Elmgreen & Dragset, Van Gogh’s Ear (2016), Courtesy of the artists and K11 Art Foundation, Galerie Perrotin, Galleria Massimo de Carlo and Victoria Miro Gallery Photo: Jason Wyche, Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY
This month, the Public Art Fund unveiled Van Gogh’s Ear, the organization’s ambitious collaboration with artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset. Presented to the public on a fittingly drizzly wet April morning (considering the sculpture’s subject matter), the completely drained pool recalls those of 1950’s Los Angeles. The impressive 354-inch high sculpture, designed and crafted by the duo in the form of an ear, makes explicit reference to Van Gogh, whose dismembered ear has been the subject of various speculations in art history, stands on the hectic corner of 5th avenue, showing off its intricately detailed aqua blue interior, stainless steel ladder, glowing lights and accompanying diving board.
From Duchamp’s notion of readymades to David Hockney’s seminal poolside paintings, the references that the duo fuses together stand comparatively reticent in the face of the the sculpture’s impressive scale, and presence alongside thousands of rushing passersby in the crowded commercial area. Yet stripped from its original purpose and location, Van Gogh’s Ear carries a certain spatial charge, and correlates with the body of work that the duo has delivered since the 90s, from the Prada store they built in Marfa to the theatrical interiors they have orchestrated for a range of fictional characters.
The duo sat down with Art Observed at the opening for the work, and answered a few questions about the presentation and conception of the sculpture.
Your sculptures have often been in tight conversations with their surroundings—be it the Marfa dessert or the bank of a river—yet Van Gogh’s Ear seems to descend from the sky uninvited onto the Rockefeller Center. How do you perceive this difference?
There is definitely a contrast between this busy, urban East Coast location, with its huge crowds of tourists and business people passing through everyday, and this pool, which brings to mind leisurely days in California. We wanted to play with these kinds of oppositions. And yes, it’s true that the pool standing on its edge almost seems as if a UFO had landed in the midst of Fifth Avenue. However, it’s also about how American middle class dreams might have changed over time, and how commercialism today is more based on the idea of the product than the actual product.
Van Gogh is an artist symbolic of posthumous fame. Is there a commentary on conflicted or dictated value systems or market politics in terms of an object’s value or an artist’s fame?
Van Gogh was known for depicting situations from everyday life, or objects that were not valued in high culture. Swimming pools are in line with this, as they are not generally associated with intellectual thinking, although they can signify something more, extending to human interaction and bodily acts. We have also been inspired by the works of David Hockney, who has been very important for us as artists since the beginning, and for gay culture overall. He of course comes from a different time, and depicts a different approach to the idea of a swimming pool. Our pool is a darker one.
Domesticity is a reoccurring element in your work, from the interiors you have built to the household appliances you often include in your work. Is this pool a public pool or for personal use?
It is definitely a private garden pool—it would be too small to be a public pool, and like in many of our past projects, we’re using a symbol that applies to the notion of an individual to talk about society at large.
You distort Duchamp’s notion of found object as well, not only by using an immobile object, but also by custom building it. How do you see the connection between Duchamp’s definition of ‘found object’ and yours?
On one hand, “Van Gogh’s Ear” appears just like an easy readymade, in spite of being a detailed and handcrafted piece. But when observed from the backside, it looks like an abstract sculpture. It changes its character according to the angle from which you view it. It wouldn’t be interesting just to show a mass-produced, readymade object. You have to ask what this object actually tells: easily recognizable objects like this can spark immediate dialogues with big audiences, because viewers know and relate to the iconography of the item already. Even if you don’t have much information about the idea behind the artwork, you know what you are looking at and you get an experience out of it, which is then altered by the unexpected setting. The familiar becomes unfamiliar so to say.
You previously used pools in your work by placing sculptures in or next to them. Is this your ultimate pool piece?
In terms of scale, it is definitely our biggest pool piece.
Considering your previous body of work has dealt with such issues, is there a commentary on body politics, especially of those related to HIV/AIDS, in presenting a drained and lifeless pool?
Those layers that deal with more serious issues are always there in our work. We wanted to ask what is a public sculpture today and what is its purpose: can a public sculpture still be a serious work of art when it is just a pool standing upright? The dysfunctional character of this swimming pool—its position and the fact that there is no water in it—makes it impossible to physically interact with it in a direct way.
Elmgreen & Dragset: Van Gogh’s Ear is on view at the Rockefeller Center through June 3, 2016.
— O.C. Yerebakan
Public Art Fund [Exhibition Page]