Photos by Robert Fischer
Words by Kimberly Bradley

 

For the past quarter-century, the artist duo of Elmgreen & Dragset has developed a hybrid practice melding architecture, design and art as well as wit, subversion and subtle social critique. Their Prada Marfa (a forever-closed but fully stocked Prada store, sitting lonely in a Texas desert) first went viral in the 2000s. By now, however, their public sculptures and structures have reached busier, better-trod places like Rockefeller Plaza in New York, the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square and many locations throughout Scandinavia. Not to mention an array of museum and gallery spaces, and lots of new eyes and minds.

 

Michael Elmgreen is Danish, Ingar Dragset Norwegian. Both are youthful fiftysomethings. They arrived in Berlin in the mid-1990s, when the German capital was a derelict work in progress. It was the perfect setting for the duo  for the first decade of their practice they were also a couple to move beyond their early performative work to installation, sculpture and public art in all its forms. The two have also curated large-scale events like A Space Called Public (a months-long exhibition of public art) in Munich in 2013 and a good neighbour at the 15th Istanbul Biennale in 2017. Speaking with them is like watching a mental tennis game played for fun, with ideas and words being lobbed back and forth. Some hit hard and hammer home, others drop and are left to roll for a while before being picked up again.

 

nomad met the two in the sprawling attic of their studio a former pumping station with soaring ceilings in Berlin’s Neukölln district, to discuss Berlin’s early days, what art can do, believing children are our future and transcending Scandinavian conformity.

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Do you think your Scandinavian background shapes your work? And if so, how?

Ingar Dragset

It’s informed our work on many different levels. One element that’s apparent is the influence of Scandinavian functionalist design. Of course, with Minimalism there’s also a certain perception of design having to be functional, and efficient, for large groups of society. But it wasn’t necessarily thought of as exclusive. There are minimalist objects for your household which are also used in schools and institutions, and they’ve become part of a kind of ideology.

Michael Elmgreen

Even kindergartens were done in minimal design; people really got it from ­early on.

Ingar Dragset

It has a certain smoothness about it; an elemental control. The ideology is that we are all living in a specific way that’s working perfectly. We are all more or less the same. And in that sense, for us in our work it’s like part fascination and part critical confrontation with these ­ideas. We can see there are also problematic aspects to traditional Scandinavian design.

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What are they?

Michael Elmgreen

It’s based on monocultural values–that we all desire the same thing and our behavioural patterns are streamlined. This goes through Scandinavian countries today as well. Even though there is low immigration, they love to make big headlines out of it and make it a problem. The Nordic countries are very open-minded, but only as long as you eat the meatballs they eat, and celebrate Christmas like they do, and sit in …

 

Ingar Dragset

… the same Arne Jacobsen chair.

Michael Elmgreen

And adapt to all the behavioural patterns in that society. In Scandinavia you could basically have just one fashion store (all laugh). In Berlin, London, or New York people dare to stick out. In Denmark, you have 99.9 percent of people in duvet jackets during winter.

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There’s Acne, but COS looks a lot like Acne.

Ingar Dragset

Exactly! Last winter, I got lost cross-country skiing in Norway. I went on the wrong side of the mountain. But then as I skied around trying to find the people I was with, I thought I saw them all the time … but I didn’t. Everyone just looked the same. It took me ages. The paranoia wasn’t so much about not being able to find them again, it was about the feeling of seeing doubles all the time.

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Does your art twist this conformity?

Michael Elmgreen

We often use banal everyday objects and just slightly alter them. The viewers get to think about their function and how people interact with them on a daily basis, and what they mean. Because all the stuff that we surround ourselves with in our everyday life is based on certain values. From our light bulbs and our sneakers to the way cafes are designed or how our cities are planned. It all reflects the cultural values we live among. But often people don’t think about it.

Ingar Dragset

Ikea has also played a huge role in training people’s perception.

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