Updated: Aug 2
In some senses Piero Manzoni’s 1960 piece, Artists Breath is the quintessential connection between the visual arts and the practice of mindfulness. It consisted of a red balloon, filled with the artist's breath which was tied to a string and then attached to a wooden board with two seals that have the artist's name punched into them. There is also a metal plaque attached to the wood bearing the artist's name and the title of the work, Fiato d'artista.
Now the artist is dead, the breath is gone, the balloon is deflated, and its rubber has perished and become brittle and fragile. The string is held in place only through its connection to the fragments of the balloon stuck to the wood at one end and the two seals at the other. Manzoni said of the piece at the time “When I blow up a balloon, I am breathing my soul into an object that becomes eternal”. Far from being eternal, however, Artists Breath is a testament to the impermanence of everything, including, and especially so in this instance, the breath. Each breath gives way to the next breath, even when constrained within the confines of a balloon. The breath doesn’t last forever. The artist's soul, to use Manzoni’s expression, has dissipated and is no more a part of this physical breathing world. The moment cannot be contained.
The analogy of the soul with the breath won’t be lost on long-time mindfulness devotees who may be familiar with the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk when he said:
“Please do not put my ashes in a vase, lock me inside and limit who I am. I am not in here, I am not out there either. If I am anywhere, it is in your mindful breathing …”
Permanence cannot be forced upon the impermanent. Nothing is eternal, not even eternity. Everything must inevitably pass, and like Manzoni’s breath, give rise to something new: the withered remains of the balloon he thought would be an expression of his eternal soul now replaces the expanded and vibrant red balloon that inevitably had to perish.
In art, the impermanence of things, in contrast to the efforts of Manzoni, has become the context within which other artists have worked. The Land Artists, Richard Long, and Andy Goldsworthy have both celebrated the ephemeral nature of existence through their conceptual pieces. The process of creation is as important as the end product that reveals so much of what cannot be put into words. The experience of creation and of course destruction is the focal point of the work. The passage of time, the dissolution of now into a new now are the raw materials of Long and Goldsworthy and many others. All visual art, in fact, works with this primary material.
The process of artistic creation can lead to a sense of wonder that can infuse each lived moment of the creative act. We watch the destruction of the pristine surface by our own hands and marvel at the new thing that is in the process of becoming that pours out of the lead in our pencil. Destruction of the surface gives way to the arising of something else in its place. Creativity always rests on the foundation of destruction. One breath must die for another to be born. It’s an opportunity to embrace the moment with fascination and curiosity leading to a radical falling in love with the process of change and the impermanence of everything.
Working as an artist is about getting into the flow, mindfully. According to positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, this is the secret of happiness. When you are in the state of flow, you are in the zone. Flow is inevitably a process of continual change.
As artists, we enter into a state of flow with the world and can, as within the process of meditation, be drawn into a deeper and quieter part of ourselves that is built on present moment awareness. The creative act has the potential to tap into this awareness of being that is empty of judgement or interpretation, which is simply an expression of flow; the eternal act of becoming and ceasing.
As Eckhart Tolle noted, “All true artists, whether they know it or not, create from a place of no-mind, from inner stillness”. This is a place with no physical definition. There is no material form to separate consciousness from the experience or awareness of consciousness, there is only mind, experiencing mind.
Art is always about starting where you are. When we make a mark on a canvas, we do so from the perspective of being fully present with the creative process, often in a Samatha-like absorptive state but with a Vipassana-like mindset of watching the creative process unfold as each mark gives way and leads to another. The artist's mindset, through embracing and being deeply involved in the process of change, is one built on the process of mindfulness.
As Maia Gambis noted, “Creating art is about reaching a state of consciousness and breaking free from the constant debilitating chatter of the mind.”
When we become immersed in an activity, we can easily lose track of time. The making of art eases us into this mindset where we become focused, concentrated, absorbed, and utterly aware whilst being immersed in the act of flow. The practice of mindfulness meditation is the same. All artistic endeavours are naturally expressions of mindfulness. Indeed, it could be said that the practice of making art, is humanity's oldest form of mindfulness meditation. Like more formal meditation, it is an act of mind-training that can increase awareness and help to inculcate a need to accept feelings and thoughts as they are without judgement. The body and mind become focused on one deeply relaxed experience of flowing with the natural rhythms of the universe, with the breath of the universe.
Many artists have tried to capture the experience of the breath, the fundamental focus of most mindfulness practices. We can look at the work of Shirazeh Houshiary, who, in relation to her piece, Breathe (2003), said “I set out to capture my own breath, to find the essence of my own experience, transcending name, nationality, cultures.” It is this essence of our own experience that we search for through the meditative act, either whilst on the cushion, or through the creative process. Jayne Wilton celebrates the transient and unseen nature of the breath in her drawings, Drawing Breath (2008). She used darkroom processes to capture the trace of a breath as it moved across a surface. These unseen moments of impermanence captured, not for all eternity, as Manzoni would have it, but in a different but visually perceptible form of impermanence.
Sam Winston produced a fascinating piece of mindfulness art in his piece Drawing Breath which records the length of each exhalation made by the artist over a continuous 15-hour period. The length of each line marking the length of time it took to exhale. Winston noted that “… the cumulative effect of this action is a map that reveals a unique bridge between our unconscious and conscious functioning. It is also a refocusing of attention to our dependent relationship within the aerobic world.”
Tapping into our creative impulses can lead to the same engagement with the moment as any formal meditation practice. It is a process of stark awareness of the eternal now where we engage quite directly with the coming into being and the passing away of all phenomena. Artists are involved in the act of playing with the nature of transience itself and thus can access a profound understanding of the true nature of the universe through their creative acts.