In Conversation With Elmgreem & Dragset

Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset
Photography by Muhsin Akgun
Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset
The Danish-Norwegian artist duo have been challenging notions of power through their multidisciplinary work since they first emerged in 1995. They’ve now taken on the curation of this year’s Istanbul Biennial. Maria Marques speaks to them in Istanbul

In the winter of 2012, an unusual figure joined the austere statues in London’s Trafalgar Square. A bronze sculpture of a young boy riding his rocking horse with gusto, his right arm raised in the tradition of equestrian statuary, took its place atop of the square’s empty Fourth Plinth. The child’s insouciance made the staid kings and war heroes presiding over the square look somewhat uneasy. In the company of monuments commemorating the military victories of Britain’s imperial past, Powerless Structures, Fig. 101 appeared to invite spectators to celebrate the innocence of childhood instead.

The sculpture’s creators, Danish-Norwegian artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset, have been challenging the powers that be with daring and mischief since they first started making art together in the 1990s. The couple began combining Ingar Dragset’s theatre training and Michael Elmgreem’s background in writing and poetry to create long-lasting performance actions. In Twelve Hours of White Paint (1997) the walls of a gallery space are repeatedly washed down, only to be painted over once more — an act that called into question the dominance of the white cube as the exhibition venue de rigueur.

Powerless Structures, Fig. 101, 2012. Trafalgar Square, London. © James O Jenkins

As self-confessed outsiders to the art world, the pair could not help but wonder at the seemingly arbitrary conventions and limitations that governed it. This realisation led to the artists’ on-going series, Powerless Structures. Inspired by the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s writings on power, they began — quite literally — rocking the foundations on which the art institution stood. In Traces of a Never Existing History / Powerless Structures, Fig. 222, which was part of the 2001 Istanbul Biennial, the pair sunk a Kunsthalle replica into the earth. In Powerless Structures, Fig. 111 (2001), they elevated the floor of the Portikus, a contemporary art space in Frankfurt, creating an obstacle that forced hasty art consumers to slow down their pace.

Not content with dismantling galleries, the pair turned to the very power structures embedded in society. Their travelling exhibition The Welfare Show (2006) examined how the welfare state was failing its citizens, plunging visitors into a Kafkaesque world of desolate waiting rooms and corridors, broken stairs leading up to firmly shut doors, past a baby in a cot abandoned in front of an ATM machine. “If you speak about power structures, it almost seems like something quite static, something you can’t do anything about,” Elmgreen explains. “These structures are actually quite unstable, they’re totally dependent on what you as a community or society agree upon. There’s also a visionary idea around that because you can also think: we can just change that. These structures are interchangeable, they can actually morph into something else—if we just manage to agree upon changing them.”

An installation view of The Welfare Show. 2016

The artists speak to me from Istanbul, where they are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the first artworks that will go on display this month. The 15th Istanbul Biennial, running from 16 September to 12 November, will open under their curatorial direction. Entitled A Good Neighbour, the show will take place across six venues in the city, including a former Greek primary school turned art gallery, the studio of a young artist collective and one of Istanbul’s oldest hammams, all situated in close proximity to each other.

This is not the first time the duo turn their hand to curating. In 2009 they transformed the Danish and Nordic Pavilions at the Venice Biennale into the swish mansion of a mysterious Mr. B and a family home up for sale, co-opting the work of some 20 artists in a show reminiscent of a film set in an Ingmar Bergman feature. In 2013 the pair staged a citywide public art show in Munich, Germany, featuring outdoor interventions by artists including David Shrigley, Han Chong and Tatiana Trouvé. That same year they took over the Textile Galleries in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, recreating the home of a disillusioned architect furnished with pieces from the artists’ archive and the museum’s collection.

The Collectors at the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2009. Photography by Anders Sune Berg

“It’s a good exercise to slip off your artist’s egomania for a while,” Elmgreen observes. A total of 55 artists from 32 different countries will participate in this year’s edition of the biennial, a moderate number when compared to other grand-scale art shows. As the curators stress, it was a number that allowed them to maintain an ongoing, open dialogue with all participating artists. “We’ve experienced ourselves being in these mega-exhibitions where we had very little communication with the organisers and didn’t feel there was any logic to being included,” Elmgreen adds. With 30 new commissions, however, the amount of production has certainly kept them busy. “We don’t really feel that we’re less ambitious,” Dragset agrees. “We made sure we gave the artists sufficient space for their work. We have put in a lot of effort to enable them to realise what they wanted to do.”

The biennial’s theme: A Good Neighbour, addresses notions of home and neighbourhoods, looking at how modes of living have evolved and examining some of the challenges of co-existence today. Recent political events have invested the biennial’s theme with new urgency, not least Britain’s decision to exit the European Union, Trump’s plan to build a border wall between the US and Mexico, and the political turmoil crippling Turkey since the failed coup attempt of July 2016, which has led to steadily deteriorating relations with its European neighbours.

An alternative view of The Collectors. Photography by Anders Sune Berg

Yet the show does not seek to provide a broad-scale exposition of geopolitical problems, but rather approaches the political from a personal standpoint. “World politics starts in your home, in your neighbourhood, in your close surroundings," Elmgreen explains. “That is the starting point for curating and conceptualising this exhibition. How do we coexist in a real way, not in theoretical or abstract terms, but how do we actually live together.”

The question of how we relate to our neighbours will be examined from very diverse viewpoints. The list of participating artists, which includes established and emerging names from the MENA region such as Adel Abdessemed, Mahmoud Obaidi, Rayyane Tabet, Latifa Echakhch and Lydia Ourahmane, is both multi-national and multi-generational. “We have selected artists’ positions that explore the theme from many different perspectives — it might be from a background in racial issues, from a feminist position, from an experience of violence or gentrification,” Dragset elaborates.

Tomorrow at the V&A, 2014. Photography by Anders Sune Berg

These contemporary artist statements will be joined by a selection of historical positions, including the famous portrait of photographer and war correspondent Lee Miller in Hitler’s bathtub, taken on the same day the dictator committed suicide in April 1945. “We felt it was important to include historical works that talk about a time when countries were coming out of a dictatorship, at a moment when the world seems to be regressing in some ways and there is a lot of discussion in certain countries right now about moving back to a more totalitarian system. I think it’s important to remind people about these situations in the world and assure them that this is not going to last forever,” Dragset adds.

The message certainly feels close to home, as Turkey continues to slide into authoritarian rule and freedom of expression comes under increasing attack. For the curators, who see the biennial as an act of solidarity with the city and the local art scene, the current situation has made it all the more important to include a strong representation of Turkish artists in the show, particularly the younger generation that has not shown extensively before. “It’s no secret that the art scene has been suffering from the lack of tourism or people not visiting Turkey as much as before,” Elmgreen remarks. “So a lot of the young artists really need exposure right now that is possible to give them in the context of the biennial.”

Tomorrow at the V&A, 2014. Photography by Anders Sune Berg

In an effort to bring the biennial to audiences worldwide, the curators have launched an international billboard campaign in the run up to the opening that poses questions about what being a good neighbour entails. Characteristically witty and not afraid to touch a raw nerve, the artists hope the billboards will create a wider debate about how we live together. “We thought it was interesting not to keep the biennial just in Istanbul but spread it to other parts of the world,” Elmgreen says. “Almost like a friendly virus.”

The Istanbul Biennial runs from 16 September to 12 November. Iksv.org

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Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset
Photography by Muhsin Akgun
Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset