now hotter than ever, the artist duo Elmgreen & dragset are keeping busy as the official creative directors of Munich.
THEIR PRADA installation in the American desert turned them into icons of popular culture. Now hotter than ever, the artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset are keeping busy as the official creative directors of Munich while also hosting a solo exhibition in London. Plaza travelled to Berlin to meet up with the Scandinavian enfants terribles of the art scene.
Michael Elmgreen, the blonde half of the Scandinavian artist duo and self-appointed enfant terribles Elmgreen & Dragset, stretches out on the sofa. “I've always thought that as a naughty artist I'll involuntarily be reversed into an art curator,” he says laughing. We meet up with the usually unfiltered Michael and his somewhat more contemplative colleague Ingar Dragset in a hotel lobby in Munich, in connection with the official opening of their latest art project, A Space Called Public. Having been appointed creative directors for the mildly dusty and conservative Bavarian capital in 2013, their job is to stir life into and create buzz in a city hungry for action. The dark-haired and diplomatic half, Ingar, explains: “We're going from being artists with our own egos to the other side. We now have to serve as organisers and carefully handle other artists' egocentric whims.” 2013 was an important year for Elmgreen & Dragset. With A Space Called Public and an enormous solo exhibition at Victoria & Albert Museum in London, they've become household names, not only within artist circles, but also the general public. The Elmgreen & Dragset story dates back 20 years. It all began at the gay bar After Dark in Copenhagen, where they first spotted each other. When leaving together at the end of the night they realised they actually lived in the same building. “Copenhagen is a small city,” Michael says smiling, and jokingly points out it was a rather convenient discovery at the time. Acting school graduate Ingar was introduced to Copenhagen's contemporary art scene by Michael. It wasn't long before they started to experiment with provocative and outspoken compositions and installations. Their message and social agenda has adhered to their inciting and ostentatious mannerisms ever since, slowly evolving into and establishing their brand. One of their first tentative attempts at a joint art venture was a performance piece in which they slowly, loop by loop, unpeeled home-made skirts off each other. Ingar describes the piece as an un-sensual peep show.
“We've been extensively trained in egocentricity.”
THE DUO WERE SET ON leaving Scandinavia early on and soon moved into a giant studio, that once served as a pump station, located in the Neukölln district of Berlin. It is from these premises, spread over thousands of square metres and with the ceiling height equivalent of a five storey house, that the pair have let loose their creative spirits since 1997. “We left for Berlin because the Scandinavian art scene was somehow unable to assimilate our work. They didn't take us seriously. And it's not something we imagined – it was a fact,” Ingar notes laconically. In their experience, Denmark's art industry has regressed while Norway has progressed.
“The Scandinavian art scene was somehow unable to assimilate our work.”
Michael and Ingar consider their team an extended family. During hectic periods the studio offers plenty of opportunities for relaxation.
They're unsure about the Swedish scene since they haven't been active on it since 1999. “Bearing in mind Scandinavia's small population there's an disproportionately large number of talented artists active in the international art world,” says Michael, who believes it's due to the fact that anyone is able to attend art universities, regardless of social class and financial status. Ingar grins and points out that it might have something to do with the Scandinavian boredom. “It's so tedious living in the Nordics countries. That alone enforces a desire for experimentation and adventurousness.”
ELMGREEN & DRAGSET'S big breakthrough Prada Marfa, a doorless copy of a Prada store constructed in the middle of the Texas desert, was filled with handbags and shoes donated by Miuccia Prada. In their wildest dreams Elmgreen & Dragset couldn't imagine the attention the installation was to receive. Still today, Prada Marfa serves as a place of pilgrimage for fashion, art and design slaves wanting to be instagrammed in front of the piece. Pop icon Beyonce was famously snapped by the installation, indicating its impact on popular culture. Michael and Ingar are no longer romantically involved. Professionally, however, their relationship is blossoming. Michael has moved to London while Ingar has stayed put in Berlin. They visit each other on a regular basis and are frequently in touch thanks to modern electronic infrastructure. They speak to each other on the phone “ten times a day” and the Berlin pump station studio remains the duo's headquarters. “Berlin still feels like an open and simple place to work in. From a commercial perspective it's considerably less stressful,” says Ingar. Elmgreen & Dragset has transformed from a small trembling start-up to an established business experiencing immense demand. It's difficult not to refer to them as “big business”. “We almost lost it at one point. We had so many employees I failed to remember everyone's names. We're now back to six staff and treat our small team as family,” explains Michael. Working so closely together has resulted in a close-knit partnership that in recent years, since working on the installation The Collectors for the Venice Biennale in 2009, has led to the creation of a fictitious third person. This personage goes under the name “the mysterious Mr B” and is described as Michael's and Ingar's best and worst sides combined into one character. “It's all of our fears, phobias, neuroses and worries of growing old,” says Michael. “And our respective national identities intertwined,” Ingar adds, hinting about his Norwegian positivism and the Danish harshness personified by Michael. Mr B's life's reached an end in a pool during the Venice Biennale, but despite that his character lives on in the solo exhibition Tomorrow, which opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in October 2013. The exhibition is organised as a scene from a film and full of detailed traces from the fictitious Mr B's life. A homely manor type environment has been constructed in one of the great exhibition halls. Each visitor is provided with a written script and encouraged to interact with their surroundings like detectives. A couple of hours later we're sitting in a rickshaw. Our destination: a handful of the 16 pieces of the exhibition A Space Called Public.
In their roles as art curators for the city of Munich (which has supplied the duo with 1,200,000 euro to perk up the south-german city), Michael and Ingar have been provocative in an bid to open people's eyes to the shrinking public space. The aim of the intervention is to get a reaction from visitors as well as permanent residents. “In response to the increasing privatisation, we want to spark debate around public spaces. Many feel displaced due to the privatisation of public space. We'd like to see people going out to parks and squares to socialise instead of hanging out on Facebook, which is in the forefront of the most commonly used public spaces. People need to get out to kiss, talk, and buy balloons. Look at Munich, it's dead quiet after 10pm.” Passionately, Michael tells us how he had no choice but to walk several kilometres just for a pack of cigarettes. “The reactions have been strong. Take the installation of The 4th Plinth [by the artists Spephen Hall and Li Li Ren] which coincided with the Christmas fair on Wittelsbacherplatz. When it comes to tradition, there's absolutely no compromising around here,” Ingar says, tongue in cheek. A widespread fear of anything new and unfamiliar throws a spanner in the works, according to Elmgreen & Dragset. But they've both noticed a change in attitude since the public have been able to experience and participate in the public art pieces. A year of logistical challenges and tons of bureaucracy tested Elmgreen & Dragset's patience. Munich abides by heavy regulations, absolutely everything is organised and controlled. Quite the opposite of Berlin where there's always a green light. Michael shares a telling example. “Kirsten Pieroth's A Berlin Puddle – a pop-up puddle filled with water shipped over from Berlin – needed a location. It dawned on us that there's no unevenness whatsoever in the whole of Munich. Everything is perfectly smooth,” he explains. It all ended with a long, bureaucratic chain to get permission to scrape a small defect on the pristine Bayarian surface. Michael enjoys sharing his view on the bizarre perfectionism.
THE RICKSHAW TAKES us past the jack of all trades Ed Ruscha's Pay Nothing Until April, the fragrance creator Sissel Tolaas' installation Smell and the now late Martin Kippenberger's underground entrance Metro-net, until we finally reach Odeonsplatz. When the clock strikes twelve a man takes out a stainless steel megaphone from a glass cabinet. From the top of his lungs, the man bellows “It's never too late to say sorry” on the square that held many of Hitler's speeches. As the creators of the performance piece, Elmgreen & Dragset watch contently. Our tour goes according to schedule, until our enthusiastic cyclists chauffeur decides to cut through across the pavement. But that turns out trickier than expected. “You can't do that!” exclaims a smartly dressed man in his eighties, and steps in front of the rickshaw. With the help of his dog and wife, the man forms a barricade preventing further movement on the pavement. Ordnung muss sein, that's how it is. The pavement is for walking on and nothing else. Following a classic stare-down our equipage is forced to surrender and return to the smooth road, as one should. Order is restored. Perhaps the experience of serving as Munich's art creators has turned Elmgreen & Dragset into humbler artists. At least they seem to have taken a break from their extensive training in egocentricity.
Ahead of the great solo exhibition Tomorrow at Victoria and Albert Museum, Elmgreen & Dragset collected and created a large number of props. Visitors enter into a homely environment and are given free playroom to explore.
Elmgreen & Dragset's head office is located in Neukölln, Berlin. The gigantic studio previously held a pump station.
Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset are in many ways each other's opposite. To utilise this they've created a fictitious third character – “the mythical Mr B” – who appears in much of their work.