Slow Art Day, taking place worldwide April 9, invites museum visitors across the globe to engage with works for more than just a few moments. More precisely, it asks museumgoers to spend 10 minutes each with five works. The Rubin Museum of Art, the Himalayan art and culture showcase in Chelsea, will participate in the event, and Dominique Townsend, its assistant director of interpretation and engagement, discusses the benefits of viewing art at a slower pace.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
THE CONCEPTWe’re conditioned through so many factors in our lives to move quickly and take things in, especially in a city like New York where we’re so critical and we’re constantly either discriminating between useful and worthless and good and bad. I think in looking at art, too, we tend to apply all those same rules. We’re always in a rush and we have to very quickly decide the merits of something that we’re looking at and then quickly move on. It’s just this very beautiful concept that if we create the circumstances that in a kind of playful way invites people to really challenge themselves to sit with one piece of art.
THE EXPERIENCEYou see what happens when you reflect on something for much longer than would usually be comfortable. Ten minutes is a very long time for most people to really engage with a single static piece of art. To me it has a really lovely dovetail with different kinds of meditation and mindfulness practices that are really about developing tolerance for the characteristics of your own mind. Seeing what happens, what kind of stuff comes up. Can you sit with your own boredom? Can you sit with your own impatience? I think a lot of times we don’t have any tolerance for that stuff because we don’t challenge ourselves in this kind of way … . I think what most people will find is their mind will drift probably far off the object at some times. Other times, maybe things will start to move in a painting. Even sometimes you have a little hallucination or something where you realize your perception starts to make things happen if you really sit with something long enough. Those are all things that happen in meditation as well.
THE WORKS[Stories of Previous Lives of the Buddha (Jataka)] is a painting that depicts the stories of the historical Buddha and his previous lives. This is an important part of thinking about karma and how the Buddha got to be the Buddha, so there are all these tales of the wonderful kinds of generous and compassionate things he did for many previous lives. That’s a very popular subject in art, and I think one nice thing about that is that it’s narrative. There’s a lot of wonderful visual detail that’s telling you the story and only if you really offer yourself the time and space to sit there will all of that start to speak to you. In the general tour you might spend five or 10 minutes in an engaged conversation about a piece, but that’s already kind of a lot. In that case you could point out a couple of the stories of previous lives, but I think giving people the space to just silently sit and really deeply look at that painting will let them do some of that themselves. Let the painting start to tell you its story.