Elmgreen and Dragset

Human Being Feature

Essay by Kristoffer Granov

May 12 2016

On a February day in 2012‚ on the so-called fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square‚ the artist duo Elmgreen and Dragset revealed a statue of a delicate-looking little boy atop a rocking horse. The empty plinth was originally intended to host a sculpture of King William IV‚ but for various reasons the statue never materialized. The little boy sits triumphantly‚ his right hand slightly raised‚ obviously frail. The other three pedestals on Trafalgar Square are home to military and royal leaders‚ all of whom exude a very different type of masculinity and power.

This triad of power‚ place and masculinity is by no means accidental. The Norwegian-Danish artists have grappled vigorously with these themes throughout  their career in the international art world. The little boy on Trafalgar Square‚ daring to be fragile in the company of kings‚ is an prime example of what the duo calls “Powerless Structures.

Powerless Structures, Fig. 101 (1:3) 2012 Sculpture in cast bronze and 24-carat gold‚ pedestal in gold‚ 152 x 160 x 65 cm Victoria Miro‚ Nicolai Wallner Photo: Stephen White

“Powerless Structures derives from our mis-reading of the French philosopher Michel Foucault‚” says Michael Elmgreen. Foucault spoke about structures themselves being unable to impose any power—they are just structures‚ after all. It is only in navigating them as human beings and as societies that they constitute power relationships. Our acceptance of or challenge to these structures ultimately define them. In exploring the limits of masculinity‚ the duo riffed on Copenhagen’s famous sculpture of The Little Mermaid in a polished steel sculpture called Han‚ which translates to “him” in Danish. The naked boy sits‚ legs folded in mimicry of the iconic Little Mermaid‚ on a stone locked in a distant gaze. Just like the Trafalgar Square statue‚ he is an emblem of fragility‚ but made of steel. He is a beautiful young boy. There are lots of things going on here. A boy has assumed the role of an iconic girl. That boy sits in along the old docks of Elsinore‚ an old shipyard associated with a traditional male ethos—the working man of the Industrial Age. Next door is the legendary castle of Kronborg‚ where Hamlet famously paced the halls pondering his own identity and existence. In the basement of that very same castle lives Holger Danske‚ a mythical warrior-giant of Danish folklore who sleeps with his sword in wait of imminent danger when he will rise to rescue the nation. Amidst these powerful narratives of male gender‚ the beautiful boy sits silently‚ indicating that being a man today is more than it once was.

Some didn’t exactly see the work as an exploration of our changing notion of masculinity in the post-industrial world. Right-wing critics and commentators went on the offensive almost immediately.

“The Han sculpture does not symbolize anything other than Elmgreen and Dragset’s own sexual preferences‚” wrote one commentator. “It is little more than a shameless plagiarism of a world famous symbol of our capital. Why not stand by homosexual enthusiasm for young men and admit that the sculpture illustrates only that?” Some years earlier‚ the duo also attracted similar attention from detractors with their installation When a Country Falls In Love With Itself‚ which placed a mirror in front of the actual sculpture of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

When a Country Falls in Love with Itself, 2008 Laserchrome color print mounted on 4 mm aluminium with 8 mm plexiglass 200 x 150 cm Edition of 5 (+ 2 AP) Galleri Nicolai Wallner

Your sculpture Han in Elsinore‚ Denmark is a clear reference to the famous Little Mermaid in Copenhagen‚ which you also used in your work When a Country Falls In Love With Itself. People react strongly to that sort of reference. Why do you think that national symbols have such a strong impact on people’s feelings towards art?

Well‚ national symbols like The Little Mermaid are difficult to touch without getting strong reactions. We knew that beforehand but we were nevertheless quite surprised at how ultraconservative the perception of masculinity still appears to be‚ even in a country like Denmark. Our Han sculpture was called out for being too feminine. However‚ the body of the young man we used as a cast model actually had a very typical physique for a young man today‚ but some angry bloggers thought he was too slim and not muscular enough.

Rosa, 2006‚ Gilded bronze‚ steel‚ fiber glass with epoxy‚ garments‚ shoes‚ 153 x 46 x 44 cm‚ Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin‚ Photo: Mariano Peuser

The artists have been working with conceptual art as a duo since the 1990s. Their work is often commentary on contemporary culture with sly twists‚ creating interventions that push the public to wonder and think twice about ideas and concepts often taken for granted. This exploratory method has taken their work to prestigious venues like the Serpentine Gallery‚ the Tate Modern and the Victoria & Albert in London as well as to solo exhibitions around the world. Based in Berlin and London‚ they aspire to continue

to push themselves to not stick to any proven format. A conscious use of ambiguities pointing critically towards power structures ranks higher than artistic language.

“We try not to stick to just one formal language since we prefer never to become too professionalized in any field. It would bore us tremendously just to paint white monochromes‚ or just to make blue sculptures. Ha!

“Sometimes we work figuratively. Sometimes we twist the language of minimalism. For other projects we work with narratives or get theatrical. The only rule in our working process is to constantly challenge ourselves so that we don’t become too comfortable.”

Prada Marfa, 2005, Public Art Project in Marfa‚ Texas‚ USA, Photo: Jamie Ho

Prada Marfa, 2005, Public Art Project in Marfa‚ Texas‚ USA, Photo: Jamie Ho

Toying with conceptions can lead to misunderstandings. In what has become the duo’s most well-known piece‚ a complete Prada store sits on a desolate area just outside of Marfa in West Texas. The installation opened a decade ago‚ and once again places a familiar structure within an jarringly unfamiliar setting. It is most likely a striking commentary on consumerism and the world of high-end fashion and still seems surreal and absurd on that forlorn roadside in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert.

Local authorities had a different take‚ however. Prada Marfa was mistaken for an advertisement and therefore deemed illegal. The work was threatened with demolition‚ but as Elmgreen points out‚ the work is open for interpretation and the episode probably even served to broaden the perspective of conceptual art far beyond West Texas.

“We like when our works can be read as something other than art. It triggered a long debate but in the end I think the authorities learned quite a bit about conceptual art. Our little installation is now labeled a museum‚ which makes Prada Marfa legal.”

Welcome, 2014, Neon‚ metal‚ resin and electrical components, 400 x 1‚150 x 400 cm, Unique Galleri Nicolai Wallner

Short Cut, 2003‚ Mixed media‚ 250 x 850 x 300 cm‚ Galleria Massimo De Carlo; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago Collection‚ Photo: Jens Ziehe

Death of a Collector, 2009, Swimming pool‚ silicone figure‚ Rolex watch‚ pack of Marlboro cigarettes‚ clothing‚ shoes 100 x 600 x 200 cm Galeria Helga de Alvear Photo: Anders Sune Berg

Elmgreen and Dragset are also known for backhanded swipes at the very art world they’re a part of. The installation piece Death of a Collector‚ shows a well-dressed man face-down and seemingly drowned in a swimming pool. They use humor to play on contemporary preconceptions in installation that are often seen as a critiques of modern life.

Your work is often characterized as in opposition to‚ or critical of consumerism‚ capitalism and capitalist values. Is this intentional? Do you see yourselves as being in opposition to something‚ and if yes‚ what?

“We only ask silly questions through our works. And sometimes we show in very simple ways how some structural systems can be easily altered. It can be the spatial design of the venue where we do the project or the social organization of the place.”

“Once we did an exhibition entitled Too Late‚ where we had a party prior to the private viewing. The VIP art crowd which was invited to the opening then came and experienced the leftovers from that party. Another time we drilled a hole through a gallery ceiling‚ the whole way up to the lady who lived above. The audience could then climb a ladder which was the only item in the otherwise empty gallery room and when they did that they would then end up sticking their head into the lady’s private apartment upstairs. Sometimes it only takes drilling a hole in order to enter an entirely new reality and to change the normal order of things.”

Marriage, 2004, Mirrors‚ porcelain sink‚ tap‚ stainless steel tube‚ and soap, 178 x 168 x 81 cm, 3 unique versions (+1 AP), Galleri Nicolai Wallner

L’Étranger, 2014‚ Celan‚ glass‚ aluminum‚ paint 226 x 88 x 90 cm‚ Galleri Nicolai Wallner Photo: Holger Hönck