‘Elmgreen & Dragset: The Nervous System’ at Pace New York

Last Chance to See: ‘Elmgreen & Dragset: The Nervous System’ at Pace New York

Scandinavian artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset warn of short-term memory in their first major exhibition with Pace Gallery, drawing our attention to crises beyond the pandemic

There is a painter at work in the gallery on the ground floor of Pace New York, visible to passers-by on West 25th Street. He stands in front of a large white canvas, immaculate except for a single large black line that evokes a tire mark, applied with a spatula which he still holds in one hand. He has his back to us and we have to guess the expression on his face, but his assertive demeanor and carefree outfit – jeans, shirtless so his muscular back and shoulders are visible – suggests supreme confidence.

The Painter, Fig 1, as it is called, is one of twelve pieces (including ten new ones) that Elmgreen & Dragset have included in their solo show, ‘The Nervous System’. While the Scandinavian artist duo’s previous works have depicted a boy astride a rocking horse for London’s Fourth Plinth and a desperate teenager sitting on an fire escape, this is a man in his prime. , a postcard of heroism inspired by old photos of Wilhelm de Kooning in his East Hampton studio. But their current exhibition is not a hymn to abstract expressionism: any sense of nostalgia is quickly disrupted by a smaller work in the same space, a pair of Wellington boots (in patinated bronze) with holes. “They are a symbol of our pathetic efforts to protect ourselves from climate change and the fact that we cannot turn the tide if we don’t completely change our behavior,” the artists explain.

A-Gonna Fall from a hard rain, 2021 by Elmgreen & Dragset. Photography: Elmar Vestner

We come across more disturbing images when we enter the main gallery. A boy looks out of a bright screen that masquerades as a window. Earlier in the year, artists created a piece of similar configuration called Offline, a poignant reflection on life in a pandemic, in which the boy presses his hands against the plexiglass and seems to yearn for “something that cannot be found inside or a reality other than what we find online” . The new work takes on more sinister tones, with an ethereal blue sky replaced by a gathering storm. Here the boy’s arms are raised and his right hand is holding a pistol. Its form is deliberately ambiguous, so it can be read as a toy or a deadly weapon. Yet it’s hard not to see Boy with gun and don’t immediately think of the onslaught of gun violence that makes the United States an outlier of the developed world.

Boy with gun, 2021, by Elmgreen & Dragset. Photography: Elmar Vestner

“School shootings are mostly a white male problem. If you look at the statistics, it’s the white boys who are responsible for these shootings, which has to do with a sense of entitlement, ”they say. They find it disturbing that boys are often expected to play with toy guns, rather than learn to respect the lives of others: “The mindset that leads to violence begins to form very early in life. the life. That is why you must put all the effort and all the resources possible to nurture the next generation in a different way.

The artists’ commentary on the masculinity crisis continues throughout the space, which also features three familiar characters: Bogdan, Kev and Flo de Short story, an installation that was presented for the first time at the König Galerie in Berlin. This time, Bogdan, an elderly man in a wheelchair who dozes off in sleep, is placed on a black wool rug designed by the artists. A day less than a year, as it is titled, is covered in 364 white pointing marks, possibly indicating Bogdan’s impending demise or the end of an era. Kev and Flo are two boys at opposite ends of a tennis court, the younger Kev has obviously lost the match and is lying exhausted on the floor, while the older Flo holds a trophy but looks despondent. Unlike Berlin, where spectators could roam freely around the tennis court, the court of “The Nervous System” can only be seen behind glass, which forces us to adopt the same perspective as Boy with gun and ground our experience of the work of art in the current pandemic.

Installation view of ‘The Nervous System’ by Elmgreen & Dragset, with Bogdan atop a new woolen rug by the artists, titled A day less than a year. In the background is Coccyx (stainless steel), which “offers a contemporary portrait of a human being, in a neutral manner and without indicators of gender, race or other socio-demographic variables”. Photograph courtesy of Pace Gallery

We are reminded of the fact that we are inside, perhaps against our will. The effect is reinforced by the furniture in the exhibition – some (such as a distinctively masculine ‘Ox’ chair and a long leather sofa, both by Hans J Wegner) carefully selected to evoke the mid-century, others created by Elmgreen & Dragset. A second carpet in the exhibition, with an evocative title Lost memories, has seven circular holes which, despite their geometric precision, resemble bullet holes. An original travertine fireplace of elegant proportions, inspired by the artist visit to a public library in São Paulo by Lina Bo Bardi. But it comes, disorientingly, with a television antenna and is engraved with the words “The oracles are gone and the gods are lost.” (Next to it is The kiss, a new sculpture of two intersecting jerrycans).

The Ox and the Snake, by Elmgreen & Dragset, featuring a lacquered bronze python coiled on an “Ox” chair by Hans J Wegner. Photography: Elmar Vestner

The artists also created a table lamp, with a porcelain base of two gently crossing spheres, which narrow into two collars supporting bulbs and a white cotton shade in the shape of a lemniscate. They were inspired by a vase from the Qing dynasty that they encountered at the Taipei Palace Museum years ago: “despite his age, he reminded us of Félix González-Torres” Perfect lovers‘, they remember. Exceptionally for a work of art, it is available in four colourways (each an edition of three): mint green, dove blue, millennial pink and eggshell white. They point out that the colors actually refer to edible pigments that are used to coat anti-HIV drugs like Truvada and Isentress – behind their visual appeal lies a painful story that we must not forget.

Coupled Lamp (Mint Green), by Elmgreen & Dragset. Photography: Elmar Vestner

It’s a melancholy display, a warning message to a city that, at least until the arrival of the Omicron variant, was stunned with optimism. As Elmgreen & Dragset explain, “the role of the artist is to go against short-term memory. It is one of the few tasks that we have. In a world that seems swept away by promises of a brighter future after the pandemic, they want to remind us that there are long-standing issues to be addressed: among them the climate emergency, gun violence and toxic masculinity. We would do well to attack them head on, lest we end up with a pair of perforated rubber boots when the waters rise.

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