A few days ago I was sitting in a café in the east end of London when a couple of students came in and asked me some pre-prepared questions about how the area had changed over the past decades.
Without having to say anything, I pointed to my flavoured latte and to the vegan cakes on offer. We soon got on to the subject of gentrification, the high price of rents , the erosion of public amenities and the dominance of service industries.
These are the themes that have inspired the Scandinavian double-act Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset to create their Whitechapel Pool, the centrepiece of their latest show. It’s quite an eye-opener when you walk into the gallery to find the normal floor space converted into a swimming pool. It’s got everything you might expect – the familiar tiling, the metal steps to get in and out and so on. The only thing it hasn’t got is water.
Instead, the pool is filled with bits of sand and rubble to indicate that it hasn’t been used in a long while. There are stumps where a diving board used to be and the paint is peeling. The artists have given it a fictitious history that echoes the political points they’re making and outlined on a panel at the entrance. It was built in 1901 to serve the needs of a poor community and became hugely popular. It was renovated in 1953 and it was where David Hockney first learnt how to paint swimming pools. A nice touch that!
Then it lost its funding under Thatcherism, was abandoned, and two years ago sold to a developer, under Boris Johnson’s time as mayor, and will soon open again as a luxury spa in a flash hotel.
Instead of lifeguards patrolling the pool’s perimeter, you now have security guards performed by some of the gallery assistants.
It’s a damning indictment of how years of austerity and privatisation has benefitted the wealthy to the detriment of the local community.
Elmgreen and Dragset have used swimming pools as metaphors before. In Death of a Collector (2009), a fictional art collector was shown floating face down in a private pool, and in Van Gogh’s Ear (2016) a swimming pool was displayed vertically and set in New York. The Whitechapel Pool is specifically a municipal one to emphasise the decline of public space.
To emphasise the feeling of abandonment, on the side of the pool is a statue of what looks once to have been some kind of hero. Entitled Some stayed on while others left, it has fallen over and left to decay. It was Elmgreen and Dragset who created the bronze statue of a boy riding a rocking horse on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth on 2012, also on the theme of anti-hero.
The rest of the gallery space both around the pool and in the upstairs rooms host retrospective items from the duo’s career assembled from museums and private collections from around the world.
Gay Marriage, for example, consists of two urinals whose pipe work has become entangled. It kind of speaks for itself. It’s more than a century since Marcel Duchamp took a urinal and repackaged it as art. It’s largely thanks to him that a concept like a swimming pool in a gallery is no longer questioned as being artistic.
The artists enjoy narrative in much of their work. A couple of pairs of Levi jeans with Calvin Klein underpants inside them, entitled Powerless Structures, are dumped outside the upstairs gallery. You are left to imagine what kind of hanky panky might have been going on here. Or has it? Still on a sexual theme is Reversed Crucifix, an iconoclastic work in which a sculpture of a naked young man is seen on a cross. But he has his back to us and is tied to it rather than nailed, suggesting erotic pleasure rather than suffering.
The upstairs gallery is dimly lit giving it an atmosphere of reverence, very church-like. In One Day, the top image, a boy looks at a rifle mounted on the wall. The innocent gazing at the macho, aggressive world that awaits him. Another boy features in Invisible, this time hiding, frightened inside a fireplace. Is he afraid of the adult world? Has he been silenced by his parents?
The powerless theme is continued in Pregnant White Maid. Apparently based on a real-life housemaid, it’s a bronze figure painted white. The expression on her face is downcast, literally. It’s a statement about how household staff are often objectified as status symbols and the clever idea of making her pregnant makes you wonder whether or not it was her master who might have been responsible.
The whole exhibition, in fact, creates a world that hovers between a harsh reality and an almost fairy-tale fiction. This is what makes it so intriguing.
The exhibition runs at the Whitechapel Gallery until 13 January 2019 and all images are courtesy of the artists and gallery.