Amid Chaos, Finding Calm at the Rubin Museum of Art

The Rubin Museum of Art’s Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room allowed Gerald Busby to disappear “into wordless peacefulness.” | Photo by David De Armas

BY GERALD BUSBY | When I discovered the Rubin Museum of Art in 2007, three years after it opened, major renovation had already begun at the Chelsea Hotel, my home for over 30 years, and I faced the alarming possibility of eviction. Something guided me to the Rubin, whose atmosphere I found serene. It was the perfect counterpart to the banging, crashing, and drilling that daily intruded on my consciousness through the walls, ceiling, and floor of my apartment. The Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room was where I went to find calmness. In the Shrine Room “I” disappeared into wordless peacefulness. Calm versus chaos — the Rubin Museum versus the Chelsea Hotel — was the context I created to deal with the stress I felt.

The Rubin’s current series of talks, films, and experiences — “The Future is Fluid” (this year’s installment of their annual “Brainwave” series) — is a comprehensive survey of consciousness and perception, and the arbitrary delineations of time as past, present, and future. Neuroscientists and Buddhists teachers, sitting side by side on stage before an audience, discuss how and why we think about thinking, and how thought about thought expresses a natural need to identify ourselves as subjective, as well as objective beings in the world.

“Brainwave” topics include the saturation of human consciousness by the cyber world and virtual reality. Buddhism has for thousands of years said illusion is the basis of human perception. As I sat in the audience on the evening of Feb. 21, listening to Buddhist teacher Loch Kelly and Princeton astrophysics professor Piet Hut explain that “The Now is Not the Present Moment,” I was riveted by every word they said, particularly regarding the ephemeral connection between myself as subject and myself as object. Words are just one way to distinguish between these two ways of perceiving myself. Mindfulness is another. Being conscious of consciousness may be my non-aesthetic perception of myself.

In a Feb. 24 “Brainwave” conversation, I heard the artist Shezad Dawood and the neuroscientist Leah Kelly discuss how thinking of time as fluid affects your identity. I recalled a time 40 years ago when I had to deal with fear as a performer. I was making my debut as a screen actor, in 1977, in Robert Altman’s film, “A Wedding,” playing a Southern Baptist preacher. My character was telling Dina Merrill’s character how he found Jesus while having sex with somebody in a Holiday Inn. I was so frightened I could hardly breathe. Altman came over to me and said, “Don’t resist your fear, Gerald. Use its energy to tell your story.” That advice became the basis for how I have dealt with distress at the Chelsea Hotel. When I felt threatened and fearful of losing my home, I used that energy to write string quartets, my favorite form of chamber music. Since renovation began at the Chelsea in 2007, I’ve written 26 string quartets. They’re my emotional diaries of the last 11 years.

A recent “Brainwave” conversation between artist Shezad Dawood (seen here) and neuroscientist Leah Kelly contemplated the fluidity of time and its impact on identity. | Photo by Filip Wolak

Immediately after the hotel was sold and Stanley Bard, the legendary manager, was ousted, the new owners began renovation. They made the tenants’ practical lives difficult and uncomfortable. We fought a legal battle to remain as residents, and we won — but we were left with the reality of prolonged renovation caused in part by lawsuits instigated by residents who weren’t members of the Chelsea Hotel Tenants Association. Work on the hotel was halted several times, and completion seemed remote.

Beyond the yellow awning is El Quijote restaurant, where a series of meetings transformed life for tenants of the Chelsea Hotel (seen here in its current state). | Photo by Scott Stiffler

Then came Hurricane Sandy, and the Chelsea Hotel reached its bleakest point. Without electricity, sheer existence took on primal significance. Friends from the 10th floor brought me a comforter, a flashlight, a portable radio tuned to NPR, and several boxes of cereal. The hotel staff offered coffee and doughnuts in the dimly lit lobby. The furniture was covered with plastic sheets, and the dusty walls revealed silhouettes of paintings that had hung there during the Chelsea’s glory days. The string quartet I wrote then was subtitled “Snakes in the Outhouse.”

I was thinking of this when Dawood and Kelly talked about the difference between emotional reaction and spontaneous intuitive responsiveness. I thought also of the first meetings of the Tenants Association, in the back dining room of El Quijote restaurant, located on the ground floor of the hotel. The faded, cracked red and gold trim on the woodwork seemed to express perfectly the demise of the Chelsea Hotel and deep nostalgia we tenants keenly felt for the good old days.

The precise memory that Dawood and Kelly’s words triggered for me was the transformations I witnessed at the tenant meetings at El Quijote. Most notable was Zoe Pappas, a longtime resident, who emerged as the leader of our Tenants Association, with zeal and determination that inspired us. Her voice, even when in the grip of impassioned rhetoric, struck the perfect tone to express our complaints and fears. “We will fight back, and we will win. We will keep our apartments.” And that’s exactly what happened.

The Chelsea Hotel and the Rubin Museum of Art have been the arenas where my worst demons have actualized and reshaped themselves into string quartets. I’m grateful for this experience.

The Chelsea Hotel is located at 222 W. 23rd St., btw. Seventh & Eighth Aves. The Rubin Museum of Art is located at 150 W. 17th St., btw. Sixth & Seventh Aves. For the complete schedule of “Brainwave” events (now through April) and info on other programming, visit rubinmuseum.org.

Exploring aspects of consciousness and perception, “Brainwave: The Future is Fluid” events run through April. | Image courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

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