Exterior View of A Family's Home, the Danish Pavilion. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

Staging the Exhibition:
Elmgreen & Dragset's The Collectors 


by Philip Auslander

The big “For Sale” sign outside says that the property is being offered by the Vigilante Group. At the entrance, Denise Foxwood, a middle-aged female estate agent in a flower print dress with a British accent and a condescending attitude gathers together the group she will tour through the house, handing out business cards she removes from her décolletage. A wealthy architect, Mr. A, and his family, who lived here, have departed suddenly, leaving their personal belongings and collections behind, at least for the moment. “Most of the art work is authentic, I’m told,” the agent relays to her charges, “and made by some quite well known names in the art world.” But the art is not for sale—just the house.

 

The “house” in question is actually the Danish Pavilion at the current Venice Biennale, and the story of Mr. A, his family, and Mr. B, who lives next door in the Nordic Pavilion (representing Norway, Sweden, and Finland), is the creation of Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, known collectively as Elmgreen & Dragset, a Berlin-based artist team that has worked together for fifteen years, who were commissioned to curate both pavilions. Elmgreen and Dragset are credited with both curating and “staging” the exhibition, an elaborate, large-scale theatrical confection called The Collectors, in which oblique, tabloid-ready narratives concerning what happened to the A family and the fate of Mr. B (who appears to be floating face-down in his swimming pool while young men in jeans and t-shirts loll about his home) provide the context for the gatherings of art displayed in the two pavilions made over as private homes. (As the artists themselves point out, the idea of converting exhibition spaces into fictional locales is one they have explored before, as when they turned the Bohen Foundation in New York into a subway station in 2005 or remade the interior of the Victoria Miro Gallery in London into a gay club that had seen better days in 2008.) It is noteworthy that although Ms. Foxwood distributes business cards containing a web address, there is no website with that address. The fictional world of Messrs. A and B does not spill over the footlights of the Biennale stage—Elmgreen & Dragset’s theatre is thus quite traditional, much more modern than postmodern.

 

Before going any further, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that I am writing here about a work I did not see. Well, actually I did see it, but only on video and in photographs, as I did not attend the Biennale this year. I am particularly interested in the performance aspect of The Collectors, which is documented in a video available on the Internet through Vernissage TV. The relationship between performance and its documentation is a fraught issue that is currently very much under discussion. It came up in last month’s TAS in my dialogue with Mark Scala. There, I said, “The usual assumption is that performance documentation gives us, at best, an impoverished experience of the original performance. But the more I think about it, the less credible I find this privileging of the live event.” The audience that actually sees the live version of any given art world performance is minuscule compared to the audience that will experience the same performance in documentary form. Ultimately, the documented version of the performance, the version that appears in the art history books, defines the performance for all intents and purposes. I am not saying that my experience of watching Elmgreen & Dragset’s real estate agent on video is the same as that of someone who followed her through the pavilion in Venice. All I am saying is that it is not clear that my experience is necessarily inferior in aesthetic, experiential, or any other terms to that of someone who went to the Biennale. The two experiences are not the same, but neither is the “real” or “authentic” experience of the performance. They are simply different iterations of the same event.

 

This is especially poignant with respect to the live performance in Elmgreen & Dragset’s installation, since the real estate agents (there were two, Denise and Roger Foxwood, ostensibly a husband-and-wife team) were present only during the opening days of the Biennale, meaning that only members of the art press and other elite visitors saw them perform live. This could mean that the performance I am taking as the central object of my attention here was actually incidental to the installation, nothing more than a clever and gimmicky way of providing the art press and collectors with a memorable tour of the pavilion. (Clever, and somewhat perverse for an art exhibition, since the premise of the tour is that one is there to look at the house and only incidentally at the art, which will not be there when one takes possession.) If, on the other hand, attending to the performance aspects of The Collectors enhances the installations’ meanings, the enhanced experience is now available only in documentary form even for those who attend the Biennale before it closes in November.

 

In their press release and in interviews, Elmgreen & Dragset propose that The Collectors addresses the psychology of collecting, the way we define ourselves through the objects with which we surround ourselves. Wandering through the houses and looking at the artwork, furniture, design objects, and personal belongings gathered there, the viewer is invited to imagine what kinds of people the fictional inhabitants are. (In the case of Mr. B, the artists have stated directly that they imagine him to be a gay man whose art collection provides him with a means of articulating an identity he may not be as direct about in other aspects of his life and the opportunity to support gay artists.)

Elmgreen & Dragset, Table for Bergman, 2009. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.

But the presence of performers portraying real estate agents encourages us to focus on other dimensions of performance in the installation. There is a sense in which the art assembled in the pavilions is itself performing—acting, even—in that it is pretending to constitute the collections of fictional characters. In most cases, the artworks perform as themselves; they portray works of art in one of the homes. But other works have been assimilated into the narrative in other ways. Ms. Foxwood presents Klara Liden’s installation Teenage Room, a blackened, burnt-out looking tiered structure that includes a fried laptop computer and a charred globe, as the room formerly belonging to the troubled teenaged Goth daughter of the family. In this case, the work is not presented as an example of how people use art to define themselves. It is not presented as a work of art at all, but as a piece of theatrical set design intended to express the sensibility of a specific character. In other instances, works of art appear as characters: the estate agent says that Maurizio Catalan’s taxidermy dog is a deceased family pet, while Elmgreen & Dragset’s own gilded brass sculpture Rosa is said to be based on a mold derived from a beloved family maid who died under mysterious circumstances two generations ago. There are different registers of performance here and different ways in which the art participates in the theatricality of Elmgreen & Dragset’s installation.

 

In this context, the performance aspect of other works comes to the fore. While showing off the dining room in the Danish Pavilion, Ms. Foxwood draws attention to two paintings by Elaine Sturtevant that replicate works by Frank Stella. Another register of performance comes into play--that of masquerade--as two Sturtevants masquerade as Stellas. Returning to Elmgreen & Dragset’s stated themes, one could certainly find oneself asking what it means that Mr. A collected Sturtevant-Stellas instead of real Stellas. But larger questions also loom, questions of what it means for one work to masquerade as another, especially after the real estate agent has said, “most of the work is authentic.” Are these inauthentic Stellas or authentic Sturtevants? Or both, since the authenticity of a Sturtevant is inextricable from its being an inauthentic replication of another artist’s work.

 

Ms. Foxwood also draws attention through a passing remark to the obvious yet crucial intertextual relationship between The Collectors and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection just down the canal in Venice. There, too, one is invited into a home to see works of art assembled by an absent owner, an owner whose adventurous life and personal connections to the artists represented in her collection are hinted at by rooms emptied of everything but art

 

Although Elmgreen & Dragset emphasize the role artworks play in collectors’ construction and expression of their social identities, The Collectors more broadly thematizes the way art is inserted into a variety of narratives ranging from the personal and social to the critical and historical. It thus relates to Elmgreen & Dragset’s even more overtly theatrical contribution to the Muenster Sculpture Project in 2007, a play entitled Drama Queens (with text by Tim Etchells) in which seven sculptures strongly recalling famous works move about a stage and speak with one another. In a somewhat Beckettian scenario, the sculptures acknowledge the theatre audience and talk in ways that reflect the different artistic sensibilities and values attributed to them, their respective places in the history of sculpture, and the ways they’ve been defined through critical discourse. Walking Man (inspired by Giacometti), for example, explains, “My thin-ness is best understood as the exterior reflection of an interior state. The reality that art seeks after is more than surface appearances, yes?” Although artworks become performers in a much more literal sense in Drama Queens than in The Collectors, both works examine the way the meaning of art is inevitably mediated by the narratives surrounding it.

 

It is worth noting, as a coda, that there is another performance going on in another Biennale pavilion sponsored by a Nordic country. The Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s The End incorporates a six-month performance in which Kjartansson will paint portrait after portrait of another man posing for him in a bathing suit in a palazzo converted into a makeshift studio equipped with a supply of beer and a record player. This performance is basically the polar opposite of Elmgreen & Dragset’s contribution. The decaying renaissance palazzo contrasts strongly with the sleek design of the Danish and Nordic pavilions. And whereas Elmgreen & Dragset’s piece is slick, swift, and theatrical, Kjartansson’s is grungy, boring, and un-self-conscious. Together, the two works trace the work of art’s trajectory from the sweaty scene of its laborious production to the swanky site of its luxurious display and the very different relationships it assumes to the one who makes it and the one who ultimately possesses it.

Ragnar Kjartansson, The End - Venice, 2009, performance installation.
Commissioned by the Center for Icelandic Art.
Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik.
Photo: Rafael Pinho.

Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section.