Kimsooja: A Modern Day Global Nomad Transcending boundaries, re-constructing a global identity
Kimsooja: Ways of Being - A Conversation between Daina Augaitis and Kimsooja
In this digital era of instant information and communication, a new level of cultural globalization has allowed disparate groups to come together, forming a familiar and shared culture. This idea of 'global harmony' is not suggestive of an idealized and naïve state of international utopia, but rather should be considered as a platform for increased understanding of shared human traits, states of being, conditions and emotions, which are ultimately, universal.
Contemporary Korean artist, Kimsooja, is an embodiment of this concept of transcending boundaries, distinctions and limiting categories, as she is a true modern day global nomad. She is a multidisciplinary and multi-faceted artist, who, in fact, rejects prescriptive identity groups such as gender and marital status as well as socio-political, socio-economic, cultural and geographical identity constructs. Kimsooja's visual language may be rooted in Korean cultural traditions and mediums often associated with women and craft such as sewing, embroidery and textiles; however, she resolves to re-construct her identity and weaves herself into a global landscape. She achieves a delicate balance of leaving her mark as well as absorbing what is out there in the world, integrating into the fabric of different realities.
This paper examines Kimsooja's selected conceptual works to understand how she critically overcomes the shadows and burdens of identity constraints. Kimsooja is able to ground herself to issues of real value and genuine stories that are concerned with the world, and artistic practices that uncover ideas that are neglected or overshadowed by the commercial gloss of the global art market. Furthermore, her body is neither the site of sexuality nor the fantasized/fetishized female body of the 1960s and 1970s Euro American Feminist context. Alternatively, her body can be seen as a needle weaving through disparate cultures, in an act of re-construction, unification and investigation of what it means to be a human being in the 21st century. As such, Kimsooja is an exemplary contemporary woman artist who strives to deliver her stance on true human equality and honesty, going back to basic story telling through highly sophisticated and intellectual visual mediums that nonetheless remain humble in its true intentions.
"Without a needle, there would be no fabric, and without each individual, no fabric of society."
In today's inter-connected contemporary context of hyper permeability and fluidity between disparate cultures, Kimsooja, can be seen as a multifaceted woman artist, a global citizen and a critical voice for humankind. She presents pressing and engaging works that touch upon the very essence of the human spirit and the physical body, particularly as it relates to and intersects with nature and the real world. Her works are existential and spiritual explorations of humankind's basic and fundamental relationship with the environment around them. Furthermore, her artistic practice investigates formal qualities and aesthetics, engaging in a unique method of story telling and creation. In addition, Kimsooja has an innate ability to balance oppositions and paradoxes in complementary and poetically sensitive ways, setting her apart as a contemporary artist of international caliber. Her works are empathetic and deeply concerned with humankind at large. As such, the decisive word for Kimsooja is transcendence. Ultimately, Kimsooja is the personification and embodiment of transcending boundaries as well as re-constructing identities beyond limiting categories or binaries, into a new type of cultural hybridity.
In this paper, I will investigate how Kimsooja strikes an inherent balance of co-existences on multiple levels: firstly, in her early inquiries of form and aesthetics, and subsequently, in conceptual explorations of gender, nationality and identity. The latter ultimately results in dialogic awareness amongst humankind as well as the unity of the human spirit, the human body and nature. By weaving through these multifarious layers and demonstrating how they all function as variegated tools of expression, I will present the framework that grounds Kimsooja's presence as a modern day global nomadic artist, who speaks a language derived from her unique experiences, that resonates with all of humankind. I will be focusing mainly on Kimsooja's video series titled A Needle Woman, which was first done between 1999 and 2001, followed by a second set of works done in 2005, and a final iteration in 2009 in Paris, which was commissioned by La Nuit Blanche and projected onto the façade of the Hôtel de Ville, Paris. The reading of these works will be complemented with a number of other images including a late-19th century photograph and other historically significant images from the rich span of Korean art history. Kimsooja's modes of expression may have changed over the course of her artistic career; however, her core interest and concept of being a voice for humankind, a window into the human spirit and ultimately, a true modern day global nomad has always remained steadfast.
Kimsooja's works have evolved in a step-by-step process, with one artistic practice and aesthetic investigation resulting in another, providing critical building blocks for her oeuvre. Kimsooja's works were recently displayed in its chronological entirety for the first time at the Vancouver Art Gallery's exhibition Kimsooja Unfolding (October 2013 – January 2014). This survey exhibition displayed her work with 3 specific foci: her interest in time, memory and displacement; the relationship between the human body and the physical, material world; and last but not least, her engagement with the expressive and conceptual qualities of colour, light and form.
Kimsooja studied Western painting at the prestigious Hong-Ik University in Seoul, and her origin as a painter was a crucial starting point for the development of her art. Beginning her professional career in the 1980s, Kimsooja had a heightened level of consciousness about the concept of tableau. From the very onset, she was interested in the intersection of art and life, as for her, art was not a paradigm disconnected from real life – not just her own life but also the world around her. In fact, Kimsooja was inspired by her childhood experiences as a young girl sewing bedcovers with her mother, which brought about the revelation of unity between her thoughts, sensitivity and activity, forming her artistic tenet. Her early aesthetic investigations in formative works such as The Earth and the Heaven (Plate 1) allowed for varied expressive formats that followed the legacy of abstract expressionist style painting, collage and the ready-made, or 'ready-used' as she calls them. The use of textiles and the act of sewing were not so much a demonstration of a feminist, activist standpoint, as it may at first seem, but rather, as the artist states, "the engagement with methodologies based on female domestic labour was more about avant-garde action in relation to contemporary painting and the concept of tableau," following in the tradition of modernist inquiry.
Having rationalized the needle as the tool that breaks through the surface of the 'canvas' or piece of cloth, Kimsooja was able to penetrate the barrier that separated art from life. As Suh Young-Hee elaborates, having punctured the surface of pictorial art of the preceding centuries, like Lucio Fontana, who slashed his monochromatic canvases, Kimsooja is no longer bound to the two-dimensional screen of illusion but rather, engaged in a process of creating three-dimensional as well as four-dimensional structures that her 'needle' passes through and conjoins. As the act of sewing intertwines art and life, a renewed reality and experience is forged for the artist. Therefore, the fabric and the act of sewing become the forms to which Kimsooja expresses the world of human beings like herself. A pivotal moment for Kimsooja was her 1992-1993 residency in New York City at MoMA PS1, where she was roused to re-assign meaning to used traditional Korean bedcovers as a ready-used aesthetic formation. At this time, being away from her native land, Kimsooja conceived of her iconic bottari (Plate 2), which aggregates a wrapped two-dimensional 'tableau' into a three-dimensional sculptural form through the act of filling the tableau up with used clothes and tying a knot to unite the contents together. As such, this action of wrapping bodies and memories was seen as a true formalistic and aesthetic statement that provided a breakthrough for Kimsooja's artistic practice.
Kimsooja's early inquiry into form and fashioning new methods of expression is similar to the pioneers of Korean modern art, the forefathers of Monochrome art. These artists in the 1970s pursued new modes of expression that were connected to their personal experiences, contemplating the exigency of a Korean modernism. Kimsooja marks a significant presence in this continuum of Korean art history as she is carving out another mode of artistic expression. The Monochrome artists, however, were trying to define a Korean identity solely in the realm of modern painting. To take an example, Monochrome artist, Ha Chong-hyun was concerned with the materials' physical qualities (Plate 3), as he pushed pigment back and forth between the linen, until the paint and the surface became intermeshed, breaking the distinction between material and surface. In contrast, moving far beyond the confines of Monochrome artists' contemplations on the 'surface,' Kimsooja is not merely concerned with material and form. For her, it is more about using her newfound relationship with artistic creation and renewed engagement with formalistic structures and aesthetic qualities as a tool for expression. This unique mode of expression for Kimsooja allows her to pursue art-making that is closely intermeshed with real life; there is no separation between the two dimensions.
Moreover, as her artistic career has evolved beyond the three-dimensional structure into video, installation and performance, Kimsooja's role as an artist has further sophisticated. Her performances are on the complete opposite spectrum to the often violent, sexually charged performances of Marina Abramovic and Lee Bul (Plate 4) where the female body is the site of exploitation and extreme forms of expression. Rather, Kimsooja emphasizes "inverting the notion of an artist as a predominant actor through 'non-doing' and 'non-making' in order to reveal a critical point that is without heroism and without violent action or aggression." In other words, art-making has become a meditative journey for Kimsooja; through the repetitive voyage of the needle piercing through material surfaces and her body as a metaphorical needle weaving through different environments, Kimsooja achieves an absolute sense of self-awareness. This philosophy of course is tied to Zen Buddhism and Eastern philosophies with the practice of meditation as an act of emptying oneself, resulting in a connection between the mind, body and soul, to ultimately attain enlightenment. In fact, Kimsooja describes A Needle Woman series to be a critical, transformative experience when she transitioned from a vulnerable state of mind to a focused, meditative and enlightened state of mind. In this way, Kimsooja's works focus on the process and act of art-making rather than the end result, as well as subjective experience rather than objective articulation.
Therefore, in Kimsooja's art, the physical, material and spiritual dimensions coincide, while co-existence of creation and non-creation, of doing and non-doing is also prevalent. Kimsooja transcends the essentialized inquiries in formalistic qualities that are only concerned with art in its singular dimension and purpose. Instead, utilizing her diversified artistic methods of exploring form and aesthetics as a way to move into greater self-awareness, she connects her mind, body and soul with the outer world in order to understand what it means to be truly human. Moreover, she is in sync with the many different human realities as well as the 'conditions of humanity' she encounters through her artistic journeys as a Needle Woman across 14 cities, which results in acute contemplations on the differences in ethnicities, geography, economics and cultural, religious, political tensions.
At the core, Kimsooja moves beyond traditional epistemology, transcending familiar and expected categorizations. Kimsooja's ontological manifestation is explicated in her one-word name, without distinction between surname and given name, which as she declares, becomes an anarchist's name. This defiant act of changing her name to be one entity is symbolic of her rejecting gender, marital status, socio-political, socio-economic, cultural and geographical identity constructs. Her discord with categories allows her existence to be free, moving seamlessly through time, place and ideas. However, aesthetically there are clear connections to her being a woman and a Korean native.
When examining Kimsooja's oeuvre there are unavoidable implications and associations with regards to gender. Encounter – Looking into Sewing (Plate 5) is an appropriate segue into this discussion of her role as a woman artist. This arresting photograph suggests a woman's figure completely veiled by multiple layers of traditional bedcovers, capturing the multi-layered complexity of the female identity, not only questioning its societal construct but also moving beyond conventional gender paradigms. The female figure hinted by the gomusin shrouded by cloths represents tradition, signifying the weight of Confucian values that to varying extents still govern gender roles in Korean society today. Yet the gomusin is taking a step forward, seemingly an allusion to the position of women today striving to re-define their status and position at large. At this point, we can compare Kimsooja's photograph with a late-Choson dynasty photograph (Plate 6) of a young Korean woman in street costume. Not so different from the burka, in late-19th century Korea, women were expected to cover their body and head in public as a sign of propriety. The incredibly similar form of the cloths engulfing the female figure insinuates gender politics, gender roles in society and issues concerned with women's rights.
However, Kimsooja consciously chooses to disassociate with the confines of 'feminism,' even despite the changing landscape of global feminisms, a sub-domain of global contemporary art today. She clearly states that she is neither operating within the traditions of the feminist movement nor within the practices of performance artists who use their body as sites of sexuality and violence in staged performances or grotesque actions. We can read her bottari works (Plate 2) in particular, as art for women by women, in the sense that these textiles and the act of sewing, as well as the tradition of wrapping bottaris, are historically, functionally and aesthetically associated with women. These works inevitably bring about questions of women's position in society, simultaneously underscoring the important role of women in the family domain, perhaps also intimating their conditions as alienated housewives.
Admittedly, Kimsooja recounts that though she had been predominantly influenced by the avant-garde aesthetic engagements in New York City, which inspired the formation of the bottari, that in actual fact, upon return to Korea, she came to a critical realization of Korean society and Korean women's role bundled up in her formerly-mere aesthetic 'ready-used' object. Notably, it was after this grounding to socio-cultural issues and awareness of the real world that further evolved Kimsooja's bottari works to a critical level, as it is seen as a site of intersection of the physical body, Kimsooja's own conditions as a woman as well as Korean women at large, and further, human destiny. Therefore, she moved on to wrap the bottari with used clothing, as a way of reinforcing fragments of reality in her 'ready-used' object. It is important to acknowledge Kimsooja's feminine sensibilities and recognize that these visual motifs associated with the female gender are tools for expression. Furthermore, although her contribution to visual culture is as a woman artist, she is ultimately interested in the physical and spiritual interactions with nature and the realm of human reality, which transcends gender identity and constructs. Her art is a phenomenological experience for both herself and the audience, rooted in a feminine aesthetic.
As always, Kimsooja mediates between polarizing movements or philosophies. She has married the interest in form and problematic of art-making with a spiritual dimension – art becoming more of an 'experience,' for both herself and her audiences. Her solid foundation and higher consciousness and sensitivity to perceiving the intricate connection between the human body, spirit and the earth allows her to move into the realm of existentialism. In A Needle Woman, we are able to understand how harmony, balance and unity is achieved between the human body, spirit and nature.
Although Kimsooja's aesthetics are based on feminine sensibilities and rooted in Korean cultural traditions, she is neither celebrating individuality nor predominantly on a quest to discover her 'inner-self,' articulating her unique 'identity.' Instead, Kimsooja's visual roots become tools for expression, as well as points of entry into her narrative. What becomes the universal appeal and deeper criticality of Kimsooja's work is the fact that through her meditative approach to art-making, she provides an engaging platform that becomes a window to humanity. Her work is a universal lens to perceive the human spirit and to have awareness of the modern day conditions of being a human being.
Fundamentally, Kimsooja goes back to the core of human existence. Her work transcends its singular purpose as an aesthetic object, in order to enhance our understanding of our position in the world. She provides us with insight as to how art is sincerely intertwined with our own existence and experience of the world. Kimsooja, therefore, provides a platform for critical dialogue related to identities in a globalized world. No doubt her work emerges from a Korean cultural context, yet again, her work transcends a singular, local context having a much broader impact to a global audience. In other words, Kimsooja's art is all about human expression and basic human emotions that knows no boundaries.
In a work that deals with globalization at the core – A Needle Woman (Plate 7) – Kimsooja places herself in 15 different cities around the world over the course of 10 years. Her body and physical presence is the constant in these works, as she blends in or sticks out of the crowd. She describes herself as a needle that weaves through the different cities and experiences the diversity, building a tapestry of global inter-connectedness. She becomes either an expression of the all-too-familiar global citizen or a stranger/foreigner who does not belong. While presenting this contradiction, she also desires to reconcile "perfect immobility and perpetual motion," wanting to exist simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. This notion is a fundamental questioning of existence and identity in globalization. Through her works, the social identities of people in the different locations can be examined, as people go about their daily existence, responding to the artist's body in vastly different ways. Concurrently, her own identity is questioned as she simultaneously embodies and rejects her indigenous culture, constantly altering and blending into the global, social fabric. Kimsooja is influenced by her Korean roots, yet she takes these elements of culture to befit her patchwork identity, her skin wrapping and re-wrapping her body, just like a bottari, as it passes through the world.
In A Needle Woman, Tokyo (Plate 8), the movement and the pace at which people are passing by is entirely unsettling, chaotic, disruptive and jarring for the audience. The endless crowd walks in front of the camera lens, while the chaos of traffic and lights of the ambulance murmur past in the distance, unfocused. Although the people walking by constantly change, and individuals only stay in the focus of the camera lens for a split second, the viewer cannot help but feel the monotony of the crowd. There is no individual within this mass. It quickly becomes exhausting to look at, our eyes become tired and restless. All the while, Kimsooja remains still, meditative in the hectic chaos, where people are barely stopping and noticing her presence. Kimsooja's presence becomes the constant, her long black hair flowing down her back, creating a perfect symmetry to her body. Her presence intersects the flow of people and the entire experience. She remains inconspicuous in her monk-like attire, not ostentatious, yet she is also highly conspicuous – the only stillness in the constant movement.
Complementing this Tokyo work is A Needle Woman, Kitakyushu (Plate 9), which has Kimsooja lying horizontally on a rock formation. In stark contrast, to the hustle and bustle of a great metropolis, here, Kimsooja is becoming one with nature. The distinction between her body and the natural environment begin to merge as the video progresses in stillness and silence. We begin to look beyond the specific shapes of her body's contour laying on the rock, and in turn, we begin to see the unity between the body, the rock and the sky, as our spirit connects with this specific time and place on a contemplative level. Kimsooja states that the most important thing to arise out of these performances is her own experience of 'self' and awareness as a process, rather than the video as a result.
In 2005, Kimsooja continued her video works in A Needle Woman series in 6 new cities. In complete contrast to her presence in the bustling streets of Tokyo, the public reaction in Havana (Plate 10) is vastly different. These second set of video works had been deliberately slowed down so that the passersby's interactions with her body could be accentuated. When the video begins the first thing we notice is an elderly man standing right in front of Kimsooja, trying humorously to illicit a response from her, while another man stands on the right corner of the frame, staring from a safe distance for a prolonged period of time. Throughout the work, the people strolling by all slow down to take a look and there is a general sense of reaction to Kimsooja's presence. As such, this then becomes a sociological experiment, providing insight into the cultural differences between Cubans and Japanese, to say the very least.
Kimsooja desires to be "like a needle that leaves no mark," connecting two pieces of cloth, two continents or states of consciousness. Kimsooja's openness to the world is what makes her a global, nomadic artist, embodying a hybrid identity. She weaves seamlessly through different cultures, leaving her mark but more importantly absorbing what is out there. Synchronously, she is mesmerized by the sense of unity felt through this act of sewing and weaving, as she equates it to a process of emptying and connecting with the inner self. In A Needle Woman, this process of weaving is like a continuous act of repetition, which becomes a form of meditation and contemplation. The greater function and purpose of Kimsooja's art is for us to question what it actually means to be human. The power of her art is that the different layers in her work stimulate thought and engage the mind, to cultivate "mindfulness of what human beings encounter by virtue of being human," similar to the goal of meditation practice.
Kimsooja challenges societal as well as art historical constructs and categories, operating as a free-agent of change. It is through her practice, modus operandi and philosophy that a new epistemology of contemporary art takes place, as she escapes from being pinned down to any movement, style, or group of artistic practice. Kimsooja has created a unique language of expression, fusing her deep-rooted cultural influences with her feminine sensibility, filtering through her personal history and communicating her innate empathy towards humankind and the greater human spirit. Her art opens us up to see the world from totally unexpected perspectives, as she herself truly feels with her body, transcending the artistic medium, the actual performance as well as the time and place to sensuously experience the world around her.
There is already so much conflict, negativity, criticism and problems in the world; in Kimsooja's works, her belief is apparent that there does not need to be anymore negative energy expended on inculpating existing systems. Instead of focusing on the failures and injustices, she does what is most human, she feels great empathy for humankind, her art being a heartfelt gesture of reaching out to the common human spirit that we all share. She engages with matters, issues and state of realities in the most basic human way, opening her heart, which in turn, inspires us to open our hearts, to come to a common, shared understanding and experience of the world. Her works re-discover what has always existed in nature but that has never really been 'found,' as she goes beyond painting methodology to "[reveal] visual realities in nature that have always been there." To conclude, Kimsooja desires art to be the world fine-tuned to make us conscious of place – "our place, the place of others and the place of art, arising in the interstices of culture."
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A fundamental presence in much of Kimsooja's work is that of the body. Over decades of production, beginning with the sewn works of the eighties, in which the body was merely implied through the presence of cloth, followed by the bottari works of the nineties that served as metaphors for intimate coverings of the body, to her canonical video works recording the artist's bold physical presence in the world and some of her most recent works implicating the human presence of others, the body has been one of the underpinnings of an artistic practice that addresses large issues of our time—primarily, how we relate as human beings, and the physical/spiritual/social nature of such relations. After all, it is through the body that we perceive and act in the world, and it is also through our bodies, as viewers of Kimsooja's work, that we come to gain a perspective on her ideas. The following dialogue with the artist focuses on four points of entry into to the performative aspects of her work: body, place, time and participation.
Daina Augaitis : One of your earliest works, Structure – A Study on Body (1981), is a set of prints that explores the idea of a universal body—but in this case you were already, as a young artist in 1981, inserting the specificities of your own subjective body into your work, as if to counter a universal stereotype. Can you describe the impetus for making this work?
Kimsooja : After graduating from college in 1980, I continued investigating questions of tableau as a place in which painters spend their lives trying to find their own mirror. I especially focused on its woven horizontal and vertical system—and with this, the structure of the world and the universe at large. I valued this cruciform structure as a means for understanding the inner structure of aesthetics and human psychology, and it also gave me a perspective from which to approach natural phenomena. This also led to my master's thesis: "A Study on the Universality and Hereditariness of the Plastic Sign: A Focus on the Cruciform Sign" (1984). It was an investigation of the transcendent examples of ancient archetypes through to modern and contemporary painting and sculpture in relation to anthropological and psychological aspects. For example, my enthusiasm for Korean culture at that time extended to the Korean alphabets that were constructed by three symbolic Taoist elements: earth (horizontal line), sky (vertical line) and the human being (dot), a system invented by King Sejong of the Joseon dynasty in the fifteenth century that has an intrinsic horizontality and verticality. I've been focusing totally on this cruciform structure in Korean architecture, furniture, objects and alphabets—even in traditional garments and human psychology—as a basis for understanding the world. During my first trip to Japan in the late 1970s, I came to recognize the uniqueness of Korean visual culture in terms of its own sensibility of colour, especially in relation to Japanese, Chinese and other Asian cultures, which I had previously thought had greater similarities. This interest then expanded to include the body as a tool for the formal examination of horizontal and vertical structures, in a way that is similar to how it is incorporated in our alphabet. My intention in these performative prints was to explore my body within a circular framework as a geometric axis, using images of my arms, hands and legs stretched and folded in various poses to create spatial dimensions that were highlighted with different colour tones. Leonardo da Vinci created a certain universal stereotype in his Vitruvian Man, but for me it was less about proportion than about the dimensionality of the space extended into the world through the cross-like structures of my own body. That was the starting point for this project, which ended up as a series of serigraph prints. It was only a few years later that I escaped from Christianity/Catholicism, and while I won't disagree that I have had a psychological association with cruciform shapes in the artistic domain, that was not the motivation behind exploring the cross shape in my sewn work.
DA : You were conscious of the specificities of your culture and exploring those, but what about the specificity of gender? Were you consciously making work as a female? What was the situation for women in Seoul in the eighties?
K : When I was young I understood the position of women in our society to a limited degree, but I became much more aware of it after I married in 1983, when the different roles and positions of women in the family and in society became clearer to me and I began to explore identity issues. However, I looked at my own culture through completely different eyes when I returned to Seoul at the end of 1993 from New York (after finishing a one-year residency at PS1), a place where many different roles, ethnicities, cultures and value systems were in action.
At times I am conscious that I am a female when it comes to domestic daily-life relationships, and in a political sense, but not as much in art-making, even though I realize I implicate the traditional female domain by using tools like the needle and activities like sewing. However, I believe these elements have evolved conceptually beyond contexts of femininity. It's not that I wish to emphasize my gender, but I am simply not a man, and I can't make my titles A Needle Man or A Mirror Man or A Beggar Man. I started a "sewing" practice in the early eighties neither as a female artist nor as a female specifically interested in sewing nor as someone who was particularly good at sewing. Rather, I was questioning the surface of the tableau and measuring its bodily and psychological depth, binding myself to it (the other) and taking it as a mirror with which to reflect myself, which was also a healing process for me and for others. I discovered experimental artistic value in women's domestic labour—especially in Korea, where female and male labour were clearly separated until the late nineties. Even now, tasks such as cleaning the house, doing laundry, cooking, decorating the home, shopping and educating children are divided along gender lines, although the younger generation has become more open to sharing domestic responsibilities and there are more female professionals in Korean society in recent years. In the late nineties I was compelled to refer to the context of women's labour in performative painting, sculpture and installation. And the discovery of the bottari (Korean word for "bundle") as a form of tableau—a sculpture and a "ready-used" object—made me continue to extend this notion of women's "labour" in contemporary art practice. I was increasingly engaged with my symbolic works made from bedcover fabrics, which had a parallel meaning in my personal life after I got married. It is not unrelated to the cultural and ethical position or expectations that Korean women have in our society. Nevertheless, I never wished my practice to demonstrate a feminist or an activist position, although I certainly accept my own femininity and the strong feminine aspect of my work. More importantly, I believe in a basis of humanity, and while feminism stands alongside humanism, I am less interested in gender-oriented power struggles. In hindsight, I still think my engagement with methodologies based on female domestic labour was more about avant-garde action in relation to contemporary painting and the concept of tableau.
The short period I spent in New York was instrumental, because that's when I discovered a new meaning in the used traditional Korean bedcovers of newly married couples as a ready-made/ready-used aesthetic formation. By wrapping fragments of used traditional clothing in these colourful bedcovers, the bottari constituted a wrapped two-dimensional "tableau" that had been transformed into a three-dimensional sculpture simply by tying one knot and encasing all the contents, as if hugging them all inwardly or being pregnant. It is an action of wrapping bodies and memories. While I was in New York, these bottari objects were a formalistic and aesthetic statement, but when I returned to Korea, I saw our society and women's roles in it from a more critical perspective, and the bottari was no longer just an aesthetic object. Rather, it became tied to notions of the body, to my own conditions and to those of women in general in Korean society, and also to human destiny in a broader sense. After that, I no longer used fragments of coloured fabrics inside of the bottari as a way of creating a type of "pigment." Instead, I began to wrap used clothing in its entirety in order to emphasize elements of reality.
DA : When you're using fabric and clothing as the material for many of your works, it implies an absent body. As you think back on these early works, what body were you referring to? Is it your body? Is it a metaphorical body of society?
K : Looking back at my earlier practice, it seems interesting that I've been so focused on associating fabric and clothing with the skin and the body; even now I realize how much I've been conscious of its presence and connotation. The question began with the conditions of my own body, but I must say it was translated and transformed into somebody else's and then, ultimately, into an anonymous body. I try to use my body more objectively than subjectively and don't wish to make it about personal revelation.
DA : Thinking about when you began to make bottari in New York, could you further describe the implication of the memory of their previous owners?
K : I had been making large sewn pieces since 1983, stitching square- or rectangleshaped parts of used clothes together into a flexible and not pre-determined "canvas." A few of them were cross-shaped—which of course can be a reference to a body or have a religious connotation—while others were triangular or irregularly shaped, based on verticality and horizontality. I started with the old clothes of my grandmother and then I used anonymous people's clothing. At that time, I worked mostly with traditional clothing not only because I was fascinated with the nature of the fabric, but also because the practices of Korean daily life were very much ruled by tradition—that is to say, by Confucianism, which created a strong hierarchy in domestic life and in our society. However, this was also one of the reasons that non-verbalized suppression and contradictions were present in our society. I was never actively engaged with feminism or with any particular groups or isms in my private life or in my art. It was my goal to maintain an independent stance while pursuing a sense of totality in my practice. What happened was that these social concerns merged with my existential and aesthetic problems.
After 1990, I moved away from the square shapes and made irregularly assembled forms with the same materials on a larger scale, which brought a more open dimension to my work. My last sewn piece made at PS1, Towards the Flower (1992), is a large, sewn assemblage wall piece consisting of a long pole wrapped with reused bedcovers and scraps of clothing leaning against the tableau together with my first wrapped bottari as another component. The piece combines three elements: the wall tableau as a painting; the pole leaning onto the painting, which replaces my (or the audience's) hand and gaze and is an extended body; and the first bottari I had made as a sculpture that enfolds and wraps up all the sewn pieces I had made in the past. In the end, the bottari seemed to encapsulate everything inside of it and became a complex symbol. I didn't make any more sewn pieces after that.
DA : How did you make the transition from the bottari works to the video works in which you begin to use your own body as subject matter?
K : My first video was actually intended as a documentary film of my methodical working process with the bedcovers at a chosen site in Oksanseowon Valley in Kyungju. There I laid the bedcovers out on the ground like a field of laundry and then slowly collected them in my arms and wrapped them into bottari. The film shows every single step and interaction with these flexible fabrics (or "canvases"). At the end, I wrapped everything into two bottari and carried them away. When I was reviewing the footage, I immediately noticed that my body walking on the fabric signified a symbolic needle and I furthermore discovered that the camera's lens and the video's frame served as another form of immaterial framing within the screen. The video thus became a wrapping of the wrapping. The juxtaposition of such opposites—the physicality of the bottari, which evokes a body, together with the video frame as another immaterial way of wrapping—has been a component of my work ever since.
DA : As you began to move into this field of performance centred on your own living body as an essential aspect of the work were you thinking at all about some of the experiments of Valie Export, Marina Abramović or Yoko Ono? Were you interested in the history of performance art as you began to use your own body?
K : I had only seen a few historical performance images, but I was not interested at all in the staged performances or violent actions of Western performers. Instead I wished to interact directly with nature or in the realm in which real life occurs—not to show something to the audience, but rather to offer an experience for both the audience and myself… In 1979, while I was still at art school, there was an "event" as part of the Daegu Contemporary Art Festival that I was invited to be a part of. It was an interactive "Two-Person Event" organized by Kim Yong-Min for which we ravelled from Seoul to the Gangjeong riverside in Daegu. We wore identical orange workers' vests and departed from the Seoul train station for Daegu, my home town. We took notes on the journey (mainly done by Kim Yong-Min) and each one of us collected preferred objects along the river that were installed in two small adjacent spaces with primitive walls constructed from gathered branches. I collected small objects, such as stones, small piles of sand, little tree branches, flowers, a tiny soju (Korean sake) glass, fresh garlic cloves, etc. I placed the garlic and the soju glass on top of a small installation of branches and leaves atop a tiny sand dune, as if it were a small shrine offering in a shamanistic ceremony. Each of us hung our clothes on the wall and left our travel notes that recorded the entire journey from the train station in Seoul to the Gangjeong riverside and the exhibition space in Daegu. This journey together was unplanned, and was guided completely by each of our individual desires. I realized then that this raw energy of daily life would become the essence of my performances. I wanted to establish a totally different way of doing performances by inverting the notion of an artist as a predominant actor through "non-doing" and "nonmaking" in order to reveal a critical point that is without heroism and without violent action or aggression. I was quite vulnerable and disturbed by the violent performance actions of some performance artists in relation to their own bodies or those of others. I've always questioned a violent exploitation of the body, as it is something I am completely against, even if it is intended to demonstrate the infliction of violence upon the body. I have always believed that there is a way to demonstrate critical ideas without being aggressive.
DA : Your earliest performance-based works occurred when you began to travel with the bottari works in the mid nineties. Was this to explore different places as a way of locating specific contexts and histories that would emerge out of them?
K : I was inspired by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Hou Hanru's exhibition Cities on the Move, a project in which I participated. When I was young, my family was always moving from one city or village to another due to my father's job. I often enjoyed playing with my school friends in my teenage years by writing down all the names of the cities and villages in which I had lived, connecting them to one another with lines like long sewn stitches in between the names of the towns. The title of Cities on the Move reminded me of our family's nomadic life and inspired me to do the Cities on the Move – 2727 Kilometers Bottari Truck (1997) performance, revisiting all of the villages and cities of my youth in an eleven-day trip across Korea.
DA : By now you have worked in a vast number of cities throughout Asia and around the world. What are your thoughts about the idea of place now? Are you using those locations as a way to root your experience in them? How do you choose where you'll be going?
K : When I chose Tokyo as the location for the first performance of A Needle Woman (1999), I only had the idea that I would do a performance piece in the city followed by one in nature, without any more specific plans. Clearly, I didn't want to be an actor on stage, and it was a new challenge for me to pursue this experience as an anonymous performer. This work was intended as the first performance piece that I would record and show to the public, working together with the CCA Kitakyushu. I follow my instinct in terms of the energy that I feel from a place—it is an energy that has a lot to do with either people or nature. I often choose the place intuitively, otherwise I am not inspired and can't perform.
In order to experience my body defined by different realities, the enlightening experience in Shibuya of standing solitarily in the middle of humanity was followed by the opposite axis of standing with a performance of lying horizontally in solitude in nature.
DA : When you work in different locations, does your work change? And how do you intersect with the social, cultural, political and economic dimensions of each place?
K : I had an incredible experience performing in Tokyo. The performance started the moment in which I became aware of my body in an extreme state of conflict in the middle of a big crowd. I couldn't walk anymore and just had to stop right there and be still in order to tame the inner scream building in my body from the energy of all the people around me. As it became more and more extreme it felt as if I were getting wrapped up inside my own body like a bundle—an absolute sense of self-awareness. That's how the performances of A Needle Woman (1999–2001, 2005, 2009) began. While I was standing still and remaining centred, I experienced an incredible transition in my mind from vulnerability to a focused, meditative and enlightened state of mind. This is when my mind and eyes entered the reality of a large universe, seeing the white light beyond the horizon of the waves of people coming and going. This powerful experience of enlightenment enabled me to meet the people of the world's most crowded cities. For the first series of A Needle Woman performances, I chose the most populated locations in the world in order to meet oceans of people—Shanghai, Delhi, Cairo, New York, Mexico City, London and Lagos, all metropolises on different continents.
DA : When you arrived in these cities did you think in advance about what the politics of each place were?
K : Before this work, I hadn't witnessed the conflicts, violence or poverty that exist around the world. But after visiting Delhi, Lagos and Cairo, those places really made me reconsider differences in ethnicities, geography, cultural and religious tensions, politics and economics. When I finished all eight cities in the series in 2001, I realized how problematic the entire world had become. The more I travel,the more challenging and violent the world seems. Eventually, for the 2005 Venice Biennale I decided to create another series of A Needle Woman performances dedicated to cities in conflict, whether this was economic, ethnic, religious, violent or post-colonial in nature. The condition of humanity in each place and my growing inner awareness intersect, leading to deeper and broader questions.
DA : Do you work with local people? And is community collaboration important? It seems that the notion of collaboration has evolved in your work.
K : Actually, I'm not big on collaborating with large groups; I almost have a fear of it. I prefer one-on-one relationships rather than group relationships. But I am getting more involved in collaborative work, and it does offer me valuable experiences. Recent collaborations with communities include working on An Album: Hudson Guild (2009), for which I collaborated with the Hudson Guild Senior Center. Another example is my most recent ongoing film project, Thread Routes (2010–), which focuses on specific weaving communities around the world. In these works I am now physically removed from the viewers, but through my gaze, I explore my perspective through the specific communities that perform their passions, desires and rituals. In Thread Routes these are captured in their textile-related performances, implicating local environmental conditions and the aesthetics of movement that unfold in the actions of their bodies. It goes back to my earlier work displaying an interest in sewing, spinning, wrapping and unwrapping. In a sense, I unwrap their bodies and minds, creating drawings of their movements and life. I feel the psychological dimensions of our bodies are demonstrated when they are unfolding in a performative state.
DA : The passage of time is a significant aspect of your work. How do you think about time and impermanence in relation to your work?
K : I believe not in permanency but in constant transition. Everything is in process and is ephemeral, including my own body. In my earlier works the process of sewing was a journey to the past, present and future, as an internal voyage through space and time. The performance of A Needle Woman afforded me the awakening experience of an internal journey by locating/dislocating the physicality of my own body, which in turn posed questions and suggested different perceptions of time in both my mind and that of the viewer. Yet another special state of perception occurred in A Laundry Woman – Yamuna River, India (2000), the performance in which I was standing on the bank of the Yamuna River. At one point I became confused to such a degree that I could not determine whether it was my body or the river that was moving. How could I be so confused about the relationship between my body and the river? A while after finishing the performance, I came to realize that the reason was because I had been so focused—to the extreme, like the point of a needle, which has no space but only location. And when there is no space but only location, you're open to all dimensionality; you cannot relate your physical body to any particular thing or direction because you are simultaneously unrelated and entirely related within. I had become confused in that zero point of time and space, and it was a profound and humbling moment of awareness of my own ephemerality.
Also, when I did the second version of A Needle Woman (2005) I focused more on my body as an axis of time: it has more emphasis as a video piece rather than a performance in comparison to the previous version and is presented in slow motion, whereas the first version focuses on my body as an axis of space in a realtime performance. I accentuated a temporal aspect and reduced the tension of the world in this second version by slowing down the video so that passersby have a longer interaction with my body, and this smoothed out even aggressive actions. Also, the viewers' experience of a slightly longer duration during these moments of interaction allows the delicate psychological threads woven into this video to become apparent. Slowing down the video's speed produces an expansion of time and creates a stretched stillness as a result. My body in stillness slows down to the degree of permanency, a zero point of time, the central needle point of a clock. I have been increasingly interested in extending time while observing the phenomenon of duration.
In An Album : Hudson Guild, the camera focuses on each individual's face for a certain length of time and freezes their movement at one point, thereby seeming to transform a moment into eternity. An awareness of time becomes more obvious in this video through the psychological journeys visible on the faces of each individual, whom I filmed closely for many minutes. It is as if I had stopped each person walking by me in A Needle Woman to give my gaze—carefully and closely, one person at a time—to them and all the individuals who pass through my life. I must say, this creates a continuum linking this work with A Needle Woman, and there is still much to explore in what time can reveal. But time reveals things to us only when we have consciousness.
DA : What about the psychological dimension of duration? What's going on in your mind and what connection do you make with the people around you, especially in a piece like A Beggar Woman (2000–2001)?
K : When I did A Needle Woman, I felt a great empathy for the humanity around me just by gazing at people coming and going. It's a short moment, but in it one can grasp the essence of the ephemerality of human reality. Also I felt a great amount of affection toward the people I encountered. All of those emotions about people were accumulating in my body and embracing me. By the end, I was filled with such fulfilment, peace and happiness. The performance of A Needle Woman was a truly amazing experience for me.
In the various performances of A Beggar Woman, in contrast to those of A Needle Woman, I relate directly to the specific social reality in a suggestive way by sitting in a pose with my hand outstretched like a beggar. I was not asking for money by posing as a beggar, but instead asking questions by opening my palm to the audience. I didn't expect that people would react by giving real money in this performance. However, I was given money in most places, and I was extremely touched and humbled by this action, as it was a moment of personal communication for me. The interaction and psychology of reacting to a beggar and giving something to him is complicated for both of the people involved. It is a moment of sympathy/expectation, doubt/anti-doubt, hesitation/frustration, willingness/request, withdrawal/disappointment, anxiety/anger and regret/relief—all of which are tensions that are generated between the giver and the receiver. The only place I wasn't given money was in Cairo, but instead I was given an even more valuable gift there: someone placed a baby chick in my hand, and I was so shocked to have this small, warm, moving life in my outstretched palm—in my bottari. Even if it was a playful gesture, the person who gave me the bird had responded to my open question with a profound answer, "A life." Another special experience was the first performance of A Beggar Woman that I did in Mexico City (2000), where I saw and connected with a man from a distance. I had already felt his presence in advance, and I had the intuition that he would give me his money. As soon as I sensed this, I was very touched and couldn't stop weeping as I awaited his action. I tried hard to maintain my stillness. As he slowly approached, he searched for money in his various pockets. Once he found a coin, he slowly came to me and put it carefully into my palm and then left. This was a real response to me, not to a performer. I have learned a great deal from my performances, about people and cultures.
DA : I wonder about a piece like Encounter (1998), which is a photograph. As a photographic document, is it therefore more about gesture rather than performance?
K : Encounter is actually a performative photograph I made in connection with another performative sculpture called Encounter – Looking into Sewing, which I made in 1998 at the Kunsthalle Fridericianum in Kassel. For this work, I placed a mannequin covered with silk bedcovers at the central intersection of the crossshaped room in the museum's tower and I declared it to be "A Performance." People came and waited, watching the figure/sculpture for a while, expecting some sort of action. When the figure didn't move after a long time, instead of assuming the figure was a performer, the audiences started walking around the figure to try to understand. So I interpreted this interaction on the part of the audience as a kind of "relational performance." That was the original work; the photograph is a re-creation or a record of a similar performative sculpture covering an actual woman inside.
DA : The idea of speed is one that Western society is both enthralled with and dependent on. Your work seems to function in the opposite way. Is it your intention to slow things down, to change the speed of engagement?
K : Rather than being against speed, I suppose my work sets up a certain kind of observation in relation to speed. However, sometimes a speeded-up action can also open up reality. For example, I was in Hawaii for a site-specific installation and then ended up making the video A Wind Woman (2003). I was filming while driving along a mountaintop and at a certain point, when the speed of the camera and the car coincided, the lens captured the hidden threads between the sky and the trees—the border between things and space (something I've always been curious about and wished to define), stretching it into a brushstroke of wind/speed. Stretching space and time enables different relationships to be noticeable and awakens us to see the world from totally different perspectives. So by observing how quickly or slowly I look at things through changing speeds, I have discovered a series of historical phases of abstract painting—Realism, Impressionism, Expressionism and even Minimalism—as a series of momentary transitions of painting practices. It took many centuries in the history of painting to arrive at the point where Gerhard Richter's brushstroke is recognized as a unique painting methodology; however, A Wind Woman, for example, demonstrates different movements of painting in the history of modern painting, revealing visual realities in nature that have always been there.
I began my practice as a painter, and most of my evolution stems from my position as a painter.
DA : It seems that your work is very much about the connections you make with humanity, but can you imagine a performance in which there is a surrogate body in place of your own?
K : It is inevitable that I perform A Needle Woman, as it is about not just the visual representation but also the unique experience I have as a person and a practitioner whose body has been contextualizing the notion of a needle for thirty years now. Most of my performances were about not just the form but also my inner experience. The state of mind I achieve while I stand there comes from a particular motivation and autonomy of the status of my body and mind. I notice that my back reveals the neutral identity and my state of mind at the time. The back is actually one of the most honest parts of our body. When I'm not stable or focused, I feel it is visible in my back. It's critical for me to be centred, with a focused state of mind and body. If someone else did this piece, the results as an experience and the tension of the performance would be completely different. I did direct and re-perform a version of A Beggar Woman as the project Conditions of Anonymity (2005) with a group of about twenty-two volunteers, a work that was commissioned by Creative Time in New York. The performance was done in Times Square while the videos A Laundry Woman – Yamuna River, India (2000) and A Beggar Woman – Cairo (2001) were being presented on an LED screen. I couldn't repeat myself by doing the same performance while my videos were presented on-site, but I was able to direct a group performance of the same action. I thought this performance could be experienced by any individual without pretention, and it worked out very well, with participants sharing amazing individual experiences and the interactions of the performance.
DA : You speak about your back revealing the truth, but there is also truth in the gaze. Who is the primary audience for you in the case of A Needle Woman? Is it the sea of people walking by you in real life, or are you already thinking of the video projection and the audience that will be behind you?
K : Both of those are my audiences, and so am I—I, too, am observing from my back while looking forward. At the same time, in order to maintain my body as balanced, I never lock eyes with the passersby. I continuously gaze at a perspective point—a distant needle point. For those watching the video, my body becomes like a vertical needle with a symbolic void in it that allows viewers to enter or erase my body after watching my back for a while, almost like weaving. In the end, it is as if I become an invisible woman whose physicality is erased by waves of people on the street and by audiences—by being watched.
DA : At what point does the spectator become part of your work? I was reading Jacques Rancière's Emancipated Spectator, and he writes about the need for theatre to mobilize the viewers as much as the actors. When I watched Hudson Guild, I felt that you had activated the participants and that the border between actor, viewer and action had been blurred.
K : In a way, An Album: Hudson Guild was an extended version of A Needle Woman but with my body removed and the roles reversed. In the first part of the video, I am watching each individual community member via the camera as he or she stares into its lens, and in the moment each enters his or her own imaginary world—regardless of what he or she is looking at—and looks back at the camera, that gaze answers my voice when I call his or her name. Rather than being anonymous people in the street, here people from the street come and sit and perform their own personality during their psychological journey, which allows their specific individuality to emerge. One might think this video has something to do with Andy Warhol's screen tests, but Warhol's approach to celebrities that had personal relationships with him is just the opposite of mine and has totally different associations to each of the performers in relationship to the audience. The gazes of the people in Hudson Guild become a parallel to A Needle Woman's gaze, because now they observe themselves from a fixed position, although I give them the freedom to be who they are and do what they wish. In the second part of the video, I placed them all together in the audience's seats of a theatre for a group video portrait and filmed them from the centre of the stage—treating the audience as performers and placing the camera in the same position of A Needle Woman. As performers of themselves, they seem like a sort of constellation of humanity in their own embodied bottari in the theatre. The frozen gaze of each individual turns the continuity into discontinuity, and at the same time, it transforms a moment into eternity.
Once I screened this video in the same theatre in which I had filmed it and invited the performers to attend. Doing so mirrored the audience, raising questions about who is the viewer and who is the performer; what is performed and what is activated/de-activated; who is watched and who is watching; and what are we looking at and what do we really see.
DA : This brings our discussion back to the activation of the individual in society. We are all performers in the theatre of life.