Review by Freddy Syborn
In Against Criticism, Susan Sontag said that ‘ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience.’ Her essay claims that the critic’s job is to try to explain how, rather than why, the subject of criticism is what it is. I’m not a critic - I wouldn’t want to be one - and I don’t claim to know either how or why Michael Elmtree and Ingar Dragset’s sculptures are what they are. Sontag’s quote, however, suggested itself to me as I tried to apply a little sharpness to my experience of what are I think both pretty playful and prettily unsettling sculptures.
The Taka Ishii Gallery‘s press release stresses the humour of using ‘a combination of Western modern abstract sculpture and pop cultural cartoon shapes’ to suggest new shapes the human body might evolve or, protoplasmic as the shapes are, regress into. Elmgreen & Dragset’s title, Supermodels, make us doubly aware that these new forms being proposed are at once ideal and ironic, purely artificial, in a sense. The irony is that fashion designers have turned the objects into models by designing clothing to fit around their biomorphic proportions. Then there is the obvious point that the title alone makes: ideal beauty and human beauty are sometimes so distanced as to become antibiotic. But how do we go on to isolate points from the models’ smooth, seemingly pliable curves’ Should we’ Why’
In one image, two dressed forms stand by a high-rise view. The one on the far right seems to gesture towards the city; the central form I take to be female, its waist narrow and seemingly poised upon one hip, its dress allowing for two spheres to rise above it. I could be wrong: what I take to suggest breasts also suggest eyes, arms and heads. This confusion isn’t initially grotesque. Evolution or regression, the forms seem friendly. In another photo, a woman leans towards a model apparently extending a hand to greet her. In another, a man faces a model against a graffitied backdrop: the model might be waving, or even represent a two-fingered peace sign, or something, because these soft bodies are used to imply they can be whatever we want us to be.
The sculptures express a kind of being we recognise, but which are alien to our reality. Benignly, they reflect the girl bending to kiss one of their number: the girl, Japanese, is dressed as a nineteenth-century maid - the black and white frills popularised as French and as a fetish - though with the short skirt and high socks popularised as the Tokyo schoolgirl’s trademark (though maybe that’s just my fetish). The white line drawn angled between them in the photograph implies this kind of division and meeting point between aesthetic fantasy and physical reality.
Malignly, I feel two things. Firstly, and perhaps more obviously, that these supermodels represent the effects of excess and overproduction, of a degradation of faculties, on the animal form. Our eyes slip off the surfaces of their abstraction; both submissive and imposing, representations of beauty feed off what we want even as they tell us what we should want. To me, Elmgreen & Dragset suggest (but not impose) what it’s like to lose control of our ability to interpret what we see, feel and want.
Their 2008 memorial to the gay victims of the Nazis in Berlin, the gravity of which is incomparable to the light touch of Supermodels, nevertheless provides a comparison in how the artists seem to work. The memorial is moving for its humility - deliberately echoing the concrete arrhythmia of Peter Eisenman’s holocaust memorial - and for its finding within its great, dismal body the repeated flickering hope of a kiss. The kiss is a video, between two men and shot in black and white, and that last detail is perhaps the most significant. Black and white’s associations are myriad: of history, of evidence, of stylised beauty. In the twenty-first century, we assume black and white film is as aestheticised, fetishised a look as the French maid’s costume, because we have faith that technology and the world has evolved. As it affirms the unending centrality of love, however, the film challenges this evolutionary fantasy. Have we really outgrown what made the memorial’
Certainly Supermodels does not aim at the same resonances, nor carry the same weight. But Henri Bergson wrote that ‘the comic demands something like a momentary anaesthesia of the heart’, and there is not only an inhumanity to the models’ shape but also to our recognising within that shape a beauty inhuman because it overrides our reality. Bergson was describing comedy as a failure of the human machine or, more simply, slapstick. When we laugh at someone falling over, have we chosen to ignore the pain they feel, or do we enjoy our distance from its physical reality’ Similarly, stylised, smoothly material, apparently friendly, the Supermodels we demand do not make us feel. They make us cease to feel. Human, at least.