The Ancient Way of Slow Looking

When we walk into a museum or gallery nowadays, we are instantly confronted with a rather large number of artifacts which demand our attention. I always find myself pondering where to start my journey. Is it with this painting to my left? How about this wonderful African mask straight ahead? While museums and galleries are generally quiet and peaceful places, they nevertheless hold enough artifacts to potentially overwhelm the visitor.

It’s true that we don’t spend enough time actually looking at a painting anymore. In fact, we spend more time reading the description underneath it than contemplating the painting itself. Even though we attempt to return to contemplation with the help of Slow Art Day, there is nevertheless a crucial element in today’s paintings that is not always beneficial to slow looking.

When we stand in front of a painting, the whole scenery is present before us. It’s not entirely surprising that we spend little time on contemplating paintings. We think that because everything is there in laid out in front of us at one time, we don’t have to work very hard at the act of looking. It’s certainly beneficial to those always-in-haste people that today paintings are not unrolled and displayed gradually, as traditional Chinese scroll paintings were.

Hanging scrolls and hand scrolls were common features in Chinese painting, which often featured beautiful landscapes – mountains and waterfalls in particular. Painters infused their works with Taoist thoughts and beliefs such as simplicity, which was, in part, made visible in the use of monochrome textures, i.e. black and white. It finds its most extreme application in Zen painting; works famous for their black ink on white rice paper.

The often meters-long scrolls had two main goals. First was the delayed contemplation. The viewer was unable to quickly grasp the entire scenery, because the scroll had been unrolled scene after scene, so that the viewing process lasted longer than we spend on paintings (even during Slow Art Day!).  And then there was the narrative aspect, the ancient precursor of film if you will, long before photography paved the way for the development of cinema. The step-by-step unraveling of the scroll allowed for a narrative development. It thus contained not only one scenery, but several, which were linked to one another and formed a painterly entertainment for the viewers. It was a slow pleasure, in a way like a slow film, which takes its time to develop.

Scroll painting from the Chinese Sung Dynasty by Chang Tse-Twan

Scroll painting from the Chinese Sung Dynasty by Chang Tse-Twan

The above painting is a five metre long scroll from the Chinese Sung Dynasty (c. 960-1126), painted by Chang Tse-Twan. It is considered as a scroll painting that stands at the beginning of narrative development in Chinese painting. While nowadays we would see the entire scroll displayed at once, in those days viewers only saw parts of it, one after the other. It is not difficult to see how the slow unrolling of the scroll created a heightened pleasure for the audience. I often wish that painters would return to this form of painting that not only creates a work of quietness, but also generates excitement over what we will see next in the scroll; a real journey through a painting.

- Nadin

Slow Art Cinema

For years now we have been engaging in the art of slow looking. Slow Art Day is, in some ways, part of the Slow Movement, which seeks to reintroduce aspects of slowness. In many cases the “slow” values are ones that we have long lost, dating back to the introduction of mechanical time-keeping, which put time and its importance at the centre of our lives. Slow Art is but one of many other ‘slow’ activities; for example, the Slow Food movement thrives in many parts of the world. What I personally find intriguing, though, is the link between Slow Art and Slow Cinema, the subject of my on-going research. We published a brief blog entry about Slow Cinema before, which I want to expand on here.

The term ‘Slow Cinema’ was coined in 2004 by film critic Jonathan Romney. Since then it has been widely in use, although the term is somewhat limiting and derogative as ‘slow’ implies boredom for many people. The truth is that the aesthetics of Slow Cinema can be found as far back as the very beginning of cinema history, for example in long takes, which are (often mundane) events filmed in their entirety without a cut. Hungarian director Béla Tarr only cut when the reel came to an end, after about ten minutes. Lav Diaz from the Philippines, who used to be a painter but has now shifted to filmmaking, often goes as far as recording events without a single cut for as long as twenty minutes.

This, the use of an often static camera with little movement in the film frames, might remind one of paintings – only here these paintings are not hanging on a  wall, but instead are projected onto a screen. The result, however, is the same. The viewer sits in front of the visual image, studying every detail of the frame, and may find him- or herself marveling at the beautiful rural landscapes that are often found in slow films. Take Michela Occhipinti’s Letters from the Desert (2012), set in rural India. The protagonists appear as mere dots in the landscape.

Still from Michela Occhipinti's "Letters from the Desert"

Still from Michela Occhipinti’s “Letters from the Desert”

Or take Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra’s Birdsong (2008), which is not only a comedic study of the Three Kings on their way to Bethlehem but also a stunning portrayal of empty landscapes.

Still from Albert Serra's Birdsong

Still from Albert Serra’s Birdsong

Then there is also Panahbarkhoda Rezaee from Iran, whose superb Daughter…Father…Daughter (2011) shows the audience a stunning Iranian landscape we perhaps never thought existed.

Still from Panahbarkhoda Rezaee's "Daughter...Father...Daughter"

Still from Panahbarkhoda Rezaee’s “Daughter…Father…Daughter”

And there is Caspar David Friedrich’s famous Rückenfigur that appeared in Lav Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), an overwhelming nine-hour film set in the aftermath of a natural catastrophe that finds little likeness in the Philippines.

Caspar David Friedrich, and Lav Diaz's "Death in the Land of Encantos"

Caspar David Friedrich, and Lav Diaz’s “Death in the Land of Encantos”

There is more to the link between Slow Art and Slow Cinema than the apparent focus of traditions of landscape painting in the latter, however. For a long time I have thought and argued that slow films should be screened in galleries and museums. Locations govern our experiences; hence people tend to go to the movies to escape from reality, to see some action-laden blockbuster that puts them on a roller-coaster ride through the full spectrum of human emotions. A gallery audience has different expectations, ‘slower’ expectations, in fact, so that a projection of the fourteen-hour long Crude Oil (2008) by Wang Bing might sit much more at ease in this surrounding than it would in a cinema. And indeed, slow-film directors are more and more moving into gallery spaces, merging their work with other forms of art. Taiwan-based Tsai Ming-liang, whose superb short film Walker is available and free to see for everyone, even shot Visage (2009) in the Louvre after the museum commissioned him to do so. Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2011) won the Golden Palm at Cannes in 2011, is also widely known for his gallery works, such as Photophobia. His short film Dilbar is also available for you to watch online.

It is in this light, then, that I don’t see Slow Art and Slow Cinema as being separate from one other. As mentioned before, there are several slow activities thriving around the world. We have seen everything from Slow Education to Slow Finance to Slow Parenting. But none of these are so intricately intertwined as are Slow Art and Slow Cinema.

You can find more information, thoughts, film reviews, and interviews with directors on my website, The Art(s) of Slow Cinema. Or you can get in touch via theartsofslowcinema@gmail.com. I’m always happy to have slow discussions with people!

- Nadin

Reflections from Hosts: Catherine & Jilda

How successful can Slow Art Day be? Two of our 2014 hosts, Catherine and Jilda, reflect on their experimental event in immersive engagement – digitally and by non-traditional museum audiences.

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Catherine and Jilda document key moments and behind the scenes insight for their National Museum of Australia event.

In the discussion portion, the group marveled at the connections they found between the works.

In the discussion portion, the group marveled at the connections they found between the works.

To read more about their event, click here.

- Karen

 

 

Reflections from Hosts: The Courtauld Gallery

Looking at Claude Monet’s ‘Antibes’ during Slow Art Day (via The Courtauld Gallery blog)

Our 2014 host, Kirti Upadhaya, at The Courtauld Gallery in London, shares her reflections from the April 12th event:

The experience of both participating and hosting the Slow Art Day was very rewarding as it allowed me to spend time engaging with five beautiful paintings while also allowing me to consider the nature of this engagement.

Slow Art Day reinforces the importance of direct engagement with a work of art. Living in a world where information is readily available at the press of a button, I often forget that sometimes, the simplest way to access art is to build a relationship with it, to just look at it for a little longer.

Read more about Upadhaya’s and others’ experiences at Slow Art Day on the Courtauld Gallery’s blog here.

- Karen

 

Reflections from Hosts: Art Gallery of Algoma

Christine Campana from the Art Gallery of Algoma wrote a great summary of her Slow Art Day experience from just over a month ago:

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Walking through the Art Gallery of Algoma during Slow Art Day leisurely examining 5 pieces of art was a worthwhile experience; not only was I given the chance to really pay attention to aspects of the works that I had previously not taken the time to truly appreciate, but the experience allowed me to converse with others and discover their interpretations.

The Art Gallery of Algoma put together a handout with photographs and descriptions of the pieces chosen. The pieces were picked by 5 different locals, ranging from artists, to art advocates, to novices, who each discovered something new by engaging with the pieces for longer periods of time than they normally would have.

Regarding the Tom Benner fibreglass, paint, leather, and mixed media piece titled “African Wild Asses,” Teddy Syrette explained in his description that he chose the piece because “it is almost like it’s a grouping of animals, they’re trying to get some place better . . .They’re all different but all collective.”  As I stood at different points around the piece with various participants, it definitely became clear in how many ways this piece could be seen.

With a shorter look at the piece, one participant revealed that she found the similarities of five synthetic animals moving in the same direction to be almost unnatural, while through a longer period of observation, another participant began to notice the differences in the animals and began to assign them their roles in the pack. She also began to see a slight shift in the direction of one of the sculptures that suggested they were starting to veer off course. Her creation of a story where each of five very similar animals had a particular character based on their visual features was only possible by really taking the time to notice these distinctions.
While “African Wild Asses” was analyzed through observing the animals carefully, “A Landscape” was enjoyed thoughtfully looking up at the piece from the floor. The arts advocate who had chosen the piece stated that she had done so because the large sphere, the focal point of the piece, “draws me in.” The wood and copper work included a total of three pieces, but, as the participant who had chosen the piece also felt, people could not help but be absorbed and overwhelmed by the immensity and beauty of the copper orb.

While hints of colour were visible within the oxidized copper of “A Landscape”, colour was far more pronounced in Gabriela Benitez’ “Rojo y Blanco.” In mine as well as others’ opinions, the vivid greens and reds overlaid with white chaotic lines released emotion which was only multiplied the longer the work was viewed.

Each of these pieces as well as the other works chosen, including a multimedia piece by Cheryl L’Hirondelle and another sculpture by Tom Benner, gave me the chance to pose and answer questions and see art from new (and many more) angles. As I walked through the gallery, I was certainly able to appreciate the value of looking at art slowly and engaging with others to discover some amazing insights I never would have thought of on my own.  Taking my time with art was a positive and rewarding experience, however, I was not so successful with the food; I had a hard time treating the slow lunch served after with the same patience–it was just too delicious!

- Rachel

Reflections from Hosts: di Rosa

A note from di Rosa host Michael F McCauley:

Slow Art Day 2014 at the di Rosa (Napa, CA: www.dirosaart.org) was the second year we participated. Again this year, the group of participants was intimate – all the better to share observations. And again I was the docent/guide for our slow art lookers. I chose a mix of mediums – two sculptures, two works on paper, and one painting. After viewing these works, we had a picnic lunch on property – the day was sunny and mild — and we discussed what we had seen, including whatever surprise element we had noticed by looking slowly. Given those basics, we’re now thinking about customizing our approach for next year. The recommended 10 minutes of slow looking without discussing seems too long. Next year, we’ll likely spend 7 minutes looking and 3 minutes discussing at each work. We’ll lunch and chat about what we saw, as we did this year. But because it is difficult to recall specifics about each work, after lunch we’ll return to the galleries for an additional viewing of each work. This will reinforce the discussion and likely open up new insights based on everyone’s observations. We’ll still follow the basic structure of Slow Art Day, but alter it to accommodate our somewhat unique situation. (Visitors to the di Rosa Collection may not return to the galleries without a docent/guide.) We’re looking forward to next year and hope to include more participants.

Reflections from Hosts: MIT List Visual Arts Center

A note from MIT List Visual Arts Center host Courtney Klemens:

We had a successful, first-ever Slow Art Day at the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, MA, where we focused on our public art collection.  It was a perfect day to walk throughout the campus and consider the relationship between art and the environment in which it is situated.  To support our close looking, we did a number of collaborative engagement activities, including generating abstract poems and collaborative drawing.  And, for fun, here’s a selfie the group took in front of Anish Kapoor’s “Non-object (Plane)”.

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Reflections from Hosts: Tom Thomson Art Gallery

Just over a week ago, hundreds of galleries around the world celebrated Slow Art Day. As we wind down, we’ll be sharing some reflections from organizations that participated:

The Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound, Canada had a fantastic #SlowArtDay2014!

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We invited people to #StickItToTheTOM! – guests were asked to write their responses to pieces in our current exhibitions on post-it notes and stick them beside each piece. The response was incredible (and colourful!). We also posted images on our Facebook and Twitter pages for people who couldn’t make it to the Gallery.

We love being a part of Slow Art Day and look forward to next year.

Thank you to Phil Terry, all of the organizers, all of the Galleries and all of the participants!