As you enter the Nasher Sculpture Center, don’t be too distracted to notice the unassuming arrangement of objects off to the right side, on the wall in between the two sets of glass doors.
If you look over, you’ll see an ATM mounted in the wall, with a bundle on the floor in front of it. Wait a minute: Why is there an ATM in the entrance to the Nasher? And why is there a baby carrier on the floor — which apparently contains a baby?
This is the introduction to “Elmgreen & Dragset: Sculptures,” the first survey exhibition in this country of the two-man artistic team best known for Prada Marfa, the simulated boutique by the side of Highway 90 in West Texas.
Curator Leigh Arnold deserves kudos for bringing cutting-edge international work to town, and for grappling with the challenges of fitting a representative sample of their work within the Nasher’s walls.
As the ATM-bassinet combo suggests (it’s titled Modern Moses), the artists’ work offers neither the fleshy satisfaction of figurative sculptors such as Rodin nor the geometrical play of abstractionists such as Brancusi. Instead, Elmgreen & Dragset aim to create situations that tease and provoke viewers’ minds and play with the relationship between viewer and object — an approach sometimes called social sculpture.
Their essentially narrative and theatrical approach has as much in common with performance as it does with sculpture. Indeed, Michael Elmgreen (born in 1961 in Copenhagen) originally studied literature, while Ingar Dragset (born in 1969 in Trondheim, Norway) studied theater.
One of the newly created works in this show, visible through the glass walls on Flora Street, consists of three young men sitting at desks with pen and paper, writing continuously throughout the museum’s opening hours, until the conclusion of the exhibition.
For this work, titled Dallas Diaries, the three performers were commissioned to write a continuous diary of their thoughts, on anything and everything. As they sit and write, saying nothing, visitors are tempted to read over their shoulders.
Like much performance art, the blurring of lines between public and private offers a somewhat unsettling thrill, and an artificial intimacy between audience and performer. Are we really getting to see the diarists’ innermost thoughts — or is it all staged?
The other works do not use paid performers; still, the idea of performance can be carried over into the artists’ object-based work. The show as a whole can be understood as a collection of various stage sets that create dramatic moments and try to frame public space.
One of their public works, He (Silver), on view at the Nasher, represents a young man draped across a boulder. It’s made from epoxy resin and covered with a lacquered silver coating. It is designed as an ironic counterpart to the 1913 statue The Little Mermaid, which is a famous symbol of Copenhagen. He (Silver) was originally created for the city of Elsinore, a would-be rival to Copenhagen.
Of course, in switching the figure’s gender from female to male, Elmgreen & Dragset were taking the risk of subverting a public icon, and their sculpture did, indeed, provoke a negative reaction. In seeming to make fun of The Little Mermaid, He (Silver) was accused of being “too gay” — but how, the artists responded, can a sculpture be gay?
Many of their works do, in fact, explore masculinity since, as they point out, “we are two men.” After their 10-year personal relationship ended, their artistic partnership continued with the creation of Marriage (2004), consisting of two side-by-side porcelain bathroom sinks, whose two drain pipes meet and join together in between them, amid a massive tangle of pipe. Everything that one partner would like to get rid of comes right back up to the other partner, whether he wants it or not.
However, the most obviously recurring image of maleness in their work is not the man, but the boy: Numerous figures of young boys can be found throughout their work. Perhaps the most famous example is their 13-foot-tall bronze boy on a rocking horse, which the artists installed in London’s Trafalgar Square in 2013. (This work is not in the show, but it is helpfully discussed in the catalog.)
Whereas ancient and Renaissance public sculpture typically commemorated great men on horseback, the kings and conquerors who led nations and empires, Elmgreen and Dragset substituted the figure of a playful child, occupying the place left empty by the disappearance of those ancient heroes.
Several other boyish figures can be seen at the Nasher. In Watching (2016), a youth sits with binoculars on a high lifeguard’s chair. In One Day (2015), a shirtless lad gazes up at a rifle mounted on the wall, while in Invisible (2017), a small schoolboy cowers in front of a fireplace, under the baleful stare of the Pregnant White Maid (also 2017).
The artists say that the rifle piece speaks to the way that people become fascinated with objects. We see something, and we want it — especially if the object is powerful or dangerous.
In fact, the artists’ vision of masculinity appears to be predominantly a boyish one: unimposing, curious and emotionally open to the outside. Old-fashioned father figures (like the military heroes commemorated elsewhere in Trafalgar Square) are mostly absent.
After becoming familiar with the range of dramatic personae and situations that the artists present, the next most striking aspect of this exhibition is its extreme lack of color. Virtually every surface of an artwork here is either black, white or metallic chrome. (Among the few exceptions are the splashes of turquoise blue in their swimming-pool works, a consistent motif in their work, but only briefly touched upon at the Nasher.)
All these smooth metallic surfaces, and the blank-faced, smooth white human figures, produce a decidedly cool — even chilly — emotional tone, which Southern viewers might well associate with the Northern origins of the artists. In fact, the artists acknowledge a debt to Scandinavian culture, as much to the melancholy and understated cruelty in the Swedish films of Ingmar Bergman as to the clean lines and smooth surfaces of Nordic interior design.
Indeed, the artworks here have a Nordic taciturnity — saying little, while thinking a lot. Instead of bombarding the viewer with information, they present the basics of a situation, leaving the viewer to fill in the blanks.
The most massive piece in the show can be found in the garden behind the galleries. Upon descending the stairs to the garden, the sight of an enormous, trailer-sized white box partly buried in the earth seizes the attention of visitors.
This is a work from the Powerless Structures series, intended to represent a contemporary art gallery sinking into the earth. As the artists point out, the countless so-called “white-cube” contemporary art spaces around the world resemble each other to an astonishing degree — as much as any McDonald’s or Starbucks — lacking any real personality. This piece gives us a vision of such a faceless art-world “power structure” dropping unceremoniously out of sight, its power gone.
The word “powerless” in the title is a reference to the French thinker Michel Foucault, who tried to explain virtually every social institution in terms of the operation of power, an amoral, impersonal force. Here, the grim, sepulchral white box is a symbol of an art world that has very little to do with beauty or joy, and is instead an ironic monument to the titanic power of collectors and galleries that measure contemporary art mainly in terms of its ever-higher price tag.
In this remorselessly profit-driven world, Elmgreen and Dragset have prospered amid the billionaires, albeit without succumbing entirely to its power and logic. The playful and open-ended nature of their work always leaves open the chance for a quizzical, or amused, response.
Ben Lima is a Dallas-based art historian and the editor of Athenaeum Review, the University of Texas at Dallas journal of arts and ideas.
“Elmgreen & Dragset: Sculptures” runs until Jan. 5 at the Nasher Sculpture Center, 2001 Flora St., Dallas. $10 adults, $8 DART riders, $7 seniors, $5 educators and students with ID, free for children under 12, military and first responders. 214-242-5100. www.nashersculpturecenter.org.