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Vanessa Henn and her artwork
Steady as she goes, 2006

Steel handrail, covered in PVC
250 x 240 x 120 cm

© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022

Photo: Gerhard Sauer


Art history knows not only the repoussoir but also what is termed the introductory figure, mostly a person situated on the picture margin who is looking at the viewer and pointing to the action at the centre of the painting. This motif is interesting inasmuch as it not only bridges the gap between viewer space and picture space, but above all because it presents the picture as a world to be explored and negotiated. In this it is signpost and guide in one. With the dawn of Modernism, the motif of the introductory figure almost totally vanished, because the notion of an autonomous artwork has no need of the concept and actually dismisses it.


But when Vanessa Henn twists a banister into a square, hangs it flat on the wall and then extends the right hand end into the space and attaches it to the floor by means of a steel support, this could be regarded as a rerun of the traditional principle: ultimately the banister with its gold PVC sheath invites us to follow it along its length and to enter the spiraliform picture, then to slide back down from the middle to the twisted end. But above all the handrail serves Henn as a tried and tested means to dispel the notion of the artwork as a static panel painting and to give it instead a dynamic concept by defining the picture as a path. So the introductory figure has not simply returned but become in fact the actual subject and point of the art. Steady as she goes – the title of a hit from the summer of 2006 – is thus a statement about the ambivalent relationship between static artwork and its dynamic surrounds, which Vanessa Henn resolves by introducing the work into everyday occurrences in the form of a functional object, such as handrails in fact are.


This taut relationship seems in fact to be the key theme in Vanessa Henn’s work. Located on the borderline between architecture, sculpture and picture, her work to date includes not only handrails but also bridges, steps and signposts, all of which have one thing in common: while suggesting as a result of their material origins a certain utility, they turn out to be signposts with no information or steps and railing leading to barely negotiable terrain – as when they lead for instance straight into the floor or go against the direction of a staircase. As artworks they are thus not so much means for mastering everyday life in buildings but rather companions to realms unknown and imagined.


Vanessa Henn

1970 born in Stuttgart
Lives and works in Berlin