ELMGREEN & DRAGSET
The Scandinavian artists duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset have been producing large-scale installations and public sculptures since 1994, when they met (by chance) at a bar in Copenhagen. The duo draws on disciplines as diverse as institutional critique, social politics, performance and architecture to prompt a radical re-thinking of the status quo.
Elmgreen & Dragset are best-known for their permanent installation “Prada Marfa” (2005), which they themselve describe as a “pop architectural land art project”. Berlin’s favourite curator Johann König sat down with the artists on behalf of Whitelies Magazine to pick their brains about their curation of the Istanbul Biennale, how to become an artist by chance and failures in bed.
Johann: I have so much respect for those who make the decision to become an artist - which I didn’t dare to do. I thought about it for a millisecond, but I thought that the chance of failure would be too high. You can’t improvise so much once you decide to become an artist. Before you get to the point where you see if you have success - whatever that means - with your work, in the first place you have to be satisfied with yourself. What was your perspective on failure or taking risks, Michael?
Michael: I became an artist because of failure. I never had any teenage dreams about becoming a visual artist but I wrote poetry, which was also published. However, with a language like Danish you can get your poems published in around 300 copies so I got pretty fed up with that and was contemplating as to how I could present it to a wider au- dience and people who are reading poems. I started doing text on computer monitors that would morph in front of peoplesʼ eyes and I obviously had to show it in some envi- ronment, and that environment happened to be a place that normally showed art. So I went to that place and said “I’m a poet, I’m not doing art. Can I show my writings here?” They said “Oh yeah that sounds interesting” and they had an empty spot so I showed my stuff. But people who came were people from the art scene, not literature.
Well, at this point my failure to become an artist was my reason to become a gallerist. I realised I couldn’t be an artist, but I wanted to support artists and help realise artworks. The understanding of the impossibility of one thing enhanced the other. What about you Ingar?
Ingar: Well, I also became an artist by accident. I was studying theater and I had just finished theater school at the time when Michael and I met. In Denmark they called the school ‘Clown school’. I was continuing for a bit with the theater activities and traveling around Scandinavia with a group performing street theater. But it was when we realized that Michael and I had so much in common, that we decided to try some projects together. It was also because I didn’t have much success with my theater group, so we started combining Michael’s poetic visual art experience with my performance, in an artistic context.
“The Collectors, Nordic Pavilion”
Anders Sune Berg
How welcoming was the Copenhagen-scene?
Michael: It was absolutely not welcoming for two faggots starting out as performative artists. It was only when some visiting curators from outside of Copenhagen came and found our little three-page portfolio at the very bottom of a big stack of artist portfolios that they thought “this looks weird - we have to invite them to do a show”. It was due to our lack of success in the Scandinavian art scene that we decided to move to Berlin.
It’s a self-maintaining system in Denmark?
Michael: It was, very much so. The younger contemporary art scene only existed because the artists would put on shows themselves. So there was nothing lost by moving away - I mean we were not leaving a big success behind. And going to Berlin at that time was amazing because the scene was so unstructured and so chaotic - everything and everyone was new to the city. Even with our failures, it made it kind of possible to contribute. I will say one thing. Berlin is living from its ability to fail. That’s a characteristic of this city. It’s very resistant to smooth gentrification, to perfection, to actually becoming a powerful capital of Germany. It has its whole image and energy in failure.
Hmm, I find it always interesting to leave Berlin and have a view on it from the outside, because then it becomes very much more peripheral. It’s interesting how relevant Berlin is from the outside view. What I didn’t think of but what’s our result with St. Agnes Church is that all the international relevant people, whenever they come to Berlin, they come by because they have this special experience. In reality the success of Berlin is not so much about the Berlin-scene, it’s really more about how Berlin glows outside internationally. It’s very attractive in New York and London, way more than the Berliners understand themselves I think.
Ingar: It is more free. Compared to anywhere else. Nowhere else has those kind of clubs. We travel so much and have never found it anywhere else.
That’s true. But it’s also an issue no? It’s changing slowly.
Michael: It’s changing slowly because it has to. It’s almost like a teenager still living at home. I mean it’s quite charming in the beginning that you are listening to loud music in your little chamber in your mom and dadʼs home but when you are 25 it may be less charming. You suddenly demand something else.
Exhibition View: “Aeroport Mille Plateaux”
2015, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul
Sang Tae Kim
Looking at the later events - you just finished the Istanbul Biennale. It seemed to me that there was a huge risk of failure from the beginning on.
Michael: It became worse over the summer. We were appointed as curators in April 2016 and then in summer 2016 you had the coup attempt, and the harsh replies from Erdogan. That’s when it became very difficult. Not because it was easy before, but back then it was easier to take the risk. Since we aren’t professional curators, we could allow ourselves to fail. It wouldn’t put our future professional careers in jeopardy. That changed after the summer. At the same time, hearing all these claims of cultural boycott made us kind of stubborn. Experiencing the situation in Istanbul and hearing what people in the art scene and people who were involved in the cultural scene actually thought and what they wanted was important. People who were there really needed to have people come in to visit the art scene. They needed it more than ever.
Ingar: They really needed the cultural exchange, the ability to also express themselves. This can be a way of dealing with a situation. For the society to move forward and also to heal. These are things we don’t have to think about in Northern Europe. We have very calm, peaceful everyday lives and it’s easy to sit here and judge from afar. After doing a lot of research we found it important to listen to different voices, not only in the art scene but also by meeting opposition politicians, editors, journalists and so on to hear their opinion. It was interesting to hear what the Bien- nale meant to the whole country - even to those far outside of the art world - which is not always the case. If it’s like Berlin or Venice, then they stay within the art world since it’s an institution that has existed for over 30 years.
Coming back to the topic of failure: What is a failing Biennale? Does it depend on visitors, critics or the relevance of the exhibition? Often you can only see the relevance of an exhibition a couple of years later.
Michael: One can say the right Biennale is the one that failed. If it tries to take the correct format or to please everyone in order to be the perfect ʻZeitgeistʼ image of our time, then I think it’s doomed to fail. One way or the other. Risk taking in art - no matter if you are a curator, gallerist or artist - is essential if you want to achieve something that is innovative or interesting. If you know beforehand that you are right, then you are doing something that is like chewed food and not surprising. Every time we do a new show there is a risk of failure. It’s also because we do a lot of site specific installations, so we don’t exactly know how it will look before it is actually installed - but that’s the exciting part. It’s also exciting when it fails.
Exhibition View: “Biography”
2014, Astrup Fearnley Museum, Oslo
Anders Sune Berg
I considered the Biennale as a pure art exhibition, which was important. It wasn’t an encyclopaedic documentation of the current state of the world - I think there was one critic from ʻSüddeutsche Zeitungʼ who considered it was not critical enough on the political climate. I thought that this statement was a very naive approach, because that’s exactly the problem. The question is: how can you do something like that in Istanbul right now while still 150 journalists are in prison in Turkey? Doing this exhibition is a political gesture on its own I think.
Ingar: It’s not only naive but also disrespectful to say that the ten Turkish artists in this Biennale are not dealing with everyday reality. Of course, there are many ways of dealing with the political climate. (...) Of course, conversations we have at the dinner table will be different to those that feature in our art. Whilst we are not making slogans in art, we still see ourselves as political human beings.
But also as an openly gay artist... are you allowed to be gay there?
Michael: It’s allowed. But the Pride has been banned due to different levels of security. It’s not easy at the moment to be openly gay even in clubs or wherever there are big crowds of people and different websites like Grindr have been shut down.
Ingar: But then others are allowed. There is no logic, but that’s often the case with totalitarian regimes. You don’t know when or how they will crack down.
Thinking again about failure. I remember that I for example wasn’t really afraid of failure, but I was very afraid of not being taken seriously. I thought maybe the public would say, “how can he talk about art, he is not able to see himself”. Only the conversations with artists convinced me of needing this anxiety but interesting enough the consequence of failing was less frightening to me than not being taken seriously at all. It seems like you didn’t decide to become artists but both of you grew into becoming artists and then you probably also you grew into becoming an artist couple.
Ingar: We were a couple first actually. It was after one year that we started to do our first collaborations - which is now over ten years ago.
And then the relationship failed?
Michael: I think we found the courage to split up because we knew that we would have each other regardless. Often when you split up it’s in a way that you completely lose the other person. But since we were tied together in a way through the art and so many other things, we knew that it wouldn’t be a complete loss. We would just have the possibility of experiencing other people in our beds - which was needed at that point in time.
Ingar: Sorry I didn’t do a better job (laughs). A failure in bed. That should be the headline.
Michael: But that was a subtle realisation, it didn’t come over night.
But I think there was uncertainty, no? From the art market as well.
Ingar: I gotta say our dealers were all very sweet. It was in 2003 so we didn’t work with you at that time.
So, you two have been working together longer as a non-couple than a couple, right?
Ingar: At the beginning of course, you don’t know where it’s gonna go or how it’s gonna work. We did cancel and postpone shows. Then there was a lucky situation where we had a show coming up at the ʻLevel 2 Galleryʼ at the Tate Modern. We didn’t really want to cancel a show at the Tate. We had such a wonderful curator who was going through a breakup herself and she said “why don’t we just have cocktails and cry on each others’ shoulders and get through it together?” It became a sort of healing process for us as well, where going through that, and doing this one show, was super important.
Also, from the outreach it was a very important show. There were not many international artists showing there until then. I also realised there were no international galleries in London until five years ago. It all came very recent. While you were doing Istanbul did you still work on your own artistic projects or did you put them on a hold?
Ingar: Less and less and less. We worked on projects that were planned or “in the making” but the last half year we only worked on Istanbul. The only show we did this year was in Krefeld in February. Parts of the Krefeld show were inspired by the ʻVictoria & Albertʼ exhibition we did in 2013 as well. I am mentioning this because it was an exhibition where we thought a lot about failure. We created the whole show around this fictional character we called “Norman Swann”. We sort of created him as an old failed architect, but in a way that was representative of a British Europe- an culture that was about to die. It was drawing on a more aristocratic background where people’s life values are carried over from former generations: values that don’t really exist in society anymore. Norman is an architect who had all these visions and utopian ideas and never managed to realise them in parts because he came from a family with a lot of privilege. People could walk into his apartment a the Victoria & Albert Museum and sort of look at things he had sort of done as an architect, as well as study his bookshelves, read his letters: find his passport. We thought it would be interesting to frame an exhibition around someone who had failed.
But the collector in Venice was also a failed character. There is this idea of a failed artist or someone who is “not making it” and I remember all these artists who apply for grants and don’t get it, or you apply as a dealer for Art Basel and you don’t get in. It’s a very important lesson to understand that failure is something you have to overcome as a measurement in relationship to your own work. If you make your practice 100% depending on the outside view you only can fail.
Michael: Failure is depending on the presumption of what is right - if you are stuck in that you will definitely fail. I mean it depends on the parameters you use to measure yourself in order to feel successful on your own terms or environment.
As a last question: did you ever have an experience of failure in your artistic practice?
Ingar: Of course. It depends how you see it. Again, you can learn a lot from a false step. I think some projects we have done in the States have failed because we approached it with too much of a European attitude. The Americans hate to be told what to think and they don’t take criticism very easily. Of course, in our practice there is often an element of social commentary and a lot of the projects we’ve done over there have not always been very positively received.
One of my personal favourites is the Prada store. I think it was a big success because it really initiated a controversy.
Ingar: Well the Americans were very angry. Though when people remember it later on, they forget that they were angry.
I think the project “Opening Soon” (2001) was a financial failure for the gallery but it was a very successful show because it made it somehow into history. Maybe it did a little bit of what the movie “The Square” tries to do - to put a mirror to the catalyst of the art world.
Ingar: It was showing a process that could be about to happen. People knew it. It had already happened in Soho: there were no galleries left there. They had all moved to Chelsea.
On the one hand we criticise it as gallerists, on the other hand it’s what we need. The same people who buy Hermès and Prada and fly private jets, because these are the only ones who can cope with our whole system asking certain prices while everything grows bigger. I find it interesting. Like yes, we need it, but we don’t want to show that we do.