Last week, in my Instagram stories, ads for the newest Balenciaga store on Sloane Street (London), were relentlessly/annoyingly popping up. In one of the pictures of the interior design (empty of any items) was, in a corner, a figure – seemingly not so comfortable in the position they were adopting –. Without really thinking about it, the posture of the model-customer-employee reminded me of the distinguishable poses of Anne Imhof’s performers, which I had previously seen executed in Venice (Faust) and Basel (Angst).
The following week, I am attending the much-anticipated premiere of Anne Imhof’s latest project/installation/performance: Sex, at Tate Modern. It’s the annual BMW Tate Live Exhibition, curated by Catherine Wood and Isabella Maidment, now in its third iteration. At mid-performance (which is four hours in total), I find myself alone in one of the spaces (there are three discernible “environments”: let’s call them the platform, the dock, and the lounge, so to make it easier). I am, at that very moment, at the dock (which is in between the platform and the lounge).
One of Anne Imhof’s performer – Eliza Douglas – is on their way from the platform to the lounge (and thus have to pass through the dock), but gets stopped by security staff. Important note: although all three spaces are interconnected, only performers are allowed to move from one space to the other via their shared doors. The staff is mostly (if not entirely) black; while the casting of performers is predominantly white. It’s something worth noticing because the security staff (which permanently has to prevent the audience from passing through), becomes inherently and inadvertently part of the whole act.
One of the only performer of colour: Josh Johnson, steals the show on several occasions. You want to follow them from one space to another. It’s not possible: the audience is invited to constantly go in and out of the rooms to access the other ones. That Eliza Douglas got stopped by security isn’t necessarily eventful (nearly all performers wear casual clothes. One of them sports an Alexia Occasional-Cortez T-shirt. Some also have shoulder and knee pads on). But seeing her breaking character and smiling definitely is.
The smile, unusual on her face (and on any of Anne Imhof’s performers really), better emphasised, later on, the feigned boredom/disinterest they continuously display (even when executing more energetic gestures like headbangs). The performers (a dozen I would say), each seem to be busy with nothing but time-killing activities: vaping, smoking pipe, peeling oranges, whipping walls, pouring sugar, burning flowers. Most of these actions happen while the performers are on a stationary position (very much conscious of their own image, they adopt poses that enhance their languor while turning them into preys of their audience’s desire. Very telling: I spotted one of them taking pictures of one of their peers).
When they move, it is difficult to say if there is some kind of scripted logic or not (there is probably a loose score, and we know Imhof sporadically sends them instructions via text messages). Some of the routines include: going back and forth following a straight line, at an increasing pace, interrupt, get back to it. They sometimes hit each other. I thought this could totally be a Rick Owens catwalk. I also remembered the Angst performance in Basel. I have to confess: there is something quite mesmerising in their silent ritual. It looks like a wolfpack trying to turn into a bird swarm. But it’s glitching. And violent. Actually, at the very beginning, they were completing a dance in between waltz and wrestling. Right after, they were pushing the audience (to some extent, they don’t perform for, they perform through). Later on, they would move single-bed mattresses, scattered across the three spaces, to create new nests for themselves. But never do they join two mattresses to make a bigger one. It’s always single.
For a piece called Sex, you could have expected more intimacy and public display of affection between the performers. But they seem to be touching each other’s much less than in Imhof’s previous works. At one time though, at the dock, they lend themselves to a Christlike exercise of trust: climbing half-way through the ladder leading to the upper dock to let themselves fall, without looking at what is behind them, only to get carried away and start again, multiple times. At the age of PrEP and acute consent-awareness, maybe that’s what sex has become: a performance of trust.
Naturally this leads to question the belief system that support such performances. There is so many things to question here, so many tropes to challenge. The slickness and streamliness of some of the installation components (the guardrails and diving boards-like platforms), in contrast to the dirt and damages of some others (the carpet and the wooden structure of the dock), stage the perfect elixir for a well-advised contemporary art crowd (also embodied by the Tanks architecture and its finishes): polished, with a hint of roughness. Ultimately, this is reflected by the performers themselves: their corrupted and smileless beauty only persists in so far as they seem undecisive (just like us, the ones that are watching them) and ungraspable (their gender and age is matter of discussion), lost and punished: some of them will, from time to time, go – try to – hide in the corners of the lounge. It reminded me of Martin Kippenberger’s self portrait: Martin, ab in die Ecke und schäm Dich (Martin, Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself), 1989 (for the first version of the work).
This might sound like a far-fetched comparison, but Kippenberger made this work in response to an article published in Wolkenkratzer (renowned German magazine distributed in between 1983 and 1989, first in Frankfurt only, where Imhof is based) by Wolfgang Max Faust (then its chief editor). The article, titled The Artist as Exemplary Alcoholic (1989) focused on Kippenberger’s politics and addiction:
“ […] The work of Martin Kippenberger manifests [a] decline [into cynicism]… What up until now has presented itself as cynicism turns out, on closer examination, to be the efforts of little more than a petit-bourgeois German trying to make his mark… These structures are exemplified in Kippenberger[‘s] […] attitudes and self-presentation. Nazi slogans, sexist and racist allusions – of the kind favoured by German pub-going plebs* – presented as showstoppers, twistedly facilitated and masochistically excused by alcohol… His alcoholic shows […] are hollow and infantile.” 1
Now, Imhof’s work has been criticised for very similar things: notably its cynicism as well as the omnipresence of drugs (or substitutes) and alcohol in her installation (Sex is full of cans of beers neatly installed and you can spot, in the lounge, various devices – notably several portable weighing scales – for drug use). More than that, coming back to her German Pavilion presentation, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh asks himself if “she [has] wholeheartedly [embraced] corporate architecture’s fascistic [and] massive glass deployments” 2. For Sex, glass is re-employed: this time to delineate a corridor which runs from the back of the dock area to the gate of the platform space. I’m always suspicious of bodies behind glass (especially in the context of the Tate). Ok, in this piece, they are more often than not outside of that corridor. Still questionable. To better interrogate the politics of Imhof’s work, it seems apt to refer to Susan Sontag’s essay Fascinating Fascism (1975):
“Fascist aesthetics […] flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, and extravagant effort; they exalt two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication of things and grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader figure or force. The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets. Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, “virile” posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender; it exalts mindlessness: it glamorizes death.” 3
Anyone experiencing Imhof’s performance will surely find echoes of the works in Sontag’s words. It becomes even more relevant when you learn that another title considered for the work was Death Wish. So there’s all that. But I want to believe that the potential reference to Martin Kippenberger’s self-portrait is a way to address these issues, indirectly.
To a certain extent, I think Imhof is well-aware of the generational breakdown that makes the product of her performances both so fascinating and abhorring (she has to, otherwise it would be beyond cynical). Some would say that the aestheticisation of the depraved and dispossessed millennial (maybe nihilist?), only opening their voices to sing simili opera-rock tunes à la Evanescence (but less overdone), is a superficial spectacle. But that very state of the spectacle is questioned through Imhof’s layered installations, creating different levels of attention and scrutiny according to where we find ourselves: on the raised platform, under the dock, or in the lounge. It is also, always, a partial spectacle, as crowds are forced to make choices: because things happen simultaneously in different spaces, you will have to sacrifice one experience for the other. Which is, to my knowledge, a new element added to Imhof’s performances, one that is more than interesting.
I was leaving the Tate, the Balenciaga / Sloane Street ads came back to mind. It just took me a few seconds to attest of the hypothesis triggered by my intuition: it was, indeed, Eliza Douglas in the corner of that empty shop (whose aesthetic is actually very close to some components of Imhof’s Sex install). I didn’t know, but Douglas has been a long-time Balenciaga model. However, far from condemning the omni-presence of the performer in my Instagram feed (via Balenciaga, and later on via everyone who would have gone to the Tate), I actually think it only supports what the artist is trying to do (and the Warhol-like portraits of Douglas in the lounge, facing a row of Heinz ketchup bottles, surely back this up).
But is there space for the critic of performativity (through the enhancement of mood and attitude as dance – as well as paintings -) to affect its support-structures? The spectacle of precariousness orchestrated by Imhof is only standing because of a multinational and it seems difficult, through the performance only, to understand the politics the artist stands for. Maybe there isn’t any, and the apathy and voiceless performers (when not singing) are only present to manifest this state of fuckery we are in (they have motorcycle helmets at hand, ready for the crash). That being said, the pouring of Tate sugar and the use of whips against the Tanks’ walls seem to articulate something, although the disinterested actions never seem to involve any anger, or emotions at all for that matter (even the guitar riffs sound tired sometimes). But again: who is seeing this? The same ones that will go to Balenciaga on Sloane Street? I smile.
* I deeply reject the use of that classist term but thought I didn’t want to denature the original translation. Equally, the way alcoholism is treated here is wrong: let’s not forget alcoholism is an addiction and, thus, a disease.
1 We believe that taste doesn’t apply to the honesty of exaggeration Martin Kippenberger, Daniel Baumann, Tate Etc. issue 5: Autumn 2005
2 ROCK PAPER SCISSORS Benjamin H. D. Buchloh on some means and ends of sculpture at Venice, Münster, and Documenta, ARTFORUM, September 2017
3 Fascinating Fascism Susan Sontag, 6 February, 1975 ISSUE