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No one sees how long it took…

A trip to Nationalmuseum in Stockholm turned into an unexpected highlight of our time in that wonderful city. Over breakfast, we planned out our day. This is not something we do very often, but there were so many things we wanted to see and experience, it seemed necessary. Our planned day required us to walk right past the building, inspired by North Italian architecture, which houses Sweden’s national collection. It seemed foolish not to have a look.

As is so often the case with these things, our intended stay of 30 minutes turned into 45, trickled into an hour, and time melted away as we were engaged, first with the general collection, then with an exhibition (briefly discussed already), and then we came upon something completely unexpected, Slow Art.

The Director General of the museum writes:

the Nationalmuseum can offer the public a variety of narratives and perspectives on the past, the present, and sometimes even the future. Slow Art is an example of this. Based on a profound knowledge of history, we present our interpretation of a contemporary phenomenon.¹

The phenomenon referred to here, slow art, is part of the broader slow movement. Evidently, this began with slow food — a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s in Piazza di Spagna, Rome.² To paraphrase various sources, the slow movement aims to consciously slow down the pace of life; the aim is to create a cultural shift, a change of emphasis from trying to reduce the steps necessary to produce something towards valuing traditional methods and craftsmanship.

Cilla Robach, who curated the exhibition, writes much more eloquently than I am able to do, and so I quote at length:

Slow Art is about the perspective on time and production processes. The term Slow Art is hereby introduced as an analytical tool for a contemporary phenomenon in the field of applied arts and design…The objects that are presented here as Slow Art were hand-crafted in slow, often intricate processes. The considerable time required to make these works has not always been a cause of frustration for artists or craftspersons. On the contrary, they have valued time and regarded slowness as a central element in their artistic process. Many practitioners have put special emphasis on shaping certain details, without having to fear the mental boredom or physical pain of repetition. Instead, the viewer suspects that they have found tranquility in the monotonous and slow work stages that were required to create a specific piece.³

I work in process management. The entire point of what I do revolves around reducing the amount of time it takes to achieve an end; the effort and changes necessary to alter an input into an output. The company I work for extracts greater revenue from each second I can shave off a process; some processes are executed 130,000 times per year. Some four times as often as that. Saving ten seconds for each iteration saves about three weeks of one FTE. Greater revenue increases profit, which in turn generates greater pressure to make the processes more efficient still. Process management in its various forms (six sigma, BPM,TQM and many others) exists to make time precious, but does so by trying to produce as much as possible with each minute. It’s usually interesting, it’s frequently challenging, but often it’s not very fulfilling.

The contrast with slow art is stark and powerful. Creating a sense that the time taken may itself have high levels of intrinsic value, that repetition, iteration, waiting and purposefully delaying a step for aesthetic purpose felt like a revelation to me.

Utilising ancient methods, appropriating them for a new purpose, and revising their placement in arts and design also seems to permeate the exhibition and the general approach of slow artists. The piece below (by Lotta Astrom) for example, is a necklace fashioned from tiny metal rings. Chain mail has been used for at least 2,000 years, and probably a lot longer. Presented instead in the form of a necklace, the shape of which will shift and twist depending on how and on what it is rested, both evokes the armour from which its material takes its origin, whilst placing it in a new context. As well as that, it looks very beautiful.

Another piece, Pasi Välimaa’s Embroidery made a distinct impression. I had never thought of embroidery as something that could be so beautiful (I apologise, but the craft previously really only had me thinking of grannys sitting with their cat and a cup of tea). The description said that “it was important not to feel any pressure” and he labels it “luxury manufacturing” – the luxury being the time he allowed himself to make it. In the case of this embroidery, Välimaa worked on it for a year.

The item I found the most inspiring though, and the one which has me committed to choosing, learning and developing a craft, was a piece of silver-smithing by Anna Atterling. I doubt that I will make much of a silver-smith, but the delicate, intricate and incomprehensible beauty of this piece inspires me every time I think about it.

Has an exhibition ever inspired you to take up a craft? Did you manage to keep up the enthusiasm as time became more precious? I only hope that I can remember that no one sees how long it took, only how well-done it looks.


Photos by PJD & CIA, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, June 2012; Our photos are not as good as the photos in the book, but we did our best. It was all very inspirational. Incidentally, Bloc Party provided the musical inspiration to this post; since Four appears to have taken two years to be ready, it is appropriate in many ways.

¹ Arell, Berndt, “Foreword” in Cilla Robach, Slow Art, p. 7

² Wikipedia, accessed 14 August, 2012.

³ Robach, Cilla, Slow Art, pp. 12-13.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. The answer’s a definite No! What usually happens to me after seeing an exhibitions that engenders respect and interest is that I feel completely inadequate and put firmly in the place of viewer, or perhaps admiring voyeur would be a better way to describe it! That Anna Atterling Coronet is simply divine …

    Now, on a brighter note, you guys, I’ve nominated you to enter the Travel Supermarket’s “Capture the Colours” competition. The challenge is to post one photograph in each of the five colours – blue, green, yellow, red and white – to be judged by a panel of photographers – and there’s even a prize! Entries need to be posted by 29 August.

    Visit my post: for the rules and links.

    Do hope you have time

    Meredith @ The Wanderlust Gene

    August 15, 2012
    • I fear that we could never compete with the images you have placed up! We are in the middle of a busy time (moving around again) so the deadline might be tight, thanks for alerting us to the competition!

      And believe me, the coronet is more amazing still up close. It’s delicacy is difficult to convey – but it shakes if you walk heavily past it…

      August 17, 2012
      • No worries! Have a great time as you continue on your grand adventure 🙂

        August 17, 2012
  2. Nienke Verhoeks #

    Always been inspired and wanting to take up things… from growing my own vegitables to starting to learn to play the drums… Though, I am even slower then the people of the slow food movement and therefore always seem to lack the time to start these things off….

    Enjoyed your piece a lot and wished I knew of this when I was in Stockholm!



    p.s. do promiss to keep up your blog once you are back in NZ

    August 15, 2012
    • The blog will most definitely continue! Don’t worry about that.

      As for being slow – I don’t believe you at all. I think you have a lot of things to keep focussed on, so don’t worry about what you haven’t done, so much as what are and will be doing!

      (We are both happy that you like our little blog so much!)

      August 19, 2012
  3. Sue Brown #

    Beautiful objects – thanks for sharing your photos, and the idea of Slow Art which I’d not come across before.

    I’ve definitely been inspired by exhibitions I’ve seen. I went to one a year or so ago of printmakers who focus on birds and wildlife. I absolutely loved the intricate wood engravings of Colin See-Paynton and have just booked myself on a short course to learn the very definitely slow craft.

    August 15, 2012
    • We really loved our introduction to Slow Art too (hence, of course, the sharing!). I really like woodcuts too, though I fear I lack the requisite coordination to guarantee the enduring safety of my person to take it up. I will remain a dedicated consumer of such!

      I have seriously been considering learning embroidery since this exhibition; it’s probably out of the question, but I would so love to try some precious metalwork after seeing these things.

      Embroidery would be more likely though, still, inspiration stems from so many things!

      August 17, 2012

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