A conversation with Elmgreen & Dragset



Interview   Emily  McDermott

Portrait  Christian Högstedt


Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset often create alternate realities through playful structures, constructed environments and curatorial innovation. They have been working as a duo since the mid-1990s and in 2005 received widespread acclaim for Prada Marfa, a mock-Prada store permanently installed in Marfa, Texas. The Berlin-based artists find inspiration in topics ranging from institutional critique to social and global politics, and through their performances, installations and sculptures, they question and reconfigure the ways in which audiences experience and view artwork.
Within the last decade, Elmgreen & Dragset have also taken on the role of curators. In 2009 they curated—and merged—the Danish and Nordic Pavilions of the Venice Biennale (Elmgreen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark; Dragset in Tondheim, Norway). In 2011 they were the Artistic Directors of Performa 11, a month-long performance art festival in New York City. Last year, they hosted “The Others” at Berlin’s König Galerie and last month, they completed their largest curatorial endeavor to date: the 15th Istanbul Biennial, featuring more than 50 artists across six venues.
We first met Elmgreen & Dragset in New York two years ago. During the last few months we’ve corresponded via email, talking about the roles of fact and fiction, collaboration, and location in their artistic and curatorial practices. 


Your works often imagine or propose other truths or realities, and the last time we spoke was at Galerie Perrotin, where you developed the life of your fictional character Mr. Swann, in New York in 2015. How would you describe the role of fiction in your artistic practice?

Oftentimes, narratives act as the driving force in our process of making exhibitions, but in the way of a non-linear storytelling. Both before and after our show ‘Past Tomorrow’ at Galerie Perrotin, we have explored the act of staging in different contexts. For example, in 2016, we had a closer look at the art fair as a construction in our show ‘The Well Fair’ at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. The exhibition dealt with the dominant role that the art fair holds in the international art circuit. It almost seems like every major city has an art fair, or if not, then is planning to have one. By inserting a fictional art fair into a museum context and exhibiting only our own works, we removed its commercial aspect and tried to open up to other viewpoints, such as how the role of art fairs has changed over time, and how fairs have changed the way we look at art.



There are themes you also return to within these fictionalized realities.

Recently, we revisited the domestic setting of the family home, which is an investigation we began in the 2009 edition of the Venice Biennale with our exhibition ‘The Collectors’. In our solo exhibition ‘Die Zugezogenen’ this year at Kunstmuseen Krefeld, we let a fictional German family move in. After years residing in Great Britain, the former expat family had decided to relocate back to Germany due to Brexit. Within the Modernist architecture of Haus Lange, designed by Mies van der Rohe, we wanted to reflect upon symbols of the changing Europe and the changing symbols of the middle class, as well as our battered image of the modernist utopias.

So do you have specific political themes you want to convey?

We never want to dictate what kind of stories the visitors should take home with them. We try to create a set of open-ended narratives that allow people to make their own connotations and conclusions. We only wish to provide the tools for the audience so they can create their own fiction.




You sometimes combine readymades with objects that could look like readymades but that are, in fact, specially tailored to the environment—in a way, similar to Fred Wilson's installation at the Istanbul Biennial. What do you hope to accomplish through the mixing of fact and fiction, reality and imagination?

We regard staging or mixing fact and fiction as a tool for bringing the object itself as well as its surroundings and contexts into attention. By activating the balance between fact and fiction, you hint at the way our western civilization constructs narratives and myths about certain objects, their displays, as well as the social and economic power structures they are embedded in. Much of our work, especially the series Powerless Structures, deal with these so-called ‘power structures’, inspired by Foucault, and their dominant narratives. The structures themselves, however, do not impose power over us; it comes from the power we choose to grant them. So by playing around with some of the elements in these structures, we hope that people will reflect on and maybe even feel empowered to change the normative structures surrounding them.

Like Fred Wilson, we often create artworks, which at first glance would appear as if they were readymades but will, after a closer look, reveal themselves as subtle alterations of something familiar. One could say that we both try to gently subvert the routines of the museum – each with our different narratives. It’s a sort of queering our surroundings.



We talked about your childhoods a little bit last time. Ingar, you explained that you had a stick as an imaginary friend, and Michael, you often got in trouble for lying, although you really believed your invented stories. Are there any ongoing fictions in your daily lives now?

Yes, definitely. Working as a duo, conversations and the imagined universe that these dialogues trigger are essential parts in our collaborative process. When finishing a work, the result is never the idea that either of us had originally, but something that morphed through the influence of the other and sometimes due to fruitful misunderstandings. Often in the process, we develop this confused and never fully defined third persona between us – which continues to evolve when we engage in new projects.

Really, the most important part of our process is our ongoing conversations. Our own artworks develop through the continuous dialogue between the two of us, and recently, in the process of curating the Istanbul Biennial, we also had ongoing dialogues with all the participating artists. We were involved in each project’s development. We seek to work with other artists by respecting their different approaches and working methods in a way that still fits with our own overall vision and ambitions for the exhibition.

Mentioning the Biennial, can you tell me about your first visit to Istanbul and what your reactions were?

The first time we visited Istanbul was 16 years ago when we took part in the 7th Istanbul Biennial. Back then, and now, Istanbul was and is one of the most beautiful and vibrant cities in the world, which makes for a great framework both to work in and to experience. Since 2001, we’ve seen whole areas that used to be inhabited by small businesses, such as hardware stores and wood workshops, morph into trendy neighborhoods with cafés, design shops and boutique hotels. Other parts of the city have seen an uptick in large, international hotel chains and a surge in shopping malls of all levels, from discount to luxury.

Because you’ve been based in Berlin for 10 years, I feel like it should be mentioned that there is a deep-rooted history between Turkey and Germany, beginning with the Gastarbeiter following WWII and continuing through the present day. Personally and artistically, how do you see each city in relation to each other?

Berlin has one of the largest Turkish populations in the world. A large part of the neighborhood Neukölln—the area of Berlin where we have our studio—is Turkish and we can see definite parallels between cultural aspects of the two cities. Artistically, the two places are currently in quite different situations. Berlin is a hub for international art with more artists and creative types flocking here every year. Istanbul also has a vibrant local art scene and is home to well-respected institutions combined with innovative galleries, foundations, and passionate people working in the field, as well as serious collectors, but in the past few years many intellectuals and creative people have left, which makes this year’s Istanbul Biennial as urgent as ever.


You’ve talked about the fact that you want the Biennale to raise questions about ideas of home and the world’s current geo-political climate, among many other things. What do the words “home” and “nationalism” mean to you?

As Michael wrote in a poem when he was 19, “Home is the place you left.” We see home as a dynamically evolving notion of where you grew up, have lived, currently live, and might live in the future. To us it is not a static concept and it has much more to do with feelings and memories than a physical space, although the spatial environment also serves as a backdrop to express oneself within a pre-existing architecture. “Nationalism” is a scary word at the moment, as we see it get twisted into an easy answer to complex problems. We would prefer to approach everyone as international neighbors, rather than focus on the divisions created by national borders.


For more information on Elmgreen & Dragset's work, click here.

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