Elmgreen and Dragset – Tomorrow – The Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Since I can remember, the most enjoyable way I’ve found to experience the V & A has been to wander any number of their 145 galleries with an afternoon to spare, getting lost in whichever mind-bogglingly large crowd of de/recontextualised objects are on display at the time. Depending on my mood, who’s with me, or just which way my legs happen to carry me that day, I might end up trying to picture the maker of a 17th century wrought iron gate; imagining actually wearing an iconic piece of jewellery in a theatrically lit Perspex bubble; or noting down the name of a seminal modernist designer whose, say, sugar bowl I’ve fallen in love with in the 20th century design section, then hunting for one on EBay that I can afford (this has sadly never been successful thus far).
Within this intensely loaded setting, Scandinavian artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset have constructed Tomorrow – a hugely bold, site-specific installation – in the museum’s vast former textile galleries. The incredibly high-ceilinged rooms have been turned into a grandiose set that feels more 3D film than stage. It incorporates pieces from the museum collection, as well as those sourced or made by the artists, as carefully choreographed clues. We have, according to the introductory blurb, stepped into the apartment of elderly architect Norman Swann where a drama involving both the weight of his own cultural history and a perfidious former student has been unfolding. Feeling unnervingly like a squewed version of Lloyd Grossman in a certain ‘80s television show, we pull apart the evidence: Swann’s book collection including a number of titles referencing Hitchcock and the history of architecture from Palladio to Le Corbusier; any number of the exquisite pieces of furniture from a multitude of eras; a beige, cable knit cardigan slung over a modernist chair; an art deco dining table with a split down its middle; a roller and paint tray left leaning against a half decorated wall in a strikingly contemporary kitchen; sketch and plan models of modernist buildings together with piles of screwed up and discarded drawings, lit by a couple of angle poises, in what is/was evidently the architect’s studio….
Visitors sit on scroll-armed sofas flicking through one of the many copies of the script left around the installation. So convincingly has this sinister fictional world been assembled that the majority of them (aside from two rather self-congratulatory designer clad older gentlemen who apparently “…SAW THE GRAYSON PERRY AT THE BRITISH MUSEUM LAST YEAR…”) communicate only in almost revered whispers.
Careful lighting and subtle use of sound makes the artists’ filmic references even more apparent. We can hear the shower coming from behind a closed door which we assume must be our invisible protagonist… this all sucks you in to such a degree that, after 20 minutes or so in here, I felt mildly guilty peering behind an embroidered screen in the ‘bedroom’ to glimpse Norman’s Zimmer frame and shopping bag with a copy of the Times poking out of it (potentially a weeny fart in this sea of carefully nuanced hints, resulting from a lack of total familiarity with British cultural references, along with the Telegraph and a copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead on the bookshelf – would an architect who clearly had his heyday in the modernist era really be a massive Tory?) I also feel an insidious sense of unease, so much so that I audibly breathe a sigh of relief when I leave, rather aptly following the signs to the museum’s ‘Theatre and Performance’ and ‘Materials and Technique’ section.
This is an astute commission on the part of the V & A – giving Elmgreen and Dragset exactly the material and history they need to idiosyncratically bounce off and build upon. The duo’s shows come together most successfully when they’re not completely cut loose from something to base their work around (as in here, or their Collector’s Houses in the Scandinavian pavilion at Venice in 2009 which also used exceptional surroundings and objects to create the filmic backdrop for an inexplicitly disturbing, fictional event…) When let loose in a more straight up gallery context, they tend to do a bit more flailing around, the work seems colder and overly self-referential, as it did in last year’s Harvestat Victoria Miro.
Making a work that sits amongst and comments on the foremost collection of art and design objects in the world in a genuinely original and thought-provoking way, though, is a massive undertaking. Art is about decontextualisation; about getting us to redigest things we thought we understood about the world by offering us a series of lenses with which to reframe it. The V and A (and every museum) also offer a straightforward, prescribed type of decontextualising lens – one which Elmgreen and Dragset have succeeded in subverting to their own ends. There are no labels indicating anything about any of these objects’ histories, they have been thrust away from their original, domestic functions into another dimension – a creepy, Hitchcockian one where we feel time really has stood still, and hanging around too long will result in something deeply unpleasant…
 I could, honestly, have made this list ten times as long and completely bored you stupid.