‘Sitting with it’ does not seem to have a straightforward equivalent in the German language. Or at least none came to mind when I began thinking about the meanings and implications of the phrase. Some brain digging and dictionary searching ensued.
In an art and exhibition context, the English phrase suggests spending time with the work(s) – ideally seated (albeit not reclining), at rest, with the intention to stay on for a while. Literally sitting down, however, is often not an option in art spaces. I recall that a student of ours planned a dissertation on seating arrangements in museums and galleries. I am curious now how the question was approached and what the student’s research revealed. Perhaps that it is the gallery assistants and invigilators who ‘sit with the work’ more than anyone else? Baltimore Museum of Art’s exhibition Guarding the Art,guest-curated by the museum’s security officers, pays tribute to this circumstance. Such musings also got me wondering: Do artists ever ‘sit with’ their work upon completion, assuming the role and pose of custodian or viewer? What might this do?
In the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, ‘sitting with it’ – in the more abstract sense of giving art enough attention for connections and relations to emerge – is rare and even difficult. Timeframes are tight. Space demands are acute. Other needs and wants are relentless. In a workplace (rather than a place of works), sitting with a degree show, a showreel or open studio can feel like an extravagance, a transgression even. A swift walkthrough or passing glance may be the more common gestures of recognition. Can ‘sitting with it’ be encouraged? Enabled? Facilitated? The recently opened exhibition Shifting Perspectives at Leeds Art Gallery puts listening ambassadors in place to hear what visitors may have to say. Would a sitting ambassador make sense at all? Someone one can ‘sit with’ alongside the work, speak to or contemplate with?
A possible German translation did come to me in the end: auf sich einwirken lassen. While this phrase also suggests process and duration, it does not share the embodied aspect of ‘sitting with it’. But it offers different associations. Etwas auf sich einwirken lassen means for something (‘etwas’) to take effect (‘einwirken’) on oneself (‘auf sich‘). Einwirken lassen can be understood materially: to infuse, soak, saturate; to wait for something to show Wirkung, bring something to bear. The phrase has an implied imperative: one must take the time for an effect to materialise. Then there is lassen: to let rather than make it happen. ‘Sitting with it’ is not passive but contemplative. Some things come to those who sit, as ‘sitting with’ may also insinuate ‘sitting out’, for example the pressures to rush on.
Dr Claudia Sternberg, Senior Lecturer
School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies
6 June 2022