Meet Norman Swann, the Failed Fictional Architect at the Heart of Elmgreen and Dragset’s New Show
Do the artists use Swann to skirt the difficulty of their own biographies?
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“You should sneak around and be not-so-polite guests,” artist Michael Elmgreen urged a crowd of reporters at the Emmanuel Perrotin gallery on Mahattan’s Upper East Side last week. “Pretend that your host is out in the bathroom and now you’re going to sneak into his private stuff,” he added.
Elmgreen along with his collaborator Ingar Dragset (together known as Elmgreen & Dragset) were welcoming press to the opening of their solo show “Past Tomorrow,” which runs through May 23. (See Elmgreen & Dragset and Prada Marfa Vandal Speak Out and The Vandal Who Turned Prada Marfa Into Toms Pleads Guilty).
Norman Swann is the fictional “host” who, per the narrative concocted by the Scandinavian duo, lives in the ground floor of the gallery’s Madison Avenue space. Swann is an aging, homosexual, failed British architect who Elmgreen & Dragset dreamed up a few years ago. He has squandered his once massive family fortune, and, having declared bankruptcy, been forced to relinquish his elaborate London digs and resettle in considerably smaller (though to most New Yorkers, still dream-sized) quarters in New York, where he formerly lived in the 1980s. Despite contracting AIDS, he is one of “the lucky ones who has survived,” according to Dragset.
As visitors look around the densely furnished room with dark red walls, they see an architect’s drawing table, a four-poster bed, a bookcase packed with weighty (real) titles about film, architecture, philosophy, and a grand piano atop which sits a sculpture of Rene Magritte’s famous, kissing, hooded figures that look as though it was plucked right from the original Lovers painting.
All of these props inevitably prompt the question: “Who is Norman Swann?”
In this show, the artists continue to pursue their theme of telling the story of fictional characters they create, through displaying their “objects, their collections of artifacts, papers, all the little traces,” of the person that say who they are. “Domestic setting is another theme that goes through our work,” noted Dragset, as well as “the blurring of the private and personal with the public, which is of course also more prevalent in our lives,” every day.
“We like to invent these characters where we took characteristics from both of us, and things that we have encountered in our lives,” said Elmgreen. These are built into the “narratives of a third persona, maybe the person who is like a real artist, like a fictional person between the two of us.” He also joked that the collaborative creation is a way for the duo to skirt the “difficulty” of speaking about our own biographies and avoid the complaint that a work is “too much Ingar or too much Michael.”
Although the show is new, Norman Swann isn’t—well not entirely anyway. Viewers first encountered him as the protagonist of Elmgreen & Dragset’s previous exhibit, “Tomorrow” at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (October 1, 2013–January 2, 2014).
Spread across five galleries, the installation depicted Swann’s then-residence, with objects drawn from the V&A’s collection as well as props, loans and new artworks created by Elmgreen & Dragset. At the time the show ended, Swann, in dire financial straits, had his entire life packed into boxes with viewers wondering what lay ahead for him (see The Victoria and Albert Museum Reopens Cast Court With Queen Victoria’s David and Secret Space Uncovered at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum).
The answer arguably lies in the belongings on display at the current Perrotin show: an expired British passport; photographs with luminaries like Elizabeth Taylor and the Beatles in which Swann, lurks Zelig-like in the background; a boarding pass from a flight to Milan; a half-open nightstand drawer that contains medications for AIDS; a gold vulture named “The Critic” that looms over his four-poster bed (and that has followed the artists from exhibition to exhibition).
What do these tell us about Norman? About the artists? About our own voyeuristic selves?
“Everyone,” says Elmgreen, “can go and make up his or her own mind about who this person actually was.”
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