Exhibition visit: Kimsooja at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Kimsooja: A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir (2014)

LKL had a mini-break in the Derbyshire Dales last week. And, because the Yorkshire Sculpture Park was but an hour’s drive away from where we were staying, we decided to pay a visit to see the installations by Kimsooja. The weather app promised that the rain was likely to hold off for at least half of our visit, and so we first went to see the new sculpture installed outside in the Lower Park area. Not far from a tall dead tree which reached to the sky was Kimsooja’s 14 metre high A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir (2014)

South Korean artist Kimsooja has a practice that references and takes inspiration from traditional forms of female labour and craft, such as sewing and weaving, to investigate the role of women. Making quilts with her mother was the stimulus for adopting needlework as part of her practice, and since then the artist has travelled extensively exploring the cultural importance of clothing, textiles and the associated acts of making.

In addition to the physical act of sewing and its various cultural associations, Kimsooja also considers the concept metaphorically, seeing the body as a needle that weaves together the fabric of our lives, cultures and cities, celebrating a shared humanity regardless of geographical borders.

Kimsooja: A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir (2014)

Kimsooja’s powerful filmed performance A Needle Woman (1999-2001) involved her standing motionless with her back to the camera amidst endless crowds of people in busy cities including Tokyo, Delhi and Lagos. Grounded, still and calm, her body became a pivot around which humankind seemed to flow. Like a compass point in the landscape, the artist’s towering sculpture A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir functions in a similar way and explores the relationship between our bodies and the wider universe beyond.

This elegant, conical sculpture has transparent panels coated with nano polymer, a material that transforms light, giving an irridescence similar to that which occurs naturally on the wings of a butterfly or a beetle’s shell. The work alters dramatically with changing conditions, the nature and angle of light that hits it, and the position from which it is viewed. Within the sculpture, a mirrored floor makes it appear to extend deep into the earth as well as reaching into the sky, and the viewer stands on the ground at the threshold between the two.

Supported by Axel Vervoordt Gallery. Courtesy Axel Vervoordt Gallery and Kimsooja Studio.

(from the information board in Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

In the grey June sky the sculpture looked cold, almost brutal, as it stabbed towards the heavens. Water had managed to seep into the structure: puddles had formed on the mirrored floor, and condensation clouded the acrylic windows, but somehow the nanofilm which coats the windows boosted the light inside the structure, and almost seems to radiate light back into the surrounding parkland.

Kimsooja: A Needle Woman

On 10 August visitors will be offered the opportunity to enter the structure through the cleverly concealed door and stand on that mirrored floor. To try to simulate the experience I pointed the iPhone camera to floor as much as I could, trying to avoid the mist on the glass.

Inside A Needle Woman

It should be a strangely disembodying experience to enter the sculpture, surrounded by light but encased in a cage-like structure that extends down into the earth as far as it extends into the sky.

The sculpture park occupies a huge area, and several school trips were visiting, either sketching the sculptures or simply to have a noisy day out. We took a turn around the upper lake to escape the noise, and unexpectedly came across a sculpture by Yuh Kwanho, a Korean artist I had not come across before.

Wanho Yuh: Seed Bank 2007

Born in 1962 in Korea, Kwanho Yuh trained first as a painter and then as a photographer in Germany. Yuh is particularly interested in audience engagement with her work; although she creates physical objects, her practice is concerned with public interaction.

In her practice, Yuh encourages communication through combining a range of concepts and possibilities, creating situations in which people come into contact with art, and each other.

Yuh first developed the idea for Seed Bank after being invited to contribute to a project in Hanover in 2004. She took a bench from her home, placed it in a brown-field site and invited visitors to find and donate seeds. Each seed was photographed in the donor’s hand, put in a plastic bag with a one cent coin signed by the artist, and returned to them. Yuh kept the photographs as a record of the meeting.

Each aspect Of the idea: the bench, the donor, the seed and the photograph, combine to realise the artwork. Through Seed Bank, Yuh develops the communication between the collector and the donor and hopes to increase awareness of the small sources of life that surround us. The work also acknowledges that an idea never happens in isolation; the relationship between the artist and her visitors is a mutually beneficial one as each donor forms part of the final work.

For Blickachsen 6 in Bad Homburg, Germany, in 2007 the artist carved a stone bench, which remained as a physical marker of her third Seed Bank.

Yuh created a fourth Seed Bank for YSP, with a two-day event to collect and photograph the seeds in summer 2008. The bench remains on loan courtesy of the artist and Galerie Scheffel, Germany

(from the information board in Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

It was by now nearing the time that the weather app had predicted a 69% chance of persistent drizzle. And by the time we reached the other end of the lake the drizzle had become a steady rain, not yet a downpour but trending that way. It was time to start heading back to the car park, but not before visiting the chapel where Kimsooja’s To Breathe has been installed for the summer.

The chapel at Yorkshire Sculpture Park
The chapel at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, with an Iron Tree by Ai Wei Wei outside

The work was installed in the Korean Pavilion in Venice 2013, where there there was a sign, ignored by everyone, that prohibited photography, possibly to avoid the potential for unscrupulous voyeurs to take advantage of the mirrored floor to do some surreptitious upskirting. In Yorkshire, there would have been less danger of such a practice, firstly because no one in their right mind was wearing a summer dress that day, and secondly because a party of schoolchildren had just left paw prints all over the floor with their slightly moist socks. As their excited voices trailed away into the rain it was possible to settle in and listen to the soundtrack that accompanied the installation: Kimsooja breathing gently, then panting, then humming to herself.

One suspects that the installation would have worked better in brilliant sunlight, but nevertheless the white walls joined with the mirrored floors in reflecting the light around the chapel’s interior, while even in the greyness of the rain the plastic film covering the windows produced delightful rainbow effects. But loyal as I have to be to installations at home, the piece was more effective in the sparkling blue skies of Venice than in a Yorkshire rainstorm.

Kimsooja’s To Breathe is in the chapel at Yorkshire Sculpture Park until 29 September. She will be giving an artist talk there on 18 July; and on 10 August you can enter her Needle Woman sculpture. And on 22 June there is a curator-led tour around Kimsooja’s To Breathe and works by Damien Hirst.

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