Beyond Buildings


Diving into Urban Drama: Elmgreen and Dragset's The One and the Many

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Elmgreen and Dragset's "The One and the Many." Courtesy: Domus.


Elmgreen and Dragset are masters of the eerie. Whether plunking down a Prada store in the middle of the Texas desert (Prada Marfa, 2005), turning an exhibition pavilion into a louche lounge (The Collectors, Venice, 2009), or making a car and camper look as if they are emerging from the center of the earth (Short Cut, Berlin, 2003), they create stage sets that imply movies in which you can become an actor. Their work exists at the place where art becomes building, or the other way around.


Their latest venture is The One and the Many, which they erected in a former submarine dry-dock in the harbor of Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The area is itself is a strange mixture between large-scale warehouses, shipping containers stacked up next to neat roads, mysterious office structures, and a well-preserved village of former dock workers. Elmgeen and Dragset claim that their construction concerns “the individual’s social isolation and manner of (dis)communicating that is the result of our welfare and consumption-based society,” but the whole seems more like a riff on the city of Rotterdam, or any declining port and industrial city.


Courtesy: WhiteHot Magazine


You enter this structure through a long tunnel, plastered with advertising signs warning of urban crime. Next to a nonfunctioning ATM machine sits an abandoned baby in a crib. I heard from friends that sometimes a women shows up and is followed by a papparazi type. You may be followed by a dangerous looking kid in a hoodie—one of several actors on duty—who certainly scared the polite ladies with whom I entered.


At the end of the tunnel, the space opens up into a huge cavern. A four-story residential block (I believe it was originally constructed for another installation at the ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany last year) stands in the middle, its windows lit up from inside. You can peer into a few of the ones on the ground floor. What you see is scenes of everyday life as it might occur in any Northern European flat: beer cans and a soccer match on the TV in a living room, a kitchen with marks of being inhabited by an Asian woman, from a wok to Chinese packages and magazines, and a heavy metal kid sleeping on a bed, his guitar and amplifier next to him, on his laptop. In each scene, Elmgreen and Dragset have invented a complete drama without showing any action. It is only the space and its accouterments that bring these miniature worlds alive.


Courtesy: Ro Theater.


Behind the housing block, a ferris wheel takes you up into the dry-dock's rafters, though it is more of a sculpture than a ride.  Next to it, a stretch limousine sits on blocks, various of its mechanical parts spread out on oilcloths. It is being worked on, but by whom or for what reason is up to your imagination. At the dry-dock’s far end is a public toilet, its two urinoirs connected to each other rather than draining through the floor, its walls filled with graffiti. A family with young kids explored it, the kids laughing at the messages on the wall. I entered, the door closed, and a young man offered his services for sale.


I escaped being part of that particular drama, wondering whether an American museum could get away with it (this installation was staged by the Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam’s encyclopedic art museum in the city center). I emerged out into the world of heroic buildings, cranes, the Rhine river carrying boats to and from port, and the skyline of Rotterdam in the distance. For half an hour, I had been someplace else, somewhere hidden within this urban landscape, somewhere that made me feel as if I had been a voyeur, and almost an actor, in daily lives that usually remain hidden within the anonymity of the mass-produced structures most of us inhabit.


The exhibition is on view through Sept. 25, 2011.  A ferry boat takes visitors from downtown Rotterdam to the rather remote site several times an hour; see for more information.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.