Failure May Be Your Style: Undetectable Queer Time In Elmgreen & Dragset’s ‘Changing Subjects’

Elmgreen and Dragset, The Experiment, 2012, Polyester resin, glass fibre, acrylic paint, glass eyes, human hair, wood, lacquer, mirror, metal parts, leather (all photography by Steven Probert; Courtesy the artists and FLAG Art Foundation)

Elmgreen and Dragset, The Experiment, 2012, Polyester resin, glass fibre, acrylic paint, glass eyes, human hair, wood, lacquer, mirror, metal parts, leather (all photography by Steven Probert; Courtesy the artists and FLAG Art Foundation)

Nick Cave’s thoughts on time have stuck with me long after witnessing his deeply upsetting grief-strewn film One More Time With Feeling. Directed by Andrew Dominik, One More Time With Feeling is an all-encompassing look into the recording of the Bad Seeds’ album Skeleton Tree in the wake of the death of Nick’s son Arthur Cave. In a couple scenes, Nick stares blankly out a car window and talks about the progression of time after such a catastrophic event. He says, “Time is elastic. We can go away from the event but at some point, the elastic snaps and we always come back to it.”

While most of us can probably identify on some personal level to this description, there are larger, community-wide traumas, which also relate. For the queer community, as well as many communities of color, that event is the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic. No matter how far we get from the height of the crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, that elastic threatens to constantly snap.

Jack Halberstam points to the HIV/AIDS pandemic as the source of alternative or queer temporalities, particularly for “lives lived in the shadow of the epidemic.” As Halberstam writes in the introduction of In A Queer Time and Place, “Queer time perhaps emerges most spectacularly, at the end of the twentieth century, from within those gay communities whose horizons of possibility have been severely diminished by the AIDS epidemic. In his memoir of his lover’s death from AIDS, poet Mark Doty writes, ‘All my life I’ve lived with a future which constantly diminishes but never vanishes.’ The constantly diminishing future creates a new emphasis on the here, the present, the now, the and while the threat of no future hovers overhead like a storm cloud, the urgency of being also expands the potential of the moment and, as Doty explores, squeezes new possibilities out of time at hand” (2).

Elmgreen & Dragset Watching, 2016, Mirror-polished stainless steel

Elmgreen & Dragset
Watching, 2016, Mirror-polished stainless steel

Berlin-based duo Elmgreen & Dragset, consisting of the artists Michael Elmgreen and Dragset, similarly mine the queer temporalities in the face of the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis in their current exhibition Changing Subjects at FLAG Art Foundation. But instead of merely looking back, Elmgreen & Dragset also take aim at queer temporalities today in the age of undetectability.

While only one work references HIV/AIDS specifically (more on that later), other works in the show more subtly snap viewers back–a dog whistle, so-to-speak, for those who may interpret the works through the lens of HIV/AIDS. Even the seemingly innocuous mirrored outdoor lifeguard sculpture Watching, can be read as a nod to witnessing without action.

Spanning the duo’s works from 1998 to 2016, the exhibition’s title, at least to me, reads as a reflection of the presence of certain topics some people would rather not talk about whether queer identity, HIV/AIDS or mortality. Hence, changing the subject. The press release seems to evoke other meanings of the term subject, explaining:

“In grammatical terms, the subject can be a noun functioning as one of the main components of a clause, making it the element about which the rest of the clause is predicated. In turn, the predicate is the part of a sentence or clause that expresses what is said of the subject on its own. In the context of this exhibition, the subject of each work exists independently of the others, yet when viewed together, they shift positions, creating a complex interconnection between the autonomous works.”


Elmgreen & Dragset, Go Go Go!, 2005, Brushed stainless steel platform, acrylic glass, polished stainless steel pole, light bulbs, light controls, mop, bucket with dirty water, foor sign Platform: 50 x 170 x 120 cm, pole length variable due to installation (max. 6 m) (photography by Steven Probert; Courtesy the artists and FLAG Art Foundation)

Elmgreen & Dragset, Go Go Go!, 2005, Brushed stainless steel platform, acrylic glass, polished stainless steel pole, light bulbs, light controls, mop, bucket with dirty water, foor sign Platform: 50 x 170 x 120 cm, pole length variable due to installation (max. 6 m) (photography by Steven Probert; Courtesy the artists and FLAG Art Foundation)

Anyway, Elmgreen & Dragset reinsert this messy dialogue into the polite white-walled gallery space, whose sterile interior matches much of the work in the show. The antiseptic cleanliness of many of Elmgreen & Dragset’s sculptures and installations belie a fear and anxiety of disease, contamination and, as seen in the morgue installation Untitled, death.

While you can’t get more hygienic than a morgue, my particular favorite OCD-triggering installation is the illuminated but empty go-go platform Go Go Go! The work is, in many ways, similar to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform) in its engagement with presence and absence. However, Elmgreen & Dragset go a step further and place a mop across the stage and a “Caution Wet” sign on the floor (How do you know this is art? Because no self-respecting Times Square go-go bar would ever clean their platforms). Cleaning up the sweat and other…ahem…fluids, Go Go Go! seems to evoke possible contagion, as well as disappearance.

However, other works deal with mortality more obviously. Take, for example, one room in FLAG that combines The Experiment, a sculpture of a young boy trying on his, presumably, mother’s high heels and lipstick, with Untitled, a wall of mortuary freezers with an open and inhabited drawer.

Elmgreen & Dragset Untitled, 2011 (detail) Steel, wood, silicone male fgure, sink, light box, xray, lab coat

Elmgreen & Dragset, Untitled, 2011 (detail), Steel, wood, silicone male figure, sink, light box, xray, lab coat

If they were exhibited alone, both works could explore a wide variety of meanings, but shown together with the sculpture of a corpse reflected in the child’s mirror, I can only consider the former phobic assumption of queerness as a death sentence in the time of HIV/AIDS. This child is clearly flirting with some gender trouble and sees his future staring back at him in the mirror. It’s a chilling image.

However, this fascination with the death drive, as theorized by Leo Bersani or Lee Edelman, isn’t exactly timely nowadays. With the advent of the AIDS cocktail or more recently, PrEP, HIV and AIDS are seen as more manageable. While there’s still no cure, queer temporality has to have moved away from, as Halberstam quotes Baudelaire, “the transient, the fleeting, the contingent” (3). So what is queer time in the age of undetectability? Particularly when there’s such a divide between those who witnessed the height of the epidemic and those who grew up with the possibility of life-saving medications.

Elmgreen & Dragset Side Effects, 2015 Handblown glass, pigment, steel, wood

Elmgreen & Dragset, Side Effects, 2015, Handblown glass, pigment, steel, wood

Well, Elmgreen & Dragset seem to attempt to answer that question in their upstairs installation Side Effects at FLAG. Turning the corner in the gallery’s 10th floor space, viewers see a collection of fairly mundane handblown glass vases that just look like minimalistic décor that you might find at Crate & Barrel. But, on closer inspection, the vases are filled with pastel colored powder–pigments that coat the new strain of HIV medications. With the sheer amount of vases, you can’t help but face just the sheer enormity of medicines that HIV-positive individuals and People With AIDS have to take daily to maintain their health. Even then, as the title indicates, there are chronic Side Effects.

But another unintentional side effect of the medicines has been the disappearance of both sick bodies and the virus from public consciousness. Barring certain interested activists, artists and others who see the importance of HIV/AIDS alive in the public discourse, you could easily entirely avoid discussion all together. Unlike the legacy of artwork about HIV/AIDS that includes the body or even, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ candy-filled Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), nothing diminishes, decays or withers away. Instead, these vases are permanent and lasting–a different sort of temporality than we have seen with art-related to HIV/AIDS previously.

This is perhaps the new queer time that Halberstam forgets in In A Queer Time And Place–a reshuffling of immediacy with permanency. Side Effects is not the only work in the exhibition that showcases a tension between permanency and impermanency. Things that are supposed to be impermanent and ephemeral like candles and bodies are, in the duo’s hands, eternal. In some ways, though this seems counterintuitive, this could be seen as a queer form of failure–these objects and bodies are doing the opposite of what they’re supposed to.

In the book The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam draws a connection between failure and queerness. “Failure is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well; for queers failure can be a style, to cite Quentin Crisp, or a way of life, to cite Foucault, and it can stand in contrast to the grim scenarios of success that depend upon “trying and trying again.” In fact if success requires so much effort, then maybe failure is easier in the long run and deserves different rewards,” writes Halberstam (3).

Elmgreen & Dragset Powerless Structures, Fig. 19, 1998 Calvin Klein underwear, Levi’s 501 jeans dimensions variable

Elmgreen & Dragset, Powerless Structures, Fig. 19, 1998, Calvin Klein underwear, Levi’s 501 jeans dimensions variable

Perhaps the sculpture that brings this representation of failure into focus is Powerless Structures, Fig. 19. And not just due to the title. The sculpture presents two strewn Levi’s 501’s and Calvin Klein undies–a monument to the hypermasculine clone. Left on the ground without a body as if shucked in a fit of passion, these garments, which are so powerfully identified with a certain gay aesthetic, become essentially impotent. It also looks as if their wearers were raptured mid-coitus, hinting, again, at absence. All that’s left is a permanent memory.

As Halberstam continues on failure, “And while failure certainly comes accompanied by a host of negative affects, such as disappointment, disillusionment and despair, it also provides the opportunity to use these negative affects to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life” (3).

Is the refusal to move on from HIV/AIDS (or violence, phobia, etc) in the queer community akin to some sort of failure? A failure to change? A failure to refuse the “snapping back” as Nick Cave articulates? A failure to reintegrate into normative temporality and the “toxic positivity of contemporary life”? Elmgreen & Dragset seem to say so. And as Quentin Crisp once said, “If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s