German Pavilion, Venice Biennale dell’ Arte, May 2017. Performers press themselves against semi-transparent glass fronts, spray painting them black. Sombre organ music interspersed with someone whistling fills the space. Performers squat way of avoiding collision – the audience segues, trying to avoid being pushed by the tumbling performers. Props lie beneath the food. Fellow artist Eliza Douglas is there, too, reading texts on her mobile phone. Someone has started a small fire.
The performers look exhausted, bruised. Their hair is tangled, their casual attire is dirty and worn. In the audience, clad in head-to-toe black leather, watches Anne Imhof, the artist behind this Golden-Lionwinning show. Shared countless times on Instagram, “Faust” is a spectacle which has left few visitors unmoved. As Douglas remarked,“ Anne knows how to move people, remove them from their ordinary realities.” Her work captivates the audience via its repetitions and elisions.
Nevertheless, sat in a Stockholm hotel room’s armchair on a chilly late-September day, the artist seems surprised at the success of her piece, now in its fourth month. “There was a lot of tension after Faust and some people were very intrusive,” says Imhof. “We needed bodyguards to accompany us from the museum to our homes to ensure that no one was bothered. No-one expected this! All I did was plan an exhibition.” Mulling over her answers, measured sentences trail into ellipses as she elaborates. “Originally, I had a different idea of what the pavilion should look like,” she continues. “The work was conceptualised for a smaller crowd in the space. The perspective changed and the number of performers was increased to facilitate audience interaction, and so it became a different piece to a certain extent.”
Imhof mobilises the uncanny aesthetics of contemporary urban life at its most nihilistic. Combining millennial obsessions (shareable images, electronic devices, banal streetwear) with more provocative themes (sex, masturbation, casual violence), she elevates disparate features into a seamless presentation. Absurd, surreal elements and props such as dobermanns and fire guitars enhance the menace. As curator Susanne Pfeffer writes: “[C]ontemporary biopolitical bodies are […] a dense interior, encapsulating both life and political control – in the form of exchange and communication. A new subject appears: hormonal, medial, highly networked.” Which is to say, here, the artistic medium intersects with social interaction, creating new dialogues.
Still, Imhof was unprepared for “Faust’s” social media success. “It is impossible to plan [for], you cannot know how people respond to the work […] I did not expect anything. But for me, this is a sign of detachment rather than involvement.” To be sure, it is impossible to read her work as a simple expression of a singular meaning. In “Faust”, as with the dialogues and conversations in her earlier work, “Angst”, there is no driving narrative, only thematic sequences; what the audience experiences are not fully realised pieces, but a series of improvised encounters.
“My paintings and performances are united by the same perspectival thoughts, the same gestures, the same symbolism, the posture of the body, layering and tonality,” the artist reflects. “Performance and painting, it’s just what I do. The two remain distinct mediums though. The resulting image is the actual artwork. I came up with sketches that reflect the exact same positions [and] attitudes that can be seen in Faust. The image of the open mouth is a recurrent element in my drawings, and in the performance it may be an open mouth of someone who screams and this comes together with something that appears in the music. I find this very intriguing.” This arrangement could easily collapse into improvised theatre, yet Imhof’s practice exists outside the formal structures of her discipline.
The work itself is not an appropriation of ist constituent media, but rather a break: everything is turned into motif, nothing remains referential. As such, it is resists definitive interpretation, as well as the notion of the existence in art of a coherent system of signs capable of ever rendering one.
The contemporaneity of “Faust” is also derived from its reformatting of the relationship between images and media. Hito Steyerl has argued that “the thing called normal life has already become deeply imaged”, i.e. copied or reproduced. Consequently, she contends, the artist’s task now lies in different forms of circulation, leading to a “reconsideration between image life, what we used to call reresentation”. With these considerations in mind, Imhof’s work poses certain considerations. How can storytelling be interwoven with digital media? And how does a work’s life on social media interact with its performance? Although “Faust” entertains these questions, it refuses to give straightforward answers.
Notwithstanding this avowed open-endedness, the artist’s show in Venice functions in tandem with its setting. “The glass creates a separation between the performers, with the roof, the door and the anterior chambers,” says Imhof. This transparent level transforms the German pavilion into a multi-layered stage, where performers crawl underneath the audience through traces of previous show littered around them. Historically, artists have frequently addressed the architecture of this Nazi-era structure, and Imhof is no exception, giving it a double glass floor and sealing off its side rooms. Performers patrol the roof and upper stories. “[This] enables me to unite two forms of architectural dominance,” she explains. “Where money and power are evident, in the architecture of banks, for instance, glass is the dominant material. It was important to me that the bodies of the visitors would be elevated vis-.- vis the building. I wanted to make the monumental, sculptural room disappear and turn it into something flatter.”
Other aspects of “Faust” are equally immersive. Spray paint and water obscure and separate performers, and the music (organ recitals, chanting, electronic beats and a vocal by Eliza Douglas) heightens this surreal atmosphere. “We worked in close collaboration on the music,” reveals Imhof. “I wrote the songs together with Franziska Aigner, Billy Bultheel and Eliza Douglas.”
Prior to Douglas joining the troupe in early 2016 (she hung out backstage at an early performance at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof, with the stated objective of wanting to go home with the artist), neither the singing nor the clothing were accorded central roles. In fact, the wardrobes were intended, in part, to counteract the performers’ inexpressiveness. Imhof has spoken of her interest in the designs of Vetements’ founder Demna Gvasalia, and there are sequences in “Faust” resembling catwalk struts. Indeed, the performers are frequently decked out in casual attire and sports brands (Adidas, Nike, Reebok, jeans and plain t-shirts), leading to comparisons with the Berlin techno club Berghain. “The performers partly wear their own clothes ,” Imhof notes. “We also have costumes, which I make in collaboration with Eliza Douglas. I am interested in fashion but I would not consider it to be an essential element of my work.”
Despite its studied art-world internationality, “Faust” strikes a Teutonic note. From the Goethe-derived title to its multi-disciplinary operatic structure, Imhof summons her artistic predecessors – Wagner in particular, whose notion of gesamtkunstwerk (the ‘total artwork’) seems relevant. Imhof disagrees. “I am not sure whether this term gesamtkunstwerk applies,” says the artist. “I do not define myself along those lines and I do not see any points of contact there, not with Beuys, not with Wagner.”
Goethe’s brooding genius looms large over German culture. Hegel considered him to be the German language’s first and last great playwright, and Imhof’s rendition of his famous work is conscious of this. Her glass perches form an allusion to it, and the endless possible mutations of the performance appear to enact Faust’s restless search for knowledge. Indeed, just as Goethe’s scholar-protagonist strikes his infamous bargain, trading his soul for transcendent wisdom – and in doing so, trading something that doesn’t exist for something that cannot exist – Imhof’s images exist as promissory notes, eliding fixation.