Earlier this year, Performa's Curator-at-Large Defne Ayas interviewed Elmgreen & Dragset for China's Modern Weekly. Ayas asked the collaborators what makes a great idea, how they define artistic genius and how they met (at a gay bar). This initial interview was expanded on the occasion of the second performance of their Performa 11 Commission, Happy Days in the Art World, which takes place on November 3rd, 2011, at NYU's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.
What keeps you inspired these days?
Ingar Dragset: People, always people. Mainly Michael of course, and my boyfriend Simon who is also an artist. And books. I’m reading this old Swedish classic called Dr. Glas at the moment, which has some astonishing modernist elements in it, considering it came out in 1905. Often I find old novels more inspiring than contemporary, maybe due to the distance I’ve got to the time period, and therefore there’s more challenge for the brain. For instance there is this passage in Dr. Glas where the main protagonist is lamenting the fact that the whole world is already described by poets and painters, and there’s nothing left for him to experience on his own account, free from other people’s impressions. This was written over a hundred years ago, before TV, film and the internet. What has happened to us since? I guess we have fully accepted that reality does not exist.
Michael Elmgreen: The rapid changes in the world.
Your audience for your work has kept changing over time. Has this impacted the production and reception of your work? As an artist, do you codify the idea of audience, and how much do you feel you should be managing their expectations? Or maybe, the shortest direct question: WHO is your favorite audience?
Ingar: Many of our works have a clear message and use a direct language that can be appreciated by many. But often there are additional references to art history, philosophy or subcultures that only the trained eye is able to decipher. We do not operate with a hierarchy in terms of audiences, but clearly some might get more out of the works than others, because they are more like ourselves.
Michael: It is always a big pleasure when a person who gets no professional benefit out of it writes to you and tells how dedicated he or she is to our artistic practice. And it is touching when the museum guards come up to you and reveal a personal story of theirs inspired by the works we have made.
Carte blanche or limitations? What is your favorite mode of institutional invitation? Cultural olympiads or private commissions?
Ingar: Curators who have a too- fixed idea about what kind of work they want you to do are rarely fun to work with. A certain openness is always required. Cultural oympiads, e.g. the biennials, are often the best in terms of direct exchange with other artists and the audience. Private commissions are sometimes longer- lasting commitments that can be more in-depth and challenging.
Michael: We are in the very fortunate situation to do both and we don’t exclude one context for the other. Different working conditions enrich you in different ways. It is sometimes nice to do a small- scale project in a more intimate setting and at other times it is great to do works that are mediated to and seen by a wider public. When we will show a sculpture on Fourth Plinth on Trafalgar Square next year, it will be seen by millions who pass by but maybe only a minority will reflect for longer time on what they experience. When we do a solo show in a commercial gallery the exhibition might only be visited by a thousand but everyone who turns up will have their concentration on the work.
Why do you think you became an artist?
Ingar: Well, I know for a fact that I changed fields from theater to visual art because it gave a lot more option to how to express ideas, in a quicker way. Other art forms seem almost heavy-handed in comparison to visual art.
Michael: By mistake. I was actually writing poetry and once showed my texts on computer screens in a space that was normally an art space. After that these strange invitations to participate in art shows suddenly started to arrive. It took me a long time to consider myself an artist.
What was the first performance you staged?
Michael: The first performance I ever saw was an East German version of Wagner's Parsifal. I was 16 and had never been to a theatre before so I was totally in shock since I didn't expect to spend six hours in my velvet seat.
What was your favorite pastime during childhood?
Ingar: Reading. Books were my education and taught me a lot about the world outside the Norwegian town I grew up in.
Michael: I must admit I mostly ran into trouble when I was a kid and teenager and then I had to use some time to sort out the mess I was in.
What hidden details should we know about you?
Ingar: What used to be hidden, such as the fact that we have no proper art education, that we first met in a gay club and that I used to be a clown, has since become semi-public knowledge.
Michael: Yeah, the rest you wouldn’t like to know. Haha.
How would you define artistic genius? Or artistic intelligence?
Ingar: I don’t think any one of us believe in genius. Where is the genius between two people collaborating, for instance? Intelligence in most fields today lies in one’s ability to exchange ideas, to communicate.
What's the best piece of writing you have encountered about your work and how has it expanded your perception of your own creations?
Ingar: In professor Shannon Jackson’s newly published book, Social Works: Performing Arts, Supporting Publics, there is a chapter on our work and its relation to concerns evoked by the decline of the welfare state and the power of neoliberal values. We get an equal amount of praise and spank, I guess, but the text is so well- funded and thoughtful that it is a thought-provoking and fun read also for us.
What are the largest questions that the art world should grapple with these days?
Ingar: The art world should never forget that it is many.
Michael: That it should resist to serve any purpose. Art is not there to provide a service.
What is your main issue within it?
Ingar: To keep on being ourselves.
Michael: And to be ourselves in new ways.
What do your artworks have in common?
Michael: They all ask silly questions about space, living modes, identity and conventions.
Do you think museum-going will ever be an endangered pastime?
Ingar: Only the day we also stop having sex for real.
Michael: With the increasing lack of public space we need places to gather and socialize so I don’t think that day is around the corner. People go to museums to get out of their private spheres and look at other art- goers and feel as being part of something bigger than themselves.
When do you two know that you entered the space of approximating and formulating a great idea?
Michael: From the shine in each other's eyes. You just know when you have hit the right button sometimes.
What has been or was your most joyful journey for art production?
Ingar: The Collectors at the 53rd Venice Biennial was one of them. We had an intuitive idea at an early point that we strongly believed in. There was a good budget, interesting spaces, a great team to work with, institutional and private backing and 23 other artists that were amazingly collaborative and accepting of the unusual setting we chose to present their art in. And last but not least, the audience embraced the situation we created.
What is your responsibility as an artist?
E&D: I don't think you have any special responsibility as an artist - but as a human being you have - also when you are an artist!
Name one of your favorite historical artists and why.
E&D: The Danish painter Hammerhøi is fascinating. His interior paintings, which are almost total colorless, speak about absence in a silent, poetic but very disturbing way. But the filmmaker Ingmar Bergman is maybe the one who has influenced us most.
What are your favorite artworks?
E&D: Works that only exist in our memories.
You are presenting a live work for Performa 11. Why go back to the theater and the structures it provides? What do you find seductive about the stage and its relationship to the audience?
Michael: A theatre production is naturally based on an extended collaboration which suits us very well. And isn’t it wonderful that the audience sit there quietly in darkness, and they have to switch off their cell phones? That’s extraordinary today.
What can we expect from your Performa 11 piece?
E&D: Happy Days In The Art World is a stage- based performance. It's close to a traditional theatre play but it is absurd in a Samuel Beckett style. It's the humorous tale of two collaborating male artists - their ups and downs, sorrows and worries and about their love life - and it is depicting how the contemporary art scene has changed in the last two decades seen through our eyes. The audience can expect some degree of painful truth and a lot of lies, haha.
Republished for Performa Magazine from China's "Q&A" on March 16th in Modern Weekly.
Defne Ayas is the Director of the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam, Netherlands. She is also Curator-at-Large for Performa.