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From the City to the Kitchen and back

Interview with the artist Lena Henke

Lena Henke

One could say it was love at first sight when Annette Stadler and her son Leo encountered Lena Henke and her work for the first time in Basel in 2016. The artist showed a series of works in the exhibition "MY HISTORY OF FLOW" at SALTS. A few months later, Lena Henke opened a solo exhibition at the Kunstverein Braunschweig, with which Annette has a long history through her family. Since then, a close relationship has developed between the collector family and the artist, and Lena Henke's works have become an integral  part of the Stadler collection.


In an interview with Sophie Azzilonna, she talks about her great interest in urban space, as well as her past exhibition at the Marta Herford, and gives us a preview of what we will see from her in 2024.

Since the pandemic, your life has tended to take place in Berlin. But you actually commute between Berlin and New York, both incredibly large and diverse cities. What is special and inspiring about each of them for you?


The pandemic has led to a spatial expansion of my work. Unlike before the pandemic, I now have two studios: in New York and in Berlin. In the current phase, I need the tension that already arises from the externally palpable contrasts of the cities. A gray, high-rise peninsula - Manhattan - and a tough, runny pancake - Berlin.


My first exhibitions in New York - that was in 2011 - took place in kitchens and living rooms. The kitchens were my studios and that's where I created my first sculptures. In New York, kitchens aren't used much anyway. People don't meet at home, but on the street or in cafés. Despite the pandemic, the streets of Manhattan were important places for socializing. At openings, people stand on the street and chat, at sample sales, fashionistas wind their way around several blocks. The block parties in summer are particularly special - that's when the thirst for knowledge of those interested in art sweeps me away. Which exhibition is worth seeing, what are the latest rumors in the art scene, which artist is exhibiting where. This compression of interest and dialog is unique for me in New York. My second studio, in Berlin - located in the middle of the green Tiergarten, by the way - sometimes comes in handy for me to concentrate on working on new ideas.


The topics of urban planning and urban space in general play a major role in your work. What interests you about this?


I am very interested in architecture, the urban design of the street, the so-called public spaces. Behind this is the question of how they came about, grew or were built. What are the functional interrelationships, what is added, what is or was demolished. In New York, it's much more of a permanent cycle of creative destruction than elsewhere. Monument protection carries much less weight than the need for the constant shedding of the city, whose elixir is its change.


New York is the original stimulus for this passion. In Berlin, I am primarily concerned with the historiography of modernism and design. In my latest sculptures, I have taken up this history and retold it. It's a new interpretation of a lived and gendered experience.


The work “City Lights - Dead Horse Bay”, which is part of the Stadler Collection, also deals with the theme of the city. Could you describe it in more detail?


“City Lights - Dead Horse Bay” is part of a body of work that deals with the creative destruction that the urban planner Robert Moses inflicted on New York in the mid-20th century. For many people and the environment, this was very formative. By superimposing a miniature cityscape on a pedestal that resembles a horse's head, I allude to the ghostly past of Dead Horse Bay in Brooklyn. Fertilizer was made from animal carcasses there. During the construction of the Park Marine Highway bridge and other important roads, Moses used this landfill. The rubble from the buildings that lay in the path of the gigantic transportation projects was dumped here. And also, a lot of personal belongings that those displaced from their communities had to leave behind.

The urban landscape with architectural elements of Manhattan also includes my studio and miniatures of my sculptures, which function as a dense and three-dimensional self-portrait. In addition, the horsehead-shaped island is filled with architectural "utopias" from various periods, including a surrealist Mexican garden called Las Pozas and the fantastical Sacro Bosco, built in northern Italy in the 16th century. The miniaturization and recreation of these monomaniacal visions gives an idea of how powerful individuals - often men - radically shape the landscape and massively effect the lives and livelihoods of many people. 

You work with a wide variety of materials. Some of them have a long tradition in art, such as ceramics or bronze. In your last exhibition at Marta Herford, you are now bringing car tires into the museum. What attracted you to this?


At the beginning of my career, I was rather shy when it came to classic sculptural material. I was much more attracted to industrially produced materials such as printed plastic, carpet rolls or tar paper. Then I took a ceramics course and from there it wasn't far to bronze. At the moment, I am combining different material worlds. Recycling is a hot topic in the industry. For example, the new work at the Marta Museum in Herford was created with great support and in dialog with a Hessian recycling company that collects car tires, among other things, and returns them to the material cycle.


Your installation there is entitled "LHP7340", alluding to the kitchen furniture by Poggenpohl and Porsche Design.


The black formation of car tires and wooden elements that dominates the room consists of around 2000 tires that were formed into cubes - each measuring 120 x 100 x 80 cm and weighing 600 kg - using a recycling press. I put these together to form the “Kitchen for Men P7340” developed in 2007 by the Herford-based company Poggenpohl in collaboration with Porsche Design. This kitchen aimed to appeal to a “new” clientele with the smooth, pure aesthetics of aluminum and the dark colors of carbon.


I want to let the domestic environment collide with the ultimate promise of freedom on the road - the kitchen and the car are combined in the brand model as well as in the new installation. John Chamberlain has demonstrated with compressed cars how the malleability of non-usable material can become Minimal Art. In my case, these are the cubes. This leads to a power dynamic in the assignment of masculine and feminine roles, which are physically juxtaposed.


Anti-sensual, pure material is reassembled and supplemented by other works of art: on one of the many cubes, let's say the kitchen table, the advertising film "The Critic Laughs" by Richard Hamilton from 1980, is shown. It examines the language of design and deals with designs by the Braun company.  It is the purest interplay between kitchen furniture, sculpture and display. After the exhibition, the tires are returned to the recycling process.

What does your kitchen look like? Do you enjoy cooking?


I cook well, my father is a food technologist after all. However, I'm so busy in my studio that I often don't feel like cooking. So, I'm all the more pleased that my husband loves cooking. He has declared the kitchen his domain, so to speak. The kitchen is a fascinating place. It can be a workshop, a breeding ground, but also a crime scene. The kitchen has always been the most important room in a home for women. Not only to feed the family, but also as a meeting and gathering place, a sociological laboratory, perhaps even a place of conspiracy.

The step from housewife to all-rounder is only logical, precisely because the separation of different areas of life, which can be attributed to classical modernism, is currently being contrasted with a more integrated model. 

I therefore developed a new series of sculptures for an exhibition in Berlin last year. The design of household appliances of the 1950s - symbols of technical upgrading in kitchens - and Berlin's Hansaviertel - a modernist awakening of the post-war period - come together here. There is also a noteworthy publication on the subject. The question that drives me is what these household icons - the Braun appliances - promised and can still promise.

You can find out more about the sculpture series and the Hansaviertel under Collection Insights.


This year you will hold a guest professorship at the University of Art and Design Linz. Another significant task in your already busy schedule. How do you manage to juggle everything and what particularly attracts you to teaching?


Being able to teach is a beautiful reminder that I had the privilege of being a master student at the Städelschule in Frankfurt. The small but non-traditional academy with fewer than 200 students is like an energy capsule. An art incubator in which I matured for six years. Each semester, the students there select professors and artists from around the world to be invited to talk about their work and practice. This gave us a firsthand overview of art and current questions. If I can pass on this atmosphere, along with my knowledge and global network, teaching the class in Linz will be a fulfilling time.


Who has particularly influenced you and your work?


The most important female artist of the 20th century: Isa Genzken.


Alongside this, you're planning an exhibition at the Emanuel Layr gallery in Vienna. Can you reveal what it will be about?


Yes, it's all connected! In the coming spring, I will indeed open my third solo exhibition at Emanuel Layr, a gallery I've been working with for a long time and, above all, really enjoy working with. I might name the exhibition "The Good God of Manhattan," or perhaps "Slash My Tires." I haven't decided yet. It's important to leave room for renewal, for creative destruction, the way Manhattan has risen. We, as artists, ensure that it's not dark at the base of the towers. I can reveal that this light will be visible in the gallery space.

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