Elmgreen & Dragset

The Nervous System

Pace Gallery
540 W 25th Street
New York
Nov 10th 2021 — Dec 18th 2021

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In “The Nervous System,” Elmgreen & Dragset’s first show at Pace since joining the gallery last year, the dystopian reward system of capitalism is staged as an unsettling domestic novel. Five lifelike bronze figures haunt the exhibition, though each remains locked in his own interior world. A tennis court runs the length of the first-floor space, partitioned behind glass and bordered by a gravel garden of succulents. Two chicly decorated seating areas invite spectators to linger. The trappings of luxury are everywhere, but, upon closer inspection, it appears that a more insidious game is underway.

The Berlin-based duo has made a career of investigating the overarching systems that govern everyday life, from their iconic Prada Marfa (2005) to Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime (2008). Their most recent public commission, The Hive (2020) at Moynihan Train Hall, is a cluster of knifelike skyscrapers affixed to the ceiling, a peculiar mirror of the urban bustle below. At Pace, their exacting gaze falls on the private sphere, where a veneer of haughty glamor belies a matrix of uncertain relations. A black leather armchair with an impressively severe silhouette beckons, but any illusion of comfort is undercut by the presence of a snake coiled on the seat. Coupled Lamp (Mint Green) (2021) looks like the kind of high-end handcrafted ceramic you might find on a trendy gift guide, though its base of conjoined orbs is more uncanny than elegant.

In Short Story (2020), the tennis court scene, one boy named Kev lies spread-eagled, not simply defeated but decimated; on the opposite side, Flo stands with a trophy in hand. His expression is impossible to read. Pride in such unequivocal victory? Melancholy because of its cost? Desperation to end the game, or perhaps to play again? Triumph is unpalatable, unseemly, and Flo’s blankness suggests that power exacts its pound of flesh from winner and loser alike.

Looking on is Bogdan, a corpulent shirtless man ensconced in a wheelchair, seemingly asleep, watching the game transpire as if it’s television. And perhaps it is. Bogdan’s drifting half-attention signals a kind of visual short circuit: the tennis court is staged as the main event, yet the audience is hardly awake. Nearby, an electric fire roars under a travertine mantel emblazoned with the words “THE ORACLES ARE GONE AND LOST ARE THE GODS.”

A queer sensibility pervades, from the mood of troubled normality to the smooth bronze figures arranged in suggestive poses. Boys are everywhere, as usual, though here they are fully clothed, the erotic undercurrent replaced with something more sinister—a taste for violence and domination, the first ambivalent steps toward manhood. One stands before a backlit window marbled with storm clouds, t-shirt tucked into shorts, socks pulled halfway up his calves, holding a gun aloft as he stares vacantly ahead. Introspective Prince Hamlet warming up for a soliloquy—or potential school shooter?

How does capitalism structure interpersonal relationships in the days of spectacle? What happens to the world when its citizens are pitted against one another for material resources, or, perhaps more nefariously, for immaterial essentials like attention and compassion? “The Nervous System” refuses to answer the many questions it provokes. By evacuating quotidian forms and spaces of their conventional meaning, the artists have moved closer to understanding the exploitative networks core to contemporary life. In these frictionless scenes of sleek minimalist furniture and slick commodities, it is easy—even tempting—to forget how dark, strange, and violent the human heart can be. —Christopher Alessandrini

Elmgreen & Dragset, The Painter, Fig. 1, 2021. Bronze, lacquer, canvas, wood Life-size figure painting: 250 x 175 cm. © Elmgreen & Dragset. Courtesy: Pace Gallery, Photo by: Elmar Vestner.