Alternative perspectives and humanist propositions define the intriguing world-building of the Milanese collective in their investigations of functionality, identity, and the mundane.
Elmgreen & Dragset ‘Useless Bodies?’
In conversation with Vere van Gool
The new Elmgreen & Dragset exhibition at the Fondazione Prada in Milan is an ode to bodily agency in a world where technology, public health and entertainment have rendered our bodies rather useless. Spanning across the entire Fondazione structure, ‘Useless Bodies?’ sets out to reinvent a certain conception of minimalism, from sculpture to interior design and even curation. An open invitation to participate in the abstraction and subversion of bodily politics surrounding exhibitions, ‘Useless Bodies?’ culminates in a bold and playful oeuvre by the Berlin-based duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, on display until August 22, 2022.
Vere van Gool: How did Useless Bodies? at the Fondazione Prada come about?
Elmgreen & Dragset: We received the first emails from Prada in 2017. So we started, of course, coming to the Fondazione and looking at the spaces to think about what would be interesting to do here. Typically we go through a number of ideas before we land on something that’s taboo, or something that hits home. The wonderful thing with the Fondazione is that each space looks so different. As opposed to homogeneous white cubes, here you have all these different atmospheres, allowing us to create various universes within our work.
VVG: Useless Bodies? reads as a very architectural show, spread across the Fondazione Prada. Can you elaborate on how your work responds to the architectural surroundings?
E&D: It’s in the DNA of our process that we actively work with the spaces in which we exhibit. When we did the Venice Biennial in 2009, we turned two pavilions into private homes. We realised the pavilions actually existed in the scale of a private home, and the Giardini looked like a posh neighbourhood where everyone competes to have the most beautiful garden. Our starting point is always the spatial conditions, the architecture. This autumn, we will have a show at a new museum in China which we hope to turn into a giant nightclub. We plan to throw a big party with music and lights, if possible, where the kids will come and have fun. The leftovers of the party will become the sculptural objects.
The Fondazione Prada isn’t this big museum construction that impresses people. It holds a lot of different spaces, and in a way it’s like a village with an architectural interest in diversity. Every aspect of the Fondazione looks different, from the Golden Tower to the North Gallery to the Podium, the Cinema and the Cistern. Most importantly, there are these public alleys and walkways throughout the Fondazione, allowing one to enter without paying and just chill out outside. Hence our work Cooling Box, which gives off the illusion of someone having a picnic in the courtyard.
We observed the spaces as offering four different environments — first there is this arena-like public space, which is the Podium with its glass walls. The transparency and openness allowed us to address issues of display, relevant today within our own sculptural practice. Upstairs, the Garden of Eden (2022), is a room lacking windows that feels like a laboratory, where workstations are almost like jail cells. Then there’s the Cistern that houses our Piscina di Largo Isarco (2021), which felt a natural fit. At the North Gallery, we blurred the borders between interior design, design objects and artworks. Not all work on display is made by us, blurring the boundaries of what is considered art, design and architecture.
VVG: The main room of the exhibition, the Podium, feels like an ode to early Mies van der Rohe’s collages, in which bodies are sparsely placed adjacent to marble and metal architecture structures. How did that come about?
E&D: The exhibition actually references the first Fondazione Prada exhibition in Milano called Serial Classic (2015). Given that the world has short term memory, we wanted to reference something most people have forgotten about today— with a twist of course. We inserted our fictional characters into the classical and neoclassical depictions of the male body on display, allowing for a playful ensemble. The original work n referred to Rem Koolhaas’s inspirations with which he designed the Fondazione, obviously including Van der Rohe.
VVG: Does the exhibition need bodies?
E&D: Many of the works on display are part of collaborations. We have a loose kind of relationship towards producing works, thus ownership as well. I would say that similar to many other industries, we are dependent on our audience, which is something that the contemporary art world often forgets. Audiences are not only numbers at the entrance, they are here and we need them in our installations, whether it is a futuristic home or spa environment. The audience plays an active role, completing the work with their presence. In that way, we need bodies.
VVG: How does it feel like to open an exhibition about bodies today, especially during this particular and complex political climate?
E&D: The war has shocked us deeply. It speaks of the vulnerability of humanity and actual, physical bodies. It’s something that really happens, beyond our screens and beyond the metasphere, reflecting themes in our work from years ago.
The pandemic began as we prepared for this show, shifting our perception of the body. The body was not only used less, excluded from all the super dimensional imagery shaping our world today, but it also became dangerous. It even became a symbol of something that could kill us. We had to socially distance and work from home, and our bodily interactions became so restricted. All the young people couldn’t go to clubs and couldn’t fall in love in the same way as we did as teenagers. The world became even more based on this fictional reality existing only on your screens. And that, of course, heavily influenced our perspective and our work.
VVG: If bodies are in effect, useless, as the question mark implies, what would you miss most if you didn’t have a body?
E&D: Do we have to choose?
The problem when you don’t use your body and live only in virtual reality is that you no longer have the sensation of someone touching you. You don’t have the pleasure of feeling full after a nice meal. You don’t have the smell of spring. There are so many essential things that you miss out on. Perhaps a future generation would not be so sentimental about that, because it’s not something they would be used to. But for me, I have a lot of biological mechanisms that demand things, I crave for things. And if I didn’t have a body, I wouldn’t be able to satisfy those cravings.
VVG: Do you think we might move towards a society in which our bodies are actually useless?
E&D: I don’t think it’s possible. Future generations will strive to find a balance. I think there will be a counter-culture movement by next year. Young people are good at inciting cultural revolutions, and I think that the next revolution will be about reclaiming the body. We need a world where there is space for our bodies. We need a world that respects our bodies, female and male and everything else. We need a society that is geared towards our physical identities as opposed to one that exists by selling our data online.
VVG: If Useless Bodies? as an exhibition is the answer, what would the question be?
E&D: Exhibitions are never an answer. It’s always a question – we are not here for simple answers. We are here to address complex questions. In fact, the question around the role of a body is so large that we have extended it into a publication in which 37 contributors pose even more questions.
Useless Bodies? is on display at the Fondazione Prada, Milan until August 22, 2022.
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