The artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset are the curators of the 2017 Istanbul Biennial, entitled a good neighbour. We discussed both their curatorial concept and the trajectory of their own artistic path.
TEXT: Selina Ting
IMAGES: Courtesy of Elmgreen & Dragset
When asked about how they get inspired, artist Michael Elmgreen – who is one half of the artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset – says, “It’s always easier to get inspiration from something that is not in your own field. For example, it’s more interesting for someone who’s making wedding bouquets to be inspired by a butcher, rather than by someone else who’s also doing wedding bouquets.”
The artists walk their talk. In their work, they draw references from several disparate fields, ranging from the cinematic world, to the novels of Renata Adler, Georges Perec or Alain Robbe-Grillet, to such divergent artists as Charles Ray, Martin Kippenberger or Vilhelm Hammershøi. This is not surprising, as neither of the two artists has any formal academic training in fine art: Elmgreen started out as a poet, while Ingar Dragset was an actor. “I was writing poems because it was fun, but I was a terrible poet,” says Elmgreen with a laugh. “And I was a terrible actor,” echoes Dragset, laughing too. “It was the energy between us that created something new and interesting. We developed this third persona in between us – a sort of two-headed monster.”
Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset have been working together since 1995. While today they are based in Berlin, the duo got their start in the Copenhagen art scene of the mid-90s. “Back then, it was very much a DIY situation for young artists, with no art market and no institutions being interested in emerging artists,” notes Dragset. “For me, the speed of the art world, in which you can mediate an idea of yours to an audience much faster and in a less bureaucratic manner than in the theatre, was something completely new and refreshing.”
Elmgreen & Dragset’s work is highly iconic. Their permanent installation Prada Marfa, installed just off U.S. Highway 90 since 2005, is a true landmark, while their statue of a boy on a rocking horse, called Powerless Structures Fig. 101,, became famous for catching the attention of passers-by in London’s Trafalgar Square during the Olympic year as the winning 2012 Fourth Plinth Commission. However, the duo never aimed to become a brand. “Elmgreen & Dragset almost sounds like an old lawyer’s company from a Monty Python movie, but actually the Elmgreen & Dragset idea is not our invention,” explains Elmgreen. “From the beginning, we worked under our full names. We were Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. Then, when we started getting invited to biennials and big group shows, the organizers thought these long names took up too much space on invitations, press releases, and posters. So it was the curators who established that we became Elmgreen & Dragset.”
In April last year, the artists were invited by the Istanbul Biennial advisory board to curate the 15th edition of the Istanbul Biennial. At first they were surprised to get such a call: “We thought that we would probably never get asked again as artists to curate a biennial, so we’d better say yes, now!” Elmgreen states. They titled the exhibition “a good neighbour”; it opened on September 16, 2017 and runs until November 12, 2017.
Istanbul is a city that the artists feel connected to. “We know the city, we know the culture there. We have taken part in the Istanbul Biennial as artists three times since 2001,” notes Dragset. In April 2016, when they received the invitation to curate the Biennial, Turkey was relatively calmer, politically speaking – before the coup attempt of July 15, 2016 and its aftermath. However, working in such a politically complex country brought about some reflections. “As artists, it is hard to engage with these places that have such intense conflicts going on. But on the other hand, it might be too easy only to reflect upon the crises in the world from places that are safe and well-functioning,” reflects Dragset.
Selina Ting: I’m thinking about the title of the Istanbul Biennial. Being ‘a good neighbour’ is something that you learn to be from primary school, starting with how you treat your classmates. Can we still trust in this notion of the good neighbour?
Michael Elmgreen: It is strange because we came up with the title, a good neighbour very early on in the process. Since then, we have experienced Brexit, we have seen Donald Trump being elected on a promise to build a wall along the Mexican border, and we have experienced an intensified crisis between South Korea and North Korea and between Turkey and Europe. However, we are hopeful that there is still a possibility for us to become better citizens and good neighbours again.
You often see that people solve problems in a neighbourhood context in a different way than politicians are able to do on a big political level. In a neighbourhood, the inhabitants often solve problem between themselves. But globally, we face many of the same problems in our metropoles today: changed demographics, rapid urbanisation, increased living costs. Our idea is to make a biennial that is hopeful and shows diversity – an exhibition consisting of many different practices by artists from a wide range of backgrounds. We want to show how, in the context of the Biennial, these can coexist in a peaceful manner.
ST: When it comes to an art biennial that’s held in a highly politically charged situation, a title with an idea that’s so basic and innocent becomes almost a black humour. Will there be any ironic take on this notion in the work that you are going to show?
ME: We have often used humour, but not really irony, in our own works. Irony is very distant and objectifying. It is a bit like ‘you know better’. We have often worked with a layer of humour in our working practice, and there are a few works that have humour in them in this Biennial too, but not satirical or ironic. These are not the times for being ironic. We’re also not aiming at curating a biennial that mirrors our own working method.
ST: Would it be a different biennial if it did not happen in Istanbul?
Ingar Dragset: I think it would definitely be different. Of course, we are used to being quite context-sensitive in our artistic approach. This is not a biennial that is a direct response to populist politics and the authoritarian regime in Turkey right now, but it does, of course, represent a completely different perception of the world and a different reality from the government’s favoured version of it, and through that, it can have a political potential.
ME: Our intention is to let the artists speak with their own voices and not to set up some programmatic agenda about what they should respond to politically or not. How can we speak about “a freedom of speech” if we as artists are suddenly reduced to responding to the unreasonable language of populist politicians? However, we hope to make the Biennial accessible and inclusive, and that was part of why we chose a title like “a good neighbour”. As artists, we have actually taken part in biennials where we were never really sure what the cryptic thematics or the title were about.
ST: … Seriously?
ME: [Laughs] So… In Istanbul, there are 450,000 people coming to the Biennial and 400,000 of them are locals. That means it is all groups of people, with a very wide range of backgrounds. Therefore, it makes sense to make something that is not so introverted. Something people can experience without being experts in contemporary art.
ST: Indeed, the first press conference of the Biennial in December 2016 targeted the general public, asking simple questions. Why did you choose that kind of communication format?
ME: As we are artists, we chose to do a press conference with a different format than an academic statement. We had 40 people of all ages and all places in society, gathering and coming on stage, one by one. Each one read a question about what it means to be a good neighbour. That was our press statement. We prefer to ask questions instead of coming up with the answers.
ID: The questions themselves have inspired a lot of discussion since we released them. We have, for instance, an online presence through the Turkish outlet T24 with different people from different parts of the academic scene writing one answer to one question. It could be a psychologist, sociologist, historian, and so on. Of course, nobody has the exact answer anywhere, but we’re glad to see that it has this effect on society; and in Turkey as well, where people are really interested in discussing this. Of course, it has somehow been a guiding light for the artists as well, you could say, as they develop their projects.
ME: It is again something more concrete to relate to. We’ve used the questions in different formats. We started a billboard project with images from one of the participants in the Biennial, the Swiss photographer Lukas Wassmann. We are showing the questions along with these photographs all over the world, because we think the problems we face today are global problems. They are not specific to one country. Things like xenophobia are something we see in many parts of the world today.
ST: Coming from a theatrical and performance art background, how do you integrate the performance element into a biennial format?
ME: Well, we have included several performances in Istanbul this year. Of course, it is difficult when a performance is only happening at one certain point. You have to be there, face long queues and sometimes you cannot get in. It is a little disappointing, but then again, you see images on the internet. There is something to be said for rumours, stories and accounts of performances. That’s actually the beauty of this medium. None of us have ever seen Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll piece or Chris Burden getting shot in the arm, but these happenings are so famous and so clear in my mind, even though they happened at the beginning of the ’70s. At the Biennial, there are also a few durational performances that will go on throughout the whole exhibition period.
ID: I don’t think even ten people saw Chris Burden get shot in his arm. It was for just a few friends, and yet we all know about it. Then there are even these questions of, did it actually happen or was it staged?
ME: Such performances become legendary in art history. Now it doesn’t even matter anymore if it really happened or not.
ST: Moving on to your personal work, one main line of research that you have been exploring since ’95 is called Powerless Structures. How did you come up with this idea of having all these different projects under one name? Was it planned or did it grow organically?
ME: We wanted to do the series of Powerless Structures works as a long-term project, also because at that point in time, when we started it, we found that it was quite awkward to give artworks names, to give them all kinds of weird titles. At the same time, we thought that it was also somewhat pretentious to name the works Untitled. So many artists do that. We were asking ourselves, how can we give them no name, but also give them a name at the same time? We were reading Michel Foucault at that time, and he was writing about how the structures in society are not what’s actually imposing the power, because the power structures are just structures. The so-called “power structure” is just a name for what people agree upon. So, since the structures themselves have no power, we as humans could change them at any point. They could be exchanged with other structures or be interchanged.
In our slight misreading of Foucault, we thought: ‘Wow, okay, let’s test how it works when you alter these structures in the context of the art institution itself – its conventional white cube design, its normative behavioural patterns and its organisation. We challenged these spaces by giving them new architectural features, painting the walls over and over again with white paint, adding guards in the exhibition halls or giving the art space a completely different purpose. All these works we titled Powerless Structures. But then that became something like a branding –everyone was speaking about us in relation to Powerless Structures, and suddenly the structures were not so powerless anymore. So, we were like, ‘Hmm, this is no longer working. We need to change it.’ We needed to do something else, and so we stopped using that title for quite a while.
ST: However, a work like Death of a Collector, the installation of a dead man’s body floating face-down in a swimming pool, immediately creates a scenario that can be assimilated with your previous concept. Why didn’t you include that work in the Powerless Structures theme?
ME: It could have been a work in our Powerless Structures series. It’s totally true because it falls into the same category as our first sculptural work, Powerless Structures, Fig. 11, from 1997, which is a diving board penetrating a window at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Death of a Collector is the same type of work, but we didn’t want to call it a Powerless Structure simply because it had become too much of a label and the critics were too lazy. They were like, “Oh yeah, it’s a Powerless Structure… it means this and that,” and it had turned into this automatic reading of our works. For us it was also important to emphasize that our interest in the structures surrounding the art world was only symbolic of how structures worked in many other fields of society: within other public institutions but also in our private sphere.
ST: In challenging and reflecting on the art system and institutions, did you want to provoke a certain situation with the work itself? Or were you actually inspired by a certain situation in the first place and then decided to make it into a work?
ME: We didn’t come from an art academic background, so we were constantly surprised and full of questions when we started doing art. Why do they do it this way? Why do all these spaces look the same? Even McDonald’s looked different from place to place, but the galleries looked the same. Why do the gallery staff behind the far-too-high reception desk look so tired? Why are the routines in this world so similar around the globe?
ST: What is the importance of exhibition titles for you?
ID: Today we always work on the titles for a long time. I think that’s part of our process. We brainstorm and sometimes it takes days or weeks to come up with a title that we agree on. I think for us, we want the title to be part of the mediation or content of the work, and that goes for catalogues as well, for that sake.
ME: We did a small exhibition in 2004, where we just had a tiny, animatronic sparrow lying on its back, trapped in between the windowpanes in the level two exhibition space at Tate Modern. It looked like it had broken its wing. We gave this small-scale show three different titles – Somewhere in the World It’s Four O’Clock, Just a Single Wrong Move, and Blocking the View. We sent out three different versions of the press release and three different invitation cards for the same show, which was very confusing for everyone. The critics didn’t really know how to write about it.
ID: The piece actually ended up in Israel, in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
ME: Which is quite nice because it has a certain meaning in that context. Titles are important. They are part of the communication.
ST: In many of your shows, you create a fake personality, come up with a corresponding story, and attend to every single detail to make it believable, such as how you organise the objects and works in the whole environment, including the lighting, the furnishings, and the arrangement. This is the approach of a director and a curator. Is it your preferred approach?
ME: Yes, it was for a period at least. After we have done something like that for a period, we suddenly do an exhibition where we go back to something that is more linked to our earlier works.
Perhaps it goes back to when I was a little boy, five or six, and I had a girlfriend who had an enormous dollhouse. Her parents were quite wealthy, so she was very spoiled and I made up all of these stories about the people living there in that amazing dollhouse. She was very upset when I painted the walls with small paintbrushes, which she thought ruined her dollhouse completely, although it made it a bit artier. That sits in me somehow; that desire to create worlds in a physical way and make up stories about them. I also think it has to do with us working together. It’s natural to create a third persona – a fictional being who consists of both of us. I think it would be weirder if you were alone, because then it would be you and this fictional character, and that would be spookier [Laughter].
ID: When we write, we write some paragraphs, send them to each other, and then the other one elaborates on it and sends it back… Over the course of half a year, or a year or something, a whole universe is created. I must say that we generally have a very similar outlook on the world. We are soulmates in a way. That’s why we’ve been able to collaborate for 20 years.
ST: What freedom do you have in the visual arts, compared to the theatre world that you were so familiar with at the beginning of your career?
ME: We were very, very lucky to first of all start doing art at a point when there wasn’t the presence of the art market as there is today. I pity young students who have all the pressure of making a career out of the arts. They have all the expectations of economic success when they are at art school. When we started doing art, at the beginning of the ’90s, the contemporary art market was different, especially in northern Europe. It was very, very slow. You would sit in an artist-run space and be surprised if anybody came after the opening had taken place and your friends had seen it. You didn’t have to have all these things in mind. There was a lot of freedom to form your own artistic language without any adjustment to the market or commercial perspectives. I think that was very freeing for artists.
ST: You are also very successful in the market today. Did the market adapt to your work or did you adapt to the market?
ID: The secret is knowing that no one in this world wants to get his or her expectations fulfilled. So it is useless to try to please or satisfy. Everyone wants a surprise or to have their horizons widened. So, that is the beautiful thing about the art market, that it actually trains people to think outside the box. It trains business leaders and people in powerful positions to rethink the way that they normally do things or how they normally shop, or how they normally look at things. If you try to appease the collectors, they will only ditch you.
ME: They would not appreciate it and that’s the mechanism perhaps. We do art talks for students and we always say, “Do the wrong thing. Don’t listen to many of your teachers. Do it backwards. Do it exactly how you want and if it looks really, really hopeless and stupid and silly and out of place, it’s probably about to be something interesting.”
ST: In what direction are you heading in terms of your own art?
ID: You always react to yourself, to your own recent past. It’s important to keep surprising yourself as well, and not just sleepwalk through the same routine. Of course, we are now becoming more experienced at transforming spaces and developing these narratives, which means that we have to take care that we don’t get too professional because. Not being perfect is part of the quality.
ST: One last question; do we need art today?
ME: Our world today still needs art – it needs something that it doesn’t really need. It needs something that is not so efficient, not so results-oriented, and that doesn’t lead to anywhere in particular. Only if we understand the value of celebrating something not logical, not profitable, and rather purposeless, are we able to be a civilisation. The only noble purpose of art is that it can make us less fearful – and with less fear, we are harder to manipulate.
Also check the video of the interview with Elmgreen & Dragset
About the artists:
Elmgreen & Dragset redefine how art is presented and experienced in their sculptures, installations, and performances. Their work borrows elements from social critique, performance, and architecture, as in Prada Marfa (2005), a Prada boutique sited in the Texas desert, or the one-act play Drama Queens (2007), in which remote-controlled replicas of iconic sculptures, including a Jeff Koons Rabbit, are voiced by actors including Kevin Spacey. For the 2009 Venice Biennale, they presented The Collectors, imagined living spaces of an art-collecting family and neighbor, wherein works by artists like Maurizio Cattelan and Tom of Finland were displayed alongside high-end design.
Selina TING (Editor-in-Chief, CoBo)
Selina is a curator and a specialist in contemporary art with over 10 years of professional experiences both in Asia and Europe. Stationed in Paris and Brussels between 2004 – 2013, and Beijing in 2013 – 2015, she has a network traversing the Chinese, Asian and Western art world. In the last 5 years, she was Editor-in-Chief of initiArt Magazine and Whitewall Magazine (China Version). Selina has published extensively on her research projects as well as on general issues regarding art and culture. Selina is currently Editor-in-Chief of CoBo, the first Asia community platform for collectors.
Instagram : @selinating