There I Belong at Statens Museum for Kunst


There I Belong is the first in a new series of exhibitions under the title SMK Plus where contemporary artists will explore the collections of the National Gallery.

For this exhibiion - Inspired by the works of the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi who lived and worked in Copenhagen around 1900 - the artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset have collaborated with Marianne Torp and Tone Bonnén, the museum's curators of contemporary art.

Spartan interiors by Hammershøi are restrained and calm but they are enigmatic - paintings that tread a fine line between being self contained or depictions of a life of painful isolation. The paintings resonate with a contemporary audience, reflecting aspects of modern taste and restrained Scandinavian interiors.

There may be windows in these rooms but the view out to a world beyond is usually obscured by thin, translucent curtains … the natural light entering the room is crucial but a sense of place not so because these are studies in light but never put people, objects or place under a harsh spot light. Figures in the paintings are detached, generally absorbed in what they are doing, inward looking, often with their back to the viewer and in many of the paintings we do not even know if they are reading or writing or simply sitting with head bowed in quiet contemplation. Open doors indicate that there are rooms beyond but barely hint at a lived life.

Interior with the Artist's Easel, takes this to an extreme because, when painting the picture, the artist himself should be at the easel. The only conclusion has to be that there is a second easel at the point where the viewer is standing so are we the artist? Perhaps we have been co-opted into this quiet and private world but this is the ultimate antidote to that modern scourge - the selfie - where the photographer shows themselves at the centre of the scene, always the subject of the view, inevitably relegating an event or scene beyond to a secondary role.

The second gallery - a large space - shows the work Powerless Structures (8 doors) by Elmgreen & Dragset from 2000-2002. These are the most simple, basic, standard white doors imaginable, with plain white door frames but each is a variation in a theme of a detachment from the real or the functional … one door has handles and hinges on both the left and the right side so it would be impossible to open - another has a handle that is not on the door but on the wall alongside so it might or might not open - one door is slightly open to reveal a locked door immediately behind - one door is folded and wrapped around the corner of the gallery - a pair of doors on adjoining walls at another corner are separate but linked by a security chain as if someone might be able to squeeze through from a room on one side to another room without being able to get into the gallery.

This work, or a version of this work, was shown at Statens Museum for Kunst in 2015 in Biography - an ambitious set of major installations by Elmgreen & Dragset. Then, the doors were part of a corridor and a series of rooms that were in what appeared to be a government or public office building. If not obviously dystopian then the corridor was completely anonymous and designed to smother any sense of self. On entering you had a choice to go one way or the other but with no signs or notices to say where you were or why you were there although you could get a ticket from a machine to wait for your number to be called but it never would be, of course, and if you proceeded past these doors you could only return to where you started.

By now placing these doors on the four walls of a large gallery, the work takes yet another step back and pays homage to Hammershøi but expands his space until it is monumental in scale.

The exhibition includes photographs, paintings, sculptures and video by other artists - all taking the theme of doorways and spartan anonymity - with works by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Lilianna Maresca, Francesca Woodman, Robert Gober, Annika von Hausswolff, Ugo Rondinone and Thomas Ruff. Only the work by von Hausswolff is from the museum collection with the other works either courtesy of the artist or on loan from galleries and private owners.


the exhibition at Statens Museum for Kunst / The National Gallery in Copenhagen
continues until 1 September 2019

Interior with a young woman sweeping, 1899

Interior, No 30 Strandgade, 1906-1908

Interior with the Artist’s Easel, 1910


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

The One and the Many


If you visit Statens Museum for Kunst - the National Gallery in Copenhagen - the only way that you can avoid looking at The One and the Many is by not actually going inside the building as this colossal installation fills the entrance hall. 

That hall rises up through two storeys with a high domed ceiling and has galleries running around it and a modern staircase but this work from the partnership of Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset dominates and fills the hall. It pushes visitors to the edges of the space.


It is a stark, dark, grey, concrete cube representing a four-storey apartment building or, to be more straightforward, what in England would be called a council block. There is an entrance door on one side with bells and name plates but you cannot get in because there is an answer phone and no one is in apart from a young man on a mattress on the floor in his room dead to the World or worse.

Some rooms are lit and let you look into the interior through the windows … not just at the ground floor but at the upper levels as well from the gallery. Each room, or cell, belongs to a different tenant … each room from its contents and furniture hints at a back story but above all shows you, the voyeur looking in, that the tenant is trapped. Not trapped in the room for only one room is actually occupied, but trapped in a life they are surviving or facing or coping with by dreaming or denying. There is the room of an old lady, or I presume an old lady, which is spotlessly clean with carefully washed net curtains and her knitting only just abandoned on the armchair; there is the sitting room of a man escaping by watching football on his TV with the coffee table covered in empty beer bottles and cigarette ends, a neighbour has a room set out with bland good taste but needing drama or whatever has the TV tuned to X-factor and, heart-wrenchingly sad, the kitchen of an immigrant from the far east with the poster of the woman they would like to be or want to look like and surrounded by everything that can be bought that is pink. Not pretty, soft pinks but harsh strong pinks. Like a Flemish or Dutch still life you have to keep looking further and further in to the image at the details.

If this all sounds grim it isn’t. If it sounds pretentious that’s my fault because of the way I’ve written about it. Everyone who lives in an apartment or is worried about ending up in a flat if they have to 'down size' or has aspirations to get away from mum and dad and get some independence should see this work. Anyone who tries to claim that they are not, above all, defined by what they own, should look carefully at this piece and then look around them when they get home.

At some stage it is also important to watch the film in a side gallery of an interview with the artists because there you begin to understand their observational skills and the way they use what is essentially the stripped-back but laser-sharp viewpoint of a cartoonist but with a very real sense of humanity to create the narrative for their tenants and in doing that make the viewer take stock. In the film at one point they admit that they feel as if they are outsiders and the whole point is that it takes an outsider to see what is happening in this way.

Visitors to the gallery eagerly look in through the windows or read the name plates on the entrance bells and laugh nervously about the piles of junk mail inside that no one has bothered to clear. One of the mail boxes has been forced open and left bent and un-lockable and that is in part what is brilliant about this work because just two years ago my mail box in the apartment where I was living then was broken into in just this way … it is that classic ‘shock of recognition’ that makes you feel that art has a message.

This is parody and there is real gentle, and mocking humour running through the ideas but what is haunting is that there is no hint of a future. That is what is grim. One window has no light but has a sign to show it is to let so new people will arrive. Is this The Hotel California? The style is hyper realism but stripped back and thin, almost hungry … or is that trying to read too much into it?

I spent a lot of time watching people’s reactions. Watching parents lift up children to look in through windows, trying to judge their reactions, but who was watching me?


The One and the Many was created in 2010 and before this was shown at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo. It will be at SMK until 4 January 2015 and is shown along with two other major installations by Elmgreen & Dragset under the title Biography.