A female sales associate stands on the second floor of London’s Louis Vuitton flagship store, staring at a stainless steel wall safe. Faux dynamite sticks dangle from a digital countdown display, suggesting she has six hours to vacate the premises before the imminent ka-boom. “Watching the countdown there’s so much anticipation,” she says, adding that she saw the clock hit zero during a recent shift. It simply reset and resumed ticking. “There’s a sense of relief and disappointment at the same time.”
Entitled “The End Is Always Nearer,” the four-foot safe is actually a playful installation by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset—the subversive artists known for their wry humor and psychologically charged art. The safe, they say, might be read as a foretelling of the death of capitalism, or as a criticism of doomsday prophecies divined from the Mayan calendar. In either case, it hints that catastrophic events and other unexpected turbulence should remind us to value of our everyday lives—a message accessible to art enthusiasts and casual shoppers alike.
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“When you get commissioned to do public artwork you meet a different audience than the usual art-goers,” Elmgreen says. “You can create something meaningful within almost any context as long as you take the situation seriously.”
That approach pre-dates their six installations inside the London Louis Vuitton, which will remain in place until Dec. 1. Take their work Prada Marfa. In 2005 Elmgreen & Dragset set up a replica of a Prada store among the tumbleweeds of the Texan desert. Stocked with real goods but lacking a door that actually opens, it portrays the retail space as a site of both worship and frustrated desire. Powerless Structures, Fig 101, currently on display in London’s Trafalgar Square, depicts a carefree child on a rocking horse. It contrasts sharply with the austere statue—located on a nearby plinth—of George IV on horseback. Their cheeky sculpture imagines a future without war, and questions the tradition of building monuments to commemorate both victors and the vanquished. Their wit comes through at Oslo’s Astrup Fearnley Museum. One of their works currently on display there is Gay Marriage, two porcelain urinals joined by a stainless steel tube.
Elmgreen, a Dane and former poet, met Dragset, a Norwegian and former actor, at a gay club in Copenhagen in the mid-90s. Their romantic relationship ended after ten years, but their artistic partnership continues to flourish. In January they begin their tenure as curators for the city of Munich. Armed with around $1.5 million from Munich officials, they’ll unveil a series of 12 public art works that interrogates the identity of the well-to-do city, which is home to the headquarters of BMW. One installation will place a performance artist inside a glass cabinet. He’ll shout, “It’s never too late to say sorry!” at passersby. “We’ll look beyond the picture perfect surface of the city,” says Elmgreen. “It almost seems like we’re the ones to be called in whenever the machinery is running too smoothly.”
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Surely that applies to Dragset’s native Norway, where state coffers grow ever-larger thanks to windfalls from oil and natural gas. Next summer Elmgreen & Dragset will unveil Change—a 90-ft. stack of oversized Norwegian coins, situated in a particularly corporate part of Norway’s capital. “When one sails into Oslo you can spot from a distance how rich the country is,” Dragset says. “Change is a potential reminder of values beyond money. The ‘money’ that makes up the sculpture is not real, and of no value as such, other than that it creates visual friction.”
The coming year will also include a large-scale retrospective at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum next autumn. But shoppers at the London Louis Vuitton store can see subversion in action until Dec. 1. In addition to the safe wired with fake dynamite, Elmgreen & Dragset have installed Omnes Una Manet Nox, a wooden bed—replete with white sheets, comforter and lush pillows. Employees are encouraged to take naps during the day. “You’re doing something very private in a very public space,” the employee from the safe installation tells me. “It’s awkward at first, but you do fall asleep.”
The bed gives staff and visitors alike plenty to chew on. On one level it plays off the taboo of resting on the job. But it also takes a dig at materialism, and thereby Louis Vuitton itself. The title translates as One Night Awaits Us All, and a sinister golden vulture perches on one of the bed posts. “We all have the same destiny in the end regardless of our vanity, wealth or religion,” Elmgreen says. “But for sure others will get a different meaning out of this. Both the title and the vulture represent the advent of death. Death and vanity are to us a fascinating combination.”
There’s even meaning on a shelf bedecked with $900 shoes. Beneath ballerina slippers and next to pumps with chunky heels rests Great Expectations—an eight-inch bird’s nest with a golden egg. A small crack suggests that the egg is hatching. “The tiny golden egg in the nest is our modest hope for the next generations to come,” says Dragset. “It’s a fragile hope that they will be able to deal with the mess we have left them, but the hope is even smaller than a pair of shoes.”
The Elmgreen & Dragset exhibition “Harvest” is on show at London’s Victoria Miro Gallery until Dec. 8.