This weekend, artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset present 'The One and The Many', their largest project to date in a former submarine factory in Rotterdam. Posited as 'an antidote at the other end of the social reality' to their 2009 work 'The Collectors', shown at the 53rd Venice Biennale, this enlivened installation fills the 5000sqm space with a replica four storey apartment complex complete with flats, fictional inhabitants, an 8m high Ferris Wheel and live action performers who populate a nightmarish, but recognizable world in which social deprivation meets consumer culture and where the residents retreat into ever more virtual realities.
Opening concurrently will be a year-long public performance-sculpture outside Rotterdam's City Hall. For one year every day at noon a middle aged man in a brown jacket will open a glass vitrine (which remains in situ all year), retrieve a shiny metal megaphone from a municipal looking granite plinth and shout, 'It's Never Too Late To Say Sorry' then replace it, lock the case and leave. Dazed spoke with Elmgreen & Dragset as they put the final touches to the exhibition on Submarine Wharf...
Dazed Digital: The location for 'The One & The Many' looks incredible. Have you got involved with researching or responding to the site itself?
Elmgreen & Dragset: Not really, we're more using the starting point of going from the outside to the inside but it looking like outside again. We've created an indoor urban environment because the idea with making this factory into an exhibition space is to gentrify the old industrial harbour so that it becomes something that is more cultural and posh, so we thought 'lets make a really run down sad looking neighbourhood'.
The apartments have small signs of different inhabitants loves and living modes and lifestyles - people watching X Factor, their whole homes furnished by Ikea. We also have a lonely gentleman who has scruffy couches and armchairs whose highlight in his life was when he was winning the local dart competition so he has trophies from his former life as a darts champion, and he is watching soccer games full on his telly. There's an Asian immigrant home where they're constantly watching karaoke videos, and there's one man who's constantly surfing for exotic travel destinations but he doesn’t seem to get out of the flats much - there's a little exercise bike in his home office but he doesn’t seem to get further than that.
DD: By creating a safe space you're constructing a simulacrum for people to experience this side of society within a distanced context?
Elmgreen & Dragset: It's almost a like Rainer Fassbinder film set for a movie about the darkside of life. This show is very much about how public space has gradually vanished because a lot of people are afraid of going out at night because they hear horrible stories about stabbings and violence. We are more also just providing a service for the art-goers in a way because a lot of the art-goers are very socially engaged but they never dare to go to these 'bad neighbourhoods', so this is a kind of instant bad neighbourhood for them in a safe protected environment.
DD: What's your research process for these individuals living in the flats - are they stereotypes or do you try to represent them as real people?
Elmgreen & Dragset: They have their own different personalities that are breaking the stereotypes, for instance the guy who's hooked up on the gay webchat GayRomeo is a wax figure, he's a very pretty boy and has got beautiful glass eyes. We took photographs of him and he has a profile on GayRomeo hooked up to the net and guys are actually writing to cruise him and will say 'you have such beautiful eyes I'd like to date you', but they don’t know it’s a wax figure - which is happening a lot on the web - they fall in love with these small digital images and don’t consider the person behind it. But this guy's actually a heavy metal fan with which is not so typical of popular gay identity so there's a different personal touch to these categories of identity.
DD: So do you see them as categories rather than characters?
Elmgreen & Dragset: They are in between being part of the many and also the ones; the singular individual persons. 'The One & The Many' has very much to do with how we create our identities today. There's a demand on each of us to be something outstanding, to be a successful cultural person or a celebrity or doing something extraordinary, and if we don’t do that we feel that we fail and that is for us to see a main problem in society today because it creates a lot of aggression and disillusion amongst a lot of young people because inspite of Warhol's thesis that we would all have 15 minutes of being famous, we cannot all be a part of this celebrity culture, most of us just need to contribute to and be a part of the bigger society and be proud of that.
DD: What's the role of the live actors outside the apartments?
Elmgreen & Dragset: The actors are used as a visual element, they don’t have proper lines or a theatrical task. They will more make the audience insecure because suddenly the single mum will be sitting on a bench watching the guys repair a limo and then suddenly she will be on her cellphone and start to cry and argue and as an audience at first hand you will think it’s a kind of freak - someone who went to the exhibition and is living out her personal tragedy in front of your eyes - but then you find out and see it is looping - she is repeating it, so she is a performer.
DD: Your other work, 'It's Never Too Late To Say Sorry', is that lifted directly from somewhere or a personal statement?
Elmgreen & Dragset: A combination. For passers by they will each make their own personal interpretation of that, maybe they have been very rude to their Mum or girlfriend and think that they get a reminder to say 'wow, maybe I should say sorry', but it's also right in front of the city hall, and they will hear it every day at twelve o clock exactly and maybe one day they will think about their politics. The beauty of it is that these guys (who perform the act) have a job now, a steady income paid for by the city just to make Rotterdam free of guilt. We should install it in front of Boris Johnson's office as well. But maybe if you come to see 'The One & The Many' you will think it is too late to say sorry.
'The One & The Many at The Submarine Wharf', May 28 – September 25, 2011. Presented by Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen and the Port of Rotterdam. Opening Reception: Saturday, May 28, 2011 at 6pm RDM-straat 1, 3089 JS Rotterdam
'It’s Never Too Late to Say Sorry' at Coolsingel 45. Presented by Sculpture International Rotterdam. Debut performance, Saturday, May 28, 2011 at 11.45am