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.

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