K.S. Koo has been constructing and casting forms with seaweed since 1993. Seaweed, as a living organism, breathes with its own unique movements of contraction and expansion, and undergoes the natural processes of life from birth to decay. When creating her work Koo allows the seaweed to recreate the forms through the contraction, wrinkling, and twisting of its natural process of drying. In this manner, the artist initiates the structure of the work while allowing the seaweed to determine the final form.
Seaweed continues to breathe and change its form even after it dies, and given the proper amount of humidity and darkness, it provides a skin for the growth of fungus. Fungus infiltrates the surface of the seaweed and produces a range of color that pigment cannot imitate. Just as it determines the form, the organic nature of the seaweed also determines the color. Thus, in place of fixed form and color, there is growth and change. Fungus also reminds us of the natural cycle of life in which death provides a source for the regeneration of new life. This use of the natural character of seaweed suffuses the work with organic symbolism allowing us to view it from an ecological perspective.
The organic character of Koo’s work, and the fact that she does not create pre-meditated, fixed forms, establishes a direct connection with the aesthetics of Soft Sculpture. The variable and organic forms of Soft Sculpture de-constructed the constant forms of traditional sculpture. They converted the perceptual experience of sculpture, traditionally based on volume, texture, and space, into a new kind of tactile experience. In addition, Soft Sculpture de-constructed the boundaries between sculpture and painting. While it may be said that the Ready-Made broke down boundaries between art and life, it is also possible to say that Soft Sculpture broke down boundaries within art itself.
Koo’s work makes specific reference to the female body and reproductive organs, and in many cases, she casts forms directly from her own body. This suggests that the sexual identity of women is a principal content of her work. In relation to this content, seaweed carries multiple meanings. The organic transformations of the seaweed suggest the manner in which women’s sexual identity is determined by the natural world. On the other hand, the neutral character of seaweed, the fact that it is neither female nor male, suggests the idea of de-genderization, and reflects her desire to consider women’s identity from a more neutral and universal point of view.
Koo has explored and developed her ideas in the following bodies of work: Silence (1994), Herstory (1996), Chrysalis (1998), Trace (2000), Markings (2001), and Secret Garden (2002). Each body of work has its own distinct character in terms of materials and techniques. In many cases the materials are organic, including seaweed, sand, and fungus; and in other cases, they are man-made, including iron, bronze, resin, fabric, and photo-emulsion. In spite of this diversity, each group of work is connected in terms of theme and uses forms derived from the female body to address women’s sexual identity. In the expansive context of her work, however, the question of sexual identity evolves into more universal existential questions.
Silence was created following her grandmother‘s death. Silence can suggest death, but in this case, it also suggests the silence that her grandmother was forced to maintain under the conditions of traditional Korean culture. Silence consists of two distinct groups, Power of Silence and Silence of the Dreamer, in which she contrasts male power with the powerlessness of women. In Power of Silence the male forms were constructed by wrapping layers of seaweed around woven bamboo structures fashioned after the traditional “bamboo wife.” (The bamboo wife is a tubular basket form used by Korean men to keep cool while sleeping in the summer.) Koo scorched the surface of the seaweed to create a hard, metallic, shiny surface. There are eleven cylindrical male forms, each approximately seven feet high. When they are installed as a series of large, oblong shapes reclining against the wall, they have the appearance of phalluses in a solemn shrine.
In ancient Rome the phallus was called fascinus. The ancient Indians worshipped the phallus Linga as a symbol of the goddess Sheba. Freud considered the phallus to be a symbol of the subject, and suggested that women, who do not have a phallus, can never be the subject. To Lacan, a Freudian, the phallus is the subject of language, and women are the object. In this context a woman’s identity is that of one who has no language and is forced to be silent. In Silence, Koo expresses the reality of a male-dominated culture in which the mythological symbol of the phallus continues to be a focus of meaning and power.
Silence of the Dreamer stands in opposition to Power of Silence and consists of 20 full-size female figures constructed from multiple layers of seaweed. The seaweed figures have a coarse and wrinkled organic texture which contrasts with the smooth and radiant surfaces of the phalluses. This contrast emphasizes the organic basis of female existence in relation to the ideological basis of male existence symbolized by the radiant “light of reason”. The female figures, created in the form of her grandmother’s shrouded and wrapped body, stand in a circle. If the phalluses, reclining in order against the wall, represent the power of man, the circle of female figures represents embracement and acceptance – the identity and destiny of women in a male-centered world. As the title suggests, women have been forced to be silent, and their speech has been suppressed. Their thoughts, however, can be expressed unconsciously in the form of dreams. Koo’s opposition of Power of Silence and Silence of the Dreamer brings to mind Nietzsche’s dialectic of the master and servant. In the context of this dialectic, the one who is forced to be silent is the one who dreams and examines herself. This dreaming has the power to ignite revolution.
In Silence a grandmother‘s death provided the motivation to examine the life of a woman. In Herstory, Koo uses universal motifs to draw out the general history of women. She evokes this history by recreating in seaweed everyday objects that have been made and used by women. Her presentation of simple objects such as socks, shoes, underwear, and dishes composes an epic story of women’s history.
While fire created the distinct physicality of the figures in Silence, fungus determines the specific character of the objects in Herstory. Fungus, as a sign of decomposition, has a powerful physical aura that evokes existential allegories of growth and decay, life and death. The fungus covered objects seem to hold memories of their owners, and have an archeological quality, like that of relics excavated from a tomb.
In Herstory Koo also presents faded photographs and personal articles from her mother’s life to recompose the panorama of women’s life. There are pictures of her mother as a young girl with long hair, as a bride at her marriage ceremony, and wearing a traditional fur vest holding her baby. Along with the pictures, there is a long braid of hair (cut at the time of marriage), a wedding headpiece, and a fur vest. These relics from her mother’s life, in conjunction with the objects recreated with seaweed, reveal the traditional Korean belief that personal belongings, especially clothing and bedding, are a surrogate for the user and have the animistic power to awaken the user’s spirit. The custom of burning the belongings of the dead denies the separation of body and spirit and suggests that human existence is far more sensual and mysterious than Determinism allows.
The restored history of women, which is herstory, is based on a micro-discussion of personal and daily stories, and focuses on individual and personal realities. This is in direct contrast to history, which is based on a macro-discussion including politics, economics, and sociology, and which focuses on communal ideals rather than individual and personal realities. Koo’s work is similar to that of Luce Irigaray who uses her body as a medium and describes herstory with a tactile language. This narrative method stands in direct contrast to that of history which uses the symbolic and abstract language of letters.
Koo’s interest in the personal history and sexual identity of women led her to focus on the body as a subject. In Chrysalis she explores this interest by creating forms that evoke the placenta and dead bodies. These forms suggest the cycles of time that connect the past and the present, and connect us to our ancestors. Above all, however, the placenta – the house of life – is the biological source of existence. This source is materialistic and it is linked to the psychological and existential archetypes proposed by Jung.
Koo constructed placenta forms in seaweed and in cast bronze. The bluish patina on the bronze pieces was created by a natural process and, in that respect, is related to the color created by fungus on the seaweed pieces. The placenta forms also have an ambiguous biological identity in that they can suggest brains or internal organs. This formal ambiguity allows for the possibility of multiple interpretations, but in each case, the work consistently addresses the meaning of existence through the medium of the body.
In addition to the seaweed and bronze placenta forms presented along the walls, there are 12 body forms suspended from the ceiling. In a manner similar to previous work, she made the forms by casting wet seaweed over a human body. While the seaweed was drying, the body forms shrank and twisted. The resulting shriveled and hollow forms, with their fungus covered surfaces, bring to mind desiccated mummies from which the spirit has departed. They seem to be the trace of existence left by the body as it decays and returns to nature.
In Chrysalis Koo created forms that suggest the empty, decaying remains of the body. In Trace she created fossil-like forms that seem to reveal traces of existence. Trace consists of two sets of work: 8 wall pieces, and 20 floor pieces. To create the wall pieces she made molds in the form of small, wrapped infants and cast clay over them. The burned shiny surface left by the raku firing process gave each piece the appearance of a carbonized, human fossil. Like an anthropologist, or an archeologist searching for the origins of mankind, she seems to be searching for traces of human existence in the clues left by a fossil.
Accompanying the wall pieces there are 20 sand molds arranged in a grid on the floor. In a reversal of the usual process, Koo chose the molds to be the final work because of the way in which they reveal the reactions between sand, iron, and air. Like the wall pieces, the sand molds were cast over infant forms. The molds were filled with molten iron, but before it could cool the iron was poured out and discarded. In the process, the sand mold captured a wide range of accidental tonal and textural variations depending on the amount of time that the molten iron remained in the mold. Due to the way in which her process accepts and incorporates accident, this work has an informal and organic quality that sets it apart from most cast work.
It is important to emphasize the artist’s choice to present the mold as the final work. In this respect, she made a decision similar to that of modernist sculptors who considered the pedestal as an integral part of their work. Her choice suggests that the process and the materials have their own significance that cannot be separated from the result of that process. She reveals how the mold captures meaning and beauty residing in the materials and processes of creation. The mold, like the placenta, which is the mold and the remains of a birth, carries meaning because it is the trace of creation. The transformation of the sand and iron, through the medium of fire, into a trace that suggests birth, indicates the alchemical nature of Koo’s imagination. A trace always provides a hint of existence, but it reveals existence by absence. Sometimes absence evokes existence more than existence itself, as when Van Gogh painted the farmer’s empty shoes instead of the farmer.
The artist’s alchemic imagination combines metal, water, fabric, and her own body, to affirm her existence in Markings. In this case, “markings” refers to the action of making an imprint, or a trace. When we use features of the human body such as fingerprints, eyes, or blood to make an imprint, they become a sign confirming the existence of an individual. Koo created a series of imprints of her body by lying on wet fabric placed over sheets of steel. Over time, through the process of oxidation, imprints of her body were transferred to the fabric in patterns of rusty stains.
In some ways, Markings might remind us of Yves Klein’s body paintings. There is a significant difference, however, in that Koo’s body images were created by natural materials and processes. The process of oxidation takes place over time, and the trace of her body left on the fabric is a visualization of that time. With intentions and methods quite distinct from those of Klein, Koo uses nature and time as tools to affirm her existence.
Once again, in Secret Garden, Koo again uses her own body as a means to explore the sexual identity of women and existence. The title suggests that the female body holds the secret of life. This secret is contained in the reproductive organs: the placenta, the umbilical cord, the genitals, and the breasts. By focusing on the reproductive organs, she presents the female body as a fertile garden and attempts to restore it as an object of adoration.
Secret Garden, in contrast to previous work, consists of both two and three-dimensional pieces. The 3-dimensional pieces, the placenta and the umbilical cord, were created with seaweed, silk, metal thread, and fungus. To create the two-dimensional works Koo coated her genitals and breasts with photo emulsion and then pressed them onto photography paper. After developing the images, she enlarged them on a computer and printed them on traditional Korean rice paper. By pressing her body directly into the liquid emulsion, she produced an entirely different visual reality than that of photography. The images reproduced on the rice paper reveal the physicality of the body in a direct and unexpected way.
Due to the use of a computer for enlarging and printing, the images can be considered a form of digital print. In spite of the digital process, however, the images do not have a mechanical character. Rather, they have an organic quality created by the tactile physicality of the subject and the natural material of the rice paper. The use of empty space and the carefully controlled modulation of the monotone values also bring to mind traditional sumi painting.
In Secret Garden, Koo focuses on the reproductive organs and demonstrates her willingness to approach women’s identity more directly and sexually. She gives women’s bodies a mystical character and recalls the mythology of women based in nature – in contrast to that of men based in rational culture. Secret Garden reveals and maps the shape of the genitals and the way in which they reflect women’s self-consciousness. A woman’s genitals are situated and formed around a nucleus, and that nucleus determines women’s self-conscious identity as the center of the world and the source of life. In this way, Secret Garden offers a view of women’s identity that opposes the “Electra Complex” and the attempt to justify women’s inferiority based on their lack of, and desire for, a penis. Koo articulates women’s ideology by contrasting the rigid, vertical form of man’s genitals, with the organic, sensual forms of women’s genitals.
Through her use of organic materials Koo reveals the secrets of life and the cyclic structure of nature in which birth, growth, death, and decay intertwine. The organic materials and natural processes that give form to her work evoke women’s sexual identity. Moreover, the use of her own body raises existential questions regarding identity of the self.
There might be much more left to perceive beyond that which I have described here. There might be something left between the lines, something that the forms and images suggest, but that may not be possible to express with words. The unique existential nature of Koo’s work has a volatility that cannot be contained in formal concepts. The work has a stubbornness and power that stimulates an ever-expanding inquiry for new understanding.
Kho, Chung Hwan
writing in the Korean Art Critics Review, Fall 2003