Taking it slow: Art that’s in for the long haul

The work of James Turrell plays on subtle changes in light that the viewer can only perceive over long periods (Harold Cunningham/Getty Images)
The work of James Turrell plays on subtle changes in light that the viewer can only perceive over long periods (Harold Cunningham/Getty Images)

As life seems to get ever faster, several artists are slowing things down to a snail’s pace, producing works that unfold over days, years and even centuries. Jason Farago takes a look at art that’s in for the long haul.

Future-LibraryA short drive from Oslo is a massive, beautiful forest: the Nordmarka, a sprawling expanse of spruce and birch. There, in the deep Norwegian wood, the Scottish artist Katie Anderson has planted 100 saplings.matwood

Coming to Norway to plant trees might at first sound a bit of a coals-to-Newcastle exercise, but Anderson’s have a destiny: they will grow for 100 years, and then be chopped down, pulped and turned into books. Not just any books, either. These books are to be written over the coming century, one per year, but may not be read until the trees come down and the books are published. Margaret Atwood is contributing the first book for 2015, but you’ll have to live another 99 years if you want to read it.

Anderson’s Future Library is a 100-year artwork: a vision of the future that will only be fully visible long after our deaths. Yet its audience is not merely the readers of the year 2114, by which time, for all we know, the globe may have warmed so catastrophically that Norway will have become a tropical beach destination. Anderson’s slow, deliberate art is also meant for us today – inviting us to contemplate the endurance of culture, the transfer of knowledge and skills across multiple generations, and the prospects for art over time spans far longer than our lives.

It’s a commonplace that life is getting faster. But it’s also true that culture is getting shorter. The 90-minute film was displaced first by the 30-minute television programme, then the 3-minute YouTube video, the 6-second Vine, and now the 1-second Snapchat. Novels once usually ran to 400 pages or more; many of the e-books clogging today’s digital readers are as short as 30 pages. And little Oslo, now the fastest-growing capital city in Europe, has towers arising around the fjord at near-Chinese speed. Anderson is one of several artists pushing back against tendencies of speed and brevity, and finding in slowness an unexpected liberty.

Game of patience

Tourists Taking Pictures of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre Museum Paris FranceNo one has a good estimate of how long the average museumgoer spends looking at an artwork – as long as 30 seconds in one overoptimistic assessment, as little as 2 seconds in more recent ones. Even the sainted Mona Lisa, for which tourists are willing to spend hours queuing at the entrance to the Louvre, manages to get only an estimated 15 seconds of attention, and that includes the time taken to snap a selfie.

James Turrell, an American artist known for his environmental sculptures, forces you to slow down. His immersive installations play on viewers’ perception of subtle differences in the gradation of light, and several of his most intense works plunge visitors into what at first appears to be total darkness. Only after long minutes – 15 or so, in the case of his 1989 installation The Wait – does the human eye perceive a feebly glowing halo of light. What looks at first like undifferentiated black space turns out to contain a whole spectrum. But it is only visible if you slow down to the speed Turrell commands.

Andy Warhol was an artist who revelled in the everyday – “I like boring things,” he liked to proclaim ­– but he also believed strongly in the endurance of all things, boring and not, and their equal claim to eternity. (His devout Catholic faith may have had a role to play here.) Warhol made 610 time capsules over the course of his career, stuffed with 300,000 mostly mundane objects – ashtrays, newspapers, telegrams and receipts – elevated to art after 30 years of gestation. And Warhol’s films, notably the five-hour Sleep and the eight-hour Empire, take slowness to operatic heights. In fact, Warhol actually slowed down the projection speed of Empire, from 24 frames a second to 16, to render the image even more uncanny. Watching Empire from start to finish, as the critic Blake Gopnik did last year, is a profoundly different experience from watching for five seconds, ‘getting’ the gist, and moving on. The film really does open up over time, but you have to view it as Andy projected it: in slow motion.

Take your time

It’s important to distinguish between art works that are slow and art works that are long. Very long artworks can be rapid-fire, such as Christian Marclay’s The Clock, which unspools over 24 hours but moves as fast as a Hollywood thriller. Length can also be created artificially, by looping a spool of film so that the beginning follows after the end, or by placing a repeat at the end of a musical passage. The most effective contemporary artist in this strain is Stan Douglas, the pioneering Canadian whose videos use computers to shuffle scenes, to sync independent audio and video tracks, or to project multiple frames on top of one another. The computer algorithm cycles through all the possible combinations of filmic elements, meaning that the ‘full length’ of the videos can stretch for days or even years. But that length is, in reality, a theoretical length. No one would ever sit through one Douglas’s videos for their entire duration; their virtuosity comes from the knowledge that the algorithm is operating, not the results of the algorithm itself.

Works of extreme slowness, on the other hand, have beginnings, middles, and ends, and have to be experienced in radically irregular fashion. And this is true even if the work is so slow that we can never experience it entirely – such as John Cage’s As Slow as Possible, a musical composition whose tempo is best described as glacial. In an 11th Century church in eastern Germany, on an automated organ specifically designed for ultra-long play, you can hear Cage’s work played so slowly that it’s almost not music at all: the entire performance is set to last 639 years. The current chord began in 2013 and is set to last through 2020.

“If something needs a bit longer,” said the chair of the organization that supervises the performance, “then it can give us an inner calm that is rare in normal life.” Or at least one would like to believe so. The reality, alas, is a little different. When the organ last shifted notes, more than a thousand people descended on the little church to hear a change in tone rarer than a leap year. Perhaps some of them had a profound aesthetic experience that could only come from radically long duration and slowed variation. Yet images all over the internet suggest they were in the minority. Most of the listeners, it seems, had their thoughts somewhere else – as they lifted up their smartphones to document their presence.

By Jason Fargo

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