After 20 years of collaboration with the gallery, the artists duo Elmgreen & Dragset unveils a new solo exhibition gathering seven sculptures or sculpted groups that depict several potential scenarios. This new project marks the tenth exhibition with the gallery.
Without transition, your eyes glued to the smartphone, you’ve entered the gallery space. You probably didn't realize it. Your mind was elsewhere, lost in the limbo of an alternate reality, both physical and virtual. This is normal in today's world, where reality is often filtered through devices, changing the experience of art itself. Interactivity has replaced contemplation, sharing content has replaced absorption. People show themselves experiencing art, whether with an #artselfie or a challenge for #arttok. More profoundly, our access to the real itself has been transformed. The experience is rarely direct, mediated by images, sounds, and texts shared with a swipe of our thumbs. You and I are the Thumbelina generation, participating in an all-encompassing collective choreography.
Elmgreen & Dragset's new exhibition at Perrotin Paris features seven sculptures that depict potential scenarios from this choreography. Across from the entrance, the first lone figure faces us, headphones over his ears, absent gaze, attracting ours but not reflecting it (David, 2023). The young man is sitting on a reproduction of the gallery’s concrete floor. The rectangular piece is hung on the wall like a painting, serving as the base of the human-sized, figurative sculpture; the first encounter with a scene of technological absorption.
The two Berlin-based Scandinavian artists depict the emotional effects of life dominated by devices, a preoccupation that has persisted across time and media. One of their earliest works, 1996’s TRY performance, showed three mute young men sitting on rugs in an exhibition space. They, too, were inscrutable, listening to music on their walkmans, their appearance giving no indication as to their identity.
If style says little about identity, attitudes reveal a lot about the state of the social contract. In the second space, two white-lacquered bronze figures show the climax of a commonplace drama. A two-wheeler lies overturned on the ground, its helmeted driver standing beside it (Delivery, 2023). The cube-shaped box indicates that we are witnessing a food delivery gone wrong.
The scene is both amplified and representative of our time by the presence of a sculpture of a photographer (The Examiner, 2023) in the background. The figure is perched on an elevated balcony, watching the accident and seemingly taking pictures instead of intervening.
Pure voyeurism or Instaactivism? Elmgreen & Dragset’s trademark social satire is encapsulated here: this scene is like the Laocoön for a society dominated by the gig economy.
You'll likely take a photograph yourself, but any chance of performative activism is effectively eliminated. This triangulation completes and reinforces the idea that art is powerless to truly intervene and help people get back on their feet.
Nevertheless, the duo believes in the transformative power of art. Art can intervene, albeit only symbolically, proposing experiments in deconditioning to challenge established norms that have become entrenched power structures. The third group of sculptures –This Is How We Play Together, Figs. 2, 3, and 4, 2023– is the most futuristic in its reference yet the most timeless in its philosophical significance.
To access it, one must enter a circular structure with a mirrored interior wall. Three children, two standing and one seated, perform a series of strange gestures. Perplexed and cautious, they stretch out their hands, clutching the void. Their balance is precarious, their poses unnatural. As with all the other characters in the exhibition, one of their senses is hidden behind a technological object, in this case, a virtual reality headset covers their eyes. Absorption is at its peak, as is the absence of reality. They discover a shimmering virtual universe. We see them without knowing what captivates them. We share the same physical space with these representatives of the near future, but we cannot communicate with them. We are in Plato's allegory of the cave, immersed and with a front-row seat.
Finally, we need to take a step back and pay attention to what we tend to overlook in the age of the attention economy. The last work, Still Life, 2023, reveals a tenuous presence as fragile and bare as life itself. Something that simply exists without augmentation or equipment. Protruding from one of the walls, the hands of a child hold a sparrow. The bird’s color and feathered texture make it appear real, but it is created with animatronics, like the robotized creatures in films. Here, technology is used in reverse, and the effect is resolutely anti-spectacular. The puny creature is wounded and faintly palpitates, gasping for breath.
Placed at the end of the exhibition, this work adds nuance and completes the overall panorama. While all the groups of sculptures in the preceding galleries inscribe technology in the tradition of classical sculpture, the bird undermines its high-tech mechanism by mimicking nature. What remains in the overall scenario is the essence of Elmgreen & Dragset's practice: the interactive observation of the contemporary human condition, shaped by systems of power, knowledge, and now technology. These totalizing yet eminently arbitrary systems can falter at the slightest glitch or flap of the wings.
Michael Elmgreen (born in Copenhagen, Denmark) and Ingar Dragset (born in Trondheim, Norway) have worked as a duo since 1995. They live and work in Berlin, Germany.
Elmgreen & Dragset work at the crossroads of art and architecture, performance and installation. Preoccupied with objects and their settings, along with the discourse that can arise when those objects are radically recontextualized, Elmgreen & Dragset push against the normal modes for the display of art. Whether through sculptures or total environments, their work draws attention to the institutions that host them and their attendant politics. Performativity and participation are fraught in their work, which invites and denies participation in equal measure—pools are emptied, diving boards are oriented vertically, bars are inaccessible, sinks dysfunctional. Quotidian objects are stripped of their utility and regarded as sculptural phenomena, taking on minimalist aesthetics that challenge the sterilizing force of the white cube. In the same way, Elmgreen & Dragset’s outdoor public sculptures recontextualize their surroundings, as seen in well-known projects like Van Gogh’s Ear at Rockefeller Plaza in New York or Prada Marfa, located along Highway 90 in the middle of the Texan desert.