By Juan Barquin
By Ciara LaVelle
By George Martinez
By Kat Bein
By Ciara LaVelle
By Travis Cohen
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Monica McGivern
When Korean artist Kimsooja moved to New York City in 1999, she found herself feeling estranged from the sea of humanity roiling around her.
"It was a time in my life when everything was changing," the soft-spoken artist says between sips of green tea at Miami Art Museum. "I felt a kind of disconnection and isolation at the moment."
To root herself in amid this alienation, Kimsooja, who was born in 1957 in Taegu, South Korea, decided to traverse the globe and visit gigantic cities where she could disappear into the masses — and, she hoped, rediscover a sense of herself in the process.
The results of her globetrotting art project are on view at MAM in "Kimsooja: A Needle Woman," which poetically explores the relationship between oneself and one's surroundings at a crucial moment in history, when the unrestrained forces of globalization and urbanization appear to be shrinking the planet and challenging the role of the individual.
The exhibit is one of three swan songs at MAM before the institution reopens as Pérez Art Museum Miami in the fall of 2013 at the new Herzog & de Meuron-designed building on the bay.
Between 1999 and 2001, the artist visited Tokyo, Shanghai, Delhi, New York, Mexico City, Cairo, Lagos, and London, filming herself standing amid streaming throngs of strangers in some of the planet's most crowded metropolises. In the footage, Kimsooja appears utterly motionless, wearing a sober gray frock with her back to the camera as a flood of pedestrians silently engulfs her.
"There is a certain kind of will to sustain myself without moving," Kimsooja says of the performances. "I wanted to be a witness of the world and in a kind of way a barometer of society. My body became a symbolic needle weaving different geographies, different societies and cultures, different economies and ethnicities."
Her sprawling multichannel video installation, from which the exhibit takes its title, comprises eight synchronized videos, each projected at a large scale (approximately the dimension of a queen-size mattress). The videos are arranged chronologically, on opposite sides of MAM's first-floor galleries, with four projections situated in each area. At the entrance, the artist can be seen during her visits to Tokyo, Shanghai, Delhi, and New York. On a wall at a far end of the space, she appears in Mexico City, Cairo, Lagos, and London.
At first blush after encountering the bank of videos, viewers are struck by its sheer scale and disorienting nature. The endless tides of people continuously swarming forward engulfs visitors. But amid all the visual clamor, it takes a few moments to realize that the multitudes are also utterly silent.
"I find that sound always disrupts visuals," Kimsooja explains. "When you hear something first, you don't always fully see it. I wanted a pure visual experience. I wanted the audience to experience the silence in my mind."
Sitting with Kimsooja and watching her videos is a visceral reminder of how the world's unbridled information flow, changing political climates, cross-cultural pollination, and dwindling natural resources unite people of different creeds, races, and faiths in their shared concern for the future.
Kimsooja says that for her, visiting these far-off places and foreign cultures was her way of absorbing and commenting on this shared human destiny. "Each city had its own pace depending on the economy and nature of industry and identity," she says.
Visiting Tokyo and performing on its bustling streets during the first stop of her journey was a powerful and transcendent experience, she says.
"It was as if I didn't exist. My body became transparent, almost erased by the waves of people. For me, it was like a sense of enlightenment or a transcendent moment. It felt almost like seeing a bright light at the horizon of all the people walking around me but not noticing me," she says. "Tokyo made me want to visit all the people of the world. My body sort of became an axis of space and time. A needle doesn't move, but the people in all these cities I visited were moving and weaving together around me."
Although the residents of Tokyo barely took notice of the artist, in other places the reactions of passersby stand in stark contrast. For example, in Cairo and Delhi, men often stopped to gawk at her. In Lagos, groups of smiling children and women balancing baskets on their heads loaded with sundry items also attempted to engage her.
Each of the cities and their streets have a different density, and Kimsooja says she typically spent a week to ten days visiting each place alone and hired locals to both film her performances and serve as tour guides.
"It was important for me to find a place or street to insert myself in that had a certain energy," she says. "I also wanted to convey a sense of urgency and immediacy, and these performances were important for me to be in the right moment as part of my own energy flow."
Conceptually, the videos had their genesis in traditional Korean "sewing works" she created during the '80s and '90s, Kimsooja says, when she employed needles to create mixed-media pieces.