In Museum, a Life Staged ; Victoria & Albert Host the Artistic Duo Elmgreen & Dragset

By Donadio, Rachel | International New York Times, December 10, 2013 | Go to article overview

In Museum, a Life Staged ; Victoria & Albert Host the Artistic Duo Elmgreen & Dragset


Donadio, Rachel, International New York Times


The artistic team Elmgreen & Dragset's installation at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London takes viewers into the mysterious apartment of a mysterious man.

For a while, you forget that you are deep inside the galleries of the Victoria & Albert Museum. There's the unmade bed with fancy sheets and the sound of running water from behind a closed door. A cigar sits in a custom-made ashtray. Books by Ruskin and Foucault line an aesthete's shelves. The scene, you soon learn, is part of the latest installation by the cross-disciplinary artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset.

The museum gave this Scandinavian duo free rein to rummage through its vast design collections. The result, called "Tomorrow," is the fictional and enticing world of Norman Swann, an aging architect down on his luck and forced to sell his home. It's a witty invitation to voyeurism and to amateur detective work about a character's inner life. The show opened in October and runs through Jan. 2; the museum is calling it a success, with more than 40,000 visitors so far.

Viewers can walk around and make themselves at home in the rooms. To accompany the installation and provide clues -- whose cigarette butts are in the ashtray? -- the two artists wrote a screenplay.

"It's almost a visualization of how a writer thinks," Mr. Elmgreen said of the installation, which takes up five rooms. "What kind of ashtray does he have? Where is the newspaper lying? What kind of fabric is on the sofas? When you write a character you are thinking of all these things."

This work at the Victoria & Albert crystallizes many of the themes the artists have explored over their nearly 20-year partnership: the fluid lines between public and private space, visual and performance art, decorative and high art, gay culture and dominant culture, anonymity and celebrity, failure and success.

It also has confirmed Elmgreen & Dragset as members of a select cohort of artists who work in pairs: Gilbert & George; Fischli & Weiss (Mr. Weiss died in 2012); the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher (Mr. Becher died in 2007); and the up-and-coming Argentine duo Tomas Espina and Martin Cordiano, who had an installation in the Istanbul Biennial this year on the same floor as one by Elmgreen & Dragset.

Unlike teams in which one writes lyrics and the other music, Elmgreen & Dragset's creative process appears to be a running conversation. Mr. Elmgreen, 52, is Danish, and has a background in poetry and performance. Mr. Dragset, 44, bearded and Norwegian, is trained in theater. They met in the mid-1990s in a gay club in Copenhagen and immediately forged an intense bond. After a decade as a couple, they split up several years ago but continue to make art together. (Mr. Elmgreen lives in London but travels often to Berlin, where Mr. Dragset lives and where their studio is located.)

Their basic rule is that if one of them doesn't like an idea, they don't pursue it. (Asked how their co-writing arrangement worked, Mr. Dragset said with a laugh that each does "every second word.") In conversation, the two listen to each other and affectionately touch one another on the arm before interrupting. They build on each other's thoughts, cross-examining them but also enriching them.

"I think some people see collaboration as you lose something, which is really not true, I think," Mr. Dragset said, as the two sat over coffee at the kitchen table of the studio on a recent gray morning. "You develop and you have to strengthen your ego in some ways because you're in a constant dialogue -- there's also friction as well, in a good way."

The two men have shown their work largely in Europe, but now have a few new projects underway for Hong Kong and South Korea, as well as a retrospective coming up in March at the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo. …

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