Elmgreen & Dragset: READ
Curated by Kateřina Slavíková
Kunsthalle Praha, Prague
16 November 2023 – 15 April 2024

For their first major exhibition in Czechia, Elmgreen & Dragset present their own work alongside artworks by sixty artists. Encompassing various decades, geographic regions, and artistic movements, many of these works have been selected from Kunsthalle Praha’s Collection, while other artists have been personally invited by the duo to participate. The sprawling exhibition READ focuses on the historic and enduring relevance of books. Designed as a minimalist version of a contemporary public library, it also questions our relationship with books as physical objects and knowledge in the age of digital media. The title not only encourages reading, but also learning and understanding, as in to “read the signs,” “read a situation,” and “read the room.”

Prague’s Library Culture

Inspired by Prague’s literary heritage and culture of libraries, Elmgreen & Dragset will completely transform two large gallery areas in Kunsthalle Praha, the city’s newest con-temporary art space. The initial concept for READ emerged from an early encounter between the artists and a key work in Kunsthalle Praha’s Collection, Giorgio de Chirico’s Les jouets défendus (1916) (Forbidden Toys). This enigmatic small format painting is a study of unnamed books depicted as geometrical shapes in an obscure setting. It prompted Elmgreen & Dragset to delve into Kunsthalle Praha’s Collection and seek out works that thematically resonated with de Chirico’s metaphysical portrayal of books.

Following their recent spatial transformations for the exhibitions Bonne Chance (Centre Pompidou-Metz, Metz, 2023) and Useless Bodies (Fondazione Prada, Milan, 2022), READ embraces a certain nostalgia for the 20th century while also addressing current issues and planting seeds for future discussions. In, Elmgreen & Dragset take on the library as a crucial space not just for the sharing of knowledge but for providing basic services with recent cuts on social safety nets. As digital spaces gradually replace physical ones, the artists are subtly probing the future of public libraries.  

“Prague is a city where the written word has a rich, complex history. Upon the invitation to study Kunsthalle Praha’s collection, we approached this exhibition by asking ourselves: ‘What happens to libraries and the printed matter within them if digital technologies were to make them obsolete?’ In the process, we have investigated how artists historically have reimagined and reworked the idea of what a book can be. In a time where books get banned in places where we would not have imagined it in our lifetime, we found it urgent to also include recent history and current practices where books and writing play an important role,” say Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset jointly. 

The duo put the project together with the institution’s Chief Curator, Christelle Havranek, and Barbora Ropková, Collection Curator at Kunsthalle Praha. “READ is an extensive group exhibition that has been developed over two years in close collaboration between the teams of Elmgreen & Dragset’s studio and Kunsthalle Praha. Questioning with humour and poetry, the future of shared spaces for accessing knowledge, the exhibition is, above all, a vibrant tribute to the physical book—an object that, despite being endangered, continues to captivate and inspire artists,” adds Havranek.  

 The Kunsthalle Praha Collection as a Source  

In 2021, Kunsthalle Praha expanded its collection with an important set assembled by Marie and Milan Knížák which focuses on the art of the Fluxus Movement. A range of these artworks will be exhibited in READ for the first time since the acquisition. Beyond Fluxus, a selection of pieces from the Kunsthalle Praha Collection by artists such as Kurt Schwitters, Běla Kolářová or Chiharu Shiota, tracing different artistic approaches to the book as an object and artistic medium. The earliest works shown are documents of pre- and post-World War II anxieties, whereas more recent works display concerns about an era dominated by the immaterial and the digital.  

 Numerous artists whose works are included in READ share a connection to Berlin, the city where Elmgreen & Dragset have lived and worked since 1997. Notably, parallels can be drawn between Prague and Berlin as historically significant literary centres and hubs of resistance. Both cities have evolved from their turbulent pasts to become symbols of individual freedom and fertile ground for innovative forms of expression. Furthermore, the term and institutional model of a “kunsthalle” serves as a reminder of Prague’s multicultural history as a city where three nations and two languages co-existed. 

Photo by Vojtěch Veškrna