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Exhibition visit: Kimsooja – To Breathe: Bottari, Venice 2013

The exterior of the Korean Pavilion, June 2013
The exterior of the Korean Pavilion, June 2013

In Kimsooja’s work commissioned for the Korean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year it was the pavilion itself that was the installation. The Korean Pavilion, designed by Seok Chul Kim and Franco Mancuso is the most recent of the 25 national pavilions to have been constructed in the Giardini and opened for business in 1995.

Inside the Korean Pavilion. Kimsooja's installation To Breathe: Bottari (2013)
Inside the Korean Pavilion. Kimsooja’s installation To Breathe: Bottari (2013)

The artist covered the walls, floor and roof of the building with a reflective but translucent plastic coating which let in the sunlight while refracting it into the colours of the rainbow, and providing a gently mirrored surface which provided endless vistas for the viewers. In wrapping the whole interior of the building she extended and magnified her Bottari project: in Venice, the Korean Pavilion itself is the migratory bundle and we are the contents.

A sign as you entered the pavilion informed you that “this installation breathes with the natural fluctuations of sunlight throughout the day.” An odd metaphor, but strangely appropriate when you experience the mysterious atmosphere of the space that the artist has created.

It is of course impossible to experience the installation in its ideal condition, which is one of silence. There will always be the background noise of the visitors talking quietly, admiring the quality of light in the building, which means it is difficult to hear the sound installation which gently envelopes you: Kimsooja’s own voice performance entitled The Weaving Factory (2004-2013) which plays in a repeating 9 minute loop.

In the side room of the pavilion is a second installation: To Breathe: Blackout (2013), an anechoic chamber — a small room  lined with noise-damping foam and completely sealed from the light outside. In this enclosed box you experience a darkness that it is almost impossible to encounter in the everyday world. More importantly, you experience a perfect silence in which the only noise you can hear is your own breathing and your own heartbeat. At least, that is the ideal, though of course because you are sharing the room with a handful of other visitors you hear their whispers too – or their giggles as they bump into each other. No matter, if you can filter out the noise of your companions it is a strangely purifying experience and you emerge reborn into the light outside renewed as if you have been meditating.

As an aside, it was perhaps the lawyers who influenced the wording of the notices outside the pavilion: a health and safety warning1 and an injunction not to take photographs (presumably they were worried that women would complain about people taking advantage of the reflective floors to invade their privacy). Of course, none of the visitors took a blind bit of notice.

The remarkable feature of Kimsooja’s concept is that in providing emptiness and, literally, a breathing space for her audience she also provided a work that forced inward as well as literal self-reflection. Visitors came out of the Korean pavilion remarkably refreshed.

The video below gives a brief interview with the artist about the work.


  1. “Some installations in the exhibition contain strong reflective light effects as well as dark spaces. Therefore, the pavilion is not appropriate for visitors suffering from claustrophobia, panic disorder, tachycardia, dizziness or epilepsy (seizure disorder), etc.” []

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