Petrified Symbolism

A chat with Berlin-based, Scandinavian artist duo, Elmgreen & Dragset.

I understand you both are coming from creative artistic backgrounds. Could you tell us more and how you got together and founded this duo?

We met in a nightclub in Copenhagen in 1994 when Michael was writing poetry and Ingar was in theater and soon became partners. Not long after that we started doing performance art together and our collaboration grew from there really. We never knew it would become a life-long alliance – we didn’t have a plan or strategy in place when we started experimenting. And as neither of us had formal art educations, our path as an artist duo has been rather intuition-led, with our dialogue being a really steadfast component in our approach.

As multidisciplinary artists, how would you describe your practice?

We easily get bored. We try to avoid being too repetitive and too well-known for one thing or another and the variety in our work is perhaps testament to that. If we had to be specific, we’d probably say that our sculptural practice is the most manifest, but there again our installations and performative elements tie so closely with our sculptures when we create whole environments… Thematically, our work tends to hone in on emotional states or states of mind, often relating to notions of identity, loneliness or looking at the boundaries between public and private spaces, and how people’s behaviours change accordingly.

Where do you usually come from with your concepts? Would you refer your work to politics?

We might find inspiration from news articles or political discourses, books, architecture, or films, but the trigger for a work often happens in the dialogue between us after having heard, read, or seen something. Through further conversations we refine concepts until they feel sturdy enough to be brought to life. In terms of political reference, we often touch upon themes that might be on the general political agenda, but we do generally believe that art is better at posing questions than proclaiming truths and trumpet solutions.

Please name some artists, actors, writers or architects you might be inspired by and tell us the reason why?

There’s too many to mention specifically, but Minimalism was certainly formative in how we developed our practice, with Felix Gonzalez Torres being perhaps the most influential artist, since he managed to elegantly subvert Minimalism. The intricate balance between personal and political issues in his work, iterated through a pared down visual language was very inspiring to us as we started out. Michel Foucault has been an important thinker for us too, particularly his theories on power and social structures. Our ongoing “Powerless Structures” series of works pay homage to this in a way. And Samuel Beckett has been inspirational to us in multiple ways, most importantly because of his acerbic perspective on human life and the way he harnesses the absurd. We find that absurd humor is often a perfect tool for addressing existential matters and subverting perceptions of social structures or conventions.

Often, we see children represented in your installations, is there a reference to yourself or generally to the past?

Childhood is a theme that recurs through our work of the past ten years or so. It’s a complicated time in many people’s lives emotionally that has a huge impact on who we become later in life. We both felt we didn’t really fit in when we were little, as if we had landed in the wrong place or something to that extent. The insecurities felt as a child, the daunting perceived vastness, and complexities of the world, recurs often, later in adulthood, not least in a reality that seems to be shifting more than ever in history. We’ve therefore been interested in looking at what it means to be ‘growing up’. One early childhood themed sculpture was “High Expectations: (2010), where a crouching figure of a boy seems to be hiding inside a grand fireplace, where a representational painted portrait of him is hanging above the mantel.

Since then, we have incorporated figures of boys in sculptures such as “The Experiment” (2011), which shows a pre-teenage boy standing in front of a mirror wearing a pair of high-heels and with a lipstick smudge on his face. This work speaks more about coming to terms with growing up, personal experimentation and awareness of one’s sexuality. Recently, we’ve made two further sets of sculptures featuring kids, which are both currently being exhibited at Pace Gallery in New York, as part of our show “The Nervous System”. “Short Story” (2020) is a large installation that consists of two boys cast in bronze situated on a tennis court in positions as if they’ve just completed a frustrating tennis match. It generally talks about futile competitiveness. And “Boy With Gun” (2021), our newest work is a bronze figure of a young boy staring out through a lightbox showing a grey sky as if it were a window. His hands are resting upon his head as he holds a gun also cast in bronze, as if in indecision. Neither of these works reference personal experiences of ours, but they do raise themes that are in many ways identifiable—like competition, frustration, or isolation. We suppose that expressing an idea through the perspective of childhood means that different nuances can be accentuated or simplified. Children’s body language can often reveal much more than adults’.

We are all still amazed about your “Prada Marfa” installation, could you talk about it for our readers.

We made “Prada Marfa” in 2005 and the idea behind it was initially intended to be a sort of experiment, an exploration of how Land Art could look at the turn of the millennium. We wanted to see how a designer store would survive if it was displaced, uprooted from the usual metropolitan environment. So, “Prada Marfa” is a forever-closed luxury boutique situated in the middle of the desert on a long highway in Texas, about 60 km from the nearest town, Marfa. Inside the minimal structure built of adobe bricks, on the shelves of the boutique is Prada’s collection of stilettos and handbags from 2005—the same ones that were installed there sixteen years ago. Since then, the work and the landscape around it have stayed almost exactly the same, despite almost everything else in the world having changed. It’s now like a surreal time capsule, but one that has taken on a life of its own. Since the rise of social media, “Prada Marfa” has also become a tourist destination, following posts by Beyoncé in front of it, or appearances in popular TV series such as Gossip Girl and The Simpsons. This almost adds to the sense of “otherness” surrounding the work, which is so remote and off the beaten track. The nearest airport is three hours away.

Can you expand on the relation between your current show “The Nervous System” at Pace Gallery and the notion of domestic space? Is it related to the current global situation?

Our exhibition “The Nervous System” at Pace Gallery in New York is a slightly surreal home-like environment inside the gallery’s ground floor space. Two domestic zones are created by rugs on the floor, one with holes in it, the other with tallies like those associated with days counted in a prison. Sculptural human figures are spaced out within the gallery space: one of a painter standing with an arm stretching out as if applying a brushstroke to a canvas, another is the aforementioned little boy cast in bronze staring out of a window, a third figure is of an older sleeping man in a wheelchair. Behind a glazed wall, faux outside, is also “Short Story”, an almost full-scale installation of a tennis court with the sculptures Flo and Kev, figures of boys who have just finished a match. Even though separated by the glass, this scene becomes an integral part of the twisted overall narrative. It seems that all these characters are related somehow, but still all isolated and consumed by their own interior worlds. An inscription on the fireplace reads: “The Oracles are Gone and Lost Are the Gods”. Maybe this gives a hint to how the show relates to a general state of mind globally. The concept for the exhibition was developed over the last year and although it is not about the pandemic, there is perhaps also a sense of disconnectedness that is tied to the experience of lockdown.

Petrified symbolism

Artists: Elmgreen & Dragset / @elmgreenanddragsetstudio
Editor: Maria Abramenko / @mariabramenko
Assistant: Antoine Schafroth / @a.schafroth

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