Artistic Legacies

Fostering young talent is a focus area on the Danish art scene, but attention is seldom paid to what happens when artists pass away. Heirloom is a new organisation for neglected archives.

What happens to your practice the day you pass away? This is not a question artists like to ask each other, partly because it is hardly a cheery conversation starter, but also because many do not really know. Perhaps most artists just hope that one day someone will take an interest in what they have created, or perhaps they are so busy with their everyday lives that the idea of ​​an artistic afterlife seems very distant.

Still, in light of our present-day art scene where we constantly rediscover artists and oeuvres that have been forgotten, overlooked, or deemed unworthy of attention in their own time, it is perhaps worth thinking about what will happen to the archive that remains once you yourself are gone. Curators Stine Hebert and Johanne Løgstrup certainly think so. They have just launched Heirloom, an organisation and exhibition space devoted to what they call artistic legacies.

Hebert’s previous positions include serving as rector at the Funen Art Academy and at the art academy in Oslo. She has also been head of the Baltic Art Center and worked as curator at Charlottenborg and at Malmö Konsthall. Løgstrup is currently a PhD fellow working on a project which takes Sonja Ferlov Mancoba (1911–1984) as the starting point for an inquiry into how the past is processed in the present. She has previously held a position as curator at Nikolaj Kunsthal and was one half of the curatorial group publik (the other being Katarina Stenbeck), which from 2005 to 2014 arranged exhibitions in public spaces and ran the exhibition venue bureau publik.

From Heirloom’s premises, a stone’s throw from the National Gallery of Denmark, Hebert and Løgstrup will work with the artistic archive through exhibitions, events, talks, and research. They will delve into what they call “overlooked archives”: boxes languishing in people’s basements or collecting dust in libraries and institutions. They hope to find and reactivate stories from the past that can provide a fresh outlook on why the Danish art scene looks the way it does today. They believe that, even today, there are things we might do to better care for material that we may need to revisit in the future.

Heirloom officially opens tonight. The event will include speeches by Hebert and Løgstrup as well as a new performance by the Norwegian visual artist Marianne Heier, which will address the issue of what we inherit and take with us from a feminist legal angle.

Why do you call Heirloom an organisation rather than a project space?

Stine Hebert: It is our hope and ambition that Heirloom will be a permanent entity, even if it doesn’t necessarily keep to the current format. Exhibitions will be the most publicly visible thing we will do, so it was important for us to find a central location. Our decision not to set up in, for example, the North-West district or elsewhere on the periphery of the city was quite deliberate. We want to create a new kind of organisation and we think of the entire project as fundamental research carried out by us in collaboration with others. We would like to be a platform for joint research and for the development of ideas and perspectives on what an artistic archive is and can do.

What exactly do you mean by artistic archives? Are we talking about works of art here?

Johanne Løgstrup: When we speak about the artistic archive, we apply an expanded understanding of the work of art. We are interested in practices where you cannot speak of a clear divide between the work and everything that lies outside the work itself; practices which raise questions about what we understand as works. Within performance art, for example, there is this enduring question of what is left behind once the performance is over. Is it the visual documentation, the costumes used, or the script?

SH: We address what we call overlooked collections and we are very interested in contexts. So many things surrounding a given work can be important to our understanding of it, and if you haven’t kept and safeguarded those things, you cannot make them accessible or relate to them.

We have both previously worked with archives as curators and as researchers, getting first-hand insight into how challenging it can be to delve into archives if you’re working in a museum setting where you often don’t have the resources required to properly care for the material, or the time to conduct research on it or make it available to audiences. We want to create formats and narratives that reactivate this material, showing what it can do. We hope that this may act as an incentive for some of the larger institutions, prompting them to take care of these things because, obviously, this is not a task we can undertake alone. We envision this as a co-creative initiative, carried out in an ongoing dialogue with the many other institutions on the scene, with other actors and in some cases with the artists themselves.

Johanne Løgstrup and Stine Hebert at Heirloom’s premises in Sølvgade in central Copenhagen. Photo: Tove Storch.

What kind of artistic practices are you interested in?

SH: We have a particular focus on the more ephemeral formats, which are often the ones that fall between the cracks because they straddle several categories. One example might be experimental films. While we have the Cinematheque and the Danish Film Institute, they have tended to focus a great deal on classic cinema, so the current state of protection of our shared cultural heritage within the field of experimental film is actually in a pretty bad way. Often, these works were created and released in formats that have never been digitised, and now they’re stashed away in people’s basements, slowing decaying. Who will look after them and where should they be kept?

In terms of periods, we focus on art from 1960 onwards, but we will also address these issues with a forward-looking perspective. We would like to make living artists aware that it is possible to create something new by addressing your past, which in turn can also have an impact on the future. As an artist, it can be fun to actively relate and respond to your previous production in ways that are not just about vanity and one’s legacy, but also about using it artistically.

Could you give an example of an archive or an overlooked collection you will work with?

SH: Yes. For example, we will work with cultural-historical events that have been overlooked. We have received funding for a research initiative where we revisit an international women’s festival held under auspices of the UN in 1980. It was set partly at the Glyptoteket in Copenhagen, where a range of world-famous women artists from various disciplines came to Denmark. The festival has since been forgotten because it was organised and run by volunteers, specifically by feminist activists. The few existing remains have been scattered out among strange and fragile archives, including at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC and at KØN in Aarhus. We are the first to look at that material in forty years.

LS: How did you come across that material?

SH: Quite by chance. I was at the Women’s Art Library in London, working on a completely different research project, and just as I was about to leave the archivist asked if I could possibly take a look at something they had lying around without knowing what it was, because it was in Danish. I opened the box and the first thing I saw was a slide from the Glyptoteket’s Central Hall showing Audre Lorde giving a reading. I had never heard of that event before, but as I looked more closely at the material, connections began to be made and an outline emerged.

This was one of the first times Lorde visited Europe, and while here she was offered the teaching job she got in Berlin – a position which would prove decisive for the extensive influence she subsequently had in Europe. She was offered that job by a member of the audience in the hall at the Glyptoteket. This was an analogue era when everything happened via physical meetings, of which few if any traces remain today. It is an example of an important event which also points to how the feminist developments we have seen on the art scene weren’t quite as exclusively white as we think today. There may have been an entirely different intersectional point of departure which for various reasons has not been inscribed in the story we are telling, but that does not mean that it did not leave a mark. Our project is about unpacking some of the stories and narratives that give us a chance to see our current times in a new light, thinking about them in new ways.

What is your process like? For example, from the moment you found that box until you have an exhibition ready?

JL: It is a very long-term process. We have set ourselves the challenge of unpacking material that has not been touched for many years, but we are not going to make exhibitions of the display-case kind. We will strive to find formats where we can activate our findings in ways that make them interesting and relevant for others. We don’t want to end up with a simple, outright homage to history or a wallowing in nostalgia. We have received funding for a two-year programme at our venue, and over the next two years we will try out different ways of working with this type of material. Even we don’t yet know how it will turn out.

SH: One of the distinctive traits of the overall exhibition programme is that the exhibitions will be very different in nature. We want to experiment and play with a range of ways of approaching this type of material, all in order to find out how we can talk about history and the importance of the archive in ways that go beyond what our classic, conventional training has taught us to do.

Slides from a conference at the Glyptoteket in 1980, with Audre Lorde among the participants. Stine Hebert came across the slides by chance when visiting the Women’s Art Library in London. Photo: Heirloom.

Where does your exhibition space stand in relation to those museums which also work with collections and archives?

SH: We are already engaged in close conversations with a number of institutions. There is great institutional interest in the kind of work we do, so co-operating with others has been part of the plan right from the outset. It’s possible that five years from now, there will be no need for Heirloom to exist in the form it currently takes at the time of its opening. Perhaps we will develop some practices and approaches here which others can take over later.

JL: The institutions have this enormous fount of experience, and we see great potential in drawing on that accumulated knowledge in the more discursive part of our programme. Conversely, the institutions could perhaps use us to become more communicative and outward-looking, telling everyone more about how they manage and tend their collections and how those efforts are relevant and interesting to art lovers.

What will happen to the archives once you have found them, worked with them, and exhibited parts of them?

SH: Obviously, we don’t have the resources to take care of the archives that we come across, but we can try to mobilise interest and discussion among the museums and the large foundations that must help to carry out this task. Internationally, you see a great deal of attention being devoted to these issues these days, and in some places you also find commercial interest in artists’ archives on a completely different level than you see in Denmark. Overall, our impression is that while there is interest in the field here in Denmark, no one has the capacity to explore it right now. Everyone already has their own big tasks to carry out and focus on, but we really need someone to attend to this particular field.

JL: Being a small independent organisation unfettered by pre-established rules and requirements, we are also able to experiment more freely with what the archive can do. Doing so seems more difficult for the museums, perhaps partly because they face a completely different kind of scrutiny and accountability than we do. When you’re a small venue that’s just getting started, you’re bound to make mistakes, but I think that those mistakes will be easier to forgive precisely because we’re small.

SH: Also, we are not working with our own collections, which gives us greater leeway than the museums have. We borrow some things, and they may take on a somewhat hybrid form while here, but they will leave our hands intact. When you work on your own collection, you need to handle it in a different way.

You also plan to work with contemporary art. How will you do that?

JL: Our first exhibition will take its starting point in a textile work that Sonja Ferlov Mancoba and Ernest Mancoba created together in 1951. It is an unusual work within their overall oeuvres, one that was produced with commercial interests in mind; it was probably intended to be sold as curtain fabric or similar. To their minds, it was never intended as a work of art, and, in fact, the question of who actually created it is still very much up for debate. Some say that it is completely typical of one of them, others think the opposite. But in my own studies, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that it is probably a joint effort. I think there is something affecting about it being a shared piece of work, especially when considering how important the two artists were to each other in general and how central their collaboration was to their individual practices.

In the opening exhibition, which we call Textile Memories, we juxtapose their jointly created fabric with pieces by four contemporary artists who explore textiles as carriers of memory. These works do not focus on issues of craftsmanship and genesis, but rather on the meaning of the work – partly for the artists themselves and partly in a wider cultural context. For example, they may speak into a decolonising context, addressing why some textiles ended up in one particular place rather than another.

The first exhibition in Heirloom is based on a textile work created jointly by Sonja Ferlov Mancoba and Ernest Mancoba in 1951. Sonja Ferlov Mancoba and Ernest Mancoba, Mancoba, 1951, textile. Photo: Heirloom.

SH: Another example of how you can work with living artists would be a retrospective featuring Solvognen, the theatre troupe that has had such an enormous impact on the visual arts scene today. The existing archival material about the group is scattered to the winds: some is at the Freetown of Christiania and some is being kept in people’s basements, making this an excellent example of material that someone needs to step in and take care of. The members of the Solvognen group have reached an age where there is immediate urgency; if this material is to be collected and systematised, it must be done now, while they are still around and remember what happened. It is absolutely essential to find and study that material now to keep it from disappearing.

LS: When working with living artists, such as the former members of Solvognen, how does the dialogue unfold? I imagine that revisiting something which dates so far back in people’s past can be a sensitive matter?

SH: You have to be prepared for the fact that it takes time. We deliberately work slowly and have promised each other that we will let the projects unfold in whatever way they need. It’s no good for us to schedule an exhibition if the material has not unpacked itself sufficiently for us, and the labour involved in making that happen will differ from one project to the next. Not all the material we work with is equally accessible. Some of it lends itself well to being put into this space, making it easy to envision how it might be turned into an interesting and relevant exhibition, while other things require many transpositions, translations, and exchanges before we get to where we want to be. Some aspects can also be complex and sensitive because there may be all kinds of reasons why a given set of material has been buried.

LS: Could you give some examples of reasons why certain types of material might get overlooked?

JL: We often see that practices which have been forgotten experience a sudden revival in interest, as is the case with textiles, for example. We hope that diving into a concrete archive associated with textiles will enable us to investigate why it was forgotten and why it suddenly reappears. In doing so, you’ll almost certainly engage with a feminist narrative, but perhaps also with a more global narrative about how other materials have been used in other places, thereby lifting our gaze a little and making us look beyond our own backyard.

SH: I think that one of the prominent angles of approach will be concerned with the transnational exchanges that have been overlooked in national history writing. We would like to dig into whether something else – something more – may have happened beyond what we have generally been told and thought about, and why these things have not been seen.

JL: Previously, there has been this very strong dividing line between what was considered art and what was not. As a result of that hierarchy, some of the things we find hugely exciting today have so far been overlooked in general history writing. 

SH: Yes, that sort of assignment of value and interest can certainly have an impact. I also think that we live within a very small art scene, one which can sometimes have a rather provincial outlook where you absolutely need to have attended The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts to be recognised as part of the official scene. Many wonderful international artists have settled in Denmark over time, engaging in substantial and important practices that have been shown in all sorts of places internationally – and yet, they have never really had their material shown here.

In your capacity as curators, what do you especially need to keep in mind when exhibiting material envisioned and created during times quite different from the one we live in now?

SH: We are in a time of transition today, a time when a great many big questions are up for discussion. Not that we have answers to those questions, but we hope that we are brave enough to engage with the difficult conversations. For example, some of the materials associated with Solvognen come across as complex and problematic when you look at them from a present-day perspective. Fuelled by all the best intentions, they sometimes used imagery that can appear offensive to observers today. There I was, suddenly facing a huge papier-mâché head of a Black Lady Liberty – a piece with huge visual impact, but also one which requires you to think about how it would even be possible to display it today. 

JL: I think that you can do a lot through the way you present it. After all, if we don’t address and articulate this sort of thing, it just slips out of history, and then we never get to have the discussion. It is a difficult balancing act: of course we need to show respect, but we shouldn’t get overly afraid to delve into things because then we end up not daring to engage in the conversations we need to have – and which our current times urge us to have. We need to stand by the fact that we once had a different mindset.

SH: We keep evolving, and the entire discussion about censorship encompasses a lot of very complex questions. The projects we do are about looking at history without re-editing it, trying to understand it from the contemporary point of view. This is what we strive to express and discuss curatorially, so it is only natural that we engage in a dialogue with the times and try to get contemporary art’s perspective on matters.

LS: In your press release you state that you work with artistic legacies. What advice do you have for living artists concerned about how their practice will be treated after they have passed away?

SH: Nursing very young artistic talents is a key focus area on the Danish art scene right now, but we never talk about what happens at the other end of the spectrum. What happens to your practice the day you die? It’s a bit like talking about your retirement plan: a really difficult and unsexy question, but one that you know you’ll have to deal with.

As a creative artist, you often live very much in the present and with your eyes firmly on the next project, but you also know very well that you are building on what you have done before. If you only start thinking about what will happen to your work when you are 85, it might be too late; there will already be things you can’t remember, things you haven’t kept, and things whose disappearance you regret. Your practice needs to incorporate thinking about what is important for others to be able to understand and access your work in the future. It is about you as an artist taking ownership of your practice so that it is not just left in the hands of whatever art historian might one day take an interest in it. 

JL: Many artists produce a lot of work but forget the overall connections between what they are doing, so a basic step would be to keep records of the work you produce. You need to keep tabs on your production and be able to contemplate it right from its beginnings to the present. Not necessarily in the way we do it as art historians, but it is important to maintain your feel for the work you have done in the past.

We have observed that artists who have incorporated this way of thinking right from the start also often get a desire to return to their past works in different ways. They can see and understand the overarching connections in their own production, which can be a definite benefit in the later parts of their practice – being able to look back and see the shape and meaning of it all.

You also want to act as advisors to visual artists who need support in thinking about their legacy. How will that be done?

SH: An actual consultancy programme is several years into the future, but we have done a small pilot project which consisted of a teaching course under the auspices of the association Danish Visual Artists (BKF). There we saw that the artists were tremendously interested in talking about these things. Obviously, you can’t arrange and organise everything as if you were a museum institution, but you can get a handle on some basic things which will better ensure your legacy.

JL: The issue is also about the fact that artists and art workers are vulnerable in terms of how they organise things; many aspects are not professionalised. Even so, you can take certain small measures that enable a degree of self-management. For example, a simple thing like crediting all contributors from the start. Whenever you do a collaboration, it is worth thinking about what people will need to know if they should want to delve into the material thirty years from now. For example, we have seen that extras from a particular performance subsequently began working in a new way, or that many artists whose practices are similar have a shared background in the same scenes.

SH: Part of our ambition is also to form a larger network of people around us who are interested in these questions. In the long term, we would like to constitute a helpful resource for those who might want to come to us with questions of this type and calibre. In the long term, we also hope to be able to provide connections between the artists who might turn to us for input and people from other relevant professional groups and niche experts – conservators, for example – who can help to get these issues dealt with in time. We would like to be a platform for joint research and for further developing ideas and perspectives on what an artistic legacy is.

Heirloom in Sølvgade, Copenhagen. Photo: Kristofer Hultenberg.