Famed for their 2005 Prada Marfa sculpture, Danish-born Michael Elmgreen and Norwegian Ingar Dragset of the eponymous art duo are premiering a new exhibition of their most recognized work at the Astrup Fearnly Museum in Oslo, Norway. Despite of gathering pieces from different periods in their career, they insist that it is not a retrospective.
Read the Q&A with Astrup Fearnly’s director Gunnar B. Kvaran about making their exhibition the biography of everybody who sees it.
Gunnar B. Kvaran: I remember when we first met and I spoke about inviting you to do a retrospective exhibition, you were very sceptical about the idea.
Ingar Dragset: Well, over the past few years, we’ve been working on more semantic exhibitions,
which we’ve presented in bigger institutions and sometimes in private galleries. Often, the installations take over the whole space and follow one main narrative, building different layers centred around one storyline. When we first came and visited the Astrup Fearnley Museet, it made more sense to us to do something that would be more of a survey show, rather than a retrospective, because the spaces of the museum are very different in scale, very diverse, and we thought that particular environment was not naturally conducive to an overall paradigm exhibition. It seemed to us to be a great challenge and a chance to do something we haven’t really done before, which is to combine sculpture, performance, wall pieces and room installations – whole environments.
Michael Elmgreen: Since we’ve only been making art for twenty years, not that many curators have invited us to do retrospectives. We were asked once before, and in the end that show was given the title: ‘This is the First Day of My Life’ [2007, Malmö Konsthall], so it wasn’t exactly a retrospective, as you can imagine. In general, we consider every exhibition a new opening to fresh possibilities and that makes it very difficult to make a retrospective. If you look back, it’s kind of sad, because it’s almost as if you’re in a closed room looking back at the door. We prefer to use the works that we’ve made before and re-introduce them to the audience in a context that gives them a completely new meaning. In that way, they’re suddenly placed in new constellations, in new environments that tell new stories. So, in a physical sense, people are experiencing works that have existed before, but in a narrative sense, the works lie about their origins. They put on new masks and pretend to be something other than what they originally were. Exactly like the artists. And therefore, the title ‘Biography’ has a little ironic twist to it. How do you write a biography? How do you constitute an identity? Will it be your
self-image or your image as projected by the work?
GK: In fact, to do your true retrospective exhibition, one would have to recreate all the exhibitions that you’ve done in the last twenty years.
ME: There are actually two previous exhibitions included in their entirety in this show. The installation in the cloakroom of the museum is a whole show we did in Madrid, and our closed club The Mirror is an altered version of an exhibition that we did in 2008 in London. So ‘Biography’ not only includes a lot of different works from different periods, but also entire shows from earlier on. This is because every time we do an exhibition, we don’t consider it as just a collection of artworks, but as an artwork in itself: the exhibition is the work.
GK: So there’s always a total narrative?
ME: Yes. But now isn’t the moment to do a retrospective, so you’ve come up with a group of works that are from different periods, and you’re presenting them in the space of the Astrup Fearnley Museet as a kind of narrative or narratives. As an introduction, I was wondering if you could describe this narrative of the exhibition and give us some hints concerning the content of the story/stories that are told?
ID: You enter the museum and the first thing you see are crates used to transport artworks: the crates that you’re not normally supposed to see, because you always see the works un-crated and installed when you visit a museum. Here, the first welcome is these crates that have crashed together, with semi-destroyed works sticking out here and there. There’s something that looks like Jeff Koons’ rabbit sculpture sticking out of one of them, and you have a broken Damien Hirst painting in another. It was painted by an actual assistant of Damien Hirst, so it’s a very real fake. [Laughs] These two artists are already very present in the Astrup Fearnley collection and probably still on display in the collection building. So, there’s something destructive in this, but we hope to be constructive in our destructive approach.
ME: And then we pass through a dilapidated gateway and the next thing we see is a child in a carrycot in front of a cash machine, and a dead man floating facedown in a pool and a big pile of garbage bags coming out of a trash bin. And in the hope of finding some clues to a better life, we climb up the stairs to the first floor in search of enlightenment by some other kind of experience, just to find a whole bunch of small architectural models of museums that all look alike, and on the wall, paintings that consist of actual paint from the walls of powerful international museums, that also appear more or less identical, except for their different shades of white and different textures …
ID: Again, something you’re normally not supposed to see or notice is put on display.
ME: … and in the background you have a real person painting the walls over and over again for absolutely no reason, a Sisyphysian situation. It’s quite embarrassing that the Astrup Fearnley Museum couldn’t even finish the exhibition in time! [Laughs] It’s a bit like being a bad parent and not having decorated the Christmas tree in time for the children, who come in expecting something wondrous. I have the impression that in the basement and on the first floor there’s a certain kind of realism, even illusionism, and then upstairs the works are more symbolic, more abstract.
ME: I would say otherworldly.
GK: I’d like to explore this notion of the biography: whose biography is it?
ME: Yours. And that of everyone else who comes and looks at it. In this exhibition, the stories we tell are all very closely linked to the difficulties of constituting an identity today. Today, we’re artists, we’re working class, we’re Norwegians, we’re gay, in a completely different way from how we were decades ago. We don’t identify with our close communities in the same way as we did before. As artists, we can’t consider ourselves as something that’s avant-garde or outside of society any longer; and as gay men we don’t find ourselves living a special lifestyle. So much has changed, and this exhibition shows, through a lot of different fragments, how difficult it is to mix-and-match in order to create an identity in an era dominated by the influences of our digitalised information age, the constant bombardment of news, the random stream of personal information we receive from social media. The issue of identity is present in various shapes throughout the entire show. When I compare your plans for the exhibition with many of your other installations, I get the impression that, as the title of the show suggests, it’s the story of someone’s life.