MINNEAPOLIS — On my first visit to Emmett Ramstad’s Touching Each Other exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), I completely missed the pubic hair. I saw the file drawer that was mounted on the wall, but didn’t realize that tucked inside, covered by plexiglas, was a collection of donated pubic hair from 54 different people. The piece, titled “Stud File,” both in its content and presentation, sums up the disconnect that underlies Ramstad’s work, where objects that are often seen as unhygienic garner an orderly, encyclopedic display.
Americans have a particular obsession with cleanliness. Our fear of germs leads to an overuse of antibacterial products that not only fly in the face of science, but pollute the environment too. Ramstad cheekily questions this obsession, presenting used underwear, stained socks, other people’s toothbrushes, and a roller towel dispenser borrowed from the Minneapolis greasy spoon, Seward Cafe. The artist takes these items out of the shadows of private intimacy into a public setting: The underwear is folded neatly, the 180 toothbrushes organized meticulously. There’s a table covered with folded and unfolded socks, with volunteers coming in at intervals to fold them into piles.
Speaking to our need for privacy, one powerful piece titled “Safe” evokes current debates about gender-neutral bathrooms, particularly in public schools. (There’s a raging debate regarding this issue around the country currently, where a particularly ugly rhetoric insinuates the supposed “dangers” of transgender women in girls’ bathrooms.) Ramstad has constructed a bathroom stall lined on the inside with a wooden fence, which seals the gap at the bottom of the stall and rises above it as well. Here, the artist takes privacy to the extreme, creating a bomb shelter of a bathroom stall, but then coyly inserts a peephole to counteract the structure.
Meanwhile, in Ramstad’s companion performance piece, which takes place in Mia’s period rooms, the artist takes on gender roles head-on, offering darning lessons for people who sign up. I participated in the artist’s sock darning demonstration in the MacFarlane Memorial Room, lined with Chinese export wallpapers dating to the late 1700s or early 1800s. Ramstad also showed me how to mend the button on my coat that happened to have come loose that day. I shared how I typically rely on my mother for such sewing needs, though I sometimes have to fend for myself. Ramstad asked me whether, when I’m sewing myself, it makes me think about my mother and the care she has provided for me. Sadly, I am usually thinking about how much I hate sewing and wish my mom could just do it for me. But Ramstad’s question revealed modern society’s propensity to simply buy new objects instead of mending old ones. Cheaper, less durable goods — and the lack of time we have these days to fix them as they wear — not only produce more trash for the earth and use more resources (not to mention bad labor policies), but erase the practice of caring for our own belongings.
The darning workshop — a neat supplement to the themes around gender in Touching Each Other — unearths a practice traditionally thought of as a woman’s task (though historically, all genders have engaged in it at different points in history). Ramstad carves out a space for domestic tasks within the lived experiences of everyone — including queer, non-binary, and transgender communities — by engaging in sewing as a transgender person himself.
Ramstad’s work offers a public glimpse into private arenas, unpacking ways society has historically created artificial categories for public and private spaces, as well as male and female roles. His work, subtle and never pedantic, searches instead for a liminal space between these categories, breaking the walls that separate them, as though with a gentle seam ripper.
Emmett Ramstad:Touching Each Other continues at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (2400 3rd Ave S, Minneapolis) through April 3.