We chat to gay artists Elmgreen and Dragset
Famous for the golden boy on a rocking horse on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, for building a fully stocked Prada store in the middle of the desert, and for having a car and caravan bursting out of the floor of Milan’s shopping district, Elmgreen and Dragset are also the artists behind the touching memorial to the gay men killed by the Nazis in Berlin’s Tiergarten.
Still together professionally and in terms of friendship, they are among the most important gay artists in the world and here they talk to Simon Gage about their work, their relationship and the politics behind both.
On Tomorrow at the V&A Elmgreen: Normally when you go to the V&A all objects and artworks are categorised and ordered and have small labels and they’re all on pedestals or in glass vitrines. We have put them in a homey domestic situation where visitors are allowed to sit on the sofas, read the books and go through some of the private belongings, unpaid bills, photo albums, postcards from ex-lovers.
We have created a fictional character’s home. He is Mr Norman Swan, an old not-so-- successful gay architect who lived his entire life in his family home then went bankrupt and had to move out, selling to a former student, a successful interior designer for celebrities. It’s a really tragic story about being gay, coming of age and not having lived out all the visions you had in your life and that’s a truth for most people. We mostly hear about the success stories. We wanted to do a story about how it is when things don’t turn out the right way. We are probably going to be as lonely and disillusioned as him when we turn 75. But then maybe when he gets rid of all that shit he can finally start to live.
On how they first met
Dragset: We met in a club called After Dark in Copenhagen. When we left, we found out we didn’t only live in the same area of town but on the same street and in the same building. Copenhagen is small but not that small. Michael had lived there for a couple of years and I’d only been there for half a year and had actually tried to pick up his ex-boyfriend in the yard. But it was meant to be, I guess. We were both into culture and so interested in each other at the time that it seemed natural to try something together.
On their early work together
Dragset: It’s very sweet thinking back to when me and Michael would make knitted skirts that we would unravel off each other’s body. It was very romantic.
On working together since their split
Elmgreen: It was almost like discovering each other again. We were together for ten years and we lived together, worked together, shared our economy, even shared socks, we had the same friends and were always travelling together. We were almost like a two-headed monster. We were like people who have been partners for fifty years. We needed something else, to rediscover each other again, to be two separate people.
Dragset: It did become too much. They were fantastic years and I would never be without them but we even had the same email address and I don’t think that’s healthy. The work has become much more interesting, it’s obvious that we have much more dialogue.
On putting a little boy on a rocking horse in Trafalgar Square
Elmgreen: A lot of people love to hate projects on the fourth plinth but it actually got quite a nice reception.
Dragset: We were afraid that people would be a bit pissed off because it does take the piss out of Britain, the great empire, the history and the warlords and the heroism.
Elmgreen: And we were afraid that it was too camp because he has quite camp body language but then it’s very British to be camp. It’s part of the cultural heritage so he was quite accepted even though he might turn out to be
different to what his mother was expecting.
On the memorial to gay victims of the Nazis in Berlin
Elmgreen: A memorial is not an artwork. It functions as a place for commemoration, contemplation and representation. It’s like a slab with a window in it and in the window a film of two guys embracing in an eternal kiss. We wanted to do something that would put out a positive image. Every time you have something about gay life in public it has to be about the horrors and the traumatic events and that’s bad for young guys and girls about to come out. A kiss is a romantic, emotional, positive symbol, a homosexual act. That’s the problem with homophobia, even today, in Russia, here in London even: people don’t want gay men to show affection in public. With all the acceptance you have in the Western world people still don’t want to look at it. If you show affection, that’s when you risk being gay-bashed.
Dragset: It’s lovely when you pass it in Berlin and you see gay people there kissing.
On their friendship since they split and what gay men can teach the straight world
“We wanted to do a story about how it is when things don’t turn out the right way”
Elmgreen: It’s ten years since we split and we are very much like brothers today. We share our problems and sorrows together and bitch about our boyfriends. I think in the gay community we have a much more contemporary and mature and realistic approach to emotional relationships because we had to go through all these considerations when we came out. We COULDN’T TAKE IT FOR GRANTED. We had to define ourselves and our desires and take it really seriously so we’re much more geared to solving these problems in a dignified way. Heterosexuals could certainly learn a lot from us about that.
Tomorrow by Elmgreen and Dragset is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to 2 January 2014. Go to: vam.ac.uk
MICHAEL ELMGREEN AND INGAR DRAGSET.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP RIGHT: DEATH OF A COLLECTOR; THE COLLECTORS: DANISH PAVILION; THE COLLECTORS: DANISH PAVILION; THE COLLECTORS: NORDIC PAVILION; PRADA MARFA; THE COLLECTORS: NORDIC PAVILION