"Between What is Private and What is Public": Inside Elmgreen & Dragset's Studio

"Between What is Private and What is Public": Inside Elmgreen & Dragset's Studio
Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset in their Berlin studio
(Photo by Juliane Eirich)

Elmgreen & Dragset’s productions are often associated with buildings, particularly structures into which we can peer, like voyeurs. Some are permanent, like Prada Marfa, 2005, the high-end fashion store they constructed in the Texas desert town, which Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation has turned into an art mecca. Most are transient, such as Death of a Collector, their installation within the group show they organized for the adjacent Danish and Nordic pavilions at the 2009 Venice Biennale, or the ammonium-scrubbed bureaucratic structure they created in London’s Serpentine Gallery for their 2006 exhibition “The Welfare Show;” or the prison-cell-cum-installation in which two characters, artists each, are locked in the play, Happy Days in the Art World, produced in New York for Performa 11 last fall. These environments not only establish a sense of illicit spectatorship, they also allow the artists to indulge their fascination with design and to expose the ways architecture reinforces power, all the while creating a mise-en-scène for their narratives. Still, none of these structures, not even the freestanding apartment block they constructed inside the ZKM Museum of Contemporary Art in Karlsruhe for their show “Celebrity—The One & The Many” in 2010, can match the extravagance of their studio, in Berlin’s Neukölln borough.

A converted water-pumping station dating to 1924 that they bought from the city some six years ago, the boxy construction, with its tall, narrow windows emphasizing the height of the brick façade, looks like a modernist industrial cathedral dropped into a sleepy, residential district. One enters directly into the enormous main production room, where the windows zoom up like zips of light to the ceiling three stories above. Marbled green-and-black tiles running around the lower five feet of the perimeter reinforce how much the towering white walls dwarf you. A series of walkways and a long platform with a line of desks for clerical work stretch through the space high above the floor. Such is their concern for the comfort of their employees that the artists have rigged these platforms with cables and pulleys, allowing the people and their desks to shift position with the sun.


On the day I visit, the floor below looks more like a packing facility than a fabrication shop. Boxes and crates are piled against the walls and near a thick rectangular pillar. One slatted crate, stamped “artwork: handle with care,” is balanced on its smashed corner, from which Styrofoam peanuts spill out; the joke of course being that the crate is itself the work. A nearby bunk bed whose top bunk — mattress and pillow included — faces downward (and which I recognize as a prop from Happy Days in the Art World) reminds me that Elmgreen & Dragset’s pieces often feature doublings and mirrored images. One thinks, too, in this regard of the paired “houses” from “The Collectors” at the 2009 Venice Biennale. With a lampooning intent, such couplets frequently reflect the “real” world back at the art world, and vice versa. The studio itself was conceived as a place to merge art and life. “We don’t want to have these professional transitions between what is private and what is public,” says Dragset, gesturing to the large main space. “We use this as a showroom sometimes or for hanging out with the staff.” The irony, however — and with Elmgreen & Dragset there is usually the inflection of an arched brow — is that the studio isn’t really where their art is made.

“When we make our works,” says Elmgreen, “very often we’re on the road. It’s much more inspiring when you travel.” “Here [in the studio] everyone needs us,” interjects Dragset. “If you get an idea, you need to forget about the problems of executing it — you can’t concentrate on how many screws should be in the work or will the bronze corrode or the gold leaf fall off,” Elmgreen continues. “Those are the things we do here, the troubleshooting, making it look good, changing it, talking with workshop fabricators. Then when we’re away, we play.”

Elmgreen & Dragset collaborate best while traveling in part because they no longer live in the same city. Indeed, if their work tends to suggest dark narratives — the death of a collector, the breakdown of the welfare state, the anomie that celebrity obsession can visit upon “the many” — their own story is one of perseverance in the face of adversity. They met in Copenhagen in 1995, when Michael Elmgreen, who was born in the city in 1961, was writing and performing poetry, and Ingar Dragset, a Norwegian born in 1969, was studying theater. For the first 10 years of their artistic collaboration, they were a couple. By the time they bought the Neukölln studio, they had broken up. Remarkably, their professional relationship has survived, even flourished.

For a time both men lived in the building, each occupying one of the five stories that make up the rear section of the pumping station. About four years ago Elmgreen, who has boyish blond hair and a dour expression, moved to London. “I got fed up with Berlin,” he explains. “I’m always having to move every 10 or 12 years because I think, ‘Oh no, it was much better at that point in time.’ The city is not going to change, so if someone is going to change, it must be me, no?” He’s able to escape to a holiday home in Barcelona and travels to Berlin for work 8 to 10 days each month. The rest of the time the two keep in touch via Skype, e-mail, and telephone. (They communicate in Danish.)

When he’s in town, Elmgreen sometimes stays in a bedroom on the top floor of the studio, off a capacious living room with a steep A-frame roof, dark wood floors, and just a few items of furniture: A stuffed white goat watches over three sleek but welcoming chairs arranged under a skylight. The third and fourth floors serve as guest rooms. Dragset, who resides elsewhere in Berlin with his boyfriend, the artist Simon Fujiwara, keeps an office on the first floor. The stairway linking the floors is lined, somewhat haphazardly, with paintings, photographs, and small sculptures the men have bought from younger artists.

“The whole idea of the building was to not be too professional,” says Dragset, dark and bearded, yet with a sunny disposition. “At some point we had 12 to 15 people employed here, and I felt like I wasn’t an artist anymore — I was a director, and I don’t want that. Now we’re down to six people who have been working here for a long time — it’s very much a big family.”

Communal lunches take place in the long, combined kitchen and dining area on the second floor. Everyone takes turns cooking. Today, while enjoying frikadelle — wonderfully savory Danish meatballs—with a green salad and potatoes, I inquire about a monochrome white painting propped against a wall. Elmgreen tells me it’s a framed, square layer of paint removed from a gallery wall in the Guggenheim Museum, in New York, and mounted on canvas. It’s one of a series of such paint swathes taken from museums around the world that forms half of “Harvest,” their second solo show at Victoria Miro, which remains on view at the London gallery through November 10. (They also work with Galerie Perrotin, in Paris, and Taka Ishii Gallery, in Tokyo.) Dragset explains that they hired one of Germany’s best conservators, someone “who normally takes down frescoes, very precious,” to remove the paint samples.

Coinciding with the duo’s exhibition at Victoria Miro is their ominously titled installation Omna Una Manet Nox (“One Night Awaits Us All”), 2012, at the London flagship store of Louis Vuitton. A golden vulture surveys an otherwise inviting four-poster bed, suggesting that the “one night” may be endless.

Elmgreen cuts in: “What’s fun is that white is considered neutral, but from institution to institution, the color tones, the structure, the kind of paint they use is completely different. So together they have this painterly quality where it looks like some weird, ’50s modernist painter who got upset with his monochromes and wanted to test out the different kind of ambiences of the white.”

The effect, I admit, is stunning — and not nearly as freakish as the stuffed vulture that has been staring us down throughout lunch. What’s with him, I ask. Elmgreen says they’ve decided to include the figure of the vulture in every show they do from now on, even if it’s just a photo in the bathroom: “We call him The Critic.” There’s a white vulture in the Victoria Miro exhibition and, at the Louis Vuitton flagship store on London’s New Bond Street, a golden one perches atop a white four-poster bed in an Elmgreen & Dragset installation on view through November.

Despite their popularity, the duo has suffered their share of slings and arrows in recent years. Even before its unveiling in Helsingør, Denmark (Hamlet’s Elsinore), last June, Han, their male counterpart to Copenhagen’s bronze sculpture The Little Mermaid, incited front-page condemnations. “That is really a big surprise for us,” says Elmgreen, “because we thought we were making a very subtle, poetic work that would be playing with and challenging the perception of the history of the two cities.” Han, which means “he” in Danish, sits in the same position as The Little Mermaid, upon a rock that is the same shape as hers, but he and the rock are fabricated in stainless steel, which mirrors the sky and sea. And he’s nude.

“But it doesn’t have a fish tail. And it’s really not erotic at all,” says Dragset. “He’s just naked, like she is, and she’s been sitting there naked for I don’t know how many years now.”

“We didn’t expect, in 2012, the population in a country like Denmark to be so upset about a different masculine image,” says Dragset.

Days before Han was unveiled, Happy Days in the Art World, translated into Danish, had its premiere at the Royal Danish Theater in Copenhagen. When first shown in New York, the play received decidedly mixed reviews. Like many people, I wondered why they’d done a theater work in the first place. Question posed, Elmgreen took the bait: “Part of trying to do things in different ways and to work with new media is also trying not to be lazy, not just do the routine thing — but it’s also not being afraid of failing.” Warming to the subject, he continued, “The art world has become so much like any other field today, people are hyper-afraid of doing something that is not functioning, of making a fiasco. It’s a pity, because all the really surprising stuff comes out of not being afraid. And who fucking cares if you fail? I love to see my colleagues fail — and they love to see me fail. It’s not a world disaster. It’s only because of vanity that you’re afraid of failing. If you try to cut off that vanity a bit, something fantastic might happen now and then.”