Create A New Light
H.H : Letís start with travel. Today, we are constantly traveling: last week we were in New York and now youíre in Berlin and Iím in Rome. Traveling has become a norm of contemporary life, both in the everyday and in the artistic. . . .
K : Yes, traveling has become increasingly common in this era. In a way, we are living and working on the move.
H.H : So this is really a state of being. Traveling is also a very important aspect in your work. From the beginning, you reflected on the question of identity from a female perspective, using traditional Korean textiles with your Bottari works. This question is also addressed from another perspective, that of an artist who is constantly traveling and moving. You look at the world through the lens of a nomad. Traveling has become a common motivation for people to reflect on the subject of identity.
K : Yes, definitely.
H.H : On the other hand, travel has become a way of life, donít you think?
K : Traveling has always been a part of my life. From a young age, I lived in various cities and villages, moving every couple of years within South Korea, including the Demilitarized Zone where my father served. Sorok Island, where my husband and I lived during his military service as a psychiatrist, was especially isolated from the public because it was used as a national hospital for leprosy patients. As a member of a nomadic family, traveling became my reality. My visual experience and perspective on nature and humanity have developed significantly from these transitory places and moments. One important experience was in 1978 when Hongik University, which I attended, started an exchange program with Osaka University; it was an eye opening experience about Korea and Korean cultural identity. Although Japan is only a short distance away, the trip altered my perception of Asian cultures and their differences. This began my investigation of my culture, such as the structural elements of architecture, furniture, language, nature, and sense of colors. I rediscovered that the aesthetics, the sensibilities of colors and forms, are very different in Korea and Japan. This period coincided with my investigation of the horizontal and vertical structures in nature, canvas, and all types of cruciform visual elements. This was the subject of my thesis, focusing on the cross in ancient and contemporary art. In 1984, I received a scholarship to the …cole nationale supÈrieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, to study printmaking for six months. It was my first exposure to European art and ancient culture; as a result, I started to inquire what is new in art and culture after European art history, and became interested in learning about American culture.
H.H : This led to a new direction in your life and work. Also, your traveling changed from national to international, from local to global. In the meantime, the image of bottari was introduced to represent this tension, between trying to be at home and travelling across the world. . . .
K : I didnít realize that my family had been wrapping and unwrapping bottaris all the time until I worked on Cities on the Move ñ 2,727 km Bottari Truck (1997), a performance and video project for the Cities on the Move exhibition, which you and Hans Ulrich Obrist curated in 1997. It marked a turning point in my work from local to global travel. I hadnít considered that I was dealing with global travel, as the journey was deeply personal. It was a record of my familyís roots, but many people thought the project was dealing with globalism. Maybe thatís true, in the sense that the performance can represent migration. Cities on the Move traveled to so many cities; the title served as its destiny and global exchange in the arts had been launched.
H.H : Can you talk about your move to New York?
K : I consider my move to New York as a ìcultural exileî from Korean society. It was the moment when I made more critical performances: the series A Needle Woman (1999ñ2001), A Homeless Woman (2000ñ2001), and A Beggar Woman (2000ñ2001). I made them right after I moved to New York during a transitional periodóI felt like I was stepping off a cliff, with one foot already in the air. This risky move made me reflect on my surroundings and the human condition more critically. I started living in Berlin recently, although I am not sure if it will be for the long term. Itís interesting because it brings me back to when I established myself in New York in the late 1990s. That was a very difficult moment for me, every single step of the way, adjusting to a new society. Currently I am located in the Moabit area, which is a multicultural neighborhood. I like it, but I feel alienated. As an artist, I cherish this ambiguous state; distance and alienation bring me to a more objective and critical perception. I want to keep that critical distance all the time and New York provides that. Each time I arrive back in New York, I find a new definition, or have a specific feeling about New York, one that I havenít had before. When I feel that Iím losing perspective, I relocate myself, but I cannot deny that I somewhat respect the familiarity and rhythms of mundane life.
H.H : You have spoken of being a Korean woman growing up in a family influenced by Confucianism. Obviously, you were aware of very important social and political changes in Korea in the 1980s and 1990s. Maybe growing up in a military family allowed you to experience this change in a way that other people would not? How much has this background influenced your way of thinking and art making? Was there was a moment of emancipation from this background?
K : Both of my parents were from Catholic families and very open-minded; however, as my father was the only son, he had to follow the traditional Confucian ways, which were deeply rooted in Korean society.
As a military family, we lived in temporary and sometimes dangerous places, like refugees, migrating from one place to another. During my elementary school years, I lived near the Demilitarized Zone, in and around Cheorwon and Daegwang-ri, the second to last stop on the Kyung-Eui train line, which used to run all the way to North Korea. We often heard stories about North Korean spies who snuck into South Korea, and there were casualties every now and then. We didnít live far from a mined area; kids played with the spent bullets and would get injured by the landmines. I am of the generation, born a few years after the Korean War, who really experienced the conditions of the war and the conflict that it brought to our daily lives. Iíve always been aware of the Other, because of my daily experience with the border. My thoughts on borders and those living on the other side made me question the relationship between myself and the Other. The idea of a border and questioning it had to do with being a painteróreacting to the canvas as another border. I tried to overcome this border, or limit, in front of me, and connect with the Other. This was also part of the psychology in my sewing practice. The act of wrapping, with bottaris, is a way of three-dimensional sewing; it is unifying in that sense. Borders have always been part of an underlying psychology and challenge in my work.
H.H : In the 1980s Korea transitioned from a military dictatorship to a democracy. You began exhibiting your work during this period, can you describe your early exhibition experiences?
I started showing in 1978 when I was in my third year at Hongik University; it was a two-person show at the Growrich Gallery in Seoul. I hung a series of transparent films on a laundry line; they were silkscreened with images of a traditional Korean doorframe taken in a forest, one showed me holding it from behind and one was without me. I also installed two pieces of wood, inserting Plexiglas between them, with the wood blocks slightly tilted and following the curves of the wood. The other artist was my classmate Lee Yoon-Dong, who experimented by dripping black coal tar pigment on canvas; the work questioned gravity and materiality and its rhythm. I showed a few times in Japan and Taiwan in the mid- to late-1980s and in the US after the early 1990s, but it was not until the mid-1990s that I started to exhibit more globally. Some shows included Division of Labor: Womenís Work in Contemporary Art at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, which traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1995), the First Gwangju Biennale (1995), and Manifesta 1 at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam (1996).
Globalism has expanded and affected much of our thinking about our way of making art, and our way of living. It seems almost inevitable to work globally, especially as I work a lot with site-specific performances, installations, and videos.
Many female artists were extremely active and audacious in their workóoften performancesóduring this transitional period in the 1990s. Lee Bul is another well-known female artist. How did you feel about this? And why did you decide to leave Korea in 1999, right after participating in the Twenty-fourth S„o Paulo Biennial (1998)?
K : In the 1990s, female artists, including myself, were engaged in performances using their bodies. I think that had to do with womenís social status in Korea at that time. Many female artists were associated with feminism. But performance art was already popular in the 1970s and 1980s in Korea, under the rubric of Happenings or Events, mostly by the Avant-Garde group, or the S. T group, which was entirely male, except one female artist, Chung Kang-Ja. During the mid-1990s, women did not have the equality they have nowómuch of our daily lives was governed by a patriarchal Confucian value system.
After my residency at P.S. 1, Long Island City, NY (1992ñ93), my first solo show was at Seomi Gallery in Seoul; I showed three of my first performance videos Sewing into Walking ñ Kyungju, Yang Dong Village, and Mai Mountain (1994), and a Bottari installation. Used clothes were also installed on the gallery floor together with rows of TV monitors with Bottaris as a ìmedia Bottari,î and surveillance camera footage of re-wrapping the space of the wrapped Bottaris. These works could have been easily associated with feminism, but I refused the feminist label, owing to the formal and conceptual elements of my Bottaris, and my approach to universality. As a female artist, it was not easy to survive in this hierarchical and patriarchal society, or even in the global art world, until now. I noticed Korean social and cultural issues more clearly after my return from the P.S 1 residency. At the same time, economic development changed Korean society, which was quickly shaken by the financial crisis starting in 1997. I was chosen to represent Korea for the Twenty-fourth S„o Paulo Biennial, but I couldnít get any state support, only from a couple of individuals and a commission from ARCO. Korea wasnít able to ship my Cities on the Move ñ 11,633 Miles Bottari Truck (1998) from Korea to S„o Paulo. I felt hopeless and disappointed by my country, and I had to accept personal support from Korean-Brazilian immigrants who had heard about my situation. This situation confirmed my decision to find support elsewhere, so I moved to New York.
I established myself as an artist without much support from my home country until recently. After the late 1990s financial crisis, the slowly growing Korean art market and Korean journalism often misled audiences by promoting marketable and status-oriented artists. My career trajectory is totally different from that of older and younger generations, who constantly receive support from the state and their galleries.
H.H : Around that period, several important art movements were created by students to oppose the power of the establishment.
K : Minjung Art was one and there were many modernist and postmodernist group activities that were against the established movements, such as Nanjido and Metavox from the mid-1980s. The newer groups were organized by artists from Hongik University, where I studied. Other groupsóMuseum, TARA, Logos and Pathówere also around. I kept myself completely independent, although I was friends with some of the members.
H.H : Minjung Art and artists from your generation represented a tendency toward conceptual and experimental forms of creation, especially performance and installation. What was your role?
K : Prior to my generation, there were experimental modernist group movements, such as the Avant-Garde and S. T. groups, which coexisted with the Dansaekhwa artists. I didnít follow Dansaekhwa art theory or practice, although the theories were predominant at Hongik University. Also, there was a big age gap between my generation and the Dansaekhwa members.
When I was at Hongik University attending undergraduate and graduate school (1976ñ1980 and 1982ñ84), the Minjung Art movement was slowly happening and I knew a few of the leading members. We would meet casually in a study group, as I was intellectually interested for some time, but when they wanted me to join, I couldnít because I always had a certain resentment about focusing only on political issues and such dogmatism. I couldnít connect with the aggression of some of the political art. At that time I was making art that was abstract, performative, conceptual, and spiritual.
I had zero interest in any group or collective activities. I always kept myself independent by questioning the monopoly of the Dansaekhwa group, to which most of my professors belonged. I voiced my opinions in classes to open up the dialogue, offering my fellow students different possibilities and perspectives. I kept myself completely isolated, to be independent from political and artistic hierarchies, to preserve my own integrity. It has been a long and lonely path. To address further your question about my role in performance and installation in a Korean art context: the large scale of my site-specific installations and global performance projects in the 1990s and early 2000s might have influenced a younger generation in Korea, as I see many are expanding their practices. Iíve noticed that some of my interestsóthe notion of the needle, thread, wrapping, and unfoldingóhave achieved wider currency in current contemporary art, particularly in art concerned with the body, textiles, and everyday life.
H.H : People often identify you as a leading figure, together with a few younger artists such as Lee Bul or Choi Jeong-Hwa. They express similar positions, confronting the status quo, social and political situations. Lee Bulís work is a kind of counter-violence against oppression, while your work is much more related to meditation and transcendence. You use intimate materials such as textiles and bottaris. How did you arrive at this language?
K : I cannot associate with any type of violence or raw expression. In that sense, Iíve been working closely with non-violence and that is my position to the individual and society. I couldnít and didnít engage directly with political issues. The artistic language that I created has always stemmed from a healing perspective, maybe because of my compassion for humanity and my vulnerability to violence.
This vulnerability might be rooted in my childhood experience of living near the Korean border, among others. I felt innately vulnerable. I cannot watch scenes of violence and my inclination has always been to embrace and connect with those around me. However, it is true that I gain strength through resistance and patience. Maybe this mindset originated when I discovered sewing and needlework as a methodology for healingódespite the violent potential of a needle. Searching for my own medium, I focused on vertical, horizontal, and cruciform structures in the world. In 1983, when I was making a bedcover with my mother, I was about to push the needle into the brilliant, soft, and silky fabricóbut when the needle touched the fabric, I experienced a revelation, as if the whole universeís energy passed through my body to the tip of the needle. I immediately recognized the relation with this border, the surface, and the vertical and horizontal woven structure that was penetrated by the needle. The fabric had a woven vertical and horizontal pattern (warp and weft) and I saw this as a way to investigate the surface of a structure as a painting. This action and experience was the moment that I ìinterwoveî myself as a person who is innately vulnerable, seeking to connect with and embrace those around me.
At the same time this experience coincided with my artistic struggle to redefine the structure of the surface of a canvas. Iíd been trying to find an original painting methodology for a number of years, since beginning college. That was the moment I discovered sewing as a methodology for painting, using the fabric of life as a canvas and the needle as a brush. The concept of needle and sewing evolved naturally into social, cultural, and political dimensions and has expanded with a broader context into my current practice.
H.H : For many years, you have developed this process of wrapping and unwrapping bedcovers, carrying them on your travels, and showing them as installations. They are more than luggage, more like real companions. They have become your partner as you travel. Itís like having a life that you can carry around with you in your global displacements. During the last few years you extended this interest, engaging with textiles from other cultures and places. For example, you went to Peru to work with the local women and filmed the weaving culture, called Thread Routes ñ Chapter I (2010).
K : Yes, Thread Routes continued with Chapter II (2011) filming lace making in European countries, block printing, embroideries and weavings in India (Chapter III, 2012), embroideries in China (Chapter IV, 2014), and basket weavings in Native American communities (Chapter V, 2016). I am also planning to film weaving in African cultures (Chapter VI).
H.H : That gives your vision broader cultural dimensions.
-K : I consider the Thread Routes films as a retrospective of my formal practices related to thread and needle, with the textile as a canvas and a structural investigation. It was conceived in 2002 in Bruges, when I first saw a bobbin lace maker on a street. It immediately inspired me to juxtapose it with the local architectural structures, as a sort of masculine lacemaking, but it took a long time to start the actual film. I finally started, using 16 mm film, with textiles in Peruvian culture. Itís a non-narrative documentary film, using only visual juxtapositions with minimal environmental sound. I wanted to approach this project as ìanthropological poetry,î capturing the long, silent journey of textile cultures around the world, revealing similarities and differences, different production methods. Through the cameraís lens, I wanted to reveal each cultureís craftsmanship as a living form in textile, in architecture, and in nature.
I didnít use Korean secondhand bedcovers because I was interested in orientalism or local aesthetics, but because they were part of my daily life in Korean society. Itís the same reason that Europeans or Americans use their local materials, so there is nothing exotic about them, although Westerners might view them that way. The material I chose for the Bottari works was not originally wrapping cloth. Initially, I chose a bedcover for wrapping as the bed is the place for our bodies to rest, as a frame of life where we are born, love, dream, suffer, and die. This symbolic site carries all of our dreams, love, agony, pain, and despair throughout our lives. The colors are striking and have extreme contrasts, but I didnít choose the colors for aesthetic reasons, they just came with the fabric as cultural symbols, symbols of the daily life that I lived. I accepted what was created and what was handed down from our parents upon marriage. The wrapping and unwrapping is another language I discovered when looking at an existing bottari bundle in 1993. Bottaris are common universal objects, existing in all cultures, but the bottaris I discovered at my P.S. 1 studio appeared to me in a completely different context: a totally different object that was a painting in the form of a wrapped canvas, a ready-used object, a sculpture, and a performed object that unifies the form as a totality.
H.H : One of your recent projects, An Album: Sewing into Borderlines (2013), is on the American-Mexican border, initiated a few years ago under the federal General Services Administration Art in Architecture Program. In the beginning, you wanted to work with people who had been deported from the US, but since the GSA could not accommodate that project, you shifted to working with migrants who cross the US-Mexican border every day to work.
K : In the end, I focused more on the positive, welcoming aspects of migration for the different generations of Mexican immigrants traveling to the US. It was during the Obama administration, when artists were supported during the economic crisisómore about hospitality than despair.
H.H : But now the policy of the new government forces you to raise new questions about the issue. The political structure under Trump is a different situation. How will this change influence your project? You have been interested in female migrants, who have a very different life and experience with migration than men do.
K : Women are central to the migration chain; they are the major nexus, connecting everyone in the family. Women travel on more visible routes like trains, cars, and buses, which makes them more vulnerable to arrest. Generally one-third of women are deported. Men use riskier methods, on foot through the desert or by boat. There are even tunnels dug under the border. Female migration is more transitional. Women work for others, generally in homes or little stores during their migrations. They stay in one place for a short time, earn some money, and then move on.
H.H : You developed this project along the US-Mexican border, where migrants are both caught and detained.
K : The GSA project, which is a permanent installation at the land port of entry in Mariposa, Arizona, was installed right on the border. I installed large LED screens with portraits of the immigrants who cross the border, commuting to work every day. I filmed each portrait from the front and back, showing each personís psychological journey in a durational gaze. I would call their names and they would turn to the camera, creating a psychological border between themselves and the Otherófirst the camera and then the public. I focused on the juxtaposition of their psychological borders with the political border where the work is installed.
I learned a lot about the border situation between Mexico and the US. Lately, the social, political, and cultural geography has shifted because of Trumpís immigration policies, especially with Mexico. This new view on immigration is the most urgent and critical issue to address right now.
I began to research the new reality Mexican immigrants are facing since last year. There are interesting organizations that support womenís migration, including El Instituto para la Mujeres en la Migr·cion (Institute for Women in Migration). Interestingly, the organization is supported mainly by American non-profit organizations. I researched the conditions of women migrating in South America, especially in Mexico. Thereís a constant migration through Mexico. The organizations support detained family members, women, or children, by providing shelter, educational programs, and further support. Families get separated, sometimes women are detained and sent back to Mexico, but if their kids were born in the US, then the children enter the care of these organizations. The children are then moved to a shelter where their mothers cannot see them. Once in the shelters, American families can adopt the children and change their names. Basically the mothers no longer have any rights to their children after they are adopted. So, there are efforts to reunite these families. It is not only a migration issue; itís also a whole family-related issue.
The importance of the womenís role in a family experiencing migration made me think of dealing with women as central figures. For this new Mexican immigration project, yet untitled, I want to have female performers wearing national flags. The location will be a former route from where the Spanish conquered Mexico. Iíll film the performance between two volcanoes in the Valley of Mexico, one of which, IztaccÌhuatl, is also know as the Mujer Dormida or the Sleeping Woman. There is a myth surrounding these two volcanoes (the other one is PopocatÈpetl): they symbolize grief and the eternal love between a man and a woman.
H.H : Obviously, this covers issues far beyond the specific question of immigrant families. It should be extended to explore the question of all relationships, the human family. For your new exhibition in Seoul, Kimsooja: Archive of Mind, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), Seoul, you installed a huge oval table covered with clay balls that are made by the audience. Can you explain this project and its participatory aspect?
K : Iíve been interested in clay and ceramics for a long time. My interest is more in the void that the vessels create, rather than the vessel itself. I was invited to participate in Water Event for Yoko Onoís solo show, LumiËre de líAube, at the MusÈe díart contemporain, Lyon, 2016; the Biennale de Lyon invited artists to create water containers. At the time, I was thinking about the clay ball as a Bottari, but also as the Earth, as a container. So rather than creating a void to contain water, I decided to make a clay ball as a pre-existing water container and address environmental issues. I sent a small clay ball that was still drying. Since then, I have been contemplating the formation of clay balls, how its creation has a psychological and meditative effect on the maker. When you make a clay ball you have to push your fingers and palms toward the center. A sphere is made by pushing from every point on the surface. Itís not easy to make a perfect sphere because you need to smooth every angle. The action of pushing opposing sides toward the center is similar to producing gravity within the sphere. To make the smoothest sphere, you roll the clay ball between your palms. Itís like a wrapping action, similar to making Bottari. This repetitive rolling action creates a spherical shape in your mind. I was working with my assistants with this clay and we reacted to it instinctively, enthusiastically touching it, rolling it. I found this instant reaction and concentration very interesting. It made me think that this project is not only for me to experience, but might even be more important for the viewers as participants. I decided to make an enormous communal table, bringing everyone together, sharing this experience at this elliptical wooden table, 62 feet (19 m) long. Each person has his or her space and time, but the work also creates a communal space, a communal society, working together toward a certain state of mind, creating a kind of cosmic landscape, a mind-galaxy.
H.H : Like a field?
K : Yes. I made the large table out of 68 smaller tables, which are made from irregular shapes to construct the elliptical geometric shapes. I also installed a sound piece, Unfolding Spheres (2016), with thirty-two speakers under the table, and a 16-channel soundtrack. One part is the sounds of the dried clay balls rolling, crushing, and touching, recorded with 4 or 5 different microphones. Because sound is only made when the ball touches an angled corner, it reveals the geometry of the clay ball. At the same time, it creates a cosmic sound: when the balls bang loudly, it produces a sound like a thunderstorm. I also made an audio performance, gargling with water in my throat, like a ìgrrrî sound. Sometimes it sounds like a stream, then it reveals more of the verticality of the rolling spheres, pushing air against gravity. It has a vertical force or movement, while the sound of the clay balls rolling reveals a horizontal axis. Iíve engaged in this vertical-horizontal structural relationship since the late 1970s. I also showed Structure ñ A Study on Body (1981); for this series of prints, I moved my arms at 90? to create geometric shapes, such as a triangle, circle, octagon, or square, to connect my body to the earth and the sky. I also included different colors to create different geometric shapes between my body and to determine the space around it. These prints directly connect to my sewn works, which have vertical-horizontal structures.
H.H : You mentioned a cosmic sensation, the connection between the body and the world. I think one interesting aspect of this work is the relation between the body and architecture, highlighted through your use of light. For example, with your installations, Respirar ñ Una Mujer Espejo / To Breathe ñ A Mirror Woman, at the Palacio de Cristal, Madrid (2006), To Breathe: Bottari for the Korean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2013), and now To Breathe (2016) in the exhibition at the MMCA, you have created beautiful environments with diffraction grating film applied to the windows. The light enters and creates a rainbow spectrum; it transforms the interior, giving it a cosmic feeling. On the other hand, in the Korean Pavilion there was an additional room, which was completely dark and silent. This is a fascinating contrast between the two aspects of cosmic existence. It seems to be a new dimension of your work developed in the last few years.
K : In the MMCA courtyard I used the same film as in the Palacio Cristal and the Korean Pavilion. In a way, the painting or pigment was transmitted into light. This particular film has thousands of vertical and horizontal lines in every inch. It has a woven structure and functions like a prism, creating iridescent light when light passes through it. This is one of my investigations into the structure of painting, of canvas, and of color and pigment in relation to light. I created a completely dark and silent space, an anechoic room, to define the nature of light and sound. It was the opposite state of visualization, operating in connection with my questions of duality in both life and art. My questioning of dualityóthe vertical and horizontal structure of the canvasórelates to the psychological structures, the mandalas in our mind.
My Masterís thesis was on the symbol of cross, from antiquity up to contemporary painting and sculpture. This cross and the horizontal-vertical structure are always present in art. Iím curious how it constantly reappears despite contemporary artís desire for creativity and innovation. Many artists reach this point, confronting this very basic structure: Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich, Joseph Beuys, Antoni T‡pies, Lucio Fontana, Frank Stella, and many more. Iíve always questioned the inner structures of our world and our psychology. In my thesis I identified a relationship with psychological geometry of the Mandala, which utilizes cross structures and Carl Jungís archetypal phenomena theory. This isnít unrelated to my question of duality in art and life.
When I was planning the Korean Pavilion, I experienced Hurricane Sandy in New York. I was living in complete darkness without any electricity for more than a week. I questioned the fear I had while walking in the dark in my building and on the streets, especially when someone is walking toward you. I realized that the fear occurs in our mind because of the ìunknownîóignorance of the Other. The unknown and the ignorance in the human mind were the questions I had at that time. Eventually, the relationship between light and darkness, sound and silence forming an architecture of bottari was what I created in the Korean Pavilion.
H.H : This can be a perfect conclusion. Now we all live in a kind of darkness, and we need to find a way out, to create new light.
K : Precisely.
— Kimsooja: Archive of Mind. Exhibition Catalogue published by National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, 2017