By Ruth Direktor
The image most characterizing the first exhibition in Israel by artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset is that of a structure that has collapsed and scattered to pieces. Instead of a complete, coherent exhibition located in one gallery, offering the visitor a total experience, several works are scattered throughout the Museum, chancing upon the viewer unexpectedly, in different locations and in different guises of not-art.
At the entrance to the Herta and Paul Amir Building, a Donation Box (2006) is placed, of the kind found at the entrance to various establishments. It seems to have always been there. Like those boxes, it too is transparent, not just by its material quality, but by its very defiantly demanding nature, aiming directly at the pocket of those chancing upon it, causing them to turn their gaze elsewhere. Yet, it is precisely the gaze of the alert viewer, which is essential in order to provide Donation Box with a meaning of an art work and to read it, as well as the other works in the exhibition. A ready gaze will notice several coins in the box, but they are swallowed among a medley of objects that seem like the emptied contents of a pocket or a bag or a trashcan: an old trainer, a squashed cigarette box, a comb, a Do Not Disturb sign, a pacifier, an empty packet of pills, a train ticket, a car key and various crumpled or squashed papers. The opening of the box is blocked.
The donation box illustrates well Elmgreen & Dragset’s tendency to use materials that comprise the world of art, combine them into a passive-aggressive relationship with the viewer, and present the economic situation as existential. If Donation Box conjures up the Poubelles (trash bins) of Arman—the French New Realism artist who collected the contents of trash cans in Plexiglas boxes—then these works of him from the 1960s immediately elucidate the difference. Alongside criticism of the consumerist society that emerged post-World War II, the object works of Arman and his contemporaries also expressed enthusiasm for this society, and the conviction that a person’s chattel, as well as the remnants he or she leave behind, reflect his or her personal essence. In contrast, Elmgreen & Dragset’s Donation Box is realistic and delusion-free about Capitalism and its implications for individuals and museums alike. Its contents are not the personal portrait of someone, but rather a cynical and depressing mirroring of museum economy in the capitalistic era. Furthermore, the box explicates, already at the entrance, that Elmgreen & Dragset’s conduct on the art arena is fully aware of its processes, its characteristics and the forces which motivate it; they play the game with amusement, while viewing it from aside and tearing it to pieces as much as they can.
Further on, sunk in a passageway wall, stands an ATM. On the floor below is a baby carrycot with a wax baby. This is Modern Moses (2006), a horrifying contemporary version of the Biblical tale and a blunt, direct representation of abandonment and orphanhood in the shadow of Capitalist economy. The marble floor is cold, the ATM is inoperative and visitors to the Museum keep passing over Moses on their way to the galleries and halls, between exhibitions and concerts.
The exhibition’s unmarked route continues to the building’s lower level. Here it seems we have chanced upon an exhibition in progress: painters’ scaffoldings, a ladder, a bucket of paint, paper cups and, on the wall, a large title whose letters have not all been peeled off yet: “Matisse: Other Landscapes.” The heart misses a beat. A Matisse exhibition! Without a label or an elucidating text on behalf of the Museum, there is no way to understand this is an installation-that-is-an-artwork rather than preparations for an exhibition. As in many other works by Elmgreen & Dragset, the artists use the common artistic-institutional syntax (label, exhibition heading, invitation and terminology such as “biography” or “self-portrait”) and then deconstruct it. The world of art is exposed as an arena whose rules are obvious, therefore transparent, thus so tempting to play with, disrupt, unsettle.
An “exhibition” also becomes such a construction which is so obvious, that a dramatic action such as a deliberately misleading announcement about a fictive exhibition is needed in order to draw attention to it. Instead of other landscapes by Matisse (imagine them: pink and orange, with soft black contours…), a concrete replication of the Berlin Wall cuts across the Lily and Yoel Moshe Elstein Multi-Purpose Gallery. It is 3.60 meters high (like the original Wall) and 30 meters wide (the Berlin Wall spread along 155 kilometers). On the wall behind the Wall hangs an fire escape construction, on which a youth in jeans and a hoodie is seated, looking down, contemplating, self-absorbed, and at the same time curious, attentive, colored in the whole range of hues between the optimism and pessimism deriving from the title attached to him: The Future. Not far from him, a street sign bearing the word “Zimmerstasse” stands, the name of the street that belongs in Berlin’s collective memory with Checkpoint Charlie, one of Berlin Wall’s best-known symbols. The youth’s future is unknown, the future of Zimmerstrasse is already here: fashionable, touristy, representative of the Wall’s commercialization. In any case, it seems that the future is a dubious option of the global era: freedom under the auspices of neo-liberalism.
Elmgreen & Dragset arrived in Berlin in 1997, eight years after the fall of the Wall, when Berlin had already remodeled itself as the capital of the World’s young people, and the Wall itself was already a myth. They have lived and worked in the city since then. This is where they built their studio. The evocation of the Wall twenty-seven years after its fall relates to what it still symbolizes: an arbitrary border, a cruel separation, an artificial creation of others and otherhood. The illusion that all these have collapsed with the fall of the Wall is nurtured through the bubble of freedom and openness that Berlin has created, but other walls, real and metaphorical, still exist and are still being built, and the unreasonable act of building a wall within a gallery contains and remembers them all.
Far from the Berlin Wall, in the Museum’s Sculpture Garden, stands Wishing Well (1998/2016), another takeoff of something familiar (this time something familiar and pleasant: a town square, families and children, tourists on holiday). Only close inspection reveals the shift that appropriates it from the thing itself and makes it into a meaningless structure, for a thick pane of glass blocks the well, and the coins in the water bear no mark. These are coins in their primal existence, metal disks of varying sizes, before their symbolical value has been imprinted on them, rendering them tradable. True, it is possible to guess from their size and metal type whether these are 1 or 5 or 10 NIS coins, yet once their identity has been robbed, even coins can evoke compassion. Like Donation Box, Wishing Well is also blocked. Viewers cannot throw a coin and make a wish, they are prevented from the customary active participation, and even the concept of Participatory Art—which makes viewers active participants in art that is often carnivalesque—is here under critical scrutiny. The participation required of the viewers here is of a different, more delicate and demanding nature: a gaze, attention, reading and deciphering signs.
The artists themselves confirm that for them, an exhibition is experienced as a movie set, where a plot can be directed, in which the viewers participate without knowing the script. This is translated into a seductive reading suggestion. Although the scattered structure of the exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art makes the reading of the whole difficult, the physical process throughout the Museum, along the exhibition’s stations, enhances the analogy to an ongoing, albeit non-linear, narrative structure. In the Museum’s Main Building, quite afar from the other works, stands another of Elmgreen & Dragset’s works, seemingly their most personal: Portraits of the Artist (2014). The portraits are located among the European Art of the 16th-19th Centuries, in the Ruth and Bruce Rappaport Gallery, alongside paintings representative of the portrait-painting tradition most identified with the bourgeoisie, paintings depicting a figure or a group of figures in their fineries, according to conventions well known to the painter and to those being painted. In contrast, Portraits of the Artist—wherever it is exhibited—is comprised of two oblongs painted directly onto the wall, assimilated into it and differing from it in color, which is one shade paler than that of the wall (red in this case). The label is the only way to notice them and give them meaning, whereas the title reminds us that the duo, Elmgreen & Dragset, is an artistic unit whose combined identity has become a brand name. Whereas the portraits hanging on the surrounding walls seek to emphasize the individual essence of the depicted figures as well as the painter’s fingerprint, the two oblongs representing the artist’s, (actually the artists’) portraits—whose hue, as mentioned, is one shade paler than that of the wall—are an anonymous pale abstract devoid of identity. In contrast with all the other works in the exhibition, scattered throughout the Museum’s (new) Herta and Paul Amir Building, the portraits are placed in the (old) Main Building. Separating this work from the others emphasizes the bi-structural entity of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, making it a metaphor for an artist of two portraits, a duo of artists who are a double-headed creature of sorts.
It is only once the viewers have completed the fragmented walk along the exhibition’s stations, that they can articulate for themselves a narrative that is subtly formulated between the abandoned baby below the ATM machine, the pitiful youth behind the Wall and the portrait(s) of the artist(s) diluted into the Museum wall; or another narrative, formulated between the Donation Box and the Wishing Well and the ATM machine, all blocked (Massimiliano Gioni refers to blocking as unrequited yearning. The viewers observing the works yearn for something beyond their reach, something physically and metaphorically remote); or another narrative whose main chapters are the fictitious imminent Matisse exhibition and the no-longer-existent Berlin Wall. All the possible narratives involve a blurred sense of missed opportunity, prevention, frustration and anxiety about the future, accompanied by a wink that turns the tables and invites further, other, unexpected readings.
The works’ state is somewhere between the before and the finally after, between the not-quite-baked and the leftovers. They are reminiscent of things that have been forgotten, forsaken or discarded, things drained of meaning and of a past power they may have held. Soon, someone will gather up the baby abandoned below the ATM (to a better future? Probably not), soon the Matisse exhibition will be opened (somewhere, not here), soon the Berlin Wall will fall (we already know this). The coins in the Wishing Well will remain in their crude pre-meaning state without having their monetary value imprinted on them, in the Donation Box the used objects, post-meaning, will stay on aimlessly. The well, the box and the ATM will remain devoid of purpose, serving neither for donations nor for wishes.
The exhibition’s title, “Powerless Structures,” is borrowed from the title of a series by Elmgreen & Dragset which began in 1997. Over the years, this title has become their signature, so to speak, and the phrase most identified with their work. Under the verbal umbrella of “powerless structures,” they have exhibited various architectural and sculptural structures which time and again shattered the concept of traditional art objects and traditional exhibition spaces. In 1998, the title “Powerless Structures” appeared next to the Wishing Well, exhibited at the front of the building holding Berlin’s first Biennale. Now, as it hovers over an exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the title is recharged with the meanings of all the structures that Elmgreen & Dragset refer to: economic, political, cultural as well as real and physical. The main powerless structure exhibited here with all its resounding missing power is, so it seems, the “exhibition.” Seductive but fragmented, deceptive all along, leaving behind a long trail of unease.
Michael Elmgreen (born 1961, Copenhagen, Denmark) and Ingar Dragset (born 1969, Trondheim, Norway) have been working together since 1995.
They have held many solo exhibitions and participated in major group exhibitions around the world. They were nominated for the Hugo Boss Prize in 2000 and in 2002 won the Preis der Nationalgalerie at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. Among their notable recent exhibitions are “The Collectors” )2009), at The Danish and Nordic Pavilions, 53rd Venice Biennale; “Celebrity: The One & The Many” (2010), at the ZKM Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, Germany; “Tomorrow” (2013), at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; “Aéroport Mille Plateaux” (2015), at PLATEAU, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul; and “The Well Fair” (2016), at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Beijing.
The exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is part of a joint project with two other museums: the first part was held at the Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo (21 March–21 August 2014) and the second part at the National Gallery of Denmark (SMK), Copenhagen (19 September 2014–4 January 2015), both under the title “biography”. A book of images and a book of texts were published by the three museums in 2014.
On view at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art from
Powerless Structures at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art www.tamuseum.org.il/
By Chief Curator Ruti Direktor