Few artists make more headlines these days than Elmgreen & Dragset, but that’s nothing new for the duo, who first paired up in 1995—the Norwegian Dragset was studying theater in Copenhagen, where he met the Danish Elmgreen, then working as a poet. Since that fateful encounter, they’ve presented their signature brand of expertly crafted, art historically referential work on the world’s biggest stages, from the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square to the Danish and Nordic Pavilions at the Venice Biennale. Their latest conquest? A solo exhibition at Galerie Perrotin’s Hong Kong space—a first for the pair in the Asian city’s burgeoning art scene.
Elmgreen & Dragset love to create and re-create immersive architectural spaces—like an impeccable Prada store in the Marfa desert or a kunsthalle in the midst of Turkish ruins—and “The Old World” is no exception. They’ve painted the gallery entirely black, turning it into a Gothic mise-en-scène in which to display their sculptures, whose gorgeous craftsmanship both references and pokes fun at the grand tradition of European art. One work included is He (2013), a male version of the iconic Little Mermaid sculpture that occupies the Copenhagen harbor, which they have situated to gaze longingly out the window at the Hong Kong skyline. Also featured is The Extasy and The Agony (2013), an apparent reference to Michelangelo by way of its punning title and detailed, marble-like craftsmanship (it also happens to evoke two men engaging in rough sex). “I’d say we are making cultural statements more than political ones,” Elmgreen says. “Europe still has this odd thinking about hanging on to its grand history. But the world has moved on and looks very different.”
Tying the exhibition all together is The Old World, a black-and-white short film casting the sculptures as protagonists in a narrative in which visitors (played by actors), such as an art critic, a collector, a student and a cleaner, play a major role. Elmgreen and Dragset say they are most excited to capture the behavior of gallery-goers when they’re not looking at the art—Dragset imagines the artworks will be thinking to themselves, “what are these weird creatures, the art-goers, actually doing?” Shot from the point of view of the exhibition, visitors become the subject. So beware: your selfies and arguments could one day end up a part of art history.
“Elmgreen & Dragset: THE OLD WORLD,” on view at Galerie Perrotin, Hong Kong, from April 3 – May 2.