How to View a Sculpture
I would like to explain a few ways that we can think about the practice of observation that might help us come to terms with the way we see ourselves within the construct of marriage and divorce.
Here’s the famous Venus de Milo (photo by tabitha turner) an ancient Greek sculpture displayed in the Louvre. She is a symbol of Western beauty. There are many tales surrounding her beauty and interpretations of her appearance. I am unaware of an Asian equivalent image of a woman that is as significant on a global scale. There’s a meta element to her existence as a sculpture that also interests me: the physical element that socially distinguishes an individual and determines personal navigation is the face, the next are one’s hands. What we move, carry, sculpt, shape, stroke, create, carve and more, determines what we do in the world. She has no arms, no hands, so we look at her body and face…but let me continue.
When I was sixteen my parents sent me to France for the summer to learn French. I stayed with an acquaintance of my father’s, a medical doctor’s family, which I did for a few weeks in their summer home in the south of France. It was eye opening for me: large meals of rabbit stew at noon, a Pink Floyd blasting grandmother, a tennis playing aunt with a deep tan wearing a bikini that displayed tufts of her pubic hair, and a bucolic estate replete with a vineyard and peacocks pecking about the front lawn. There were other teenagers, but I was an admittedly difficult teen, bookish, and easily bored and not the best social companion, and so, within a short period of time found myself alone on a train to Paris where I spent the remaining part of the summer attending classes at Alliance Francais. I was terribly lonely and wanted to return to the US, but refused to do so out of pride. Determined to stay on, I decided to be purposeful, and so I set myself the task of going to every single museum in the city.
As anyone knows, there are countless museums in Paris, but I covered many of them, an admirable ambition and a reflection of what I recognize now, as a sometime dutiful and obedient nature. I wandered about with my guidebook and recorded my observations in French in my journal as I downed cups of hot chocolate and cut my way through pastry after pastry. One day I met an older man—I no longer remember his name or even what he really looked like, although I seem to recall dark framed glasses and hair, and a leather briefcase. He saw me wandering around outside the Louvre, introduced himself, and then kindly proceeded to take me on a tour of the museum, pointing out significant art, and commenting in a way, I realize now that suggested someone with an abiding passion for art. After we drank coffee in a nearby cafe and chatted about what we saw, although I politely declined an invitation to meet him again. There are all kinds of ways we can read this encounter, but suffice to say the lesson he imparted to me that day about how to look at sculpture was probably one of the most significant I learned in terms of observation, one that I have carried with me and added to, and have passed on to students throughout my life.
When we look at a sculpture face-to-face or face-to-shape a single look from one angle does not suffice. Modern life is hurried, but when we slow down and look carefully, we experience art in new ways. To take in a sculpture in a way that evokes a relational response to the art and artist, we observe the piece from multiple vantage points, address the three dimensional material object at various angles. We might walk around it, do a 360 degree stroll. We squat down and look up, as if to be a small child beholding the world above. We reach out and touch it. Lean against it, if we can, press our own body against it, feel its surface. We stand up on our tiptoes and then look down upon the object. We tilt our head sideways and maybe even upside down. Most significantly, we look at the piece of art at different times of the day to observe how the shadows change, how the light and dark are cast across the shape, and note what this does to the object. The shadows tell a story. A sculpture does not look the same at dawn as it does mid-day. We must interact with it at different times, note the miracle of how it changes, to really see what the sculptor might have been communicating.
We too must allow ourselves to understand that the way we observe, define, any object, idea, institution, state of being, or whatever we encounter as humans, depends on our vantage point and may dramatically shift throughout the course of a day, over a number of years, as we weave our way through a lifetime. This perspective is derived from where we are physically, emotionally, or in time. How we see and why we see is fluid. It changes depending on the light or dark, on our moods and priorities, on what came prior or after.
Our responsibility then is always to understand, and if writing, to record and detail what we know when we know it, forgiving ourselves for what we cannot possibly see at the time we are observing, or if we dare say, participating, responding, or dancing with the art or idea. We might be generous to ourselves, allow ourselves flexibility as we move to a new insight closer into the seeing and knowing of how and why, nurturing or answering our questions as we linger and skip. It is impossible to take in all angles at once. Maybe there is a spot where we gaze beyond the sculpture, and so the object becomes framed within the background, or the object comes forward, the background receding. We touch the shape, feel its ease, roughness, and smoothness, its temperature and crevices. This moment is all that we take from the experience of looking at the sculpture as we remember it later, trying to recall and feel again what we felt. Somehow, removed from that moment, we feel a bit differently, and we say in our hearts that the art was more expansive at that time, at that place. Maybe it was. Or not. We have to have a little faith in ourselves, that where and how we are seeing at the moment is one perspective and it is fine, we are doing our best, we are seeing what it is we are supposed to see. When we look back at the moment, we are also doing our best, recalling what we can with all that we can muster.
Truly seeing art, understanding an idea, feeling, person, place, concept, requires us to be compassionate with ourselves. Seeing involves being seen–specifically, we must see who we were and are, and this will allow us to envision who we can be. Slow down. Take in the sculpture. Allow yourself to see. This practice of seeing will help you to see others and yourself.
I am excited to announce that October’s Woman Warrior is Sang Kil, a professor in “Justice” Studies at San Jose State University. She chairs her faculty union’s Anti-Racism, Social Justice Transformation group and fights to defund/abolish campus police as well as the racism, sexism and other systemic social injustices at SJSU.
How did you come to author your life?
I have been a fighter for social justice ever since I was young and my parents attempted to teach me anti-blackness living outside of D.C. In challenging my parent’s immigrant racism, I have also learned to include intersectionality in my analysis as I identify as queer women of color with a hidden disability. Both my writing and my activism reflect my lifelong commitment to social justice. My new book is in progress and is tentatively titled, ‘Reporting from the Whites of their Eyes: How Neoliberalism as White Supremacy Promotes Racism in the News Coverage “All Lives Matter”, Trump’s “Border Wall” and “Muslim Travel Ban.”’
Follow Sang Kil at https://www.
I’m starting to learn how to play Chang-gi/Jang-gi or Korean chess, or what some may call Chinese chess. I’m doing this, so that Dad and I can have some activity together. The Kid and Dad played 5-in-a-row. Dad can beat The Kid at this game. He’s also good at chess. He told me this is how he spent part of the Korean War with his brother and cousin, hiding in the attic to avoid being drafted as a young teenager, the three of them playing chess.
I first learned to play chess in the third, maybe fourth grade. A friend taught me and failed to tell me that losing the pawn was not as bad as losing a rook and she easily won for several rounds. I developed an interest in playing chess, enough to have Dad come home from a business trip with a small magnetic chess set. I still have it. He learned Western chess; we played together. My ambition became to beat him.
I played other Korean boys in Iowa, most distinctly one who won against me with a series of memorized moves. I was in awe. I asked him how he learned chess, and he showed me a chess book. I went to the mall, ordered the same book, Dear Reader, I still have it, LOL. I studied it, and then memorized the moves. I got better. I kept playing. I didn’t ever play the boy again, but I ended up challenging Dad to chess and beating him.
I beat him once, but obviously, he was the person I wanted to win, as I didn’t play much after that match. Dad laughed. I had taught him now to play Western chess, and he had always beaten me up to that point. Looking back, I know he had let me win, played a bit casually, but no matter. I felt like it, and he admitted it: I had won.
So much of my identity throughout my life was tied to being my father’s daughter. The daughter of a scholar and research scientist and doctor. The daughter of someone who had survived the Korean War, who had won the nation’s top scholarship to come to the West, who had a PhD and MD by the time he was 27. He headed a research lab. He was the only person of color with his field’s medical association. He was a colonel in the Army. He published over 200 papers. He spoke multiple languages. He lived a big life. Mostly, he was unique, unabashedly exhausting, often temperamental, humorous, brilliant, and fiercely loyal. It was under this shadow that I lived and tried to measure myself and my accomplishments, and of course, I always came up short. I still do. The complications of his existence were exacerbated by language challenges and his struggles with the truth of race in the US. Dad’s journey was long. Difficult. In almost every sense, it was my mother who made his navigation in the US possible (more on Mom in my next post!).
Dad was the one who had always drilled into my brain that I had to have more, be more, accomplish more, to be treated with half the respect, as he said, because I was Korean, because I was Asian, because I was female. This was the lesson that my father kept repeating, and this was the lesson that nearly broke me, or perhaps did. (I’m since rather patched together on my merry way…)
I particularly remember these ideas when at boarding school. I would not buckle. No. I would not. Because I was not a quitter. I was the daughter of Dr. Tai-June Yoo and the white students who bullied, belittled, had no idea what I did to reinvent. It wasn’t me who was on the line. It was my race. It was my ethnicity. It was my gender. I would not let anyone down. Ever! Tough times. I got sick of living up to everything–and as one does, it led to completely giving up that type of structural existence. Too exhausting. Too narrow. It did not fit. Even if that meant disappointing Dad.
It took me decades for me to see that there are truths to how we learn and function in a nation and that our families messages are to be interpreted according to who we are individually. We can’t be everything to everyone all the time. What we can be however is this–people who slow down and play a game chess now and then, people who try to learn something new, people who try to understand that our own paths are informed by others, but are our own paths full of foibles, mistakes, joys, and unexpected happenings.
Maybe one day I’ll beat dad at Korean chess.
Miracles do happen.
This was a fantastic interpretation of Van Gogh’s life and work. I was thoroughly impressed by how it could engage so many people and inspire reflections about life and art. The Kid and the grandparents, my sister, we all enjoyed it. I’m thinking about how art can be used to galvanize discussion and how exclusivity is never the point of expression. The human questions of belonging and origin are crucial to all of us. Decades ago, I saw an exhibit of his work at the Met. This was an entirely different experience, but distilled the essence of the WHY of his work. Imaginative. Compelling.
I hope that we can see more exhibits here in Hawai’i that are accessible to all ages, and strongly believe that the people of Hawai’i can also export the art and expression that this geographic locale prompts. This is the mission of (THROB) The Hawai’i Review of Books; I am glad to be a part of this endeavor.
We face challenges wherever we live, but I am always grateful to be living here. There is a reminder here in every gesture, that we are temporal, that nature governs our lives, that beauty and good fortune is in our very existence.
Park is also a 2021 Na Hoku Nominee for Female Vocalist of the Year, Album of the Year, and Song of the Year in Hawaii. She’ll be teaching grades 9/10 girls this summer Exploring Romeo and Juliet.