Kimsooja: Archive of Mind

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, South Korea
July 27, 2016 – February 5, 2017

Kimsooja has long explored meditative approaches to her artistic practice. Textile enthusiasts may be most familiar with her use of the wrapping cloth she calls Bottari in various projects or her film Needle Woman. In the latter we see the artist’s back, her stance stationary while crowds in various locations around the world stream past her – some faces curious, others oblivious. Over several decades of artistic work Kimsooja has treated the textile as fundamentally pedestrian. In many ways so is this latest exhibition content. But while the exhibition press release refers to “the artist’s early meditation on non-doing and non-making as a form of art practice”, her current exhibition in Seoul turns doing and making over to the public.

Centre stage is Archive of Mind (2016). After patiently queuing (testament to the exhibition’s popularity with the public) visitors are counted in to a low lit room and invited to roll balls of clay. Four distinct shades of clay dominate the slowly drying landscape. An audio titled Unfolding Sphere of the artist’s sounds gargling and rolling clay plays throughout. But the space is dominated not by the audio, but by an elliptical wooden table 19 meters in length filled with the ant-like efforts of the public. Each day builds a record of individual hands learning – through an opportunity to do rather than observe – that something as simple as rolling clay into a sphere isn’t in fact easy to do.

This is where the rub with this fascinating exhibition begins. Simple, repetitive activities are presented as a gateway to a clearer, calmer way of thinking. The physical outputs are modest enough to cast doubt on their purpose. But visitors are clearly mesmerised by the invitation. The installation has proven popular enough that the clay spheres have to be regularly collected and stored to provide more room on the table. The artist has mentioned plans to kiln fire this public effort, both to keep dust to a minimum and make storage of the archive practical. And while my two wonky contributions surely mean nothing, the collective record that spread across the table undeniably presents its own beauty.

Archive of Mind could be read as the antithesis of Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei’s Sunflower Seeds (2010-11) installed in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall: unskilled play set in distinct contrast to the anonymous, albeit individual, labour. The contrast may be unintentional, but in both cases simplicity proved a powerful draw for the viewing public. And in both cases material misbehaviour plays a part. Ai Wei Wei’s original invitation for the public to walk over the carpet of ceramic seeds was quashed by health and safety concerns about the amount of dust this created.

After wiping the traces of clay from your hands, visitors move into a much smaller but equally intimate space to be faced with the artist’s yoga mat patterned through the dedicated wear of practice. The mat is wall mounted and displayed alongside a digitally embroidered sound bite of her breath on stretched silk. Again it is the pedestrian that dominates – but crucially Kimsooja’s pedestrian. (I’m quite sure my yoga mat would find no welcome home in a public art space.) In the final gallery a video installation moves between images of swirling muddied water from the south west of the United States – a potter’s wheel inverted as slip eddies inward; aerial photographs of the landscape etched by water over time that would not look out of place in an American National Park pamphlet; and imagery of women basket weaving and carding fibres.

How Kimsooja’s invitation of public labour to roll clay spheres, the artistic significance of her well worn yoga mat or film footage of basket weaving and carding fibres make for a comfortable fit in the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is a tantalising question. Part of the answer lies in their combination. And part may lie with Kimsooja’s creative identity, which embraces much of what we could call craft ideals but with less interest in what the material can be than in the meditative states that repetitive action might bring about.

In amongst all those clay balls made by public invitation are my efforts: two stubborn triangles of clay that I swear looked nothing like all the other endeavours left on the table. Craft can be humbling. But the irony, considering Kimsooja’s interest in mindfulness, is that misbehaving materials can also be downright irritating.

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  • Image credit

    Kimsooja, Archive of Mind, 2016, participatory site specific installation consisting of clay balls, 19 meter elliptical wooden table, and sound performance Unfolding Sphere, 2016, Installation at Kimsooja – Archive of Mind at MMCA, Seoul, Photo by Aaron Wax, Courtesy of MMCA and Hyundai Motor Co. and Kimsooja Studio

  • Written for

    Selvedge magazine issue 74 (2016) pp. 92-93