The maid was standing in the bedroom when I asked her whether I could take photographs. “No, I’m sorry,” she replied, politely “this is a private home”.
I doubt whether gallery assistants at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum usually give this response, but then a frilly white apron over a black dress is hardly their regular uniform. It’s all part of Tomorrow, the brilliantly conceived installation that Scandinavian artists Elmgreen & Dragset have created in the recesses of the museum’s upper floors.
Just finding my way to Tomorrow was all part of the fun. I meandered through rooms I haven’t visited for years, beside a golden sarcophagus, among gothic Victoriana and past radiant stained glass. Once suitably steeped in nostalgia I arrived at the imaginary residence of architect Norman Swann.
A butler nodded as I entered the suite of formal, high-ceilinged rooms. But Swann himself was nowhere to be seen. Around the swiftly vacated premises were hints that this éminence grise had fallen on hard times and, unable to pay his bills, disappeared. A film script available at the entrance gave a different twist to the tale.
But as I wandered around I began to wonder whether something worse had befallen the man—and half expected to find his turned-up toes peeking out from beneath the bed. Was that why a crystal vulture loomed over it from above?
The black dining table had a sinister crack running through its centre. Through a locked door came the sound of running water: was it Swann in the shower or a tap left running by someone inside unable to turn it off?
All these dramatic touches were skilfully juxtaposed with the plaintive minutiae of a grand life lost, of the old order ousted by the new. On the piano was a collection of monochrome photographs, including shots of Swann with worthies such as Margaret Thatcher. Library shelves featured august leather-bound tomes alongside Proust’s In Remembrance of Things Past and The Benn Diaries.
More poignantly, in the corner of the pristine, hi-spec kitchen, was a pile of discarded pizza boxes. Concealed behind an elegant screen stood an invalid’s walking frame. There were crumpled unpaid bills, guns, half-stuffed packing boxes, an old cardigan slung on a chair. All had been meticulously compiled from the collections of the V&A and E&D to create this unnerving scene.
By now, I’d built up so many different scenarios I could have written a film script of my own. But the time had come to step out back into the galleries. I said goodbye and thanked the maid. It was a pleasure,” she replied. “Thank you for visiting.”
Tomorrow by Elmgreen & Dragset, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Free, until 2 January, 2014.
Photographs courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.