Glass reviews Elmgreen & Dragset This is How We Bite Our Tongue at the Whitechapel Gallery, London

ENTERING Elmgreen & Dragset’s show This is How We Bite Our Tongue at the Whitechapel Gallery, you are immediately held in the sinister embrace of a large, empty swimming pool. Malevolent, however, in a way that is still happily Insta-fodder. In its echoing, silent reverberations, the installation explores the loss of such civic spaces and public amenities that were once gifted to the poor by the wealthy and industrious as a means for a populace to stay healthy and clean.

But more accurately, it is a work heavily influenced by the writer J. G. Ballard (“influenced” is being kind –  it’s more a direct photocopy of his textual plans), whom littered many of his novels with this tile-encrusted motif of happiness and optimism drained away, or, a representation of a vessel, a body, sucked dry of all its life-giving fluid. After all, there is always an air of danger around empty swimming pools — something gone wrong, something neglected.

The Whitechapel Pool from the Elmgreen & Dragset show at The Whitechapel Gallery

The Whitechapel Pool from the Elmgreen & Dragset show at The Whitechapel Gallery

Perhaps, to develop Ballard’s ideas, the infinity pool may have been a more fitting emblem to explore the ills of inequality and a lack of sympathy for the unprivileged. It’s an image of extreme luxury that lurks in the background of many problems relating to the gulf between the rich and poor — it is on this, rather than on the philanthropic activities, that the moneyed would rather spend their assets.

In these continually overflowing baptismal fonts of the super-rich club, the water relaxingly merges with the environment beyond, yet really embodies an ambition for luxury and economic prosperity to spread endlessly all around those who swim. Empty, however, the illusion and ambition for the infinite flood of wealth would be broken, extinguishing its optical monetary monopoly over the landscape and severing its selfish ambitions.

Heritage from the Elmgreen & Dragset show at The Whitechapel Gallery

Too Heavy from the Elmgreen & Dragset show at The Whitechapel Gallery

The remainder of the exhibition on the gallery’s upper floors is largely populated by uncanny sculptural doubles, and like the swimming pool which, in looking extremely realistic in the gallery space, creates an ambiguity as to what is fact or fiction – leaving you unsure of where the exhibition ends and gallery begins. They are either duplicates of objects already in the exhibition: two pairs of jeans, a couple of deceitfully comforting cold marble pillows, the impression of where a diptych once hung on a wall and a pair of entwined urinals with knotted plumping.

Or they are the sinister twin of something that already exists in the world — twins separated at birth, with one having been raised in a concentrated and warped version of reality that it has soaked up with great relish. Gnarled and sickly these doppelgängers have been led out of their lairs in forgotten attics, and released. Resulting in oversized exhibition wall labels, a pregnant maid wiped of all her identifying characteristics, a door with a handle on each opposing side and a donation box with no hole to receive charity.  

Powerless Structures from the Elmgreen & Dragset show at The Whitechapel Gallery

Capitalism Will Collapse from Within from the Elmgreen & Dragset show at
The Whitechapel Gallery

The subtle differences between echoed and reechoed objects can be gradually read — it seems that you “read” Elmgreen & Dragset’s work more than look at it — and mount into stories, often centering around the movements of absent bodies and objects. The result, through an intense congress with the reality, captures how ready-made objects would appear if they bore, and were inscribed with, the impacts of our psychological perambulations around them.  

Gay Marriage from the Elmgreen & Dragset show at The Whitechapel Gallery

Installation view of Elmgreen & Dragset show at The Whitechapel Gallery

by Matthew Turner

Elmgreen & Dragset: This is how we Bite our Tongue is on until January 13, 2019 at

The Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High St London E1 7QX