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.
"Kimsooja: A Needle Woman": Through August 26 at Miami Art Museum, 101 W. Flagler St., Miami; 305-375-3000; miamiartmuseum.org. Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
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.
"I was creating these works based on the concept of bottari, the Korean word for 'bundle,' and tied fragments of cloth together. For me, these videos were sort of like conceptual 3-D sewing, and myself as a needle, a metaphor for tying people together," she says.
In an area between the two video banks, Kimsooja is also presenting a pair of video works in which she appears alone and communing with nature.
In one, A Needle Woman — Kitakyushu, she lies prostrate atop a rocky mountain in Japan as clouds swirl above her. In the other, A Laundry Woman — Yamuna River, she stands on the bank of a sacred river in India. Unlike the bustling visual din of the 21st-century cities nearby, both of these videos are more meditative in nature.
"I visited the Yamuna River in India next to a cremation place, where the remains of bodies and flower offerings flowed past me," Kimsooja recalls. "The work is about the destiny of humanity and purification, as well as about time and space and our beliefs. Hopefully, I can serve as a medium through which audiences can experience those things we all share together as people."
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Sitting next to the black-clad artist as she drinks her tea, while museum workers hurry out the doors to beat rush-hour traffic, one can't help but notice her thoughtful and serene aura. She takes a moment to describe the second version of "A Needle Woman," for which she is currently visiting places she says are in danger of turmoil. Rio, Jerusalem, Yemen, Chad, and Cuba were all recent stops.
"These places have a long history of turmoil, and I am filming my performances there in slow motion to capture their history of conflict, violence, and poverty," she says. "I visited Cuba in 2005, and the people there were very engaging. The men were very curious and would come up right next to me and start dancing. But it was also sad to see their happiness because I know the country's history of struggles."
At MAM, Kimsooja succeeds in inserting herself into the imagination not only as a metaphorical needle weaving a fabric of contrasting cultures into a single tapestry, but also as a compass point encouraging viewers to remain grounded before the ill effects of unchecked globalization.