The motif of the needle has been present in Kimsooja's oeuvre since her earliest works and has for her a very personal, intimate character. As a child, she would often embroider quilts beside her mother, and this experience became for her the embodiment of shared kinship, as well as an example of a practice in which thought, action and feeling are locked in an inseparable unity. She has varied this motif, as well as the related motif of fabric, in many different kinds of works. And while fabric for her always has the character of an all-separating and all-covering substance, the needle, on the contrary, is something that unites. "Without needles" the artist claims "there would be no fabric, and without individuals there would be no fabric of society."
These two images – those of the individual and the social fabric – are both represented in her legendary video installation A Needle Woman. The work was filmed in the most diverse places of the contemporary global world, in its most densely populated megacities – Shanghai, Delhi, Cairo, Mexico City, London, Lagos, etc. And all the screens comprising the installation constantly show us the artist herself, seen from the rear, standing in the middle of multi-ethnic crowds engaged in fluid movement.
Much in this work is predicated on Eastern philosophy and the Buddhist worldview that is so dear to Kimsooja. Immersed in meditation amid a multifaceted and dynamically unlimited world, she clears her mind, thereby achieving a state of peace and enlightenment. "I don't believe in permanence," says the artist, "I believe in a state of constant flux. Everything is in process and everyone – including my own body – is devoid of stability. In my early works, the embroidery process was understood as a path to the past, the present and the future, as an inner journey through space and time. The performance A Needle Woman brought me to an awakening experience of internal travel through the physical possession/loss of my own body..." And this is followed by another important admission: "As long as I was standing there... my consciousness and my viewpoint became attached to the reality of the vast universe. I contemplated the white light beyond the distant horizon, while streams of people approached me and passed me by. The great power of enlightenment thus allowed me to open up to the inhabitants of the most crowded cities in the world."
Such a creative position makes Kimsooja a rather unique figure among the artists of her generation. She entered art in the late 1980s, when the problem of identity was on the agenda, when it seemed important to uphold the rights of minorities and the right to differences in the face of unfolding globalisation. However, this problem was not something distant and speculative for the artist. Born in South Korea, she moved to New York, thus learning the emigrant experience first-hand, and has persistently addressed in her art the realities linking her with her homeland. And yet she used these motif not as a means of manifesting a rootedness in her birthplace, but simply because they were something close and familiar to her. Apart from this, Kimsooja tells us that your place is where you are. You are like a needle, poking at whatever points in the modern world, and you make this place your own. At the same time, she says that in clearing the consciousness, in detaching yourself from the concrete reality around you, you begin to perceive the world in its fullness. The entirety of it then becomes your place. The work of Kimsooja is not about a personal homeland or about an apology for differences, but about the universality of place and the unity of humanity.