The Scandinavian Artists Who Brought the Berlin Wall to Tel Aviv

In Tel Aviv Museum exhibit ‘Powerless Structures,’ the wall began as the Berlin Wall. However, context is everything.

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A replica of the Berlin Wall in an installation by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
A replica of the Berlin Wall in an installation by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

Scandinavian artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset were originally slated to mount their first Israeli exhibition over a year ago, but just as they had started to plan it with Tel Aviv Museum curator Ruth Direktor in the summer of 2014, Operation Protective Edge was launched and the pair decided to rethink the issue.

It wasn’t that they wanted to back out of exhibiting here, explains Dragset, but they suddenly realized they needed a fresh and updated approach toward what exactly to exhibit.

The original plan was to display the third section of a trilogy of exhibitions entitled “Biography,” which is essentially a rolling retrospective whose two first parts had been shown in exhibits in their countries of origin – in Oslo, where Dragset is from, and in Copenhagen, where Elmgreen was born. But given the upsurge in violence, to exhibit the third part of Biography in Tel Aviv suddenly seemed out of place.

In an interview last week in the city, Dragset explained that the two understood that they did not have the same personal connection to this place that they did to their native countries, and their visits to Tel Aviv clarified how complex and difficult it was to say something about what was going on here as an outsider.

“The works that we had wanted to exhibit in Tel Aviv were not at all appropriate for the reality,” explains Dragset, who met with Haaretz without Elmgreen because the latter was ill.

As a result, instead of “Biography,” which included works like “Death of a Collector,” in which the body of an art collector floats in a pool, the artists developed a new exhibit entitled “Powerless Structures,” which includes a variation on the Berlin Wall. Thus the exhibit in the museum’s Lilly and Yoel Moshe Elstein Gallery went from being biographical to being political. To the average Israeli, this wall obviously suggests a different wall entirely.

The concrete wall, entitled “For as Long as It Lasts,” is 3.6 meters high, exactly the height of the Berlin wall, albeit only 33 meters long, and it divides the gallery into two unequal spaces. On the gallery wall behind the work hangs what looks like a fire escape on which a realistic-looking youth in jeans and a hoodie is seated, looking down at the wall. This piece is a work from 2014 titled “The Future,” which has appeared in other places, with the youth looking down at a different scene in every location he’s exhibited.

When they first started working together, the two staged mainly performance works in which they appeared and discussed their masculine identities and their relationship as a couple. It took time until they started to fashion objects. They were a couple for 10 years, but continued to work together even after they broke up in 2004. After their breakup Elmgreen moved to London for seven years, and then went back to Berlin, where the two had previously lived.

Around a year after they broke up, they were invited to exhibit at the Tate Modern in London, where they created a small work of a dying, animated sparrow, located outside the museum’s large window so no one could save it. The dying sparrow, a work entitled “Somewhere in the World It’s Four O’Clock; Just a Single Wrong Move; Blocking the View,” can now be found in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Direktor, the curator, explains that since 1997 Elmgreen and Dragset have been creating shows titled “Powerless Structures.” In Tel Aviv, she notes, that name takes on additional significance, not just in the context of the wall, but in the entire nature of the exhibit. The works are scattered in different parts of the museum, and at times it’s hard to discern that they are works of art and not normal everyday objects.

“It’s an exhibit that deals with power and its collapse, and with things that once had power but no longer do,” says Direktor. “The exhibit itself, as a structure, is also powerless. It’s dispersed to such a degree that it loses its power.”

One of the works that seems embedded in the museum is a donations box made of clear plastic that’s positioned near the museum’s new entrance. The work, titled “Donations Box” (2006), contains a few bills and coins, a sneaker, an empty condom package and a used plastic cup. Dragset explains that they’ve exhibited this work in several places in the world and each time they adapt the work to the location in which it will be seen.

Another work is what looks like an exhibit in progress titled “Matisse: Other Landscapes.” We see a scaffold, a ladder, and the large title on the wall. There is nothing to indicate that this is, in fact, the artwork, rather than preparation for a Matisse exhibit. The two got the idea for this work when they thought (mistakenly, as it turned out), that a similar sign on the wall that they’d seen in the Museum of Modern Art in New York was itself a work of art. When it turned out that it was just a sign, they decided to create a work masquerading as preparations for an exhibit.

A work from the period in which Elmgreen and Dragset dealt with the decline of the welfare state is entitled “Modern Moses” (2006). It’s a lifelike baby in a baby carrier placed under an (inoperable) ATM located in one of the passageways, and seeks to represent abandonment in the shadow of a capitalist economy.

Dragset, born in 1969, and Elmgreen, born in 1961, met at a gay club in Copenhagen in the mid-1990s. Dragset was studying theater at the time, while Elmgreen was involved in poetry and art. When they walked home from the club they discovered that they lived in the same building. The two became a couple and gradually started to make art together.

In 1997 they moved to Berlin, and, among other works, they designed the city’s memorial to the Nazis’ homosexual victims. When they came to Berlin, said Dragset, “It was still a very open city, not like today, when there are so many luxury shopping centers and trendy bars. Then it was still a city that no one really knew and the feeling there was one of freedom.”