On Saturday, April 6th, art museums and institutions around the world will host Slow Art Day, which features a variety of tours and discussion to encourage people to take their time. While the idea is simple—the longer we spend with art, the more deeply we can connect with it—the outcome can be profound.
It is perhaps no accident that several venues hosting Slow Art Day events feature Buddhist art in their collections. The Art Institute of Chicago showcases a variety of Buddhist statues and thangkas in their Asian art galleries, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s collection of Asian and Himalayan objects includes ritual masks, a ceremonial skull cup, and an 18th-century Tibetan prayer wheel. The Chinese Buddhist Art installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art contains a variety of sculptures as well as an ornate ceiling from the Zhihua temple in Beijing. The collection in New York City’s Rubin Museum of Art is devoted entirely to Buddhist and Himalayan art, and Slow Art Day tours and interactive gallery activities will highlight key pieces.
Spending generous amounts of time with an art piece—especially one that can evoke a strong reaction—can help us move beyond our first impressions and into a deeper, more contemplative space, allowing both our perception of the art and of ourselves to change. As a docent at the Rubin Museum, I often lead tours that feature wrathful deities, such as Mahakala and Begtse Chen. At first glance, these beings can appear terrifying, and visitors sometimes assume that they represent deadly threats or adversaries. Their menacing snarls expose sharp fangs, and their flaming eyebrows, ferocious stares, and skull crowns can unsettle the most stoic individual. When rushing through an exhibition, visitors might pass by these images and come away with the wrong impression. But when they stop and read the placard or listen to a guide, they discover that wrathful deities serve as protectors who use their fierce compassion to scare away obstacles to our enlightenment. Often, the viewers experience an internal shift; they express renewed interest and fresh observations about what they see. As they spend even more time with the art, their curiosity deepens. They have more and more questions, and their impressions of the painting become completely different from what they originally thought.
At other institutions, Buddhist films offer a perhaps more immersive and sensory experience of change over time and reveal core Buddhist ideas. On Slow Art Day, London’s Tate Modern will screen a series of short films by Tsai Ming Liang, a Taiwanese filmmaker known for his minimalist slow films that feature long, observational takes. One of these films, No No Sleep, follows a Buddhist monk as he meanders through the streets of different cities around the world. The narratives in Liang’s films are interconnected, and this type of cinematic structure slowly unravels and exposes to viewers the complex relational web that underlies Buddhist teachings on interdependence.
Over at the Art Institute of Chicago, visitors can observe a Standing Buddha statue from Thailand. This 8th-century piece depicts a regional interpretation of the Buddha’s upright body, lightly draped with monastic robes. Spending time with this figure can be an the opportunity to reflect on the dominance of the seated Buddha image—a still statue that seems fixed. But this Buddha is on its feet and ready to move. It’s an interesting difference, and the longer we sit with it, the more we might consider what it has to say about the Buddha’s body—an ever-changing human body.
While leading museum tours, I often show visitors a short video depicting the ritual destruction of a sand mandala by Tibetan Buddhist monks. These intricate works of art take weeks to create, and visitors are often shocked as they watch the piece get swept away so quickly. This is the power of art, and Buddhist art in particular: to expose the beauty and ephemerality of all things. Events like Slow Art Day, which encourage us to question our relationship with time, remind us of this.