Slow Art at WAM
The Weisman Art Museum invites people to slow down and relax for a day
By: Callum Leemkuil-Schuerman
I first became tangentially aware of the slow movement in high school. While looking for something to watch on Amazon Prime, I stumbled across a Thai film called “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” I put it on and was immediately entranced—the film uses long, slow, expressive shots that force the audience to pay attention to every detail and creates a sleepy, dreamy, and magical atmosphere. Later on, I learned that the film was considered part of the “slow cinema” movement—film directors seeking to challenge the depiction of the world as frenetic and fast, as it is in Hollywood blockbusters.
As it happens, the slow movement has fairly deep roots—it originally dates back to Italy, where the Slow Food Manifesto was originally written in 1989. The slow food movement was founded in opposition to hyper-corporate fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s, instead advocating for a local, ethical, and environmentally sustainable means of food production. As time has gone on, the “slow” prefix has become attached to more and more areas of life—there is slow television, popular in Scandinavia, in which long train journeys are broadcast with no narration; slow photography, in which artists return to time-consuming manual techniques; even slow fashion, which promotes local production and DIY.
Slow Art Day, which this year is celebrating its 10th anniversary and has 175 participating locations around the world, works along similar lines. In response to studies showing that visitors to art museums spend on average 17 seconds looking at each artwork, the movement asks that people settle in—the instructional card given out by the Weisman requests at least 10 minutes. The idea is that, given time, people will connect with the art, notice more details, and develop more of a relationship with it.
The artwork that I chose to look at was Richard Barlow’s “Pixelated Bromide,” a replication of a photograph made of small polyester discs hung on strings. As I stood and stared, I was struck by how much continuous movement there was in the piece, as well as how responsive it was to the movement of people in the room. By the end of the exercise, I had much more positive feelings about the piece than when I started.
The Weisman’s artist in residence, Peng Wu, had a special exhibition set up for Slow Art Day: small canvas mats with pillows were set up in the galleries, each with small placards encouraging visitors to nap. I came armed with a book and set up in front of Max Weber’s “Moonlight Fantasy—Sailboats” (an expressionistic depiction of a boat in a harbor under the moonlight), popped in the complimentary earplugs, and read for a few minutes before drifting off. The placard next to me read: “Take a nap on this handmade canvas mat, made of the same material as the painting in front of you. Imagine yourself [as] the artwork on the canvas.” As it happens, an art museum is an ideal place to nap. The hushed, quiet quality of the Weisman was very relaxing, as was the idea of napping in a softly lit and cavernous space.
After my nap, I headed off to one of the other Slow Art exhibitions: Molly Parker Stuart’s video art installation “An Act of Pure and Unrelenting Beauty.” As my instructional card suggested, I avoided looking at the description before heading in to watch. I stayed through two movements, each about 10 minutes long. The first movement was an abstract display of light, looking a lot like frost spreading across a windowpane. The next movement looked like stars in a sky reflected in a rippling pond. Next, I read the piece’s background—I was shocked to discover this calming and reflective piece had been algorithmically generated from 450 gigabytes of transphobic online abuse.
Slow Art Day was wonderful, but what’s most crucial is that the slow appreciation of art does not end with the day itself. The next time you find yourself in an art museum, be it the Weisman, MIA, or anywhere else, I strongly recommend you slow down and focus in on a few specific things, taking a long time to appreciate each of them—you might be surprised by the depth you discover.