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Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons

What is ‘slow looking’, and why should you try it?

You’ll be surprised what happens when you shift the way you experience art. Here’s what happened when we gave it a go at Tate Britain and Tate Modern

Written by Time Out. Paid for by Tate
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Be honest: how long do you spend looking at artworks in a gallery? I’m talking properly looking. Not just doing that weird little shuffle-walk that only seems to come out in a gallery; hands behind your back, neck craned for a quick read of the caption. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no stranger to this style of gallery-going. Sure, making speedy stops past each and every artwork might be an efficient way to tick off an entire exhibition or collection – but ultimately, it’s unsatisfying and even a little frustrating, like taking the Piccadilly line to Heathrow.

Which is why, when Tate encouraged me to try ‘slow looking’, I felt instantly intrigued. I’d heard of the slow living movement; a mindset that values meaningful consumption and mindful lifestyle choices. Slow looking falls under that umbrella. Studies have shown that on average, visitors to art galleries spend just eight seconds looking at each work on display. This rang true for me and made me wonder: what is the real purpose of going to a gallery? Maybe, I had been doing it wrong. 

Slow looking is about bringing us back to what art should do: make us feel something. It’s not a new concept; back in 2009, author Phyl Terry founded ‘Slow Art Day’ with the mission to help people have more mindful interactions with art. And, to promote the idea that art should be for everyone. Part of the slow looking philosophy is trusting your own intuition. It’s not about curators or historians telling you what you should take from looking at an artwork. It’s just you focusing on a piece for five, 10, 15 minutes, and seeing what thoughts, feelings and connections come up. 

So there I was, standing at the entrance of Tate Britain, ready to slow things down. Shaking off a chilly morning’s commute (and my coat), I took a deep breath and tried to reset my brain, ready for some quality time with some art.  

Photograph: Madeleine Buddo
Photograph: Madeleine Buddo

A kaleidoscope of colour

Tate Britain's marble columns, grand dome and beams of sunlight streaming through windows above are reason enough to shift into the slow lane. I walked until I found myself in front of a large and striking abstract painting. This is it. This is the one. I’m going to look… but slowly. 

Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons

This is David Bomberg’s ‘In the Hold’, painted in 1913-14. My first thought? Intriguing chaos. Jagged triangular shards of colour, a blend of broken forms. Normally, this would’ve been the point that I’d raise an eyebrow in a gesture of approval and intrigue, then move on. But not today! I maintained my gaze, and something extraordinary happened. It was like the painting began opening up. I realised that the canvas is equally divided into squares. Stepping a few metres back from the painting, more recognisable shapes emerged; a rectangular block, stacked beams, perhaps even a human form. And the blue in the middle – could that be the sky poking through the madness?

Reading the caption, I discovered that the work was inspired by the constant bustle of east London’s Docklands in the early twentieth century. It struck me that if I’d read the caption first, I would’ve searched for the elements in the painting that confirmed its ‘meaning’. Slow looking helped me to simply take it in on my own terms. 

Layers and layers of meaning

Already, I felt as if I’d gained more from ten minutes with ‘In the Hold’ than I had in many hour-long gallery visits. Instead of worrying about seeing as much as possible (and what I might want to buy at the gift shop), I felt elevated into a mindful state, full of ideas.

My next stop was Tate Modern, over on the other side of the Thames at the South Bank. 

Photograph: Joe Humphrys
Photograph: Joe Humphrys

Okay, so I didn’t necessarily intend to focus on the first artwork I saw. But it’s not exactly easy to ignore this enormous sculpture hanging in the vast Turbine Hall. This is ‘El Anatsui: Behind the Red Moon’ – the latest installation commissioned especially for this monumental industrial space. My first impression came to me instantly: I felt tiny. I felt moved – and almost overwhelmed – by the sheer scale of the piece. Shimmering sheets hang like precious textiles from the soaring ceiling. I looked closer at some of the forms of the hanging objects and considered what they might look like. A moon? A planet? A wave? Observing the way they gently floated in the space felt oddly calming. The soft echoes of passers-by faded into the background as I spent longer and longer with the artwork. 

Eventually, I felt it was time to learn a bit about the artist’s intention. To my surprise, I learned that the sculpture is made from thousands of metal bottle caps and other waste fragments. Anatsui sourced these from Nigeria, and is interested in the migration of goods and people during the transatlantic slave trade and an industry built on colonial trade routes. It was a lot to take in – and I felt thankful that I’d committed to taking some extra time with the artwork. 

Tips on slow looking
Photograph: Andy Parsons

Tips on slow looking

If I had to compare slow looking to food, it felt like working my way through a delicious trifle. Layers and layers to devour. Here’s what I’d recommend when you give it a try:

1: Choose an artwork that really calls to you
You don’t have to instantly love it or hate it – but it should spark intrigue. You’re going to spend at least five minutes with it, after all… 

2: Don’t worry if you’re not instantly in the zone 
If, like me, you struggle with meditation, slow looking could be your ticket to mindfulness! Having something to focus on (rather than simply trying to pause all thought) helped me to feel more in the moment. 

3: You’re not an art expert – and that’s the point!
Don’t expect your brain to suddenly adopt the persona of a Courtaud-trained art critic. You’re you, and your thoughts and feelings about an artwork are valid. And more importantly, the process is meant to be enjoyable! Toss out any concerns that you ‘don’t understand’. If you get stuck, consider things like use of colour, light and shadow, perspective. 

4: Try it as often as you like
Tate Britain and Tate Modern make it incredibly easy to try slow looking. Entry to the permanent collections is free (and membership gives you unlimited entry to all exhibitions). That means you could drop in any time, even if you’ve just got a 20-minute slice of time on your lunch break. 

Plan your visit to Tate’s free collections.

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