Welfare State

Text Helena Grdadolnik

Photo Thor Brodreskift

The buzz of fluorescent lights and white walls are not unexpected in a contemporary art gallery, but slightly more disconcerting is finding an empty room guarded by ten security personnel in hard plastic chairs watching your every move.

For The Welfare Show, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset transformed the interior of the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Hyde Park into a series of familiar yet generic institutional spaces, from an airport baggage hall to a hospital corridor. Visitors were left to find their own way through the maze of spaces; some of the numerous doors were locked and others led to the next set-up.

The curatorial statement described the installation as a critique of “the Scandinavian model of welfare as a socio-spatial form of experience.” Elmgreen and Dragset now work in Berlin, but are originally from Denmark and Norway respectively. The text goes on to add, “For more than a decade, the artists have been collaborating to create sculptures and installations that challenge conventional notions of institutions and public spaces within contemporary society. Since 1997 their ‘Powerless Structures’ series of works has investigated how sites such as prisons, social security offices, hospitals, museums, galleries and parks exercise social control.”

More than half a century ago, modernist architects tried to do away with bourgeois symbols of class and nationality by substituting an unadorned machine aesthetic of blinding whiteness. The movement started with a social agenda that employed architecture in an effort to create peace and a socialist utopia in war-torn Europe. Since the average visitor to a hospital or government office does not share this knowledge, the supposedly symbol-free modernist designs came to have their own troubling associations.

When describing modern institutional interiors, people often call them “cold” and “impersonal.” In response to this general sentiment, Canadian institutions in the last few decades have introduced a new palette of materials and colours chosen to mimic suburban house interiors of the 1980s: light oak plastic laminate, peach paint and floral accents have been deemed more inviting than white walls and polished steel, but in their overuse they have come to represent the new face of institutionalism. When the next generation of Canadians unfamiliar with the pastel postmodern residential interior sit patiently in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, how will these materials speak to them?

Disappointingly, in adapting The Welfare Show from its UK context to a Canadian one, it is unfortunate that the artists did not examine the aesthetic of the Canadian institutional experience more fully. This could have made their Toronto installation much more powerfully resonant.

The exhibition runs at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto from March 25 to May 26, 2006.

Helena Grdadolnik has taught history and theory at the Emily Carr Institute and at UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.