Life lessons from Elmgreen & Dragset’s tennis court
A new exhibition at Berlin’s König Galerie has the artist duo meditating on empty triumphs, power mechanisms and social divisions
Bogdan sits in a corner of Elmgreen & Dragset’s latest solo exhibition, slouched in a wheelchair, hands clasped on his belly. He wears only grey trousers and black closed-toe sandals, leaving his fleshy, aging torso exposed and glistening from the spotlight above. Eyes shut, brow furrowed and lips lightly pursed, he looks like he’s drifting into sleep. In a possible allusion to his loneliness, the space around him is left bare.
Bogdan is one of three new, white-lacquered bronze sculptures that the artists have created for the nave of St Agnes, the Brutalist church turned exhibition space for Berlin’s König Galerie. He’s the only one visible from the stairway leading to the gallery, offering an entry point into the simple, yet enigmatic setting.
Across the room, on a raised platform, is a tennis court. Save for the slightly reduced dimensions (ten per cent smaller than an actual court, to account for spatial limitations), the court is as realistic as it gets, laid with the same orange rubber granulate often found in sports grounds, with all the usual markings and a bisecting net. On opposing ends of the court are sculptures of two boys, Kev and Flo, who seem to have just wrapped up a match.
Kev, dressed in t-shirt and oversized shorts, lies face down on the ground, his racquet out of reach, appearing exhausted and forlorn. Meanwhile, the slightly bigger Flo, who dons a posher tennis ensemble, stands facing a corner clutching a shiny trophy. Despite being the ostensible winner of the game, his head is lowered and his expression is despondent, the taste of victory evidently not as sweet as he expected.
‘It’s not like the winner in this story comes out feeling any better than the one who has lost’
Aptly titled ‘Short Story’, the show opens up to multiple readings. At its heart is a parable about growing up: the younger boy representing the burden of expectation and craving for validation; his older counterpart realising that long-awaited achievements don’t always come with a sense of satisfaction. As a commentary on childhood, the new work is a natural successor to classic Elmgreen & Dragset installations such as their Fourth Plinth commission, featuring a boy astride his rocking horse; and Dilemma at Oslo’s Ekebergparken, showing another boy teetering at the edge of a diving board. The pairing of Kev and Flo also critiques a common practice of dividing the world between losers and winners, asking whether such a distinction is meaningful or emotionally fulfilling. ‘It’s not like the winner in this story comes out feeling any better than the one who has lost,’ explains Dragset.
What distinguishes ‘Short Story’ from the artists’ previous work is the choice of a tennis court as its setting. Elmgreen & Dragset are no strangers to sporting metaphors, having used the swimming pool at the 2009 Venice Biennale, at Rockefeller Center, and more recently at Whitechapel Gallery. But compared to swimming – which can be an unstructured endeavour – tennis is more rigidly defined, with a clear set of rules and visual guidelines that take the form of court markings. By incorporating a tennis court into their art, Elmgreen & Dragset draw attention to ‘how people often navigate spaces in ways that become so commonplace we barely notice them any longer.’ Like they have done in the ‘Highway Paintings’ series, which frames traffic markings on rectangular pieces of asphalt, the artists wish to highlight the hidden power mechanisms embedded into public spaces.
‘I always thought it would be weird for people from the 18th century to experience our way of living,’ considers Elmgreen. ‘It must be terrifying for them to see how controlled we are. Even in our leisure, we engage in sports like tennis, where we invent rules and control mechanisms in order to have fun.’
The tennis court also comes with connotations of status. ‘In spite of the relatively low demand of equipment, the sport has often been associated with the upper-middle class of society,’ the artists point out. By situating the two boys in a class-specific setting, they seem to be alluding to another control mechanism that pervades modern society. ‘Where there is a winner and a loser, there is no team spirit or joint game building’ – their description of the game at hand could well be a metaphor for our fractured world.
And then there’s the solitary Bogdan, whose relationship to the two boys is ambiguous. Perhaps he’s their grandfather? Or, seeing as the year 1969 is engraved on Flo’s trophy, could they be figments of his memory? To such guesses, Elmgreen & Dragset are not offering any answers. What is clear is that the inclusion of Bogdan raises similar questions about sculptural history as the Fourth Plinth commission once did. ‘Sculptures of kids and old people don’t appear very often. At least if they’re not emperors or kings, or otherwise important persons. We more often see young or middle-aged heroic male figures, like warriors or workers,’ notes Elmgreen. But who is to say that the inner life of an aging, wheelchair-bound man can’t be as compelling? §