This Artist's Installation Relieves Stress With Clay Balls

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A visitor places a clay sphere into "Archive of Mind." (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A visitor places a clay sphere into "Archive of Mind." (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

OK, raise your hand if you're feeling stressed out. Well, renowned South Korean artist Kimsooja dreamed up a novel, meditative exercise that's been spreading for months, with the public's help, at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem.

The recorded sounds of a rolling ball on a smooth surface greet visitors as they walk into a revamped gallery adjacent to the PEM's recently-opened new wing. Since June the room has been occupied by a huge oval-shaped table about 36-feet long and 15-feet wide. Its dramatically-lit surface is covered with earth-toned balls, each about the size of a clementine.

Clarissa Pungowiyi, 40, traveled to the museum from Bristol, Rhode Island. She didn’t know about the installation before arriving, but made a pit stop after hearing it offers relief from the relentless pace of modern life. “Our minds are little race tracks and everything’s sound bites,” she said, “everything’s short, short, short and fast, fast, fast.”

Not in here, though. Gallery attendants invite visitors to pull a small blob of clay from one of three, different-colored mounds. Then they take a seat around the big table and roll the supple, slightly moist material between the palms of their hands.

"Kimsooja: Archive of Mind" at the Peabody Essex Museum. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Kimsooja: Archive of Mind" at the Peabody Essex Museum. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

“I've been encouraging audiences to make a perfect sphere,” artist Kimsooja told me in June when the installation debuted. At that point the table was a like a blank canvas. Since, it has grown into a massive mound with an estimated 100,000 orbs.

Kimsooja explained that making perfect spheres is not the goal. Instead, focusing on this small, repetitive, physical task provides a moment of focus and calm in an over-stimulated, device-driven world.

“This piece is an opportunity to kind of strip all that back for five or 10 minutes,” PEM Curator of the Present Tense Trevor Smith said while making his own ball at the elliptical table. “Stick your hand back in the earth,” he urged, “which is kind of where we all emerged from.”

Kimsooja: Archive of Mind" at the Peabody Essex Museum. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Kimsooja: Archive of Mind" at the Peabody Essex Museum. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

"Archive of Mind" is Kimsooja's first clay ball installation in the U.S. The concept was born after Yoko Ono asked her to join a group art show of works involving water. Kimsooja decided to use clay. When she enlisted her studio assistants to help roll dozens of balls she said they gleefully obliged because the act helped them chill out and be mindful. Kimsooja wanted to share the feelings they got with more people.

Smith explained how she’s an artist who thinks deeply about paying attention, about stillness and motion, and about how we treat each other as human beings. “How do you express this through what seem like very simple gestures?” he asked, “You know, like the idea of rolling a sphere of clay — it doesn't get much simpler than that — and yet there's a real explosion of associations and ideas.”

Kimsooja loves watching people's faces soften as they handle the clay, and said it can take participants back in time. “Some people will remember their childhood, because many people are not really touching Earth these days,” she said, “even children [don’t] have that kind of experience anymore.”

When they're done rolling, people add their little clay orbs to the mass that's been growing since June.

PEM Curator of the Present Tense Trevor Smith and artist Kimsooja (Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum)
PEM Curator of the Present Tense Trevor Smith and artist Kimsooja. (Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum)

“I love the way it makes an image of collective impact or collective endeavor,” Smith mused, “even though your experience rolling the ball is solitary.”

“It was meditative, as advertised,” Pungowiyi reported after her time in the chair. She does ceramics and thinks inclusive art concepts like this are a great way to pull audiences into a creative process. “From a museum standpoint I like anything that's going to be interactive and let people touch,” she said. Museum experiences usually involve looking and reading, “and like touching and interacting sort of accesses a different part of us."

After Monday, all of the clay spheres — along with the memories they hold — will be gathered up, recombined and donated to Montserrat College of Art and to high school art programs in Haverill and Lawrence. Until then Kimsooja’s big, oval table will serve as a portrait — in clay — of people in Salem over the past seven months.

This segment aired on January 15, 2020.


Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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