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In Buddhist tradition “the stopping mind” refers to the tendency to fixate on things, ideas or experiences, and thus impede acceptance of the transitoriness of everything, ourselves included.
But that notion grew out of societies that never envisioned a high-tech, commerce-driven culture such as ours that prizes incessant motion and change both for their own sake and as fuel for the profit system.
Addicted to speed, we need help stopping: not in fear or paralysis, but in a mode that gives us pause to sort out what we see and feel. We need relief from our own glib knowingness, which lets us glide through the element of surprise in daily life.
Hence our need for the arts, especially the arts of our own time, which respond to our condition implicitly and sometimes explicitly.
I started out as a critic in a world slower than this one – no Internet, no credit cards, no cash machines – yet already jet-propelled. At the very outset, I encountered the then-new tendency – minimal sculpture – that tried to make the arresting quality of art the entirety of its content.
Confronted with a piece such as Carl Andre’s “Voltaglyph 20” (1997) – which closely resembles things he made 30 years earlier – I felt that it left me nowhere to go – in interpretation, in emotional response, in conversation. Yet as sculpture, it somehow convinced me.
Writing my way out of that apparent cul-de-sac left me with heightened alertness to the interruptions built into artworks: passages that slow the movement of attention through the work’s structure or toward a clear idea of its meaning.
Other factors also played a part. Art institutions, including the market, quickly absorbed the shock delivered by the utter inertia of work by Andre and other New York artists of his generation. Yet even to those long familiar with Andre’s work, a stony absurdity close to the heart of it can still obtrude itself unexpectedly and induce a blush of self-consciousness about the whole business of dwelling on art objects.
Few visual artists working in more complex idioms can cause the kind of comprehensive full stop that Andre contrived. But complexity in art – in good work, anyway – usually entails some choreographing of the work’s reception.
Consider a photograph by Lee Friedlander, whose retrospective comes to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in February. A black-and-white shot of an apple tree under snow, it might have risen no higher than Christmas-card banality. But Friedlander’s choice of viewpoint and lens and his tuning of the print produced an image that not only precludes our entering into it sentimentally but also continually drives the eye back to the picture surface graphically.
The medium’s inherent realism draws the eye into the image space, but it rebounds again and again to the powerful, effectively abstract network of forms at the picture plane. A momentary stoppage occurs – like the still point at the apex of a parabola – with each volley of attention. It is as if Friedlander forces us to reassemble the image repeatedly in order to see it.
With every such interruption of what we may prefer to imagine as a seamless flow of perception, we contact an inner silence that ordinarily we may not hear at all: a momentary clearing in the pervasive cultural fog of received opinion and inferred expectation.
Genuine shocks – an accident, sudden bad news – often produce a similar hiatus, making us feel cruelly isolated in our subjectivity. By providing this sort of radical interruption free of practical consequences, artworks allow us to grow more comfortable with it, even to appreciate it as a truth of experience.
The kind of interruption or stoppage I describe need not last long. It can do its work of aerating awareness in an instant or a cascade of instants. For this reason, the periodic laments we hear over the short spans of time people spend in front of individual artworks miss the point. The quality, not the duration of engagement, matters.
To a knowing hand, any medium may offer the means to contrive the rhythms of comprehension and arrest that the culture at large offers only in degraded form, if it’s offered at all.
Deborah Butterfield’s sculpture “Untitled (Rust)” (2004) shows how it can occur in assemblage. Butterfield constructs sculptures of horses – each one portraying a specific animal, she claims – from scrap metal or wood. A viewer of her work re-enacts in some measure the process of gaining, losing and regaining sight of the possibilities of forming an image in the round from components that in themselves suggest nothing horse-like whatsoever.
Often a viewer circling a Butterfield sculpture literally will stop and savor a vantage point from which the governing image seems to coalesce or to dissolve into abstraction or mere raw material.
Critical writing about art seldom describes well, and almost never exemplifies, the kind of respiration of reception I have tried to evoke. To find that in language, we have to turn to poetry.
San Francisco Chronicle
Horn has been a “permanent tourist” in Iceland from her home in New York for more than 30 years. Library of Water, her permanent installation in the small coastal town of Stykkisholmur, three hours from Reykjavik, has just opened to the public for the first time. Water has been “archived” from glacial sources in all parts of Iceland and decanted into a copse-like stand of transparent glass columns that have replaced the shelves where books were once stacked. Some of the columns are clear, others are opaque, with traces of ancient debris drifting in them. The debris is a reminder that the glaciers were formed many millennia ago and are rapidly receding. Horn describes Library of Water as “in some sense an end-game, since many of these sources will no longer exist in a matter of years”. But Vatnasafn, to give it its Icelandic name, isn’t primarily an ecological/political work; it isn’t agitprop.
Horn imagined Library of Water as a place for quiet observation and reflection, “a lighthouse in which the viewer becomes the light. A lighthouse in which the view becomes the light.” This connects it to her work of the past 30 years, which has ranged across drawing and sculpture to photography and essays, and whose guiding principle has been anonymity on the part of the artist and minimum intervention in the work’s execution. She has spoken many times of her “desire to be present and be a part of a place without changing it”. Detachment, humility and surrender, that is the ambition. She’s there, and then she isn’t there, like the weather…
Horn was born in 1955. There are now monuments to the achievement of artists just a generation older all over the United States. Following the model of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, the minimalist shrines range from James Turrell’s Quaker meeting house in Houston, to Donald Judd’s museumification of the entire town of Marfa, Texas, to Walter de Maria’s mile-wide Lightning Field in Quemada, New Mexico.
These are projects on a grand scale. Roni Horn’s Library of Water in Stykkisholmur (population 1,100) on the north-west coast of Iceland, on the other hand, is modest, unassertive and intended to serve the community rather than coerce it into an appreciation (or even a viewing) of the work of one of the more recondite practitioners of conceptual art. In addition to the two installations of Horn’s work – a rubber floor scattered with childishly rendered words in Icelandic and English, and the glacial water housed in its top-lit, floor-to-ceiling columns – the space will be used by the local community for activities ranging from yoga classes and AA meetings to gatherings of the local (women-only) chess association and reading groups.
“Slowness” is an international, not solely American, phenomenon. It’s refreshing to see some individuals in the contemporary art world turning away from the nihlism, solipsism and sillyism of the post-Warholians.
There have been so many comments on these and other pages about how our music would be more “fill in the blank” if only we were more like the art world, or what’s on the bestseller list this week, or TV, etc. Admittedly, I’ve been one of the ones commenting. Every time I go to a crowded art show, for weeks I’ll be on automatic pilot with: “They lined up around the block for Jackson Pollock; why don’t they line up the block for Roger Sessions,” or something of that sort.
The same thing was about to happen to me again last weekend when I attended MoMA’s Brice Marden retrospective, which was still packed with people after being on display for several months. To my thinking, Marden, born 1938, shares a lot of aesthetic common ground with composers as diverse as David Borden, Gloria Coates, Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, and Charles Wuorinen—all of whom were also born in 1938 and whose works display a reasoned approach to abstractly permuting patterns through physical gestures. Yet, not to cast aspersions on any of the music these folks write (which I treasure), I doubt there’d be lines around the block to attend a concert assembling any of their lives’ work, which is ostensibly what the Marden show was.
That’s because such a concert would last days, and even a typical concert of roughly two hours is sadly beyond the attention span of most people nowadays. Music is just, well, too long. It takes too much time. And that time has to be focused and continuous. You can walk by a hundred paintings as fast as the crowds allow you to. You can read a book anywhere you want, put it down whenever you want, and pick it up again without losing the thread. (Well, most books—at least the ones that get on bestseller lists.) Admittedly, watching TV also requires time—everyone knows how much time it wastes, but very few people who watch TV are actually focused on it completely. If they were, they’d probably be able to quit the habit more easily.
Imagine how much time we could save, and how many more people you could attract to new music, if we could completely eliminate the time element in music. Isolate single events and just sustain them: chords, timbres, etc. Allow people to experience them for as long or as short as they care to, as art viewers do with paintings and sculptures. Well, there already are folks like La Monte Young and Max Neuhaus and generations of sound installation artists inspired by them who create work that does just that.
But music is ultimately about time. Even sound installation pieces attain their clarity from the cumulative effect of experiencing their sonic content in real time. But, of course, that’s true for works of visual art as well. So, maybe instead what we need to do is be better facilitators at helping cure our society of its collective attention deficit disorder by proving that there can be great rewards from spending more time on focused perception.
Frank J. Oteri
New Music Box
Gone: the long looking of slow days, the world ordered inwardly by seeing, the act of unbroken private attention that was an expression of integrity clasping imagination, making sense, making “vision.” What happened to this heritage of perception? When did our autobahn existence subvert the inner rhythm beating along the pulse and risk the loss of sensation? When did we forfeit leisure?
Patricia Hampl, Blue Arabesque
As I walked through the Corcoran’s new permanent collection installation, I bumped into an old friend. Up on the second floor I found Anne Truitt, twice. One was magnificent: 1962’s Insurrection, a vertical plank, painted red on one vertical half and pink on the other.
Like all the best Truitts its beauty was a product of its subtlety. When Truitt entered her mature period in the 1960s, such subtlety was out and had been for a while. Abstract expressionism? (Glug glug.) Pop art? (Bam!) Subtlety was not something admired at the Cedar Bar.
That’s part of the genius of Truitt. She is the slow food of art; you have to stand in front of her painted sculptures, for a minute, maybe two, to feel what there is to see. At the Corcoran I noticed that the Truitt was just taller than a person. And just wider too. I was thicker than each painted half, but barely. And to see the whole sculpture I had to walk around it, making me all the more aware of my own body and presence in front of Truitt’s work.
Brian Eno’s music piece entitled Thursday Afternoon (1984) was originally recorded for a video of the same name. It is a representative example of Eno´s ambient music which the composer has once described as “music to swim in, to float in, to get lost inside.” Lasting 61 minutes Thursday Afternoon is a spacious, bright tapestry of sound created by layering several musical events that recur each within cycles of differing length.
On the inner sleeve of one of his first ambient records Music for Airports (1978) Eno described his intentions with this kind of music:
[I] have become interested in the use of music as ambience, and have come to believe that it is possible to produce material that can be used thus without being in any way compromised…An ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint. My intention is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres…Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular: it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.
Ambient music, music as furniture, music to live in. Ambient music in Eno´s sense allows us but does not force us to listen. It creates a space in which to see our environment in a new enhanced calm. It gives us space to think and experience.
I make a very slow painting.
Decelerate explores the cultural trend of “slowing down” and returning to a somewhat simpler or more attuned state. Expressed in our culture by the growing popularity of the international “slow movement” and other activities and movements (slow cooking, urban revitalization, yoga, knitting, meditation, etc.), this anti-velocity attitude also has an equivalent in the visual arts. Decelerate includes works that are labor and/or time intensive (sometimes handcrafted, sometimes not); that recycle and transform prosaic materials into objects of beauty or wonder; that liberate our assumptions about the materials and processes of making art; and, most importantly, that inspire us to slow down, contemplate, and discover the intangible rewards that art—and life—have to offer.
Slow is gradually overcoming its pejorative connotations. Where once it was associated with failure — slow progress, slow decline, a slow student — the current push is to redefine the word so that it inspires people to use their time well, to lead considered lives.