Words by Jae Kim
Photography by Robert Rieger
Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset have been collaborating as an artistic duo since 1995. Their artistic output, consisting of sculptures that intermingle pristine surfaces with undercurrents of pathos, humor, and decay. From their iconic installation Prada Marfa (2005) to Van Gogh’s Ear (2016), they have firmly established themselves as a team with one of the most innovative and radical artistic outputs in the 21st century.
Subversive and multivalent practices are Elmgreen and Dragset’s bread and butter. Forgoing obvious optics or points of references, they have devised objects, environments, and situations that confront the viewer’s expectations of what art means. Drawing on everything from children’s books, middle-brow aesthetics, and queer theory, Elmgreen and Dragset playfully mix the political with the mundane, discovering new ways in which art can be presented.
Love is a strong basis for the artists’ practice. Beginning as a romantic coupling, the duo has worked throughout their career to find ways to transfuse love of all forms into their work. In our interview, Elmgreen and Dragset reflect on their profound personal exchange, shaped by their individual artistic sensibilities. Their love for each other allows them to be fearless, both within their own relationship and outwardly through their collaborative work.
PLUS: In your early careers, Michael wrote poetry (and worked as an intern for children’s puppet theatre) and Ingar did experimental theater. How did these influences affect your art practice?
Elmgreen and Dragset: Poetry and theatre led us fairly naturally into art performance as we first started to collaborate. The performance was an intuitive meeting point for us both that incorporated various elements from these other art forms: interaction with the audience, explorations of our bodies in space, and investigations into socially embedded conventions or behaviors. Having non-traditional art backgrounds made us look at the systems within the art world with somehow fresh eyes and made us question some of these seemingly set structures. As outsiders, we tried to make sense of it all through a process of questioning interactions. Being inquisitive is still fundamental to our collaboration today – although perhaps it has come as much from the meeting of our two personalities as from our backgrounds in poetry and theatre.
How do you work when it comes to discussing and working on new concepts/ ideas? How has this process evolved over your years working together?
Our working method is based on this ongoing dialogue. Most days we are both in the studio, and particularly at present, so our conversations about different projects are continuously developing, and sometimes they might even change direction within a single day. Each artwork of ours evolves through a kind of ping-pong process where we discuss concepts, contexts, and details together – plotting our ideas until they feel right. Sometimes our works will take on a few different forms before we both feel resolutely sure about them. These days though, after 25 years of collaborating, we’re pretty familiar with each other’s thought processes and can usually anticipate the other’s reactions, which does make things a bit smoother. We have maybe turned into a two-headed monster.
The retrospective of your works has a pristine and minimalistic style. What is it about this aesthetic that you feel lends itself to effective communication of your ideas?
We’re Scandinavian so it’s kind of in our DNA… Growing up in Denmark and Norway we were surrounded by utilitarian minimalist design. It’s almost a lifestyle there, visible everywhere from household objects, institutional (interior) design, to architecture, so that has certainly informed both our mindset and art practice from the beginning. As young artists too, we were inspired by the Minimalist art of the 60s, and particularly the work of Donald Judd who used this really pared down the visual language. Several of those Minimal artists used this specific aesthetic to critique the format of the art object and the exhibition itself, which we’ve always found particularly interesting and explored in our own work too. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whom Michael met at the end of his life, was also an inspiration, in the way that he was one of the first to suffuse minimalism with queer content. In our sculptures, we find that using unadorned aesthetics can often make certain “truths” about particular objects or situations become more apparent, and therefore new layers can be unearthed or added more smoothly.
You said ‘humor’ is like anger management to you. Can you elaborate on what you meant by that?
Humor can express all sorts of emotions; we might use it in our work to express frustration, outrage, concern, or indignation. It also doesn’t have to be separate from serious issues, so it can serve well as a form of “anger management”. In fact, humor can actually be a good starting point for confronting important topics because it provides a contrasting perspective. Through humor, you can create a universe where you set new terms for how to speak about topics. And absurd qualities are often highlighted in this process. We use humor and absurdity in our work when subverting certain conventions or systems, re-contextualizing deep-rooted structures or norms. And we have been very inspired by how playwrights like Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter have used absurdity to address the existential matter.
The art market is shifting as many artist-run galleries/ collectors have started to prioritize fast purchases and more profit-seeking. To some degree, the so-called ‘community’ is becoming less communal in the 21st century, and wonder how you perceive this change?
The last year has given rise to such huge transformations in the way that art is both mediated and commodified, it seems to have accelerated a path to art being experienced through technology. As fewer people have been able to travel, be they collectors, gallerists, or artists like us who haven’t been able to oversee installations of our work across the world in the last year or even travel to see our own exhibitions, everyone has turned to technology to keep things moving. The impact of and subsequent response to the pandemic in the arts has completely reshaped the workings of the whole sector. While museums and public institutions are in crisis, digitally experienced art has opened access to new audiences: younger people, those unable to travel, and a whole public on Instagram. Galleries and commercial frameworks in the arts have been scrambling to keep up with these shifts and no one is really sure what the lasting impact of these changes will be. Of course, it’s always a good thing when more people can see and experience art, but for us, it has highlighted the importance of public artworks and their roles in communities—how valuable it is to be able to go and see art freely in real life. After a time of isolation and travel restriction, we hope that people are more aware of what it means to be local, and also more interested in sustainable, quality encounters with art, artists, and other art lovers.
How does love encounter within your life? As an individual, as a creator, and an innovator.
Love is at the heart of our collaboration. We started out as lovers but ended our romantic relationship after ten years. The love never left though, it just took on other forms, and sometimes it might even be invisible to others, especially when we get into heated discussions or one of us storms out of the room in frustration. But exactly because of love, these disagreements and differences are allowed to exist. Because of love, we can be fearless, both inwardly in our relationship and outwardly. There is always something to fall back onto. Love nurtures criticism. Criticism can be love. The world needs more love.