After nearly three months and 15,000 or so turns around, the revolving platform is about to stop.
The last E minor chord, which has rung out nonstop sound since mid-October, will be silenced; the amplifier, unplugged.
As the first U.S. retrospective of the Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson closes at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on Sunday, so will its sole live performance piece.
Kjartansson’s work is reflected in films and artifacts in the rest of the exhibition, but for “Women in E,” a woman dressed in a gold evening dress stands on a revolving platform behind a circular fringe curtain of golden foil. On a white Telecaster, she strums that E minor, a chord fraught with the kind of melancholy that colors Kjartansson’s other works of musical repetition.
For viewers, the choices have been to stop and listen or to rush by; to enter the fringed curtain or to lurk outside; to react uncomfortably to the blunt objectification of a woman on a pedestal; or to let the sad chord wash over sufficiently to sense a shared humanity.
Fourteen women of various ages and musical backgrounds from the greater D.C. area have filled the role, playing 2½ -hour shifts at a time.
There have been a few mishaps. One became faint in her first session and had to get down for a spell. Another broke a string. And a third broke character while watching a boy lose his Thanksgiving dinner on the museum floor.
And there have been adjustments. A kibosh was put on the occasional contrasting chord, and a portion of the curtain has been pulled open to better accommodate wheelchairs.
For the performers, strumming that single chord for a public that has been either mesmerized or puzzled has been a largely solitary endeavor.
But the women have found a way to bond, from the camp-like days of rehearsals preceding the opening to the messages they leave for one another scrawled on the walls of their tiny dressing room.
“There are a lot of women involved here, and it’s a great scene,” Kjartansson said at the show’s media opening. Comparing Washington to the first staging of “Women in E,” in Detroit a year ago, he said, “They’re not that different, the scenes. And the scene in Reykjavik is not that different than the scene in D.C. It’s always a music scene at the end of the day.”
Just as they reflect various kinds of bands — punk, pop, jazz and gospel go-go — their approach to the single chord can shift.
“Sometimes I’ll lull everyone into a meditative state with me by being really consistent about the hardness and the timing of the chord,” says Erin McCarley, 37, of the D.C. band Hand Grenade Job. “Other times, when people are being really aggressive with their phones, or they’re, like, in your face, I think some of us try to speak through how we strum the chord.”
“Watching the other women, I realized the power in the monotony and the continuity, even though we have our own style, and we might tweak it a little bit in the performance,” says Ara Casey, 46, of the D.C. band Lonely Ocean.
“You can’t really ever play the same E chord twice,” says Sarah Quintana, 30, a New Orleans musician who is a recent transplant to the District. “The way the amp settings vary and the interaction of the guitar with the two or three other soundscapes coming from the neighboring installations is layered, the piece varying and ever-changing.”
Beck Levy, 30, also of Hand Grenade Job, says, “The experience is colored by whatever context is happening in our lives, whatever is happening politically, and occasionally by the energy the audiences bring to it, so it’s really just not static.”
Since the presidential election, she says, “and other catastrophic events, like the fire in Oakland, the performance has become to me a vigil, where I personally feel I inhabit the feelings that are in the E minor spectrum and I hold space for other people to experience that.”
Martha Hamilton, an art punk veteran from Arlington, who plays in the Plums, says she has cried while performing.
“I was kind of working with my mom’s death when we first were on stage,” she says. “The Hirshhorn is always something as a family that we went to. So for me, it was the idea that I could do something that would have resonance for my mom.”
Created for the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, “Women in E” reflects some of that city’s traditions, from cars revolving on pedestals at auto shows, to the glittery girl group stage attire of Motown.
But Kjartansson says it works in the District, as well. “It seemed like such a perfect piece to do here, in this space and in relation to all the epic monuments around there. To be on the Mall with the ‘Woman in E’ is really rad.”
Says Caroline Weinroth of Fairfax, Va., who has a band (Cinema Hearts), is a recent winner of Miss Mountain Laurel and will vie to become Miss Virginia in June: “He talked about the man on the horse or the man with the sword. We have a lot of statues.”
She adds: “Being watched or being objectified, I’ve always played with that. Because I always knew that as a pretty woman in music, playing guitar, a masculine instrument, you’re going to be stared at, so you might as well embrace it.”
That’s the same reason some others are skeptical. “I was definitely hesitant, because you put a beautiful woman in a beautiful dress in a beautiful room, and the first thing you think is it’s very objectifying, and that’s what happens when people come in,” says Adrienne Shurte of the Richmond band Magnus Lush. “You become an object, and people don’t see you as a person. It was just weird, because you have to be cool with knowing that that’s the first thing people are going to see you as.”
Cecilia Staggers, 20, says, “It was challenging the stereotype by being the stereotype, and I really liked that.”
The original stage direction for the performers was to “look gloomy, melancholy and like the Statue of Liberty,” says Alex Tyson, 26. “I told myself: Make your sadness profound enough to be in an art museum.”
Eighty women responded to the invitation to take part; 50 recorded audition tapes shared with Kjartansson, who ultimately made the final choices.
“It was a transatlantic selection process,” says Hirshhorn curator Stéphane Aquin, who calls the performers “so dignified. They each have a different rhythm and way of playing and posing.”
Says curatorial assistant Betsy Johnson, who stressed the endurance the piece required and that they would need to work through the holidays: “We were really looking for a tough crew who was going to stick with us for a long time.”
And whatever pain they had while playing shifts, there was also the trance of that reverberating chord.
“If it weren’t for the shooting pain in my shoulder,” McCarley says, “there were times when I could fall asleep. Once I’ve found my groove and I’m in a meditative space, it’s really soothing. And sometimes the tinsel — I’d imagine it as forest. I’m really calm once I find that moment. But: can’t fall asleep.”
“I have very little concept of time when I’m standing up there,” says Gina Sobel, 31, of Charlottesville, whose bands include the funky Choose Your Own Adventure.
“It’s been a remarkable experience to be forced to be with my own thoughts, to decompress, to let my mind wander and think deeply about things happening in my life and in the world,” she says.
But there’s no doubt it could be initially daunting.
“At first I was like, ‘Dang, I have to stand up here for two and a half hours? I won’t be able to sit down?’ ” says Alena Budd, a cheerful 20-year-old Bowie State University student who goes by the name Lena Lovely in the D.C. gospel go-go band Tru Potential.
Says Hamilton: “A lot of time, people were taken aback that we were actually people.”
Says Shurte: “I’ve had people scream.”
Says McCarley: “What I think is so interesting is the consistent discomfort in the variety of demographics that come, whether it’s the adolescent boys, the adult men or the teenage girls.”
But there were benefits.
“I really enjoyed the exercise of repetition,” says D.C. singer-songwriter Tattiana Aqeel, 28. “In my own practice sessions, I won’t have a problem playing a song for two hours.”
As “Women in E” comes to an end, there is sadness but also relief.
And there is a vow to continue the bond the women formed.
There is even talk of some of the participants, whom Tyson calls the Death Sorority, forming a band.
It is Tyson, as it happens, who as the last scheduled player of “Women in E” will play that final chord.
“I feel an obligation to do it right — a sense of duty, if you will. I think I’ll be mostly sad that I’m leaving, so that will be very authentic that day,” she says. “I’m hoping when I’m doing it to be really engaged in the performance and really defiant, in the spirit of the piece.”
“Women in E” is part of the Ragnar Kjartansson exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Seventh Street and and Independence Avenue SW, through Jan. 8. Free. 202-633-4674. hirshhorn.si.edu..