What role does our body play in the post-industrial age?
This question is what the Scandinavian artist duo, Elmgreen & Dragset, trying to answer in their exhibition Useless Bodies? at Fondazione Prada in Milan. The exhibition spans over 3 000 square meters and is the biggest thematic exhibition at the foundation to date.
By Oliver Dahle
3 May 2022

Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset are today one of the most famous contemporary artists. The duo, which comes from, respectively, Denmark and Norway, is today based in Berlin and have made themselves famous for their sculptures and installations, which often go into dialogue with our modern society.

The exhibition at Fondazione Prada — Useless Bodies? is examining a major theme: what role do our bodies play in a world which is more driven by machines and digitization. 

— The exhibition title is a question — one that we hope opens up conversations about where our bodies fit in today’s society. We live in a strange world today where our offices are brought into our homes and our homes, in turn, are often backdrops for social media and Zoom calls. Societal shifts such as these are changing how we use different spaces, interact with our surroundings and perhaps most importantly, nurture our relationships and develop our identities. One could say that our own observations, and sometimes frustrations, on these changes led to us unpicking and questioning them in this exhibition, the duo explains.

The exhibition takes place in four galleries and the courtyard of Fondazione Prada, combining immersive installations and sculptures. In one way or another, they are all dealing with questions about the role of people and our bodies in the post-industrial age.

— In the Nord Gallery at the Fondazione, we created a domestic setting which is a futuristic, dystopian home that sort of approaches this topic. The space is cladded with metal walls and dotted with hard-edged design pieces and nothing seems to encourage relaxation or functionality. On the wall is a screen with an image of a nineteenth-century painting (Il Quarto Stato,1898-1901,by the Lombardian artist Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo) with app trackers ticking along the bottom. There’s no living presence in the ‘home’ except for a robotic dog which joggles around the space.

”People have already developed strong relationships to avatars online so maybe we’ll have more meaningful interactions with technology in the real world in years to come.”

— We might still be apprehensive of the thought of a robotic nurse bringing us our medicine and orange juice in a retirement home, but for future generations, this could well be normal. We hope that the growth of technology means that people have more time on their hands, alleviating tasks relating to productivity so that everyone can be together in a more social way.

With some of the artwork being abandoned swimming pools and office landscapes with cubicles that have been left in a hurry, the exhibition could evoke dystopian feelings, casting a new light on our everyday lives.

— Some parts of Useless Bodies? are intended to be a little bit uncomfortable. For example, there is a morgue (Untitled, 2011) installed in the sci-fi-like home in the Nord Gallery that has two legs sticking out as if there were a real body there in the living space. But we use elements of humour in other parts of the show like in the Cisterna, where two pairs of dropped jeans and underwear are left on the floor (Powerless Structures, Fig. 19, 1998). We like to leave clues here and there that hint at unarticulated parts of a story so visitors can conjure up their own subplots or characters. In the Podium+1, where we have our abandoned office landscape with rows of empty cubicles, some desks have personal objects on—like postcards, a book or an item of clothing—that evoke traces of a person’s life. We hope to give visitors a real setting in which they can think a bit, allowing for everyone to find their own understandings. We all have such different backgrounds that when we come to a museum and there’s real value in that.

A 500-page publication is released that, instead of a traditional catalogue, is intended to be an extension to the exhibition. With over 35 writers, including contributions from Rem Koolhaas and Miuccia Prada, the publication has views from professionals working in different fields, which are exploring the changing perceptions of our body and its status. 

With digital development, it is possible to imagine a future in which our relationship with technology and the digital is even more entangled. Terms such as ”metaverse” are implying how we will, to some extent, live part of our lives within the digital. However, this development is not something that interests Elmgreen & Dragset — at least for now.

— Sculpture, and particularly public sculpture carries urgency for us precisely because it doesn’t take place in the metaverse. We made a sculpture last year called This is How We Play Together, which consists of two boys wearing VR headsets. They are engrossed in their own worlds, with one reaching out as if to reach something only he can see. We’ve been asked several times to make virtual art but as we brainstormed ideas, we found the people participating so much more interesting. To have something left which isn’t virtual, particularly art like public sculptures, which can bring people together, define a place and be seen for free, appeals to us now. Perhaps this will change, we’ll discuss it with our avatars…

Elmgreen & Dragset.