Elmgreen & Dragset
Fail better next time
Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset’s artistic research focuses on exploring the social and political aspects of contemporary life. Playing on the sense and nonsense of Western lifestyles and the imagery evoked by them, their sculptures, installations and performances create unsettling situations and images that are both recognizable and unfamiliar at the same time. Being capable of triggering an immediate intuitive reaction in the observer’s mind, the two artists redefine the way art is exhibited and experienced.
I talked with the artists about these dynamics and the themes of competitiveness and winning starting from their work “Short Story”.
In this installation, two young boys (Kev and Flo) find themselves suspended in a tennis court as the match they have just played comes to an end. An elderly man (Bogdan) stands in the background, the only spectator, who, apparently half asleep, sits in a wheelchair in a corner beyond the field. That man is revealed to be, albeit silent, the narrator of this story and whether the story is thought or seen, or to what extent it concerns him or not, we cannot know it. Perhaps this man is dreaming and what he has seen is an extension of his thought, which transports us to the dimension of dreams, of a distant memory, in its manifestation. The dualism of this moment is also marked by the geography of the tennis court itself, which is divided into two parts presenting the two sides of a coin, the winning and the losing one, but it is however prefigured in its temporal expansion as bitter for both sides. In the face of the winner there’s not the pure joy of winning, opposed to the desperation of the loss suffered by the other side, the loss of the heirloom and symbol that the winner holds in his hands. A trophy, the only sparkling and reflective element of the scene together with the structure of the wheelchair, which leads us back to the subtle materiality of that self, alone, committed to raging on the surrounding reality, without ever really being part of it.
The “other” whether here it is real or an abstract figure of thought, which lives in the neutral and dilated space of the court or in a dream, appears disconnected from the scene, each character seems to interact only with himself, aware of the others but no longer in relation with them. They are all busy developing their own narrative on the forces at work according to their point of view and it is precisely through the attitudes of these characters that the rhythm of the event takes shape – which is the “moment” – we can define it as what Deleuze calls the living present, that is, that form of time in which time itself unfolds and disentangles. Past and future belong to this living present, they are its dimensions, since in the past the previous instants are maintained in the present by its contraction, and in the future the subsequent instants are anticipated in the present by the same contraction.
This scene in its unfolding represents the very moment in which the event took place, takes place and will continue as the consequentiality of the event will last, guaranteed by the certainty of those who contemplate it and that is also in the characters involved who were sure that the fact would have occurred and that the process will continue. Something that stands out in this scene is that this match was probably not fair, the two boys don’t have the same physical prowess, the winner however appears in a particular attitude, he tightly holds the trophy as if it was a very important achievement from which he does not seem willing to separate but at the same time his facial expression betrays a probable awareness that it was not exactly a legitimate win but yet he doesn’t even turn around to contemplate the desperation of his opponent.
This human type, which is characteristic of contemporaneity, seems to be the one who rather loses contact with reality, suffering, in (self)deception, a loss of content of reality. But since it cannot cease to be human and since its consciousness continues to function in accordance with reality (which is comprised of society and not just by the self), it creates surrogate images of reality in order to find directions of order – and in its favor – for its propitious existence and its behavior in the world. This human type is therefore “trapped” in a parallel of the absurd where it is consciously considered correct to convince oneself of one’s own projection that, as universal justice, sees the right thing according to the self that thinks it. So much as to impose it on their neighbor as it is, albeit clearly filtered with the means of one’s individualism and therefore not universally correct, thus ending up convincingly simulating an idea of what’s right that is not fair.
There is a reality totally independent from our representations (“Realism is not how real things are, but how things really are” as Bertolt Brecht said), it is a proper objective reality where it is not enough to arrive at a solid collective lie to obtain justice, since what can really be considered right or wrong can never concretely arise from a single individual, as they are values that exist and exist only if placed in a context of otherness. To understand this aspect, however, in this sense we can refer to a main paradox that is the one put in place by totalitarianism, which based its power of domination on the denial of evidence and common sense, as for example, in George Orwell’s 1984. The doublethink in that case, was founded on the possibility of simultaneously supporting two contradictory ideas and believing in both without the analytical approach of the paradox. In the minds of officials, the line between what is “correct” and what is “true”, in the sense we normally understand it, really seems to have blurred; by repeating the same nonsense several times, they ended up believing it, or at least partially. The massive and profound corruption of language and images eventually resulted in people unable to recognize their own lies – except when perhaps in the end all is lost (let’s think of the possibility that the old man in a wheelchair is dreaming of the scene in front of him while recalling and regretting his childhood and the past).
Can we talk more in depth about the psychology of the three characters according to your point of view?
Elmgreen & Dragset:
Each of the three figures in Short Story seems isolated in their own way: they are placed spread out inside the exhibition hall, none of them are looking at each other, and they all seem to be going through individual experiences. Flo, the young boy holding a trophy, is clearly the winner of the match, but his expression is not of glee, as you might expect. Instead, his gaze is cast downwards, and his facial expression seems to indicate discomfort, which perhaps throws into question whether it was a fair win. Kev, the smaller boy, lies face down with his arms spread out with childish abandon as if totally defeated and exhausted. Then there’s Bogdan, who’s a sculpture of an older male figure who sits half-dressed in a wheelchair away from the tennis court. The way Bogdan’s eyelids are drooping, as if into slumber or reverie, casts some ambiguity as to whether he’s present in the scene or if he represents someone who is absent, perhaps thinking back to a traumatic childhood event such as this tennis match scene. Often, we create sculptural works which, put together in certain constellations, shape an emotional narration – situations which can be read as either individualistic or representing something more general. With Short Story, we didn’t want to reveal too much about the narrative and deliberately left the mindsets of the three characters equivocal. When you read a short story you always imagine how the characters and the scenery might look. But in our installation, we reversed that dynamic – by showing the characters and leaving the specific story telling for the audience to decide.
In this sense I would also like to examine, in a way closely linked to our contemporary context, what you think about the means that contribute to the production of the “collective lie” on the subject of success today, which contribute to the rush and frenzy for success and approval, I am thinking about social media and the spread of false information. In short, what are your thoughts about success and competitiveness in the age of access?
Social media has created a disjuncture in our lives where our physical and digital personas might live in totally different realities. Success is increasingly based and measured on our achievements that are exposed on social media, while our bodies are used less and less. It’s almost as if success doesn’t happen now unless it’s been endorsed by “likes” online. Perhaps this means that the successes we chose to keep private now hold less social value than they did before. But then again, success is a funny concept in itself – by default it depends on a very binary set of values, where “unsuccessful,” in a scary way, is needed to ratify what is considered “successful.” Short Storyreturns to a more physical “portrait” of a winning-losing scenario, where the emotions that arise in this real-life situation are expressed in a way where there’s no room for “faking it,” because it’s a sort of snapshot of a very specific moment. We can probably all relate to the deflation seen on Kev’s face and in his body language – but perhaps it’s a feeling we now associate more with an unsatisfying response to a “success” posted on social media than a recent physical or real-life experience. Short Story also speaks about how so-called “success” and “failure” often is determined very early on in life.
Is there Power in losing and is that even more powerful than winning? What is it?
What does it mean to you to be successful? (I mean in the way you feel successful yourself, being successful).
Ha-ha. The motto we sometimes use is actually “fail better next time.”
There can be a certain power in not winning, which isn’t quite the same as to have lost.
You said: “People maybe want to win to feel that they are alive, to feel that they mean something, to feel unique but it’s a little bit absurd when you think about losing it’s a stronger feeling and it’s about feeling alive” – I agree with that. “The serious threat of today is the loss of the meaning of life”. The threat not of an ideological nihilism but an existential one, which we breathe unconsciously. A distrust in the possibility of fulfillment and the meaning of existence. This sentence was said by the current Pope and I do not quote him to enter the sphere of the intangible even if surely the Pope, as a man of the Church, tracks down the meaning of living in the faith in the “Other”, which in his case is God. All this made me think of Blaise Pascal and his bet on the existence of God, Pascal invited us to bet on the existence of God since it would always be a win-win situation. In the eventuality that God exists, one could win everything but if God did not exist at all, one would simply have won the nothing one always had and that would be still fine. Every sports match on the other hand is a bet in itself, you win or lose an idea, you compete, that’s how it is. But the same “competitive” element is now applied to all fields of human knowledge (intrinsic in today’s consumerist society of accumulation where a win that foresees the triumph of nothing is not contemplated) and this has ended up leading not only to one, but to a myriad of possible altars where it is no longer necessary to bet on the existence of “God”, because living is playing the game of pretending that we are ourselves Gods and therefore losing is no more a possibility. God can’t fail. The problem maybe is precisely of those who do not bring “God” to others to find themselves, but themselves to others to construct the “God” – that they think they are.
What do the winning and losing concepts mean to you and how do you contextualize them in this self-centered society where one doesn’t have any other acceptable possibility apart from winning?
Winning and losing only exist in the socially constructed frameworks by which they are measured. They are tied to competition as a societal and conceptual fabrication. In this way they are almost two sides of the same coin as they both imply perseverance to a particular level and an act of determination. The notions of winning and losing are almost a strange digression from the survival-extinction duality, something that humans have as we’re the top of the food chain. Success, however, can be felt inwardly, it can be a personal experience even though it does need that ‘otherness’ to quantify it. Winning, on the other hand implies public acknowledgement. For us, both frameworks – individual success and competition – have always felt strange since our artistic practice is completely based on collaboration and sharing.
Why do you think winning isn’t always the best position to be in?
Who actually grows from winning? Winning almost implies that the only next step is to win more or again, otherwise it’s a bit like a conclusion or a full-stop. It might also imply a strive to have advantage over others, which can be a bit ugly. If you “win” and you don’t get the satisfaction you were expecting, you can end up feeling like you’ve lost. There’s a frailty in winning in that sense, whereas losing can give space for trying again, for striving. However, the most important thing might be to not believe in the value systems built up around winning or losing at all, and to keep a healthy suspicion towards the perceived fairness of such systems.
What are you working on at the moment?
I saw you just unveiled “Livredderen”, a new permanent installation in Tårnby (Denmark), would you like to tell me briefly something more about it? The young figure is a lifeguard on a lifeguard’s chair but when I saw it for the first time – without knowing anything yet, not being familiar with your language and without the slightest idea that it was even watching over a Tårnby’s sports pool – I immediately thought of a chair umpire and I liked to connect it to the context of the match we have discussed so far, decontextualizing and extending the narration of Short Story in my personal raving which I can certainly now say it was not something you intended. But in the end even in Short Story there is in any case a fourth element on the scene that looks from far away – which is the spectator. I then realized that this “chair umpire” I invented was shirtless and there and then the spell I was under broke and I looked for more information. Even after 11 years of competitive swimming I am still not able to immediately recognize a lifeguard (Ha-ha), but this is my limit – while instead this unknown and infinite “elsewhere” that becomes a distance to reach and towards which the boy in “Livredderen” looks at – perhaps trying in vain to shorten it with binoculars – seems to be limitless.
Can you describe this Livredderen scene for me?
Our latest public sculpture is installed at the entrance of the Vestamager swimming pool in Tårnby, an area in the outskirts of Copenhagen. As you approach the building, the bronze figure of a lifeguard sits on a very high chair and looks out across the space in front of the swimming hall, peering through a pair of binoculars. It’s like he’s keeping an eye on the visitors as they approach, but they can never really know what he’s looking at because his gaze is set right over their heads, far into the distance. The disjunct there between viewer and viewed, who will never truly interact with each other because of the positioning of the sculpture, almost abstracts the very notion of seeing or watching.
There is always a narrative theatrical component in all your works. Is there an element of correlation between your works? Given the issues you deal with, I wonder, can these stories actually communicate in a broader dialogue. Is this a universe of characters and situations that could handle going on stage all together? I like to mix your stories, I always find an element of compatibility between them. Is this something you intended to convey?
Every time we show an artwork in a new context, institution or country, its meanings will change slightly. Somehow, our artworks seem to draw their own correlations between them and their surroundings – creating little universes of their own. The sculptures trigger the possibility of another reading when we change the environment where they are shown, or when the configuration of sculptures changes. That allows for webs of associations to develop and unfold. With Short Story, we actually exhibited a version of the work outside on a real tennis court in the Hamptons in 2020. There, the layers of meaning shifted as the presence of the sculptures Flo and Kev interrupted the function of the space and prevented the tennis court being used as a sports court.
What is your relationship with sport and the dynamics taking place in sporting competition?
Neither of us are particularly competitive by nature, least of all in sport. Growing up, games and sports were often influenced by pushy parents or tainted by the toxic macho behaviour of older boys and men. Hopefully things have changed. With Short Story, we were intrigued by the nature of the game of tennis, which has its rules set out so graphically and depends so much on single-mindedness. It’s like a concentrated form of competition, head-to-head, and there has to be a winner or a loser. It is played out across a physical barrier reminiscent of street markings or other regulative mechanisms within our society, so it resonated with us as a reality that relates to many aspects of our daily lives – and how these are controlled by certain rules.