Review – Elmgreen & Dragset’s second solo exhibition, Harvest, at the Victoria Miro Gallery, opened last week with a unanimous nod of approval from an audience who were allowed to venture four at a time upstairs to a loft room transformed into a barn. The installation complete with hay bales and a straw covered floor contrasted sharply with the minimalist wall pieces, filling a large space downstairs.
The artists lay out an altogether different setting,on the two floors, one that takes its cue from the rustic interior architecture of the bare-brick and wooden-beamed upper space of Victoria Miro. Here Elmgreen & Dragset present their playful version of a hayloft with works that operate within a lexicon of rural iconography; stag antlers, a sculpture of a young farm boy, abstract paintings derived from lines of timber work in medieval Northern European architecture and traditional German barns, and a timber wall-frame which reads KUNST, amongst others. One clearly sees the references to 1950s abstract formal language, as in Franz Kline’s paintings, but instead of claiming the aesthetics of the concrete or sublime, these works reveal a direct inspiration from humble farmyard imagery.
Harvest showcases two precisely choreographed environments which at first may appear visually and conceptually diverse, but through Elmgreen & Dragset’s own refined systems of logic, they bring to life a multi-layered set of narratives that play upon childhood memories, and question issues linked to our cultural heritage and the institutional through a personally charged perception. Displayed in the downstairs gallery is a series of new unique monochrome works, The Named Series, the surfaces of which consist of white wall paint carefully removed from prominent museums and public galleries by professional conservators, using techniques employed to restore frescoes and murals. The thin layer of removed white wall paint is then applied onto raw canvas and framed, so that this ordinary, typically valueless and disregarded ‘background’ is transcended and becomes painting with a new worth and significance. Each bears the name of its former home – such as Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich; Serpentine Gallery, London – and when viewed together, the subtle variations in texture, shade of colour and quality of the paint become apparent, indicative of the self-presentation of each institution.
Drawing on the history of the readymade, as well as the legacy of Minimalism (with particular reference to the work of Robert Ryman), the canvases also serve as signifiers of how such institutions figure in art-world consciousness as a locus of desire. The series can be seen as a natural development of Elmgreen & Dragset’s earliest works, exemplified by performances such as Twelve Hours of White Paint/Powerless Structures, Fig. 15 (1997), in which the artists repeatedly painted white an exhibition space over the course of twelve hours, or their witty distortion of the quintessential white cube in works like Dug Down Gallery/Powerless Structures, Fig. 45 (1998) or Suspended Space/Powerless Structures, Fig. 313 (2002). In this juxtaposition of works, all definitions of ‘culture’ are acknowledged – from the simple lived experience to the institutionalized fine arts. The basic process of growing and cultivating and also the harvest become the central topic. Characteristic of Elmgreen & Dragset’s practice, the exhibition explores both personal and shared cultural identity and memory – and presents them alongside one another, in no hierarchical order.
Based in London and Berlin, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset have worked as an artist duo since the mid-1990s. Their winning sculpture for the Fourth Plinth commission, Powerless Structures, Fig. 101, is currently on view in London’s Trafalgar Square. Important solo exhibitions have been presented at the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum Submarine Wharf, Rotterdam (2011); ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany (2010-2011), MUSAC, León, Spain (2009), Malmö Konsthall, Sweden (2007), Serpentine Gallery, London (2006), MCA Chicago (2005), Tate Modern, London (2004), and Kunsthalle Zurich (2001). In 2009, Elmgreen & Dragset were awarded Special Mention at the Venice Biennale for The Collectors, their highly elaborate exhibition for the Danish and Nordic Pavilions.
Elmgreen & Dragset will also present works concurrently at Louis Vuitton New Bond Street Maison from 16 September to 1 December 2012. The project includes a new work Omnes Una Manet Nox (One night awaits us all), which encourages the employees of Louis Vuitton to become integral to the artwork by taking a nap in an oversized fairytale bed with a dangerous looking golden vulture on one of its bed posts, and at times, having a story ready to them. Throughout their career, Elmgreen & Dragset have redefined the way in which art is presented and experienced. Drawing from disciplines as divergent as institutional critique, social politics, performance and architecture, in their sculptures and installations the artists reconfigure the familiar with characteristic wit and subversive humour. From the transformation of New York City’s Bohen Foundation into a 13th Street Subway Station in 2004, to the siting of a Prada boutique in a Texan desert in 2005, and the insertion of institutional spaces within the architecture of a public gallery, as in the Serpentine Gallery’s critically acclaimed The Welfare Show in 2006, their work raises issues around social models and social spaces, and prompts a re-thinking of the status quo.
Meanwhile Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset have installed an installation in the first floor exhibition space in Louis Vuitton’s New Bond Street shop. The exhibition includes ‘Omnes Una Manet Nox’ (One Night Awaits us All), an oversized bed with a gold vulture perched on one of the bed posts, ready to jump under the covers and sleep. It also includes a rocking horse for adult riders; a wall safe wired with sticks of dynamite, taken from Wile E Coyote’s arsenal; and a nest containing a golden egg. A newly commissioned work by Elmgreen & Dragset, But I’m on the Guest List Too! 2012 is on show at the Liverpool Biennial 2012 until 25 November. Powerless Structures, fig. 101 remains on the Fourth Plinthin Trafalgar Square until summer 2013.