Lee Miller and Man Ray at a Paris shooting gallery, c.1930

Elmgreen & Dragset pit Lee Miller against President Erdoğan

The curators of the 2017 Istanbul Biennial want to use neighbourliness to combat intolerance and inequality

Question: What brings the 20th century photographer Lee Miller together with contemporary feminism, Istanbul, and neighbourliness? Answer: The artist duo Elmgreen and Dragset.

This Danish-Norwegian art partnership creates “hyper-real sculptures and mise-en-scene installations that subvert and critique institutions," writes Ellen Mara De Wachter in our new book Co-Art: Artists on Creative Collaboration. "These include the apparatuses of the state and the art world, and the power structures embedded within them,” she adds.

In the past they’ve changed the sex of Denmark’s Little Mermaid, built a Brexit show in a Mies van der Rohe home, and placed a boy on a diving board beside a Norwegian fjord. In September, the artists travel to Turkey, in their role as curators of the 15th Istanbul Biennial.


Elmgreen & Dragset
Elmgreen & Dragset

They have chosen the theme of neighbourliness as its organizing principle. That might sound like a rather staid subject, yet Elmgreen & Dragset think it’s just what Turkey’s biggest city requires right now.

“Istanbul needs the biennial because the dialogue with the international community has been severely damaged," Michael Elmgreen explained at a recent Art Basel talk. “With the biennial, we hope to show a sign of solidarity.”

The duo also wants to address gender inequality. “We aim to highlight positive alternatives to normative living modes, and propose a different understanding of what it means to be a ‘good citizen’,” added Ingar Dragset.

The duo have yet to unveil details of the works on show, however they have confirmed the name of one artist, feminist and homemaker: the 20th century US photographer Lee Miller.


Dead German guard in canal, Dachau, 1945, by Lee Miller. As reproduced in The Photography Book
Dead German guard in canal, Dachau, 1945, by Lee Miller. As reproduced in The Photography Book

For those unfamiliar with Miller, here’s a brief biography, courtesy of The Photography Book: “Originally a model in New York in the late 1920s, Miller was photographed by Edward Steichen, Horst P. Horst and George Hoyningen-Huene. In 1929 she moved to Paris and became the lover, technical collaborator and model of Man Ray.

"Familiarity with Surrealism informed her war pictures,” writes the photo historian Ian Jeffrey in the book. “In 1935 she moved to Cairo, but, wearying of the steady city life, turned increasingly to travel and adventure photography in the late 1930s. In 1947 she married the English artist Roland Penrose and settled in Sussex.”

Fashion, war and surrealism? Sounds like a timely and engaging choice. We can’t wait. For more on Miller get The Photography Book; for more on Elmgreen & Dragset get Co-Art.