The world-famous art and architecture duo Elmgreen & Dragset are obsessed with pools. They’ve installed an ear-shaped pool smack bang in the centre of Rockefeller Plaza and a 20-foot ‘Bent Pool’ outside the Miami Beach Convention Center, while their 2009 Venice Biennale’s Nordic Pavilions featured a rubber corpse floating in a home pool. However, one of their most famous pieces, as far as the fashion world is concerned, features in the middle of the arid Texan desert. ‘Prada Marfa’ is a freestanding building created in 2005 in the likeness of a Prada storefront, left to fall apart over time. It’s appeared in Gossip Girl and all over social media, of course. We spoke to them about some of their most iconic pieces, their obsession with pools, their favourite holiday destinations, and of course asked what (if anything!) they wear in the water.
Portrait thanks to Elmgreen & Dragset Studio
Hello! How have you been spending isolation?
For artists life hasn’t been so different on a day-to-day basis, since the work/life balance is basically off balance anyway. But it’s definitely been a period with more reading, more contemplation and existential discussions.
Where would you have preferred to have spent isolation?
Berlin, where our studio is, has not been so hard hit, and there’s a lot of outside green space in this city. Even the whole abandoned Tempelhof airport field is available as an adult playground, and there’s lakes nearby where you could go for a swim. Farmers markets, etc. have stayed open. We wouldn’t know of a better place to be.
We are very interested in your fascination with pools. They're something we've thought about a lot, with the shift from socialising in shared public spaces with our neighbours (at a public pool or communal bath for example) to operating in social bubbles that are less geographically defined. What's at the core of your interest in pools?
It all started with a diving board. One of our first sculptures was a diving board penetrating a panoramic window overlooking the sea at the Louisiana Museum north of Copenhagen, Denmark. This was first shown in 1997, following a retrospective of David Hockney. His depictions of LA and gay life were inspiring to us, although we also found a discrepancy between the carefree, glamourous aspect of his paintings and the challenges that queer people were faced with, not least in the institutional world. Our diving board was stuck between inside and outside, and not possible to use. In general, our pools, like so many of our works, are not interactive. They are more for cerebral exercise than physical, so to speak. They’re allegories for broken dreams. In general, we find pools interesting in their initial concept as a human attempt to re-create nature, to make a pond or a lake. There is something endearing, melancholic or even sad about it. No wonder that pools have been used in some classic films as a site for death and desperation, such as Sunset Boulevard and The Swimmer.
Powerless Structures by Elmgreen & Dragset (1997)
Speaking of the diving board you installed at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, could you tell us a little about your aims with the piece, and how you feel that message has aged?
In a way the piece commented on the missing communication between groups outside the institutions and the decision makers within it, and the message needs to be repeated over and over again.
Do you have a favourite pool?
Stadtbad Neukölln is a great civic pool only a couple of blocks away from our studio. It was completed in 1914, in neoclassical style, and it also has thermal baths. It’s used by a great mix of people, and they have a nudist day once a week, where the pool is lit by candle light only. It was used as the setting for a pansexual orgy in the TV series Sense8.
Stadtbad Neukölln, Berlin
I wondered if you could share how your relationships with pools have changed, from childhood to today?
Swimming was Ingar’s childhood sport, so he spent four evenings a week training, plus competitions on the weekend and summer training camps. The pool was a site for learning about life. Now it is more about un-learning social conventions.
What do you swim in, out of curiosity?
Ahaha, preferably naked.
Which of your water-related pieces do you love the most and why?
It depends on the mood of the day. Sometimes the dysfunctional but playful ‘Bent Pool’, commissioned by the City of Miami Beach last year. Other times the abandoned, sad, wasteland of a pool that we built up inside the Whitechapel Gallery in East London.
Bent Pool by Elmgreen & Dragset (2019)
When I saw 'Van Gogh’s Ear' it really made me want to be as far away from the city as possible — it made me want to be at a pool in the suburbs, which is funny considering how hard many of us work to live in the city and not in the suburbs. Can you tell us a little about your intention with the piece?
Exactly, we wanted to create this pause in people’s busy everyday lives or tourist schedules. (That’s the great thing with art in public space, you reach a whole lot of people who are maybe not even that interested in art in the first place.) The ‘ear-shaped’ pool was like an alien in Rockefeller Plaza, facing Fifth Avenue. It could be a reminder of a world existing outside of the city, or a catalyst to seeing the surroundings themselves in a different light.
Van Gogh's Ear by Elmgreen and Dragset (2016)
'Prada Marfa' is a piece many of our audience will be familiar with. The original idea was to have it degrade over time — has that been allowed to happen? When did you see it last? Did you realise that piece would be so iconic so instantly?
The idea of disintegration at some point seemed to diverge from local interest. Every time something broke or was vandalised, there were people close by who took the initiative to fix it. In time, the sculpture totally took on a life of its own. We installed it in 2005, before Facebook took off and long before Instagram and so on. We were about 50 people at the inauguration, mostly local rangers, some Marfa arts people and a few friends, all drinking tequila and eating tacos to the tunes of a country and western singer. Nobody could have imagined the piece would feature on Gossip Girl and The Simpsons some years later. ‘Prada Marfa; is situated on a remote path of Highway 90 in the Texan Chihuahuan Desert, the nearest airport being three and a half hours away, which might be part of the reason why we went back for the first time last year, fourteen years after installing it. It was a surreal experience. We’d changed, the world had changed, but there everything looked exactly the same: the nature, the building, the 2005 collection of stilettos on display.
Prada Marfa by Elmgreen & Dragset (2005)
So, there's a few questions we're asking some of our subjects, some of them stolen from Proust's Questionnaire that we hope you don't mind answering. How would you describe your job to someone who knew nothing about you?
Ingar’s Grindr profile says ‘cultural worker’.
What's the most stimulating part of your job?
The freedom to call anything work.
What’s the most relaxing thing about your job?
That there is no ultimate goal.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
That it is only an idea — it can never be achieved.
What is the one functionally non-essential thing you can’t live without?
Books, i.e. novels.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Hoarding useless trinkets from the local flea-market.
What has been your favourite holiday to date?
Any trips to Mexico.
Could you share your favourite photo from a holiday, as well as the story behind it?
This is us last year when we re-visited ‘Prada Marfa’ for the first time in 14 years. We had an exhibition at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and were able to make a trip to Marfa. You can see the country band that was playing just to the side of the artwork.
Final question: I know you're no longer romantic partners, but I personally think it's equally impressive to remain work partners after all these years. Maybe even more impressive, in our experience of collaborative working! Is there any secret to keeping the workplace spark alive all these years? What tips would you give to anyone who's been working as part of a duo long-term?
You gotta accept that the person you work with is not the person you met 25 years ago, and allow for differences to flourish and changes to happen. And also accept the pain of constantly being edited: look upon the other person’s opinion as a second “inner voice”.