Elmgreen & Dragset
Van Gogh’s Ear
for the Public Art Fund
on view until 6/3/16
text by Osman Can Yerebakan
Pools are voluptuous and evocative—think of the poolside scenes in Boogie Nights or any David Hockney painting. While a seashore is unrefined, raw, and somewhat otherworldly, a pool is intimate, temporal, and luscious; it has an irresistible lure that emanates from a mass of bright blue water amidst a crowd of strangers and familiar faces alike. The Berlin-based artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset’s Prada Marfa installation—a Prada store haphazardly erected in the middle of the Texan dessert – enacted some of the most disputed interplays between public art and the public when it was installed in 2005, and now the enfants terribles dive off the deep end with Van Gogh’s Ear at the entrance of Channel Gardens at Rockefeller Center.
Their twenty-nine-foot-high pool is as an impeccable reproduction of a typical backyard private pool, that, when made vertical, comically replicates Van Gogh’s famous chopped ear. It is at once mundane and spectacular; embellished with all the basic components of a functioning pool – including a diving board, a stainless steel ladder, and mounted lights – the sculpture is on display facing Fifth Avenue among cutting-edge boutiques, confused tourists, and the Midtown office crowd.
Perched in a district bursting with the consumerist desires of shoppers and the gaiety of lost tourists, the sculpture wittily ridicules definitions of artistic genres as well as the norms of public art. Perhaps most importantly, the sculpture mockingly reminds hasty New Yorkers on their lunch breaks of possibilities for other worlds that have been heretofore stripped away by cubicles and deadlines.
Van Gogh’s Ear undoubtedly taps into Marcel Duchamp’s work – most famously his urinal-turned-“fountain” that most consider a touchstone of modern art. However, Elmgreen & Dragset diverge from Duchamp’s avant-garde practice in nuanced ways. By using the highest quality materials and perfectly sculpting the piece, the artists create an artifact rather than fetching a once functional pool to elevate to the status of high art, as Duchamp would have done. Moreover, unlike Duchamp, Elmgreen and Dragset omit any signage or artistic imprint, and instead present Van Gogh’s Ear as another commodity available to purchase. What we might call a work of art is foundationally just another object within shop windows that display other goods to be desired and claimed. Drained, lifted, and abandoned, the pool, condemned to a life of flawless refinement and allure, is no more a pool, though it had never been one.
Follow more of Elgreen & Dragset’s work as they will be curating the Istanbul Biennial
– Osman Can Yerebakan
Art Editor – William J. Simmons
All photographs are courtesy of Elgreen & Dragset