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Joanna Walsh: In South Kensington

December 31, 2013

At the Victoria & Albert Museum, a skeptic studies life and death through architecture.

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Image from Flickr via stephane333

Elmgreen & Dragset sounds like a firm of international architects, and the installations these two artists have created since 1997 are often architectural: chic, minimal, and expensive-looking. Tomorrow, their multi-room piece at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, integrating items from the museum’s permanent collection of decorative art, is not their first work about wealth and design: in 2005, they set up a Prada shop in the desert and, in 2009, dropped a dead “collector” into the swimming pool of a chic Modernist house. A gentrification success-story themselves, the artists until recently lived and worked in the 1000 m2 former water-pumping station in Berlin’s Neukölln district they bought in 2006. Berlin’s property prices have risen sharply since, and Michael Elmgreen now lives in London. Life imitates art.

Tomorrow is an imitation—via his postmortem apartment—of the life of “fictional, elderly and disillusioned architect,” the nevertheless wildly wealthy Norman Swann. I’m reminded of Ryan Gander’s 2011 Locked Room Scenario. In both pieces, less stage set and more video game, the visitor moves through a series of rooms warily searching for clues from which to construct a narrative: choose your own adventure.

I’m looking for something more complex than a broadly signaled momento mori complete with a deathbed overlooked by a gilded vulture.

But I find I’m not very interested in following the clues, or maybe I’m not very interested in Norman—surely named, like his protégé and nemesis, Daniel, for one of the western world’s best-known architects. He doesn’t seem a very likely character: what Cambridge professor’s allowed to be a ‘failure’ in his field nowadays? I’m bored by the meticulously placed ‘clues’: HIV medicines, retro mags featuring half-timber houses, a walking aid hidden behind a lacquered screen, a poster for the seminal proto-pop-art 1956 Whitechapel exhibition This Is Tomorrow confirming that one of the crimes being investigated here is that, in England, Modernism never happened. Art that turns the viewer into detective is a contemporary trope. The constant pressure to find meaning can be enervating, and I feel oddly defensive of a less stereotypical England unacknowledged here.

I’m about to leave when a group of twelve-year-olds in the bright blue blazers of the Italia Conti stage school arrives. Perhaps it’s because they’re used to appearing in public that they show none of the awkwardness of most children in museums. They touch everything, even play the piano in the bedroom, but at the same time seem uninterested: they’ve seen it all before. Are they a coincidence, or part of the scenario, a continuation of the ‘abused youth’ theme signalled by the life-sized and similarly uniformed model child huddled terrified in the fireplace, and the homoerotic ceramic boy-ashtray, complete with stubbed-out cigar?

I ask one of their ‘teachers,’ “Were you here on Tuesday?” She hesitates (tellingly?) and says, “I wasn’t.” I don’t pursue it. I’m tired of playing Sarah Lund. Unless…

Unless this ironic (or naive?) vision of England is meant as a backdrop to the visitors, and we, trapped in the act of interpretation, are, uncomfortably, ourselves the art. Maybe the art is in the discomfort. I hope so. I’m looking for something more complex than a broadly signaled momento mori complete with a deathbed overlooked by a gilded vulture.

The Paris-based friend I lunched with before we visited the exhibition has already told me that the first thing she noticed in London was the sharp contrast between rich and poor. I walk back to the tube though Kensington, the UK’s wealthiest borough where it’s bin day and see-thru recycling bags are filled with boxes from high-end delis, packaging from flashy boutiques, and bottles and more bottles that once held wine, or beer, or Vitamin Water. It’s wealth as we know it—aggressive and unapologetic—and it looks nothing like restrained, tasteful, mournful Norman Swann.

Joanna Walsh’s work has been published by Granta, Tate, The London Review of Books, The White Review, The European Short Story Network, and Narrative Magazine amongst others. Her story collection, Fractals, is published by 3:AM Press and her work has been selected for Best British Short Stories 2014 (Salt). She is also an illustrator. Besides working for clients worldwide ranging from The Economist to The New York Times, she has created large scale drawings for The Wellcome Institute and The Tate Modern.

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