Fourth Plinth: Elmgreen & Dragset interview

Ossian Ward discusses boys’ toys and the language of war with Elmgreen

‘Powerless Structures Fig 101’ ‘Powerless Structures Fig 101’ - © Rob Greig

Danish and Norwegian duo Elmgreen & Dragset (as artists they drop their forenames Michael and Ingar) are specialists in ambitious works of visual theatre, having installed a replica Prada store in the middle of a Texan desert in 2005 and a life-size concrete housing estate in a German museum in 2010, complete with actor-residents playing single mums and street hustlers. On February 23, their update on the traditional bronze equestrian statue, ‘Powerless Structures Fig 101’, was unveiled for its year-long run in Trafalgar Square (until Apr 1 2013). It features a modern-day Little Lord Fauntleroy teetering on his rocking horse atop the empty Fourth Plinth, opposite King George IV and his steed.

Were you constantly checking up on your boy before he went up there? 

Elmgreen: ‘Yes, it’s been a long, slow process. We’ve spent a whole year in production, from making the first model to the moulds and finally having the bronze poured in. Then, when we scaled it up we found this cute little boy had lost his fragility and turned into a fucking monster! So we had to change the face a lot during the summer and the mane and the tail of the horse changed too.’ 

Dragset: ‘The original maquette was sort of lifeless, so I feel like there’s a personality to him now’. 

What did you want his expression to convey? 

E: ‘He’s just a kid on an Ikea-style toy horse without any worries, unlike all the serious warriors around him.’ 

D: ‘He’s a bit in his own world, but we made him in an old-fashioned, nostalgic style, not only so he could blend into the square, but because kids nowadays don’t have rocking horses – they play war games to get their thrills. So it’s also a memorial for toys and fantasy.’

Elmgreen & Dragset, 'High Expectations', 2010 Elmgreen & Dragset, 'High Expectations', 2010 - Courtsey of Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin Photo © Fidelis Fuchs, ONUK

You recently made a sculpture of a frightened little boy called ‘High Expectations’. Why is this youthful image important to you?

D: ‘We may be getting more sentimental with age and reassessing our childhood in some way.’

E: ‘There are such high expectations on the coming generations. They’re growing up in a completely different scenario than we did, because everyone is talking about the world going under due to global warming and how we have to stop Western consumer habits.’

D: ‘At the same time, they have this incredible pressure to be individualist and stand out. Everything is like a talent show nowadays, even if you’re on Facebook or other social media, you have to act as if you’re a celebrity and everything you do has to be interesting.'

It also references a National Socialist-style figurine of a mounted soldier you used in the same installation… 

D: ‘It’s not that we’re saying that today’s regimes are anything like the Nazis, but clearly there are elements in any society that entertain ideas of grandeur, heroism and world domination. There are words being used now that I find very loaded and difficult, such as “pride” or “honour”. You know, it carries on, it trickles down.’ 

E: ‘When countries go to war and win, like in Libya, it’s still described as a “success” or “victory” or something like that, even with all those casualties.’ 

So the fundamentals of war haven’t changed that much even since George IV’s time? 

E: ‘It’s about being the winner or the loser. That has to do with celebrity culture as well, because if you’re not in the gossip columns, you’re no one.’

Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset - © James O Jenkins

The title is actually ‘Powerless Structures, Fig 101’, so what was number one?

D: ‘That was in the very first exhibition we did as a tryout for different materials and a move away from performance art to making objects. The first “Powerless Structures” with any real importance was probably number ll, which was a diving board that went through the window of a museum.’

Another in the series was a very public, double-sided urinal. Did you have any other ideas for the plinth that didn’t make it?

E: ‘We had one about how we could save the economy. We were going to make a giant one of those lucky cats you find in Chinese shops with the automatic arm waving at Chinatown. But it was just a one-liner.’

D: ‘We had lots of silly ideas. I was thinking about the British people that have been really been important to my life but the only one I could come up with was Boy George. After what he’s been through lately I thought he’d not be the best person to represent the nation!’

With these big public pieces, are you in danger of becoming plaza-fillers like Anish Kapoor or Richard Serra?

E: ‘Placing work in public, where you have a much wider audience who didn't ask for an art experience is the most unpredictable situation possible, but I think to some degree we’re too naughty to care about the most mainstream commissions. We’ve made a male version of Denmark’s national symbol, “The Little Mermaid”, that has created uproar in the newspapers.’

D: ‘It’s a merman, but without a fishtail, and every 40 minutes or so he winks. Plus it’s not in Copenhagen but in Helsingør near Hamlet’s castle, which is a rival city and was once the capital of power and tourism.’

‘The Little Mermaid’ is always being vandalised, are you worried people might climb up and ride your rocking horse?

E: There’s such heavy policing on Trafalgar Square that I don’t think they’d have a chance – the poor creatures!’

Powerless Structures Fig 101’ will be on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square until Apr 1 2013.