Installation and sound bring Kimsooja’s South Korean pavilion to life at the 55th Venice Biennale.
Korean artist Kimsooja, known for her performance, video and installations based on displacement and humanity, is representing South Korea at the Venice Biennale 2013. Art Radar spoke to the artist about her site-specific installation for the pavilion and the vision behind her work.
Chasing rainbows at the Venice Biennale
On 1 June 2013, the 55th Venice Biennale opened in Italy, featuring national pavilions from 88 countries. Representing her native South Korea, Kimsooja created To Breathe: Bottari, ‘bottari’ being a Korean word for a cloth in which small objects can be bundled up and carried. Kimsooja’s installation transformed the pavilion into a place of light, reflection and rainbows for the Biennale audience.
Kimsooja was born in Taegu, South Korea in 1957. She graduated from Hong-Ik University with a degree in painting, and a Masters in Fine Arts. She has exhibited throughout the world in museums, institutions and galleries including Miami Art Museum, D’Art Moderne de Saint Etienne , Daegu Art Museum, Crystal Palace in Madrid, and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center/MoMA in New York. In this interview for Art Radar, Kimsooja talks about the ideas behind her projects and her current artwork, “Thread Routes.”
Artist of three continents
You are of South Korean heritage, living and working in New York, Seoul and Paris. How does living in three countries influence you as an artist? Are the art scenes in New York, Paris and Seoul similar? If not, how do they differ?
I see my way of working and the parameters of my practice as being the influence that has created the situation where I have three different bases in different continents, rather than the other way around. However, it is true that particular places and their different cultures have been deeply influential to my perception and my practice.
The art scenes, or the structure of the art scenes in Seoul, Paris and New York are quite different and unique. I must say, although global influences tend to blend ways of living and perceptions and make all cities feel more and more similar to each other, there are still particular ways of living, perceptions, art scenes, cultures and histories that are unique to each city. New Yorkers consider New York as a centre of the art world, but I often find it quite provincial considering what’s going on in the whole world. The New York scene is still heavily market-oriented, and the mainstream is dominated by white male artists, as well as money and power. However, it is stimulating to live in New York and maintain critical distance by keeping myself at the edge of all that. Parisians still have a genuine broad enthusiasm and appreciation for art, although they are still nostalgic and quite nationalistic. Recently I noticed a lot of effort from institutions and galleries in Paris to open up more to the world. Seoul has passionate audiences who are anxious to catch up with what’s going on in the world. Although the Korean art world is still narrow, there’s a lot of positive energy in Seoul, which I think is promising if only they would reflect a little more on the reality of where they are.
Could you describe your background and why you became an artist? What made you want to become an artist?
I’ve always been fascinated by all kinds of creative activities and full of curiosity ever since I was a little girl. When I was eleven, our homeroom teacher asked us to write down two possible occupations that we wished to pursue in the future. I wrote one as a painter and the other as a philosopher. There was a moment in high school when I had to choose a major before entering college. In the end, I chose painting because I see it as a lifelong activity of contemplation on life and the world.
What are your major artistic influences and how do they relate to your work?
I guess all around me were influences, but if I have to select, one of the earliest influences was my childhood as an adventurous girl, wandering around in nature near the DMZ area [Demilitarised Zone] as a member of a nomadic family that was witnessing what was happening on borderlines between South and North Korea. I can also count as influences my condition as a woman and my endless questions on life, self and the structure of the world. There was also a statement by [musician] John Cage [which] I saw in 1984 at the Paris Biennale that was a turning point in my art making: “Whether or not you try to make it, the sound is heard.” From that moment, when I was 26 years old, I started thinking of ‘Non-Making’ in ‘Making Art’. I am sure I’ve also been influenced by many pieces I’ve seen whether they were good or bad, witnessing the human condition in this violent and ephemeral world that we live in. I think all of these experiences influenced me in one way or another, answering my questions: my life as a long interview with myself.
Could you tell Art Radar what it’s like representing South Korea at the 55th Venice Biennale?
Being invited to represent my own country’s national pavilion is the most exceptional recognition I can achieve as an artist who has considered herself in self-exile for a long time. Without a doubt, it is my honour, and it is a challenging question for me to work on this particular biennale, so I was willing to develop the best possible project for the Korean Pavilion within the given conditions.
A pavilion of light and darkness
Can you describe your artistic vision for the South Korean pavilion? Could you describe your works at the Biennale?
I understand how much the nature of the particular architectural elements of the Korean Pavilion has raised questions for the commissioners and invited artists in the past, and I was no exception. This certainly coincided with my immaterial way of approaching the site-specific project, and we tried to preserve the original structure of the pavilion while challenging its specific qualities and problems.
I decided to leave the whole space empty without installing any objects in it, so that the installation expands the void to its maximum by taking the architecture of the Korean Pavilion itself as a Bottari [bundle]. I tried to transform the entire pavilion into “a breathing bottari of light and sound”, “darkness and soundlessness” that inhales and exhales; as if the architecture itself were my body. The audience’s body may be embraced by ‘void’ and the sound of my breathing. The sound performance fills the pavilion and proposes a unified experience, together with the yang energy, which enters as sunlight, and extends all the way to the yin energy of the black hole in the anechoic chamber.
The skin of the glass windows is wrapped with the diffraction grating film fabric which diffuses the sunlight into a rainbow colour spectrum. Inside the pavilion, what we see is the unfolded sunlight that diffracts from the shadows of nature onto the skin of the architecture and then showers into the pavilion and is translated into a colour spectrum. This light and shadow reflects onto the white walls and simultaneously bounces endlessly back and forth from the mirrored skin of the ceiling and the floor, folding and unfolding into infinity. The darkness in light and the light in darkness are stretched to an extreme into waves of light and sound. The audience’s body resides within mine as a whole, wrapping and unwrapping, communicating with each other. The light waves and the sound waves together with my humming and the inhaling and exhaling of my own breath, question the moment of life and death—while the mirrors bounce light off their surfaces—breathing in and out.
In this immaterial and non-making approach, the visual knowledge of infinite reflection in the main space—which is constructed from purely natural light that breathes within the pavilion, finds a counterpoint in the completely dark anechoic chamber of the ‘unknown’ or ‘unseen’ that reveals human ‘ignorance’. This is also an extension of the concept of bottari as a womb, a tomb and a black hole, which is a concept that hasn’t been pronounced much before. I wish for audiences to experience their breathing in the darkness and to rediscover the light as a birth and as a sanctuary for our body and mind. The whole process of my practice has always been a journey of searching for a self awareness.
The curator Seung-duk Kim understood and discussed with me the possibility of creating an architectural project in an immaterial way, knowing that I have developed similar projects in the past. We approached the project together, facing one by one the challenging and problematic architectural conditions that the Korean Pavilion has. This encouraged me to pursue the site-specificity, transforming problems into solutions.
It was interesting to be presented in the biennale for Massimiliano Gioni’s title “Il Palazzo Enciclopedico” [The Encyclopedic Palace]. For me, this title seems to share a real affinity with my thoughts on the notion of bottari as a whole and totality, and Gioni’s reference immediately connects with a certain common knowledge that is in line with the evolution of my practice. Interestingly, quite a few people said, “Gioni’s biennale diagram works exactly for your work!” Somehow, his Gwangju Biennale theme “Ten Thousand Lives” also had a similar approach to my “A Needle Woman” series (1999-2009) and other projects I’ve done such as the “Bottari” series or the installations using old clothing. Sometimes universal unconscious coincidences happen and it is interesting as it often reveals a truth of the world.
Bottari: wrapping bodies and memories
In your works, including Bottari Truck-Migrateurs, and Deductive Object (1993), “bottari” is a recurring theme. Could you describe your idea and concept behind bottari in your works, and talk about the first time you used bottari in your work?
The short period I spent at MOMA/P.S.1 residency in New York (1992-1993) was instrumental because that was when I first discovered a new meaning of bottari, which were made with used Korean bedcovers for newly married couples, as a ready-made, ready-used aesthetic formation. By wrapping fragments of colourful traditional clothing with a colourful bedcover, I discovered it [the fabric] could become a wrapped two-dimensional “tableau” that was transformed into a three-dimensional sculpture simply by tying one knot and holding all the contents inwardly, as if hugging them all or being pregnant. It is an action of wrapping bodies and memories.
While I was in New York, bottari objects were more of a formalistic and aesthetic statement, but when I returned to Korea, I saw our culture and women’s roles in it from a more critical perspective and the bottari was no longer just an aesthetic object. Rather, it became tied to notions of the body, to the condition of myself and women in general in Korean society, and also to human destiny at large. From then on, I no longer used fragments of coloured fabrics inside of the bottari as a way to create a type of “pigment”. Instead, I began to wrap existing used clothing as they were, in order to incorporate elements of reality.
In the video for PBS Art21, you spoke about “finding transcendental moment and space” in your works in relation to the installation To Breathe at the Crystal Palace in Madrid. The palace was left empty except for the film on the glass roof to create rainbows, and mirrors on the floor to reflect the glass structure, and was filled with the sound of your breathing. What drew you to this type of work? Could you explain the concept behind this work?
Also, The breathing in this work is very powerful, taking the viewer from very serene state to a state of discomfort during the rapid breathing. Could you tell me how this piece came about?
I can say that the Korean Pavilion was an extension of my To Breathe: A Mirror Woman (2006) installation at Crystal Palace, which was commissioned by Reina Sofia and curated by Olivia Maria Rubio. The grandness and the beauty of this palace enabled me to create the void, without installing any objects in it, by pushing the void of the palace all the way to the skin of the building, emptying it and reflecting the structure as a whole using the same translucent film on the glass of the windows, and creating a bottari of sound and light, filled with my breathing voices.
The breathing sound performance was first experimented with at a former weaving factory in Lodz during Lodz Biennale, 2004. For this piece, I considered my body as a weaving factory by understanding inhaling and exhaling as a weaving machine work, in both sound and action—humming as another fabric of breathing using only my nose without opening my mouth. Actually, for the catalogue for the Korean Pavilion, I remixed that sound and created the sound wave diagrams to juxtapose together with the light wave and mirror wave spectrum.
The difference between the Crystal Palace piece and the Korean Pavilion is that for To Breathe: Bottari, I could create the relationship between light and darkness, which was a new evolution, and I was able to juxtapose visual knowledge with the unknown [and] unseen, by creating an anechoic chamber in complete darkness, which is called: To Breathe: Blackout. Also using the different problematics of the architectural elements in the Korean Pavilion I could experiment with double sided mirror reflections using both floor and ceiling, which created infinite reflections of different bottaris of spaces and self, positioning the audience’s body in a different sense of space and time.
It was significant that Hurricane Sandy happened in New York right at the moment when the commissioner of the Korean Pavilion and I were discussing this project. The experience of living without power, electricity, heat and conveniences for one week with the whole community was a humbling and contemplative moment. At the same time, this special moment gave me an insight into the Korean pavilion project by encouraging me to construct an anechoic chamber to explore a state of complete darkness and soundlessness.
The installation, Lotus: Zone of Zero (2008) transforms the space into a place of meditation for the audience with Gregorian, Islamic and Tibetan chants coming together at the centre. Could you describe what this means to you, and what this centre represents to you?
[The centre] is the place where everything is absorbed without occupying space and gravity, as a zero point that has nothing but a location—open and connected to a whole different dimensionality (sic) of the universe—the centre of harmony.
Artist as subject and object
In your video performance work “A Needle Woman” (1999-2001), you are standing meditatively still with your back facing the camera in the midst of people walking in bustling cities such as Tokyo, Cairo, New York, Delhi. Can you talk about how these cities were chosen? You have said in a previous interview that the state of your mind determines the moment of immobility in the performance. Can you explain in more detail this state of mind?
When I was commissioned by CCA Kitakyushu in 1999, I wished to do a performance piece anonymously, and document it on video. The idea was to create one performance in the urban environment with people and another one, alone in nature to juxtapose both environments next to each other. I had never done a performance piece in real time before, although I had done a few performative photographic pieces in the late 70s and another one in the early 80s for a series of serigraphy using the structure of my body as an axis of spatial dimension. I chose the busy metropolis [of] Tokyo to place my body in the flow of humanity, initially thinking of a walking performance. After a couple of hours of walking, wrapping people in my mind by walking and passing by, I became increasingly overwhelmed by the oceans of humanity, until I finally arrived at Shibuya area where hundreds of thousands of people were coming and going. I had to stop right at that moment and in that place, screaming inwardly. It was a kind of a Zen moment. I realised there, standing, the meaning of my walking so far, and I had to do that ‘standing still’ performance right away. As I continued the performance, the status of my mind transformed from vulnerability to stability—finding a centre and a focus, and in the end, I felt a strong connection of my body and mind to the world, full of compassion. With the duration of time standing still, my heart was filled with peace and enlightenment over the ocean of people in this world. I decided to continue this performance literally to meet everyone in the world, choosing to perform in eight metropolises in different continents around the world. In each city I stood still as a symbolic needle to reveal the human conditions in existential, geo-cultural and socio-political dimensions, as an axis of both space and time. This became the “A Needle Woman” performance series.
You have been the main subject in your performance works, but you’ve spoken previously about you being both “a subject and object, an individual and an abstraction, a specific woman and every woman.” Could you tell me in further detail what this concept means to you?
The way I place my body creates the nature of my body as a symbolic needle that can be seen and experienced, both as a self and an ‘other’; a barometer of each performed location as an axis of space and time. I become a neutral point and at the same time, my body functions as a hermaphroditic tool that encompasses the nature of reality and abstraction, masculine and feminine, and thus subject and object. The artist’s view as an omnipresent gazing point enables these multiple roles to be present at one time. And this relationship can arise only when the engagement of the audience activates the performance by viewing it.
Performing the world’s poetry with “Thread Routes”
Could you describe your recent work “Thread Routes”, in which you are working with 16mm film and a team? How did the idea for this work come about?
“Thread Routes” is my first film series made from 16mm film, and it is divided into six chapters, each of which takes place in a different cultural zone around the world. I consider this approach as a ‘visual poem’ and a ‘visual anthropology’ in juxtaposing and presenting structural similarities in performative elements of textile culture with the structures in nature, architecture, agriculture and gender relationships in different cultures. These non-descriptive and non-narrative documentary films, (although they are narrative compared to “A Needle Woman” or my other video pieces) were conceived after being inspired in Bruges, Belgium in 2002, by traditional lace-making and its performative elements. However, all of those elements of spinning, weaving, wrapping and juxtaposing the structure of agricultural and natural landscapes have been explored in my sewn pieces since the 1980s; in that sense “Thread Routes” is a retrospective gaze towards my past practices and how I view the world.
With this film series, I demonstrate the hidden reality of the diverse forms of textile construction while contextualising the relationship between textile-making and architecture practices alongside natural geographical forms. Similar and distinctive elements of visual phenomena are woven and merged together as equal visual and cultural vocabularies. They also illustrate the similarities and differences in this gender oriented activity in different performative weaving, spinning and sewing cultures. By defining this link I try to create a dialogue that enriches the context of contemporary art and life.
The painstaking labour of textile-making coupled with the necessities of shelter, farming, and human relations shows how our life and humanity is rooted in yin and yang; its negative and positive energy. Taking this pure visual experience as a statement on how I gaze at the world, I consider this film series a poetic, visual archaeology that becomes a retrospective of my practice in the past that continues today.
Your works have involved performance, video, sound and installation. Is there a medium that you believe best expresses your ideas or you would like to explore further?
I’ve been experimenting with different media as, initially, they were exactly what inspired me in the revelation of my notion of tableau. For example, I have been evolving and deepening notions of ‘sewing’ and ‘wrapping’ in a broad range of different media for many years. Discovering new questions in different dimensions, I choose each medium based on what is the best possible way to present the idea behind the work and based on what I find to be the most critical and poignant way to reveal the notion that I wish to evolve, rather than focusing on a certain medium itself. I am more interested in the process to present the concept rather than the medium itself.
Are there any new projects you are working on or planning?
Continuing the “Thread Routes” six-chapter film series is the most challenging project at the moment. I am also preparing a comprehensive survey show that encompasses my thirty-year career at Vancouver Art Gallery this fall, and a new permanent outdoor video portrait installation by the General Services Administration Art in Architecture Program (GSA) at the US/Mexico borderline right on top of the Mariposa Main Entry Port revolving door; as well as many other ideas to follow up.
Future of Korean art
What are the biggest challenges for Korean artists today? How do you see the Korean contemporary art scene developing in the next five years?
I must say that I am quite positive about the projections for the future of the Korean art scene at this point. [The scene] has been surprisingly cultivating, supported by a society that embraces many young talented artists who are being introduced to the world. There should be more serious and professional attention to it, as well as to the older generation and mid career artists. The support of poignant and consistent art criticism will create a solid grounding of Korean contemporary Art history and make a mark in the history of contemporary art at large. The problem is that Asian, African, or Middle Eastern countries and other minorities are not paid much attention when it comes to the writing of art history. Most of the dominant western art world is still not willing to fully acknowledge the practices of the minorities that are left behind, although there are a few curators who are supportive in their curatorial practices. Acknowledging critical artists from each society, especially from minorities, should be recontextualised as it will reaffirm the existing context and enrich it, as these kinds of artists have inspired the western art world since ancient art history began. I am hopeful as there are at least a few historians and curators who are aware of these problems and have broader and deeper perspectives on it.
- Love in a Caucasian Climate: Central Asian art at the Venice Biennale 2013 – picture feast – June 2013 – exhibition of contemporary art from Azerbaijan and surrounding countries at the 55th Venice Biennale
- Young Korean painters return to traditional painting styles in New York exhibition – February 2013 – group exhibition of contemporary Korean artists
- Korean Artist Project adds 21 curator-select artists to website – resource alert – November 2012 – a virtual art platform displaying over 1500 artworks that is open to the public
- Emerging Korean artist Rim Lee exhibits new surrealist works in Chicago – March 2012 – young Korean artist Rim Lee’s first solo exhibition
- “Korean Eye: Fantastic Ordinary” exhibition tours London, Singapore, and Seoul – August 2010 – this seminal exhibition reaches a wider audience in its second year
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