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From the left: Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. Publicity photo

What Elmgreen & Dragset Did with Munich, or, The Max and Moritz of Contemporary Art? 0

Anna Iltnere

“I don't know how to say 'thank you', only how to say, 'I'm sorry',” says the artist Michael Elmgreen into the microphone, after which he lists all of the people whose lives he has ruined over the last year. The subject at hand is the Munich urban art project A Space Called Public, which opened on 6 June and was curated by the Scandinavian duet of contemporary art rascals, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. They've been working together since 1995, when they first met at a gay bar in Denmark. They lived together as partners for ten years, but are still an inseparable pair when it comes to their art – and in the way that they execute their characteristic signature style – installations that visually look like precise copies of reality, even though the story itself is fictive. The viewer feels as if he or she is watching a film that has been frozen in place. But the message of their works is always like a slap in the face, the face of a society that has developed their pseudo-problems due to their overly comfortable lives. This time, however, Elmgreen and Dragset have taken on the role of curators. 

In short, the story goes like this: realizing that foaming mugs of beer and Bavarian sausages have lulled the Old Town into a self-satisfied snooze, Munich's City Council decided to do something about it, and invited Elmgreen and Dragset to organize an art project in the urban environment. Elmgreen and Dragset decided to invest the appropriated 1.2 million euros (Munich's largest divergence of municipal funds for public art) into a group project, rather than just doing it themselves. They themselves make an appearance only with the performance It's Never Too Late to Say Sorry (2011/2013), which was shown in New York and Rotterdam two years ago. In Munich, every day beginning with 12 March, and precisely as the church spires ring midday in Odeonsplatz (which is where the “Beer Putch” took place in 1923 – in which Hitler unsuccessfully tried to grab power in Munich, and as a result, sprained his shoulder), a gray-haired gentleman appears, opens a glass case, removes a silver megaphone and prophetically shouts “It's never too late to say 'sorry'!”, in German. He then immediately replaces the megaphone, turns the key of the glass case twice, and heads off down the street, only to return again the following day. In whatever part of the globe the phrase is shouted, its impact is powerful – whatever the context may be.

“I thank everyone who took part, and I am happy that, unlike Martin Kippenberger, you are all still alive,” is how Ingar Dragset ended the opening speech. Through 30 September, 17 environmental art objects created by artists from 13 countries will be scattered throughout the city's center, in an easily accessible distance from one another.

Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson by his work Dream – A Monument at Gärtnerplatz. 2013. Photo:

Three big-name artists make up the core of the project, beginning with the above-mentioned German artist Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997), whose legendary installation METRO-Net (1997) (made shortly before his death) has been set up in the lawn of Marienhof. The second is American artist Ed Ruscha (1937), with his 2003 piece Pay Nothing Until April; reminiscent of a huge billboard, is says “Pay Nothing Until April”, which is written upon a background of mountaintops worthy of a cigarette print-ad. The piece will be displayed on a traffic island in the Lebenbachplatz neighborhood, through 9 September. The third head-lining artist is Peter Weibel (1944); born in Ukraine, he has long lived in Germany and has been a board member of the ZKM art and media center in Karlsruhe since 1999. His piece Every Place is Heterotopic (2013), stands at the edge of the sidewalk at Maffeistrasse 3; the work consists of thee large monitors hooked up to sensors that are activated every time a car or pedestrians goes by. A specially-written computer program constantly selects new and dramatic images from the internet, which then momentarily appear on the monitors.

The deep-set assumption that urban art is usually a palpable sculpture has been shooed-away with a light wave of the hand by the Norwegian-born perfume specialist and chemist Sissel Toolas (1961), by way of her her installation SMELL(Land)Mark Munich (2013). It consists of three powerful scents that, according to the artist, most precisely describe Munich. These are beer, sausages and luxury perfumes.

Kirsten Pieroth’s Berlin Puddle in the process of creation. Plastic jugs containing water from a puddle. Photo:

A peculiar monument has been made by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson (1976), who came to the opening dressed in a light-colored striped suit, and with the crowning accent of a really long red beard. Dream – A Monument (2013) – which Kjartansson really did visualize in a dream, and now had the opportunity to bring to life – has been set up in the Gärtnerplatz square since the end of May. On the front panel of the piece there is the following inscription, in German: “All that he wanted – was to eat pralines and masturbate.” 

Practically imperceptible is the installation Berlin Puddle (2001-2013), by German artist Kirsten Pieroth (1970). In the small Isartorplatz park, which is usually just a pedestrian walk-through, a large puddle sits in the dirt, next to the sidewalk. It reflects the surrounding trees, and pigeons splash-about in it – just your regular, old puddle. But actually, the tiny body of water has been specially dug and lined to prevent seepage, and the water itself has come from another puddle – in Berlin – and was brought to Munich in several plastic jugs.

Han Chong’s sculpture Made in Dresden at the market Viktualienmarkt. 2013. Photo:

And then there's the humungous bronze Buddha behind the Viktualienmarkt – Munich's flower, fruit and vegetable market. The imitation-metal sculpture, Made in Dresden, by Malaysian artist Han Chong (1979), is meant as an overgrown version of a souvenir statue – and a critique of modern-day mass production, in which Asia is usually thought to be the source of cheap labor, even though in truth, the greater portion of the stuff is manufactured here, in Europe. Meanwhile, the market-women have developed a fondness for the tipped-over giant, occasionally spiffing it up or placing flowers in one of its rainwater-filled folds. Another bronze sculpture, Waterfall, by Paris-based artist Tatiana Trouvé (1968), is a graceful fountain erected next to St. Stephan's Church. Even though it's made of bronze, it looks like a heavy, water-logged mattress that has been draped over a concrete wall. Rivulets of water flow out of holes in the “mattress”. During our walk, Ingar Dragset collects some of the water in his hands and splashes it on his sun-warmed face. “If only this fountain could stay here always,” he says hopefully, even though that is out of his hands now.

Tatiana Trouvé’s poetic fountain Waterfall in front of St. Stephan church. Video:


In response to journalists' questions on whether any of the 17 works will stay in Munich after 30 September, and could a similar event take place regularly, Michael Elmgreen answers tersely: “Everything doesn't have to be made into a tradition. There's already no lack of those.” At the core of the A Space Called Public project is the conviction that a public space should be just as lively and variable as society itself. “Ideas are constantly evolving, and that's why space should always be given to new artists,” confirms the city's mayor. In speaking about what sort of function does a modern-day urban environment serve, Elmgreen points to Facebook, which has become the largest public space in our day – a place to meet, to get to know one another, and to talk – in place of parks, squares, courtyards and streets. Quite often, the urban environment itself is not stimulating, and is largely dull and boring – in order to quell any unnecessary reactions. “Today, public spaces are most often mentioned in the context of criminal activity,” says Elmgreen. It is precisely this wish to return the social lives of city dwellers to reality – away from internet access and towards participation – in which both artists see the power of A Space called Public. Urban environmental art must challenge and encourage thinking and questioning. “Public irritation is a completely undervalued quality,” says Elmgreen. “If a grain of sand works its way into an oyster, due to the irritation, a beautiful pearl can form. Irritation frequently gives rise to fruitful discussions and debates, which then lead to a more beautiful future.”


Even though they deny it, Michael Elmgreen (1961) and Ingar Dragset (1969) are elegant pranksters. For instance, in 2005 they created the environmental object Prada Marfa, in a field in Texas; it looked like a Prada store, but the doors wouldn't open. A few days after its unveiling, the environmental installation was looted – the windows broken and the six handbags and 14 shoes stolen (even though all of the shoes were for the right foot only).

Elmgreen and Dragset. Prada Marfa. 2005. Publicity photo

At the 53. Venice Biennale in 2009, they were entrusted with both the Danish and Nordic pavilions, which were next to one another. Elmgreen and Dragset took on the role of curators, inviting Maurizio Cattelan, Wolfgang Tillmans and 21 other artists and designers to make up the exhibition, The Collectors. The role of tour guide was played by a real estate agent who was trying to sell the Danish pavilion (a haunted house). Meanwhile, a long pool led to the Nordic pavilion, which had been transformed into the private estate of the secretive and rich bachelor, Mister B; his place was overflowing with art works and designer furniture, and a group of young gigolos lazily hung about sipping vodka – while a drowned body simply floated in the blue waters of the pool. Elmgreen and Dragset received the Biennale's Award of Special Recognition that year. 

Last year, the Queen of Denmark presented Elmgreen and Dragset with the Eckersberg Medal, Denmark's most prestigious award for the visual arts. In an interview, they joked that they were going to melt in down, to use in their 2014 exhibition in the National Gallery of Denmark...

Coming up is both artists' solo show, Tomorrow, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which is scheduled to open 1 October and is being highly anticipated by the art world. It is already known that the exhibition will be about an architect, and that the exposition will be set up as his house and will include more than 100 objects, furniture and art works from the V&A Museum's collection. The viewer of the exhibition will be able to use a pre-written script to find out what it is that has happened here. And this autumn, Elmgreen and Dragset have been invited to take part in the 13th Istanbul Biennale.

Michael Elmgreen was born in Copenhagen, but lives in London, and used to be very much into poetry. Ingar Dragset was born in Trondheim, Norway, now lives in Berlin, and has studied the theater arts. When not in the same place, they call each other on the phone several times a day.


Let's turn back to Munich. The journalists' tour of the city takes place in two-seater bicycle-rikshaws, the caravan of which winds nimbly along the sidewalks and streets, strategically getting us to the objects we've come to see (even though they can all be seen on foot, and quite quickly at that). I'm sitting next to Ingar Dragset, who is known as the quietest of the two (while the light-haired Elmgreen, in his navy-blue leather jacket, is called the “citation machine”). Dragset, on the other hand, is dark-haired, dresses subtly, laughs a lot and good-naturedley, and is rather talkative when giving an interview. 

How did the project begin?

Four years ago, the Mayor's Office put together a committee of distinguished art professionals from Munich's museums and other art institutions, in order to come up with an idea of how to improve the city's image with art. Apparently, the City Council had decided that life in Munich had become too static – frozen. So the committee suggested us.

Have you wondered why they specifically chose you?

Perhaps because we have experience working in public spaces. A definite factor was that, in our work, we always take into consideration the location and the context.

What was your first vision for the Munich project?

That it should develop slowly, over time. That way, it would raise people's curiosity, as well as give us more time to spend with every one of the invited artists. That's why the project has several stages – all of the objects didn't premier at the same time, and the catalog is only coming out in September.

Why is this sort of approach important to you?

Because today, everything is sped up. “Fast and spectacular”. Any event becomes a biennale, or a festival, and everything that goes along with that. Time is very important to Michael and me. We do not agree to a project unless we are given two years. It's too bad that nowadays, it's characteristic of the young artists to gallop ahead – because they think that they have to do everything that is possible, and that puts great pressure on them...

But don't you think that Munich invited you because you are already known as “the bad boys” of art? And that you were sort of a guarantee that the city's image would be spiffed-up?

That we'll “shake them up”? (Laughs) Actually, Michael and I don't even try to be “the bad boys”, or the provocative ones. In any case, that's not an image that we're consciously going for. (Continues to laugh) You're from the press yourself, and know very well that journalists are always looking for catchy labels...

Elmgreen and Dragset. Omnes Una Manet Nox. 2012. Publicity photo

But it is true that a certain, well-situated part of society is rubbed the wrong way by your works. Last autumn, in the luxury emporium of New Bond Street Maison, and at the invitation of Louis Vuitton, you exhibited your piece Omnes Una Manet Nox, in which the message was that the rich will also die one day... 

Yes, but not because we want to be “the bad boys”.

Did you choose all of the participating artists in the Munich project?

Yes, of course, that was our responsibility. The criteria were similar to those of Venice, in that we like to combine different generations and different ways of working – different media. Be it performances that last for one day, or works that last for at least 100 years [Ivan Argote & Pauline Bastard. Munich Time Capsule (2013–2113) – A.I.]. Most of the pieces are new, but it's always good if at least some are already done; they're large-scale and serve as a touchstone – as the conceptual backbone for the work of the curator. For instance, in this project, that would definitely be Kippenberger's installation, METRO-Net.

Are you pleased with the results?

We're very taken with the fact that the pieces are taking on lives of their own in the urban environment. That's something you can't predict, and it's terribly interesting.

Today, public spaces frequently serve as a stage for politics; the unrest in Turkey comes to mind. In fact, you've been invited to take part in the upcoming Istanbul Biennale this autumn. How do political activities influence art in public spaces?

Politics has several layers, and in Germany, we, of course, don't have such a dramatic situation as in Turkey right now. It would be absurd to bring into Munich an “Arab spring” or something like that, so we didn't. As it relates to the Istanbul Biennale, we were hoping to making a replica of a piece of Gezi Park, the part that is next to Taksim Square, and to exhibit it in one of the nearby luxury hotels. The curator really liked the idea – she thought it would encourage important discussion. But, as you see, reality beat us to it... We have to think up something new now.

In the press conference, Michael mentioned that public spaces are the museums of the future – without walls, and freely available to all. But most of your exhibitions are held in art galleries and museums. When you create your installations, do you consciously try to remove the feeling from the viewer that he is in an art space – a place which automatically calls for certain conventions of behavior and attitude?

Yes, it is true that we always prepare our works so that they are a surprise to the person who has come into the art space – that the space looks like a hospital, or a public prison, etc. In that sense, we play around with the expectations of the audience. 

But are you targeting the assumptions that come along with the image of an art institution? Museums and galleries are places where people feel a bit different than, for instance, when viewing art in a non-traditional setting.

Yes, definitely, because we ourselves don't come from the art world; we don't have educations in art. We're not groomed in that way of life. (Laughs) When we started working together in the 90s, we were surprised at how terribly conservative the way in which art is presented actually is. The white cubes seemed to have become something matter-of-course, and practically permanent. An unbelievably stiff environment! That's what we try to play around with.

Elmgreen and Dragset. The Collectors at the 53. Venice biennale. Publicity photo

But at the same time, art spaces have a bunch of benefits. Because they are very calm and quiet places, which can only be good for the enjoyment of art. What's sad is when all of the institutions want to be like each other, and they all want works from one and the same artists. That's why I really like it when institutions specialize. We were recently approached by a center that deals only with land-art. In my opinion, that's fantastic. A deeper approach is possible only when done this way.

At the 53rd Venice Biennale, it was the world of a collector; in London, you'll be building the living space of an architect. Will the approaches to both be similar?

In the sense that it's a living space, then yes. But in London, we're not going to invite other artists. On display will be our own pieces, as well as historical and antique furniture and artifacts from the collection of the V&A Museum.

By why an architect? 

Our idea was to make something about the current times, which is... quite complicated and difficult, at least in Europe. In front of us there's a new world, a new lifestyle that is gaining an ever larger majority. In some sense, we absolutely don't want to loose our old values. But at the same time, it's clear that if we hold on to them too strongly, we'll be out of the loop. (Smiles sadly) It's the sensitive issue of generational change. And we thought that an older architect would make a good case-in-point of a person coming to terms with this issue.

Why did you decide to write a script for the exhibition?

That evolved naturally. We wanted to try it because making up our own story is a lot of fun for us. Like in Venice, where both we and the audience came up with, and told various stories about, what could have happened with the fictional characters, with the dead man in the pool, what was the relationship between the neighboring houses. That's how we came to the decision that we have to write a version for the new exhibition.

Did you both write it?

Yes, together. We work together practically throughout the whole creative process.

You don't divide the duties amongst the two of you?

We have completely different personalities. But between the both of us, another character – another personality – comes to life. Michael is impatient, while I am super-pacient. Michael is too quick, he speaks a lot; I'd rather wait and listen to what others say...

If you both worked alone, would the works of art come out differently?

I have no idea! I've never even thought about it.

Elmgreen and Dragset...