By Sarah Peguine
Visitors to the Tel Aviv Museum might miss the artwork welcoming them at the entrance hall of the museum’s new building, “Donation Box” 2006 by Elmgreen & Dragset is a transparent glass box placed on a plinth, a donation box that can commonly be found in various establishments. The exhibition is part of a joint project with two other institutions, the Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo (March – August 2014) and the Statens Museum for Kunst (National Gallery of Denmark), Copenhagen (September 2014 – January 2015), each of the previous shows was titled “Biography”. This, the artists’ first exhibition in Israel, includes eight works, scattered around the museum: at the entrance hall of the Herta and Paul Amir Building, a corridor, the Lilly & Yoel Moshe Elstein Multi-Purpose Gallery, and the museum’s sculptures garden at the museum’s department of Old Masters. This placement creates a unique experience for the viewers, a specific itinerary within the museum which forces them to not only consider the artworks themselves but also their surroundings, the museum’s spaces and its collections.
Michael Elmgreen (born 1961, Copenhagen) and Ingar Dragset (born 1969, Trondheim, Norway) have been working together since 1995, have held many solo shows and participated in major group exhibitions all over the world. The artist duo rose to fame after representing the Nordic and Danish Pavilions at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009 with their poignant installation “Death of a Collector”. At the Biennale, they revealed the domestic space of a gay collector, Mr. B, whose figure could be found floating in a pool set outside of the pavilion. The themes of identity, consumerism and capitalism are recurrent ones in their oeuvre and are indeed present in the Tel Aviv show. Here the installations confront the public in a subtle and discreet, yet bold and powerful manner. The show is filled with oxymorons, like its title “Powerless Structures”, which refers to the idea that the power of any structures (cultural, financial, artistic, political, religious…) is interchangeable and highly dependent on society or in the case of this exhibition, on the viewers and the artists. The structure and its power depend on point of view.
In the only room of the museum solely dedicated to the artist’s’ works are three installations, one of which is “For as long as it lasts” (2016), a section of the Berlin Wall replicated in concrete. Berlin was a major steeping stone for the duo after arriving in 1996 and in this piece present their point of view and biography, while offering a platform to think about walls and divison. The huge size of the wall (3.6 meters high like the original), its whiteness and setting, hiding a large portion of the space, can at first glance overwhelm the viewers, but seems to be necessary in forcing them to take a metaphorical and physical position in the space.
Behind and above that wall is a self-absorbed teenager sitting atop an escape stairway, either lost or, perhaps, observing us. Is he a predictor of events to come? Given the title of this work, “The Future” (2014), this just might be the case.
Youth, a common theme in the duo’s work, is present in “Modern Moses” (2006). Installed in one of the museum’s corridors is an ATM machine with a wax infant sleeping in a baby carrier at its feet. These two symbols are provocative as they should not be found at a high cultural venue like the museum and serve as a shocking tableaux for the museum’s visitor. The cash machine is a strong sign of consumerism and the forgotten child a reminder of the religious tale of Moses, an allusion to abandonment or perhaps to a lost society.
As in the previous works mentioned here the ATM, which is non-functional, and the baby are both inviting and rejecting the visitors, embracing and pushing them away, psychologically and physically.
In their show, Elmgreen and Dragset, impose a long gaze at the viewers, the kind of observation needed in the performing arts, like in dance or theatre. They achieve a similar attention from the visitors through the staging of the works, which allow the viewers to lose themselves and spend time within the museum’s different spaces being seduced and alienated at once. Through this intriguing platform, the artists have successfully offered the audience the possibility to construct for themselves alternative narratives, finding answers to questions surrounding issues of identity and contemporary life.
Elmgreen & Dragset: Powerless Structures at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art runs through August 27, 2016
Sarah Peguine is the founder of Oh-So-Arty an online magazine dedicated to the Israeli contemporary art scene, and the former co-Director of Dvir Gallery. She is also the creator of Art Galleries in Tel Aviv.