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Kimsooja, To Breathe - Leiden

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To Breathe - Leiden will be inaugurated in Leiden’s old town on 18 November 2022. Kimsooja’s installation is the result of the Lucas Art Award that she won in 2020, with a view towards bringing people together using the city as the artist’s canvas.

The arches over the water refer to Kimsooja's motif of sewing and weaving, and its repeated, cyclical movement. The metaphorical act of weaving represents connecting people and cultures, past and future, old and new, East and West. Leiden owed its fame and growth when it developed as one of Holland's largest cities in the mid-thirteenth century through a flourishing cloth industry. Refugees from the southern Netherlands gave the city new impetus from the 17th century onwards, introducing new knowledge and techniques. Leiden's Cloth Hall, opposite Kimsooja's work of art, dates from this era and has served as the city's art museum since 1874.

For over twenty-five years Kimsooja has worked with the notion of bottari – the Korean word for a bundle. Made from cloth tied with a knot to enfold the contents within, these bundles are traditionally used for carrying personal possessions. They relate to the movement, migration, and displacement of people. She describes them as “a self-contained world, but one which can contain everything like a vessel, materially and conceptually, since one can tie up a bundle without revealing the contents”. Kimsooja extends this idea to include architecture, symbolically wrapping whole buildings to alter what lies within, as she has done here by using light. Much of the artist’s work takes inspiration from traditional forms of female labour, craft, and everyday actions such as sewing, weaving, and folding to investigate the role of women. Making quilts with her mother provided the stimulus for incorporating needlework into her practice and since then Kimsooja has travelled extensively, exploring the cultural importance of clothing, textiles, and making. She also considers sewing metaphorically and views the body as a needle that invisibly weaves together the fabric of lives, cultures, and cities, celebrating a shared humanity regardless of geographical borders.

When Kimsooja recalls her experience of inserting a needle through fabric, she talks about feeling the energy of the entire universe suffusing her body. It is a notion that is central to her oeuvre – often conceptual rather than formal – and refers to migration, being forced to move, bundling belongings, wrapping, and unfolding. Cloth, she says, is central to all stages of human life, wrapped in at birth and death. “Therefore, cloth is thought to be more than a material, being identified with the body – that is, as a container for the spirit.”

To Breathe: Leiden symbolises the connection of, and through, art and science. In 2022, Leiden was the European City of Science. In early 2023, Kimsooja will enter a dialogue with several artworks in De Lakenhal's collection; the installation To Breathe: Leiden will be next to the Lijsbethbrug until February 2025.

The Lucas Art Award was presented by the Lucas van Leyden Fund, which is tasked with contemporary art in the city. The work was executed by Anything is Possible and supported by Axel Vervoordt Gallery.

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