It was a hazy afternoon when I found myself at the Busan Art Museum. I was taken aback by its modern architecture that contrasted dramatically with the 1980’s-style apartment complexes that surrounded the area. Busan was full of these kinds of juxtapositions. I readied myself for the inevitable situation of being misunderstood by the people around me. Luckily, one look at me and I was told, “This is free.” Relieved, I walked into the coffee shop.
I settled down with my coffee and began to drink in the atmosphere. I watched couples holding each other and children dancing on tables in front of their families. The absurdity of all this gave me a strange boost of confidence.
I made my way back into the museum and went down to the basement floor that held the children’s exhibition which featured the Collect and Assemble Memory Theatre. I stumbled into an all-white room with neon-colored drawings projected over the whole space. There were drawings composed by the artists as well as some submitted by the audience and manipulated by an algorithm that randomly pieces the imagery together. This algorithm then produces a new series of artwork. From there was the “Memory Theater” which featured a collage of shape and colors assembled into a tight space from which the viewer could look into. It was through here that I saw a small room featuring more traditional artworks. The paintings in this space featured archetypal images of collective memory, though oddly enough most of the iconography was distinctly Western. It seemed the artists’ attempt was to create a space of reflection on identity, though the result seemed a bit too conservative.
When I reached the third floor, I saw what seemed like a hidden entrance covered by a black tarp. The people walking out of this entrance wore expressions of displeasure mixed with confusion. I timidly walked through this barrier and was confronted with a dark room, pierced by incoherent sounds and the stark image of a pair of feet on a screen. I grabbed the headphones and watched the words Beautiful Instruments … Breaking Wheel 3 drift quietly in the dark. A woman floated into the screen, tying curtains into knots with a dreamy expression and shadows of women stretching danced over the screen. When the woman who floated into the screen was done you saw a circle of women wearing woven beige shirts and underwear sitting on large framed wheels (suggestive of water wheels? hot potted plants?) with feathers. A slow, humming drone from the women broke the silence:
Turn, upper spader,
Turn, lateral spader,
Flowers are blooming blooming,
Flowers bloom on the head of the mill,
Turn, upper spader
Turn, lateral spader,
Flowers are blooming blooming
Flowers bloom on the head of the mill.
The chanting slowly turned into a cacophony of sounds as the wheels span faster and faster. The song seemingly made the women delirious. Images of nude pictures became more prevalent during the performance as the song became more wild.
The video next to Beautiful Instruments; Breaking Wheel featured an endless sea, with female divers from the island of Jeju, called haenyeo, swimming into the distance. There is a myth in Jeju about an island where the souls of husbands lost to the sea meet. This place is called leodo. The singer sung in a way that reminded me of “Hoichi the Earless” from Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1965); there was only the despair of the singer, calling out to a time furthest away from memory, at once foreboding and accepting. The song was of a woman, receiving the ‘curiosity’ as vast and deep as the ocean. Deep within, she finds the Ocean King. She stays in the ocean, suspended in time:
But it is the fruit of a tree too tall
I shall live on the Ieodo.
Watching these films simultaneously – Beautiful Instruments; Breaking Wheel and the film of the haenyeo of the island of Jeju - made me wonder why they were in the same space. Curiosity was the theme in both of them, with the latter film telling the tale of a woman who shed her “naivety” to this “curiosity.” I recalled stories like the French folk tale "Bluebeard", or the Brothers’ Grimm fairy tale “Fitcher’s Bird,” and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955) where curiosity is a sexual awakening for women. I never understood why but, thinking of a passage from John Berger, I thought of how a woman is constituted:
The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under [male] tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman’s self being split in two. A woman must continuously watch herself. [...] The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object -- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.1John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: BBC and Penguin, 1972), 46 and 47.
Might it be said that this is curiosity when a woman observes herself? The women in the performance of Beautiful Instruments; Breaking Wheel wore similar outfits, facing one another, surrounded by images of other women. Could this have been a performance of a feminine curiosity? What did this tell me of the chanting from these women and the singular voice of the women of the sea?
I didn’t know where to go from here.