Which salad should be read silently

Silence as art, if only the puree smacks your lips

In the "Silence Project" women artists seek silence in the noise of the big city

From Jenni Roth

Mashed potatoes and salad: what is it like to eat in silence? (picture alliance / dpa / XAMAX)

What is it like to sit at a table with strangers for 90 minutes and not be allowed to speak a word? The artist Nina Backman is on the trail of silence in big cities. Visiting an experiment in Finland.

First the sesame sticks that crack loudly between your teeth. And now the cauliflower. It is definitely part of the experimental set-up: It almost sounds brutal how 22 spoons try tactlessly to cut up the white florets in the soup.

But after a while the noises sound forgiving, almost like a musical composition. Allegro, Presto, Adagio. Either way: At the "Silent Dinner" it's anything but quiet.

The experiment: An evening in the "Galleri F15" in Moss, not far from Oslo. 22 people who don't know each other. A three course meal. And above all: not a word. For an hour and a half without small talk, the guests pour wine into their glasses, chuckling, and cut up vegetable wedges. And see what happens. With themselves and with the people around them.

Busy chewing and swallowing as quietly as possible

A man's spoon, round glasses, thinning hair, slips on the cauliflower, soup spills over the edge of the plate. He looks around, nobody has caught him. Most of them are busy chewing and swallowing as quietly as possible and carefully placing the glasses on the white tablecloth.

But it is not quiet. It's getting louder and louder. Especially in the break between courses. Whither only with hands, looks, thoughts? At the end of the table someone starts giggling.

The unrest spreads through the series. Host Nina Backman thought something like this beforehand:

"It's a Finnish, maybe Nordic thought: If you can keep quiet, you are at peace with yourself. It reveals a lot about a person when they cannot be quiet with themselves ..."

It is her third silent dinner, and she is watching the guests closely. Backman is not a behavioral scientist. She is an artist and comes from Finland, a large country with a small population - and the "Jokamiehenoikeus", the "everyone's right": That means: land, forests, lakes are there for everyone. This is one of the reasons why people have always had a close relationship with the great outdoors and its silence.

The puree smacks softly

The dinner is part of an interdisciplinary "Silence Project" in which Backman and other artists seek the quiet of their home in the noise of the big city. And tests how big the influence of the respective culture is on such a dinner in Berlin, Oslo or Hong Kong.

The waitress with the blond braid is on the march: You quickly learn how different shoes sound on the floor. Soon the first ones are sitting in front of their reindeer fillet on potato mousse - and are not quite sure whether to start. Finally the hostess is waiting for her plate. And after all, you can't ask your neighbor.

Then you can finally hear everything that otherwise goes under because the child is screaming at the same time, or the radio is on: the puree smacks softly, the pâté flakes apart like a soft rustle in the leaves.

There is a silence that is reminiscent of John Cage's "Silent Piece" from 1952: the avant-garde composer delivered the audience to his cough, the noise in the room: the pianist sat on the stage without playing a note. But it wasn't quiet. There is no absolute silence - not even in an anechoic room, where blood still rushes in your own veins and your heart beats.

"A very intimate experience"

So what is silence, a place, a feeling? Where does it start, where does it end?

After an hour and a half, Nina Backman ends the silence. It almost seems as if everyone has been holding their breath since the first sesame stick - and are finally allowed to breathe again.

"It was weird - there was such a bond: people seem like old friends even though I don't even know them!"

"It was a very intimate experience when you just have to use gestures and body language to communicate ... It's very special."

Leftovers are art now

"Most of them are trapped in their bodies. I looked for eye contact, but everyone avoided it. And now that we're talking again, everyone suddenly looks you in the eye! I think that in such an exceptional situation you learn a lot about yourself - and about interpersonal relationships. "

"It was almost 'cage-esk', a silence with a certain rhythm. In between I was transported back to my childhood: I was always sent to a farm like this to have my hair cut, where people were so silent. And: Actually, I am such a 'steak guy', but the meat suddenly no longer tasted, almost boring compared to the other food, and it was difficult to chew! "

The next day the wine glasses with the dried up remains are still on the table, traces of the strawberry sauce look strangely distant in the daylight. The leftovers are now art: as part of a group exhibition, they show how special silence has become: it now needs an exhibition space in order to be noticed at all.

You can find more information on the project website.