Kimsooja: The Task of Being-Together
Archetype of Mind
Geometry of Mind and of Body
A Journey through Immobility
The world is torn by conflict and yet each tear, each micro-struggle and clash is toward its own version of unity. All conflict is a nostalgia for and trajectory toward a totalizing scheme. Of course, there are different structures of totalization, some that suppress difference and others that support a democratic ethos. In the broadest sense, the idea of totalization is captured by Martin Heideggerís term ìBeing-in,î for which the simplest definition is offered by Peter Sloterdijk as ìsomething with something in something.î The social example of Being-in is that we are each a something, and so we are somethings together within the something that is society. Society: from the Latin socius, a comrade. And so society is the being-together of comrades. Civitas: from the Greek word for city and which leads to the word ìcitizen,î or those comrades who live together in organized space. Polis: from the proto-Indo-European pele, an enclosed space, so that the polis is an enclosed space of citizens in which to Be-in is to live under the organization of social codes, of codes among comrades, though the codes, as all the annals of human time tell us, are always in a state of both schematized and anarchic disruption carried forward into negotiation and revision.
Socius. Civitas. Polis. In the art of Kimsooja, there are two assumptions that underlie the symbolic social intention running throughout her career of making. One of these assumptions is journalistic in its basis, accepting the daily and historical record of events. This assumption is that humans are (by the evidence of actions always and everywhere repeated) violent, destructive, and intolerant. The other assumption, in contrast with the first, is that we seek wholeness and rely on healing and care in its many forms to address the iniquities of human destructiveness. Indeed, these counterpoised signatures of human conduct are the needle dipping in and out of the cloth of being human and the belief structures underlying our nature, both theological and philosophical. The biosphere, the life codes, the sociality, the deistic principles, the ethical apparatusesówhether it is a war in our blood, a crisis of political sovereignty or a crisis of religious faithóthese constructs torn asunder or joined together in unified consensus toward the co-existence of difference are within the praxis of Being-in.
Society within itself has, from the time of Aristotle, asked the questions of what is the good life and how can we live together? This is the subject of ethics. But in the short space of this essay, I would like to specify this thinking about ethics as a questioning of how we should act toward one another in order to live in consensual understanding and agreement, and by doing so mediate violence toward the social whole. Can we, therefore, understand Being-in in the limited sense of its social format of being-together? Can we understand totalization not as universalism and absolutism, but as a space of closeness in which otherness and improvisation act as fulcrums in a continual rising and falling of chaos and order? And can we then define this being-together as the responsibility of the socius to overcome its violence toward wholeness, its lacerating shards that are the fragmentation of the enclosed space of society and the undoing of unifying social forms?
In this case, unification does not void the presence of violence, but envisions a flexibility of social codes under the contingencies of circumstance so that recodings can take place through consensual agreement, by deliberation and plebiscite. Ethical wholeness is understood as the agreement among selves alert to their equality, for the ethical self is the self that bears responsibility for its actions toward other selves, and therefore ethics is a questioning of actions and a listening to the answers of others toward resolution. This is a form of critique in which the social self is formed in the crucible of the exchange of questions and answers about how to act on and in this being with others, this being-together, which is always a mapping of the social space, the space of what could be called ethical intimacy. Ethics in this sense is a form of creative practice that takes into consideration contingency, agency, and the mutuality of deliberation.
I come to this thinking about ethics in light of the overall project of Kimsoojaís art, as it seems to me that her questions and propositions in the argument of her work are fundamentally presented as what I will call a gestural ethics. Her work over the years and in its various forms offers itself as a symbolic representation of an aspirational being-together. The opacity of individual selves is not so much taken into account as an idealized transparency of recognition of selves who may move through the violent complications of human nature toward a valorized sociality of tolerance. Commonality is a feature of the artistís proposal of what being-together can mean, and to this point, we see a repeated figural gesture in her art, for whenever we see Kimsooja in a video or photograph, her back is to us, she is facing other people, other things, as if to always say, ìHow can I be with you if we are to be together in light of our differences from one another, in light of the possibility of agreement?î As if to insist on a dance of the reciprocity of identities, ìWho am I in you and who are you in me?î
In fact, a constant in the artistís works is the sense of collective presence, of watching and participating in the dance of selves with selves performing that dance. In this movement of I-with-you, there is an implicit proposal of the similarities and conjunctions among disparate things in environments of work and contemplationóseen, for example, in moving-image works such as A Needle Woman and Thread Routes. These are spaces that feel hermetically concentrated, given to an almost ethnographic scrutiny, narrowed by a gaze that looks to the weighted significance of hands and figures focused by the charged intensity of enclosed space. Kimsoojaís camera may establish its point of view in open air, as we see continually in her films and videos, but there is always a sense of motions framed, cropped, pulled inward. Meditative attention is paid to the study of human movements whose results are linked at once to embodied presence, sociality, material labor, and, at the same time, to the ethereal abstraction of repetition.
The artistís installations are underwritten by this sense of collective intimacy, this gestural ethics in which space presents itself as the enraptured site of an enlightened stitching of things, one to another. Light itself and the symbolic value of colors imbue this being-together. I think of her Deductive Object (2016), an ovoid welded steel form painted with stripes in the colors of the traditional Korean Obangsaek, colors representing the five cardinal directionsóeast, south, center, west, northóand the five elements as established in Korean culture: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Touch, sight, breath, weight, durability, timeís duration, the direction of the sun, what the body needs to sustain itself, where it will travel, hearth and toolÖ all speak to the idea of Being-in as a home in the world, the world of life, of what the Greeks called zo?, as Giorgio Agamben notes, zo? as ìthe simple fact of living common to all living beings,î and here also, the Greek bios, the way of living as an individual and in being-together. These dual flows of living, crossing one into the other as streams of unbridled and governed energies, are indicated in the coded colors and the completed geometry of this sculpture, whose title confers its reasoned status as a physical artifice deduced from a totalizing metaphysical proposition. Kimsooja undergirds this symbolism by placing her Deductive Object on a mirrored plinth in an enclosed courtyard so that it sits at a center, an omphalos of the socius that amplifies this Being-in and being-together, above it a sky that brings light from every direction.
Around this sculpture, which towers at nearly two-and-a-half meters like a heroic obelisk, are the museumís windowed walls that the artist has covered with a special diffraction grating she has often used. It refracts the light into a rainbowís spectrum. It is a pictorial device, as it turns every windowed view into a frame in which details are dissolved into vaguely abstract shapes alive with angles of color. The abstraction activates an optical dematerialization, one thing melting into another, and this too underscores a theme of unified being, returning us from matter to metaphysical belonging. Even the title of the work, To Breathe, intends to dissolve boundaries, suggesting that seeing and breathing are one with the other, a kind of synesthesia, a sensory miscegenation. This trajectory toward fluidity and fusion is a perennial current in the Kimsoojaís work: bodies together in repeated acts of attention, of moving, of making; bodies that float on mirrored surfaces, suspending materiality, that are abstracted and generalized, that are corporeal but are oftentimes inflected by a sound recording variously of the artistís breathing, humming or gurgling that hovers in the air, which she uses recurrently to suggest the shedding of the body, of the liquefaction of inside and outside, the original version of which was titled The Weaving Factory from 2004, and the most recent, Unfolding Sphere, from 2016. Itís as if, in this art, the consecrations of repeated actions and motifs form a ritual of conjoined beingóthis gestural ethics in which the rendering of a ceaselessly various but continuous activity of negotiating the sociality of I-with-you is predicated on the idea of repetition as order, repetition as an emblem of the establishment of norms, of practiced ways of being-together that are open to play, to process and change.
So it is that the communal performance of Kimsoojaís installation titled Archive of Mind (2016), which is also the name of the exhibition here at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, presents us with a nineteen meter elliptical wood table set out with lumps of clay to be rolled between each guestís hands to form spheres, the table filling with them like a model of a domed city or the map of a constellation dense with newborn planets. Clay, of course, is the material from which we are made in origin myths of the world, that a God-figure shapes, breathing into that clay of the raw human form to ìinspireî itófrom the Latin insp?r?re, meaning literally to fill with breathóto bring the body to life. These clay spheres, then, bear the symbolic inspiration of the hand that makes, shapes, encloses, a marking of self and selves, of recognitions, as recognition itself is a conscious acknowledgment of the other. And here this recognition is an acknowledged mutuality that is premised on the playful pleasure of the communal act, of hands directed toward similar motions with a single material, producing similar sounds as they transform this clay and momentarily themselves, transfigured by this act of the mutual (for the word ìmutualî originates in the Latin m?t?re, to change). Mutuality and mutability are one with the other, just as the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy notes of the I-with-you, of the transformation in being-together: ìI can only recognize myself recognized by the other to the extent that this recognition of the other alters me.î
It is the transformative act of recognition of self and other, of the reciprocity of the I and you that makes way for social discourse, for dissensus and consensus in the negotiation of how we can be together. This discourse is always mobilized by circumstance, though the frame of ethics is based on a durable plinth of reason reflecting upward to present the possibility of a complementary perspective from the grounds of interdependence. In Archive of Mind, bodies address each other through the motion and task of hands, entering into the sociality of being. Through this act of making, of the manual activity of those sitting in the ellipse of this table, watching each other, listening to each other, and listening together to the amplified recording of balls rolling and Kimsoojaís body gurgling (that audio work, Unfolding Spheres), these closed circles of unifying actions present a normative purpose that instantiates the recognizability of I-with-you, of each with the otherís being-together.
Still, the project of Kimsoojaís work is not limited to the human self as subject, but proposes that we are things among other things, a broader ethics, an idea of agency that is animistic in its reach. All things are woven in this proposition, as in a web that catches each thing that exists as a generative machine of correlation and, with hope, affiliation that populates the Being-in. This is made manifest in the artistís series of six 16-milimeter films entitled Thread Routes (2010-16). Take, for example, the most recent of these, Thread RoutesñChapter V (2016), whose method, as we also see in the previous works in the series, is to show in a documentary yet poetic style a global range of landscapes and peoples and their practices of weaving. In Thread RoutesñChapter V, we see wicker baskets being made. We see various women working with handlooms, and I am reminded that the loom was the progenitor of modern computation, so that a web of woven yarn is parent to the billions of strands of data on the Internetís World Wide Web, and that the Internet as an active form of ordering, of interwoven streams of electricity and light, is only a microcosm of the still more universal zo? and bios, a marker in a much greater, constellated vastness.
That is the artistís documentary point, as the images of human actants are intercut with close-ups held like a long breath so that our attention is steadied and concentrates on natural thingsógrasses, currents of water, clouds, floral patterns, even the dense strands of hair on someoneís headóthat suddenly appear in their knitted forms, just as yarn and wicker do. What we are presented with in this film and the others in the series is the motif of similitude, the way one thing is a formal echo of another, and it isnít necessary that every single thing has agency, but that we can see in all things their common parentage in the composition of the world and discern by a leap of ontological inference an originary intelligence. This prelapsarian, ante-methodological, originary ejaculation of active materiality is presented as evidence, as I have said, of all zo?, all life in its primordial and blossoming forms, whether abject or ecstatic, by which the ìthread routeî is the thread of this originary intelligence through all matter, and threading is equivalent with marvel, equivalent with ìsomething with something in something,î and equivalent, therefore, with the woven-ness of Being, as if the world in the thread of all time and before time were shrunk to a miracle of emblematic presence displayed in a glass vitrine, a cosmos in a teacup, all threading as the gesture of the genomic impulse toward supreme order hung like an amulet on Beingís many-bodied and bodiless body.
These woven likenesses in Kimsoojaís artworks suggest an expansive mise en abyme among materially different things; a mirrored reciprocity of othernesses in constant address that are therefore exemplars of a gestural ethics that invokes the obligation of one thing to another to find a normative frame in which Being-in in its aspect of being-together can give account of an agora of reparative promise. This ethical work, because of its openness, in which all things, human and nonhuman, may participate and are envisioned as participating, rests on anecdotal moments of local histories, geographies, politics, and the most localized gestures of bodies in rooms together, at the same time that it is pan-political and trans-temporal through the artistís regular investment of symbolism in materials, colors, gestures, and forms. Ethical relativism, the moral systems of individual cultures, is simultaneously acknowledged and contravened, imagined within a supreme coefficiency of thing with thing, a breath elongated, a light refracted and spread, in the artistís overarching imagining of Being-in, this task of intimacy, of being-together.
— Kimsooja: Archive of Mind. Exhibition Catalogue published by National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, 2017
The sound that continually echoes through the space of Archive of Mind is a mixture of the sound of dried clay balls being rolled across the table in different directions and the sound of the artist gargling water. The recorded sound, which is amplified from underneath the table, travels between 32 speakers, transforming the space into a meditative arena. When the volume is low, the sound of the clay balls is clear and vivid, but when the volume is raised, the sound becomes a storm of thunder and lightning. The cosmic dimension of the work is particularly intriguing, given that the artist Kimsooja described Archive of Mind as a “galaxy of mind.” She continued to say that the “sound of the clay balls rolling over the flat surface represents the horizontal trajectory, while the gurgling sound of water represents the vertical trajectory of traversing one’s diaphragm.” Hence, the work visualizes a psychological geometry that arises from the coexistence and dynamics between these horizontal and vertical trajectories. Moreover, the sound of the round balls rolling across the table provides viewers with an auditory experience of geometric shapes. Thus, through sound, Archive of Mind evinces both the material surface and the surrounding void. Archive of Mind encompasses the sound of Unfolding Sphere along with the performance of the people forming the clay balls, yielding an immersive experience that transcends polarities and dualities, enacting a unity that may be seen as the motivating power behind Kimsooja’s art.
Although her interest in ceramics can be traced back about ten years, Kimsooja has only recently begun to create works with clay. The clay balls first appeared in 2016, when Kimsooja was invited to participate in Water Event, the solo exhibition of Ono Yoko (b. 1933) at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Lyon. For that exhibition, Kimsooja exhibited a single ball that she had shaped from a handful of wet clay. Rather than transforming clay into utensils or objects, she is primarily interested in the material characteristics of the clay, as well as the dual possibility of emptying and filling. The act of making a ball of clay requires the use of both hands to cover, press, and roll the clay. In order to form a perfect sphere, all points of each hand must be focused and directed towards the center. Each clay sphere, consisting of earth and water, is a microcosm of our planet as a living organism.
This simple and repetitive process is also related to the concept of Bottari, Kimsooja’s artistic trademark. “Bottari” refers to the practice of bundling goods or possessions in a traditional wrapping cloth for easier transportation. Considering this universal act, Kimsooja said, “Like these forms gradually converging to the center, my mind also converges. Moreover, these acts embody the moment when materiality is transformed into immateriality and ‘void’.” Here, rolling a clay ball is no longer a frivolous act of play. Instead, it becomes a type of ritual in which a mind is formed and shaped by shaving off the sharp corners. Also, the repetitious act of rolling balls of clay between one’s palms can leave people enchanted, like a spell.
At the entrance of Kimsooja’s Archive of Mind, clay is provided for visitors; they may take as much as they like, with the understanding that they will roll it into one or more balls and place them on the table. It is crucial to note that Kimsooja has never incorporated this type of audience participation in any of her previous works. As such, it seems to necessitate some explanation and justification. In the contemporary art world, works involving audience participation are generally well-received, in part because they are almost guaranteed to draw a large audience. At the same time, however, they have been criticized for pandering to popular tastes. Of course, just because an artwork or exhibition generates a positive public response does not necessarily mean that it has pandered to popular tastes, just as works that are not well-received cannot automatically be classified as progressive or experimental. Moving beyond such issues, we should focus on the details of audience participation in this work. In particular, how do the audience’s actions (i.e., entering the exhibition, choosing clay, rolling it into a ball, putting it on the table, leaving the exhibition) connect and contribute to the overall meaning and context of Kimsooja’s existing oeuvre?
In her works, the audience has always been one with the artist, sharing the artist’s thoughts and point of view. To understand her works, we must examine how the artist-subject is transformed into the audience-subject. In A Needle Woman and A Laundry Woman, for example, the audience is forced to focus their attention on a woman’s back. As such, the audience virtually wears the clothes of the artist, and sees the world from the position of the artist. For her Bottari works, discarded clothes are bundled inside used blankets and sheets of unknown origin; the resulting parcels are then carried to various parts of the world by a searching subject. Thus, the subject is once again conflated with the audience. In Kimsooja’s works, the audience is not a passive recipient of the artist’s ideas or perspectives; instead, the audience is transformed into an active and initiative subject who shares various forms of life that are guided by the artist. In Archive of Mind, the audience takes on an even more active role by clasping and rolling clay, an act that distinctly recalls the packing and wrapping of Bottari parcels. Like the active subject who symbolically becomes the artist’s body and envelopes the world, the audience of this exhibition participates in a kind of ritual by forming balls of clay, thereby helping to complete this work by unfolding their own “Archive of Mind.”
For people who know Kimsooja primarily through A Needle Woman or her Bottari works, the theme of this exhibition might be a little surprising. Notably, however, the displayed works still feature two fundamental characteristics that have defined her work for over thirty years: a horizontal-vertical structure and a dynamic spatial relationship. In her art, Kimsooja uses geometric thoughts and experiences to unify dualities, thus yielding a new type of space. This psychological geometry tends to emphasize the quality of space, rather than the quantity, often creating new forms by transitioning from one condition to another.
In A Study on Body (1981), an early work that she made while she was in her twenties, Kimsooja explored geometric shapes by using her own body as an axis, around which her various joints bend both vertically and horizontally. The documentation of her performance demonstrates how bodily movements can enact basic geometric shapes, such as triangles, squares, circles, and semicircles. Indeed, A Study on Body lays the framework for understanding the recurring vertical-horizontal cross structure that has now characterized Kimsooja’s works for more than thirty-five years. In the early 1980s, when there were many regulations limiting international travel for Koreans, Kimsooja went to Japan for the first time, as part of an exchange exhibition. Almost immediately, she noted the difference between the cultures of the two countries. From that point forward, she began emphasizing structural and formal characteristics that are inherent to Korea, such as austerity, incompletion, unique colors, and the principle of the “Three Ultimates” (i.e., Heaven, Earth, and mankind). She began utilizing the dynamism of the cross structure to interpret everything from aspects of daily life to grand concepts of life and death. This is the context from which A Study on Body emerged. Indeed, this structure has remained a consistent element of her subsequent works (e.g., Bottari, A Needle Woman, A Mirror Woman, To Breathe), functioning like an archetype of her practice. Furthermore, this structure provides the primary meaning and connection among the diverse works presented in this exhibition, such as A Study on Body (1981), Geometry of Body (2006-2015), and Archive of Mind (2016).
One of the main characteristics of contemporary art is the mixture of temporal and spatial attributes. In this sense, Kimsooja’s Geometry of Body can be said to visualize the invisible by spatializing time. This work involves a yoga mat that the artist has used since 2006, such that it is now embedded with traces of her body, forming a perfect self-portrait. The colorless traces left by countless pressings of her hands and feet cause us to imagine gravity and her momentary movements. The yoga mat also extends the concept of the “readyused,” which characterized her earlier works with bottari, blankets, and sheets. Here, however, the object is used to visualize the body and to reveal ephemeral motion and gravity. In a similar vein, One Breath (2004/2016), which originated as part of Kimsooja’s sound performance of The Weaving Factory (2004), is a digital embroidery drawing that reproduces the wavelength of a single breath of Kimsooja. During a breathing performance, a monitor tracks the artist’s inhalations and exhalations; then, one full breath is chosen at random and rendered as digital embroidery. The peaks and valleys of regular respiration are recorded as a graph, followed by a horizontal line that marks the moment of respiratory arrest. The prominent vertical-horizontal structure and depth of the breathing performance represent an extension of the circular loop that she had earlier represented in her sewing works, which she stopped making in 1992.
Deductive Object (2016), a sculpture of the artist’s own arms, is Kimsooja’s first work involving life casting. The two arms are facing one another, with the thumb and index finger touching to form the void. At first glance, it looks like a rather straightforward example of life casting sculpture. But upon further consideration, the distinctive position of the thumb and index finger inevitably makes us think of holding a needle. Kimsooja views this connection as another form of weaving, constructing a void within the act. This gesture calls to mind her earlier series Deductive Object (1992), which consisted of wrapped objects. That series was an extension of Kimsooja’s early sewing works, wherein she used the motion of the needle to represent the repeated penetration of the horizontal by the vertical. Similar to Bottari, the act of sewing connects dualities, weaves separate entities to form a new relationship, and proposes an aesthetic of tolerance and embrace. Installed in the museum’s courtyard, the new version of Deductive Object (2016) is Kimsooja’s second outdoor sculpture; the first was A Needle Woman: Galaxy Was A Memory, Earth Is A Souvenir (2014), a work involving nanotechnology, which was installed on the campus of Cornell University in New York. Deductive Object (2016) was inspired by the Brahmanda (black stones sometimes called “cosmic eggs”) an Indian symbol of the birth of the universe. According to Indian tradition, the black surface of the Brahmanda is rubbed until it becomes reflective, like a mirror. Learning about the Brahmanda, Kimsooja recognized various points of connection with her own work, particularly related to the attitude and significance of her Bottari works. These affinities led to the creation of a huge ellipsoid decorated with Obangsaek (five-colored bands – include description in footnote). In Kimsooja’s early Bottari works, the two-dimensional surface (or tableau) of fabric became a three-dimensional sculpture through the simple act of tying. For this exhibition, Deductive Object enacts a new type of transformation, with the geometry of Bottari now visualized as a five-colored ellipsoid. Moreover, this unique transformation is reflected and expanded by the mirrored pedestal that holds the ellipsoid.
A cosmic egg placed on a mirror, Deductive Object coexists with To Breathe (2016), a site-specific work made with diffraction grating film. For To Breathe, Kimsooja transformed the windows and walls of the museum’s courtyard into a giant Bottari, a technique she had previously employed with A Mirror Woman (2006) at the Crystal Palace in Madrid. In the current work, the walls are covered with the diffraction grating film that radiates an array of colors and sunlight in all directions, filling the space with a brilliant spectrum. Through this site-specific work, the courtyard becomes a welcome respite where the audience can rest and meditate. In addition, the ground is lined with mirrors that reflect everything, highlighting the immateriality and void of the five-colored ellipsoid. To Breathe extends the void of space onto the surfaces, thereby “immaterializing” the duality of Bottari into the language of light. Therefore, the work maximizes the symbolic power of the unity between sculpture and flat surface, between the material and immaterial.
The only video work in the exhibition is Thread Routes – Chapter V (2016), the fifth in Kimsooja’s Thread Routes series (2010-) documenting her travels throughout the world. This edition, set in North America, merges cultural anthropology, unique geology, and astounding natural scenery. The artist combines images of a spinning wheel with scenes of basket weaving by the Navajo and Hopi tribes, against the magnificent scenery of Shiprock and Canyon de Chelly in the Southwest United States, along with ancient ruins of the Chaco Culture. The huge mountains and caves, formed over eons of time by water, wind, and soil, move both spatially and temporally until they become connected to overhead wires, long stretches of road, and eventually, the industrial environment of a huge metropolis. The video ends with an aerial view of the massive ramps, freeways, and intersections of Los Angeles. Using an anthropological exploration, the video reveals how the fabric of the world is shaped by acts of weaving, enveloping, and unfolding.
Although the first chapter of the Thread Routes series was finished in 2010, the series can actually be traced back to 2002. At that time, Kimsooja drew the inspiration for “Thread Routes” from the tradition of weaving lace in Bruges, Belgium, which she examined within the context of various architectural features. Through the series, she has explored other European and Asian traditions of lace weaving, crafts, and embroidery, as well as the spinning wheel of Native American nomads. On one hand, the series may be seen as a type of cultural anthropology, but at the same time, it overwhelms us with lyrical beauty, and thus might be called the poetics of nature and civilization. Although the new video does not include any of Kimsooja’s most recognizable motifs (e.g., a needle, bottari, the artist’s back), it deftly posits a grand unity by addressing various dualities (e.g., self and others, man and woman, wrapping and unfolding, spirit and material, civilization and non-civilization, traditional and contemporary, city and nature).
Wrapping and unfolding, tying and untying, connecting and disconnecting are the basic acts of Kimsooja’s art. While these acts play a prominent role in her art (especially her bottari and breathing performances), they are not merely formalistic executions. Instead, operating within a vertical-horizontal structural relationship, they link various dualities and enact a shift from material to immaterial. Archive of Mind is the geometry of wrapping and unfolding, acts that enable dots, lines, and planes to come into contact with one another. In that moment, the immaterial is changed into the material, and vice versa. Hence, this geometry of unfolding-and-wrapping is an incessant exploration of the space of materiality and immateriality. Archive of Mind is a psychological geometry that reveals the dynamic relationship between movements and forms, producing surfaces and structures with the potential for motion, while simultaneously searching for a formless form. Summoning the psychological archetype from the “archive of mind,” these works ultimately guide our attention towards an empty void and an intangible space.
— Kimsooja: Archive of Mind. Exhibition Catalogue published by National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, 2017
For her special exhibition at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Korea in the Hyundai Motors Series 2016, Kimsooja presented nine artworks, including her most recent, which were displayed in the Exhibition Hall 5 and in the courtyard of the Museum’s Seoul branch from July 27, 2016, to February 5, 2017. The exhibition featured artworks of diverse media, both two-dimensional and three-dimensional works, installations, and audio and video. This exhibition offered a rare opportunity to appreciate the breadth of the artist’s work scope and varied use of materials.
Kimsooja is an established, mid-career artist who has been internationally prominent for almost thirty years. In her previous exhibitions, she has used diverse media and implemented creative ways of installing artworks. Audiences have admired her endeavours to push the envelope of her own creative domain, and had high expectations for what the artist would convey on this occasion. In the titles Kimsooja chose, she deliberately asked viewers to ponder certain meanings in her art. She called the two most prominent works in the exhibition Archive of Mind (Geometry of Mind in Korean) and Geometry of Body, which established an overarching theme that extended throughout the exhibition. This was an invitation for the viewers to look at each piece in the context of either the expansion of body or the expansion of mind. More specifically, viewers were confronted with a dualistic interplay of mind and body. Through the visual extrapolation of these two contrasting but inextricable concepts, Kimsooja unfolded a realm in which one could reflect on the relationship between the substantial and the insubstantial, between the inside and outside of being, or between the self and the world.
The artist chose to title the exhibition bilingually: its Korean title, Maeummui gihahak, or Geometry of Mind, together with its English title, Archive of Mind, hinted that the exhibition was more than an illustration of the sensory employment of medium or an experimentation with forms of expression. Rather, the exhibition revolved around the metaphysical notions of mind and body. Serious viewers would realize that her goal in this exhibition was not to differentiate her artistic present from the past by demonstrating certain expressive forms in unexpected or unprecedented ways. They were expected to focus on very specific messages that Kimsooja’s artworks signify and find themselves asking questions like: What is the fundamental motivation for her art-making? What is the consistent theme that runs through her works in this exhibition? How should such profound-sounding titles be construed? This essay aims to help the reader revisit these questions and, in the process of seeking answers, come upon discoveries both intended and serendipitous. This would help us experience the epiphany Kimsooja wished to share with all of us through her reflective project at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Korea.
In most of the writings on Kimsooja, her work is interpreted through conceptual frameworks borrowed from such disciplines as cultural anthropology, psychology, philosophy, religion, sociology, or feminism. This study does not stray far from those frames of reference, but differs in its focus on the concepts of body and mind as manifested in Kimsooja’s art — a viewpoint that has not been pursued in the past. It specifically strives to expound the relationship between mind and body from the perspectives of both Eastern and Western philosophical traditions; I will try to interleave East Asian and European thoughts in relation to the concepts in Kimsooja’s works. Kimsooja has arranged each bundle of her ideas in non-contiguous spaces, which then have to be stitched together with a metaphysical thread across the gaps of discontinuity. This study is organized in the same way — that is, in a structure of non-contiguous thoughts and their synthesis across the discontinuous boundaries to propose a new condition of contemplation.
The concept of mind is inherently difficult to grasp. In general, the term mind refers to a person’s personality or character; but it can also mean a metaphysical space that contains a person’s thought or emotion. In English, mind represents the spirit or thought of the brain. The corresponding French word âme means soul or consciousness. The meaning of mind differs somewhat whether the Korean or English term is used. This divergence is probably a result of differences in Eastern and Western thought. In many traditions of European origin, mind and material have been disparate concepts. Mind is a human attribute whereas material is an attribute of things. The human mind stands independent of the external, material world and is subject to rational principles, thus forming a dimension that is separate from the material world, to which the body belongs. This way of thinking is called dualism of mind and body, predicated on the premise that mind and body are independent of each other. However, Eastern thought is not compatible with this kind of dualism. In East Asia, mind and material are deemed interdependent or complementary to each other, forming an inseparable relationship. This view, which has become the basic underpinning of philosophical thinking, treats mind and body as two different manifestations of the same entity. It does not hold that the mind governs over a body seen to be inferior. This is a monism of mind and body, or monistic dualism. According to this view, mind and body originate in and ultimately fuse and return to the state of being one. Oneness is deemed as the fundamental principle of the whole universe; it corresponds to the Great Ultimate (??, taiji) in the Confucian book the I Ching or Yijing (??, Classic of Changes), the universal and absolute principle (?, li) in the teachings of Neo-Confucianism, and nothingness (?, kong) in doctrines of Buddhism.
Recently, a monism of mind and body has been accommodated by many European thinkers, one of them being Jean-Luc Nancy. In his book Corpus, Nancy focuses on the disparaged status of the body in relation to mind, and attempts to rebalance the conventionally lopsided relationship between the two. The premise of his claims is that the body is der einzelne, meaning that it does not exist in the dominion of the mind, nor is it an existence that is merged with the mind. At the same time, he repudiates the concept of body that is perceived as the opposite to soul or mind. Nancy’s “body” is not a foreign or unfamiliar object to an inner soul (âme, psyché) but a correlator that coexists with soul. To paraphrase, body is the expansion of soul and at the same time the exterior of soul. According to Nancy, the body is opened toward the outside, i.e., it is revealed and unfolded outwards. The body is the soul’s expansion toward the exterior and forms itself as the Other (l’autrui). The soul or the mind, then, is the inner substance of the outer body and, as such, supports the body’s sense of contact. Body and soul form an oppositional pair to each other. This is a monistic dualism as the relationship between body and mind.
The concept of mind cannot be apprehended by logic or be defined by certain categories or boundaries. In order to discern the concept of mind beyond this impossibility of knowing or the limit of our rational capacity, one has to dispense with the belief in the mind’s self-sufficiency and experience a break from the closed, egocentric self. One must see that the mind is opened toward the outside — the outside which may be called the body, the Other, and the world or the universe. The process of the mind opening up or unfolding toward the outside — thereby breaking out of the subject-centred closedness that endlessly collapses inwards — is what Nancy calls as the expansion of the soul. Through such a process, the soul transcends the limitation of being immanent in itself and enters what both Emmanuel Levinas and Nancy describe as the altruistic coexisting relationship of “being-with.” The characterization of the relationship between mind and body (soul and body) as “being-together” parallels the concept of the “pluralistic singular existence (être singulier pluriel),” which is the essence of ourselves in society. Rather than expand on the relationship of pluralistic singular existence to the democratic community, I intend to connect this concept to the monistic dualism of material and mind, material and non-material, and, by extension, to the monistic dualism of finiteness and infiniteness.
In his discourse on the expansion of the soul, Nancy set out by addressing the issue of the body among the many facets of the Other. He argues that when the soul tries to reach the body, which is its own Other, as well as the outside, the soul contacts itself through the outer skin of the body, which is its own exposure (l’exposition du soi, l’expeausition). Owing to the ego outside the ego and the body that is the boundary between the self and the world, the soul is able to maintain its balance without leaning toward the inside or the outside. The concept of body, which stands as neither a subject nor an object, in conjunction with the idea of a balanced soul, offers a valuable clue to understanding Kimsooja’s works in this exhibition.
Nancy’s expansive argument about body and soul leads to a discussion of the existential finiteness of the body and its coexistence in a social context. However, in Kimsooja’s Geometry of Body, the finite coexistence of people is not a matter of importance; her focus is on our original existence that confronts the absolute or the infinite. In that regard, Kimsooja’s work diverges from Nancy’s discourse. Additionally, as a means of approaching the infinite that is the limit of existence, most of Kimsooja’s works involve geometrical structures and a balance that symbolically signify the monistic dualism of body and soul. The geometric balance, with its primordial power, brings about an effect by which we are almost unconsciously drawn into the world of the absolute and the infinite. Facing the overwhelming infinite or absolute, we are awakened from the state of our everyday existence and compelled to turn our eyes towards our original existence. We either avoid facing death or lead a life oblivious to it even though the inevitability of death is embedded in the very foundation of our present existence. If existence comes to grips with death through a constant ontological anxiety, it is said to be in fundamental and inherent authenticity (Eigenlichkeit). It was the philosopher Martin Heidegger who set out this ontological perspective and touched on the issue of “authentic existence” in Sein und Zeit (Being and Time). This authenticity of being metamorphoses the state of everyday “being there” (Dasein) into authentic existence. An authentically finite self anticipates its eventual death and projects (Entwurf) itself into authentic being, thus breaking from the self-contained self.
In my view, the concept of authentic being is closely aligned with the monistic dualism of mind and body. A human being conceived as a dualistic entity of mind and body is an existence placed on a path to absolute nothingness, or death. Of course, death in Western existentialism is the negation and perishing of being. Little or no attention is paid to the state beyond death. Even though Dasein anticipates its own death, it does not pursue the absolute domain that death ushers in. In contrast, traditional Eastern thought does not consider the death of body and soul to be a perishing, but as either a threshold through which existence enters the absolute world or a stage where existence is united with the infinite world. Therefore the meaning of existence expands to the dynamic absolute (taiji) or nothingness. While the East and the West may differ in their answers to what constitutes authenticity of being, both affirm death to be instrumental in opening up the complete possibility of being, or the ultimate infiniteness that establishes the meaning of our existence.
The monistic dualism of body and mind provides an effective framework when we seek to grasp the significance of “geometry” as specified in the titles of works such as Geometry of Body and Geometry of Mind. It is obvious that the artist did not intend geometry to be a mathematical study dealing with figures or space. Kimsooja’s geometry is an intuitive method to help visualize complex ideas around the metaphysical notions of body or mind. The artist, by employing such a geometric method, reminds viewers of the dualistic and agonistic structure of body and mind — or the dualistic structure of material and consciousness, of the finite and the infinite, and of authenticity and non-authenticity of being. Furthermore, through geometric structure, Kimsooja leads each viewer to think of possible aspects of being. Geometry in this case can be understood as a statistician’s method that transforms a great deal of complex information into visual models, or a logician’s method of deductive reasoning in which concrete and evident facts are laid out as the ground for general principles. This methodological approach has helped the artist to avoid being lured into subjective, emotional traps while rendering images and objects in the visual arts. Kimsooja could better convey her ideas to the viewer thanks to intuitive clarity and deductive facility offered by this geometric method. Thus we could argue that her works can be categorized as conceptual art.
Verticality and horizontality, as key elements of a geometric structure, can effectively represent the ideas underlying a monistic dualism of the body and mind. Since the early 1980s, Kimsooja’s works almost without exception have a structure of verticality and horizontality, with intersections of longitudinal and transversal lines in an orderly fashion. The structure of perpendicular lines intersecting each other and extending in opposite directions displays a sense of expanding movement that unfolds toward infinity, while maintaining balance in the four cardinal directions. This structure creates an open-ended space in which the inside communicates with the outside and movement can take place in any direction. When a vertical and a horizontal line intersect, the four directions come into being. As lines are added through that intersection, the number of directions increases to eight, sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four, and so on. In traditional East Asian philosophy and religion, these numbers signify time and space. In the Yijing, the sacred book of Confucianism, sixty-four trigrams symbolize sixty-four directions and represent divergent attributes of being. In the Buddhist scripture Taejanggaemandara, the eight lotus petals called jungdaepalyeobeon — which contain the four Buddhas of east, west, south and north and the four Buddhas of the northeast, southeast, northwest and southwest — symbolize the omnipresence of Buddha throughout the universe. Additionally, the eight or sixteen spokes of the wheel represent the Buddhist Dharma that permeates all directions of the universe. It is also the archetypal image of wonyoongmuae, which means “all things in all directions with no obstructions and in perfect integration.” The vertical and horizontal structure underlying all these concepts may be viewed as the dualistic structure of yin and yang or of heaven and earth, symbolizing the universe as an unhindered infinite space.
The concept of cheonjiinsamjae, as expounded in the Yijing, offers an interesting perspective on how the universe functions in relation to human beings. It adds the human being to the dualistic order of heaven and earth. Even though the universe initially comprised these two fundamental elements, human beings have come to be an indispensable mediator between heaven and earth, enabling the universe to function at its full capacity. A dualistic view of heaven and earth presumes that the world is just spread between the earth and the sky does not accommodate the use of the human mind, and is devoid of any engagement with human mind or attention. In contrast, the theory of samjaeron, the theory of three generative forces, asserts a role for human beings in the operation of heaven and earth. It raises the status of human beings to the same level , while asserting that human beings are the linchpin that holds together the universe. The inclusion of humans alters the traditional view of nature into a humanistic view of the world. Owing to this shift of views, nature philosophy in the East evolved into a humanistic moral philosophy, as manifested in Confucianism. The Doctrine of the Mean, written by the Confucian scholar Zisi, states that a human being is able to assist in change and operation of the universe and, if he or she is willing, can participate in the ranks of the three generative forces. For this, a person should perfect his or her own “human identity” bestowed by the universe. The Doctrine of the Mean dictates that it is imperative for human identity to be in compliance with the principles of the universe, or li. This is called the axiom of sungjeuklee, which means “human identity equal to the principle of the universe,” and is considered the core proposition of Confucianism. Therefore people should always cultivate their own body and mind so that their human identity is in sync with the principles of the universe — that is, in the state of golden mean. This is a state of balance maintained by a steady mind that does not get disturbed or swayed in any direction. A person in the state of golden mean attains his or her original identity, which is aligned with the principles of the universe, and can effectuate a harmonious world. If the human, who is a significant medium in helping to change and operate the world, is absent or disengaged, what would become of the world? Then, heaven and earth would remain indifferent to each other, separate, without relation, which brings us back to a dichotomous dualism. With humans engaged in conscious efforts to realize the principles of the universe, a dualistic structure is replaced by a monistic dualism of the world.
Although humans are finite beings, as mediators, they have the potential to reach for heaven in vertical relations and traverse the earth in horizontal relations. The vertical-horizontal structure defines our infinite universe. The encounter of yang, the spirit of heaven, and yin, the spirit of earth, procreates living matter and entities. Of these, only humans can join as the third of the three generative forces of the universe and engage in the operations of heaven and earth. Humans are capable of giving unitary interpretations of the world and of nature, as only humans have mind. According to the Doctrine of the Mean the ideal state of existence is the golden mean, which is alternatively called the middle or composure in the sense that it is the harmonious middle between yin and yang. The notion of composure resonates with ataraxia — “imperturbability,” the composed and stable state of mind and body sought after by the Epicurean School of ancient Greece. They believed human happiness exists in the state of ataraxia just as Confucian scholars asserted that if humans abide by the rule of the golden mean they are able to live a life that is delightful, worry free and happy, a life in which they perceive their own humanity without imbalance or bias.
The geometry of vertical and horizontal structure embodies a state of calm and composure that does not tilt to one side — this composure of body and mind is similar to what Confucianism pursued. The most fitting image of the stability of mind and body in the state of composure would be one of a vertical and horizontal structure in balance. Kimsooja may not have intentionally predicated her works on the propositions of Confucianism or, more precisely, Neo-Confucianism, however, it cannot be denied that her framework parallels them quite aptly. Just as Heidegger argued for the existential being to be authentic (to stay in existential anxiety by facing death and thereby overcoming the dualism between existence and nothingness), Confucian philosophies pursued a more positive human existence that communicates with the infinite and the absolute — a spatial and temporal realm that cannot be experienced. Confucianism in particular emphasized the universe as the root of the beginning and end, of the world of yin and yang. The basic tenet of Confucianism lies in the harmonization of human identity with the cardinal rule of the universe and living a balanced life in accordance with the order of yin and yang.
Kimsooja’s Geometry of Mind, an installation that was shown for the first time in this exhibition, prompts us to closely analyze the mind and realize it indeed is unified with the body as one and at the same time is related to authentic human identity. As there is no way to define this mind, we instead have to observe what state the mind exists in. When we observe our own mind, we realize that it initially has no shape or movement — it exists in a state of potential. It is only when a stimulus enters that the mind moves and arises; it oscillates to the state of reality filled with perception and emotion. The mind’s tranquil state of potential, while traversing through the time and space of our reality, transforms into a state of “being real” and reveals itself in this process. One of the annotations to the Yijing refers to the state of mind that has not yet been revealed to the outside as “the mind being calm and undisturbed.” In comparison, the state of mind that is revealed and able to respond is referred to as “the mind feeling and communicating.” Cheng Yi, a renowned Confucian scholar, wrote that a “calm and undisturbed state” is the original body of mind, and the state of “mind feeling and communicating” is the operation of mind. He postulated a duality of mind as an a priori state and an experienced state.
Since the nature of mind cannot be seen or touched, Confucians viewed it as empty. Buddhists viewed the mind as nothingness. Nevertheless, the mind is not completely empty. The energy of yin and yang is implicitly embedded in the mind. When the mind that has remained calm, it takes an orientation toward something at a given moment, the energy of yin and yang is activated, enabling the mind to feel. This energy allows the mind to realize or embody itself through time and space, and also allows the mind to change into various shapes. Zhu Xi, the founder of Neo-Confucianism in the Song period, compared the nature of the mind to a mirror that is clean and clear, and explained that emotion is something reflected on the mirror of the mind — that is, a reflection of the mind’s mysterious movement. He referred to the change and function of the human mind as “mysterious perception, sensation and judgment”. This mysterious function of mind has two aspects: one is the self-control of trifling emotions and desires generated by the body, and the other is the moral or ethical mind, which is based on human identity. The ethical intelligence refers to a mind that feels shame when it sees something that is not right and detests injustice, a mind of humility and accommodation for other people, and a mind that can discern right from wrong. This mind comes from a place of truth and must be encouraged. This ethical mind provides clues for understanding four personalities: gentle and virtuous, righteous, polite and civil, and wise and sagacious. The mind based on human identity acts as a swinging pendulum, gradually leading us to a state of balanced composure as well as a state of authentic being.
Eastern essence-function theory states that the mind would be in a peaceful pause when the body is also paused, and the mind would respond and feel once the body is activated. In other words, states of the mind are understood to match states of the body. This postulation of a mind-body identity is predicated on the theory that both mind and body are subject to the same energies of yin and yang. For this reason, a human being is defined as one and at the same time as two, entailing an argument that a human being can be split in two while maintaining its wholeness. This is the unification of matter and mind. In relation to the tranquility and movement of the mind, Nancy discusses something of note in Corpus. He paraphrased a quotation from Freud that came to light after his death: “the soul is unfolding (étendue) outwards, [but of the movement of being unfolded,] nothing is known.” If we substitute this “soul” for “mind,” we can see that that mind resides peacefully inside and then migrates outward and unfolds itself. The mind is not able to perceive its own movement of expansion because its unfolding is carried out unconsciously and quietly. However, if the unfolded mind makes contact with the body, the body of the mind would move towards the outside and evoke the unification of stillness and movement in the manner of twoness (mind and body) within one (the self) and oneness within twoness. Nancy makes clear that the self’s “unknowing” is the authentic self, and the process of the soul moving toward the outside, registering bodily sensation and going through thoughts and experiences, is the means of the unification of stillness and movement through which the unity of mind and body is exposed to world. Neo-Confucianism long ago explained the phenomenon of the mind being unified with the body (that is its own outside) and expanding toward the world through its essence-function theory.
Nothing could illustrate the stillness and then movement of the mind more vividly and persuasively than an experience that came upon Kimsooja one day in 1983, when she was sewing a bedcover with her mother. Suddenly she came to an important realization:
Through the banal activity of sewing a bed cover with my mother, I experienced a surprising sensation that my own thoughts, sensitivity and action were all integrated. That unifying sensation was so private and surprising. At that moment, I was able to find some kind of possibility that can include within itself countless memories, pain, as well as affection and love in life, all of which I had buried within me until that moment. The warp and weft as the fabric’s basic structure, the raw sense of colour of our own fabric, the unification of the action of sewing up and through the two-dimensional fabric, the fabric and myself and the strange nostalgia that all of this evoked...with all of this I was completely enchanted.
Later, when describing this experience again, she recounted that when the sharp needle poked into the fabric, she felt the energy of the universe suddenly penetrating through her whole body. This surprising epiphanic experience not only marked the origin of her Sewing series but also helped form the spiritual archetype for her oeuvre. The coincidence of the tension of mind with that of the body in the act of sewing brought memories and emotions that had been buried deep inside the mind to the threshold of the unconscious. This in turn electrified and moved the artist’s body and mind. Kimsooja described how this experience of the unification of her mind and body gave birth to Sewing, in which the meaning of the needle and thread is rooted in oneness of mind and body. Just as mind and body are two sides of a real being, needle and thread are as one and, as a unified entity, do the work of sewing the fabric — which symbolizes the outside world or the infinite space between heaven and earth. In the installation Archive of Mind, the participants are given an opportunity to experience the same kind of epiphany through the ritualistic act of forming clay balls rolled between their hands.
When one is touched by an artwork, his or her mind is stimulated in response: “the tranquil and unstirred mind” begins to “communicate and stir” in response to the stimulus, thus, revealing itself. In the Sewing series, Kimsooja’s artworks have been structured in a way to best resonate with the stillness and the movement of mind. The bed cover is worked with needle and thread that symbolize the oneness of body and mind. The fabric, smoothly spread out, is a horizontal structure that accommodates the movement of the mind traversing over it. Against the backdrop of the horizontal fabric, the vertical movement of sewing through the warps and wefts represents the unfolding of the mind. The mind, in sync with the hand-movement of sewing, eventually brings to the surface the nature of being and emotion that has been sequestered in the unconscious. It is not just the repetitive hand movement that stirs the stillness of mind; the artist’s mind and body are stimulated on multiple levels. For example, the colorful, traditional fabric Kimsooja uses serves as a strong stimulus for the visual and tactile senses. Furthermore, the artist is inspired by the cultural implications of these silk fabrics. The vertical and horizontal structures in Kimsooja’s work are the most conspicuous visual stimuli that inspire the viewers.
The artist’s working method, which is to join squares of fabric along their widths and lengths and multiply them by sewing, also aligns with the structure of verticality and horizontality. To the question of what Geometry of Mind and Geometry of Body mean, answers may be found if one understands the principles of the three generative forces and the manifestation of heaven, earth, and human. Now let’s delve further into the geometry of the vertical and horizontal structure.
As suggested above, the geometry of the vertical and horizontal structure has nothing to do with reifying certain idealistic concepts, nor with the identification and classification of conceptual objects in a geometric lattice. The geometry of the vertical-horizontal structure in this essay refers to a method that helps one intuit the infiniteness of the universe or the intrinsic nature of the uncertainty of being, as well as intuit the state of balance between dualistic, antagonistic elements such as body and mind, or yin and yang. Geometric structuralization is a method to facilitate the observation and reflection of complex, often conceptual, notions. It is necessary to rely on such methods in order to have categorical, systematic or structural unity when contemplating the essence of the indeterminate consciousness called mind. Through this method we are able to reach the intuition of and reflect on such topics as body and mind, or yin and yang, all of which are indefinable by knowledge.
In a similar vein, Julia Kristeva, a semiologist, opts for a dualistic system of the semiotic and the symbolic in order to explain how the signification of poetic language is ingenerated from pulsion, which exists under the consciousness. It is, in fact, impossible to formulate the disorderliness and pulsation that flows and moves into a state of segmentation in a self-evident logic or axiom. Nonetheless, Kristeva hypothesizes that pulsion, the drive of desire, generates the ultimate signification of the text. She divides the process of signification into the strata of semiotic and symbolic, and investigates the interaction of these two. Consequently, she claims that signification is ingenerated out of the semiotic field in which the fragmented pulsion is condensed and subsequently connected to the symbolic field in which law, order, and social consciousness are concentrated. In other words, the two conflicting categories are connected in such a way that the semiotic mobility engages with the symbolic order, the former moving into the latter to compose signification.
There can be many possible interpretations for the vertical and horizontal structure that characterizes Kimsooja’s work. One would be as follows: (a) the expansion of mind construed as the expansion of the energy of pulsion in the field of the semiotic, (b) the integration of the body with the outside world interpreted as the unification with society and history in the symbolic field, and (c) the monistic dualism of body and mind construed as the formation of signification generated from the cooperation of the semiotic and the symbolic. The mind is the realm that is indefinite and uncertain, like the field of the semiotic. Yet it can be said that the mind’s own expanding energy — that is, the body — creates the meaning of “being” along with the order of the symbolic, such as sewing, the hand movement of rolling clay balls, or the somatic movement of yoga. As for how the pulsion that moves across the artist’s body and mind gives rise to certain meanings in the process of sewing, that is, at the moment of “poking the sharp needle” into the fabric, the artist explained: I experienced a surprising sensation that my own thoughts, sensitivity and action were all integrated. That unifying sensation was so private and surprising. At that moment, I was able to find some kind of possibility that can include within itself countless memories, pain, as well as affection and love in life, all of which I had buried within me until that moment. [...] the strange nostalgia that all of this evoked...with all of this I was completely enchanted.
Kimsooja mused that the meaning of her works is forged when subconscious memories and feelings are introduced to the consciousness, causing her to reflect on the innate nature of being. Is this not the true role of art? Art should let the artist’s hidden desires that have been forgotten or hidden in the mundane or everyday to be truly unfolded and expanded onto the horizon of the consciousness, and enable her or him to experience the epiphanic moment of recovering the original emotion and nature of being. It is for this reason that I sincerely recommend viewers immerse themselves and directly participate in the process through which the artist creates the meaning of her art, thereby relishing the opportunity to relive their own memories and feelings as well as intuit the nature of being.
— Extract of Kimsooja: Archive of Mind. Exhibition Catalogue published by National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, 2017
JS : How would you define your work?
K : I view my work as a threshold: “any place or point of entering or beginning, a magnitude or intensity that must be exceeded for a certain reaction, phenomenon, result, or condition to occur or be manifested.”
JS : Would you call some of your works self-portraits? Is it important that you yourself are in some works?
K : In some ways, my work could be viewed as a self-portrait. I do not wish to display my personal identity in my work—especially in the video performances when my back is facing the viewer—but the position demonstrated does show a certain kind of identity. I think a person’s back can be one of the most evocative parts of the human body; it isn’t dynamic, but it presents a profound and abstract encapsulation of a person.
JS : How do you consider the globalized world?
K : A globalized world sounds very positive, dynamic, interconnected: a constant flow of cultural, economic, technological, and intellectual interactions. But we face many visible and invisible divisions created by constant border crossings: racial, economic, political, and religious conflicts. The standardization of daily life under globalism could benefit those who need it most, but we lose the authenticity, spirituality, and the myth of a land and its people. Globalism reduces the uniqueness and specificity of humanity, although new technology will bring a new facet.
JS : What do you think of migration today?
K : More than five million Syrians have migrated to Greece, Turkey, Germany, and nearby countries; there is a constant flow from Africa to Southern Italy and Spain; people from Mexico and Central and Latin America try to get to the United States. As an artist who has always been concerned with borders, migration, and refugee issues, especially from living near the Korean Demilitarized Zone during my childhood, I am shocked by President Trump’s decision to block borders, deny immigrants a new life in the United States, and deport second-generation immigrants.
American citizens have to pay attention to this humanitarian issue, especially since only a few organizations and individuals are focused on the refugee crisis. Major European countries are taking risks to support and help the refugees. Along with global warming, it is the most urgent issue of our time.
JS : Your work deals with exile and displacement. Do you feel exiled too?
K : Definitely. I have considered myself a cultural exile since 1999. Recently, I’ve collaborated with Korean-specific projects, such as Année France-Corée for a solo show at the Centre Pompidou-Metz in 2015 and the MMCA Hyundai Motor 2016 project. Still, my position as an artist remains that of an outsider rather than insider, even though I’ve been well received. Perhaps it is the fundamental nature of being an artist?
JS : You have lived in New York for several years, how have things changed for you?
K :Thanks to support from Arts Council Korea in 1992, I was able to participate in the P.S. 1 studio residency program in New York. I met people who understood my work and viewed it objectively, with enthusiasm and generosity. It really opened up possibilities for me. Due to the Korean financial crisis in the late 1990s, I was not able to receive financial and intellectual support for my work. It truly disappointed me and made me realize that I needed to find support outside Korea.
In the last ten years, this has changed dramatically and Korea is now one of the most supportive countries in the world. However, when I go back to Korea, I am too established to get support from my country. The level of professionalism still needs to be raised, especially in governmental organizations.
Where to live, work, and die are big questions. You need a nation to live—but you don’t need a nation to die.
JS : The idea of displacement is very present within your work.
K : All good art is made from thinking outside the box. In that sense, having displacement as a condition of life is not a bad choice for an artist.
JS : In some of your works, like A Needle Woman (1999–2001, 2005, 2009), immobility rather than displacement is present. Is it a way to show personal identity toward the global world?
K : In my practice, the notion of duality and its complex geometry and disorder are always present through my understanding of the world. While I am presenting my immobility, which is impossible in literal terms, a lot of mobility happens in my body and mind, allowing me to reach to the place and moment of my performances. This immobility gives me an anchor to hold onto, so my journey flows through immobility.
JS : Some of your works and installations are made with bottari, meaning, “to pack for a trip.” Which trip are you addressing?
K : The bottari represent our body and skin, their agony and memory as a wrapped frame for life. Bottari are the simplest way of holding objects or belongings that embody many meanings and temporal dimensions. A trip could be a simple A-to-B, or a relocation, or a separation of a couple in feminist terms, wrapping only the most essential belongings in an emergency—migration, exile, or our final journey: death.
JS : Do you consider yourself as a nomad?
K : Yes, fundamentally.
JS : Your work is an invitation to a sensorial and visual trip—a way to travel without moving.
K : We can easily grasp what is going on in this hyper-informed society, but we can’t experience true reality, not in depth. All experiences are limited by the conditions of space and time; I am determined to witness the here and now, living through my eyes and body, sharing my experiences with the audiences.
JS : In the emblematic work, A Needle Woman, you stand in moving crowds. Who was this needle woman? And who is she now?
K : A Needle Woman is a woman who gazes at the world, gazing at and witnessing the world without acting. She allows us to take a journey to reality and reach for the ontological root—our destiny. She is there as a tool, a question, a permanency; I am here as a temporality.
JS : In your installation To Breathe – A Mirror Woman (2006), shown in Madrid, we can hear your own breathing, filling the space. What is your relationship to the body and the act of breathing?
K : I’ve always reinterpreted and recontextualized existing concepts, depending on the site, the questions I had, and the relationship to other works and sites. This installation has three different components from past projects. The Weaving Factory (2004), was my first sound performance, I overlapped my breathing and humming; it developed from the idea of my body as a weaving machine, inspired by an old textile factory in Lodz, Poland, for the First Lodz Biennale. Later, I worked on a video installation commissioned by Teatro La Fenice, Venice, called To Breathe (2006), which incorporated The Weaving Factory. La Fenice is an opera house and singing is about breathing. When I was invited to make a work for the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid, I brought all of these elements together, contextualized as a bottari and as a void. Attaching the diffraction film to the architecture was an act of wrapping and unfolding the daylight into a rainbow spectrum.
JS : One of your upcoming projects is a work for the new subway station at Mairie de Saint-Ouen in Paris.
K : Although it is a site-specific and permanent installation, this project brings me back to the body/work and audience/pedestrian relationships in A Needle Woman. This installation will symbolize another body of mine, one that witnesses the station’s pedestrians. The diffraction film installation will function as my body, standing still in the station and witnessing the pedestrians, while offering the public a forum.
JS : You were teaching at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. What is your connection to Paris?
K : Paris was the first western city I visited; I stayed for six months in the mid-1980s. A scholarship from the French government allowed me to work at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in the lithography studio. Whenever I had a project in Europe in past thirty years, I’ve also visited Paris, even if I didn’t have any particular reason.
During my six-month stay in Paris, I traveled to other European cities for the first time, visiting major museums in Germany, Italy, Holland, and England. I was 27 years old. I absorbed the language, art, culture, and life in Paris, they are forever in my memory. In 1985 at the Biennale de Paris, I first encountered John Cage’s work. Although I knew of him as an avant-garde composer, I had never heard his music live, or seen any of his visual works. With great curiosity, I entered an empty railway car to hear his sound piece, but there was only silence and a simple written statement, “Que vous essayez de le faire ou pas, le son est entendu” (“Whether we try to make it or not, the sound is heard”).
It was interesting that I learned so much from an American avant-garde composer, rather than from European art or artists, although I was aware of the French Supports/Surfaces group and the influential artists at the time. After my encounter with Cage’s work, I became curious about American art and culture for the first time.
I’ve shown quite often in France, the French government and institutions have supported many of my works, and I owe them a lot. I was admitted to the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the Minister of Culture for my modest contribution to French culture. I have a love for Paris and French culture and want to spend more time working there.
JS : What new avenues are you exploring?
K : Since 2010 I’ve been working on a 16mm film series titled Thread Routes, filming textile cultures from around the world: Peruvian weavings (chapter I), European lacemaking (chapter II), Nomadic Indian textiles (chapter III), Chinese embroidery (chapter IV), Native American weaving (chapter V), and African textiles (chapter VI). I can’t wait to visit Africa to film soon. Since 2016, I have realized a large-scale participatory installation titled Archive of Mind, firstly for a solo exhibition at the National Museum for Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, as part of the MMCA Hyundai Motor Series. This project is evolving and was presented at the Intuition exhibition at Palazzo Fortuny in Venice this year, and opens up to explore the sculptural aspect of my practice from the position of a painter.
There is also a new installation at Nijo Castle, Kyoto, commissioned by the Culture City of East Asia, with the title Asian Corridor; it’s a ten-panel folding mirror screen on a mirrored floor, entitled Encounter – A Mirror Woman (2017). This is my second East Asian City project, the first, in Nara, was Deductive Object (2016), a black sculpture, inspired by an Indian ritual stone called Brahmanda (a cosmic egg in Hindu culture), installed on top of a mirror panel.
These works redefine the geometry of bottari and the surface of the symbolic bottari that represents the totality of the universe. I want to explore further what this could bring to my future practice. I am also starting new clay works. All of these are exciting, new directions to keep exploring, and I am very curious about the outcome.
JS : How do you see the future?
K : The future doesn’t exist anymore—it is past.
— Kimsooja: Interviews Exhibition Catalogue published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König in association with Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, 2018
This interview was conducted in summer 2017 via email in conjunction with one of Kimsooja’s upcoming projects, a work for a new subway station in Paris.