Art Elmgreen and Dragset at Whitechapel Gallery

Is The Swimming Pool an inexhaustible well of inspiration for the artists Elmgreen & Dragset?

The Swimming Pool is a recurrent feature in the work of the Scandinavian artists duo. It started in 1997 with a surreal sculpture of a diving board hanging out of a window of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, overlooking the sea towards Sweden. For the Venice Biennale in 2009, they created an installation of a fictional art collector floating face down in a private pool (Death of a Collector) and ‘Van Gogh’s Ear’ (2016) is a sculpture in the form of a swimming pool standing upright on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

For their first survey exhibition in the UK at the Whitechapel Gallery, the artists created a site specific installation, ‘The Whitechapel Pool’. They transformed the ground floor gallery into an abandoned public swimming pool.

The work is part of their show ‘This Is How We Bite Our Tongue’ in which they present a selection of sculptures from the last 20 years. With these works they are not holding back and voice their opinion on a variety of subjects such as religion, the historic criminalisation of homosexuality, gun laws, masculinity and gentrification.

‘The Whitechapel Pool’ comments on the loss of civic space. Public indoor swimming pools create a sense of community for local neighbourhoods. More and more civic spaces have closed down due to a lack of public funding. Usually after a period of vacancy, the building is bought by a real estate developer, torn down and replaced by high-rise office buildings or luxury apartments designed by a star architect.

Walking along these high-rise buildings in the evening feels like walking in a ghost town. There are hardly any lights on in the apartments as the majority of the owners are not living there with properties merely bought as investment. During weekdays, frenetic activity surrounds the high-rise office buildings. People coming in and out of the building or buying their take-away lunch at one of the food chains at ground level. During the weekend, though, it is deserted.

With ‘The Whitechapel Pool’ the artists voice their discontent about the current gentrification taking place over the last 10 years in metropolises around the world. They convincingly transformed the ground floor gallery into a derelict public swimming pool area. The pool is not filled with water, but with piles of sand, a leaf from a tree and a fluorescent tube hanging on a wire touching the turquoise coloured floor of the pool. More traces of dilapidation are the broken white tiles on the floor, the plaster peeling off the walls and scaffolding supporting the wall above the entrance’s opaque glass doors of the pool area.

Watching ‘The Whitechapel Pool’ makes you ponder on the importance of the institution of public pools in people’s lives. It is a place where many people learned how to swim, elderly people take their weekly recreational swim, or is filled with the shout and screams of excited children playing in the water. These nostalgic feelings are abruptly washed away by a sad feeling of loss and reflection upon how our morals and values have shifted in 2018.

Written by Thierry Somers
The Whitechapel Pool, 2018, Installation View, Courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery, Photo: Jack Hems (opening picture)
Elmgreen & Dragset, ‘This Is How We Bite Our Tongue’ at Whitechapel Gallery until 13th of January 2019

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