Elmgreen + Dragset seem to have it all. The Scandinavian-born artists are among the contemporary art world’s best-loved, most exhibited duos. They are fixtures at biennales and big museums. They even own one of the world’s most unusual studios: a gargantuan renovated pumping station in Berlin’s modish Neukölln district. What more could they possibly do?
Well, they could transform an entire city with art. On the bidding of Munich’s Department of Arts and Culture, the pair are orchestrating a nine-month outdoor exhibition that will put 12 projects by 12 artists in public spaces throughout the city. One of the project’s goals is to make residents and visitors aware that the Bavarian capital, and not just overhyped Berlin, dares to take artistic risks. Another is to open a discourse on public art’s role in a society whose open forums are shifting into the virtual realm.
The duo are project curators but it didn’t start that way: Munich initially commissioned Elmgreen + Dragset alone, for 1.2m city-funded euros, in January 2012. “We were asked to do something temporary with the outdoor public space with that chunk of money. It was not defined at all,” says Michael Elmgreen, Danish-born and the more talkative of the two. “We could have taken all the money ourselves and done a giant work,” he jokes. Ingar Dragset, Norwegian, a little younger and quieter, laughs as he continues: “And, stupid as we are, we thought it would be too flat to have just our perspective on public art. We wanted to include other artists that would be relevant to the situation in Munich and make it an exhibition of temporary outdoor happenings, sculptures, interactions.”
The works in Höffentlich Öffentlich (a German play on words/rhyme that directly translates as “Hopefully Public”; the project’s English name is A Space Called Public) will appear one by one, sneaking up on the city “like a virus” over a period of several months. The first piece, unveiled in January, is by Irish-born artist Stephen Hall, who is reinterpreting London’s Trafalgar Square “Fourth Plinth” for Munich’s Wittelsbacherplatz, to join an equestrian statue that has stood alone on the square for centuries.
Other artists take on other parts of Munich, or collaborate with local cultural players. Ragnar Kjartansson from Iceland will work with the Munich Philharmonic. Malaysia-born Han Chong is to install a giant Buddha in the outdoor Viktualienmarkt. In March, Elmgreen + Dragset begin showing “It’s Never Too Late To Say Sorry” at Odeonsplatz, in which an older gentleman produces a silver megaphone every day at noon and yells the titular phrase. “It’s a little like a city clock,” says Dragset of the project, which also ran in Rotterdam and New York. Here it has extra depth: Odeonsplatz was a favourite spot for Hitler’s rallies.
“Our concept with the exhibition is: how does a city create its own identity today?” says Elmgreen, musing about Las Vegas (gambling), Los Angeles (film) and London (finance and culture). What’s Munich about? “It’s very powerful in all its poshness, no? And it’s the cleanest city in the world,” he continues. “It seems like they vacuum it every day. But you need a bit of grit and dirt in the machinery to be aware of your own identity. You need to ask someone from outside to do this.” Outsiders themselves, the duo brought in other artists: they knew that challenging Munich’s pristine luxury would take a full array of thought-provoking works.
Whether A Space Called Public will permanently shift Munich’s identity is an open question but the project certainly illuminates the city’s willingness to take risks and emphasises its already-stellar institutional art venues. And Höffentlich Öffentlich is made for residents as well, says Elmgreen: “It’s not a fly-in, fly-out exhibition. It has a slowness. A process. A dynamic that’s about going into the everyday life and routines of the city.”
Those who must fly in and fly out should come on 6 June, when most of the works are installed and an official mid-exhibition “opening” takes place. Lectures and happenings exploring the meaning of public space and public art continue until late September. It’s an important thing to be talking about right now: public art is an age-old concept but is currently gaining momentum and may be one of the more interesting new frontiers in an increasingly jaded art scene.
The duo’s playful yet thoughtful approach is certainly energising and provoking Munich as the project unfolds and resonates before it disappears in late September. As artists, how do Elmgreen + Dragset feel about public art? Working for a random audience is clearly different from curating the Nordic pavilion at the Venice Biennale, showing at the Victoria and Albert (this autumn), or erecting a fake Prada store in the Texas desert. “The public is not a good place to be if you hate your audience,” says Elmgreen. Does a public artist have to love the people in his audience? “You have to like them,” he says, smiling. So far, Munich seems to be liking right back.