Review: Anne Imhof’s “Faust” at Venice Biennale

26 Anne Imhof © Nadine Fraczkowski_E9B1482German performance artist Anne Imhof blew away the artworld with her fashion-infused performance at this year’s Venice Biennale. Here, art critic Justin Polera reflects on this remarkable work of art, and how it touches on everything from Berlin hipsterism to the death drive of adolescence.

Anne Imhof is an artist of the real. By bringing together painting, sculpture, installation, architecture and most of all performance, her work moves beyond the “symbolic” in our current anxious. She began her new work, entitled Faust, from images and sketches, as well as marking on the architectural plan of the German Pavilion in Venice’s Giardini gardens. These drawings function as a window into the working mind of the young artist, who studied painting and counts Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat (both prolific draftsman) as early influences. Central to Faust is its openness – to “suggestions and to placing different elements in contrasting compositions,” as composer and collaborator Billy Bultheel phrased it; in the end, it is impossible to pin down one interpretation of the ambitious work. Imhof transfixes an image into something that is both Tanztheater and gesamtkunstwerk but has no name—a five-hour long seduction that transgresses power, potency, and portraiture.

Entering into the space, the viewer stands inside a fully altered building, transformed by steel and a glass floor raised a meter above ground. Slowly, performers begin to appear underneath us and around us as if from out of nowhere. There is so much to take in that it is overwhelming: powerful beautiful bodies moving, brutal architecture, a metal railing high up on the wall, the underworld below, paintings inside rooms in grayscale that pastiche Warhol silkscreens.

05 Anne Imhof © Nadine Fraczkowski_E9B1399

The collective performance emerges with the acceleration, attitude, and layers building up (but never climaxing) of various moving bodies. At moments they slow down so much that they appear like a frozen image in space, and other times, impossibly fast. Imhof’s core of performers, all friends and colleagues, bring a constellation of different backgrounds to her ideas. Performer Bultheel emphasized collectivity: “We are a group of people that bring together a lot of different influences into Anne’s work. What manifests in it is our joint effort to make something come alive.”

Early on Imhof collaborated with photographer and musician Nadine Fraczkowski, who remains one of her principals. Later her work took on components inspired by lesser-known figures whose practices are musical and poetic in idiosyncratic and enigmatic ways, like Genesis P-Orridge and nightlife legends from Frankfurt where she studied. These ideas, especially Fraczkowski’s framing of figures in photography, catalyzed the idea of using images to displace written and spoken word, but not to entirely replace it. To Imhof writing and drawing are transposable but not equal. The ever-changing performance is coordinated by text messages on smartphones between Imhof and the performers. The screens of phones glow in darkened spaces of her installation—each contains text as image and reminds us how much our own identities are formed on phone screens.

Time in Faust is both sexy and strange. The crowd together turns towards the performers to see them and this orients all of us in (collective) affect, and even as it baffles us intellectually in any attempt to grasp the full narrative, we feel it in corporal reality. Imhof evokes the subject under the gaze of “the other” and the spectacle of the world at large. By immersing ourselves in Imhof’s happenings we are brought in direct contact with the primary pleasure of seeing and being seen. The subjective self is also self-surveilling—the performers check each other out and check themselves out. As if looking in the mirror at the gym or turning our cell phone cameras onto ourselves to see how we look before we meet our date, the illusion we have of ourselves is violently shattered.

07 Anne Imhof © Nadine Fraczkowski_E9B1712

We enter a condition of psychological estrangement, the unbridgeable gap between our imagined and actual selves. No matter how many selfies we take or how well we know our best angles and lighting, there is a gap of misrecognition which we attempt to fill with fantasies of the ideal, taken from fashion, entertainment and media images. The forms and shapes performers evoke are drawn from current fashion aesthetics – Imhof has said that she looks to “Demna Gvasalia the new designer of Balenciaga, he is really good with colors and shapes”. There is a lot of kinship in her work with fashion embracing a dystopian present (the here and now) and not nostalgically longing for the past before the internet. Clothing, like bodybuilding, augments the performers as prosthetics. Take for example neoprene and sweat-drying “performance” fabrics (used by Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, Hood by Air, Cottweiler, Whatever 21, Nvrmnd Clothing, Adyn, Skingraft, Rick Owens, Nasir Mazhar) presenting the reality of biotechnology (clothing as new and improved skin) and the fetish of keeping it all clean. The whole pavilion smelled of cleaning products, but the hand sanitizer bottles lay next to metal spoons and lighters – a signifier associated with cooking crack cocaine, a socially dirty behavior.

The movements of the performers borrow from the language of junkies scrounging the ground for cigarettes, the mythical Italian school of Pickpockets, the child bowing their head in shame to the disciplining parent, self-flagellation poses, the kneeling prayer and signs of devotion to the other. Movements that are bound to and break the social contract tied to hierarchies of the powerful and the powerless. At one point performers come out from below and stand with us on the glass, a group posed near each other upright neither together nor apart with eyes cast downward. Elsewhere, surrounded by another crowd, two bodies lie on the glass ground intertwined, the male and the female interlocking in all their sexual difference. Suddenly wrestling or caressing, a holding that is gently sadomasochist, they flip who is on top and who is at the bottom. In another moment, two male performers stand to touch each other, with cellphones in hand, faces stroking each other’s necks. They rub each other over and over again, eventually desensitizing us to recapitulation . Inside a sculptural setting, performers become images, taking on shapes like an endless stream of photographs from Fraczkowski. Each moment a tender portrait.

Boundary crossing and queering the norms happens all over the work. First, crossing the neatly divided mediums: dance, theater, sports, painting, and filmic images. Even if hyper-masculine on the surface, Imhof’s work challenges heteronormative gender boundaries. A post-gendered embrace of the androgynous athlete branded by sportswear so that that signifier becomes the signified, it calls us back to a pre-industrial world of physical labor returning us to paradise lost.

12 Anne Imhof © Nadine Fraczkowski_E9B1427

Essential to “the real” in Lacanian terms is that it “expects nothing” especially “nothing from speech” it is beyond words as “a noise in which one can hear everything.” This is what we hear when the performer marching through the pavilion let out a primal scream that shocks us awake. The realm of the real is authentic and unchangeable. Therefore it is impossible to imagine or describe and its resistance to symbolization makes “the real” a traumatic experience, a challenge to our very sense of self.

Representing a country, by proxy embodying the national identity, is a politically loaded honor. Much of Imhof’s work plays with the malleability of signifiers, and here Faust refers both the to classic German Legend and the word “fist” (which is what it means in German). The clenched hand as a sign of resistance, training, fighting—and when raised is a symbol of revolution and solidarity.  All of her signifiers are carefully chosen: the running sink, the fire house, glass and steel walls, ceiling and floors that transform the building which into the semiotics of international style of modernism—another failed utopia. Under the floor boxing gloves, bondage cuffs, white towel, sheet, medical gauze dressings lie on a leather athletic mat on the ground pressed up against the wall. Outside on either side of the front entrance are two metal cages that “fence off” the other but welcome the performers who climb the cages and mimic the dog poses. Young Doberman pinschers guard, stalk, play, bark and animate the liminal space which is not entirely outside or inside. They are what Haraway describes as “companion species”.

Performers move beneath us, among us, behind in enclosed rooms, atop of the building and outside on and in the kennel cage. Lying on his back, in a pose of an animal, a male performer in black hoodie (another loaded symbol) and black pants and pulled up black Everlast sports socks kicks up a cadmium red colored Salomon red sneaker onto the glass above him—it is violent and erotic pose as the bottom of the foot presses against us (feet are one of the art’s earliest sex symbols, found even in cave paintings). His white undershirt shirt falls to the ground exposing his bare skin, we see his happy trail coming from pubic hair. He flips over, face to the ground, ass up and “plays dead” exactly in the silhouette of a chalk outline drawn on the ground as evidence at a crime scene. Another performer (Mickey Mahar) also in a black Fruit of the Loom hoodie, turned inside out so the label is showing, crawls on top on of him and kneels, knee to neck, in a grotesque pose like a crouching gargoyle—but entirely calm. Mahar is one of the most ravishing performers, his look is irresistible and transfixing. Other performers (female, male, androgynous such as Josh Johnson and Frances Chiaverini who danced for Forsythe Company) on all fours crawl over the dead body without hesitation. When they press their faces against the glass their features distort making them looks like monsters, the ultimate other. The performers wrestle in a calm fluidity it is violence sublimated, but in a surprising moment of desublimation, they reach for each other’s neck in a choking move— a kind of autoerotic asphyxiation?

17 Anne Imhof © Nadine Fraczkowski_E9B2021

They embody adolescence in all its violence, passion and raw sexuality. In this moment in society, adolescence is stretched out indefinitely, late capitalism, the post-internet, constant social media forces the compulsion to repeat with new modes of constant user-generated production and consumption. Mahar around whom a circle of spectators has formed rushes the crowd his chest held high and arms fully spanned out to the sides. It is a challenge as if before starting a fight his body says  “Come on” “you want this?” Yet as specific as the movement is to fighting it is also the arms splayed wide to the stipes of the crucifix. We try to categorize the performers as monospecific, “young and beautiful”, “heroin chic”, “Berghain”, “the lost generation” or the vague term “hipster”, yet on a deeper under the skin level they are all an ecosystem of millions of symbiotic species, histories, and contingencies. The self in Faust is radically fractured.

We move through movements with the performers empathizing as they cross the boundaries between self-caressing and punishing. On one hand there is no subject of the trauma of each moment, it is the ultimate eradication, but on the other hand the survivor of trauma is the witness to a personal experience so primary it gives absolute authority of selfhood. A person cannot challenge the trauma of another. So that in wake of the postmodern death of the author, Imhof’s work embraces the Zombification of the body into a non-normative political subject able to cross between difference: self and other, human and machine, human and animal, organism and machine, reality and fiction. We see Douglas, the heroine of the performance, on a glass platform above us singing outward as if a saint, as she sings slowly the words “golden stream”. Either they are divine words or they refer to “wet sports” the sexually sadistic play with urine. In Faust, these two poles are held together in the shadowy primal real.
11 Anne Imhof © Nadine Fraczkowski_E9B0512

Words by Justin Polera

All images by Nadine Fraczkowski, courtesy the German Pavilion 2017 and the artist.
Captions in order of appearance:

26: Billy Bultheel and Franziska Aigner in Anne Imhof, Faust, 2017
05: Lea Welsch, Billy Bultheel, Emma Daniel, Franziska Aigner and Mickey Mahar in Anne Imhof, Faust, 2017
07: Franziska Aigner and Eliza Douglas in Anne Imhof, Faust, 2017
12: Eliza Douglas in Anne Imhof, Faust, 2017
17: Josh Johnson in Anne Imhof, Faust, 2017
11: Eliza Douglas in Anne Imhof, Faust, 2017

At the German Pavilion, 57th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia