Ragnar Kjartansson’s Tinseled Female-Guitarist Art Piece ‘Woman in E’ Bothers Me: But is That the Point?

by Marisa Torrieri Bloom

Let’s start off with this: I am a mom, musician, and feminist. I am not — and have never been — an art critic.

I don’t write brilliant, cerebral dissertations about art exhibits and their overt and subliminal messages. I just like to consume.

woman-in-e

Ragnar Kjartansson’s “Woman in E” (photo credit: Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit)

So when I first heard that The Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., was seeking female guitar players to participate in Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s performance-art piece — and that they would get paid to play an electric guitar — I was ecstatic! I had never heard of a performance-art installation that featured female electric guitarists, letting one after another showcase their dexterity on an axe. So I broadcasted the news on my blog Rockmommy’s Facebook page, hoping that my guitar-wielding pals in the D.C. area (which happens to be my hometown) would jump on this opportunity.

“Applicants will be selected based upon their availability, stage presence, and ability to tune, re-string, and play basic chords on an electric guitar,” the announcement said. The performance-art piece, entitled “Woman in E,” is part of a larger “survey exhibition” dedicated to the artist, which will run October 13, 2016, through January 8, 2017, at The Hirshhorn. Auditions were held in early July for the first 80 applicants (since so many qualified female guitarists were expected to apply).

So far, so good, I told myself. Finally, female guitarists were getting much-deserved recognition on a major scale.

However, when I inquired with The Hirshhorn Museum about the piece, in an effort to learn more so I could relay information to Rockmommy readers, many of whom are women who play the electric guitar exceptionally well, one of the press reps sent me a video that would end up leaving me unexpectedly angry and confused. As it turns out, “Woman in E” consists of a rotating cast of women, standing on a spinning pedestal and strumming the easiest guitar chord in the universe for two-hour clips!

“It’s just a lady on a pedestal playing melancholy chords,” Kjartansson explained in a video interview following the debut of the piece at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. “And it plays a little bit into A-minor and then goes into E-minor again.”

To be fair, Kjartansson admitted the exhibit “is a comment on feminism and objectification.”

Still, after watching the video, I felt put off: Who does this man think he is, showcasing  talented female guitarists —who are an underrepresented, objectified minority among musicians already — in such a limited capacity? Does Kjartansson actually know how to play guitar? (As I would learn later, he was, in fact, the lead guitarist for his band in high school.) Still, the negative judgments loomed large, and I found myself thinking: of course an exhibit like this would be created by a man!

After I’d cooled off, it occurred to me that sometimes one can’t always see the broader landscape, or the bigger vision, that drives an artist to create. You don’t get written up by lofty, high-brow media outlets like The New Yorker if you aren’t stirring debates or furthering conversations or moving people, right? Kjartansson is an impactful artist who does all of these things.

So I decided to take a closer look at some of the press materials associated with this piece and watch the video again.

I learned that “Woman in E” was conceived after the artist learned that an exhibit space he wanted to use had once served as a show room for cars. After learning this, he supposedly got the idea for using a gaudy, gold pedestal to “showcase” a performer like merchandise.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Kjartansson sought to hire a diverse cast of female guitarists.

“The performers are these super-cool Detroit ladies,” he said in the post-MOCA Detroit video interview. “They’re kind of like these Statues of Liberty or something.”

Third, Kjartansson’s art education, upbringing, and surroundings have all contributed to his worldview and artistic expression. Feminist art courses have inspired him to think a lot about issues such as how “violent” it can be to objectify a woman in art; his fascination with America, which can come across as disgust, comes from his being raised “in a socialist anti-American home.”

In one writeup for “Woman in E,” it as explained that “the protagonist powerfully embodies multiple tropes of femininity at once — she is a goddess, conqueror, and siren — but eludes a single narrative.”

This statement pretty much reiterates the message dispatched in the “official” write-up, which I was sent by Hirshhorn’s press rep:

“Kjartansson carries the key of E-minor to immersive hyperbole with Woman in E, an installation that walks a characteristic line of earnestness and caricature. An E-minor chord rings out in endless repetition from within a dazzling tinseled environment, its performer rotating slowly like an idol upon her pedestal … But the female performer here is ultimately powerful, as her audience is allowed to indulge in the melodrama of her evocative performance.”

It’s that last sentence I’m still not sure I agree with, even after sitting with my feelings for a few days.”Woman in E” certainly stirs discussions and inspires thoughts around feminism, femininity, and musicianship. But is the woman really “ultimately powerful” because she is strumming a melancholy minor chord, on display in a Miss America-style gown? I can’t imagine people walking away from this exhibit thinking of these women as “powerful” (though the melancholy expressions on some of the Detroit women’s faces as they strummed the E-minor chord definitely make an impression!).

Wouldn’t the subject be more “ultimately powerful” if she were playing something more complex, like the Pentatonic scale or some other minor scale, suited to her skill set?

Female guitarists are no longer novelties, so I’d love for art involving them to elevate consumers. I wish Kjartansson had given his troupe of dazzling guitar-wielding ladies some leeway to demonstrate their skills. That way, the piece could have still served its purpose as a “comment on female objectification,” but without leaving the art consumer with a limited impression of a woman’s musical potential.

— Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the founder and editor of Rockmommy.

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