View of “Elmgreen & Dragset,” 2011.

View of “Elmgreen & Dragset,” 2011.

Elmgreen & Dragset

Submarine Wharf

View of “Elmgreen & Dragset,” 2011.

The Submarine Wharf is so enormous that it has been compared to Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. In fact, this exhibition space in the port of Rotterdam is so big it could accommodate an entire four-story residential tower block, a parking lot, a Ferris wheel, and a fifty-five-yard-long subway tunnel—all elements in The One & the Many, 2011, an installation by the Danish and Norwegian duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. This marked the second time the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen has used the giant shipyard as an exhibition space. Last year Rotterdam-based Atelier Van Lieshout converted it into a human recycling factory; this summer Elmgreen & Dragset transformed it into a dreary suburb—the kind of place where teenage moms push their prams around and lonely souls leave filthy messages in public toilets.

The tunnel was a particularly smart move. It functioned like a sort of time machine that transported the viewer from the bright and sunny harbor straight into grim nocturnal suburbia. The lit windows of the modernist high-rise attracted visitors like moths to a flame. Its interiors looked as though they had been ordered straight out of an IKEA catalogue. In one room a television showed a soccer game; in another someone seemed to have walked away from his computer while surfing for gay sex. Populating the entire installation were young actors from Rotterdam’s Ro Theater. You could bump into a young mother who was screaming hysterically into her cell phone, or sneak up on two beautiful young men selling themselves on the street. In the crowded exhibition space it was sometimes hard to tell who was an actor and who wasn’t. Viewers became part of the spectacle, lining up for the Ferris wheel or hanging around the empty parking lot underneath a street lamp.

With backgrounds in poetry and theater, respectively, Elmgreen & Dragset started as outsiders in the art world. They wanted to make work that was different from what they saw in white-cube galleries. They wanted their art to be accessible to everyone. So they constructed worlds that we all know: the interior of a nightclub, the waiting lounge of an airport, a Prada shop window. By recontextualizing these spaces, they raised questions about contemporary social structures. The One & the Many dealt, in their words, with the loss of community feeling. “Why do we feel scared in places like this?” they asked in the video introduction to their exhibition. “And why do we sit at home at night watching television, instead of going out and meeting other people?”

In the Submarine Wharf you could easily imagine tragic, lonely lives being lived behind the windows. But somehow the installation lacked the wit and visual poetry of Elmgreen & Dragset’s earlier works, like the Prada shop in the Texan desert, or the dugout gallery space in Reykjavík—strange displacements that really make you stop and think. The One & the Many wasn’t funny or surreal. It was spectacular in size but banal in subject matter. The people in it are ones we could have met on the way to the exhibition space, the architecture that of Rotterdam’s own suburbs. The work lacked surprise; it never really became eerie. Maybe the world that Elmgreen & Dragset created in this unusual place on the harbor was just too real.

Sandra Smallenburg