Why do artist duos so often operate with a sardonic sense of humor, in various shades of black? Think of the caustic wit that inflects the work of the Chapman Brothers, Fischli/Weiss, Gilbert & George, and Allora & Calzadilla. Elmgreen & Dragset, who have a wry installation on view at the Victoria & Albert Museum through the end of 2013, are yet another case. A couple for 10 years, they remained together to continue fashioning their often elaborate Nordic-flavored satires (Michael Elmgreen is Danish and lives in London; Ingar Dragset is Norwegian and lives in Berlin). They often work in architectural modes, turning out whole rooms and structures that serve to send up everything from art collecting and celebrity culture to the glorification of war. Neither is formally trained in art, and they love to defy rules and boundaries. Their notorious installation at the 2009 Venice Biennale, The Collectors, was unprecedented in reconstructing and combining two pavilions (Danish and Nordic) and employing contributions from over 20 other artists. This became the domains of fictional characters whose lives the public was invited to peer into and draw conclusions about -- resulting in a sly comment on the art world itself.
Perhaps their best-known work in the US is Prada Marfa, about 40 miles outside of Marfa, Texas (the tiny nowhere town that Donald Judd turned into an art-world destination beginning in the 1970s with hangars full of his Minimalist works). A poke at the global ambition of high-end brands, and the spiritual emptiness of consumerism, it's a shop that never opens, rendering it dysfunctional as a place of commerce -- a capitalist dummy sitting absurdly in a barren desert where, says Elmgreen, "we are all reduced to window-shoppers." Like most of the conceptual output of Elmgreen & Dragset, there's a deadpan quality that amplifies its impact.
For Tomorrow, the piece they were invited to create at the V&A, the duo filled an abandoned textile wing of the institution with objects from the museum's collection, some of their own possessions and items found around town. This became the multi-chamber theatrical setting for a film they've written that will never be made. There's a pervasive sense of melancholy to the rooms, meant to be the upper-class dwelling of an aged architect named Norman Swann. A transcendant symbolism runs throughout, pointing with hints of gleeful anarchy to the transformations of modern Britain. Yet it remains an intimate encounter, keyed to the guilty pleasure of voyeurism.
Elmgreen & Dragset talk about Tomorrow in the video below.