'Respirar/To Breathe' by Kimsooja

Sunday 4 May 2014

'Respirar'/'To breathe' installation at the Palacio de Cristal, Parque del Retiro, Madrid in 2006 (images 1 & 2) and the Korean Pavilion in Venice in 2013 (images 3, 4 & 5). Photos by José Luis Municio and Jaeho Chong

I used to be sceptical of installations and 'experience' based art. I wanted something to look at, not something to 'experience', whatever that was. Give me something that the artist has put time and effort and skill into. I wasn't giving things a chance, because of preconceived notions I had about what 'proper' art was - and I'm sure I missed out on things I went to. Then, I began to make the effort to look up the artists behind these pieces, and read about their ideas, even if it was simply through irritation at 'not getting it' to start with. As I spent more time looking at art and not immediately dismissing it with 'oh, I hate that conceptual stuff', I began to appreciate that art doesn't just have to be a technically brilliant painting or a perfect sculpture, just as books don't just have to be words on a page. This doesn't mean I love all the installations and experiences that people come up with - some work, and some don't, and everyone will be able to think of reasons why they think a piece does or not. 

I haven't been able to experience (and that is the right word, not 'see') any of Kimsooja's work, but this particular installation is one that I'd put money on 'working'. Artist Kimsooja coats the boundary between internal, human, man-made space and the external natural space in a translucent diffraction film and covers the floor with mirrors, endlessly expanding the space through reflections and refractions of light entering the building. As the viewer takes in the rainbows cast all over the inside of the room, a soundtrack of the artist's breathing plays, varying in volume and speed. The sound of breathing is one that is so interlinked with our physical and emotional state - as someone who suffers from panic attacks, I'm incredibly aware of how our breathing changes. Slow, calm breathing is relaxing to listen to; the sound of a person breathing heavily indicates to us physical exertion; the shallow hyperventilation of an upset or panicked person is uncomfortable to us. 

With nothing else inside the room, the viewer focuses only on Kimsooja's breathing, their own, and the rainbows that move around them - this kind of sensory focus is a very interesting thing to experience, particularly in a world where we are so used to fast-paced, multisensory, quickly changing environments. Kimsooja also included an 'opposite' experience in her installation for the 2013 Korean Pavilion - the 'Blackout' room. An anechoic chamber in pitch darkness, in here the viewer ('experiencer' even) can hear only the sounds of their own body. Its concept reminded me a little of How It Is, the installation Miroslaw Balka created for the Tate Modern as part of the Unilever Series in 2009-2010 - complete darkness in a huge container in the Turbine Hall. Admittedly the installations do set out to achieve different things, but I hope that the Kimsooja piece was curated differently, with more limits on the number of people allowed in and the control of noise levels, allowing viewers to experience it in their own time and without distraction. That aside, these kinds of experiences are always fun to have no matter how busy they are, simply because they are so different from those we usually encounter (it's also great that To Breathe is such a wonderful photographic subject!).

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