May 27, 2017 - I led the way. I wasn’t entirely sure if we were headed in the right direction, but there was only one road in sight and no one around to ask. The skin on my shoulders burned under the sizzling afternoon sun but a stirring breeze urged me forward, bend after bend, hill after hill. Tightening my grip on the handlebars, I glanced back, just to check. She was only a few meters behind.
We had the island to ourselves, it seemed. As I rode, I took it all in: the sweeping rice terraces, the salty air, the curving coastline and brown shrub bordering our path. In the distance, the sky touched a timid sea, a sure but wonderfully delicate flirtation.
Eventually, the Teshima Art Museum came into sight. The museum, designed by Tokyo-based architect Ryue Nishizawa and Japanese artist Rei Naito, consists of two two porcelain-white domes nestled in the green slopes overlooking the Seto Inland Sea. We parked our bikes by the side of the main road. I ditched the paper map I had taken at the port earlier. Best to trust the adventure. A young man greeted us at the entrance of the first dome, and instructed us to take off our shoes. Please do not take photos, he added. Please keep quiet. We were weary of rules, which felt particularly incongruous here but we did as we were told. Shoes off, phone silenced and camera put away, we searched the guard’s face for permission to enter.
She led the way. A low-arching passageway opened into a bare cavernous room. Standing still, my eyes explored the room for something comprehensible or mundane. Where am I? At the hollow core of a nameless planet or the nucleus of an achromatic atom; under a smooth, pearly shell or the coarse carpase of a turtle; in the belly of a cracked egg, emptied of its yolk; in the cupped palms of an angel or the curved lens of a telescope facing an infinite sky?
The ground was sprinkled with small rubber balls that unpredictably spurted water. Puddles formed in the shallow craters of the cool concrete. Droplets quivered nervously as they slid from puddle to puddle. I was careful not to step in water, all the while wondering what it would feel like if I did.
Two oval-shaped openings were carved in the dome and light poured through. Other visitors lay on the ground, propped up on backpacks or rolled-up sweaters. Some kept their eyes closed; some stood transfixed by the circular patches of light that stained the ground. In the silence, I became conscious of the rhythm of my breath: smoother inhales, longer exhales. Staring at the sky, basking in all its vastness, I tried to conjure thought but time asked for nothing but presence, silence and stillness.
She was waiting for me outside. I located my shoes and fumbled to untie the knotted laces. As we staggered back to our bikes, we tacitly agreed not to reduce the experience to conversation. Not just yet.
There was one more stop on the island we intended to make before heading back to the port: Les Archives du Coeur. I quickly realized that it had been rash to ditch the map, for there were no signs indicating the way to the installation. With the Teshima Art Museum at our backs, we continued on the main road, flying downhill, toward an unobstructed horizon.
Fifteen minutes later we found ourselves on a rocky beach in front of a dark wood house. A middle-aged woman in a pristinely-pressed lab coat confirmed we were in the right place. Good afternoon! Welcome to The Heart Archive. She proceeded to run through a scripted explanation: the archive permanently houses recordings of thousands of heartbeats of people from all over the world, collected by artist Christian Boltanski.
I entered Recording Room A, a spartan cell, furnished with nothing but a desk, chair, computer, stethoscope and headphones. As I sat down, the computer hummed and turned on; instructions marched across the screen. I slipped on the headphones and brought the cold resonator to my chest. A dull, rhythmic thumping slowly became audible. The recording started. I held my breath.
Suddenly, I was overcome by an oddly vivid sensation of leaving my perceived physical body, and traveling beyond it. My heart was externalized: the source of my life became audible and visible. From that vision, my consciousness pulled back and up, like the lens of a camera zooming out: I saw my heart methodically contracting and dilating in my chest, my body inert in the tiny chair in the center of the barren room, Boltanski’s brown cabin hidden on the edge of an inhabited island surrounded by the expansive, placid Seto Inland Sea. For 40 seconds, my heart throbbed in my ears, and I wandered off, as if in a lucid dream. An acute beep signaled the end of the recording and brought me back.
In the adjacent Heart Room, a single light bulb hung from a low ceiling. A booming heartbeat echoed throughout the dark vault and light pulsed to its cadence. I felt overwhelmed by the presence of whomever’s heart was beating in that room, whoever’s existence was embodied by the flickering bulb. Inside the chambers of a stranger’s heart I was profoundly, intimately connected.
Perhaps for the first time in my life, the passing of time demanded no sacrifice.