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(MOCAD) Cafe 78 for roughly five minutes before I noticed that the usual sonic backdrop of well-curated music had been replaced by a single repeating guitar chord, fading almost to silence each time before being reprised (with an occasional light riff).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?