Elmgreen & Dragset's bar doesn't work (and that's the point)
The pair’s new take on an old work explores the gulf between social spot and gallery
There’s a nice-looking bar at Elmgreen & Dragset’s new show, Adaptations, at the Kukje Gallery in Seoul, South Korea. It's white, oval shaped, and is fitted with two bar taps, and looks pretty inviting - until you realise that the taps face outwards, and the bar’s stools are inaccessibly placed on the inside.
It might look brand new, but the artists’ bar is actually a version of an artwork that dates back over two decades. In our new book, the writer Martin Herbert describes Queer Bar/ Powerless Structures as "a neatly square white bar, Minimalism corrupted by worldliness and sexual intent, it had bar taps on the outside and barstools inaccessible inside.”
"You recognised it, you understood what you were meant to do, but you couldn’t use it properly; and rather than drink and flirt, the viewer’s energies were directed towards figuring out how this luscious but illogical structure worked.”
This is sort of Elmgreen & Dragset’s point. Over the years the pair have made many works in this Powerless Structures series, which takes its name from the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who claimed that social structures – such as the church, the family model, accepted sexual orientations, or class systems - hold no power unless we permit them to do. “Change the structure, change our behaviour,” writes Herbert.
Art galleries, in particular, interested the pair. “The gallery as arbiter of meaning and behavioural regulator, such work averred, was a flimsy construct,” writes Herbert. “They increasingly began considering what kind of space could productively materialize there instead.”
By placing a perfect looking, but patently dysfunctional bar into a gallery space, Elmgreen & Dragset make us think about why we behave one way in a fine art setting, and another way in a drinking spot, and perhaps also about the utility – or otherwise – of both those places.
To that point, Wallpaper* magazine gave Queer Bar Best Watering Hole award at its 2018 Design Awards. Of course, the magazine knew it didn’t work perfectly, but saw how, in its failings, it highlights the many ways in which more functional, straightforward bars aren’t working so well today.
“The new work speaks not so much to LGBT disenfranchisement but rather bygone pleasures,” wrote Wallpaper*’s commissioning editor, TF Chan. “Specifically, it bemoans the fading ritual of meeting new friends or lovers at a bar, at a time when social media has all but driven in-person introductions into extinction.”
For more on these important artists’ life, work and outlook, buy a copy of our Elmgreen & Dragset Contemporary Artist Series book here.