A golden vulture hunches over a burgundy bed. Water drips into a bucket from a soaring ceiling. We’re in the once-palatial apartment of the elderly Norman Swann, a failed architect and bankrupt aristocrat. Only he’s not at home. Or rather he is, but he’s in the process of taking a very, very long shower, and it doesn’t look like he’ll be finished until the Victoria and Albert Museum staff turf him out in January. Until then, we’ll remain ignorant. However, as so often in the work of Elmgreen & Dragset, we’re uninvited guests, and it’s our prerogative to pry.
Tomorrow follows the current trend of commissioning fashionable contemporary artists to re-present museums’ dusty collections, which proved an astronomical success with Grayson Perry’s ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’ at the British Museum in 2011. Elmgreen & Dragset transform the V&A’s disused textile galleries into the home of the fictional Swann, combining items from the museum’s collection with their own work to compose an elaborate narrative of his fears, petty triumphs and imminent downfall. It’s all boiled down into the little booklets by the front door, the ‘unrealised screenplay’ imagining the characters that might inhabit such a space. The audience is invited to construct their own interpretation from the scattered clues – a coat hanging from a doorknob, an oversized plaster fig leaf, a Zimmer frame hidden in near-darkness behind a screen.
With previously exhibited works seemingly thrown in for good measure, the experience isn’t ‘unsettling’ so much as a self-evident ‘set-up’. The furniture is at odds with the scale of the rooms, and there’s a staginess that arises partly from the environment, partly from our dilemma of how to act. On entering, we’re instructed: ‘You are now entering the home of Norman Swann. Please be respectful of his space and belongings’. After approaching through a gallery of medieval and Renaissance tapestries, it takes a lot to shake us out of museum-mode and cross the hall carpet. If we step on it, will one of those nervous looking butlers tackle us to the ground in a clatter of alarm bells?
Not to worry. Most of the V&A’s actual collection is strategically out of reach, so if you feel like browsing Swann’s bookcase you can flick through dog-eared copies of Foucault or JG Ballard, but the leather-bound secrets of Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy stay firmly under wraps. To fully appreciate the liberations of the immersive exhibition, it seems we have to have a bit of restriction.
So, are we inside or out? Journalist Suzi Feay has complained that our role as an audience of contemporary art has been reduced to watching the artists ‘have fun’. More often than not, this comes from making fun of the audience, who, boggled by the esoteric and frustrated by the trivial, are forced to witness their own bewilderment as the premise of artwork itself. Treating the world as their giant playground, from Trafalgar Square to the Texan desert, it seems that if any artists are having fun, it’s Elmgreen & Dragset.
Nonetheless, their expression of what it is to be invited or excluded is far from misanthropic. While works such as But I’m on the Guest List Too! (2012), featuring a bouncer and an isolated yet insurmountable door, are short stories of exclusion; Tomorrow is a whole saga of unexpected inclusion. For once, we are on the other side of the door. The playground is ours for the taking, the making.
In the beneficent words of Michael Elmgreen, ‘If you really respect your audience you have to consider them as complex as yourself […] often your audience create and elaborate on the artworks in a much more interesting way than you ever could do.’ However, we mustn’t persuade ourselves that this is anything radical. Site-specific artworks and immersive environments might be touted as the 21st century’s spin on a gesamtkunstwerk, but in reality, whether it’s 3D cinema or Punchdrunk theatre, we’ve developed a pretty complacent relationship with the hyperreal.
Elmgreen & Dragset are all too often dubbed as ‘transgressive’, ‘subversive’. Yet there is always a soft edge to fall on, something ingenious, humorous, shock-absorbing. Closeted deep within the maze of the museum, the world of Norman Swann is there for us to enjoy. At least, it’s certainly not there for him to enjoy.
‘Tomorrow’ is at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 2 January 2014.