It is an unforgiving and tempestuous dark and wet Monday as I scurry into Galerie Perrotin for an interview with Scandinavian art duo, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. From the cacophony and cold of the Hong Kong streets I step into the still, haunting silence of their monochromatic new exhibition, ‘The Old World’. The gallery floors and walls are painted black with white objects from the exhibition standing out in sharp contrast against the darkness. ‘The Old World’ looks like a surreal and eerie film set. It could be a scene from a Bergman film. A mix of theatricality and tension is exactly what the artists intended.
The Berlin and London-based duo have been creating together for two decades, producing installations, sculptures and performances that are humorous, tongue-in-cheek, and subversive critiques of contemporary culture, the art market and established institutions. Works like their 2009 Venice Biennale contribution for the Danish and Nordic pavilions (Elmgreen is the Dane and Dragset Norwegian), ‘The Collectors’, questioned the contemporary art market and the culture of trophy art collecting. Perhaps their most well-know work, ‘Prada Marfa'(2005), a permanent site-specific installation in the desert of Marfa, West Texas, comments on the explosion of the luxury industry and rapacious consumerism, but also retail tourism. Ironically, it’s what put Marfa on the map. Many visit the little town just for the opportunity to take a snap of the installation. It’s an unexpected and surreal presence in the desert, as though it has been accidentally transplanted from a big city by a tornado. The unexpected is to be expected with Elmgreen and Dragset.
Their 2012 public sculpture for Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth, ‘Powerless Structures, Fig 101’, of which a smaller maquette is included in their Hong Kong exhibition, re-envisioned the traditional bronze equestrian statue, a symbol of power and war, as Little Lord Fauntleroy playing on his rocking horse. On the surface, the work was a nostalgic throwback to a simpler childhood, but placed atop the Fourth Plinth, originally designed to host a bronze equestrian statue of William IV, it also made a mockery of the age of empire and its tradition of aggrandisement through the creation of monuments. At the heart of all of Elmgreen and Dragset’s work is a spirit of playfulness which is accessible and engaging. After all, who doesn’t like a bit of irreverent and mischievous humour now and then?
Continuing on from their 2013 Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition, ‘Tomorrow’, Elmgreen and Dragset’s first solo show in Hong Kong revisits their interest in European historical identity and cultural heritage, while also tapping into issues of Hong Kong’s colonial identity. Objects are placed about in the exhibition space like long forgotten relics from the past, resembling a black and white photograph capturing a moment frozen in time. There is a melancholy and anxiety to this work as ‘old’ Europe negotiates for space and relevance in a contemporary globalised world. It is Miss Havisham shrouded in the tattered memories of a bygone era, while the new soldiers boldly forth.
The artists took me through their latest exhibition and chatted about their inspirations, decades long collaboration, and…pissoirs. Have a cup of tea and check out the world of Elmgreen and Dragset below.
‘The Old World’ at Galerie Perrotin Hong Kong
On until 3 May 2014
How did you start to collaborate? Working as a team or a couple can be remarkably challenging and you’ve done it for a long time.
Dragset: It’s as challenging as a marriage I guess [laughter]. We met in a very artistic way, in a club in Copehnhagen called After Dark in 1994. It’s exactly 20 years ago. At the time I was doing more performance theatre; Michael came from poetry and installation work. We combined the two and started out as performance artists as a couple, just using ourselves as material, doing these long ritualistic performances that lasted forever and were very poetic.
Elmgreen: Scandinavia at that time was similar to Hong Kong. Contemporary art didn’t really play a big role in culture as such, so it was not something you would think about doing, it would just happen. Young artists would never be invited to do a museum show. You would do projects in artist-run spaces and no one but your friends would come to look at it. That has of course all changed, especially due to promotion of Scandinavian art by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist who discovered the scene and started to promote it. In this way the development of contemporary art in Hong Kong and Scandinavia is kind of similar. It was a new thing that people started to be interested in. Now in Norway there are a lot of art collectors, but that is also something completely new.
Do you always agree on your projects? Or do you compromise?
E: We don’t compromise. That’s for politicians [laughter].
D: Of course, there are disagreements and there are ideas that we don’t use, or we go in another direction.
Just walking into this show felt like stepping into a theatre or film set. How great a role do other arts, like theatre and film, play in inspiring your work?
E: We are much more inspired by film than visual art. Filmmakers like Bergman or Hanneke…
D: …or Visconti.
E: We see the exhibition form as a sort of communication with the audience, like a filmmaker communicating with his audience.
Those filmmakers you mentioned – Bergamn, Hanneke, Visconti – there’s an atmosphere of tension or anxiety running through their films. A feeling of unease washes over the viewer at times. One senses this unease in your installations too. Is this something that you deliberately try to inject in your work?
D: I think it happens organically. We are very uncomfortable people [laughter]. We don’t feel very at ease in society.
E: There is the vulture on the baby cot for instance. It could almost be a dream sequence in a Bergman movie. And the maid with her head down who looks like she’s had a telling off from her master… We like to create an atmosphere where things appear as if they’ve just happened but you don’t know exactly what that is, or how it happened.
In that sense it’s up to the audience to create or complete the meaning of the work?
D: Yes, you have to be willing to go into the work a little bit. But I feel people are also ready for that, especially now that there’s so much going on online. There are fewer and fewer real-time experiences. ‘Tomorrow’, which was our show at the Victoria and Albert Museum last autumn, had a great response from the audience. People were reading the manuscript provided in the show, like a film script; they were trying to find clues to the story, opening doors and drawers. We got so many emails and messages on Facebook from people devising their own theories on what might have happened to this fictive person.
E: But, here in the Hong Kong show we actually make a film. We shoot a film three days after the opening where we use actors from Hong Kong. It’s about people’s behavioural patterns when they’re in a gallery. There are a lot of small scenes and very little dialogue.
Tell me about your Hong Kong exhibition and the ideas behind it. For this show you’re drawing on European history and culture.
E: Yes, you see this especially in fashion, this throwback to old European history which has almost become kitsch. It shows how little a role European culture actually plays today, that you can diminish it to something to get nostalgic about. Things have turned. I mean Europe can’t really find its own legs at the moment; it can’t deal with its new identity. It’s no longer the ruler of the world, and it’s no longer what people want to copy or learn from. In Europe people don’t really know what their roles are today. Here, the identity is so strong, across all of China, Hong Kong, South East Asia, and also Russia and Latin America. People are no longer just influenced by European history and values.
The exhibition seems like a deliberate fetishisation of the past, of objects from the past.
E: Exactly! You see a pile of white books on a mantelpiece, but they’re not real books. They’re carved and can’t be opened or read. The book is an object that future generations will probably no longer know because everything is on your iPhone or iPad. There’s a globe in the exhibition, but people eventually won’t know what it is; the world is now on Google Map. These are all small relics from the past that we can be sentimental and about, but they no longer exist in our everyday lives today, or they are not relevant. Like this peruke (‘Heritage’, 2014). Judges are questioning why they are still wearing these ridiculous British wigs, particularly in this climate when it’s so hot. Today it looks funny to see someone who might sentence you to prison dressed up in this. We wanted to show how it looked just hanging here on its own.
D: It looks like a sad dog, spaniel ears…It’s the most Duchampian part of the exhibition.
Speaking of Duchamp, didn’t you once create a double pissoir?
D: Yes, it was the front to front one… We did two: One was called marriage, which was side by side, and this other one was gay marriage.
You could install that outside the Kremlin.
E: The Putin pissoir! [laughter]
You’re notorious for your critique of contemporary culture and the art market, yet that hasn’t made your work any less sought-after in the market. In fact, your work is quite popular across varied audiences, from the seasoned collector to your average person who may not necessarily have had extensive exposure to art
E: I think it’s because we do work that encourages a dialogue. It might not be our intended reading of the work, but it’s possible for everyone to have their own reading of the works. You don’t need to have an art education to get an experience out of that, whereas with some artists it might be more difficult to get an experience out of the work if you don’t know about contemporary art .
D: We came to art ourselves through backdoors and sideways [laughter]. We wondered a lot why art works are so elitist most of the time, with so many rules. We find this very interesting. There should be room to do a lot of research based and experimental works in the art world, definitely, but it’s also important to remember that there is an audience. How do you communicate with them and make the work understandable? We realise that people won’t read the work in the same way we do, but people come away with their own experiences. They read the works in the context of their own cultural references.
E: I have been on panels with artists who claim they didn’t do art for their audience, that they only did it for themselves. I find this very exclusive, quite arrogant, and I think there’s a fear of being populist if you have any interest in your audience. You don’t need to be populist just because you’re taking into consideration that people come and look at your work.
‘Prada Marfa’ was vandalised again quite recently, this time quite badly. Why do you think this work provokes such an aggressive reaction?
ME: It’s one of the most talked about works in recent times. When it gets popular in that sense it also becomes a target from different people, people who are against it or want to make their own identity in relation to it. The last attack was done by someone who thought he was doing his own art project on it.
D: He wanted to promote himself. It was different to other attacks, which were more random. People have shot at it in drive-bys, using the stilettos as targets. But, then at some point people were also leaving their own piles of shoes at the site.
E: We didn’t comment on the attacks in the past, but this time we got quite annoyed. We had just come to terms with the Texan authorities who wanted to ban the project recently, claiming it wasn’t art but illegal advertising and that we had to tear it down. Just two weeks before the attack they had decided the project can stay and then this twat molested it completely. It gets annoying, but it will probably experience a lot more in its life. Next year will be ten years.