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Q&A: Elmgreen & Dragset

Elmgreen & Dragset’s first stop for a major exhibition in Asia? Seoul

 (Photograph: Kim Hyun-soo)
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Photograph: Kim Hyun-soo
엘름그린 드라그셋 (Courtesy of the artists and PLATEAU)
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Courtesy of the artists and PLATEAU
엘름그린 드라그셋 (Photograph: Kim Sang-tae, courtesy of the artists and PLATEAU)
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Photograph: Kim Sang-tae, courtesy of the artists and PLATEAU
It’s been 20 years since poet Michael Elmgreen and theater performer Ingar Dragset met in a club in Copenhagen—a romantic encounter that evolved into a professional artistic career. Elmgreen & Dragset are no longer a couple, but they remain best friends, and always “have something to express.” From building a Prada store in the middle of the Texas desert to transforming the pavilion at the Venice Biennale into the house of a deceased art collector, this Copenhagen-based duo prods viewers into forming their own narratives about the exhibition. The two visited PLATEAU for the first time two years ago to source inspiration, and now the art museum has been transformed into an international airport.
 
So why an airport?
PLATEAU is quite unusual in many ways in terms of how it’s situated on the ground floor of a busy corporate building and then connects to a semi-public area with a huge food court, escalators, restrooms and so on. The art shop seems to belong to the gallery and the visitors to the food court. We have thought about the similarities between institutions such as airports and shopping malls and museums before, and this was the perfect location to explore these ideas further. Why do these types of places look the same all over the world, why do people behave the same in them and why does it seem that we are always stripped of our identities in these places?
 
What draws you to this kind of site-specific work?
We both share this fascination with experimental narration, “storytelling,” if you will. We feel that the more you leave open to the audience's own associations, the more original the outcome of a "story" becomes. We do not use words or actors though, since we believe that the objects serve as better protagonists in our narratives. 
 
The guards shooed me off when I tried to sit on the cloth chairs.
Well, there seems to have been a misunderstanding. You are actually allowed to sit on the chairs, which by the way, are from the original Concorde Lounge back when people really believed in the future. 
 
But the perfume advertised on the first floor isn’t offered for sale at the duty free store—the viewer could only marvel at the translucent bottle set inside the glass case.
We often work with so-called "denials,” where we create a situation that seemingly invites an interaction, but then one is barred from completing the action in one way or another. We hope, of course, that people do not just get pissed off, but that the situation creates a dilemma and a process of thought that causes one to ask, “Why am I not allowed to do this?” It may be comparable to real-life occurrences. Authorities and big companies seem to want us to believe that we are free to do whatever we dream, but reality is very different for a lot of people. 
 
Looking into the “Donation Box (2006),” I saw that you visited the MMCA in Jongno.
We spent a month in Seoul this summer, and feel a great affection for the city. It takes time to get to know Seoul, but once you explore the city more deeply, you love it. One thing that struck us is that the city might be in need of better and, perhaps, more discursive art in public areas. 
 
Coming from a non-visual arts background, was it hard for you to come this far?
Broodthaers was a poet for 20 years and Tino Sehgal started out as a choreographer. It almost seems impossible to enter the art world without training, but on the other hand, if you bring in something interesting from the outside or from another professional field, it becomes an open scene. Since the art world has many rules it is difficult to understand, but none of these rules are written down or set in stone. We were very lucky to start out with a small, very active and supportive group in Copenhagen in the ‘90s. It involved a lot of DIY, which was a great way to learn.
 
What’s the next big project you’re thinking about?
The contents are a secret, but we are working towards an exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. It is set to open at the end of next January, and is right around the corner from Seoul! 

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