Kimsooja 'To Breathe' in Centre Pompidou Metz "My work has always been a response to violence and inhumanity"


세계 속에서 미술의 새로운 정체성을 만들어가는 작가, 김수자 Kimsooja


An Architecture of Gaze

To Breathe, 2015, site-specific installation consisting of video projection To Breathe: Invisible Mirror, Invisible Needle, 2005, mirror, diffraction grating film, and sound performance The Weaving Factory, 2004, at Centre Pompidou-Metz, photograph by Jaeho Chong. Commissioned by Centre Pompidou-Metz, Courtesy of Institut français/Année France Corée, Kukje Gallery, Seoul and Kimsooja Studio

Kimsooja 'To Breathe' in Centre Pompidou Metz

"My work has always been a response to violence and inhumanity"

Thomas Van Loocke


  • Visiting an exhibition preview can impede an uninhibited view at the art at hand, but in the event of a large-scale installation that opens to the invitees at a specific time, it can also have a magical shine, as if you enter and explore a shrine together. However, this heightened sense of wonder can only partly explain why I was overwhelmed by a wave of goose flesh, even before I fully set foot in Kimsooja's latest installation. That is the impact her art can have.

  • Kimsooja's 'To Breathe' in Centre Pompidou Metz is a part of the 2015-2016 Korea-France Billateral Exchange, an event to celebrate 130 years diplomatic of relations between the two countries. The Korean artist, who lives and works in New York, Seoul and Paris, is known for her simple visual language and her deep humanism, a combination of core features, which led Olivia María Rubio to label her art as existential minimalism.

  • In Metz she presents the next chapter in her To Breathe series. How to describe and assess an installation that immerses you instantaneous and do justice to its total experience? One immediately feels the limitations of language. It seems that the only way is to chop it into manageable components and in Kimsooja's case a possible path is to deal with these components in a chronological order.

  • The oldest one is the recording of her humming and breathing. For her participation in the Lodz Biennale of 2004 she was inspired by her assigned location: a former weaving factory. The rhythmic and cyclic movement of a loom made her think of the inhaling and exhaling of the human body. In other words, in her sound performance she replaced mechanical movement with bodily motion and mechanical sound with human humming.

  • The aural facet of her installation in Metz is similar to the one in Lodz. First we hear a skin-tingling humming. Then her soft nasal sounds develop into a polyphonic flirt on the edge of harmony and dissonance. They suddenly fade away and after a few silent seconds, we hear the artist breathing, from calm to agitated. It goes crescendo to a climax which we do not know the content of. Is it the angst of gasping for life or is it the rapture of la petite morte?

  • The affective force of the soundscape is soothed by the second component of her installation: the slow projection of color fields on a floor screen. She first experimented with this in 2006, when she presented 'To Breathe / Respirare (Invisible Mirror, Invisible Needle)' at the Teatro la Fenice in Venice and the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris.

  • The monochromes, more or less in the middle of the installation, are an oasis of serenity where the look can linger. They are surrounded by a sea of glittering mirrors that is bounded by the bay windows on both sides of the 80 meters long Gallery 2. The mirrors and the diffraction grid film on the windows are the more recent components in 'To Breathe'. In 2006 she transformed the Palacio de Cristal, a glass pavilion in the heart of the Buen Retiro Park in Madrid, with them.

  • Whereas the film folds and blurs Metz's skyline and landmarks into a fairy-like rainbow spectrum, the mirror stickers unfold the space and the self. The ripples where they stick together and the reflection of the grid ceiling are dizzying and disorientating. Strolling while looking in the mirrors has a vertigo-like effect, but it also sharpens your sense of self-awareness. Something that was already ignited by the breathing.

  • The abstraction of the alternating color projection, the virtuality of the mirrors and the reality of the cityscape and changing light melt together to an immersing experience that is as confronting as it is comforting. Here's an artist who is confident in her simple visual language and whose modest power is exposed to those who are open to it.

  • Thomas Van Loocke : How difficult is it to create intimate art that can host a lot of visitors, like your installation in Metz? How do you feel about this tension?

  • Kimsooja : I think all art can be intimate as long as the audience takes it as such. My breathing performance might be intimidating to some visitors, as it evokes a strong physical reaction because of its intimate, physical and sexual aspects. However, when you take it serious enough to go beyond those dimensions, you start to question the borderline between the moments of life and death.

  • TVL : What are the best conditions to view and experience your installation? All alone or with a few or even a lot of others?

  • K : All alone is interesting, but so is having someone else's presence, as the other's body serves as a measurement of scale to the installation. Even if there are several others, you can always be focused as long as you find an element to focus onto. At the moment, the number of visitors is limited to fifteen.

  • TVL : In an earlier interview you said that "the whole of (your) practice has always been a journey of searching for a self-awareness". Do you think visitors can enter that state of mind when they're more and more preoccupied with their smartphones and shooting the most likeable Instagram photos?

  • K : It is one of the symptoms of our contemporary technological society. Most people are not able to focus on the here and now. Instead of experiencing the now, they record it, so that they can replay it later. There's no corporeality and mindfulness to the time they spend. However, I was surprised to see many of the visitors very much engaging with the installation. Walking slowly, contemplating the moment. Visitors can experience whatever they want, as long as they don't do anything dangerous or disturb the others. I know you can't control your audience. The piece is there for the ones who are ready for and open to it.

  • TVL : Regarding that lack of control and the ability to experience your spatial installations, how do you look back on your participation in the Venice Biennale of 2013? One reviewer noted that "the impact of the installation itself (was) far outweighed by the bureaucratic procedure one (had) to transition through".

  • K : I agree that the opening period of the Biennale was not ideal to fully experience this particular piece. The Biennale attracts such a large number of visitors that we needed a procedure to ensure that everything ran as smooth as possible. Without it could have been dangerous for some people to enter the anechoic darkroom, just as walking on the mirror floor could have been for seniors or for people who suffer from vertigo. Although I am grateful for the enthusiasm and patience of the people who waited to experience both spaces in the Korean Pavilion, I still regret that we couldn't give more time in the anechoic chamber to the visitors. If I were able to recreate the piece, I think that more time would make it possible to delve deeper in one's inner space and to have a richer experience.

  • TVL : Your work is based on displacement and humanness. What is your view on the biggest refugee and migration crisis since the Second World War?

  • K : I personally think the Third World War is already happening. It was ignited by America's reaction to 9/11. In an endless cycle of violence, the whole world is now drenched in human blood. It threatens our freedom, sanity and daily life. We all have to witness this incessant violence, as mass media shows it non-stop in this era. It numbs us and makes us more and more indifferent, which is a huge problem. Contemplating our own individual problems will be the key to solve this, I think. We need to recover our heart, love and peace, now more than ever. The key is in our mind.
    Equally distressing is the unbelievable desperation of the refugees crossing oceans and borders. In this time we need art that can comfort and heal the human mind that has been hurt so much. We have to rethink how to lead our life and how to respect, embrace and share with the other, instead of arguing with or attacking him or her – to save ourselves, the others and the next generations and to save this globe.

  • TVL : Are politicians tackling it in the right way? Do they show enough humanness in their approach?

  • K : I am so disappointed by all measures taken by politicians in the name of the nation and humanity. What they do is exactly the same as what the ones they condemn are doing: killing. There's no better solution in history than Mahatma Ghandi's resistance, as there can be no excuse for taking someone's life. What are religious leaders teaching to their followers? Why can't we hear them speak up? What are influential thinkers doing nowadays? I was touched by the speech of the Princess of Jordan: she proposed to open her country for the huge number of refugees and to educate the immigrant kids. As she is one of the most powerful figures in Jordan, her words have a huge impact. I wished all nations showed this kind of courage, responsibility and humanity. Americans and Asians hesitate to act, as they think it is someone else's problem. Especially America should welcome refugees, given every citizen descends from immigrants all over the world.

  • TVL : Has this crisis affected your work?

  • K : My work has always been a response to violence and inhumanity and this will never change. I answer it by means of healing. Either by showing society's reality as a witness or by proposing a harmonious way of co-existence, questioning who we are and where we're going. I wish people find equilibrium and peace in my work that comes from their own empathy.
    As a child, I spent some important years near DMZ areas in South Korea, as my father served in the military. I came to realize lately that experiencing the specific geographical condition as well as the daily danger and DMZ border issues, must have given me a sensitive and vulnerable attitude to any kind of violence, be it verbal, visual or physical. Although my father was forced to serve during the Korean War and continued his responsibility until he retired as a general, he didn't believe in physical force and often showed anger over the military conduct towards civilians, especially the Gwangju massacre on May 21, 1980. I am sure the whole condition of my childhood has influenced my thoughts and my work a lot. Not only the environment in which we lived, but the education my parents gave me. There was love and care and they always emphasized and demonstrated the equality of every human being.
    As a teenager, I suffered a lot not being able to help people in need. I wished to quit high school and to become a social worker or labourer, as I was burdened by the thought that I was a privileged individual, although we were just a normal middle class family in Korean society. I chose to go to college, to be financially independent and to gain the strength to help others, while pursuing art as a tool for my contemplation on life and the world. My engagement with social issues in different forms is the basis of my art.

  • TVL : What are your prospects?

  • K : I'm doing extensive research for the last chapter of the Thread Routes, a film project that consists of six chapters, each one in a different location around the globe. I hope the political situation in Africa becomes stabilized so that I can travel more freely in the coming years to create it. This is the most important project on my mind right now.
    Another big plan is to find the right location for 'A Needle Woman – Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir', a 46-foot-taal needle-shaped sculpture in iridescent steel and polymer that I developed in collaboration with architect Jaeho Chong – my son – and Cornell University nano material engineer Ulirich Wiesner last year.

A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is Souvenir, 2014, 46 x 4.5(diameter) feet, mixed media installation, photograph by Aaron Wax

세계 속에서 미술의 새로운 정체성을 만들어가는 작가

김수자 Kimsooja

Young Hee, Suh


  • 누구든지 김수자 작가가 제작한 작품들을 신속히 훑어보기로 한다면, 필자는 가장 손쉬운 방법으로 그의 작품들이 매체별로 정리된 웹 홈페이지 www.kimsooja.com로 일단 들어가 보라고 추천하고 싶다. 썩 잘 분류된 이 홈페이지는 작가의 글, 인터뷰, 작품에 대한 생생한 포트폴리오 역할을 하기 때문이다. 사실 필자도 여느 감상자들과 마찬가지이다. 김수자의 예외적인 전시들을 보기 위해 수시로 해외로 나갈 수는 없다. 그래서 빈번하게 이 사이트에 링크를 걸곤 한다. 그럼 그때마다 간화선(看話禪)의 화두 같은 작품들이 하나씩 하나씩 또렷이 드러나고, 이윽고는 일상에서 둔탁해진 의식의 벽이 얇은 필름처럼 예민해지는 묘한 기쁨을 느낀다.

  • 김수자의 작품은 우리의 마른 감각에만 호소하지 않는다. 빠르고 격한 충격을 주거나 새뜻한 간질거림으로 자극하는 작품들과는 매우 다르다. 특이하게도 그의 작품들은 감상자의 몸과 의식을 동시에 사로잡고, 시각과 감성의 깊이(profondeur)를 파고든다. 그의 상상력과 정서도 그저 그렇고 그런 충동에서 비롯되지는 않는다. 그의 미적 상상력은 출렁이지 않고 고요히 가라앉은 마음과 여유로운 호흡으로부터 시작된다. 그래서 작품을 바라보는 우리도 너 나 없이 부지불식간에 방치해왔던 깊은 생각들 속으로 가라앉는다. '나'를 질문하게 하는 존재라는 것 혹은 세계 속 존재의 의미 내지 근원을 더듬어가는 사색의 느린 흐름을 타보는 경험을 하게 된다. 감상자들의 이 같은 특별한 경험을 배려하기 위함인지, 작가는 자신의 작품 안에서 스스로 목소리를 내세우지 않는 편이다. 작품을 설치하고서는 에고의 흔적을 지운 채 조용히 물러난다. 예술가가 주관과 감정을 표면에 드러내지 않음이 감상자에겐 흔치 않은 당혹스런 일이 되겠으나, 하지만 그렇기에 스스로 의식의 체험을 할 수 있는 넉넉한 사유의 자리를 얻음에야 ... 그러니 우리가 그의 작품 속으로 풍덩 빠져 볼만 하지 않겠는가.

  • 천들을 바늘과 실로 꿰매어 연결한 1980년대의 <ㄱ, ㄴ, ㄷ, ㄹ> 연작과 <天, 地> 연작에서부터 최근의 비디오 설치작품인 <地水火風> 연작까지, 작가의 작품 구성은 미니멀리즘을 연상시킬 만큼 늘 단순하고 구조적이다. 초기작에서 수직선과 수평선 혹은 사선으로 이어진 사각형 천들은 조각조각마다 염색된 오방색들을 그대로 드러낸 채, 협화음과 불협화음의 색조 구성을 보여준다. <지수화풍>에서도 세계를 구성하는 4 요소들인 흙, 물, 불, 바람의 자연 이미지들을 순열로 연결해 설치함으로서, 존재를 둘러싼 세계의 근원적 의미를 네 방향을 따라 구조적으로 사유하도록 한다. 작가가 스펙터클의 축으로 등장한 <바늘여인> 연작에서도 마찬가지다. 그는 등을 돌린 채 얼굴을 보이지 않는 침묵 상태로 그렇게 '수직'으로 멈추어 서있다. 그 대신 주변 도시와 다양한 면모의 사람들이 형형색색의 천 조각들처럼 '수평'으로 그를 감싸 흐르고 움직인다. 2010년을 전후해 등장한 일련의 비디오 작품들인 <뭄바이: 빨래터>과 <앨범: 허드슨 길드> 그리고 <실의 궤적> 연작들 역시도 유사하게 이해할 수 있지 않을까 싶다. 보이지 않는 작가의 몸은 여전히 지구 곳곳을 수평으로 흐르는 갖가지의 존재의 삶들, 그 조각과 편린들을 끌어 모았다가 때가 되면 우리 눈앞에 보따리를 풀듯 펼쳐놓고 주목하도록 손짓한다.

  • 그의 비디오 작품들은 그 전에 선행된 <보따리> 연작의 연장선 위에 있다. 초기에 천들을 아상블라주하듯 꿰맨 작품들은 평면작업이지만, 1991년 뉴욕 PS1 작업실에서 발견한 <보따리> 연작은 천들을 꿰매지 않고 천 조각 하나하나의 단위를 독립된 기표로 인식하면서 시작된다. 천 조각들은 색과 문양 그리고 크기에 상관없이 각각 하나의 기호가 되며, 전시장 바닥 혹은 테이블 위에 펼쳐놓는 산포의 기호로 유연하게 변화된다. 그러다가 작가가 어느 순간에 이 천 조각들을 끌어 모아 보따리로 싸면서, 평면 작업(수평 구조, 정지 상태)이 입체 작업(수직 구조, 이동 상태)으로 이행되고, 보따리는 신체와 함께 여행하는 오브제로 변환된다. 펼치고 싸는 다시 그 반대로도 전환되는 <보따리> 연작은 그 가변성과 이동성(유목성) 덕분에 시, 공간을 통한 작품 구조의 열림을 가져온 그야말로 현대미술의 획기적인 전환점으로 이해되는 것이다.

  • 이후 작가는 세계 곳곳마다 보따리들을 들고 다니며 전시장마다 상이한 퍼포먼스를 펼쳐 보였다. 그리고 우리는 보따리를 열 때마다 존재와 삶의 다양한 상들을 풀어내는 작가의 행위에 매료되지 않을 수 없었다. 그런데 그는 여기서 멈추지 않고 다시 미술의 정체성이란 경계를 허물며 다른 영역으로 나아갔다. 새로운 출발점은 <보따리>의 무한한 구조적 가변성에 있었다. 그로부터 작가는 천 조각들 대신 비디오 영상 단편을 매재로 삼고 그리고 보따리를 펼치고 싸는 일 대신 필름을 편집해내는 일로 이행하며, 전혀 또 다른 이미지들을 펼쳐냈다. 필자는 비디오와 필름 영상의 선택이 그에게 어떤 변화를 가져왔는지 생각할 때마다, 감탄과 환호의 박수를 보내게 된다. 비단 작품 스케일과 구상에서 실현에 이르는 과정의 변화 뿐 아니라, 영상의 흐르는 시간성은 음양을 따라 오행하는 유동적 사태들 다시 말해 만물의 생성-변화-소멸의 변전을 근원적으로 설명해내는 최적의 방법적 조건을 마련해주었다고 생각한다. 들숨과 날숨의 호흡이나 실을 잣고 씨실, 날실을 직조하는 일 그리고 세계 곳곳에서 이어지는 실의 궤적과 남미, 유럽의 바늘 여인들의 이중 구조 역시 그의 비디오 작품에서는 존재-삶의 구조적 양태에 대한 직관의 이미지들로 살아났다.

  • 호흡(숨쉬기)은 우리 삶의 시작과 끝이다. 첫 호흡으로 태어나며, 마지막 호흡으로 생을 마감한다. 이 보이지 않는 들숨, 날숨의 끝없는 반복은 우주의 보이지 않는 무한 에너지(氣, 光)의 맥동 그 자체이다. 다양한 삶들을 이루는 바탕이자 가장 근본적이고 통일된 존재 상징으로서 이 호흡을 김수자는 2006년 마드리드의 '크리스탈 궁전' 내부에 가득 채웠다(<호흡: 거울여인>). 이어 2013년 베니스 비엔날레에서도 <호흡하기: 보따리>란 설치작품을 통해, 전시장을 빛과 호흡으로 채웠다. 국내외 관객들에게 강한 인상을 던진 두 설치작품들은 비시각적인 빛과 호흡을 특수 필름과 거울을 사용해 눈부시도록 찬란한 무지개빛과 확대된 호흡 소리로 즉 심장의 수축과 확장, 씨실과 날실의 직조처럼 손에 잡힐 듯 생생한 촉각적, 청각적 맥동으로 전환시켰다. 그리하여 작가나 감상자의 존재/부재를 부각시키는 한편 생명과 환경의 연계에 더 주목하도록 하는 관계적 상황을 연출해냈다.

A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is Souvenir, 2014, 46 x 4.5(diameter) feet, mixed media installation, photograph by Jaeho Chong

An Architecture of Gaze

Jaeho, Chong


  • A silent figure stands with its back facing the viewer, poised motionless against the ebb and flow of the anonymous crowd, unsheltered and without a want. Standing in front of A Needle Woman, a performance/video work (1999-2009) by the acclaimed artist Kimsooja, we see a body which, without doing anything, becomes a measure of time and space. As the artist's body weaves ceaselessly through the crowd, it shifts in and out of our field of vision. For a fleeting moment we experience our body transposed into hers, and through the borrowed gaze of the artist we confront our own impermanence in the face of time.

  • Her most recent work, similarly titled, A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir, carries this experience forward in a new form of practice. It is the result of a close collaboration between Kimsooja, the nanoscientist Ulrich Wiesner, and myself, an architect, on the occasion of the Cornell University's inaugural art biennial organized by Stephanie Owens, director of the Cornell Council for the Arts. Sited at the heart of the university's Arts Quad, the 46 foot high 4.5 foot diameter custom-fabricated steel structure is fleshed out with transparent acrylic panels that have been individually coated in iridescent nanopolymer. Under a raking light, each of these panels transforms the entire pavilion into a radiant spectrum of color as the molecularly engineered 'block copolymer,' produced by Hiroaki Sai and Ferdinand Kohle from the Wiesner Group, refracts various wavelengths of light dependent on the angle from which it is viewed. The interior of the floor is mirrored, doubling and extending the sky into the ground.

  • Cornell has a long history of commissioning site-specific art works. Perhaps those best known came out of the seminal 1969 Earth Art show curated by Willoughby Sharp, which brought together a group of young artists, including Hans Haacke, Richard Long, Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim, and Günther Uecker, to produce new works on campus. Many of these artists treated the earth itself as a canvas and as sculptural material, just as today Kimsooja sees the earth as a "readyused" object – an idea akin to Duchamp's readymades, or Piero Manzoni's 1961 Socle Du Monde. In fact, much like Duchamp's attitude, Kimsooja's work resists human desire and adoration for visual pleasure, never making anything, but creating new thoughts for any given object or phenomenon. However, drawing such a formalistic relationship between the two artists in using found objects has its limits. For instance, the idea of the needle employed by Kimsooja, in her own words, is "a medium, a mystery, a reality, a hermaphrodite, a barometer, a moment, and Zen," which is much closer to a state of empathy than to a rationale of apathy. It echoes the spirit of Arte Povera, whose attitude, according to Germano Celant, is "intent upon retrieving the factual significance of the emerging meaning of human life."

  • What then, led an artist who refuses to 'make' objects to conceive a 46-foot tall 'sculpture'? At the first meeting between the collaborators, Kimsooja was presented with a small vial containing an iridescent substance. Generally known as 'structural color,' and characterized by Ulrich Wiesner as 'block copolymer,' this chemically grown chain of monomers produce a continuous banding of molecules with light-refracting qualities similar to those found on the wings of butterflies or the shells of beetles. When examined under an electron microscope, it appears as a striated fabric. Needless to say, Kimsooja's sustained interest in used fabrics as a tableau of life finds another scale of reality here. Such a profound consistency between nanoscientific phenomena and her artistic practice allows her to work within an invisible realm outside the register of human senses and to bring reality closer to our own experience – a practice to which she has always been committed.

  • "Interconnected to observations in art-making," she says, "nano-techniques are an inverse expression of our perspective of the universe (cosmology)." The former constantly sharpens our gaze towards a single point, infinitely dividing and redefining space almost to the point of eliminating interiority, while the latter moves toward the limits of exterior space, beyond geometric imagination. Architecture, whose purpose includes the preservation of interiority through geometry, frames this vast scope of space at a scale conducive to a direct bodily experience. To this end, the physical form of the pavilion has little relevance as a sculptural object, but rises out of a necessity of finding an instrument to bridge the visible and the invisible.

  • The form of a needle is not without its own architectural history. The Egyptian obelisk, for example, functioned as a religious axis between man and the cosmos for many centuries. Some known as 'Cleopatra's Needle,' these sacred structures embody early Egyptian creation myths that explained the rising and setting of the sun – the solar cycle – through the metaphor of birth and consummation of life closely associated with solar deities, namely the sun god Ra. As such, light and time had already emerged as symbolic channels between man and celestial order in the shape of a needle.

  • In effect, it is neither the nanomaterial, the architecture, nor the artistic intention that reveals the invisible, but the subtle yet perpetual cosmic motion reflected in the change of light. Material seizes such an instance. The molecular structure on the skin of the pavilion physically unwraps light, enabling a person's gaze to weave through the undulating depths of visual surface – a phenomenon perfectly mirroring the dynamic reciprocity between the standing figure and the gazing subject in the artist's video work. The 'needle,' in turn, anchored perpendicular to the ground, parallels our bodies and emerges as an object of non-violence. A stream of consciousness that once took the form of a brushstroke on the surface of a canvas is abstracted over the years in Kimsooja's practice as first a needle, then a body, a camera lens, and finally a luminous void. A gaze is all that remains.

  • More than a symbol of, or a testament to, the confluence of art and science, A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir opens the ontological dimension between our fleeting existence and the cosmos by rendering all of our gaze – an emphatic gesture of human subjectivity – instrumental to the relational structure between distance, time, matter, and memory: a void at the tip of a needle point.

— From Space: Issue 566, January 2015