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Breathing Life into Oneself


Photography SUN HYE SHIN

For more than four decades, Kimsooja has been using the form and the idea of the traditional Korean fabric bundle known as bottari to explore the self, the other, and the narratives woven through life’s journeys. As the purpose of bottari, which embodies the essential carried by those on the move, may sound unpretentious, Kimsooja’s bottaris are not merely symbolic; they also function as a formal proposition, merging elements of beauty, impermanence, and universality. 

Her exploration goes beyond the bottari, utilizing Obangsaek (a color scheme of the five Korean traditional colors), needles, and bedcovers, which all address existential questions of life. Most recently, commissioned for an enthralling installation at the Leeum Museum (located in Hannam-dong, one of Korea’s most vibrant neighborhoods for art), Kimsooja created To Beathe, composed of holographic halls that explore the meditative qualities of space. 

In this interview, we sat down with Kimsooja to discuss the role of ephemerality in her principles of “non-doing” and “non-making.” 

KImsooja at LEEUM. Photo by Sun Hey Shin for Plus Magazine.

Subin Anderson: You have carried the origins of Korean heritage and culture since the beginning of your career. How have these materials come to you throughout your oeuvre, and how do they figure in your life now? 

Kimsooja: After over 40 years of practice, I can now say that the urges of my specific artistic actions in each stage of my career and their respective acts of creation seemed to have predicted my destiny. One early example of this was when I encountered this indescribable, immense energy from the universe while I was preparing a bedspread with my mother in 1983. It felt inevitable, and this intense power passed through my body all the way to the needlepoint, and at that very moment, I was about to push the needle into the bedcover fabric. Since then, the conditions of my life and the questions of bedcovers have been closely linked throughout my personal and artistic life. Nonetheless, this is just one example and part of my continuing career.


SA: Speaking of the fabrics and bedspreads, the earlier works of  Deductive Objects presented a cluster of used clothing fragments tied with copper lines. Can you talk about the transition from revealing to covering/wrapping the object as Bottari? 

Kimsooja: In the Deductive Objects series, which I started in the early 1990s, I wrapped objects with fragments of used fabric and then encircled these wrapped objects with copper wire, and sewed pieces of old, used clothing as one object. I realized there is a degree of homogeneity in both Deductive Objects and Bottari, in the sense that sewing is a three-dimensional act of wrapping thread around fabric, similar to wrapping objects. In that regard, Bottari is also a mode of three-dimensional sewing. The transition between these bodies of work evolved purely by focusing on the act of wrapping rather than revealing or hiding the subject matter.


SA: And unlike the works that utilize tangible materials, the performance works, A Needle Woman, A Beggar Woman, A Homeless Woman, and Cities on the move, feature your body as a tool.

Kimsooja: I consider these performances to be a form of time-based art that creates new relations and meanings within oneself and in relation to others by presenting the body as a tool or medium. However, if neither the performer nor the audience experiences any psychological or physical awareness or transformation, it may be considered a failed performance.

Kimsooja, A Beggar Woman, Cairo, 2000, Still from Performance Video, Courtesy of Kimsooja Studio
Kimsooja, A Beggar Woman, Mexico, 2000, Still from Performance Video, Courtesy of Kimsooja Studio

SA: Were there moments that allowed you to develop closure from one performance to another? 

Kimsooja: In my first A Needle Woman performance, I allowed myself to observe the relationship between my body and the humanity around me until I felt either an urge to act or into a complete ‘non-action,’ while walking around in Shibuya, Tokyo. This critical awareness created an inner silent scream, where I stopped walking and stood completely still. I was utterly overwhelmed by this mass crowd, and my senses became so alert that I perceived and entered into a meditative state while observing. At that very moment, I was able to insert myself into the crowd as a motionless, anonymous actor without notifying the audience. 

This performance often ended with enlightening instances in which my compassion toward humanity extended beyond the waves of people on the street. Nevertheless, a transformation of consciousness has always occurred, due to the site-specificity and temporality of my body and mind, unfolding transcendent experiences that generated different questions and modes of awareness in each performance. That is why after the first intense experience of A Needle Woman (one in nature and the other in an urban context), I continued the performance as a series in eight metropolitan cities around the world (1999-2001), six critical cities facing conflicts (2005), and also in Paris (2009). Each location evoked a different response to my body or to the performance itself, based on the city’s geographic, ethnic, cultural, religious, or socioeconomic conditions, and these particular conditions induced additional experiences in other cities.


SA: You have adapted and experienced different cultures and art scenes throughout various parts of the world. What were some of your first encounters with the art world outside Korea? 

Kimsooja: I was in my mid-twenties when I visited Paris for the first time on a French government scholarship. I spent six months at a lithography atelier of the Ecoles National des Beaux-Arts, so my experience with European contemporary art, in terms of the works and exhibitions that I saw at museums during that period, was minimal. I often took short trips to museums in other European countries to experience similar yet unfamiliar cultures and sensibilities around Europe, affirming my basic knowledge of European art. I also discovered an unexpected new interest in American culture during my stay in Paris, which I had never felt before living in Europe. 

Back then, the Korean art world lacked any solid commercial structure, at least until the end of the 1990s, which was when I immigrated from Korea to live in New York after the 24th Sao Paulo Biennale. At that time, only a handful of galleries in Korea showed contemporary art since they were mostly focused on modern and traditional art. Moreover, Korea had just experienced the IMF crisis, so there was virtually no support for the art world. No one considered my work to be commercially viable, which was fine with me because I was never interested in the commercial world either. 


SA: And what was New York like?

Kimsooja: Unlike my European experience, living in New York in the 90s truly broadened my outlook. The city was already engaged in active discussions regarding multicultural practices and globalism. This allowed me to express myself in dialogue with different genres of art, artists, and writers in the contemporary art scene. Especially from 1992 to 1993, during my residency at P.S.1/MoMA, I met many acclaimed professionals from diverse fields interested in and understood my work. I rarely sold any of my work until I was about 40  and was reluctant to sell anything until I started working with a gallery in Geneva in the early 2000s. The gallerist used to complain that I didn’t want to sell my work to the gallery’s collection or private collections. But interestingly, since the mid-2000s, Europe has been the most supportive region for my work, and I have held more exhibitions there than in the U.S.or Korea. I find this interesting because that was when the art market slowly asserted control over the art world, a trend that continues today. In comparison, I believe Europeans value art and artists more than other parts of the world regarding their respect for original concepts and creative impulses.   

I think, because of this history, the figures in my work are a reminder of the absences in art history.”

SA: As we are looking through the To Breathe series, where the installation provides meditativeness through diffraction of light and change in atmosphere, creating an ever-changing sculpture. Along with many of your oeuvres, it’s beguiling how no component can be controlled.  

Kimsooja: Some people might think that the piece is simply not working at times. They may be disappointed when the weather doesn’t allow iridescent light to be transmitted and reflected into the interior space. After so many years of working on To Breathe installations, the breathing cycle of my artwork has stretched into a much longer wavelength than ever. Now, I feel comfortable and blessed that my work can breathe throughout the cycle of an entire year, waiting for the summer solstice to feel the sunlight traverse directly and connect in alignment with our body or for the complete circular iridescent shadow of the sun to become eclipsed onto the lobby area at Leeum Museum of Art. This way, you can come and go as the light moves in and out.


SA: Also, this series takes a symbolic form of bottari that is fully exposed in the context of wrapping the structure. Does this signify any metaphorical progression in the relationship of healing and embracing? 

Kimsooja: A bottari is constructed to form an opaque and invisible yet fluid shape of closed borderlines, which can be likened to one’s body, memory, physicality, and possessions while simultaneously recalling a womb or a tomb, thus connecting with the sensibilities of darkness. On the other hand, when I considered the solid structure of the architecture of bottari as a kind of a boundary, I could encompass light, air, sound, and performance within the void that traverses exterior and interior spaces. This relationship between our body, which is enveloped by bedsheets, and the architecture we inhabit may have meant to be interconnected in space. When I juxtaposed an anechoic room of complete darkness alongside a space of iridescent light and reflectivity—anchored by the sound of my breathing—at the Korean Pavilion of the 2013 Venice Biennale, it was composed of dualistic elements that resonated with the interrelationships of everyday life. I have constantly been contemplating the reality of these living conditions, commemorating and embracing them by all means.


SA:  I’m also curious about your approach to the participatory exhibition,  Archive of Mind, which first began at MMCA (National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea) in 2016. Accompanied by sound, this installation allowed visitors to make a sphere-shaped ball out of clay which then was placed on an enlarged wooden table. You started this work, but the public completed it. 

Kimsooja: Perhaps this type of participatory project in my practice has to do with my concept of “non-doing” and “non-making.” When I realized A Needle Woman, no one was forced to do anything, yet the work came forth at the point of encounter between the passing pedestrians’ movements and the stillness of my own body. Archive of Mind adopted a similar structure: I placed a large elliptical wooden table as a wrapping tableau in the center, where it embodied stillness. When viewers sat down, made clay balls, and left them on the table, this generated the necessary interaction to complete the piece. 

Archive of Mind, MMCA Hyundai Mortors Series 2016, participatory site-specific installation consisting of clay balls, 19m elliptical wooden table, and sound performance Unfolding Spheres, Courtesy of Kimsooja Studio

SA: And the circular table in this exhibition also references Roman paintings where the figures are congregated and have no central figure, implying that everyone who sits there has equal status—which is reflected in many of your works. 

Kimsooja: That’s an interesting idea. The circle or bottari shape manifests a geometry of even distribution from its central point. As you point out, my perception of humanity is also based on equality and human rights. Speaking in geometric terms, I discovered that one must push the edges of opposing corners towards the center, using two hands and applying equal force from all sides, to form a sphere. It is surprising to realize that an invisible void in one’s mind is created while producing the positive form of a clay sphere, establishing an equal negative space in our minds that provides stability and balance so that we can let things go.  


SA: Widely considered one of your most ambitious and inspiring works, Traversées\Kimsooja, 2019, presented more than ten site-specific works city-wide. What role did historical sites play in these more recent works, and how might they shape your work to come? 

Kimsooja: Having complete freedom to access the significant historical monuments in Poitiers was an exciting and challenging proposition. The project’s co-directors, Emma Lavigne and Emmanuelle de Montgazon, bravely trusted me with this huge responsibility and freedom while having close discussions throughout the process. I was literally given the key to the city and allowed to unfold it as a vast canvas while inviting other artists and colleagues whose works are relevant to the theme of Traversée. It was an absolutely unique experience, and I consider it the artistic privilege of a lifetime. 

We were very conscious of aspects of hospitality and otherness in this project, particularly with other projects dealing with migration and the awareness of others, as well as the idea of hospitality through collaborating with other artists and colleagues, including Lee Mingwei, Subodh Gupta, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tadashi Kawamata, Stephen Vitiello, Achilleas Souras, Sammy Baloji, Lenio Kaklea, and Jung Mari, just to name a few who participated by exhibiting installations and performances. We disseminated these works across the city’s most beautiful and meaningful sites, contextualizing each work’s deep roots amid issues of migration and postcolonialism, as well as geographical and social issues, by activating amazing locations such as Palais, Cathedral, Eglise, Chapel, Museum, Convent, Art Center, theater, major streets, and other sites around this historic and beautiful medieval city. Taking inspiration from the idea of heterotopia as theorized by Michel Foucault, who was born in Poitiers, led to exciting encounters about various aspects of the project from the beginning of our discussions. I discovered that the altars of Chapelle Saint-Louis, which served as the background for the Bottari Truck installation, imbued the work with a historical and formal connection to its physicality and spirit. The newest re-contextualization of bottari was the obangsaek container titled Bottari 1999-2019, which held all the personal belongings that I had lived with for the past twenty years; this container traversed from my apartment in Manhattan’s East Village to Poitiers, finally being installed in front of Cathedral Saint-Pierre.


SA: How do you hope to engage with your ongoing dialogue with ephemerality moving forward? 

Kimsooja: If it were possible, I would seek to connect the mystery of the borderline between life and death.

This story is from Issue Five.