Interview with Elmgreen & Dragset on staging their newest work: “Actors are playing us, but we might interfere”

The artists on splitting up but staying together and why they are putting their lives on stage


The white cube, the welfare state, social relations and homosexuality are the principal themes—so far—of artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. In the pavilions that they curated for last year’s Venice Biennale all those topics came together. The project—The Collectors—transformed the Nordic and Danish pavilions into the homes of a dysfunctional family and a recently deceased gay art collector. Both “sets” were filled with works by artists chosen by the pair, with a plain “Scandinavian style” dominating. Their latest show is at ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany, until 27 March (see What’s On, p74). Visiting the two artists in their huge studio, located in an old pump station in Berlin’s Neukölln district, one feels almost back in their Venice project—the plainness and much of the furniture seem the same.

The Danish-born Elmgreen and Norwegian Dragset met in Copenhagen in the mid 1990s. Originally a couple in their private lives as well as working together, they have made their art in Berlin for 15 years. Despite splitting up in private, they have continued to collaborate artistically. The pair is shortlisted for next year’s Fourth Plinth commission in London’s Trafalgar Square.

The Art Newspaper: The Nordic Pavilion you curated for last year’s Venice Biennale gained a lot of attention. Now you’ve curated your own major show at ZKM in Karlsruhe.

Ingar Dragset: We call it staging, not curating. Of course we worked directly with the artists [in Venice], so in some way it was a curator’s work. But, as artists ourselves, we could work closely with artists in many ways.

Michael Elmgreen: There is no big difference. As curators we do not exploit our colleagues and we do not let any curator exploit us. We are used to working with people from other fields, such as theatre, opera and architecture.

TAN: Your show at ZKM is titled “Celebrity: the One and the Many” and deals with the lifestyle of “ordinary” people versus that of celebrities. Haven’t you yourselves become celebrities?

ME: No. We are quite well known, but nobody is waiting to take a picture of me when I leave a club in London looking wasted.

TAN: In the show, “the many” are living in a pre-fabricated, East German-style concrete housing block [plattenbau]. They dream of a darts tournament they once won or spend their time playing computer games. Isn’t that a bit of a stereotype?

ID: We always play with iconographic images of lifestyle and desire and how people express themselves. Things are often very recognisable—and then comes a twist.

ME: They all actually have very diverse identities. When you place them in a plattenbau [housing block] the viewer has a tendency to see them as very monochrome. But the desires you can see are very different. People trapped in small flats and belonging to a lower income group often have similar consumption patterns. Have you ever had a job where you have to be at work at seven in the morning and leave at four? It puts you in a certain mood where you are not thinking about which gourmet stuff to buy or which alternative concert to go to. Your life becomes similar to people in the same situation simply because you are drained of energy by your work and the time it demands. And it becomes very difficult to break out. [Many say]: “They should just get more education”. But it’s not that easy. You need a lot of extra energy and self-awareness to change your mindset.

TAN: Can art help? Do these people go to the museum and see your shows?

ME: No, [only] political will and [improved] social conditions can help.

ID: But art can be a good reminder for the people in power…

ME: It might trigger something for politicians and for people [who feel] stuck. But we do not have an agenda. When doing a show we do it out of the pure desire to tell the stories of these people, the fictional characters. What that might do to people’s thinking…it’s up to them.

TAN: Michael, you have moved to London and together you are shortlisted for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. When will you both relocate and be awarded the Turner prize?

ID: We are too old already… [Not true, as the Turner prize is for artists under the age of 50].

ME: We don’t enjoy competing with our artist friends that much. But the Fourth Plinth is a really good project. We are great believers in changing the urban landscape. It is a ridiculous idea that sculptures should be installed permanently, because the city around them changes. What a sculpture said to the generation when it was set up is absolutely not possible to understand for the next [generation], the city doesn’t fit anymore. The Fourth Plinth was so attractive that we agreed to be part of a public-shortlist competition.

TAN: Much of your earlier work concerned the idea of the white cube, but now you make many more works outside. Have you abandoned working with the white cube?

ID: We still change architecture, but don’t play with the white cube as a structure so much.

ME: The [white cube] focus was also because we didn’t have an art education. It was a symbol of our alienation [but] now we are used to it.

TAN: Art theorists wrote extensively on the white cube as much as sociologists and architects did on the plattenbau. Is art theory important to you?

ID: We do read it, but don’t use it directly.

ME: Our works are not illustrations of theories.

TAN: Your works When a Country Falls in Love with Itself and Han clearly refer to the Little Mermaid. Ai Weiwei has also been influenced by Copenhagen’s famous sculpture. Why is it so appealing to tourists and artists?

ME: National symbols are always fun to investigate and work with. They tell us about national identity.

TAN: In Sweden, the new right-wing political party in parliament—the Sweden Democrats—argues against supporting non-figurative art. How do you feel, as Scandinavians, hearing that?

ME: It is totally out of touch with reality—the most conservative non-progressive art may be abstract art. But I’m not part of that society anymore: I am an emigrant, I moved somewhere else. I don’t lose sleep about tendencies in Scandinavia. It worries me more that three million people are homeless because of the flooding in Pakistan.

TAN: The merman Han is only one of your many works that deal with homosexuality. The cliché says that the art world is the most open about sexuality. Is that true?

ID: It’s a total cliché. Just look at the representation of women in the art world. It’s very low compared to other areas, almost like Wall Street. The same holds for gays represented in collections. The National Gallery in Denmark only has works by us and Henrik Olesen as openly homosexual artists, and Louisiana maybe only us.

TAN: You were partners in your private life as well as in work for many years. How did you manage to continue working after splitting up?

ME: Maybe it was working together that made us split. But we also dared to split because we knew we would still have each other. We were trapped in something bigger than a marriage—work.

TAN: These days you tend to have other people perform instead of doing it yourselves. Is there a particular reason for that?

ME: When your joints start to get stiff…

ID:…and your belly grows…

ME:…you find others performing for you, which is less painful. We are working on a play at the moment in quite a grotesque style. It’s called “Happy Days in the Art World” and it is about our life in the art world so far and what has happened to the art world in the past decade. Actors are playing us, but we might interfere on stage.

ID: It will be shown at the Dublin contemporary art festival next year and at Performa in New York.

TAN: Despite Michael now living in London, you’ve remained working in Berlin for 15 years. Why are you still so interested in this city?

ID: Berlin is a fantastic place to work because you do not have the pressure you have in other cities. It is not a business city; competition does not play a big role. The pace here is slow.

TAN: Nevertheless there is another big project planned in London. Your show at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

ID: It will probably open in January 2012. Our plan is to use parts of their collection to establish a private home inside the museum.

TAN: Like in Venice?

ME: It will be more eccentric. We’ll mix up styles, as that is how a lot of posh people live today. Empire, Rococo, Biedermeier mixed up with new things like steel kitchens and Scandinavian design.

ID: The museum has a huge collection of theatre set designs that we are using. We’re taking the set design collection of Oliver Messel, which the V&A owns, as our point of departure.

ME: The museum said, “Come and play” and we said, “Okay we’ll do a play”. A theatre play with two people from two generations will be staged inside the V&A. It’s a dialogue between two characters, talking about how to stage and re-stage your life, and it will be broadcast on TV. The filming will be done before the exhibition opens and people can then come and see the set design and play with it—a bed to lay in, a chair to sit on.