Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset
The Welfare Show
The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery
Toronto March 25 - May 28

Five doors, all locked. This hallway, it's not unlike a government office, a hospital hallway or a school. Grey and white, these materials are quiet but powerful. No creativity, no bursts, no surprises. A cold and stern authority looms through the simplicity of these structures. With the straight lines and orderliness, this show demands us to agree—or get out. These are the rules and you will live by them.

The Berlin-based duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset introduce their complex seven-year project "The Welfare Show" to the Power Plant in Toronto. They have been working together since 1995 and only started profiting from their work in 2001. Although "The Welfare Show" is a detached, emotionless perspective on the welfare system in Western society, it is hard to ignore the personal reality of the welfare system and the social stigma with which it is associated—especially for artists.

Here in their Canadian debut, Elmgreen and Dragset use sculptures and installations to explore Western welfare systems so realistic they could be mistaken for real. They do so most successfully when they re-examine the muted voice government agencies use to address their citizens. They are best at invading public spaces and transforming them in ways that make us realize we never pay attention to the locations we inhabit. The work is comprised more of visual reminders than of distinct statements. We experience our surroundings so naturally that we are blind to them.

Issues like health care, poverty, immigration, travel, the police state and the role art plays in society are the areas Elmgreen and Dragset investigate in their stoic structures that reveal the everyday with a paranoid uncertainty. For example, a wheelchair with a blue balloon tied to its armrest hints at the "childish elderly," which is one punch line, while an abandoned wax baby underneath an atm machine is another. A motorized airport carousel continues to rotate unclaimed baggage, while a stairway nearby crumbles beneath a pair of locked administrative doors.

A take-your-number waiting room leads inside a hospital corridor with a wax body on a bed, and beside the full bed is an empty one suggesting voluntary powerlessness. This show is a maze. It always hints at personal involvement with these familiar surroundings, asking how much security we really have. It always frightens; it always depresses. It points us to look inside the boring, which is something so obvious that we forget to notice it. Undeniably, power can be found in the quietest of places.

The silence of Office Corridor (2006) starts off as a hallway of five doors. A closer look reveals that one of the doors has a window that looks into another world: the fuchsia-lit fluorescent lettering of an off-air tv talk show called "The Welfare Show." Not only does it sensationalize poverty issues, but this talk show inside a corporate office setting also suggests a proportional message as well; the small window measures how small art is perceived in comparison to life's necessities. It is a small window fantasizing for a big voice. While its physicality is treated as an intangible space, it exists. Elmgreen and Dragset play with that balancing act between the comical and the serious, the lamenting and the joyous, the familiar and the foreign. And they always lock the doors behind them.

This is not the first project in which they exercise a lockout. In a recent project entitled Prada Marfa (2005), the artists created a high-end Prada shop at a lonely highway's side in a dry patch of Texas, thereby suggesting that commodities are only perpetuated by their surroundings. This locked shoe shop, no matter how fancy the name, cannot stand alone—when it is alone. But the result of the work is far more interesting: the abandoned shop has been left high and dry in the desert. It is forever unfinished, as has been left there to decay. The duo not only invades and reconstructs the architectural lining of the gallery's interior, but they tamper with the outside as well. Toronto's Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery is a spacious, renovated 1920s powerhouse building with a tall chimney outside.

As part of their ongoing "Powerless Structures" series (initiated in 1997), Elmgreen and Dragset have removed the white "Power Plant" lettering on the signature stack and replaced it to say "Powerless." Fittingly, this series demystifies architectural dominance on space, but also its effects on the art it holds. Few artists physically manipulate the space they inhabit, so this marks not only a refreshing show, but also the first show that changes the power pointer that defines the Harbourfront area. Even if the property owners decide to tear down the advertised powerlessness of the public location, Elmgreen and Dragset don't mind. "We've reached that point in our career where if they don't want to play along with us," says Elmgreen, "we understand."

While the show is essentially pretending, the security cameras throughout the gallery are real. So while we are watching an imitation of real life, real life is still watching us. Repression is a power tool to articulate through materials here, but authority is still looking down.

Although the usages of mimicry in their minimalist reconstructions of plain and familiar materials are silently effective, they only show us a shell to what exists inside of these kinds of agencies: their behaviour, patterns and reactions from the victims on the receiving end of the welfare system. The film set-like reconstructions are vividly uncanny in their resemblance to real life, but the fact remains: the products of the system are nowhere to be found. Everything is a suggestion. Parts of a story make a whole, but not all parts are present to make the story. > Nadja Sayej

Nadja Sayej is a writer who works in New York and Toronto.