In their mid-career retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery, This Is How We Bite Our Tongue, the artistic duo Elmgreen & Dragset experiment with the conventions of art galleries and engage with social criticism. They’re sceptic towards the white cube, or maybe towards displays in general (remember the Prada boutique in the middle of nowhere?) and this concern is showing throughout the exhibition. The British public might best remember them for the 2012 4th plinth commission, Powerless Structures, Fig. 101 (2012), a monumental equestrian bronze statue of a boy riding a rocking horse.
Elmgreen & Dragset’s ongoing interest in the public spaces is evident as soon as I enter the exhibition. It’s the Whitechapel Pool. Never heard of it? Me neither. The place looks like it has been long forgotten or miraculously survived an earthquake. Its fictional history, its rise and fall, can be a metaphor for the increasing gentrification in East London. It’s an upsetting image of what once could have been a place of exercise and social gathering, and perhaps a commentary on the city’s inability to engage with its citizens. A sense of disintegration lifts up in the air as the electric cable hangs down from the ceiling leaving one of the gallery’s lights at the bottom of the pool.
The immediate sense of immersion slowly dissolves, and it’s time to wander around. The pool is no longer functional, and neither are the sculptures surrounding it. Elmgreen & Dragset play with the visitor’s attentiveness by modifying objects, which had once been of use and status. There’s a fallen statue that’s broken, a trampoline crashed by a meteorite and a double-handled door to the changing room. Some of their interventions are very subtle and can be only found at a second (or maybe even third) take. I spend a while in the first gallery, but some other visitors look puzzled and leave quickly.
The blurring between what is real and what is staged continues as the exhibition progresses. Elmgreen & Dragset’s works are underlined with scepticism towards the conventional museum practices. The hyper-realistic sculptures blend into the gallery’s environment, like the Donation Box (2006), others come with a surprise, like a carrycot with a baby on the top of the stairs, Modern Moses (2006).
Wandering between the Whitechapel’s galleries, one feels like jumping between scenes in a movie with a very twisted plot. In a room where The Bottle and the Book (2015) is displayed, an installation where you can sit at the desk and flip through a book while sipping whiskey, there is an immediate counterpart to this work, a series of oversized marble wall labels, describing famous paintings, the Self Portraits (2015-). Labels placed next to works are usually of no value, but here they are transformed into works of art in their own right. The warm light from the desk lamp stands in a sharp contrast with the coldness of the stone slates.
The transitional space between this room and the gallery is bathed in a red light, and the only work displayed there is Powerless Structures, Fig. 19 (1998), a pair of jeans and underwear discarded on the floor, a self-portrait of Elmgreen & Dragset and a work showing their sense of humour before the last gallery.
This space is much more austere than the rest of the exhibition. Irregularly situated walls intersecting the room and dramatic spotlights give it the sense of elevation. Suddenly, it feels like it’s a white chapel. The works are revealed as you move forward. There are two white canvases, two white pillows, a vulture and its nest, and a reversed crucifixion. All of them are white, black or a mixture of the two, but the first and the last one moves my imagination most vividly. One Day (2015), at the entrance, is an installation of a boy looking up to a rifle hanging on the wall. The other one comprises of two sculptures; a pregnant maid looking at a boy frightened and hiding inside a marble fireplace. They seem most evocative to me, they challenge childhood’s innocence and point out to the invisibility of domestic violence. The tension is elevated by the voices coming from the gallery next door, where Mikhail Karikis’s No Ordinary Protest (2018) is exhibited. The project involves a group of a seven-years-olds investigating the power of the children’s noise to change the world.
Elmgreen & Dragset might not be the best storytellers. They’re not even that much interested in inventing their own stories, but rather in giving the visitors tools to free their imagination and create new narratives as long as the exhibition is on. Still, This Is How We Bite Our Tongue contains a mixture of newer and older pieces and is a comprehensive overview of the duo’s practice. The works are underpinned by a great deal of irony and make insightful remarks, from the moment you enter the show to its last exhibit.