Rediscovering Domesticity

Scandinavian duo Elmgreen & Dragset occupy the former textile galleries of The Victoria & Albert Museum, London, with their rendition of a failed architect’s inherited home.

The first person to have driven by Prada Marfa (2005), Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset’s re-creation of a Prada store set within the desolate Texan landscape, must have thought they had stumbled upon a mirage. A window display showcasing Prada shoes and handbags interrupts the minimalist white stucco walls of the store, illustrating the discrepancy between the luxurious products and the building itself. The Scandinavian artists, who live and work in Berlin and Los Angeles, have created these shocking sculptural tableaux again and again throughout their career, each time hitting upon an element of society perhaps less than complimentary, whether it be our greed and consumerism or – as with their upcoming installation, Tomorrow, at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London – loss, loneliness and alienation. In collaboration with the V&A and curator Louise Shannon, the duo has created a fictional architect’s apartment, which has transformed the former textile galleries of the museum into an abandoned home.

Shannon describes their work as: “A real mix of being quite playful, but also incredibly hard-hitting. Their approach to difficult issues is to handle them with an almost gentle and persuasive attitude. You may be looking at the Prada installation thinking, ‘wow, this is bizarre and quite funny’, but it’s ownership, consumerism, longing, desire and the gaze”. Elmgreen (b. 1961, Denmark) & Dragset (b. 1969, Norway) address topics in their work that affect people at all stages of their lives, asking the viewer to participate in the theatre and spectacle of their installations. With Tomorrow, the audience is offered a free narrative (a written script) to work from in order to understand the psychology of the inhabitant of the home and studio they enter.

The script focuses on an elderly architect who achieved little financial success in his lifetime, thereby being forced to sell his home and possessions. It is a story that is all too familiar, particularly with the recent economic crises, and quite poignant. The audience is allowed into his home to interact with his possessions and read his books – it is a jarring experience for, although permitted to enter, the viewer is uninvited. This invasion of personal domestic space is both voyeuristic and predatory – Elmgreen & Dragset have hit upon an element of sustained curiosity, which is perpetuated through the mainstream with the success of reality television shows such as Big Brother and the large circulations of the tabloid press. Society is hesitant to admit that it actually enjoys and actively participates in the spectacle of voyeurism yet it is undeniably a primary aspect of popular culture.

Omnes Una Manet Nox (One Night Awaits us All) (2012), installed at the Louis Vuitton flagship store on New Bond Street, London, had this same “Peeping Tom” element: store employees would take naps in the ornate four-poster bed placed on the shop floor, seemingly oblivious to the shopping and movement around them. The visiting shoppers were unable to ignore this intrusion into their environment, one so emphatically related to consumerism and luxury. The work references not just the taboo of falling asleep on the job, but also equalising the force of death, a golden vulture perched upon one of the posters of the bed alluding to this.

For the duo, the “architect” was a fascinating character to consider because of the dichotomy between his professional and personal life, designing the homes of strangers yet tied to an environment, a familial home, devoid of a family to fill it. The five rooms of the residence are filled with objects and furniture that embody the failed vision of its owner: a mish-mash of eras, designs and “isms” brought together in a grandiose attempt to achieve some sort of continuity and overall aesthetic. The objects in Elmgreen & Dragset’s environment are relics and, placed within the failed architect’s home, seem to have quite literally “inhaled the realities” of their domestic setting. These traces of the absent architect are maintained throughout the space, always evident, so that the visitor is continually reminded that they are within his home, a private and very personal space, visited by familiar people only.

Elmgreen & Dragset, who met in Copenhagen in 1995, have worked together as a collaborative pair for almost 20 years and are notorious for their “choreographed environments” such as The Collectors, exhibited in the Danish and Nordic Pavilions at the 53rd Venice Biennale. Working from a predetermined site, as with Tomorrow, they transformed the two buildings into fictional households based on characters absent from the scene: one a young, swish, rich collector (Mister B), and the other a family. Elmgreen & Dragset delved into the collecting psychology of the two sets, wanting to analyse the impetus behind acquiring art within the domestic sphere. They state, in an interview with Ana Finel Honigman in Interview Magazine (2009), that: “The family collects art and insects because they need order and some kind of system in their miserable lives. Mister B is collecting because he wants to promote his own sexual identity, and his passion for the arts is closely linked to his sex drive.” Most collectors would be hesitant to identify any of these factors as the reasoning behind their own collections, but there is always a hidden motivation, and Elmgreen & Dragset don’t seem to fear biting the hand that feeds them. The subversive, playful way they presented the work within the pavilions, staged as theatrical sets frozen in time, made theirs one of the most hyped and popular installations of the Biennale. The pavilions were accessible yet with hidden depths and criticisms – Mister B dead, face-down in the pool; the family home opposite empty of human life, alluding to a tragedy. This intricate layering is the reason for the artists’ continued success. They cater to their audience while simultaneously mocking the pomposity that can exist throughout the art establishment.

The allusions to sex in the The Collectors are also evident in other works in their oeuvre, which either deal with sex outright or focus on sexual orientation, such as Boy Scout (2008) and Gay Marriage (2010). The sculptural simplicity of Gay Marriage, consisting of two porcelain urinals connected by stainless steel tubing, underscores Western society’s historical treatment of homosexuality – the way in which it was viewed as “dirty” and something that goes on in secret and in public toilets and so forth. Elmgreen & Dragset tackle these misconceptions in a surprisingly subtle but overwhelmingly powerful way in the piece. It was done in that same manner in their 2008 commission in Berlin, The Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime. Adopting the sculptural stelae form of the Holocaust Memorial opposite (designed by Peter Eisenman), the duo chose to present the memorial as architecturally the same but opposite: within the grey concrete slab is a video showing two men engaged in a slow kiss. The memorial acts as a reminder not just of those homosexuals who lost their lives under the Nazi regime, but of those excluded and persecuted worldwide.

Drawing upon the recent heritage of sculptural environments and installations, they have brought this method of working to an entirely new level, and the V&A, an institution over 160 years old, is a fitting venue for Tomorrow. The influence of art and design upon the pair is plainly evident, and figures such as Viennese-born, New York-based artist and writer Frederick Kiesler (1890-1965) paved the way for works such as Tomorrow to be realised. Kiesler’s installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1951 is considered one of the first examples of a sculptural walk-in environment. Entitled Galaxy, the work was a one man show of his wood and rope sculptures. Resembling bone-like forms, they created a graveyard of sorts within the gallery space – a particularly haunting environment to walk through so soon after the end of World War II. Kiesler’s desire to move away from a focus on the art object to an objective is summarised in his 1965 Second Manifesto of Correalism, in which he states: “A new era has begun … an era of correlating the plastic arts within their own realms but with the objective of integrating them with a life freed from self-imposed limitations. The poet, the artist, the architect and the scientist are the four cornerstones of this new-rising edifice.” The similarities in focus with Elmgreen & Dragset’s oeuvre are highlighted in Kiesler’s continuing argument that “the environment becomes equally as important as the object, if not more so, because the object breathes into the surroundings and also inhales the realities of the environment no matter in what space, close or wide apart, open air or indoor.”

Kiesler’s sculptural environments mark the beginning of a new history of installation art – one to bear in mind when looking at Elmgreen & Dragset’s work as it helps to clarify the differences in this expanding field. From Kiesler to Edward Kienholz’s realistically recreated tableau of American life to the literal alteration of the physical environment with the outdoor “installations” of Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt and Christo, these variations and experimentations with architectural space and environment opened up the field of what was considered to be the “studio” or gallery space. The artist was no longer confined to working within the traditional notions of a white cube, and was publicly encouraged, especially by the 1980s, to find new avenues and ways of involving the audience as participatory, rather than objective, viewer. One of Elmgreen & Dragset’s first works, Dug Down Gallery /Powerless Structures, Fig. 45 (1998), in which they lowered a prefabricated white gallery into a hole in a park near the Reykjavik Art Museum, embodied this idea. Denied access, the audience must look down into the pristine cube, performing their own spectacle of looking. With traditional installation environments, the viewer is asked to enter the artwork, thereby completing it, but with Dug Down Gallery / Powerless Structures, the audience is not just refused entrance to the gallery but to the artwork itself. This work is part of the artist’s Powerless Structures series, which subverts and plays with conventional meanings of “space” and how space is created within the public sphere.

This is taken even further with Elmgreen & Dragset’s recent curatorial project, A Space Called Public (2013), in which the artists will act as curators for the city of Munich for a year. It is perhaps one of their most ambitious projects to date – taking on not just a gallery or site, but an entire city. The size and scope of the project, with 17 public artworks by international artists including Kirsten Pieroth and David Shrigley, was bound to cause ire and criticism from some within the domestic sphere, seeing the expenditure as excessive and ill-timed, but it has simultaneously been lauded by critics and the public, particularly abroad. Pieroth’s Berlin Puddle (2001-2013) has caused the most debate; consisting of water collected from the streets of Berlin – she has literally created a water puddle. She underlines the point of the project, though – that Berlin is considered the “cultural capital” of Germany, and that the city of Munich is trying to reclaim this title in some way, to get some of that cultural capital back, with the puddle reflecting the surrounding trees and environs of Munich back to the viewer.

Tomorrow will, in effect, mirror the V&A’s collecting remit and collection itself: sourcing works from the permanent collection and archives, Shannon has, along with Elmgreen & Dragset, created a particular idea of a home. These works, whether they be chairs or books from the National Art Library, are placed alongside furniture and objects sourced from antique stores and flea markets, leaving the viewer to make their own aesthetic and art-historical judgement on what they are worth. The exhibition is purposefully done; Shannon explains that the artists and curators wanted to allow the viewer to make their own voyage of discovery rather than being led by literature and wall labels. It is fitting that, as she states, “literature and storytelling are at the heart of the exhibition,” for it is up to the viewer to create and form their own narrative of the exhibition experience.

Tomorrow runs from 1 October – 2 January 2014. For further information please visit

Niamh Coghlan