The Scandinavian art duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset have been producing large-scale installations and public sculptures since 1994, when they met, by chance, at a Copenhagen bar. Elmgreen & Dragset's work often incorporates human-like models inside created worlds that are eerily like ours, evoking a distinct, dark humor.
If they are hyper-aware of institutional frameworks, their Scandinavian upbringing has surely contributed. From outside, the Scandinavian social democratic system might look healthy, and this tends to be the mindset inside too: that there’s no better way of living. Yet, as the artists discovered while growing up in Denmark and Norway, it can also be narrow: insistent upon consensus, inhospitable to thinking outside its box.
Elmgreen & Dragset’s inclusive though not dogmatic social spirit as applied to art, their belief that everyone should be able to be involved, stems partly from this background. But so does their consciousness of how institutions mould behaviour, and their determination, while encouraging interaction, to maintain room for difference. There’s a Nordic tint to their aesthetics, too, which are clean-lined, minimal, with extraneous detail erased. Not incidentally, the artists’ streamlined designs are often counterpointed with suggestions of failure and brokenness. The modernist gallery space, white and clean, is here no utopia but a mechanism of control. They talk about all of this and more with arts journalist Linda Yablonsky in their Phaidon Contemporary Artist Series monograph from which the following interview is excerpted.
LINDA YABLONSKY: In an interview with Philip Tinari, you said, ‘Art is research’. Can you expand on that?
INGAR DRAGSET: We were talking about research as a life project. In all of our artworks, the starting point is our personal experience. When we met in 1994, the perception of homosexuality, or male identity in general, was changing. So, we did performances that mostly were about our being a couple in love – very simple, bodybased, durational artworks, like unravelling a piece of knitted clothing.
YABLONSKY: I remember seeing a reconstruction of that performance once, much later. One of you slowly pulled on the yarn of the garment that the other was wearing until he was naked. It was intimate and intense. In fact, part of the fire of your early performances had to do with your being a male couple. But knitting is an activity traditionally ascribed to women.
DRAGSET: I’ve been interested in crafts since childhood. Knitting was an early form of expression, part of my definition of myself. When I was a teenager, it coincided with the late New Romantic period, when it was popular to make your own clothes. In the summer I was fourteen, I went to London to learn English, and there were all these post-punk bands that made their own stuff and the Hyper Hyper minimall that sold clothes made in front of you.
MICHAEL ELMGREEN: I think that research is a process of forgetting the conclusions you’ve come to and testing the theses behind them. It’s forever doubting and questioning, and never coming up with a final result.
YABLONSKY: That’s your definition of art?
ELMGREEN: Of our working process. Scientists need to doubt their results all the time in order to get farther. We would still be working with stone axes if not for that curiosity.
YABLONSKY: Did you leave home when you were a teenager as well?
ELMGREEN: No. I had never been to a museum and I had never been on a family vacation outside of Denmark. When I was sixteen, I moved from home and never saw them again. I got an apartment supported by the government for difficult kids, where I could live and have an afternoon job while going to high school.
YABLONSKY: So your upbringing was the polar opposite of Ingar’s close, middle-class family?
ELMGREEN: Definitely also middle-class, but more Bergmanesque, in the sense of torturing each other mentally. Family gatherings reminded me a bit of the Danish movie by Thomas Vinterberg, Festen (Celebration), where people were all very unhappy.
DRAGSET: Vinterberg helped us do the film in our Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime that’s situated in Tiergarten here in Berlin.
YABLONSKY: Power relationships have always been at the core of your art. Everything you make has social commentary built into it, but at the same time, it advocates some issue, idea, person or group – homosexuals in particular, but also people left out of the dominant system. You use humour to make the underlying outrage palatable, but the dart always hits the target.
ELMGREEN: Humour, for us, is a sort of anger management. I think you need to be naively optimistic in order to make art. Why would you make it if you didn’t believe it would be worth it, no matter how critical you are? If you didn’t have a sense of hope, if you didn’t believe that things could change, you’d become the ultimate misanthrope. We were both fascinated by Foucault’s notion of power structures, which we read about at the beginning of the 1990s. He said that it’s actually wrong to call them ‘power structures’, because the structures themselves can’t impose any power. They’re just labels that we, as citizens, as human beings, agree upon. If the structures are changeable, they provide hope for change.
YABLONSKY: Is that why you’re making art? To change things?
ELMGREEN: Of course. All kinds of things – politics, perceptions, aesthetic conventions – are possible to change by surprising people. Sometimes you succeed and other times you don’t, but you can try.
YABLONSKY: There’s a certain arrogance that one has to assume in order to believe that something you make has the power to change the way people think.
DRAGSET: I think it’s a belief in your fellow human beings – in the audience making associations when confronted with a certain situation. It’s not as if we believe that each of these experiments leads to actual change. It’s not a direct cause and effect. But through our experiments, and those of many different artists, you can keep alive possibility of change. It’s so important to show that you can break the rules, even on a small scale, especially in societies that have become more and more regulated. If you don’t keep that flame alight, what is there, in the end?
ELMGREEN: The little art project is like a grain of sand in an oyster, which creates a certain irritation that becomes a beautiful pearl.
YABLONSKY: Is that a quote or did you just make it up?
ELMGREEN: I just made it up.
YABLONSKY: It’s a wonderful definition of art. Yet neither one of you had any formal training in art. Ingar had experience in theatre, and Michael had [made installations of his] performance poetry. I remember you telling me once that when you collaborated on your first performance, you didn’t even know that what you were doing was art. What did you think you were doing?
ELMGREEN: This tells you what different a time it was. In Scandinavia there wasn’t anything like an art market. That was a fantastic opportunity for a young artist to experiment and make mistakes. In the artist-run spaces, we’d be each other’s audience, and not always a nice one. We could be very harsh and critical, but we’d be together in an environment where testing things out without formalizing your identity or language was permitted. Artists coming out of the academies today are totally professionalized. We didn’t have to know what we were doing.
YABLONSKY: What you’re saying about Scandinavia in the mid-1990s sounds very similar to the alternative or artist-run gallery scene in downtown Manhattan in the 1970s, or the East Village in the 1980s, or London in the early 1990s, when young artists had little or no expectation of income or attention from established galleries. Consequently, there were so many ideas in the air and connections to be made, sometimes through school, but often socially, in bars or restaurants and nightclubs, where people met and exhibited their work. Communities – a new art world – formed. I think the structure became more profit-seeking and less communal later, after the internet became a factor and globalization took hold.
ELMGREEN: Our ideas still come from talking in bars – talking in a way that’s not so linear or logical but looser, freer, sillier. Not so professional.
DRAGSET: And naughtier. But I think we were always aware of the structures around us. That’s what led to the next step in our collaboration, when we started to deal with the gallery space as an institutional framework, much inspired by Brian O’Doherty in Inside the White Cube . Michael Asher had dealt with them too, but his was a different kind of institutional critique. For us, the spatial issue brought up questions of identity.
YABLONSKY: How so?
DRAGSET: We found the physical structures themselves to be incredibly conformist, limiting and claustrophobic, and we wanted to see how we could break this frame. In 1997, we made a performance, 12 Hours of White Paint, at a festival in Odense, in Denmark, where we literally attacked the walls of a gallery with white paint.
YABLONSKY: It’s worth describing in more detail.
DRAGSET: We were trapped in the gallery from noon till midnight, and basically painted the walls white over and over again, washing them down with a power-spray gun so that the whole structure would dissolve in effect just by adding more of the material that defined it. The paint was running onto the floor and created almost a winter landscape, albeit a dirty one.
YABLONSKY: Did anybody watching stick around for all twelve hours?
DRAGSET: No, but there were people who came back. I remember spotting Alison Knowles a couple of times.
YABLONSKY: What kept you going?
DRAGSET: It felt important. The next year, we did another version of this work in the Vienna Secession, where we built a glass cube and painted the walls from inside during the opening. I remember standing in there and feeling almost in a trance, like transcending into some other state of being. A lot of people hated what we did. At that time, performance was really out, but we had some key people believing in what we did. Kim Levin, a critic from the Village Voice, was one. She was the first to include us in a properly curated show. And she wasn’t even a curator.
YABLONSKY: I loved her reviews! They weren’t like anybody else’s. What was the name of the show?
DRAGSET: The exhibition was called ‘The Scream’. It was a survey of new Nordic art at the Arken Museum in Denmark. And then a Dutch guy from the Nordic Foundation who liked our work, Mark Kramer, invited us to do a work for a gallery conference in Reykjavik, in 1998. The Nordic countries didn’t have a professional art network and were struggling to reach an international audience. So the NIFCA [Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art] arranged a symposium. They invited Nordic galleries and international ones. We were the only artists invited, which sounds very odd. Maybe they saw our twelve hours performance as a commentary on the situation.
YABLONSKY: Well, that image of you trapped in the gallery, and consequently in the gallery system, resonates with many artists. But for the most part the gallery was the only way they could present work to a serious public. It’s different now.
ELMGREEN: The framing is still quite conventional. It’s amazing that people in a creative business aren’t more innovative. If you go to Chelsea [in New York], all the galleries look exactly the same. It’s just the scale that differs. When I was small, my parents decorated the Christmas tree exactly the same way every year, and when I was seven years old I rebelled and said, ‘You can’t surprise me with this anymore! It’s impossible. It looks exactly the same as last year’. And sometimes I get that feeling when I go to gallery openings.
DRAGSET: Let the kids decorate the tree! That’s what I say.
ELMGREEN: It’s so problematic. In a gallery, the artists differ a lot. There might be someone who’s very good in terms of formal language, but not so critical. Then there are maybe queer positions and there might be a feminist position, but everything is presented exactly in the same manner.
YABLONSKY: In 2002, you made Taking Place, another piece that involved the making of the show, and the tearing down of walls.
DRAGSET: Exactly. It was Beatrix Ruf ’s first exhibition as director of the Kunsthalle Zürich. When we went there to see the galleries, we found something wrong with the whole structure. You’d walk down a long aisle with gallery spaces off it, almost like an art fair, with booths on the side. Beatrix had been thinking about changing it, so we came up with a proposal to be in dialogue with her and the architects, and present the transformation of the Kunsthalle as our artwork.
ELMGREEN: People were very confused. It almost looked as if we weren’t prepared, or that some terrible thing had happened and we were still in the middle of the installation.
DRAGSET: We choreographed the whole demolition and rebuilding process. The last week of the show was just about fitting the lamps, so it got increasingly boring, but people could experience a whole new, friendlier structure. The reception area now included the library that used to be in the back and for the staff only, and so on.
ELMGREEN: In the end, we provided a nicer space for the next artist coming in, but the idea also showed what kind of manual labour goes into an exhibition. It’s so frustrating that everything has to be completely perfect and ready, and not show any sign of all the effort that it takes to create an exhibition. We wanted to show the art audience the guys in hard-hats and lumberjack shirts with their sledgehammers, and let people see that you need to make a lot of noise and create a lot of dirt in order to have a show look great.
YABLONSKY: Why did you feel that backstage exposure was important?
ELMGREEN: It feels so unreal that we go through the same motion of installing a show over and over again without discussing why we do this and what has happened before. It’s like trying to make a ritual celebration out of something that’s very artificial. It also put the spotlight on all of the people working in the art world to make our exhibitions or art fairs happen, and who aren’t paid very well. They’re not invited to the opening. We just hide them away, like something that’s necessary but embarrassing. And embarrassment is so important. It raises a lot of relevant questions.
DRAGSET: The other problem with this institutional structure, the white cube, is that it’s anaesthetized and dehumanized, and we wanted to reanimate it. And that also has to do with our perception of society. The Scandinavian countries are perceived as very small, well functioning societies where it’s possible to combine socialism and capitalism, but people forget that there’s also an enormous amount of self-censorship and self-control involved. Everyone has to agree to be more or less the same. That’s why Scandinavians are so afraid of foreigners. They can be very xenophobic.
ELMGREEN: The irony is that if anything is an enemy of capitalism, it’s sameness. You need to have diversity to keep capitalism rolling.
YABLONSKY: You’ve shown in galleries and museums, but you’ve also been involved in public art, which, by definition, has nothing to do with the market. It’s not about money. What is it about for you?
ELMGREEN: It’s quite normal for us to try out other formats and present our projects in other ways than in galleries. And one way is to put it out there in public space.
YABLONSKY: Like the jeans and Calvin Klein briefs on the floor?
ELMGREEN: Yes, that’s something that wouldn’t normally belong in a gallery, because it looks like two guys just dropped their pants and rushed off to have sex.
DRAGSET: Yes. But we don’t do that anymore. [Laughter]
ELMGREEN: We’ve done public-art projects from very early on. The Cruising Pavilion in Aarhus was in 1996. The city festival invited a number of artists to do what was supposed to be public sculpture. Our idea was to give them a pavilion shaped as a white cube. We placed it in an area where gay guys who were cruising had been harassed by the police. Park authorities had been cutting down bushes, because they didn’t want that activity to go on, and then we thought, ‘Why don’t we make a white cube that looks very inviting and nice?’ It had light blue vinyl on the floor. It had white wooden walls that created a maze inside, perforated with glory holes at different heights. And in the inner part of that maze, you’d have a little bench of cherry wood and a skylight, so you could also see the stars and be romantic.
DRAGSET: We were there working for a long time. Actually, we were so obsessed with it that we missed a studio visit that probably would have resulted in an invitation to Documenta. But we didn’t really have a clue about what Documenta was at that time. We thought our Cruising Pavilion was more important.
YABLONSKY: It was, in the end.
ELMGREEN: We did that pavilion to try to make an architecture that would be gay from the very beginning. Normally you’d have gay clubs or bars, saunas, whatever, in already existing heterosexual structures. So for us, it was important to make a gay structure that during the daytime could be used by other people, like the elderly ladies who sat on the bench, or the children who played there, and then at night it would be taken over by gay men. And they legally could do whatever they wanted in that pavilion, because the interesting thing is that the space inside a public sculpture actually belongs to the artist. It’s not public any more. So there’s a different set of laws.
DRAGSET: When we tried to do the same project in Rotterdam, city officials said, ‘You can’t do that here, because this park is for everyone.’ And, well, if it’s for everyone then why can’t you have this cruising pavilion in it? In Aarhus, we’d proved that it works. Gay members of the audience or general visitors to the park started to provide condoms and clean it up without our involvement. We just left it as a structure to see how it would work.
ELMGREEN: This idea about public spaces being for everyone actually means that they’re for no one, because everyone is equally alienated. Instead of being a celebration of coming together in a physical way with all our diverse backgrounds, hanging out in spite of our differences, doing naughty stuff, mingling, a public space is just a nonzone that we have to rush through while going from one private space to another.
DRAGSET: What I find interesting about doing projects in a public space is that people suddenly realize that they actually do have a say – that it belongs partly to them. Take Han (2012), the merman sculpture sitting in the position of The Little Mermaid, that we made for Elsinore in the east of Denmark. When that proposal was made public, it stirred a huge debate and made the national news, which was surprising, because Denmark is known as the most liberal country in the world. They legalized gay marriage first, sex change, pornography. When our proposal was revealed, people felt like this jetty in front of a former shipyard, that has now become a cultural centre, was their space. In the background you can see the Kronborg Castle, which is where Shakespeare’s Hamlet is set. It has the famous line, ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.’ And that’s what we found out – that there was something rotten under the surface.
ELMGREEN: The Little Mermaid has become the icon of the whole nation. And suddenly you have a young man sitting in the same position. The nation was in an uproar.
YABLONSKY: I’m glad you brought that up, because from the beginning you’ve promoted homosexuality as a legitimate way to be in the world, which it is. If some countries accepted it, for most of the world it was still a transgressive act, as in Rotterdam. Whatever the laws are, you still have to deal with the culture.
ELMGREEN: It’s why we chose to have two guys kissing in the film that’s shown in the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime in Berlin. People might accept homosexuality conceptually or legally today in our part of the world, but they still don’t want to see two guys kissing.
DRAGSET: Younger generations aren’t like that, but even in Berlin, unfortunately, gay bashing is on the rise again.
YABLONSKY: Is it? But sexuality has always been a subject of your work. Did you ever feel threatened because of it?
ELMGREEN: Every artist includes their sexuality in their works. I mean heterosexuals can do it without really explaining it. But we don’t want to be boxed in by it – as if we would only deal with queer issues.
DRAGSET: I think we both felt very safe in our sexuality. We always found the support in people around us. What’s difficult is the time when you grow up and you don’t even know what homosexuality is. Luckily in Norway, where I grew up, kids today learn it in school when they’re nine or ten.
ELMGREEN: In art history you’ve had ground-breaking artists doing the tough job, where they had to focus on their queer identity entirely and dedicate themselves to that, because it was needed at the time. We arrived in a much more comfortable position, where someone had done the hard work for us.
DRAGSET: That said, we did feel that Copenhagen eventually became too small for us. In 1996 we curated this big festival there, together with fifteen other artists, that we called ‘Update’. It was a very important summer exhibition with lots of other activities around it. Michael and I were responsible for the performance part. We invited Coco Fusco and Nao Bustamente and Forced Entertainment from England, loads of great people whom we mostly got in touch with through the ICA in London. ‘Update’ was open and collaborative, yet the atmosphere was still very macho – no women artists were part of the organization.
YABLONSKY: And so you left Copenhagen and went to Berlin. Why Berlin?
ELMGREEN: Olafur Eliasson, whom we’d known already from Copenhagen, had moved to Berlin. We went to visit him a couple of times and were complaining about Copenhagen and the atmosphere there and he said ‘Hey, I know someone who’s renting his apartment out for ten months’ and we said, ‘We’ll take it.’ We took it sight-unseen, and it was a lovely apartment in the former East, in Prenzlauer Berg. It had coal heating, no hot water, no shower, toilet in the back, but we loved it. We had amazing parties. Everyone was sitting on the floor, because we only had one chair and one writing desk. It was all very bohemian.
DRAGSET: Then we ran out of money. Basically, we had an unemployment cheque that we had to go back to Denmark to cash. So we went, only to hear from the Danish Arts Council that they’d given us an ISCP [International Studio and Curatorial Program] residency in New York. So we went to New York for almost a year, and lived in an even worse place. But hey – it was New York!
ELMGREEN: And Christian Haye invited us to do our first show ever in a so-called commercial gallery, in Harlem, even though it didn’t really give us any money. It was called The Project. We knew Christian from his writing for Frieze magazine, and he’d come to see a couple of things we’d done. He was a very likeable, intelligent, charming guy.
YABLONSKY: He is also African-American and wanted to work with artists who didn’t have representation yet, and they were an amazing group of artists.
DRAGSET: Yes, like Paul Pfeiffer, Julie Mehretu, William Pope.L and Daniel Joseph Martinez.
ELMGREEN: The funny thing was that none of the artists had a clue what a commercial gallery really was, and the dealer had no idea either.
DRAGSET: But somehow the artists collectively realized that we had to paint the walls before the first show, which were partly black or with murals depicting exotic scenery. It had been a nightclub.
YABLONSKY: Across the street from a live chicken market.
DRAGSET: It had the biggest rats I’d ever seen in my life.
YABLONSKY: It was a very dynamic, totally international gallery in a neighbourhood with an enormous and important cultural history that was blighted and partly abandoned. The artists were all from different parts of the world, but you were the only white guys.
DRAGSET: We never thought about that.
YABLONSKY: Did you check out other galleries in New York before Christian invited you to show with him?
ELMGREEN: To be honest, we never thought about a commercial gallery. We were showing in many different contexts, but being represented wasn’t how we were brought up as artists. If you wanted something to happen, you had to do it yourself.
DRAGSET: Even though we sold our first artwork ever through The Project, we couldn’t afford to stay in New York. When we moved back to Berlin at the end of 1999, people were very welcoming and happy to see us again. And that’s when we thought, ‘Let’s just stay here.’
YABLONSKY: What was the artistic atmosphere in Germany at that time?
DRAGSET: There wasn’t so much going on in Berlin. Anything you did would change the city, because there was nothing else, no real infrastructure in place. Rent was cheap and the art scene was much smaller. People knew each other. We’d go to the same bars, the same clubs. The video artist Daniel Pflumm ran a place called Panasonic that everyone remembers very fondly, and Galerie Neu was also active in creating social environments next to their art spaces.
YABLONSKY: That year, 1999, was my first visit to Berlin, and I could feel a lot of promise and opportunity in the air. It seemed communal.
DRAGSET: Rather than trying to cling onto something that already existed and get a little piece of the cake, you were baking the cake together – or more like bread, probably, like Schmaltzbrot.
YABLONSKY: What did you actually do?
DRAGSET: We started to work with Martin Klosterfelde, who’d just moved his gallery to a large space on Siemenstrasse, close to Checkpoint Charlie. Our first project was to rebuild his old space at full scale, so when people came to see his new space they saw exactly the same space as the tiny one he had before, but now displayed as an object in the new, much bigger gallery.
YABLONSKY: That makes me curious to know if you ever had a conversation with Michael Asher.
ELMGREEN: Once. We ended up in a very funny situation in Lüneburger Heide in the north of Germany, where they had invited Michael Asher and us each to come up with outdoor projects placed in the rural landscape. They put us up in an old barn without any heat. Michael had to sleep with his duvet jacket on, and when he woke up the zipper had gotten stuck on something, so we helped him out of it and talked about Los Angeles, art and being in this really weird place together. Ingar and I were given a piece of land as big as a football field, where we planted different trees. There were bushes already and we made a garden with a white fence around it, and an entrance with a big signboard flashing, ‘Park for Unwanted Sculptures’. At that time there were already a hell of a lot of public artworks in the Lüneburger Heide region and it so happened that businesses and city officials wanted to get rid of some of them. They didn’t know what to do with all this art, so we made something like a kennel for these poor, homeless sculptures. It’s still there, and growing. Asher liked that project. Sometimes meeting your heroes can be deeply disappointing. He was one of the few who wasn’t.
YABLONSKY: How did you come to be aware of Conceptualists like Asher? How did they influence your thinking?
ELMGREEN: We just relied on friends and people we knew who recommended things we should read. For instance, [the curator] Connie Butler saw our diving board [Powerless Structures] at the Louisiana Museum in 1997, and told us to read Aaron Betsky, Joel Sanders, Mark Wigley – all the theorists on space and queer space.
DRAGSET: Our first sculpture.
YABLONSKY: And the first of your many works to invite people to take an action and then deny them a way to do it. Which is how life goes for a lot of people.
DRAGSET: The series of works that we labelled ‘denials’ is very much about being offered fake opportunities – possibilities that aren’t really possibilities and that make you feel excluded and frustrated. This is also relevant to the thinking behind the Prada store in the desert near Marfa, Texas.
YABLONSKY: And you did that in 2005, at the invitation of whom?
DRAGSET: No invitation.
YABLONSKY: This was totally your idea?
DRAGSET: It was a completely self-initiated project. Actually, we first tried to do it in Nevada, because we liked the sound of ‘Prada Nevada’. But the casino owners and the porn industry didn’t really care about two Scandinavian chaps wanting to do a Pop/ Land art project in the middle of their desert. And then we were introduced to Yvonne Force Villareal, from the Art Production Fund in New York, who turned out to have family connections in Marfa. That was even better, because the presence of the Judd and the Chinati foundations linked it to the tradition of Minimalism and Land Art.
ELMGREEN: It also related to a project we did in 2001, when we covered the windows of Tanya Bonakdar’s gallery in New York with a sign saying, ‘Opening soon – Prada’.
YABLONSKY: What did you have inside the gallery?
ELMGREEN: Nothing. The doors were locked. But nobody came anyway.
DRAGSET: We just replicated the signs all over the façade of what up until then had been the SoHo Guggenheim, where Rem Koolhaas was designing a new Prada store.
ELMGREEN: The Guggenheim closed its downtown branch quite suddenly, but that sign was up for ages. There was also a sign in Chelsea for a new Comme des Garçons store. So we said, ‘Let’s speed up the whole gentrification process and deal with the problems in advance.’ From that process we got the idea of putting a Prada store in the middle of nowhere. We tend to take for granted the ambience of a luxury goods boutique when it’s on Fifth Avenue or in the middle of Paris or Milan, but how would it look if there were nothing around to support it? The not-for-profit Ballroom Marfa and the Art Production Fund helped by selling highway signboards that we made that stated the mileage from different places to Prada Marfa. That was enough to fund the whole construction. We got the land from a woman named Smokey Brown, who owns a ranch bigger than New York.
DRAGSET: She didn’t mind giving us a square foot.
YABLONSKY: Do you think it mattered that you did this in America?
ELMGREEN: It was easier in Texas, because there weren’t many regulations. People said, ‘We don’t know what it is but we think it looks pretty.’ The annual barbecues at Chinati were very popular with the art crowd, but the town wasn’t such an art haven as it is today. There were less than 100 people at the opening. They were local renters coming in their pickup trucks with beer, tequila and Country & Western music. One of the huge trucks passing by stopped 30 metres away. The driver got out and stood in front of the store, scratching his head. That was really satisfying. We thought of it as a project that would remain secret. It suddenly got a life of its own when one of the Prada Marfa road signs was included in the TV series, Gossip Girl, and even more when Facebook got huge and Instagram came about.
YABLONSKY: Did Prada come after you with a lawsuit?
ELMGREEN: No, we got permission. We needed to have the precise colour code of their mint green shelves and the logo. We actually received a beautiful letter from Miuccia Prada endorsing the project.
YABLONSKY: Has she been there?
DRAGSET: I don’t think so. But her team from the Prada Foundation has.
ELMGREEN: They thought it was an interesting idea, even if it was critical of their industry.
DRAGSET: For us, it was important that it wasn’t commissioned by Prada. Then the project would have read a different way.
YABLONSKY: The historic American Land art projects all dug into existing lands. Yours isn’t made of the desert but is an imposition onto the desert. You gave the whole notion of Land art a twist with this commercial-looking, non-commercial project.
DRAGSET: The commodified idea of landscape was also a very important and integral part of the project. We know these landscapes so well from advertisements and films, not least the Marlboro Country ads and Richard Prince.
YABLONSKY: At roughly the same time, 2005, you made an urban landscape project in New York, End Station, a fake subway station below street level. It was another ‘denial’, but it looked authentic, because New York has actual abandoned subway stations, but not so clean.
DRAGSET: It was constructed in the basement of a warehouse building in the meatpacking district. The basement had existing columns with rivets that looked the same as in the subway, so it didn’t take much transformation.
YABLONSKY: And it was a 13th Street stop, which doesn’t exist, but only one block from a major station at 14th Street.
DRAGSET: Exactly. Historically, there had been a debate about a train line to go there for the workers, but it never happened.
ELMGREEN: It was before the fashion stores moved in. There was a Bumble and Bumble hairdresser in the building, above the Bohen Foundation, where we installed the subway station, but there wasn’t much else. We knew about the area because there were a number of artists, like Josh Smith and Ann Craven, who had studios there. Their studios were burnt down by the landlord.
DRAGSET: The subway station was important, because it was the first large-scale transformation we ever made. It also dealt with the past, because we made it as if it had been abandoned in the 1980s. There were Reagan-era newspapers and other ephemera scattered around, Act Up stickers on the columns, and we had permission from the Guerilla Girls to reprint their posters from that time.
ELMGREEN: There were cigarette advertisements and trashed, Greek-patterned paper coffee cups…
DRAGSET: And then we had first-generation graffiti artists come in to do tags and graffiti on the tiles. They showed up with their kids, and they were so sweet and happy to come in and do this again. We actually knew some of them. There was a guy, Hugo Martinez, who had a gallery for a while in Chelsea. He was a real estate developer, but had supported these guys when they were kids. Coco 144, I think was one of the big taggers.
YABLONSKY: Was that the genesis of The Collectors at the 2009 Venice Biennale and The Welfare Show (2006) at the Serpentine Gallery in London? Two immersive, largescale environments with a deep social consciousness.
DRAGSET: Maybe. At the Serpentine there were many different works, but we designed the exhibition as a series of corridors and hallways, so you walked through one whole row of institutional places, from a hospital room to an airport lounge to an office lobby and a room full of guards who were guarding nothing but themselves and the audience, but no artwork. I think the transformation of the spaces and the beginning of narrative situations were the two things that got established with The Welfare Show. But the next big change leading from this was moving from dealing with institutional spaces to dealing with domestic ones, and bringing the individual to the forefront. The next show was, Home Is the Place You Left, which we curated in my hometown of Trondheim. It was like a rehearsal for The Collectors in Venice, where we had the Nordic and the Danish pavilions.
YABLONSKY: Which had never happened before in the history of the Venice Biennale.
DRAGSET: They’re right next to each other. It was the first time that we reused already-existing sculptures by ourselves, but with twenty-three other artists’ works as part of the mise-en-scène.
YABLONSKY: The show had a fictional story about a bachelor architect, who lives alone with his collections. There’s an element of loneliness in a lot of your work – not just in the Venice pavilions and the Victoria & Albert Museum show, Tomorrow, which came later [2013–14]. And yet these exhibitions were created by two artists who were intimately involved, have always collaborated, and who employ a dozen people in their studio. So, what do you know about loneliness?
ELMGREEN: Well, a great deal. These fictional characters are in part made up of our own psychologies, the worst sides of us, and then we mixed it with a fiction that may be a warning to ourselves. Norman Swann, the architect in the apartment that we did at the V&A, was a grumpy, misanthropic, stubborn old man who had far too high standards for his own good, and was very moralistic and judgemental. That might be what we could turn into if we don’t take care.
YABLONSKY: Scandinavia is very dark for much of the year. I imagine that was something you absorbed as children and is part of your sensibility. I mean, look at Ingmar Bergman’s films.
DRAGSET: Bergman’s father was a Lutheran minister, so he grew up in a religious home and could see how reality doesn’t always meet up with religious ideals.
ELMGREEN: Bergman has been tremendously important for us. Playwrights like Ibsen have been important too – that Nordic heaviness and scepticism towards well-meaning people.
YABLONSKY: At the entrance to the Danish pavilion, before you even went in, you saw the figure of a man floating in a pool after committing suicide.
DRAGSET: Was he a suicide victim, or was he pushed? It also seemed as if his home had been occupied by someone else.
YABLONSKY: Well, he was fully clothed. It didn’t look as if he had gone for a swim.
DRAGSET: He was fully clothed, although his Prada shoes were on the edge of the pool and he had taken his socks off.
ELMGREEN: It was a happy ending. He died of too much of a good life. He had everything and he liked to party, and he liked to live his identity to the fullest. Ending up face-down in a swimming pool might not be the worst thing.
YABLONSKY: The image is so like the beginning and end of Sunset Boulevard, where you see a fully dressed man floating face-down in a pool. He’d been shot, but he did sort of kill himself by going into a soulless situation. Maurizio Cattelan also made a work, Daddy, Daddy (2008), where the figure of Pinocchio is floating face-down. Do you think he was commenting on your piece?
DRAGSET: These ideas come up at similar times, but I think his starting point was different from ours. If anything, our works complement each other.
ELMGREEN: Maurizio was part of our Danish pavilion. He made the stuffed dog, like a Jack Russell, sitting in the family house.
YABLONSKY: That show got so much media exposure that it seems similar to having a midcareer retrospective that sets in stone how the public is going to think about you from then on.
ELMGREEN: It’s a cat and mouse situation. You’re the little mouse in front of the cat, and if you don’t invent new tricks to distract the cat, you get eaten.
YABLONSKY: And now a lot of the art you make for gallery shows ends up in these big institutions or vice versa, like the vulture you exhibited at Victoria Miro in London.
ELMGREEN: Actually the first show we did with Victoria was called ‘Too Late’ (2008). We transformed the gallery into an abandoned gay club. The idea was to invite a bunch of guys who normally would not go to galleries to party with us a few days prior to the opening, so the VIP guests would come and see our leftovers. That was the show. It had to do with the whole system around celebrity culture. The vulture was first shown a couple years later, when we transformed Victoria’s attic space into a hayloft. And it reappeared at the V&A.
YABLONSKY: What was the significance of the vulture? You’ve put it into several situations.
DRAGSET: It’s called The Critic. It’s like a bird sitting on your shoulder that could be the critic you carry with yourself. And when is the final judgment? Is it when you die? Is it when you’ve done your next piece? Is it your last piece?
ELMGREEN: There are not so many creatures in the animal kingdom that feed on dead animals, but the vulture only attacks if you’re vulnerable, and that is the bad part of the art world. They sit there and wait until you are weakened and then they strike.
YABLONSKY: All of these installations are a response to either institutional or bureaucratic thinking, the imposition of rules on a society in order to control it and keep it from falling apart. Yet we live in a world that does seem to be falling apart. Older ideas – even progressive ones that we’ve carried for a few hundred years or longer – have no effect, like another powerless structure, perhaps. The radicals are now on the right of the political spectrum rather than the left. The extremists are in charge, and I think a lot of people feel trapped. Art is often the way forward, but how do you make art at such a time as this?
ELMGREEN: In the art world right now, there’s not that much of what in previous times you’d label thought-provoking or pushing boundaries. Everyone is so anxious, and so terrified of being misunderstood or misread – another signal of a culture imploding.
DRAGSET: I think a lot of the work we’re doing is trying to show some of this fear – for example, the broken-up asphalt pieces that we made for an exhibition in 2018 at Galerie Perrotin in Paris. It’s one of the main cities in Europe to have suffered terrorist attacks and social unrest.
ELMGREEN: What’s important is that art can make us less fearful.
YABLONSKY: When I saw the broken asphalt in your studio, I thought it looked like an earthquake, with the ground literally shifting beneath our feet. But you have these bollards still attached. What are they for?
DRAGSET: Normally you have them to control the movement of large crowds – to keep people or cars in line.
ELMGREEN: This is an urban version of a Romantic painting by Caspar David Friedrich. We don’t know anything about natural phenomena, but we do know about the streets.
DRAGSET: The abandoned public swimming pool we made for our survey at the Whitechapel Gallery [2018–19] is about that, too. There are many public swimming pools in Europe that have been converted into shopping malls or private spas.
ELMGREEN: Civic space is really in danger. 449 libraries have been closed since 2012 in the UK alone. But we also need to remind ourselves that what is happening right now has been an underlying tendency for quite a while. It is all a result of inhuman austerity politics and increased social inequality. It doesn’t happen overnight, just because a village fool like Donald Trump is elected President of the United States. We in the art world are responsible for it too, by turning a blind eye.
YABLONSKY: Money has become the arbiter of everything, but people need money to live and money to make their work.
ELMGREEN: There’s so much art going on without these enormous sums of money that collectors give institutions that want to make another addition to their already big spaces. It’s a choice. If the art world is going to be a place that we can justify to the larger population in the future, we need to clean it up, change our behaviour. Part of the art world today is associated with right-wing people who exploit labour rights so it can be hard for them to convince people that they mean well. Contemporary art sometimes can be a symbol of inequality. What are we in the art world contributing today? That is what we need to question. Everybody needs to feel they belong to something, and if they don’t, they become very aggressive and try to find simplistic excuses for our misery – blame it on immigrants, because immigrants are easy targets. What we need to do, as cultural workers today, is to find a new way of getting back our dignity as human beings, as citizens.
DRAGSET: We work in public spaces that, for the most part, are accessible to anyone who wants to engage with them. Through art we can respond in ways that politicians, lawmakers and newspapers can’t. We can still use poetry, humour, design and all the strategies that are available to us and reach people in a different way.
ELMGREEN: What fascinates super-wealthy collectors is art made in very simple materials, because for them that’s mythical. It’s a mysterious process. They already have everything that represents enormous wealth, but if they buy a dirty little cloth and suddenly it’s worth half a million, then it’s magical.
YABLONSKY: Do you make different work for, say, Paris, than you would for Hong Kong?
DRAGSET: Always different work, depending on the situation. We did do a show in Hong Kong called, ‘The Old World’ . It dealt with an idea of Europe that doesn’t exist anymore, the romanticized idea of aesthetics, history and class that you see in places like Britain, which had ruled Hong Kong for many years.
ELMGREEN: The problem with the Western world today is that it doesn’t seem to be able to come to terms with not being the dominant culture anymore. I got into trouble over dinner in London once, because I was joking about OBE [Order of the British Empire] medals. There is no empire anymore. A really progressive intellectual felt insulted when I suggested that the order should have shrunk to reflect how the Empire had shrunk – basically being only the size of an almost-invisible pea. I thought that type of person would be able to see the humour. Europe and America sometimes look like two elderly people refusing to admit that they’re getting older.
YABLONSKY: How do new projects start?
DRAGSET: The studio isn’t the most creative place for us, in the sense that this isn’t where concepts are developed. Deeper thinking happens when we’re out in spaces where you feel no responsibility, and it can often be the trashiest places, a dive bar or an airport lounge, where you don’t relate to your surroundings or the people in them. You have to pull yourself out of your daily routines to have an in-depth dialogue.
YABLONSKY: I’m guessing that most couples who split up romantically have a hard time continuing to work together professionally.
DRAGSET: Our splitting up as a couple was the natural result of us having no divisions at all. We had one bank account, one phone, one computer.
YABLONSKY: You were merged.
DRAGSET: Totally merged, and then, long story short, Michael met someone else and we thought hard about what to do next. We postponed some shows, but there was one we didn’t want to cancel. It was on Level 2 at Tate Modern. We had a meeting with the curator, Susan May, and we told her about our situation. It turned out that she was having the same problem – she and her partner were in the process of splitting up. She is an absolutely wonderful person, and she helped us through a difficult time. In the end, the work was very small: just a little sparrow lying between two window panes at the only window that faces out to the public at Tate Modern. So people would pass by and see this animatronic sparrow twitching, trapped between the windows, blinking its eyes and moving its wings. You could even see a heartbeat, with the beak opening and closing. But people couldn’t help it, neither from the gallery side nor from the street side. It was quite telling about how we felt at the time.
ELMGREEN: I think the reason for us daring to split up was that we knew that we’d stay soul mates in our work, that we wouldn’t lose each other. Otherwise, I think that we would have grown into a really pathetic, ever-arguing old couple.
YABLONSKY: Other people who collaborate, in any field, sometimes do individual projects. Have either of you ever wanted to make something that was just yours?
DRAGSET: No, not really. It’s a misconception of a relationship – that you lose yourself. I think that you win more as an individual by being in a collaboration.
YABLONSKY: But that’s what you were just saying about being too attached as a couple. You have no individual identity.
DRAGSET: It’s impossible to grow into one person. If you give each other breathing space, you can acknowledge that you are two people with individual needs.
ELMGREEN: And after being a couple for so long, that’s what we were missing in our working process. In the beginning, we were so excited about what the other could contribute. After ten years –
DRAGSET: – you know every movement of the other person. Our practice is as diverse as it is now because we’re two. Over the years, we’ve occasionally switched roles, if you want to call it that. But it was never a division, like Michael is the person doing this and I’m the person doing that.
YABLONSKY: You live separately now, but you each showed up today wearing very similar t-shirts.
DRAGSET: Actually we both bought the same shirts the same week, but separately without knowing the other one had it.
YABLONSKY: So even though you don’t live together you still think much alike.
DRAGSET: We think very much alike.
YABLONSKY: Let’s talk about what we might call your entertainments, where you collaborated with Tim Etchells: Drama Queens (2007) and Happy Days in the Art World (2011). Drama Queens had mobile replicas of iconic 20th century sculptures talking to each other, having found their way to a theatre stage after-hours.
DRAGSET: Exactly. Kasper König invited us to Skulptur Projekte Münster in 2007, and truth be told, for the longest time we explored an idea that just didn’t work. Four months before the opening, we remembered a beautiful theatre in Münster that was communally designed by a group of visionary, post-war architects. And we thought, ‘What if we put sculpture within this structure?’
YABLONSKY: And so you had Warhol’s Brillo box, the Jeff Koons bunny, and equally recognizable works by Ulrich Rückriem, Sol LeWitt, Barbara Hepworth, Hans Arp and Alberto Giacometti. You found people to help you make the figures and hired actors to do the voices.
ELMGREEN: Yes. And then we made motors, so that the figures’ movements around the stage could be remote-controlled.
YABLONSKY: Their movements were great. When I saw Drama Queens in Basel, I thought it was an inside joke. The Basel audience was perfect for a show like that.
DRAGSET: Later on, we showed it at the Old Vic in London, where we had live actors doing the voices.
ELMGREEN: The idea was also to make the art audience, which is used to performing themselves in front of art – you know, chatting, taking selfies – sit down in a dark theatre, switch off their phones and shut up and let the art speak.
YABLONSKY: And what the art was saying is exactly what those people might say to each other at a dinner party, where they’re sniping about everyone else.
ELMGREEN: In London there was a more mixed audience. They were laughing, because from the look of the sculptures you can see which is the clumsy character or the overly spiritual character. Or you can look at the Koons rabbit and see the naughtiness.
YABLONSKY: All of these sculptures represented familiar character types. Happy Days in the Art World was a little more obscure. You had to know Samuel Beckett to get the Happy Days reference. You also took the title partly from Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World. But the set design was totally Elmgreen & Dragset.
DRAGSET: Yes, it was a huge exit sign, and a prison-style bunk bed.
ELMGREEN: The most important part of that play was the courier – this hefty woman in her UPS uniform making deliveries. She was amazing. Her monologue was complete gibberish – clichés of intellectual, pretentious, art-world jargon. The whole play was built around her monologue.
YABLONSKY: Who wrote that?
DRAGSET: We wrote it ourselves. With Drama Queens, Michael and I did the research, chose the artists and the artworks and developed the characters by studying the shapes and history of the works but also by using our perception of the different artists behind them. We then fed that material to Tim Etchells and he did his own research and wrote a script. With Happy Days, Tim was basically an editor. He was very helpful with the monologue.
YABLONSKY: Yesterday we went to see your Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime. But I remember being in Lyon, France, a few years ago and seeing The Weight of Oneself, another gay monument that you made for a very notable spot on the Rhône River.
ELMGREEN: Yes, it’s in front of the city’s grand old court house and it’s a man carrying his drowned self from the water. We presented it as being about taking care of yourself, but of course it’s super gay.
DRAGSET: It was around the time that there was all this uproar in France against gay marriage laws.
YABLONSKY: Do you see a relationship between your male figurative sculptures and those of Charles Ray? His aren’t meant to be gay but has he been an inspiration?
ELMGREEN: Of course. I don’t care if it’s meant to be gay or not, but Oh! Charlie Charlie Charlie (1992) is an amazing, gay sculpture. It’s interesting how a figurative work can get into a dialogue with a wide audience that identifies with the sculpture as a representation of themselves. When we showed a sculpture of a little boy standing in his mother’s high heels in front of a mirror [The Experiment, 2011] in the ‘Like Life’ exhibition at the Met Breuer in 2018, it was beautiful to read all the different social media posts by guys who were writing, ‘I was exactly like that when I was a kid.’ We made something that could evoke people’s memories of their own coming out, or could even prompt straight guys to recall exploring their gender in different ways.
YABLONSKY: It’s a very powerful piece. Charles Ray, who was also in that show, had made a white sculpture of a pensive young boy sitting on the floor and playing with a toy Volkswagen [The New Beetle, 2006].
ELMGREEN: I think Ray has been discussing masculinity in a very good way, but I don’t believe in occupied territories in art. There’s always room to make a contribution or add a twist. The debate around toxic masculinity is still relevant. Our small boy looking up in admiration at a rifle in a glass cabinet speaks about gun violence as a male problem. The boy on the rocking horse which we exhibited on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square among historic war heroes, was the same thing. It has been really important for us to show different kinds of vulnerable masculinities in childhood, when there’s still hope.
YABLONSKY: I thought that sculpture was a great play on heroic equestrian monuments. It was also so golden that when the sun was shining it became another kind of sun.
ELMGREEN: And then you had grumpy King George IV next to it. He was always a very unpopular king. So you’d look at them and think, ‘Who do I sympathize with?’
DRAGSET: And then there was Boris Johnson. He was the mayor of London at the time. At the press conference, we were told not to talk about the work as an anti-war monument, and Katharina Fritsch, who was going to have her blue rooster installed just after ours, was handed a letter saying that she shouldn’t mention that this was a feminist artwork. We were absolutely shocked.
ELMGREEN: Johnson was so unprepared that he didn’t know what to say. So I took the microphone from him and said, ‘I think I need to help you out here.’ People laughed, but he was furious.
YABLONSKY: To Whom It May Concern (2018) in the Place Vendôme consisted of 100, lifelike, red starfish. Were they cast in bronze?
ELMGREEN: Yes, a very classical material.
DRAGSET: Classically sculpted as well.
ELMGREEN: They were drilled into the pavement. This was a big thing. To get permission to drill a hundred holes in Place Vendôme isn’t easy. They’ve had amazing art projects there, but all quite vertical or large-scale. It’s difficult to compete with that column of imperialism that’s in the middle of the plaza. So there’s a certain satisfaction in placing 100 red starfish in front of the Ritz Carlton, the Louis Vuitton flagship, and the most expensive jewellers in the world. The idea was also inspired by the floods that Paris has experienced over the years. It’s a symbol of the Paris Climate agreement.
YABLONSKY: So it predicted what would happen if the Seine flooded the Place Vendôme?
ELMGREEN: Yes. You’d have all these starfish left behind.
YABLONSKY: So, Place Vendôme, Trafalgar Square, Rockefeller Centre – renowned sites in major capitals of the western world that attract enormous pedestrian traffic. And you’re the ones responsible for public artworks in all of them.
ELMGREEN: They gave us the opportunity to challenge all of these very authoritarian squares.
DRAGSET: And treat them like powerless structures.
Find out more about Elmgreen & Dragset in their Phaidon Contemporary Artist Series monograph and by taking a look at their artist page on Artspace.