Making Room: Marie Thams and Hannah Heilmann

To continue my research of artist run spaces in Copenhagen I spent a couple of days talking to and interviewing artists in their studios and spaces while staying in Copenhagen. It was a great experience to meet artists in their own spaces, to get a feel for the space, its place in the city and the artists themselves.

Marie Thams and Hannah Heilmann
Marie Thams and Hannah Heilmann

The first interview was with the artists Marie Thams and Hannah Heilmann, who organised the symposium Making Room, held in Copenhagen late last year. I met with the two organisers/artists in the studio of Odradek – an artist-run space that Marie Thams is a member. We met to talk about the symposium and their own involvement with artist run spaces in Copenhagen. Hannah is a member of TOVES, an artist-run that consists of 10 members, and located in an industrial area of Copenhagen. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to visit Toves this time…(I got lost)  Odradek, on the other hand is close to the Central Railway so easy for foreigners like me — I love this name Odradek, taken from one of Kafka’s stories The Cares of a Family Man, with its ambiguity and allusion to “any useless, harmless object which is kept around for no obvious reason”.


On entering the unassuming door I found myself in a large room with several work tables. This is a  working space for the artists. There are seven members. The exhibition space is downstairs where some left-behind shelving has been utilised for their last exhibition, titled Family Man. The shelving has an unusual form, large spaces between each shelf – like large luggage racks. With the artists’s projects set amongst these wooden spaces it takes on a very poetic feel.

Image courtesy of Odradek and  Bonnie Fortune and Brett Bloom
Artists’ work featured in this image are: Honey Biba Beckerlee and Trine Mee Sock Gleerup Image courtesy of Odradek and Bonnie Fortune

TOVES is a collective of 10 members, which at first glance may seem like a lot, but according to Hannah this number is something that they thought about and realised “10 becomes a more uncontrollable mass of people” and “it also means that not everybody is at all the meetings and it therefore becomes more flexible”. TOVES is the name of the original gallery that was situated in a popular arcade in a once-poor-area, but since gentrified, part of the city, Vesterbro. However due to market forces – someone bought their space –  the collective had to move. TOVES is also the name of a well-known  local poet Tove Ditlevsen who had grown up in Vesterbro area. Today TOVES is located in an industrial part of the city, “off the beaten track”, which is much less visible to the local community, unlike the arcade where there had been lots of passing traffic. Nevertheless Hannah thinks the space is wonderful and one of the best exhibition spaces in Copenhagen at present. I will definitely visit next time.

Making Room
Image courtesy of Hannah Heilmann

Making Room was billed as “A symposium on artists, institutions and artist’s institutions during the Modern Breakthrough and today.”  It was held at Den Frie, one of the oldest artist run institutions in Denmark, with a history going back to 1891! And extraordinarily,  it is still run by artists! (more or less) today.  In a very distinctive move the symposium bought together two different eras, separated by over 100 years — The Modern Breakthrough and the contemporary moment of artist run spaces. (The Modern Breakthrough is a term, often associated with the art critic and theorist Georg Brandes, referring to  Nordic art of the late 19th century, when Nordic artists began painting in a Realistic mode.)

Rather than rely on the usual references to 1960s or 1990s radical artists’ spaces and the familiar narratives of artists’ radical resistance to the commodity culture of the art market of late 20th century capitalism etc, etc. Hannah and Marie wanted to underline instead the links between artists’ institutions today and the fact that these institutions have a history. For the Nordic countries and in particular Denmark the history of artists’ associations is a strong one.  They also wanted to emphasis the connections with the late 19th century, understanding that the institutional structures of today’s art world were developed in the second half of the 19th century, in particular the relationship between academies, collectors, museums and audiences. This is a fact that can be overlooked by the constant present of today’s contemporary artists. And it is from within this historical context that the symposium posed some very pertinent questions for contemporary artists-run spaces – now referred to as artists institutions.

“How [do] artists’ own institutions interplay with other institutions and whether or not they can – or ought to – be seen as practising an alternative institutional critique, if they are foremost a form of artistic practice, or simply function as strategic stepping stones for upcoming artists.”

These questions  were also foregrounded in the We Are Here symposium in Sydney in 2011 and again in the Vancouver conference Institutions by Artists in 2012.

The artists make the point that looking at these historical artists’ institutions can shed light on the role of todays spaces and projects where we are “always performing within this institutional landscape” and it makes clear that artists have – at least since the Modern era- always had to negotiate through the many issues that constrain their work or their needs.  It is often ‘necessity‘ either economic, cultural or social necessity, rather than simply artistic vision that propels artists to set up their own institutions. As Hannah remarked,  “Often these work as an interplay. you sort of get pushed to push the boundaries because there is no room for you and you have to change the parameters what a scene can be or where you’re working.”

Odradek space is situated in the back of this building.
Odradek space is situated in the back of this building.

Thank-you Marie Thams and Hannah Heilmann for taking time out to do this interview.

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