René MAGRITTE<br/>
<em>In praise of dialectics</em> (1937) <!-- (recto) --><br />
<em>(L'Éloge de la dialectique)</em><br />
oil on canvas<br />
65.5 x 54.0 cm<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Felton Bequest, 1971<br />
EA2-1971<br />
© René Magritte/ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by Copyright Agency, Australia

The art of mindfulness


Madeleine Dore interviews a mindfulness teacher, an artist, a curator and NGV visitors about their experiences of the Gallery, and learns that art museums offer much to audiences seeking a space for meditation, contemplation and discovery.

Among the plethora of apps, courses and retreats devoted to mindfulness, the art gallery is often an unconsidered arena for cultivating mental wellbeing. Yet between its walls is a haven for contemplation. ‘Typically, people think they can only be mindful if they have a formal meditation practice’, says mindfulness teacher Kate James. ‘But you can practice mindfulness in myriad ways.’ Rather than switching off, mindfulness requires us to pay attention to the present moment – whether it be as we take a sip from a cup of tea, lather a dish with soapy water, or look at a work of art. In fact, the gallery is the perfect environment for deeper connection to our experiences, says James. ‘Often there is an absence of distractions or noise. The uncluttered physical space that often accompanies a gallery experience is a metaphor for what we are trying to achieve in our minds – a little more order, a little less chaos.’

In his book Looking for Mindfulness: Twenty-Five Paintings to Change the Way You Live (2016), French psychiatrist, mediation practitioner and author Christophe André pairs classic paintings, from Rembrandt to René Magritte, with lessons in mindfulness. André draws on the contents of each canvas to share mindfulness techniques, such as focusing on our breathing or tuning into the body, enabling the viewer to explore the connection between what we see and how we feel.

Cultivating a mindful sense of curiosity 

We are often taught to look at artworks with keen judgement, asking questions such as, What is a colour evoking? What do we understand about the work? What is the artistic merit? Do we like or dislike the work? It may come as a relief for many that when looking at art mindfully, judgement and knowledge become irrelevant. Instead, the most important thing becomes maintaining a sense of openness and curiosity.

‘I think sometimes people visit a gallery with the sense that they need to be able to critique the art, but actually it can be as simple as standing in front of a work, dropping into your body to be fully present in the moment, and just noticing whatever it is you notice’, says James. It is an exercise in getting out of our heads. Instead of asking, ‘What does this mean?’, we can ask, ‘What does this stir in me?’, explains James. ‘That is really the beauty of art – it is about awakening something within us. If we only focus on what we are supposed to be thinking about a certain piece, then we do not allow our own experience to come alive.’

Artist Helen Maudsley teaches the short course ‘Art: The Viewer’ at the Centre for Adult Education, Melbourne, which similarly encourages people to keep an open mind when viewing art. ‘If you think something’s rubbish, it may be, but it may just be unfamiliar and use a visual language that you are not aware of. We have to change from “We don’t know, we don’t know” to “We know we don’t know”.’ Many adults lack such viewing skills or visual grammar. As Maudsley describes, engaging with a work requires more than a glance – we have to cultivate the skill of ‘time staring’. ‘If what is viewed is an instant whirl, there can be no visual dialogue. Engaging with a work, an art object, and trying to hear what it is saying, takes concentration and time, and does not take kindly to intrusion.’

An antidote to a distracted mind

NGV Senior Curator of Photography Susan van Wyk believes that works of art, through witnessing the diversity of creative culture, providing a portal to another time and place or simply inviting viewers to reflect, provide a mindful moment in which we can transcend the everyday. ‘When we stop to take time and really look at an artwork, to block out the distractions of the rest of our day and think about what we are looking at it and nothing else, the everyday seems to fall away.’

The gallery offers respite from our often busy, crammed and distracted daily lives. ‘We all need to take time in our day to slow down our thoughts, clear our head and focus on the moment rather than constantly thinking about the next thing, and the thing after that. Art and art galleries can give us a focal point and help us all to find that space in our lives’, she adds. As a curator, van Wyk is conscious of the varied experiences the NGV offers to the viewer. ‘Because we create spaces for the optimal viewing of works of art, we are in turn creating spaces that allow, even demand, that people leave their everyday concerns behind and immerse themselves in the experience of looking at art. Sometimes this is a space for contemplation and relaxation and other times it can be a space in our daily life when we let our imagination roam.’

For Kate James, connecting with an artist’s work and life helps bring her into the moment. ‘In a gallery you get the sense that you are walking through the artist’s life with them. That brings me into the present.’ Speaking with NGV visitors, such a diversity of interpretations and mindful experiences become apparent. For tourist and NGV visitor Noor, art is a reminder of the simple things and provides a way to switch off and connect with a childlike sense of playfulness. ‘When I look at art I feel like a child – it makes me happy and I laugh and giggle because I’m enjoying myself so much.’

Art also provides a unique sense of focus, she continues. ‘You feel so grateful that this artist is able to bring you down and get you to focus on something that is special to them, but also you get to see the beauty in it as well.’

NGV Member and retired art teacher Rowan often buys an unlimited ticket to major NGV exhibitions and visits a show four or five times in order to take it all in. ‘The more you look the more you find’, he says. Rowan has taught music in the past, and believes visual art has a distinct advantage on music when it comes to concentration and mindfulness. ‘For most people, music is on while they are doing something else, but with art you are standing in front of it and, even if it is just for a few moments, you are concentrating on what is in front of you’, he says. The Gallery is quiet place for our mind. ‘There are no distractions. It’s your own experience’, adds Rowan.

Similarly for van Wyk, visiting the NGV Collection can help to clear the mind. ‘I will often go into one of the NGV galleries and take five or ten minutes with a single work. I find that doing this can clear my head, slow down my thoughts and enable me to concentrate much more effectively. I think these things go hand in hand, I think the experience of making art, watching art or interacting with art in any of its forms is a mindfulness activity if we allow it to be.’

Whether by making us smile or helping us notice something new, art guides us to the present moment. To drop into ourselves, we can forgo the yoga mat and drop into a work of art instead.

This piece was originally commissioned for and published in NGV Magazine Issue 7 Nov–Dec 2017.