A Vibrant Place for the Production of Art

‘The institution should be shaped around artistic practice, not the other way around’, says Rhea Dall, new head of Overgaden in Copenhagen.

Rhea Dall new director of Overgaden. Photo: Anne Valeur.

It was recently announced that Rhea Dall will be the new director of the Copenhagen art venue Overgaden – Institute of Contemporary Art.

Dall comes from a position as head of Young Artists’ Society (UKS) in Oslo and is currently completing a PhD at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies at the University of Copenhagen. She holds a degree in Modern Culture and Cultural Communication from the same university, but has for the past many years lived outside of Denmark, primarily in Oslo and Berlin.

Last Dall was based in Copenhagen, she was curator at Kunsthal Charlottenborg during Mark Sladen’s tenure as director. In Berlin, Dall co-founded PRAXES Centre for Contemporary Art. She was one of the artistic directors of the international triennial Bergen Assembly in 2016. Prior to these curatorial positions, she was project coordinator at the Berlin Biennales 2008 and 2010, and for the duo pavilion featuring Elmgreen & Dragset and jointly presented by the Nordic countries at the Venice Biennale in 2009.

Located in the Christianshavn district of Copenhagen, Overgaden has existed since 1986. The building itself is currently undergoing a major renovation and will reopen mid-September, presenting solo exhibitions featuring Johannes Sivertsen and Torben Ribe, respectively.

Dall will take over her new position in November. She succeeds Merete Jankowski, who has been head of Overgaden since 2012. 

You come from a job as head of UKS in Oslo, meaning that you have a good feel for the younger Norwegian art scene. Do you see any significant differences between the Danish and Norwegian scenes? What will you take with you from Norway? 

Beyond UKS, Oslo holds a range of institutions that put both curatorial, organisational, and fiscal muscle behind new and experimental artistic positions. Just look at Kjersti Solbakken’s work at Kunstnerforbundet, Antonio Cataldo at Fotogalleriet, Will Bradley and the wonderful team at Kunsthall Oslo, or, to mention a few other examples, the work done at Billedhoggerforeningen, or Tominga O’Donnell’s “Munchmuseet on the Move” – all institutions and initiatives with this scope. On top, you have the unruly wildlife of artist-run exhibition spaces that imprints heavily on the Norwegian art scene.

This is simply a very strong infrastructure which, on an ongoing basis, pushes the field of young artists into the exhibition’s bright tungsten light and, onwards, into the public sphere. This very ecosystem ensures a constant motion propelling young practice into the public debate on arts and culture. The Copenhagen institutional scene is somewhat more tradition-bound and answers to broader responsibilities, both public and popular. This means that the Danish capital holds far fewer institutions supporting the artistic ecosystem ground up, from the younger or untried artists’ perspective. In Norway, the small to mid-size institutions are, to a large degree, initiated by the artists’ themselves. This model carries inherent problems, but also invaluable strengths – and the latter we should all learn from, i.e. briefly said, to put the artists and their utterances first.

Overgaden presents approximately eight to ten exhibitions each year, most of which are based on open calls. Interested artists submit applications describing a project they want to realise. You are now in the process of reformulating the concept so that in future, artists apply on the basis of their artistic practice, not a specific project. What exactly does this mean?

Concretely, this means that artists applying to exhibit at Overgaden in the future will be invited to submit information based on their existing work, presenting their practice as it unfolds and is continuously transforming, instead of dreaming up a new project in advance of stepping into an institutional collaboration. This is a different way to develop and think about exhibitions – one that I have been working with over the last years in Oslo – and one that grants time and space for continuous shifts, fluctuations, opposition – processes that do not necessarily live well on paper, as part of a written concept. Moreover, it is a methodology that understands the exhibition space, as well as the institutional support structure, as an active resource that is not just an after-the-fact, dead spatial set-up but is an integral part of the artistic production. It is a step away from what a dear friend and colleague has called ‘desktop art’. That does not mean that writing and making elaborate project descriptions can be both conducive and useful for some, but I would like to open up the question of openness in an “Open Call,” while avoiding that a whole army of young artists spend endless hours devising elaborate projects before being invited in the door. 

Are there other institutional changes you plan for Overgaden?

The short answer is yes! Overgaden is a magical place. I sneaked into the institution, currently undergoing renovation, to see the raw space the other day. The current director, Merete Jankowski, and the whole team has done an incredible job throughout the last years, most recently funding and following through with this renovation. Hence, I am standing on a broad set of shoulders, when further developing this institution. One example of change is, that I will continue the dialogue with the board about shortening the institutional name to “O.” O is the sound one expels when filled with wonder – caused by, for instance, the surprising sensations and critical crossroads of contemporary art. And it is the symbol of all the rabbit holes – oral and oreille – the libidinal and unexplored detours that artistic practices suck us into.

You have written a practice-based PhD dissertation about your experiences of building the medium-sized institution PRAXES in Berlin – including how experimental institutional formats are created around artistic practices. What, if any, deliberations and ideas from this time will you bring with you to Overgaden?

Indeed, I have worked a whole lot with how the institution can meet and be moulded or modelled around the artistic practice, not vice versa. Another important question, that I bring on, is how the institution can be a place of community or companionship – a forum that allows for the informal and even the indistinct, the fun and the festive.

Which curators or institutions are doing good work right now?  Who among your contemporary colleagues inspire you?

Fernanda Brenner, who runs Pivô in Sao Paulo, has managed to both fundraise for and move enormous resources towards a set of precariously positioned local practices via a series of online presentation that allows both young artists and curators on board, into Pivô’s great world. In that sense, Fernanda has made the crisis the fire in her canons, that she has, in turn, used to question the artistic canon. And then I currently harbour a kind of institutional envy towards the newsletter that ICA in London is producing – a frequent mental meeting in a (socially) distanced time.

You recently contributed two very widely read articles in Kunstkritikk. The first was a comment on the National Gallery of Denmark’s closure of  its X-room venue, which you saw as a logical end result of years of cutbacks in Danish culture – “in times of darkness, artistic experiments become threatened,” as you put it. In the essay ‘Follow the Money’ you described the 2010s as the decade of financial capitalism. By the end of the decade, all of Scandinavia was entirely gentrified and governed by market forces – including the public subsidy schemes. We are now “moving towards a (cultural) policy governed by those who pay, not by (art) experts,” you concluded. How do you intend to navigate such waters? 

In a way this rugged sea makes it even more urgent to fight for a diverse and inclusive field of art – where the aorta must both be continuously challenged. COVID-19 lets the porous and clumsy economy of the Nordic art world surface, pointing at how the young and experimental neck of the woods needs fertiliser – if not, the large-scale museums will have little to show in five or ten years. 

The last time you lived and worked in Copenhagen was in the early 2010s, when you were a curator at Kunsthal Charlottenborg under Mark Sladen’s management. At that time, it was clear that Copenhagen was not ready for a Kunsthalle with an international programme and lofty ambitions. I imagine that your ambitions have not diminished in the meantime. Are you a little apprehensive about what it will be like to return, or do you see some clear changes since then?

The changes are many, after all this is almost ten years ago. What were back then new positions – both artists and curators – have become part of the establishment, myself included. When it comes to my move to Denmark, I believe that one of the most important measures of success will be to see if I can facilitate, expand and extend possibilities for others than myself in this field, especially locally.

You have been appointed head of Overgaden for the next four years – with the possibility of extending your contract for another four years. What would you like people to think about the years you led Overgaden? What kind of a place did it become under the leadership of Rhea Dall?

If a new wave of artistic voices has been raised and supported via Overgaden – and we’ve created a public conversation or forum of discussion around their visual works and practices – then some has succeeded. The wish to be a – critical – part of our contemporary culture is at the core here. If the institution manages that – and does it so well that local Copenhageners carry around the institutional tote bag and pass by once a month – then we’ve come quite far.