Powerless Structures, Fig. 101. Photo: James O Jenkins
It’s a powerful show with multi-layered narrative threads addressing a breadth of topical political and social themes, as provocative as they are divisive. But at its heart is a poignant commentary on gentrification and, in particular, the gradual loss of faith in public spaces.
The Whitechapel Pool embodies this sentiment. This astonishing new site-specific commission charts the fictional rise and fall of the public pool, following its philanthropic founding in 1901, through its glory years in the 50s and 60s, to its disrepair following a loss of funding during Thatcherism. A plaque on the wall tells us that the pool will be renovated and become the main feature of a luxury spa hotel. Until then, though, the pool lies empty and dirty. It's huge bulking self a neglected carcass representing the failed promises and broken dreams of a generation. Once a symbol of joy and prosperity, it now screams silent messages of loss and abandonment. It’s a thought-provoking and engaging opening to the duo's long-awaited show.
Modern Moses. Photo: Eric Gregory Powell
Upstairs is what Elmgreen & Dragset refer to as the chapel, a gloomy, dimly lit negative of the brightly lit pool below. Here, the galleries are peppered with a number of their most reputed sculptures exploring themes of masculinity, sexual identity and childhood innocence.
There’s Pregnant White Maid, 2017, a subtle commentary of the woman as victim (or not) in a post #MeToo world; One Day, 2015, showing a young boy gazing longingly at a rifle, pointedly exploring themes of abuse and uncertainty, curiosity and hope; and Untitled, an exuisite work, dating to 2014, depicting two soft white pillows. These pillows, in fact cast from bronze, allude to universal moments of bedtime intimacy shared by couples, friends, and lovers the world over. But, as with many of their works on display, a more personal message resonates from within. Untitled references Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (billboard of an empty bed), 1991, and is an ode to Torres’s boyfriend who died of AIDS related complications.
One Day. Photo: Holger Honck
What strikes you about this exhibition is both its relevance and power to change perception. With an absence of labels and cumbersome text panels, the art, here, takes centre stage. It adopts an active role and speaks directly to us, reversing the power dynamic between subject and object. There is are no dictates, and no right or wrong; just the freedom to interpret. It's certainly an unsettling experience. But one that triggers such a powerful desire to respond and engage with the matters at hand, it’s hard not to feel humbled by the awesome power of art. 'Art can make people less fearful', Elmgreen & Dragset said during the exhibition Q&A. I'm not so sure.
|What||Review: Elmgreen & Dragset Whitechapel exhibition: This is How We Bite Our Tongue|
|Where||Whitechapel Gallery, 72-78 Whitechapel High Street, London, E1 7QX | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Aldgate East (underground)|
27 Sep 18 – 13 Jan 19, Monday: closed; Tuesday - Sunday: 11am - 6pm
|Website||Click here for more information|