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Features / Art

Unpacking the art world with Elmgreen & Dragset

Testing the limits of the gallery as a white cube is a well-trodden path in contemporary art. From Brian O’Doherty’s pivotal collection of essays from the 1970s, Inside the White Cube – where the veteran critic claimed even a glass of water can become an artwork in a gallery – to the name of art mogul Jay Jopling’s string of international galleries, the white cube is an enduring art world truism. As the clinical presentation of art prevails, the unyielding, often absurd inner-workings of the art establishment continue to drive artists like Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, who despite inhabiting this spartan landscape are still wary of the hand that feeds them. Together they are like a Trojan horse sent into the gallery to unleash a very Scandinavian brand of chaos.

If you’re unfamiliar with the duo by name, chances are you are familiar their incisive and often dramatic work. Past shows have seen them turn the V&A’s textile galleries into an apartment belonging to a world-weary, fictional architect, take over the Danish and Nordic pavilions at the 2009 Venice Biennale, build nightclubs inside galleries as well as take to the Kunsthalle Zurich for a show called Taking Place, sledgehammer in hand, and demolish the interiors only to rebuild them. With the latter, Michael and Ingar are quick to recall a certain thrill in watching Swiss women in their fur coats shrink in terror as breeze blocks and dust flew by.

They are perhaps best known as the artists behind what appears to be the world’s most absurd Prada pop-up, which stands like a mirage on the outskirts of Valentine, Texas near Marfa. In line with much of Elmgreen and Dragset’s work, appearances here are deceiving, and filled as it is with bags and shoes from Prada’s AW 2005 collection, what seems to be an unlikely designer boutique is in fact one of the most beguiling pieces of public sculpture from the past decade, and only borrows the Prada logo. Last year Prada Marfa celebrated its tenth anniversary and was consecrated as a museum.

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Elmgreen & Dragset: Prada Marfa, 2005. Photo by James Evans.

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Elmgreen & Dragset: The Collectors, Danish Pavilion 2009, La Biennale di Venezia. Photo by Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy the artists and Victoria Miro, London.

From the beginning, the winsome pair have been interested in unpacking the social conventions of art institutions. One of their first shows consisted of nothing but painting a gallery white for 12 hours. A later performance in Dusseldorf called The Great Escape revolved around an exhibition being hung, taken down, and reinstalled over and over again. “The handlers basically packed up all the work, went around the block once, came back and rehung everything exactly the same. It was just this beautiful ritual. That went on for one day, morning until midnight,” Ingar told me when I sat down with the artists back in October during their London exhibition at Victoria Miro Mayfair, Self-Portraits.

“We came into the art world through the back door,” Michael explained. “It was 20 years ago and it was quite innocent in Scandinavia at that time because there wasn’t much pressure on younger artists to produce sellable works and make a fortune for the gallery. All these discussions about the art market were not there and it created an atmosphere that meant you could experiment and didn’t have to consider commercial aspects.”

“We came into the art world through the back door.”

Michael Elmgreen

For their current show, and their first in mainland China, they have transformed the Great Hall in the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) into a fictional art fair featuring nothing but their own work. With its white walls, its orderly rows of booths and its unreachable VIP room, The Well Fair has all the trappings of the real deal. “It’s like a dream slash horror situation. A whole art fair consisting only of our own work,” Michael said ahead of the Beijing opening.

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Elmgreen & Dragset: Powerless Structures, Fig. 137, 2015. Photo by Eric Gregory Powell.

Having now been working together for over 20 years, the art world, and the world at large, has undergone dramatic changes. “The fact is that fairs are here as a reality in art today,” Michael said when we spoke again recently. “They’re not going to disappear just because certain parts of the media love to demonise them, often in a way that ends up being rather inarticulate, and without any nuance.” With The Well Fair, Michael and Ingar set out to show that the format of the contemporary art fair could actually deliver complex messages and create multilayered narratives.

“Each booth tells a different story, so you could say that this exhibition consists of multiple solo shows,” Ingar weighed in. “It reveals various aspects of our production and ranges from performances to sculptural works and installations. Some works are displayed as artworks in an art fair booth, while others function like elements from the communal areas of a fair, like the reversed bar, the inaccessible VIP room, the info desk or an ATM machine.”

As well as including new works like Plus One, a double-handed teak door that doesn’t open, and pieces for two booths that mirror each other, Same Same but Different, which are staffed by identical twins, The Well Fair restages many existing works and is a major survey of the recurring themes in the duo’s practice: identity, institutional critique and commodification being just a few.

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Elmgreen & Dragset: Death of a Collector, 2009. Photo by Anders Sune Berg.

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Elmgreen & Dragset: Prada Marfa, 2005. Photo by James Evans.

When I met with Michael and Ingar in 2015, Prada Marfa was marking its tenth year. Their most popular work in fact grew out of an earlier show at the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York in 2001, and after witnessing the powerful effect of covering the gallery windows with white signs saying “Opening soon Prada,” the seeds for Prada Marfa were sewn. There was nothing else in the show and no one came inside. In fact, people appeared to be more excited about Prada opening than anything else, and after Pritzker prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas had converted a Guggenheim project space into the downtown flagship store on Broadway, were mostly curious about who was leading the design.

“It’s the same story that happens over and over again: the artists move in first, then the galleries come, then the fashion shows come, then it’s the chains,” Ingar said. “We thought, okay we need to do something further with this. Let’s take a Prada store and bring it completely out of context and see how it survives.”

With the help of Art Production Fund in New York, they raised the funding by selling editions and settled on Marfa because of its connection to American minimalist sculptor Donald Judd. “The shelving in Prada is actually reminiscent of Judd’s work, kind of like the kitschification of minimalism,” said Michael. “Then we had to get the shoes and bags which proved to be much more expensive than the building itself, so we called Miuccia Prada and she was really nice. Even though she knew it was a critical take on the luxury goods industry, she was interested in it. So she provided the shoes and the bags and said okay, ‘I’m not going to sue you if you use our logo.’ We had no clue that it would become so iconic.”

“We thought, let’s take a Prada store and bring it completely out of context and see how it survives.”

Ingar Dragset

For works like Prada Marfa and new works created for The Well Fair, the artists source and build everything in their Berlin studio, where Michael described the process as feeling like playing with a life-size dollhouse.

As ever, Elmgreen and Dragset’s current show is full of nuance, dry humour and drama. Following on from Self-Portraits, which showed the artist’s at their most pared back, The Well Fair at UCCA sees them out in full force. Just when you thought they could get no bigger, they assure me they intend to go further still and are ready to unveil their next solo show, Powerless Structures, which opens at the end of March at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

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Elmgreen & Dragset: The Well Fair, installation view, 2015. Photo by Eric Gregory Powell.