A Short Musing on Kimsooja's Bottari

By Areum Kim

Sprawled on the second floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery are colourful bundles called bottari. Bottari is a Korean word for a bundle wrapped with a square cloth, usually containing clothes and personal belongings. You spread out the cloth flatly and put your object in the center; then hold each pair of diagonal corners together to tie a knot. The bundle is now sealed, with knots formed on the top to grab onto. Kimsooja creates variations of this bottari using abandoned Korean bed cloths, colourful and embroidered, all of which contain specific symbolisms of well-wishes. (Symbolism is an important part of Korean culture. Traditional fabrics have coloured bands, fields, and embroidery that represent something. Even the national flag is rife with much symbolism.) There is something universal about this form of package that transcends cultural specificity. They recall packing up crudely and leaving; they imply a future destination, mobility, movement. They embody both the scraps of the past that we pack into our containers and the new site they will be moved to. Kimsooja’s bottari are connotative of the body as a container for a biological mechanism as well as for memory, history, souls; in her own words, “the body is the most complicated bundle.” Bottari is analogous to a husk of the body.

Kimsooja, a Korean-born artist based in New York and Paris, is best known for these bottari sculptures/installations. She has garnered international attention since her first series of bottari during her residency at PS1 MoMA in the 90’s. What was so potent about these simple recreations of a culturally-specific object? Her work produces two reactions: one gravitates towards the exotic, aestheticized object as Kimsooja makes bottari, which is  usually plain and utilitarian, with colourful, embroidered fabric. Another part of the reaction is the incredible matrix of connotations bottari holds, linking it to the body, nomadic life, flight, plight, movement, personal belongings, memory, mystery of the wrapped and enclosed… Even those who are not Korean can easily identify with this somewhat fragile package.

While bottari may be celebrated by its beauty and poetic possibilities, I would like to bring it back to its specific Korean context. If objects reach out to an incredible matrix of connotations and associations, it seems fruitful to add another image to the constellation: the flight of refugees in the Korean War. To a Korean, one of the most frequent scenes bottari evoke are images of the Korean War. If there were a time when bottaris were the most mobilized it was during the 1950-53Korean War, which positioned this tiny peninsula as a scapegoat of the power poles of the Cold War. This war resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and mass shootings of people swept by the two poles of politics not by their ideological beliefs but solely by their geographical location. If you lived north of Kyeong-Ki-Do, you were automatically a “Red”; and if you were south, a democrat. With this additional historical specificity in mind, one might go and look at Kimsooja’s work. 

fig.1 a line of refugees with bottaris. credits: Looking at Korean War Through Photographs (http://www.ohmynews.com/NWS_Web/View/at_pg.aspx?CNTN_CD=A0000178309)

Kimsooja’s retrospective at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Kimsooja: Unfolding,includes other works that depart from this bottari motif  into other areas; still, the artist explores a similar concern of the body in relation to the space and the self in constant flux. Her explorations manifest both beautifully and powerfully. The exhibition runs until January 26th, 2014.