Michael Elmgreen (born in 1961 in Copenhagen, Denmark) and Ingar Dragset (born in 1969 in Trondheim, Norway) live in Berlin and London and have worked as a conceptual art-making duo since 1995. Hailing from poetry, theater, and performance backgrounds rather than the visual arts, in their practice the duo reference the conceptually loaded minimalist objects of artists such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres, as well as conceptual figurative sculpture—apropos of Charles Ray and Marc Quinn—to create mischievous and subversive mise-en-scènes. While playful, their work also tackles serious issues including the relationship of body to space, identity and politics, structures and institutional space, wealth and class, and youth and homosexuality. With a focus on works that are both highly conceptual and objects carefully crafted to be realistic and recognizable, as Elmgreen notes in How Are You, the 2011 documentary film about their work, "We don’t put our views into our art, our art springs from our views."
The work of Elmgreen & Dragset is distinctive in its variety of media, disciplines, and formats: an empty room re-painted white, an intimate video of two men kissing, a vulture lurking in a barren tree, a baby in a bassinet left below an ATM machine, a man by the water’s edge, a pair of wrinkled jeans strewn on the ground, urns filled with pastel pharmaceutical powders, a discotheque left dirty and forlorn after all the partygoers have gone. In Texas, Elmgreen & Dragset are well-known for the outdoor work Prada Marfa, 2005, an eroded, inaccessible Prada store sited in the stark landscape outside the city of Valentine, a structure that is now designated a permanent museum. Closer to their own home, the duo is famous for their work in conversation with Denmark’s national icon, Edvard Eriksen’s 1913 bronze sculpture of The Little Mermaid, who is perched on granite stone along the rocky shoreline of Copenhagen. Elmgreen & Dragset first addressed this work in 2008 by placing a mirror in front of the mermaid, as if she were gazing narcissistically at herself, for a photograph titled When a Country Falls in Love with Itself. A few years later the artists created a sculptural response to the national symbol, located a short drive north of the mermaid. Elmgreen & Dragset’s 2012 work Han ("he" in Danish) is installed in the harbor of Elsinore, the historic setting of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In this work a polished stainless steel figure of a young, nude, human male rests idly on his own shiny rock. He is stationary, forever looking, save the occasional blink of his eyes as he gazes out at the water.
Returning regularly to themes of power and powerlessness, the artists remain fascinated with the idea that a seemingly functional, unremarkable thing can be rendered nonfunctional. Indeed, the expression "powerless structures" is a key tenet of the artists’ practice. In Powerless Structures, Fig. 101, 2012, Elmgreen & Dragset’s Fourth Plinth commission in London’s Trafalgar Square, the figure of a small boy, cast in bronze, sits alone astride a rocking horse atop the iconic column, massive in scale but rendered small again by the viewer’s perspective. One of the duo’s earliest sculptural works, Powerless Structures, Fig. 11, 1997, is site-specific. The artists’ re-creation of an unremarkable swimming pool diving board is installed at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, north of Copenhagen. The diving board exists, incongruously, both inside and outside, horizontally bifurcating the museum’s glass-windowed Panorama Room, which features a wide vista overlooking the Øresund Sound. Of this work, Elmgreen notes, "[I]t’s impossible, of course, to interact with it. We call these kinds of works ‘denials’ and they refer back to our early performance pieces, and the body in relation to space."
The duo’s new bronze sculpture, Watching, 2017, depicts a young male, in his teens or early twenties, sitting high atop a lifeguard’s chair. Sited along the water’s edge at The Contemporary Austin’s Laguna Gloria sculpture park, binoculars in his hands, this staple of swimming pools and beaches appears active and alert: as fits the work’s title, he enacts the verb, he performs the act of looking. Yet, in true Elmgreen & Dragset fashion, as a static sculptural object with an implied narrative, the figure is unable to follow through on his intended function. As Elmgreen describes it, the figure is "sitting without any real purpose," another "powerless structure." As a lifeguard, he cannot save lives, nor leave his chair, nor offer a life preserver to a wayward swimmer. In line with the artists’ interest in performative objects, the work suggests an absurd performance, as in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, 1952, where the anticipation of something about to take place is in itself the main event. Or perhaps something is happening and the boy is witnessing it only as a spectator from afar, using the binoculars as opera glasses to observe a staged experience. Equally, as in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear Window, 1954, the scene is voyeuristic; almost as an accomplice the work asks you to look away from it, to watch elsewhere. It points toward something, or someone, else, a slippery diversion. The young man cannot reach what he is watching, and, high up on his chair, his attention pointed elsewhere, neither can we reach him.
As seen in Watching, a continuous and pervasive motif throughout Elmgreen & Dragset’s work has been the swimming pool and its accompanying culture: lifeguards, diving boards, the water’s edge, voyeuristic tendencies, and the attention to bodies in relation to one another. This "ongoing fetish with swimming pools, as Elmgreen unabashedly states, suggests a youthful attraction to pools as well as perhaps the allure of hedonistic beach culture in warmer climates (in contrast with the artists’ upbringing along cold Scandinavian shores). In 2009, the duo took over the Danish and Nordic Pavilion in the 53rd Venice Biennale with The Collectors, an immersive installation that appeared to offer the viewer a sneak peek by a realtor into the homes of wealthy art collectors. During guided, performative tours, one of the collectors, sculpted in wax, is found floating facedown in the swimming pool. More recently, and publicly, in New York’s Rockefeller Plaza, Elmgreen & Dragset installed Van Gogh’s Ear, 2016, which utilizes the simple yet powerful gesture of turning a gigantic swimming pool on its side as a comedic homage to the legend of the modernist painter’s infamously separated body part. Also recently, at Ekebergparken in Oslo, the duo has installed Dilemma, 2017, a young boy in cast bronze, poised at the edge of a tall swimming pool diving board.
Swimming pools can be complex public spaces, ones where the body is on view, often partially or fully unclothed. Many of Elmgreen & Dragset’s figurative works depict young men in various stages of adolescence and young adulthood, a time when questions about identity and explorations of sexuality are inescapable. Indeed, Dragset notes, "We started out making art because we felt something was missing, in the gay community, and in art." While bridging this gap, they continue to explore and to bring into the public sphere—as in a work like Watching—realistic, poignant representations of queer life, because even now, as Elmgreen elaborates, "There are so few signs of homosexual identity in the public today."