A traditional, stark, white void art space gets transformed into someplace much more human—a bedroom, albeit fictional, but a bedroom still—filled with personal possessions left out for us to touch in Elmgreen & Dragset's new work at Galerie Perrotin. Hidden in cabinets, books, albums, and boxes of photographs pepper the room, allowing viewers to choose their level of interaction within the space. The deeper you dig, the more you’ll find out about Norman Swann, the fictional occupant of the room. And don’t be shy about picking things up—Norman’s not home, and you’re invited to have a look.
An artist duo since 1995, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset have hosted numerous exhibitions around the world, providing thought-provoking spacial offerings to the gallery-weary art-goer in need of a change of scene; a Prada boutique in the Texan desert and a “rentable” apartment in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum are among some of their better-known works.
Past Tomorrow is the continuation—the sequel, if you will—of the story of Norman Swann, an elderly man full of regrets; a failed architect first introduced to us at the Victoria and Albert Museum via Elmgreen and Dragset’s 2013 exhibition, Tomorrow, which imagined and made tangible Norman’s luxurious London apartment and his belongings in the midst of being packed up, shipped or sold. Past Tomorrow finds Norman with “the few worldly possessions he has left,” resettled in a dramatic, red-walled bedroom in New York’s Upper East Side.
A visit to the gallery will earn you a copy of Elmgreen and Dragset’s short play, also titled Past Tomorrow; an accompaniment to the exhibit which accounts Norman’s last night in London, and gives context to many of the clues hidden in his room at Perrotin. The artists also are hoping to sneak a bit of reading into the days of their New York viewers, otherwise concerned with the constant parade of image and images which march endlessly by.
The Creators Project visited Elmgreen and Dragset at Galerie Perrotin to talk about Past Tomorrow—the exhibit, the play, and the inspiration behind it all.
The Creators Project: Why Norman Swann? Where did he come from?
Ingar Dragset (ID): The name?
The person, the character—why build not one but two homes for this man?
Michael Elmgreen (ME): Well, he is a bit like a certain persona of us; like the worst of Ingar and the worst of me put into this fictional character—a warning to ourselves to not become as bitter and grumpy and judgmental as Norman. His name comes from a very famous architect called Norman Foster, and Swann is a quite well known and quite pathetic character in Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust. There’s also a symbol of maybe the decline of the British Empire; the big influence of Europe in the old world order, and now suddenly Europe has to come to terms with not playing such a central role anymore. So, it’s kind of a symbol of lost values, but also values that we are all happy are maybe not existing anymore.
ID: We also wanted to create a character as a bit older. We don’t have so much art or even film or anything about older people. And we all age.
ME: Being a gay man, it’s quite weird that there’s absolutely nothing about being gay and being older in media—especially not in the gay media.
I think you said yesterday, it’s almost as if you have to stop being gay after you turn 35?
ME: It’s almost like you’re not existing, yeah.
ID: It’s more in the media. Of course, you don’t stop being gay yourself, and you have older friends. It’s just this whole image of being gay; this idea that everyone’s interested in youth—which I don’t think even is true. It’s a little bit like everyone thinking that the straight man maybe wants like, a skinny woman with big boobs, but it’s not true. It’s a media-generated image.
ME: But when no one speaks in public about your identity when you get older and you are gay, then someday you start to think, 'Oh what do I do with my life now?' Because for like, heterosexual married couples it’s like, lined in the cards that you have children, and then you get grandchildren, and then you get old together—even though most of them are divorced before they reach that point. But, there’s some kind of plan. There are no plans for older gay men. It’s like, well, you stop going to clubs, and then you stop breathing.
You didn’t have the intention to continue Norman Swann’s story when you worked on your exhibit Tomorrow at the Victoria and Albert Museum? Past Tomorrow was never in the works?
ME: No. We wanted to keep it open, no real ending what happened to Norman Swann. It should be a mystery. But we always planned for him to move out of the apartment at the V&A. He had the boxes with all his stuff packed out, and there was a big real estate ad outside the museum. We thought people would be really upset about the V&A suddenly selling part of the museum as a private apartment, but a lot of people just called in and asked—what a surprise!
So you didn’t advertise it as Norman Swann’s apartment, you just called it an apartment for rent, and then when people arrived to look at it, they found that it belonged to a fictional man?
ME: Yeah, then they came up and saw the project, and could see that this is an exhibition, but from outside it actually looked quite real.
Did you already have most of the objects that you were going to use here from Tomorrow?
ME: A lot of the stuff here is new things that we have either made or sourced. I mean, we try to source as much as possible, but everything we couldn’t find, we just faked and made ourselves; posters, photographs, whatever. It’s a lot of stuff that looks like it’s ready-made, but it’s actually made by us.
Like the walls, for example. The gallery space is just a very standard white cube, in reality.
ME: Exactly, and some posters, like this "BUILDING FOR THE MASSES" [a poster on the wall in the show]. It looks like an exhibition that happened, but there was never any exhibition called that, so we just made it. Or photographs, where we have photoshopped and then reprinted them. They look old, but we made them so they fit the purpose.
ID: We do like to give people a little surprise when they enter a gallery and they see the space, you know. It’s not what you expect it to look like.
Definitely. But you did take some things from the V&A space, like the portrait of Norman as a boy.
ID: Yes, his bed, and the portrait, those are the main things. These are, of course, the things that he’s taken with him. And all the furniture upstairs, of course, we designed and made; like the bed, closet, fireplace, bookshelf. When you look closely at it, you see it’s not as ornate and decorative as furniture normally is. But that’s also something we normally do, isn’t it, is to make just as much as you need to give the idea of a certain style. A little bit softer, minimal, more stylized than what you can go out and buy.
Imply the style.
ID: Yes, exactly.
When did the play come in? Did you write that before designing the room, or afterwards?
ID: It was parallel, definitely. One thing kind of influenced the other all the time. It was ping-pong, wasn’t it? We write in the way that we send each other little scenes. It didn’t have the full shape.
What kind of clues are you hoping people find in the room?
ID: It’s fun if they see the postcards that he has got, or his airline tickets, or they see he didn’t pay all his bills in London yet.
ME: And then we hope to influence people in a really bad way, so they get really bad manners when they are guests in real homes, so they start to actually sneak into their host’s private belongs. People are not curious enough today. You’ve gotten so used to getting everything served through everyone’s Facebook profiles and whatever, like told everything through Instagram, so you don’t have the curiosity to look into your neighbor’s windows, or like, sneak into the letterbox of someone... And I think that would be good.
Yeah, you’d like to bring that back?
ID: Of course, you also want people to really look at the bookshelf, because of course every title is chosen with a specific thought in mind. And also his architect drawings can give you a hint.
Did you make the architectural drawings as well?
ME: It’s valid, whatever kind of reaction you’re having. So, it’s also fun to have people come in and say “Oh! I thought this was a gallery!” And they go out again. That’s also fun.
Can you describe the process of turning the white cube gallery space into this antique, Victorian-style bedroom?
ID: Well, the color is quite important.
Oh yes, I was slipped a hint that Bergman’s Cries and Whispers was the main influence in this exhibit.
ME: Yeah, Bergman is always sitting on our shoulders.
He’s the critic? The vulture is Bergman?
ID: That’s a bit scary.
ME: With his fat stomach and his misanthropic attitude.
I could see him hanging around this room in particular, critiquing it.
ME: 'Do it right!' No, it’s amazing how little you have to do to transform a gallery to be something else. I mean, and it’s amazing that all the galleries—if you go around Chelsea, hundreds of them—choose to do the same format. I mean, why? It is possible to perceive art in a different way than having like, a nice floor and white walls, very clean cut. It doesn’t seem like people who own galleries are the most adventurous, or those with the most fantasy, because the spaces look almost alike. It almost only comes down to what size they have.
And so you come in and reimagine these spaces.
ID: Yeah, we’re inspired by the spaces. There’s something about this building and the features that already existed in the gallery... Some of the stucco decorations in the ceiling and all that made me think, ok this could be a home.
ME: But it’s always like that. We sometimes feel more inspired by showing art in the office section or in the bathroom than in the actual gallery space because there’s more signs of life, human activity... There’s nothing wrong with the white cube, it’s just so weird that it all looks the same; especially when you walk around Chelsea. If you didn’t have the artworks, you wouldn’t know if you had been in the space already. Strange.
ID: We always felt a bit uncomfortable with this clinical, antiseptic, atmospheric gallery space. We always work against it in one way or another.
ME: Then, we made the exhibition to write the book, and to get people to read, because in a city like New York, you see new museum spaces and new gallery spaces opening up every day, but bookstores are closing down one by one. And that’s sad, so we hope that we can cheat a bit and get people in the space and take a book and then go home and read the book. That would be nice.
Past Tomorrow will be on view through May 23, 2015 at Galerie Perrotin, 909 Madison Avenue, New York, NY.