Poetics of the Ecological Life _ Gu Nayeon/Art Critic

Poetics of the Ecological Life


GU Nayeon

Art Critic


Since prehistoric times, the history of art has been one about the cultural ‘transformation’ of physical objects. To transform is to ‘make’, and to ‘make’ is to bring the object inside the realm of humans. It is a well-known fact that the ritualistic nature of ceremonies and prayers was closely related to the birth of art. In approaching Kim Soonim’s art, I trace the aesthetic concepts of prehistoric times, or even a more fundamental time and space, in order to understand the character of nature embedded in her works.

             She explains that she is “interested in the way the object itself is manifested in life as is, rather than as the state of material transformed to be treated within the realm of art”. Such stance of employing the exterior essence of a natural object to the realm of human life without any process of ‘transformation’ implies her relationship with nature. When encountering with a place or natural object, she learns the incidents that the space and object would likely have experienced, and weaves together an inter-relation in which she and the object inscribe their memories upon each other. This is the act of combining the object of before-art with the ritualistic value of after-art. This is because she engages in internal communication with the object as she breaks free of the social function of art as material, moves away from artificial places, and embraces the unpredictability of nomadism and coincidence.

             Weaving is a condensed representation of such fusion, escape, and embrace. Produced at the beach of the West Coast National Park in the Republic of South Africa, this work is a sort of ‘weaving’ of seaweeds that have been pushed onto the shore. The pattern she made with seaweed spans throughout the coast in an orderly manner, like broad-stitches connecting the land and the sea. Produced with only natural materials and no artificial ingredient, this work has the site specific form proposed by the past land art while portraying the melancholy of natural termination as incoming tides quickly erase it. However, Kim’s gesture of termination brings about a stance of adaptation that it is not a disappearance, but a part of natural circulation. This then leads to the context of recovery by nature.


Kim’s way of facing a place is to meet an environment by chance and then make it into a special place. This is a process of entering the space she has run into, living it, learning the time and memory of the natural matter that reside there, and summoning that time and memory little by little. This is a state of coexistence in which the silence of the unnamed natural objects like earth, stone, grass, and sand is adhered to the construction of life vividly proven by the body and acts of the artist.

             For instance, in The Seat of Water I, II, which she produced in Richmond, Republic of south Africa, she paved a small waterway with stones scattered on a dry land of rocks. Composed of crude stones and dry grass sprouting on a barren rocky mountain, this act signifies the unity of relationship nurtured in a space where the time of nature and the time of humans coincide. It is a small reconciliation, and a knot tied between the essence of nature and the concept of civilized time and space. Kim therefore observes the autonomy and cultural position of an artist, then chooses, transforms her identity as a leaving performer, and designates the relationships cultivated with new times and spaces in that process as the significant logic of her work.

             On the other hand, Kim’s way of encountering a place also consequently transfers natural matter to the museum. Just as she had temporarily resided in an unnamed place, she makes the natural matter of her choice reside in her residence (museum) as well. In the < I meet with Stone> 어디서 굴러먹던 돌멩이 project, she writes down on the stones that she finds on her travel the date and place she met them. Through the encounter with Kim, the stones are invited into galleries and museums as the object of special memory. Also, whereas the aforementioned Weaving and The Seat of Water embrace vanishing as the fundamental element of the work and thus require photo or video documentation, these stones serve the role of documenting the artist’s nomadism and at the same time are by themselves the metonymy of a romantic sentiment toward nature. While the work is reminiscent of the tradition of open aesthetics, with elements of the artist’s selection and museum, the artist that calls out trivial natural objects and appeals to their values is in fact a mediator of artistic action, linking the nature and humans.


In particular, Kim’s nomadic site specificity, coincidental encounter with natural objects and consequent selection are founded upon the cyclical logic of nature. The object that slowly disappears with time, and the open space where the encounter takes place are reminiscent of Craig Owens’ survey of site specificity, how the works of Robert Smithson acknowledge the power of accommodating to nature as a part of the artwork and that such signification of ephemerality and temporariness is in fact memento mori.[1] However, such honorifics of death are not of a religious connotation, but stem from the idea that we are able to predict the power of nature that the work will experience. After all, a site specific work standing in between nature and civilization leans on not the aesthetic experiencing of the work, but the audience’s self-reflective agitation at co-experiencing the survival and death of the work itself. The nomadic journey that exists as documentation inside art museums in fact aims to bring about such reflective response upon itself.

             Home+Farm 홈플러스 농장 starts with showing the standardized natural objects that contemporary life consumes, such as the sleek fruits and vegetables on display at the market. The artist purchases several fruits and vegetables, sows their seeds to produce seedlings, and grows them in a small greenhouse. The fruits and vegetables grow and bear new leaves and fruit. As a gesture criticizing the standardization and materialization of nature that mass production and its consumption require, this project is a process of shifting a trivial object of trade back into a natural object of primary life. Furthermore, this process of shift embraces a logic of circulation as pests enter the farm to nibble at the fruit, then bigger bugs appear to feed on the pests, ultimately transforming the small farm into a small jungle of repeated damage and recovery. This is the language of the wild that the refined urban life has cut out, and this is the testimony of the specimen room attesting to the primary logic of nature that cannot but repeat death and rebirth.

             Therefore, Kim’s work scatters the illusion of victory heightened by the tug of war between nature and civilization, one premised on the latter’s defeat. In returning the form of natural objects, which become the mere tools within the logic of production, back to the primary context, the artist’s action conveys its character of critical resistance through a paradoxical method of natural adaptation. This lies in the same context as The People 14 –­ Lee Ok-Lan that she produced through diligent sewing. With this sewing piece, she had manifested the nature of female culture, represented by the cottage industry of women living in rural regions, through the silent sleep of an old lady. She questioned the realm of gender represented by arduous sewing through the tolerance and comfort embraced by the image of an old lady over 100 years old lying down. Her attitude toward nature and perspective toward humans lead her to constantly speak to voiceless objects, and this is a ritual of interpreting the true colors of nature that have been damaged by the logic of development and recovering the figures eliminated from the general perception of society.

             In regards to her Landed Ocean – Oyster Land, Kim speaks of “the people who came to the ocean empty handed, nurtured the land, and built a house to take care of their family. And the ocean that willingly settled down for them.” Celebrating the harsh lives of the people who moved to the area and lived on the oysters, this work transparently projects the artist’s methodology of approaching nature and humans. Watching the documentation video of the works she has produced in various places, we witness an incessant series of actions. Watching the repeated acts on video which is made to be played at an accelerated rate and the fickle conditions of sunlight, rain, and wind, this basic ‘construction’ whose result cannot be predicted reminds us of the harsh ‘construction’ of life that humans have all along faced in nature. The poetry that she sings about this ecological life of gathering, nurturing, and living on whatever nature proposes is a tacit challenge of meeting all the practices she can fulfill as a performer and mediator.



* Gu Nayeon was born in 1976 and is an art critic. She studied art theory at Korea National University of Arts. She has been writing about contemporary art since 2008. She teaches at Chugye University for the Arts and Seoul National University of Science and Technology.


[1] Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism”, trans. Jo Sujin in Issues of Art after Modernism (Noonbit, 1999), p. 169.