After well over a year of lockdowns and restrictions, the dynamic Scandinavian artist duo known as Elmgreen & Dragset relished last year the opportunity to finally travel internationally again. And judging from their current projects, the two have been extraordinarily prolific over the course of the past year and a half. Read more about the short stories by the Scandinavian artist duo.
Based in London and Berlin, Michael Elmgreen (b. 1961, Denmark) and Ingar Dragset (b. 1969, Norway) have worked as a collaborative duo since the mid 1990s.
Well-known for siting a Prada boutique in a Texan desert in 2005, the artists have been commissioned to create a number of sculptures internationally within the public realm: in 2016, their large-scale work Van Gogh’s Ear, which takes the form of a displaced swimming pool sitting upright, transformed the Fifth Avenue entrance to the Channel Gardens at the Rockefeller Center, New York; A Greater Perspective, an oversized and non-functional bronze telescope, was installed on New York’s High Line from 2015 to 2016, simultaneously drawing attention to and disrupting a secret view of the Statue of Liberty.
A Space Called Public
HAN, a contemporary revisioning of the Danish national icon The Little Mermaid, was installed permanently at Kultureværftet Helsingør, Denmark in 2012; Powerless Structures, the winning proposal for the Fourth Plinth Commission selected by the City of London, was on view in London’s Trafalgar Square from 2012 – 2013; and in 2012 the artists were commissioned by the Munich city council to create and curate a program of installations across Munich’s main squares.
The resulting year-long artistic project, A Space Called Public / Hoffentlich Öffentlich, included the artists’ own work as well as the work of a number of other contemporary artists.
Melancholy in New York
The duo’s last exhibition was in New York in December 2021. It was a melancholic exhibition, a cautionary message in a city that, at least until the arrival of the Omicron variant, has been dizzy with optimism. The show’s title, “The Nervous System,” was a sly reference to the widespread fear and uncertainty experienced by many during lockdown.
As Elmgreen & Dragset explain, ‘the artist’s role is to go against short-term memory. This is one of the few tasks we have.’
In a world that seemed swept away by promises of a brighter future post-pandemic, the duo wished to remind American citizens that there are longstanding problems to be dealt with: among them the climate emergency, gun violence and toxic masculinity.
The New York exhibition occupied the entire first floor of the 25th Street space, as “a surreal depiction of a dysfunctional home within the gallery’s walls.” In this mise-en-scène, an elderly, shirtless man snoozes in a wheelchair, not far from a marble fireplace which is engraved with block letters: “The Oracles Are Gone And Lost Are The Gods.” The artists made it clear that the works are open to interpretation: “Is the entire scene real or just in this man’s head?” asks Elmgreen with a playful smile.
“We’d be wise to tackle them head-on, lest we find ourselves left with a pair of perforated wellies when the waters rise,” said the organizers.
An older-model stationary Mercedes-Benz wagon white with Russian license plates in Switzerland
In September, Elmgreen & Dragset exhibited at Art Basel in Switzerland. The duo’s sculptures and installations broached consumer culture and sexual politics with mordant humor and unveiled a new piece at Art Basel’s Unlimited, the fair’s section devoted to oversized art—the first time a work from there had been shown outdoors.
Their outdoor art installation on the Messeplatz created a sensation. The Outsiders (2020) featured an older-model stationary Mercedes-Benz wagon, white with Russian license plates, that visitors wandered up to before curiously peering through the windows at two lifelike figures spooning and sleeping in their car amid packing tape, labels, installation tools and various empty bags of chips and snacks.
According to the artists, the story behind the work is of two financially strapped art handlers who drive to the fair for work but have to sleep in their car—as much an ode to love as to the hard work that goes into staging and putting together a spectacle like an art fair.
The work also functions as a wry nod to the expense of accommodation in Switzerland. “We can hardly afford a hotel room in Basel if our gallery isn’t putting us up,” Ingar Dragset jokes. Moreover, it even draws partial inspiration from a real-life experience: Elmgreen recalls sleeping overnight in a car with the artist Olafur Eliasson during Documenta 9 in 1992, but “nothing happened, not even spooning. He’s open minded but maybe not in that way”. “You know, we’re old rats,” says Ingar Dragset, referring to himself and his longtime creative partner, Michael Elmgreen.
Working in a 1920s Berlin water-pumping station
In June, the prolific duo worked in a 1920s Berlin water-pumping station resulting in some of the most evocative and smartly provocative art of their 25-year collaboration. In 2020, the duo marked 25 years of making art together as Elmgreen & Dragset, known for their witty, irreverent sculptures and installations that subtly subvert entrenched social codes and power structures using playfulness, beauty, even delightful absurdity.
Full-size tennis court in Copenhagen
In April, Emgreen & Dragset transformed Copenhagen Contemporary’s Hall 2 into the setting of a tennis court. When entering the gallery space, visitors encountered an almost full-size tennis court, slightly raised off the ground. The net and the painted lines marked the rules of play on the orange-brown court, framing a silent scene where three figurative sculptures Flo, Kev and Bogdan were the protagonists.
The Short Story in Copenhagen unfolds a battlefield, where the white-painted bronze sculptures of two young boys are positioned as if they’ve just finished a match. The boys look lonely and somehow lost on the large plane of the tennis court. Their bodies and faces are turned away from each other – the dialogue and play between them seems to have come to an end. Rather than joy, a discomfort seems to have arisen from the game, for both “winner” and “loser”. The sculpture Flo stands with his back to his opponent, Kev, and stares at the trophy he appears to have just won. But rather than seeming proud of his victory, Flo looks remote and pensive. Kev, who lies face down on the opposite side of the court, seems subdued by his defeat.
Expanding the reality
“Many of our works are not only a comment on an existing reality,” says Elmgreen. “They are sort of an expanding of reality by making a magic moment, making our boring, everyday lives a little bit more mysterious.”
He adds, “Our mood board is always our upcoming exhibitions. The titles alone probably say it all: “The Nervous System” at Pace New York; “It’s Just a Phase” at Kjøpmannsgata Ung Kunst in Trondheim, Norway (until 13 February); and “Useless Bodies?” at the Fondazione Prada, Milan, spring 2022.
Short Stories by Scandinavian Artist Duo, compiled by Tor Kjolberg