What It Feels Like Being a Work of Art in "Woman in E"
Since October, I've been playing guitar in the performance art piece "Woman in E," by Ragnar Kjartansson, at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. I stand in a long golden dress and play E-minor repeatedly for 2 1/2 hours. No joke, I love it. "Woman in E" combines all my favorite interests -- the glitzy glamour of Miss America pageants, the drama of theater, the wet and deep surf-guitar tone of the E-minor chord, and being a literal woman on a pedestal who performs for an adoring crowd.
"Woman in E" premiered at Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), where Kjartansson took inspiration from the Detroit's history of tinsel car showrooms and Motown music. For the premiere in D.C., Kjartansson compared the piece to the city's many monuments and the "ultimate Western-culture thing, where there's a man on a horse in a city center." "Woman in E" is a modern take on the classical art concept, "beautiful and statuesque woman on pedestal." Instead of a fake white-marble woman, it's a real person. There's a rebellious contrast between the polished, ultra-feminine golden gown and the loud, masculine electric guitar. People don't expect a woman to play the electric guitar, let alone in high heels and a evening dress. But the woman isn't shredding a solo, she's playing the same E-minor chord over and over, to the point that it sounds more like a meditative drone than music.
"Melancholy" is a word that's used a lot to describe Kjartansson's art, and E-minor is a melancholy and simple key (it's the easiest chord to play on guitar because it requires only two fingers). It is the only chord heard in the piece and it's constantly played the same way (downward strum, only on the 2nd fret, no variations). An artist once told me, "People say they hate repetition, but that's not true. We find comfort and safety in repetition, and create it in our daily lives. Repetition is soothing." It's strange that I never get bored of hearing the same E-minor chord ring out from the tweed Fender amp. Each time I strike the strings, E-minor sounds new, rich, and mellow. I always want the chord to last a little longer (maybe that's why I mess with the amp settings and set the reverb to its maximum).
In classical art, the woman is often an object to be gazed at by a, traditionally male, viewer. What's interesting about "Woman in E" is that people are timid about looking at the woman. When I'm performing in the piece, I see visitors hiding behind the tinsel curtain and peering through its sparkly gaps. I notice them creeping through the gallery, a safe distance away from the pedestal platform, and spy them stealthily taking a photo with their phone before scurrying away to the next work of art. Unlike the ancient Venus de Milo, who stands silent without arms and looks away, I am a woman on display who is moving and watching, pronouncing my power through the sound of a guitar.