Dy­namic duo

Plaza Magazine US & International - - CONTENTS - Words micha VAN dinther & mag­nus Wit­tb­jer Pho­tog­ra­phy fredrik SKOGKVIST

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.

Michael Elm­green and In­gar Dragset pho­tographed for Plaza in their Ber­lin stu­dio.

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.

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