November 2008, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset @ Trondheim Art Museum
Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, Installation View, Bunks, courtesy Trondheim Art Museum
Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset
Home is the place you left
Trondheim Art Museum
The well-established artist duo Elmgreen and Dragset strike out new paths in their exhibition at Trondheim Art Museum. In Home is the place you left the two have retreated into the intimate sphere of home and no longer roam the continent. The fact that the show takes place in Dragset’s hometown, gives the subject matters presented an extra dimension.
The two artists are known to play with our prejudiced conceptions, and, primarily by exploiting the element of surprise, they have found a niche of their own on the art scene. With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that it is not the intimate scenario of a home that meets the eye when we enter the museum. In spite of the familiar and intimate message “keys under the doormat” that decorates the façade of the museum (and yes, there is actually a key there), what we immediately face as visitors is a hotel corridor.
The spacious down-lit hall of the museum is transformed beyond recognition to a narrow hotel corridor. The sense of sterility is striking and it automatically makes one meet the other spectators with the distanced politeness that characterizes the social conventions for behaviour in hotel corridors all over the world. The duo is known to challenge the limits of architecture; rooms and the relationship between various rooms and social structures is an ever-recurring theme which is also found in this exhibition. Walls and doors are not where we expect to find them and all of a sudden we are part of Elmgreen and Dragset’s staged tableaux. From every door-handle hangs the well-known paper sign: “Do not disturb” which only increases the urge to touch. What is hidden behind the door? Discouraged, having tried out one handle after the other in vain, one has resign to the fact that the secrets of the rooms will remain unknown, behind safely locked doors. The cold, inhuman atmosphere of the corridor is softened by a tray left outside one of the doors. On it, two teacups are accompanied by an empty tube of lubrication and a towel on which there are some brown stains. All of a sudden the anonymous lives behind the hotel doors are visualized for us by means of these hints of a sexual practice that in itself is something that many feel they have to hide. In Do not disturb the anonymous freedom of the hotel works as an elaboration of the closed and sometimes limiting framework of a home.
Out in the hall we meet Modern Moses, a life-like baby doll placed in a baby bag in front of an ATM. Initially, this novel Moses appears to be interesting as a character and as a thought experiment, but eventually one is not completely convinced that this is actually a successful piece of work. A major reason might be that one has already read about great cities where hospitals have trapdoors where persons who cannot take care of their newly born babies may hand them over to competent caretakers. The illustrated situation is therefore not purely an idea, but an existing phenomenon, and as a part of an exhibition that consists of mainly conceptual art it therefore loses much of its potential effectiveness.
One of the exhibition rooms offers a review of their series Powerless structures. As indicated in the title, these objects are numerous everyday devices that through the artists’ modifications have lost their practical function. A pair of bunks has the upper bed turned upside down and two doors are forever linked to one another by means of a common security chain. Ideas that use the logic of the impossible as a point of departure are visualized, but fail to generate new insights. Considering the overall exhibition context, it is a too obvious and yet exciting choice to introduce the ball and chain. And this time it is a white, sterile one, of course, in line with the artists’ signature.
In connection with this exhibition, the duo has collaborated with a number of their artist friends, who also get to present their works. These works mainly function as a contrast to Elmgreen and Dragset’s sterile utopias. Most of these works are soon forgotten. In many ways, the duo has, through a fifteen year long collaboration, become an art historic equivalent to the two cool buddies who always come up with a witty remark at a party. They make everyone laugh, while you are secretly annoyed for not having made the remark yourself. This impression is reinforced by the way the exhibition is structured. This time, the inclusion of works by friends does not add significantly to the total experience.
Precisely because of the duo’s “cool buddies” image the two may sometimes fail to move the spectator – they simply seem too distanced. For this reason, Elmgreen and Dragset are at their best when they dare to be close and personal, as for instance in the work The incidental self, where they have filled a room with framed black and white snapshots. Here we get a feeling of witnessing the artists’ own photo albums. We stroll along rows of photos where snapshots of the two as children are mixed with images of naked men posing. One gets an impression of an underlying narrative, a narrative that in many ways seem to be rich in conflicts. After an idyllic childhood and a rebellious youth – where are we now? This lucky move succeeds in bringing about ambiguous feelings in the audience. One is curious and at the same time embarrassed, and as is the case with Powerless structures, the work leaves us perplexed. And yet this is still a more thorough and deeply felt treatment of the themes that are introduced.
The great strength of this exhibition is the way it makes use of well-known symbols such as rooms, doors and keys. These symbols are used in manners that are both relatively innovative and discreetly beautiful, causing the spectators’ thoughts to wander, particularly to moments in our childhood and youth when we felt imprisoned or shut out. The questions concerning what lies behind the locked doors are left unanswered, but the joy of wondering remains. Giving someone the keys to one’s home is an act of trust, and this visit is one we will remember, particularly because the home that we are invited to visit is not of the “Home, dear home” kind. The two artists have succeeded in creating a sense of uneasiness in their treatment of the home-theme, a disquiet that reminds us of how the conflicting forces of safety and invasion are simultaneously at work in domestic relationships. Therefore the two stars of the art scene shine most brightly when they do not hide behind superficial structures but rather open up the door to private rooms.
Article translated by Birgit Kvamme Lundheim
whitehot gallery images, click a thumbnail.
Kristin Mandt Heim
Kristin Mandt Heim is a writer who currently resides in Norway.