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The construction of identity through art

We are not ourselves is not a finished exhibition. Everything has yet to be concluded, glued, cleaned, fixed. Plastics have to be removed, there is tape ready to be cleared, ink to be painted, canvases to be positioned. The utensils of the whole assemblage are impudently exhibited as if they could be considered art or museum objects just for once. In a perpetual assembly, the authors instil the hesitation and utter a critique on the absolute finitude of galleries and museums that deplete their exhibitions as soon as the corresponding installations are ended.

In this perspective, in We are not ourselves, Elmgreen & Dragset comprise the most original, daring and feisty elements in contemporary art, without neglecting a certain poetry that gradually unfurls itself, look after look, glance after glance, reading after reading. The artists generate an anthem for incompleteness and, with that, a smooth-tongued critique of the system and art institutions, which percolates for days amid the neuronal memory. Since there is no end to this exhibition. Since there is no end in life nor in death, engraved in the marbled tomb for eternity – the label that attests to the materiality and existence of what once was. And, if nothing is done, if nothing is finished, a lot remains to be lived. In other words, this is a show that is plunged into vitality and one that is thought-provoking.

This text unveils perspectives, among the myriad of interpretations that this exhibition provides, while trying not to enclose and limit too much the concepts inherent to it, solely aiming to unveil the strictly necessary to prompt a mandatory visit.

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#1 The title. We are not ourselves refers to something self-psychographic, anthological. And, indeed, this is the first retrospective of the Danish duo in Portugal. The artists were invited to look into their artistic path in order to outline a more or less honest, more or less staged dialogue on what is their work and life. Acknowledging that we are not ourselves is to remember the wise and premature words of Rimbaud: “Je est un autre”. A life, a work of art, is a recursion of many others, of multiple references and inspirations that depict a unique individuality, a unique materiality. The several labels of the works exhibited, entitled Auto-retratos [Self-Portraits], refer to pivotal artists and pieces in the identity and artistic construction of Elmgreen & Dragset.

In fact, everything in this show can be seen as a self-portrait without, however, having to embark on the current egocentric culture of the selfie. A can of paint on a newspaper cannot be understood only in its formality and objectuality. What the newspaper says; the date it shows; the white can of paint, with a black-painted cover? We read something allusive to the same-sex marriage – the homonormativity as a matter of concern for both artists (“in recent years we have witnessed an evaporation of subcultures”)? (Even RuPaul’s Drag Race became mainstream…), the refugee crisis in the European Union – a political commitment made by the artists? Two used pillows carved in bronze and painted white refer to another artist, but disclose an intimate picture of two bodies side by side, two white candles, in marble, – another masterpiece, 47 minutos / 1 hora e 52 minutos – which makes reference to two lives, one burning quicker than the other, but both burning endlessly. On the wall, the dirt of a missing canvas. An inconspicuously designed rectangle, with rails on the floor to circumvent any approximation, receives the title Portraits of the Artists. There is no image, just the idea and an absolutely essential and economic conception, the required to activate the brain and the imagination. Ingar Dragset says it frankly: “we like to instigate people’s imagination and activate the cerebral and emotional processes.”

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#2 The gap or the disengagement between text and image, already noticed, is another standpoint of the exhibition. In other words, text is the image is the work of art and vice versa. By expanding the labels of the works, the artists cherish and give them a noteworthiness that they don’t usually parade. Title, artist, size and materials are turned into art objects. The Duchampian displacement is here retrieved to create an interplay with signs and meanings, with what is shown and what is hidden.

The museum-centred critique is born this way. According to Michael Elmgreen, “even today, high-end institutions like the MoMA or the Guggenheim Museum exhibit works in a deeply conventional manner. And we always try to fight against that, because we are not fond of having labels (…) side-lining the works. We also like to put the spotlight on the routines of museums that end up embarrassing them: everything has to be perfect, the labels are placed for educational purposes, but they dislike them, the security personnel… They don’t like them! We once did a performance that only had security. (…). Because [the museums] have become a little bit lazy and less innovative”.

Similarly, we can perceive this show, or at least part of it, as a piece of literature. If it is text (visual), it is to be read, told, spoken: a poem made of titles of works, rhythms, pauses, interjections and intonations, an amalgamation of other people’s sentences turned into something original. After all, we are not ourselves entirely.

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#3 Life; the death of matter, of bodies, of art; the memory of what no longer exists; the immortalization. Zooming the labelling tells us that, in fact, we are not in the presence of canvases, but marble. Each one is carefully engraved in an immaculate white marble, similar to those used in funeral or eulogy monuments. The marble immortalizes.

In this perspective, it is impossible to make a distinction between this vision and the museological criticism: of the museum as a place of death, where art and objects arrive to die, a bit similar to what Adorno claimed when he associated museums with mausoleums. The museum-monument is inaccessible to life. The immortalization of art cuts down its proximity, crystallizing it in an incompatible inertia with the dynamics of life. And, after death, only memories and the imagination remain. The mind is forced – perhaps for survival purposes – to recreate, more or less faithfully, the image that no longer sees and just reads.

47 minutos / 1 hora e 52 minutos also consubstantiates this dichotomic reality of life and death: two candles in marble, of different sizes, suggest, as mentioned by the artists, a life that is burning quicker than the other. The absence of any flames throws back to infinity or incompleteness. Akin to Gerhard Richter’s candles, these do not burn until the end – two lives engraved in a perpetual burning motion, envisioned without wear, immutable: a testimony.

Alternatively, we instead could consider the notion of absence, of labels without an image, of portraits without portrait and nothing more that the mark of a subtracted canvas on the wall, of flameless candles, dressed trousers, abandoned on the floor. This missing element is the manifestation of a throbbing restlessness that leads to a quest for something to complete, to fill out, to fill a gap.

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The retrospective We are not ourselves has to be understood as a sort of unfinished self-psychography, essayed by the duo Elmgreen & Dragset.  Actually, this retrospection invites one to do precisely that: to review and give meaning to an idea, a path, a life. We review ourselves between fragments (ours and of others) to (re)build ourselves through them.

Between identity, sexuality, institutional critique, the text-image duplicity and the political issues of today, the work of these artists is probably the most challenging in the history of contemporary art. And, contrary to what we are used to, with great performances and installations occupying huge museum galleries, this is a small but loaded show.

There is also humour, although more restrained than in other works of their vast repertoire, and a dimension of affectivity, complicity is also observed. Although Untitled – the two pillows in bronze painted white – refers to the work of González-Torres, this is a piece whose interpretation is worth for itself: two bodies side by side sharing the sleep. Both candles do it as well: two connive presences witnessing a time-burning life.

The fact that We are not ourselves is held in a private gallery says a lot about the scarcity of the Portuguese art system – from the lack of financial means to the absence of criticism. After all, these labels belong much more in a museum than in a gallery.

Until 30 June, at Cristina Guerra Contemporary Art.

José Rui Pardal Pina (n. 1988) grew up in Campo Maior and studied in the grouping of Arts in Elvas. He earned a master's degree in architecture from I.S.T. in 2012. He completed the admission to order and the internship in António Barreiros Ferreira - Tetractys Arquitectos. In 2016 he joined the Postgraduate Course in Art Curation at FCSH-UNL and began to collaborate in the Umbigo magazine. He is interested in art, cinema, politics, literature, fashion, architecture, decoration...

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