Identity is a construction in progress at all times – you are not the person you were yesterday, nor the person you will be tomorrow, suggests experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe. To me the exhibition, Biography by artist duo Elmgreen and Dragset at Denmark’s Statens Museum for Kunst is all about constructing identity. We caught it last weekend before it closed.
In the hall of the gallery towered a tall concrete housing block – The One & The Many – which let us peer into the imaginary lives of people living there. So close to each other, yet so lonely. The living room with heavy-set and well-worn leather furniture, complete with a soccer match on tv and empty beer bottles on the tile-top table represents a particular masculinity of a generation and era – one associated with armchair sport and beer. The bedroom with the young man on the mattress with his computer open on a gay dating site – complete with a live profile that real people are contacting – represents a very different type of masculinity and maleness. And the kitchen with Asian noodles in the drawer, a plastic plant next to the Chinese cat, incessantly waving on the microwave, and karaoke playing on the television provides for a completely different cultural identity in an increasingly culturally diverse community. Each room is carefully constructed and portrays the individuality of its inhabitants, yet the common entrance is cold and uncared for with as little aesthetic quality as the anonymising grey construction that houses this diversity. The idea that The Ones make up The Many is inescapable and beautiful in its base concept of solidarity, yet the result is bleak, an uncomfortable and ill-fitted patchwork, rather than a unified whole.
To the right of the housing block, in a dark exhibition hall, several works are installed. A neon sign reading The One & The Many on the back wall (The One & The Many, 2011) reflects in a lit pool with a floating body (Death of a Collector, 2009). This pool is protected by a chain-wire fence, angrily guarded by a rottweiler (The Guardian, 2014) and overlooked by a boy sitting in a spot light on a fire escape stairway (The Future, 2013). In front of the room is Welcome (2014), a silver camper van stopped in its struck by a fallen Las Vegas neon sign – representing freedom and opportunity to win the great prize; a dream which is so violently crushed by the sign, now on the ground, but still blinking its shiny promise of an American dream.
There is a particular discomfort to this room, not just because of its darkness. Like some ill-fated character in Westside Story, the boy – the Future – overlooks a scene of broken dreams and segregation. Has he seen what came before? How will it affect his life? The deep connection between our individuality and society leaves us questioning whether we really have a chance at inventing our identity, our future. Bellevue, July 17, 1994 (2009) is a bronze sculpture, cast and painted to look just like an esky, forgotten and left behind after a picnic in the park. At first I did not even notice it in the dark room, and when I did, it took me a while to realise it was part of the exhibition. The valuable material is cast in the shape of an everyday household item which is neither functional nor aesthetically beautiful. What happens when we strive to be something we are not and can never be? Does the identity we construct belie our value?
The installation to the left of the housing block spoke directly to the experience we have had since coming to Denmark. The long labyrinth corridor was reminiscent of public institutions and let us experience a version of public service that is anything but welcoming. The waiting room (It’s the Small Things in Life That Really Matter, Blah, Blah, Blah, 2006), complete with the ubiquitous requirement to take a number, had a sad-looking dried out fig in a pot reflecting the uncared-for nature of the room and its users. The digital sign showing the number currently being served was permanently stuck on ‘000’: never will your turn come in this waiting room, even once you have discovered the need to take a number. This sense was reinforced by the clock face with its minute hand taped into eight minutes to the hour (Powerless Structures, Fig. 243, 2014), reflecting the sense of time standing still when waiting to be served in a public institution.
The doors in the Powerless Structures series promised openings of inclusion throughout the corridor, yet each one of them was dysfunctional in its own way. One was partially opened to reveal another closed door directly behind it (Powerless Structures, Fig. 124, 2001), another had its handle placed on the wall next to the door (Powerless Structures, Fig. 131, 2001). One straddles a corner (Powerless Structures, Fig. 129, 2001) and yet another is a version of a double door, one cradled within the other (Powerless Structures, Fig. 135, 2002). It seemed things happened behind the doors, yet they offered no opportunity to peer into this hive of public service activity.
Along the hall way we walked past a closed ticketing window (Back in Five, 2014), two pairs of identical Levi’s jeans and Calvin Klein underpants, clearly taken off quickly in one movement (Powerless Structures, Fig. 19, 1998), a strangely plumbed public toilet, complete with graffiti on the toilet doors (Marriage, 2004), a prison cell with a bunk bed where the beds and bedding face each other (Boy Scout, 2008), a morgue (Untitled, 2011) and a baby left in front of an automatic teller machine (Modern Moses, 2006). Was the stuffed rat peering down from a crooked ceiling tile also part of this dysfunctional public service?
In its completeness this corridor installation lets us see our institutionalised life – something the Danes are exceptionally good at, in spite of the staunch anti-authoritarian streak and loud complaints about the Nanny state. From cradle to grave, the state keeps tracking its citizens through the Central Person Register which allocates a number to each Dane on birth and consistently uses this number in every dealing with its citizens, as do many private companies such as mobile phone companies and banks. Yet the promise of inclusion is broken by the dysfunctional doors – it seems they are as much for keeping people out, as for letting people into Club Denmark.
In the booklet for the exhibition, curator Marianne Torp writes that the works reflect the era of self-portrayal and self-reinvention. The usual classification into family, class, profession, education and sexual orientation no longer suffices, so we create our own identity, solidarity and biography.
In returning to Denmark, I am very deliberately seeking to reconstruct an identity that is deeply connected with Danish culture. In doing so, I am not striving to rewrite my history of 23 years in Australia, but in a year’s time, I will be a different person to the one I am today. I, too, am rewriting my Biography.