I opened the door and confronted a tempting box of Milky Way bars, perched upon a platform engraved with the word “Nein” (No) on a brass plaque.
No one would know if I were to eat the chocolate. I was at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin in January. In the exhibit, entitled “One on One,” visitors received a do-not-disturb style sign to hang on the door to each of the museum’s 17 chambers. These chambers were filled with art specifically created for a single viewer at a time.
My program guide directly referenced this set-up: “Alone in the space with the art, one-on-one with a work that was made for the single individual, in a direct and inescapable interaction—intimate and confrontational.”
As an art philistine, I was nervous about navigating this exhibit. How would I know what to think about each piece, without being able to gauge the reactions of other visitors surrounding me? There was no signage to indicate what each room contained: each of the five floors had enormous enclosures, all painted white, so going in was the only way to know what was inside.
Many of the rooms demanded waiting in long lines; naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to enter a room with no other patrons outside. My first room contained the Milky Way bars referenced above—it was amusing and frustrating to realize that I was being dared to consume the first piece of art I encountered. I exited and chose to take on the longest line in the whole museum.
I passed the time in line watching others go into the Milky Way room. Some emerged looking irritated while others looked bemused. Some concealed their reaction with impassive faces. Off in the distance, I could hear muted piano music that began and ceased intermittently. Finally, after 45 minutes, I was the first in line for a room that seemed to generate tangible energy around it. My predecessor materialized in front of me, after what seemed like an eternity. He gave me a nod, with a slight smirk on his face.
I put my sign on the door, which opened into an atrium with another door.
Through the second, and suddenly the piano music stopped, abruptly.
Two men were sitting before a piano, hands hovering over the keys from their interrupted duet. I stood only a few paces away, unaware of what was expected of me or how I should respond. They looked at me, expectantly. One player took a sip from a glass of water. Time seemed to stretch. The only noise came from the courtyard floors below.
I had the power to influence the performance because I was there, too. I could have asked them anything. “Do you believe in God?” or “How do you feel about sitting at this piano all day?” But any of those questions, at the time, felt contrived, so I requested that the music continue. Alas, the two men just chortled. One asked, “What are you doing in Berlin?” and gradually we eased into that conversation.
After a few minutes I felt guilty occupying their time with my non-existentialist banter, so I emerged, in the know. My successor, an older German woman, asked nervously “Is it live?” to which I answered, cryptically, “Sort of.”
In the third room, a refrigerator was positioned at the far end. I walked slowly up to it, with trepidation, at this point expecting a human head or some other sort of gruesome object inside. However, upon opening the refrigerator door, I was confronted with nothing.
This exhibit transformed my understanding of what it means to appreciate art. With no written descriptions of the pieces, or art-history major friends to guide me, I was able to create my own conception of what the artist “meant” with each piece (maybe they didn’t intend for any meaning to be derived). In many crowded museums in destination cities, viewing art feels like an exercise in productivity and accomplishment. But in this exhibit there were no interruptions or distractions or guidance.
The closest sensation I’ve had to that experience at Duke was my independent study last Fall with the best professor I’ve ever had (and will ever have). Absent class peers, it was just he and I, talking about books. There was immense pressure to come prepared and ready to ask questions, but there were no notes to be passed and no comments to take as bait. I didn’t know when I proposed the independent course of study what I was getting myself into, and after he approved it, only he was able to influence how I interpreted the material.
Both of these types of knowledge were refreshing, and continue to challenge my perception of artists and of texts. Since I worry that we take too many cues from others, and too few from ourselves, my one prescription would be this: Set-up an independent study with someone you admire so much it terrifies you, and liberate yourself from all other influences.
Samantha Lachman is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Tuesday. Follow her on Twitter @SamLachman.