Seeds of Hope: Kimsooja on Nature, Nurture and Musings on Life

Kimsooja, To Breathe, 2020, site specific installation with diffraction grating films. Installation view at The Light House, Boghossian Foundation, Villa Empain, Brussels, Belgium, 2020–2021. Photos by Jan Liegeois. Image courtesy of Boghossian Foundation, Axel Vervoordt Gallery and Kimsooja Studio.
Kimsooja, To Breathe, 2020, site specific installation with diffraction grating films. Installation view at The Light House, Boghossian Foundation, Villa Empain, Brussels, Belgium, 2020–2021. Photos by Jan Liegeois. Image courtesy of Boghossian Foundation, Axel Vervoordt Gallery and Kimsooja Studio.
Kimsooja, To Breathe: Bottari, 2013, mixed media installation with The Weaving Factory, 2004–2013, the artist’s voice performance sound, 5.1 channel, 9:14, loop. Installation view of the Korean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2013. Photo Jaeho Chong. Image courtesy of Kimsooja Studio.
Kimsooja, To Breathe, 2019, mixed media installation with diffraction film, mirror, and sound performance The Weaving Factory, 2004-2013, 5.1 channel, 9:14, loop. Installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park Chapel, 2019. Photo by Jan Liegeois. Image courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Axel Vervoordt Gallery, and Kimsooja Studio.
Kimsooja, A Laundry Field, 2020, site-specific installation consisting of 100 local Swedish embroidered bedsheets. Installation view at Wanås Konst Sculpture Park, Sweden, 2020. Photo by Mattias Givell. Image courtesy of Wanås Konst and Kimsooja Studio.
Kimsooja, Bottari: 1999-2019, 2019, site-specific installation consisting of shipping container painted the colours of obangsaek, containing all of the artist’s personal possessions from her New York apartment. Installation view at Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, 2019. Photo by Yann Gachet. Image courtesy of the City of Poitiers and Kimsooja Studio.
TOP
1276
43
0
 
23
Aug
23
Aug
Art Central

Caught between personal tragedy and a global pandemic, Kimsooja found solace in a field of dreams. Her art practice continues to merge elements of beauty, impermanence and universality, effortlessly and paradoxically cutting to the core of contemporary culture. 

TEXT: Christina Ko
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Axel Vervoordt Gallery

 

Kimsooja, To Breathe, 2020, site specific installation with diffraction grating films. Installation view at The Light House, Boghossian Foundation, Villa Empain, Brussels, Belgium, 2020–2021. Photos by Jan Liegeois. Image courtesy of Boghossian Foundation, Axel Vervoordt Gallery and Kimsooja Studio.

 

Not an artist in this world was exempt from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but for Kimsooja, perhaps, the ramifications were particularly heavy. Shortly before the world quite literally shut down, her husband was diagnosed with cancer, and the artist closed her studio practice in New York to return to her homeland of South Korea to care for him.

Though the country never officially locked down, with uncertainty and a virus permeating the air, Kimsooja was mindful that any exposure she had to the strain would spell severe consequences, leading in effect to a self-imposed “imprisonment”, as she terms it.

For an artist whose practice traverses and examines nuances surrounding the human condition—and in particular, issues of culture, active identity and migration—this time in isolation, while emotionally fraught, was also a time of reflection. “I had more distance from the difficulties of what happened [because of] COVID-19,” she notes. “But at the same time, I had my own reflections and contemplations on our condition as human beings, and also, in a way, the global status—how we are and what we are… I found that we were imprisoned by our mobility and the freedom of it, and it is an interesting irony. That interconnection [and need for interaction is what] caused problems.”

As the rest of the world explored and discovered new ways to find human connection, Kimsooja realised new ways of working—without a studio—on sweeping and, most importantly, site-specific exhibitions. She learned, as did many during this time, though the body may be imprisoned, as long as the soul is nourished, hope can still pervade.

For her, this seed of hope was planted before she returned to South Korea, in 2019 when working on a citywide takeover of Poitiers, a small university town in the centre of France whose population is fewer than 100,000. Handed the keys to the city, she was invited to install work in any 15 buildings she chose as the lead artist in the city’s first biennale, from historical monuments to cathedrals, as well as involve 15 artists to participate and contribute.

Though the geographical footprint of the town was small, the project was, to date, “the largest project I’ve done in my life, using the whole city as my canvas… and it gave me hope while I’ve been in a difficult time in my life,” she says.

The installations included many of what have become the artist’s signature works—the diffraction grating film wrapping piece from her “To Breathe” series; the 16mm film series “Thread Routes” (2010-2019) that explores the performative nature of world textile culture; and various renditions of her oft-used, colourful Bottari, inspired by and occasionally utilising the Korean cloth wrap used to hold belongings of various sorts. Most poignant, perhaps, was the newest incarnation of Bottari: a full-sized shipping container painted in traditional obangsaek hues and laid before a city cathedral, inside which lay all her personal possessions, collected over two decades, from her New York apartment.

As she prepared to physically return to her homeland and the place where her life began, Kimsooja also sought to return to the origins of her artistic career, and that of one of her chosen materials: the linen fabric used to make bottari. The natural conditions in Poitiers did not allow her to engage in the project she wished to execute, and so Wanås, Sweden, became her fertile ground.

 

Kimsooja, To Breathe, 2020, site specific installation with diffraction grating films. Installation view at The Light House, Boghossian Foundation, Villa Empain, Brussels, Belgium, 2020–2021. Photos by Jan Liegeois. Image courtesy of Boghossian Foundation, Axel Vervoordt Gallery and Kimsooja Studio.
Kimsooja, To Breathe: Bottari, 2013, mixed media installation with The Weaving Factory, 2004–2013, the artist’s voice performance sound, 5.1 channel, 9:14, loop. Installation view of the Korean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2013. Photo Jaeho Chong. Image courtesy of Kimsooja Studio.
Kimsooja, To Breathe, 2019, mixed media installation with diffraction film, mirror, and sound performance The Weaving Factory, 2004-2013, 5.1 channel, 9:14, loop. Installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park Chapel, 2019. Photo by Jan Liegeois. Image courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Axel Vervoordt Gallery, and Kimsooja Studio.

 

“Sowing Into Painting”, mounted from May until November of 2020, was never formally visited by the artist, but with the assistance of curators, experts and nature itself, a field on the site was sown with flax seed just a month before the exhibition opening, and its resultant crop later harvested to create linen cloth. Poetically, the next generation of seeds was also saved to make flax seed oil for oil paints, harking back to the artist’s early training as a painter.

Though she had known that the cloth could be spun into canvasses for paintings, “I didn’t know that [flax could be turned into paint], and they actually even produce local paints in the region. We’re planning to make five obangsaek colour paints with it,” she says. “It’s very interesting to me… that it happened without even knowing the whole process. It just led [from one process] to another, naturally, and magically, through discovery. I was really very grateful and I got a lot of energy and hope from the process of that project, while I had a difficult time at home watching my beloved fading, and going towards death.”

She considers it fate that this idea was conceived just as humankind collectively began to rediscover the beauty and magic of nature—and in the last two years she, too, has found comfort and solace when visiting her countryside house outside the city. “[I had been] planning [this exhibition] before COVID-19 and even before my husband got diagnosed, and sometimes, intuitive decisions in art lead my life’s destiny. Although I didn’t have time to sleep much, or time for myself, I had to decide to continue to work, just to survive. To get energy, or to be hopeful.

“I think it was more like fate. I came to that point when I again became engaged with the earth, to nature, returning to the starting point of my artistic and creativity cycle again as a painter. It was linked to my sewing practice in the ’80s because I realised I did some sewing onto an acrylic painted canvas, on which I wrote ‘Agriculture’ to relate to ‘Sewing’. I attempted to signify the sewing practice and sowing the land as agriculture, at the beginning of my sewing practice. I always had that perspective of ‘sewing the big fabric of nature’ when I was sewing in the ’80s, so it was very interesting that I came back to that after 40 years since placing my question on the surface.”

Other pieces continue to explore and refine the roles and identities held by certain textiles. In a clearing across the sculpture park, white bedsheets were strewn on laundry lines across a field, creating a tapestry of cloth spirits sunbathing in the forest, whipping at the whims of the wind.

 

Kimsooja, A Laundry Field, 2020, site-specific installation consisting of 100 local Swedish embroidered bedsheets. Installation view at Wanås Konst Sculpture Park, Sweden, 2020. Photo by Mattias Givell. Image courtesy of Wanås Konst and Kimsooja Studio.

 

Besides the work A Laundry Field (2020), the adjacent galleries at Wanås held new works such as Meta-Painting (2020), in which the nature of canvas fabric as a tableau is questioned, as it is transformed into three-dimensional “painting”—the bottari “sculptures”. Coming full circle, in a hay barn whose wall was filled with cracks and imperfections, Kimsooja pushed obangseak-coloured fabric swatches into crevices, an homage to her similar “Deductive Object” series (1992), inaugurated in her residency at MoMA PS1, New York, at the dawn of her artistic career.

Kimsooja notes that she did not specifically remove notes of colour from the work at Wanås; the cloths she employed—besides the sparse swatches used in “Deductive Objects”—simply happened to be devoid of the pigmentation that often denotes cultural associations within her work.

This cultural context that seemed quite important in her earlier days as an artist, when she brought to the fore the gendered and cultural implications of cloth and colour, has faded in importance somewhat as the earth has continued its revolutions. Globalisation, political correctness, and pride in gender, ethnic and racial identity has made what was once a subtle observation a topic of household importance.

Yet Kimsooja’s oeuvre has never actually been about pushing a political agenda—more so it seeks to observe and shed light upon universal theories of humanity. Never—as so many artists of this day might have done—has she implied that aligning textile and culture is good or bad. It is, if possible, as lacking in bias as one can be in 2021.

That doesn’t mean her work escapes contextualisation by others in the art world. Planted Names, a carpet she created bearing the names of African American slaves, was first executed in 2002, for the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, to be installed at the Drayton Hall plantation where those mentioned had once suffered and served.

“I wasn’t able to show this carpet piece with African American slaves’ names, other than at the Spoleto Festival, for almost two decades, although people were constantly talking about human rights and equality. There are several Black artists who were shown a lot in the last few years and have been discussed a lot, but responsible museums never showed this piece by an Asian. Authorship of trauma shouldn’t be categorised by the same race only, and sometimes there are people who are as sensitive as victims. However, the curator [of the Spoleto Festival], Mary Jane Jacob, was always mentioning that I, as an Asian, was the first person to really respond to that event and engage with the history of African slaves in America. But maybe in the US, only Black artists can mention Black people, not Asians. It’s an interesting problem,” she notes.

Those carpets finally received a solo exhibition earlier this year at Kimsooja’s gallery, Axel Vervoodt Gallery, in Wijnegem, Belgium. Notably, it’s a year in which terms such as “ally” have come to the fore, sanctioning the right to speak up on traumas that do not belong to us. Kimsooja seems unperturbed by the fact that it has taken 18 years for her sentiments to be accepted, in an industry that is meant to be about freedom of expression—the work remains unshown in the US since its debut.

So while she accepts that certain commissions connote honour— a stained glass project she is executing at Cathédrale Saint-Étienne in Metz, France is “very special” as it is the first commission of a contemporary artist in the 21st century, and has been bestowed upon “a woman artist”—when it comes to certain other contexts and conditions, she remains blissfully uninfluenced.

 

Kimsooja, Bottari: 1999-2019, 2019, site-specific installation consisting of shipping container painted the colours of obangsaek, containing all of the artist’s personal possessions from her New York apartment. Installation view at Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, 2019. Photo by Yann Gachet. Image courtesy of the City of Poitiers and Kimsooja Studio.

 

Commissioned for a site-specific installation at The Leeum, Samsung Art Museum, Seoul, later this year, at which she will create another incarnation of her holographic halls, “To Breathe”, the artist notes she has considered only the theme, stage and conditions and limitations of the question presented to her. The idea of tailoring her practice to answer to a hometown audience more familiar with the tropes of bottari and obangsaek had never occurred to her.

It is a little bit bewildering, but perhaps more beguiling—her focus, while universal, is also up-to-the-minute in a way that differs from the way that modern society ticks along. In describing “To Breathe”, Kimsooja notes that as static and similar an era of buildings wrapped in holographic film may seem, it is, as its title suggests, a meditation on the ephemerality of each moment, as diffraction of light and change in weather conditions renders it an ever-changing sculpture.

“I don’t have control of it, and that ephemerality is the beauty of the piece, because it just comes and goes with the sunlight of the day—as in our lives, as in our destinies, as the way nature is. Nothing can be forced or made or fully controlled. I feel that goes parallel to the nature of my practice, and maybe more so now than before, and as well in the future.”

 

 

 
Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply