In Pictures: See Elmgreen and Dragset’s Unsettling New Exhibition about the Human Body in the Post-Industrial Age

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Elmgreen & Dragset’s What’s Left? (2021) in the exhibition “Useless Bodies?” by Elmgreen & Dragset at Fondazione Prada, Milan. Photo: Andrea Rossetti. Courtesy of Fondazione Prada.

Elmgreen and Dragset captured the Fondazione Prada in Milan for a show called Useless Bodies. It focuses on big technologies and their impact on our lives. The works, according to the exhibition statement, explore the current state of the body in a post-industrial age, when our physical presence seems to be losing its centrality.

The human body, indeed, can now be completely superfluous. The artists said in a statement that our physical selves have even become more of a hindrance than an advantage. “Twenty years later in the 21st century, the status of the body now matches the status of the product – our data is collected and sold by Big Tech.”

Many of the figures in the works are in a precarious position. They climb walls, perched on ladders, crammed into the back seat of a car, and—in one particularly disturbing case—half-wrapped in a mortuary’s cooling freezer.

Elmgreen & Dragset’s Watching (2021) in the exhibition “Useless Bodies?” by Elmgreen & Dragset at Fondazione Prada, Milan. Photo: Andrea Rossetti. Courtesy of Fondazione Prada.

The perception of the body is a major theme that links many aspects of Elmgreen and Dragset’s sculptural and performance work. Artists throughout their careers have explored topics such as growing up, intimacy, identity, different lifestyles, and how we navigate the public sphere.

Following the exhibition path from the Podium to the Nord Gallery, to the Cistern, viewers will encounter several immersive installations. The premises of the Fondazione Prada in Milan are transformed into a series of different universes. Each of them has its own atmosphere, theme, and aesthetic.

On the ground floor of the Runway, classical and neoclassical sculptures meet the work of Elmgreen and Dragset in a synchronous constellation. Inspired by the Prada Foundation’s first Serial Classic exhibition curated by Salvatore Settis and created by Rem Koolhaas in 2015, this juxtaposition of contemporary and historical sculptures demonstrates both similarities and differences in how artists have mediated the male body through sculptural practices over the centuries.

In this section, Elmgreen and Dragset have developed a complex system of cross-references, creating a dialogue between the old and the new, demonstrating that the past never dies.

The second floor of the Podium is transformed into a sprawling abandoned office landscape, highlighting the body’s changing role in the context of work. The installation consists of a repeating pattern of seemingly endless rows of workspaces, alluding to the geometric formats of minimal 20th-century sculpture. This environment is also reminiscent of the setting of dystopian films such as Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967) and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985).

Exhibition view “Useless Bodies?” by Elmgreen & Dragset at Fondazione Prada, Milan. Photo: Andrea Rossetti. Courtesy of Fondazione Prada.

At the Nord Gallery, viewers are immersed in a futuristic vision of a home setting – an eerie fusion of bunker, spaceship, and science lab, depicting an uninhabitable home of extreme vanity. The impeccable, inhuman appearance of this space, accentuated by clinical design pieces, raises questions about how we exist in our homes today, especially now that we share them to such a high degree with technology. Like a detective or an intruder, the visitor is free to roam the space, collect clues, and make up stories in an alienating environment similar to the setting of a sci-fi movie in which the only moving creature is a robot dog.

At Cisterna, Elmgreen and Dragset explore how the wellness, relaxation, and wellness industry is forcing us to conform to new body ideals. Three rooms of this building have been converted into an abandoned spa environment, including an abandoned swimming pool and dressing room.

Elmgreen & Dragset, Bogdan (2020). Courtesy: KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin, London, Seoul Photo by: Roman März.

As human bodies become useless due to technological innovation, the ever-expanding sectors of health, recreation, and wellness offer countless new ways to “solve the problem of the imperfect body”. The central hall of the Cistern features a new work called “What’s Left?”, which can be interpreted as a depiction of the body, which today struggles to find its role as a political actor or instrument of social change.

The way human bodies are physically regulated in the public realm is explored by a series of Elmgreen & Dragset sculptures displayed in Fondazione Prada’s outdoor spaces. These works are subtle alterations of everyday objects, none of which can be used in the way we would expect. They encourage a reappraisal of the ordinary and highlight how we negotiate the mechanisms of control built into public spaces.

A 500-page publication titled “Useless Bodies? and published by Fondazione Prada, conceived as a thematic continuation of the exhibition, and not as a regular catalogue. This is a reader with different points of view from more than 35 authors – philosophers, artists, writers, scientists, and thinkers – addressing our changing perception of the body and its status today.

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