No X-Room for X Factor

The closure of National Gallery of Denmark’s X-room is symptomatic: in the dark ages following policies of budget cuts spaces for artistic experiment erode.

Sidsel Meiniche, An Artist’s Guide to Stop Being an Artist, X-rummet, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, 2019. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

The X-room – the National Gallery of Denmark’s (SMK) singular factual space dedicated mainly to new solo shows and commissions by mid-career artists – is closing up shop. This edits out an intimate, designated space for contemporary art experiments in the large, and largely historical, nationally focused museum. The ongoing annual two per cent budget cuts, initiated in 2016 by the former right-wing government, have taken their toll and wounded the museum in a deep way, all the way to its very core: its focus on nurturing its own future. This is a regression – a conservative move away from supporting (and acquiring) smaller-scale experiments in the art-to-come (the future) towards focusing on large-scale shows of the collected (the past).

Ironically, Director Mikkel Bogh loves the intimate semi-public sphere created within the bourgeois society of the 18th and 19th centuries. In 2016, he himself curated the exhibition Closer – Intimacies in Art, which focused on the rise of the modern artist during 1730–1930, when European painters looked beyond official representation (of narratives of church or state), and experimented with motives closer to the private and personal (as political).

In a promotional video for the exhibition, Bogh notes how this space – the space for the individual singular utterance – is one we continuously create and define. It is not a given. Nevertheless, the museum is abandoning its X-room. To quote the late artist known as Prince, it’s a “sign o’ the times.” While the place for experimental focus on intimacy might be of interest historically, there is little space left for experimentation or intimacy in the grand museum today.

It’s nothing new that large-scale museums gravitate towards PR-friendly and popular grandissima which generate foot traffic. At SMK, the X-room was an exception to this rule. The word “room” in English is usually reserved for a personal homely space in a private house. In international art world English, the intimate terms “house” and “room” are typically substituted by the more formal and distanced “building” and “space.” It is actually an oddity that the X-room, a physically remote pocket or “room” within the museum premises, was kept for so long. 

I once took my dad to see the X-room exhibition Abandon the Parents (2014). All punning aside – take your parent to abandon the parents – the X-room as a site has always felt hidden, abandoned somehow. Finding one’s way there was a mystery: entering the grand arrival hall, getting tickets, walking into C. F. Møller Architects’ Anna Maria Indrio’s extension of the original museum building, taking a sharp left, then strolling another 100 meters down an open hall, the so-called ‘Sculpture Street,’ up a staircase, and entering a door (which looks like an emergency exit) with, as I recall, next to no signage directing the way.This picture poignantly mirrors the role that contemporary art sometimes takes – or is assigned – as something which is at best intimate (like the cruising pavilion in the park) and at worst utterly hidden or ignored in contemporary culture.

The riddle or hiding is also mirrored in the space’s name. The X-room obviously resonates with terms from the early 2000s, such as x-perimental and Generation X. Beyond that, the name gestures towards the conceptually hidden – the x-tra we need to figure out. This ignites the primal fear of every non-art-world audience member: the fear of not getting the point, not getting the obscure riddle you have to understand, or not finding one’s way. Now, the intelligentsia often creates illusions of depth via hiding or silent withdrawal. In the X-room’s case, withdrawal was close to abandonment or exclusion. At any rate, my dad would have never found his way there. This is, of course, not entirely unproblematic. But it could have been solved. Easily. Instead, the X-room has now been shot down. And that’s a pity, since it rhymes with The X Factor.

Nairy Baghramian, Så længe det varer*, installation view, X-rummet, Statens Museum for Kunst, 2017. Photo: Frida Gregersen.

Concurrent with the televised musical reality-show’s rising success, the X-room mounted unheard-of exhibitions, many of which included bold new commissions. Performing amongst the international art world’s most exquisite institutions, its program was sensational in a Scandinavian context. When I moved from Berlin to Copenhagen to be the curator at Kunsthal Charlottenborg in 2010, the head curator of the X-room, Marianne Torp, seemed to single-handedly create a dazzling oasis, a source in the drought of international outlook and format within the Danish institutional landscape. These were indispensable exhibitions which should have been on the students’ curriculum at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (as Bogh, who back then was Art Academy Dean, should well know). Recently, shows by Ed Atkins, Mark Leckey, Nairy Baghramian, Sidsel Meiniche Hansen, Lutz Bacher, Judith Hopf, and Danh Vo have been on view here. Topical, exciting, muscular positions so often dismissed in this region, whether due to lack of scope or a provincial (bordering arrogant) withdrawal to the periphery of Europe called Scandinavia.

Hence, the X-room (in opposition to many other local endeavours) resonated well beyond Denmark’s national borders. It created an international dialogue (the good old in-out, in-out), even if it sometimes felt Oedipally close to art world parents like Daniel Buchholz and Christopher Müller – who run the renowned Buchholz Gallery in Cologne and Berlin and who co-curated the brilliant group show Abandon the Parents with Danish artist, Henrik Olesen. 

I recently talked with a young artist about his future show at UKS, the institution I direct in Oslo. It’s going to have an archival note. In our discussion, a quote came up from the French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s book Archive Fever: “There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory. Effective democratisation can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.”

Now, the constitution of a (national) cultural archive – an activity which SMK engages on a daily basis – is effectively democratisation. When government policies push SMK to abandon smaller-scale programming, thereby assuring that its constitution becomes less experimental in its outlook, then that’s a problem. There is no X-room for the artistic X factor unless it is ripe for broadcast to the whole Danish population. This points not only to the end of intimate artistic experiments, but also to the new reign of populism or grandissima. And that, in turn, points back to a time before the experiment, a time with the blinds shut – dark times.

– Rhea Dall is director of UKS in Oslo. In 2016, she was one of the artistic directors of Bergen Assembly, prior to which she founded the art institution PRAXES in Berlin after being the curator at Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen in the early 2010s.

Mark Leckey, He Thrusts his Fists against the Posts but Still Insists he Sees the Ghosts, installation view, X-rummet, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, 2017. Photo: Jan Søndergaard.