The artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset are best known for grand-scale immersive installations tackling big issues. In End Station they built a fake New York subway station, an entire social housing block for Celebrity – The One and Many, the homes of an art collector and an architect in serious decline, and perhaps most famously, a fake Prada store in the Texas desert. The sublime is not their concern. Neither, on the whole, do they do minimal or personal. ‘Self-Portraits’, the duo’s new show at Victoria Miro’s Mayfair branch, is both. And it’s ever so simple.
Essentially, the pair track a life – two lives – in art through sometimes blown up, sometimes not, museum wall labels. Revelatory moments, career-changing or emotional insights, identify-forming identifications and psychic blows – we suppose, but can only suppose – are here.
Works by David Hockney, Ross Bleckner, Roni Horn, Martin Kippenberger, Keith Haring and Nicole Eisenman are namechecked. (Ingar told us once that he had visited the Rothko chapel in search of the sublime, of the transcendental, the transfigurative even, as many artists and other do, and came away unmoved. So there is no namecheck for him.)
There are no reproductions of the actual art here. Instead the labels take on the shape and form and material quality of art; they are made in marble, they are paint on canvas and metal, charcoal on paper. The pair are famously sceptical about the traditional gallery space as a place to experience art; the ways it gives an authority and reverence indiscriminately (though you must presume discrimination somewhere).
They like their art to work harder, to command and create interest outside the temple. Or to create a total space within the temple. ‘Self-Portraits’, then, is perhaps another sly dig at the system; the explanatory tag becomes the art because we only know anything as ‘art’ because the tag tells us it is. The tag marks out art, the tag becomes art. (In the past, they have spent 12 hours painting a White Cube gallery space even whiter. In another exhibition, they mounted the actual recovered wall surface of various museums on canvas. ‘Self-Portraits’ can be seen as part of a continuing series.)
'Self-Portraits',' they explain, 'is reminiscent of our early projects in which we analysed the very format and process of exhibiting by using the seemingly insignificant components common in museum or gallery displays. We’ve turned these into something that suddenly gains a different meaning, that becomes the main focus – in this case, the small wall label, which is normally just there to inform you about the corresponding work.'
But there is more here than that. The pair are also curiously, pleasingly old-fashioned in their predilection for narrative – and this is, in part, their story. This is a self-portrait. It also questions how much our identity is built from these markers.
'The exhibition shows what we, Ingar and Michael, share,' says the duo. 'In a rather unfiltered way, it tells about our inspirational sources. The titles on these label paintings and engraved marble reliefs all refer to events and situations in our own personal lives, or to important dialogues between us, since our collaboration is based on our dialogues.'
It might also be a glorious celebration of art. It might suggest that you can better, truly understand someone if you know what has moved them, what meant something at a particular time. And even more than that, that we are bent into shape by those moments. It might. It is always hard to tell.