An essay by Annett Reckert, 2001
A tied bundle, something ‘saved’ in both the objective and metaphorical sense, arouses the same simultaneous attraction and curiosity as a body lying on the ground. To grasp the knot that holds the enveloping cloth together would reveal the enigma of what was concealed within, the story of the bundle and its origin. It is likely the story of a passage, a story of departure, travel, and arrival. Not least, the bundle, whether reference or literary motif, is an archetype deeply anchored in the consciousness of nearly everyone. When the hero of a novel resolutely girds himself, ‘ties his bundle’, it marks a dramatic turning point in the course of the story. The form of this putatively simple baggage, reversible at any moment, stands for an open process, a complex anticipation of what is to come. It can be a condensate of life, fully functional for some other life-space, or life-time.
Kim Sooja designates the exuberantly bright and richly patterned cloth bundles she has been presenting in ever more varied contexts and constellations since 1992 asbottari, the Korean term for ‘bundle’. Despite the recent upheavals and electrifying renewal in her South Korean homeland, tied bundles of cloth, as before, are used like ordinary containers for the safe-keeping or transportation of a family’s worldly goods. They are not meant for a family’s valuables or heirlooms, but for the most elementary household goods with which to make a start in another place.
Getting under way, lingering, leading a nomadic existence, or settling are central categories of human life that the instantaneity of our present-day means of transportation allows us to barely comprehend. Elsewhere, alongside travel that affords even tourists the extreme luxury of a trip around the world, endlessly slow and arduous journeys are undertaken. Though reflecting on the nature of the journey, the play of associations around the bottari is decisively influenced by the composition of the surrounding space, especially the ground. Unlike the neutral floor of a gallery, a rough, inhospitable surface like that of the Museumplatz at the Sprengel Museum in the city of Hannover, Germany. reminiscent of cobblestones, leads one to think rather of those people who carry all their possessions with them on foot. It recalls the forced mobility of those who, because of political or ethnic persecution, illness, ecological disaster or financial ruin, were able to save only their skins, and a bundle. Promoted from implement to art-object and presented in a museum, Kim’s bundles become symbols of the restive or restless, the stateless, uprooted, and uninvited, of the stranger or foreigner. Rolled up in the artist’s bottari are the cast-off clothes of many people unknown to us.
The pieces of clothing are stand-ins for the people whose second skin they once were. They have little to do with brave heroes in novels. Kim, whose comments display a perceptibly extraordinary capacity for empathizing with other people and their way of life, has herself expressed her compassion for “the anonymous victims of heroism, hierarchy, penury, rigid ideas, discrimination, ignorance and untruth in our society.” [In a 1998 e-mail to curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist for Cities on the Move artist’s book, and in the exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Bern, 2001.] Here she is no doubt thinking of the history of her own South Korean homeland. Furthermore, with her ambulatory, transportable bundles, she has succeeded in calling forth a reflection on the connection between movement and consciousness, knowledge, time and space. Thus linked to the existential themes of flight and migration, the question of freedom and coercion comes into play.
In 1997, Kim, herself profoundly marked by the constant moving of her family, crossed her homeland in a truck to the bed of which she had lashed a mountain of her bottari. This 11-day travel-performance, Cities on the Move – 2727 Kilometers Bottari Truck, has been captured in several video works. They show Kim enthroned above her mountain of bundles, gazing in the direction of her movement, granting us only a view of her from the back. As the camera follows the moving truck, always from the same distance, relations seem to reverse: it is the traveler who strikes us as immobile within a landscape that in turn seems set in motion. A sound-version of Cities on the Move has a voice-over of the artist almost imploringly reciting the names of the places she passes through. Yet the question of the beginnings, end, and purpose of the journey increasingly fades the longer one views it. The trip becomes a journey through Somewhere and Everywhere. A detailed perception of the landscape flowing by gives way to a dazed one, as if some filter had been slipped in; this is what may constitute the addictive potential of traveling. Perhaps this daze, so typical of traveling, is protection against the troubling movement of something that generally appears immobile. It makes it possible to concentrate on one’s own interiority and on the now freed stream of thought.
It is precisely through the use of materials like cloth and clothing, classically denoted as female, that Kim raises the question of the role of woman. Traditionally, women have been the adversary of movement, that is, classified under domesticity and ‘keeping’. The previously used bedcovers the artist uses are sewn by Korean women for their families. A viewer socialized in Western culture could only guess that their patterns, colors, and composition may have special meaning. Accompanying the life-cycle of a human being, a couple, or a family, they bedeck the bed as the place of love, of sleeping and dreaming, a place of witness, childbearing, suffering, and dying.
Consequently, these rounded bundles, so tempting to the touch, do not at first evoke the impression of intense corporeality or intimacy. But contact with a soft, smooth, clinging material like cloth is itself body-related, connected to its extending motions. No one can tie a bundle with just one hand, in the words of an African proverb. To spread out and gather up, shake out and hang up, smooth out, crease, cover, wrap, arrange in bundles or piles — these are ancient, at times ritual, manners of handling cloth, and precisely the ones Kim employs in her art. Whether she places the bottari cloths directly on the ground like carpets or spreads them out like tablecloths, they turn into inviting gestures. When she hangs her cloths on a line, as in her installation A Laundry Field – Sewing into Walking, Looking Into Sewing (1997), she refers to an everyday behavior in exhibitions, but one which in itself is seldom conscious. Nothing is more suitable than a weekly domestic textile exhibition in the yard for initiating oneself into meta-linguistic levels of information and communication or social recognition and differentiation.
Kim undertakes dealing with cloth, needle, and thread in an ordinary way, but raises it to the level of a concept. Thus, sewing along with her mother was not only an initiatory experience that showed the artist, who studied painting at the arts academy in Seoul, a way of going beyond the two-dimensional canvas to object and space. An idea, far-reaching both for herself and for the viewers of her work, manifests itself in her self-conceived role as ‘A Needle Woman‘ — that of sewing as an interaction in space, sewing as a social behavior that endlessly constructs new and more or less unstable living-spaces. There is a beguiling, even entrapping note in this idea, as when we tighten the bonds of friendship or weave a web of relations. Kim’s obsessive travels are the weaving of such a net, for only movement makes bonds and separation clearly perceptible. In just this way, materials influence our feelings of closeness and distance. In different metropolises like Shanghai, Tokyo, New York and New Delhi, she has repeated a performance where she stands with almost unreal rigidness facing passers-by who flow past her as if she were a rock in a stream. Gazing on the back of the artist, viewers watching a video of Kim’s performance also look these people, who react in various ways, right in the face. For a moment Kim touches on those invisible spaces in which all individuals establish themselves, and in which they move according to a behavioral plan that is seldom intuited.
For Kim, bottari are a ‘body of her own’, “a self-contained world — but one which can contain everything like a vessel, materially and conceptually, since one can tie up a bundle without revealing the contents.” [The artist, in an e-mail to the author, 2001.] In a museum context, the bottaris, carefully fashioned into a temporary unit and arranged in the space, become a cause for reflecting on the concrete themes of travel and migration. The constellations of many bundles, site-related and thus different every time, create a unity of multiple elements. Yet each individual bundle is a unity that comprises numerous parts. An everyday act, rolling up and spreading out squares of cloth, comes to symbolize the inextricable interplay of concentration and diffusion that permeates every sphere of human thought and action, and of the cosmos and nature.
The bundle, which in other contexts appears to be an example of clustering, condensing, and compromising, is a generative ordering principle that augments our knowledge. It is no doubt indissociable from its contrary movement, that of expansion. Thus, matter or energy highly compressed entails a simultaneous loss of spatial extension. Extensions take up space, but thereby lose strength and tensility. This is well known as a physical or chemical phenomenon, as in the concentrations of ingredients in liquids. Our present-day view of the world would be unthinkable if natural scientists were unable to tie together bundles of objects and phenomena, and to formulate valid and useful laws about them, without having to know the individual parts of those bundles. As a strategy for human behavior, a directed action is comparable to a bundle. It conflicts with widely scattered initiatives. We are endowed with an emotional state, the capacity for inner concentration, along with a wide-ranging attention. Thought-processes may precipitate as long brainstorms or intensely pointed hypotheses. Bundling is the human ability to bring together perceptions, information, and thought into momentarily useful complex units, then to return them back into the flow of things. Only in this way is orientation within the infinite plenitude of individual phenomena possible for us.
Bottari is everywhere, body and mind, womb and tomb, globe and universe, bundle of a bundle of bundle folding and unfolding our mind and geography, time and space… [In a 1998 e-mail to curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist for Cities on the Move artist’s book, and in the exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Bern, 2001.] So in Kim’s concept of bottarithere is not merely the superposition of an intense, sensually perceptible metaphorics of the body onto the all-pervasive phenomenon of mobility. It is interwoven with moments of Asian and Western culture, the everyday and art, past and present. On this mental voyage the artist herself has even managed to think up an interpenetration of the motifs of ‘bundle’ and ‘planet’. For her, each bundle is in a certain sense “like a planet, for example, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, or Pluto — like the lucky sign of our destiny which indicates the differing character of human longing.” [The artist, in an e-mail to the author, 2001.]
— From the Solo project brochure at Sprengel Museum, Hanover 2001:
Dr. Annett Reckert worked as a curator at Sprengel Museum, Hanover. At present she is the curator of the Städtische Gallerie Göppingen, Germany.