Handling Difficult Feelings Through Art: National Gallery Singapore's Slow Art programme

National Gallery Singapore’s Slow Art programme takes people through slow looking and mindfulness exercises, while also introducing them to art appreciation.

  • 31 May 2024
Arts administrator Alicia and medical doctor Mabel are two of the driving forces behind National Gallery Singapore's Slow Art Programme

Arts administrator Alicia Teng (left) and medical doctor Mabel Yap (right) are two of the driving forces behind National Gallery Singapore’s Slow Art programme.

“I think slowing down is quite a foreign concept in Singapore,” says Alicia Teng, “we are so used to being efficient even when walking home from the train station — everything goes by so quickly!”

And it’s not just our legs that race from one place to the next: it’s our minds too, especially when we’re stressed.

“When we have difficult feelings, the tendency is always to run away,” says Dr. Mabel Yap, “but can we sit with them just as they are for a moment? Because when we suppress our emotions, they will bounce back at us. Their energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed into something less threatening.”

Alicia and Mabel are part of the team behind National Gallery Singapore (the Gallery)’s Slow Art programme, which uses slow looking and mindfulness exercises built around specific artworks to help people stay present, process, and manage their state of mind better. 

A visitor contemplating one of the featured artworks in the Slow Art audio guides

A visitor contemplates The Face in Meditation (1975) by Abdul Ghani Hamid, one of the featured artworks in the Slow Art audio guides. Photo: National Gallery Singapore.

Slow down, you move too fast

“Many people go to museums and whiz past everything without spending time to reflect or feel,” says Mabel, “the idea of slow art is to take in artworks with all the senses, and to use them to ground yourself in the moment. Not just interacting through the eyes, but also with your feelings and memories.”

Mabel has worked in the public health sector for 40 years. She first discovered art, mindfulness, and yoga during a personal health crisis, and has since started coaching alongside her medical work.

Alicia, meanwhile, is Deputy Director of the Gallery’s Community & Access team. Having joined the museum from its opening, over the years she has seen it become a major cultural destination. “We aim to be the People’s Museum,” she says.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, both women heard about the stresses felt by frontliners such as healthcare workers (HCWs) and wanted to do something for them. Even before the pandemic, art therapists had approached the Gallery asking to use its collection, sowing the seeds of an idea that would eventually become the Slow Art programme. 

A group of people examining an art work - practising slow looking and mindfulness together allows people to share different perspectives and connect

Art appreciation needn’t be a solo activity, as this group examining San Minn’s Age of Full Bloom (1979) proves. Practicing slow looking and mindfulness together allows people to share different perspectives and connect. Photo: National Gallery Singapore.

Listening to and with the heart

The Gallery’s Slow Art programme first launched as a 60-minute Zoom workshop. When people started visiting museums again, the Gallery debuted Slow Art audio guides in Singapore’s four languages (also available on YouTube).

Slow Art Guide allows visitors to listen to the audio guides by scanning QR codes next to each artwork. They are carefully designed to provide the listener maximum agency: they only suggest, never direct, and provide plenty of space for pauses or stepping away if things get overwhelming.

“We put a lot of effort into making the guides safe, yet applicable enough for people to use on their own,” says Mabel. 

“There was a great deal of care in the development process,” Alicia agrees.

The Gallery's Calm Room is a safe space for people to decompress if they are overwhelmed

The Gallery’s Calm Room is a safe space for people to decompress if they feel overwhelmed or overstimulated. Its layout, lighting, and even upholstery were designed in consultation with various experts and members of the public. Photo: National Gallery Singapore.

Diving deep into our changing moods

The Gallery’s Community & Access team works closely with social service agencies and has conducted guided sessions for HCWs, cancer survivors, caregivers, and active seniors.  

“We occasionally see tears,” Alicia says, “many people walk in not knowing what to expect and discover emotions they didn't realise they were holding.” Some repeat visitors even find that their relationship to an artwork can shift depending on their circumstances and outlook that day.

For example, Kim Lim’s sculpture Irrawaddy (1979) —  a series of pinewood blocks resting on each other — is the only three-dimensional artwork of the group. Listeners can not only observe it from different angles, but from different emotional viewpoints as well. 

“I like that you can reflect on which pinewood block you identify with,” says Jocelyn Ang, Assistant Manager, Community & Access, “am I one that’s giving or receiving support today? Can I be doing both simultaneously?”

Through the exercises people can learn to accept where they are, and not feel overwhelmed or driven to reacting impulsively by the stresses they are facing in the moment.

Slow Art sessions with a certified facilitator use a different set of artworks than the self-directed audio guides

Slow Art sessions with a certified facilitator use a different set of artworks than the self-directed audio guides. With a professional present for safety, visitors have greater licence to explore more intense emotions and subject matter. Photo: National Gallery Singapore.

Applying science to wellness

Although wellness can sometimes be a fuzzy concept, the Gallery treats the Slow Art programme with academic rigour. “We believe in an evidence-based approach,” says Alicia.

The team frequently conducts and publishes impact studies with the support of donors like the Johnson & Johnson Foundation, then uses its findings to improve the guides as well as produce new content.

“Studies have found that slow looking and mindfulness have measurable impacts on mental health and cognitive function.” says Mabel, “You can see a difference in things like the amount of cortisone [linked to the human stress response] in people’s saliva.”

But the most important outcome of the Slow Art programme isn’t medical data. It’s whether people feel more resilient and equipped to cope with life’s stresses.

“It’s a set of skills that they can apply for themselves in their daily lives,” says Mabel, “and like any skill, it needs practice.”

Try a bite-sized version of Slow Art Guide here, or visit National Gallery Singapore to experience the Slow Art programme.