The Art of Slow Looking

I was pointed in the direction of this talk by another student, Hazel. It is a talk by Marta Grabowska on The Art of Slow Looking. (The Art of Slow Looking, 2020)

Published on Instagram TV, it lasts for just ten minutes, and is an informative piece on why we should take more time to look at art works. Marta is a co-creator of artBLAB and is a proponent of the movement of Slow Art. It was recorded for artBLAB and released for the occasion on the Slow Art Day 2020 organised together with ONE Project (www.one-project.co.uk) of which she is a co-founder.

In her talk, Marta made the point that we often don’t connect to art, we rush in, take a picture and rush back out again, fully intending to look at the photograph later. Thus we are looking at a photograph, not the artwork itself.

Grabowska goes on to explain that slow art is a dialogue between the artwork and the viewer and that it should be an experience, active rather than passive, and that we should question ourselves about the artwork rather than relying on what we may or may not already know  about the artist or the piece we are looking at. We should look at a piece like we are the first person ever to see it.

There is then a series of pointers in how to look. I will bullet point the ones that grabbed my attention the most, but also comment on my own reaction and how I can relate to these points and how my viewing will change in the future.

  • Schedule a time and place

By this choose a museum or art gallery, and allow yourself the time to look, don’t rush.  Research shows that viewers take on average just 27 seconds to look at art (Cascone, 2019), I know that I have often felt rushed when I go into a gallery or exhibition, often because my husband is waiting for me outside!  so I intend to change this. I intend to take longer, and to really look at the work on show. I have got better at this as my studies progress though. I used to try and cram as much into a day in London as I could and then wonder why my head was frazzled by the end of it. Not anymore. One trip, one exhibition.

  • Take supplies

No, not take a picnic, which was my first thought, but take coloured pens/pencils, paper, and use these to enhance your looking. Record shapes, colours, textures and sizes. All of this will apparently help me to focus on the other details of the artwork. I can see this being really useful to me. In the past, I have written copious notes and then struggled to read them when I got home, but this will, along with my notes, help me to recall things much more easily and give the art a life that perhaps the written word doesn’t. Especially if the exhibition or museum does not allow you to take photographs (which I do tend to do as an aide memoire).

  • Choose one artwork.

Don’t assume you have to see it all! It is more important to be selective and to really focus and contemplate one piece. How helpful this would have been when I visited the Nottingham Contemporary for their exhibition States of America! SO many photographs and photographers to look at. I got quite weary by the end, and perhaps I should (in retrospect) have picked one photographer to look at, and then gone back another day to look at another. Certainly advice I will be taking in the future, and while I may not stick to just one artwork, I will definitely be reducing the amount I look at in one go.

  • Look first then read.

How often do we look at the little bit of blurb before we look at the art? I know I do it too much. Grabowska says that we shouldn’t assume we have to understand it. Spend at least 15 minutes looking at it, immerse yourself in it. Look at it like you are the first person to see it (it is probably the first time I have seen it anyway!) and just allow yourself to engage with it. She suggests writing down your observations using descriptive not prescriptive words. This is something that I don’t do. I tend to look, and look again, but I don’t immerse myself in the work. I need to time myself to make sure I give it full attention. Then ask questions about the work, I could do more about talking to gallery staff or curators as they will know the work intimately, and then I can allow myself to read about the work. Although this will work for some exhibitions I visit, others, where I am going as part of a study visit for example, it will not really be possible to not read about it before going, although I can try hard to disregard the knowledge I have when looking at the work for the first time. Trying to find out the meaning of the work by listening to artist talks is something that I have only done a couple of times, and each time I have enjoyed that experience so I must make more of an effort to attend these where possible.

I can see that by engaging in this process, when looking at other people’s work and even my own, can only benefit my understanding of art, and of photography.  There were a couple of books mentioned which I am going to see if I can obtain. They were Slow Art by Arden Read and Seeing Slowly by Michael Findlay.  More books and suggestions are on her blog http://www.curatoress.com and the video can also be found, all under the Slow Art category on her site. There is a lot more to this to explore and I will be doing so.

To end the talk, there was a reference to the theory of Frank Lynn Meshburger (Meshberger, 1990) that the painting by Michelangelo of the Creation of David is painted within an anatomically correct shape of a human brain. At first I didn’t understand or see it. But then I looked again and now I can’t unsee it!

References:

The Art of Slow Looking, (2020). [IGTV broadcast] Instagram. 21 Mar. Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/B9__f8XlMwi/ [Accessed 21 Apr. 2020].

Cascone, S. (2019). The Average Person Spends 27 Seconds Looking at a Work of Art. Now, 166 Museums Are Joining Forces to Ask You to Slow Down. [online] artnet News. Available at: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/slow-art-day-2019-1508566 [Accessed 21 Apr. 2020].

Meshberger, F.L. (1990). An interpretation of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam based on neuroanatomy. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, [online] 264(14), pp.1837–1841. Available at: https://anatomiaitaliana.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/MichelangeloCreationBrain.pdf [Accessed 20 Jan. 2020].

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