Things to Do

You Can’t Instagram This Art Exhibit, and That’s the Point

Simon Heijdens's "Silent Room" is more like pressing pause on life.

Photo of the Silent Room courtesy of the artist.

I spent Saturday morning glued to Twitter, constantly refreshing for updates about President Trump’s Muslim ban. The story was developing rapidly—and still is—and I wanted to stay informed. It reminded me of the days after the election, when my consumption of news and social media outpaced my ability to process it. My head was spinning.

At noon, I had an appointment to go stand alone in a shipping container void of sound and color. Called the “Silent Room,” the container is a temporary mobile art exhibit stationed at the Netherlands Embassy that’s acoustically engineered to filter out all sound. The Dutch artist Simon Heijdens first developed the room for the Austin music festival SXSW to provide a soundless, solitary contrast to the music and crowds at the festival. He worked with acoustic experts at the University of Texas at Austin to perfect the room’s mechanics.

“It’s about creating this reflection to its direct environment,” Heijdens says. “And the contrast between the over-saturation of the outside world, and the silence, peace, and perhaps contemplation of inside the room.”

When I arrived at the embassy, which is tucked away in a secluded, leafy corner of Northwest, there was already about a dozen people lining up outside the iron gates. After about twenty minutes, it was my turn. Because of the line, we were limited to just two minutes inside. I set my phone to do-not-disturb mode and stepped into the dimly lit, 40-foot long chamber. I heard the “thwack” of the door sealing behind me. Then, utter silence.

I walked along a slightly inclined runway toward the back of the room and closed my eyes. Within a minute, I could start to hear the blood rushing through my ear canals. It felt as though I were underwater. While visitors before me had left to come up for air before their two minutes were up, I wanted to keep sinking deeper, letting the silence wash over me.

But then, the seal was broken. The facilitator opened the door, and I walked out feeling strangely calm. After the bombardment of news from early in the day, the chamber provided a temporary escape from the real world—if only for two minutes.

When I spoke to to Heijdens the next day, he said that the poetry of the work is in the individual experience. “The room becomes as interesting as the person itself that’s in it,” he says.

Though I resumed my frantic news consumption after I left the room, I found myself craving its temporary nothingness. It was the closest thing I’ve ever had to pressing pause on life. Maybe I should start meditating.

“Silent Room” is open through February 1 at the Netherlands Embassy, 4200 Linnean Ave., NW. You can visit the free installation on weekdays from 12-2 p.m. Email to register with the number of visitors, names, and the desired date and time of visit.

Web producer/writer

Greta started as an editorial fellow in January 2016 and joined as a full-time staff member that August. She now works as a web producer and writer. She was previously an intern at Slate and National Geographic and graduated from the University of Missouri’s Journalism School. She lives in Adams Morgan.