Maurizio Cattelan Interviews Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset
Maurizio Cattelan: Michael and Ingar, I can sense a certain reluctance about doing this interview together. Is it just due to being totally trashed after yesterday’s party or is there more to it?
Michael Elmgreen: It’s just because we don’t think we have anything really clever to say. When we read other interviews, there are always parts that strike us, and we ask ourselves, ‘Why don’t we just take this section since it’s so interesting? We certainly can’t do any better on our own.’ The idea then is to reorganize something already there, represent something that already exists. We’d be happy to do this now. We just have to think about which interviews we like and which ones we can use.
MC: I think I’m going to ignore that remark, guys. Does this mean that earlier published interviews with you are borrowed from other sources, pilfered from other artists? For instance, what about the interview conducted by Lars Bang Larsen in which you discuss your lack of a formal art education? Does this mean that you never were doing interior decoration and theatre, respectively? I did think your chronology was a bit suspect. If we do decide to proceed with this strategy, I have to admit that I’ll be concerned. I’m liable for the truth of my statements as well as yours. I’m no longer just an irresponsible artist, he, he.
Ingar Dragset: But, you see, truth is not out there. It’s just the moment that you claim something as your own. This is our truth; that is yours. Besides, if we use other people’s material, you will still have the opportunity to observe how we work, and we will have the opportunity to learn more about other people.
MC: Are there other artists whose work intrigues you guys enough that you want to adopt it as your own?
ME: The problem with that question is that we don’t consider ourselves as artists. We fell into this by chance. Someone once told us that it was a very profitable profession, that you could travel and meet a lot of boys without even working so hard. But this is all false. There’s far too much work. We don’t really mind it, however. In fact, we can’t imagine any other option. There is, at least, a certain amount of respect. This is one profession in which we can be a little bit stupid, and people will say, ‘Oh, you are so stupid; thank you, thank you for being so stupid.’
MC: One of your most publicized works is your Monument to Short Term Memory? As far as I remember (which is not very far, I must admit), this was specifically made for the USA.Which reactions did you get on this work? What were your expectations?
ID: Generally we try not to expect anything. But we were expecting some people to get upset. First, because we’re European; second, because US Americans just hate to be criticized; and, last but not least, because they think it’s a stupid idea. People want artists to come up with brilliant ideas, and the work was not that brilliant, it was rather a copy of a multitude of already existing ideas and art works. It’s a monument to our own short term memory as well.
MC: James Joyce described history as a nightmare from which he was trying to awake. All your work seems like an effort to break away from the burden of history, a never-ending escape. Just to think of your participation in the 2001 Venice Biennale, organized by Francesco Bonami. Here you presented a live chimpanzee, teaching it how to spell the word U-T-O-P-I-A. I must say I felt both disturbed and flattered by this piece. I see a clear reference to my own use of animals in this piece, but the live element is a clear breakaway from a sculptural tradition that I myself draw from. The whole enterprise made me think of Harold Bloom’s book The Anxiety of Influence, in which he filters the literary canon through the Oedipus complex, claiming that each generation of authors must annihilate its fathers.
ME: Oh, that’s important. We have to kill the father – otherwise we have to lick his feet. But we and you are almost the same age, you know, it is just that we’ve had an even later start to our art careers than you. We are the ultimate examples of this kind of “Should I write a book or should I go to the stage” generation. Completely lost, and completely privileged at the same time. Today things seem to be much harder; people have to make choices much earlier and art students are under hard pressure because art has become a real business. But at least they don’t have to worry about the “generation” thing any more; everyone young is old and everyone old is young at the same time. It’s all projected identities.
ID: It doesn’t mean the same today to be either artist, gay or middle class as it did 15 years ago. In terms of identities everything seems much more instable. Don’t you agree?
MC: I can relate to that. Never worked with any fixed identity. And recently I have taken on new roles… as curator… and gallery owner.
ME: Yeah, and you posing in a drag-like wig, too.
MC: You have pointed out a few times that you don’t like to repeat your work. Each installation, object or action seems to have its own reason for existing. Even so, it is possible to trace certain motifs or strategies that recur throughout the work, such as the use and abuse of the white cube or your recourse to teasing the fashion label Prada. How do you decide when a work is complete, and that you don’t need to revisit it?
ME: Well, certain pieces simply can’t be repeated. Ideally, when we work on something new it should be an exciting process for us. It’s like with a new lover: the first time, it’s ok, the second time a little better. But after two months, it’s… Jesus! So the work is like this. We get struck by images. It’s something that hits our imagination and the day after it’s still in our imagination. It is keeping our imagination hooked. In the end, we can’t reduce this image or forget it. So we start working. We begin by thinking of all the possibilities and then we try to clean the idea. We try to find a synthesis of the idea. This is the most difficult thing. It happens though, a few times at least, every ten years or so. It’s maybe a very old school gay thing to work with “transformed” appropriation in that way. A working method which also applies to your own production, I think.
MC: Are you crazy. You can’t tell an Italian that his working method is gay!!
ME: Oh, forgot that you Northern Italian guys are just eating ice cream after clubbing.
MC: Your work exists in the interstices between object and actions. It enters the art institution only to disrupt it, but that is only when you are not ignoring it entirely, working independently, inventing your own structures. Do you have an antagonistic relationship to the museum or the gallery system, or are you lovingly pointing out their contradictions from within?
ID: How can we contest the system if we’re totally inside it? We want benefits from this system. So it’s like spitting in the hand of someone who pays your salary. We’re not trying to be against institutions and museums. Maybe we’re just saying that we are all corrupted in a way; life itself is corrupted, and that’s the way we like it. In terms of the choice between actions and objects, this isn’t such a relevant distinction anymore we think. Our installations are often more performative than our performances. Performances are being sold as objects and the immaterial has become more style than anti-establishment. Let’s just say we try to find a balance between objects and actions, otherwise we will lose our minds or kill ourselves, or each other, slowly.
MC: Two people, one artist, how have you managed it for 12 years?
ID: Because we never ask that question ourselves.
ME: And we never argue. We don’t believe in discussing or planning our ideas. How we are as people is how our works will be.
ID: We always believe in accidents, we never believe in what they call searching, we always believe in a dream or something that you fall into. So one day we simply became this artist duo, mostly because we were already boyfriends and we were too lazy to do an art career on our own.
MC: Where do you pick up your references, I mean you imply – after all you live in the world like the rest of us – that you are absorbing what’s going on in the world. Where do you get your raw material from?
ME: We don’t… we don’t feel that way that we’re showing life or reflecting life in that way, we like to think that we’re forming our tomorrows, that we’re making works that don’t exist in reality, that maybe tomorrow will be a little bit more like our works than it would otherwise. Our last show was entitled This is The First Day of My Life.
ID: We always say that our subjects are something you can get within a distance of 100 meters from our house. Personally I’ve always felt that I constantly had to liberate myself of being a product of capitalism. Look at where we live; just around the corner, at Torstrasse: there are kids making their own t-shirt print stores, old Russian women selling three boxes of canned cod liver and cheap Korn-schnapps side by side with fancy Swiss cafés, hip fashion brands and of lately Brad Pitt’s new Berlin den. There’s something wonderful about people making up their own reality about one street. Berlin is terribly ugly, but we love it here.
MC: Personally I’m glad that I’m not there any more – the city and the people are sooo slow! But you guys are travelling all the time, I guess, so maybe it is nice with a bit of calm. What does a working day look like for you?
ID: It depends what we are doing. If we are in the conception phase, we have to be creative, so we have to be loose, we have to dream more. And then even when we do the design we have to be totally free, we always jump in and out of the studio, back into the street, walk up and down, come back in again, do another drawing, run out again… that’s how we do it, like we always say we are doing it like being in a black bag. But then once the designs are done, the initial design, then we never change, and after that it’s only making it.
MC: Do you only work on one piece at a time, or do you have a number on the go at the same time?
ID: We very easily get bored, exactly like yourself… by work, by people, by places, by each other, by this interview at this point, too. In this way we always need to work on different projects simultaneously. Forever changing the strategies.
MC: How large is your studio?
ME: We always used to say that size doesn’t matter, but with age you get more honest. We have an enormous studio, we have three studios in fact. We have a studio behind our house, a studio behind the house next door and a studio behind the house next door to the one next door.
MC: In fact, are you rich, you must be…
ME: Not by normal artistic standards I’m sure, no.
MC: Are there some of your works which have never sold?
ID: Oh yes, many, many…
MC: Yes, and…
ME: There are difficult works…
ID: A lot of difficult works.
MC: Will the art of Elmgreen & Dragset die when the first one of you dies?
ME: No I think if we fell under a bus today our work would live on for a while, but who cares.
MC: But will the artist Elmgreen & Dragset die when the first one of you dies?
ID: We always cross the road together, so maybe we… we have to be careful.
MC: Ingar and Michael, thank you very much.
ME & ID: Thank you.
This interview for Bing magazine was heavily supported by the Berlin night life entertainment industry. Source: http://www.galerieperrotin.com/BING/BING5/BING05.pdf