Visual Arts

Before and after: the most intriguing art gallery past lives

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The past lives of Europe’s most intriguing art spaces

We’ve tracked down the most distinctive, weird and wonderful art gallery transformations in Europe

From resurrected churches to power plants, subterranean reservoirs to factories, we reflect on the past lives, and reincarnations of Europe’s most distinctive contemporary art exhibition spaces defying the white cube.


Past life: a subterranean reservoir 
Location: Copenhagen, Denmark

1889 illustration of plans for the Cisternerne underground reservoir in Copenhagen. Image credit: Slots-og Kulturstyrelsen 

If it weren’t for the world-class art installations, the uncanny depths of Copenhagen’s Cisternerne might be akin to a cathedral crypt or The Chamber of Secrets. The ex-subterranean reservoir was built from 1856-1859 to improve the water supply to the Danish capital and became defunct in 1933. It was deserted for decades before starting a unexpected new life in 2001 as The Museum of Modern Glass Art. In 2013, it was acquired by the Frederiksberg Museums and has since played host to ambitious annual art installations with globally-renowned contemporary artists. As exhibition backdrops go, there is nowhere quite like the challenges of the Cisternerne. Among those who have stepped up to the task to dizzying effect are Jeppe Hein, Eva Koch, Ingvar Cronhammar, Superflex, architect Hiroshi Sambuichi and most recently, Tomás Saraceno.

Above, The vacant Cisternerne. Photography: Johan Rosenmunthe. Below, Tomás Saraceno’s installation, Event Horizon at Cisternerne. Photography: Torben Eskerod


Past life: a coal power station 
Location: Luckenwalde, Germany

E-Werk Luckenwalde, c.1920. Courtesy of E-Werk and Paul Damm

The transition from power station to art gallery is a fairly well-trodden path, and though E-Werk may not have the show-stopping scale of Tate Modern or Shanghai’s Power Station of Art, unlike the aforementioned institutions, it still generates power. The building was constructed in 1913 as a coal power plant and shuttered its doors soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 30 years later, the space was resurrected by Artist Pablo Wendel and his not-for-profit arts organisation, Performance Electrics, as explored in Wallpaper’s October 2019 issue (W*247). E-Werk offers residential programmes, workshops, studio space for artists, exhibitions, and its own, patented power source: Kunststrom (art electricity) harnessed through wood chip-burning machines still compatible with the building’s pre-existing infrastructure – an electric fusion of art and power.

Above, E-Werk Luckenwalde Turbine Hall, c. 1920. Courtesy of E-Werk and Paul Damm. Below, E-Werk’s Turbine Hall today, which plays host to a roster of performance artists. Photography: Stefan Korte, for the October 2019 issue of Wallpaper*


Past (and present) life: an industrial gravel pit  
Location: Lleida, Spain

The industrial landscape surrounding Planta, an innovative contemporary art project in rural Catalonia

An industrial complex on the northern edge of rural Catalonia is perhaps the last place one might expect to stumble across an Anselm Kiefer, or a Bill Viola. But coexisting with the daily buzz of lorries and cranes shuttling around mounds of gravel, are spaces dedicated to site-specific contemporary art. Planta is an innovative project on the intersection of art, science, architecture, and enterprise. It’s managed by Fundació Sorigué, the foundation of the Sorigué Business Group, who, aside from a zest for contemporary art, focus on material science research and sourcing sustainable building materials. Sites include an enormous hangar which plays host to Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz’s Double Bind (previously exhibited in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall) and an ex-air raid shelter (constructed during the Spanish Civil War) which houses a video installation by Bill Viola. Others who have exhibited in this lunar-like industrial landscape include Tony Cragg, William Kentridge, and a project with Chiharu Shiota is in the pipeline.


Above, Installation view of Double Bind, by Juan Muñoz at Planta. Below, Inside the Anselm Kiefer Pavilion at Planta

König Galerie – St. Agnes Church

Past life: a brutalist church 
Location: Berlin, Germany 

Exterior view of König Galerie’s St Agnes Church. Photography: Roman März

König Galerie has a track record for tracking down unusual gallery spaces. Their London space was, after all, an underground car park until 2017. But six years before then, they took on the challenge of turning the heritage-listed St. Agnes – a former Catholic church and built in 1967 by German architect and post-war modernist Werner Düttmann – from dilapidated brute into a striking stage for international contemporary art. Sited in the Kreuzberg area of Berlin, St. Agnes comprises a former chapel and nave which were artfully transformed from church to gallery by architect Arno Brandlhuber. Among those who have taken full advantage of the gallery’s light, lofty and utterly monumental proportions are Claudia Comte, Elmgreen & Dragset, Camille Henrot and Katharina Grosse.


Above, Architectural model of St. Agnes Church by architectural studio Arno Brandlhuber who renovated the space in 2015. Courtesy of König Galerie Berlin and the Brandlhuber+ Team. Below, Installation view of Jose Dávila ’The Moment of Suspension’ in the Nave of St Agnes Church at König Gallery, Berlin. Photography: Roman Maerz


Past life: an alcohol factory
Location: Ribeira Grande, São Miguel, Portugal 

Exterior view of one of Arquipélago’s buildings before renovations 

In 2015, a 122-year old industrial volcanic stone and timber building in the town of Ribeira Grande on the Portuguese island São Miguel Island went from alcohol factory, to ‘culture factory’. The building was reborn as the Arquipélago Centre for Contemporary Arts, an interdisciplinary creative hub, at the hands of Portuguese architects Menos é Mais Arquitectos Associados and João Mendes Ribeiro. Located in the middle of the Atlantic, The Azores are known as a portal between Europe and the Americas. The centre takes its name from the nine islands that form the archipelago, and has a mission to ‘observe, stimulate, disseminate’ through a programme of visual art exhibitions, workshops, performances, concerts and artist residencies. Arquipélago is a harmonious, and forward-looking fusion of geography, eras and creative disciplines.

Top, In 2015, the former alcohol and tobacco factory was transformed in a art and cultural hub by Portuguese architects Menos é Mais Arquitectos Associados and João Mendes Ribeiro. Bottom, Installation view of the 2018 group show, ’Sonic Geometry’, at Arquipélago picturing work by Jonathan Saldanha

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