The Time We Spend With Art. And Bats.

I’ve been thinking recently about the idea of slow-looking, about the time we spend with a thing, whether it’s art or bats or a crowded bridge. About what that time looks like.

What’s the longest you’ve spent with a single work of art? Until last year, my answer was about a minute. Now it’s a whole afternoon, thanks to the National Gallery of Art’s Writing Salon program. I recently wrote about a poetry salon based on Alexander Calder mobiles here for The Washington Post Magazine. An excerpt:

In a space notable for movement — the gentle shifting of Calder’s mobiles, the steady flow of admiring visitors — instructor Mary Hall Surface invites her group to linger. For the next 2 1/2 hours, salon participants will examine and discuss Calder’s art and use it as poetic inspiration.

It’s quite a different experience than the one described in a previous post on the Hirshhorn Museum’s Yayoi Kusama exhibit, where viewers wait in line for up to a half hour to get no more than 30 seconds with each breathtaking installation. Some allow only 20 seconds, the time it takes to snap a few photos.

The good news: art is everywhere, usually without time constraints.

I took our sophomore to Austin over spring break. We soaked in street art as we ate tacos at sun-swept sidewalk tables. A local took us to the graffiti park at Castle Hill, where we watched children with spray cans and adults perched on ladders transform beige walls.

We also visited the University of Texas’ Austin Campus. Confession: I did have some worries about students open-carrying. Truth: we didn’t see any guns, though we did see gun-free zone signs propped in office windows. My teen said I took way too many pictures. (She’s right.)

What we did find at the Harry Ransom Center: manuscripts of David Foster Wallace, Julia Alvarez, and Gabriel García Márquez, Henri Matisse’s Jazz and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s spirit photographs, all part of a Stories to Tell exhibit.

The stunning Blanton Museum of Art housed the Nina Katchadourian: Curiouser exhibit. The museum includes ten bodies of the artist’s work, from sculpture to photographs to video. An excerpt from the website:

Katchadourian’s expansive practice takes place largely outside of her Brooklyn studio. She has made work in libraries, in trees, on airplanes, and in parking lots. She has enlisted help from both far afield and close to home; her collaborators have included sports announcers, zookeepers, museum maintenance staff, ornithologists, musicians, translators at the United Nations, Morse code operators, an accent elimination coach, snakes, spiders, rats, ants, caterpillars, as well as her own parents.

My daughter spent time watching a video installation called Accent Elimination, in which the artists explores her foreign-born parents’ hard-to-place accents. I lingered over an exhibit called Sorted Books. The artist began the project in graduate school, arranging books in groups so that the titles on their spines form sentences, riddles, stories, poems or statements. She then photographed the results.

I took a picture of my favorite, the simplest one.

“Special Collections Revisited” by Nina Katchadourian

I was struck by a few things upon revisiting the photograph: first, as my children have informed me, I cannot take a straight picture. There’s also the irony of me, the photographer, reflected in the photograph; am I observing closely if I’m standing behind a camera? How much does it detract from the viewing experience?

I put the phone away for our remaining time in the exhibit; I had more rooms to see. My daughter stayed with the video installation, choosing to sit with the artist and her parents over rushing through the spacious galleries.

On our last night in Austin we stood for an hour on the Congress bridge, waiting to see its famous residents. The bridge is home to the largest urban bat colony in the U.S., with up to 1.5 million bats emerging at nightfall to feed on 10-20,000 insects a night. The crowd grew; an extended family gathered around us. They offered sticky dates to snack on while we made room up front for their children.

The bats came, but they were lighter and flew lower than we imagined. One person said that it was early in bat season; they were still flying up from winter in Mexico. Our camera phones were useless: the bats were the color of dusk.

The crowd took turns sharing the best spots so we could each lean over and witness the delicate grey whirl fluttering out from underneath the bridge  — bats spinning and twirling in synchronized flight, then suddenly: gone. The crowd soon dispersed as well.

All we are left with is a memory of that night. I wish I could show you a photo.

But maybe you’d prefer to make your own close observation. There’s an art to that too.


2 thoughts on “The Time We Spend With Art. And Bats.

  1. Frank says:

    “breathtaking instillation” is an appropriate typo – you may have coined a new word!

    Clearly, Austin was not wasted on ou. Congratulations!

    1. Kristin O'Keefe says:

      Thanks, Frank! I am the worst speller, good on you for catching instillation versus installation. I suppose I should fix it.


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