Elmgreen and Dragset: After Dark
Chinese / English
“Back in 1994, we met for the very first time on the basement dancefloor of that club in Copenhagen. The velvet-seated environment and the euro-trash pop hits blasting out of the loudspeakers all night long made both of us feel slightly lost and out of context with our multi-colored hairdos and Dr. Martens boots, regularly listening to bands like Sonic Youth or Nirvana. Like two misfits, we left the club together.” —Elmgreen & Dragset
Elmgreen & Dragset like to transform the white cube into a resonance chamber that speaks to our real life experiences. For their show in Hangzhou’s contemporary art center, By Art Matters, they installed a club space in the ground floor, a meticulously designed and lighted environment in which they strategically placed sculptural works: a monochrome bottle shelf filled with rows upon rows of the same milky liquid, a modernist circular bar that turns the tables on customers who could be served only if there was an entry to its center, a cute terrier on a merry-go-round catering to the social media audience, below the ceiling a tight-rope walker hanging from a single hand with strange calm. These works appeared like misfits in the party atmosphere of the opening, but then during exhibition times the viewer becomes the intruder in eerily silent rooms. Upstairs the exhibition spaces were divided into several deeply symbolic tableaux of bronze figures painted in plaster white: kids playing silent games hidden behind bulky virtual reality headsets or staring out of the windows while offline, a tennis parable that has one youth cradling the winner’s trophy and the other lying face down on his half of the court, a maid watching over a children’s bed on which a vulture perches, and more.
The book documents these complete environments in gorgeous spreads, along with shots of earlier installations for context. The texts explain both the history of the artists’ work and how it interrelates with Asian expressions of a gay subculture, alongside an interview with the artists who reveal the deeply personal layers behind the pieces: “Club scenes have been central to many minority groups in defining themselves, in gathering strength and belief in their own worth and power and giving people a sense of belonging . . . Realizing a club project now, after Covid and all the lockdowns that have taken place all over the world, has been very different and new for us. Our After Dark installation almost feels like a memorial to a different time.”
BATTLING WITH ARCHITECTURE
FB: What would be the ideal soundtrack for the show?
E&D: The sound of the “in-between”: the sound of a hoover maybe, of preparation, of cleaning up and checking the sound system, the sound of ordinary activities we are not supposed to see. Or, like for many of our exhibitions, Brian Eno’s Music for Airports would atmospherically be a pretty good fit.
FB: It’s a show about music but the works are mute. Can a sculpture or a painting compete with the emotional power of a song?
E&D: We are convinced that sculptures have voices, but whispering ones, so you hardly notice them. Some sculptures tell really dull stories or are not very articulate, while others have these extremely seductive voices that will stick in your head for a long time.
FB: Can you try to tell me how your brains work? What is the process towards a work? Where do you start?
E&D: Our brains are constantly trying to connect to each other. For obvious reasons (us being humans and not machines) this does not fully work, but in the process of connecting and disconnecting, something interesting occasionally happens. Our whole process is communication, from beginning to end. (Look at what we are doing right now, with you!)
FB: How much does architecture interfere with your work?
E&D: A huge amount. We’re constantly battling with architecture. Sometimes it’s a joyful play-fight, at other times we’ll feel the urge to go full de-construction. Usually, though, it’s the starting point for our exhibition concepts, as we often take into account the existing characteristics of the particular spaces we’re working with—looking at how such spaces are used, by whom and in what ways—to formulate ideas that either resonate with or rebut ingrained associations with a specific site. It’s interesting how the aesthetics of a certain space can make you feel or behave in particular ways. A room with grand architectural features might change how you walk around it. If we were to transform such a space into a domestic setting, for example, as we did for the Danish and Nordic Pavilions for the Venice Biennale in 2009 and later at the V&A in London in 2013, it might make visitors feel like detectives looking for clues in someone’s private sphere or like uninvited guests in that home. We have found that by modifying the architectural features of a gallery space and by moving away from the white-cube aesthetic, it’s possible to alter how people interact with art.
In collaboration with BY ART MATTERS