Their ideas flow from daily conversation, which is not always congenial. When a conflict occurs that they can’t resolve, they simply put it into the work at hand. They live with their baby daughter, Isa, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, but do not maintain a studio there or anywhere else, because they contract out the fabrication of their sculptures and hire the opera singers, musicians, and military trumpeters who appear live, embedded within their sculptures. That doesn’t mean the pair’s collaboration extends to others, however. It is their vision alone that each work projects. In a recent video shot at a gas station in Tehran, a double-humped camel girded by a giant rubber tire stands in for them, watching sadly as cars and trucks fill their tanks and drive off. “The benefit of working together,” they say, “is that there is always the other person there who, kind of like a trainer, is always pushing you further.”
Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset met at a Copenhagen gay bar in 1994, and started performing together a year later—because “we naively believed that our love life was so unique it had to be of everyone’s concern.” Neither man has any formal training in art. But the objects in their absurdist “Powerless Structures” series—a statue of a boy on a rocking horse, a wooden door with staring eyes behind it—send up the art business in slapstick ways intended to keep it honest. They characterize themselves as idea men who supply the creative energy, but they leave it to their studio assistants in Berlin to do the heavy lifting—and they own whatever comes of it.
For their current show at Germany’s ZKM/Museum of Contemporary Art, Elmgreen and Dragset replicated a public housing project whose TV-watching tenants are visible through the windows. “The whole scenario depicts how we relate to a world of images that might have very little to do with our everyday lives,” they explain. “The show is called ‘Celebrity,’ but it is about loneliness.” (This from artists who never do anything alone.)
Some will say that, like any piece made by committee, such collaborations lack the subjectivity of a single artist’s viewpoint, and that this is what’s wrong with contemporary art today—it’s too impersonal. Yet Stop, Repair, Prepare was the most enthralling gallery show in New York last year. Fischli and Weiss’s works remain among the most disarming on the planet. And Elmgreen and Dragset can keep you laughing for days. And thinking.