Janet McAllister on the arts
Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Viewing art at a turtle's pace

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Michael Illingworth's A man and a woman, 1986, at Pah Homestead. Photo / Supplied
Michael Illingworth's A man and a woman, 1986, at Pah Homestead. Photo / Supplied

The average museum visitor apparently spends as little as eight seconds viewing each art work. For the Mona Lisa, we make a big effort: 15 seconds. So many paintings, so little time.

The First World antidote to this First World problem? Slow Art Day. Last Saturday, participants at 272 international venues viewed five artworks for five to 10 minutes each, then talked about them over lunch.

To match the Slow Food Movement's snail logo, Slow Art Day has a turtle. But to "counter-balance the whimsy" of such a mascot, the turtle's colour palette is taken from Vincent Van Gogh's Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe. Alas, the turtle doesn't have a bandaged ear, nor pipe. Slow Art Day (or SAD) is fun, but it's serious fun, people.

I went along to New Zealand's only Slow Art Day venue - Hillsborough's Pah Homestead. With a handful of women and one man, I viewed five artworks (by male artists) in a daunting two hours. Luckily, Pah's education co-ordinator Hannah Wilson modified the SAD script slightly, so we had a group discussion in front of each artwork.

First up was Philip Clairmont's 1977 Kidney Table Construction No III (for my Mum). At first glance, the busy-patterned table looked like a sombrero at a fiesta, something you might find on some 1980s middlebrow paperback about Phyllis getting her mojo back thanks to a Mexican hunk and his chilli chocolate. After a few minutes, I still didn't like the work. Not the most auspicious start.

Then in the same Rutherford Trust Collection exhibition we visited Michael Illingworth's A man and a woman (1986). Illingworth's characteristic geometric figures are without mouths, silenced a la Hello Kitty, the man in a business suit behind a phallic vase, the woman naked behind a bowl of fruit. Two mechanical flowers bud where the man's nipples would be.

The effect is comic horror - the figures are trapped by social structures of reproduction, echoing the American Gothic couple with the pitchfork, as well as The Arnolfini Portrait (the 1434 sombre Flemish wedding).

We were never going to get all that in eight seconds. The slow here was extremely rewarding; we discovered we knew more than we thought.

In the Recent Acquisitions exhibition, we saw Steve Carr's 2003 Water No 1: a transparent model of a fire extinguisher in acrylic and scientifically blown glass. Cue group reveries of the glass-blowing process - fire-red liquid becoming water-transparent solid; of fragility and uselessness; of water shortages...

But "he could have picked up any piece of glass from a laboratory and mounted it," disagreed one woman. "It's a piss-take." She may have preferred a bed pan?

Also controversial for some: the lack of acknowledgement for the technician who'd actually made the object.

Discussion turned to what constitutes "creative" input - what about a fashion designer and a seamstress? Why nod to the technician but not the fire extinguisher designer?

The two other artworks were also intriguing - I got more out of SAD than expected. My average viewing time might go up this year. My goal? Twenty seconds.

- NZ Herald

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