Café Einstein in Berlin has a long wooden bar, panelled walls painted faint blue and fainter gold, beautifully scuffed parquet floors and tall windows opening out on to a leafy courtyard. It is the sort of place that an ideal set of grandparents would take their ideal granddaughter after her first violin recital, her feet in their velvet concert shoes swinging beneath the little round table as they tell her she can have any cake she likes. On one wall, there is a sign reading “Bitte benutzen Sie Ihr Mobiltelefon diskret”: please use your mobile phone discreetly.
The first time I met the German artist Anne Imhof, we had lunch at the table directly beneath that sign, next to two older men with silvery hair, having what looked like an extremely successful business meeting, smiling over printouts dense with underlined figures. They both glanced over at Imhof as we arrived, if not with recognition then with the awareness that this slight, pale person dressed all in black was someone they possibly should recognise. A musician, maybe, or somebody important in fashion.
Within about five minutes, as if Imhof and I were performing in a short video called “Dos and Don’ts at Café Einstein”, she began showing me something on her phone, leaning it carefully against the water glasses and turning up the volume as high as it would go, apparently oblivious to the whinnies of disapproval issuing from the next table over.
Although she works in a variety of mediums, Imhof is best known for her operatically ambitious live works, durational pieces in which performance, painting, architecture, film and music are drawn together in the service of her almost occult ability to orchestrate and choreograph the attention of her audience. Her work is celebrated (if that is the appropriate term for a critical appreciation that so heavily draws on the concept of a nightmare) for its disconcerting interrogations of contemporary vacancy and entrapment, mirroring the hollowed-out aesthetics of commodity culture and giving voice to collective sentiments of dislocation and gnawing dissatisfaction.
Critics single out the way it identifies and amplifies the atmosphere of jittery alienation that sometimes feels like the constitutive feature of being online, where already shattered attention spans splinter further under the burden of the awareness that something more diverting might be unfolding somewhere else.
For Angst II, in 2016, she filled the main hall of the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin with white fog and ran a tightrope across it, with groups of performers staging apparently spontaneous tableaux in different parts of the space as audiences circled around them, torn between staying put and seeing what was happening elsewhere in the fog. Drones flew overhead, and falcons perched on railings. Her live works often feature animals — donkeys at her grad show at the Städelschule, turtles at a 2015 show.
For Faust, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2017, the art-world equivalent of the Palme d’Or, she installed a glass floor and thick glass walls in the German Pavilion, so that the audiences who’d stood in the hours-long queues and endured being barked at by the caged Dobermans she’d installed at the entrance were forced, or invited, to look down on the performers who crawled beneath their feet. One critic described it as “a catwalk show from hell”, which is another way of saying that Faust, like all Imhof’s pieces, featured extremely attractive participants: thin, androgynous and parodically cool, like an anxious provincial fantasy of how untouchable art-world people dress and move and gather among themselves.
For Sex, at Tate Modern in 2019, Imhof and her performers took over the Tank Rooms for five nights, communicating with each other and Imhof via text message as they moved in disparate groups through the enormous underground galleries, forming living sculptures circled by audiences who knew that they could not possibly take in the entire thing but rushed between the improvised stages anyway.
In an admiring review, the critic Philippa Snow singled out discrete, striking moments — a blonde boy preoccupied with slapping his own face, an a capella rendition of a song about death, flowers on fire, people vaping on dirty mattresses — and described feeling as if “I’d wandered into not just the tail-end of an especially hellish rave, but literal hell”. Hell again. In fact, if you google the words “Anne Imhof hell”, you will find declarations that her work embodies a vision of “capitalist hell”, “liquid hell” and “a visual representation of hell”.
Her latest series of live works, which capped off a solo show at the Palais de Tokyo titled Natures Mortes, featured performers wading through the fountain outside the museum, pouring hot wax on themselves and each other, singing, screaming and reciting texts, among them a fragment of a letter from the artist Antonin Artaud, in which he complains that he has “been at the mercy of a kind of terrifying crushing and tearing of consciousness . . . unable to connect anything, to assemble anything in my mind or still less to express anything”.
Putting her in fifth place in its influential Power 100 list in 2021, ArtReview called her pieces “ritualistic spectacles for end times”, noting as well that she has retained an edginess “even as she nestles into the upper firmament of the art world”, as if the two are mutually exclusive. Hew work is often describes as being uniquely, even excruciatingly contemporary, reflecting a vision of a collectively bewildered, atomised society.
Certain assumptions could easily be made about the person behind these works. Certain art-world stereotypes about stony-faced Balenciaga goths who speak in riddles and smile only during unfunny conversations about noise music could spring to mind. The person sitting opposite me at Café Einstein and propping up her phone to show me a film, however, did not seem especially interested in inhabiting the persona I’d agitatedly conjured up for her the night before after looking at many austere publicity photographs online. She was, it is true, wearing quite a lot of Balenciaga. She did have that occasional habit, common to every single successful artist I have ever met, of referring to curators and galleries and group shows from 40 years ago without any context whatsoever.
In general though, Imhof, 44, is fantastic company: quick to laugh and somewhat conspiratorial in manner. She considers all questions with intense absorption; if you were going to draw her as a cartoon, you’d give her twirling antennae or jaggedy thought lines fanning out around her head. She has a knack for making unexpected connections, between people, between ideas, between a conversation happening now and one that happened a decade ago.
On the way into the restaurant, we’d spoken about Faust audiences getting, in her words, “fucking weird with the performers”, following them home after shows, pawing at them, belligerently seeking out eye contact. “It’s usually about four days into a show,” she said, “when people start to go a bit . . . ” and made a sonically complicated explosion noise. I asked her if she could always tell when it was going to happen and, instead of talking about the show, she told me about her time spent working on the door at a Frankfurt club as an art student, and how she and the other young women she’d worked with had become good at predicting well in advance when and where a fight was about to start.
I asked her how, and she laughed as if these things were of course obvious to people such as ourselves. She put her hand to her ear in imitation of a mobile and said, “You know how it happens with violence. The men start all of a sudden getting on the phone to their brothers.”
The film she showed me across the table was shot with a tight group of her frequent collaborators: the film-makers Lola Raban-Oliva and Jean-René Étienne and the artist, musician and model Eliza Douglas, who is also Imhof’s longterm girlfriend (each has the other’s name tattooed on her chest). Shot in a studio that has been lit with a cold, lunar glare, it shows a shirtless Douglas riding a big brown horse in circles as man-made snow eddies around them and settles thickly on the floor.
At one point she dismounts, and the horse and the woman stand side by side as the music, composed by Douglas, swells in the background. Imhof’s finger hovered above the screen, pointing to the momentary alignment between the horse’s leg and the almost equally long one belonging to Douglas. “I find this part kind of strangely sweet,” she said. “Eliza and this horse really knew what they were doing together.”
The accompaniment shifted to a recording of Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament”, getting somehow louder in the process. The two men next to us made round little Os with their mouths and raised their eyebrows in an approximation of wry, worldly tolerance, the way people do when their teeth begin to grit with fury in public. They stared with boggled eyes at the sign above our heads as if to confirm that, yes, patrons were requested to use their phones discreetly, indeed yes, that is what it says up there, and then back down at the phone, and then at Imhof, who was gesturing at a flurry of snowflakes that had settled in Douglas’s long brown hair. They looked back at each other.
It went on like this for some minutes, until Imhof noticed the performance and, in a tone of voice pitched precisely between confrontational and solicitous, asked the two men if she was bothering them. I have tried to replicate this tone several times since, and I am still not even close to working out how she did it, posing a question that sounded challenging and sincerely kind at the same time, and making it impossible to decide on a coherent response. (She did this in the same breath as asking me if I thought I wanted potato salad.) The two men were as mystified, running through the little round Os, the devil-may-care eyebrows, an apologetic smile, a nod of the head before settling on uneasy alertness, keeping one eye on Imhof as they murmured their way through their pork chops.
She seems to bring this sort of thing out in people almost against her will. In some respects, the two men’s response bore a strong resemblance to the way audiences react to her live work, becoming edgy and fretful about the rules even as their attention is gripped. The queues outside Faust were just about as widely discussed as the show itself.
An acquaintance who attended several performances described going back again and again without any clear intention of doing so, surrounded by crowds with the same slightly glazed looks on their faces. People did strange things. “I started getting all these weird presents,” Imhof said. “In Venice there were four things identified as bombs.” At Sex, someone brought a drill one night, apparently wanting to participate.
The performances are not actually participatory, although it can seem that way, with spectators crowding around performers in choreographed-seeming patterns and charging from one impermanent scene to another with phones in hand, as if to make some sort of point about how nobody is capable of taking in or even really acknowledging the present moment anymore.
“She does this incredible thing for the 21st century, which is she transposes the structure of online attention on to real space,” said Catherine Wood, director of programming at Tate. “You’ll often see something happening in another room, through a sliver of the doorway or a glass screen that you can’t get through. And sometimes you can’t even see it through the crowd. She’s very good at generating not only the seduction of wanting to see the image you’re about to see, but longing to get to the thing you know you can’t. She also plays on the question of access and who has it. Seducing you one minute, blocking you out the next.”
Describing the experience of filming Sex, the film-maker Étienne said, “Anne creates these micro-societies within her pieces, where you’re always like, can I join? How can I be a part of this?” A cynic might suggest that the seductive quality of her pieces could be at least partially attributed to the appearance of her performers who are, again, very cool and attractive. Douglas is a muse for Balenciaga; the philosopher and performer Franziska Aigner, Imhof’s long-time collaborator, has a face like a Raphael. A more realistic person might say that it is because of their talent and training: the dancer/choreographer Josh Johnson has danced with the Forsythe Company and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre; the composer Billy Bultheel studied at the Institute of Sonology in The Hague; Aigner studied choreography in Brussels.
Any time spent speaking to Imhof, however, makes it clear that it is her relationships with her collaborators that are at the heart of what she does and how she does it. The bonds of affinity between Imhof and the people she works with, particularly Douglas, who plays an increasingly central role, are what give her pieces their alluring static charge.
Imhof has been working with some of her collaborators for over a decade, since before she graduated from the Städelschule in 2012. She went to art school relatively late, having spent most of her twenties making music, working on the door at clubs and, along with her girlfriend at the time, raising the daughter she had at 19. They lived in a squat that had once been a US army base. They spent a lot of time in vans.
Her first piece, although she didn’t think of it that way, was at a bar in Frankfurt’s red-light district. She invited boxers, and friends who played in a punk band, and staged what she described as a duel, where the band had to keep going as the boxers fought, and the boxers had to keep fighting as the band played. Although she couldn’t see it at the time, she’d found her way to the spontaneous image-making that defines her live work. She’d always drawn, viewing the world from a painterly vantage point, but didn’t yet think of herself as an artist. She went to art school a few years after the duel in the bar because, she says, “I knew there were things I needed to know”.
It was during that time that she met many of the people she still collaborates with today. Imhof lights up when she recalls her time at the Städelschule — the work she was introduced to and the frenzied absorption of new ideas, but above all the people she met. They hung out for days, talked non-stop, watched movies and swapped books, clothes, everything. Her degree project, School of the Seven Bells, featured 14 of her friends and was the result, she says, of “a manic Robert Bresson phase we all went through”.
She has worked like that ever since, with the conversations she has with her collaborators serving as a perpetual source of insight and inspiration. The connection she has with Douglas, specifically, seems to have been transformative. The two finish each other’s sentences. When I asked them both what it was like to collaborate so closely with one’s romantic partner, Imhof said, “With the other people I work with, they’re super-intense conversations, I work with them one on one, but with Eliza it has a totally different intensity, because we can go to places that I could never go to with anyone else. Meeting Eliza was a very big deal for me. There are many reasons why it was important, but one of them was the feeling that we saw things the same way, and that we weren’t alone.”
Douglas said, “I’m not comfortable in almost all performative settings. I will be terrified to even give a small toast at my dad’s 70th birthday with 10 people there. But somehow, in Anne’s pieces, I don’t feel scared or nervous, and it is so much more risky than other kinds of performances, but I think a lot of my comfort comes from how Anne believes that I can do this stuff, because I don’t have that kind of faith in myself.” If despondency or terror about the permanently online age is driven by the evident reality that many people have no idea how to connect with each other at all, the results of the relationships that have formed Imhof’s work provide a reassuring counterpoint.
Imhof has had a turbulent year. The horse film was shot in Moscow, along with a number of others intended to form part of an upcoming large-scale solo show at the Garage Museum, in the middle of Gorky Park. Garage cancelled all of its shows in response to the invasion of Ukraine, issuing a statement that it “could not support the illusion of normality when such events were taking place”. Imhof and her team had left Moscow days before the war started and, after taking stock, began the process of restructuring the show intended for Garage into two different solo shows, one at Sprüth Magers in London, the UK branch of the German commercial gallery, and one at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, a public museum, opening within a week of each other.
I asked Imhof if she worried that the films shot in Moscow invited interpretations she did not intend at the time, and she told me a story about a conversation she’d had with Philomene Magers, one of the co-founders of Sprüth Magers. “When I showed Philomene the video of Eliza with the horse, she called me and asked why I hadn’t taken the protection I’d been offered for the time I was in Russia. I couldn’t understand what she meant at all — I wasn’t in any danger, I’m not a child — and she said, ‘But this film is a parody of Putin! Someone with no shirt on riding around on a Russian horse!’ I didn’t see it at first and then I thought, ‘Oh my god.’”
She knew what I was really referring to though, what I meant by unintended interpretations. I was thinking in particular of one shot in front of a row of Khrushchev-era apartment buildings, with wild horses plunging in hip-deep snow, almost as if they are swimming. The film is beautiful, Douglas’s composition is haunting, and the architectural backdrop is pure Soviet triumphalism. Was she concerned that, despite the statement she’d issued strongly condemning the invasion, people would mistakenly read pro-Russian sentiment into the film? “I know that I can be bold in my work, but I am also very sensitive of people’s reaction to it, because I care deeply if they are hurt and offended,” she said.
Earlier, she had spoken about “the danger of being an instrument”, and her awareness that a show in Moscow at a place like Garage, which was co-founded by Roman Abramovich, could potentially be used to burnish an official image of Russia that did not align with reality. “But for a show like that, it’s about the people who might see it. It’s a very queer show, and those are the people in Russia I was thinking about. You know how it is, when you see something as a young person and it really opens up all the doors for you, where you wouldn’t be the person you become later if you hadn’t seen that thing, or met that person. And for me, being queer, there were people in my life that were so influential, and they did that for me. Even if it’s just a small flame — when people are lit by that, it can jump, it can be contagious, it can do something.”
When Imhof talks about her work, she talks details: how a performer moved his arm, how Douglas’s cheek twitches as she holds a smile. She avoids categorical statements about what it means, leaving that interpretation open to others. Aside from her relationship with Douglas, which came up constantly as we discussed her career, Imhof is cheerfully resistant to attempts to link other elements of her own biography to her work, denying that anyone would care about even objectively interesting parts: having a baby at 19, say, and raising her with your then-girlfriend who you are still close to. Living in a squat that was once an American air base, for example. Growing up near the Fulda Gap, then a key point in Nato’s defence against the USSR, where American and Soviet soldiers lined up within 400m of each other, separated by barbed wire and a steel-mesh fence that looked a lot like the one outside, for example, her show at the German Pavilion. “Do you think anyone is interested in this? Really?” She clearly enjoys talking about her past, though.
One afternoon at her house in Kreuzberg, she showed me photographs of her daughter as a tiny girl beaming at her mother while seated on the table at the topless bar Imhof occasionally rented as a studio, or angelically asleep on a mattress in the squat where they lived for several years. She spoke about this precarious period of her life with fondness and even wistfulness, seated at the beautiful wooden table of her well-appointed kitchen, facing the living room with rugs on the floor, firewood stacked against the wall, art books on the shelves, the shiny black grand piano upstairs.
Imhof’s career trajectory has a slightly fantastical arc, a stream of success so uninterrupted as to be comical. (When I asked Douglas how they met, she said drily, “It was at a group show competition that Anne won, of course.”) She has long been art-world famous, but she is now on the verge of being famous famous, sitting somewhere in the intersection between art, fashion and whatever you call it when Bella Hadid uses your show in New York as a photo opportunity.
(An article about Hadid’s visit to the show included the sentence, “On Saturday, the supermodel visited artist Anne Imhof’s Avatar exhibition at Galerie Buchholz in New York City, and her outfit fit right in with the high school theme,” which was possibly a reference to the fact that there were lockers in the installation.) Natures Mortes in Paris was sponsored by Burberry. Isabelle Huppert and Carine Roitfeld were there.
Imhof is aware of, but not necessarily defensive about, the criticism this receives from those quarters of the art world intent on maintaining that art and fashion have nothing to do with each other, in the face of decades’ worth of evidence to the contrary. She likes it that people who don’t normally go to art galleries attend her shows.
“More and more, the work drips into some kind of pop culture, and I let that happen, I know that it’s happening, and it feels very good to me, because at the core of that, I know what makes the work. The thoughts are the same ones that are behind one of the abstract works that I make that are maybe harder to embrace. I think this is the only way that the work can make a difference, if it’s not enclosed within an institution. Inside the institution, there are no politics to be made; it’s too integrated as a system. You have to go outside of the institution for that to happen.”
She is evidently pleased to have found such success but, despite it all, she seems still to see herself as an outsider, someone who went to art school late, someone who doesn’t know the rules. At one point, she showed me a photograph of a thick stack of unopened official letters, about the same height as her two-year-old daughter would have been when the photograph was taken. “I couldn’t open any of them, because I knew that what was in there was baaaad. I looked at some of them many years later . . . in there were at least four invitations to go to jail.” She beamed.
Her self-identification as an interloper seems difficult to credit. How much of an outsider can someone really be when they are organising two solo shows in two separate countries? What kind of upstart are you when you are staging a catwalk show in the countryside with Riccardo Tisci?
This may be the wrong way of looking at it. It might be that Imhof has been able to sustain this image precisely because she does not conceive of her work as rarefied, does not acknowledge insisted-upon distinctions between, for instance, art and fashion, and there will always be someone somewhere ready to patiently explain that this is not how it actually works. Or it could simply be that precarity and edginess become more crucial to the art world’s definition of itself with every year it derives further commercial benefit from setting the mainstream agenda, and her live works feature people screaming and setting fire to things. Like many things to do with Imhof, it could be both.
I met Imhof again a few days later back in London at Sprüth Magers. The show, titled Avatar II, took up all four floors of the grand gallery on Grafton Street, and was opening that evening. In the front room was a large, radiant oil painting of Douglas with a shirt pulled over her head, framed on either side by grey school lockers and facing one of Imhof’s “scratch paintings” — aluminium panels coated in layers of glossy automotive paint, with patterns gouged into them. On the top floor were densely peopled charcoal drawings of elongated, androgynous figures arranged in the kind of enmeshed tableaux that appear in her live images. One room had lockers arranged in a spiralling, claustrophobic maze.
Downstairs, a film was playing — one of the ones shot in Moscow, featuring a shirtless Douglas sitting on the same kind of athletic benches that were positioned throughout the gallery, fake snow spinning in the air around her as she raises her arms like wings, or slaps her own face until it appears to bleed. At one point, she screams, which is much more startling than it should be, given how tense and bleakly melancholic the film is. Imhof is very good at conjuring an atmosphere of fraught uneasiness; walking through the gallery, I felt several times as if someone was staring hard at the back of my head.
Ladders were still on the floor, the paint of the graffiti on some of the lockers was still wet, men with necessary-looking bits of hardware were still wandering around, but Imhof traipsed companionably around the gallery as if she had all the time in the world. I’d come to recognise this as typical. In Berlin, gearing up to do two shows opening almost simultaneously, she had appeared so relaxed as to be on the verge of levitating. Imhof is in possession of astonishing powers of attention, apparently able to attend closely to several people and ideas and things at once, retaining everything.
In London, while convening with a member of her studio team about the sound engineering at the Stedelijk show, she picked up a conversation we’d had almost a week earlier that I’d already almost forgotten, about the dirt under Bacchus’s nails in the Caravaggio painting. We sat in the basement where the film was playing, or rather I sat, and Imhof stretched out on the floor like a yoga instructor demonstrating how good it felt to relax. I asked her if she was nervous about the opening and she said yes, of course. I wasn’t sure if I believed her.
She needn’t have been, anyway. People had started queueing outside Sprüth Magers an hour before the show opened. By the time I got there, there were people spilling halfway down the street. A young man with slicked-back hair and a seasonally inappropriate Astrakhan coat stuck his head through the gallery door, looked at the crowd inside and trilled “Busy! Busy, busy, busy!” A famously exacting curator was overheard saying that Imhof had made a convert of him, that she was the new Joseph Beuys, the ritualistic installation artist — a comparison that comes up frequently, despite Imhof’s total rejection of it.
Two very young women, teenagers really, walked through the room with the lockers and stood in front of an enormous oil painting of a nuclear explosion that you might think was a lovely cloud if you had somehow failed to absorb the menace of the show. I’d seen them earlier in the basement. They’d sat rapt through three cycles of the film, flinching every time Douglas screamed. One of the girls had tears in her eyes throughout. I asked them what they liked about the show and one said she couldn’t answer, that she didn’t know how to talk about art. The other, more outgoing, put her hand on my arm confidingly and said, “We hate most art. That’s why we love this.”
Two older men stood vaping on the stairs, one with a T-shirt that he’d bought from the merch table, black and long-sleeved with “Avatar” scrawled on the front in death metal font. It was difficult to see where he’d wear it. The man standing next to him said, “Beautiful crowd inside.” They both vaped in silence for a bit and then the man with the T-shirt said “I mean . . . stunning.” His companion closed his eyes almost as if in pain. “Fucking hell,” he said.
On the way home, I popped into David Zwirner Gallery in Grafton Street. Although I knew it was beneath us all, I could not help noting that the crowd outside Sprüth Magers was bigger, sparklier. A woman I’d overheard earlier introducing someone as “the only collector in London with any taste at all” was speaking to a friend she’d met at Zwirner. “Have you been over to Sprüth?” she asked. “It’s quite the assortment in there”, she said, with a strange air of triumph, as if she’d had something to do with attendance numbers. “Really quite a crowd.”
The first day we met, Imhof had spoken about “The Great Swimmer”, a fragment of Kafka she’d had a performer recite at the show at the Palais de Tokyo. A man returns to his hometown after breaking a new world record in swimming at the Olympic Games, and is taken to a celebratory banquet, where he gives a speech. “I have, admittedly, broken a world record. If, however, you were to ask me how I have achieved this, I could not answer adequately. Actually, I cannot even swim. I have always wanted to learn, but have never had the opportunity. How then did it come to be that I was sent by my country to the Olympic Games? This is, of course, also the question I ask of myself.” I asked her why she’d included it and she said, “Well, I do think it’s funny.” She paused. “I like it, I think, because of what it says about success, and how people make sense of it. How I make sense of it.”
I asked Imhof if she was competitive. She rolled her eyes and said yes, very, and then she told me a story from her childhood. She’d gone to weekly swimming lessons, and one week there was a race. Her parents had come along to watch, standing on the side of the pool with towels as all the children lined up at the starting blocks ready to fling themselves into the water. “Everybody jumped in, and I just dove to the bottom. When I came up from under the water everybody was racing back towards me from the other end of the pool, but I was happy, because I really believed that the competition was about diving to the bottom.”
Her parents had been nice about it, but her teachers had been annoyed and threatened to kick her out of swimming lessons for good. I asked her why she thought she’d done it. “Of course I knew the competition was really about racing from one end to the other, but I knew I couldn’t compete with the others like that. The only way I was going to win was to dive really, really deep down.”
‘Anne Imhof: Avatar II’ is at Sprüth Magers, London until December 23; ‘Youth’ is at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam until January 29 2023
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