THE LIMINAL SPACE BETWEEN
Anne Imhof is a maestro of tension. The German artist’s evocatively titled multimedia works – Angst, Faust, Sex, and, most recently, Natures Mortes – are unpredictable, improvised, and full of highs, lows, and turns. Her practice converges themes of violence, power, surveillance, anxiety, and nightlife, using images to capture life, death, and the in-between.
Frances Chiaverini, Josh Johnson, Sacha Eusebe in Anne Imhof, Sex, Tate Modern, London
Photo Nadine Fraczkowski c/o the artist
Eliza Douglas in Anne Imhof, Faust, 2017, German Pavilion, 57th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia © Photo Nadine Fraczkowski c/o the artist
Born in Giessen, Germany, in 1978, Imhof grew up near Fulda and now moves between Berlin and New York – the latter the most formative to her trajectory. It was in Frankfurt that she attended the Hochschule für Bildende Künste – Städelschule and worked as a bouncer at the nightclub ‘Robert Johnson’, immersing herself in the city’s after hours. These references would become central to her work in later years – performances frequently likened to a club when the lights come up. It’s in Frankfurt that Imhof also met many of her performers. However, her star performer is her partner, the artist, musician, and Balenciaga muse Eliza Douglas, who she met Berlin. With Imhof as their ringleader, her troupe has drawn comparison to Warhol and his infamous Superstars, but more notably, they have formed the back-bone of her now-revered works. A steady series of mixed media durational performances have made her a star on the international art circuit with shows at London’s Tate Modern, New York’s MoMA PS1, Paris’ Centre Pompidou, and the Venice Biennale, which she won the 2017 Golden Lion for Best National Participation. Recently, she directed a fashion-show-slash-performance film in collaboration with Riccardo Tisci for Burberry’s SS21 presentation.
Eliza Douglas in Anne Imhof, Angst II, 2016, Hamburger Bahnhof | Photo Nadine Fraczkowski c/o the artist
Josh Johnson in Anne Imhof, Sex, Tate Modern, London
Photo Nadine Fraczkowski c/o the artist
Eliza Douglas in Anne Imhof, Faust, 2017, German Pavilion, 57th La Biennale di Venezia © Photo Nadine Fraczkowski c/o the artist
Imhof’s most recent artistic intervention, Natures Mortes – French for ‘still lifes’ – is an ‘all-embracing, polyphonic work’ hosted by the Palais de Tokyo, her largest exhibition to date. An exhibition that sees both new and past work, films, performances, drawings, paintings, sculpture, Natures Mortes in also dialogue with artists like Wolfgang Tillmans, David Hammons, Eva Hesse, and many more. From 14 – 18 and 21 – 24 October, a new performance will activate the centre of the building; its padded columns foreshadowing quiet chaos on the horizon.
Central to Natures Mortes is a glass ‘maze’ that toys with perspective, control, and surveillance. It recalls the thick transparent flooring that Imhof installed at the 2017 Venice Biennale for Faust, and two years later, the barrier that separated the performers from the audience in Sex. Imhof’s most well-known work, Faust – meaning ‘fist’ – was a seven-month-long, five-hour durational performance. Oppression, boredom, and the trappings of fascism hemmed the performers – who would light fires, sing, scream, and pace – and, occasionally, the audience, into the German Pavillon, an austere 20th-century building that was redesigned by Ernst Haiger during the Nazi regime. Outside, Imhof installed two Doberman Pinschers to watch guard. Speaking to Lotta Volkova in Interview, Imhof noted: “There’s a moment in Faust where the viewers and the performers are in the same moment. It’s not even a very pleasant moment, but nobody leaves. They just stay in it.”
Anne Imhof, Passage (2021) Glass, steel, wood, acrylic | Courtesy of the artist, Galerie Buchholz & Sprüth Magers | Photo Andrea Rossetti
View of the exhibition, Anne Imhof, Natures Mortes, Palais de Tokyo | c/o the artist,
Galerie Buchholz & Sprüth Magers
Performance view, Anne Imhof, Sex, Tate Modern, London | Photo Nadine Fraczkowski c/o the artist
Just one year prior, Imhof debuted Angst at the Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland. A three-part opera complete with drones and falcons that unfolded in different cities – including Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof and Montréal’s Biennale de Montréal. The Italian translation for ‘opera’ is ‘work’, and throughout this live triptych, Imhof labours and exhausts her performers across several hours by texting them instructions on their phones: a play on power but, ultimately, the agency that threads throughout her work, as they choose to obey or reject her orders.
In 2019, Imhof took over the tanks at London’s Tate Modern for Sex. A performance that, despite its title, was void of intimacy, eroticism, or even feeling. In its place were narcissism and loneliness, as Imhof’s performers stared blankly ahead or, laying on their backs, at the ceiling. Appearing at the mercy of an invisible yet greater power that they cannot shake or perhaps don’t care enough to really try. Around the space, paintings and silkscreens of Douglas reminiscent of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe clashed with images of nuclear explosions to seemingly remind us of our own mortality.
Nature Mortes suspends us between the living, the dead, and the rebirthed, like the still lifes that Imhof signals in the show’s title, or the greats that hang on the walls beside her. She swings the pendulum between lightness, darkness; life, death; resistance, freedom, and beckons us to join her on a journey into the guts of the Palais de Tokyo, to cross the metaphysical threshold into a liminal space where, just maybe, something incredible is about to happen.
Frances Chiaverini, Eliza Douglas in Anne Imhof, Sex, Tate Modern, London | Photo Nadine Fraczkowski c/o the artist
Anne Imhof, Maze (2021) Steel, glass | c/o the artist, Galerie Buchholz & Sprüth Magers | Photo Andrea Rossetti
View of the exhibition, Carte blanche à Anne Imhof, Natures Mortes, Palais de Tokyo | c/o the artist, Galerie Buchholz and Sprüth Magers
Text: Ashleigh Kane
Images: © Courtesy Anne Imhof Studio