ESSAYS Mousse 54

Choreographed Layers: Anne Imhof

by Hans Ulrich Obrist

Anne Imhof won the 2015 edition of Preis der Nationalgalerie for young artists. In this in-depth conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, she talks about her work in performance and introduces Angst, an opera in three pieces: the first premiering at Kunsthalle Basel in June, the second in Berlin at Hamburger Bahnhof, and the third in Montreal as part of the Montreal Biennale.


HANS ULRICH OBRIST: I’d be interested to know with which work your catalogue raisonné might begin.

ANNE IMHOF: Probably one I made before I started studying: a duel I staged in Frankfurt’s red light district. The piece consisted of a boxing match that lasted for exactly as long as the band I had cast kept playing. That was my first piece, even if I didn’t realize it back then.

HUO: Who are the protagonists in your performances?

AI: Some of the people have been around and working with me for several years, and some are new… I also work with some people who used to dance for the Forsythe Company, such as Josh Johnson and Frances Chiaverini, among others. There will be additional people joining for Angst, my new piece, who mainly work as models. I also work with Nadine Fraczkowski, an amazing photographer. Together we just did the photoshoot for Angst, Bill Bultheel who wrote music for that same piece. There’s also Franziska Aigner, who studied choreography with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and is now completing her PhD in philosophy at London’s Kingston University. She has written about my work. It felt important that the first book I’m publishing will have texts in it that were also written from an insider’s perspective.

HUO: That’s evident, because the writer is part of the work herself. So she isn’t so much writing about the piece as from within it.

AI: Yes, exactly. The text is well structured: it starts off with her performing and then continues with her thoughts on what she’s doing and on Michel Foucault’s concept of power. It ends with that quote from Foucault along the lines of: “If power did anything but to say no, do you really think we would obey?” I like that. It will be published in what will be my first catalogue, a publication I am making in relation to Angst. Parade—my first solo show—was composed of three separate pieces, as well as paintings and drawings. There’s Aqua Leo, a performance with donkeys that is choreographed like a parade that only has internal movement and never actually gets going. That was also the first piece that was about some concept of potency, a kind of tension that never gets released. Then there’s that pickpocket piece, School of the Seven Bells, that has batons and guys wearing rings. I like that when the materials are listed in the piece’s captions, it says: aluminum, silver, and gold. The other piece is Ähjeii, which is a concert I conceived as a prequel to the others. The publication is going to include all of them, as well as Rage and Deal. Rage and Deal were not part of the Parade exhibition, but they will be included in the catalogue, since it will be the first published overview of my work. The book will be sectioned into three parts.

HUO: So, chronologically speaking, we could say that the first works were Ähjeii, Aqua Leo, and School of the Seven Bells, then after that came Rage, then Deal, and now you’re about to complete Angst. But the beginning of it all was that duel—the boxing match—you staged before you went to Städelschule.

AI: I was about twenty back then.

HUO: That’s quite early for such a mature piece. Who was your inspiration at the time?

AI: Back then Andy Warhol had an influence on me, but then I moved past that. Giotto and Caravaggio were also important. But I guess there is a difference between thinking about practices or artists and being actually influenced by them. Some of those who had the most influence on me might be the ones I didn’t actually like. When I came to Städel the classes with Judith Hopf, my professor, and Willem de Rooij, and Isabelle Graw’s seminars on painting were all mind-opening. There are as many people who inspire me now. Some of them surround me right now and others are more like artists of previous centuries, ghosts that become your friends and accomplices. Eliza Douglas, my fianceé, is a great artist. Never felt this kind of inspiration being constantly in exchange and aligned with another person. I think I like to look at other artistic work, I was very influenced by poets and music I am listening too. Early Genesis P-Orridge (DisCIPLINE). I saw for example lately the spring and fall shows of Demna Gvasalia the new designer of Balenciaga, he is really good with colors and shapes. Back when I started studying photography at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Offenbach, I met Nadine Fraczkowski, with whom I started making music and working. We always created certain kinds of situations together that had no exit points or solutions and that weren’t staged, and both of us were taking photographs. I still remember standing in that musty university corridor and thinking, this piece is never going to work. These guys will never be able to keep leaning against this wall and just stay there without someone walking past, as if they were a painting.

HUO: Like everyone having their own duration to them—so that the work almost has “opening hours” as opposed to being a performance, as Tino Sehgal might say.

AI: It’s more of an image than a situation. These days my works pose some kind of seductive, managed transgression. They are mainly about identity and constructed out of a very subjective perspective.
I work with a lot of talented people. It’s about the thought and how it looks when it leaves the mind.

HUO: And your exhibition Parade was when your work found a wider audience, when it became public for the first time. How was it back then—what was that epiphany leading you to the pieces in Parade? I’m trying to get to the bottom of it; you are saying it’s about potency. Something that is present virtually but that ultimately isn’t resolved or fulfilled. Where you think something is going to happen any minute but then it never does.

AI: For me it was about leaving enough room for those who see my work to be immersed and leave enough room for them to create their own narrative.
That is what Parade brought together for me: some sort of opposition against performance, ultimately. Reading the reviews afterward left me torn because it was the first time that people were writing or talking about my work. On the one hand I was happy because people were actually framing my work and putting it into context, but on the other hand I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable with how they spoke about it. The way I was thinking about my performances was very different; it felt more like layers, on top of one another, like applying oil paint on a surface.

HUO: I noticed it at the Hamburger Bahnhof where For Ever Rage was performed—this feeling that there are layers and parallels in the works.

AI: The piece is compressing experience because the images in it are composed successively, which is also what makes it different at times. There are close-ups in the piece, for example, and then there’s what’s going on in the background, and over time those two perspectives start to blur into each other. Here I willingly relinquish control.

HUO: Tino Sehgal often mentions Einar Schleef, and how important his work was for him. Were you influenced by theater?

AI: No, not that much. But Christoph Schlingensief is important and William Forsythe was very present in Frankfurt. Early influences were people like Genesis P-Orridge, in musical terms at least, or the early work of Matthew Barney. Jean-Michel Basquiat is definitely an influence. Tino Sehgal as well because I worked for him when he did a show in Frankfurt, a Felix Gonzalez-Torres retrospective. Elena Filipovic, with whom I am working on the exhibition Angst in Basel, curated a series of exhibitions around and with the work of Gonzalez-Torres and she had invited Tino to co-curate the version in Frankfurt with her. For it, Tino hired art students as the installers to constantly make and unmake the show. And I had been looking for a second job in addition to my bouncer duties at the Robert Johnson club; I was also starting art school, and I didn’t yet know Tino’s work. At the time, I often felt I couldn’t take in too much other art because I felt so preoccupied creatively myself, but it turned out to be such a good encounter with him.

HUO: Which brings us to your drawings. Basquiat was an obsessive draftsman and doodler. And with you there’s this drawing element that comes up time and again. Would you say that this is a thread that runs through your practice?

AI: Drawing feels instantaneous and natural to me. It helps me remember things and ideas, like a way of trying to grasp what’s really going on. Just getting it out there visibly, onto a two-dimensional sheet of paper, helps me piece things together. In a way I use drawings in the traditional sense, as studies. Maybe what connects me to Basquiat is more a way of seeing what’s there in the moment, an immediacy that comes from the outside.

HUO: But from what I can tell there isn’t really something like a master plan with your situations and exhibitions where everything is meticulously scripted. You seem to be leaving it all open. What you call potency—that’s left open. So are the drawings perhaps—to paraphrase John Cage—something of an open score?

AI: I suppose you could say that. I use the drawings for the work with the dancers as well. In some ways I make sketches of anything that goes on or that I see. At the same time there is always a master plan.

HUO: And are those drawings taken from sketchbooks? There are some larger drawings on display in the exhibition, too, and if that’s where they were from they wouldn’t be only just spontaneous but rather a form of research or investigation—or explanation. Are there preliminary sketches or notations, and does some of the work result from them?

AI: Yes. They come before but also after the work. These are spontaneous at the same time, though. Writing and drawing feel the same to me. They’re both following the same impulse.

HUO: You write as well?

AI: I do, but nothing I would call comprehensive texts. They are usually not longer than a page and are then applied or scratched on paintings and are recurring in my work, as in the spoken parts of the pieces. Notes, small poems and letters mostly, emails I write during the initial phase of a new work. I like to steal words, I’m a thief with words.

HUO: One more question about Parade, seeing that that was your first exhibition and had those three parts to it. Did this succession just happen naturally, or was it your idea from the start to have three elements? How did you go from Ähjeii to Aqua Leo to School of the Seven Bells?

AI: Those three pieces existed already, but I wanted a connecting link between the performance and the duration of the exhibition. So Parade started with Aqua Leo and then finished with Ähjeii. There was a rhythm to its duration that left the space in half-darkness with only music playing and the big painting on the Portikus ceiling on display. Angst will work across three exhibitions, instead of three pieces under one show. The first act will be staged in Basel at Kunsthalle Basel, the second in Berlin at the Hamburger Bahnhof, and the third in Montreal as part of the Montreal Biennale. For example, in Berlin, Udo Kittelmann is changing the opening hours from day to night to show the image of a tightrope dancer dissecting the historische halle mid-air. If I don’t have these extended times, then these things, like one big image, can’t really be there the way I want them to. The plan for Basel is a slow buildup of Angst until it peaks into the first act of the opera. During the first days of the exhibition, I’ll introduce different characters, such as the lover, the choir, the prophet, and the diver; letting them build up, peak and gradually disappear. I’ve envisioned the space as a display of waste and exclusivity. A loge separates the exhibition rooms in such a way that by entering the main space you, and everybody else, become the spectator of an opera inside a huge balcony that is also the stage. In a sense opera, like painting, has a long but also shady history. To use this, like the way I do, points to the authority of arrogance. I like that. For the music I’ve been working with Billy Bultheel, who is composing the sound of Angst. Personally, I can only write love songs. There’s this figure who keeps returning to me and who is really good at spitting, above all things. In a Violette Leduc novel, Therese and Isabelle—a love story between two women—there’s an introductory scene where they meet at boarding school and one of them has this burning hate for the other because she embodies everything the other cannot find within herself. And so she confesses that she is consumed with rage because the only thing she can actually do well is work really hard and… spit. And that’s it. In Angst there are good spitters at hand.

HUO: There are falcons now for Basel, there were tortoises in Berlin. And the donkeys in Frankfurt, and also the tigers. So that potency we were talking about isn’t solely anthropocentric because there are animals involved. How did that come about?

AI: It started with Aqua Leo, when I made the decision to include the donkey. The donkey was in fact a mule, and they’re usually unable to reproduce, which cuts the bloodline after one generation, against a buildup of society. I like that. Welcome home (without any parents). They curiously also respond to fight-or-flight impulses.

HUO: But it’s different from Jannis Kounellis, where the animals become some sort of tableaux vivant, because they are part of the choreography in your work…

AI: They almost have that function, although in some ways the donkeys are just there on their own. Their function is to create passages, to function like lines parting the space. Those passages were first widened and then narrowed again. I like it when things happen mostly in the mind and the guys are following a score that is invisible to the viewers. Like in Deal where there is a ramp extending across the exhibition space where time passes more quickly at ground level than on the level above, which slows down movement. And of course that’s only in the dancers’ heads. Anyhow, at some point that ramp starts tilting and then it shifts toward the audience. I’ve choreographed gazes and hand movements to create perspective in my pieces. The performers are trained to slice diagonals through space with their eyes. Everything else is composed like an image over time.

HUO: There is this text by Margaret Mead from the 1940s. Even back then already she wrote that exhibitions have been reduced to their visual aspects only—sensually speaking—and that this prohibits a full engagement on the part of the audience. And that this is the reason why people spend so little time in exhibitions. Whereas if you have an event that has sounds and smells and involves all senses, like a Balinese ritual, say, or a medieval religious mass, people will stay. I’m getting the impression that this might be a direction you’re going in, also seeing as you have sometimes made the decision to create a gloomy penombré in the space. This kind of atmosphere, entre chien et loup; neither day nor night, a kind of twilight.

AI: That’s my favorite time, when the outlines of things become blurred and the colors become increasingly saturated.

HUO: A lot of the movements in the choreography appear to be about balancing and equilibrium.

AI: Yes, that’s quite visible in Rage. Angst might take this as a departure point, but the images are based on acceleration, attitude, and surface. I want to create images like this, which are abstracted but with figures. Through them I can contradict myself within a single moment.


Hans Ulrich Obrist (1968, Zurich, Switzerland) is Co-Director of the Serpentine Galleries, London. Prior to this, he was the Curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Since his first show World Soup (The Kitchen Show) in 1991, he has curated more than 300 shows.

Anne Imhof (1978, Germany) lives and works in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. In 2012 she graduated from the Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main. Using the language, codes and varied techniques of image making as a point of departure, Imhof extends her practice through different media, combining performance, drawing, film, sculptural work and painting. She is the 2015 recipient of the Preis der Nationalgalerie and will have a solo exhibition at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin in September 2016. She will also participate in the Montreal Biennial 2016, and is presenting the first act of her upcoming project Angst at the Kunsthalle Basel.

Originally published on Mousse 54 (Summer 2016)

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