Since Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset started working as a collaborative duo in the mid-1990s, they have achieved considerable international acclaim in their all-encompassing work, from performance to sculpture, photography, and writing. Elmgreen & Dragset have presented numerous exhibitions in high-profile venues, such as the Kunsthalle Zürich in 2001, the Tate Modern Gallery in 2004, the MCA in Chicago in 2005, the Serpentine Gallery, in 2006, ZKM in Karlsruhe, in 2010-2011. Aside from interventions in leading contemporary art institutions, they have challenged the way art is perceived and conceived in contexts such as Trafalgar Square, with the sculpture commission The Fourth Plinth; Marfa, Texas, with a Prada shop; and, most recently, in the Fall 2012, the Louis Vuitton shop on Bond Street, in which they presented a work jointly with their exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery.
How would you connect fashion to elegance?
Michael Elmgreen: “Elegance” is a hierarchical word, that relates to something exclusive. I don’t think fashion needs to be so. I find fashion to be more inclusive than art: it’s more accessible. In the punk era, elegance would be defined by the way you would make your Mohawk in different colors, depending on how many darts you would put in it, and how elaborately it could be arranged. Elegance is in the eyes of the beholder.
Ingar Dragset: The concept of elegance isn’t really relevant to me. I wouldn’t ever be attracted to elegance. It’s definitely not sexy, and fashion is appealing because it can be sexy, and the reason it is sexy is because it reveals something about a person’s identity. Elegance does not express identity, apart from a person’s aspiration to be an object within a world of objects. Rather off-putting.
ME: Elegance is almost as irrelevant as morality.
What is the role of history and art history in your conception of fashion?
ME: The absolute difference is that art, still today, is based on the idea of eternity and the vanity of creating masterpieces that will be delivered to future generations, whereas fashion is very much the celebration of here and now, the complete dedication to zeitgeist, which of course, afterwards, can become a very important document of a particular time and place. It is closely linked to changing moods and styles. The whole drive in fashion lies in the fact that it actually changes, whereas there is a certain conservative mechanism in art, based on universal values that I actually don’t believe exist. In that way, I would say that there are things in fashion that allow it to be more radical than art, but then there is of course the commercial aspect of things where fashion is so dependent on the consumer, the client, the mass market – even more than the arts. In the arts, you have a freedom to experiment regardless of popularity issues.
Would you describe fashion as a language and a discourse, as Barthes did it?
ID: We are interested in fashion in the same way as we are interested in architecture and design. We are not fascinated by their language as such, but interested in the ways they work. How are they read and absorbed in society? In what ways are we, as individuals and communities, influenced by these larger narratives? When we work with, for example, the Louis Vuitton flagship store in London, we ask ourselves: how is this world of luxury commodity structured? It is almost like a museum: you enter this shop, and you enter a museum – with certain expectations. What happens if we collapse these expectations, just for minute?
The word “intellectual” was coined in a time of great political distress. Does fashion have a political role? And in which way?
ME: Fashion has had a significant political role in history. Dress code has played a considerable role in building communities and groups. In 1968, the student uprising was also about belonging to a group through your dress code. And women in the late 1950s, early 1960s, started wearing mini-skirts and having their hair cut in short geometric styles, going away from the diva or housewife image. There was a complete change of the view on what could be feminine, expressed through fashion.
How would you relate the concept of “fashion” to the one of “style”?
ME: Style, as such, in all fields of society and cultural production, has changed, because of the speed of time. Information spreads so rapidly today that people don’t create waves and moments in the same way as before, when you could categorize moments into “isms”, and create the style of a decade. This is no longer possible, because it mutates before it will become an “ism”. And there is no longer the same need of connecting and categorizing through “isms” because we connect in different ways, through digital information and social networking. People don’t identify with style in the same way as they did before. Today style doesn’t represent the ideas of an interest group or a whole community or a class. Contemporary style is more a reflection of one’s personal desires. You can be a highly conservative banker during the day and then a punk at midnight. Identity is shaped in a much more complicated way today. Our exhibition “The Collectors” in Venice in the Danish and Nordic Pavilions dealt with those topics: how we as human beings surround ourselves with certain styles, and sometimes contradictory ones, in order to present a certain image of ourselves that we want to show to the outside world.
What does fashion have to do with intellectuality?
ME: The same as any other creative form: some people are interested in the context, the deeper meaning of cultural production – others care less and they are maybe more interested in the pure aesthetic outcomes of their activities. What does painting have to do with intellectuality? There are people who have an intellectual approach to what they do in any field and those who don’t have it.
You have collaborated with leading brands: Nicola Trussardi, now Louis Vuitton, and you famously recreated a Prada Store in Marfa, Texas. What is the role of brands in culture today?
ID: Fashion houses have become cultural producers in a different way than before. They also want a challenge: they want someone to come in, have a look, and analyze their habits. Art workers – and here I also mean artists – become sort of consultants, maybe in an abstract way, that there’s no longer room for within the fashion corporations themselves. As an artist, you have to define for yourself if the invitation to collaborate is open enough, if there is enough freedom for you to play within that specific context. It has definitely been the case with the companies you mentioned.
ME: It’s like dating: when you meet someone, you are interested in the differences between you and that person, in order to define yourself. When we do a collaboration with a fashion company, they approach us because they want to ask: “Who are we?”, and then we reply by asking: “Who are we?”. We start a collaboration to see what is possible and to test ourselves in these new contexts. I love to do shows in museums, where you have a trained audience coming in, and you can speak with them about things that interest you, but I also find it challenging to be in a context where you meet another kind of audience, because that can make your world views collapse sometimes. It’s like doing something in a public space. It’s a necessary challenge, because if you don’t do it, you end up living in your glass-bubble, and you get disconnected from the rest of the world. But maybe you should ask someone who does a show at Tate: how do you feel to work with a brand like Tate? Art Basel, MoMA, Tate, Gagosian and the major biennials function like brands as well, in which you expect a certain type of art, or a certain package.
All your projects in fashion play with the concept of retailing. What is the relationship between the process and art and fashion?
ID: In both contexts you have a consumer. We played with that aspect in our own exhibition “The Welfare Show”, in which we had twelve guards in an empty space, guarding themselves, or the audience, or the space. It is the same thing at Louis Vuitton, where we are also compromising the space: there the staff – shop assistants, cleaners, office workers and guards – are allowed to take a one hour nap daily in a specially designed bed placed in the middle of the shop.
ME: Supposedly, you’re not allowed to sleep in a Louis Vuitton store. And you have guards there, as you do in museums. You have a big audience there, that just comes to look at the pretty things in the store, without having the slightest possibility of being able to afford them. They window-shop. On the other hand, fashion is more accessible than art: it is less pricey than buying an artwork. The art market has exploded in recent years because it is the right way to show the world that you’re really loaded. You can’t do that by buying a Louis Vuitton bag. I’m sorry, but your cleaning lady might have one as well. If you buy an expensive painting, it might cost a million euros, and then you show that you’re really well-off. Fashion targets a much bigger group, and in that way it is more inclusive than art, one could claim. Our lonely Prada store in the middle of the Texan desert is playing with this idea of being hyper exclusive. The shop is forever closed and placed at a very remote location. For both the art world and the fashion industry, one main challenge of the future will be to dare to be more inclusive, without being populist.
In two weeks Donatien will be interviewing the fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune Suzy Menkes.