share


Interview with Elmgreen & Dragset

Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset are among the most innovative, subversive and wickedly funny contemporary artists at work, or play, in the world. Relentlessly anti-dogmatic, their sculptures, installations and performances challenge conventional wisdoms about the presentation and appreciation of art. From converting London’s Victoria Miro Gallery into a nightclub to building a replica (but nonetheless well-stocked) Prada boutique in the American desert, Elmgreen & Dragset have consistently sought to make us reappraise our expectations of what art should have as its aims, and the means by which it should achieve them.

It is of particular note that, at a time when so many feel so alienated by the perceived tendency among some contemporary artists towards wilful obscurantism and self-referential indulgence, Elmgreen & Dragset are no idle provocateurs. Among the most admirable qualities of their oeuvre is its inclusivity, its determination to poke fun not at the audience but rather at the pretensions, hypocrisies and pomposity of the art market. Their work is conceived as a challenge to established institutions, as is made explicit in the title of their successful proposal for Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth, the latest in a series of works entitled Powerless Structures. Nowhere is their unique combination of social critique, deconstructive impulse and humour more elegantly expressly than in the bathetic, Napoleonic attitude assumed by this cherubic golden boy urging his rocking horse onto victory.

 

The interview was conducted by Nicholas Shorvon and Ben Hunter, two artists who have worked in collaboration since 2008. Shorvon & Hunter’s wide-ranging practice encompasses installation, video, photography, sculpture and drawing. They are currently working alongside The Justin Campaign on a project tackling homophobia in football.

 

Q

The White Review

— How did you come to collaborate together? Are you natural collaborators or only with one another?

A

Elmgreen & Dragset

— Fatal attraction. We met in a club in Copenhagen called After Dark. Weirdly enough it turned out – at five in the morning – that we were both living in the same building on the north side of the city, so we headed back home together. We became boyfriends and collaborators for almost ten years, and for the last seven years we’ve been collaborators and something indefinable – like buddies and brothers in one maybe.

 

We are not really professionally skilled in anything, so collaboration with various people who have certain craft skills or come from other professional fields naturally comes into the process. We’re probably no more socially minded than other people, but we’ve got a survival instinct.

Q

The White Review

— Were you making art before you began collaborating?

A

Elmgreen & Dragset

— Michael came from poetry, which he at some point found to be too solitary a creative process. After shorter collaborations with another writer, Christina Hesselholdt, and the Danish artist Henrik Olesen, we bumped into each other and started out doing performances together. This was the natural meeting point, since Ingar came straight from theatre and acting studies. To do something together – to share these activities and to collaborate – was the goal in itself; that it was labelled art was less important.

Q

The White Review

— How does the inter-action between yourselves (or the actors in your work) and the audience differ in a performance as compared to a traditional theatre setting? Is this interaction in itself a form of collaboration?

A

Elmgreen & Dragset

— Being confronted with live human beings still seems to engage people in a different way than a sculpture or a painting – or a traditional theatre play! If you go in to see a play or stage performance, you also know the rules of the game and what to expect, and you can be pretty sure that the production won’t deviate too much from the set conventions. This well established ‘agreement’ can be a great thing as well, and something we’ve made use of in stage productions such as Drama Queensand the opera L’Amour de Loin, and will do with the play that we’re currently working on, called Happy Days in the Art World.

 

A scripted play can still bring a lot of surprises. The problem with more traditional theatre is that it is often bound to ‘think commercially’ because it is very expensive to produce and run, so it might seek to please rather than challenge its audience. In the art world you seldom depend on selling tickets, although there are other commercial factors to consider. Even public art institutions have certain obligations towards trustees, governments and sponsors. The beautiful thing in the theatre, though, is the time aspect. The average art spectator normally spends only a few seconds or minutes with an artwork before rushing off to the next one. In a theatre setting you’re sat down for an hour or two and need to be silent and focused in order to get something out of the experience.

Q

The White Review

— Do you ever make art outside of your collaborative partnership now?

A

Elmgreen & Dragset

— We do not make art separately, but in the little spare time we have Michael likes playing around with designing industrial objects and Ingar makes music.

Q

The White Review

— What kind of objects, what kind of music?

A

Elmgreen & Dragset

— Michael, for example, created a pretty cool lamp out of a snare drum for Ingar’s fortieth birthday and is working on a designer rice cooker that will hopefully find its way into billions of homes in the near future. Ingar made music with his band Asia Today for a few years, combining pop with folk and indie elements. Their career highlight was selling a song to a Mexican soap opera called soy tu fan (i’m your fan). Now Ingar always travels with a little keyboard with a USB plug and writes songs that help him through difficult times. We both would love to make a new design for a caravan – a new generation of mobile homes updated for 2011. And lately we have been collaborating with fashion brand Wood Wood on a couple of T-shirt designs. After planning and refitting our studio in Berlin we also worked on some smaller scale architectural projects. As we have no formal education we are kind of happy amateurs in any field, one could say.

Q

The White Review

— Do you have a formula for collaborating? How do you actually work when it comes to generating and working on ideas – face to face, or via phone and email?

A

Elmgreen & Dragset

— For the last two years we’ve been living in different cities, so it’s a combination of various means of communication. We commute between London and Berlin, where the main studio is, and we also travel a lot together when we do exhibitions and projects. In the development of ideas there is no set formula – this process is part of life regardless of any system of production that one might have developed. In the actual execution of works we work closely with our studio assistants on research, concept drawings and finding technical solutions and they follow up – together with us – in a close dialogue with fabricators and workshops around the globe that we have worked with for years.

Q

The White Review

— One of the reasons we like collaborating is because we often come from different angles. The work we make is always the product of negotiation. Is this the same for you? We ask this particularly because a great deal of your work is highly politicised, and though you undoubtedly agree on many things, this must throw up situations where you think differently about an issue during the development of an artwork.

A

Elmgreen & Dragset

— We do experience the world in very similar ways. We both seem to possess a scepticism towards set rules, conventions and power systems. The political aspect for us is not something that derives from a cerebral exercise, but rather from actual experience. It is more a posteriori than a priori. Our feuds are more concentrated on practical matters and aesthetics. It can perhaps be compared to a functioning marriage or relationship where the basic complicity is all in order, but you still have minor disagreements.

Q

The White Review

— If your practice is motivated by a scepticism towards set rules, conventions and power systems, what are you trying to achieve through it? Are you trying to change the world? Are you trying to overturn these structures, or just inform people?

A

Elmgreen & Dragset

— Any change we might infer on the world would be too subtle to measure and too hopeless to even try imagining. We question the world around us, and hope that other people are interested in the same questions, or are at least a little inspired to pose their own. If we were after a ‘world revolution’ it would be wiser to choose a different medium than art. Art cannot be measured by its outcome. Its lack of direct effect is what makes it urgent in this world that is so focused on efficiency and results.

Q

The White Review

— Talking of power systems, you have made a number of works titled powerless structures. From where did this title arise?

A

Elmgreen & Dragset

— It arose from (mis)reading Foucault, who through his writing inspired us to imagine even the invisible and ephemeral as something tangible and structural, something that could easily be played out and displayed in a number of different ways. Nothing we’ve ever done is a direct reflection on Foucault, but rather a fleeting sensation of a world view in flux captured and expressed as a momentary open statement.

Q

The White Review

— There are certain ideas that we have argued over for years, and therefore pieces of work that are unlikely to ever be made. Are there works that one of you would like to make and the other would not?

A

Elmgreen & Dragset

— We try to follow a rule that says ‘No compromises!’ meaning that if one of us totally disagrees there is no point in pursuing that particular idea. There are always new challenges, so we don’t dwell on missed opportunities. We have a lot of silly ideas and only ten per cent of them end up being executed as actual art works.

Q

The White Review

— On another note regarding unresolved work, we once saw some plans for a project called the Tolerance Bridge, for which you had designed a bridge entitled twisted arc (which corkscrewed in mid-air) linking two areas in Houston. Is this still going to happen?

A

Elmgreen & Dragset

— Most likely not. We won a competition to do this bridge in Houston, Texas, but then the credit crunch came and wiped it off the table. The city still haven’t decided whether or not they want to pay for the rights to build it some time in the future. To us it has by now been kind of archived – one of our ‘unrealised’ architectural projects. Anything that has to do with public art is of course always more complicated than showing in a museum or gallery. You move into architecture and city planner territory and step on everyone’s toes. It’s a heavy process, with a lot of disappointments, but rewarding when you see the engagement and debate such projects sometimes create. The worst process we’ve ever had was probably doing the German memorial to the homosexual victims of the Nazi era in Berlin. It was completed more than three years ago, but the discussions about it still flare up occasionally, which makes it even more relevant. In the end it was all worth it.

Q

The White Review

— Artists are still often seen as the doors through which to unlock their work, partly because they are interesting people and a biographical reading of a work is often fascinating. Collaboration does seem to be a fairly neat way of sidestepping traditional notions of authorship, simply by closing down the possibility of anyone reading a work in terms of one person’s psychology or ideology. Is this important for you?

A

Elmgreen & Dragset

— Are artists interesting people though? Maybe there are more interesting people in the art world than in the world of accountancy, but in general artists are just as boring as who-have-you. This is not necessarily a bad thing – it can bring art closer to the general public. If people understand that artists are just like themselves, they might be more open to the ideas that artists deal with – the science of art. We never had any wet dreams about becoming artists. Somehow we both came into this through a trapdoor somewhere, without proper education or artistic background. Maybe that’s why the notion of authorship has been of less importance to us. Of course – also as a pair – there is a backstory that one never can escape – we are both homosexual men from social democratic, Scandinavian countries – but hopefully people are not reading our work exclusively according to such parameters.

Q

The White Review

— You talk about ‘bringing art closer to the general public’. To what extent do you consider accessibility when making a work?

A

Elmgreen & Dragset

— A great deal, especially if the context is a very public one. When making a proposal for the Fourth Plinth at Trafalgar Square in London for instance, we see no point in proposing a highly coded, conceptual or cryptic work. We try to find a way to communicate ideas or concepts that can work on different levels, both as an immediate experience and as a trigger for people to look more closely into the subject matter, its history and the ideas’ possible ramifications in a wider context. Anything else we would consider arrogant. And you can actually address rather complex issues in a manner that is still understandable. It is not about simplification but about clarity and in the end about being loyal to the medium and not trying to press a message into and through the material that it can’t support.

 

If you show a work at a smaller German Kunstverein or at Pablo de la Barra’s White Cubicle toilet gallery at the George Dragon pub in Shoreditch you don’t have to think about an undefined audience. You can be quite sure that they are pretty much like yourself in many ways. Such contexts call for a different kind of challenge – for yourself and your visitors.

Q

The White Review

— Are you concerned with the longevity of your work? The fact that much of it is very large or site-specific makes it difficult to collect or see again after its deinstallation. So how important are the prints, books and other appendages to your work? We particularly loved the binder produced for ‘The Welfare Show’ in London, which contained information and research on the issues addressed in the show.

A

Elmgreen & Dragset

— The publication for ‘The Welfare Show’ was very important to us. There is not a single text on our work in it, but it still communicates a great deal about our working method, what it is that feeds it and where we were at that particular point in our development as artists. The documentation of exhibitions in book form is of great importance to a practice like ours. You can go deeper into subjects in a catalogue than you can in a single exhibition. Our next book is called trilogy. Taking three major shows from the past six years, it clarifies how we perceive the decline of the welfare state, the desires of the super-rich and the general societal obsession with fame and celebrity as key cultural developments that have significantly altered the balance between individuals and society over the past decade.

Q

The White Review

— As well as large-scale installations and interventions, you make ‘art objects’. Did you make a conscious decision to start producing this work?

A

Elmgreen & Dragset

— One strategy or format doesn’t exclude the other. We have a very elastic relationship to scale, in the same way that we’re not true to one material or medium and we prefer not to create some kind of ‘logo aesthetics’. If the story can be told with just one little animatronic sparrow on a windowpane – as was the case with our Level Two Gallery exhibition at Tate Modern some years ago – then we leave it at that.

Q

The White Review

— How are these kind of ‘autonomous’ works affected by context? How does a work change when it is removed from a specially created environment – such as the nightclub you created for too late at Victoria Miro and placed in a collector’s home?

A

Elmgreen & Dragset

— It will change and we should allow it to. If we were absolute control freaks we would contradict our very own ideas about structures having the potential to be interchanged and morph into new meanings. Sometimes a work gains a new context and becomes even more meaningful or radical. too late could look even better, and appear more overtly critical in some brand new pretentious museum, or become hilariously grotesque in the middle of a jungle.

Q

The White Review

— You have previously said about your winning design for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square that there may be a personal message in the work, a feeling that you couldn’t live up to the masculine roles in society. How does this autobiographical element enter into your other work? We are thinking particularly of the young schoolboy sitting under the portrait displayed at your exhibition ‘Celebrity — The One & The Many’ at ZKM | Museum für Neue Kunst, Karlsruhe.

A

Elmgreen & Dragset

— Neither of us, in fact, comes from the upper class background depicted in the work high expectations, but Michael is from a family that once had money and never came to terms with the fact that it suddenly didn’t belong to the wealthy part of society anymore. Its members were living in total denial of the reality that followed his dad’s bankruptcy. But having been brought up in Scandinavian countries we can’t claim that we had to strive for elite goals. Still, there are enough normative suburban behavioural expectations to make you feel uncomfortable as an adolescent in ‘picture perfect’ Scandinavia.

 

Just watch Ingmar Bergman and his painstaking and disturbing portrayal of neurotic family lives in the region. The Scandinavian countries might be the opposite of elitist societies, but everyone there is expected to be the same, to fit into repressive monocultural values at all times.

 

Q

The White Review

— The art market is often considered a taboo subject but you have made a number of works about it, notably donation box at Frieze and your series of paintings including safe/dot painting and safe/stripe painting. How do you see your own relationship to the art market?

A

Elmgreen & Dragset

— It’s like having a demanding and chronically unfaithful lover. Some say ‘Don’t bite the hand that feeds you,’ but biting can be pretty sexy.

Q

The White Review

— What does Prada as a brand mean to you? In the context of your practice the brand could act as a site for exploration in the same way as any building or manifestation of contemporary capitalist urban culture. How did you approach this when making prada marfa?

A

Elmgreen & Dragset

— In a way the preparation for prada marfa came through doing a show a few years earlier where we covered up the facade of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York. The white sheet blocking the view into Tanya’s Chelsea gallery announced that Prada would open there soon. The sign was just a copy, really, of the ones that at the same time covered the ground floor of what used to be the downtown Guggenheim in Soho – a museum space now occupied by Prada. Our appropriation of the signs worked only too well. People did not enter the gallery for the next month, but instead called and asked who was designing the new store. The laws of gentrification are so familiar to people that they don’t even question the sudden appearance of a luxury store next to a shabby car repair shop – as long as the art world has been preparing the ground. This led us to the idea of taking a high fashion boutique on a survival trip into the wild. The Wild West, any way. What happens when something iconic like the corporate design of a luxury brand is rendered completely useless? Nothing, of course, but it gives you a different kind of thrill.

Q

The White Review

— Your work always looks very clean, very white and clinical. What role does this aesthetic perform?
A

Elmgreen & Dragset

— It used to be cleaner. We’re getting dirtier with age. Our last show at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen’s submarine wharf space was very dark, grey and gritty. the collectors at the Venice Biennale in 2009 was quite colourful, we’d say – at least there were pockets of green, red walls, interior designs and the swimming pool outside. We used to play a lot with the colour white. In one of our first performances we spent twelve hours painting a gallery space white. Through this excessive action, the clean features of the white cube dissolved. The work has been seen as an allegory for both Nordic snow landscapes and a jack-off party. Both a bit far off, maybe, but the latter gives some clues to the way we’ve used the colour white. We tested its neutrality and proved that white could be dirty too. We also made a neat and on the surface very innocent-looking white-coloured cruising pavilion in a park where gay men could meet at night for sexual encounters instead of being harassed by the police outside. The clean aesthetics often had something to do with how we created a clash of perfection and functionality on one hand and dysfunction and desire on the other. Our own personal ‘White Reviews’, you might say.