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Tuesday night’s premiere of Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset’s “Happy Days in the Art World” at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts kicked off this year’s Performa “new visual art performance biennial.” A commissioned work, the piece was clearly a work of theatre and not performance art, which the duo is better known for. If a play could give its intended audience a blow job or cunnilingus, well, let’s say this one would be very very popular.

The curatorial team of Performa loves to push boundaries but Elmgreen and Dragset’s tongue-in-cheek send up of the art world was less experiment and more send up. The play was so meta that it may require someone to invent a word for something that is so meta about meta it hurts — my suggestion: memetata.

Actors Joseph Fiennes and Charles Edwards play slightly more dashing and comedic version of Danish/Norwegian duo Elmgreen & Dragset. They do a solid job of making us care for these characters that awake in bunk beds and are seemingly trapped on stage.

Scenes from Elmgreen & Dragset’s Performa premiere. (all photos in this post by the author)

Chocked full of cliches about art, it was like watching a made-for-tv art world version of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist masterpiece “Waiting for Godot.” Sure the jokes were sometimes crisp and often funny but mostly shallow. Occasionally the humor delves deeper (“Your personal emotions don’t make the art any better” or “Land of the free … market”) but mostly it’s about the moment and little else (“We’re stuck in one of our own installations … maybe we are in New York like it said in that press release,”  “A Gagosian in ever city with atleast two billionaires,” “A city where everyone is artists …Berlin … but everyone is a young artist,” “Where’s that Thai soup kitchen when you need it?” or “It’s a quote by Hans Ulrich.”).

There were many times that I thought the play was headed for certain disaster but the cast and the writing saved it from crashing into flames through a smart joke or unexpected turn. Then there were the many references to the audience itself. When one of the actors jokes about Klaus and points to MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach in the audience or teases about a workshop with Marina, knowing full well that Abramović is indeed present, a part of me died inside.

The artists with the cast of “Happy Days in the Art World” — hard to tell who is who, isn’t it?

It’s obvious that Elmgreen & Dragset know their play in memetata — I’m aware the word doesn’t roll off the tongue — but they seem to relish the fact. Just to prove how self-aware they indeed are, one of the characters remarks that contemporary art is “a language for the select few,” and I’m assuming those of us in attendance should’ve felt a jolt of pride knowing that we’re completely fluent.

One character admires the “authentic graffiti” on the massive prop used as the backdrop and the same fellow admits to creating “craffiti” (yup, craft graffiti) by sewing buttons to things on the downlow. They reference their own work (a lot) and probably made a lot of references that those of us not in the 1% simply didn’t get.

Yet even with all these criticisms I have to say that I still inevitably enjoyed the work. It may not have been brilliant or insightful (I arrived not expecting it to be) but it refracted and poked fun at a world I know rather well. Like much of the contemporary art that is being made today, it reflects the interests, obsessions and anxieties of its audience. When one of the characters suggests that artists are disposable, since curators are the ones who can pick and choose the next new (young) thing, we know there’s an element of truthiness to it all. If there was one thing that bothered me the most about the performance it was the deus ex machina that arrived in the form of a spastic and babbling Fed-Ex courier. Sure, that theatrical device is almost always corny but she felt like a diversion and helped keep the play safely on the surface, which, come to think of it, is what most of Elmgreen & Dragset’s work tends to do anyway.

Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset’s “Happy Days in the Art World” took place at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts (566 LaGuardia Place, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) on Tuesday, November 1 at 7:30pm. Another performance will take place tonight (Thursday, November 3 at 7:30pm) at the same venue.

Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.