Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset’s The Welfare Show is the current exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery. It was originally organized by the Office of Contemporary Art in Norway (OCA) and was brought over and tailored by Sarah Tenant for Hyde Park’s contemporary-art institution.
Birthday, 2002, is the opening piece. It comprises an empty wheelchair with a royal-blue balloon attached to the armrest, confronting the viewer as they enter the gallery space. It is instantly readable – an empty symbol of a birthday celebration clutching at the misery of modern care systems. This is the most outstanding piece in the exhibition, poetic in its form and thoroughly arresting with its simple paradox. It is also the only piece that was not created within 2005/6, a prolific period for two young and increasingly confident artists. Behind it, Socks at Woolworths, 2006, acts as a backdrop. It is essentially a blackboard with “These socks cost £1.25 a pair" painted in large white, chalk-like, back-to-school-style lettering. We are drawn to this text as we walk in and manoeuvre past the wheelchair. The piece has a crude simplicity without any of the duo’s earlier grace or depth. It represents the worst of Elmgreen and Dragset’s oeuvre and the contrast is startling.
It seems though that these two Scandinavians are art-world buzzwords since setting it on fire with their Powerless structures series that began in 1995. Since then they have exhibited in infinite solo and group exhibitions in a host of European and North American galleries, most notably the Tate Modern in 2004. More recently the pair developed a public art project in Texas late last year ( Prada Marfa ), a send-up of America’s consumerist tendencies, silently sponsored by Prada. They have just won the commission for Berlin’s (where they currently reside) next piece of major public art, a sculpture commemorating homosexual victims of the Nazi regime. This work is to be placed in the same square in Berlin as Eisenmann’s Memorial, and as Dragset revealed at the accompanying ‘Art of Welfare’ conference on 27 January in the Goethe Institut, it is in part “an appropriation of the Eisenmann’s Memorial ." Indeed, appropriation seems to be the common thread of Elmgreen and Dragset’s most recent works.
Reg(u)arding the guards, 2005, is one of their most high-profile and controversial works: eight guards line the walls of a white room (there were fifteen in OCA), turning the spectator into an entertainer, the spectacle into the audience. On the first of two visits I was alone in this room; my effort to be at ease with myself, despite sixteen peering eyes and three laughing faces was utterly and gloriously futile. The use of real people in art as instrument rather than character is not new: it stems from the late 1960s, with developments in performance art and experimental theatre, and has been used by artists such as Santiago Serra and more recently the likes of Tino Seghal. All of these artists, however, use this reversal as a means to explore issues related to the being, and use the human body to explore both external and internal influences. Elmgreen and Dragset do not manage to do this, and instead have tied this practice to their theme by using unemployed people hired through a newspaper advertisement. It seems that without the visual poetry of earlier works, these very basic ideas are illustrated (rather than developed or explored) in very facile ways and exist in some cases purely as visual puns.
In The Welfare Show, 2006, Elmgreen and Dragset have created a small window into a light- and sound-proofed empty chat-show studio, where two chairs face one another, a table between holding two empty water glasses. Behind the chairs “The Welfare Show" is written in candy-pink, American-diner-style neon lights. This studio is in all appearances host to late-night discussions, possibly a forum for ideas in arts and politics, in a setting that hints at camp, or at least animated intellect. This pseudo-set seems to be the artists’ simple antithetical image of the Welfare State. Again a basic idea, illustrated in a basic way.
This space can’t be yours, 2006, is a phrase displayed on a plain white poster on a replica rotating billboard inside the gallery. Private and public ownership has been explored before by other artists, although perhaps in more dynamic ways – for example, Jenny Holzer outside the gallery or Hans Haacke inside, both with different agendas but both leaving a lasting impression. This space can’t be yours is a play on space, further played because it is inside an art gallery. It relies on where it is placed to justify its existence as an artwork; rehearsing worn ideas, it contains no conceptual merit or visual strength.
In Social mobility, 2005/ 6, a transfer from the OCA show, steps up to an office door are crumbling and inaccessible from the bottom Here though the Administration sign has disappeared from above the doorway (in slides I saw this was originally displayed in Norwegian, in a presumably familiar national font, and on the front cover of the Serpentine pamphlet it is displayed in English). This confuses me again, but at least at this point I feel there is a riddle to solve. The work itself provides no such mental activity: steps that crumble at the bottom, a health organizations office that is difficult to access. It is bland and transparent. Ditto It’s the small things in life that really matter, blah, blah, blah, 2006, a waiting-room replica in which you will never be seen.
Go go go, 2005, is the final piece of a clockwise Serpentine tour and the very last straw. There are two poles; one is lit up in lights and ready for a dancer to leap straight in, and the other is a dirty broom propped against the flashing podium. Two poles, two avenues. The simplicity is agony.
On the whole, the curatorial team in the UK failed to successfully translate The Welfare Show from Norway to London. The concept-driven show was slightly stronger in the OCA; its opening in Norway coincided with a large annual visual-art event hosted there and so the Norwegian royals were present for this OCA exhibition opening and for the inaugural meal. The artists, having established creative control of the establishment (and presumably wanting to establish their position against it), decided that prison food should be served at this meal and throughout the two-week duration of the exhibition. This food acted as a tongue-in-cheek accompaniment to the exhibition. The Serpentine does not have equivalent catering facilities and it did not accommodate any similar performance gesture which might have revived that atmosphere of jovial anarchy.
Unlike most of the Serpentine’s 2005 exhibitions, The Welfare Show was not site-specific, nor was it entirely commissioned by the curatorial team. The works that were the strongest conceptually were specific to the welfare problems in Norway and as a result the nuances did not travel from exhibition to exhibition gracefully. An example of this is the use of unemployed people as guards in Reg(u)arding . This nuance is fairly location-specific, as Norwegian unemployment rates are disproportionately high, comprising 25% of the capable workforce, the added abomination being that the state actually provides funds to sustain these high unemployment rates. The work is a somewhat successful means of social commentary relating to this phenomenon. In the London show, the guards were also unemployed, although this time in a country whose employment rates are far higher and whose economic interest is in creating employment rather than discouraging it. As such the force of the blow is somewhat lost in translation.
It felt like these works had been internationalized and therefore diluted, losing their local political agenda and significance. In maintaining the original title and theme of the exhibition, the curator and/ or artists then perhaps decided to commission/ produce new work hastily, work without any specific political or social relationship to the new space and political territory. The result was that seven of the eleven exhibited works, loosely connected to the umbrella-termed title, were produced either entirely or in part in 2006. This exhibition opened on 25 January, 2006 (!).
The exhibition lost whatever power it once had somewhere in the North Sea. In their haste to produce additional works for a past exhibition, the artists came up with a body of work that lacked both substance and future.
Isobel Harbison is a freelance writer and curator based in London and is currently working on Channel 4’s Big art project .