Korean born, New York and Paris-based, artist Kimsooja first began working with textiles in 1983 when she started to sew using her late grandmother’s clothing. Today she is most well known for her use of bottari, or wrapping cloth, as well as a number of explorations in film of textiles. Her approach is loyal to observation rather than intervention. Doing less or doing little, rather than doing more and more, is antithetical to so much of what drives contemporary values. But perhaps this is precisely why it is good time to reflect on an artist who has long thought that less is more.

The name Kimsooja – now written as a single word – is explained in a statement dating to 2003 as a reality of website protocol which does not accommodate spaces between words. But adopting a single word name soon took on new meaning, as she explains: “A one word name refuses gender identity, marital status, socio-political or cultural and geographical identity by not separating the family name and the first name.” Even here, observation rather than intervention are at work.

Kimsooja may be most well known for A Needle Woman, exhibited as a multiscreen projection filmed at a number of urban locations around the world. From 1999-2001 silent footage was recorded in Tokyo, Shanghai, Mexico City, London, Delhi, New York, Cairo and Lagos. In 2005 a second version was made in locations even further afield: Patan (Nepal), Jerusalem (Israel), Sana’ (Yemen), Havana (Cuba), Rio de Janero (Brazil) and N’Djamena (Chad). In both projects the artist stands centre screen, the back of her head, her back and long straight black hair are all that is visible to the viewer. Urban crowds pass to her left and right; some rush, others saunter. There are individuals who offer a passing glance; others stare; some remain utterly preoccupied with their own thoughts, never acknowledging her presence. Kimsooja, centred in the camera lens, remains disarmingly stationary throughout: an individual in spite of the crowds, grounded in spite of the haste around her, a silent presence requiring others to move around her.

More recently, Thread Routes chapters I-V (2010-2016) records textile traditions around the world: Peruvian spinners and weavers; European lace makers; weaving and embroidery in Gujarat, India; embroidery, weaving and indigo dyeing in China; and the carding of fibres and basket weaving by the Navajo and Hopi in America. Each 16mm film is nearly, but not quite silent. Instead the chapters adopt the eye of a mute anthropologist, recording the resemblance of textile patterns in the natural and manmade landscape, and dexterous skill.

This devoted attention to the textile is also apparent in her use of bottari, a Korean term for wrapping cloth that makes repeated appearances in her work over the past two and a half decades. In 1997, as the artist was preparing to leave Korea, she travelled to destinations throughout the country that were significant in her memory. Cities on the Move - 2727 Kilometre Bottari Truck, shows the artist’s back and bundles of brightly coloured cloth packed in a small truck. Kimsooja is supported by cloth but looking forward into a future the viewer, and artist, cannot see.

Two years later Bottari Truck in Exile was exhibited as a sculpture at the 1999 Venice Biennial. In numerous other exhibitions bottari plops and tumbles in gallery spaces, resolutely colourful despite interpretations of political and economic migration and displacement that could be read in the work. And – perhaps ironically for the gallery context – bottari remains unquestionably functional in the most pedestrian sense of the word. It carries and covers, wraps and holds often prompting considerable curiosity amongst audiences for what each bundles contains.

But my interpretation of these vibrant textiles is something of a mistake, as the artist speaking in an interview with Gerald Matt, explains a very different material memory. “The bedcovers I use are mostly abandoned used ones, and those that are made for newly married couples… the fabrics I find are mostly abandoned ones, which means the couple has thrown it away, or they are not together anymore.” Here bottari is more specific than a generic cloth. A bedcover reminds us that the bed as a place of birth, rest, conception and ultimately death – cycles with beginnings, but also endings.

Lotus: Zone of Zero, first conceived in 2003 as Kimsooja’s response to the Iraq War, offers another type of call for contemplation. Interpretations of the work since its original conception have broadened to refer to societies need for safe meetings points for communities of differing cultures and religions to reflect. The installation of red lotus-shaped lanterns has been adapted to numerous site specific configurations, often using circular mandala-like configurations and, most recently, at the CAC Málaga, Spain a rectangular pattern of 708 lanterns covering the ceiling of an oblong gallery space. Comprised of repeating multiple units, the work – despite being a static installation – creates ever changing perspectives as viewers walk beneath.

This attention to the textile, its portability and the home is shared by another Korean artist based in America, Do-Ho Suh, whose translucent remaking of interior spaces refers to apartments he has occupied as well as a constant question of what home may represent. Suh’s use of sheer flat panels and visible seams can be read as a version of Korea’s pojagi tradition – a system of quilting or piecing remnant cloth to hold a child close to its mother, carry goods, shield food from flies… all manner of useful adaptation. Artists such as Chunghie Lee (see Selvedge issue 9: 22-23) work exclusively with the technique and foster technique-specific dialogue through the Korean Pojagi Forum. But what all three artists share is a fascination in how much overlooked meaning can be found in the immediate – often anonymous – details of daily life.

Early in Kimsooja’s career the textile was pieced and sewn, initially cloth that had a personal connection, and then over time donations from strangers. She stopped adding stitch to her work in 1992, returning last year with One Breath, a stitched segment of a sound wave exhibited alongside her well worn yoga mat. Rather than musing on the artisan’s hand, One Breath uses machine embroidery and is entirely self-referential: the embroidered sound wave hails from the artist’s breath during her 2004 sound performance The Weaving Factory. Cycles such as these are a constant in Kimsooja’s work. A breath breathed twelve years ago, reactivated, and made material offers us a sage reminder of all the breaths – and all the living – we hurry past in a lifetime.

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  • Image credit

    still from Kimsooja Thread Routes V

  • Written for

    Selvedge magazine issue 76