East Contemporary

Kunsthalle Praha: Elmgreen & Dragset “READ”

Prague, November 16, 2023 – April 22, 2024, https://www.kunsthallepraha.org

Elmgreen & Dragset are a well-known artistic “brand” in the global art market. Their installations are transforming gallery spaces into something slightly different by shifting or reversing certain expectations of spatial arrangements or material qualities. In the case of the “READ” exhibition, one could in fact talk about two exhibitions. One was an exhibition of Elmgreen & Dragsets own (mainly sculptural) works. Another was an exhibition of miscellaneous artworks curated by them in cooperation with Kunsthalle. These works were mostly on paper or in book form and mostly from the collection of the Kunsthalle Praha institution and its owners themselves. This combination was a bit unusual, as it signaled a compromise between the wish of Kunsthalle Praha owners to “show off” their own collection of works and the artistic intentions of Elmgreen & Dragset. Indeed in partially felt a bit as if Elmgreen & Dragset were hired as kind of interior designers to add their contemporary art hype fairy dust to an otherwise very nice but slightly dusty collection of miscellaneous works collected by Kunsthalle Praha owners (Petr Pudil family). It also seems slightly contradictory, that an institution called “Kunsthalle” puts so much stress on its own collection. But who knows, maybe it is just a temporary whim of a rather young museum.

Diving into the content, the Elmgreen & Dragset part of the show featured mainly sculptures, a couple of young man/boys in different poses, including one reversed on a cross reminiscent of a S/M Jesus and another one featuring a couple of veiled heads kissing, a nod to Rene Magritte’s painting. Given the notable absence of a female, one could feel a slightly homoerotic undertone there. Or was it just a self-reflexive “life of a young man” of the show’s authors?

One non-figurative sculpture was a row of crumbling stairs leading to a (fake) door with “Filozofie” (Philosophy) written above it. This work looked somehow familiar to me… I kept thinking … until I figured it out… the same spatial arrangement was used in a prior Elmgreen & Dragset show I saw in Seoul. With the only difference, that that time the wording above the door was “Gate 23”, matching with the title of the show “Aeroport Mille Plateaux“.

I guess that probably also a lot of the other sculptures in the show were recycled from previous exhibitions. The material of the sculptures varied. Some were made from real construction materials (the aforementioned door), some from poly-carbonate and some from marble. In all cases, the surface was kept monochrome, either white or grey. I could not not think about the armies of interns and fabricators in the artist’s Berlin studio (or maybe outsourced to one of the art factories in Southern China?) who made them.

Lastly, there was the large site-specific installation of library bookshelves in the lower exhibition space that was used as a interior element to display a number of other artist’s works curated by E & D. Here we are slowly entering the second layer of the show, a curated group show of artworks that related through their form or content to the theme of books and reading. The array of works was vast and I will limit myself here to highlighting a few that caught my attention. There were great works by great artists and the slow process of going through the nooks and crannies of the show and discovering them felt a bit like a treasure hunt.

Overall view of the Elmgreen & Dragset “Library” on the lower floor of the space. Individual artworks did not have labels and one had to use a provided handout to identify the titles and the artists if one wanted to.
The Chicago Center for Caspar David Friedrich Studies (2019 – now)
Emory Douglas “Black Studies” (1970’s)
Sophie Calle “Serie Noire” (2017)

Cay Bahnmiller “Artist Book” (2003)

Kurt Schwitters “Ohne Titel” (1933-1934)

Olga Balema “Our America. Spread of Western Civilization” (2016)

Georges Adeagbo (2019/2020)

? “How to become a bird”

Vladimir Houdek “Untitled” (2015)

While I was a bit skeptical about the dual nature of the show, it all turned out well in the end. Elmgren & Dragset created a great stage onto which the individual artworks by other artists were placed. The stage ensured a fun way of going through the show and exploring. The selection itself was well made, it was a mixture of some Czech and many international artists spanning the latter half of the twentieth century until current times. Many different views, ideas and concepts. Almost a bit overwhelming. But that was also an effect that related back to the topic of reading, books and libraries. It is impossible to read all the books in a library, see all the artworks in a museum etc. One must make choices and open up to serendipity. And one will not be disappointed.

Overall, my second visit to Kunsthalle Praha left good vibes in me, it seems the institution has its own direction that its taking. It is a kind of cool-international-contemporary-arty approach that is smooth and unoffensive, but at the same time is conceptually complex and opening new spaces for thought.

Elmgreen & Dragset “Praha Diaries” (2023)

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