If you’ve ever tried any meditation, chances are you’ll have been encouraged to focus on your breathing. There’s something about directing the mind’s attention to something inside us that gives our frantic brains a rest from the external factors that constantly pester us. Focussing helps us to stop and to relax.
Manchester Art Gallery have given their visitors an open invitation to do exactly this, in a room dedicated to the relationship between paintings and mindfulness. And Breathe… is an experimental space dedicated to our minds and wellbeing and asks us to use a painting as a way of switching off our busy brains.
“There is no right or wrong way to engage with art,” says the introductory panel, giving us permission to ignore the unwritten rulebook of how to visit an art gallery. And it gives us a brief lesson in how looking at art can help us lead happier, kinder and more contented lives.
Our brains are designed to be active on multiple fronts at once – to reflect on what has happened in our lives and to plan the future. We do this constantly, often without realising – we are fight or flight beasts after all. But asking our brains to stop all that for a few moments can have hugely beneficial outcomes.
By slowing down, focussing attention on one point and asking the brain not to wander to other ideas that might otherwise be floating in our heads, we are able to bring a sense of clarity. Mindfulness seeks to bring about in us a moment of calm and ease, rather like traditional meditation techniques.
But looking at art can set parts of our minds to work in rather intense ways. Our brains might be trying to assess who the artist is, when the work was made, what school or movement it belongs to and perhaps what the artist wanted to get across to us. Viewing art in this way uses the ‘thinking’ parts of our brain. The difference in this gallery is that it asks us to turn off our thinking and to engage our ‘sensing’ tools instead. And to breathe.
Using our senses to understand a painting, rather than our knowledge or emotions, is actually more difficult than it sounds. Acknowledging this, the gallery has created a free audio guide for the space, recorded with gentle tones and reassuring language that encourages us to feel and sense the paintings, rather than to think about them too much.
So, rather than looking at the sea as a powerful force, capable of destroying a humble boat, we instead are asked to follow the white lines of the tips of the waves as they move across the canvas. Just follow the line and appreciate it – don’t look for the wave.
It is the very act of focussing our attention on one small detail in such a concentrated way that allows the rest of our muddled brains to switch off the rest of the clutter. Sitting in a busy art gallery, with the sounds of the café downstairs and trams trundling past the front door, one could be a hundred miles away, both physically and mentally. And it’s been proven that over time this mindful technique can bring about long-term changes in mood and levels of happiness.
Importantly, this gallery doesn’t tell you to chill out. If I’m wound up or stressed, the last thing I need is to be told to calm down. Instead, this gallery invites you in, to breathe, to focus and also to relax.
Mindfulness is about reminding ourselves that we are in control of our brains. And that with a little gentle training, we can find the clarity and sure-mindedness that allows us to put our own lives in context. When we allow art to help us free ourselves of our mental shackles, it is ultimately we who are in charge of the experience.
And Breathe…, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester.
16 March 2018 – 15 March 2019.
Steve Slack is a writer and museum consultant based in Manchester.