Lives and Works in Berlin

Lives and Works in Berlin | Stage your Melodrama: An Elmgreen and a Dragset

When the art historians start treading through Berlin’s turn-of-the-millennium years to chart artists’ march to Neukölln, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset‘s studio will be a main stop for tea and insight into the city’s physical transformations, and Berlin’s metamorphosis into a home for globetrotting artoholics. And it’s not just because the former couple who brought us Prada Marfa, The Welfare ShowDrama Queens, and The Collectors, 2009′s 2 for 1 Nordic Pavilion, were featured in the New York TimesHome & Garden section. The Scandinavian duo moved to Berlin in 1997 from Copenhagen, the year that scores of galleries cruised into Mitte and Hamburger Bahnhof celebrated its first birthday. Five years later, they were awarded the Preis der Nationalgalerie für Junge Kunst by the then-six-year-old institution for their spatial tours of sex, power, and white cubes in Powerless Structures. But before I get all monumental and start speculating about these artists’ design savvy, humor-heavy installations, and Berlin’s contemporaneous remodeling of empty lots into hot spots, here’s a fireside chat with Ingar Dragset.

Elmgreen & Dragset, “
Tala,” 2006. 
Courtesy Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin.

Alex Freedman: Before we get into talking about boys, tell me about your leading ladies: Irina, Rosa, Tala. Since 2006, at least one of them is always jet-setting to a new E&D location, and yet I’ve seen little written about this trio of gilded maids. Do tell, what’s the story?

Ingar Dragset: The golden maids are all named after the cast’s original model, who come from different corners of the world. Most of them have been maids at some point in real life. Silently they stand and watch you, the viewer – almost ghost-like – but in spite of their stoic posture, their face expressions hint at their personal stories.

Elmgreen and Dragset, “
Celebrity – The One & The Many, “
 Eine Ausstellung im 
ZKM | Museum für Neue Kunst, 
Ausstellungsansicht 
© Elmgreen & Dragset 
VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010
, Foto: ONUK

AF: In Venice there were a few rumors about what happened to Mr. B, and in Karlsruhe, I kept wanting to start a few at Celebrity – The One and the Many about High Expectations. To me, this child embodies a dark post-colonial British flavor of being reared in tradition, but fed to a pack of well-meaning hyenas who’ve torn down grandpa’s portrait to slap his portrait up because he’s young and wealthy. Yet I kept hoping that this huddling young school boy and the boy looking at gayromeo.com in his hermetically sealed apartment block could still become soulmates, or at least make faces at Pet Shop Bears together. Any chances?

ID: Well, if the poor British upper-class boy one day would run away from home and settle in Berlin, anything would be possible, wouldn’t it? But, sadly, it is more likely that they will never cross paths and that they will live in their diverse, separate realities, each with their kind of loneliness. Social mobility is still something very rare in the British society today.

Elmgreen & Dragset, "Sculptures Speak No Evil," performance, 2010. Courtesy of Pablo Leon de la Barra.

AF: Last month, as others were swearing by their Frieze hangovers, you two, along with two collaborators clad in black bondage tape, staged a wink at Brit propriety at the White Cubicle with Sculptures Speak No Evil. Who are those soulmates?

ID: Two daring guys who just signed up for it. We didn’t know them beforehand. But we have great luck in that we always manage to somehow find and persuade someone to participate in the weirdest stuff – people like a challenge.

Elmgreen & Dragset, "Home is the Place You Left," 2008. Trondheim Kunstmuseum. Photo: Halvor Bodin.

AF: In Home is the Place You Left there are two pairs of jeans and undies laying on the floor, alluding to some happy moments. In a Tate interview, Michael remarked that before the break-up, you guys didn’t even have your own underwear; whose are those on the floor?

ID: Haha, it’s not exactly a direct biographical piece in that sense. It’s more an image which refers to the iconic or old school gay designs — faded Levi’s and white Calvins. But it’s true that we shared everything — even underwear — when we were boyfriends.

Elmgreen & Dragset, View of the exhibition "Denkmal für die im Nationalsozialismus verfolgten Homosexuellen," 2008. Tiergarten, Berlin. Courtesy: Galerie Perrotin, Paris. Photo: Elmar Vestner.

AF: A work that a lot of people outside Berlin are less familiar with is Das Denkmal für die im Nationalsozialismus verfolgten Homosexuellen. Earlier this year there was some contestation about changing the video from men kissing to women kissing. I’ve tried to figure out what all the fuss is about, but I’m at a loss.

ID: When the magazine Emma, a German feminist publication, started to complain about the lack of female representation in the memorial, we simply thought: why not just give fellow artists a chance to come up with other ideas for future videos? Works that could be submitted to a jury, and then the film could be changed every second year. We liked this idea of opening of the memorial as a platform for other peoples’ work, and sort of predicted that it could trigger a debate each time a new film was to be selected, thus re-vitalizing the memorial and making the media print news concerning gay and lesbian matters — really writing about important issues such as representation and identity. But we never spoke about what this kind of film this should be and we are not sure who suddenly launched it as if it had to be a film showing two lesbians kissing. Since we decided not to interfere into the further decision-making and are not participating in the jury, we aren’t actually sure if they have even  selected a new one yet.

Elmgreen & Dragset, "Cruising Pavillion/Powerless Structures, Fig. 55," 1998. Installation view, Marselisborg Forest, Århus. Courtesy Galleri Nicolai Wallner, Kopenhagen.

AF: Looking back, Cruising Pavilion/Powerless Structures, Fig. 55 seems like prescient gesture towards this monument and newer installations, as you created a public monument to shelter homosexual activity and invited viewers and strangers to become performative participants.

ID: For sure, it was a piece that had interactive layers to it beyond just being an artwork. Many users didn’t care if it was art or not. They simply enjoyed suddenly having a protected environment in which they could make out, and so on. The thing is that the gay men cruising in that area had previously been harassed by the police, but inside our “public sculpture” – the pavilion – the law against public sexual activity didn’t apply any longer, since it was, after all, in a sculpture that was made by and belonged to us.

AF:  In Celebrity – The One and the Many‘s forthcoming publication, there is an interview between yourself and a 22-year old paparazzo. In it you comment that you’re quite glad that no one cares about artists, because otherwise you’d be caught naked in a magazine. But Google image search, columns like ArtForum’s Scene & Herd, and the photo of you guys lounging on a cow skin rug in your October 2008 ArtReview cover issue suggest an increasingly intimate interest in what everyone’s art world  looks like.

ID: As far as I know, people in ArtForum’s Scene & Herd are always dressed, mostly in suits and ties or evening dresses. But in our installation The Incidental Self, which consists of 700 private photographs, you will find worse, or more revealing images of us than posing on a cow skin rug.

Elmgreen & Dragset, "The Incidental Self." Part of the installation, "This is the First Day of My Life" at Malmö Konsthall, Sweden, 2007.

AF: It’s like the artist’s version of a leaked sex tape. Celebrity‘s opening had the stylings of theatrical heart wrench, drawing attention to the pervasive nature of people’s yearning to be casted; one which is hardly limited to Hollywood. Do you suppose anyone used Celebrity‘s exhibition binoculars to hunt down a collector, or find themselves an artist?

ID: If we all dared to stare more at and spy on each other, and in general, were more curious in everyday life, we would be less obsessed with celebrity culture in our society. The celebrity industry profits from people’s loneliness and lack of real social networks. At ZKM the opening was a public event, and so-called “common” people were invited along side the art professionals, which we really appreciated.

AF: I have to admit, I used my binoculars to search for pretty shoes.

ID: There were quite a few pretty boys, too.

Celebrity—The One and the Many is currently on view at ZKM Karlsruhe until March 27, 2011.


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