Kimsooja: a stitch in space

How does a chapel filled with mirrors allow viewers to investigate traditional forms of female labour?

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South Korean conceptual artist Kimsooja’s work is often concerned with blurring physical boundaries and manipulating space. Her installation To Breathe – displayed in Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s historic chapel following periods in Venice, Paris and Madrid – perfectly embodies this ethos.

“I’ve always been interested in reacting to spaces and always interested in site specificity,” the artist explains from her New York base. “Over time To Breathe has transformed – become less and less about physical materials and more about focusing on space itself and how that can be changed by factors such as the time of day and the weather.”

The floor of the restored 18th century chapel is covered with a mirrored surface that gives the impression of opening up and unfolding the space, making solid surfaces and confining structures appear fluid and expansive. By placing diffraction film on all the windows, the light that enters forms rainbow spectrums across the chapel, which are reflected infinitely.

The use of mirrors brings another of Kimsooja’s artistic motifs into play – the recurring image of the sewing needle as a reference to traditional forms of female labour and craft to investigate the role of women.

“The reflections are there to create a sense of the self, but horizontal mirrors always give the very real impression that the viewer’s body is standing vertically upon the floor, which relates to a needle standing against the textile. It’s this use of our body as a symbolic needle that runs through much of my work,” she says.

In addition to the physical act of sewing and its cultural associations, Kimsooja also considers the concept metaphorically, seeing the body as a needle that weaves together the fabric of lives, cultures and cities, celebrating a shared humanity regardless of geographical borders. She is best known for her video work A Needle Woman, in which she stands still in a busy city centre, holds her space as people pass by around her, and creates a place of intense calm.

Kimsooja relates the eyes of an audience to a needle, with both “trying to measure then breach a surface – the eye focusing in and out of my work with almost a sewing or weaving action, attempting to see what is really going on and what is changing inside the piece.”

Adding to this is the soundtrack accompanying To Breathe – the sound of the artist herself inhaling and exhaling. Again, she relates this to a moving needle, the pushing and pulling and “my own body as an extension of the sewing concept and ultimately the very concept of life and death itself”.

The meditative qualities possessed by much of Kimsooja’s work – and To Breathe in particular – are mentioned by art critics and the viewing public alike. The artist says she never practices any type of formal meditation but she sees validity in such comments.

“The very state of my mind and the vibration of my awareness often make me feel like I’m in some state of meditation,” she says. “In fact, expanding that further, I could say that every moment of every day is some form of meditation to me”.

With natural light, mirrored surfaces and the sound of human breathing featuring so strongly in the work, the opportunity for personal reflection is present for those immersing themselves in the piece.

As a conceptual artist, is there any particular feeling Kimsooja wishes to instil in those viewing To Breathe?

“No. That’s entirely in the audience’s hands. But opening your work to the public is amazing: it is always interesting to see how people engage and a lot of the time people discover in a single visit things even I’ve never found.”

Kimsooja: To Breathe is at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, until 29 September

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