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As a practicing artist who is using fiber as a medium, I have been interested in the function and symbolism of fiber in traditional custom and culture as well as in traditional craft. In this paper, I focus on the symbolic role of the length of white cloth used in the ritual for the dead called “Kut” in Korea. Kut are not simply symbolic expressions of the belief system but are a deep source of cultural expression as well. In fact, Kut have been primary inspirations for the work of many artists, including my own work. I will introduce three ritual performances in Kut in which the white cloth plays the main role as a medium to provide a path to the other world.
1. About 10 meters of white cloth called chilbe or kilbe represent a path or bridge that connects this world and the next world. The shaman literally cuts cloth in half with her body by walking through it, as though she becomes the dead and leaves this world for good.
2. Seven to ten knots in a length of white cloth are untied by the shaman, who describes each of the knots as signifying a bruise the departed spirit has carried to the grave. Untying the knots represents releasing the dead person’s grievances.
3. When the ritual is performed for a drowned person, a long cotton cloth provides a route for the soul to come up from the water to dry land.
Images of the first Kut ceremony in memory of Nam June Paik performed at Insa-dong, Seoul on Jan. 26, 2007, will be the main supporting material to show how the white cloth plays its role in Kut. Works of contemporary fiber artists also be shown to illustrate interpretations of the use of white cloth in Kut including Soo-Ja Kim’s installation “A Mirror Woman- The Ground of Nowhere” for the 100th anniversary of Korean immigration to Hawai‘i and my own installation “Dream of Returning Home”.