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ifa: Ms Lenz, you have been at ifa for over 30 years. A lot has certainly happened in that time. How have the art galleries developed over the past three decades?
Iris Lenz: The first art gallery in Stuttgart was opened in 1971. The idea behind it was that cultural exchange should be a two-way street. We should show not only touring exhibitions of German art abroad but also show in Germany contemporary art from transitional or then still developing countries – regions with difficult access to European exhibition opportunities. The art gallery in Bonn was added in 1981 and the one in Berlin in 1991. The Bonn gallery was closed in 2003.
At first the galleries were more oriented to reception. The focus was more ethnographic; they held exhibitions on folk art from Macedonia, Romanian woodcut art, and hill tribes in the Hindu Kush. Over time, contemporary art moved more and more into the foreground, and architecture was also added as a focus.
Around 1990 the program switched to a more active orientation, both in Bonn and in Stuttgart. You have to bear in mind we didn’t have the internet in the 1980s and early 90s. This meant, for example, that I went to Ghana in search of interesting contemporary art. My predecessor here in Stuttgart, Alexander Tolnay, mounted the exhibition 'First Steps – Contemporary Art in Romania'. At that time, East and West were still divided; we were looking into art scenes that were completely unknown here until then. Now of course that has changed a lot. The entire art scene has become much more international and information and communication channels are completely different today.
ifa: Would you say that the ifa Galleries have taken a pioneering position in the field of international art?
Lenz: Yes. In the earlier years of the galleries no other place in Germany steadily showed and promoted contemporary art and architecture from Latin America, Africa and Asia. Today, exhibitions by international artists in German museums and art associations are the norm.
ifa: What distinguishes the ifa Galleries today?
Lenz: It's still very important to us that we continually exhibit international art exclusively. With the internationalization of the art scene, we had and have to keep questioning what our unique selling point is. That's why in 2001 we started to work with thematic series in which we deal with comprehensive socio-political and cultural-political issues. We began with the series 'Focus on the Middle East' and then 'Islamic Worlds'. Under the title 'Nationalities Identities', the subsequent series discussed the still extremely contemporary questions of identity and hybrid identities. In 2004 we launched a series about megacities. More and more people will be living in megacities; cities are becoming an ever greater problem – climatically, politically, socially. The aim of the series is to show various aspects of topics that are internationally relevant to socio-political issues.
ifa: Do the galleries in Berlin and Stuttgart work on joint thematic series?
Lenz: We worked together up to four years ago, having two exhibitions a year in Stuttgart and two in Berlin. Each exhibition was then shown in the other gallery. But we gave up on that after a while because the locations Berlin and Stuttgart are very different.
The range of culture and art in Berlin is much greater than in Stuttgart. In other words, it's much more difficult to create your very own, specific place in the Berlin scene, which has a steady and very definite audience.
Things are much more open in Stuttgart – the cultural scene is much smaller and less international. Here, for instance, we have a focus on architecture. We always include architecture – that is, the art of construction in the best sense of the word. Architecture is the art that has the greatest continual and immediate influence on our lives, both in private and public areas. And Stuttgart is a city of architecture. It has the highest density of architects in Europe and three very good universities. But there's no place other than the ifa Gallery in Stuttgart where international architecture is presented and discussed. Berlin already had that. This was one reason that we're more engaged in theoretical discourse in Berlin, while in Stuttgart we tend to work for a wider audience.
ifa: A city of architecture without a place to exhibit and discuss the art. Was it particularly important to you that the ifa Gallery offer this opportunity?
Lenz: Yes! There used to be only the very small Weißenhofgalerie, which usually presents the work of German architectural offices. And the BDA Wechselraum, the display window of the Association of German Architects. But the international perspective was completely absent. It's therefore always been important to us to expand the range.
ifa: So, galleries are strongly embedded in the place they are located. Does the Gallery Berlin also have such a formative location-specific topic?
Lenz: Perhaps the much more international character of the city. In Berlin there are an enormous number of cultural workers and artists from all over the world. Subliminally at least, that's a permanent focus of the gallery. Alya Sebti, together with Inka Gressel, the new director in Berlin, developed the 'Untie To Tie' project in 2017, which has been showing thematic series specifically tailored to Berlin over a space of one to two years. Yet despite the different locations, we're currently in the process of working together again more and more.
ifa: How did that come about?
Lenz: The content and interests of the two galleries are very similar after all. Due to the lockdown, we're now starting the series 'Umwelt. Environment'. In Stuttgart with the exhibition 'Fibra. Contemporary architecture with plant fibres', in Berlin with 'La Escucha or The Winds', an exhibition with Argentinian artists and activists.
We'll work together on environmental projects for a year. Various exhibition projects from different regions of the world will address sustainable, conscious management, the use of resources, and alternative ways of design, thinking and acting, including those of indigenous communities.
After 30 years at ifa, Iris Lenz, Head of the ifa Galleries, guides us through 'Fibra' on her last day of work and tells us what makes this exhibition special for her personally.
ifa: Is sustainability a topic particularly close to your heart?
Lenz: Yes, it started in 2010 at the latest with the 'Post-Oil City' exhibition. This was conceived for the ifa Gallery in Stuttgart in collaboration with the magazine 'Arch +' and was so exciting and successful that it subsequently toured all over the world until last year.
Since then, we've repeatedly developed projects that deliberately aim at a different approach to our resources, to nature and to lifestyles. The issue is more topical than ever, which is why we've decided to mount the new series 'Umwelt. Environment'. We believe we can learn a lot from indigenous communities and how they deal with their resources and nature. I'm convinced this is one of the most important problems which we have to address, in spite of Covid.
ifa: Or maybe also because of Covid? Will travel in the art scene be rethought and reconsidered due to the current restrictions?
Lenz: Absolutely. The magazine 'art' is currently canvassing the question of how 'green' the art scene is. It has shown how irresponsible tourism to biennials and international exhibitions really is. The next few years will certainly show us how this can be done differently. On the other hand, all cultural institutions have noticed that digital formats are unfortunately not an adequate substitute. They're an opportunity to reach a wider public and maybe also to gain new visitors, but I think the personal experience in front of and with the original work of art, and the exchange before and about it with others, can't be had digitally.
ifa: What other issues is the art scene currently dealing with?
Lenz: The post-colonial legacy and the return of looted property are currently the subject of intense discussion. Also, the division of society, as exemplified in the United States, but also in Germany with the increasingly open right-wing radicalism. I think this is one of the issues that not only art itself will have to address, but which will also have to find its way into institutions.
Another issue that has been and will continue to be topical for a number of years is hybrid identities. How do we treat people of all sorts in a society? From my point of view, this is really one of the tasks for the ifa Galleries – to convey that cultural diversity must be understood and demanded as a driving force for shaping the world.
ifa: This shows that issues recur. At the beginning of our conversation, you mentioned an exhibition on identities from the early 2000s. One could think we would be farther along today.
Lenz: No, maybe we're just a little more differentiated. I always found that very exciting: to sense and to set issues. One example: the 'Focus on the Middle East' series. In 1999/2000 we realized that the Middle East is a focal point. The first exhibition in the series opened on September 11, 2001. And then overnight it was a big issue.
ifa: So art doesn't operate detached from society; the consideration of new topics is always about what is currently socially relevant.
Lenz: Yes, definitely. When I think about what art means to me, the encounter with works of art is always about pausing to think, to reflect and to rethink. It's a confrontation with the work of art, but also with other people about works of art and art. This exchange, this rethinking, carries the potential for social change.
One of the projects that have stuck in my head is 'New Iranian Film'. The entire Iranian community came to the exhibition, kith and kin, grandma and lunch basket. They came from everywhere and stayed a long time. They watched a lot films and exchanged ideas with the German audience. That was a very important moment for me. That's what you want in this job.
ifa: Can you remember any projects that didn't go so smoothly? Stories you laugh about today?
Lenz: One of my very early exhibitions was about painting from Bangladesh, at the ifa Gallery Bonn. It was supposed to be delivered through the Bangladeshi embassy, but it came too late. The invitations had been sent and I was standing in the gallery on the opening day as the visitors arrived and the space was completely empty. An exhibition opening with no exhibits! We all had a glass of wine and laughed. There's always stress and there's always something that goes wrong. But somehow it works anyway.
ifa: If even exhibition openings can work without exhibits, then you know you're up to every trick in the book. What do you wish for the ifa Galleries and your successor in future?
Lenz: I'd like the Gallery Stuttgart to become even more of a platform not only for experience and culture, but also for encounter and exchange, an open and interesting place for visitors of all ages, all levels of education and all communities. I'm convinced that it is becoming more and more important for us to gain the interest of the most diverse communities, to attract them and bring them into a discourse. I would therefore also wish the gallery additional personnel in future, especially in the area of public relations and cultural education, so that more services can be offered and more issues addressed. And then I certainly wish for a completely different, contemporary and still internationally oriented and exciting program.
ifa: Ms Lenz, how do you feel now that you're saying goodbye?
Lenz: I leave with a really good feeling. I'll continue to move in the field of culture and architecture but be freely active. As close as I was to ifa, and as much as this was and will always be my dream job, I notice that after 30 years it's time for me to do something new. And it's time for the galleries to have someone new to come up with fresh ideas. Finally, I'd like to thank my colleagues who over the years have worked together with me with great commitment and creativity to realize all the many exhibitions and events. Without such a marvellous team, it wouldn't have been the dream job it was!
ifa: I wish you all the best! Ms Lenz, thank you very much for the interview.
About Iris Lenz
After studying art history, German literature and philosophy, Iris Lenz started work at ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) in 1986. At first she worked as a freelancer for the inter-city project 'Exotic Worlds, European Fantasies', and then as a freelance curator of several ifa projects. From 1990 to 1995 she headed the ifa Gallery in Bonn, before moving to Stuttgart as Head of the ifa Galleries.