식에 스며드는 '보따리'

김수자 작가는 1990년대 초에 '보따리' 연작을 시작했고 한국 가정에서 일상적으로 사용되는 전통 자수로 장식된 이불보를 국제적인 현대미술의 조형언어로 발전시켰다. 작가는 이불보의 레디메이드 특성보다는 '이미 사용되었었던' 헌 물건이라는 점에 초점을 두고, 그 천들을 사용한 사람들의 무명성과, 육체, 운명 등의 비물질적이고 비가시적인 것에 대한, 즉 삶에 대한 해석의 공감대를 형성하는 데 노력해왔다.
작가는 이불보가 사람의 탄생과 죽음, 수면과 사랑, 고통과 꿈 등의 사건들이 발생하는 현장임을 지적했고, 사랑과 복, 행운, 장수, 후손 등의 기원을 상징하는 이불보의 자수 장식을 강조했다. 작가는 이불보에서 인간의 존재를 규정짓는 틀을 가리키는 색인적 기호를 발견했다.
작가는 또한 이불보가 내포하는 젠더의 역할과 미적 구조에도 초점을 두었다. 이불보는 가정에서의 여성노동, 사회에 가려진 여성의 무보상 업무와 활동을 암시한다. 이불보 상징을 활용하는 작가의 활동은 여성의 사회적, 문화적, 미적 의미를 재정립하는 행위였고, 현대예술사에서 여성의 독특한 맥락을 창조하는 행위였다.
올 2013년 베니스비엔날레 한국관에 설치될 '보따리'는 장소특정적인(site-specific) 설치가 될 것이다. 김수자 작가는 유리, 철조, 나무 등의 다양한 건축 자재와 굴곡진 벽면 등의 일반적인 파빌리온 건축양식을 갖춘 한국관을 전시를 위해 변형시키지 않고, 기존의 건축양식을 최대한으로 살리면서 그 구조 자체가 작가의 특징적인 개념인 '보따리'의 연장선으로 기능하도록 프로젝트를 구상한다.
소리, 빛, 색채 등 인간의 오감을 자극하는 감성적인 요소들을 사용하여 관객이 전시공간을 '몸'으로 체험할 수 있게끔 하는 체험 중점적인(experiential) 전시가 될 것이다. 그러나 전시는 동시에 상징체계의 역할도 수행할 것이다. 왜냐하면, 작가가 바깥 자연을 실내공간 안으로 끌고 들어와 밖을 안에서 보는 상황을 창조하여 안과 밖의 경계선을 넘나들 뿐만 아니라, 전시공간 자체를 자족적인 자연으로 전환시켜 인간의식의 소우주를 재구성하려는 계획을 세우고 있기 때문이다.
잡동사니를 이동하려는 의도를 충족시키는 수단이라기보다는 그 잡동사니를 묶는 목적을 충당하는 보따리의 기능에서 김 작가는 변화무쌍한 인간역사, 다양한 요소로 구성된 세계, 혹은 다면적이고 다층적인 한 개인의 정체성과 삶을 하나로 묶는 틀의 개념을 발견한다.

우주와 삶의 총체성, 그리고 보편성의 함유

김수자의 보따리는 하나로 결합된 우주를 상징한다. 여기서 우주는 인간의 의식세계를 의미한다. 보따리는 삶의 총체성을 상징하는 도구로 사용되고, 삶을 총체성의 관점에서 해석할 수 있는 수단으로 활용된다.
그 보따리 상징의 의도는 '하나로 된 우주'라는 개념을 소통, 혹은 타인에게 전달하려는 것이다. 반면 그 보따리 상징의 목적은 '하나로 된 우주'라는 개념을 재현하는 데 있다. 이 점에서, 즉 이동수단으로 지각되는 보따리가 자족적인 우주공간의 상징으로 전환된다는 점에서 김수자의 창조성과 예술성이 두드러진다. 김 작가의 과거 작업들을 살펴보면, 우주의 총체성을 의미하는 '보따리' 개념의 확장은 전통 한국가정에서 일상적으로 사용되는 보따리를 전시장으로 옮겨 놓아 첫째, 그 일상적 맥락의 해체를 통해, 그리고 둘째, 시각예술이란 새로운 맥락과의 결합을 통해 성공적으로 이루어진다.
김수자 작가는 지난 30여 년 동안 전체성과 보편성을 토론하는 작업을 일관성 있게 추구해 왔다. 삶의 총체적인 틀을 논하는 '보따리'도 그렇고, 천조각들을 꿰매어 하나로 연결 짓는 바늘의 의미를 논하는 '바늘 여인'도 마찬가지이다. 그의 작업이 제시하는 전체성과 보편성은 관객에 의해 특수하게 분석되어야 한다.
마시밀리아노 지오니가 기획하는 올해 베니스비엔날레 미술전의 주제는 인간역사에서 나타난 모든 창조물을 수집하고자하는, 실행 불가능한 인간의 집착적인 의지를 표현하는 '백과사전적 궁전'이다. 우주의 총체성과 보편성을 논하는 김수자의 '보따리' 개념은 비엔날레의 전체적인 주제개념에 딱 맞아떨어지는 안성맞춤이다. 따라서 올해 한국관의 김수자 <보따리>전은 맥락특정적인(context-specific) 전시가 될 것이다.
나아가 올해 한국관 전시는 절묘하게 시기적절한(time-specific) 행사가 될 것이다. 김 작가는 뉴욕에서 허리케인 샌디를 경험했다. 전기와 가스, 그리고 온수가 없이 일주일간을 고통스럽게 산 작가는 많은 생각을 하는 시간을 갖게 되었고, 그 경험을 바탕으로 세계 도처에서 갈수록 빈번하게 발생하는 천재지변을 토론하는 새 작업을 이번 한국관 전시를 통해서 발표할 예정이다. 따라서 자연재해 문제를 다루는 환경의식(environment-conscious)적인 작업이 예상된다.
이렇게 한국의 가정문화, 베니스비엔날레 미술전, 한국관의 건축 특징, 작가 개인의 경험, 관객의 감수성 등 다층적이고 다면적인 요소들을 꿰어 하나의 네트워크로 결합시키는 김수자의 2013년 베니스비엔날레 한국관 '보따리' 설치는 이 국제전에서 보기 드문 보석 같은 전시가 될 것으로 기대된다