Retired architect Norman Swann lives alone in his Victorian apartment, a family inheritance with a surface area of almost 600 square metres, where he collects objects and works of art, books, old magazines, and the blueprints and scale models of his unrealized visionary projects. In 2013, on the eve of his seventy-fifth birthday, the ailing and embittered Swann is on the brink of financial collapse. He must sell his London residence, located on the third floor of a heritage building on Cromwell Road: the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).
As believable as it appears, Swann’s apartment is neither real nor for sale. It is rather the in situ installation of Tomorrow, presented in the fall of 2013 by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, the artist duo whose multidisciplinary, and sometimes subversively humorous, work shakes up social norms and conventions. With Tomorrow, Elmgreen and Dragset transformed five rooms of the V&A’s former Textile Galleries, which had remained unused for several years, into a fully furnished domestic space. They thus invite visitors, who are simultaneously voyeurs, guests, and potential buyers, to explore the apartment, sit at the piano or read a magazine while waiting for the “owner,” who, as we might expect, is taking a shower.
Through Tomorrow’s immersive and interactive environment, Elmgreen and Dragset offer visitors an experience that blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality. Their critical and playful installation complicates the relationship between the work and the exhibition space by articulating notions of narration, space and time, thereby reviving certain characteristics of a traditional museological device: the period room. When presented in a museum, the period room can be defined as the organization of architectural components and furnishings so as to reconstruct — and at times even recreate — a space whose referent is usually (but not exclusively) domestic and which conveys a certain conception of the past. Although the two artists do not explicitly claim a relationship between Tomorrow and the period room, by exploiting and simultaneously calling its modes into question, their installation initiates a dialogue with this nineteenth century exhibition strategy.
The period room, the most successful form of reconstructing a domestic interior in a museum, has been traditionally perceived as the ideal museum device for transmitting historical information about the way we live.
Tomorrow first endeavours to complicate the relationship between the work and the exhibition space through its form and placement. The Victorian architectural space of the V&A galleries contributes to the creation of Elmgreen and Dragset’s work, since the perpetually visible floor, ceiling, and walls of the exhibition rooms become Swann’s apartment.1 1 - Other than the addition of two walls to create a hallway, an openwork partition to enclose the study and the construction of a kitchenette, the original exhibition space (a row of five galleries) remained unchanged. The two artists thus explore the porous boundaries between public and private space,2 2 - Olivier Vallerand has already offered an analysis of this aspect of Tomorrow. . See Olivier Vallerand, Making Homes, Building Identities: Queer Subversion of Domestic Space, 1994-2014, PhD thesis (Montréal: the School of Architecture at McGill University, 2014), 226 – 237. 226-237. as visitors are destabilized when confronted with a strangely familiar environment that is at once very close to yet very far from the museum’s frame. However, if the exhibition space is the work, the work itself appears as an exhibition space. The objects that furnish Swann’s apartment and give it life are in fact props and decorative elements assembled by the artists. Included are also works made for the exhibition (such as the architect’s scale models), other works previously created and re-exhibited here (such as the dining room table designed for The Collectors , the boy curled up in the hearth of High Expectations ), as well as approximately one hundred objects from the V&A collections. This being the case, how should we understand the relationship between this space and its content?
One key to interpreting the Tomorrow installation is the script given to visitors at the exhibition entrance. It recounts the stormy meeting between Swann and Daniel Wilder, a former student of Swann and the future owner of the apartment. Although the script is not essential to the experience of Tomorrow,it serves a dual function: it enhances the narrative aspect of the space by clarifying some of the gestures embodied by the staging, and it reveals the constructed dimension of the installation, which is not a real apartment but rather a film set, i.e., a fictional place. This notion is further emphasized by the script’s subtitle, Scenes from an Unrealised Film by Elmgreen & Dragset.
The importance of the exhibition’s script, as well as the procedural relationship between the medium of film and that of the exhibition have already been examined.3 3 - Among others, see Johanne Lamoureux, “L’exposition comme produit dérivé,” Intermédialités 15 (Spring 2010): 73 – 89. 73-89. In the case of Tomorrow, their relation is particularly close since the scenography and script support each other reciprocally. As Elmgreen and Dragset explain, the creation of the apartment is the starting point that led to the development of the script, which, in turn, contributed to making the staging more complex. 4 4 - Victoria and Albert Museum, Elmgreen et Dragset en entrevue avec Damien Whitmore, www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/tomorrow-elmgreen-dragset/video-elmgreen-and-dragset/ [consulté le 5 janvier 2015] The installation format — the domestic interior — certainly creates a feeling of realism and consequently augments the narrative aspect of the exhibition space. Furthermore, the period room, the most successful form of reconstructing a domestic interior in a museum, has been traditionally perceived as the ideal museum device for transmitting historical information about the way we live. In this context, the use of props provides both a “lived-in” effect and suggests certain activities specific to a period or a place through museography.5 5 - This practice has been in place since the initial institutionalization of the period room and is still in use today, even in art museums. See in particular Dianne H. Pilgrim, “Inherited from the Past: The American Period Room,” American Art Journal 10, 1 (May 1978), 8. 8. However, in the period room, the script underlying the scenography is rarely disclosed to visitors. In the absence of “characters” (mannequins are increasingly disused, especially in art and decorative arts museums), the objects themselves, the works and props, become the actors in a décor into which visitors are invited to project themselves but which is never fully accessible. In fact, visitors are always voyeurs vis-à-vis this space in which they can seldom freely circulate and where their experience remains dependant on conditions imposed by the museum.
The situation differs here, and the somewhat “virtual” experience of the period room’s space-time makes way for an experience of the work and exhibition space that physically engages the visitor. Acting in unison, the museum and the artists initiate a game in which visitors are at once spectators/voyeurs and participants. Although initially an “indiscreet” visitor in Swann’s apartment (remember that the visit is happening while Swann is in the shower), the visitor who leafs through a magazine or plays a few notes on the piano potentially becomes an actor — perhaps a legitimate guest — in the eyes of the other people in the room. Visitors are also encouraged to use their imagination and deduce aspects of the main character’s life and personality based on the objects exhibited, thus expanding the spatio-temporal limits of the work and its underlying narrative.6 6 - A contest invites visitors to give their own interpretation of Swann’s life to the museum and Elmgreen & Dragset for a chance to have their story published in V&A Magazine. Victoria and Albert Museum, www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/tomorrow-elmgreen-dragset/competition-what-happens-tomorrow/ [consulté le 5 janvier 2015] More complex and dynamic than in the period room, the narrative aspect of the space and the experience that Tomorrow offers visitors intensify the immersive quality of the original device while simultaneously maximizing its usually underused interactive dimension.
In addition to calling into question the traditional modes of exhibiting the object in a museum as well as the ambiguous relation between the work and its exhibition space, no wall label or security feature makes any distinction between the works and the props. It is true that the objects of the V&A are out of visitors’ reach, so museum employees, playing the role of servants, find different pretexts (that are not museological, of course) for keeping the works away from overly curious hands. Yet Elmgreen and Dragset’s decision to offer visitors the possibility of physically interacting with the contents of the installation subverts the precedence traditionally accorded to the visual over the tactile in an art museum. The context of the V&A therefore appears as most appropriate to this process of “activating” the visitor and the work, insofar as decorative arts collections consist of objects that, having often had a domestic purpose before their “museumification,” evoke gestures (and thus touch) more spontaneously than paintings. It is also important to keep in mind that the period room is precisely the device that most explicitly translates the use value of its components through its staging, despite the distance that is always preserved between the work and the visitor through various security features.
In terms of the temporal aspect, Tomorrow is presented to visitors as an actual living space, even a future one for the new owner, thus reversing one of the fundamental conditions of the period room, which, by its very name, suggests a journey into the past. Yet the temporality of Elmgreen and Dragset’s installation is more complex than it first appears. The presence of the main character Swann — who implicitly suggests a search for “lost time” — in a work titled Tomorrow constitutes an oxymoron. However, the tombstone depicted on the cover of the script seems to confirm the impossibility of the future evoked by the installation’s title: Tomorrow becomes a type of memorial, a present frozen in marble, eternal yet ephemeral in its quality as an installation. This permanence marked by sarcasm — Swann will never see a better day, while the continuous sound of the shower and the flooding of the apartment that concludes the script suggest the ruin and even death of the architect — indicates one of the paradoxes of the period room, which, as a former domestic space, is never devoid of its use-value set by the museum. Furthermore, the symbol of the tombstone evokes the museum as a necropolis of art. The allusion to death is further supported by the presence of a golden vulture above Swann’s bed. Among other things, this scavenger reminds us of the various forms of plundering that mark the history of museums, particularly the period room, whose development is inseparable from the assemblages of architectural components that are “salvaged,” sometimes forcibly, from destruction.7 7 - See in particular John Harris, Moving Rooms: The Trade in Architectural Salvages (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).
On the one hand, by reintroducing some of the parameters associated with the period room,such as the domestic interior format, the realistic effects and the construction of a narrative related to daily life through the scenography of the works and props, Elmgreen and Dragset give visitors the means to recognize the originality and audacity of their work in a museum space where contemporary art constitutes only a small part of the collections. On the other hand, by pushing the museological limits of the period room, Tomorrow reveals its constructed aspect and heightens its value as a museum installation. Elmgreen and Dragset thus initiate a game in the space-time of the V&A: the domestic space of the British period rooms presented on the museum’s fourth floor meets Tomorrow’s space, while the installation’s present intersects with the past conveyed by the period rooms. In all cases, visitors are offered an experience whose spatio-temporal limits go beyond those of the gallery.
Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei