A white vulture called The Critic (2012) is perched on a branch. The sculpture is part of a “choreographed environment” by Scandinavian artists Michael Elmgreen, 51, and Ingar Dragset, 43. The vulture/critic feasts mostly on carrion, but may also pounce on sick or wounded animals. It is known to wait.
While it is not flattering to be characterised as a bloodthirsty scavenger, Elmgreen and Dragset’s mise-en-scène is funny and intriguing, like wandering into a novel about a little boy who longs to leave his rural home for the bright lights of the city. The upstairs of the gallery is stuffed with raw hay, which the viewer has to wade through in order to look at anything up close. The hay creates a humid atmosphere and a cloying sense of being trapped on a farm in the 19th century.
There are narrative clues everywhere: a sculpture of the boy himself, who sits on a perilous ledge, apparently contemplating suicide, or maybe just lost in thought. He has the same eerie, kitsch features of the rocking-horse rider on The Fourth Plinth at Trafalgar Square, another Elmgreen and Dragset creation. Other details are concealed on first sight: a tiny vulture’s egg in a nest, a doll’s house sitting on a rocking-chair, which is inscribed with the looping words: Home is the place you left.
“We like the audience to complete the stories that we start,” Dragset has explained. Inspired by directors such as Bergman and Fassbinder, their spaces are cinematic. Things appear surreally out of balance. Objects are endowed with an obscure history. Downstairs, minimalist works return the viewer to the starkness of the white cube.
Based in London and Berlin, the artists have been working together since the mid-1990s, when they met in a gay club in Copenhagen. They were lovers for ten years, and described themselves as “a two-headed monster”. Neither studied art; Elmgreen was a poet and Dragset trained at the famous Jacques Lecoq theatre school. Perhaps this “outsider” status gives their art such conceptual depth; it resonates like reading good fiction.
At the flagship Louis Vuitton store on New Bond Street, another installation, Omna Una Manet Nox (One Night Awaits Us All), consists of a crisp white bed in which staff are encouraged to sleep while on duty. Another vulture – this time golden – is perched on a bed-post, possibly waiting for carrion in the form of a well-heeled shopper.