When the artist Kimsooja sat one day mending her bedding with her mother, she had a revelation. As the needle pierced the silky fabric, she could feel everything from the universe pass through her body to the needlepoint travelling through the fabric. So begins the journey of orchestrating a symphony of rich, vivid colors.
She was born in South Korea, and began exhibiting from the late 1980s. By the time I saw the brilliant hues of her textile installation at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo in 2008, she was already an international artist, showing on a global scale. Her works have been mostly identified with fabric, the traditional territory of women, rich colors follow specific traditional codes, and indeed Korea has a long history of needle works, inherited from mothers to daughters.
After her initial mesmerizing experience with her mother, she began wrapping common objects with pieces and scraps of different cloth. A stool, window frame and ladder are transformed. She also used fabric of different colors as pigments to fill out the diverse shapes of two-dimensional frames. They are full of abundance as if they grew out of the earth yet seem to lack the creative door to expand.
For “A Mirror Woman” (2002), she gathered a variety of used ready/made bedcovers, a wedding gift from mother to a bride for good wishes, fertility, and longevity. She then hung them with laundry clips on ropes. The wedding ceremony used to be the one occasion when regular people could share the aesthetic experience of historic nobles. Some of the woven or stitched designs used here are derived from old aristocratic textile, which were found in China, Japan, and to some extent Islamic countries through extensive, ancient trade. A room filled with the great wishes of each mother becomes a shared commonality of everyday life consisting of everybody’s laundry.
The word, bottari means a bundle in Korean. The bottari opens up her work into the world outside. She wraps other pieces of fabric in a square cloth of the same kind as a bedcover, a kind of pojagi. Tied on the top by hands, they create a rotund shape. Spread throughout a room, they weave a pattern across the floor. They are not only beautiful, but each becomes the life of a woman who has carried it from place to place. The exhibition doesn’t intend to express the country of Korea, but more of its connection with other worlds through the journey of textile. At the entrance to the exhibition at the grand staircase of both sides, there are 306 pieces of purple (traditionally called grape color) lotus lanterns attached to the ceiling, accompanied by Tibetan, Gregorian, and Islamic chants.
For one of her signature pieces, a silent video installation, “A Needle Woman” produced during the 1999-2001 period, she visited the cities of Cairo, Lagos, London, Mexico, New Delhi, New York, Shanghai, and Tokyo. In each city she stood motionless in the middle of a busy street with a camera behind her back. It is fascinating to see how differently the image of her motionless self had upon people of each distinct culture. In Cairo, people are curious and looked at the camera more than her, yet they were mostly involved with their own lives with friends in the public place of their street. In Lagos, people were curious and stopped to stare and touch. While in London, New York, and Tokyo, the crowds become an enormous endless flow. Here she looks like an immobile stone statue, swallowed by the waves of a river of people. During the performance in Tokyo, she said in an interview in the accompanying catalogue that she experienced an incredible tension, which eventually developed into a focused and enlightened mind.
In contrast, another powerful video installation is “Mumbai: A Laundry Field” (2007-8). Multi-video images with soundtrack are juxtaposed: the left screen is a row of hanging clothes in a narrow alley; the central screen is focused on men, who wash textiles by banging them repeatedly on a hard surface; and on the right is a screen catching a speeding commuter train packed with people profuse with colors of their clothes, flaring in the wind. This series of images conjures up the powerful connections we don’t always acknowledge that take place between clothing and our daily life.
The artist, Kimsooja maintains her identity as a Korean woman while she explores communication with the outside world in an effort to break open the boundaries of social and cultural diversity. At the end of this retrospective exhibition, I began to realize that she tells the stories in her meditative manner about how we are all connected in this world of global textile trade. While recognizing the inequalities, she still celebrates the abundance and power of lives with the vivid hues of our humanity through the cloth.
The Vancouver Art Gallery is at 750 Hornby St. in Vancouver B.C., Canada. (604) 662-4700 or visit www.vanartgallery.bc.cal. Locally, a portion of Kimsooja’s “Needle Woman” video installation can be seen as an outdoor art piece in front of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation located at 440 – 5th Ave. N. near Seattle Center.
The Vancouver Art Gallery, Canada
October 11, 2013-January 26, 2014