Outside the Victoria & Albert Museum a huge construction board has been erected:
"Unique property. New residential development. Refurbished 6000 sq ft. Prime cultural heritage location."
There have apparently been enquiries from representatives of London's "new money".
Inside, after passing the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries, donated to the museum in lieu of tax during the post-war dismantling of the old aristocratic system, you are suddenly in the entrance hall of a grand town house. This is the home of Norman Swann, a creation of artist-duo Elmgreen & Dragset, who invite you into their constructed narrative and deftly-curated "house". Though obviously in some state of decay – a bucket in the corridor catches the occasional drip coming through ceiling – this is a grand property.
The entrance hall leads into a living room, study, kitchen, corridor and bedroom. It soon becomes clear that this isn't a simple period reconstruction: there are numerous objects collected from around the museum, but also antique shop furniture mixed in with cheaper finds (including a £20 teapot from a local kebab house) as well as previous works by the artists.
Events from Norman's life are suggested throughout. An array of images hang in the corridor: a photo of Ronnie Scott's jazz club next to one showing the moment Rhodesia initiated breakaway from colonial rule; childhood sketches; a military medal. In the living room is a photo album with holiday snaps of buildings and of people he met. In his study are postcards received from Berlin, from an acquaintance with fond memories but who is seemingly upset Norman never replied.
A portrait over the mantelpiece shows a uniformed schoolboy staring back, his melancholy face concealing an inner storm of childhood angst. Within the fireplace is a sculptural form of the same child, curled up with his face to his knees – perhaps wishing his thoughts could be drawn up the chimney. He isn't the only representation of youthfulness in the house. There are images on the wall, sculptures on tables and an ashtray with a ceramic naked boy starring down at the butt of a recently extinguished cigar. Youth is but one of many recurring themes and overlapping subjects which appear in this house, and it is up to you to formulate meaning and decipher the messages within.
Instead of a gallery text, a small paperback of a script ("Scenes from an unrealised film") is your guide to both the place and characters who inhabit it. The evolving relationships between three people – who exist in text but must be imagined within the space – is played out over 13 scenes to be read whilst freely meandering. That this is set out as a script suggests Elmgreen & Dragset are bringing technique of reading film into a new context, asking us to explore, look for clues, discover and abstractly relate objects, images and ideas with a developing understanding. It is the intertwining of these three modes of experience – reading, imagination, visual exploration – that Elmgreen & Dragset invite us to use when considering the installation, and possibly as a methodology to take to the world outside. It asks that objects are not just considered within linear historicism but also as personal and historical vessels of event, memory and meaning outside of their means and purpose of production.
The script reveals that Norman is a retired architect – one from an entitled and moneyed generation whose inherited wealth meant he didn't need to work for income, but spent his life imagining modernist utopias. His models and drawings may take inspiration from the modernist greats he admires, but are clearly less refined and, in any case, we discover that he never designed a realised building. This failure is a fact he is repeatedly reminded of by Daniel, an interior designer of the next generation, who we learn has bought the ancestral townhouse and is in the process of inserting a sleek kitchen to bring it into the modern age.
There are numerous ways into this installation: the relationship between generations and their consideration of the past, the future and their relationship to both; testing the true value of objects and how cultural importance is assigned; new ways of engaging with museum artefacts; or using various modes of looking and reading to allow meaning to develop within objects. But these many layers aren't a problem, because Elmgreen & Dragset have created such a compelling and resonant work it will remain in your mind long after you leave, creating new memories and references, and frequently reminding you of the details you discovered within.