Anne Imhof. Exhibition as Opera


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In the fall and winter of 2015, the Frankfurt-based artist Anne Imhof (Gießen, Germany, 1978) showed Forever Rage, a review of her two work cycles Rage and Deal. With this collage of pieces combining her last exhibition and performance, she won Berlin’s Preis der Nationalgalerie for young artists 2015 —considered the German version of the Turner Prize—, awarded biennially by the Berlin institution. 2016 is coming to its end, a year full of legendary art world personalities deceases, twelve months full of falls and uprisings. Let’s take the positive path, 2016 has been a year full of success and international projection for Anne Imhof; so it is the right time to get familiar with her work.

Imhof has gained recognition for her durational performances, which often take place at night, after traditional museum opening hours, and completely transform the exhibition space. Mixing performance in both art —as movement, gesture, action— and music, with paintings, sculpture and installations, her work dissects contemporary culture, especially how branding, technology, and power structures shape us as humans.

In the second half of 2016, the German artist has staged Angst, a enormous project across three institutions in three different countries and two continents. Angst  is an opera in three acts that stretch temporally and spatially over three sites and three acts that are linked to one another. An “opera” understood as its Latin origin: “work” plus the “durational experience” conjured by the marriage of sound and vision. A first act was presented in Switzerland in June at Kunsthalle Basel during Art Basel. Angst II, the second iteration of the work, was shown in Germany at Hamburger Bahnhof, and it was the highlight of Berlin Art Week this past September. The third and final part of the arduous piece was as part of the second Biennale de Montréal in Canada from mid October to mid December.

Nonetheless, this was not all, shortly after her shows in Berlin, it was announced that the 38-year-old artist would represent Germany in the 2017 Venice Biennale of Contemporary Art. All in all, this succession of events, have made a momentous year for Imhof.

Imhof’s performances

Imhof’s complex performances are intimate studies in movement, gesture and action. The works pile up as a private corporeal lexicon, “Body language” is a key component in her pieces and this physical communication is shared by a small group of performers —often the artist’s friends and peers— and she has even incorporated alive animals. The movements and language fragments of the performers are choreographed into a highly personal visual language that is subject to constant change. From here, and as if it were a retrospective, we will take a chronological tour through her last performances.


Presented in Munich in 2015, Rage combined fractured speech and spoken words with nonverbal interactions, all performed under hard, sodium light. In the work, performers moved carefully around the space, seemingly intent on their own activities while appearing expressionless and in casual clothes. At times they came together in pairs or as a group. A sense loss of time —duration without peaks or culmination. Communication was broken down and formalized in Imhof’s static works too, from her objects to her drawings and paintings.

Through this, Imhof extends the role of performativity to the materials usually seen as  by-product of performance itself —accessories like stacks of energy drinks or filmed documentation and slideshows. The vocabulary of the discipline, which usually focuses on “action”, is broadened to cover a range of materials and media.


Deal took place first over two days and across two separate spaces at New York’s MoMA PS1 in early 2015. The artist talked of “infection instead of infinity” in reference to its duration. Incorporating elements from previous performances, the actors transported buttermilk between two concrete basins. The gelatinous white liquid passed amongst the participants, stuck to their clothes, got in their hair and dripped from their fingertips, infecting them. Like language, the work relied on transference from one body to another:  contagion and protection; physical receptacles and orifices for contamination.

Video: Deal, 2015 (MoMA PS1 Commission as part of Sunday Sessions) at Palais de Tokyo in Paris during festival Do Disturb.

Angst, Opera in three acts

Angst I at Kunsthalle Basel

Spanned over three rooms in Kunsthalle Basel, Angst I spectators encountered an uncanny atmosphere conjured by the unusual arrangements of lighting, life-size paintings in subdued shades, and installations of punching bags suspended from the ceiling. In the main room, young and good-looking performers marched as music beats began blasting from loudspeakers grabbing audience’s attention with their body movements. In the next room a sculpture resembling a balcony blocked the way to audience where they encountered the performers again. The room led to a smaller, connecting room, in which a falcon stand was erected in the center and the floor was piled with white mattresses where the performers were lying and staring at their mobile phones. In one scene, two female performers confronted each other on a chessboard; but rather than chess pieces, they used cans of Pepsi. Imhof was manipulating all the characters participating in the show —including the audience— behind the scenes sending instructions to performers via text messaging to their phones.

All photos: Nadine Fraczkowski

According to Kunsthalle Basel curator Elena Filipovic who organized Imhof’s show, “Imhof makes truly epic work that brings together an almost ceremonial rituality and an extreme conception of the experience of time with subcultural references and coded gestures —whether a runway march or head banging, utter dependence on an iPhone, or drinking Diet Pepsi.”

Angst II at Hamburguer Bahnhof Berlin

Despite the scary message: “Enter at your peril! Attention! In the context of the exhibition will be used living, free-flying birds of prey, remote-controlled drones and fog machines. The Hamburger Bahnhof cannot be held responsible for any kind of damage” the opening day, the crowd massively filled the empty white room full of whitish fog.

All photos: Nadine Fraczkowski

Angst II divided the historic hall of the former train station with a tightrope and a dense fog made the cathedral like architecture blur. Three self-standing spiral staircases randomly placed at the centre also reminds of medieval pulpits. The music of the piece embraced the entire exhibition space also visually through a high totem of Marshall amplifiers. The pieces of music were written especially for this act and support the work sometimes in a violently way, sometimes very quietly. They were played using the mobile telephones of the dancers and the sound was amplified by microphones carried by them. The skinny bored teenagers performing have been given in this second act an aura of holiness and power. While in Basel they seemed kind of victims, in Berlin, often standing above the public, they looked like divinities despite they were all dressed in baggy white pants, athletic tops, and exercise shirts. Towards the walls there were soft drink cans and red bulls. Also punching bags hanging, paintings, drawings and installations surrounded the space.

Angst III, the third act of the “opera” was performed at Le Grand Balcon of Musée dárt Contemporain de Montréal during Biennale de Montréal.

Final stages

Anne Imhof performative works are constructed through a choreography of enigmatic gestures, an abstract musical composition and various sculptural elements composing the scene. There is a loose script of motions —choreography— and sound—spoken word and singing—, but performers are free to add movements. The gestures are often private and intimate interactions, drawn from the personal, the ritual or the cryptic communication systems. They may include secret salutations, flirtations, pickpocketing gestures or other signs that tend to go under the radar better than serve as tools for “official” communication.

Imhof’s way of working not only dissolves the actor-audience boundary but it also draws on the internal workings of certain communities —such as organized gangs and ethnic groups— where similar outer and inner circles are created and deliberately maintained as a means of self-protection.

About their durational aspect, Imhof’s performances tolerance is less about putting the body under duress or pushing it to limits as traditionally durational performance is, but rather about involving others in the choreography of her works, this is why public is confronted by unexpected actions and the nearly private language of the performers’ gestures. She exploits the idea that activity means production, generating instead a feeling of “wasted time”. Per se, the works seem as if they would continue regardless of an audience… Imhof refers to the expectation of per­formance as it has been idolized; hers is a physical language broken down and liberation from its historical restraints.

Biennale di Venezia 2017

Anne Imhof will represent Germany in the 2017 Venice Biennale. The pavilion will be curated by Susanne Pfeffer, director of the Fridericianum museum in Kassel, and commissioner of the German Pavilion.

“Anne Imhof is an outstanding selection for the German contribution at the 57th Biennale Arte di Venezia,” says the head of the art department at ifa institute, which has coordinated Germany’s representation at the Venice Biennale since 1971. “Imhof creates visually rich performances with dense imagery and penetrating intensity. The curatorial concept of Susanne Pfeffer is to look at how man is changing through the current technological and socioeconomic conditions, and how our concept of the body must be rethought.”

The artist and her galeries

Imhof is now represented by Galerie Buchholz and by Isabella Bortolozzi, considered two of Germany’s most influential dealers. There is no doubt that the meteoric year of Imhoff and her future presence in the 57th Venice Biennial will “fire” the value of her works, that is why the dealers representing her have now a great responsibility toward her talent. Below some two-dimensional works by Imhof, commercialized by the mentioned galleries.

Text: María Muñoz with pieces extracted from press releases at MoMA PS1, Kunsthalle Basel, Hamburguer Bahnhof Berlin, 2nd Biennale de Montréal and press office of German Pavilion 2017 La Biennale di Venezia.
All photographs: © Nadine Fraczkowski. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Buchholz, and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi.
Featured Main image: Eliza Douglas in Anne Imhof, Angst II, 2016, performed at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, 2016 © Photo: Nadine Fraczkowski

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