In Kimsooja's videos, performative actions, sculptures, and installations, pieces of daily life become tools of investigation into the diverse yet shared experiences of humanity. Particularly known for her use of Korean bedcovers and fabrics to create bottari (Korean for bundles) and—both literally and metaphorically—the act of sewing, the artist explores ways of wrapping or stitching objects, spaces, and lives as a means of bringing disparate elements together.Read More
After graduating with an MFA from Hongik University, Seoul, in 1984, Kimsooja received the French Government's Scholarship to study in the Lithography studio at the Ecole nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris. Many of her works from this decade are two-dimensional geometric patchworks, made from sewing pieces of fabric and clothes together into various shapes, such as a cross in The Earth and the Heaven (1984) or a stepped pyramid in Untitled (1987). Some, such as Le Bleu and Le Noir (both 1987), feature abstract drawings in ink and acrylic paint on the fabric. These sewn works were inspired by the fabrics and clothes that Kimsooja's grandmother had owned and the artist's interest in the association between needlework and female labour in Korean culture.
In the early 1990s, Kimsooja started incorporating the concept of bottari into her practice to create minimal sculptures. The Korean term bottari refers to a bundle made by wrapping objects—usually one's possessions for the purpose of travel—with a piece of fabric fastened with a knot. Her 'Deductive Object' series (1990–1997) involves wrapping everyday items such as a Judo mask, farm tools, pitchforks, and clothing racks in brightly coloured Korean bedcovers and clothes to create bottari. While any kind of fabric can make bottari, the artist chooses second-hand clothes and found objects to reference the passage of time and the fact that the objects are not only ready-mades but have also been used. She began to gain international recognition during this time, with a residency at MoMA PS1 in New York in 1992 and the presentation of her works in the group exhibitions In Their Own Images at MoMA PS1 and Trade Routes at the New Museum, New York, in the following year.
Returning to Korea in 1993, Kimsooja noticed the role of women in Korean culture more acutely and began to expand bottari as a metaphor for female activities, migration, and displacement. In Sewing into Walking (1994)—her first video performance work—the artist ties second-hand fabrics into bottari and slowly lays them on the grass. In 1995, when asked to participate in the first Gwangju Biennale, the artist re-enacted the performance in a forest. She dedicated the resulting installation of scattered clothes to the victims of the Gwangju Uprising—the event in which, between 18 and 27 May 1980, a civilian pro-democracy movement in Gwangju was brutally repressed by the military—with the used fabric alluding to the presence of human bodies. The video component of her project Cities on the Move—2727 Kilometers Bottari Truck (1997) documents the artist's performance, showing her from the back seated atop a mound of bottari on a truck as it travels through Korean cities and towns. Made two years before Kimsooja left Korea again for New York, the work examines the complexities of one's changing cultural identity, while the bottari embodies the artist's psychological burden—in Korean, the phrase 'making a bundle' means, especially when in relation to women, to leave one's family or home behind.
One of her best-known works, A Needle Woman project (1999–2001) considers the artist's body as an allegorical needle weaving through the multifarious fabrics of life and culture in this world. First filmed in Tokyo, then in Shanghai, Mexico City, London, Delhi, New York, Cairo, and Lagos, the eight-channel video installation—each screen depicting one city in a loop of six minutes—all show the artist from behind, with her long hair drawn back in her signature ponytail, standing still as the busy residents of each city walk past her. Surrounded by people in constant motion, the artist could be in any modern-day city. While referencing the ideas of global citizenship and mass urbanisation, A Needle Woman also addresses the increasing difficulty to maintain a sense of the individual in such societies.
Starting in the late 1990s, Kimsooja began incorporating mirrors in her practice, followed later by light. One of her earliest installations to feature mirrors, Bottari Truck in Exile (1999) was presented in the International Art Exhibition of the 48th Venice Biennale and consists of a truck loaded with bottari. By reflecting the vehicle onto a wall-sized mirror, the artist created a symbolic exit into a new world—in this case, for the refugees of Kosovo to whom it was dedicated. In another instance, mirrors and light were combined in the site-specific installation To Breathe—A Mirror Woman (2006) at the Crystal Palace in Madrid. The floors of the palace were covered with mirrors, while translucent diffraction film was placed on the surrounding windows. As the film diffracted the interior with spectrums of the rainbow, the space infinitely expanded with the reflections in the mirrors. The installation was also accompanied by a soundtrack of her breathing; in an interview with Art21 in 2013, the artist said that she saw the work 'as a bottari of light and sound and reflection'—a bottari wrapping space with non-physical qualities.
Since her first solo exhibition at Gallery Hyundai, Seoul, in 1988, Kimsooja has presented her work in international galleries, museums, and art fairs, as well as public spaces. In 2019, she transformed the Yorkshire Sculpture Park's historical chapel with an iteration of 'To Breathe' as part of Yorkshire Sculpture International, while her needle-shaped steel sculpture A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir (2014) was exhibited in London's Regent's Park for Frieze Sculpture 2018. Following her previous four participations in the Venice Biennale (1999, 2001, 2005, 2007), she represented Korea at its 55th edition with To Breathe: Bottari.
Kimsooja lives and works in New York and Seoul.
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2019