‘And Breathe…’ at Manchester Art Gallery
This is a two-part review. The first part is my initial reaction to ‘And Breathe…’ which, for an exhibition about mindfulness and meditation, I found way too busy. It was Saturday afternoon and I just couldn’t be bothered fighting the crowds to see the work. So I left with a note to myself to return mid-week on a quiet afternoon. So for the second part of this review, which was much quieter, with only 3-4 other people in the gallery space, I downloaded the accompanying sound recordings (more on this later) and listened to their advice, I really took my time to appreciate the work.
At first I thought the paintings were too literal. I knew the exhibition was about mindfulness and mental health, it just seemed like a lot of the paintings were of seascapes. We all know the sea can be calming, tranquil, with fresh air and open space etc, so at first, I was a little disappointed that so many artists painted seascapes, it just seemed too obvious for this theme. Saying that though, each piece of art was different and unique and tells a different story. But, at this stage I didn’t see that. The gallery was way too busy for me to enjoy an exhibition about meditation and mindfulness. So, this leads on to my second visit, and part two of this review.
So here is where ‘And Breathe…’ really stands out. In partnership with the app ArtimBarc, on entry to the exhibition you can scan a QR code – which you can do with just your phone camera, you don’t need a QR reader as some people thought, haha! With that, it opens up a free recording that you listen to as you explore the exhibition. You are presented with a little map of the paintings on your screen, click on the painting and the recording begins. It’s great!
In the introduction recording you are welcomed to the theme of the exhibition;
‘Mindfulness is a simple form of meditation. It’s about paying attention to 1 of 3 things – breathing / physical sensations in the body / focusing on sensory elements.’ It goes on to say how doing mediation can improve your mood levels and overall well-being. It can also improve your ability to be creative. I definitely found this to be true as the whole experience made me really look at the paintings. When was the last time you really stopped and examined a piece of art? The sound recordings asks us to take the time to do that now. It made me think of when I was in primary school and we were being taught the ‘Green Cross Code’ – this exhibition reminds us to STOP, LOOK AND LISTEN.
The soft furnishings dotted around the gallery help to set that relaxing, almost cafe culture atmosphere. I started at ‘Silent Coast’ by artist Peter Canyon. The calming, woman’s voice talks about really noticing the work, slowing down and taking the time to appreciate the art. There are a ton of adjectives used to describe the heavily blue, acrylic painting, including ‘wide, broad, sweeping strokes. Thin and thick lines, jagged and smooth.’ The recording is 3 minutes and 22 seconds, that doesn’t sound like a long time at all, but when was the last time you dedicated that to one piece of art? Yet, you can only do this when the gallery is quiet, when you aren’t disturbed or feeling pressured to move on.
I then listened to the short recording (1 min and 12 secs) alongside the art of Albert Irvin. This humongous yellow canvas dominates most of the gallery wall. When I saw this in my first visit, all I could see was yellow. Bright, in-your-face, yellow. Now, whilst I sit on the sofa in front of the piece, listening to the recording, I started to see so many more colours, and textures, and layers. The base of the canvas seems like a reflection of the top, the shapes are the same but the colours are lighter, more wishy-washy, compared to the bolder colours at the top of the canvas. Underneath the yellow, you can see subtle lines, colours and shapes of a painting underneath. It was like Irvin got mad, like he didn’t like his painting and so decided to paint over it in this yellow. There is a ghost of a painting underneath. There was one part of the recording that stuck with me, it said;
‘When looking at a painting, our mind immediately tries to make sense of it all. We ask ourselves, what does it mean?’
Why do we ask this question? Is this what is drilled into us as young art fans/art students etc? But we always say art is up for interpretation, there is no right or wrong answer, so does there even have to be an answer at all?
I ended my visit to ‘And Breathe…’ at ‘Mount Bay Early Morning in the Summer’ by Henry Moore. This recording (5 minutes and 25 seconds) starts by telling you not to look at the painting, to close your eyes altogether. Focus on breathing. It makes you think about the sensation and movement of breathing, really making you slow down and relax. I don’t know if there was draft, or if it was because I was now aware of my body and how it was feeling, but my bare ankles got really cold! When the recording tells you to finally look at the painting, it guides you around the work, not critiquing or explaining it, but physically guiding your eyes to points across the canvas. ‘From the left to right. Look for the darkest blue, the lightest blue…’ It helped me notice parts of the work that I would have 100% missed without guidance.
‘And Breathe…’ was a brand new experience for me. First time listening to meditation tips, first time listening to recordings in a gallery, and first time my opinion was changed after a re-visit. Yes, there are a lot of seascapes in this exhibition, but with the recordings, it forces you to look at each piece differently. The second visit definitely impressed me. It helped me as a writer to really, really look at the art, which I am guilty of not doing sometimes. Even as an art critic, I am sometimes too quick to judge. Hopefully this experience will change that.
‘And Breathe…’ is on at Manchester Art Gallery till 27th October.