Interview: Elmgreen & Dragset

20 subversive years in the art world.

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They once built a Prada store in the Texas desert, placed a camp young boy on a rocking horse on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth and built a to-scale housing estate in a gallery in Germany. Now Scandinavian artist duo Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset are back with Biography, a series of exhibitions exploring notions of identity amid ever-shifting norms, accompanied by a 600-page “photo album” depicting their 20 subversive years in the art world.

To flick through the pages of Elmgreen & Dragset’s Biography is to drown in a kind of image machine, to see the story of the story of a life: hotel rooms, restaurants, cocks, forests, beaches, snow, sneakers. Explicitly not their biography, but rather the biography—all of our biographies. It reminds of their 2013 Tomorrow mise en scène at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, an entire apartment of indeterminate history that visitors browsed like prying snoops, writing their own biographies for the elusive tenant who seemed perennially stuck in the shower.

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Like much of Elmgreen & Dragset’s work, the book—no words, no dates, no explanation or order; simply hundreds of images—strikes a balance somewhere between simplicity and overload. The title promises us a narrative arc; like the accompanying exhibitions and much of the artists’ oeuvre, it puts the story of the personal at its centre. But for Elmgreen & Dragset, the personal is always an impossible story to tell. When Glamcult met the two at the Copenhagen Biography exhibition, Dragset explained that they like to do that with their art: let viewers down, promise a story and then disappoint. “Life often does that,” he stated simply. And so all the loose ends are left fluttering in the wind.

Dane Elmgreen and Norwegian Dragset began their artistic collaboration knitting and simultaneously unravelling white blankets in the corners of Scandinavian galleries in the 1990s, and while they’ve upgraded the format considerably since then, they continue to work in the same surreally minimalist style. Their most famous work is perhaps The Welfare Show, debuted at the Serpentine Gallery (London, 2005-’06), which offered an insight into the institutional anonymity, the boredom, impotence and internalized rage bred by imbalanced power structures. At the other end of the socioeconomic scale, The Collectors, meanwhile, displayed at both the Danish and Nordic Pavilions at the Venice Biennale in 2009, invited the audience to view the private collection of a fictional family of art patrons, complete with guides posed as estate agents, who revealed salacious details of their scandalous lives.

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But the budgets were not always so inflated, says Elmgreen, referencing the aptly named Powerless Structures, Fig. 19 (1998). ‘This is from when Elmgreen & Dragset had no such thing as an exhibition budget,’ he says. Two pairs of blue jeans with Calvin Klein underwear still entangled in them have been taken off and left on the floor. The underwear is fake, Elmgreen reveals, bought at a street market in New York—there really was no budget. The work says something quite tender about coupledom, dependence on one another, passion—maybe youth—or about E&D as a unit, somewhere between someone and something. In the Biography book there is a photograph of Elmgreen & Dragset kissing at a demonstration. It dates from when they first met and were newly in love. In the room next to the jeans at the Copenhagen exhibition is a public toilet, the two washbasins connected by a twisting and turning (but beautifully shiny) metal drain. The work is called Marriage and was made around the time the two stopped sharing a bed in 2004. “The dirty water from the one basin will drain into the other,” Dragset explains. “That is what most marriages are like.” “Is the water hot or cold?” a woman asks. “Lukewarm,” says Dragset, adjusting the faucet without missing a beat. This work reveals a more jaded vision of relationships—or rather, more experienced, more adult, albeit not without the artists’ characteristic playfulness.

Although made across a considerable period of time, these pieces both appear as part of a decidedly new artwork, reinterpreted and recontextualized as part of a new “exhibition installation” for the Biography exhibition. This underscores the non-linear nature of Elmgreen & Dragset’s work: bits of it are always repeated, redefined and destabilized. The overexposure of their work (recycling pieces continuously; creating exceptionally detailed installations) produces not the logical, lucid answers we expect, but instead creates a kind of void. For example, the submissive obedience of a gilded maid at The Collectors exhibition in Venice becomes a kind of mourning for the end of an era when she figures in the abandoned apartment of Tomorrow, or quiet contemplation when she stands in front of a series of monochromes at the Oslo leg of Biography. Similarly, the dead collector floating in a pool at the Venice Biennale in 2009, when moved to a cavernous dark room in the Danish National Gallery becomes—who, precisely? This search for identity is the link between early minimal works, such as those in the ongoing Powerless Structures series, and more recent large-scale installations such as Tomorrow and The Collectors: more than anything they exhibit both literal and metaphorical questions, dead ends, empty rooms.

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Another recurring question might be, “What do we expect from a biography? What types of stories do we value over others, which ones do we keep, which aspects do we emphasize?” The Welfare Show challenged viewers with the stark presentation of a biography normally left unwritten, and The One & the Many, a recreation of a concrete council estate shown in Rotterdam in 2011 and represented in Copenhagen as part of Biography, explores the theme further. We are barred access, having to peek in through the windows—and are sometimes peeked back at. Here Elmgreen & Dragset celebrate the uniqueness of people and their refusal to conform to concrete boxes, seeing beauty in what is generally unloved and unspectacular and deconstructing accepted hierarchies. This subversion is echoed in Elmgreen & Dragset’s Fourth Plinth sculpture of a boy on a rocking horse, which quietly mocks the traditional equestrian sculptures that surround it. What, the artists ask time and again, can we learn from unspectacular biographies?Back in Copenhagen, and although in stark contrast to The One & the Many, the dark room featuring the swimming pool and the collector’s body features precisely these words on the back wall. If the many were in the housing block in the foyer, this floating body is the one. The biography Elmgreen & Dragset is laying out for us is both a collective and a highly individual one: “We do not have any good solution for how to strike a healthy balance between being the one and the many,” they explain, “but it is a dilemma that we like focusing on—sometimes the best way for change to start is to realize or define a problem, a void.” But while “the many” were unique in spite of being marked by their plurality, this portrait of the individual is void of identity, a kind of Hollywood production of death. The room is cold and smells of tyres, a sign bearing the legend “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada” has collapsed over an Airstream camper, lights still on. The back of the room is fenced off, a dog guarding the boundary, barking at the fence, mouth wide open. In the world of Elmgreen & Dragset, a life will always resist telling, it will always repeat itself, come back to where it started, be unable to say anything, finally. What is death, they suggest, except the end of the biography, a scene in a movie, the resounding quiet of the dog’s unheard bark?

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Back in Copenhagen, and although in stark contrast to The One & the Many, the dark room featuring the swimming pool and the collector’s body features precisely these words on the back wall. If the many were in the housing block in the foyer, this floating body is the one. The biography Elmgreen & Dragset is laying out for us is both a collective and a highly individual one: “We do not have any good solution for how to strike a healthy balance between being the one and the many,” they explain, “but it is a dilemma that we like focusing on—sometimes the best way for change to start is to realize or define a problem, a void.” But while “the many” were unique in spite of being marked by their plurality, this portrait of the individual is void of identity, a kind of Hollywood production of death. The room is cold and smells of tyres, a sign bearing the legend “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada” has collapsed over an Airstream camper, lights still on. The back of the room is fenced off, a dog guarding the boundary, barking at the fence, mouth wide open. In the world of Elmgreen & Dragset, a life will always resist telling, it will always repeat itself, come back to where it started, be unable to say anything, finally. What is death, they suggest, except the end of the biography, a scene in a movie, the resounding quiet of the dog’s unheard bark?

By Kristian Vistrup Madsen

www.elmgreen-dragset.com

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