Denmark: The Cisterns- where Art meets Water

Photo: Johan Rosenmunthe
An art space that used to be an underground reservoir in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Why visit?
To marvel at the fact that you are without Scuba equipment in a brick tank that was once filled with 16 million litres of drinking water for the citizens of Copenhagen. 

The Cisterns now quenches the Danish thirst for art and culture where once it slaked their thirst for clean water. 

In S√łndermarken park, in the Frederiksberg area of Copenhagen. Map.

BENEATH A FUTURISTIC glass pyramid entrance you will find the entrance to Copenhagen’s thirsty past. No, not the Carlsberg brewery, but The Cisterns (Cisternerne in Danish). It’s a wonderfully atmospheric place for an art experience if, like me, you also love going underground and exploring caves, or tunnels or……….disused water tanks. While I enjoyed the current exhibition immensely, for me the great thing about this space is the atmosphere of the place itself which lends extra depth (no pun intended) to the art.

Enter here.
The Cisterns was originally built in 1856 to help alleviate water supply issues affecting Copenhagen, but in 1933 they ceased their function as an underground reservoir. They were drained in 1981 and fifteen years later, in 1996, they began to be used as an unusual art exhibition space. 

Surrounded by the beautiful greenery of S√łndermarken park and opposite the magnificent Frederiksberg Palace, it’s really quite surreal to descend into a water tank on a beautiful summer’s day and be submerged not in water but in art. It seems that all the exhibitions here do pay tribute to water in some way and this one is no different. In the semi-darkness it’s sometimes difficult to know whether you are looking at stone floor, water, art or wood. Or indeed all of the above.
A floor of water.
When I visited, the art exhibition was by a Japanese architect, Hiroshi Sambuichi. He had created a magical underworld only made navigable by shimmery slivers of light from above ground and the glowing paper lanterns hanging under a wooden bridge. Younger members of the viewing public were also encouraged to carry paper lanterns, acting as miniature glowing guides. A sign warning you to ‘let your eyes accustom to the darkness’ greets you as you descend into the space, and also prompts you to ‘go left towards the light’. Intriguing.

Despite the semi-darkness, there is much to be seen, touched and smelt down in these brick chambers. The artist’s clever use of lighting, mirrors, screens and water, means that at times you feel as if you are in a darkly artistic interpretation of a fairground hall of mirrors, and at other times, like you are in a watery cathedral. A rowing boat, moored in the shallow water, and the glowing lanterns down there in the underworld put you in mind of the ferryman of Hades in Greek mythology. The smell is that of a Turkish baths, eucalyptus and pine.

Photo: Johan Rosenmunthe. 
The Cisterns is also the only dripstone cave in Denmark which means that the tank has a multitude of stalactites and stalagmites, permanent art exhibits if you like. Their intricate, elongated shapes provide some beautiful sculptures and illustrate just how old this place is. You can also touch them, and it’s not often you get to do that to an indoor sculpture. 
Photo: Johan Rosenmunthe. 
If you go while this exhibit is still there look out for the brilliant camera obscura image of Frederiksberg Palace (which is opposite The Cisterns) down there in the darkness. Once you emerge into the daylight you can then find the camera and torment the people remaining down below by replacing the image of the castle with one of yourself/shadow puppets/rude hand gestures etc. Not that I would ever do anything so uncouth. I am far too busy looking for my next cave filled with art. 
Frederiksberg Palace

Getting there: 
The Cisterns is located in Frederiksberg, about 3km from downtown Copenhagen. It is across the road from Copenhagen Zoo and is easily accessible by bus. Check out their website for details of which buses to take, opening hours and prices.

Useful links:
The official website is always handy. 

About the author:

Vicky Turner was born and raised in West Yorkshire in the UK but has gradually been moving South (via the East Coast of the USA) for the last fourteen years. She currently explores in Kent, in addition to the occasional sojourn in Continental Europe.