Dr. Cliff Lauson, senior curator at Hayward Gallery in London, shares his thoughts on art as a glimpse into the artist’s mind and a catalyst for reflection
It could be said that all art is the product of mindfulness, about a particular state of mind or a series of thoughts that make up the creative process. As viewers of artworks, we are often asked to step into the artist’s mind for a few moments to gain insight into their way of seeing the world. Beyond the contextual or biographical information that informs our understanding of an artwork, to properly experience a work often means being with it in the present moment. Some artworks involve mindfulness more explicitly, whether through their content or the way in which they ask their viewers to look at or even participate in them. For me, what makes an artwork particularly mindful has to do with the space it creates for focus, sustained attention and reflection. This state of mind might be triggered by a sublime landscape, an environment or a quiet moment. It also does not necessarily involve concentrating on the content of the artwork, but can be an inward-looking pause or a mental drift coming close to meditation. But always, when in the present moment with an artwork, time seems to stand still.
“For me, what makes an artwork particularly mindful has to do with the space it creates for focus, sustained attention and reflection. This state of mind might be triggered by a sublime landscape, an environment or a quiet moment”
Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea Fog, about 1818 We have all ascended landscapes to take in a view, and I love the clarity of view gained by this figure as he ascends above the fog. I’ve often wondered how long he stood on the precipice.
John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52 This Pre-Raphaelite painting of the famous Shakespearean character captures a moment of limbo between life and death. There is an exquisite amount of detail present in the depiction of this distressing incident that one can easily become lost in.
Agnes Martin, Untitled #1, 2003 Martin’s interest in Eastern philosophy plays out through her minimalist paintings and drawings. Using only sparse geometric structures and a restricted palette, her works are contemplative and reflective, appearing both empty and full.
Nam June Paik, TV Buddha, 1974 Juxtaposing a closed-circuit TV setup with a statuette of the Buddhist sage, Paik creates something of an infinite feedback loop. This work riffs on stillness and meditation with a modern twist.
Lee Ufan, Relatum – Discussion, 2003 Artist-philosopher Lee Ufan was a founder of the Monoha (School of Things) group in 60s Japan that rejected representation for direct use of minimal and simple materials. Since the 70s, he has made works that pair steel plates with large rocks to explore the contrasting material relationship between the two; it is as if we are eavesdropping on their conversation.
Hannah Starkey, Untitled, May 1997 As in many of Starkey’s artworks, this photograph features a woman in a moment of contemplation. Yet for all its stillness, there is a huge amount of dynamism and tension to explore in the image.
Carsten Höller, Giant Psycho Tank, 1999 In this participatory work, one visitor at a time can experience an actual sensory deprivation floatation tank. Feeling weightlessness in the body-temperature water, the viewer is shielded from external stimuli, encouraging a meditative state.
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections #33, pages 107 – 122 and Limited Edition #50, pages 46 – 51.