A conversation with Anne Imhof


Interview   Edward Paginton

Portraits  Sean & Seng

Exhibition shots   Nadine Fraczkowski

Styling   Clare Byrne

Hair   Kalle Eklund

Make Up   Janina Zais


Anne Imhof is an artist who questions how we deal with the unknown. Her 2017 Gold Lion winning work, Faust, at the Venice Biennale thrust her into global critical acclaim. Audiences gathered in droves to witness the unfurling performance piece at the German Pavilion, divided in their views but equally mystified. Action and in-action characterise the series of deceptively slow performances that began with the three-act opera Angst at Hamburger Bahnhof Berlin and more recently Sex at Tate Modern London, as hours and days collectively pass. As Imhof describes, it is like a high-pitch frequency that peaks and supposedly never ends. To watch is to be absorbed by a levelling experience, exchanged between the audience and performers, with anxiety as its currency. Whether performing, drawing or painting, the solitary process of working in the studio is a space where Imhof explores the unforeseen. However, the power of collaboration has always fuelled her intrigue. Central to Imhof ’s work is the network of friends formed around Frankfurt’s underground club scene during her early formative years as an artist. Though she splits her time nowadays between her Berlin and New York studios, the spirit of collaboration lives on. Having recently released her first studio album on Pan records, translating the music of Faust into a record format with long-time collaborators, artist Eliza Douglas and musician Billy Bultheel, Imhof spoke with The Travel Almanac as she prepared for an imminent return to Frankfurt for an upcoming exhibition.

You’ve described yourself as a nomad. Do you find it impacts the way you work?

I moved from Frankfurt to Berlin and New York recently, these are the two cities I now spend most of my time in. It’s like two separate lifes in a way but it feels good. That said, I’m actually quite slow to adapt to changing surroundings and all the nomadic traveling in the last couple of years often makes me feel like I'm dream walking. That changes very rapidly when I am working though. I’m quite manic in that realm of things. It is nice to be some place new and not settled but I really need a base to calm down. A place where everything can be quite basic and the things you like surround you.

In this issue, we’re exploring how certain places are linked to specific syndromes, such as Florence, Stockholm or Paris syndrome— these psychosomatic conditions that bring on an emotional or physical sensation. I was wondering if you associate any places with strong and specific feelings?

I would say that I suffer from Frankfurt syndrome then. The gates of hell. [laughs] I grew up there as an artist and it has influenced my life a lot. In Frankfurt I was living and working in the area around the central station. Already as a teenager I admired the people who lived and worked there, because it was so different to what I was used to. There wasn’t so much judgement. I was pretty much a youngster at the time—I made friends with people and I was welcomed there. Later, during my studies at Städelschule I was working as a bouncer. During this time I met a lot of the people I’m still associated with through my work. We had a very strong bond. When I had my first solo show in Frankfurt, at Portikus, I asked many of them to work with me on a piece called Parade. There was a nice mix of people that previously didn’t have much to do with each other— boxers, dancers, donkey trainers, my band, other bouncers, my friends—who all ended up in the same place by taking part in this work. I associate Frankfurt with growing. And with making music. Coming of age in a techno, drug and money town. Frankfurt model, Frankfurt syndrome.

I know you’ve always been interested in the formats of a concert as a way of combining music and images. What is so appealing about it to you?

At the time I was playing concerts while also making visual art—trying to combine the two into something new was what I was after. This ‘concert’ moment is definitely still embedded in the work. Music gained in importance again more recently for me. Together with Eliza Douglas, Billy Bultheel and Franzsika Aigner I just released my first LP with the music we wrote for Faust. It is the first record after my solo single Brand New Gods came out in 2017 through my gallery.

In some sense the environment of a concert is contained, not controlled, but audience and performers are coerced into engaging with each other. . .

I’m still primarily working with images. Experience is something I leave to the audience. It’s pretty much theirs. I can to some extent plan the live parts of the exhibition, the duration, the score etc. but when the audience gets engaged, there is something going on in parallel that is outside of my control. I’m interested in exactly that. I set the parameters but oftentimes it also comes down to the one who performs— they make their own decisions and everyone watching can feel that. There is a strong focus on music, too. Developing music that is necessary to get the images that I want to work. I usually begin by writing melodies that I think are transporting the vision and feel that give life to these pieces and then develop it further with Eliza and Billy for example. That was particularly the case in Sex, my last work. Eliza is a brilliant vocalist and songwriter. Her performance is so strong and she develops an energy when on stage like no-one I've seen. She is selftaught and learned through playing in rock and noise bands. Billy has a slightly more classical background, with a keen interest in early renaissance music. Together, the two are a great match. For Sex, Ville Haimala, one half of Amnesia Scanner, joined in for the production.

I was fortunate enough to see the Tate Modern version of Sex. Regarding your performative work, are there different rules, limits of behaviours you encounter in changing spaces in different citites for example?

Of course, it’s very different from space to space and the tanks at Tate Modern are quite unique, almost baroque and massive with these concrete walls. Not your typical white cube. And the two spaces mirror each other, which was a conceptual starting point for me. There are certain images that were developed during my first site visits, whilst preparing for the show that are specific to exactly this environment. It is a space that is made to be a performance and a concert venue, this is why people move differently in them, there’s no natural light, and so I opted to work with these very slow strobes, flashes of light coming in to make the images in the piece visible only for a few milliseconds.

At times there was darkness covering both audience and performers in one space, while in the other yellow lights took all the colors away and made the scene feel surreal and humid. The audiences also differ from one city to the next. The history of looking at art or attending concerts in a particular venue is influencing how e.g. Londoners perceived the show. Sex was premiered in London and so it played a role for me that London has also seen royalty and punk.

As it’s such a significant facet of your work, what do you look for in collaborations?

It is indeed a key aspect of my work. To me, these partnerships become meaningful when they benefit both sides. Working with Eliza for instance. I feel very aligned with her world and aesthetics. Her influence is very crucial for me. She is my main collaborator and a huge inspiration ever since I started working with her on Angst and Faust. In Sex she took on the main performing role. The piece is basically structured around a four-hour long concert of her singing her own songs. Eliza and I created many of the scenes together. She was doing the overall styling and costumes and we even included a sculpture of hers. The piece was placed in the gallery next to the tanks where I showed a new series of paintings and sculpture. The pieces that I create though, I could never do alone. Frances Chiaverini, Mickey Mahar, Josh Johnson, Franziska Aigner, Billy Bultheel, Ian Edmonds, they all add so much power and also their own skills, talent and struggles. It becomes something real because it is very much part of their own identity.

Lea Welsch I also met very early on and she was essential in shaping the work conceptually. I am very lucky to be able to work with such amazing people. Not just the performers, but also the people who assist us in doing what we do and help forming the work. I sometimes think we are like many schools in one. It feels like a cell. It is like a dream state of sorts and a space that’s full of beauty, hope and energy. It seems to work because there is love and respect not only in the work but also during the times when there aren’t any shows.

You started out as a painter and image creation is still predominantly your focus. In terms of live and collaborative situations, are accidents something you embrace?

Absolutely, yes. The moment of the unforeseen is something I do very much rely on.

Is there a fatalism involved?

Yes, in a way. It’s also something that’s a little bit threatening. You make plans of course, but things happen that you can’t anticipate. Especially alone in the studio. There’s always a moment when I am challenged. When things open up. All is possible again. Like at the beginning of a game or a fight. And I try to do things twice. Like in my early performance works I asked to start over, right when we finished. We made a piece that was basically the original and the repetition right next to each other. With painting and drawing it’s the same. I repeat simple lines and forms, trying to make the same lines and marks on a surface over and over. There is this tension between conceptual thought and expression, figuration and abstraction. On a certain level, my work has a lot to do with the waste of resources, and how energy as a resource is used. Highs and exhaustion. I like the twilight state between conscious and unconscious, the threshold of being barely awake, when things get blurry. These are the moments where you don’t judge the outcome, you can’t overthink, you just think sharp in the sense of creation. That’s where beauty lies for me.

I read you also like cars. . .

[laughs] You could say that, yes. I do not own one, though.

Looking at your scratch paintings, I was reminded of when someone vandalises a car with a set of keys. . .

Yeah, the result can look similar! [laughs] It basically comes back to the sgraffito process, the colours underneath the first coat of paint are revealed by forcefully removing the upper layers.

I felt like I was watching moments of vandalism during Sex. From pouring beer to burning flowers against the glass walls. It also felt like a ritual. Is there a co-existence between the two?

If you think of a ritual as something that has happened in the same way before, or as a rule that is followed, there is some of that in the pieces. In the framework I lay down, acts happen that are scripted, but there are also frequent instances of rule breaking. There are the rules of the peformance and the rules of the institution. The given rules you adhere to as a member of the audience and the artificial rules I come up with for the group of performers. Oftentimes they are somewhat ignored or left behind. That’s the unspoken rule that is almost more significant than the one to follow.

Some of the recurring images that stand out to me are the transparent glass walls and the drone lingering in the background. I can’t help but think about personal transparency and the fluid-like merging of private and public spaces in today’s world. . .

I think on an image level, it has something to do with that for sure, but in a compositional sense too. What does a liquid do when it’s on the floor? There’s a shiny surface, then suddenly there’s a mirrored image. It’s the same with glass. You have a person looking through the glass, suddenly you get this mirrored image and two rooms open up, which is something I love—double layers of the outside and inside. I find transparency both fascinating and terrifying as this tool and signifier of power.

There were moments in Sex where I was compelled to watch even when it felt uncomfortable. Do you think it’s in our nature to be intrigued by things that shock us?

I think so yes, there is something about this uncanniness that attracts us as humans. To strive for an image you haven’t seen before. In my work there is a transgressive element, as if everything was possible in this one moment. The four hours that you saw in Sex, I wanted it to feel as if it was all one moment. Of course it happens in this somewhat virtual performance space, but it also has the potential to develop, to become somehow ‘real’.

It was interesting to see how as the audience swarmed the action, moments of ‘space creation’ occur, as the performers widen the floor a bit like a circle pit or a mosh pit. . .

Eliza and I looked at endless footage of early hardcore shows. We looked at a lot of slam dancing and mosh pits. Then there are these very standardised, restricted and coded dances such as the waltz and the tango. These two things kind of merged into one. The resulting waltzes you see in Sex are colored by the violence of the mosh pit. It works because the audience is there forming a circle around the dancers. In terms of the music, the blastbeats and the rhythm of the waltz are still there but Billy transformed them into electronic arrangements which were bleeding from one space into another. I loved the idea of the merrygo-round of a small arena, so the sounds were transported over the multi speaker system traveling counterclockwise.

I noticed during Sex how the audience, because of what they were witnessing, felt legitimised to act irrationally too. I saw one person try to interrupt the performance, which I understand has happened before in Venice during Faust. Was this behaviour surprising to you?

No not at all, that’s what you’re going to get when you do something where people don’t exactly know where the boundaries are anymore. Of course, it’s disturbing. But I think it’s also a phenomenon of our time—to make yourself part of something, to over-identify or simply wanting to take a picture with the art piece—it is not that I don’t want to elicit this kind of behaviour, I am just more interested in other things. With the sculptures I built for the Tate, I was interested in creating a perspective that makes you see an image up-close and also from very far away, to have this disconnecting space between them, as a metaphor for the ‘view of the horizon’, one could say. A view into the. . .

. . .into the void?

[laughs] Yeah exactly. It was something I was interested in—as an actual 360-degree viewpoint of the audience entering the room but also as a metaphor. It can lead to insecurity. Can I touch this? Is this a sculpture? Is this art? The feeling that something is going on there but not knowing what it really is. . .I think there can be something overwhelming about it, the uncertainty what an object or action is or what it should be, and how to look at it.

It reminds me of the Stanford experiment, this kind of social conditioning of adapting your behaviour around the codes of conduct of a specific environment. Each performer shares a co-dependency. Is this a role technology plays in a broader sense for you?

I’ve been using drones and smartphones in my work since Angst in 2016. I liked the technological aspect in combination with the falcons. I wanted the drones to be appearing in a swarm and be able to follow a person through the room without someone actually being in control. We triggered the music over phones as well and at times people would sync their phones so some tracks were split over multiple devices. Performers wore microphones to further amplify the sound that was transmitted to speakers in the space. I’m actually often asked if I give directions through the phone during the performances. People seem to be weirdly into the idea. Sometimes, I try to intervene spontaneously and I give some of the cues. There are a hell of a lot of people involved so of course there needs to be fast communication to get the timings right. Still, it plays less of a role than people might think. 

Going back to Frankfurt. I am interested in the influence of codes of youth culture on your work and the struggle it often exemplifies. Can you tell me a bit about the time when you started out?

I moved to Frankfurt when I was 18. I didn’t know anything back then. I was raised in a very sheltered, small catholic town and there was certainly struggle. I was gay, I wanted a lot and I especially wanted to make art—but somehow there was no place for me. I hated art school at that time, it felt very restricting. So I started making music and was writing and drawing a lot. There was also struggle in coming to terms with being an aritst in spite of all the doubt. Calling yourself an artist even if you haven’t achieved anything yet. But I got inspired by what was going on in the area around my studio in Frankfurt and the nightlife I was involved in through my job at Robert Johnson. Club culture, the drug dealing, the clothes, the reflections in the glass towers of the banks. . .

Do you still have these self-doubts?

Of course. To have questions is so much more interesting than to have answers. There’s always longing and doubt. I wouldn’t be a very good artist otherwise, too certain, too confident. That’s a dangerous state of mind and I couldn’t give as much otherwise.

In youth culture, do you think there is also a unique spirit in the eagerness to resist?

I am not so sure about youth culture, where signifiers of resistance often get marketised to create a superficial sense of belonging, of being recognized. In youth in general, yes, for sure! And right now it is all the more important to find others that share this spirit and have something to say no to and to stand up for. It’s a survival technique for the individual and it is crucial for collective change.

This interview originally featured in TTA17. Click here to order the printed magazine.

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