by Elmgreen and Dragset
Words by Kristoffer Granov. / Illustration by Sine Jensen.
This essay about the Norwegian-Danish artist duo Elmgreen and Dragset is featured in Need Supply’s Human Being Journal Issue 6, titled “In Plain Site”, that was co-edited by Soulland on every feature in strive to return to the most ostensibly ordinary things.
On a february day in 2012, on the so called fourth plinth in London's Trafalgar Square, the artist-duo Elmgreen and Dragset reveiled a statue of a little delicate looking little boy on a rocking horse. The empty plinth was originally intented to host a sculpture of king William the 4th, but for various reasons the statue never materialised. The little boy sits triumphantly, his right hand slightly raised, obviously frail. The other three Trafalgar Square pedistals are home to military and royal leaders emitting a very different version of masculinity and power. The combination of power, place and masculinity is by no means accidental by the Norwegian-Danish artists. Througout their career in the international art world they have dealt with these sorts of questions. The little boy on Trafalgar Square, daring to be fragile in a company of kings, is an example of what the duo calls ”powerles structures.”
Elmgreen: "Powerless Structures derives from our misreading of the French philosopher Michel Foucault. He spoke about structures themselves being unable to impose any power – they are just structures, after all. It is only navigating them as human beings and as societies that they constitute power relationships. Our acceptance of or challenge to these structures ultimately defines them."
Similarily exploring the limits of masculinity, the duo parafrased Copenhagen's famous scuplture of The Little Mermaid in a polished steel sculpture called ”Han” (meaning ”him” in Danish). The naked boy sits, legs folded as The Little Mermaid, on a stone with a distant gaze. As the boy on Trafalgar Square he is an emblem of fragility, but made of steel. He's a beautiful young boy.
There's lots of things going on: A boy has taken the role of an iconic girl. The boy sits in the midst of the old docks of Elsinore. An old shipyard connected with a more traditional male ethos, the working man of the industral age. Next door is the legendary castle of Kronborg, where Hamlet famously paced the floors pondering his own existence and identity. And in the basement of that same castle sits Holger Danske, a mythical warrior-giant in Danish folklore, who sits sleeping with his sword waiting to rise and rescue the nation, when danger is eminent. Among all these narratives of male gender, the beautiful boy sits indicating that being a man today is not what it used to be.
Some people didn't exactly see the work as an exploration of a changing of our notion of masculinity in a post-industrial world. Right wing critics and commentators went on the offensive.
"The Han-sculpture is not symbolyzing anything but Elmgreen and Dragsted's own sexual preferences," one commentator wrote. "It's a shameless plagiarism of a world famous symbol of our capital. Why not stand by homosexual enthusiasm for young men and admit, that the sculture illustrates exactly that?", she continued.
Some years earlier, the due also saw itself getting attention from critics, when they in the installation "When a country falls in love with itself" placed a mirror in front of the actual sculpture of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.
-- Your sculpture ”Han” in Elsinore, Denmark is a clear reference to the famous little mermaid in Copenhagen, which you also used in your work "When a country falls in love with itself." People sometimes react strongly to that kind of references. Why do you think that symbols have such a strong impact on people's feelings towards art?
Elmgreen: "Well, national symbols like The Little Mermaid are difficult to touch without getting strong reactions. We knew that beforehand but nevertheless we were quite surprised how ultra conservative the perception of masculinity still appears to be, even in a country like Denmark. Our “Han” sculpture was blamed for being too feminine. However, the body of the young man who we used as a cast model actually had a very typical autonomy for a young man today. But some angry bloggers thought he was too slim and not muscular enough."
Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset has been working with conceptual art as a duo since the 1990's. Often commenting on comtemporary culture with sly twists and turns, making the public wonder and think again about ideas and concepts we take for granted. An exploratory method that has brought them to prestigious venues like The Serpentine Gallery and Tate Modern in London and several solo exibits aorund the world. Based in Berlin and London, they aspire to keep pushing themselves in not sticking to a well proven format. A conscious use of ambiguities pointing critically towards structures of power, ranks higher than the artistic language.
Elmgreen: "We try not to stick to just one formal language since we prefer never to become too professionalized in any field. It would bore us tremendously just to paint white monochromes, or just to make blue sculptures. Ha! Sometimes we work figuratively. Sometimes we twist the language of minimalism. For other projects we work with narratives or get theatrical. The only rule in our working process is to constantly challenge ourselves so that we don’t become too comfortable.
Toying with conceptions can lead to misunderstandings. In one of the duo most wellknown works, a complete Prada store sits on a desolate area not far from Marfa in West Texas. The installation that opened in 2005, again puts a familiar structure in an unfamiliar setting. Maybe it's a commentary on consumerism and the world of high end fashion, seeming overwhelmingly absurdon the side of a road in the middle of the desert.
Local authorities had a different take, when Prada, Marfa recently was mistaken for an advertisement by and therefore deemed illegal. The work was threatened with demolition, but as Michael Elmgreen points out, the work is open for interpretation and the episode maybe even broadened the perspective of conceptual art in West Texas.
Elmgreen: "We like when our works can be read as something else than art. It triggered a long debate but in the end I think the authorities learned a lot about conceptual art. Our little installation is now labelled “a museum” which is making Prada Marfa legal."
Elmgreen and Dragset is also known for commenting on the very art world they're part of. The installation piece ”Death of a collector”, shows a well dressed man face down and seemingly drowned in a swimming pool. The duo uses humour and our own preconceptions in installations that is often seen as critcal towards some aspects of modern life.
-- Your work is often characterized as in opposition to, or critical of "consumerism", "capitalism", "capitalist values". Is that intentional? Do you see yourself as being in opposition to something, and if yes, what?
Elmgreen: "In fact we only ask silly questions through our works. And sometimes we show in very simple ways how some structural systems can be altered. It can be the spatial design of the venue where we do the project or the social organisation of the place. Once we did an exhibition titled “Too Late” and we did a party prior to the private view. The VIP art crowd which was invited to the opening then came and experienced the left overs from that party. Another time we drilled a hole through the gallery ceiling, the whole way up to the lady who lived above. The audience could then climb a ladder which was the only item in the otherwise empty gallery room and when they did that they would then end up sticking their head into the lady's private apartment upstairs. Sometimes it only takes drilling a hole in order to enter a complete new reality and to change the normal order of things."