Elmgreen & Dragset’s The Well Fair transforms UCCA’s Great Hall into a fictional art fair

Words by Elena Scarpa
January 21, 2016

The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) hosts Elmgreen & Dragset’s The Well Fair, a solo show that marks the artist duo’s first exhibition in mainland China. Running from 24 January to 17 April, 2016, the exhibition turns UCCA’s Great Hall into a fictional art fair by dividing the museum’s signature space into multiple rows of rectangular booths.

These temporary, repetitive wall structures, arranged in a fishbone grid in the middle of the room, mimic the generic architecture of commercial art fairs worldwide. A selection of over eighty Elmgreen & Dragset works created over the past two decades is displayed in the booths and communal areas of the fair in unorthodox ways—some of them still crated, wrapped, half-installed, or leaned against the walls—creating an ambiguous temporal setting that makes it unclear if the fair has just ended or has not yet begun. This broad presentation, drawn from collections in Europe, Asia, and North America, provides a unique opportunity to view Elmgreen & Dragset’s works arranged in new constellations, bridging topics and making evident recurring themes from throughout the artists’ oeuvre: from the examination of institutional architecture, sociocultural topics and art history, to existential subject matters linked to identity and sexuality.

By staging an art fair within a museum, the artists question the social mechanisms of art institutions from within, as they did in previous exhibitions such as Zwischen anderen Ereignissen [Between Other Events], a performance first enacted in 2000 at the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, Leipzig, and now performed at UCCA in one of The Well Fair booths. In this durational performance, two house painters paint the already white walls of an exhibition space—in this case, the walls of the booth—over and over again with ever more layers of white paint. The repetitive routine of painting soon becomes contemplative, changing what is normally seen as a monotonous task into a ritual act. This early work is indicative of a frequent theme in Elmgreen & Dragset’s artistic practice: the “white cube” as the standardized format for presenting art and the complexity of the color white. Playing with the notion of a typical, white-walled gallery, they have previously turned gallery spaces upside down, placed them underground, and suspended them from the ceiling; in The Well Fair the transformation of UCCA from museum to art fair becomes an artwork in itself, with the overall exhibition display functioning as a comprehensive art installation, a Gesamtkunstwerk.

Elmgreen & Dragset employ the entire installation of The Well Fair to reflexively examine the physical and conceptual makeup of contemporary art fairs. By mimicking the now commonly accepted grid layout of an art fair and utilizing this as the display format for the exhibition in the museum’s main hall, the artists also probe the ease with which behavioral patterns are adapted from one particular setting to the next. Visitors to the fair will navigate the space by passing from one aisle to another, discovering different scenarios in each booth and encountering museum personnel engaged to act as the fair’s staff. Elmgreen & Dragset displace the kinetic potential for commerce, situating the fair in a state of limbo without any clear indication of start or finish, and by filling the fair with only their own works, they eliminate the typical aspects of competitive valuation between artists. This fictional setting seeks to break down the social hierarchy usually present at commercial art fairs, with nothing actually for sale and a VIP lounge that remains inaccessible to all. Issues of value and originality are perhaps most clearly addressed in two identical, adjacent booths in which every element on display is doubled, including all of the art pieces, the furniture and even the gallerists, performed by identical twins.

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