Sunday, February 22, 2015

Looking at Art: The Busan Ferry Terminal at Night

The Busan Port at night is a magical place. No one is around and the boats all sit quiet aside from the occasional pilot coming back in from assisting a larger ship out of the port. Near the water, benches are set up, specifically, it seems, to encourage people to watch the port activity. The lights in the distance shine like unflickering fireflies, and the houses disappear into darkness. Cars zoom past at all hours and a stray pedestrian saunters by.

I had the occasion to see the port late night on a weekday when I first met Philipp. We wandered here after climbing the hill behind China Town / Texas Street and seeing the port from above. Conversation kept us occupied as we walked and explored. We talked about everything from family to traveling to future dreams. We first connected on our mutual love of Russia, and the topic and storytelling never got old.

Philipp knew about my knowledge of and love for art. He also knew I had taught others how to look at art, so he gave me a challenge. “If this were a work of art, what would you say about it?” “This” referred to the port as it stood in front of us. Excited about the challenge, my eyes lit up, but to be honest, at first I balked a bit at the port being considered artwork. I said, “Ok, let’s imagine this is a photograph. And for whatever reason, what we are looking at now, this, was the perspective chosen by the artist.” I followed this brief and somewhat uninspired statement with a standard starting question for looking at any work of art.

“What do you see?”

Before the words came out of his mouth, without even looking at him, I predicted what he would say. He had told me that he always sees things as they are.

“Um, ok … what do I see? I see boats and buildings and water.”

I started trying to ask him for details or what kind of story he would tell, but even though he was open, his resistance to interpretation was strong. I knew I needed to give him a starting point, so I changed my tune and broke every rule that I have learned for showing children art. You do not usually tell children what you see because of the assumption that the child will think there is a “right” answer. I knew Philipp had more mental capacity than a child, so I forged ahead and broke rules.

“Ok. Let me tell you what I see. You said you see buildings. Maybe it’s my poor eyesight, but I actually don’t see many buildings, the whole land mass out in the distance is hard to bring into focus. Instead, I see lights scattered around, a bit like fireflies, and I see the reflections on the water. Of course I know there are ships and machinery, but if I really look, that’s not what I see.”

He stood there for a moment, taking it in. “Weird. When you were describing all of that, I saw it. Why has no one ever done that for me?”

At this moment, I realized that Philipp was the kind of person that I admire and want to be around. Even if he does not know something or is not aware of it, he is open to the possibility of its existence. He is open to trying new things, even if it means challenging his world view. That night we decided we had to go to the art museum together.

Finally, the day before Philipp left for Fukuoka, we went to the art museum. I usually prefer to go alone for a variety of reasons, but with Philipp the art museum felt like a different place. He had somehow joined my inner dialogue and brought it out. We joked and laughed and discussed what we saw. He helped me see things that I had not seen on my previous visit to the Busan Bienniale. My personal favorite was his interpretation of a work he nicknamed “CCTV”. The first time I had seen this work of art, I did not know what to make of it. I looked at the grid, the yellow arrows, the brown squiggly lines, the gray circles, and then made a connection between the marks in the grid and the “key” to the artwork below. I made a connection, but I could not jump to a story or an interpretation. The work of art did not stick with me. This second time around was different.

Philipp looked at it for a minute, and then said, “Ok. Should I go first or you?” I told him to go ahead.

“So, this artwork is about monitoring, about America monitoring terrorism. These are cameras, and that is the headquarters. Each time a beard [brown, horizontal zigzag line] is found, a record is made, and that person is watched.”

He went on describing his interpretation of what the grid and organizational chart meant. He had a description and connection for each element of the artwork, and I was impressed. He noticed parts of the artwork I had missed and his story made this artwork come alive. With his description, the art became a dynamic, memorable work of art with a story and direction. I appreciated his ability to help me see something I had not seen before.

--written in November 2014 about October 8, 2014.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Red Coat is the Coat on Fire

I know, most of you think of Katniss Everdeen as the Girl on Fire. But on Friday the 13th, my four year old, shapely red wool peacoat, complemented by me and a chintzy bit of Korean, was the Coat on Fire.

It always stuns me when I have had an article of clothing, be in shoes or a coat or a sweater, for a prolonged period of time, and then I have a day of compliments directed toward that old article. On the day before Valentine’s Day, this flurry of compliments might have had something to do with the color of my coat.

The evening of Friday the 13th started with a coworker, who honestly must have seen this coat 20 or 30 times by now, saying, “Oh. That’s a really nice coat,” like it was the first time he had ever seen it. I shook my head at this lack of observation skills, and said, “Thanks. It's 100% Korea.”

After work, I headed out to barbecue with one of my coworker turned friends, and proceeded to impress the new waiter at my regular barbecue place with my functional but limited Korean. I tend to have just enough of this language to get myself into a position where the other person assumes my Korean is a lot more extensive than it actually is.

At the end of the meal, when we went to the cash register to pay, and I communicated that we wanted to split the bill, the cashier looked at me and said, “Something something pretty something something.” I just looked at him with a question mark on my face. Previously at this barbecue place I have been told I am beautiful by the wait staff (maybe one of the reasons I keep going back), but this guy had never been involved. The question mark may have turned into a, “Really? That’s nice, but come on,” look.

He recovered quickly, and said the same phrase but gestured to my coat. Ah! Ok. Second compliment on a four-year-old coat in one day. This old girl (the coat) must be building some confidence and putting some swing in her skirt. Of course I said thank you in Korean as politely as I could muster under pressure, which mostly just includes the regular thank you and a slight bow.

On my way home, I decided to stop by the new 7-11 and grab a drink. It was still early, and it was my last Friday at work anyway. Why not celebrate? When I went to the cash register, the old man behind the counter went to grab a bag. I had a bag with me, so I told him in Korean, “It’s ok.” He looked at me a bit surprised, repeated the phrase I had said and kind of chuckled. Then told me how much my drinks were.

When he saw that I did not have to look at the numbers on the screen and was repeating the numbers in Korean to get correct change, he got a little flustered. He asked me in rapid fire Korean where I was from. This is a question I usually understand, so I knew the speed was a bit too fast because I did not understand. I told him, “I don’t know,” in Korean because I haven’t bothered to learn, “I don’t understand.” He said some of the few words he knew in English to communicate he wanted to know where I was from. This use of English probably increased his adrenaline. I did not have exact change. So I gave him 7,000 won for something that cost 6,800, and I told him in Korean that I was from America. He said something in an approving tone and went to grab my change. I could see his hands were visibly shaking, and then he tried to give me all my money back plus the change I was due. I shook my head, and that confused him. He then tried to give me a different amount. I finally told him as best I could, "I gave you 7,000 won" … really just "7,000 won" is all I know how to say in Korean. He understood. His wife, who had been standing by making sure her new employee did not mess up the till, shook her head at him and smiled at me. Then we all kind of laughed, and I walked out the door.

I could not help but wonder if it was more than just my fragmented Korean that threw him off. I wondered if my coat had been possessed somehow.

On my walk home, I laughed a bit more and was thankful that I had decided to go home rather than out on a night when I was wearing the Coat on Fire.

The Coat on Fire as it was in 2011.
The Coat on Fire as it is today.