top of page

Elmgreen & Dragset: This is How We Bite Our Tongue Review - Whitechapel Gallery

27 September 2018 – 13 January 2019

Tickets from £12.95

Concessions £9.50


Whitechapel Gallery presents ‘This Is How We Bite Our Tongue’ from the Scandinavian duo Elmgreen and Dragset. The pair laces their first Whitechapel Gallery exhibition with a heavy hand of wit, provocation and melancholy to explore and challenge ideas of sexual and social politics.

‘This is Why We Bite Our Tongue’ plunges us into a world of the uncanny. Revealing, provocative and troubling, the works and installations challenge the viewer on the blurred lines between reality and fiction. Stepping into the exhibition through grand frosted glass doors at the gallery’s entrance, I was faced, to my surprise, with a huge disused swimming pool. I started questioning my knowledge of the gallery –'had this always been here? Had I managed to walk past an entire swimming pool in my last visits?' – I was fooled. This was Elgreen and Dragset’s first trick, as well as the Whitechapel Gallery’s marvellous installation work.

The retro tiling, peeling ceilings and ‘The Whitechapel Pool’s history plaque add to a convincing illusion. The plaque, detailing a long and illustrious history, having had ‘as many as 292,000 visitors annually between 1971 and 1976’ as well as claiming to be the site where Hockney ‘made his first drawings of the surface of a swimming pool’s water’, now tells us that the disused pool is being included in a new luxury spa hotel. This illusion is not so far from reality, reproducing another history of a public space losing funds and becoming privatised – a comment on gentrification in East London that is all too prevalent.

On entering each new space, you try to anticipate the duo’s next move: what could possibly come next? This is a merit to their challenging and clever works and to Whitechapel Gallery’s curation; each piece confronts a new issue from a fresh and unexpected angle.

Elmgreen and Dragset play with another dichotomy along the way: that between the public and the private and where the two interchange. The second exhibition space is filled with titles of works that have influenced them throughout their artistic careers. Names such as David Hockney and Louis Bourgeois appear, carefully carved and painted into slab of sheeny marble. The underappreciated wall label becomes a work of art in itself. Elmgreen and Dragset’s private influences become their own public work.

This room of the exhibition in particular provokes questions of what constitutes art, in flipping questions of public and private on it’s head. In the corner of the room is a worn wooden desk, on which sits a scrapbook and a bottle of whisky (from which you’re invited to have a wee sip); an insight into Elmgreen and Dragset’s creative process. Moreover, you think – can I sit in the chair? Leaf through the book? Is it allowed? The pair is pushing the boundaries of the ‘touch’ or ‘don’t touch rule’ in the art world, a trait very prominent in the Berlin art scene, in which the two artists are based.

The private and public are also explored through the theme of homosexuality that runs throughout the exhibition. Works such as ‘Powerless Structures’ – two pairs of crumpled jeans and boxers lying in the corner of a red-lit room – and ‘Gay Marriage’ – two urinals installed side by side with intertwining pipes – blur the lines of personal sexuality in relation to public issues. Jeans and urinals - objects denoting a personal act such as sex and urination, become stand-alone pieces in a public space. Their everyday functions are transformed in a new spatial context, taking on a weight as political symbols of the modern history of homosexuality.

The final space of the exhibition shows the pair’s more recent sculpture works in a dimly lit, chapel-like environment, the most moving of them all. The room’s pieces are both reflective and eerie, provoking the viewer to be inquisitive while remaining slightly on edge. The opening piece of the room, ‘One Day’ shows a young boy gazing up at an encased rifle, raising questions on masculinity and the power structure of violence. Meanwhile the concluding piece at the back of the room, ‘Pregnant White Maid’, juxtaposes with a standing woman looking down, avoiding the viewer’s eye line. Similar to ‘Powerless Structures’, her uniform acts as a symbol for status and class, while her swelling belly holds a faint glimmer of hope for the future. You stand in apprehension, as if at any minute the uncanny figures could look back at you.

This is how ‘This Is How We Bite Our Tongue’ leaves you – full of contradictions, tongue-tied and moved; yet bursting with questions.