Posted by Dave Bull at 12:12 PM, August 18, 2009
It was a 'Tokyo' day for me today - a couple of hours on the train to get downtown (to Kinko's to print out the summer issue of my newsletter) - so I had plenty of time to get caught up on some of the unread newspapers stacked-up here!
I came across an interesting story in the New York Times from last weekend. I see that it's also online, so you can read it at this link (if you have registered your email with them).
It's entitled 'At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus', and the writer basically just riffs on some thoughts that came to him while 'people-watching' in that museum, and by posing the question 'What exactly are we looking for when we roam as tourists around museums?'
The key sentence that jumped out at me from his ruminations was:
'Almost nobody, over the course of that hour or two, paused before any object for as long as a full minute.'
Now this is of course my experience too. I don't mean as a gallery visitor - no, not me - but my experience with watching the visitors to my own exhibitions. People walk over to where a picture is on the wall, look at it for 'a moment', and then move on to the next one. Some stop longer than others; some never actually stop at all, but stroll slowly along the line of images with their feet always moving ...
Part of me always wants to shout out, "Lady, I spent three months making that thing! You think that ten seconds is enough to drink it all in?"
But of course I keep quiet.
I spoke to Sadako one day at one of my exhibitions about this, and her comment was predictable (and true): "Well, perhaps if your prints were a bit more interesting ..." And I have no argument with that. I cannot claim that my images are so intense - or wonderfully made - that I can demand that people bow down in deep admiration, but ... ten seconds? Surely, I deserve a bit more than that! Just what, actually, did their eyes focus on during the time they looked at the piece? What did they 'think'?
The writer of the New York Times piece - in a section of his story that touched on this question of 'how long' to look at the object on display - mentioned this:
"The art historian T. J. Clark ... has lately written a book about devoting several months of his time to looking intently at two paintings by Poussin. Slow looking, like slow cooking, may yet become the new radical chic."
Now that's an interesting idea. Stop walking around. Grab one image (or two, whatever), and look closely. It's analogous to the idea of choosing one spot for a vacation and staying there for a couple of weeks, instead of travelling around to many different places day by day. Sit still. Dig in.
Assuming you choose a place (or image) with plenty of 'depth', then presumably you will be rewarded with ... Well, I'm not exactly sure what you will be rewarded with. A 'deeper' knowledge, one presumes, but perhaps an understanding of a whole different kind.
Thinking about this now reminds me of an episode with an interviewer here some years ago. I was showing him some of the stuff in my collection and when we got to one particular item (a print I own, not one that I had made), we somehow got onto the topic of 'what he should look at'. I started to blab about this, pointing out this feature, that point, this point ... He was receptive to the conversation, and it ended up with me giving him a 'seminar' on that particular image; we spent probably the best part of an hour on it.
So perhaps the people in that museum in the newspaper story aren't really to 'blame'. After all, they are not professionals; they know nothing of what they could, or should, be looking at in those paintings on the wall. And so many paintings are on the wall in most museums! Well of course people end up walking along in a daze ...
Maybe that should be my next exhibition then. Just one print. Something with meat. Put it up there on one wall by itself. On the other walls of the room, tell the 'rest of the story'. Do what I did with that interviewer - talk about the details of its composition and design ... how it came together ... what the imagery stands for ... the layers of meaning ...
I wonder if this would work, or if people would reject it. "Eh? I came all the way down here, and all you have on display is one print? I want my money back!"