Weaving cultures and geographies: Kimsooja wins 2015 Ho-Am Prize

Korean artist Kimsooja was awarded the prestigious Ho-Am Prize for the Arts on 1 June 2015.

Following Nam June Paik in 1995 and Lee Ufan in 2001, Kimsooja is the third visual artist and first female artist to take home the award. Art Radar shines a light on the works of this significant interdisciplinary artist. 

Kimsooja. Photo by Viktor Bentley, courtesy Axel Vervoordt Gallery.

Kimsooja. Photo: Viktor Bentley. Courtesy Axel Vervoordt Gallery.

Breaking new ground

Kimsooja is the first woman to be awarded the prestigious Ho-Am Prize for the Arts. Established in 1990 by the Korean conglomerate Samsung, the award was first conceived to “create a new corporate culture that continues the noble spirit of public service espoused by the late Chairman Byung-chull Lee, founder of Samsung”. Named after Byung-chull Lee’s pen-name, the annual Ho-Am Prize recognises individuals of Korean heritage who have contributed significantly to the welfare of humankind in five categories:

  • Science
  • Engineering
  • Medicine
  • The arts
  • Community service

The Prize for the Arts encompasses broad areas of artistic activities including literature, music, painting, design, dance and theatre. Art Asia Pacific reports that “Kimsooja is only the third visual artist, and the first female artist, to win the Ho-Am Prize for the Arts, with the other two being Lee Ufan in 2001 and Nam June Paik in 1995″.

The presentation ceremony was held at the Ho-Am Art Hall in downtown Seoul, “with prominent personages from diversified backgrounds in attendance”, according to Axel Vervoordt Gallery, who represents Kimsooja. As part of the award, Kimsooja was presented with a diploma, a pure gold medal and a cash prize of USD275,000.

Kimsooja, Bottari Truck - Migrateur, 2007, production still from single channel video, silent, 10:00, loop, performed in Paris, commissioned by Musée D'Art Contemporain du Val-De-Marne (MAC/VAL), photography by Thierry Depagne, Courtesy of Kimsooja Studio

Kimsooja, ‘Bottari Truck – Migrateur’, 2007, production still from single channel video, silent, 10:00, loop, performed in Paris, commissioned by Musée D’Art Contemporain du Val-De-Marne (MAC/VAL). Photo: Thierry Depagne. Image courtesy Kimsooja Studio. 

Nomadism, migration and the role of women

Kimsooja (b. 1957, Daegu, South Korea) is a conceptual artist whose diverse body of work straddles disciplines. She studied Western painting at Seoul’s Hong-Ik University in the mid-1980s and moved to New York in 1992 to undertake an artist residency at MoMA PS1. She subsequently developed a defining body of work characterised by sewn fabrics, incorporating concepts of nomadism, migration, interpersonal relationships and women’s role in society.

These works include sculptures and site-specific installations composed of exuberantly coloured and patterned cloth bundles, sewn pieces and wrapped objects that the artist calls bottari, Korean for ‘bundle’. Curator Annett Reckert explained in 2001 how these cloth bundles are associated with travel and migration:

[…] tied bundles of cloth […] are used like ordinary containers for the safe-keeping or transportation of a family’s worldly goods. They are not meant for a family’s valuables or heirlooms, but for the most elementary household goods with which to make a start in another place […] The pieces of clothing are stand-ins for the people whose second skin they once were […] with her ambulatory, transportable bundles, [Kimsooja] has succeeded in calling forth a reflection on the connection between movement and consciousness, knowledge, time and space.

Kimsooja, 'A Needle Woman', 2005, video still from Yemen, 6:33 min loop, silent. Courtesy of Kukje Gallery, Seoul, Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Antwerp, and Kimsooja Studio.

Kimsooja, ‘A Needle Woman’, 2005, video still from Yemen, 6:33 min loop, silent. Courtesy of Kukje Gallery, Seoul, Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Antwerp, and Kimsooja Studio.

The body as a metaphoric needle 

By using cloth and clothing, materials classically denoted as female, Kimsooja also poignantly raises the question of the role of women in society. But while sewing and weaving are domestic, intimate gestures, Kimsooja’s art transcends the category of domesticism with the assertion of a larger goal. Reckert writes that Kimsooja:

undertakes dealing with cloth, needle, and thread in an ordinary way, but raises it to the level of a concept […] An idea, far-reaching both for herself and for the viewers of her work, manifests itself in her self-conceived role as ‘A Needle Woman’ — that of sewing as an interaction in space, sewing as a social behavior that endlessly constructs new and more or less unstable living-spaces.

Kimsooja took such themes and developed them into multi-faceted, mesmerising contexts and constellations not just in sculpture but also in conceptual video and performance works. The video series A Needle Woman, arguably her most iconic work, depicts her standing motionless with her back to the camera amid bustling crowds in major metropolitan cities. Kimsooja’s biography on the Ho-Am Prize website states that her video performances

establishe[s] her body in performance as a metaphoric needle that weaves through the fabric of space and time.

Kimsooja, 'Thread Routes - Chapter III', 2012, 16 mm film transferred to HD format, 5.1 sound, 16:34, installation view at Guggenheim Bilbao, courtesy Kukje Gallery, Seoul, Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Antwerp, and Kimsooja Studio.

Kimsooja, ‘Thread Routes – Chapter III’, 2012, 16 mm film transferred to HD format, 5.1 sound, 16:34, installation view at Guggenheim Bilbao. Courtesy Kukje Gallery, Seoul, Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Antwerp, and Kimsooja Studio.

Connecting cultures and geographies

Kimsooja has continued to expand the range and depth of her conceptual works, developing highly acclaimed site-specific installations using light and sound that continue to evoke themes of mobility and immobility, making and non-making and migration. Currently based in New York, Paris and Seoul, Kimsooja has participated in more than 30 international biennials and triennials, including the 9th Gwangju Biennale, the 24th Sao Paulo Biennale and the 55th Venice Biennale.

Her most recent work, Thread Routes, is an anthropological poem, a film and installation shot in South America, China, and Europe. Recently shown at the Axel Vervoordt Gallery in Antwerp and currently on show at the Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain as well as Art Basel, the three-channel video installation explores links between each region’s textile culture and its people, gender relations, architecture, nature and agriculture. The non-narrative work “reveals how the artist gazes at the world: unfolding visual patterns that intimately tie humans to their land”. And as MoMA PS1 said in 2001, a statement which still rings true today:

[Kimsooja] transcends cultures, geographies, and even time in an act of profound self-affirmation that questions basic human conduct, while knitting together these seemingly irreconcilable elements of life.

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: Korean artists, textiles, thread, found objects, sculpture, installation, site-specific art, video, light, sound, performance, awards and ceremonies, events in Seoul

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