Elmgreen & Dragset: READ

Du 16.11.2023 au 22.04.2024 Commissaire(s): Kunsthalle Praha (Prague, Tchéquie)

The artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset have transformed Kunsthalle Praha into a curious public library. Titled READ, their exhibition celebrates Prague’s literary heritage, and brings together works by sixty international artists.

For their first major exhibition in Czechia, Elmgreen & Dragset present their own work alongside artworks by sixty artists. Encompassing various decades, geographic regions, and artistic movements, many of these works have been selected from Kunsthalle Praha’s Collection, while other artists have been personally invited by the duo to participate. The sprawling exhibition READ focuses on the historic and enduring relevance of books. Designed as a minimalist version of a contemporary public library, it also questions our relationship with books as physical objects and knowledge in the age of digital media. The title not only encourages reading, but also learning and understanding, as in to “read the signs,” “read a situation,” and “read the room.”

Prague’s Library Culture   

Inspired by Prague’s literary heritage and culture of libraries, Elmgreen & Dragset have completely transformed two large gallery areas in Kunsthalle Praha, the city’s newest contemporary art space. The initial concept for READ emerged from an early encounter between the artists and a key work in Kunsthalle Praha’s Collection, Giorgio de Chirico’s Les jouets défendus (1916) (Forbidden Toys). Artistically brilliant still life captures unknown books along with other mysterious objects of unknown purpose. It prompted Elmgreen & Dragset to delve into Kunsthalle Praha’s Collection and seek out works that thematically resonated with them.

Following their recent spatial transformations for the exhibitions Bonne Chance (Centre Pompidou-Metz, Metz, 2023) and Useless Bodies (Fondazione Prada, Milan, 2022), READ embraces a certain nostalgia for the 20th century while also addressing current issues and planting seeds for future discussions. In READ, Elmgreen & Dragset take on the library as a crucial space not just for the sharing of knowledge but for providing basic services with recent cuts on social safety nets. As digital spaces gradually replace physical ones, the artists are subtly probing the future of public libraries.

“Prague is a city where the written word has a rich, complex history. Upon the invitation to study Kunsthalle Praha’s collection, we approached this exhibition by asking ourselves: ‘What happens to libraries and the printed matter within them if digital technologies were to make them obsolete?’ In the process, we have investigated how artists historically have reimagined and reworked the idea of what a book can be. In a time where books get banned in places where we would not have imagined it in our lifetime, we found it urgent to also include recent history and current practices where books and writing play an important role,” say Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset jointly.

The duo put the project together with the institution’s Chief Curator, Christelle Havranek, and Barbora Ropková, Collection Curator at Kunsthalle Praha. “READ is an extensive group exhibition that has been developed over two years in close collaboration between the teams of Elmgreen & Dragset’s studio and Kunsthalle Praha. Questioning with humour and poetry, the future of shared spaces for accessing knowledge, the exhibition is, above all, a vibrant tribute to the physical book—an object that, despite being endangered, continues to captivate and inspire artists,” adds Havranek.

The Kunsthalle Praha Collection as a Source  

In 2021, Kunsthalle Praha expanded its collection with an important set assembled by Marie and Milan Knížák which focuses on the art of the Fluxus Movement. A range of these artworks is exhibited in READ for the first time since the acquisition. Beyond Fluxus, a selection of pieces from the Kunsthalle Praha Collection by artists such as Kurt Schwitters, Běla Kolářová or Chiharu Shiota, tracing different artistic approaches to the book as an object and artistic medium. The earliest works shown are documents of pre- and post-World War II anxieties, whereas more recent works display concerns about an era dominated by the immaterial and the digital.

Numerous artists whose works are included in READ share a connection to Berlin, the city where Elmgreen & Dragset have lived and worked since 1997. Notably, parallels can be drawn between Prague and Berlin as historically significant literary centres and hubs of resistance. Both cities have evolved from their turbulent pasts to become symbols of individual freedom and fertile ground for innovative forms of expression. Furthermore, the term and institutional model of a « kunsthalle » serves as a reminder of Prague’s multicultural history as a city where three nations and two languages co-existed.

Invited Artists

The invited artists in READ all have continuously revised the book as a focal matter in their multi-faceted art practices. Dora García presents a new work, for which she has read Václav Havel’s plays Audience, Vernissage and Petition with her fingers coated in gold dust. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster presents, in collaboration with queer theorist Paul B. Preciado, a collection of texts that have opened academic and civic debates to feminist and transfeminist perspectives. In partnership with Prague Municipal Library, Meriç Algün presents a new iteration of her Library of Unborrowed Books project. Jaro Varga shows his ongoing project Library in the Kunsthalle foyer, where the audience has the chance to write their own imaginary titles on the spines of books, while Saâdane Afif exhibits a work with Czech books on mountain climbing, placed at a high and inaccessible point.

In addition, READ features a selection of special book presentations. This includes a project from the Chicago Center for Caspar David Friedrich Studies, devoted exclusively to books with Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Mists (1818) on the cover, as well as a selection of six hundred Czech translations of French literature on loan from the French Institute in Prague.

Library Structures

In Gallery 1, visitors encounter familiar library structures, such as rows of bookshelves, an information desk, tables with reading lamps, and a public restroom. Artworks appear throughout the space, sometimes tucked into bookshelves. Beyond the shelves, visitors can find the fifth iteration of the duo’s durational performance, Diaries. Originally presented as Paris Diaries at Perrotin in 2003, the artists have subsequently presented the performance as Istanbul (2013), Hong Kong (2015), and Dallas Diaries (2019). Prague Diaries feature five young men seated at a long table during Wednesdays and weekends throughout the run of the exhibition. The audience encounters the performers keeping their diaries; visitors are free to walk around, read over the diarists’ shoulders, and flip through the notebooks when the performers are on a break.

In the upper Gallery 2, Elmgreen & Dragset render some of the library structures inaccessible; bookshelves hanging upside down from the ceiling, and crumbling, unclimbable stairs leading to a door marked « Filozofie » (Philosophy). Paper works are be shown in large glass vitrines under the watch of The Guardian, a sculpture by Elmgreen & Dragset created especially for READ. Another installation features recently banned books, pointing out the enduring importance of libraries as repositories of knowledge, and linking present-day political turmoil with that experienced by totalitarian regimes in the past.

Exhibition Catalogue

Along with READ, Kunsthalle Praha is set to release an illustrated exhibition catalogue with international distribution by DCV. With essays from the exhibition’s collaborator Barbora Ropková (Collection Curator, Kunsthalle Praha), Paul Benzon (Assistant Professor of English, Skidmore College), and Michal Přibáň (Institute of Czech Literature of the CAS), the book will offer in-depth perspectives on the themes touched upon in the exhibition, such as the library as a space of history; the phenomena of a text in Czech art and samizdat literature (literature secretly written, copied, and circulated in the former Soviet Union).