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“A great deal of contemporary art has lost its spiritual element”

Kimsooja with one of her works, 708 paper lanterns in the shape of a lotus blossom.
Kimsooja with one of her works, 708 paper lanterns in the shape of a lotus blossom. / Álvaro Cabrera
  • South Korean artist Kimsooja is exhibiting an installation at the CAC Málaga which invites meditation and is an encounter between different cultures

Kimsooja speaks in a soft voice, delicate but firm like her work, which is now on display at the CAC Malaga. There, ‘Lotus: Zone of Zero’ (2016) and the video ‘To Breathe - The Flags’ (2012) are an invitation for meditation and an encounter between different sensitivities, religions and ideologies.

–Your exhibition at the CAC Malaga is accompanied by Gregorian, Tibetan and Islamic chants. Are you hoping to turn the museum into a type of temple?

–Maybe so. People often say that my work is like a sanctuary. For example, the project I presented at the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid (‘To breathe – A mirror woman’, 2015). People felt that was like a sanctuary, like a temple for contemplation. Maybe that is one of the aspects of my work, the spiritual question, my search for empathy with the rest of humanity, including the ‘bottari’ for example. When I create them, they are a sanctuary for me.

–Tell me about the ‘bottari’, the brightly coloured cloth bundles which have become a symbol of migration.

–The ‘bottari’ are a symbol of people who are in danger, who are suffering a crisis and have to pick up just a few belongings and leave. It is a symbol of pain, in the present but also in the past and, I fear, in the future. One ‘bottari’ placed in a space contains that pain, but also hope, in the past, in the present and in the future. The ‘bottari’ have really been my centre of being. It is my body, it is ‘I’, it is ‘us’; for me it combines all the dimensions of life and death, of my way of understanding art in all its dimensions.

–Are the ‘bottari’, and your work in general, a way of facing up to the violence in the world?

–Yes. I’m particularly sensitive to human violence in any of its destructive forms. It is something absolutely dominant in the world today.

–Do you understand art as a place in which to seek shelter?

–It can be, but it also raises questions which can break that peace. So art breaks that peace in order to reach a new wellbeing. It is one way. My ideal society consists of living in peace, together.

–You speak of living all together, but in one of your essential works, the video ‘A needle woman’ (1999-2001), you have your back to the camera in different cities around the world. Do you think art ends up being a solitary type of work?

–No, I don’t think so. I believe it is a form of collaboration, in my case at least. I have a lot of experience of working with other people. Recently, for example, I have worked with scientists specialising in nanotechnology and with architects, and it was very interesting. It was very exciting to see how we tackled the same project from very different dimensions. In reality, I believe that nothing is ever done completely alone, not even a work of art. It’s impossible, because there are always elements that are interconnected: personal relationships, information, collaboration... everything is connected. It is true that in some of the videos I have done I appear alone, but I always need specialists to find the best way of achieving what I want, including when I did the configuration of this space (the central room at the CAC Malaga) because I needed the collaboration of specialists, architects for example, to find the best way of carrying out the work. Art can close you inside yourself, but life isn’t like that. Even if you decide not to talk to anybody, you communicate with nature, your table, your glass of water... there is always a dialogue going on. I love the moments alone, but I also appreciate being with other people, the communication, the process of learning with them. I believe it is a very natural process.

–Was it so natural to change your name and reduce it to one word?

–That happened in the middle of the night; I was sleeping and I woke up with this idea: ‘A name with just one word is something universal and at the same time anarchic’ (that was the title of the first entry on her web page). The website was a way of introducing me to myself in the world, it was important for me because in some way it erased my gender, my marital status, my religion and my geographic origin. It was a very significant action for me.

–Do you think the West should take more interest in this inward-looking search which seems more common in oriental countries?

–Everybody seems to want money, material things, power. Everything is very materialistic, but I don’t think there is a great difference between the East and the West. I have found times of great peace in European countries, because they still preserve old cultural values. I believe life is lived more serenely in Europe than in Asia. Of course New York, for example, is very different; everybody is competing and fighting for money, although there are some very stimulating values there as well. I believe every human being, and every culture, needs this spiritual element.

–Do you miss that spiritual element in contemporary art

–I think so, in a way, yes. Everything is directed at the objective, towards material things, towards things you can possess or can buy, things that can be valuable. I think that distorts the true direction of art, which of course is a much more complex process and can take you in many different directions, or at least I hope it can. But for example, it was interesting to see how at the start of the economic crisis the galleries in New York filled themselves with historic pieces and were less focused on the material aspect of the value of the works on the market. They really were very good exhibitions.

–Really?

–Yes. I believe people started to think about the value of money and artistic practices.

–At the presentation of your exhibition, the director of the CAC Málaga, Fernando Francés, said art has the power to change the world. Do you agree?

–I have faith that it can. I don’t know, in the strictest sense. People need to have a home and other necessary things, but I believe artists should offer them inspiration, hope and wellbeing so they can carry on, can be strong, can be happy and at peace.