Dressed in a dark, austere, almost monastic robe, long hair tied
loosely, a woman stands in the middle of the screen, back to the
camera--it is the artist KIM Sooja herself. She alone is in monochrome,
she alone does not move. Though since all she does is stand there,
amidst the crowded Shibuya area of Tokyo, for example, she does
at times vanish from view when her motionless figure is swallowed
by the on-going multicolored flow of foot traffic that crisscrosses
heedlessly in front and back of her. Which summons a groundless
sense of disquiet--where did she go?--until suddenly a moment later,
as if everyone else had made way for her, that unmistakable back
of hers re-emerges. Her presence cuts through the crowds, creating
a singular opening, seemingly spotlighting her alone. An instant
of emptiness in the space, an eternal space. Time that stopped while
she disappeared begins to flow again. A certain calm visits the
But why should we fixate so upon this image of her just standing
in a crowd? It is because we feel the sheer force of will, the determination
that radiates from her backside with scarcely a movement. It is
because her whole being is standing there in the performance. Perhaps
she is not standing on the street, but transmigrating between this
reality and the netherworld, between life and death. And upon her
passages we viewers project the fundamental uncertainty of our own
being. As she vanishes, submerging into the tides of men, we read
the transience of existence and grow unsettled; only to take reassurance
in the constancy of life forces as her figure resurfaces, poised
In her Shibuya piece, the passers-by generally walk at a fast clip,
not one stopping to look in her direction. Each is occupied with
his or her own affairs, busily hurrying toward some goal, whether
business or pleasure. Whereas in Shanghai, the people walk relatively
slower, each seemingly meandering along a random course. Most of
them cast a glance at her, look back over their shoulders, or even
stop and stare. And in bustling backstreets of Delhi we witness
the same curiosity, the same lack of reserve.
Nonetheless, not to make culturo-anthropological comparisons between
people's actions and reactions city-to-city: the "where" of things
is secondary. For even in the most chaotic urban Brownian motion,
even in Shibuya where the mindless distraction of foot-traffic takes
on a strange regularity, all she does is stand there. Again swept
under, again floating up in the human stream, she slowly embroiders
her way into the fabric of the streets, of the people. She finds
her place as the "Needle Woman" stitching it all together, patching
The instant her hidden figure comes back into the picture, the viewer
is struck by an awakening. It is the moment she establishes her
presence, thereby beginning to charge the viewer's inner being.
Just standing there, voiding herself, the world opens up, transparent:
do you not suddenly see yourself? It is an almost erotic encounter
with existence, Ekstase (Heidegger), an existential epiphany.
This becomes clear in her two pieces enacted not in the city but
against nature. In one work she lies upon a great rock, one arm
outstretched. Motionless, of course. As if we are looking at a parinirvana,
an image of the reclining Buddha, though funnily enough, from behind.
Under a clear blue sky, lying on that great stone as if meditating
upon sensual illusions, backgrounded by the slight passing of clouds
and the resultant varying nuances of light. The rock does not move,
but time is surely passing.
In A Laundry Woman, the work where she stands watching the
Yamuna River in India, what at first appears to be almost stagnant
water is shown by the appearance of drifts of rubbish to be a surprisingly
rapid current. As this river of refuse flows past her it actually
appears to be flowing through her, so that she is washed and purified
by the waters.
In these two works, by synchronizing with natural time, she seems
to have grasped her own inner time. So that, ultimately, viewer
time also merges with her take on cosmic time.
KIM Sooja's videoworks are neither mere audiovisual records set
in different locations town and countryside; nor are they tape works
complete in themselves. They only become "finished" through the
psychosomatic interactions engendered between the visuals and the
viewer. And for this reason, viewing on a monitor is insufficient;
the works must be projected in a specially created space or setting.
There must be this psychosomatic interplay with the viewer, a dialogue
between the figure of the artist seen from behind and the flux of
persons around her in a such a way that watching the videos becomes
participation in her performance. For although at the original shooting
stage she was performing alone, when projected as part of an installation
it takes on new life as another viewer-participation performance,
the viewers creating their own meanings.
Almost nothing happens on screen. Nor do the visuals offer up meaning.
Yet as the quietive, near-static visuals awaken a mixture of diverse
uncertain and fulfilling emotions, the viewer and the viewed begin
to share a singular reality. And this makes for a meaning to the
images thrown back to the screen.
Yet just how are we viewers to participate interactively in these
works? How are we to share in the awakening of the woman-from-behind?
Here, surely more intuitive than consciously thought out, are the
secrets to her method. First of all, none of the tapes is edited;
all seven-odd-minute tapes are slices of real time. So that the
addition of oneself to this timespan constitutes a sharing in the
performance-as-photographed. Fixed-frame shooting without image
manipulation likewise does away with all inverisimilitudes.
Moreover, in all the tapes she is shown largely from the waist up;
that her legs are not seen proves quite important. Very likely if
her whole body were in frame, viewers would watch the picture with
detached objectivity. By not seeing her lower body, viewers can
place themselves directly behind her to observe the scenes in physical
identification with her. Herein the images transcend the mere visual
to attain a whole-body reality. Thus her image should not be projected
too large; ideally she should appear roughly the life-size equivalent
of the viewer.
In this regard, although not exhibited here, her 1997 Sewing
into Walking may be regarded as an experimental forerunner to
the present works. In this work the artist herself does not appear;
a fixed camera merely records a busy street in Istanbul. Yet because
of the eye-height field of vision, we get an odd en-scéne
sensation of standing right beside her and looking on. It is this
lack of artifice that brings home her reality to the viewer. In
this way her unadulterated street visuals become images of being
itself. Here we find the origins of her later "Needle Woman" series.
Her previous works have been variously labeled according to their
concerns with "Korean tradition and modernization," "women's roles
and feminism," even "nomadism." One reason being her longtime use
of traditional Korean bedcover fabrics. In her very first works,
she collaged cut-up swatches of these fabrics, sewing them together
into patchwork wall-hangings. Then later she bundled up old clothes
in these colorful bedcovers-cum-wrapping cloths (bottari)
and made installations of these large bundles, or piled them into
a truck and drove them around Korea as an 11-day performance. Or
again, she hung them up laundry line style, or spread them like
tablecloths on museum café tables.
Of course, bedcovers are replete with meanings: newborn babies are
swaddled in them, they also cover corpses on death-beds. And in
between people see them throughout their lives as the site of sleeping,
resting and sex. Moreover, as she always appropriated somebody's
actual used bedcovers, they were by no means neutral.
Thus, as women learn to sew from their mothers, then wrap up their
household possessions when they leave home, she becomes "A Needle
Woman" bundling everything, the whole world in cloth, stitching
Which perhaps explains why KIM Sooja's works have been proven so
unintentionally topical in "post-modern" and "post-colonial" circles.
Even though her aims are more universal, she has been burdened with
well-meaning but trivial readings. In some ways, while totally different
in genre, her relationship with fabric recalls TRINH T. Minh-ha's
film Surname Viet Given Name Nam. Both their works have provoked
altogether too much discourse, almost more than their enjoyment
as works in themselves.
Fabric is text, and the artist herself has made not a few statements
about her use of fabric. Thus the many labels are not necessarily
wrong. But the fact that, fully aware of these deeply compounded
layers of meaning, she continues to use fabrics perhaps indicates
that while recognizing her own beginnings in cloth, her thinking
is to seek transcendence to a more universal level. Thus, her videowork,
wholly removed from fabric, may well constitute a pursuit of means
able to cast off all labels. We may see her performance of simply
standing as a no-nonsense, unadorned minimalist action, an existential
KIM Sooja in video appears totally free from everything.