A Needle in the Global Masses: Kim Sooja's "A Needle Woman" at P.S.1

As I tried to make my down the street, I panicked. I have never been surrounded by so many people, by so much noise and movement. I wanted to just stop and cry.

This was a student's first experience in New York City, shortly after arriving at Time Square. He is a 23 year old, 6 foot, 4 inch, 260 pound man who grew up in a small town of upstate New York.

The urban center may be disorienting, mesmerizing, chaotic, uniform, all encompassing, and lonely at any single moment. Imaging the most busseling street you have ever encountered, now imaging standing frozen at the center of that street, arms firmly at your side. Physical, private space is non-existent as throngs of pedestrians and cyclists make there way along the sidewalk. You become an obstacle, a momentary amusement, an annoyance, a new edifice of the public space -- statuesque, solid, but breathing and aware. You could be shoved, perhaps even thrown down to the ground, but you continue to stand unflinching as the masses move all about you. Now imaging this situation in a completely foreign culture, at the center of a city and a people you are unfamiliar with. The content of Kim Sooja's video installation at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center is based upon this situation.

At the top floor of P.S.1, I walked into a large gallery space, the only lighting in the space were the eight larger than life DVD projections upon the eight walls composing the space, an installation by South Korean, New York based artist Kim Sooja. As I steped into the center of the gallery, I found myself surrounded by densely populated streets from all parts of the globe. Each video composition, had one common element, at the center of the video, stood the same motionless woman, her back turned to the camera. She wears a plain grey top, her hair is pulled back into a hair tie as it falls down the length of her back, her arms are at her sides as the camera, perhaps only five feet behind her captures her from the waste up. The project titled "A Needle Woman," 1999-2001 "is made up of eight simultaneously projected videos, each documenting Kim Sooja as she stands perfectly still in the crowded streets of Lagos, Nigeria, Mexico City, Cairo, New York, Delhi, Tokyo, Shanghai, and London." In "A Needle Woman," Sooja combines performance, video and installation to put the viewer at the center of a new global urban space that exists in the form of video projection.

Video presents an extended format of performance as documentation. And over the last ten years, there has been an increasing number of performance artists who perform specifically for the camera to present the action as documentation -- a nice means of taking an art genre that once revolted against establishment to now be projected sharply within the white gallery walls. But I'm not really interested in the politics or defention of performance art, at least not in this weeks column. Nor can I really write of the performance itself, I can only imagine the intensity of standing motionless and defenseless to oncoming masses in unfamiliar environments. However, "A Needle Woman" as a video installation is beautiful and intelligent. Due to the size of the projections and the fact that one is surrounded by the eight projections, the viewer discovers her/himself in the position of the artist. Although, rather than confronting real space, one is confronting the power of documentation and video that is the collapse of real time and space by the hand of an independent artist. In a single room Sooja has juxtaposed eight different cultures and their reaction to her presence. The viewer is audience to a six minute long global video moment -- the glue of this moment is her singular action and its representaion within a room -- eight situations, shot thousands of miles apart over a three year period, becomes a single six minute loop for the viewer.

Upon entering the large space, the first projection to the right, documented Sooja in Lagos, Nigeria, followed by Mexico City, Cairo, New York City, Delhi, Tokyo, Shangahai and London. New York City, Tokyo, and London were the most similar in that Sooja was largely ignored. Surprisingly, of these three cities the New York City sidewalk was the least densely populated. Also, in the New York documentation a tourist would occasionally do a double take, whereas in London and Tokyo it was as if she did not even exist, although one photographer in London did stop to carefully photograph her.

The environment that took the most interest in her was by far Lagos, where an entire audience, children in front and adults in back gathered to watch her. Clearly in Lagos she was an oddity, a spectacle to be watched, mimiced, critiqued and laughed at. Within the six minute time frame of the video, one man went from observing with a bemused smile to angrily pointing at her and yelling to the rest of the audience. A handful of the children at the front appeared momentarily entranced by her, to eventually become bored and look for a new source of amusement.

Although in Mexico City she was largely ignored, it was not uncommon to see a pedestrian pause after walking past her look back at her to then turn away with an expression of annoyance.

I don't wish to make any generalization on how these various cultures reacted to Kim Sooja's performance based on a six minute video documentation, but it did appear as if she garnered the most attention in the cultures that have the least far Asian inhabitants, such as Lagos and Cairo. There was also a sharp difference between the pace people moved at in the various locations: in Lagos and to a lesser number Cairo, people would stop to watch, whereas in Tokyou, London and New York there was a constant stream of people that didn't seem to have time to take in anything of their surroundings.

Ricardo Miranda Zuņiga