I was looking for information on an early Elmgreen & Dragset piece where they laid pristine, white carpet at the entrance to their gallery. But the only Google result was for an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist for their 1998 “Powerless Structures” catalogue. It had been hosted on Nicolai Wallner’s website, but seems to have been taken down after 2016, when they stopped working with him. So I have reproduced it here, for Google’s sake.
The installation I had in mind was for Nuit Blanche 1998, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris. I came for the quick debunking of J freaking R acting all, tant pis, his paper artwork unfurled across the entrance to the Louvre got trampled on, and I stayed for Michael’s story of meeting Felix Gonzalez-Torres and discussing the infiltrative power of Minimalism.
Anyway, it’s wild how not online that 1998 catalogue is. I may have to do a photocopy bootleg version a la Wade Guyton’s Avalanche.
Performative constructions interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist
Hans Ulrich Obrist : I felt it could be interesting to talk about this collaborative issue. Douglas Gordon once told me that he thinks the 90s are about the promiscuity of collaborations, and I wondered how your work is maybe multiple collaborations with other people … how did it happen that you started to put the focus on the collaboration between the two of you, and if you could tell me a bit about the beginning of your collaboration, the very first contacts between the two of you ?
Ingar Dragset : It started with doing nothing together for one year but being boyfriends. And, um, I was at that time doing theater performances, and Michael was doing his art on his own. And since we had so many other things in common, and were getting along so well on most matters, we thought that we would try to combine my theater experience and Michael’s visual art experience.
Hans Ulrich Obrist : Which year was this?
Ingar Dragset : This was in ‘95. And actually I started helping Michael preparing a show in Stockholm. That was because I could knit, and he wanted to do these knitted pieces. Some abstract pets, that the art audience could hug and nurse and feel confident with…
Michael Elmgreen : … But in Stockholm nobody feels relaxed at openings, so we had to show the audience how to feel confident and how to use these knitted pets, and then everybody thought it was a performance – so it became our first performance… by coincidence.
HUO : What happened next? Was it followed immediately by a second performance? The first time I saw your works, it was on videos of performances you had done. It was before I saw exhibitions of yours. Was the collaboration more on a performative level in the beginning?
ID : Yes.
HUO : And the objects came later ?
ME : We were doing many performances in a Nordic context, and we were always curated to be the funny guys in the corner. If some curator wanted to have a more light activity in a very stiff exhibition, he or she called us and asked us to do something, you know, like …
HUO : So it had to do with a marginalization within the exhibition context ?
ME : Yes, and very much like becoming a stereotype of yourself… being this kind of almost typecast artist “Oh, we know what we can expect from these guys.” So it was fun suddenly to make installation works, «cause that was a big surprise for everybody: “oh, they can do art objects.”
ID : You experience different kinds of marginalization as a gay couple and quite often in the Scandinavian art context, because there are very few gay artists. Sometimes you feel like you are in a show just as an alibi, or…
ME : …or as an exotic element in something too predictable.
HUO : I once had a discussion about this issue – in terms of the object also – with Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whom I interviewed four or five years ago. He always used this term “infiltration”. Could you talk about two questions related – on the one hand about Gonzalez-Torres, if it’s of importance for you as a sort of reference – and secondly this notion of infiltration in your own activities?
ID : I think Michael should answer, since he met Felix Gonzalez- Torres…
ME : …Yes, in Copenhagen ‘93.
HUO : Was it when he did this billboard in Denmark?
ME : Yes, I was in this billboard show with him at that time, but I met him just before. He was invited to a really horrible conference or seminar at the Danish Art Academy and was pretty bored. So we hung out and spoke a lot about how gay people suddenly discovered the use of Minimalism as the ultimate kind of infiltration into the history of high art. Minimalism was always the thing that was shown in large scale in the most important American art institutions… after they had had a tiny little group show of young artists, just to give the institution some credibility, to give the impression of not being conservative. Then the museum director could feel safe having this huge Serra exhibition afterwards, that would cost, say, twenty times as much as the young art show. So, dealing with Minimalism was a kind of challenge for a gay person – also to break the stereotype image of gay people being, you know, interested in camp and being very feminine in their way of expressing themselves…
HUO : So it becomes a critique of this cliché, like Deleuze always said that art is a critique of cliché…
ME : Indeed, like, you don’t have one homogeneous homosexual culture… as a gay person you’re as different from other gay people as anybody else is different from anybody else…
ID : …That’s also very much the reason why we stopped doing the kind of performances we were doing in the beginning. I mean the performances we did were very important on a personal level and also on the level of artistic development for us; but you felt you were becoming too much of a gay icon, and that’s where our “Powerless Structures” series started. That was also an emancipation from this stereotypical image of gay people or being a gay couple. So we opened up our own artistic expression to include all kinds of material, historical and cultural.
ME : It has very much to do with not marginalizing oneself. A gay icon is as bad as any icon. It’s all about not fulfilling the expectations.
HUO : I once had a discussion with Vito Acconci, which maybe has something to do with this transition, similar to yours. At a certain stage he decided to appear less himself in the work, so that his presence was more of an absence?
ME : Still, people have the impression or the image of a performance – and it’s very much in the history of performance itself – that the self or the ego of the performer is very central. It can be the body or it can be the social figure of the performer which is very important, whereas for instance, Vito Acconci and more recent performance artists have taken a step further.
HUO : Whom do you think of among your colleagues ?
ME : Actually, no one in the performance field. More artists working in other media. Most of the works that we’ve done are attempts to make dead materials come alive, like painting a gallery white for twelve hours, or making this temporary white cube by painting the walls of a transparent glass box from the inside… the piece, that we did at the Secession in Vienna… where we created a white cube, that lasted for only maybe fifteen minutes. In live acts like these, it is like our personal presence is only to keep the material moving. We are only taking part in the process of the performance, along with the materials and the objects. So we don’t expose ourselves as absolute focal points in our live acts. Our egos and our bodies are no more relevant for the reading of our performances than they are for the reading of our objects and installation works. In the performances we are taking part in a process that is going on with the material.
HUO : But did you ever think about, in terms of the different notion of time, the viewer basically also playing a bigger part ?
ID : Our works are very simple, they are, in a way, minimal, and this is not to make a reduction, but to open up. Not to open up so much from us towards the audience, but to keep it open for the audience to read things that they would like to read into this open field.
ME : And in that way, we are kind of very traditional, because we’re not calculating with the reactions of the audience. We’re not making entirely interactive works that demand a certain behavior of the audience, you know, like push this button, or step here kind of things. We’re creating the artwork, and then we’re not sure about what the reaction of the audience will be. We’re not figuring anything out beforehand.
ID : In Paris we made this completely white carpet, and you had to pass it to see the rest of the exhibition. You could expect that some people would be reluctant to step on the carpet, but we couldn’t be sure. I think the reactions were different from person to person, you felt like, “should I step on this or not?” … After all, you put your dirty footprints on it. And maybe it’s also a generation thing, people’s reactions, I mean, uh, more people are used to going to so called young, contemporary art shows – they are used to interactive works – and wouldn’t mind going and stepping on it, but maybe some people would be reluctant to do it, maybe they have too much respect for the art work.
HUO : It was also the before and after, which was amazing about your Nuit Blanche piece. When we installed your piece, we all took off our shoes, in order not to make your white carpet dirty, and the very moment the exhibition opened, and the carpet was still in a virgin state, the audience hardly dared to pass by your piece and to step on the carpet. And then more and more, thousands and thousands of people walked on it and left their traces, and it was suddenly completely covered with dirty foot prints.
ME : It’s exactly what I call the traditional element… that you’re not able to predict what will happen with the work, that you have this kind of old-fashioned excitement. I really like that.
HUO : Robert Musil once said, that art often occurs where you expect it least.
ME : … and as an artist you must be ready to receive a lot of different reactions to the work, accepting the chaotic conditions of perception.
HUO : Also unusual events?
ME : Yes… when we did our performance in Paris, there was this child who was going on and on interfering with our performance, like, playing with the yarn, and so on. But being very sure of what we were doing, it was just, like, “this is OK.” And people could really separate what we were doing from the interruption of this child suddenly participating in the performance – and the spectators had in this way two different experiences at the same time. As a performer it doesn’t help if you’re totally freaking out if something unexpected is going on.
HUO : Do you have other examples of unusual events, of things that you would not have expected …
ID : When we did our “Twelve Hours of White Paint” performance in Mexico, the paint quality was so bad… it was not exactly white, it was more, kind of, grey, and it was very watery and very chalky. But the atmosphere was so good, and suddenly it became something else, because we were these two white guys trashing a white cube gallery with white paint in Mexico. So it got a lot of other connotations.
HUO : Could you tell me about your ‘Powerless Structures’ ? I mean, you wrote this text, but there is less there about how you arrived at the title. I would be very interested in how you defined this series, and if you knew in the beginning exactly where it would lead ?
ME : In Foucault’s History of Sexuality, he writes that no structure is able to suppress anybody – not the structure itself. It’s only how you deal with the structures already being there, and all structures can be altered or mutated. That was very much an inspiration for us… to discover that everything is just structures that could be something else… the patterns could be different. It was just a question of imagination. And when it’s just a question of imagination, the visual art field is such a good area in which to work with these things in a very concrete and very simple way. So we started making these suggestions, that everything – from social and political structures to architectural and cultural structures – could be something more exciting and more open… and to make these suggestions we just needed such small elements to start the change …
HUO : So basically to change the rules of the game?
ME : The game is a dynamic game. It’s possible to combine the structures in billions of different ways in every field.
HUO : In the architecture, for example?
ID : The architectural frame of a gallery or a gay bar, for instance. It could basically be anything, the social structures or whatsoever. And that’s also how we have come to make pieces that involve both, the art institutional structures and some basic gay social structures, and tested what happens if you combine these. The piece that you’ve seen at Kunstraum der Universität Lüneburg deals with this. Here we made two sex cabins, that you normally find in the back room of gay bars or in porn kinos and we placed them in the white cube context. When you enter the cabins you can see the rest of the exhibition through the peep holes. Like to see and to be seen.
HUO : Active and passive viewing ?
ME : …and very much about the voyeuristic situation. A trained art audience may feel on a safe playground going into a gallery space, but they will be totally alienated going into the back room of a gay bar, whereas, a lot of the gay crowd who are, uh, consulting the back rooms will be totally alienated going into a gallery space. Combining these two kinds of architecture seemed interesting to us, because it points out that you don’t have spaces such as queer spaces, and you don’t have spaces such as art spaces. You only have spaces that are, say, occupied for a certain period with artistic behavior, and you have places that are occupied by queer activity for a certain time. The borderlines are not that strict. They’re much more fragile than we imagine them.
HUO : That’s great, because that’s also what I think is a big misunderstanding with people thinking that, on the one hand public space and on the other hand private space would be something which is given. Vito Acconci, in an interview I made with him, said that the biggest mistake is that people always think that spaces are God-given, you know, they think it’s a public space while it’s really about what you make: you make it public…
ID : If we just could come to a point where people are more anarchistic in that way, that they no longer believe in structures being able to suppress them or in spaces being predestined for a specific purpose, then I think we have come a long way.
HUO : So could one say that the object is not an absolute reality or not a self-fulfillment, but that the object is more there like a meeting point in the stream of communication ? – that’s something that runs like a red thread through lots of 90s art. It’s obvious that lots of art in the 90s has called the object into question, and that the object is very often just a trigger, a trigger for a dialogue.
ME : I don’t think anything can be seen as an absolute reality, neither an art object nor anything else. The dialogue is of great importance. But I don’t agree with the object just being a trigger, actually. I’m very fond of the presence of the object, and I’m very fond of it even in a performance context. It has itself this kind of very close communication with the audience. I don’t feel that the spoken word or mental communication is any better than presenting an object. I don’t have a problem with materials so I don’t like this distinction between hardware and software. What’s most important : An apple or a spoken word ? Well, if you are hungry…
HUO : What I think is very interesting about your work over the last couple of years, is that also your installation works have this performative side, this combination of object and action, like in Vienna in Kathrin Rhomberg’s Junge Szene at the Secession, with the glassbox painted white, or even in your Berlin piece in the Biennial, the wishing well. Tomorrow there will be this small performance of you throwing coins into the well as some testimonies. Then the action will be exposed as a frozen image, and for the rest of the exhibition period one can see the installation with the coins, the materiality. Your work brings together different possibilities: there is the potential action to happen, there is the event, the live event, and there is the trace of the event in its materiality.
ME : Almost any cultural object is performative. If you take the coffee pot, it’s waiting for us to make coffee in it. If you have a chair, it’s waiting for you to sit on it. And all the nature that surrounds you is cultivated now, especially with the new gene technology. In a couple of years you won’t be able to eat a carrot that has not been genetically manipulated – it can’t grow without that – so it’s also performative in a way. So, I don’t see the objects that we’re doing totally apart from the performances we’re doing. It is all part of the same system.
ID : It might be that people who also know our performances read more performative things into the installation pieces.
ME : I think we share with a lot of the artists of today – and in fact all the way back to Duchamp painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa – this attitude towards art being far from the static masterpiece, but instead being communication that can change all the time. Duchamp saw that painting as something that was screaming to be changed, so he added his own statement to the work and it became a sort of interactive act. A lot of times when I’m looking at paintings I feel like making a little green figure or something in the corner of the canvas. To keep it alive by changing it.
HUO : To add or to subtract?
ME : It depends.
HUO : Let’s talk more about the Berlin piece, about this ‘Fontana Tremens’ which leads us to the ‘Fontana di Trevi’? Baroque Minimalism meets…
ID : It’s a pond, a wishing well, right outside the entrance of the exhibition space, in front of the stairs, and you can step on it on your way up as it is covered with a thick safety glass plate. There are coins at the bottom of it, and there’s this very thick glass plate on top of the pond, so you can’t throw any more coins in there – that means there are no more wishes to be made …. Tomorrow it will be possible for people who happen to be there at twelve o’clock for the installation to make their wishes for Berlin. After that the work is sealed. But then it is possible to walk on it, over its blue water…
ME : It’s kind of in-between a romantic wishing well and a swimming pool, because it’s squared, and it has this bluish water inside, and underwater lighting. We got the coins from the Danish National Bank, and they are coins that have not yet been stamped, you know, with the image of the queen and the value on them. So actually they’re value-less coins. You don’t throw any specific amount of money into the pool. But it’s fun that you call it Baroque, because I think it fits with the location, which is this totally over-the-top historicistic building with a lot of different styles. It’s funny with these contradictions melted together. To create a new kind of harmony when you don’t respect the borderlines of logic.
HUO : I was wondering if you could tell me about your favorite unrealized project ? If you have projects which have not been realized for certain reasons, because maybe the funding has not been there, or maybe they have been censored, or maybe they have been forgotten ? Or if you have projects which are more utopian, too big to happen ?
ME : We have one piece with turning walls and static/permanent walls, an architectural piece that is meant to divide up an exhibition space, where the turning walls will create an ever-changing architecture, or structure of the rooms. It will divide the rooms up in different ways all the time. And this is totally impossible to produce anywhere. It would go into the physical structure of the museum, which would damage a lot of it, and it would cost a fortune to produce. But it is such a great project to work on, just for fun, developing it, making it more ridiculous than it was before, more utopian, and it is, kind of, an ongoing project.
Originally published in “Powerless Structures”, catalogue, 1998
Hans Ulrich Obrist is a curator and writer. Lives and works in Paris and Vienna