Copenhagen

View of “Elmgreen & Dragset,” 2014. Foreground: Death of a Collector, 2009. Background: The One & the Many, 2011.

View of “Elmgreen & Dragset,” 2014. Foreground: Death of a Collector, 2009. Background: The One & the Many, 2011.

Elmgreen & Dragset

SMK | National Gallery of Denmark

View of “Elmgreen & Dragset,” 2014. Foreground: Death of a Collector, 2009. Background: The One & the Many, 2011.

Comprising three extensive scenarios that integrate a number of Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset’s works with major indoor installations, “Biography,” curated by Marianne Torp, was the duo’s veritable takeover of Denmark’s national gallery. A complete four-story building violently displaced the historicist pomp of the museum’s entrance hall in a one-to-one simulation of prefabricated social housing (The One & the Many, 2011). From the ground floor and the stairs leading to the museum’s upper galleries, the structure offered views onto the “biographies” lived here, by way of empty rooms whose interiors told of the denizens in their absence, and in the form of a lone male wax figure slumped on his mattress and browsing the Gay Romeo website (Andrea Candela, Fig. 3, 2006). Progressing past the lobby into the first gallery, visitors were confronted with a deliriously clinical institutional interior turned into a maze of locked doors and inaccessible spaces that functioned as an elaborate display for individual works, such as a social-welfare office, a public toilet, and—disturbingly—a morgue display in which a pair of wax legs protrudes from a steel shelf (Untitled, 2011). Upon passing through this series of galleries and returning across the architecturally estranged lobby, visitors entered a large, darkened hall. Under the motto THE ONE & THE MANY spelled in neon, a lone figure of a man floated, Sunset Boulevard style, facedown in a swimming pool (Death of a Collector, 2009). Perhaps it was his rottweiler, cast in porcelain, that barked soundlessly (The Guardian, 2014). An illuminated sign with the legend WELCOME TO FABULOUS LAS VEGAS had crashed on a trailer-park home (Welcome, 2014), while a wax boy indolently took in the scene from a fire escape with no exit (The Future, 2013).

Stylish interventionism has always been Elmgreen & Dragset’s artistic signature, theatricality their method for debunking art’s spatial and institutional economy. “Biography,” however, was a true Gesamtkunstwerk, taking détournement toward the hyperreal. The exhibition revolved around the making of the contemporary self, situating processes of subjectification on the broadly populist terrain of humanist master narratives (“You are the narrative,” as the tagline for the show promises the viewer), rather than addressing more specific topics, such as the architecture of the white cube or the AIDS crisis, as many of the artist’s previous projects have. Here, by employing human and cultural archetypes to confront the American dream (along with myths of social safety in the Scandinavian welfare state), the show’s mannequin protagonists literally waxed existential—producing a kind of misanthropic camp effect.

In terms of locating “Biography” as a critical project, the information room was much more than a supplement to the show. Offering numerous video interviews with the artists, documentation of their exploits, and bonus artworks, it was organized with hagiographic attention to detail. In a Danish context, the subtext for Elmgreen & Dragset’s showmanship is the palpably political fact that they are among the few gay artists—across the arts—to have penetrated mainstream consciousness. Capturing a subjectivity that links art, sexuality, and social life, the all-picture tome of a catalogue offers the duo’s own snapshots of parties, travels, and boyfriends with a sense of pleasure and eroticism that contrasts with the exhibition’s ennui and moribund silence.

In “Biography,” Elmgreen & Dragset seemed to employ the extremes of Pop art. If their staging of a meretricious, administrated world writes alienation as large as does Warhol’s 1962–65 “Death and Disaster” series, the catalogue is closer in spirit to Warhol’s use of photography as a social tool to picture the interesting and the famous. The Pop strategy of ironizing the art concept while playing the game of spectacular visual culture is an inherently duplicitous one: Taking with it the tensions of such a hyperbolic critique,“Biography” extended the logic of Pop to the contemporary culture of self-realization.But if the show’s aesthetic was sleek,owing more than a little to the smooth mechanisms of the individual-centered image culture that it attacked, its attitude remained confrontational and raw. What stayed with you was its bleak dramatization of the strangeness of life, its elegiac testimony to our present.

Lars Bang Larsen