Victoria and Albert Museum
October 1 - January 2
The Nordic duo Elmgreen & Dragset are best known for their fanciful collusions of culture merged with representations of power, such as the mock storefront Marfa Prada, 2005, installed along the highway just outside the Donald Judd boomtown. In their current exhibition, “Tomorrow,” they have performed institutional critique with a light and achingly poetic touch: They’ve gone on a decorating spree in one of the world’s greatest decorative arts collections, the Victoria & Albert Museum, in order to create a period apartment of a fictional character, the forlorn and deeply closeted Norman Swann, an aging architect with the requisite impeccable taste, but burdened by his family history and posh lineage, as well as by his own HIV status, which, judging from the subtle arrangement of pills on the nightstand, is positive.
Like awkward guests invited into the apartment’s grand rooms, visitors are offered the opportunity to perch on luxe couches, and leaf through the magazines on the coffee table. This quickly shifts to browsing the bookshelves and decor, much like guests do when their host is nowhere to be found. Since none appears, the voyeuristic instinct kicks in, and this is what the artists count on: the impulse to peer into ever more private realms. The artists have used cutlery, books, chandeliers, textiles, antique globes, coins, and other furnishings to fabricate a narrative of lived experience. In creating a fictional gay man to whom these objects belong, the artists have queered the V&A, the holdings of which provide an embarrassment of riches. For most of the collection’s 160-year history, the institution could not have possibly have been viewed as an archive of suppressed queer desire. That Elmgreen & Dragset perform this recovery is quite triumphant. Carrie Lambert-Beatty has termed this kind of work a “parafiction,” in which a false history opens up onto a previously unseen truth or series of truths. In the case of “Tomorrow,” we must come to terms with the object histories themselves: They too have lived other lives, in other rooms and in faraway places.