In 2014, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset transformed the Victoria & Albert Museum’s former Textile Galleries into a life-size diorama—suddenly, museum visitors would find themselves in the stately, quaint, neoclassical Old-World apartment of one Mr. Norman Swann, a “fictional, elderly, and disillusioned architect,” according to the museum’s website. The project was called Tomorrow, and now on view at Galerie Perrotin is a sequel installation, titled, naturally, Past Tomorrow. The apartment represents Swann’s move from a butter-yellow apartment in London’s posh Kensington neighborhood to a blood-red one on New York’s Upper East, as well as the pair’s first solo show in New York in ten years. Though the interiors are similarly styled, there is subtle evidence of an unhappy passage of time—AIDS medication, relics of failed architectural projects (he went bankrupt to boot), and a portrait of a child with a worried expression. As a free accompaniment to the installation, they wrote a screenplay that reveals Swann’s backstory.
Elmgreen & Dragset have been artistic collaborators since 1995, when the Danish poet and the Norwegian theater student met in Copenhagen. Where they found their individual creative pursuits lacking (poetry was too lonely, theater too collaborative), creating art together was an ideal compromise.
“To me, there’s just so much in the art world that doesn’t make sense,” said Elmgreen. “Being dependent on your own dialogue alone is very sad, and I think it causes a lot of the insanity going on in the art world now. Together, we can influence and inspire each other and make sense of what we’re doing.”
Known for their tongue-in-cheek sociopolitical works—Prada Marfa, a candy-colored husk of a Prada store permanently situated just off Highway 90, 26 miles from Marfa, Texas, might be their most famous—Elmgreen & Dragset have spent their career creating absurd, often minimal structures that encourage audiences to think differently about systems of living. I sat down with the Elmgreen and Dragset to ask them about the evolution of Tomorrow.
ARTnews: When I was reading about the installation, I thought that the room would look a lot more overtly depressing. But it doesn’t, until you look at the details.
Ingar Dragset: I think it’s doubly bad that he’s obviously living here alone and sleeping alone. It’s a room for entertaining, and it’s just one man here.
Michael Elmgreen: It’s not very serious, or depressing right up in your face. Subtleties are spread out over the room, like where you see he has an appointment with his doctor, an AIDS specialist. There’s also documentation of all the early launches of architectural projects of housing or whatever that he never realized back in the 80s. You know it’s an old person living here who never succeeded getting his visions realized, just from the beautiful objects. The objects are the person, in a sense.
I notice you included a replication of your rocking horse statue [installed on the top of the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in 2012].
Dragset: There are several elements in the room that relate back to our work, to put a meta-perspective on the show. The golden vulture [perched above the bed], for example, has been following us for many exhibitions, and represents the constant presence of the art critic.
Are you going to do any more installments of his story? Before Tomorrow?
Dragset: That may very well be! We did that before with the character we did for the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2009 [The Mysterious Mr. B]. There we created a bit more of a prequel for what we had done in Venice, where the guy is dead and floating face-down in the pool.
Maybe that’s what would come next for Norman. When did you originally conceive his character?
Elmgreen: Many years ago. It took three years to prepare the show for the V&A, and that was in 2013. So we started developing Norman’s personality in 2010.
How did you choose Norman Swann’s name?
Dragset: His name was based on the greatest living architect in the world—Norman Foster, of course. And Swann is referring to Swann’s Way from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.
Have you read all of In Search of Lost Time?
Dragset: No, and neither has Norman! He’s only read Swann’s Way. We know so many people who have only read half of Swann’s Way. It’s fantastic.
That’s funny, the idea of not reading all of your own life story…it’s like not showing up to your own funeral. You do a lot of work with spaces, and Scandinavia has recently become hugely popular for its design. How has that affected you?
Dragset: We grew up with that kind of design, but we also know the pitfalls of that kind of design—where everyone has the same taste, and everything is controlled, functional, minimalist, and easy to clean.
Elmgreen: Exactly. We almost look at these physical installations like three-dimensional interior painting, like the psychological interior paintings of the 19th century. The way people live is actually quite tied to their identities and social class, and dreams and ambitions, even though interiors have always been looked upon as the lesser noble compared to architecture. The houses are created in a classic style [as opposed to Scandinavian minimalism], but the fact is that most of us can only actually live out our ideas and visions in the interior, because we don’t build our own homes. We don’t have the money for that, and we live in an apartment someone else designed. The interior is more interesting in that way, because it shows how people actually want to organize their lives.
You’ve said that this exhibit is sort of about our cultural obsession with youth, and minimalism strikes me as a sort of wrinkle-free style of design. Did you think about that when you were making this more baroque interior?
Dragset: I think [the old-fashioned interior] is kind of an extension of something we’ve been going through—something underlying and dirty and difficult revealed under the sleek surfaces of our minimalist work in the past.
Elmgreen: We’re doing something more [minimalist] in May [curated shows for the Nordic and Danish Pavilions at the Venice Biennale], so it’s not that we have abandoned that kind of aesthetic, it’s just…we need breaks.
Dragset: Sometimes you react against what you’ve done just before, so in a way this was kind of like cleansing ourselves.
I’m curious about the AIDS medications here—I think it’s interesting that you made this installation about a man who is older and is living with AIDS, because AIDS-related art usually focuses on people who are dying. Did you mean to address political correctness? It reminds me of the way soldiers are glorified in the U.S. but are often not provided for when they return home.
Elmgreen: AIDS used to be more sensational even ten years ago, when it was more fatal than it is today. The media and the government lost interest in AIDS when you suddenly could survive on the medication, even when it’s still very serious and there are a lot of side effects taking that kind of medicine. We don’t speak about it today because it doesn’t have the sensationalist effect anymore, and so all we have are these historic documents from all the horrors of the 80s.
AIDS is out of fashion.
Dragset: It’s out of fashion. Yet the stigma still prevails, both out in the general population and in the gay scene itself. No one has really been showing this part of the lives of people with AIDS.
Elmgreen: There are horrible phrases in gay chatwebs, for example, like “I’m clean,” which means “I’m not positive.” There’s this generation that were told they would die and then they turned out to be survivors. These people suddenly realized that they had twenty years extra added onto their lives. Maybe they had had to cash in their life insurance to get medicine and suddenly they’re living in total poverty.
Instead of a book or play or movie, you’re essentially telling a story through interior design. Did you mean to create such a complicated story, or did it just end up happening that way?
Dragset: We’ve always been a little envious of filmmakers, who can say quite a lot about society and about oneself through a few characters and a few scenes. But we don’t feel that’s the way we want to go—this is the way we feel we can maybe bring about something different, and a different way of telling a story.
Why don’t you feel you could make a film?
Elmgreen: A film is interesting, but it’s also very two-dimensional.
Dragset: A film is also more conclusive, and we feel this is a little bit more open-ended and doesn’t necessarily tell a full story. It’s also nice to have something that’s in front of you, so you could look at the detail.
A lot of your work feels deliberately closed off to me. Would you agree?
Elmgreen: Some interactive projects today are servicing people too much. We feel like too many people need to be pampered or involved before they can show any interest in a piece. Sometimes, you unconsciously get more out of [an artwork] that doesn’t allow you to do something. It’s not about you playing the central role—you actually have to sit down and listen to a story. I think something we need to reinvent in our society is the audience. We’ve become a population of performers. Less people go to read a book today, but more and more people go to shows because you can perform in a social context. I think we need to sit down and listen, which is why we made this book that we’re giving away for free.
Your work is often satirical—why do you find that kind of extremism most appealing?
Elmgreen: I wouldn’t say it’s satirical. I think we use humor sometimes (not so much in an exhibition like this) to address serious topics in a way that’s digestible. Satire and irony often doesn’t stick.
Dragset: We’re asking these big global questions and we’re talking about issues that we’ve never faced ourselves. There’s a lot of injustice in the world and there’s a lot of things we hope to change, but to make interesting art about anything you need to have some sort of personal connection to the subject matter.