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The Slowness of Light

The Slowness of Light: Kyoto Biennale 2003

This is the foreword I wrote for the catalogue of Kyoto Biennale 2003, the art festival I directed based on Kyoto Art Center. The catalogue is in Japanese and English, and available on amazon.com. Please check My Work on this website.


In the autumn of 2001, Kyoto Art Center asked me to be the director of Kyoto Biennale 2003. I had been a philosopher by profession, and my involvement in art exhibitions was rather limited. I had given advice, and written text for exhibitions such as SKIN-DIVE (Kyoto, 1999), and Channel N (Kyoto, 2000). My major work in the Kyoto Art Center was the publication of the journal Diatxt., which I established in 2000 and continued as Director-in-Chief until 2003.

I appreciated their daring decision to choose me, knowing I was not experienced as a director of an art biennale, for such an important job, and I accepted it. As I had seldom been impressed by the themes of big art exhibitions and I was not interested in playing with abstract concepts, I looked for one simple word which would outline the biennale I was going to direct. It was November 2001, and the shock caused by 9.11 occupied my mind constantly. It was surely an enormous massacre, which can find no excuse from the moral point of view, but at the same time, I thought that it was a desperate act, an attempt to put brakes on the reckless drive of globalization. And one day when I was traveling abroad, I found a clue in the word "slowness," suggested by the title of a novel by Milan Kundera (Lenteur, Slowness) I had brought with me. I repeated this word in my mind like a spell.

However, I didn't have any clear vision about the biennale. As the theme of an art exhibition, I felt the word "slowness" sounded too naive. But when I suggested this idea to people I asked to participate in the biennale, they responded with discerning comments. Marina Grzinic strongly supported my idea by interpreting the word in the different socio-political context of Eastern Europe. Trinh T. Min-ha reminded me that slowness is a modern concept, and Paul Virilio pointed out that slowness is nothing but a kind of speed. Tadasu Takamine first resisted this concept, suspecting that slowness is just part of an idealized Asia represented by the West. Many other people gave me insightful comments on the concept.

In this way, the concept of slowness in Kyoto Biennale 2003 developed through discussions I had with many different people. In selecting the artists, I directly talked to artists whom I wanted to invite, instead of choosing from a list of artists who were already famous in other international exhibitions. My job as the director was like taking care of an unknown plant growing from a seed called "slowness."

Through this process, the concept of slowness began to take on a clearer outline. I thought that in the context of Kyoto Biennale 2003, it was most important to thoroughly negate the attitude praising slowness only as something that compensates for speed and busy life.

Slowness is a label created by a world which is dominated by speed. In a school where pupils are encouraged to compete to be the fastest, you would be branded as "slow" if you take your time in understanding, calculating or running. In other words, the label of slowness tells us that the system is dominated by speed. It would be no use, therefore, to pretend to resist the system saying "speed is not everything, you can be slow!" as long as you are staying inside this system. Of course everyone has an individual character that should be respected even if not everyone is able to win the competition. At the fundamental level, however, escaping the dominance of competition for speed is impossible just by thinking in this way.

Slow life or slow food, as a kind of fashion, is nothing but a way of compensating, in a system supported by speed. Put cynically, it is the privilege of fast people to admire slowness. Slowness in this sense is nothing but a luxury product made possible by the global industry based on high-speed information technology. A businessman spends his "slow" time in a southern island only to recharge the batteries for hard work starting next week. Western civilization, with its supreme ideal of progress, has always dreamed of slow life in Asia or Africa, adopting slowness as an exotic and aesthetic value, and utilizing slowness as a safety valve to confirm the idea of progress.

Art is not free from this dominance of speed. Art stays fundamentally powerless as long as we think it is important because it allows us the world of aesthetic sentiment, or it gives us relief and healing in a system in which people struggle to maximize efficiency and pursue profit. In this way of thinking, we assume the distinction between weekdays and weekend, serious work hours and leisure, never questioning the basic time structure that produces this distinction. On the other hand, if an artist is not content with this understanding of art as a leisure activity, compensating for work, she has to be a "professional," traveling throughout the world to survive the severe competition of the art world just as a successful enterpriser does in the world of industry. In other words, artists are forced to be either inside or outside of business.

Is there a way to escape from this dichotomy? Many of us today seem to take this dichotomy for granted and think of the global industrial system as an unalterable fact. If this is true, art has either to be happy with living in this sanctuary or assimilate itself into the system. There seems to be no way out. However, what I learned from Shozo Shimamoto is that there is a way out, and it is quite simple to take this way. Shimamoto once wrote about his experience of encouraging people who hesitated to paint because they thought they were not good enough. He discovered that it was a serious mistake to say "Don't mind if you are unskilled, it's OK," because this kind of encouragement assumes the unspoken comment that "Of course it would be better if you were skilled." So he says, "You MUST be unskilled." instead of "It's OK if you are unskilled."

When you say to someone, "It's OK if you are unskilled," you are respecting their individuality, and this sounds reasonable. This remark is safe because it presumes the distinction of skilled and unskilled as an undoubted fact. On the other hand, "You MUST be unskilled" may sound totally crazy, because it questions the very system that evaluates the skill of painting. But it doesn't make any general statement such as "There is no universal standard in the skill of painting," which would lead us to relativism. Instead, this remark urges us to think of the current standard as accidental and arbitrary, and to start doing new things based on this view.

Borrowing Shimamoto-san's terminology, we can say there are two types of slowness: "It's OK if you are slow," and "You MUST be slow." The former gives you a temporary relief because here slowness is supposed to be a compensation for speed, while the latter puts into question the very institution of speed as well as the basic time structure behind it. The reason we "MUST" be slow is that there exists a reality of this world which can never be visible unless we take this fundamentally slow point of view. This reality tells us that, however magnificent and stable the progress of civilization seems to be, our world is nothing but a castle built on the living base of nature, which is always moving and changing. The danger of collapse comes from the nature both outside and inside humans. Systematically evading this danger is impossible. We have to look for a way to live with it.

The vacant land created in Manhattan by the 9.11 attack is called "ground zero." But this is not the only vacancy of this kind. A much more vast vacancy was created, for example, by the 8.6 attack on Hiroshima, in 1945. How can we look for the definition of art in such a world? I would dare to define art as an attempt to discover "ground zero" in many different aspects of our life, or to return this (seemingly) unchangeable world back to its original vacant state, before a real destruction takes place. If art is possible after Hiroshima and after 9.11, its possibility seems to depend on how powerfully it can insist that the use of massive violence is NOT the only way to slow down the world. This is perhaps the most radical meaning that the word slowness could have.

Civilization has always been a pursuit of speed. But what does speed mean for each individual human being? Speed is measured by physical scale. We feel that horses are faster than humans, trains faster than horses, and airplanes faster than trains. Throughout the development of electronic technology in the 20th Century, however, humankind has achieved the speed of light in terms of processing and transmitting information. This is to say, human beings have already reached the limit of speed in this universe. In terms of a physical sensation, no one can feel light as "fast." In this sense, there is no longer any opposition between speed and slowness. It looks strange that we still think we should do our best to go faster than others, driven by the 19th Century obsession with competition. Slowness does not oppose speed or deny progress, but rather serves to remove this obsession.

Slowness at the speed of light -- this suggests the possibility to use our high-speed technology for being slow, for living at our own pace. Instead of opposing speed, we should use speed for different purposes. The possibility of art in our century that has just begun seems to lead not in the direction of escaping progress and civilization, but rather to the creation of diversity and differences within these. Looking back at Kyoto Biennale 2003, which was not a gigantic project compared to other international art exhibitions, I believe it was an attempt to launch us in this direction, looking for a new form of art exhibition. (December 22, 2004)


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(C)Hiroshi Yoshioka