We found our way into the first new media gallery. A nine-channel video of musicians all on separate screens, filmed in one big decaying mansion. We watched as they set themselves up, waiting for the okay from an off-screen director to begin playing their part in what would become an hour-long dirge of heartbreak and sadness, punctuated by the firing of a canon outside of the building. This was Ragnar Kjartansson's 2012 epic video and song project, The Visitors - it was my first encounter with his work. We took our time in the space, nearly half an hour if I recall correctly. I didn't get to hear the song in full, but I remember that we walked through the space, circling slowly, choosing to sit on the floor near some of our favorite screens. And we weren't the only ones who chose to sit and linger. It was one of those rare museum installations that people really spend time with. Maybe it's that the song is so beautiful, that the interiors of the home with their peeling wallpaper, book-lined walls, and soft late-afternoon light paint a picture worth really looking at, or maybe it's the rare firing of the canon that people stuck around for - to this day, I can't say. After we left the exhibition, it was the one work I kept returning to. I couldn't find a video of it online, nor an MP3 of the song, I was left with my grainy video footage and the memory of a work that I would not soon forget.
It was Valentine's Day weekend. We were in the car on our way to New Buffalo for a weekend of sleeping in, making fires in your family's living room, cooking, and relaxation. It was only our second weekend away from Chicago together. We were newly dating, and I was in a weird mood. We had a disagreement in your car, I was sulking. One thing I confessed to you on our drive was my trouble with spontaneity. That I'm so strictly regimented it's difficult for me to shake myself out of my routine and just run in an unexpected direction. We saw a sign for Detroit, some four hours further than our destination. I said I'd never been, you suggested we go. Try being spontaneous. Try it. As we passed our exit my heart began to race, my eyes widened, I laughed and said, "I've never done anything like this before!!" You handed me your credit card and asked me to start calling hotels all over the city. It was Valentine's Day weekend, everything was booked. We found ourselves on the 53rd floor of the Renaissance Center Marriott, an historically ugly building, a bit dingy and dark, with tubical elevator shafts, and a formely rotating restaurant on the top floor boasting views of the once regal city.
On Valentine's Day, a Sunday, we met your friend for brunch at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. There was a DJ spinning records, I had an eggs benedict and coffee, there was a vintage clothing stall set up at the end of the room. I remember thinking to myself, "How odd. Where is all of the art?" After we finished our meal, we wandered toward the sound of a guitar. A repeated note being strummed, the sound getting louder as we moved closer. This wasn't what the DJ was playing, it was something different. As we moved closer to the noise, a golden circle made of a sparkling tinsel curtain was revealed. Inside, a female figure in a golden floor length strapless dress spun slowly on a pedestal. It was quiet now, she was still. I couldn't tell if she was a mannequin or a person, until she moved to strum an E-Minor chord on the guitar. The note reverberated from the stone-tiled floor. We circled around her, moving with the pedestal. The music from the DJ bled into the space, but it didn't detract from how stunning and surprising a sight this was. A woman, literally on a pedestal, in a gold dress, in a museum, in Detroit. I had so many questions: Who was she? How did they find her? Was she paid? How long was she up there, playing? Why this note? Where was that dress from? Were there other women? How was this work conceived? I left the installation searching for didactic material, but only found a small note card describing the work and naming the artist: Ragnar Kjartansson - the Icelandic artist who made that work I couldn't stop thinking about since seeing it at the Broad last month.
It is my last summer in Chicago before moving to Washington, DC. I made a long list of all of the Chicago things I had wanted to do and all of the places I wanted to eat before I boarded my plane, one way ticket in hand. It was during my last month in the city that I made my farewell visit to the Art Institute of Chicago. A place I had called home for three years, my first job out of college. A place that I grew to love, knowing it's secret underground passages, where the jewels were kept, and how the former director likes his vodka (on ice). I brought you as my companion, insisting we visit the Gordon Parks + Ralph Ellison exhibition knowing you would love it. Those high contrast photographs putting Ellison’s words into magical realistic imagery of Parks. Alienation, solitude, and New York City alive in the 1950s.
Adjacent to this show was the new media gallery, screening on a loop A Lot of Sorrow. Featuring the band The National playing through their song “Sorrow” for six hours and nine-minutes, this durational performance was yet another Kjartansson piece whose wake I fell into. We walked in, I suggested we sit on the carpeted floor. As a bonafied jazz fanatic, you weren’t totally taken with the indie rock, and as a burgeoning art lover, I’m not sure if you were sold on the idea of the work. But I soaked it in, looking for the differences in how the song unfolded with each time they played it again. Could you imagine? Playing the same song over and over. Just the thought of being on my feet for that long, under the heat of concert lights, my fingers pressing chords, my voice breaking with each chorus – it’s a maddening way to be. But Kjartansson and The National pulled it off, bringing out the melancholy, angst, anger, and hurt with every passing note. I remember putting the song on my summer playlist, following weeks of heartache leading up to my grand bon voyage.
So where does that leave me? Where all roads lead apparently -- to Kjartansson. I came to DC having taken a job at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. I am now a curatorial assistant. When asked what I do, I list off a number of things: art historical research, writing wall texts for exhibitions, prepping and giving gallery tours, working on loan agreements, coordinating exhibition tour logistics, guarding a marimba during a performance in the galleries, escorting performers into the galleries, you know, the odd jobs that come with working in a museum.
The inaugural exhibition to open during my tenure at the Hirshhorn is Ragnar Kjartansson, the first survey of the artist’s work in the United States. It opened last night, and to say that this all felt serendipitous would be a massive understatement. I now work in the department that is supporting this artist’s projects. I know the ins and outs that are associated with bringing Woman in E, to life – the work that I had so many questions about back in February at MOCAD. Where and how the dresses were manufactured, what kind of research went into finding the perfect golden paint and glitter for the custom-made shoes, and what the schedule looks like for our rotating list of performers. I can revisit The Visitors whenever I want, soaking up the song, waiting for the canon to boom. And better yet, I have access to Kjartansson’s watercolors, his sketchbooks, and other works I’ve just now been introduced to.
This exhibition couldn’t have opened at a more perfect juncture in my life, a culmination of the last year of viewing his works across three museums in three different states. I’m feeling enormously grateful to have found myself chasing this artist, only to be introduced to him on the eve of his opening. To shake his hand and say congratulations was just the icing on the cake. And just around the corner (or curve I should say, this building doesn't have corners), a whole exhibition of Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrored Rooms, one of the projects I am now currently working on. To think that nine months ago at the Broad, when I passed on waiting in line for Kusama's work that I didn't know I'd be working on the Kusama project is a bit unbelievable. This entire year, not unlike the building I now work in, has come full circle, and I'm enjoying the endless continuity of it all.