In the summer of 2016, artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset transformed the Fifth Avenue entrance to the Channel Gardens at Rockefeller Center with a large-scale new work. Van Gogh’s Ear is a sculpture, which takes the form of a swimming pool sitting upright.
Elmgreen & Dragset’s 9-meter (30-foot) high, empty swimming pool stands upright on its shortest side, supported by a visible construction on its backside. It appears almost like a ready-made, displayed as if “for sale in a showroom.” A century after Marcel Duchamp began working with ready-mades, Elmgreen & Dragset continue this practice by isolating a common object from its functional context. The sense of isolation is magnified due to the scarcity of personal pools in a densely populated city like New York, as opposed to the West Coast. By repositioning a pool in an unlikely place like the prominent Rockefeller Plaza, right at Fifth Avenue, the artists achieve a simple displacement of the kind for which they are well known, challenging our associations and expectations of a particular setting. The pool—re-positioned into the surroundings of urban life, tourists, skyscrapers, and businesses—seems like a foreign object that has somehow landed there in the plaza. The sculptural qualities of the object itself, from the curves created by different depths and the overall shape of the pool, to the protruding diving board, become apparent when it is singularly presented in this upright position, rather than dug down into the ground. Like Elmgreen & Dragset’s previous projects such as Prada Marfa (a Prada store located in the middle of the Texan desert), the swimming pool creates a feeling of alienation, and brings attention to its context by its very otherness.