The galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s far wings feign stasis, as though they have been left untouched for centuries.
The dimly lit rooms on the higher floors are less populated by visitors, leaving just you, a smartly dressed guard, and vitrine upon vitrine for company. Of course, the museum has seen recent renovation and changes in layout. But if you visit its former textile galleries currently, you may stumble into another kind of ostensibly undisturbed scene.
The London and Berlin-based artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset have transformed several of the museum’s rooms into the apartment of a fictional architect. As I enter over faded rugs into the living room, it is clear that this is not the abode of a Corbusian, nor a purveyor of minimalist design. A gallery assistant dressed as a butler glides by, and I perceive the faint tones of a classical refrain. Georgian sofas surround a mahogany coffee table, scattered with old copies of the Architecture Review. Leather bound books line a wall-length cabinet – from histories of urban planning to Merleau Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. A badly painted portrait of a young boy in antiquated school uniform hangs above the fireplace, whose life-size sculpture crouches below.
Elmgreen & Dragset are known for directing such whole spaces for visitors to peer into or walk through, like voyeurs of another lifestyle or actors in an abandoned film set. The boy comes from a previous “choreographed environment”, the pairing of a four-storey tower block and a neo-baroque ballroom at ZKM | Museum für Neue Kunst, Karlsrühe (2011), where both domestic scenarios and VIP parties were performed for visitors. The direction of spatial narratives is also an idea that the V & A have explored in their recent exhibition, “Memory Palace”: a will to rescript the space of display and draw attention to the contexts of curation.
The story behind this mise-en-scène suggests the “apartment” to be that of an elderly man, Norman Swann (cue Proustian memory recall), whose now bankrupt affairs cause him to vacate what was once a luxurious home. Object details are placed as though key clues in a detective plot. The marks where paintings used to hang, the half-packed cardboard boxes, evoke fallen expectations, the end of a dream.
The transition into the set from the gallery’s chambers is seamless – through one arched doorframe, out of another – and therefore uncanny. Visitors may pass by without reservation, brief intruders into an unrealised drama. The pair have written an accompanying script, though the space works best with simply the prologue of a story for support, allowing visitors to piece together their own intrigue.
Situating the apartment’s décor in an earlier, but imprecise, era, fits the scope of the V & A’s collections: I imagine the artists rummaging through the museum’s storage warehouses, selecting items to furnish the scene. They choose signifiers for the kind of Britishness the institution represents: a stately home interior, a handful of finds from more exotic climes, plus graphic documentation from moments of post-war cultural history: posters from the Festival of Britain (1951) and ‘This is Tomorrow’, the exhibition at The Whitechapel Gallery in 1956 that united artists, designers and architects to pre-empt British Pop Art.
The glass-partitioned study is more modern-facing, with brutalist building models including one that recalls Ernö Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower. A room of works-in-progress, printed matter is stacked on desks while a nineteenth century albumen print of the museum in construction hangs above the drawing board.
As I progress down the tall corridor, I see that the music is coming from a pianist at a grand piano in the scarlet master bedroom. Amid more portraits of a younger self, furthering the Dorian Gray ambiance, come references to the artists’ past sculptures – a rocking horse figurine of their Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square commission, and a golden vulture, The Critic, which peers over the dark wood bed. Part of the ‘Powerless Structures’ series, these pieces lead me to wonder what level of institutional critique the artists aim to serve here.
More critical than the apartment scenario itself is a property banner hung on the V & A’s façade, “New Residential Development at Prime Cultural Heritage Location”. It’s a satirical comment on London’s current property bubble, which in reality sees this Kensington postcode emptied of permanent inhabitants, real estate bought up by the super-rich. The detail of Swann’s bankruptcy resonates cynically; in London’s SW7 ‘Tomorrow’ is a hopeless place.
Inside, the installation recontextualises the experience of the museum to supply it with a lingering sub-plot – the behind-the-scenes fictions which, we are reminded, all objects and places possess. But where Elmgreen & Dragset’s previous environments have played on a tension between societal criticism and complicity, acting as ironic simulacra of the world outside, Tomorrow does not threaten its institutional surroundings; it feels, absurdly, right at home.
1 October 2013 – 2 January 2014
Elmgreen & Dragset: Tomorrow
Victoria & Albert Museum, London