Yesterday I went back to take another look at the installations by Elmgreen & Dragset at the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen … I had been thinking about my first visit and wanted to look at the pieces again before the exhibition closes on the 4th January.

The three large-scale installations, under the general title Biography, feel initially very different in atmosphere and feel very different in the way the viewer looks at each one. The main work, The One & the Many, has been erected in the entrance hall of the gallery and is the representation of a stark, three-storey apartment building. There is an entrance door but it is locked so we are kept out and, as on any public street in any town or city, our view in is restricted to what we can see through windows. The rooms we can see into are completely realistic using appropriate furniture and curtains and personal possessions to make the viewer feel, almost too easily, that they can understand the ‘back story’ of what appears to be the sad, lonely and alienated lives of the tenants of the block. What is surreal is our position … we are outside and when we take our noses away from the window glass we are suddenly back in an art gallery.

The second gallery space is completely the other way round in that there is absolutely no sense of an exterior. There is a corridor and we have a choice of which way we turn but in the end we come back to same point anyway. There is a sense that this could be a characterless standard, scruffy and barely maintained government or town department with waiting rooms, ticket offices and even a toilet but there are no staff … no signs to tell us we have come to the right place. It is the extreme of de-personalised public space but everything is surreal. Everything is wrong and frustrating: one door has hinges and handles on both the left and the right side so could not open; another door opens to reveal another locked door immediately behind it; the basins in the toilet have the most weird plumbing and so it goes on. Again the sense is of alienation but this time ours on entering this parallel world.

The third gallery appears to be a continent away … Las Vegas, the ultimate city of escape and dreams ... a Las Vegas night … a fire escape with a bored teenager sitting there high up his legs dangling over the edge … a mobile home broken by a fallen sign … and … most disconcerting of all … the swimming pool of a motel beyond a chain-link fence … guarded by a snarling dog throwing itself at the fence … and with the body of a man floating face down. These are the images of a fractured and alien world … or at least alien to Copenhagen. I actually know Nevada fairly well and this violence and darkness is not so implausible there. For someone coming from western Europe then arriving in California, Nevada, the Mid West it can feel as alien and surreal as this. 

What has all this to do with a blog about design?

That’s why I went back. On my first visit I looked at the installations as I would many art exhibitions … as a fascinating insight into the view point of the artist and as an interesting comment on contemporary life … 

Then thinking about it I realised that much of the impact of the show and the way the artists get us to look and think is to view modern architecture, modern graphics, everyday furniture, popular taste and style, with the clinical, detached observation of a cartoonist or a satirist. Their view is not hard or unsympathetic - in fact just the opposite - but never-the-less they are detached and frighteningly analytical. Each room in The One & the Many has an inherent coherence that allows us to guess at the age, sex, character of the tenant. The wallpaper is right for the character they have created, the style of furniture or lack of furniture, the books and magazines or the lack of books and magazines, the pictures on the walls are all the things that character would have chosen … or rather … because the artists chose them we project onto the rooms our preconceptions about what a person like that would be like. That’s fine. We are above that out here in the real world outside the art gallery. We don’t judge a person on their clothes. We don’t judge people for their taste in carpets. Fine.

But actually look around you right now. Look at what you have bought recently.

In those rooms in The One & the Many even the food packaging, the typography of the books and magazines, the colours chosen were all consistent and are all so revealing. Do we really expose so much about who we are whenever we choose one product over another? Facebook and Google would like to think so.

Aldi or Irma, IKEA or Illums Bolighus, Berlingske or Politiken all judge us … and chose the typefaces, the colours, the sizes, the options and variations they choose to offer us … because they know us … or think they know us … or hope they know us … their core audience.

So successful design has to be about anticipation and manipulation? 

Is good design the design of an object that will end up in a museum collection? Or is good design the design that sells and allows the manufacturer to survive if not thrive? Is good design what we like or what a marketing man thinks we will like? Is good design the design of an object we see and decide we really must buy or is good design the object we buy because we have seen the ad that makes us realise we want it? Is good design the object that looks amazing or the object that works day after day in the background?

And finally - to flip it around - if we put up with bad design or, come to that, choose to buy something that we accept is badly designed ... what does that say about us? Generally I guess it is usually that we don't have the time, or the money or the energy to search out the alternative. In part, what Elmgreen and Dragset are saying is that as life becomes more difficult and people become more isolated then clearly good design or any choice between good or bad design becomes less and less relevant.

And on a lighter note I missed an amazing photo opportunity yesterday as I stood in the gallery looking up at the figure of the boy sitting high up on the fire escape wearing his hoodie and jeans and trainers. A teenager came into the gallery wearing a hoodie and jeans and trainers plus a baseball cap on backwards and he walked or rather scuffed along under the fire escape and peered through the wire fence at the body floating in the pool; shrugged; turned and scuffed out without looking up at the boy, or the representation of a boy the same age above him. I didn’t get the lens cap off my camera quickly enough to capture the moment. It was surreal. I felt old and tired ... alienated … an observer.


Biography, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

Continues until 4 January 2015