A young woman takes my hand and asks for a volunteer. She is my height, slight and lithe in a torn white t-shirt and turquoise gym pants. When I agree, she leads me into a side room and asks me to wait, and I sit on a pillow facing an Assyrian statue.
We are at the Williams College Museum of Art on their monthly night open, and she is Kelly Wang, a Williams student who has worked with Los Angeles performance artist Hana van der Kolk this winter. This evening the is class performing in the second floor galleries, and the students are inviting the audience to join in.
She returns with a man about her own age and seats us in a circle. She asks each of us to look at the person to our right, and so I sit quietly looking at her -- at the shadow of her hair on her forehead, the fold of her shirt on her collar bone, and the slight movements of her eyes as she follows the assignment. A radio recording is playing in a kind of Professor Von Drake hype nearby, but I don't hear it; the room is the three of us.
Then she sets a timer and asks the young man (his name is Ben) and me to look into each other's eyes until it goes off, and she walks out of the room. And I am sitting in a room I will remember as silent, though the galleries around it are full of talking people, and music plays over the excitable German voice feet away. I will remember it feeling like the meditation sessions I went to with a friend in Portsmouth, when I would think of my breathing and my own body, from the toes upward, to keep my mind quiet.
But here I am looking into the eyes of a man I don't know, and who doesn't know me. He has dark, curly hair and a kind, wry look. And we sit still, barely shifting our weight, following our own thoughts without looking away.
Five minutes go by and feel brief. When the bell ends them, we talk as we were asked to: We say that it felt like making an agreement to keep focused, and we wanted to keep it. We say that we thought most about what the experience was like, and I say I also wondered what he thought, but I'm a journalist, and I'm always asking people what they think. We thank each other and amble away in different directions.
In the next quiet gallery, I try the same concentration on a black and white gelatin print from Mexico. I set myself to look into it for five minutes. Sunlight sifts through shade trees onto a slanting surface -- a sheet on a line? The roof of a house? I look into the flickering shadows, trying to get my feet on the ground in this image, which seems stubbornly to float. Is that obscured wooden shape in the corner a telephone pole in the distance, or the cross-piece of a wooden laundry line? What kind of tree has such striated bark and fine leaves?
The music over the speakers shifts to a quick beat and guitar and voices. It feels like the kind of music people might sing in this neighborhood, on a dusty, hot day. As I stand there, as I keep my attention quietly focused, I feel the print growing, holding an atmosphere, a sadness, the weight of the heat and bright, forceful people wanting more to do. I can feel the sheet blowing on the line and the woman with the basket coming to fold it away.