Will Anne Imhof be the artist of 2017 ?
Since the beginning of the 2010s, Anne Imhof has been enjoying growing success with her precisely choreographed performances, which take the form of strange reveries featuring not only elaborate sets but sometimes live falcons or giant rabbits.
She will represent her homeland at the next Venice Art Biennale when it opens in May 2017, which is rather remarkable given that she’s just 38, has only been exhibiting since the beginning of the 2010s and, in truth, is essentially a choreographer. But her recent shows in Basel and Berlin clearly demonstrated her originality and her very particular energy: for there’s absolutely no doubt that German artist Anne Imhof – born in Giessen in 1978, and today living between Frankfurt and Paris – stands out in an industry that’s become stiff with conformism and which long ago lost all interest in the idea of the avant-garde, which, once upon a time, was its driving force.
Pierre Huyghe and Fabrice Hyber were 38 and 36 when they were chosen to represent France at the Venice Biennale – respectively in 2001 and 1997 – and the rather rare decision to nominate an artist under 40 turned out, in both cases, to be very astute since both came away with prizes (the Special Jury Prize for Huyghe and a Golden Lion for Hyber). Where awards are concerned, Imhof was the winner of the 2015 Young Artist Prize from Berlin’s Nationalgalerie, but was not the laureate of the 2016 Fondation d’entreprise Ricard prize in Paris, to which the curator, Isabelle Cornaro, had had the bright idea of inviting her. Which is no doubt a great shame for France’s public collections (a work by the prize winner enters the holdings of the Musée national d’Art moderne) since, you can be sure, her work will soon command prices beyond their means. Although when one “acquires” an Imhof, what is “collected” are essentially fragments of her sets or the remains of her performances, which are the core of her rather unusual work.
On 14 September 2016, visitors to Berlin’s imposing Hamburger Bahnhof were able to get an idea of the unusual aspect of Imhof’s work when, shortly after 8.00 pm, her performance Angst II began. The compact and rather young crowd who’d gathered to watch was rapidly enveloped in a thick fog which filled the impressive volume of the former train shed, and mingled with the performers from whom they were often hard to distinguish. Faces were from time to time lit up by a smartphone – both those of the spectators, since that’s how audiences behave these days, but also those of the performers, since it was via SMS in real time that Imhof relayed her instructions to them. For a period of five hours, performers and spectators co-inhabited this biotope marked by two different scenes at each extremity of the space. And while the performers weren’t always easy to tell apart from the spectators, they did make an easily remarked entrance on “stage” before undertaking brief choreographed actions – gathering together, lighting up cigarettes, opening fizzy-drink cans, then dispersing.
Above their heads, several metres from the ground, a tight-rope walker was going back and forth along a metal cable stretched from one end of the hall to the other. In the space in between, a drone circulated in a whirr of rotary blades, tracing a slow and supple mechanical choreography above everyone’s heads and filming, no doubt, the performance as a war zone. Any description of this type of work is inevitably doomed to vacuity given how much it’s a question of pure sensation. In such a drawn-out duration, the spectators quickly learn how to live in and even use the set-up; for if nothing is ordinary in such a set-up, nothing is particularly strange either. Indeed how could it be otherwise in an era when Larry Clark’s kids (who are arguably the ancestors of the spectators at the performance and of the performers themselves) have been recycled by their own author as stars in an advertisement for Dior?
Imhof’s performers are mostly dancers, and, very clearly, these performances are based on experiments carried out in the field of contemporary dance – one immediately thinks of Jérôme Bel. Rather more improbably, some of the performers are former models (Imhof admits her keen interest in Demna Gvasalia’s recent runway shows), while yet others are acquaintances of long date. Imhof studied visual communications at the turn of the millennium before studying art at Frankfurt’s Städelschule, and her first large-scale exhibitions didn’t take place until the early 2010s. Their formal structure – a set-up that comes alive and then falls dormant in different places in one building over a period of several hours – isn’t radically new, but Imhof has created a complex system which she deploys with undeniable grace, all the while remaining resolved to capture something of our times – times which impose themselves on today’s teenagers, the future inhabitants of a very different world that comes more and more to the fore every day.
And it is indeed the times that one perceives in these long moments that she scrupulously organizes and choreographs, and it’s from out of this perception that she deploys an obscure narration, similar to the way
narration was deployed in Buñuel’s films. Like Parade, which was performed at Frankfurt in 2013, Angst (of which the Berlin show Angst II is a part) is divided into three acts. Acts II and III were performed, respectively, at the Basel Kunsthalle in June 2016, and then at the Biennale de Montréal in October 2016. In its ensemble, the project demands insolent proportions and the desire to allow the narration the possibility of being constructed in time and space. Imhof punctuates the story with a vocabulary of gestures borrowed from ordinary life, the same as those of the negotiation in Deal, which she presented in 2015 at New York’s MoMA PS1, and in which the performers shared the stage with giant rabbits (in Basel it was a falcon). She also punctuates it with built elements of striking sculptural quality which recall, in both their originality and their oneiric potential, the objects created by Matthew Barney to complement the action of his films. In a similar manner, the objects designed by Imhof are used during the performances and then exhibited afterwards, like the “balcony” whose disturbing presence at the Fondation Ricard electrified the whole space, or like the strange pool exhibited in Basel, whose compartments contained water and Pepsi-Cola.
Imhof punctuates the story with a vocabulary of gestures borrowed from ordinary life, the same as those of the negotiation in Deal, which she presented in 2015 at New York’s MoMA PS1, and in which the performers shared the stage with giant rabbits (in Basel it was a falcon). She also punctuates it with built elements of striking sculptural quality which recall, in both their originality and their oneiric potential, the objects created by Matthew Barney to complement the action of his films. In a similar manner, the objects designed by Imhof are used during the performances and then exhibited afterwards, like the “balcony” whose disturbing presence at the Fondation Ricard electrified the whole space, or like the strange pool exhibited in Basel, whose compartments contained water and Pepsi-Cola.
The current renewal of performance art (Tino Sehgal, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Anne Imhof – all three artists weaving solid links with dance) perhaps expresses something about contemporary art and the way in which its democratization as much as its prolific commerce have caused it to evolve toward the production of objects that in the end are fairly simple to consume, acquire and envisage. By restoring the experimental dimension in the experience of a work – in other words by imposing the necessity of experiencing it – performance art offers an escape route from the banalization of an activity that has been enormously disrupted by its own success.
By Éric Troncy