Queer Figurations in the Sculpture of Elmgreen & Dragset
Elmgreen & Dragset, Invisible, 2017. Bronze, marble, wood, lacquer, and clothes. Nicola Erni Collection. Paired with Pregnant White Maid, Elmgreen & Dragset, 2017. Collection of Bancrédito, Puerto Rico. Photo: Kevin Todora
Elmgreen & Dragset take what we presume to be unchangeable and show us how it need not be that way. In their work, they inhabit structures and institutions from within as a means to expose the limitations of how power is assumed and wielded. Deploying a straightforward naturalism, their works unsettle familiarity and frustrate a singular interpretation. Conventionally accepted meanings are questioned, and new uses are proposed. Rather than accept “common” sense, they offer willful misuses of buildings, spaces, objects, and social situations. Theirs is a strategy for demonstrating how those things we easily accept as natural can be recast as unnatural, can be made to be subversive, or can be seen differently. This is a strategy, in other words, of making things queer. They have often foregrounded queer lives, gay couplings, and homoerotic desires. A central question has been how these erupt into public spaces that try to render them invisible. More broadly, Elmgreen & Dragset draw on queer experience in their work to undermine institutions and structures that disallow difference, that promote universalism, or that assume consensus.
Despite the extensive writing on Elmgreen & Dragset, there is remarkably little sustained analysis of the queer content or queer strategies in their work. It is often mentioned but rarely investigated in detail.
This exhibition of their sculpture at the Nasher Sculpture Center, however, allows for a fresh opportunity to see how queer attitudes infuse their practice. As a medium, sculpture has been historically tied up with questions of universality, whether that be in the individual statue that is made to stand for all or the monument put in a public square. Elmgreen & Dragset’s work in the medium of sculpture uses these conventions and histories as an opportunity to invoke and question universalism. […] They have made works that figure a queer stance toward the universal, toward power, and toward normativity.
Elmgreen & Dragset, The Experiment, 2012. Polyester resin, glass fibre, acrylic paint, glass eyes, human hair, wood, lacquer, mirror, metal parts, leather
Elmgreen & Dragset do not want their work to be understood only in relation to the politics of sexuality, but it is nevertheless a major theme and a grounding resource. Across their practice, they expand upon the potential that arises from the “wrongness” experienced by a queer individual who falls outside of society’s expectations of them. I borrow this term from the Danish sociologist Henning Bech, whose 1987 book Når Mænd Mødes [When Men Meet] offered a detailed account of the cultural and individual development of homosexuality. In it, he describes an imposed feeling of wrongness as:
a chronic state. In his world of experience, the others are always there as a disapproving shadow; he inhabits this antagonism, pinched in this unease of wrongness and distended in this network of reactions. In this way, the homosexual’s form of existence is preceded by a negative sign, without which it would not be, and by which no part of it remains unaffected, but from which the remainder does not simply follow.
As Bech details in his important study, such a feeling of being out of sync and never meeting the conventional expectations of society or family initiates a process of distancing, critique, and the formation of new communities and ways of living. Elmgreen & Dragset explore this wrongness in two ways: first, as the content of many works and second, as a strategy for unseating and unsettling normative accounts of society, relations, and power. They draw upon the wrongness that the queer child feels when realizing they do not fit into the standard set for them, and they have looked to the ways in which this experience produces a skeptical remoteness from the presumed normal. Elmgreen once gave the example of reading Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet as a teenager. He was told by teachers this was a universal story, but he realized even then that he could not fit into its calculus. Such experiences accumulated and led to the realization that “you approach universal truths as something you can’t believe in,” as he said. He continued, “Early on, you teach yourself that there are other possibilities, other angles.”
Images of children are central to Elmgreen & Dragset’s work because of this exploration of the ways in which societal expectations are imposed and ill-fitting. They imbue complex psychological lives to the children they make as statues—such as those wearing clothes that do not match the gender to which the child was ascribed [The Experiment, 2012], sitting neglected [Invisible, 2017], or contemplating a future in which violence will feature [One Day, 2015]. As with all of their works, these sculptures draw on queerness as a resource but extend beyond the specificity of that experience to address and complicate wider questions about what we expect from one another.
Elmgreen & Dragset, One Day, 2015. Aluminum, lacquer, glass, wood, fabric, and clothes. Coleción Fundación Maria Jose Jove, A Coruña, Spain. Photo: Kevin Todora
One should not take the consistent and unwavering commitment to queer themes and tactics as an excuse to narrowly categorize their art. This work volubly and proudly speaks from queer experience, but its aim is not merely to address LGBT audiences. It does do that, but Elmgreen & Dragset’s concerns are more expansive. They are interested in the workings of power, and they seek to build a skepticism toward the ways in which institutions direct us. Their infiltration tactics and pointed humor are aimed at showing how a view from awry—that is, a queer perspective—exposes and gives shape to the often invisible ways in which such ideas as the “natural,” the “common,” the “consensus,” and the “normal” become defined and deployed. Their Powerless Structures series embraces queer tactics as a means to show how institutions operate. As Elmgreen has said,
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.
[…] Elmgreen & Dragset have drawn on dominant conventions of sculpture only to contest them from within. While their work in relation to architecture and to performance has more often been discussed, it is also the case that sculpture has been a recurring and important reference. (Their 2007 Drama Queens also demonstrates this.) Elmgreen & Dragset engage with the history of sculpture and tackle its problems of universal address, of exemplarity, of the one standing for many, and of the public. They see the sculptural tradition’s themes of the body, the exemplary figure, abstraction, the monumental symbol, and the spatial encounter as avenues of dissent. In this, their queer methods for refusing universalism have been crucial. […] Elmgreen & Dragset demand recognition of queer difference but also show how it can be a foundation from which to launch a wider analysis of how we deal with power. In Dragset’s words, the aim for their work is that those who encounter it “no longer believe in structures being able to suppress them or in spaces being predestined for a specific purpose.” That desire to contest normativity and question universals is queer in its origins, and Elmgreen & Dragset figure that queer potential in sculptures that ask us to embrace “wrongness” for the perspectives it offers.