Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Rd, London SW7 2RL

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Elmgreen & Dragset: Tomorrow
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
1 October 2013 - 2 January 2014
Review by Marianne Templeton

Scandinavian double act Michael Elmgreen (Danish) and Ingar Dragset (Norwegian) have a talent for composing intricate fictions that reimagine the anxieties of the art world as personal traumas. ‘Tomorrow’, their latest installation at the Victoria and Albert Museum boasts a plot thick with angst and failure, and with décor to match.

‘Tomorrow’ sees the Museum’s former Textile Galleries redecorated as the once-grand living quarters of retired architect Norman Swann. Swann is cynical, unsuccessful, homosexual, aristocratic and broke. An accompanying script’‘from an unrealised film’‘sets the scene: Daniel Wilder, Swann’s inept former pupil turned social climbing interior designer, has purchased the bankrupt architect’s family home in South Kensington. After a drunken night on the town, Wilder attempts to take possession of the apartment before the previous occupant has left. Crisis ensues.

As a human drama, ‘Tomorrow’ is trashy, theatrical, morbid and violent: a miniature British version of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’’ Swann cannot forgive Wilder for failing to emerge as his gifted protégé; Wilder cannot forgive Swann for placing such an oppressive hope upon him, and for other unspecified corrupting acts. Their dialogue is fragmented, acerbic and fraught with misunderstandings.

Elmgreen & Dragset use this eruption of personal antimony between a purist Modern architect and a sell-out Postmodern designer as a gateway to explore tensions between broader social and art historical divisions, such as old money and new, functionality and ornament, sincerity and irony, and idealism and commercialism. These dichotomies surface as small, overlapping mise-en-scènes within the set: the sickly salon yellow of the walls is part way through the process of being repainted a brisk white cube white, while a delicately patterned side table is employed as a stand for a bucket catching drips from a leaky ceiling.

For all their spaciousness, Swann’s rooms are psychologically choked with unrealised potential and repressed desires - professional, creative and personal. The study is filled with cardboard and balsa wood models of projects never built, and thus condemned to remain as Modernist dollhouses. And there are shades of Dorian Gray in the bedroom, where an inordinate number of ceramic stallions and photographs of young men are on display, while a wheeled mobility aid and an oil painting of a bent, naked old man lurk hidden behind a screen.

The convergence of objects from so many times and places is oppressive. All sorts of stuff lines the walls, sourced from the Museum’s collection, the artists’ studio, second hand stores and a nearby kebab shop, but it’s hard to tell the junk from the jewels. Certain objects are deliberately misleading in their value or age: a neat white plastic rice cooker, seemingly a classic piece of minimalist-inspired design, is actually a recent commission by Elmgreen for Wallpaper Magazine.

As a lived-in space, ‘Tomorrow’ isn’t convincing, but then again it isn’t supposed to be. It is an interior acting as an identity. Elmgreen & Dragset take pains to position the installation as a film set, a contrivance, a cliché: an entirely artificial experience. This is a home on its way to becoming a museum, or perhaps a museum masquerading as a home. It is uncanny: wrong for all purposes except as a background to a mystery by Christie or Hitchcock. The artists have even added their own surreal hallmark, like a scarecrow to ward off normalcy - a gilt vulture, perched atop a bedpost.

Similarly, Swann is less a realistic portrayal of an architect, than an amalgamation of what non-architects imagine an architect to be, preconditioned by representations in books and films. As architect and writer Nancy Levinson has noted, films eschew realism of the profession ‘to capture the mystique of architecture, that heady mix of high-minded purpose and glamorous lifestyle, of the social weight of business and the romantic aura of art.’ [1] Of course, since this is Elmgreen & Dragset, this idealism is warped. Elmgreen & Dragset are fond of undermining power structures, and the image of architects as heroic, virile visionaries is fertile ground for some stock Freudian symbolism. In the study, failed relationships and unrealised buildings are comically linked by a printed medial diagram of erectile dysfunction: it seems Swann has a problem with getting things up.

Is it any wonder that a moneyed aristocrat, born into a country with a long history of class inequality, should fail to develop successful social housing solutions - Swann’s chosen specialty’ It seems like a quixotic task. Swann’s Modernist visions are not only missing from the London skyline, but also lacking from his own living spaces, which abound with ancestral relics and ornament. (Never mind that he rejects these same tendencies towards the decorative in the younger generation, typified by Wilder, interior designer to the stars.)

‘Tomorrow’ condenses multiple familiar local cultural phenomena - Britain’s complex, largely sceptical relationship with civic architecture; the private-yet-public domestic spaces of National Trust-run stately homes; a fascination with eccentric characters, double lives and quirks; tabloid sensationalism; and the infamous social repression inherited from Victorian times - and packages them for the experience economy. It’s a tongue-in-cheek move, given that the economy bears some liability for the narrative’s messy chain of events: first failing to support investment in Swann’s projects, then rendering his ancestral home unaffordable. Like ‘The Collectors’ (another set with a secret, conceived for the 2009 Venice Biennale) and ‘Marfa Prada’ (2005), a Prada boutique situated on a deserted Texan roadside, ‘Tomorrow’ haunts the crossroads of art and commerce, posing troubling questions. Hopefully a retreat into style, à la Daniel Wilder, is not the only bankable alternative to idealism: that’s a prospect as bleak as the London property market.

[1] N Levinson, ‘Tall Buildings, Tall Tales: On architects in the movies’ in M Lamster (ed.), ‘Architecture and Film’, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2000, p26

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