London Slant: Why has the V&A’s resident architect disappeared?

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”.

Tomorrow at V&A

Cracked dining table and a sculpture of Norman Swann cowering in the hearth.

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?

Bedroom Elmgreen & Dragset

A vulture is poised over the rumpled bed

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.”

V&A Elmgreen & Dragset

The steel-cold kitchen, with Domino’s pizza boxes dumped in the corner

The artists in Norman Swann's lounge.

Visitors are welcome to sit in Norman Swann’s lounge, just like its two artists, above.

Tomorrow by Elmgreen & Dragset, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Free, until 2 January, 2014.

Photographs courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

2 thoughts on “London Slant: Why has the V&A’s resident architect disappeared?

  1. Fran

    Sounds fascinating – I’ll have to try and catch it. I wish it was on longer after Christmas though, closing 2nd January is a bit harsh.

    1. londonslant Post author

      Thanks – and I do hope you manage to get there. You could combine it with the Chinese paintings if you haven’t seen them. They might have some interesting links with your specialist part of the world!


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