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Ragnar Kjartansson: Woman in E

On view Friday, January 15 - Sunday, April 10, 2016

Ragnar Kjartansson, Woman in E, + Steve Shaw + Chloë Brown + Little Libraries, with live music by BEVLOVE
Friday, January 15, 2016
  • 6-7pm: Members' preview hour, free for members. Includes curator talk with Susann Feld Hilberry Senior Curator at Large Jens Hoffmann at 6:30pm.
  • 7-9pm: Public preview
  • 10pm: Musical performance by Bevlove
Free/$5 suggested donation from 7-9pm, $7 starting at 9pm.

OPENING NIGHT MUSIC: The beautiful, emerging, independent vocalist hailing from Detroit, MI, Bevlove's soulful lyrics and voice embody the beauty of her hometown. Bevlove is a self-sustaining artist who releases her own music, and who has cultivated her fanbase through her music and performances. As Metro Times asked, "How is this awesome local singer still unsigned?"

RSVP on Facebook here

Ragnar Kjartansson, Anne Carson, and Robert Currie
Saturday, January 16, 2016 at 1pm
Artist Ragnar Kjartansson, poet Anne Carson, and artist Robert Currie give a collaborative presentation. The program will be introduced by Susanne Feld Hilberry Senior Curator at Large Jens Hoffmann. RSVP on Facebook here.

Ragnar Kjartansson, Woman in E
Ragnar Kjartansson, Woman in E, sketch for a performance, 2015 © Ragnar Kjartansson; courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik.

In January 2016, MOCAD presents a major new performance by Ragnar Kjartansson, the Icelandic artist known for creating spellbinding installations which are equal parts music, performance, sculpture, and cinema. Superlatives are well-suited to his work: he tackles expansive themes using the most ambitious forms. Inspired by the music scene in Reykjavik, where he lives and works, he has created numerous immersive compositions that often involve live musical performances. To realize these large-scale productions, he collaborates prolifically with other artists, including The National, the Vienna Boys Choir, and Icelandic musicians Kjartan Sveinsson and Davíð Þór Jónsson.

Unlike the G-scale, which is commonly used in love songs, E-minor conveys a melancholy, reflective feel. In Kjartansson's haunting new work created for MOCAD, this pensive chord reverberates throughout the museum building, growing stronger as it bounces off the architecture. Woman in E revolves around a single, central figure: a woman dressed in a gold gown, standing on a rotating pedestal. The central figure plays the electric guitar without accompaniment, alone with the instrument and an amp. The atmosphere around her glitters as the notes rebound off the walls and ceiling, creating a deep, guttural tremolo. With its ethereal feel and symbolic references, the work conjures Detroit’s history as a hotbed of sonic innovation that gave birth to Motown and Techno alike.

The piece is also a nod to classic, representational sculpture. The protagonist powerfully embodies multiple tropes of femininity at once—she is a goddess, conqueror, and siren—but eludes a single narrative. The result is a portrait of vulnerability and prowess, of objectification and self-possession. Woman in E is at once an investigation of idolatry, a living monument to Detroit, and an abstracted icon, custom built for the city.

This exhibition has been organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and is curated by MOCAD Susanne Feld Hilberry Senior Curator at Large Jens Hoffmann. Exhibition programming support for Ragnar Kjartansson: Woman in E is generously provided by the Taubman Foundation and Ethan and Gretchen Davidson.

Detroit Affinities: Steve Shaw

On view Friday, January 15 - Sunday, April 24, 2016
Curated by MOCAD's Susanne Feld Hilberry Senior Curator at Large, Jens Hoffmann

Steve Shaw in conversation with Susanne Feld Hilberry Senior Curator at Large Jens Hoffmann
Saturday, February 6 at 1pm
Admission: Free ($5 suggested donation). RSVP on Facebook here.

Steve Shaw, Belle Isle, 1986.
Steve Shaw, Belle Isle, 1986. Courtesy of the artist.

STEVE SHAW completed one of his first photographic series just after high school, while working as a “ragpicker” at a Detroit factory. Though his job title had its own meaning at Motor City Wiping Cloth, the term typically refers to a person undertaking a kind of unauthorized labor in the street: collecting detritus to eke out a living. In a sense, this early role is a metaphor for the lifelong task Shaw assigned himself: to find value in the scraps and pieces of an urban scene that most people would throw away.

Over the past 100 years, United States cities have provided a wealth of content for social documentarians like Shaw. During the 1930s, Paul Strand chronicled the effects of the stock market crash where it happened, on Wall Street. In the 1950s, Robert Frank traveled across the country by car, recording life in cities from Miami Beach, Florida to Reno, Nevada. Lee Friedlander did the same in the 1990s and 2000s, capturing humorous idiosyncrasies at each stop through the car window and rearview mirror. Gary Winogrand distilled the riotous energy of 1960s Manhattan, while Diane Arbus archived its margins and subcultures. These photographers uncovered daily, lived joys and struggles by articulating their visual details: boarded-up windows and peeling paint, gleaming teeth and bruised flesh.

As a place where, in some sense, the Great Depression never ended, Detroit is a perfect setting for this kind of work. It is the home of the American automotive industry, and the symbolic center of its 2008 collapse. It is the city where a historic art institution was asked to contemplate selling its collection to help the city stay afloat in 2014, a harbinger of the ill effects of economic decline on arts and culture. Steve Shaw was born and raised here, and in his many years living and working in the city, he has found that it offers all the source material he needs.

Shaw grounds his practice in personal observation. He remembers the day he got his first camera (December 25, 1969, an Eastman Kodak Instamatic 44), and cites movies, television, family photos, and the pages of LIFE Magazine as early sources of inspiration. His images evidence an intimate point of view that comes from being enmeshed in a community. Even when he pictures strangers, his images lack the objective veneer of an outsider.

In Michigan Ave. Detroit (1983) a woman approaches in crisp focus, her face obscured by her umbrella. Directly above her is an array of competing signs, offering various metonyms of American vice: ammunition, auto parts, and alcohol. Blurred, though nearer to the lens, a neatly dressed man takes a small step toward an unknown storefront. Apart from these two figures, the street is empty. Our protagonists are alone in a vacant cityscape, where billboards vainly vie for attention above parked cars and industrial warehouses. In the foreground, a newspaper stand summarizes the subject of the image, in all its symbolic heft: USA Today.

This photograph bears witness to abstract phenomena by honing in on evocative details. In addition to the people it pictures, it gives form to diffuse concepts such as industrial ruin, economic decline, and the treachery of consumerism, which are otherwise too slippery to grasp. Because of their documentary quality, photographs like this have a unique kind of efficacy. They bring visibility to the details of life at and around the poverty line, and point up the contrast between the American dream and the reality of life with little money. As is the case in Michigan Ave. Detroit (1983), peripheral information is important in Shaw’s recent work. In Michigan Ave. Detroit (2014), he adopts an ancient trope—mother and child—but finds the pair at the intersection of Central and Michigan. The boy is riding a bicycle, and the woman walks with a plastic shopping bag and soda can in hand. Their contented facial expressions are a foil for the wrecked infrastructure around them: grass sprouts through cracks in the sidewalk, and a defunct Salvation Army thrift store is dark behind its barred windows.

Despite the dilapidated buildings that set the scene, such images are not without hope. In another new photograph, Gratiot Ave. Detroit (2014), a black couple sits low to the ground, flanked by signs of Obama-era optimism. Hovering above and behind them on a wall are hand-painted depictions of the President, First Lady, and a bald eagle; on their other side is an American flag. They appear to be waiting, but what they are waiting for is unclear. Shaw’s images form a collective portrait of Detroit—not only of its ongoing hardships, but also its insistent resilience, which can be spotted in an expression or stride. Like those of his predecessors, each of his photographs holds the city’s activity still. There is a kind of generosity in this visual quietude. It enables us to look closely for signs of endurance, and find them.

—Susanne Feld Hilberry Senior Curator at Large Jens Hoffmann

As part of:

DETROIT CITY is comprised of three concurrent series: Detroit Affinities (exhibition), Detroit Speaks (education), and Detroit Stages (performance). This multi-year research program is one of the most ambitious undertakings to date at MOCAD.

Chloë Brown: Dancing in the Boardroom

On view Friday, January 15 - April 24, 2016

with Chloë Brown
Saturday, March 19, 2016 at 1pm
Admission: Free ($5 suggested donation)
RSVP on Facebook here

Chloe Brown, Dancin' in the Boardroom.
Film still from Dancing in the Boardroom (Turnin' My Heartbeat Up), 2013. Chloë Brown.

MOCAD is pleased to present the United States premiere of Chloë Brown's video work Dancing in the Boardroom (Turnin' My Heartbeat Up) and her large drawing From Alfred Street to Temple Street, Detroit. Dancing in the Boardroom uses the music and dance of Northern Soul to explore issues of class and hierarchy within the post-industrial landscape of Stoke-on-Trent in the United Kingdom, a city once known for the production of ceramics. Shot in the disused Spode ceramics factory, the video explores connections between the post-industrial cities of Stoke-on-Trent and Detroit, and asks: what happens when the economic engines of a city slow down, but the people don't?

Chloë Brown is an artist and Senior Lecturer/Course Leader in Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam University, living in Sheffield, UK. She has an MA in Sculpture from Chelsea College of Art, London (1994), and a BA in Fine Art from the University of Reading (1987).

The DEPE (Department of Education and Public Engagement) Space residency and exhibition series presents interdisciplinary art that serves as a catalyst for learning and transformative conversation about complex social issues. DEPE Space offers opportunities to reflect upon the personal relevance of these topics and how they relate to communities in Detroit and throughout the world.

Dancing in the Boardroom is supported by the international research project 'Topographies of the Obsolete' and the ADRC at Sheffield Hallam University.

DEPE Space is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the MOCAD Leadership Circle: Jennifer and David Fischer, Linda Dresner and Ed Levy, Marsha and Jeffrey Miro, Roz and Scott Jacobson, Danialle and Peter Karmanos, Sonia and Keith Pomeroy, Sandy Seligman and Gil Glassberg, and, Julie Reyes Taubman and Robert Taubman.

This exhibition has been organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and is curated by Amy Corle, Curator of Education and Public Engagement.


Exhibition programming support is generously provided by the Taubman Foundation.

DETROIT CITY funding is provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Kayne Foundation (Ric & Suzanne Kayne and Jenni, Maggie & Saree), Quicken Loans, Andre Sakhai, Liz and Jonathan Goldman, Jane Suitor, Scholar Property LTD, Jasmin Tsou, the Krawiecki Gazes Family, Kimberly Brown, and William Leung.

Detroit Speaks funding is provided by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan.