Decked head to toe in all-black Balenciaga and sitting in a lush hotel suite in Stockholm, Anne Imhof is, much like her art, intimidatingly cool.
In recent years, the artist has become best known for her poignant and disturbing performance pieces, more so than for what she considers her main practices: painting and drawing. She was catapulted into the media spotlight the world over when she won the most prestigious award at the 57th Venice Biennale in May for her uneasy installation in the German pavilion, Faust.
The powerful performance took the Golden Lion for best national participation and is interesting to reexamine in light of the outcome of the German Elections. (For those who didn’t get a chance to see it in the frenzy of the Biennale’s opening weeks, Faust will be performed again in its entirety during the final days of the Biennale in November.)
We are in Sweden because Imhof has just won the Absolut Art Award for Art Work: a €20,000 prize as well as a staggering €100,000 budget to produce a new work. She was awarded at a ceremony in the Swedish capital alongside Art Writing award-winner Huey Copeland.
Only cryptic details have been revealed about Imhof’s winning proposal, carefully selected from a pool of 39 nominees and six finalists by a distinguished jury headed by Daniel Birnbaum, director of Stockholm’s impressive Moderna Museet. What little is known is that she plans to produce a new work set in the salt desert in Death Valley, California, and it will be her first ever produced outside the walls of a museum or gallery space.
Indeed, Imhof’s exact plans are not yet fully developed, and Birnbaum admitted that even the jury didn’t fully understand her formal proposal—oh to be a fly on the wall of those deliberations!—but their confidence in her speaks to her status in the art world.
Imhof’s work is also currently showing in the New York arm of one of her Berlin galleries, Galerie Buchholz in a joint show with her fiancée Eliza Douglas, the talented artist whose face is as recognizable from the Balenciaga catwalk as from her prominent roles in Imhof’s stark performance work.
Speaking to artnet News, here’s what Anne Imhof had to say about winning the 2017 Absolut Art Award, her outstanding performance in Venice, and the frightening current political situation in Germany.
As the award’s winner, you have a budget of €100,000 to produce and exhibit a new project. You’ve mentioned it will be set in the salt flats in Death Valley—what else can you tell us about it?
I think the US is an interesting place to do something right now. My fascination with the desert has to do with its colors and that different feeling of time and perspective. It’s very hostile climate-wise and vast as a background. The act of walking has been central to my performative work in the past. I want to expand on this and see these walks in this setting. It’s shaping up to be my first work taking place outside the white cube. The cast will be formed of the core group of people I like to work with the most, but I am open to work with others as well depending on the direction it will take.
And what form will it take? You’ve described it to the press as a performance and its musical score will result in the production of a film—is that still the plan?
That is still the plan, yes. However, it is not fully defined yet. I will start working on it more intensely from the beginning of December onwards, after the end of the Biennale. I am currently still working on Faust, which is still evolving and will be performed again in its entirety in the first week of October and during the final days of the Biennale in November.
Faust took the Golden Lion at Venice for best National Participation, so I was hoping we could talk about what, if anything, the performance says about contemporary Germany, especially in light of the results of recent German elections?
Because of the rather outdated model of the national pavilions at the Venice Biennale, there is always the risk of your work becoming overdetermined by its relation to the country you are supposed to represent. This is especially true for the German pavilion given the country’s history and the way it is embodied in the pavilion’s architecture. I tried to confront this head-on in Faust. The current political situation is frightening and calls for resistance and political action. Nevertheless, my work can’t do this job, in the first place it stands for itself without a cause.
Your use of the aesthetic of fascism in your work has been questioned by critics, and I suppose the Nazi-designed German Pavilion as the site for your prize-winning performance in Venice probably didn’t help this association. But as you’ve said, you’re coming from a completely different perspective. How do you locate your work in relation to fascism?
That’s bullshit. My background is very much an anti-fascist one. And it is in reference to this that parts of the visual and gestural language in Faust were developed. With the elections in Germany, it’s a moment where it is very important that we all speak up against racism, homophobia, and fascism even more so than before.
Why do you use live animals, like the two dobermans at the German pavilion, in your shows? Is it because of the potential they create for true spontaneity?
That’s definitely one aspect of it, I chose to go with the dogs for the German Pavilion because it’s the most domesticated animal, but despite this they evade total control and their behavior can’t be scripted. The doberman bitches in front of the pavilion are often perceived as having a threatening presence, but they are very friendly and playful and wouldn’t be very effective as actual guard dogs at all.
How do you manage to have that intensity and charisma in your performances when it’s not just you onstage? I think it was Marina Abramović who said you can’t teach performance, but your work seems to disprove that theory. How do you train your performers?
We work really closely on these pieces. I used to perform in my work, but at one point it was not possible anymore to do this and be able to look at it from the outside simultaneously. I think there is a certain way that we work that is also very simple, it’s very much based on mutual respect. We work from sketches and it develops, movement and material, everything in parallel. Preparations for the work, my studio practice, paintings and drawings, and the work with the performers are happening at the same time. I collaborate with some of them more closely than with others, especially Franziska Aigner, Billy Bultheel, Emma Daniel, Josh Johnson, Mickey Mahar, Lea Welsch, and of course Eliza Douglas. So there’s a lot of individual work happening, sometimes the parts develop out of something that we discovered together and found interesting. There are things in these pieces that they bring themselves and then we discuss them. We also script a lot. Faust has open parts but a lot of it is scripted. We were actually joking about how we fetishize scripting right now and how much I was against it in the beginning.
At the moment, you and Eliza Douglas are showing work at Galerie Buchholz in New York. How did that collaboration come about, and how did it differ from working together on performance? Do you still primarily identify as a painter now that your performance work is so well-known?
I’m approaching performance from the perspective of a painter. As for this collaboration, I think it’s something that evolved out of working so closely on Faust together for the past year. I’m very grateful for all her generous and inspiring contributions. It was most natural that we would collaborate on paintings because that’s both of our core practices. At Buchholz, Eliza shows a recent series of works, paintings of hands and feet that are connected through abstract gestures. The focus of the show is a new series of collaborative works with black paint on white canvases and silkscreens which are based on both of our signatures.
What’s next? Any institutional projects in the works?
I’m really looking forward to having some alone time in the studio, and just to have some time for myself as well! I mean I draw a lot wherever I am, and on everything basically, but the studio practice is really at the core of everything I do and something without which these big performance pieces wouldn’t be possible, so it’s mainly this that I’m striving for right now.
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