to everything, turn, turn, turn
It was Valentine’s Day, 2016. We were in Detroit, Michigan on a spontaneous trip, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold. We planned on going to New Buffalo, but on the car ride out of the city found ourselves discussing the meaning of spontaneity. I told him I had never been to Detroit as we passed a sign declaring its name and the number of miles from our location. He turned to me and asked if I wanted to go. I mulled it over with every passing mile until we reached the off-ramp. Just as it was almost too late I yelped for him to turn.
The next day we found ourselves at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, in an installation dripping with gold. The space was circular, its edges demarcated by golden tinsel hanging from the ceiling to the floor. At the center of the large curved room was a circular white tiered stage, with tinsel hanging from its edges. On the stage, stood a woman holding a guitar. She wore a strapless, floor-length, gold sequined dress, with gold glitter shoes, and in her hands she held a white Fender guitar. It was like something from a David Lynch film, sparkling gold hit by the bright museum lights, casting reflections of gold onto the dark concrete floor. There she stood, the woman on the stage, gilded and silent. The pedestal slowly turned her in a circle, like a ballerina in a music box, and on it she was planted like a monument. Tight lips and strong shoulders. At first, I wasn’t sure if she was real. She stood so still I took her to be a statue in the museum. But then her hand lifted slowly, and her pick strummed the guitar strings. The entire room filled with the loud chilling ring of an E-minor chord. As the seconds passed, the sound echoed, then carried slowly like a wave over our bodies, she continued to turn with the rotation of the stage. The room began to go quiet, then she lifted her arm again, strumming the guitar once more. That same haunting note rang out. Reverberated, warmed, cooled, and quieted.
I turned to my friend and whispered, “I don’t understand what is happening right now. Who is she? What is this?”
I searched the room for a wall text, something that would have the answers. An Icelandic artist named Ragnar Kjartansson. The work is called Woman in E, and beneath the title were some words about melancholy and repetition, about the beauty that can be found in the mundane. Nothing explained who she was, how long she stands on that stage, if she’s allowed to take breaks, or where she came from. A lone entity in a golden circle.
“How many of them are there?
What are their names?
How did the museum find them?
Are the paid?
Are they comfortable?
Is this hard?
How does this work?
What are the labor implications of this?”
My brain was moving faster than my mouth. I circled and circled, with this stream of consciousness searching for the answers. It didn’t even occur to me that the woman on the stage could hear everything I was saying, as I paced in front of her. Or that she had been instructed not to speak.
I mulled over why this work was so striking. The mystique and the enigma of the performance are what carry it, as is the woman who takes the stage. There were no answers, only more questions.
I pulled out my camera to document the performance, and upon reflection, I realized that all of my photos and videos are of the performer from behind or from the side. Sometimes, I have placed myself safely on other side of the curtain, out of her view. I didn’t want her to see me gazing at her. I didn’t want her to know that I was deeply uncomfortable with the fact that I was objectifying her, that I was taking her photograph without her permission.
I wandered into another exhibit, but I could hear her through the walls. She was in a different room, she was standing right next to me. I tried to tune her out, to hear the disco pumping in the video installation around the corner, but her fingers gripped those strings, her shoulders remained bare, she was nameless and alone, a confluence of strength and vulnerability.
As we finished our museum visit and began to make our way to the exit, I asked to see her one more time. And to my surprise, she was a different person. Her body a different size, her hair a different color, and she sat on the amplifier while she strummed that same E-minor chord. Two, there were at least two of them.
Fall of 2016, and I have a golden key. It sits in an envelope inside of my desk at work, tucked away for safe keeping. Every morning, when I wake up, the first thing I do is check my phone to see if there are delays on the Metro. There are. I’ll take the train to Chinatown and walk, best not risk being late for her. No time to pick up coffee, I bring my own. She’s waiting for me at 9:00. She needs to mount the stage by 9:55, at the very latest. On the days that I am running late, I take the escalator to the hidden stairwell, drop my bag and coat, reach for my golden key, and run back down the stairs to meet her.
“Sorry I’m late, the train was a mess. You ready?”
I sign her into the front desk. The security officer checks her bag, usually full of makeup, sometimes prosthetic breasts, a bra, a set of Spanx, a granola bar for last-minute nourishment. We enter the exhibition through the first video installation. The artist appears massive, black and white on the screen, performing the role of Death. He chases children through a graveyard in Reykjavik, they squeal and laugh with delight. We continue through, the sound of an orchestra can be heard around the corner as we make our way through the room hung with thick magenta draping.
“Sorrow conquers happiness, sorrow conquers happiness,” Ragnar Kjartansson croons. Sometimes we hum along together, on our way to the dressing room.
I pull out my golden key and wiggle the door open, the discreet room hidden in plain sight in the middle of the exhibition.
“Sorrow conquers happiness,” he continues. The band plays on, they reach a crescendo, there’s a rise and fall to the 30-minute song, with nothing but the repeated words, sorrow conquers happiness.
This song can be heard from the dressing room. Often the women listen to their own music played from their phones. One of them oscillates between Fall Out Boy and the Hamilton soundtrack. Sometimes I can hear her singing along as I come to escort her to the stage. Fourteen identical golden dresses hang from a metal makeshift closet pole. Fourteen shoeboxes labeled with their names are stacked on a shelf.
The lights around the vanity give off an unnatural glow and add a warmth to the room. There is little ventilation and the walls are made of drywall. There are two folding chairs and a table with a small mirror on it. On the table sits a glass dish with safety pins to make adjustments to the strapless golden dress. Over the course of the twelve-week exhibition, various things appear: hand sanitizer, hair spray, markers and paper. There are a mix of lockers in various colors, navy blue, orange, off-white, and maroon. The room can fit two people. It is womblike in how small it is.
I work the morning shift. First call to the stage. It is my job to sign them in, bring them upstairs, and give them privacy in the dressing room while I check the amplifier and guitar in the exhibit. I adjust the bass and volume levels to the correct settings. When it is time, I return to the dressing room and I help tuck her dress clips into her strapless bra. I safety pin the dress into the most comfortable and snug fit if she asks me to. I tell her she looks great, because she does. I open the guitar case and slink the strap over my shoulder. I turn to her and ask if she is ready. She is always ready. I escort her through the curved sun dripped hallway toward the golden circle where the stage awaits. I hand her the guitar, while I grab the makeshift steps. I push the stairs through the sparkling tinsel curtain. They are carpeted and have remnants of golden glitter on them from the shoes she wears. I take the guitar from her and reach out my hand. She takes my hand, and she begins to climb the stairs onto the stage. We do this motion together. The stage wobbles a little, as she shifts her weight to find her balance. When she is ready, I hand her the guitar again. Inside of the amplifier, which is upholstered in golden fabric, I reach for the wireless remote control and the tuner. There are picks on top of the amp, leftover from previous performances. She takes the tuner from me, plugs the guitar into the amp, and begins to adjust the strings. If she asks, I mount the stage with her to help adjust her dress, untangle the guitar strap, and fix any stray hairs. This quiet moment before the museum opens is my favorite time of the day. It is just me and her and the security guard working the installation. We are all in this together.
When she is ready and the guitar sounds good, I turn the stage on from the remote control that powers the whole operation. She begins to turn slowly. She adjusts her posture. With the pick in her hand, she lifts her arm and strikes the chord. She strums the E-minor chord as I slip the remote control and the tuner into the opening in the back of the amp. She strums again, as I bend down to push the stairs into their hiding place outside of the golden curtain. She strums again, as I step back into the circle to listen to her play, to make sure that the volume sounds right, and that the stage is rotating properly. I wait until I see her face again, making sure I have her attention. I give her the thumbs up and tell her to have a wonderful performance. I’ll be back to check on her in an hour or so. I turn to the guard standing at the entrance to the exhibition and introduce myself.
“Hi, I’m Sandy. What’s your name?”
“It is so nice to meet you.”
“This is xxxxxx. She’ll be playing for the next two and a half hours. If she needs anything, she’ll let you know. If there’s an emergency, if she’s feeling faint, the remote is hidden in the amplifier and the stairs are hidden behind the curtain. Please help her off the stage, and escort her to the dressing room, which is hidden behind God. Then if you can, telephone me and I’ll come down. Thank you for looking out for her, I’ll be down in an hour or so.”
Sometimes the guard and I stand there together and watch her play. Sometimes we talk about sports. One of them knows that I’m from Chicago and wants to talk baseball and the Bears. Sometimes they ask me why it isn’t me up there, and I chuckle and say I am not brave enough to stand like that, a work of art on view in the museum. I wish I had a better answer every time they ask me.
I do this performance of my own every weekday for three months. I work a few weekends too, depending on the schedule. Sometimes I work the midday shift, which means switching the performers during museum hours – something I delight in. The uncanny experience of escorting a woman in a gorgeous floor-length golden dress through the throngs of museum visitors, who turn to stare as we pass. Pushing the stairs into the circle, reaching for the remote, turning the stage off, and pulling the golden curtain back to reveal an entirely different performer, made up in the same dress and shoes. Sometimes the performers hug between shifts. Occasionally they whisper words of encouragement to one another. Some might fist bump or hug the guard who has been working with them. Others turn to leave the gallery immediately, while we are still transitioning because they have to use the restroom, or need water, or their fingers are blistered. They do what they need to do, the shift changes, it is all one beautiful and surreal experience.
A few weeks into the exhibition, someone from the Exhibits department lets us know that the dressing room is going to be broken down and thrown away after the show. He tells us that the performers may write on the walls. We buy a set of Sharpies and bring some Scotch tape and push pins into the room.
Words appeared gradually, there were drawings on the walls too. One performer kisses the wall after each shift, reminding me of performances by Yves Klein and Janine Antoni. Another brings her children to the dressing room and they draw an eyeball on the wall. Other’s communicate with each other about this experience in writing, and I am a silent witness to the deep connection that is forming between them.
THINGS YOU WISH SECURITY WOULD KNOW:
- Have one guard with eyes on us all times
- Enforce no flash / no video
- Ask that people step away from the platform
- I like playing for 2 ½ hours
- It is not torture
- Yes! Same!
- Sorrow conquers happiness
- Don’t laugh for ten minutes straight…
- I wish they didn’t talk the entire time + occasionally about me. I CAN HEAR YOU!
- Stop singing “she’s a real crowd pleaser” at me
Some days are harder than others. Some days, they are tired or fighting a cold. Over the course of the exhibition we have one incident with fainting. Everything is fine, in those moments, we know what to do. There is a closed Facebook group for all of the performers, it’s how they let each other know they have shows coming up. It’s also how we coordinate the schedule when someone needs to trade shifts.
One morning one of our performers calls in sick. None of the women who live nearby are able to make it in time to take the stage. Rather than let the performance go quiet, my colleague does the brave thing. She dons the backup gown and the backup set of shoes we had made for emergencies like this. One of our time-based media specialists tunes the guitar into an open E-minor. I come downstairs and tell her she looks great, that she is brave, that she can do it. We adjust her dress, she puts a little stain on her lips and some mascara on her lashes. She mounts the stage, places her hand over the strings and strums out her first chord. The stage rotates, we stand and watch her until she feels comfortable, I give her the thumbs up, and tell her she is incredible for doing this. She is a rock star, too. And she plays the entire shift.
On November 7th, there is the possibility for the first female President of the United States. On November 8th, I walk into the office wearing a black pants suit with pearls. I am beaming, I feel invincible. I help my Tuesday morning performer onto the stage. I go about my day, swinging by the White House on my lunch break to marvel at it. Perhaps the tide is changing, we could even have a female president. In the late hours of November 8th, he is elected President of the United States. I pull myself from bed and weep in the shower. I arrive at work a little late. I bring my Wednesday morning performer to the dressing room and we stand there in stunned silence. The show must go on, the stage will continue to turn, our fierce Women in E have to play that chord. It is their job. It is my job. It is the museum’s job to continue this performance until January 8th, regardless of the election results.
The gold takes on a different pallor in this light. The performer who plays that afternoon cries silently through her entire shift. At the end, the guard pulls her into a warm bear hug and they sway together. Through the lump in my throat I tell her she is miraculous. I thank her for being brave and strong for all of us. We are both women, and we don’t know what is going to happen to us. She is a mother of two girls, she works in healthcare. I feel entirely alone in DC, and the rug has been pulled out from under me.
In the remaining weeks of the exhibition, the messages on the dressing room walls turn from comments about the performance to comments about the state of the world. Fourteen women, communicating with one another about what it means to be an American woman, living in Washington, DC, post-election. What it means to come into the museum, don the golden dress and shoes, climb onto the stage, and be put on a pedestal for two and a half hour shifts. In a matter of days, the notes on the walls of the dressing room turn into action: let’s do something, they implore one another. Unprompted, they organize. A showcase of performers, linked by their connection to this performance at the museum, mounting another stage in a bar across town to raise money for the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. On the museum stage they have no voice. Yet through this project they find their platform. They work together, communicating within the inner sanctum that the performance provided, finding their footing to do something collectively. There is strength in numbers. There are fourteen of them. They are all women, and they wield their own power.
It is a funny thing living in Washington in this particular moment. I often get asked what it is like to be here; if I can feel tremors of the administration in my day-to-day life. If the tide really changed that day in the fall of 2016. And though time has passed since the election, and we are living in this era of vigilance, outrage, fear, and discomfort, I am sometimes pulled back into that feeling, that sense of community that comes in working in tandem with one another to attempt something that seems impossible, and magical, and so full of potential. I am brought into that simple act of mustering the strength and courage to dress myself each morning and go into work, to mount my own stage as a woman in this country, as they each mounted the one in the museum. And though the stage has been deconstructed, and the guitar has traveled on for another round of performances, their time in the museum still strikes a chord with me. The strength and wholeness they carried, the sound of that loud melancholy guitar vibrating in my inner ear, the multifaceted meaning of the color gold – wealth mixed with chintz mixed with history mixed with power.
I keep a jar of the golden tinsel on my desk, and from time to time, I stick my fingers into it, pulling at the thin plastic strands. Remembering what it was like to count myself among these powerful women, the ones with the names that I keep pressed into my memory.