It is not questionable whether the work of the German artist Anne Imhof, who partly lives in New York, offers comfort. You know, the word that has been constantly identified with art over the past year and a half when corona kept museums and other visual art institutions closed. Art would give comfort in times of need. And don’t we all need comfort?
No, says Anne Imhof (1978), and in the Paris Palais de Tokyo she shows how we can understand art. The museum gave her a free hand. She shows an overview of her own work, the earliest of which is a large, dramatic expressionist drawing from 2014, until very recently. In addition, she shows images, film installations, photos, paintings and drawings of 29 admired fellow artists. The earliest work by those artists dates from the eighteenth century and is by Piranesi.
If this were all, the exhibition Anne Imhof, Dead natures, in Paris ‘just’ be an exhibition, with props of performances and many works of art. But Imhof does much more. Also the museum itself, which has a morbid history as a storage place during the Second World War for Task Force Rosenberg stolen Jewish property has been turned into a work of art. The subterranean floors, cellars and caverns have been stripped into a bare carcass, a maze in which visitors wander like ghosts.
For those unfamiliar with the artist: her career has taken off After her first solo in Frankfurt in 2013, prestigious museums in Berlin, London and New York are eager to produce and show her performances. Awards followed, culminating in 2017 with the Golden Lion for the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Imhof chose one of Germany’s greatest novel characters for that uncomfortably bombastic building. Her opera performance Faust unlike Goethe’s novel, it has no heroes, no main characters, no storyline. There are only performers who move like salamanders under a glass floor, stick to the wall like insects or move through the audience like the living dead.
Performance, visual art and singing – performed and composed by Imhof’s regular partner, the musician and artist Eliza Douglas – form one slow, inescapable whole. It is about greed, desire, fear, loneliness, guilt and penance – everywhere. The taste in your mouth after Faust is one of ashes and cold coffee.
Now, in the Palais de Tokyo, Anne Imhof has exploited all layers of architecture. The museum, built on a hill along the Seine, has many layers that go deeper and deeper from the entrance. As a visitor you descend, so to speak, to the bottom of a ravine. All shall fall (2020), a Douglas text painting that looks like a crumpled T-shirt, makes it clear along the way: your fall is inevitable, no matter how tightly you cling to the banisters.
Dead natures starts out pretty innocent. Two pillars on the ground floor are covered with black rubber and form a gate. This so-called Antifa Gate is not even particularly noticeable, but is named after the anarchist, international network of anti-fascists that Imhof is part of.
Stairs lead down via a curved glass walkway. There, the space has turned into a macabre labyrinth, where glass walls have been erected, floors cracked, a dirty mop deliberately left behind and white deathbeds beckon. The glass walls, covered in graffiti, were specially transported from a dismantled office block to the Palais de Tokyo. Rooms have been built with it, corridors, streets – everything semi-transparent. As a visitor you always see yourself reflected in this maze.
This interior creates enchantment and disenchantment at the same time, because the art that Imhof shows can be viewed in different ways. You can stand right on top of it. But from a distance there are always those semi-transparent glass walls on all sides that cloud your view.
The resulting disorientation is intentional and functional. In the long run – allow four hours for this exhibition – the nightmarish dungeons of Piranesi that Imhof shows are tangible. There is a way out – that’s what you would like to hope?
For whom the operas Angst (2016), Faust (2017) in Sex (2019), there are landmarks that help. The transparent plastic sheets, for example, which Imhof has riveted to the walls with metal, are minimalist, abstract sculptures that serve as a place during performances where dancers sit, stand, sing or twist in impossible twists. The whip – an attribute with which the skinny and half-naked Douglas in the video Wave (2021) whips the surf – also comes back in the worn performance Sex (2019) and the over three-hour film made of it this year.
Imhof calls her performances a form of painting. And that’s right to some extent, because the static poses her performers adopt not only sometimes resemble paintings, but are also quite impossible to perform. Try smoking a cigarette in a bridge position (on all fours with your stomach up) with a twisted lower body.
Her own oil paintings stand in stark contrast to this. Series of abstract, atmospheric landscapes hang in the Palais de Tokyo (Untitled – Natures Mortes, on Sunset) from different years. The landscapes consist only of black for the bottom and tending towards a glowing orange, white and yellow in the sky. That air seems heavily polluted. Baudelaire wrote of Courbet’s seascapes that they represented a “universe without humanity.” In Imhof’s paintings, humanity has likewise disappeared – perhaps already extinct, including everything on earth.
Dead natures makes no history clear, no direction goes from A to B, from earlier to later. And that is essential for the appreciation of Imhof’s work. There is no message and as a result Imhof escapes the kitsch that lurks in all those works full of threat, fate and existential fears. Just once, she shoots over the edge. That happens in the movie Deathwish (2021), in which Eliza Douglas, surrounded by flowers in dark red tending to black, depicts a longing for death.
The lack of a message also manifests itself in Imhof’s choice of works by fellow artists. There is no art-historical connection or story in it. The works are as different as green leaves in spring are. Beautiful anatomical chalk drawings by Géricault alternate with the work of American artist Mike Kelley, who died in 2012. Kelley portrays herself in Ah…Youth! (1991) with pubescent pimples, surrounded by photos of stuffed toys smeared. His work feels like a whisper, melancholy and ruthless.
The video loop Finite Unfinite (2010) by Elaine Sturtevant draws you into the gallop of a dog that runs in and out of the meter-wide image – over and over. Time seems to pass pointlessly, aimlessly. The sound of the wind is all you hear.
Deep in the catacombs, a similar seemingly aimless exercise is underway. American artist David Hammons, who once said that “great magical things happen when you mess around with an object,” falls for the gritty barrel Phat Free (1995) a trash can through New York at night. The tinkling sound of the garbage can reverberates in the empty space and pulls you down as a visitor. Again and again that ghostly sound, again and again the dark figure of Hammons seen from the back, the light of the street lamps: it feels like you are awake but dreaming.
Time and again Imhof and the other artists point out Dead natures Please note that it is of course about what you see or think you see, awake or dreaming. But also about the process of making and seeing, of looking for a long time (at the loops) and therefore always look differently.
You can cut into a work with a painfully sharp knife, as Imhof himself did. You can cut holes and rosettes in the walls and ceilings of a demolished New York warehouse at the risk of your own life, as Gordon Matta Clark does in the video Day’s End (1975). But you can also make the viewer aware of the fact that art is not a fixed fact and therefore always changes.
And that’s what the German artist Sigmar Polke does. Imhof is setting up a true temple in her labyrinth for this compatriot who died in 2010. Between 2005 and 2007 Polke paints seven panels in which he tries to literally depict the process of metamorphosis and change in special pigments, gold, silver and with the help of photographic developing agent. The result is Axial Age, named after the period between 800 and 200 BC, where according to Polke (and not only he) crucial changes in culture occurred. Axial Age is never finished, the paintings change under the influence of the light. Colors change, images appear, disappear again. You have to immerse yourself in this work.
And that is what Imhof calls for and encourages with this exhibition. Always look at things from a different perspective. Walk slowly. Stand still. fall. Scribble again. Change.