PARIS – German artist Anne Imhof stood at the Palais de Tokyo on a Friday morning, watching a group of fashionably dressed dancers and models crawl across the floor. This was the last part of rehearsals for a series of performances she had envisioned that were set to begin on October 14. The eight young people were looking for the right speed to cross one of the vast exhibition spaces of the Parisian museum.
Imhof, 43, towered over the creepy performers in cowboy boots and jogging pants. “Go slowly, very slowly,” she told them. When they got to the other side, 10 minutes later, they rolled onto their backs and stared at imaginary onlookers, with expressions of studied boredom.
“Very good,” said Imhof, looking satisfied.
The rehearsals prepared the final act of “Still Life”, a multidisciplinary exhibition by Imhof which has occupied the entire Palais de Tokyo since May.
Like other Imhof shows, “Still Life” includes sculptures, paintings and other works that can be visited independently of the performances. These live presentations, which will run until October 24, will largely consist of paintings formed, disrupted and then reformed by his dancers, in a production that channels the aesthetic of underground youth culture: trendy clothes, music. industrial, androgynous bodies.
“This play is about death and choice and pain,” Imhof said in a pre-rehearsal interview, “but it’s something open enough that people can have their own feelings about it. “
“With live performance, with people and bodies, I try to find an abstract language that works like poetry,” she added.
Viewers are allowed to roam freely during Imhof’s performances, sometimes making them as much a part of the experience as the work itself. Because the plays often involve multiple sequences taking place simultaneously, viewers – who inevitably wield smartphones – must make decisions about how to behave and where to move.
Much of his work, Imhof said, has been about “the idea of the one individual, who can make all of these connections through digitization, but who is controlled by being tracked, and who will always be seen wherever he is. is located”.
“The audience makes the play what it is,” she said.
For many of the artist’s internet savvy fans, the striking and elegant images she creates in her performances are attractive fodder for social media. Billy Bultheel, a composer who has contributed to and performed the scores for several pieces of Imhof, said members of the audience would sometimes push against each other and performers to capture the event on their phones. “Their greed for consumption is obvious,” he added.
Imhof, who is warmer and funnier in conversation than her austere works might suggest, first became a star in the art world after winning the 2017 Golden Lion, the first prize at the Biennale de Venice, for “Faust”, the German entry into the famous artistic event. For this room, she walked through the pavilion, which dates from the Nazi era, with glass partitions, and surrounded the building with high fences and guard dogs.
During performances of “Faust,” groups of dancers crawled under glass floors, lit fires, texted their phones, and banged their heads in slow motion.
Writing in Artnet, Lorena Muñoz-Alonso described the play as a “hell parade” that “is about power, who holds it and who seeks to reclaim it”. In Artforum, David Velasco called it “supremely titled cool work”. Imhof has since had high profile exhibitions at Tate Modern in London, the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, director of Castello di Rivoli in Turin, Italy, which is currently presenting ‘Sex’, another Imhof exhibition, said: ‘In my opinion, Anne is the artist who works the most on our relationship with each other through separation and connection in the digital age.
She noted that Imhof’s work embodied a shift in human interaction caused by smartphones. “Her performances represent a world where people behave as if they were in a pack,” she said. “Send messages to each other, seek each other out and try to live real experiences. “
Christov-Bakargiev added that a “cult” had emerged around Imhof’s art, especially among digitally aware young people. “I’m not a psychoanalyst, but I think his art makes them feel they belong and makes them understand the pain of the world,” she said.
Imhof, who is now based in Berlin, grew up in a suburb of Fulda, a mid-sized town in central Germany with an ornate cathedral. His parents, orthodontist and teacher, were part of the “1968” generation in Germany, which pursued a leftist policy in reaction to his parents’ involvement in the Third Reich.
“It was an anti-fascist house,” recalls Imhof. Growing up “a lot as a queer kid”, however, she said she often felt removed from her suburban environment and negotiated an escape to a British boarding school, where she first learned to draw. (She was then deported, after being accused of smoking.)
After becoming pregnant at age 20, she moved to a left-wing commune on the outskirts of Frankfurt, where she raised her daughter and started writing poetry and making music. Eventually, she was accepted to the Städelschule, the city’s famous art school, which she attended while working at the door of Robert Johnson, a techno club.
She said the “artificial” experience of deciding who can and cannot enter the club has helped her become aware of the markers that determine access to spaces and resources. “I think this is one of the biggest problems of our time,” she said, adding that in response she had tried to “pop” her works, so that they find an echo. with as many people as possible.
Imhof’s exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo is his largest project to date. Since spring, visitors can see the sculptures, paintings and installations she created for the cavernous space. These include a glass maze covered in graffiti recovered from a demolished Italian office building and large-scale paintings evoking sunsets, dark landscapes and nuclear explosions. It also includes works selected by Imhof but produced by other artists including Sigmar Polke, Wolfgang Tillmans and Mike Kelley, and sound installations she created with Eliza Douglas, her longtime creative and romantic partner.
Douglas, who performed and styled the performers and composed the music for the Paris show, has appeared in Imhof’s plays since just after meeting the couple in 2015. A 6-foot-1 American who is also a model for Balenciaga, Douglas has explained that Imhof’s live work was often based on a loose structure that allowed for improvisation. “She invented her own genre in art,” said Douglas, adding that artists often preyed on the traveling attention of visitors, even if the participants sometimes exceeded their limits.
Douglas said the dancers confiscated the smartphones of members of the audience after they were thrown in their faces and that she had to “control the bodies” of spectators encroaching on her space. Bultheel, the composer, said during a performance in Venice, a stranger crept up behind him and started running his fingers through his hair. “It was very embarrassing,” he recalls.
The reactions of visitors to the Parisian performances, said Imhof, will be impossible to predict. The show, she said, was in part influenced by the writings of Antonin Artaud, the French writer who created the “theater of cruelty,” in which performers attack the senses of the audience. Another French writer, Georges Bataille, and Franz Kafka were also influences, she said.
Sitting in the rehearsal space and looking at a floor plan, she said the performance would include off-road motorcycles, a living hawk, and a stuffed coyote. But she still struggled with the logistics of a sequence in which performers would wash in small swimming pools, a cleaning ritual which she said was in part inspired by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The problem with wet people is that they’re wet,” she said, adding that she was concerned about damaging nearby artwork or the audience could slip and fall. Despite all her provocations, she didn’t want anyone to be hurt.