The Great Martyr Barbara

Lena Henke

The Great Martyr Barbara, 2021

Leather as sculptural material has been a crucial element in many of Lena Henke’s recent works. Besides its physical qualities, its conceptualization ties leather to the subject of the body and the bodily constitution of sculpture, themes crucial for Henke’s practice. Henke’s most recent leather drawings utilize leather also as a surface. Using a soldering pen, she irreversibly burns images into leather. Despite their bi-dimensional nature, these works, stretched on wooden panels, are characteristic of their sculptural quality. Their execution, based on the act of burning away, is reminiscent of wood carving, maintaining thus the work’s physical relation to sculpting; an element increasingly visible in Henke’s more recent works, where the lather surface is worked to the point of its partial destruction, allowing for profound plasticity of the depicted image.

Based on a mind map of Henke’s upcoming sculptural project inspired by St. Barbara, the patron of architecture and of the mines, Great Martyr Barbara, 2021, can be perceived as the outcome of a conceptual process connecting associations from (art) history, culture, and architecture. Inspired by a statue of St. Barbara found by Henke in a mine, the work builds on German history, namely the history of coal mining (Henke was born in North Rhine Westphalia, a county know for its former coal depletion), and the tradition of female sculpture and its depiction of female empowerment. The resemblance with the Statue of Liberty in New York, Henke’s second home, is not coincidental. St. Barbara, in many ways, shares her caring look with the Statue of Liberty, looking down with empathy on the viewer. Typically for St. Barbara, she is holding on to a miniature of a tower with three windows, openings to the mind, but also the symbol of the holy trinity. Wrapped in a large gown, the length of her body 182cm, matches Henke’s height.

Lena Henke has exhibited at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst Siegen, Germany (2019); Whitney Museum of Art, New York, (2018); Bard Hessel Museum, New York, (2018); Kunstmuseum Luzern, Switzerland, (2018); Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt em Main, Germanny, (2017); Sprengel Museum, Hannover, Germany (2017); Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit, USA, (2017); Timisoara Contemporary Art Biennale, Romania, (2017); S.A.L.T.S., Basel, Switzerland, (2016), Kunstverein Braunschweig, Braunschweig, Germany, (2016); Manifesta 11, Zurich, (2016); The 9th; Berlin Biennale, Berlin, Germany (2016); Le Biennale de MONTREAL, Montreal, Canada, (2016); Kunstverein Braunschweig, Braunschweig, Germany (2016); Triennale of Small Scale Sculpture, Fellbach, Germany (2016); The New Museums Triennial, New Museum, New York, (2015); Socrates Sculpture Park, New York, (2015); New Museum, New York (2015); Kunsthalle Bern, Bern, Switzerland (2014); White Flag Projects, St. Louis, USA, (2014); Sculpture Museum Glaskasten, Marl, Germany, (2014); Kuenstlerhaus Graz, Graz, Austria (2014); Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, USA, (2013); Kunstverein Aachen, Germany (2012), among other. In 2019 Henke received the RUBENSFÖRDERPREIS der Stadt SIEGEN and the Museum für Gegenwartskunst Siegen held a survey exhibition of Lena Henke’s work, summarizing the past ten years of her practice. In the same year, Henke was awarded the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant.