ARTWORKER OF THE WEEK #55
Berlin-based Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset are the team who provided an animatronic sparrow in its death throes at Tate Modern in 2004, a re-created New York Metro station at the Bohen Foundation last Spring, and most recently, a Prada boutique in the middle of the Texan desert. Their brand of clever structural critique fused with an exploration of issues around public and private space and socio-economic systems prompts a second look at everything from left luggage in an airport to gay bars to the possible permutations of the white cube. Elmgreen & Dragset's touring exhibition, The Welfare Show, is currently at the Serpentine Gallery (till 26/02).
Part I of this interview was conducted via email in October 2005.
Erin Manns: Your latest project Prada Marfa has recently "opened" along a stretch of desert highway outside the town of Valentine, Texas, near Marfa. To start, perhaps you could describe the project and how it developed.
Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset: In 2001 we were going to have our first solo show at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, where we're represented in New York, and on that occasion we decided to cover the window front of the gallery with white paper upon which was printed: "Opening Soon Prada". The piece dealt with the topic of gentrification. New York City neighbourhoods like SoHo, and later on Chelsea, have undergone dramatic changes throughout the last decades -- from being characterised by relatively low rents and hosting artists' studios and younger galleries to suddenly attracting high-end fashion stores, resulting in an exploding real estate market and the art scene having to search for new territories. It was not a particularly popular show with new gallerist at that time, however, because the visitors actually believed that the gallery had gone out of business. Some were even calling Tanya to ask who would design the new Prada boutique. Already at that point in time we had the first loose idea of locating a Prada shop in the middle of the desert -- a shop that would have only high-heeled ladies' shoes and handbags on display.
EM: I'm interested to know how Prada functions symbolically in your practice. Conceptually, is Prada, in your opinion, a symptom or a cause of certain structures your practice aims to dismantle?
E&D: No, actually we would describe Prada as of the better (soft core) end of capitalism and an example of more brainy marketing. As several other manufacturers of luxury goods have done, Prada hooked up to the art market and were playing a part in and profiting from the increasing interest in visual art. Prada just had greater success with it than most others. Some years ago Prada shoes were the main attraction and conversation topic at any biennial. In the plane on the way to Venice, for example, one would hear curators chat about the latest shoe models instead of art. But this tells more about the art scene than it does about the fashion brand. The interior design of the shops became iconographic following the Gursky photo and therefore suitable for our installation.
EM: Your work often involves playful deception (of the viewer) to facilitate institutional/structural critique. How do you anticipate Prada Marfa operating at this level, on a day-to-day basis in the landscape?
E&D: For half a year now we have had a work installed in Berlin, where we completely transformed Klosterfelde's gallery in Mitte into a trendy looking entry gate, full of the latest models of children's trolleys, a mountain bike, brushed steel letter boxes, etc. This work has turned out to be a total deception, resulting in no one being able to find the gallery anymore. We also recently made an '80s-style, abandoned looking subway station in the basement space of the Bohen Foundation on 13th Street in New York. Several people believed that we had actually excavated train tracks that were already there. The Prada Marfa piece works differently, in the way that the combination of a vast, open desert landscape in an un-populated area and a luxury goods store is completely unthinkable. Nature suits fashion as a visual backdrop, as one often sees in advertisement. The minimal, corporate Prada design and the desolate surrounding ranch land make a great impression together, but simultaneously the two forces also render each other useless. Today, both nature and fashion can be utilised in similar ways to fulfil consumerist ideals, which we see most clearly through the mechanisms of tourism. One can also see how the real estate market has changed in the surroundings of Marfa over the last couple of years. Fewer and fewer ranches are actually involved in farming or breeding cattle. Many rich, big city people now invest in the area to create vacation homes and getaways. Nature as trend, really. It doesn't really make sense to talk about Prada Marfa operating on a day-to-day level; some days there are only a few truckers passing by. Hopefully, there are some good moments of surprise and puzzlement.
EM: Although vastly different, in its location and monumentality Prada Marfa strikes me as a clever, hugely contemporary (and not to mention sexy) counterpoint to the American Southwest's tradition of ambitious land art projects, such as De Maria's Lightning Field, Smithson's Spiral Jetty, and Turrell's Roden Crater. Marfa itself is deeply embedded in the legacy of Minimalism. What are your thoughts about your work in these contexts?
E&D: As a continuation of our reply to the above question, we have the impression that many earlier land-art works were dealing with more classic or romantic notions of nature, whereas we deal with nature as cultural iconography and part of a socio-economical (capitalist) system.
EM: Thinking more generally, dislocating objects and reconfiguring (primarily institutionalised) spaces -- both on a large and small scale -- is fundamental to your practice. For example, your current project Linienstrasse 160 (Neue Mitte) in Berlin, which you mentioned above, has literally altered the street, returning a closed-in space to its initial function as a thoroughfare to the courtyard beyond. This intervention, while somewhat more subtle to the outsider, has obvious local impact. Considering that much of your work in some way addresses its immediate location, how do you perceive of your work on a broader social level?
E&D: Happy that you mention this because some critics have had a tendency of focusing on only one type of our works, namely the altered white cubes, and they have perceived these only from a perspective of institutional critique, which is a bit of a simplification. Our works that take on spatial issues seek to raise questions about public space, urban planning and architecture on a much broader level, and the white cube is just one extreme example of public architecture and the inherent conventions within it. We have also made installations based on hospital rooms and prison cells; we have done street signs and restrooms, a subway station and even a public sculpture garden for unwanted sculptures. Our aim is to investigate some of the power structures that these spaces derive from, and by exchanging and replacing some of these structures show how fragile they actually are.
E&D: Neither of us have any formal art education. We just entered the art scene from the back door, so to say, which might make us a bit less orthodox in relation to art history, medium or tradition. Also, we both grew up being fags from the suburbs, which kind of teaches you not to take too much for granted. You know, who should we in fact identify with when reading the classics like Romeo and Juliet? We didn't really feel like girls and couldn't get a crush on Juliet either. So you start to wonder if things really are as they have been shaped through tradition and conventions, or if they inhabit the possibility of developing into something else, something more open.
EM: What is your background in, and how did you find yourselves at the art scene's back door?
E&D: Well, in general we are pretty good at back rooms and corners, ha, ha. We started our collaboration just because we actually wanted to do something together, and we didn't earn a penny for the first 5-6 years. All our friends and our families thought we were stupid wasting our time on it. Though the art scene seems to have developed into being something of a professionalised fame school factory in recent years, it still hasn't any clearly marked entrances and exits. A lot of rich kids study at the most prominent art schools and get their degrees but their degree alone will never get them a show. The challenge is that you don't have any strict parameters to tell which artwork is important and which is not -- and therefore the scene is also infected by all this hysteria and hype and a widespread insecurity.
EM: You briefly mention the "mechanisms of tourism" in your discussion of Prada Marfa above. In relation to conceptions of location and space, I'm interested in your thoughts about the increasingly established "industry" of art tourism, in which your works can perhaps be thought to have both engaged with and undermined (sometimes simultaneously). For example, Prada Marfa becomes a "destination" for the art goer, whereas Linienstrasse 160 has almost the opposite effect, in a sense becoming an "anti-destination" to the outsider, as this project assimilates so readily into its surroundings -- the shops, houses and lifestyles of Mitte.
E&D: Yes, art tourism has almost taken over the role of sex tourism or maybe it is just more openly discussed, ha, ha! When we did the Linienstrasse 160 project, the idea was to erase the gallery, and it was fun to watch how people could stand right in front of this huge installation and not be able to actually see the work. Everyone asked at the other galleries in the street, Neugerriemschneider or Barbara Wien for example, where gallery Klosterfelde was because they could no longer find it. In an area totally overcrowded with art stuff it made sense to do this kind of "hidden" project whereas it would have been quite ridiculous to do in the middle of a desert.
EM: I'm also interested in The Welfare Show, which first opened at the Kunsthall Bergen in Norway, and how you address the welfare model via this exhibition.
E&D: The Welfare Show is a touring show but in contrast to a normal touring show it morphs from venue to venue according to the social context and political situation where it is taking place. It was first on display at Bergen Kunsthall, then went to BAWAG Foundation in Vienna. In January it will be shown at the Serpentine Gallery in London and then end at the Power Plant in Toronto. The welfare models of course vary from city to city. The only factor these cities have in common is that we more or less have to speak about welfare systems in a past sense as the social security in most places has already collapsed and the social politics have become more like those in America.
EM: How might you describe your practice in terms of performance -- perhaps as performers yourselves but also in terms of what is expected of the viewer?
E&D: Hans Ulrich Obrist once pointed out that our performances seem to contain just a minimum of the traditional performance elements whereas our installations can be characterized as very performative. The performances that we do are rather what one can describe as live installations -- the action is only there because some particular elements need to be triggered into a certain movement or some particular dynamics.
EM: Finally, can you give any hints as to what you have upcoming for 2006?
E&D: Besides the Serpentine Gallery and Power Plant exhibitions, we'll do a show in Mexico City and one in Tokyo but at this point it is a bit too early to reveal the details. Then we plan to see our boyfriends a little more next year than we were able to this year.
Part II of this interview was conducted via email in February 2006.
EM: The Welfare Show is conceived as a total environment, as opposed to a presentation of a series of discreet projects. What is it about staging this kind of experience that for you made it the most appropriate means to convey issues around social welfare (or lack thereof)?
E&D: We wanted to make a clear contrast to the existing architecture of the Serpentine, with its towers and location. Therefore we decided to turn the interior design into one long corridor with the ambience of a depressing public environment -- low ceilings, cheap materials. Our intention was also to create a situation in which we could strictly direct the movements of the audience. The viewer is left the possibility of either taking the tour from the right or from the left, but in order to experience the whole show they have to pass through the loop of corridors from one or the other side and will end up at the same point. As in the "ghost train rides" one experiences in an amusement park -- just with a rather different content.
EM: As a touring exhibition, The Welfare Show addresses general issues about welfare systems in the West, but also seems to incorporate local particularities. How has the show been adjusted to a British or even London context and why?
E&D: British culture is so much about queuing up, isn't it? Everywhere in London people are waiting in lines -- in front of cash machines, in front of clubs and theatres or in order to get a cab or a bus. Our installation at the Serpentine is based on this notion of waiting. The mural at the entrance "Socks at Woolworth's £1.25 a pair" is of course also something that is made specifically for the British version of the show.
EM: One installation requires the viewer to peer through the a small window of a locked door into what looks like a darkened television studio immediately post-interview (or perhaps just before the guests arrive), a glowing pink sign announcing The Welfare Show is suspended as a backdrop to the empty chairs and poised microphones. I'm interested in your positioning of welfare as a bad late-night chat show, the kind of guilty programming that no one admits they stay up and watch.
E&D: It's striking how much reality television you have in the UK! We watched programmes about malnutrition, problem pets, how to make your home more beautiful for less money, programmes about ordinary people's social misery and programmes about bad marriages. After a week in London we got completely hooked on these kind of tasteless shows ourselves. When we did the first edition of The Welfare Show we had an ad in some magazines saying: "The Welfare State -- Now Only For Show!". In London it could have said: "Welfare -- Now Only As Talk Show". Important social issues undergo a certain kitschification through these talk and quiz shows, which might pretend to care about the subject matters that they deal with but in fact they leave you as a viewer completely ignorant and passive.
EM: The Welfare Show completely reconfigures the space of the Serpentine, denying access to the signature central rotunda gallery by sealing it off, and forcing visitors to move in a perpetual cycle amongst bland windowless corridors, low panelled ceilings, lifeless plants and dull flickering lights typical of waiting rooms, employment offices, and other social service institutions. This movement also echoes the seemingly endless circling through the bureaucracy of such institutions, which often tend to leave one precisely where one began. Had this factored in early on as part of the experience of The Welfare Show, or was it simply that the space here lends itself particularly well to such a reconfiguration?
E&D: Throughout our entire practice we have worked with what you could call denials -- installations which at first appear as if they were meant to be interactive but in fact don't allow any kind of direct participation by the spectator. Accessibility and exclusion have been important topics for us all the time. And somehow the idea of an almost anti-interactive work is thrilling in these times, we think.
EM: Anti-interactive work is almost nonexistent in these times! Your work though, while certainly here closes down any relational viewer participation (i.e. does not require the viewer/viewers to complete the work to some social ends), certainly can be considered inclusive on a conceptual level, as it perhaps more psychologically (as opposed to physically) engages shared experiences. How do you think about your practice in terms of prompting this very different kind of accessibility (different with respect to much of the art of the last ten years)?
E&D: However sad that may sound, exclusion and a sense of isolation are probably more commonly shared experiences today than ever before. We might feel privileged with all the good offers surrounding us, but should we have the money, we probably don't have the time to actually use them. The high percentage of the labour force who do not possess any high skills are gradually excluded from the labour market. Our bodies don't represent a production value anymore but are reduced to perform as sex symbols in advertisements or to be a social burden when we become sick. Most spare time is spent in front of either television or computer screens -- and the body is deposited like a useless heavy weight while we dream ourselves into spheres and webs which we can't enter. We can jet around Europe on Easy Jet, but it doesn't really make us feel like world players, does it? It rather feels like being herded around on an overcrowded subway station in order to get back from work. Airports are strictly divided into various zones, lounges and security areas. Some people find a certain cruelty in parts of our work, but they are definitely not more vicious than any real life experiences. The fact that you cannot enter the Prada Marfa store and purchase the shoes on display is in fact a reality for most people. We have more or less become a population of voyeurs.
EM: What do you find to be the most tragic, or most uncomfortable aspect of The Welfare Show?
E&D: It's scary how the term Public has become such a "dirty" word -- something that makes people yawn and which is associated with dull and ugly spaces and heavy bureaucracy. Public should remind us of solidarity and acceptance but instead the neo-liberal economy has managed to give the term such a bad reputation that most citizens today just think in terms of saving tax money and seem to be okay with the ongoing process of privatisation. More and more fields within our society depend on private funding, company sponsors and charity. The control mechanisms of the welfare state -- a construction built upon uniformity and regulations -- have been its big failure. However, these mechanisms don't disappear with the public responsibility just being handed over to private companies and initiatives. The structures of control remain the same since uniformity generates the lowest costs and biggest profit. The fear of cultural diversity is so significant right now and may be one of our biggest threats. This kind of fear blocks any progress. In the show we have tried to create a feeling of being trapped into a grey-and-white loop where you as an audience have very few possibilities of choice -- a feeling of total powerlessness.
EM: One of the most poignant works in the exhibition -- Reg(u)arding the Guards -- positions seven formerly unemployed individuals hired through a local jobcentre for the duration of the exhibition to work as gallery guards, uniformed and paid to sit together in one gallery staring blankly at blank walls. The encounter with this group of guards is alarming, not least because as one looks at the "work" (the guards), the work is literally looking back, completely reversing the notion of the presumed "privileged" gaze (as well as the nature of a work of art and, perhaps, conceptions of work itself). Would you mind telling more about the process of developing this piece?
E&D: The piece developed partly from our own experience with the welfare system in Scandinavia in the '90s. The Danes were the first to send people out in all kinds of ridiculous jobs in order for them to receive full unemployment money. Some of these jobs were absolutely meaningless, and others were a sort of hidden cultural subvention; a lot of cultural institutions took on staff from the unemployment office, but didn't have to pay for them themselves, and of course also none of the other workers benefits like insurance, holiday money etc. were granted to the workers. This idea of working for your social welfare has later been widely exported -- most recently in Germany, where they have created so-called 1€-jobs. Most research shows that these initiatives do nothing to get rid of actual unemployment, but in some cases cover up statistics and real problems. Everyone knows that it is impossible to keep up the economical models of today and at the same time believe in full employment, but somehow we are not meant to fully realise this. The absurdity of politics forms the rationale of this piece, so to say.
EM: Despite a pervasive sense of the clever subversion characteristic of your work (and moments of dark humour), this exhibition is haunted by the reality of the circumstances The Welfare Show simulates. How do you envisage the "success" of the show? Or is the implicit knowledge that the environment here is not "real" (and therefore perceived problematics cannot be changed) an accepted (and desired) "failure" of a kind, perhaps essential to the work on a more general level and further pointing to the failure of the welfare system?
E&D: The different works in themselves have an almost photographic character, there's less of the twists and alterations of structures that we normally operate with. The most apparent grip made here is that we have contracted a scope of public institutions into one continuous loop. There are no compromises or comforting breaks. The spaces are made even emptier than in reality and there is no logic to them anymore. We have sort of (re-)created a void, and left the spectator in solitude.
Erin Manns is the exhibitions manager at Victoria Miro Gallery and contributes regularly to KultureFlash.
Image © Elmgreen & Dragset
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