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.