Snaking through the hallways of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s London space is an immersive, illusory installation by Danish artists Elmgreen and Dragset, a multi-room piece realizing the home and studio of a fictional, disillusioned architect named Norman Swann.
The exhibition, open until January 2nd, is meticulous in its detail, and even includes a printed screenplay intended to further instill a narrative arc to the proceedings. Museum guests are invited to roam freely, sit in the chairs of the installation, and slowly incorporate themselves into the fabric of the work, letting the line between artistic installation and lived space gradually dissolve. Plans from the architect’s career adorn the desks of the space, and are punctuated by surreal twists. A dinette set is split down the middle, showing a gaping law line of wooden fragments, and a small statue of a vulnerable, frightened boy sits in the fireplace. In the bedroom, a bedside cabinet is left ajar, showing a collection of pill bottles alongside a a selection of vintage photographs. Equally jarring is an unfinished kitchen space, where white paint is spread along several walls, but left incomplete, as a shady yellow looms over the cavernous space.
Swann, as the visitor gathers, lives something of a reclusive, bitter life, tucked away in his lavishly appointed apartment complex. He is almost completely broke, a purist Modernist architect left as something of a relic by the shifting tastes of the day, and has lost his lavish South Kensington home to his former pupil, a manipulative, social climber and postmodern interior designer. Hints of romance and sexual tension adorn the space, and the included screenplay presents the space as the site of a last confrontation between the two.
It’s interesting to trace the narrative at play here, as Elmgreen and Dragset use the shifting stylistic and philosophical moorings of contemporary arts to add an increased weight to the conflict between the two figures of the piece. Swann and his onetime pupil are sited as the human exchange of conflicting aesthetic world views, a confrontation lent all the more force by their long history together. Seemingly inconsequential, the violence implied throughout the piece underlines the dissonances between taste and power.
Tracing the interplays and conflicts of aesthetics and romance, Elmgreen and Dragset create a powerful portrait of what art and creativity mean to its practitioners, and how these values incorporate themselves subtly into the fabric of their world-views and persona. In an era of increasingly compressed histories and easily commodified aesthetics, the power struggles the artists depict manage to address the broadest scope of contemporary arts, and the most human.
— D. Creahan