Through the keyhole: Elmgreen and Dragset’s home movie

Elmgreen and Dragset

Welcome to my nightmare – Elmgreen and Dragset

Imagine wandering into a deserted house and exploring its rooms and corridors, perhaps even sitting down to read a few books off the shelves and playing the piano.

As you stroll into the hall you notice a very strange picture on the wall with large writing that reads “There’s no place like leaving home”.

A real maid in full black and white uniform greets you as if you’ve visited before and ushers you inside the house. Everything is strangely quiet as if the owner is packing up or away on vacation.

Welcome to the wonderful world of artists Elmgreen and Dragset, Scandinavia’s surrealist masters of the contemporary art world.

Their latest exhibition called Tomorrow at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is possibly the strangest show I’ve ever seen at the museum.

Elmgreen and Dragset

Packing boxes at the apartment

The show is a departure from the V & A’s regular exhibition series which has included David Bowie, Hollywood Costume, Chinese Masterpieces and 1980s Fashion in recent months.

The Tomorrow art installation takes you through the keyhole of a reconstructed house laid out across six rooms of empty galleries in a far-flung corner of the museum.

This tour de force is as creepy as a Hitchcock thriller with as many psychological mind games as Vertigo or Spellbound.

The opening sign board before entering the house explains the scenario.

This is the home of fictional architect Norman Swann who has fallen on troubled times and is in the process of selling his apartment in South Kensington.

The family fortune has long gone. Now a retiree, he served for decades as a part-time architecture teacher at Cambridge University but failed to achieve any success in the profession himself.

Throughout the visit there are many intriguing questions raised about culture, class and cultural heritage using Norman’s personal story.

Elmgreen and Dragset

Window on Norman Swann’s world

As we snoop around the house’s interior like detectives in search of clues, we are encouraged to piece together Norman Swann’s life and personality from choreographed details scattered throughout the grand but decaying apartment.

Who is Norman?  What’s going on in his life? And why does he have to sell up and leave his once grand home?

It’s almost like walking through a three-dimensional still life painting or a film set which has temporarily fallen silent during a lunch break.

Every single detail poses new questions and provides small insights into the man who lives here from the stubbed-out cigarette ends and used tea cup to the carefully-placed magazines and furnishings.

Elmgreen and Dragset

Devil in the detail

The whole effect is disturbing but fascinating especially in the lounge where a life-size figure of Norman as a young boy cowers in the fireplace underneath a portrait of himself in school uniform.

If you read the script that accompanies the exhibition you’ll find that Norman was afraid of his domineering parents as a child.

As a result he buried himself in grand designs and visionary projects, none of which he ever fully realised.

Elmgreen and Dragset

Norman Swann as a young boy

Things got even odder as I looked around the dining room and lounge where you’re encouraged to sit down and read his books.

There was a giant-sized gash which stabbed its way through the dining table and immaculate porcelain plates.

It was like a seismic shift or earthquake had occurred, leaving everything else nearby untouched and in order.

Could this be symbolic of the fractures opening up in Norman’s own personal life?

Or was it supposed to represent the gradual disintegration of his wealth and class status?

Perhaps Norman was leaving because he could no longer afford to live in the property and sustain the privileged lifestyle he grew up in?

Elmgreen and Dragset

Disintegrating dining table

The exhibition script provides a few clues, telling us that Norman “has been burdened with his cultural heritage, his snobbish family background, and a home filled with antiques and paintings collected by his ancestors”.

No place like home?

Everywhere you look there are signs and symbols of more glamorous times.

An air of disquiet hangs over the whole house. It’s clear that there’s something more ominous going on.

As I walked down the hallway, I was intrigued by the sound of running water coming from the bathroom. I tried the door but it was locked.

Could it be Norman  Swann in the shower? Would he appear any moment to disturb the snooper raking over his life and personal belongings?

Or was something more sinister going on in the bathroom?

Should I progress into the piano room and wait for him to emerge or continue uncovering the layers of his life?

A real butler ushered me into the bedroom as if I was the harbinger of bad news, some kind of grim reaper.

Elmgreen and Dragset

Inside the bedroom

A frightening-looking bird peered down from the top of the bed, glaring ominously. On my visit it looked to be a stuffed vulture although a golden bird appears in the official publicity shots (see above) which added to the air of unease.

A bedside cabinet had been left open, revealing medicine bottles and pills, but it was only later that I discovered these were supposed to be Norman Swann’s HIV medication.

A rocking chair on top of the wardrobe gave off a unsettling vibe with its precariously balanced form and shifting silhouette.

Elmgreen and Dragset

A vulture stands poised above the bed

I examined the ornaments on the shelves and the black and white photographs displayed on the piano like a forensic scientist drilling down into Norman’s past.

What did they reveal about Norman’s life? Can we ever know a man by examining the paraphernalia that surrounds him?

I started to feel like a journalist investigating this character or a narrator in a seedy film noir where nothing is quite what it seems.

The unravelling of a man’s life and times also brought to mind the Orson Welles film Citizen Kane, another brilliant forensic examination of a complex character.


Decoding the past through photographs

Strange spaces

Next I moved on to Norman’s studio workspace with its architectural models, sketches and maquettes scattered around as if he’d just popped out to get the shopping.

Even his glasses were poised ready for action on the desk next to an old-fashioned computer and filing cabinets.

A chaise longue dominated the centre of the room which again made me think of Freud and the psychology of the man who lived in the apartment.

Elmgreen and Dragset

The architectural studio

Examining the architectural projects, it seemed to me that many of Norman’s plans were fantastical and  ‘pie in the sky’.

His life has been reduced to daydreaming in the study and thinking up impossible schemes.

Then I noticed a disturbing model in the far corner of the studio – Elmgreen and Dragset’s very own maquette for the Fourth Plinth at Trafalgar Square.

Elmgreen and Dragset

Grand designs?

That really freaked me out – what the hell was this work doing here? Perhaps the artists were making some oblique comment about the nature of art and grand ideas from their own perspective?

Elmgreen and Dragset

Time frozen

This boy on a rocking horse gave me the same creepy vibe I’d felt in the bedroom a few minutes earlier.

After having wandered around the apartment for 15 minutes, it was almost like time had stood still.

A trip into the newly refurbished kitchen confirmed my suspicions when I noticed that the clock had literally stopped.

In reality its hands had been taped down at 4:29pm.

There were something distinctly wrong about the kitchen with its glossy metallic surfaces which were so blatantly out of step with the traditional style of the rest of the apartment.

If you look at the film script for the house visit, you’ll find out why.

Apparently a young interior designer, Daniel Wilder, a former student of Norman Swann’s, had bought the apartment and was in the process of updating it in a contemporary style.

There was something quite unnerving about the way in which Daniel was destroying the relics of the past and replacing them with modern styles – the cold and clinical lines of post-modernity.

Elmgreen and Dragset

The clinical remodelled kitchen

The kitchen is very much a work in progress with a brush, bin and cleaning materials piled up in one corner.

It’s intriguing to reflect on how an architect like Norman would have responded to this collision of the modern and traditional.

There’s certainly plenty of references throughout the apartment to the loss of traditional heritage and the selling-off of cultural assets.

The lounge features one wall where two paintings have been stripped down and presumably sold off to the highest seller at auction. Cultural capital, old and new, is a recurring theme.

Elmgreen and Dragset

Former glories

Immersive experience

Tomorrow is a deeply immersive experience which becomes addictive as you spot more and more clues to what is going on with the man who lived in the apartment.

Every item in the rooms has some sort of meaning and you could happily spend hours deciphering Norman Swann’s story.

Elmgren and Dragset show London

Layers of meaning abound

Perhaps I should have guessed from the moment that I walked past the sign boards outside the V & A on my way into the exhibition that this was going to be a subversive experience.

But as it was raining, I only half-glanced at the hoarding proclaiming “New Residential Development – at Prime Cultural Heritage Location”.

For some bizarre reason I thought this was a real advert for a site next to the V & A – which is probably what artists Elmgreen and Dragset wanted.

Elmgreen and Dragset

Elmgreen and Dragset outside the V & A advert hoarding

This spoof was a great gag which almost had this blogger tricked, even when I looked at it again on leaving the exhibition.

I wondered how many people whizzing by on London’s red buses have taken this for a real advertisement hoarding?

Once inside, it’s also easy to be deceived by the objects you see. Which of them is real? Which have been drawn from the museum’s collection? And which have been created by the artists?

Elmgreen and Dragset

Strange juxtapositions

Perhaps the most compelling element of this show is the level of detail which enables a high level of discovery on the part of the spectator interacting with its spaces.

The many strange juxtapositions of objects in the rooms are certainly provocative and thought-provoking.

Unnerving is one word to describe the Elmgreen and Dragset exhibition but as you leave the show, it sets you thinking about the encounter for a long time afterwards.

The fact the apartment is tucked away in an obscure corner of the museum also makes it an eerie experience.

It took me quite a long time to find the show which is located in a long forgotten corner on the 3rd floor, sandwiched ironically between the theatre and performance art galleries.

Congratulations must go the V & A Museum for hosting this five star exhibition which is quite exceptional.

Elmgreen and Dragset’s show proves there’s no such thing as home sweet home!

Tammy’s tips – Tomorrow at London’s V & A

Elmgreen and Dragset

Elmgreen and Dragset in the apartment

Tomorrow by Elmgreen and Dragset is showing from 1 October 2013 until 2 January 2014 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The exhibition is open 10:00-17:45  daily and till 22:00 on Friday nights. Admission is free. The nearest Tube station is South Kensington.

A script – available for free – adds some narrative flesh to the bones of the rooms and objects, which together form a set for an as-yet-unrealised film. The script is available online – read the full version here.

Norman Swann’s story is set in Autumn 2013, just before midnight when he turns 75. There are numerous date references in the apartment which you can spot and analyse.

Visit the full photo gallery from the exhibition below… click to enlarge the images:

Watch the video in which artists Elmgreen and Dragset talk about their art and the installation at the V & A Museum.

Photo credits – installation images courtesy of the artists and Victoria Miro © Elmgreen & Dragset Photography Anders Sune Berg. Portrait of Elmgreen & Dragset © V&A Images. For Sale sign copyright V&A images.

2 replies »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s