Diving into Urban Drama: Elmgreen and Dragset's The One and the Many
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, gayromeo.com 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
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 onderzeebootloods.nl for more information.