Elmgreen & Dragset’s latest exhibition, “READ,” at Kunsthalle Praha in the Czech Republic, unveils a compelling exploration of the profound relationship between art and literature. The exhibition is not merely a nostalgic romp through the 20th/21st century; it’s a contemporary discourse anticipating future dialogues concerning the destiny of public Libraries.
Inspired by Prague’s culture of Libraries, the exhibition’s concept emerged from an encounter with Giorgio de Chirico’s enigmatic painting “Les Jouets Défendus” (1916), prompting a thematic exploration of the metaphysical portrayal of books. This journey through Kunsthalle Praha’s Collection and personal invitations to select artists resulted in a thought-provoking showcase encouraging reading and challenging our perception of books.
The Berlin-based Scandi-duo has seamlessly transformed the recently renovated Schindler Seko Architekti-designed art space into a minimalist public library, celebrating Prague’s rich literary heritage. “READ” delves into the historical and enduring relevance of books, questioning their place in the age of digital media.
The exhibition also touches on censorship depicted in the 50 most banned books in (‘The Sunshine State’) Florida. These are mainly books about race, gender, and LGBTQ+ content. In other places, the books are set up like a traditional Library where you can take them off the shelves and read at the reading tables. There are large swathes of racks where the books are turned around. The artists said, “These books are not very good” and serve as shelf fillers. The exhibition’s spatial dynamics are a testament to Elmgreen & Dragset’s ability to engage with the public. A set of inaccessible stairs symbolises libraries’ challenges in a post-analog age. “Diaries,” a durational performance featuring five young men keeping diaries, adds an interactive dimension to the experience.
This exhibition has other playful elements, including reprints of book covers using the same artwork for various subjects and titles. In another part of the installation, an extremely long shelf containing the best seller ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is presented; the artists noted that these contain a type of glue that makes them impossible to pulp or recycle, so they sit on a sprawling shelf.
The exhibition is a spirited tribute to the book as an object. It is often a humourous and nostalgic exploration, prompting questions like, Why are Libraries still necessary for our lives? and, How do we socially interact within the structure of these important buildings? The installation has its own ‘Gent’s toilet’. On second glance, one stall is occupied by two in a nod to the city’s tradition of Gay cruising. The artist explained, “Well, at least you will find a partner who likes to read”.
In Prague’s multicultural history, “kunsthalle” echoes the role of a place where diverse languages coexist. “Read” addresses contemporary issues and anticipates discussions, particularly regarding the future of public libraries in an era dominated by digital spaces. Elmgreen & Dragset provocatively question the potential obsolescence of libraries and printed matter, offering a nuanced perspective on the evolving landscape of knowledge and information-sharing.
The exhibition features an exceptional selection of artworks, including pieces from Kunsthalle Praha’s permanent collection. Artists such as Kurt Schwitters, Běla Kolářová, and Chiharu Shiota have been included alongside artists connected to Berlin, Elmgreen & Dragset’s current home.
Invited artists, including Dora García, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, and Meriç Algün, contribute diverse perspectives on books as an artistic medium. Special book presentations, including the Chicago Center for Caspar David Friedrich Studies project, add layers of engagement. “READ” showcases libraries’ enduring importance and highlights the political significance of books, connecting present-day challenges with historical contexts. Through a rich program of talks, performances, screenings, and workshops, Elmgreen & Dragset invite audiences to immerse themselves in a contemplative exploration of art, literature, and the evolving nature of knowledge.
With meticulous curation by the artists, in collaboration with Christelle Havranek (Chief Curator at Kunsthalle Praha) & Barbora Ropková (Collection Curator at Kunsthalle Praha), the exhibition features works by sixty international artists alongside works by Elmgreen & Dragset.
Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, have blended their talents to create provocative and thought-provoking installations that challenge conventional norms and engage with societal issues. The duo has been collaborating since 1995, forging a remarkable partnership that has left a mark on the contemporary art scene.
Michael Elmgreen, born in 1961 in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Ingar Dragset, born in 1969 in Trondheim, Norway, bring together their distinct backgrounds and perspectives. Elmgreen studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, while Dragset received his education at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.
Known for their conceptual works, Elmgreen & Dragset have explored themes related to identity, sexuality, and societal expectations. Their installations often feature a blend of humor, irony, and critical commentary, inviting viewers to question established norms and assumptions.
One of their notable early works, “Powerless Structures, Fig. 101” (1997), also known as “The Little Mermaid,” subverted the iconic statue in Copenhagen by placing a male figure on a rock, challenging gender stereotypes and cultural symbols. This piece set the tone for their career, characterised by a willingness to confront and deconstruct established narratives.
Elmgreen & Dragset have exhibited globally, participating in major art events such as the Venice Biennale and Documenta in Kassel. Their works often transcend traditional gallery spaces, appearing in public locations and institutions around the world. Notable installations include “Prada Marfa” (2005), a faux Prada store in the Texan desert, and “Van Gogh’s Ear” (2016), a swimming pool shaped like Van Gogh’s severed ear, displayed at the Rockefeller Center in New York.
Through their collaborative practice, Elmgreen & Dragset have received widespread acclaim and have significantly influenced the discourse surrounding contemporary art. Their ability to merge aesthetics with profound social commentary continues to captivate audiences, making them an enduring force in the realm of contemporary art.
List of Exhibiting Artists:
Georges Adéagbo, Saâdane Afif, Meriç Algün, Dotty Attie, Cay Bahnmiller, Olga Balema, Vlastimil Beneš, Barbara Bloom, George Brecht, Marcel Broodthaers, Pavel Büchler, Sophie Calle, Thomas Cap de Ville, Alejandro Cesarco, The Chicago Center for Caspar David Friedrich Studies, Giorgio de Chirico, Jean-Philippe Delhomme, Braco Dimitrijević, Aleksandra Domanović, Emory Douglas, Elmgreen & Dragset, Robert Filliou, Ken Friedman, Kasia Fudakowski, Simon Fujiwara, Dora García, Isa Genzken, Dominique Gonzales-Foerster & Paul B. Preciado, Tomislav Gotovac, Dick Higgins, Vladimír Houdek, IRWIN, František Janoušek, Allan Kaprow, Kirsten Pieroth, Tarik Kiswanson, Milan Knížák, Běla Kolářová, Jiří Kolář, Tony Lewis, Tom Lubbock, Vlado Martek, Endre Nemes, Nam June Paik, Géza Perneczky, Zhang Peili, Katarína Poliačiková, Florian Pumhösl, Chiharu Shiota, Marek Schovánek, Kurt Schwitters, Slavs and Tatars, Nedko Solakov, Jindřich Štyrský, Gert & Uwe Tobias, Endre Tót, Jaro Varga, Wolf Vostell, Peter Weibel, Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt
Words/Photos: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2023