PARIS – German artist Anne Imhof stood at the Palais de Tokyo on a recent Friday morning, watching a group of fashionista-clad dancers and models crawl across the floor. It was the final stage of rehearsals for a series of performances he had prepared, scheduled to begin on 14 October. Eight young men were finding the right speed to cross one of the huge exhibition spaces of the Paris Museum.
Imhof, 43, was above the cast of creeps in cowboy boots and jogging pants. “Go slow, very slow,” he told them. When he reached the other side, 10 minutes later, he turned his back and looked at the imagined audience, with the expressions of boredom studied.
“Very good,” said Imhof with delight.
Rehearsals were preparing for the final act of “Nature Morts” (“Still Lives”), a multidisciplinary exhibition by Imhof that has occupied the entirety of the Palais de Tokyo since May.
Like other Imhof shows, “Nature’s Morts” includes sculptures, paintings, and other works that can be viewed independently of the exhibits. Those live performances, which run until October 24, will feature tableaux largely created, disrupted and then improvised by their dancers, in a production that transcends the aesthetics of underground youth culture: hip clothing, Industrial music, bisexual body.
“This piece is about death, and choice, and pain,” Imhof said in an interview before rehearsals, “but it’s something so open that people can have their own feelings about it.”
“With live performances, with people and bodies, I’m trying to find an abstract language that works like poetry,” she said.
The audience is allowed to move freely during Imhof’s performance, sometimes making them as much of the experience as the work itself. Because pieces often involve multiple sequences occurring simultaneously, the audience – essentially the smartphone wielder – must decide how to behave and where to move.
Much of his work, Imhof said, was “about the idea of a single person who could make all these connections through digitization, but being tracked and controlled, and who would always be seen anywhere.”
“The audience makes the piece what it is,” she said.
For many internet-savvy fans of the artist, the eye-catching and stylish images she creates in her performances are alluring social media fodder. Billy Bultheil, a composer who has contributed to the scores of many Imhof pieces and performed in them, said that audience members sometimes pushed against each other and the cast to capture the incident on their phones. . “Their greed for consumption is on display,” he said.
Imhof, who is warmer and funnier in conversation than his harsh works might suggest, became an art world star for the first time since winning the top prize 2017 Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale for “Faust,” the German entry in the famed arts event . . For that piece, he crossed the pavilion, which dates from the Nazi era, with glass partitions, and surrounded the building with tall fences and guard dogs.
During a performance of “Faust”, groups of dancers would crawl under a glass floor, light a fire, send messages on their phones and slowly bang their heads.
Writing in Artnet, Lorena Muoz-Alonso described the piece as a “catwalk show from hell” that “speaks of power, of who possesses it and who seeks to reclaim it.” In ArtForum, David Velasco called it “a work of the most highly deserved cool”. Imhof has since held high-profile exhibitions at the Tate Modern in London, the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Caroline Kristov-Bakargiev, director of Castello di Rivoli in Turin, Italy, which is currently exhibiting Imhof’s other exhibition “Sex”, said, “In my view, Anne is the artist who works on this thing the most. is how we relate to each other through separation and connection in the digital age.
She noted that Imhof’s work incorporated changes in human interaction caused by smartphones. “Their performance represents a world where people behave as if they are in the pack,” she said. “Sending each other messages, trying to find each other and get real experience.”
Kristov-Bakargiev said a “cult” has emerged around Imhof’s art, especially among digitally conscious youth. “I’m not a psychoanalyst, but I think her art makes them feel like they belong and they understand the pain of the world,” she said.
Imhof, now located in Berlin, grew up in a suburb of Fulda, a mid-sized city in central Germany with an ornate cathedral. Her parents, an orthodontist and a teacher, were part of the “1968” generation in Germany that pursued left-wing politics in reaction to their parents’ involvement in the Third Reich.
“It was an anti-fascist house,” Imhof recalled. However, growing up “very much as a queer child”, she said that she often felt isolated from her suburban surroundings, and negotiated an escape to a British boarding school, where she first began to draw. learned. (He was later expelled 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 began writing poetry and making music. Eventually she was accepted into the city’s renowned art school, the Stadelschule, which she attended while working doorstep at the Robert Johnson, a technical club.
She said the “artificial” experience of deciding who could and could not enter a club helped shape awareness of the markers that determine access to spaces and resources. “I think it’s one of the biggest issues of our time,” she said, adding that in response, she tried to make her work “pop” so that they resonate with as many people as possible.
Imhof’s exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo is his most elaborate project to date. Since spring, visitors have been able to see sculptures, paintings and installations that he created for the location of the caves. These include a labyrinth made of glass carved from frescoes recovered from a demolished Italian office building and large-scale paintings highlighting sunsets, dark landscapes and nuclear explosions. It also featured compositions selected by Imhof but by other artists including Sigmar Polke, Wolfgang Tillman and Mike Kelly, and sound installations created with his long-term creative and romantic partner Elijah Douglas.
Douglas, who cast and styled the cast and composed the music for the Paris show, has been appearing in Imhof pieces since the couple met in 2015. Douglas, a 6-foot-1 American who also models for Balenciaga, explained that Imhoff’s live work was often based on a loose structure that allowed for improvisation. “She has invented her own style within art,” Douglas said, noting that artists often capture the attention of visitors, even though the attendees sometimes exceeded their limits.
Douglas said the dancers confiscated audience members’ smartphones when their faces were stressed and had to “body-check” spectators who encroached on their space. The composer, Bultheil, said that during a performance in Venice, a stranger followed him and started running his fingers through his hair. “That was so weird,” he recalled.
Imhof said it would be impossible to predict the reaction of the audience to the Paris performance. The show, she said, was partly influenced by the writings of French author Antonin Artaud, who created a “theatre of brutality,” in which the actors attack the audience’s senses. He added that another French writer, Georges Batelle and Franz Kafka, were also influenced.
Sitting at rehearsals and admiring a floor plan, she said the performance would include dirt bikes, a live falcon, and a stuffed coyote. But she was still struggling with the logistics of a sequence in which actors wash themselves in small pools, a cleaning ritual she said was partly inspired by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The problem with wet ones is that they are wet,” she said, adding that she was concerned about damaging nearby artworks, or that spectators could slip and fall. Despite all her provocations, she didn’t want anyone to get hurt.