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.
The Potential for Social Change
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.
Every Trick in the Book
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.
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