Elmgreen & Dragset get their thrills from making us squirm

Published 11th December 2015
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elmgreen and dragset prada marfa
Elmgreen & Dragset get their thrills from making us squirm
Written by Matthew Ponsford, CNNLondon
For an artist duo with global acclaim, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset don't sound very interested in pleasing the galleries that show their work.
The pair don't mind biting the hand that feeds them -- "biting can be pretty sexy," they've said -- which might explain why their two new exhibitions are gleefully taking aim at some of the art world's most well-worn conventions.
The mischievous cross-disciplinary Scandinavian double-act are best known internationally for Prada Marfa: a lifeless recreation of Prada boutique, found deep in the Texas desert, which has become a pilgrimage site for fashion fans -- Beyonce included -- who line up to photograph themselves in front of the never-opened store.
But their chaotic back-catalogue also covers naked men in unexpected places, an exhibition of imagined artworks, an opaque telescope, a triumphant, golden anti-war monument in London's Trafalgar Square, and a dead art collector floating in a swimming pool.
This month, the pair have two exhibitions in Aarhus, Denmark (at Dokk 1 and ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum) and are looking forward to a major show at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, where they plan to stage a glitzy art fair, with only their own work on display.
We caught up with them at their recent London show "Self-Portraits" at Victoria Miro Gallery Mayfair, where the pair put together an exhibition "selfie" consisting entirely of recreations of art gallery name labels, and learned five surprising facts about the artists behind the mischief.

1. They're working out how a pair of artists can take a selfie

How can art labels be a self portrait?
54-year-old Copenhagen-born Elmgreen explains the duo have been questioning how they represent themselves as duo with a shared process and output.
"There is this weird situation where you're a duo working together, how do you actually write your biography, how do you make a self-portrait of yourself?"
"In recent years it has become very common to be obsessed with doing selfies, which is a weird situation, because people use the whole world as just a background for themselves."
He sees the rash of Instagram images -- faces transplanted in front of famous landmarks -- as part of a bigger trend: for people to create their "social media image'" through references to cultural touchstones, fashion trends, and role models.
"We have brought it to the extreme in this situation and just been making self-portraits through other artists' works... especially the titles," explains Elmgreen.

2. Names are important to them

The exhibition takes you from the artists' teenage days (Keith Haring and painter Ross Bleckner were heroes before the two met) to their later passions. Each artist selected has held a place in their heart at some point.
The pair say the works, which include "Clean Boy" (by David Hockney) and "Lonesome?" (by Martin Kippenberger), were picked because the original works aren't easy for audiences to call to mind. Instead they hope viewers will reflect on the work at hand: these blown-up labels. Here, the names -- often considered peripheral to the gallery experience -- are pushed into center-focus.
Courtesy the Artists and Victoria Miro, London
It's a stroll down memory lane, but also an exercise in old fashioned, "high art" technical skill, with labels reproduced in paint on canvas and engraved on two pieces of perfectly white, unblemished, extremely expensive marble, the pair say they had to smuggle out of Italy.
You can see why, despite the pair's jeering, the art world hold Elmgreen and Dragset as far more than just jokers -- with international awards in their cabinet and major exhibitions at Oslo's Astrup Fearnley Museum and Denmark's National Gallery. In person, the tombstone-like marble recreations, especially, are beguiling, and the lowly label is elevated to something greater.

3. They want to make you squirm

The plush Mayfair environs of the Victoria Miro gallery is the ideal setting for their unusual exhibition, explains Elmgreen: "We try to create situations in settings where people normally feel slightly uncomfortable... where they're a little bit tense, like posh galleries in Mayfair -- and then provide a situation where they can have a little laugh."
Both agree that a particular shared sense of humor has been a cornerstone on their fruitful working relationship. But at the heart of the joke, Norwegian-born Dragset explains, is making the audience feel a little uncomfortable: creating something "a bit too private for the context."
Often this is coupled with a dark edge: their interests involve giving voyeuristic insights into sad, tragic lives, such the art collector they drowned, post-party, in his own pool for "The Collectors" at the Danish and Nordic Pavilions at the 2009 Venice Biennale.
The aim is to unnerve. "The extreme" Dragset says is the seemingly oblivious, and at ease "guy sitting naked in the chair, reading a book and listening to music on his headphones."

4. It's all for the thrill

At Victoria Miro, Elmgreen points to a "scruffy old butcher's table" in front of an uncomfortable wooden chair and bottle of "very cheap" whiskey. He says it's a treat for London's sheltered, wealthy art-lovers "because a lot of the people that are coming to this gallery, they have never tasted cheap whiskey before, so that's a complete new experience for them."
They've said before they want to give viewers a little "thrill" -- seemingly whether pleasant or not.
In the past, this has meant erecting a bed in a Louis Vuitton store and encouraging employees to jump in and catch a catnap in front of bemused customers.
Or a potential future work, hatched midway through the interview, when they see a friend struggling to get out through the gallery's futuristic sliding door:
"Next year there will be just a hand stuck out the door -- just a child's hands stuck in the door," Elmgreen giggles.
Courtesy the Artists and Victoria Miro, London

5. It's all still changing

Elmgreen and Dragset spent their first decade as a couple, before separating romantically, while remaining creatively united.
A decade later, Elmgreen & Dragset, the double-act, is still developing says Dragset -- and quite possibly, at 21, just entering the prime of creative life.
Elmgreen is confident of staying sharp:
"It's always also a kind of cat-and-mouse situation, where you try not to be trapped in the corner... as soon as you're pinned down or boxed in, it's over.
"So it's like trying to entertain yourself, and hopefully your audience, in new ways every time. Even after 20 years."