Slow down, you see too fast Ar­den Reed on art and per­cep­tion



Mem­bers of the pub­lic tend to race through art mu­se­ums, never tak­ing enough time to re­ally ex­pe­ri­ence the art­works. If you are only spend­ing an av­er­age of six to 10 sec­onds view­ing a work, as au­thor Ar­den Reed ob­serves most peo­ple do, how much of what you see is ac­tu­ally taken in? One can’t do any jus­tice at all to al­le­gor­i­cal Re­nais­sance paint­ings or his­tory-in­spired paint­ings whose com­po­si­tions re­flect en­tire nar­ra­tives. We have aban­doned, it seems, the abil­ity to look long and to ef­fec­tively lis­ten with our eyes, es­pe­cially in an age of in­for­ma­tion over­load. Reed’s new book — and re­gret­tably, his last — is ti­tled Slow Art: The Ex­pe­ri­ence of Look­ing, Sa­cred Im­ages to James Tur­rell. In it, Reed makes a case for ap­ply­ing a more thought­ful, med­i­ta­tive, and con­tem­pla­tive con­sid­er­a­tion to see time pass­ing in a work of art.

Reed, the Arthur M. Doyle and Fanny M. Doyle Pro­fes­sor of English at Pomona Col­lege, died of can­cer on Dec. 20, 2017, and the world lost one of its most pre­scient cul­ture crit­ics. Few writ­ers, par­tic­u­larly those who write about art, are able to take such a plethora of seem­ingly un­re­lated ideas as those pre­sented in Slow Art and craft them into a co­gent, in­tel­lec­tu­ally stim­u­lat­ing nar­ra­tive, en­gag­ingly and with elo­quence. Reed was among those writ­ers pos­sessed of the broad view nec­es­sary for such a syn­the­sis.

The im­pe­tus for Slow Art was Reed’s long­time en­gage­ment with Édouard Manet’s enig­matic por­trait Young Lady in 1866, which he first en­coun­tered at the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art and re­turned to again and again, taken in by its mys­ter­ies and its se­crets. “How could I have pre­dicted that I would spend some eight years con­tem­plat­ing a sin­gle art­work?” he writes in his in­tro­duc­tion to Slow Art. “I found my­self drawn to the pic­ture, re­sisted by it, and then drawn back. How long, I mused, could I sus­tain this con­ver­sa­tion? I hardly thought about where I was be­ing led, and cer­tainly never imag­ined how of­ten I would re­turn to the spot, whether in my imag­i­na­tion or in fact.”


Slow art, as Reed de­scribes it, is not a type of art de­fined by any one par­tic­u­lar medium. In fact, he ap­proaches slow art both in terms of how we see and also in ref­er­ence to var­i­ous kinds of works. Re­gard­ing the lat­ter, for in­stance, he talks of paint­ings as works of slow art in a cer­tain con­text — es­pe­cially his­toric paint­ings, be­cause they were of­ten crafted slowly, some­times over years or even decades. But an ac­tion paint­ing need not fall in line with that defin­tion. The live model for a fig­u­ra­tive work also ex­pe­ri­ences slow­ness, sit­ting or stand­ing, posed and un­mov­ing for hours on end. The pas­sages of time are wo­ven, so to speak, into the very fab­ric of a work’s cre­ation. Reed cites opera and the­ater di­rec­tor Peter Sel­lars’ re­marks on Ver­meer and how the Dutch painter’s weeks-long at­ten­tion to ren­der­ing a small cor­ner of a paint­ing took on the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a ritual med­i­ta­tion. This men­tion of ritual and med­i­ta­tion in­tro­duces Reed’s ma­jor ar­gu­ment; he makes the case, us­ing Sel­lars’ ideas as a spring­board, for the artist as a kind of shaman in­volved in the act of call­ing and re­call­ing — the two things, Reed states, that his book is about.

In the first chap­ter, “What is Slow Art?,” Reed broaches the topic of di­rect ex­pe­ri­ences with works of art and the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple that no viewer can ever re­ally be fully present with art due to me­di­at­ing fac­tors. He does not pro­pound on all the me­di­at­ing fac­tors other than to cite Mar­cel Proust. “In his novel Re­mem­brance of Things Past (1913-27), art­works tend to me­di­ate ex­pe­ri­ence, as when a char­ac­ter is first at­tracted to his mis­tress be­cause she re­sem­bles a fig­ure in a San­dro Bot­ti­celli paint­ing,” he writes. Reed sug­gests that, in or­der to be “fully present,” there must be no dis­tinc­tion be­tween ob­ject and viewer. One of the things that makes look­ing at art slow, he ar­gues, is the pro­tean na­ture of art as it ex­ists in the imag­i­na­tion long af­ter we first en­counter a work, lin­ger­ing there in long con­ver­sa­tion with the viewer. “But slow art lets us imag­ine, for a spell, that we could taste pure pres­ence,” he writes. “In fact, one way to gauge slow art is its power to per­suade us mo­men­tar­ily that our ex­pe­ri­ence is all-con­sum­ing.”

Reed fur­ther di­vides his def­i­ni­tion of slow art into three over­lap­ping con­texts: the log­i­cal, the his­tor­i­cal, and the psy­cho­log­i­cal. In the first of th­ese con­texts, he dis­cusses slow­ness as some­thing that is only per­ceived against a back­drop of ei­ther sta­sis or per­ceived mo­tion. This as­pect of slow art sug­gests that it can have ac­tual move­ment, which Reed dis­cusses more fully in the sec­ond chap­ter. In the his­tor­i­cal con­text, he dis­cusses our en­gage­ment with works of art as prod­ucts of their time and also as some­thing ex­pe­ri­enced in time, not­ing “each age has its char­ac­ter­is­tic rhythms,” and that th­ese af­fect how we see what we see. He presents an in­trigu­ing view­point, when, in cit­ing the work of vis­ual-cul­ture scholar Jonathan Crary, he notes how the very act of see­ing changed in the early 19th cen­tury from an ob­jec­tive, re­li­able marker of the re­al­ity we per­ceive, to an act tied more to one’s sub­jec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence. This brings us to the psy­cho­log­i­cal con­text, and to Reed’s ma­jor point, which is how neu­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tions dis­tort our ex­pe­ri­ence of time. It’s dif­fi­cult to read a book like this with­out do­ing so — as be­fit­ting its sub­ject mat­ter — slowly. Reed presents so many in­trigu­ing ideas to mull over that it makes one’s head spin.

TABLEAUX FOR TWO In the sec­ond chap­ter (“Liv­ing Pic­tures”) and in later ones, Reed in­tro­duces some fas­ci­nat­ing ex­am­ples of slow art in the form of a lit­tle-dis­cussed art form, the tableau vi­vant — staged recre­ations of his­toric works of art by live mod­els. Reed writes that this art form is of­ten dis­missed by cul­tural his­to­ri­ans as a pale im­i­ta­tion of the orig­i­nal paint­ings on which the tableaux are based. His in-depth elu­ci­da­tion of the form takes slow­ness be­yond the realm of what a viewer ex­pe­ri­ences while look­ing at art and into that of the par­tic­i­pants.

The tableau vi­vant had its hey­day in the 19th cen­tury but was re­vived in the 1960s. Reed dis­cusses the Pageant of the Masters, a yearly fes­ti­val of tableaux vi­vants that be­gan in the early 1930s in La­guna Beach, Cal­i­for­nia, and con­tin­ues to be held there an­nu­ally. In de­scrib­ing what makes th­ese tableaux “slow,” he points to how the art form ac­com­plishes the same tasks that De­nis Diderot be­lieved were nec­es­sary to make a paint­ing suc­cess­ful: first, cap­tur­ing the be­holder’s at­ten­tion, then ar­rest­ing at­ten­tion, and fi­nally hold­ing it. One as­pect of recre­at­ing a paint­ing, the use of real peo­ple and props, is pay­ing strict at­ten­tion to de­tail, which re­quires time spent re­ally look­ing at the orig­i­nal. How­ever, the pre­sen­ta­tion be­fore an au­di­ence might last no more than 90 sec­onds. Still, that’s longer than the av­er­age time spent look­ing at a paint­ing in a mu­seum, Reed ar­gues.

Ide­ally, the par­tic­i­pants in the tableaux vi­vants as well as the au­di­ence mem­bers ex­pe­ri­ence a “pageant mo­ment,” a de­scrip­tion Reed takes from chore­og­ra­pher Richard Gray. He cites Gray as in­struct­ing his per­form­ers not to sim­ply hold a pose but to em­brace it, to “achieve” still­ness rather than merely as­sume it. He writes that “per­form­ers ap­pear to morph into mar­ble or pig­ment, even while sig­nal­ing their sen­tience. Pageant mo­ments like­wise sus­pend spec­ta­tors — be­tween know­ing and not know­ing; buy­ing in and hold­ing back; sus­tain­ing the il­lu­sion, but as an il­lu­sion.”

Reed’s tome makes the case for an art ex­pe­ri­ence akin to a spir­i­tual one, some­thing that tran­scends time. One loses one­self in art­work just as one loses one­self in the thrall of re­li­gious ex­pe­ri­ence, and in such mo­ments the pas­sage of time goes un­no­ticed. Reed doesn’t get hung up in la­bel­ing in­di­vid­ual pieces as fast or slow. The tableau vi­vant, he ar­gues, is ephemeral and lasts only a short pe­riod, sug­gest­ing that it is more an ex­am­ple of fast art than of slow art. But in its propen­sity to evoke still­ness, it ap­proaches sculp­ture. This “seem­ing,” how­ever, sets the art form apart from artis­tic recre­ations such as wax dis­plays. When it comes to the tableau vi­vant: “We are as ab­sorbed in watch­ing for frac­tures in the il­lu­sion as we are in ap­pre­ci­at­ing the il­lu­sion, en­gaged both by the re­sem­blance of tableaux vi­vants to aes­thetic ob­jects and by their de­vi­a­tion.”


In a later chap­ter Reed de­votes more at­ten­tion to wax repli­cas. He asks us to imag­ine look­ing at a paint­ing in stere­o­scope, not­ing that it would look sim­i­lar to a tableau vi­vant be­cause the stereo­scopic lens pro­duces a three-di­men­sional ef­fect. Wax repli­cas can do some­thing sim­i­lar for a paint­ing, us­ing ac­tual sculp­tural forms. Reed con­sid­ers wax man­nequins at venues such as Madame Tus­saud’s in Lon­don and the Musée Grévin in Paris as ob­jects that fas­ci­nate pre­cisely be­cause they are so life­like, feed­ing into our de­sire to sim­u­late real life — like Pyg­malion fash­ion­ing his statue of Galatea (an ex­am­ple Reed uses). They con­form to his no­tion of slow art be­cause of the mal­leabil­ity of the wax medium — which, over time, can bend and move and de­grade if not cared for.

Vis­i­tors to th­ese mu­se­ums some­times have a taste for the ex­otic and ma­cabre. Reed in­cludes im­ages of the Musée Grévin’s wax dis­plays of Ja­vanese dancers, a Cairo street scene, and one ti­tled Hu­man

Sac­ri­fices in Da­homey. “There is a grim fol­low-up to the story of the wax tableaux: in the later nine­teenth cen­tury, cer­tain im­pre­sar­ios re­placed wax fig­ures with liv­ing bod­ies, neatly sidestep­ping the dif­fi­cul­ties of pro­duc­ing man­nequins,” he writes. Th­ese live dis­plays were ethno­graphic vari­ants on the tableau vi­vant, and were marked by the ex­ploita­tion of eth­nic mi­nori­ties who were brought to Eu­rope and made to per­form like cir­cus an­i­mals. Reed notes such ex­hi­bi­tions were known as “hu­man zoos.”

Reed also dis­cusses James Tur­rell’s Ro­den Crater, a mas­sive earth­work in northern Ari­zona. Tur­rell, a pi­o­neer of the Light and Space move­ment, be­gan his project in­side the dis­tinc­tive vol­canic cone in 1966. The project is on­go­ing. Ro­den Crater is lo­cated near the San Fran­cisco Peaks. “There, against stag­ger­ing fi­nan­cial and tech­ni­cal odds, against the grain of most con­tem­po­rary art, and against the tick­ing clock, Tur­rell is fab­ri­cat­ing a monumental in­stal­la­tion of slow art — slow to cre­ate, slow to reach, slow to ex­pe­ri­ence,” Reed writes. The piece is also slow in terms of ge­o­logic time. The dome it­self is ap­prox­i­mately 380,000 years old. Even the longest-held tableau vi­vant would be fleet­ing by con­trast, but Reed does draw a par­al­lel be­tween the earth­work and the live model dis­plays, call­ing Tur­rell’s project “our grand­est tableau vi­vant, in the ex­tended sense.” As Tur­rell told Reed in con­ver­sa­tion, “Ro­den is the stage that per­forms it­self with you as the cen­tral char­ac­ter.”

Reed seeds his pro­fun­di­ties through­out Slow Art in ex­am­ple af­ter ex­am­ple, weav­ing them into com­pelling his­to­ries that get you think­ing about art in new ways. He achieves noth­ing less than a glimpse of time it­self un­fold­ing, like an ac­cor­dion, where noth­ing is dis­con­nected.

“Slow Art: The Ex­pe­ri­ence of Look­ing, Sa­cred Im­ages to James Tur­rell” by Ar­den Reed was pub­lished in 2017 by Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Press.

The New Mex­i­can Michael Abatemarco

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