Jooyoung Kim talks to CoBo about her performance work and how it eventually became an intertwined part of her life; she explains her notion of nomadism as a creative working process and a subject-matter through which history is reconsidered.
Text: Sandrine Meats
Images: Courtesy of the artist
Renowned for her highly personalised approach to performance work, Korean artist Jooyoung Kim (b. 1947) was presented in a solo show during the last edition of Asia Now in Paris, now in its third edition of presenting the cutting-edge art made in Asia. Curated by the Busan Biennale exhibition team, the presentation offered a rare opportunity for the European audience to discover the creative range of Jooyoung Kim’s art. Assembled under the generic title “the path” as a reference to the notion of nomadism that has come to federate her entire practice, the works on show encompass the diversity of media the artist has been investigating over the past forty years. Besides a live performance especially created for the occasion, the show also included two black on black object-paintings, a large-scale installation devoted to an unknown Korean prostitute, a video documentation of past performance works, a traditional Korean window transformed into a canvas for a figurative painting, and, finally, a series of small assemblages composed within Plexiglas boxes with objects and materials brought back from travels or remnants from performances.
On Artistic Beginnings and Performance Art
You are particularly well-known as a performance artist. Your first works in this medium were created in the mid-1990s when you lived in France, but you began as an artist in Korea in the 1970s. How did you come to art and what brought you to Paris?
When I was a child, I liked drawing a lot and started to think that I wanted to spend my whole life drawing. I went to the art school in Seoul and then started teaching there. At that time, I was only painting black monochromes. I have never used any other colour. Then, I got bored and felt the urge to escape. So, I applied for admission to University Paris VIII in 1986, and arrived in Paris to prepare a PhD in arts and graduated in 1992. I only moved back to Korea in 2005.
Was the art that confronted you on your arrival in France in 1986 a discovery to you? What impressed you the most?
I was fascinated by some of the art I saw. For instance, an exhibition of German contemporary art with pieces from Wolfgang Laib, whose work impressed me deeply. I also came across Land art for the first time by artists such as Giuseppe Penone. These artists made installations: their art was made out of objects and some of those installations were huge. That was almost unimaginable in Korea at the time! Eventually, this led me to stop painting for some time. Meditation of the Monks in 1992 was my first installation. In the garden of the Cité Internationale Universitaire in Paris, I planted sticks to which I had attached photocopies of a photograph showing a monk meditating that I had found in the street in Paris.
How did you start working with performance? What was your first action?
I came to working in performance through the same reasoning process that had brought me to installations: working in two dimensions with painting appeared to be too limited. With installations, I was able to integrate the third dimension, and then, with performance, the fourth dimension.
My first action was as part of an installation I made at the Koart gallery in Seoul in 1993, Sacrifice of the call of a prostitute’s mother, for which I had covered the gallery’s floor with photocopies of a Korean prostitute’s photograph. I then burnt all the images to leave in the space nothing but a handful of ashes.
Fire is a recurrent element in your work. Where does it come from?
I use it during rituals as a means of purification. But it is also an instrument to induce a change from one state to another; it relates to the notion of “transmigration”. I use it to reconcile the past and the future, the living and the dead. I would say that, in my practice, such concepts draw on two different sources, one oriental and the other occidental. Within Buddhist culture, fire is very important as is central to the act of cremation, which is a purification ritual. But this notion is also found in the writings of Gaston Bachelard, whose theory of the four elements was very important for me when I was preparing my PhD thesis.
Was performance an art form you already knew about when you lived in Korea before 1986?
I knew there were Korean avant-garde artists doing performances, such as Lee Seung-taek, Jung Chan-seung, Kim Ku-lim and Lee Kun-yong. It seems to me that what they were doing was quite close to American happenings and I was not very interested in this kind of work. What I did later on had little to do with it. Then, when I arrived in France, I discovered other artists working in performance, such as Gina Pane, whose concentration I admired.
How would you define performance in relation to your own practice?
Firstly, performance has always stood for me on the opposite side to theatre. I do not play a role, I act as myself, and I never have training sessions.
Performance simultaneously incorporates a time interval and a space dimension: it allows me to extend my work beyond the two-dimensionality of painting and into the third and fourth dimensions. But it also allows me to reach a fifth dimension, a spiritual, mystical dimension, which is a non-dimension. For me, performance is primarily a means to immerse myself within an inner space. To reach it, I use two principal forms which allow me to carry out an internal and subjective movement towards another space.
First, I use the shape of the mandala, which comes from Buddhism: on the ground, I draw a circle which I can create out of objects. Placing myself in the centre of this circle to perform a gesture actually allows me to enter into a state of meditation. Secondly, I use the Tibetan Buddhism act of prostration called 五體投地 (“wuti tou di”), which can be translated as “casting the five limbs to the Earth”. 五體, literally meaning “five body”, refers to the two arms, two legs and forehead that are central to the gesture. 投地 alludes to the act of touching the Earth – at the end of the gesture, the body is lying face downward on the ground: this ritual gesture ends up with a physical and symbolical embracement of the Earth and eventually offers a possibility to communicate with it. All along, I am concentrating very hard to enter an inner, meditative space. And once I have reached this state, I can hear the sounds of the Earth. Both with mandala and prostration, the notion of space is dual. First, there is a material spatialisation, a real space in which I move physically. Then, by way of the ritual gestures that I perform, I reach a form of purification and fall into the state of meditation which leads me to discover another world. I am there, my body is undeniably present, but I have also gone somewhere else, I have reached a spiritual space. This is where performance stands for me. And I hope that, through this work, people can grasp the meaning of the inner travel I engage in, and will eventually take part in it.
The experience of an inner “travel” or “displacement” in your performances is very central to the concept of “nomadism” you started to develop in the late-1990s with your trips to India and Nepal, Mongolia (1999 and 2008), Tibet (2006 and 2014)and Siberia, amongst others. What were the motivations to start travelling and how did you come to formalise your own concept of nomadism?
Nomadism, in my work, comes from the same context as performance: I wanted to go somewhere else. I wanted to create a new space to work in.
I started to travel because I wanted to escape the feeling of confinement I was beginning to experience with my life in France. My first trip brought me from India to Nepal in 1998. I discovered the principle of peregrination, a very important practice in Hinduism that consists of going from temple to temple. It implies a movement in space, but also much more: Hindus consider the physical world to be too restrictive and try to reach another, spiritual, infinite world. I wanted to experience such physical and inner motion. So, I visited different temples and sacred places. In all of them, I prayed and burnt amulets. As I was considering this action as my art, I took the ashes from each place and I have kept them as the trace of this art created in situ.
At that time, I was in search of a renewal of my art: I was looking for my own path. So, I started to think about nomadism and about how I could create new spaces with my work. Exploring this concept was a way of going back to the beginnings of humanity – man was originally a nomad –, but also to my own origins, as I have Mongolian ancestors, a people who have always been nomadic. The concept of nomadism primarily invokes for me an exploration of space: here and there. But I was also searching for another kind of motion, an internal displacement: here and beyond. My visits to India and Nepal gave me the opportunity to live an experience of a beyond to our physical presence to the world. This is how I eventually became nomadic, not only on a physical sense, but also internally during my performances.
When I came back to my studio, the first thing I did was black on black paintings. I had chosen black as my unique colour because it can materialise a very profound infinite space. For me, these black on black paintings embody physical and spiritual space condensed together. Also, at that time, I was seriously questioning what art was for me. And I ended up telling myself that it was the trace of the artist. From then on, I could think of art differently and I started to develop a new working process. First, I would move physically to go to other spaces. Secondly, I would leave a trace of this motion, such as a drawing or an object picked up on site that I would brought back with me. I have proceeded in this way ever since. The ashes, and other objects I bring back from the sites I visit, are the traces of an ephemeral and in situ art. Later, they can become part of a new piece, such as in the assemblages Memory Boxes shown at Asia Now.
In 1999 you went to Mongolia to live with nomadic shepherds. About this experience, you have said: for the first time, “what I was calling ‘art’ was fully fusing together with my life”. Could we say that in India and Nepal you made a personal journey during which you created art works – burning amulets and collecting the ashes – whereas in Mongolia, living there, was in itself the art?
Indeed, I made a trip to India and Nepal and created art during this journey. Whereas in Mongolia, I lived several months with shepherds in yurts, in the steppe, and learnt the nomadic life. Here, I fully realised that life is, in essence, nomadic. So, this stay in Mongolia was the moment when I really started to travel as a nomad and developed more precisely the concept of nomadism as a concept for my art. There, I would make drawings on Korean paper, which I then burnt. Or I collected objects which I brought back with me, such as animal bones. From that moment on, my art consisted of an action rather than an object that I produce. My life became one with my art; it is no longer possible to differentiate one form the other. I must say that the gap which separates the art work and the spectator, and that between the art work and the artist in contemporary art has always been a problem for me. So, I always position myself at the centre of my art and go and meet people. When I carry out a ritual in public, people are not mere spectators but they also become participants in the symbolical, mystical act that I perform. Even if they do not physically take part to what I am doing, their presence plays a crucial role in the meaning of my action.
You make a clear distinction between what you term “macroscopic narrative nomadism” and “microscopic narrative nomadism”. Many of your projects incorporate both at once, revealing the extent to which macro- and micro-history are intrinsically intertwined. This was the case with your first work based on these issues, Flames for unknown souls (2000). How did this project take form and contribute to the development of a discourse on the two levels of nomadic experience that you identified?
I use the phrase “narrative nomadism” to make explicit the fact that the projects dealing with such a notion are all based on a narrative, which can be of a “macroscopic” nature (dealing with history or politics) or based on a personal story. In that case, I often choose an anonymous or forgotten individual because it represents the ultimate degree within the microscopic dimension of history. Working with the concept of nomadism implies, as performance does, a notion of in situ: it requires being on the site where the story actually took place, on a microscopic or macroscopic level.
Flames for unknown souls was a two-phase project. First, I went to Namdai Moon’s market in Seoul and asked passers-by to write the names of people who went missing during the Korean War. For the second phase, I made a ritual for the souls of these unknown persons in each one of the twelve villages situated along the border of the demilitarised zone that separates South and North Korea. During these performances, I burnt the paper strips on which the names were written: an ephemeral flame for a handful of eternal ashes.
Referring to the painful history of the Korean War and the division of the country through the personal tragedies of unknown victims, this project situates itself within a direct confrontation between a macroscopic narrative and microscopic ones, and in so doing, insists on the way that History is being lived, first and foremost, on an individual level. But with those purification rituals, were you not also investigating national history through the prism of your own personal and family history, and eventually, trying to heal your own wounds through those of a whole people?
My father was one of the victims of this war and of the political situation in Korea. I never got the chance to know him because he went missing before I was born. So, all those rituals that I perform, even those for an unknown prostitute, carry within themselves the hope of helping my father’s soul, who has also become a forgotten, anonymous being, to reach a world beyond. The interest in shamanist and Buddhist practices I have developed as part of a quest to access another space is also directly related to the fact I was hoping to escape a reality I disliked. So, practising performance in the way I do plays a therapeutic role for me. It helps me to heal personal wounds as well as to meet and engage in dialogue with the others. In other words, performance stands as a form of reconciliation with both myself and the other.
In 2003, another major project dealt in a very direct way with Japan’s occupation of Korea and crimes perpetrated upon Korea’s civil population during this period. A video documenting this work, History of a workman; Cho Sen Jing, was shown at Asia Now.
I wanted to talk about the difficult relations between Korea and Japan until the Second World War through the story of an individual, an anonymous Korean man who was a hostage in Japan for his entire life. Forcibly exiled and exploited as a factory workman, he died in Japan without ever seeing his native country again, and disappeared into oblivion. For the rest his life, this man longed for nothing but to come back to his village and cultivate his own land.
This project is an example of what I call “microscopic narrative nomadism”: I went to a very small village in Korea and, purely by chance, came across a man who told me his father’s story. I stayed a few days and listened to his story, and decided to make a ritual for this anonymous, forgotten man who had been a victim of history. I wanted to pray for the memory of his soul. That is how I imagined a project for which I was going to perform a series of actions in different places significant of this man’s story – and through him, of the tragedy lived by many other Korean people during this period. So, I went on a journey which took me from Korea to Japan, starting from my studio in Joongmal (Korea), where I created a first installation/performance. In a boat in which I had filled the central part with soil and water, as in a paddy field, I planted rice seedlings. Planting out rice represents a beginning and it was also a reference to the farming origin of this man. This is why I used rice in every action I performed for this project. The boat referred to notions of exile and displacement, and more precisely to the manner by which Korean hostages were brought to Japan: by boat. The last ritual in memory of this man was made in Akita, in Japan, the town in which he died. I performed a circular walk around a feminine deity statue and burnt amulets.
Your work is very much infused with elements borrowed from different forms of Oriental spirituality – Tibetan Buddhism, Zen meditation, Hinduism and Tao. Where does this personal interest in oriental spirituality come from?
I was already very interested by Korean shamanism while living in Korea and attended rituals. To enable a meeting with the soul of the deceased, the shaman burns objects which used to belong to the dead person, such as clothes. My own use of fire comes as much from this practice as it does from its use in Buddhism. In my own work, I have been willing to realise the meeting of art and soul since very early on.
Amongst the works exhibited at Asia Now in Paris, two pieces represented the idea of a “path” travelled over or to be travelled over, or that of a transition from one state to another. The first was a traditional Korean window presented on the floor of the exhibition space and on which you painted a figurative scene.
A window is an object which delimitates a boundary between the inside and outside: a transitional site between here and there, between here and beyond. I leave the visitor free to imagine this “beyond” in the way that they wish. The painting on this window represents women’s daily life in Korea as I perceived it when I was a child, just after the war, at a time when everything seemed so dark to me.
The second work in which transition and the idea of a “path” were very visible was a large installation with many photocopies of a photograph of a Korean prostitute. Superimposed on this collage was a woman’s face in tears. On the floor, wax casts of hands presented highly symbolical elements as gifts to this woman, including some rice, salt and red soil. On each side of this altar dedicated to her were two white cloth strips with the marks of black footprints ascending towards the ceiling. This time, the orientation of the path you are inviting the unknown soul to follow, and hence the spectator’s gaze, is made explicit.
This installation, somehow, also speaks of me. This woman must have had a very tough and extremely poor life. The face in tears alludes to the suffering that she must have endured. Because I was very sad in my own life at that time, I was feeling close to this woman. For that reason, I wanted to go and meet her soul to help her reach the other world. I bring her rice because she was poor. I bring her salt because it is a symbol of purity. Like ashes, red soil is also a purification element. The footprints materialise the path towards transmigration to which this woman’s soul will finally be given access to.
With this work, as with most of your performances, you are presenting yourself as a redeemer of souls that would be considered lost by other people, individuals left by the wayside by history or society. You are, in a way, a shaman-artist…
I say with modesty that I am a modern shaman!
The performance you presented at Asia Now on October 17, Mandala: memory of the horse’s soul, was also a ritual for a meeting with a soul, this time of an animal. Where did the choice for this animal come from and what else will we see in this performance?
This was a performance for the soul of a horse, whose skull I found in the steppe during my first stay in Mongolia. It is a place where there are lots of wild horses and a lot of bones are found there. I brought this one back and I have been using it as an amulet since then. For this performance, at the end of the path, I carried out the prostration gesture I described earlier.
Leaving a trace: therein lies essentially my art. As testimony to my stay in Mongolia, the skull is already a trace. Then, the performance gave form to its own trace: the cloth marked with the imprints of my steps that I keep. I already have many such performance traces and I call them all “the path”. I hope to exhibit them all together one day, accompanied with references to the performances from which each one stems from. So, first and foremost, “the path” is mine as an artist: it is the trace that I leave in the world with my art.
About the Artist
Korean artist Jooyoung Kim (b. 1947) has been working in a whole range of media since the 1970s. After her beginnings as a painter in Seoul and a PhD in Paris, she extended her artistic practice to installation and the performance work for which she has become most famous. Initiated in the mid-1990s, her highly personal type of performance merges contemporary artistic discourse, a strong socio-political engagement and different forms of oriental spiritualty, drawing from Korean shamanism to Tao and Zen Buddhism. Addressing conflictual geopolitical issues as much as existentialist concerns and assuming a role of artist as shaman, Jooyoung Kim has engaged herself in a part-utopian, part-humanist attempt to heal humanity from some of its self-inflicted wounds.
Undertaking a series of travels around the world from the late 1990s onwards, she has developed a personal notion of nomadism as the core concept of her art, both as subject matter and working process. Thinking of herself as a nomadic artist ever since, she has investigated new territories within art practice, but also new mental and physical areas for herself as a human being. As encounters with as many different cultures and histories as the places she has visited, these travels have shaped both the artist’s work and life to the point that one and the other have become almost inseparable. As it merges with life through the use of a performative approach, art, in Jooyoung Kim’s work, becomes a wandering practice, an experience of site.
Sandrine Meats is a French art historian based in Paris and London. A specialist on performance art, she has made extensive research on its European history in the 1960s and 1970s and has published numerous articles on the subject, as well as on other areas of contemporary art. She has taught modern and contemporary art history at university level and her PhD on performance art in the 1970s in England is currently in preparation at the University of Paris Panthéon-Sorbonne. She is co-author, with Mehdi Brit, of one of the first books focusing on the history and the contemporary forms of performance art in France, published under the title Interviewer la performance. Regards sur la scène française depuis les années 1960 [Interviewing performance: Some views on the French scene since the 1960s].