Slow Art

Slow Art, currently exhibiting at Sweden’s Nationalmuseum in Stockholm seemed like a perfect premise when I first saw the promotional fanfare throughout Stockholm.  Few major museums have given contemporary green art its chance to shine as of yet, perhaps because curating something so inherently indefinable is a daunting task.  Needless to say, I was excited to see what Sweden (a country that has pledged to be oil free within the decade) was going to offer me in the way of museum-worthy green art.

Just before entering the hall where the majority of the Slow Art objects were being displayed, the sign explaining the intentions of the exhibit already had me feeling a bit uneasy about what I was getting myself into.  “Many practitioners,” it says “put special emphasis on shaping certain details, disregarding the mental boredom or physical pain of repetition.”

Helena Hörstedt, Broken Shadow

I thought that perhaps the Slow Art exhibit was something entirely different from what I assumed, and that I should have read the fine print a little bit better.  After all, the exhibition posters were all of a shapely leather dress – something that Isaac Mizrahi’s Alaskan Salmon Skin dress for the Cooper Hewitt’s “Design for a Living World” exhibit showed us could still be created sustainably, but could just as easily represent the dress of choice for Madames. Unfortunately, the next paragraph explicitly linked the concept of Slow Art to the better-known “Slow Food” movement.

One of the sustainability movement’s biggest challenges is overcoming the perception that living a sustainable lifestyle is painful.  For example, the biggest hurdle to overcoming our American overuse of plastic bags is the convenience it provides.  Our low bicycle ridership can also be linked to the perceived inconveniences of riding.  The convenience of using cars and shopping at big-box stores further compounds the issues of both plastic bag usage and bicycle ridership.

As the sustainability movement has grown over the past decade it has focused more and more on demonstrating the relative advantages and conveniences of living a lower-impact, slow life.  Infographics, such as Sustainable America’s “How to Compost in Your Apartment,” aimed at convincing people that cutting down on conveniences associated with our high-waste society doesn’t have to be difficult, have become commonplace.

Yet the Nationalmuseum is reveling in the pain and extreme boredom that the artists have brought upon themselves and linking it to sustainability movements like “Slow Food” and “Slow Travel.”  Ask yourself:  are pain and boredom sustainable?  Can we build a stronger society based upon these virtues?

I understand what the Nationalmuseum was trying to do.  The fast-paced capitalism that we’ve developed as the one and only mode of economic success globally is taking its toll on countries and cultures worldwide.  I get it, and I totally agree.  Traditional craftsmen and the skills that they employ are a valuable part of our culture and there is a lot we can learn to further progress art in the green age, but that doesn’t mean that we have to punish ourselves to make art that is valuable or real.

I’m not debating whether the exhibit itself displayed a number of beautifully crafted pieces, it did.  The artists featured have created works that are surely a part of their soul, but there was nothing in the exhibit that convinced me that slowness should be replicated.  Instead, the explanations accompanying each piece invariably praise the mental anguish experienced by the artist during the creation of the work.

Three of my favorite pieces from the exhibition, are prime examples of the trend to glorify pain.  The quotes below are all taken from the official item details on the National Museum’s website for the exhibition.

Suzy Strindberg, Embroidery: “The process is slow and painstaking. Strindberg embroiders in periods, letting the work rest before resuming it. She often undoes parts that she is not entirely satisfied with and starts over.”

Renata Francescon, Sub Rosa: “She never uses tools. With her bare hands, she thumbs out thin, individually shaped porcelain rose petals. The process is repetitive; one petal after another is made.”

Annika Liljedahl, Dog Rose: “The title, Dog Rose, links the thin, delicate slippers with roses, which are fragile and exquisite but can also cause pain with their sharp thorns.”

To my dismay, none of the lengthy explanations explain how mental anguish as a result of extremely slow repetitive work is any better than mental anguish as a result of extremely fast repetitive work. Slow is better, but why?  I suspect because slow is the trendy thing to be doing.  Slow is cool because “Slow Food” and “Slow Travel” are heralded as world-changing culture shifts.

The human capacity to nostalgically romanticize is strong, most every generation can be found guilty of pontificating on the virtues of days gone past.  Unfortunately, the problems facing contemporary sustainability efforts have manifested despite the best efforts of early advocates of a return to pastoral simplicity and it is unlikely that they will be solved in such a simple way.

Living slow has a number of relative advantages. Healthier diets and the gradual shift away from environmentally damaging factory farms can in part be credited to the “Slow Food” movement and its popularity amongst both today’s restaurant and homesteading cultures.  However, slow living is also a safe and fairly easy way to understand how humans can affect positive change on a world that we have severely damaged.  The idea that living a “slow” lifestyle will solve everything is alluring, but the slow name is getting in the way of the message.

As cool as being slow may be, the “Slow Art” I saw will not change the world – it might even encourage a retrogression towards worse conditions.  It’s easy to forget as we sit on our MacBooks and fantasize about owning garlic farms and darning our socks that conditions in factories where everything is made by hand aren’t necessarily better now, nor were they in the past, than conditions in factories where most is machine made.

As we look towards the future and attempt to make something of it, it’s important that we don’t fall backwards but move ever forwards.  We don’t have to move fast, we can move slow, so long as we continue learning from the past instead of replicating it.

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