By Saara Peisa
An old Mercedes is standing in the back of a car park. You could just pass by, but something draws your attention; perhaps it is the magazine on the dashboard or something inside packed in bubble wrap. You look in and are startled – some guys are sleeping in there! Are they real? I can’t believe it, they look so real! After the initial shock, you start to look for the story. Why are they sleeping in a car? Where are they going?
The Outsiders (2020) by Elmgreen & Dragset consists of a Mercedes W123, two male figures in silicone and various separate objects inside the car. The work was exhibited for the first time at EMMA - Espoo Museum of Modern Art as a part of the artists’ exhibition entitled 2020. In fact, it was meant to be shown at Art Basel before installation at EMMA, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Art Basel was unfortunately cancelled. The silicone figures look strikingly alive, sleeping in the back of the car as if taking an overnight stop on a long drive. A towel, a juice can, candy wrappers and some clothes lay around, as well as installer’s identity cards for Art Basel and some packed artworks. The Mercedes has Russian license plates, referring to the social challenges and discrimination of LGBTQ+ people in Russia.
Instead of installing individual works into a white cube, it’s typical for Elmgreen & Dragset to change the whole interior. The exhibition 2020 at EMMA was their first major exhibition in Finland, also celebrating 25 years of the artists working together. While dealing with themes of humanity and society, the exhibition was presented as a fictional environment where all works relate to each other. The vast exhibition space at EMMA was turned into a car park. There were painted lines on the floor, parked cars, public toilets and an ATM, just to name a few; all were either parts of artworks or part of the narrative as a whole.
Before installing the works, the museum space went through quite a change. The painted lines on the floor had to look as real as possible, be durable enough to stay on for several months and still be totally removable. A black box, which is usually used for media art, was transformed into a restroom with all its normal features except drainage. Preparing for the exhibition also included searching for specific cars for loan, which would be part of some of the works. After installation, the artists also added some dirt to the corners of the car park and painted very realistic stains on the restroom walls. The limits of a traditional museum exhibition were stretched, but everything was actually feasible while maintaining professional museum practice. In contrast to all the mentioned details, one part was easy; the artists requested fluorescent maintenance lighting be used in the space, and so there was no need for additional exhibition lighting.
While some of the other works involving cars were assembled at EMMA, The Outsiders was transported to the Museum almost ready to install. The lovers were already in the car, and the separate objects only needed to be placed inside. In addition, all the automotive liquids were supposed to be removed from the car, considering safety in the exhibition. Bringing a car (in this case, many cars) into an art museum can anyway be quite a challenge. The Mercedes had to be pushed in using the Museum’s loading dock, and unloading it from an art truck was a bit tricky; four or five men were needed to move the car over the truck’s tailboard. During the process a radiator tube came away, causing slippery cooling liquid to leak onto the loading dock floor. Clearly, all the liquids had not been removed, and this was also the case with oil in the gearbox; after getting the car into the exhibition space, oil was found to be leaking onto the floor.
The Mercedes W123 has a vacuum-powered central locking system. When oil and gasoline are removed from the car and the car is standing still, the vacuum causes the doors to lock. Without the engine running, the doors can only be manually opened from the inside using the door handles. One might be able to reach a handle from outside if a window is open, but with the windows closed, it is possible to end up in a situation where none of the doors can be opened, and the only way to get in is to break in. In The Outsiders car, the doors were indeed locked via the vacuum-powered system, but luckily the inside of the car was still reachable through the trunk. The trunk lid was separately locked to secure the objects inside. With locked doors the car was actually safe as a showcase, and none of the curious museum visitors were able to touch anything inside.
To convey the artists’ intention, the Mercedes needed to be a used car with normal signs of wear and tear. The objects inside were also used everyday objects. Everything was to have a natural layer of dust, but the male figures were to be dust free, enough to look alive. Over time, dust tends to land on the figures’ skin, and if this is left to accumulate for a long time, the illusion of life might break. Dusty skin—or spider webs—would contradict the idea of the work and add some unwanted messages like the stagnation of time or even death. During the exhibition at EMMA, spiderwebs were actually quite likely to appear; several small spiders were spotted inside and outside the car during the incoming condition check. Spiders are not considered harmful in a museum environment, and they caused no need for any pest control measures. However, the work was checked regularly, as were all the works on loan, and spider webs were removed. Quite surprisingly, this contemporary artwork once again brought up a long-time conservation question about the right amount of cleaning. Dust and dirt are not always things to be cleaned off—in some cases they can actually be considered part of the work.
The use of experimental techniques and unusual material combinations is essential in contemporary art, and in this respect, The Outsiders is no exception. As a medium, the combination of a car and sensitive silicone sculptures is quite unique. The work is also a good example of how the materials of the artwork relate to the conceptual meanings of the work and how the intention of the artist should be maintained.
In the exhibition process, highlighting this could be considered the most important task of a conservator. In addition, exhibition condition reports are often the first records made of a contemporary artwork (which may itself have just come to exist) and are, therefore, important documents of the work’s original state. Conservation is always a matter of preserving both tangible and intangible features, but in contemporary art, this is quite pronounced.
Saara Peisa is a conservator at EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art. She has a master’s degree in paintings conservation and specializes in contemporary art. At EMMA she is working with the conservation of changing exhibitions as well as collections.
(Read the article and see all the images in the February-March 2021 "News in Conservation" Issue 82, p. 18-21)