Anne Imhof’s Unnerving Hall of Mirrors

While in Italy last year to install her multimedia work “Sex” (2021) at the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art, the German artist Anne Imhof came across an abandoned seven-floor office complex, built in the 1970s, in the Parella neighborhood of Turin. She was captivated by the fat bubble letters of the graffiti that decorated its smoked glass walls, as well as the tags etched into its filthy surface. Over the past decade, Imhof has made a name for herself creating immersive, operatic works that explore the isolation incurred by our increasingly digitally mediated, consumption-driven society and, to her, the structure was rife with symbolism: a site of labor transformed into an illicit canvas.

In May 2020, with the help of the Berlin-based architecture studio Sub, she salvaged the building’s facade after the complex was demolished, then shipped it pane by pane to Paris, where she has used the materials to transform the vast three-floor interior of the Palais de Tokyo into a vertiginous fortress of steel and mirrors for her solo show “Natures Mortes,” which opened earlier this month. Where the venue once had white interior walls, there are now towering screens of glass, which Imhof opted to leave dirty, and across the museum’s second floor, she has constructed an extensive glass maze that aims to disorient with both its winding layout and its partitions’ varying degrees of grime-induced opacity. In October, she will activate this environment with a troupe of performers, who will crawl on all fours, carry each other and walk around the space at varying extremes of speed and slowness in a haunting, processional choreography.

Though Imhof, 43, works prolifically across painting, drawing, video, music and sculpture, she is best known for staging brooding, large-scale endurance performances, which often unite these various media in singular compositions. These pieces — which tend to use the entirety of their environment (in one case, the empty oil tanks of a former power station), a crew of typically athleisure-clad performers and a soundtrack of rock music — examine and push against the trappings of neoliberalism by imitating its aesthetics and employing harsh choreography and culturally resonant props: in “Sex” (2019), a performer created frantic vignettes with objects including beer cans and bongs, and in “Angst” (2016), drones flew around a smoke-filled room, seemingly surveilling the audience. For what is perhaps her most celebrated and fearsome work to date, “Faust” (2017), Imhof filled the German pavilion at that year’s Venice Biennale with a dozen dancers who screamed, sang, thrashed about to heavy metal, crawled beneath a glass floor installed underfoot and started small fires. Behind a 12-foot-tall wire fence, barking Doberman pinschers guarded the entrance to the building, which was constructed in 1938 during the Nazi regime, a fact that compounded the already disconcerting effect of Imhof’s critique of power. (The piece earned the artist the Golden Lion, the Biennale’s top honor.)

Despite the important roles that buildings play in her work, though, Imhof isn’t interested in architecture so much as in space — especially the institutional variety and “what is done with it, how it’s divided, who decides where it goes and who can be in it,” she says. And in many ways, her identity has been shaped by her desire to exist outside these spaces. In her early 20s, she played in a punk band called Die Töchter aus gutem Hause, named for the Simone de Beauvoir novel “Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter” (1958), and lived in a commune outside Frankfurt. In the late aughts and early 2010s, while studying at Frankfurt’s Hochschule für Bildende Künste-Städelschule, one of the country’s most respected art universities, she embedded herself within the city’s underground nightlife and music scenes. Many of the principles she learned during this time — in particular, a commitment to collaboration and an acute skepticism of the establishment — continue to inform her practice. Today, she maintains a modest studio, with several rooms in which her friends can work simultaneously, in Berlin. But for the installation of “Natures Mortes,” she rented a flat in Paris with her partner, the American artist and model Eliza Douglas, with whom she collaborated on the staging of Burberry’s spring 2021 show last September, and who helped record the soundtrack of guitar riffs and minor-key vocals that can be heard in disembodied fragments throughout the Palais de Tokyo exhibition.

The show also features a selection of Imhof’s drawings, paintings, videos and sculptures — among them “Untitled (Wave)” (2021), a video in which Douglas takes a whip to the waves breaking on a beach, as if trying to dominate the tide — as well as the work of over 20 invited artists (including Sigmar Polke and Wolfgang Tillmans) that similarly touch on themes of space and time, life and death, and that are stationed throughout the inhospitable glass landscape. Viewing a series of Imhof’s yellow-and-black abstract paintings through a glass screen on the museum’s uppermost level creates the sense of peering through a window at a mournful sunset. “Natures Mortes,” a reference to the French term for the still life genre, might seem a peculiar title for an exhibition like this; few of the pieces fall into the titular category in its traditional sense. But Imhof was inspired by the artist Francis Picabia’s satirical 1920 assemblage “Natures Mortes: Portrait de Cézanne, Portrait de Renoir, Portrait de Rembrandt,” which suggested that old modes of art making had become irrelevant by comparing its masters to an inanimate toy monkey.

“I like the presence of death in the French translation,” she says. “It speaks to the temporality of life, and the unfinishedness of it.” And so decay is ever-present within the eerie world she has conjured — perhaps most literally in an untitled work from the Argentine sculptor Adrián Villar Rojas’s “Rinascimento” series (2015-21) that consists of a freezer filled with beer bottle caps, discarded crustacean shells and rotten produce, a composition that calls to mind the overripe fruit seen in 17th-century vanitas paintings. Like the show as a whole, the work is an unsettling memento mori that invokes the conventions of art making only to radically upend them. In between making final adjustments to the exhibition’s installation, Imhof answered T’s Artist’s Questionnaire from the Palais de Tokyo.

What is your day like? How much do you sleep, and what’s your work schedule?

I travel a lot, so my work schedule is always very different. I think I have more of a routine when I’m here in Paris, for example, away from the place where a routine would be more necessary. Because there’s a studio and there’s everyday life, somehow I always find it very hard to maintain routines in Berlin. When I’m working on projects like this, basically, I never stop.

I don’t sleep a lot, around six hours. The rest of the time I’m having this half sleep that I love, where things become very crisp. The moments where you’re in between sleep and wakefulness, you can see things clearer. You’re in a very vulnerable state where you’re not yet in the world. I love that for thinking about things.

What’s the first piece of art you ever made?

The first live piece I did was a concert and a staged fight in a club in Frankfurt in around 2002 or 2003. I cast a band and then invited people to box. There was also a phase, when I was maybe 10 or 11, during which I started drawing and collaging things. I took out a lock and mounted it on a wooden panel. I was really interested in making that lock’s surface very shiny. I remember somebody asking me what I was doing, and I said, “Nothing.” I realized that I did this just for the sake of how it looked.

What’s the worst studio you ever had?

It was in Paris, around 2014 or 2015. I was living and working in the same space, which was the worst and the best thing about it. Actually, for that time, it was amazing to me because it was big. But I was a young mom — my daughter was already 13 then — and it only had one bedroom, so I slept in the studio. I had to juggle making music and art and helping with homework and hosting her friends. It was a time when the boundaries between my work and life were totally blurred.

What’s the first work you ever sold?

It was a small drawing that I sold to Michael Krebber, the painter. Back in Frankfurt, I was part of a group show hosted in this little gallery, Neue Alte Brücke.

When you start a new piece, where do you begin?

It’s never the same steps. Sometimes it’s really hard to start a new piece. There’s always a void and insecurity. I don’t really enjoy that part of the process so much because there’s often a limit to the creation phase. At some point, you have to decide what it’s going to be, there are decisions to be made. There’s something beautiful about when things don’t yet have to be realized and you can imagine.

How do you know when you’re done?

That’s hard, sometimes even so hard that you have to start over. With live works, it’s easier because there is only the moment where it’s premiered or it’s existing, that something is presented. But even then, it doesn’t stop. Especially in “Faust,” for example, I was quite surprised by the many images taken by people coming to see the shows, and what it did with the work. In a way, it crystallized life into a single image, and the images became like views of the viewer inside the shows. It was their own frames, but they became a kind of archive.

How many assistants do you have?

I work with different people for different things. I work with Sub, for example, when we’re doing a show of this size. I have a small studio with two or three people that help me, mostly organizing and producing, and somebody that I paint with. And last week, the core team of performers were here and we worked together on a piece.

Have you assisted other artists before? If so, who?

No. But I worked with Tino Sehgal once as a performer when I was a student. I needed money and was working as a bouncer at the time, and it was a way of making a break with that night job. At that time, I was doing my first performance-like concerts, so we had some interesting conversations about our work. Sometimes it’s good if another artist sees you, and you have a moment of, “OK, this is something real.”

What music do you play when you’re making art?

I usually don’t play any music in the studio. I need quiet and silence. But when I work on paintings, I do sometimes listen to classical music. There was one album that I listened to for two years nonstop: Mozart’s Requiem. I don’t know why, but I always came back to it.

When did you first feel comfortable saying you’re a professional artist?

Shortly after school. I trained myself to say it. I said it a lot of times, even when I was not so sure being an artist would work out.

Is there a meal you eat on repeat when you’re working?

Does coffee count?

Are you bingeing on any shows right now?

I watched “Pose,” which I loved. But I hardly watch TV, I think because I didn’t grow up with it.

What’s the weirdest object in your studio?

The props that we bring from the pieces. There are dog leashes, a lot of skulls and bones.

How often do you talk to other artists?

Every day. My partner is an artist, so I talk a lot with her, trading ideas about everything. Eliza actually made music for the show, so there’s a constant austausch, or exchange, of ideas. She’s responsible for a lot in the work, especially in the performance work.

What do you do when you’re procrastinating?

It’s actually the same thing I do when I’m not procrastinating: I draw.

What’s the last thing that made you cry?

I cry often about music. Billie Eilish’s song “When the Party’s Over” touched me deeply. There was a moment, sitting on the plane coming back from Turin, where I felt a lot of relief because the last couple of months were so tense, and I was listening to her album.

What’s your worst habit?

Everything that becomes a habit. I am very addictive when it come to things I like. Everything that goes in that direction becomes a habit and has to be watched.

What embarrasses you?

Being too self-assured, and the expressions of that when I catch myself.

Do you exercise?

Yes, I have a workout routine. I exercise with weights and such, with a trainer. It’s really good to do that.

What are you reading?

A book of early writings by Antonin Artaud.

What’s your favorite artwork by someone else?

It shifts. I don’t think I have an all-time favorite. But there’s a video work by David Hammons, “Phat Free” (1995), that’s my favorite piece right now. It shows him taking a night walk, and he kicks a bucket through the streets of Harlem. It became a core piece of “Natures Mortes.” The sound of the bucket is unruly, unsteady, but still very rhythmic, almost like a heartbeat. You can hear it through the whole building.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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