Powerless in pool and prefab
by Clemens Bomsdorf
Nov 2, 2014

The Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK) in Copenhagen, Denmark’s National Gallery, wanted to have a more inviting appeal. Which meant that the walls surrounding the park in front of the grand building had to come down. Instead of introducing new borders the landscape architects at Polyform opted for rounded, planted or water-filled design elements to open the museum grounds out to downtown Copenhagen. As a result, you can now walk right into the building. But beware: Once you have gone through the main door you will be greeted by the façade of a prefab structure.

Take a look through the windows and you will glimpse the clichéd lifestyles of the working classes: TVs that are constantly on, a table full of empty beer bottles, countless packets of cigarettes, the walls adorned with china dress plates featuring landscapes. Sound familiar? Not surprising, for don’t we all imagine “The Many” on the poverty line in our society to live precisely like that?

The four-story building is the brainchild of the Danish-Norwegian artist duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset (The One & The Many, 2010). It takes over the entire foyer of the SMK and gives exhibition visitors the feeling of being forced into a corner. As such, it has been superbly placed to illustrate the depressing grind of the everyday and how it saps any energy you may have left. “Biography” is the name of the exhibition. In a film on show at the museum Michael Elmgreen remarks that the title is not “Autobiography” and that it does not center on the lives of the two artists, but explores the lives of all of us in the present times. How we wish to live – or indeed have to live?

Nonetheless, and the works on show confirm it, this exhibition is a kind of retrospective. If you take a left behind the entrance to the museum you will encounter three exhibition rooms that together make up the “Red Room”. Furnished with design classics, it roughly corresponds to the style you would find in the pair’s Berlin studio or to the interior of the pavilions of Denmark and the Nordic Countries they designed for the 2009 Venice Art Biennial. Or indeed to the living room of your average, solvent and style-conscious Danish middle-class family.

While the prefab houses Allen Carr’s “The Easy Way To Stop Smoking”, the Red Room features a number of exhibition catalogs by the two artists on the quintessential coffee table. It would seem that this kind of reading room is very much en vogue on Denmark’s museum scene at present – for its current Eliasson show (see News & Stories on Aug. 25, 2014) the Louisiana Museum in Humlebaek, a town on Copenhagen’s periphery, has repurposed the very room that usually has Elmgreen and Dragset’s diving board protrude out over the sea, and transformed it into the Eliasson library. One wall in the SMK is adorned with countless exhibition posters of the duo – an inspiring documentation. Mind you, the display case in front of it bearing copies of Art Review and other magazines featuring photographs of the artists on their covers is a tad pretentious. After all, the texts themselves are not available to read. It’s perfectly fine as an ironic comment, but what if it were meant seriously?!

The room next door has been transformed into a corridor. There is nothing to remind visitors that they are in a museum. The ceiling is suspended with panels, in the way you often see in public administration buildings, the white wall is lined by numerous doors. However, these cannot be opened, but are works taken from the “Powerless Structures” series. Occasionally a door handle has been mounted on the wall (“Powerless Structures Fig. 131", 2001), or a crack runs through the door (“Powerless Structures Fig. 136", 2002), evoking memories of the divided table on show in the Danish pavilion in Venice. Those who have seen the one or other Elmgreen and Dragset exhibition will have no difficulty recognizing a large part of the works on display: the cash machine with the abandoned baby in front of it (Modern Moses, 2006), the pair of jeans and Calvin Klein underpants, probably taken off for sex (“Powerless Structures Fig. 19", 1998), the two washbasins whose drains combine into a playful chrome sculpture that is just as dysfunctional as the doors (Mariage, 2004). The presentation by no means takes away from the quality of these works and yet the room is overabundant with a hodgepodge of creations by Elmgreen and Dragset – after all, most of these works more or less convey the same message.

Opposite you enter the “Dark Room”, which is actually a hall. It’s really quite gloomy in there. Walls, ceiling and floor have been painted in a very dark gray to black, and the temperature is a few degrees below what you would normally expect. Mind you, the ambiance is not about sex; it is all about creating illusions. Right at the front there is an American trailer and a gigantic sign that has fallen on top of it reading “Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas” ("Welcome", 2014). Spelling the end of the dream of escaping into gambling paradise. On the right-hand side we see a fire escape, like those that typically adorn New York’s backyards, and on it sits a boy wearing the uniform of the underdogs: a hooded sweater ("The Future", 2013). The rear quarter of the room has been cordoned off with a more than head-high wire-mesh fence; inside it there is a powerful Rottweiler rearing up in a threatening pose (The Guardian, 2014). It would seem his job is to guard the property, which the pool further back in the picture clearly identifies as upper class. There is a dead man floating in the pool; it is the very man who epitomized the perils of an extravagant collector’s existence and as a protagonist in Elmgreen and Dragset’s Biennial contribution made floods of headlines back in 2009 ("Death of a Collecto"r, 2009).

The boy on the emergency stairs represents “The Many”. Those who hardly stand a chance of escaping their fate of economic and social despair. “The One”, on the other hand, protect themselves and their wealth – which is no use to them, as is demonstrated by the dead man in the pool. Here we have the working class, which can lose itself in dreams but is essentially excluded from moving up, there we have the rich hiding behind tall fences guarded by aggressive dogs – thankfully our society is a little more complex than that. At times, however, Elmgreen and Dragset’s clichéd depiction works really well. This was the case in Venice and in the artist duo’s exhibition at the Center for Arts and Media Culture (ZKM) in Karlsruhe. Importantly, both locations also told a story, which meant that the objects appeared like the props of a single, well-conceived show. In Copenhagen, however, this sledgehammer approach seems just a tad too drastic, also because there are too many objects on show, creating the impression that the duo did everything to make full use of their overly generous budget. Sadly, this is not to say that they created anything new.

For those unfamiliar with the work of Elmgreen and Dragset this exhibition provides a solid introduction to what they do. And if the artists and the museum had wanted to attract a greater audience they should have placed a second dead man in the well in the museum park.

Elmgreen & Dragset
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen,
Until January 4, 2015