04. February 2017

A sculpture design by Lena Henke is one of the nominations for the latest artistic installation to adorn New York’s High Line.

By Vivien Trommer

An enormous breast rises from a plinth, the nipple pointing proudly towards the sky. A bronze rail winds like a magical protective shield around the colossal, 3.6-meter-high object. Yet this sculpture is far from ossified; indeed it exudes life. It breaks up into its individual parts. It is porous, holey, ephemeral. Molded from earth, sand and clay, it is anything but monumental, superhuman and solid. It needs to be cared for and recreated on a weekly basis. Thus the work challenges us to question the significance and the relevance of art in the public sphere – art that is accessible for everybody – and to recreate it time and again.

"Ascent of a Woman" is the title the sculptor Lena Henke has given to this, her latest work. Although the work has thus far been confined to a sketch on paper, even merely as a design it is already the subject of much attention. And with good reason: "Ascent of a Woman" has been selected, along with eleven other proposed models by artists such as Jonathan Berger, Minerva Cuevas, Jeremy Deller, Sam Durant, Charles Gaines, Matthew Day Jackson, Simone Leigh, Roman Ondak, Paola Pivi, Haim Steinbach and Cosima von Bonin, to adorn the High Line Plinth, a new art platform in New York’s popular elevated park complex, from 2018. 

The final stage of construction 

The High Line Plinth is the latest plan by the Friends of the High Line, a group of engaged New Yorkers working to boost the quality of life in western Manhattan. Since 2006 they have been turning a former freight railroad dating from 1934 into a green elevated park complex with attractive leisure facilities. The High Line Plinth will be opened next year along with the final construction phase of the park, which comprises the conversion of the High Line between 30th Street and 10th Avenue. The plinth will stand precisely on the point where the rails turned towards the Hudson River, an area in which the enormous office complexes of Hudson Yard can now be found.

Lena Henke, Ascent of a Woman, draft for High Line Plinth, NY, Copyright the artist 2017

In conceptual terms the sculpture project is inspired by the Fourth Plinth, a huge platform in London’s Trafalgar Square, which since 1999 has been adorned by alternating works by renowned artists such as Thomas Schütte, Elmgreen & Dragset and David Shrigley. The plinth in New York will host a series of similarly rotating works, with each of the 12 selected artists realizing a specially commissioned work that will then be presented on the nine-meter-high High Line for a period of 18 months. This will make the large-format sculptures accessible to everybody within the public space and will break up the uniform image of highly modern urban architecture that is so characteristic of New York. 

Frankfurt, New York, Frankfurt 

Lena Henke is the youngest of the artists nominated. She was born in 1982 in Warburg and studied at Frankfurt’s Städelschule between 2004 and 2010 under painter and Professor Michael Krebber. After her artistic studies she moved to New York, where she has lived and worked ever since. Her works now feature in international collections and her résumé includes solo exhibitions at Kunstverein Braunschweig (2016) and at White Flag Projects in St. Louis (2014). In 2016 alone she took part in the ninth Berlin Biennale, the Montreal Biennale and Manifesta 11. This year she will create a new sculptural project for the Rotunda at the Schirn Kunsthalle.

Lena Henke, Ascent of a Woman, draft for High Line Plinth, NY, Copyright the artist 2017

As in all her works, with "Ascent of a Woman" too, Henke addresses the infrastructure of the city, architectural histories and the urban challenges of coexistence. When asked about her design, Henke comments: “My sculpture delves into the rationality of the city. In this existing system it functions like a symbol of feminized irrationality and organic movement. In a practical way it connects a biomorphic organism with the High Line, a structure that was erected by the urban planner and later Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, and which follows the principles of geometric Modernism. In this sense the breast represents a challenge for the public space and in its form is oriented somewhat towards Oscar Niemeyer, towards his architectural curves, his use of sensual, feminized, rounded edges, and thus it forms a counter-argument to Modernism’s hard forms.” 

The sculpture and the weather 

As can be seen even in Le Corbusier’s architectural sketches, this urban history also appears to be oriented primarily towards the male body. "Ascent of a Woman" plays with these ideas, positioning a sculpture based on the parameters of the female body in the middle of the urban – male-dominated – space. Thus the sculpture taps into its visibility in the outside space to openly oppose the linear and graphic structure and the symbols of power.

Lena Henke, Ascent of a Woman, draft for High Line Plinth, NY, Copyright the artist 2017

"Ascent of a Woman" is a politically engaged sculpture that consistently evades Immanuel Kant’s concept of the sublime. It reacts to the influences of the weather and is characterized particularly by the fragility of its material nature. Remaining dependent on one producer – Henke herself – the work must be restored, maintained and reconstructed on a weekly basis. It is precisely this interaction between people and object that points to the fact that sculptures in the public sphere are transient, that their importance dwindles when they are not activated and the fact that they can only ever exist at the mercy of their environment. "Ascent of a Woman" is a sculpture that is alive.

Lena Henke, Ascent of a Woman, draft for High Line Plinth, NY, Copyright the artist 2017