Art show has plenty of room for sar­casm

China Daily (Canada) - - PEOPLE - By LI JING li­jing2009@chi­

Michael Elm­green and In­gar Dragset are a pair of Scan­di­na­vian artists who have gained global ac­claim for a se­ries of works that blend ar­chi­tec­ture, art and de­sign to ex­plore and re­de­fine space and its nu­mer­ous pos­si­bil­i­ties of def­i­ni­tion and func­tion.

Per­haps their best-known pro­ject is Prada Marfa, a per­ma­nent in­stal­la­tion in­au­gu­rated in 2005 in the middle of the West Texas desert, near the town of Marfa. The dis­play, mod­eled on an out­let of the fash­ion brand, is sur­rounded by desert and has nei­ther en­trance nor exit.

In their first ex­hi­bi­tion in the Chi­nese main­land, Elm­green and Dragset con­tinue their prac­tice of struc­tural dis­place­ment to merge one fa­mil­iar space with an­other. The Well Fair, on dis­play at the Ul­lens Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Art in Bei­jing un­til April 17, trans­forms the mu­seum’s great hall into a fic­tional art fair.

They di­vide the space into rec­tan­gu­lar booths and dis­play more than 80 of their works from the past two decades in a par­tic­u­lar way: in some cases, crated, wrapped, half-in­stalled or leaned against the walls. “It looks as if the fair has ei­ther just ended or not yet be­gun,” said Elm­green, a Dane.

The di­rec­tor of UCCA, Philip Ti­nari, met them in 2013 and took them to the space, since they com­monly find in­spi­ra­tion from the spa­tial fea­tures of the venues where they show their art.

“We were shocked at the di­men­sion of the space,” Elm­green said. “‘This is big enough to host an art fair’, we said.”

And then they pre­pared for the show for two years.

The dis­play in­cludes a VIP lounge, cafe area, re­cep­tion desk, an auc­tion house area and a pub­li­ca­tion sec­tion, and an art fair do­na­tion box. Though they are vis­i­ble, most are not ac­ces­si­ble. They also en­gage gallery work­ers to act as the fair staff.

“Of­ten we re­verse the power struc­tures in our works in such a man­ner.” Elm­green said.

“We wanted the art fair to in­ves­ti­gate what this par­tic­u­lar setup of art pre­sen­ta­tions does to the view­ers’ be­hav­ioral pat­terns. What does it do to the view­ing sit­u­a­tion and the per­cep­tion of the work when you move the aisles out and look at the works in that way?”

Elm­green and Dragset met in Copen­hagen in 1995, when Elm­green, who was born in the city in 1961, was writ­ing and per­form­ing po­etry, and Dragset, a Nor­we­gian born in 1969, was study­ing the­ater. Art crit­ics say their lack of tra­di­tional education in art schools pro­pelled them to be more di­verse in spa­tial trans­for­ma­tion.

The Chi­nese painter Zhao Gang, who spent a decade in the New York art scene, saw the show on open­ing day and said the artists use “con­cep­tual art” to present sar­casm to the over­looked, con­ven­tional art power struc­ture.

By con­struct­ing an art fair in­side a mu­seum, they come to in­ves­ti­gate the ques­tion that they con­stantly con­front: “Isn’t it hor­ri­ble for you to show your work within this set­ting?” and the link of art and the mar­ket.

“In re­cent years, art fairs have been rather de­mo­nized. They have been named and la­beled the evil of ev­ery­thing,” Dragset said. “Ev­ery­one, artists, gal­leries, crit­ics and jour­nal­ists, com­plain about art fairs. None do any­thing about it. Cri­tique be­comes a bit shal­low, be­com­ing as much rou­tine as the art fair it­self.

“It is im­por­tant to make an art fair that would be ab­so­lutely non­com­mer­cial to re­mind peo­ple that 90 per­cent of the artis­tic ac­tiv­ity has not been com­mer­cial but it doesn’t have me­dia in­ter­est in the same way as auc­tion prices or art fair events.”

Ti­nari, who also cu­rated the ex­hi­bi­tion, said that as with many other ac­claimed artists and cu­ra­tors, the duo ben­e­fits from to­day’s art sys­tem and are now ques­tion­ing cap­i­tal­ism in a macro­scopic way.

As their first ex­hi­bi­tion in China, also the big­gest one in Asia, the show in­cludes a work with Chi­nese char­ac­ters, called Home is the place you left, trans­lated from a line of a poem that Elm­green wrote when he was 19.

As for col­lect­ing and in­vest­ing in art in China, the rich peo­ple in the coun­try seem to have the up­per hand at global art auc­tions, they said.


TheWel­lFair con­tin­ues the artists’ prac­tice of struc­tural dis­place­ment and trans­forms the mu­seum’s great hall into a fic­tional art fair.


Michael Elm­green (left) and In­gar Dragset.

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