Artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset’s sculptures shed light on socio-political environment

At König Galerie, Berlin, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset presented Short Story, an installation examining the narratives embedded in power dynamics and hierarchy.

by Shraddha Nair Published on : Aug 14, 2020

On May 16th of this year, König Galerie in Berlin, Germany, inaugurated the first public viewing of an installation by a pair of artists named Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. With the enormous social rifts and shifts we are currently witnessing across the globe, their first solo at König Galerie comes at an opportune moment for us to reflect upon our current social, economic and political paradigms and their implications. Their installation Short Story emulates the moments after the completion of a tennis match.

03 mins watch Elmgreen & Dragset in discussion about the motivations behind Short Story | Elmgreen & Dragset | STIRworld
Elmgreen & Dragset in discussion about the motivations behind Short Story Video: Courtesy of König Galerie

The sculptural piece reflects the dynamics of the game as it depicts a clear winner and loser. With a single unremarkable and not uncommon frame, the artists invite the viewer to reflect upon the moral and ethical layers which drive power, fairness and reward. The duo discusses their creative decisions in choosing the motifs included in this nuanced work: “Tennis as a sport reveals a lot about social structuring and societal norms. It’s not a sport that’s widely accessible. Courts are often part of private club environments, rather than public ones. Often the land for tennis courts is not available in low-income urban areas, or not prioritised. Finding a trainer for one or two people is also different from finding one for a whole team of football loving kids. It’s a sport that’s usually associated with upper middle-class society, which is interesting, given the relatively low demand on equipment needed to play. Then there’s also the nature of the game, which depends so much on single-mindedness and determination as well as physical strength – it is as if competition itself is concentrated because it’s played head-to-head in a very binary way. This isolated and intensified competitiveness almost makes the tennis court a battlefield in the same way as a boxing ring. There has to be a winner and a loser - there’s no in between. It’s the rules of the game of life, learned early on, practiced on the court. And so, in a way, yes, this reflects socio-political issues of the past and present. The narratives of the installation tell the tale of how a special moment early in life might be part of determining our destinies. On another level, the installation also hints at the hidden mechanisms of power that are embedded in our shared public spaces and daily activities and speaks about the lack of social mobility in our society today”.

They view the installation as a diptych, but I would even go so far as to say it functions as a triptych, considering the three characters in the narrative hold individual positions, each of whom connect to singular and diverse perspectives. The two young boys in the installation, although not facing each other, relate to each other in a dialogue. Meanwhile, the third character adds a new vantage point for the viewers to contemplate the effect of generational differences and their influence on hierarchies and structural biases in today’s society.

Kev lies defeated on the court | Short Story by Elmgreen & Dragset | STIRworld
Kev lies defeated on the court Image: Roman Maerz for König Galerie

The artists tell a poignant tale in Short Story, and even go as far as to name each character, giving them an identity, which builds a deeper sense of character. They say, “Flo and Kev, the boys playing tennis, are both on the tennis court. Bogdan isn’t. He is separated in the gallery space, positioned towards the edge of the room, down three steps sitting in a wheelchair. Although none of the sculptures are looking at each other and all three are ‘socially distanced’ in a way - which is coincidental since the exhibition was planned before the pandemic this year - each character has a very different appearance: their poses, facial expressions and positions in the space are in contrast. Perhaps Bogdan feels most isolated because he is the only figure not on the tennis court and he is, of course, also from a completely different generation. With such a minimal installation, each element is key. The way Bogdan’s eyelids are drooping, as if into slumber or reverie, casts some ambivalence as to whether he is present or if the figure represents someone who is absent, day dreaming or half asleep. We decided to call the exhibition Short Story, so the audience can take a little time to think through what’s happening or happened in this freeze-frame scenario and reflect upon what the layers of nuance mean to them or even to the context of the three figurative sculptures. In a short story one can imagine what the characters look like but here one can think about each character’s story by the look of them”.

Bogdan on the wheelchair | Short Story by Elmgreen & Dragset | STIRworld
Bogdan on the wheelchair Image: Roman Maerz for König Galerie

While we are sold the illusion of living in a meritocracy, the fact is that each one of us are enabled and disabled by socio-economic factors, which give us more or less to stand on. After years of witnessing the lack of social mobility due to glass ceilings, which exist in abundance and perpetuate systematic injustices, people across the world are beginning to recognise the need for and demand reparation. In this light, the artists use the tennis court as a metaphor for the society we live in today.

Bogdan on the wheelchair | Short Story by Elmgreen & Dragset | STIRworld
A closer look at Kev, the losing character in Short Story Image: Roman Maerz for König Galerie

Berlin-based Elmgreen & Dragset have been collaborating since 1995. Talking about working together, they say, “Working as a duo means that we discuss and refine ideas together all the way through the creative process. A dialogue develops around an idea for an artwork and how it should look. We work through concepts and practical considerations, shaping the work into its final form. That dialogue is essential to our practice. Collaborating and coming from poetry and theatre rather than an academic art background might mean that we have the audience clearer in mind. Short Story, our solo exhibition at König Galerie here in Berlin, presents a new installation consisting of an almost full-size tennis court upon which three figurative sculptures are situated: Flo, who holds a trophy at one end, a winner of sorts; Kev, who is lying defeated on his front at the opposing end, with his racket just out of reach; and Bogdan, an older man who is sitting in a wheelchair, positioned further away from the court and with his eyelids closed, so you aren’t really sure if he’s sleeping or watching. For this exhibition, looking at the sport as a whole was important: assessing how tennis is perceived, who actually plays it, what the game involves mentally and physically, where it’s played, who watches it. Then we translated elements of this into the constellation of works, the sculptures individually and the dynamics between them, building the scene”.

A portrait of the artists | Short Story by Elmgreen & Dragset | STIRworld
A portrait of the artists Image: Dahahm Choi

The exhibit was open until August 2, 2020. The award-winning artists have had a number of solo exhibitions and participated in multiple biennales including Bangkok (2018), Gwangju (2006, 2002) and Venice (2009, 2003).

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