Waiting is such a common occurrence in modern life that it’s hardly something bearable to dwell on, only something to endure when it happens to us. However, this is not the case for Minneapolis artist and educator Emmett Ramstad. In his installation at Hair + Nails Gallery, titled Laying in Wait, he teases out what it means to wait in our society, where it places us physically and mentally. Despite a title that anticipates action of some kind — such as a capable predator waiting to spring — the installation’s warped take on waiting room aesthetics instead seem to imply a prone subject, waiting with unease.
Escape To The Country, mixed media installation.
Just inside the space is a spot for such a subject to lie: a bench, slanted so that if you were to lay upon it, you would look right up into the ceiling, which is a slanted wall of square ceiling panels. Two of the panels have been replaced with cut-outs of a vivid blue sky dotted with clouds, lit from behind with long flourescents. This bench, this ceiling, were they upright in a real waiting room, would be where you would sit and wait, glancing up to count the tiny perforations in the panels, wondering about the weather, tallying your errands. This setting being tipped at an angle makes it very possible that the viewer could walk right into the ceiling; it confronts the viewer with all the dimness and dread that waiting rooms can possess, just as much as they can be places where the mind wanders untethered. The piece is titled Escape to the Country, after a British reality show about potential homebuyers searching for the perfect holiday property. It’s a name that recalls the daydreams we often have in waiting rooms like the versions Ramstad supplies throughout the rest of the installation.
The other works upstairs highlight the bizarreness and awkward falseness of these spaces with their offerings of comfort. On one wall, a picturesque calendar image is stretched to 12 feet (Until Tomorrow); on another, a ticket dispenser affixed to the wall is fitted into a white knitted coozy (Get Comfortable (This Might Take a While)). In the back room, Do you have a tissue? features an entire wall covered in pale blue tissue paper boxes, laid like bricks, with a tuft of tissue sticking out of each box, while a fake tree sits nearby and a hollow window glitters with a translucent faux fish tank. The stillness of the fish tank and that of the overbearing wall of tissues compound each other, stifling the room, submerging it in quiet even as the soundtrack “Waiting Rooms” (made in collaboration with Jacob Aaron Roske) plays through its loop of nauseating, indecipherable human chatter, soothing piano, and a stuttering, glitched-out sample of the sax part from “Careless Whisper.” Here Ramstad perfectly captures how the experience of waiting muffles and jumbles the sounds around you.
Do you have a tissue?, mixed media installation
Downstairs, there is a feeling of tense association between the act of waiting and waste. Toilet Family takes up the majority of the space and is made up of a semicircle of chairs and accompanying side tables, all with oval cutouts in the seats and the tabletops. Some of the chairs and tables have trash cans beneath the cutouts. If you were to sit in the chairs, it would be as over a toilet. If you were to absentmindedly set something on a table, it would fall into a trashcan. Since this “toilet family” resembles a cramped waiting room, one can sense the inspiration for this piece — stuck in the waiting room, needing desperately to go to the bathroom, helplessly blowing a runny nose and tossing the tissue into the trash, checking the clock, watching time pass by. Ramstad also makes use of the bathroom with Escape to the Country (Number 2), where one wall next to the toilet is lined with a shelf of complimentary chips. Beneath the toilet is a TV with the grainy images from a VHS tape playing across its screen. While the program says the show playing is Escape to the Country, what is playing upon my visit is a colorful ice skating performance, Strawberry Ice ’83 National World Exhibitions. The piece recalls our new tendency of submitting ourselves to the thrills of our phones while using bathrooms, which seems to mark the bathroom as another waiting space, where our own bodies are the thing waited upon, ignored as their needs are endured.
Escape To The Country (Number 2), mixed media installation
In his artist statement, Ramstad asks, “Can this space of non-presence or stasis be a place of potential? In this time of political turmoil, which is actually all times, is it possible to have productive waiting?” These questions seem to be posed from a point of anxiety. First, because of our boiling political state, where each day is a new experience in the absurd, in getting through the day normally despite whatever the president is tweeting or what “BREAKING NEWS” is lighting up our phone screens. Like the time spent in a waiting room, there are too many uncomfortable or even distressing stimuli to ignore. Secondly, the anxiety seems to stem from the contemplation of waiting itself, from staring down how much time one has spent in stiff chairs, brain hovering halfway between the dull reality of the space, errant thoughts, and perhaps guilt that one is not able to spend their time more productively. The world we live in, where we always have access to multiple places at once — online and real life — grooms us to develop this anxiety and validates our compulsive need to be engaged. There is an unasked question that hangs in the conflicted air of the space: “Is it okay to simply sit? To be unproductive? To be bored?”
Get Comfortable (This Might Take a While), mixed media installation
In the description of the installation, Ramstad says, “Sometimes being a person or supporting a person is purely tending to the needs of the body.” This description calls to mind the most interactive parts of the show, the pieces Fishing for Compliments and Giving Compliments, which utilize the upstairs and downstairs spaces. Fishing for Compliments is a hole in the upstairs floor, through which a string attached to a pulley system descends to the downstairs space. Giving Compliments is its basement counterpart, where the string lands in a bedpan full of "conveniences” — tampons, mints, band aids, condoms, moist towelettes, toothpicks, and ibuprofen packets. Nearby sits a chair, an oval cut in the seat, implying that the sitter pinning conveniences to the line is “giving a shit” about whoever is above. Giving care that will be taken above. Care might be a pulley system of asking, receiving, and inevitably waiting.
Maybe one can’t be productive in a waiting room, but perhaps it’s possible to find peace in the fact of idle time. Perhaps letting go of the need for entertainment or productivity and embracing boredom for half an hour is just another way to care for oneself. Enduring the awkwardness of the physical realm may just be an inescapable part of being a person with a body. It’s okay to wait for the rope on the pulley to reach you, its clothespin brimming with comfort-giving gifts, necessary items.
Extremely Dry Skin Can Hold You Back, mixed media installation
Laying in Wait is on view at Hair + Nails Gallery through May 11. There will be a conversation about the work Saturday April 28th at 7pm with Chicago artist Molly Roth Scranton and Minneapolis curator Diane Mullin. The gallery is open Thursdays and Fridays, 3-6pm; Saturdays and Sundays, 1-6pm; or by appointment.