Elmgreen & Dragset’s public art installations unveil the unknown side of a known object

Danish artist-duo Elmgreen & Dragset strives to critique the institutional settings of their public art installations famous for recontextualising the objects with an artistic twist.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Aug 29, 2021

In the busyness of the everyday and noise of the mental chatter, to catch the attention of the people towards the diminishing cultural past or shooting rise of neoliberal activities, the creative mind harks on its element of unique strangeness in the familiar world. Many a time, the odd settings of an object in a known milieu would make it noticeable which otherwise would remain implausible, if left in a conventional position. Working on the art of recontextualising the objects with an artistic twist, is the Berlin-based Danish artist-duo Elmgreen & Dragset. At the intersection of art, architecture and installation, the large-scale works by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset are attempted at critiquing the web of political economy. 

The artist-duo started working together in the mid-1990s against the backdrop of newly opened doors to free trade when the trend of consumerism was still picking up. Their work Prada Marfa is born out of the same economic boom that has gradually but manoeuvred to overpower the daily lives of the people across the globe. The possibility of finding a faux Prada store in the middle of a deserted place in Texas is scarce enough to raise a question on the thriving presence of the luxury brands in our culture. To disturb the obvious nature of luxury in a cosmopolitan life, the installation found a home in a desert, which is not far from the town of Marfa, where the late minimalist legend Donald Judd stayed until his death in 1994. The permanent sculptural art installation was created in 2005, and the artists visited the site after a hiatus of 14 years in 2019 to experience a sense of surrealism.  

Prada Marfa | Elmgreen & Dragset | STIRworld
Prada Marfa Image: Courtesy of Elmgreen & Dragset and Art Production Fund, New York; Ballroom Marfa, Marfa

In an interview with STIR, the artists share their impression upon revisiting Prada Marfa, “The forever-closed boutique stood there exactly as it was when we’d left it in 2005, in the middle of nowhere along Highway 90 with the same collection of handbags and stilettos inside. It really seemed like an image frozen in time. Of course, Marfa had undergone some changes but the landscape around the installation looked the same. It seemed absurd somehow that the work had just stayed the same as a time capsule in the midst of all the changes in the world. But also, this sense of isolation, both physical and metaphorical, was deliberate and central to our motive for making the work in the first place. We wanted to displace a luxury boutique to see if it would still be recognisable as such in a completely incongruous place, to see what associations it might raise and the visual clash between this icon of urban high-end consumerism and the natural and rural surroundings somehow still generates a rather surreal scenario.”

Playing upon the idea of everyday objects against the history of iconic movements in the field of economics or a slice of a significant event from the life of an artist could be said to define the art practice of the artist-duo. During one of the incidents of self-induced pain, Van Gogh chopped off his lower ear lobe. The missing ear lobe from his self-portrait has been a point of discussion on the tortured life of the artist. The installation Van Gogh’s Ear, in the form of a vertical swimming pool, literally, has a discernible effect on the public. The larger-than-life pool was first installed in the 5thAvenue, New York, the city synonymous with art, fashion, commerce and tourism. The interiors of the pool are rendered in the colour cyan blue and supported by a stainless-steel ladder and a diving board.

Talking about the audience interaction with the work, the artists inform, “When you make something in public space you also have to keep in mind that your audience will consist of random passers-by, people who didn’t ask for an art experience. With Van Gogh’s Ear, a nine metre sculpture of an upright swimming pool, which was first exhibited at the Rockefeller Plaza, New York, we essentially displaced a familiar object from American suburban settings and presented it in this extremely busy urban centre. Relocating an object that’s associated with one particular environment, into another, allows for new associations to be drawn between different parameters. With Van Gogh’s Ear, the image of the swimming pool looked almost as if an alien spaceship had landed in the hectic reality of 5thAvenue in New York.”

Prada Marfa | Elmgreen & Dragset | STIRworld
Prada Marfa Image: Courtesy of Elmgreen & Dragset and Art Production Fund, New York; Ballroom Marfa, Marfa

Both Elmgreen and Dragset have created works that resonate with the audience not just in the terms of the scale but also enable the viewers to heighten their awareness of surrounding, lest the finaries of everyday life are turned obsolete. Elmgreen & Dragset's importance to the audience engagement with their works could be traced to their respective academic background in poetry and theatre. To expound upon it, the artists declare, “We first started making performances, exploring how our own bodies interacted with space, which over time evolved into investigations of other kinds of issues linked to the power structures embedded in spatial settings, i.e., the white cube. Our involvement in poetry and theatre meant that our interactions with and understanding of audiences were perhaps not ‘traditional’ when considered within the framework of the art institution. Neither theatre nor poetry functions particularly well without an audience, which is maybe something that’s stayed with us. So, as a result, we have always taken particular heed of our audiences and have enjoyed challenging the roles that they can play within the exhibition display.” 

The duo’s another installation, Bent Pool, is also a sculpture of a swimming pool, but its U-shape gives an illusion of a portal or gateway of some sort. The installation permanently installed in Miami Beach brings to fore the place’s long legacy of grand swimming pool designs. The artists say, “The Bent Pool recognises the prevalence and significance of pools in Miami but also, the artwork is installed in a place called Pride Park, which adds a further layer of meaning, acknowledging the gay community and their lasting impact on the local culture. With Bent Pool, we also distorted the shape of the original object, both denying its function and turning it into an arch. Rendering an object dysfunctional can lead to a questioning of its original purpose.”  

Van Gogh’s Ear | Elmgreen & Dragset | STIRworld
Van Gogh’s Ear Image: Courtesy of Elmgreen & Dragset and the K11 Art Foundation, Galerie Perrotin, Galleria Massimo De Carlo, and Victoria Miro Gallery

To the artists, the location of the public sculptures, its daily functions and its history are integral components to the making of the sculptures. The public art installation at a specific location is an invitation to define a place, thereby leading a celebration of our shared space. Taking about the salient feature of otherness in their public installation, Elmgreen & Dragset say, “It’s free to see and often sits in contrast to the commercial demeanour of so many of our public spaces which are often covered in adverts, bringing a respite from the daily grind and providing something ‘other’ that might take us out of our own heads for a minute. As it has become increasingly problematic to gather in museums and art galleries over the last year, the presence of public artworks has become even more urgent.” 

Bent Pool | Elmgreen & Dragset | STIRworld
Bent Pool Image: Courtesy of Elmgreen & Dragset and City of Miami Beach

Elmgreen & Dragset’s latest permanent sculpture, The Hive , in Moynihan Train Hall in New York is a successful convergence of audience interaction with the works in a public space. “It is suspended from the ceiling of the 31st Entrance where it’s expected 700,000 people will pass through each day. The work consists of an imaginary cityscape turned upside down and hanging from the ceiling. There are 91 illuminated buildings of different designs inspired by architecture from all over the world that glow above passers-by. We called it The Hive partly to acknowledge how much people play a part in creating our public spaces and feelings of community, especially in such diverse and complex urban hubs like New York, places of such collective building. But this work is also about how humans collectively have been able to build up these overwhelming metropoles all over the world today – how, after all, we manage to co-exist in spite of our differences, although some populist politicians in recent years have tried to stir up conflict and hate,” says the duo. 

Hive| Elmgreen & Dragset | STIRworld
The Hive Image: Courtesy of Elmgreen & Dragset

The art practice of Elmgreen & Dragset, if on one hand stands at a junction of turning the spotlight on the market economics that aims to circulate finances within its circle of reach and beyond, to sustain successfully, on the other hand, it lays bare the principle of antagonism to effectively hold the viewers’ attention. What remains to watch is how far the indictment of corny economics and populist ideas, under the garb of the field of art and creativity, could bring about a lasting change in a world fraught by binaries and uncertainty, of which the art world is also a thriving participant. 

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