Kimsooja’s migrations across the globe become a counterpoint to the formal stillness that frames her work. Drawn to major cities in Europe, North America, North Africa and Asia by a host of international exhibitions and her practice, Kimsooja’s videos and installations use performance to explore issues of displacement and self. Born in Taegu, South Korea she now lives and works in New York, Paris and Seoul.
A Needel Woman (2007), Now on view at Kunsthal 44 Møen, has been filmed in several socio-political contexts including Cairo, Deli, Paris and New York. Here we see A Needle Woman, Kimsooja herself, standing motionless in a crowded street. Her gaze fixed away from us on an imaginary horizon line calls into question layers of recognition and representation; the camera’s voyeuristic perspective, the public moving through the street barely aware of the artist as if her immovability and lack of eye contact has rendered her inanimate and then her own gaze looking nowhere and everywhere. The image points to the possibility of intense isolation of the individual in public space and blurs the boundaries between interior and exterior. Here the stillness of Kimsooja becomes like a needle, parting and sewing back together the fabric of various cultural landscapes.
Sewing and fabric, central themes in Kimsooja’s work, reach beyond notions of “woman’s work” to address the human body and its “surface”. The “bottari,” a traditional Korean bundle used to wrap and protect personal objects, appears as brightly colored fabric bundles representing journey when loaded into a truck, exile when pictured half opened and scattered.
Kimsooja pursues universal truths in a contemporary art context that recoils from the ubiquitous and is determined to speak about the “self” within a conceptual framework that relentlessly strives to remove subjectivity. The work challenges an easy response to the metaphysical.
Kimsooja Interview af Chiara Giovando “curator in residence” på Kunsthal 44 Møen.
CG: You have made a series of performative video works, each of which elaborate on the other. »A Beggar Woman«, »A Homeless Woman« and »A Needle Woman« all present the subject of stillness in the midst of an often-chaotic environment – in these videos you are recorded standing still as pedestrians move around you. »A Needle Woman« (2009) will be shown this summer at Kunst-hal 44 Møen in an exhibition curated by René Block. In »A Needle Woman« you inhabit a performative posture within a changing environment, in this case the streets of Paris, blurring the boundaries between private and public space. In a sense your body seems to be the »place« that you inhabit. You have performed this in cities all over the world: Cairo, New York, Deli. Could you speak about the relationship between the place of the body (the performative posture) and the geographical place?
KS: You can imagine zooming in very closely, how the body of a needle engages a field of fabric. It is the precision of the needle that resembles the mobility of my body and it is my engagement that further represents the immobility of the needle. When I am located in different geographies and socio-cultural contexts the subject of immobility can only be revealed by mobility, and vice versa. The continuous interaction between the mobility of people on the street and the immobility of my body in-situ is activated during the course of the performance depending on the fabric of the society, the people, the nature of the city and that of the streets. My body acts as a container gathering the many elements and human emotions that inhabit the city and I, in turn, reflect this energy as I am like a mirror reflecting the street. While my decision of what location to perform in is based on many variables, including the culture,its population and current social conflicts, economy and history, the decision of exactly when to stop and become immobile arrives suddenly, like thunder or a Zen moment. When this happens it is as if the energy field of conflict that exists between the extreme mobility of the outer world and the vortex of silence in my mind coalesces into my body. I’ve always had a desire to present the reality of the world as it is, by presenting bodies, objects and nature without manipulating them in any way or making something new. Instead, I hope by framing my own experiences and those of my audience in diffe-rent locations I can help reveal new perceptions of the world and the reality of existence. In this way my practice is about posing ontological questions by juxtaposing my body and the outer world in ‘relational condition’ to space/body and time/consciousness.
CG: Your video piece »Bottari Truck – Migrateurs« (2007) as well as the sculptural work »Deductive Objects« (2007) will both be exhibited at Kunsthal 44 Møen. Both of these works include the sculptures you call “Bottari.” In your work the “Bottari” appear as brightly colored fabric bundles loaded into carts and trucks, sometimes placed on the floor. The different contexts in which these objects appear in your work illustrate various meanings, sometimes representing a journey when loaded into a truck or exile when pictured half opened and scattered. You have stated that, »The body is the most complicated bundle.« What are the imagined and symbolic contents of the “Bottari?” How does this relate to the body?
KS: In modern society the use of a blanket to create a bundle (Bottari) has evolved into the everyday bag. But a Bottari is the most flexible container in which people carry the most basic things and its use is universal throughout history. We wrap up our most precious things, especially in dangerous periods in our life, such as war, migration, separation and exile. Anyone can make Bottari using any kind of fabric. In my work, however, I’ve been intentionally creating Bottari with used or abandoned Korean bedcovers that were originally made for newly married couples. These bed-covers are covered with symbols and embroidery and I use them to mostly bundle used clothing inside – objects that have significant meaning in a person’s life. In other words, the Bottari I wrap is an object that contains the husks of our body when wrapped with a fabric and in this way they come to symbolize the materials that surround us in birth, love, dreaming, suffering and death; they are a frame for life. While Bottari wraps bodies and souls and can contain the past, present, and future, a »Bottari Truck« is more a process than a product, or rather it oscillates between the process and the object that together constitute a social sculpture. It represents an abstraction of a person, an abstraction of society and history, and that of time and memory. It is a loaded self, a frame of loaded others, a loaded history, a symbol of a loaded in-between state. »Bottari Truck« is the processing of an object throughout space and time, it functions as a means to locate and dislocate our bodies and minds to the places where we came from, and to where we are going. In this way I see the Bottari functioning like both a womb and a tomb, globe and universe, and as such the »Bottari Truck« is a metaphor for the folding and unfolding of the human experience as it stretches across geography, time and space.
CG: »Walking into Sewing« is dedicated to the victims of Gwangju. In this work piles of clothing and fabric cover the ground, the Bottari is scattered.
KS: It is a metaphor for the victims of those who were part of the protest uprising in Gwangju in the mid 80’s, and yes, Bottari always represents the people who have no power in society, or the people who have been forced into exile and must keep silent.
CG: There seems to be both a very private aspect to your practice as well as a public one. Many of your early works are meticulously sewn, an activity that is both intimate and meditative. Yet in your films you are working with large crews and inhabiting public spaces. How do these two methodologies affect your process?
KS: The sewn works that I have done in my closed studio space and the »A Needle Woman« performances are both very intimate. In the latter I have privately inserted myself into the non-art-world public, without any notice. To do these performances I have traveled alone to meet people around the world, about 15 significant cities on different continents-except Shanghai and Cairo where I couldn’t easily find a videographer in time. It was not always safe and easy. I must say I am the only witness to all of my performances. Recently, I started making a 16 mm film called »Thread Routes« that takes place in many locations around the world. It is not about my own experience, instead other men and women are performing actual needlework. For this project I had to work with a team. It has been very interesting and inspiring for me to work with a team and travel together, communicating with the group. I have learned from them and from their research. It is a quite a different process of production and it has forced me to work with an objective and collective way of seeing. But in the end it is still an intimate process, where I can revise the relationships through editing. That is the next step of the filming process.
CG: »Encounter – Looking into Sewing« (1998), is a sculptural work that is also a part of your show at Kunsthal 44 Møen. In this work a mannequin stands in as a bodily referent beneath layers of fabric. Please speak about your concept of sewing, what takes place when it is »looked into«?
KS: »Encounter – Looking into Sewing« originated from the installation I made in the Museum Fridericianum for an exhibition called ‘Echolot’ curated by Rene Block. I conceived this piece as a ›performance‹- without performing. A mannequin was totally covered with used Korean bedcovers. I then documented the performative actions made by the viewers in the cross-shaped space while they were trying to decipher the inert object by walking around the figure. In this moment a visible and invisible interaction is happening around the sculpture, peeling off the barriers of fabrics that hide the sculptural figure through »Looking« at it. I consider this to be a kind of invisible »sewing«. I tried to create a kind of tension between the audience and the ambiguous figure. The audience looks at this uncertain figure waiting for a performance but there is no movement. It was my intention to set up an immobile figure as a performer instead of myself so that people automatically become performers through their own curiosity and reactions. I tried to create a kind of tension between the audience and the uncertain figure, the sculptural object. The audience looks at this figure and is clearly waiting for a performance but there is no movement. (Interestingly, I realize that this piece is one of the earliest references to the ideas that led to to »A Needle Woman« performance.) This is a fundamental moment, when a strange encounter occurs between this unknown figure and the audience, and it is marked by this intense gaze.
Kimsooja (b. 1957) in Taegu, South Korea now lives in New York and Paris. Her work has been the subject of major exhibitions in public institutions, including the »Los Angeles County Museum of Art« (2009); »Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía«, Madrid (2006); »Magasin 3«, «Stockholm Konsthall«, Sweden (2006); »Massachusetts Institute of Technology«, »List Visual Arts Center«, Cambridge (2005). Kimsooja has participated in international exhibitions, including the »Venice Biennale« (2001, 2005, 2007); »Yokohama Triennial« (2005); and »Whitney Biennial« (2002). Kimsooja received the »Anonymous Was a Woman Award« (2002) and has been an artist-in-residence at the »World Trade Center«, New York (1998); »P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center«, Long Island City (1992-93); and »École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts«, Paris (1984).