Traces of a Never Existing History/Powerless Structures, Fig. 222, (2001/2019), is a to-scale rendering of an art museum that appears to be either emerging from or sinking into the ground. The words “TEMPORARY ART” are all that remain visible above the door, with the implication that the beginning of the word, “CON,” is obscured underground. The sculpture was originally commissioned as part of the 2001 Istanbul Biennial, where it had specific meaning and connection to its site on the historic grounds of the Royal Mint of the Ottoman Empire, a location with a complex history, as the artists elaborate: “... the work was installed in the garden close to an exhibition venue that had housed the historical royal mint, with its grounds extending from Hagia Sophia, the famous church-cum-mosque. Ruins of Dorian columns could be seen on the lawn, close to our sunken Kunsthalle, a still visible sign of the Greeks’ having ruled the area. (Again, traces of a history that both exists and does not exist, that of religion and power.)”
In the Nasher Garden, the sculpture perpetuates the narrative that Renzo Piano initiated with his concept of the Nasher Sculpture Center as a ruin. Acknowledging the shift of the sculpture’s context and how it affects its meaning, the artists describe their interest in engaging with similar ideas in the Nasher’s home city: “Dallas is of course a very different place from Istanbul, but like many other places, it is also a place that is changing, not least the art scene has changed, and with it, changed the image of the city. The whole arts district that the Nasher is a part of is still rather new. New cultural spaces seem to be popping up all the time. Are these spaces sustainable? Will they count in the future as the world around them changes? Or will they be half remembered, seen as traces of a never existing, or irrelevant, history?”
Traces of a Never Existing History therefore functions as both a commentary on the ever-changing status of arts spaces in a burgeoning city and the principal character in Elmgreen & Dragset’s alternative reality for the Nasher Garden. In their narrative, Elmgreen & Dragset have reversed the notion of a sculpture deriving meaning from its context. With Traces of a Never Existing History, our understanding of the Nasher Garden is transformed—the work shifts the context from a sculpture garden to a cemetery (and makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to the notion that museums are places art goes to die): “... the sculpture garden itself, and its serene character, not unlike that of a beautiful walled graveyard, triggered the idea of showing the work again. (Weirdly, maybe even the story of the [James] Turrell sky space, [Tending (Blue), (2003), Nasher Sculpture Center] which cannot be shown due to the skyscraper that was built close to the Nasher, and due to the fact that its height penetrated the view to the sky from inside the space, ruining the work. Is it now a ruin due to the changing surroundings? For the time being, yes.)” (Elmgreen & Dragset, quoted from correspondence with Assistant Curator of the Nasher Sculpture Center, Leigh Arnold, February 20, 2019).