Michael Elmgreen from Denmark and Ingar Dragset from Norway have been an artistic (and at one point, romantic) duo since 1995. Through installations, sculptures and public performances, they explore current themes with their characteristic mixture of inventive honesty and biting humour. Their new exhibition in London features everything from a Christ-like figure suggestively strapped up at a glossy crucifix, to real shots of whisky offered up at an old wooden writing desk. (I declined.)
“This Is How We Bite Our Tongue” at the Whitechapel Gallery in London is the Scandinavian duo’s first survey exhibition in the UK. This does not mean that they have not made themselves seen and heard in England before; in 2011 they were given a spot on the fourth plinth on Trafalgar Square, and got into an argument with then-mayor Boris Johnson who feared they would call their sculpture of a young boy on a rocking horse an “anti-war memorial.” The sculpture of the playing child was actually meant to serve as an antidote to the looming war heroes on Trafalgar Square – “although Nelson is a little camp, too, when you see him close up,” Dragset told The Guardian.
The exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery features various pieces from the duo’s more than 20-year long career, including one new commission; the ground floor of the gallery has been rebuilt, and so the first installation of the exhibition is a vast, empty and abandoned swimming pool. This is the fictional Whitechapel Pool, meant to have been built in 1901 to serve as a public amenity. The pool is dry and full of dirt; white and turquoise paint is coming off the walls in large flakes. The project of the democratic civic space has clearly failed, and the result is eerie. This is not the first time Elmgreen & Dragset use swimming pools in their art. When I went to see their 2014 exhibition “Biography” in Oslo, one of the major installations featured a man floating facedown in the crisp, turquoise water of a private indoor pool. He was clad in a shirt and tie, and had seemingly drowned in his own wealth.
Another installation at Whitechapel that I recognised was “Modern Moses”. Conveniently placed at the top of a staircase, the artwork features a 24-hour cash machine with an abandoned baby sleeping peacefully underneath it, as though at the foot of an altar. The juxtaposing of values is a striking and recurring feature of Elmgreen & Dragset`s work; in another room we see a large poster reading “CAPITALISM WILL COLLAPSE FROM WITHIN” that have slid down on one side to reveal an inbuilt coded safe.
The Scandinavian duo also has an on-going project exploring ways to profile oneself and be remembered. The second room of the exhibition is full of “self-portraits” but no actual pictures – instead various exhibition wall labels have been enlarged, and are here presented as self-portraits in themselves. Another installation features two rectangular white shapes –marks left on the wall by pictures that have hung there for years, and then been removed. It is called “Portrait of the Artists”, and the absence of any self-image provides a humorous yet thoughtful comment on the recent “selfie” culture.
Sexuality is another major theme dealt with in their art; the installation “Gay Marriage” – two urinals united through twisted drainpipes – is perhaps the most famous example of this. When the artists sculpted an effeminate merman, to be placed at the seaside in Elsinore, Denmark, the reactions were many. To transform the statue based on H. C. Andersen’s story into an image of gay beauty was seen as somewhat insulting, even to the seemingly liberal Danes. It is therefore no surprise that the duo is preoccupied with marginalised voices – another on-going project is their various sculptures of housemaids, complete with black and white outfits and matching subdued postures. They keep cropping up in all their exhibitions; the one in Whitechapel was visibly pregnant. Elmgreen & Dragset’s art bites its tongue, but still manages to speak volumes.