Artist Spotlight: Kimsooja’s Threads of Culture

The art of Kimsooja (b. 1957, South Korea) is anchored in physical and metaphorical explorations of fabrics, textiles, and sewing. She has used a needle and thread to stitch together much of her work, manipulating everything from traditional South Korean fabrics, discarded clothing, travel bundles called bottari, and even her own name (rather than Soo-ja Kim or Kim Sooja, she prefers Kimsooja: “A one-word name is an anarchist’s name,” she says).

Kimsooja, Thread Routes–Chapter 1, 2010; Single-channel video projection, 16-mm film transferred to HD format, and sound; Courtesy of Kimsooja Studio

Kimsooja, Thread Routes–Chapter 1, 2010; Single-channel video projection, 16-mm film transferred to HD format, and sound; Courtesy of Kimsooja Studio

 

When the artist was a young girl, a life-changing moment occurred while she was helping her mother mend a bed cover. With needle in hand, Kimsooja says the moment the instrument entered the fabric she felt a jolt of energy that inspired a feeling of deep connection to the rest of the world. While this might seem like an extreme response to the seemingly insignificant act of mending sheets, this transformative sense of connection resonates through the artist’s oeuvre. For Kimsooja, the needle and thread symbolize the artist’s discerning eye and hand (another series of her work is called “A Needle Woman”), while images, videos, installations, and performances become swatches of fabric joined to create sensory works of art.

Thread Routes—Chapter 1 (2010), currently featured in Total Art: Contemporary Video, is a visual poem dedicated to the bright, color- and pattern-saturated aesthetic of the culture and landscape of Peruvian weavers. Shot by a film crew on location near Machu Picchu, the 26-minute video features images of women chatting while hand-spinning fibers into threads and using looms and other weaving techniques to create fabric designs. These scenes are juxtaposed with silent imagery of knotted mountainous landscapes, creating a patchwork-style video of a sensory experience of the region.

Kimsooja, Thread Routes–Chapter 1, 2010; Single-channel video projection, 16-mm film transferred to HD format, and sound; Courtesy of Kimsooja Studio; Installation photo Laura Hoffman

Kimsooja, Thread Routes–Chapter 1, 2010; Single-channel video projection, 16-mm film transferred to HD format, and sound; Courtesy of Kimsooja Studio; Installation photo Laura Hoffman

The video can be viewed as a meditation on the textures of experience, specifically the everyday, tactile experience of southern Peru. Kimsooja brings the viewer’s attention to the rich textural similarities between patterns created in the weavers’ fabrics and clothing, and the natural and agriculturally-manipulated patterns of the earth. Close-up details of braided threads and bright buttons are mirrored by video sequences framing harvested plots of land punctuated by the uniform roof tiles of small houses, as intricately interwoven as the textiles.

By creating these visual parallels, Kimsooja offers nuanced perspectives on the relationships between nature and culture, as well as between the artist and the larger world. This relates to a greater theme of Total Art—video as an art form that encourages the individual artist to collaborate with others. In this video, Kimsooja nods to the earth and entire societies as creators in their own rights. The Thread Routes series is an ongoing project that will eventually include six chapters, featuring images of other textile-centric cultures in their social and physical environments.

To learn more about the artist and Thread Routes—Chapter 1, visit the museum for a short conversation with Associate Educator Addie L. Gayoso on Wednesday, September 10, at noon.

—Kelly Johnson is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She is pursuing her MFA at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Curatorial Practice.

Behind the Scenes in the Registrar’s Office: Crates, Notes, and Dust Motes

Visitors to the National Museum of Women in the Arts have no doubt seen Anne Vallayer-Coster’s majestic portrait of Madame de Saint-Huberty in the Role of Dido, which currently hangs on the east wall of the mezzanine level. However, many do not understand the behind-the-scenes work involved in the preservation of this grand painting. While interning in the office of the registrar this summer, I learned about the various ways in which the office safeguards and organizes nearly 5,000 works in the collection.

Cleaning-Madame-de-Saint-Huberty_webBelieve it or not, dusting is one of the most important preventive measures undertaken by the registrars. Dust hardens like cement, so these pesky particles can actually damage objects if ignored for too long. On one afternoon, I learned how to gently remove the dust that had accumulated within the intricate floral frame surrounding Madame de Saint-Huberty in the Role of Dido. With slow and careful strokes, I brushed the dust of the small crevices, guiding it into the hose of a special low-suction HEPA vacuum positioned a safe distance from the surface of the painting. My brush never actually touched the surface of the paint, though. You may notice that many works are framed with a layer of glass in front, which shields the art from damaging debris. Even small measures like these can ensure a work’s long-term safety.

The registrars also carefully control the environment of the museum, for changes in temperature and humidity can have harmful effects on art. While we removed Madame de Saint-Huberty and other works for routine cleaning, the museum’s chief preparator improved the insulation inside the walls of the gallery space, guaranteeing that the paintings would be in a more protective environment. In fact, a temperature-controlled storage vault houses the majority of the museum’s collection inside massive crates, ceiling-high filing systems, and cocoons of bubble wrap. Only three percent of the collection’s 4,800 works are actually on display!

After routine care, Anne Vallayer-Coster's painting was returned to its place on the gallery wall for visitors to enjoy; Photo Daniel Schwartz

After routine care, Anne Vallayer-Coster’s painting was returned to its place on the gallery wall for visitors to enjoy; Photo Daniel Schwartz

While working within the maze of art storage, I began to realize that keeping accurate records is equally as important as ensuring the physical safety of the collection. After all, how could we study a sculpture without knowing the basic information about it, or even where to locate it? For the past year, the office of the registrar has been working on a collections inventory to ensure the intellectual safety of the objects. Throughout the summer, I helped photograph, measure, and document hundreds of works on paper, knowing that all of this information would allow future scholars to better understand them.

Working behind the scenes these past few months has given me a greater appreciation for the importance of safeguarding the physical and intellectual well-being of the art. After all, without preservation, education would not be possible. Visitors walk through NMWA’s gallery spaces because they want to learn about the groundbreaking accomplishments of women artists. The dedicated efforts of registrars and collections managers ensure that this experience may happen.

—Amy Root was a summer 2014 intern in the registrar’s office at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Click here to learn more about interning at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Mariko Mori—Artist, Prophetess, and Cyber-Geisha

“The world is melting; the world is melting, becoming one . . .”

This Zen-apocalyptic chant is a translation of the Japanese lyrics artist Mariko Mori (b. 1967, Tokyo) sings on a hypnotic loop in Miko no Inori (The Shaman-Girl’s Prayer) (1996), currently on view at NMWA in Total Art: Contemporary Video. Dressed in a sleek, futuristic white dress, wearing mirrored contact lenses and a wispy white wig, all crowned by a reflective moon-shaped tiara, Mori sits in Osaka’s impressively modern Kansai International Airport rolling a clear glass orb between her manicured hands. Perhaps using the capsule to channel energy and knowledge from the past, perhaps meditating on events of the future, the artist envisions herself as an intermediary between visible (present) and invisible (past/future) worlds.

Mariko Mori, Miko no Inori, 1996; Color video and sound; Collection of Pérez Art Museum Miami, Courtesy of Dennis and Debra Scholl

Mariko Mori, Miko no Inori, 1996; Color video and sound; Collection of Pérez Art Museum Miami, Courtesy of Dennis and Debra Scholl

Beginning her career as a high-fashion model in Japan in the 1980s, Mori quickly transitioned to the New York art world in the ’90s, producing large-scale Cindy Sherman-esque photos of herself as various imagined characters. Wearing skimpy anime- and sci-fi-inspired costumes while interacting with the Japanese public on the subway or in business districts, Mori exaggerated the limiting, stereotypical roles available to Japanese women, while also acknowledging the growing creative role of technology.

Interested in portraying the tensions and connections between the old and new worlds of Japanese culture, Mori often integrates spiritual, otherworldly motifs with advanced technological techniques and modern aesthetics. The artist’s elaborate designs often require collaboration. For Miko no Inori, Mori enlisted the help of a videographer, two choreographers, a make-up artist, a stylist, and a composer (her husband) to establish her calming but eerie presence.

Mori also incorporates the Japanese public and their environment. Travelers can be seen in the background of the video continuously passing by Mori, perhaps unaware of the artist’s presence amid the airport’s shiny, reflective surfaces. The overwhelming visual motifs of bright whites, illuminating background lighting, and mirror images created with the glass ball and Mori’s tiara augment the video’s meditative, transfixing aesthetic.

Mariko Mori, Miko no Inori, 1996; Color video and sound; Collection of Pérez Art Museum Miami, Courtesy of Dennis and Debra Scholl; Photo Laura Hoffman

Mariko Mori, Miko no Inori, 1996; Color video and sound; Collection of Pérez Art Museum Miami, Courtesy of Dennis and Debra Scholl; Photo Laura Hoffman

The choreographed movements of the orb combined with Mori’s all-white ensemble may reference the post-WWII Japanese tradition of butoh, an avant-garde style of dance performed in white body makeup with slow, hyper-controlled movements motivated by the unconscious. Wearing the color white in Eastern cultures can also refer to death and mourning. Connecting back to the video’s lyrics, Mori’s attire might suggest that she remains respectfully attentive to the overwhelmingly streamlined present and a potentially dystopian future.

The flow of Mori’s gaze also echoes the tai chi-like patterns she completes with the glass sphere in hand, further embodying the overall “one-ness” her song proclaims. Mori’s more recent work in sculpture and installation follows in this prophetic style, and requires continued collaboration from archeologists, scientists, and engineers to create her out-of-this world work.

To learn more about Mariko Mori and Miko no Inori, visit the museum for a short conversation with NMWA Chief Curator Kathryn Wat on Wednesday, September 3, at noon!

—Kelly Johnson is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

NMWA by the Numbers

While traveling abroad in the 1960s, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and her husband, Wallace, admired art by 17th-century Flemish painter Clara Peeters. Returning to the U.S., they discovered that none of the leading art history textbooks referenced Peeters or any other female artist. Inspired to rediscover this lost heritage, the Holladays began acquiring works by women artists and amassing a library of research and archival materials. From these collections, Holladay established the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in 1981; the museum’s doors opened in 1987.

Founded to redefine traditional histories of art, NMWA exhibits, preserves, acquires, and researches art by women and teaches the public about their accomplishments. Take a look at NMWA by the numbers.

$0
Cost of admission on the first Sunday of every month, as a part of NMWA’s free community days.

1
NMWA is the only major museum in the world solely dedicated to recognizing women’s creative contributions.

10
Number of artists featured in the current special exhibition Total Art: Contemporary Video.

19
Countries represented by NMWA’s international members.

27
Women artists identified in the current edition of Janson’s Basic History of Western Art (9th Edition)—up from zero in the 1970s.

59
High-resolution images of artwork in NMWA’s collection presented on the Google Art Project beginning in March 2014. The resolution of these images, combined with a custom-built zoom viewer, allows art lovers to discover minute aspects of paintings they may have never seen up close before.

114
Issues of Women in the Arts magazine produced and published by NMWA, which began as a newsletter in the summer of 1983, four years prior to the public opening of the museum.

273
Special exhibitions presented by NMWA celebrating the achievements of women in the visual, performing and literary arts.

1987
The year NMWA opened to the public.

2,855
Average hours worked per year by NMWA’s dedicated volunteers.

061614_PhotobyDakotaFine_Gallery27

Photography by Dakota Fine

4,500
Objects preserved and displayed in NMWA’s collection.

14,000
Volumes maintained at the NMWA’s Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center.

15,000+
NMWA members around the world representing all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom and Vietnam.

18,620
Miles to Australia, home to the NMWA member who lives the farthest away.

78,810
Square feet of the main building housing NMWA, originally a Masonic temple, purchased in 1983.

400,000
The number of people served by NMWA’s education programs.

$50 million
The endowment goal reached for the Legacy of Women in the Arts campaign during NMWA’s 25th anniversary.

7 billion
Pixels contained in the Google Art Project’s high-resolution photograph of Rachel Ruysch’s Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies, and other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge (ca. 1680s).

Detail of Rachel Ruysch’s painting—click here to see more of NMWA’s art on the Google Art Project

Detail of Rachel Ruysch’s painting—see more of NMWA’s art on the Google Art Project

There’s just one NMWA, the only museum solely dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women in the visual, performing, and literary arts. The museum’s collection features 4,500 works from the 16th century to the present created by more than 1,000 artists, including Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, Alma Thomas, Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois, Chakaia Booker, and Nan Goldin, along with collections of artists’ books, 18th-century silver tableware, and botanical prints.

NMWA is located at 1250 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C., in a landmark building near the White House. Come visit: the museum is open Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., and Sunday, noon–5 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for visitors 65 and over and students, and free for NMWA members and youths 18 and under. Free Community Days take place on the first Sunday of each month. For more information about NMWA, call 202-783-5000, visit nmwa.org, Facebook, or Twitter.

Artist Spotlight: Alex Prager’s La Petite Mort

Alex Prager (b. 1979, Los Angeles) is a self-taught photographer and filmmaker known for large-scale pictures of actresses in eccentrically costumed and choreographed crowds. La Petite Mort (2012), which is the most recent work of the 10 on view in Total Art: Contemporary Video, reflects an evolution in Prager’s practice. For Prager, photography is integral to her work process, and every series is informed by a basic emotion the artist wants to evoke. This short film links the potentially sublime experiences of sex and death, advancing Prager’s fascination with emotional experience.

Alex Prager, La Petite Mort, 2012; Film HD, shot on Red Epic camera, with color and sound; Courtesy of the artist, M+B Gallery, Los Angeles, and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York and Hong Kong

Alex Prager, La Petite Mort, 2012; Film HD, shot on Red Epic camera, with color and sound; Courtesy of the artist, M+B Gallery, Los Angeles, and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York and Hong Kong

Prager began taking photographs as a teen, while traveling across Europe. After attending an exhibition of photography by William Eggleston at the Getty Museum in 1999, she decided to pursue professional photography. She purchased her first camera and darkroom equipment off of eBay, and learned photo development techniques from a “how-to” book. Influenced by Hollywood and her interest in acting, Prager started taking bird’s-eye-view photos of friends, relatives, professional actors, and extras interacting on elaborate sets.

Since then, Prager’s work has been featured in Vogue, W, the New York Times (winning an Emmy Award for the star-studded, commissioned short-film series Touch of Evil), and an ad campaign for IFC’s hit comedy series Portlandia, based on the Face in the Crowd series. The cinematic style of Prager’s saccharine photographs and videos is part Hitchcock, part Cindy Sherman, with a little bit of 1980s-era Saturday Night Live. It remains unclear whether her work should incite horror, revulsion, intrigue, or laughter. With every series, the kitschy theatrical settings, vintage costumes, and over-the-top acting clash with the hyper-real film quality, creating tension between artifice and authenticity.

La Petite Mort is a short, surreal portrayal of a woman’s overwhelming bodily transcendence by way of death and love (the title of the video is also a French term for orgasm, “the little death”). Prager shot the video with a high-definition Red EPIC camera, and collaborated with a talented group including narrator Gary Oldman and French actress Judith Godrèche.

Alex Prager, La Petite Mort, 2012; Film HD, shot on Red Epic camera, with color and sound; Courtesy of the artist, M+B Gallery, Los Angeles, and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York and Hong Kong; Installation photo Laura Hoffman

Alex Prager, La Petite Mort, 2012; Film HD, shot on Red Epic camera, with color and sound; Courtesy of the artist, M+B Gallery, Los Angeles, and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York and Hong Kong; Installation photo Laura Hoffman

The lush video’s narrative begins with narration describing a mother’s ecstasy in labor, abruptly cutting to a speeding train headed straight toward a woman, her eyes fluttering in anticipation of the impact. The crash sends her flying backward into a pond, where she indulgently swims until surfacing to face a judgmental crowd. Lambasted by each character’s glare, she eventually reaches her “love interest” standing behind the crowd alone. She collapses to the ground as the crowd disappears and the train conductor rushes to her limp body.

The video concludes with this narration:

It has been said that the act of dying and the act of transcendent love are two experiences cut from the same cloth—the former a grand exit, the latter a slow escape. Indeed, many of the world’s greatest poets have long considered a passionate interlude as man’s closest moment to seeing god.

Just like her Face in the Crowd photographs, La Petite Mort requires more than one viewing to fully take in every detail and metaphor. To learn more, visit NMWA for a short conversation with NMWA Curatorial Assistant Stephanie Midon on Wednesday, August 27, at noon!

—Kelly Johnson is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art, Books, and Creativity! The 2014 ABC Teacher Institute

After a long school year, how do teachers recharge their batteries and fill their minds with exciting new project ideas for the year to come? For a select group from as far away as Cleveland, Ohio, and as near as Cleveland Park, D.C., NMWA’s annual weeklong Art, Books, and Creativity (ABC) Teacher Institute is just the ticket. From July 14–18, 2014, 23 teachers ranging in subject areas from science to French, grades Pre-K through 12, spent the week with NMWA’s educators and institute instructors learning arts-integration techniques centered on the ABC curriculum.

During the ABC Teacher Institute, teachers created fantastic portfolios of artists' book samples to use in the classroom

During the ABC Teacher Institute, teachers created fantastic portfolios of artists’ book samples to use in the classroom; Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Developed by NMWA through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the ABC curriculum unites visual and language arts through the creation of artists’ books. In addition to developing students’ visual literacy, critical thinking, and writing skills, ABC also focuses on the cultural contributions of women artists. The ABC Teacher Institute introduces teachers of all ages, abilities, and disciplines to the curriculum and provides them with resources to successfully integrate visual arts into their classrooms. During the institute, participants created a portfolio of artists’ books and writing samples as models for classroom lessons; learned the basics of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a method for facilitating discussions about art; and brainstormed numerous creative ideas for how to adapt the ABC curriculum for their own classrooms and subject areas.

While they are serious about their teaching, this year’s participants were not afraid to have fun and let the creative juices flow! Highlights of the week included creating “bug books” inspired by the work of Maria Sibylla Merian; learning landscape and pop-up book techniques from paper engineer Carol Barton, whose mind-boggling paper creations left everyone in awe; writing poems based on the Fibonacci sequence; collectively creating “exquisite corpse” sketches; and transforming newspaper into sculptural hats that any fashionable avant-gardist would love.

Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Participants capped off the Institute by presenting the lesson concepts that they developed throughout the week. These incorporated key aspects of the ABC curriculum while addressing the unique curricula, objectives, and standards of learning of the teachers who created them. Ideas included landscape books used to teach scales in music class, pop-up books to expand the vocabulary of ESL (English as a Second Language) students, flag books for a unit on quadrilateral polygons in math class, among others. The lesson concepts clearly demonstrated the myriad cross-curricular applications of the ABC curriculum and left everyone feeling inspired and impassioned.

As one participant reflected, “the energy and ideas were flying right up ’til the last minute! I think the enthusiasm of all of the presenters rubbed off on the participants and spurred us on. I feel refreshed as a teacher going into the summer vacation, and when has that ever happened before?”

To access the free ABC curriculum, visit artbookscreativity.org. To learn more about the annual ABC Teacher Institute, check out NMWA’s Teacher Institute page.

—Olivia Mendelson is an education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Meret Oppenheim’s “Table with Bird’s Feet”

On view at NMWA in Meret Oppenheim: Tender Friendships, through September 14, Table with Bird’s Feet is a Surrealist sculpture that blends an everyday object with the fantastical. It was first exhibited in an exhibition of avant-garde furniture in Paris in 1939, organized by Réne Drouin and Leo Castelli. In this work, Oppenheim transformed a prosaic utility object, a table, into a fantasy, supported by the bronze feet of a bird, and marked with imprints of birds’ feet on its oval surface. Under the artist’s supervision, the table was manufactured in a limited edition of thirty copies in 1973.

Table with Bird’s Feet, 1983; Top: wood, carved and goldplated; feet: bronze, 25 1/2 x 27 1/2 x 19 3/4 in.; On loan from Daphne Farago Collection, Delray Beach, Florida; Photograph by Suzanne Khalil; Image courtesy of Lisa Wenger and Martin A. Bühler, Meret Oppenheim Estate

Table with Bird’s Feet, 1983; Top: wood, carved and goldplated; feet: bronze, 25 1/2 x 27 1/2 x 19 3/4 in.; On loan from Daphne Farago Collection, Delray Beach, Florida; Photograph by Suzanne Khalil; Image courtesy of Lisa Wenger and Martin A. Bühler, Meret Oppenheim Estate

The table represents Oppenheim’s fascination with the natural world—these feet could belong to a heron, flamingo, or any other long-legged bird she might have encountered or sketched on one of her frequent walks.

Visit NMWA Wednesday, August 20, for a free noon gallery talk on Tender Friendships to learn more!