Meet the Local Musicians Performing at the Hirshhorn’s Striking “Woman in E” Exhibit
By Jordan Snowden
At the end of the hall, there’s a faint sound of a guitar repeatedly being played in an enclosed, shimmering gold room. Inside, there’s a striking yet simple display that leaves everyone nearly speechless. Rotating on a large pedestal is a woman wearing a long gold dress, face completely expressionless, strumming a simple chord.
She doesn’t sing or engage with the audience at all, leaving those in the room confused, yet even more intrigued. The performance is a part of the “Woman in E” exhibition, one of several works at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden from prolific Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson.
Fourteen women, most of them from the D.C. area, were chosen via an audition process to be a part of this exhibition. “They are the true embodiment (literally) of Ragnar’s artistic vision,” said Allison Peck, Interim Director of Communications and Marketing at the Hirshhorn, “and as they are playing a ‘role,’ their participation is not so much a platform for their own projects or publicity for their own bands, but a transformational experience as a musician and performer.”
Strumming a single chord for two-and-a-half hours might seem like a mundane task. But in speaking with four of the women who’re a part of “Woman in E,” it has proven to be one of the most difficult and memorable performances they’ve ever done. Moreover, it’s not a test of endurance, but an exhibit to challenge the patriarchy and the way we view women in music.
Beck Levy, Hand Grenade Job
When the call for applications was posted, just about everyone I know sent it to me and told me I had to apply. I answered a few interview questions by e-mail, then auditioned in person. When both me and my bandmate Erin were selected, we were overjoyed. The artwork incorporates so many of our values as a band: minimalism, endurance, hyper-idealized notions of beauty and glamor.
The rehearsals were surreal and enchanting. In person, Ragnar is sincere, charming, brilliant, and funny–just as he comes off in his work. Meeting the other woman was the best part. It felt like falling in love with 12 people at once, sharing such a specific and unique experience creates a special bond. I call us the Divine Sisterhood of the Golden Gloom. Women in music tend to be undervalued and isolated, just as we are in any other profession. Meeting so many other talented and passionate women musicians generates exciting possibilities for community and collaboration.
My shifts on the pedestal are my favorite part of every week. The entire experience is meditative and ritualistic: from the moment I put on my makeup to the moment I step onto the pedestal, to the moment I hand off the guitar to the next woman. On the pedestal, I feel like I’m in a different dimension. I call it the Gold Zone. I feel in silent communion with the other components of the artwork, with the other pieces in the exhibit, with the brutalist structure of the museum itself. I try to time my breathing with my strumming, it gets me high.
I also like engaging with the dimension of objectification inherent in the exhibit. Sometimes I hear men wondering aloud if I know how to play any other chords, as though I can’t hear, as though I’m not a skilled musician, as though a lack of skill would frivolize my performance, as though I’m a bimbo. Sometimes older woman look at me disapprovingly, like they think I’m being victimized by this artwork–I couldn’t disagree more. I’m objectified every moment of my life in public. There is no escape from it or its hegemony over my existence. But in “Woman in E,” I’m consenting to being objectified (that’s the big one, y’all!), my participation is valued, I’m being compensated, and I’m participating in a piece that moves me.
The objectification of women–-the subjection of women to the male gaze–-is foundational to the canon of eurocentric, patriarchal art. “Woman in E” is a detournement of this tradition. Here, this woman gets to gaze back. I watch you watch me, from my pedestal where I glow like a melancholy golden goddess.
Having a role in “Woman In E” is a practice of physical repetition and intense mental stamina. On my first day, I started crying about halfway through the shift. Yes, I was in pain, but the tears were in response to the spectrum of thought I was having set to a repeatedly sad and gripping E minor chord. It’s a recipe for catharsis I engage in willingly.
“Woman In E” is indeed a sad song of a piece. It is beautiful, elegant, and statuesque of course, but it’s also a display of human charge, sorrow and defiance, which ripens us to accepting who we truly are, what we want.
I’m an artist and musician in life, and I’m also a family person and aspiring farmer. I long to be a communal home maker, but my pursuit of adventure often leads me to change and into exploring unknown lands and hands. It can be scary and lonely at times to live between being committed and spontaneously shape-shifting.
Acting as a “Woman In E” gives me the range to explore a rotation through being performative–that is being seen by other people and engaging with their expectation of the work, and being self-contemplative, resetting the ideas that I have about how I want to perform.
I very much enjoy being a part of the work, and I still feel exactly as I did at my audition; this process is deeply relevant to my life in its current state and I will learn a great deal by being present in the artwork.
Lena Lovely, Tru Potential
I’m glad that I was chosen for the “Woman in E” exhibit. It gave me an opportunity to meet and learn more about the artist. Ragnar Kjartansson’s is an amazing person, and through his exhibit, you will get a full understanding of his art and the stories behind the exhibit. It allows me to [create] friendships with the other female guitar players that are in the “Woman In E” exhibit, and the opportunity to promote [myself] to a wider audience.
Cecilia Staggers, Lighthouse Row and Hot Sad Kyle
The audition process for this exhibition was very quick from my perspective. I talked a bit about my musical experience and played a few lines from one of my original songs. It was during the audition when I got to understand the art piece a little better and my excitement to participate in a feminist art piece grew.
Taking part in this piece is an interesting experience. It’s no easy task to stand on a pedestal and play the same note for two-and-a-half hours, despite how it sounds at first. But it’s exciting to see the way people are affected when they walk into the room. Some people look and walk away; others will stop for a minute, take a picture, and then walk away. And then other people stand there and just watch, and it’s really beautiful. I especially enjoy the younger visitors, mostly preschoolers. Some of them will get frightened and leave, but others will stare in awe and I really enjoy the idea that maybe, just by standing there and strumming a note, I could be inspiring them to play guitar someday as well.
I think this piece has brought a lot of attention to female guitarists. People are so used to seeing men in rock bands, so I enjoy the fact that this piece centers only on women with guitars. This piece inspires me to be stronger in my personality and self-esteem, so I like to think that it empowers women who come through the exhibit.
‘Woman in E’ is on exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden now until Jan., 8 2017.