Elmgreen & Dragset

Read our feature on the work of the Scandanavian duo, as it takes a darker turn, from the October 2013 issue

By Kimberly Bradley

High Expectations, 2010, mixed media. Photo: Fidelis Fuchs, onuk. Courtesy Galerie Perrotin, Paris, New York & Hong Kong Rosa, 2006, gilded brass, steel, fibreglass with epoxy, garments, shoes. Photo: Mariano Peuser. Courtesy Galerie Perrotin, Paris, New York & Hong Kong Elmgreen & Dragset, It’s Never Too Late to Say Sorry, 2011/13, Odeonsplatz, Munich. Photo:LeonieFelle. Courtesy the artists

On the way to a monolithic former water-
pumping station on a leafy residential
 street in the now-modish Berlin neigh
bourhood of Neukölln, a chatty taxi
 driver tells me that he long ago deliv
ered revellers to blowout parties at this 
address. 

Since 2008, however, the building has been the studio, apartment and
 creative hub of the artist duo Elmgreen
 & Dragset. Shafts of natural light penetrate the main hall’s cathedral-high interior through soaring vertical windows. Depending on when one visits, the near-divine rays might illuminate mostly empty space – or, on the other hand, tons of objects. It’s a reflection of an artistic practice that, lately, has been wavering between provocatively public and pensively private.

One of the trickiest projects relocated a Berlin mud puddle to Munich

The duo – the fifty-something but youthful Michael Elmgreen is from Denmark, while the Norwegian Ingar Dragset is about a decade younger – first garnered wide attention with irreverent projects like the stocked-but-locked Prada store in the Texan desert near Marfa in 2005 and the swish The Collectors interiors (and a fictional, dead-in-the-water collector, Mr. b) in the Danish and Nordic pavilions at the 2009 Venice Biennale. Londoners, too, recently got a long public dose of their sensibility with Powerless Structures Fig 101 (2012), an elfin boy on a rocking horse, which sat atop Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth for 18 months until early July 2013.

This year, Elmgreen & Dragset’s projects are equally high-profile but, as the studio’s variable state reveals, hugely divergent. The studio was nearly empty the first time I visited, in January 2013, for a chat about their public-art project in Munich, called, cheekily, A Space Called Public. If one looks at what was set to launch later that month, the emptiness made sense: Munich’s cultural department had given them €1.2 million and carte blanche to liven up its public spaces with art. 

Munich is so perfect that they vacuum the streets at 10pm

Instead of doing it themselves, the two enlisted 15 other artists and collaborations into the project, which rolled out bit by bit, from January until the official opening on 6 June 2013. “We were meant to pep up a very polished city with art and some grit,” says Elmgreen. “Munich is so perfect that they vacuum the streets at 10pm.”

By the opening, 17 public-art stations dotted Munich’s centre; all slightly facetious interventions in a city where most confrontations occurred decades ago. In January, Irish artist Stephan Hall and partner Li Li Ren created a replica of the Fourth Plinth on Munich’s Wittelsbacherplatz (the plinth was later retrofitted into a one-room apartment by Alexander Laner); Elmgreen & Dragset’s own It’s Never Too Late to Say Sorry (2011/13, in which an older man shouts the phrase through a silver megaphone on Odeonsplatz, not far from where Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch occurred, each day at high noon) began in March. Works by such artworld figures as Ragnar Kjartansson, Martin Kippenberger, Henrik Olesen, Sissel Tolaas, David Shrigley, Peter Weibel, Kirsten Pieroth, Ed Ruscha and others came later.

A Space Called Public ran until 30 September and was a success (one day when I was visiting, a group was waiting at noon for the megaphone man), but was not always easy. As Elmgreen has often stated, public art is something you have to surrender... to the public. One of the trickiest projects was Berlin-based Pieroth’s Berliner Fütze (2001/13), which relocated a Berlin mud puddle to Munich. “It was almost impossible to find a spot where the ground wasn’t level,” laughs Dragset (the puddle also irritated natives not accustomed to such grime).

Tomorrow is a commentary on the disappearance of old British society

There is of course a dramatic contrast between orchestrating artistic interventions in a ‘safe’ location and the real-life political public acts reaching fever pitch as 2013 marches on. “Many kinds of art stop being relevant in desperate situations,” says Elmgreen. In Munich, though, Weibel’s video, Every Place Is Heterotopic (2013), acts as an intermediary. His large black screen is strategically placed across from the outdoor tables at the fancy Schumann’s Tagesbar. Every so often, its algorithm finds and broadcasts brutal protest scenes from the Internet, in flashy bursts that café-goers cannot ignore.

On another visit, in early July, Elmgreen & Dragset’s studio is filled with a hodgepodge of furnishings and objects from all periods and origins. A golden rocking-chair sculpture stands in a corner; an antique trunk is propped against a tiled pillar. Ornate antique candlesticks lie atop a stack of shipping palettes. A dark-wood desk is covered with papers and architectural models; a swingy chaise invites a rest not far from a stuffed vulture ominously perched on a branch. Taped lines on the floor delineate rooms. In the midst of it all, on the floor, is a marble plaque inscribed ‘Tomorrow, 01 Oct 2013 – 02 Jan 2014’.

Many kinds of art stop being relevant in desperate situations

Elmgreen & Dragset are together in Berlin (Elmgreen now lives part-time in London) making final preparations for Tomorrow, an extensive exhibition this autumn at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The two emerge from the upstairs kitchen and living areas, looking at ease, if a little tired. “I won’t be curating anytime soon again,” quips Elmgreen, happy with A Space Called Public but visibly weary of the organisation that working with so many artists and countless municipal authorities involved. The focus
 now is on the future.

Opening 1 October, Tomorrow will
 be a complex spatial installation on
 view in the 160-year-old museum’s former textile department. A show like this would normally take place in the museum’s design and architecture galleries, but, as Elmgreen explains, “When we got the commission, we walked around the museum. We learned that the textile galleries had been closed off for eight years. Of course, we knew this was exactly where we’d like to do the exhibition.”

This is much darker than work we’ve done before

Like The Collectors, Tomorrow is interior space based on an intricate fictional narrative. Five rooms will be reconfigured to represent the inherited grand apartment of an elderly architect named Norman Swann, a scion of Britain’s upper class and architect specialising in social housing.  The septuagenarian Mr Swann, however, failed to build anything. V&A visitors see the protagonist’s home as he is about to move out, having lost his family fortune. A modern kitchen is the sole space already converted by the new tenant: a younger man named Daniel Wilder, who was the architect’s student.

“Failure and disappointment are far more interesting than success; it’s where the better stories lie,” says Dragset. Elmgreen continues: “Tomorrow is a commentary on the disappearance of old British society. The insane real-estate market in London is just one aspect; the exhibition represents the overall failure of the European experiment. 

No one here knows how it will continue.” If many of the artists’ previous projects have tended more towards institutional critique, here the criticism is social and hits a sensitive, relevant nerve. The story and its three-dimensional manifestation is a commentary on public shifts in power, aesthetics and priorities, and how they affect our most private ambitions and situations.

After being disinfected – nothing gets into the V&A that could have bugs or anything else that’s unsavoury or damaging – the objects now arranged in the studio will be transferred to their corresponding rooms at the museum. They offer visitors clues about the architect’s obvious homosexuality, his emotions and obsessions. “You’ll be able to crawl into Swann’s bed and touch most of his things,” says Elmgreen, “whereas normally everything at the V&A is behind glass.” Some 100 objects from the V&A archives will be added to the mix (and of course kept out of reach: at a preview press lunch in Munich, V&A curator Louise Shannon mentioned the fun she was having finding pieces in otherwise fallow museum archives).

“By the way, we found a great album we can use for his notes,” says Dragset softly to Elmgreen, as if Mr Swann were real (for a second, I start believing that he is), while I closely look at the vintage eyeglasses on the architect’s desk. I ask whether it’s difficult to cope with such different commissions as they’ve had this year, and both look at me incredulously. It’s clearly no problem at all.

Failure and disappointment are far more interesting than success

Elmgreen & Dragset manage to fit their mischievous, cerebral ideas into multiple frameworks with shows as accessible as they are multilayered. They poke fun at convention, but one gets the feeling that lately it might be less about mirth and more about exposing the Western world’s current anxiety. Tomorrow approaches very melancholy territory. 

“This is much darker than work we’ve done before,” says Elmgreen, eyes growing large. “It’s about our fears, it’s about the future and the past, about legacies lost and our incapacity to compete.” Deep, but both still emit belly laughs when we all decide on a term for a show that London and the world will certainly enjoy nonetheless: “Tomorrow is post-Venice.”

Elmgreen & Dragset: Tomorrow is on view at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, to 2 January 2014

This article was first published in the October 2013 issue.