Ali Demorotski is Curatorial Assistant here at Crystal Bridges, and she has been closely involved with the State of the Art exhibition from the get-go: handling everything from flight arrangements and artist recommendations to the rather unusual subject of this post: shopping with artist Jonathan Schipper for the furniture to be used to create Slow Room, his installation featuring a roomful of stuff that gradually gets dragged into and crushed against the back wall of the space over the course of the exhibition. Here she chronicles the process. Tip: don’t miss the time-lapse video of Slow Room in action! –LD
The rapidly approaching close of the State of the Art exhibition evokes a sense of sentimentality and reflection within the staff. It’s a mix of “that flew by” and saying goodbye to new favorites: both work and artists. It’s a time to celebrate, as well as catch up on some of the stories of how we accomplished the monumental task that was the research-through-installation process that got us to this point.
Initially, my responsibilities for the exhibition were purely focused on contacting colleagues for artist recommendations and scheduling studio visits with artists near and far. But the most fun really started when we had selected who would be in the exhibition and began working directly with them. My established relationships with the artists had perks, and one of my favorites was working with Jonathan Schipper on his installation Slow Room. The installation has been one of the most talked-about works in the exhibition. It has fascinated our guests, often inciting thoughtful questions and repeat visits to check its progress. School children have submitted wonderful drawings and their parents have sent us letters about the excitement their child exudes when they talk about it (even waking them at 3 a.m. to ask questions in one case). It has captured imaginations and has one of the more interesting backstories of how it came to exist at Crystal Bridges.
I have always loved spending lazy Saturdays or Sundays winding through endless aisles and piles at antique stores and flea markets. It was something my parents enjoyed, often telling stories of items they remembered from their childhood and I laughed at their “antique age”…not realizing I’d be doing the same so soon. (Beanie Babies, anyone?!) It’s a reminder that items that were once so dear to us eventually make their way back into the world; but it’s also a reminder of the abundance of objects at our fingertips waiting to be purposeful again.
“The sofa is the most important thing.” That was the earworm planted by Jonathan Schipper during a phone conversation prior to his arrival. Immediately I panicked! I had taken State of the Art artist Jeila Gueramian around town during her site visit to find afghans and cross stitch from various resale stores, but furniture is a completely different ballgame. Plus, I’d seen Jonathan’s previous Slow Room installations (http://vimeo.com/38484103 and http://vimeo.com/27744522 ) and there is a certain era and feeling of the items selected. To soothe my nerves, and have a little fun of my own, I set out the four Saturdays before it was go-time and searched high and low for the greatest sofa options in the area. (Also filling my phone with a photo inventory!) The fourth Saturday was designated to revisiting the top contenders to see if they were still available before the big week of purchasing.
Jonathan and his assistant Annie Evelyn arrived on a Monday morning and we hit the ground running! We spent the entire day zig-zagging between stores from Fayetteville to Bentonville. We took in so much visual information it was amazing we could think straight by the end of the day. After the stores closed, we headed back to the Museum offices to print out all the photos we had taken and spread them like playing cards, or a State of the Art catalog, and began identifying the key items we wanted to go back for the next day. Although the sofa had been identified as key, finding great chairs to go with it proved to be a challenge. The sofa we all had mentally committed to buying didn’t make sense with the chairs we had found throughout the day, therefore the very last sofa we had seen that day ended up being the winner and our starting point for the next day.
Day two was “rental truck day.” We retraced our zig-zag in nearly reverse order and started filling the truck with the large items we had scouted and added the rest of the décor tchotchkes. Along the way, Annie and I learned the selection process for each item. Jonathan loving refers to the resident of the room as “Grandma,” so we would find an item and approach him with the question “is this Grandma’s style?” or “would Grandma like this?” If the answer was yes, then into the truck it went! The piece-de-resistance was when we finally found Grandma’s portrait.
Wednesday morning we moved the furniture into the gallery and began laying it out, much like you would your own living room. The only, and relatively major, difference being the bizarre hole in the back wall that was always part of an item’s placement consideration. This hole, no larger than 10” wide, is part of a wall that was built with reinforced steel plates and additional bracing to be much sturdier than the average living room wall. With the hole looming over the feeling of the room, the layout of the purchased items was selected and missing items identified: a coffee table (which didn’t make it into the truck day 2!), a lamp, and a chair for the sewing machine. Off we went for day 3 of shopping. New stores, final items purchased, and a promise we’d never go shopping again. Ever. Luckily that was only the visual exhaustion talking!
The final two days of the installation consisted of Jonathan and Annie drilling or punching holes through all the objects in the room. Everything from piano keys, to picture frames, to furniture legs and stuffing were open territory. They then began the process of running Dyneema string through each object and toward the hole in the wall. Lengths and slack varied as they were strung from the object’s location in the room, through the hole, and then wound around the center of the mechanism that sits behind the hole in the wall.
This mechanism, designed and fabricated by Jonathan, and is the driving force that brings Slow Room to life. Previous Slow Rooms had only run one week or 20 days. This was going to be the slowest Slow Room ever done and we wanted to make the most of the four month timeframe. Jonathan tested various rotation speeds for the mechanism and calculated the overall hours the exhibition would be open. After the ideal speed was determined, he hooked the mechanism up to a timer to have it turn on and off during the Museum’s open hours, allowing us to get the most out of every minute.
The rest, as they say, is history. Museum staff and guests alike have reveled in the wonder and excitement of watching the room change over time. You’ll overhear someone saying “have you seen the Slow Room lately?” Prompting a beeline to the gallery to see what’s changed. Objects we predicted would fall or break first hung on a little longer before crashing to the ground. When we thought things hit a point of stasis and couldn’t break any further, we watched the sofa turn into an unrecognizable, twisted toothpick. (No! Not the all-important sofa!) There was always something new to see.
Although it is sad to see the exhibitionm close I can’t help but be thankful to have been a part of it. Slow Room brought fun, lively conversation, and imagination to our lives for a slow, yet fast, four months. As a bonus, we’ll always have the time-lapse to remember it by.
P.S. – A quick shout out to the wonderful local shops we scoured for all the items in the Slow Room! Please support these businesses and others like them in our community. They have wonderful, and often unique, items to take home and cherish. (Our apologies for how we treated them but we chose them out of love!)