DETROIT — I’d been sitting in the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit’s (MOCAD) Cafe 78 for roughly five minutes before I noticed that the usual sonic backdrop of well-curated music had been replaced by a single repeating guitar chord, fading almost to silence each time before being reprised (with an occasional light riff). I would rate my musical acumen relatively low — I am neither a hoarder of old music nor a pioneer of new. I like what I like, and leave encounters with new music largely to chance.
Hence the initial allure of Woman in E, a major new installation by Ragnar Kjartansson, an Icelandic artist known for creating works that are equal parts music, performance, sculpture, and cinema. There is a special quality to music that appears unbidden, and the mysterious and melancholy nature of the lingering E chord begged discovery of the source. Tracking the music to a figure seen indistinctly through a curtain of gold streamers, I pushed past the metallic barrier and found myself immersed in Kjartansson’s installation. The MOCAD’s main gallery — one which, only last season, hosted a busy survey of work by 30 Latin American artists — had been swept clean and empty, but for a perimeter of glittering streamers surrounding a single rotating pedestal. The visual aesthetic mimics auto show culture, tapping into both the history of the MOCAD building as a car dealership and the annual North American International Auto Show, a major industry event for automakers and Detroiters that opened at the same time as the MOCAD’s winter program. Evoking the classic spokesmodel of the auto show milieu, Woman in E features a woman in a glittering gold dress, seated or standing impassively atop a set of slowly rotating wedding-cake-like tiers, striking an E-minor chord in smooth, regular intervals. Both light and sound ricochet around the room; the minor E chord is full of yearning and melancholy, and the tone of the installation is solemn. I hugged the perimeter and watched her rotate, quietly, under the lights. I snapped pictures.
Art that involves a living person as its base material is deeply fraught for me. Reflecting upon the exhibit, I found myself wondering about this woman. How long does she sit there — all of the museum’s open hours? Does she get bored? Or paid? Is she allowed to speak to people? It must feel terrible, I decided, to be stared at like that. Talked about and photographed. I got angry. How dare this Ragnar Kjartansson, whoever he is, come here from Iceland and draft real people, real Detroiters, into his commentary on auto show culture and gender politics? How dare he make an object out of a person and then force my complicity as a viewer in this dehumanizing act?
Luckily, I remembered that my agency as a viewer is under my control. I recalled that, in projecting my feelings onto this woman in a gold dress, in feeling indignation on her behalf, I was objectifying her just as much as Kjartansson was. The only person who could speak to her experience, I realized, was her.
So the following Saturday, I returned to the MOCAD to talk to her.
The nice thing about returning to this exhibit was that the shock and awe of first exposure had worn off. I was no longer overwhelmed by the big, empty space or the passage through the curtain into another reality. The platform seemed lower than I remembered it from my first visit, and its occupant — the same woman as before — seemed closer. Still, the baseline social awkwardness that is my birthright was doing its usual job of undermining my sense of appropriate behavior, and, combined with the ingrained urgency of not compromising the seal on a piece of performance art, I felt nervous to talk to her. There we were, alone in the gallery again. I walked right up.
“Hello,” I said.
She seemed momentarily thrown. I was way off book. But then she smiled. “Hello.”
This particular “Woman in E” was Vanessa Reynolds, and she is one of seven women who rotate three-hour paid shifts continuously throughout the run of the exhibit, during the MOCAD’s open hours. Reynolds works on Saturdays and Wednesdays. I asked if she had been given any instructions about how to behave, and she said she was supposed to interact as little as possible with visitors. Acknowledging this created a guilty conspiracy between us — we were both aware that Reynolds had to keep striking her regular E chord, or her handlers might suspect a problem and come … to do what — fire her? remove me? We also realized that we already knew each other. In fact, Reynolds is a local musician and I’ve seen her band, River Spirit, perform before, but Kjartansson’s scenario was so alienating that I didn’t recognize her in that context. As a musician, playing the same chord, up and down, over three hours is, as I suspected, pretty boring, but also, Reynolds said, occasionally meditative. On my way out, I inquired with the MOCAD staff about the names of the other women who play in the performance, and was told that they would need permission from the exhibition director to release the information.
There are things to be said about invisible labor in the art world, and things to be said about objectifying women in the service of art that is talking about objectifying women, but the thing I took away from Woman in E is this: the systems that oppress us are bigger than us and beyond our control; we can, however, control our complicity. You can be indignant about the nameless woman on a pedestal, or you can risk discomfort and walk up to the pedestal and introduce yourself to her — on seven separate occasions, if need be. Beneath every artistic symbol is a Vanessa Reynolds, and you sell yourself short if you tolerate any system that keeps you from seeing her. The art world is as good a place as any to practice challenging the rules, and whether or not it was the intention of Woman in E to remind me of that, it was a fruitful takeaway.
Ragnar Kjartansson: Woman in E continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (4454 Woodward Avenue, Detroit) through April 10.