BY Megan Dailey in Profiles | 09 SEP 01
Featured in
Issue 61

A Stitch in Time

Soo-Ja Kim

BY Megan Dailey in Profiles | 09 SEP 01

That I can stand in midtown Manhattan one morning and, hours later, be sitting in my mother's kitchen in rural southern California, or speeding through Paris in a taxi, is mind-boggling. Cairo, Delhi, London, Mexico City, Shanghai, Tokyo - even to utter the name of any of these cities is to create an immediate picture of that place and its inhabitants. To visit any of them is another matter entirely. The act of transferring a body elsewhere has consequences and possibilities both anxious and wonderful.

Korean artist Soo-Ja Kim has travelled to all of these cities to make her work, and these cumulative visits have had a tremendous impact: 'I was not interested in politics, but travelling changed that. It is not so much a specific political issue, but human beings - the human condition - that concerns me.' What is most compelling is that Kim addresses these questions without didactic fanfare and using very simple materials and gestures. Her bottari (bundle) works are made with brightly coloured and embroidered Korean bed covers that are shown unfolded and flat, or knotted into bundles. When tied, they are ready to be moved, suggesting travel or transition, but they also offer a corporeal metaphor: the body as the most complicated bundle of all. (Some are large enough to suggest that there might actually be someone wrapped up inside.)

In Korea a person's belongings are contained in this way to be transported from place to place, and Kim's bottari symbolize the historically frequent displacement of the Korean population. One of her best-known pieces is Bottari Truck. In 1997 a small blue Hyundai was loaded up with colourful bundles and driven through 2727 kilometres of South Korean countryside as part of the 'Cities on the Move' exhibition. The truck has also journeyed across the ocean to São Paolo and to several other cities (it is now permanently parked in London). The vehicle's many treks have been photographed and filmed; images show Kim perched atop the mound of fabric as it travels across borders. Bottari can mark points of stability as well as movement. When a bundle is unwrapped and the fabric laid out, it signifies home, family, love and rest. But the bottari also have a material significance, and through the repetitive gesture of sewing - itself a metaphor for social interaction - Kim becomes even more directly connected with the object.

When performing, she is always filmed with her back to the camera. The choreography is simple: she lies down, stands or sits, symbolically portraying a laundry woman, needle woman or beggar woman. Production values are never too high nor special effects more elaborate than a couple of slow-motion sequences. The filming is always done by a local person and there is usually no sound. Yet this is enough to yield mesmerizing results. For the eight-part 'Needle Woman' series (1999-2001) Kim stood motionless in the same costume in various city streets about eight feet away from the camera for 25-30 minutes, which was as long as she could bear.

For viewers it is both compelling and frustrating to centre one's attention on the back of her head, and a real yearning develops for her to turn around - you want to see her as the people in the video do, understand the connection between their reaction and her unseen expression. In London and New York pedestrians walk past with very little response. Elsewhere she looks more like a foreigner and is regarded with greater (and often confused) interest. The mostly male crowd in Cairo emits something a little menacing as they approach. People in Delhi get very close, but not enough to touch. In Lagos, the city she found most fascinating, a curious group of young people gathered around her, completely mystified. It's amazing how much attention you can attract by doing nothing at all.

After watching these videos for a time, Kim's body seems to become dislocated from the street, and it is as if she is watching the situation as we are, in front of a screen. A similar flattening of space occurs in a sequence from Laundry Woman in which she stands before the Yamuna River in India. The river appears as a vertical image moving before her, like a film. Objects float across the surface of the dark waters: flowers, bubbles, detritus from a nearby cremation site, accompanied by uncanny reflections of birds flying above.

In one sequence Kim lies on a busy roadside in Delhi with an arm stretched above her head. Such a close juxtaposition of motionless (dead? injured? destitute?) body and oblivious speeding traffic is so unexpected that your first reaction is to laugh. Elsewhere, as a beggar woman, she sits with her right arm outstretched and an open palm, into which some people have placed money (and on one occasion a tiny, live chick). She does not react, no matter what. The ambiguity of these situations can be almost wrenching to watch and you fear that something violent might happen to her, despite the nearby camera operator. The anticipation and nervous energy that these videos generate is striking considering, that Kim casts herself as passive agent in most scenes, willingly functioning as a motionless catalyst for their actions and reactions of others. By inserting her body in unpredictable environments that she activates through only minimal or symbolic gestures, Kim succeeds in creating a space in which it is possible for anything to happen.