Contemporary art Exhibitions Fairs United Kingdom

Elmgreen & Dragset make themselves at home

The artists have created everything from a film script to kitchen units for their installation at the V&A

Ingar Dragset (left) and Michael Elmgreen in the living room of their fictional architect, Norman Swann

The unwritten rule for gallery-goers everywhere may be “look, don’t touch”, but Elmgreen & Dragset’s site-specific installation at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) invites visitors to participate at every turn. The Scandinavian artists were asked to propose a non-traditional exhibition in 2010 and immediately seized upon the museum’s former textile galleries as the ideal setting. Inspired by the five rooms’ domestic scale, they created a set for an unrealised film—an apartment belonging to Norman Swann, a disillusioned, elderly (and fictional) architect, who has lost his family’s fortune and must sell his inherited home.

“We all try to give the best image of ourselves on Facebook, so we thought it was time to talk about failure in life,” Michael Elmgreen says. Swann’s studio is filled with “projects that never happened because he never won any of the competitions” (the character’s models were created by the artists, who visited the Royal Institute of British Architects’ archives as part of their research). In the kitchen, Norman’s antiquities have been consigned to cardboard boxes ready for his move; tellingly, brand-new minimalist units (designed by Elmgreen & Dragset) dominate the room.

“The artists want visitors to feel as if they’re sitting in someone’s house; they’ve gone to the toilet for a little bit too long and you think ‘I might just be able to get away with looking in that drawer’,” says Louise Shannon, the V&A’s curator of digital design. This sort of snooping, with the aim of piecing together the clues to Swann’s personality, is positively encouraged. In Norman’s studio, postcards from former lovers lie next to a large diagram of erectile dysfunction; a peek in the drawer of his bedside table reveals the anti-retroviral drugs used to treat HIV.

The museum’s staff—dressed as butlers and maids, and clearly enjoying their roles—provide a warm welcome, inviting visitors to play the Blüthner piano and rifle through Norman’s books, which include numerous volumes of Foucault, decades-old copies of the Architectural Review and, poignantly, a tome entitled One-Pot Meals. Every detail, down to a carefully pressed shirt and the dying flowers dumped on a wooden chest, speaks of both the meticulousness and the inattention of the elderly man living alone.

Shannon helped the artists select more than 100 objects from the museum’s collection, a process she describes as “creative ping-pong”. “They have a way of looking that’s really different to a curator. Usually we’re looking at the best examples, but here, it’s about what’s the best object to tell a story,” she says. Elmgreen & Dragset’s choices range from the 15th to the mid-20th centuries and span most of the V&A’s collections, from prints, paintings and bronzes to ceramics, furniture and fashion. “We bring the original purpose of the objects back to life,” Elmgreen says. “They weren’t designed for a museum; they were meant to be in a private home.”

One of the show’s major themes is ambiguity; the museum’s objects are mixed with props, but there are no signs to identify which is which. In the living room, two candelabra designed by Robert Adam and produced around 1771 are complemented by “a teapot from the local Lebanese kebab shop, where we ate every day during the installation”, Elmgreen says. “It’s not too [dissimilar] from what they have in the museum, so we thought, ‘why don’t we buy that for 20 quid?’” The artists have banned institutional language from the show, which is sponsored by the consulting firm Alix Partners, and the objects are not placed on plinths. This is a “very unhierarchical exhibition”, Ingar Dragset says.

The show includes around half a dozen works by the artists. Rosa, 2006, a golden statue dressed as a maid, oversees the hallway, while Norman’s studio features a small version of Powerless Structures, Fig. 101, 2012, the artists’ commission for the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. Table for Bergman, 2009, which was shown at the 53rd Venice Biennale, takes pride of place in the living room—“but instead of saying ‘please don’t touch the work’, we’re saying ‘sorry, this table is set for guests’. It’s a very different V&A experience,” Shannon says.

Another original work is Elmgreen & Dragset’s accompanying script, an expletive-strewn drama starring Swann and the prospective buyer of his home. Visitors can keep their copies of the script, which addresses “the relationships you build up with objects and the way we privilege certain objects over others”, Shannon says. And what of the exhibition’s title? “History is part of now, part of today; what we learn today is going to be tomorrow. I can tell you about today so we are geared for what happens tomorrow,” Elmgreen says. “This is a difficult, challenging, exciting time,” Dragset adds. “What is happening to our history? This is why the show is called ‘Tomorrow’; there could be a question mark after it.”

Tomorrow—Elmgreen & Dragset at the V&A, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until 2 January 2014

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