Elmgreen & Dragset: Deciphering the Appeal

Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset
Elmgreen & Dragset, The Influence, Fig. 2 (left) & The Influence, Fig. 1 (right), 2019, Aluminium, lacquer, steel, Courtesy of the artists and Kukje Gallery, Photo: Elmar Vestner, Image provided by Kukje Gallery
Elmgreen and Dragset, City in the Sky, 2019, installation view at Art Basel Hong Kong 2019
Elmgreen & Dragset, Adaptation, Fig. 7, 2018, Stainless steel, Courtesy of the artists and Kukje Gallery, Photo: Elmar Vestner, Image provided by Kukje Gallery
Elmgreen & Dragset, Highway Painting, No. 8, 2019, Paint on asphalt, aluminium, Courtesy of the artists and Kukje Gallery, Photo: Elmar Vestner, Image provided by Kukje Gallery
Elmgreen & Dragset, Looped Bar (front), 2018, Corian, MDF, stainless steel, beer taps, stools
Color Field (back), 2018, Corian, glass, Plexiglas, LED, aluminium, stainless steel, Courtesy of the artists and Kukje Gallery, Photo: Elmar Vestner, Image provided by Kukje Gallery
Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset
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After a widely acclaimed show This is How We Bite Our Tongue, which entailed the drastic transformation of White Chapel Gallery in London, Elmgreen & Dragset set their sights on Asia. Between two new solo show openings at Kukje Gallery, Seoul and Massimo de Carlo, Hong Kong in addition to presenting a new installation at Art Basel Hong Kong’s encounter section, the art worlds favourite duo take a beat to indulge us with their signature humour and insightful conversation. 

Text: Aaina Bhargava
Images: Courtesy of Kukje Gallery and the artists.  

 

Elmgreen & Dragset, The Influence, Fig. 2 (left) & The Influence, Fig. 1 (right), 2019, Aluminium, lacquer, steel, Courtesy of the artists and Kukje Gallery, Photo: Elmar Vestner, Image provided by Kukje Gallery

 

“For us, the most beautiful artworks are created inside the heads of audiences.  That’s when the work fully flourishes. They don’t exist without at least one person looking at them.” – Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset

In an art world dominated by artists and individuals whose practices thrive on exclusivity, conceptual inaccessibility, and what could be perceived as a rather grave sense of self absorption, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset occupy a refreshingly novel niche, prioritizing the audience’s experience.  Armed with unassuming humility, genuine intentions, and a mischievously subversive attitude towards the art world, the artist duo have managed to  garner the ever elusive combination of popular appeal and critical praise.  

From the towering theatricality of their large scale public installations, to their dramatic spatial reimaginings of artistic institutions, to the humorous resonance inherent in their sculptures, performative and minimalist elements are always evident in their work.  This inclination  perhaps stems from their unconventional backgrounds and almost accidental start as visual artists. 

Hailing from a small Norwegian town, for Dragset, becoming an artist “seemed like a huge step. I had no concept of how that could be done. I always knew that I wanted a way to express myself, and the closest artistic expression available to me was theater.” In pursuit of studying theatre, he moved to Denmark, where he met Elmgreen who at the time was writing, what seemed to be widely un-read poetry, as he wryly recalls: 

“Denmark had five million people.  You can imagine how much poetry was selling. It was actually a waste of printing, paper, there was censorship from the publisher. So I thought to show it in a different context, and I made these texts on the computer that would morph in front of people’s eyes. I had to show it somewhere, and it happened to be in a gallery. I didn’t really know much about art, but I asked them if I could show my work. They happened to have a cancellation the following month, so I showed my poems, not to a literature based audience, but to a visual arts one.”

He subsequently went on to receive invitations from different galleries to perform his work, which was exciting because, “it was more fun than sitting at home, not meeting your audience. not hearing their reactions, seeing your unsold books in the book store. It was more fun experiencing people coming and looking at your work. And then I met Ingar, and it become us. So it was really a coincidence.” 

Given their enjoyment in experiencing audience reactions, and beginnings in performance art, it is no surprise how integral this interaction is to their process: “you always have the audience in mind. When you do theater performances, you have to be very aware of the physicality of the audience at heart. And that’s very much part of our process.”

 

Elmgreen and Dragset, City in the Sky, 2019, installation view at Art Basel Hong Kong 2019

 

Another fundamental component factoring into the conception of their artwork is challenging established institutions, or in art historical terms – institutional critique, which gives rise to the minimalist aspect to their work, and can again be attributed to their initial status as art world ‘outsiders.’ 

“We were kind of new kids on the block in an art context, since we had never had an art education. So when we ended up doing shows in galleries with a typical white cube format we were like, ‘Why do all these spaces look exactly the same?” Even McDonald’s looks different from place to place in the world. So we tried to challenge and question the format of these spaces.”

Of incorporating minimalist aesthetics and ideology, they cite methods employed by Roni Horn and Felix Gonzalez Torres of “using the formal language of minimalism, but putting in new content and thereby ascribing it new meaning,” as inspiration.  Which for them initially translated into their performance based works that recontextualized the white cube space. Their radical spatial transformations create viewer-centric immersive experiences, are textbook minimalism and often times a performance in themselves.  What began as using 300 litres of paint over a 12 hour period to transform a gallery into a blurred white image, grew to re-creating a fully decorated collector’s home for the Venice Biennale, making a faux art fair complete with galleries and visitors at UCCA in Beijing, and installing an empty swimming pool at the White Chapel Gallery. These dramatic alterations are intended to affect change, not in terms of how art is displayed, but rather to demonstrate the possibility of shifting perspectives. 

“When we transformed spaces, we realized that even though we question and challenge the white cube, it’s not going to change. We’re not going to change the way that art is presented. But by changing our spaces completely, so they’re unrecognizable, it’s a positive signal that we can change this world. It is possible to change structures that seem very static or inflexible. People come to White Chapel, they used to see shows in that space, one after another, and then they come in to our show, and they’re like ‘what happened to the…I can’t recognize the space at all.’ They come into a completely new world and have to start their reading of the exhibition from scratch, refreshed. This an important part of our strategy, to try to drag people to a point where they are willing to start all over and look at things from a completely different perspective.’”

 

Elmgreen & Dragset, Adaptation, Fig. 7, 2018, Stainless steel, Courtesy of the artists and Kukje Gallery, Photo: Elmar Vestner, Image provided by Kukje Gallery

 

Their performative, space-changing acts, eventually diversified into the production of sculptures and installations, still retaining the quality of being a reaction to space. The ambience of the space is perhaps most important in the conception of their works, as is particularly evident for their most recent show, Adaptations, currently on view at Kukje gallery.  In the K3 section of the gallery,  the artists present a series of sculptures entitled Adaptations (2018 – 2019), which are essentially replicas of commonplace road signs, the content of which is replaced with bare reflective surfaces constructed from stainless steel and polished mirrors.  At once familiar, but simultaneously unexpected, they provide an open ended sense of direction.  

 

Elmgreen & Dragset, Highway Painting, No. 8, 2019, Paint on asphalt, aluminium, Courtesy of the artists and Kukje Gallery, Photo: Elmar Vestner, Image provided by Kukje Gallery

 

Highway Paintings (2019), build on this sense of a navigation, this time through materiality with the use of asphalt.  Enframed in steel, the paintings also reflect minimalist sensibilities through their use of industrial materials and aesthetics, sometimes emblazoned with words, such as ‘slow’.  This same sensibility translates to Looped Bar (2019), the fourth and latest version in a series of inverted bars, and simultaneously takes the gallery space into account by referencing the wine bar which once used to exist there.  Turned inside out, its beer taps point outward and its bar stools are trapped inside the looped counter, rendering the bar dysfunctional and inaccessible, a paradox in itself.  On another level it speaks to the contemporary matter of declining physical contact and connectivity the artists explain: 

“As the customer, we should be inside, which is physically impossible, so we become the person who serves (ourselves), in a way it becomes about how we need less and less of a physical space, but more online.  We spend more time on our phones, all of our activity happens on social media and apps. It just goes to show, form follows function, or form follows no function.” 

 

Elmgreen & Dragset, Looped Bar (front), 2018, Corian, MDF, stainless steel, beer taps, stools
Color Field (back), 2018, Corian, glass, Plexiglas, LED, aluminium, stainless steel, Courtesy of the artists and Kukje Gallery, Photo: Elmar Vestner, Image provided by Kukje Gallery

 

Ironically, this ‘dysfunctional bar’ won Wallpaper’s design award for Best watering hole, perhaps mirroring society’s priorities and preferences accurately. The duo is quite astute in referencing relevant contemporary matters and holding up a mirrorto society, often picking up on issues before they become the center of mainstream cultural discourse, making their works more relatable and conceptually accessible.  This circles back to their emphasis on creating new ways for viewers to experience art, providing the possibility of looking at the world through a different lens.  Effectively, this creates the potential for empathy, a healthy dose of which the world is dire need of at the moment. It is from this intention, that the duo operate, trying to break us out of our routinized modes of thinking and acting.   

“We deeply believe that people are capable of being good people and feel empathy, But, a lot of  our thinking patterns are too conventional.  Our daily routines are forcing us to be ignorant, arrogant, uncaring, which block more sincere feelings and emotions in our lives. By changing the situation completely, we hope to at least spark the possibility and give people a platform to rediscover things in a new way.”

Critics and skeptics may raise the dated issue of what constitutes art and if their work, and these “new experiences” they create is considered that, but the artists underscore the impact they want their work to have, dismissing the argument and deeming it irrelevant:   

“For many of our installations, we experience people coming in, and they’re like, ‘Oh, this is really cool and weird,’ and they associate things from real life to the experience they have in our installation. But, they might not consider it art, which is so insignificant. Often people get very aggressive if they do not understand art as art. All good art started out being questioned if it would be art or not, and was once considered ‘bad’. If you know that it’s art, it’s because it’s so conventional that you read it as art immediately.  

Their ability to constantly question and redefine the conventional, lack of an art education, and the effect and resonance their work has with audiences, distinguishes their perspective on the art world. Crucially, forming the core of their  oeuvre, is the capacity to make us re-evaluate our understanding of what art aims to accomplish, and how that purpose is fulfilled, providing new perspectives beyond an art context, that of the world at large. 

“Art is not a qualitative. You have good art, and you have bad art. It’s not good because it’s art.” Our viewers might not think about it as an art project, but they get a really fun experience that makes them think about a lot of different issues. That is what is important for us.”

 

Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset

 

About the Artists
Michael Elmgreen (born 1961 in Copenhagen, Denmark) and Ingar Dragset (born 1969 in Trondheim, Norway) are based in Berlin and have worked together as an artist duo since 1995. The artists’ works often employ both humor and poignant sarcasm to comment on social and political issues. Across multiple mediums including architecture, installation, sculpture, and performance, the artists not only create narrative scenarios but also draw on absurdity to undermine the rigid systems that are embedded in the society we live in.

Elmgreen & Dragset have been shortlisted for the Hugo Boss Prize, Guggenheim Museum, New York (2000), and were the recipients of the Preis der Nationalgalerie, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin (2002). In 2012, they were selected for London’s Fourth Plinth Commission in Trafalgar Square, and Public Art Fund presented their installation Van Gogh’s Ear at Rockefeller Center in New York City in the summer of 2016. Their endeavors encompass various curatorial projects including the most recent edition of the 15th Istanbul Biennial: a good neighbor in 2017.

The duo has held numerous solo exhibitions in art institutions worldwide, including Whitechapel Gallery, London (2018-2019); Museum Haus Lange, Kunstmuseen Krefeld (2017); FLAG Art Foundation, New York (2016); Tel Aviv Museum of Art (2016); Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing (2016); PLATEAU, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul (2015); Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen (2014); Victoria and Albert Museum, London (2013); Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam (2011); the ZKM | Museum of Contemporary Art, Karlsruhe (2010); Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Castilla y León (MUSAC) (2009); The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto (2006); Serpentine Gallery, London (2006); Tate Modern, London (2004); and Kunsthalle Zürich (2001). Their work has been introduced in many prestigious biennials including Istanbul (2013, 2011, 2001), Liverpool (2012), Performa 11 (New York, 2011), Singapore (2011), Moscow (2011, 2007), Venice (2009, 2003), Gwangju (2006, 2002), Sao Paulo (2002), Busan (2000), and Berlin (1998), and in 2009 they received a special mention for their exhibition The Collectors in the Nordic and Danish Pavilions at the 53rd Venice Biennale.

Their works can be found in major museums and private collections, including the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin; the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Louisiana Museum, Humlebaek; Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen; K11 Art Foundation, Hong Kong; Arken Museum for Moderne Kunst, Ishøj; Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul; Yuz Museum, Shanghai; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (mumok), Vienna; and Kunsthalle Zürich, among many others.


 

Aaina Bhargava is the editor of COBO, as well as a staff writer. With a background in art history and emphasis on contemporary art, she has experience working for a diverse range of local and international art institutions. She has previously contributed to Design Anthology, Artomity, Asian Art News, museeum.com, and the Artling’s online magazine.

 
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