Elmgreen & Dragset
Michael Elmgreen b. 1961 Ingar Dragset b. 1969
Michael Elmgreen (born in 1961) from Denmark and Ingar Dragset (born in 1969) from Norway have worked together since 1995 under the name Elmgreen & Dragset. Their collaboration quickly began to attract attention and from the late 1990s onwards they firmly established themselves with a series of works that have garnered admiration in the international artistic arena.
Elmgreen & Dragset’s practice is often described as hovering between art, architecture and design. Since 1997 they have produced a large body of work in an ongoing series entitled Powerless Structures, in which the radical displacement of spatial structures leads to surprising situations. Several of the works that make up the series take as their point of departure the conventional white cube, which is transmogrified through their interventions into expressions of institutional power. At the same time their works exude wit and playfulness, such as their creation of a gallery suspended from the ceiling (Elevated Gallery / Powerless Structures, Fig. 146, 2001), sunk into the ground (Dug Down Gallery / Powerless Structures, Fig. 45, 1998), or distended like some surrealist concept (Powerless Structures, Fig. 111, 2001).
Other Powerless Structures utilize everyday objects, which with slight modifications become thought-provoking installations. A good example of this is found in the individual white doors that often feature in their works. Most often the doors do not lead anywhere, but installed in unconventional contexts they become charged objects that take on human characteristics. In addition to the doors, a number of other everyday items feature in their works, such as the two dysfunctional washbasins connected to chaotically convoluted drainage pipes (Marriage, 2004) or their well-known bunk bed where the upper bed is inverted and faces down to the lower one (Boy Scout, 2008). The title underlines the visual references to homosexual experiences.
It is difficult to talk fully about Elmgreen & Dragset’s art without mentioning the influence of the American artist Félix González-Torres (1957–1996). González-Torres worked more clearly in a conceptual tradition, although his close associations with Minimalism and references to homosexuality are obvious connections. But where González-Torres made subtle allusions to relationships between men in his work, Elmgreen & Dragset are often more direct. When they were commissioned by the German government to create a memorial to homosexuals persecuted by the Nazis during the Holocaust, they included in their work a film showing two men engaged in a long, slow kiss. The motivation was to draw attention to the beauty of love between people of the same sex. The film was shown at selected art museums worldwide before being installed to run permanently on a screen inside the memorial, which is in the form of an angular concrete block with a small aperture through which visitors can peer (Gedenkort für die im Nationalsozialismus verfolgten Homosexuellen/National Memorial for the Homosexual Victims of the Nazi Regime, 2008).
In Elmgreen & Dragset’s work, the boundary between the art object and the performative context is always a fine line. Their collaboration started with a series of performances, but over time, they gradually shifted focus to producing object-based works. Their transition back into performance is therefore not surprising; they have written a number of theatre pieces together, including The Happy Days in the Art World, which premiered in 2011. Based on their work and career, it explores the distinction between the performance genre and the play, an aspect that was highlighted at the premiere, when the actors presented earlier performances by Elmgreen & Dragset during the intermission.
One of the most successful orchestrations of their own work (and that of others) took place during the Venice Biennale in 2009, where they fitted out the neighbouring Norwegian and Danish pavilions as two homes for households with an interest in the arts. The Norwegian pavilion was designed as a home for a bachelor with highly individual artistic tastes, while the Danish pavilion was conceived as housing a dysfunctional family with a rebellious teenage daughter. The work (The Collectors, 2009) appealed to the public’s voyeuristic instincts and created a fantasy-nurturing narrative as the framework for their own work and that of around twenty other invited artists and designers.
Elmgreen & Dragset have made a big impression with their art and today their works can be experienced in a wide diversity of projects, from a Prada shop in the Texan desert (Prada Marfa, 2005) to an enormous gilded boy on a rocking-horse in London’s Trafalgar Square (Powerless Structures Fig. 101, 2012). Their production is dominated by playful study with a critical undertone, and it is this successful combination of humour and seriousness that has generated such great interest in their works.
(Photo: Emanuele Cremaschi)