A dead art collector floating face down in his swimming pool as a reflection of the international art market. A baby in a cot abandoned at the foot of an ATM as an examination of individual and collective responsibility. A boy looking appreciatively at a framed rifle on a wall as a scrutiny of the nurturing of violent tendencies. This is the world as seen by Michael Elmgreen, 57, from Denmark; and Ingar Dragset, 49, from Norway.
The duo is redefining how art is presented and experienced. They imagine wild scenarios, then build them. The viewer is placed front and centre, as part of the vision. Take, for example, Prada Marfa, where they erected a Prada shop in the Texan desert. Or, their 9.5-metre-tall Van Gogh’s Ear swimming pool sculpture at New York’s Rockefeller Center. Then, there was their invasion of Place Vendôme last autumn, where 100 red starfish dotted the Parisian square.
The duo uses subversive humour to tackle difficult subjects, drawing attention to societal constraints. The two have been working together since 1995, and are currently being exhibited in a solo show at Perrotin Gallery in Paris. They are set to participate in the Bangkok Art Biennale and are part of Minimalism: Space. Light. Object. at the National Gallery Singapore.
Elmgreen & Dragset spill on their working process, and what they think the function of art should be.
What made you decide to work together, and how do you balance your roles?
Ingar Dragset: We met in a nightclub in Copenhagen, and realised that we lived in the same building. We shared similar interests and political views, and ideals and dreams. We did performance art first, which was sort of a meeting point between poetry, theatre and visual art. Then we thought: 'Why not sculpture?'
Michael Elmgreen: We’re equally bad at everything, so we help each other. We both come up with ideas. We both take care of practical matters. Our working process is based on dialogue. (The art) grows through our conversations. Now, after 23 years, we’re almost one brain.
How do you come up with the themes for your works?
Elmgreen: We ask silly questions a lot. When you’re a child, you ask questions that are quite challenging for parents sometimes. Then, society and its educational systems make you stop asking them. This is very sad. Somehow, we were lucky and our desire for asking questions survived... I think it’s very bad to stop being curious. It’s dangerous for our culture if it’s not innovative, if it stops questioning itself and trying to be better and evolve.
What is the role of humour in your work?
Elmgreen: We call our use of humour our 'anger management'. It’s a way to speak about serious matters in a way that’s bearable.
Why do you build huge environments that are costly, can’t be sold and have to be dismantled afterwards? What is your relationship with space?
Dragset: The sale should never be the main goal of making art. With many of these projects, the architecture itself and the environment around it inspires us... (Such projects) make people much more aware of their expectations of going into a place. And we find that if we give people a surprise, it sharpens their brains.
Elmgreen: (For instance,) at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, we made an abandoned swimming pool. It was wonderful to hear people coming in and being completely disoriented, wondering if this pool already, asking a lot of questions. So, we find that we can make people look at art in a different way.
How has your work evolved over the years?
Elmgreen: When we started making these complete environments, with many different layers, we got more into a sort of storytelling, narrative mode. But we don’t complete any stories. We give hints by selecting certain design objects, artworks by other artists combined with our own art, and changing the architecture.
What is the role of the artist in society?
Elmgreen: To make people less fearful. Fearful people can be manipulated, and art can make people dare to look at things in a different way.
Dragset: To keep certain ideas alive that have no other way of surviving, in a society where people experience so much pressure. Art is not logical. It can speak to your brain and your heart at the same time.