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Ships that Pass in the Night: “State of the Art” in Downtown Bentonville

Aspen Mays's "Ships that Pass in the Night

Aspen Mays's "Ships that Pass in the Night

Lifting lightsA large array of lights was recently lifted to the roof of the Arvest Bank building in downtown Bentonville this week. Occasional evening visitors to the Bentonville Square may not have noticed the lights because most of the time, they are dark.

However, once in a while … perhaps only three or four times in a night… a lucky few may happen to look up when the bulbs suddenly, unexpectedly burst into light:  shining like an open eye in the dark for a brief 30 seconds before lapsing back into darkness. What those few have witnessed is more than just a random illumination.  It is a visual documentation of a rare sea-going experience:  a moment in which two ships at sea pass within viewing distance of one another in the blackness of the ocean night.

"State of the Art" artist Aspen Mays

“State of the Art” artist Aspen Mays

The bank of lights is one half of an artwork by Colombus, Ohio-based artist Aspen Mays, and part of the Museum’s upcoming exhibition State of the Art.  Mays learned that all ships are equipped with an Automatic Identification System (AIS) device that continually reports their position, course, and speed; and this data is publicly available in real time. She developed a system that would trigger an array of lights each time two ships passed within sighting distance of one another at night anywhere on the open ocean (excluding busy port areas). A dot-matrix printer, situated in the exhibition’s gallery, will simultaneously record the names of the ships, their position, and the time of each encounter.

Mays is interested in the relationship between seeing and experiencing.  We see things every day, but we don’t always categorize that moment of seeing as a full experience. This artwork, titled Ships that Pass in the Night, creates—from the accident of seeing a bank of lights come on—an indirect experience of the ships’ fleeting, real-world proximity—something that, when it happens at sea, can be quite impactful.

Mays recalls:  “I called the satellite company and tried to explain [the project].  The guy [on the phone] was an active Coast Guard member, and he was like, ‘Yeah, you’re out there for a week or two and you haven’t seen anything, and then a moment—and it’s this amazing moment and it’s also a little bit scary.  It’s kind of… you’re not alone…’  He really connected with it.”

Aspen Mays's "Ships that Pass in the Night," installed in downtown Bentonville.

Aspen Mays’s “Ships that Pass in the Night,” installed in downtown Bentonville.

Once you know what the lights indicate, seeing them illuminated becomes something of an event, as described by Crystal Bridges’ Membership Program Manager Emily Ironside, who happened to see them light up one evening, shortly after their installation.

“After several failed attempts to see the lights, I screamed and jumped when I finally caught a glimpse of those beaming yellow bulbs,” Ironside said.  “It’s such a rare and random occurrence, so the anticipation builds up when you walk by and nothing happens. Then nothing happens again. Then, without warning, BAM! They turn on and you feel this excited rush and sense of connectedness to the huge ocean world out there. It’s amazing.”

Emily also had an opportunity to talk with Aspen while she was visiting Crystal Bridges for the installation of the work. “There’s one thing she mentioned that has stuck with me,” Emily remembered.  “She said the idea for this artwork came while she was stargazing with astronomers in Chile and the idea of actually seeing in the sky what they had set out to look for was like ‘two ships passing in the night’ – totally unpredictable. Her project has taken this literary, poetic term (from Longfellow’s “Tales of a Wayside Inn”) to the very literal with data tracking and visual representations. However, when the ship names print out, that unusual combinations of words are brought together by the happenstance that these ships actually passed—in the night, in a remote area of the ocean—within three miles of one another. This string of ship names often reads like a poem (“Sea Princess meets Mirsk,” for example) so it is taking the literal back to the literary and poetic.”

Have you seen the lights come on?  If you did:  how did that experience of seeing make you feel?

Linda DeBerry
Senior Copy Editor / Publications Manager

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