Finding Sydhavn Station, the artist-run space in south Copenhagen, is easy. Just take a train from Central Copenhagen railway to Sydhavn Station -it takes about 5 minutes – and when you descend the stairs, there it is, right in front of you and inside the train station. It’s actually located in the old ticket office, now no longer needed as automatic ticket machines have replaced train station staff. As part of the deal with the train authorities, who rent it out to the group of artists, they, the artists, also have access to the display windows – all fifteen of them. When I visited, the windows were full of a text-based work – in Danish of course – by Digteren Sternberg, sadly I can’t read Danish.
The minute you walk through the door there’s a sense of stepping into another world. It’s suddenly really quiet and one has a sense of peace and calm after the clatter and noise of the train station outside.
I turned up late one Thursday afternoon and was ushered into one of the studio spaces. Three artists from the collective had agreed to speak to me about Sydhavn Station, the artist collective, and their own involvement with the space – Anne Skole Overgaard, Jens Axel Beck and Mette Juul. So with a delicious afternoon tea/coffee set out generously on one of the desks we began our conversation.
Sydhavn Station was initiated in August 2012. It consists of a collective of ten artists. The arrangement is interesting. The exhibition space – which is the quiet room that I entered straight from the Station – is only part of the arrangement. On both sides there are studio/office cubicle spaces for the members of the collective. Walking into the studio spaces felt quite dense with desks and papers and all sorts of energy and activity. The artists told me that all members pay something and this pays for the rent of the entire space – which means that exhibiting artists never pay to show their work here!
The amount each member pays is based on how many square meters they have of studio space. The others, without studio space, pay a small fee to be part of the collective and to show work.
The artists explained to me how the exhibition space is organised: Each artist is given a one month period per year where the space is their responsibility. It usually works out at about a month each – and with only ten artists this means there’s some time left at the end of the year to have a group show or perhaps invite a curator to organise a show. Now this is where it gets interesting–each artist, when their month comes up, is responsible for everything. The funding, the invitations, the PR, the install, sitting the gallery whatever. Artists can use the space however they would like, to show their own work or invite in guest artists, which seems to be a very popular way to go. As Mette explained, “we help each other. but it has to work like this because everyone is a practicing artist, travelling and doing stuff so it’s the only way that it can work.”
I think this is a very practical model for operating an artist-run. It deals with the thorny issue of artists having to pay to show their own work, instead here, artists pay for ongoing studio space.
The ten artists that make up the collective all have different practices and different ways of working, which gives the exhibition program throughout the year a lot of variety. The three artists I spoke to had very different practices.
Anne has a broad painting/drawing practice, and presently she is focused on water colours, making striking and visually sophisticated views from windows, including the view from her studio at Sydhavn Station. She mentioned that as she trained at an Academy outside Copenhagen she has always been aware of the need to create spaces for exhibition, in fact this was something that was very much emphasised by her teachers at Jutland Academy of Art in Aarhus. If you are a young artist living outside Copenhagen the opportunities for exhibiting can be a lot less, and an artist needs to come up with creative solutions. In view of this, some of Anne’s past projects have indeed been both creative and wonderful. One was an exhibition in an envelope and another was an exhibition in a corridor.
Jens describes himself as an interdisciplinary artist utilising a wide variety of materials. He makes surprising and unpredictable sculptural/conceptual works. Some of these use found materials and overlooked everyday objects – a vacuum cleaner, dust on a light shade and my favourite, finger prints on a glass display case. In his most recent work he used old posters he found at work that he remade into ‘solid’ memorials to everyday life – in a strategy of reverse materiality he remade these flexible paper posters using the hard stone of marble.
Mette describes herself as a lens based artist using photography and video. She is particularly drawn to narrative and storytelling through photography. She makes intriguing and compelling photo-books of her many photos gathered while travelling. One of her most recent projects is what she calls a “photo-memory exchange” where she is collecting memories. What this means is that the photos she takes in one place – she says she photographs everything – she shows people/audiences in another unrelated place and invites them to write a text about any of the photos that might stir a memory for them. This method of working has been enormously productive as Mette pursues the idea of “collective memory” and the possibility that we may all share more than we realise.
Danish artists get a lot of support from the State, especially young and emerging. Firstly there is the Danish Arts Council which offers some grants, but there is also local govt or community support as well. The Social Democratic way of organising life extends to these small artist initiatives, with most of the artists that I spoke to having received some sort of funding in the past or currently.
One of the more enlightened aspects of this supportive situation is that as members of an artist-run it is possible to invite international artists to come to Copenhagen and show their work, which as Mette remarked “you don’t have to be a big museum to invite people”. The grants are sizeable enough to pay the invited international artist for their travel costs as well as a small stipend for expenses while staying in Copenhagen.
As we talked into the evening the realisation that we were in a train station was never far away. A deep vibrating rumble could be heard every now and then as the train passed over our heads.
Thank-you Anne, Jens and Mette for taking the time to talk to me about your projects and Sydhavn Station.