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Elmgreen & Dragset transforms Whitechapel Gallery into abandoned swimming pool

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The installation, part of the artist duo’s survey exhibition This is How We Bite Our Tongue, points to ‘a loss of faith in public space in an era of austerity’

Unveiled earlier today, The Whitechapel Pool (2018) is a large-scale site-specific installation created for the Whitechapel Gallery by Elmgreen & Dragset (Berlin-based artist duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset) in response to the gentrification of London’s East End.

The commission is accompanied by a fictional narrative charting the swimming pool’s rise and fall. Built in 1901 as part of a social reform programme, renovated in 1953 and used daily for decades by Aldgate residents, the Whitechapel Pool is reputedly the site where artist David Hockney made his first drawings of a swimming pool’s water surface. Elmgreen & Dragset’s narrative describes how the pool lost its funding during Thatcherism, was squatted in, abandoned, and in 2016 sold to a developer during Boris Johnson’s last year as mayor of London. Next, the pool will be renovated to become the main feature of a luxury hotel spa.

Around the pool, exhibition staff pose as security guards, patrolling in padded jackets with jangling keys

‘East London saw intense gentrification in the last 10 years,’ say Elmgreen & Dragset. ‘Bars where artists used to meet closed; artists’ studios were turned into luxury loft apartments. At the same time, poorer boroughs experienced the effect of austerity politics. Our derelict swimming pool relates to this metamorphosis of local communities. It is also a sentimental image of painful transitions in general – the shift of values – and how it can be difficult as a human being and as a citizen to adjust to such challenges.’

Curator Laura Smith said the installation ’demonstrated how individuals are impacted by government policies’.

Installation view

The Whitechapel Pool by Elmgreen & Dragset

Around the pool, exhibition staff pose as security guards, patrolling the space in padded jackets with jangling keys. Additional works are also presented within the pool: at one edge of the pool lies Some Stayed on While Others Left (2018) a fallen statue of a headless male body evoking a Classical sculpture. Nearby is Gay Marriage (2010), a work that consists of two urinals with their plumbing tangled, and Too Heavy (2017), a huge aluminium rock weighing down a trampoline.

The swimming pool has been a recurrent theme in Elmgreen & Dragset’s work, from Death of a Collector (2009), where a fictional art collector was shown floating face down in a private pool, to Van Gogh’s Ear (2016), a swimming pool displayed vertically and placed in central New York.

This is How We Bite Our Tongue is on display at the Whitechapel Gallery from 27 September 2018 – 13 January 2019.

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