art · Empowering Art


Louise Bourgeois, 1999, National Gallery Canada

A confrontation with something unexpected can make you pause, look up, and examine yourself and your world. Outdoor, monumental sculptures often provide such an encounter. Maman, a 30-foot sculpture of a spider by the late French artist Louis Bourgeoius, can not be ignored. And it is impossible for a viewer to just look at it. She can not walk past it without engaging with it, and as such, she can not walk past it without engaging with herself. 

Most works inside the walls of a gallery or museum promote a passive viewing experience (much like zoning out to the tv), in which the viewer can look and analyze if she chooses, but is not encouraged to interact with the artwork or her environment. But Maman, with its profound strength of presence, demands a different relationship with its viewers. Outside the Guggenheim museum in Bilbau, it towers above and dwarfs passersby. Viewers immediately recognize their relative smallness. Some find themselves instantly anxious and fearful as old memories of spiders creep up in their minds. Others sense peace and safety, as they realize that they are standing alongside something so much bigger than themselves. It offers a multitude of vantage points; viewers can touch it, walk inside it, look up at it, and weave in and out of the spider’s elegant yet powerful legs. And while rotating artworks can change the appearance of the walls of museums and galleries, the walls themselves remain the same — they are two-dimensional, usually white and static. Maman, placed as it is outside, changes with the weather, with the sirens of the streets, with the shifting light of day. It is always evolving. Whatever your reaction to it, this mammoth, dominating work of art amplifies sensory awareness. It pulls you outside of yourself and reminds you that everything is in relationship with everything else. 

You don’t have to locate a larger-than-life sculpture to test its abilities to foster mindfulness, but if you come across one, pay attention to your response. Until then, allow the nearby trees, mountains or buildings help you ponder space and your relationship to it.

  1. Find a tall building or tree that you have daily access to. Visit the building or tree at different times of day for three days — in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening. This will provide a variety of different lighting and atmospheric conditions.
  2. Chart the ways in which the appearance of the building/tree shifts according to the time of day, weather and surroundings. Monet famously executed such an experiment in his Rouen Cathedral series, in which he painted the facade of the French cathedral at different times of day and in different seasons between 1892-3. He demonstrated that even something as seemingly invariable as an architectural monument has a mutable appearance. Put simply, our surroundings change the way we look — and they can change the way we look at things. 
  3. Self-reflect. Do you feel smaller, more powerful, connected to your world? How are you impacted by the presence of something else? Consider how your own perceptions and self-awareness change as you study the unmoving building/tree. Promise to allow yourself time to reflect similarly on your relationships to yourself and others in the days that follow. 

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