Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset met in a Copenhagen nightclub in 1994. Elmgreen, a Dane, was writing and performing poetry, while Dragset, a Norwegian, was involved in the theatre. Somehow, they decided to combine forces and make art. (“It’s can be good not to learn how to do things in a ‘correct’ way,” says Dragset.)
Today they are probably the most successful artist duo in the world, producing a constant stream of exhibitions that use sculpture and installation to cast a critical eye on our ever-changing physical and mental environment.
They were partners in life and art until 2008, when they split up and Elmgreen moved to London. In 2015, he returned to Berlin and the partnership was re-established, albeit on a different basis. They’ve explained their unusually amicable second relationship by saying that after spending so many years together, “we’re almost one brain.”
Their Berlin studio, which they acquired in 2006, is a former waterpumping station, built during the era of the Weimar Republic. A cavernous, multilayered space, filled with natural light it’s the kind of studio most artists can only dream about. It’s the nerve centre where Elmgreen & Dragset plan works which are produced by a team of assistants. Described as sculptors they are essentially ideas men who take advantage of whatever skills and techniques are available. The biting humour is of their own invention.
I’m visiting this magnificent studio because four works by Elmgreen & Dragset featuring in this year’s NGV Triennial are being acquired for the permanent collection. These are their first pieces to enter an Australian public museum, and the artists are flattered that Melbourne has seen fit to collect them in such depth. As a curatorial strategy they think it’s “unusually clever”.
“They wanted to buy works that show four different ways we use materials,” says Elmgreen. “They started with this guy…” (he points to a sculpture called What’s left?, in which a hyperrealist tightrope walker has slipped off the rope and dangles by one hand); “then The painter – the white figure of an artist making a kind of action painting. Then they acquired one of our early pieces, Powerless structures fig. 91, featuring two pairs of jeans lined with Calvin Klein underwear; and The examiner, a stainless-steel figure on a balcony holding a camera. That more-or-less covers our careers in sculpture.”
The painter is simultaneously a painting and a sculpture of an arrested gesture. Elmgreen says it suggests “the sexiest part of the painting is in the poses. We don’t see the world nowadays unless it is a world seen through a lens. It’s as though nature doesn’t exist if your face is not in front of it! In this sculpture you don’t see the painter’s face, and you can’t walk around the piece.”
Like most of Elmgreen & Dragset’s work, the architectural setting is crucial. “We’ve always been interested in what happens in a space,” says Dragset. “You can call us sculptors to some extent but most of our work relates to architecture. The balcony in the NGV sculpture, The examiner, hangs on the wall as an in-between space. It relates to the scale of the room, and so on. We’re strictly makers of objects. We don’t do video.”
Some of the duo’s most ambitious works have dealt with complete environments. In 2016 they produced a fictional art fair for the Ullens Centre of Contemporary Chinese Art in Beijing. In 2018 they turned the ground floor of the Whitechapel Gallery in London into an indoor swimming pool. If the first work made an oblique comment on the fast-rising Chinese economy, the second hinted at the gentrification of London’s East End.
In their large-scale works, Elmgreen & Dragset invariably include elements of social commentary and satire. A typical tactic is to install an incongruous object in a public space. Their first notable installation was called Powerless Structure, Fig. 11 (1997) – a diving board that pierced a window of the Louisiana Museum in Denmark, the tip of the board isolated on the other side of the glass.
“Up until then we’d only done performance pieces,” recalls Elmgreen. “We were the last ones invited to be in the show, and they didn’t have any more spaces, so we asked if we could use a viewing room that overlooked the sea. The work got so much attention that years later they contacted us and asked to buy it, so it’s back in the same place today. To be honest the piece was inspired by David Hockney’s swimming pool pictures.”
Possibly their best-known installation remains Prada Marfa (2005), a detail-perfect Prada boutique plonked in the desert, near the Texan town of Marfa. Part of its fame comes from the fact that it was vandalised by a jealous local artist on the same day it opened. It has achieved the ultimate accolade of an appearance on The Simpsons, in which Homer wants to dash behind it for a pee. When they asked the producers of the program if they could use an image for a book, they were summarily refused. It seemed a little unfair: “You use our artwork, but we can’t use a still?”
For Elmgreen & Dragset, the NGV exhibition is an opportunity to get reacquainted with another part of the world. Over the past two decades they’ve exhibited across Europe, Asia and the United States. This will be their first trip to Australia since 1999, when they were selected for the one-and-only Melbourne Biennial, ironically titled “Signs of Life”. That show was reputedly seen by 21,000 people. The inaugural NGV Triennial, held in 2017-18 boasted 1,231,742 visitors – an all-time gallery record.
The artists are fascinated by the different ways they’ve been received all over of the planet, having learned a lot from their experiences in China, Japan and Korea. While their works suggest a range of interpretations, they are not concerned with making statements. “When we do our solo shows we never have labels,” says Elmgreen. “We don’t want people to have an experience that has already been translated and chewed for them. The uncertainty in the meeting with the work is really important, because we don’t have so much mystery left in our world.”
What are they ultimately doing? “We are trying to understand the world,” says Dragset. “It’s part of the human condition right now that we don’t know where we stand in relation to how things are developing. Our current show at the Pompidou Metz is all about getting lost in the world of today, where everything is like a maze, a series of small new disasters. Consumerism will continue but we don’t really believe in it. We’re constantly feeling unhappy and guilty.”
Their response to this tragic scenario is almost invariably humorous – a series of failed heroic gestures and ironic celebrations of the everyday. Elmgreen & Dragset may not believe their art will change the world, but from time to time, they’ve made it a little less complacent.
Elmgreen & Dragset feature in the NGV Triennial,
3 December 2023 – 7 April, 2024
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 6 December, 2023