Anne Imhof

Body language

When discussing the performative range of Anne Imhof’s works, vocabulary seems an appropriate starting term. Imhof’s performances are complex, intimate studies in movement, gesture and action, mostly silent and tending to span several hours. The works accumulate as a private corporeal lexicon shared by a small group of performers – often the artist’s friends and peers – whose ongoing rehear­sals collectivize charac­te­rizations of being a ‘non-person’ (and have even incorporated animals such as a live donkey or rabbits). ‘Body language’, a key component in Imhof’s pieces, is after all physical communication.

At points in Rage 1, which debuted as part of Imhof’s self-titled exhibition at Deborah Schamoni in Munich last spring, fractured snippets of speech and spoken word were combined with nonverbal interactions, all performed under harsh, sodium light. In the work, performers moved carefully around the space, seemingly intent on their own activities while appearing almost apparitional — expressionless, in non-descript, casual attire. At times they came together in pairs or as a group. Watching this, one began to sense a loss of time – duration without peaks or culmination. Communication is broken down and formalized in Imhof’s static works too, from her objects to her drawings and paintings. In the same show immateriality was given heft, the works taken as a whole creating an abstract poem of sorts. Several two-dimensional pieces were simply titled after letters from the alphabet, such as Y (2014), in which the character is etched in reverse onto the black surface of dibond like the impression of a key across the side of a car. Curiously, the etching’s stick-like form bears a passing resemblance to the rune Kaun, from the Younger Futhark runic alphabet, which stands for ulcer, wound or ope­ning and in rune-casting can represent ‘insight gained by suffering’.

While runes are attributed as the root of Germanic languages, certain works in the exhibition also alluded anatomically to the mouth as a point of origin – of speech and of action. For example, the toothbrushes and orthodontic headgear that figure in the sculptural assemblages Untitled and Cobra Toothbrush (both 2014) signify regularity and practice (the brushing of teeth), and self-improvement through surgical restructuring. Installed in the garden behind the gallery, a clay tongue protruded from a surface of buttermilk, the liquid filling a concrete basin in Unten Unten Unten Hollow Whale (2014), and for Tongue (2014) the muscle is carved out of a slab of alabaster and rested disembodied and mute on the floor. Through this Imhof extends the role of performativity to the materials usually seen as the remainder or by-product of performance itself – props like stacks of energy drinks or filmed documentation and slideshows. As such, the vocabulary of the discipline, which usually focuses on ‘liveness’, is broadened to cover a range of materials and media.

When I spoke with Imhof about DEAL, her most recent and ambitious long-form performance to date which took place 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 work unfolded in time at a slower pace than the individual works had been performed. In DEAL, performers transport buttermilk between two concrete basins similar to Unten Unten Unten Hollow Whale, which this time functioned more like a trough than a purely sculptural object. 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. It spoke to symbolic exposure, of contagion and protection; of physical receptacles and of orifices for contamination.

Given their durational aspect, how would one situate Imhof’s performances in terms of endurance, a persistent staple of the medium, and in light of recent disputes among its established practitioners? In 2011, Yvonne Rainer penned an open letter to former LA MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch calling Marina Abramović’s plans to install rotating naked performers in the middle of tables for the duration of a fundraiser a ‘grotesque spectacle’. In Imhof’s performances, tolerance is less about putting the body under duress or pushing it to limits that border on abuse, but rather about involving others in the choreography of her works. One is affronted by clandestine actions – a repeated shaking of a clenched fist or a body bent over – and the nearly private language of the performers’ gestures. While labour-intensive for those involved, Imhof exploits the expectation that activity means production, generating instead a feeling of ‘wasted time’. As such, the works seem as if they would continue regardless of an audience. Ongoing improvisations evolve within these pieces in place of a rigid structure. In a sense, their participants are more akin to a self-organised troupe, company or band working together instead of being ‘employed’ as workers. Whilst it might be applied as a subtext in her work, Imhof broaches the expectation of per­formance – the ‘promise’ in its delivery – as it has been canonized. Hers is a physical language broken down and cut loose of its historical restraints.

Saim Demircan is a curator and writer based in Berlin, Germany. He is currently curator-in-residence at the Academy of Fine Art in Munich. 

Issue 19

First published in Issue 19

May 2015

Most Read

Ahead of ARCOMadrid this week, a guide to the best institutional shows in the city
A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018