Elmgreen & Dragset - This Is How We Bite Our Tongue | Whitechapel Gallery

Whitechapel Gallery has been transformed into a derelict swimming pool with an imaginary backstory. Built by a Victorian philanthropist (the story goes), the Whitechapel Pool played host to Tesco founder Jack Cohen and David Hockney over its decades as a public utility. Then it got shut down in the privatisation-happy Thatcher era, before being renovated as part of a “design hotel” opening in 2019. Unfortunately for future Cohens and Hockneys, it’ll be accessible only through membership.

Of course, the pool never existed in that form. It’s actually the centrepiece of an exhibition from Elmgreen & Dragset, a Danish/Norwegian duo that use spectacular, and quite gimmicky, installations to make visual puns - and, sometimes, social points. This time, the point is that gentrification is bad, and, more broadly, that London has been transformed over the years by the power of capital.

Installation view

So far, so obvious. But, taking part in a Q&A hosted by Time Out at the gallery, the artists shied away from being pigeonholed as simple antagonists to gentrification. Elmgreen (or Dragset) said:

Gentrification makes everything so smooth and nice but it also excludes people. The way cities are run today is not considerate of citizens. So a small gentrification, like in Berlin where we live, it’s more like getting a new coffee shop around the corner. But in London it happens in a more brutal way. I lived in London from 2007 to 2015 and all the places I used to have fun have closed. I don’t feel welcome.

Also, they really like swimming pools and their paraphernalia. Earlier this month, I took in their show at Perrotin in Paris, featuring a life-size statue of a lifeguard, sculptures made of diving boards, and stainless steel pool steps lodged in asphalt. (They also had an update of Queer Bar, an installation from the 90s that inverted a circular bar, with the stools on the inside and the taps on the outside.)

While the Paris diving boards and chrome taps were gleamingly antiseptic, the Whitechapel Pool is a little bit grungy, with wooden wall bars, dirty tiles and worn benches around a grime-ringed basin. All pleasantly offset by a single strip of neon on one of the pool’s sides. The reconstruction is almost convincing, though the tiles sound a bit hollow when you knock them.

It seemed a bit more like an Instagram opportunity than a searing social comment at first glance. Though, to be fair, in their Q&A the artists seemed very nice and down to earth, and gave an explanation for their avoidance of polemic that was modest and surprising:

We don’t mind people coming up with a different perception of our works. We’ve had people coming up with their own interpretations and it’s much better than ours! There’s a certain degree of openness. People can make the ending or the conclusion on their own. I prefer my activism to be outside my art production.

Elmgreen & Dragset are biting their tongue by not going all out with the politics, I suppose. They made a spectacular and pleasing installation out of quite a sad subject: the privatisation of public leisure.

Then again, most of the artists’ Whitechapel audience would be more likely to lounge around the pool at Shoreditch House up the road than take a swim in their local leisure centre. So what does it matter?

Other Highlights

Elsewhere in London, there are two fascinating explorations of American urbanity, from very different artists: Gordon Matta-Clark (on at David Zwirner) is the high priest of 70s grunge, reshaping derelict buildings, in New York and beyond, filming the process, and reusing some of the bits of buildings as sculptures. So eco-friendly! Meanwhile, Fiona Tan, over at Frith Street Gallery, is inspired by contemporary city-scapes, revealed to her from her studio overlooking Los Angeles.

Installation view

The main work in the show is a single-camera video of the city, planes strafing the sky, smog thrown up by traffic - with a voice-over imagining a car-free future utopia. But I really enjoyed her simple video work of multi-lane roads, shot from above - contrasting the red brake lights and white headlights of hypnotically ebbing and flowing traffic.

There was a lot - like, really a lot - of video at Strange Days: Memories of the Future, at 180 Strand - a soon-to-be refurbished office building that’s been home to a series of crowd-pleasing shows over recent years. I think the last one was promoting Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs? There were no fewer than 24 artists showing over three pretty exhausting levels in this one, organised by Hayward Gallery and the New Museum in New York, of which my favourite was a typically playful and sensuous effort from Pipilotti Rist. Though maybe I was influenced by the fact that, with so much to see, she projected her video on the ceiling, and gave us beds to lie on.

There was more concentrated star power at 50 Years, 50 Artists in Annely Juda Fine Art. The venerable Mayfair gallery has hosted 342 exhibitions over its 50 year history - and here shows a mix of 50 artists, which it has both exhibited and represented. A couple of British sculptors caught the eye: a huge burnt tree trunk from David Nash (who I’d enjoyed earlier in the year) and a bold red-painted rectilinear steel work from Anthony Caro called London 1966.

A pair of shows elsewhere in Mayfair use textiles: Channing Hansen at Stephen Friedman Gallery shows hand knitted, colourful patterns over wood frames, apparently formed via algorithm. Meanwhile, Brent Wadden’s black and white lines, woven on the loom, at PACE, were a lot less fun. Also, for all the show notes’ insistence that the labour-intensive nature of Wadden’s art should be considered as part of his credo - blurring the line between art and craft, and so on - I noticed that all 13 works from the exhibition were made in 2018. Not that labour-intensive then!

Finally, Kelly Reemtsen, an American artist inspired by #MeToo and Trump, shows a series of angry woodcuts, prints and pastels at Lyndsey Ingram. Each work depicts a woman, cropped at shoulder and knee, in a Betty Draper-style dress, and carrying a heavy weapon: chainsaw, spanner or hammer. I loved her colours, and hope to see more.

Elmgreen & Dragset: This Is How We Bite Our Tongue is at Whitechapel Gallery (London). 27 September 2018 to 13 January 2019