Kimsooja unfolds a fascinating body of work
Kimsooja performs in many of her videos, yet we seldom see her face. And even though this internationally acclaimed artist employs the body as a metaphor for the human condition in much of her work—which also includes brilliantly coloured textile bundles, mixed-media installations, photography, and altered found objects—we don’t usually see her body in action. Instead, Kimsooja becomes the still, unspeaking, and anonymous centre of her video pieces, asking us to experience what she is experiencing.
She may stand silent and unmoving, her back toward the camera, in the middle of a thronging thoroughfare. Or sit on a busy sidewalk, cross-legged, again silent and turned away from us, in the posture of a beggar or penitent. Or lie on her side under a tree beside a city street, her face and body again shot from behind. In all these performances, all we recognize of her is her long black hair, pulled into a ponytail, and her vulnerable back, clothed in a plain, grey cotton garment.
When I meet the artist at the Vancouver Art Gallery during the installation of her retrospective exhibition, Kimsooja Unfolding, she talks about her multichannel video projection, A Needle Woman, shot in eight of the world’s major cities, including London, Cairo, Lagos, and Shanghai. It’s in this work that Kimsooja stands very still, back to the audience, as crowds of strangers surge past her. “I wasn’t interested in showing my own identity but tried to be a neutral pole, an axis of time and space,” she says. She doesn’t want viewers to focus on her face, trying to read her personality, but rather to study the relationship of her body to the people and cultures around her.
Born in the South Korean city of Daegu, Kimsooja had a geographically unsettled childhood. “My father was in military service, so we were moving every one-and-a-half or two years, and living near the DMZ [the South Korean demilitarized zone], in sometimes very dangerous zones.” She adds that this formative experience replays in her work as an acute awareness of borders or boundaries, physical and psychological. A transient condition informs her adult life, too: she is based in New York, Paris, and Seoul, and inflects her English speech with French and Korean expressions. Critics have observed that much of her art has to do with migration—with location and dislocation. And although it is easy enough to read ideas of gender, ethnicity, power, and marginalization into her work, Kimsooja is quoted in the exhibition catalogue as saying that she is more preoccupied with the “dimension of pure humanity”.
Kimsooja studied art at Hongik University in Seoul, graduating in 1980 with an MFA. In 1983, she shifted her focus from painting and printmaking to textile-based work, cutting up found fabric and sewing the pieces into geometric configurations that explored horizontality, verticality, surface, yin and yang, sacred space, and the body. In the early 1990s, she began wrapping ordinary found objects with pieces of fabric as a means of (paradoxically) revealing their essence. “This action of wrapping was in a way reconfirming their structure,” she says.
In 1992, during a residency at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 space in New York City, Kimsooja attracted critical and curatorial attention with her use of bottari, brightly coloured and patterned fabric bundles. In creating these works, she was drawing on the Korean tradition of using bed covers to wrap and transport clothing and other household items from place to place. “Bottari are everywhere in Korea, in domestic life,” Kimsooja says, then adds that when she first placed one in her PS1 studio, she had a revelation about its creative possibilities. “I started seeing bottari in a new way, as a wrapped canvas and, at the same time, a sculpture.” She realized that the fabric bundles spoke to daily life and to the human condition, while also possessing a spatial-temporal element.
Although she has since worked in other media and materials, bottari have become synonymous with her practice. In 1997, she filled the back of an old truck with fabric bundles and went on an 11-day journey through Korea, revisiting the sites of her many childhood homes. A re-creation of the bundle-filled truck is on display at the VAG, near a projection of Kimsooja’s video of the project, Cities on the Move—2727 Kilometer Bottari Truck. As we walk around the truck, she describes the different stages of life that bottari represent in Korean tradition: from the bed covers of newlywed couples to luggage used in moves and departures, they speak of beginnings and endings and everything in between. “For me,” Kimsooja says, “these are important as the symbolic frames of our lives.”