Elmgreen + Dragset: Tomorrow at V&A Museum

Buried away in the burrow-like back end of the V&A museum’s first floor is Norman Swann’s flat, into which artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset invite you to enter, upon just one condition: that you play the part of a gracious intruder. In the film of the same name written by the artist duo for the exhibition, characters Daniel and Wendy are careless intruders, hammered and far from enamoured by the contents of this grand family home. For them it begins with a fight with the keys to gain entrance, and then continues with an ongoing verbal battle with Norman, who to their surprise is still residing in the flat, (reluctant to give up the home despite his bankruptcy because of stubbornness and pride). Once we the viewer gain entry to the home, the memory of the galleries of eighteenth-century landscape painting and Renaissance tapestries on the other side is forgotten; the sense of setting is suspended by the grip of the fictional. The flat has no windows – there’s no access to the collection beyond – and the story of Norman, and his sour encounter with Daniel and Wendy the night before his seventy-fifth birthday takes over.

The sense that you are trespassing into a home without an owner is persuasive. The derelict nature of the property – caused Norman’s going into bankruptcy – furthers the viewer’s feeling that the owner has long gone, but the heated discussions sustained across the script reveal how attached Norman is to the home and its contents, and how disappointed he is that the signs of decay point to the contrary. In the entrance hall, the filament has gone on one of the ornate wall lights, on another, the poor replacement of a frosted light bulb with one made of clear glass is noticeable; in the hallway between the lounge and the kitchen, a bucket catches the steady dripping from the ceiling above, and a bunch of flowers left on the grand cabinet in the entrance hall are being tested against the perils of time.

This bouquet becomes the first associate of an impression that lasts throughout the exhibition. That is that Tomorrow is a grand vanitas installation, which illuminates the paralysing practice of time, that rebukes the value of worldly things and that identifies in each of us our fate to death. Throughout the unrealised film script (a 97 page encounter with the space and the three characters who are amongst it on the eve of Norman Swann’s seventy-fifth birthday) there are frequent mentions of Norman’s looming death. Something that seems nearer, both to the viewer as to the characters within the play, then it appears to actually be. Two thirds of the way through, after various earlier jokes and jibes made by the junior (Daniel) to his senior (Norman), Daniel tells Norman – with perceptible sincerity – he is shocked he’s still alive. Norman responds by saying, “A lot of people thought I was dead,” to which Daniel adds without remorse, “You should have died years ago I think.” Later on Daniel supposes that Normal is immortal because he’s yet to die. While these suggestions appear harsh they sober the interactions by grounding their discussions in reality, in the same way the vanitas paintings commissioned by newly rich Dutch merchants hushed their boasting and made them heed humility.

Tomorrow is created with the same initiative that the National Gallery’s associate artist scheme is: to make use of the existing wealth of artistic history and to recalibrate it in contemporary form. The difference is that the National Gallery paintings are generally a springboard (a source of inspiration), whereas the V&A collection is the furniture of this exhibition and is so integrated amongst it that the viewer can only take intellectual guesses about the artwork’s providence. It feels right that the collection should be amassed in this way as it reflects the museum’s diverse collection including many domestic design objects. Through the exhibition, Elmgreen + Dragset transform the V&A collection into a fully functioning palace of things, and in doing so they reintroduce the idea of providence – the history of an object’s ownership – which is a vital concern to any collector, and a tool through which the artists are able to generate their elaborate, comprehensive and yet conceivable fantasy; their story Tomorrow.

The artists invite Tomorrow’s guests to view Norman’s belongings as props for their own narrative, and I believe that this invitation combined with the well-stocked installation, is enough to spark the imagination of all the exhibition’s visitors by itself. However, the rooms come to new life if the viewer allows the film script to become their guide to the space. The film script is designed as a take-it-or-leave-it component of the exhibition: it does not take the place of exhibition literature, which is placed in every viewer’s hand without fail, but instead sits unassumingly on the living room’s coffee table. It hopes to be chanced upon, and capture the attention of the visitor, but does not cry for attention any more than the other items in the house.

In picking up the play, I gave the artists permission to determine my viewpoint on the exhibition; and as a result of doing so, my perception of the exhibition’s character changed considerably: from installation to empty stage-set. If you consider all the objects within to be artworks (whether they be from the V&A’s collection, or made by the artists) the way in which visitors who read the script then approach the artworks alters significantly: they shift from independent works whose meaning is found within themselves, to props for a performance, whose meaning is found in how they are used, where they come from, and how they interact with or are interacted with by people and accompanying objects. In designing the experience of the exhibition in this way, Elmgreen + Dragset’s installation becomes a consuming encounter with art, and a refreshingly contemporary use of narrative in exhibition design.

 

Tomorrow is on at V&A  until 2nd January. Entry is free: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/tomorrow-elmgreen-dragset/about-the-exhibition/

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