My ideal exhibition space

Vanessa Henn - Art in public space

The successful Berlin artist is known for her installations in public space.

An interview by Diana Fehr / September 15th, 2020

Vanessa Henn draws her motifs from everyday culture, with functionality moving in the background. Architectural elements are connected through playful wit to form a new harmony. She literally intervenes in the architectural space and demands new points of view on allegedly familiar everyday objects. Her creations draw their paths through public spaces, exhibitions and galleries all around the globe.


Museo: In the current exhibition Mind the Gap!, on display at the Museum for Concrete Art (Museum für Konkrete Kunst) in Ingolstadt, we have the opportunity to see your recent work. Trough different artists the entire place is playfully arranged right down to the last corner, creating new spatial experiences  when extensive installations merge with their surrounding. Would you call this an ideal exhibition space and how would you describe it? 

Vanessa: What my ideal space looks like is an interesting question, because in general, every artist is longing for a kind of White Cube. That is what one is used to from museums: white walls and clean structures naturally emphasising the work, and I think that’s very good. It turns out, however, that sometimes the more difficult spaces offered to the artist lead to much more interesting art. The space forces you to work on problems that wouldn’t have even occurred without it, or situations and questions arise that you would not otherwise have engaged with. As a result, your own work often develops further and it also becomes more exciting as you step out of your own comfort zone, so to speak.


Museo: And how does this create a relationship with the audience?


Vanessa: I think the relationship actually arises by itself, precisely because I use everyday objects in my artistic or design vocabulary. That means, for example, banisters, handrails, bars, signposts, objects that everyone knows, and therefore inevitably can relate to. Through this, you give people who are unfamiliar with art, more direct access to it. They can have their own interpretation, and even though this may not be all-encompassing my idea as an artist, it allows me to actually give them relatively quick access to my work.

Museo: Do you have a particular audience in mind for this?


Vanessa: Well, of course I would like the professional art world to have good access to my work, and to appreciate, like and understand it. But on the other hand, it is just as important to me when people see something in my work, who are not so art-loving or haven’t had a lot of experience with art; this makes me very happy. I observe this quite often, especially in museums where a broader audience is addressed, or in public spaces where all kinds of people walk past my art. In these situations it makes me especially happy when the people have new ideas and interpretations of my work, like “Oh that reminds me of … , I had such a handrail when I was a child … wow, it goes to heaven” and then want to touch the art.

Museo: How important do you think art is in everyday life?


Vanessa: I think it’s extremely important, especially nowadays. I have the feeling that our society is currently incredibly focused on consumption – fast consumption, buying and discarding, without thinking much. Therefore, I find it extremely important that one engages with objects that obviously seem to have no comprehensible function or just no actual use, so this sort of absurdity that widens your horizon, distancing itself from direct meaning, thus revealing to us completely new worlds and insights. This widens your own point of view and allows you to think beyond certain limits.

Museo: But now the pandemic has changed the activities of artists and exhibitors around the world and, above all, threatened their financial survival. How are you coping, have there been any drastic changes to your work?


Vanessa: Well, I actually have to consider myself lucky as an artist, because my financial situation this year was relatively good. I have just won an Art in Architecture competition and have received a new commission. Even through the realisation has been postponed a bit, it still gives me a little cushion and, therefore, I wasn’t so financially threatened. On the practical side of work, my situation also hasn’t changed. I still go to my studio, work alone, basically have little contact with other people therefore didn’t have to switch to home-office. So basically it wasn’t a problem. However, what happened of course is that many exhibitions and projects have been postponed. Fortunately, nothing was canceled for me, but everything has been shifted and is currently concentrated in September, October and November, which means that I am accordingly busy right now. 

Museo: That means you can continue almost seamlessly. Relating to this, during the lockdown, many artists and exhibitors improved their digital activities in order to be able to stay in touch with their audience. Did you have to be more active here too?


Vanessa: Yes, initially I thought, finally time for a lot of things that were left behind, but there were constant new requests and demands. As already said, the institutions and galleries tried to keep their visitors engaged. For example, the Museum for Concrete Art in Ingolstadt published a museum magazine. This meant conducting interviews and answering questions in writing while reporting about myself and what’s going on in the studio. Various galleries wanted pictures or reports from the studio on the situation or another gallery wanted to set up an Instagram TV. You were supposed to create this contribution yourself, and this meant first to engage with the topic, learning about all these new opportunities, and then additionally filming your work. So there were a lot of new things coming at me, which at first threw me a bit out of my routine, but in the end, I learned a lot. 


Museo: And do you see digitalization leading to opportunities for you in the future?


Vanessa: To be honest, I don’t think I will continue to work intensively on it. I am happy with my website, which is my digital representation and I also use Instagram. I see positive aspects as I can show the creative process of my work, or what else is of interest. That can actually round off or enhance and complete the image of me as an artist and my work.


Museo: But you don’t want to expand on your social media activities?

Vanessa: No, definitely not! I think it’s an amazingly time absorbing medium and you can completely get lost in it. Thank God, I’m not at risk of addiction, but I don’t want to intensify it much more. I think I’m already sitting at the computer enough. My world is analogue and I enjoy it, and I actually find this aspect increasingly important nowadays. 


Museo: Do you think that the cultural world has changed forever? 


Vanessa: Well, I think that everything is always in motion. Certain changes will stay forever and artists who enjoy digitalization and who like working with it will be left with more opportunities and chances to do good work. But I also think that others will return back to their habits and ways in which they have artistically worked and expressed themselves so far. 

Museo: And from the visitor’s point of view – what challenges do you see here?


Vanessa: Personal contact will remain difficult, which means that many exhibitions will not be seen live, but must take place via digital media. And here I already see a difficulty with art; firstly because real-life encounters are simply not entirely replaceable, and secondly because there is a risk that everything will be digitised. I believe that in a certain way we should really work hard to get things back to the way they were. There are definitely always opportunities for improvement by making things digital, and of course you should keep those aspects or work on them, that is of course good! But I think you shouldn’t forget to work on getting people back to the museum physically.


Museo: What do you wish for your future at the moment? – What would be an ideal state?


Vanessa: Well, I am in the fortunate position at the moment that I have a good studio space that is also funded and, of course, I wish that this funding will continue via the BBK. There are workshops in Berlin where I do my welding, woodwork, porcelain, casting and ceramics. They are of course immensely important for us artists and we hope that our work there can continue. It is also important that there are still secure studio spaces, because my funding only lasts for a certain period of time and then I have to look for a studio on the open market, and I don’t see any opportunities there. Investors buy up spaces, and, through this, push us artists to the outskirts, and that is a huge drama in Berlin. Because if Berlin is known for something, it’s actually its cultural landscape and its artists.


Museo: Vanessa, thank you for this interview!

Images: Vanessa Henn

Links: Mind the gap