Elmgreen & Dragset Hold up a Queer Mirror to the Art World

At the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, the artists’ first US museum survey traces their slick, satirical and sentimental practice

Elmgreen & Dragset, He (Silver), 2013, epoxy resin, polyurethane cast, silver coating and clear lacquer, 190 × 140 × 100 cm. Courtesy: Galerie Perrotin; photograph: Holger Hoenck

The sculptures of artist-collaborators and former lovers Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset have always reflected upon the company they keep, from the biennial circuit to the art fair jet-set, casting the rarified culture industry in a queer, satirical light. Death of a Collector, installed at the Danish and Nordic pavilion during the 2009 Venice Biennale, drowned the figure of a businessman (à la Sunset Boulevard, 1950) face-down in a pool. For Traces of a Never Existing History/Powerless Structures, Fig. 222, commissioned for the 2001 Istanbul Biennial, the artists half-buried a rectangular gallery in a garden, revealing the words ‘Temporary Art’ on its façade. The art world’s already precarious institutions are ruined in their dystopic tableaux. In their first US survey at the Nasher Sculpture Center, the artists are darkly comic jesters in a royal court, with works spanning their three-decade practice installed alongside the museum’s irony-free modernist collection of sculptures by Barbara Hepworth, Richard Serra and others.

Elmgreen & Dragset, Traces of a Never Existing History/Powerless Structures, Fig. 222, 2001, wood, stainless steel, aluminium, perspex, fluorescent light and paint, 3.1 × 4.3 × 7.8 m. Courtesy: Elmgreen & Dragset Studio

Elmgreen & Dragset, Traces of a Never Existing History/Powerless Structures, Fig. 222, 2001, wood, stainless steel, aluminium, Perspex, fluorescent light and paint, 3.1 × 4.3 × 7.8 m. Courtesy: Elmgreen & Dragset Studio

The works that introduce the show, however – such as Modern Moses (2006), an ATM with a bassineted wax baby deposited before it – extend this critique beyond the art world, to queer experience and the minimalist aesthetics of surveillance systems and other forms of social control. Although the many figures on display successfully mimic the human form, they all suffer from rigor mortis: the artists’ archetypal portraits of a muscled lifeguard (Watching, 2016) and a boy gazing rapturously at a framed gun (One Day, 2015) aren’t evocative of real personalities or even real bodies, but rather lifeless mannequins, displaced from the shopping mall to the museum. Their uncanny, commercial appearance seems crafted not by human hands but by machine fabrication. These commodified bodies resonate in Dallas, and especially at the Nasher, which stands just blocks from the flagship Neiman Marcus department store, and houses a collection informed in part by its founder’s provocative installations of sculpture within the thoroughfares of NorthPark Center, a high-end shopping mall.

Elmgreen & Dragset, Modern Moses, 2006, carrycot, bedding, wax fgure, baby clothes, and stainless steel cash machine, carrycot: approx. 16 × 71 × 37 cm., cash machine: 96.5 × 63.8 × 43.5 cm. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Eric Gregory Powell

Inert though these figures may be, they are softened by sentimentality. For the sole performance work in the exhibition, Dallas Diaries (2019), a trio of handsome young men sit in the galleries and constantly journal. The work, first presented in 2003 at Perrotin as Paris Diaries, performs an adolescent vulnerability the adult duo still channel as queer role models. 

Elmgreen & Dragset, One Day, 2015, aluminium, lacquer, glass, wood, fabric and clothes, Boy: 104 × 40 × 40 cm., vitrine: 55 × 145 × 20 cm. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Holger Hönck

As in works by Charles Ray and Jeff Koons (whose Louis XIV, 1986, appears in a gallery of permanent collection works curated to accompany the show), the polished stainless steel of many of these sculptures reflect the viewer’s gaze. As I studied the surface of He (Silver) (2013), Copenhagen’s landmark The Little Mermaid (1913) icon recast as a sad young man rather than an amphibian girl, I saw myself there, refracted through an iridescent rainbow patina: the palette of gay liberation likely left by the oil of admiring hands compelled to touch the work’s seductively smooth surface. Though their forms bear few traces of expressive touch, Elmgreen & Dragset’s sculptures still tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves – a tenderness that lies just beneath their slick veneer. 

Elmgreen & Dragset: Sculptures continues at the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, USA, through 5 January 2020.

Grant Klarich Johnson is a critic and art historian based in New York, USA. A PhD candidate in art history at the University of Southern California, he is currently a Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Issue 207

First published in Issue 207

November - December 2019

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