Taking the Happy Train to the Rubin

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We all take furtive glances at our fellow passengers on the subway. Don't we? Sometimes they are so unaware of their surroundings, that our gaze gets to linger all the time it takes to get from Columbus Circle to 65th Street. But generally the unwritten rule is: don't. Subway travel pretends at intimacy by a forced proximity; in truth it tends to be the most private time we have. We are rocked into a trance by the motion of the train, the flashing past of harshly lit stations, the monotony of the daily commute. But what if we could really stare and study our fellow straphangers for minutes at a time? This is what artist Josh Melnick strove to do with an project that involved a NASA engineered camera that shoots less than two seconds of footage at 1,300 frames a second, but replays it for three minutes or more. That is slow-mo for sure. His idea was simple: What if we could see an ordinary sight in an extraordinary way? Armed with this state-of-the-art camera, he went underground to ingratiate himself with some riders. Inspired by insight meditation and our limited ability to observe our own perception, Melnick wanted to see if time were slowed down for us, would we finally be made aware?

The key words here are insight meditation, and synonymous with those words is of course one of America's leading spiritual teachers and authors, Sharon Salzberg. Cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Mass., she has played a crucial role in bringing Asian meditation practices to the West. The ancient Buddhist practices of vipassana (mindfulness) and metta (lovingkindness) are the foundations of her work. When I was casting around for personalities to take on the tricky subject of happiness for The Rubin's season of "HappyTalk" in the fall of 2012, Sharon Salzberg was a natural; she is the author of Real Happiness, after all. She put forward the Yale graduate Josh Melnick as her conversation partner because she was fascinated by his portraits of commuters in transit in The 8 Train exhibition that she had seen.

The Buddha said that all beings want to be happy. And he said that we are all vulnerable to loss, to change. I sensed the truth of that, watching those unpretentious faces, and felt how close we all actually are, and how close we should rightly feel. I think Josh's art is deep and true, and transformative. Seeing the exhibit left me contemplating the potential of art to change the way we see ourselves and others. And eager to look around the subway car.

So on the evening of Oct. 3, 2012, on the big screen in The Rubin's theater, Josh Melnick replayed for us this fascinating and mesmerizing set of slow-motion portraits. Ordinary people. Extraordinary access. Because the motion is infinitesimal, the films lie in that uneasy territory between still photography and cinema. An involuntary twitch, when slowed down to such a degree, seems almost purposeful. Salzberg immediately voiced our curiosity about how the artist was able to approach complete strangers on the subway. Why would anyone wish to be put under the magnifying glass of slow motion to such a degree? Melnick admitted that there had been an awkward space between asking them to be shot and starting up the camera, which is not just like flashing out your iphone; he had a cinematographer with him. Yet when the strangeness of the project was explained to the commuters, it allowed Melnick to get close to them, to forge a connection. And that is precisely what leads us to happiness, according to Salzberg. To underscore this she recalled an anecdote Tibet scholar Robert Thurman often invokes when illustrating the kindness needed in our society, "'Imagine you are on the New York City subway, and these Martians come and zap the subway car so that those of you in the car are going to be together ... forever.' What do we do? If someone is hungry, we feed them. If someone is freaking out, we try to calm them down. We might not at all like everybody, or approve of them -- but we are going to be together forever, and we need to respond with the wisdom of how interrelated our lives are, and will remain."

Happily for The Rubin, Sharon Salzberg will be ever more closely interrelated with us: not only has she moved within walking distance of the museum in Chelsea, but she will also be featured in a series of short portraits On Meditation that will be premiered in 2014. David Lynch, the Venerable Metteyya, Breaking Bad's Giancarlo Esposito, yogi Elena Brower and writer Peter Matthiessen are among those featured.

Finally the elephant in the room during the 2012 on-stage conversation was posed by the artist Josh Melnick himself: "Am I happy?" He then asked of Sharon Salzberg, "Do you think happiness and creativity can co-exist?" "I was going to ask you the same thing!" exclaimed the meditation teacher. And to find out the conclusion they came to, tune in to GPS for the Soul, which is running a clip from the HappyTalk at The Rubin.