Anne Imhof, whose work in the German Pavilion won the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Biennale, was in London last week to offer insights into her unsettling and much-discussed performance piece Faust. Biennale visitors fortunate enough to have already experienced the work and others curious about what it has in store packed the Serpentine Gallery last Tuesday to hear the artist in conversation with German Pavilion curator Susanne Pfeffer and Hans Ulrich Obrist.
In Venice, Faust features a cast of aloof, androgynous performers activating the pavilion’s imposing architecture by singing, headbanging, dancing, wrestling, playing dirgeful music, climbing up walls, and perching on pedestals as living sculptures. Imhof built glass partitions between rooms and a raised glass floor throughout, which adds a frisson of danger while allowing voyeuristic scrutiny of the performers crawling among the transparent panes, as if they were another species on view.
Where some visitors have felt alienated by Imhof’s earnest youths—one review, for Dazed, described them as “a choir of health goths, wailing from the rafters in their athleisure gear”—many more have been transfixed by the raw intensity of their performances. “Everybody who’s performing [is] themselves,” said Imhof, who was dressed in a black leather jacket and snakeskin boots. “It’s not a role. It’s not a character. It’s really their energy and power that makes [the performances] so strong.”
Pfeffer said that Imhof, as an artist concerned with portraying individuals’ relations to society, was her only curatorial choice for a politically challenging time of “total transformation.” “She really is reflecting changes in our bodies,” Pfeffer said, “and her work is so tender on one hand and, on the other hand, often shows a brutalism. I thought it would be interesting for the German Pavilion, which is so brutal itself.” (In 1938, the Nazis redesigned the pavilion to reflect fascist ideology, and it remains largely unchanged.)
Underscoring the aggressiveness of the work is Imhof’s decision to station cages with Doberman Pinscher dogs at the austere, colonnaded entrance, blurring the lines between the domestic and the institutional, friendly pet and snarling guard dog, human and animal. Imhof, who has used falcons, rabbits, and a donkey previously in her work, said cryptically: “I chose an animal that’s the least animal-like I’ve ever worked with.”
Conspicuous among props of dog food, water bottles, and musical instruments are piles of mobile phone chargers, which Imhof likened to a group of rats with long tails entangled. The chargers’ presence is less aesthetic than essential since Imhof constantly communicates with her troupe through text messages. “It’s such a tool to get people together in a second,” the artist said. But of course it’s not always regarded. “If I’m writing 103 messages, it could be that nobody’s looking at their phone and then the messages are gone. The ‘gone factor,’ I didn’t realize beforehand, is a very big one.”
Performances last four to five hours, involving scripted routines alongside improvised as well as changing parts, with Imhof continually sketching and painting movements. “This is a work that happens a bit like making a painting,” the artist said. “It’s about accidents that happen, the ability to trust. The more that is accidental, the more precise the whole thing gets. It’s happening out of impulse. Then, of course, when you work with so many good people, you can make it very elegant and repeat it.”
Although best known for her stark performance pieces, Imhof’s main mediums are drawing and painting. “Drawings are really more sketches to keep thoughts and make a note,” she said. “It’s very immediate. If I don’t have pencils, I really get anxious.”
Among her influences, Imhof said, are, Michelangelo, whom she copied early on while trying “to understand how this was possible at all,” and Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose work she described as “so rich and so immediate.”
Francis Bacon’s paintings also seem to figure in Faust, not least in the periodic anguished howls of the performers. On the day I saw the piece, a statuesque female performer with pale face and long dark hair ended her song with a haunting cry that seemed to hover in the space for several minutes.
From the earliest conception of Faust, Imhof said, she wanted to incorporate screams, and she worked with the performers on different ways of expressing them. “The idea of a scream is very simple at first, but then it gets so complex,” she said. “It can be on top of something else, or in someone’s face, or in someone’s back. It means so many different things, and of course this complexity is a challenge to work on. You can’t do screams every day in the same intensity.”
Bacon’s transparent framing devices that encase and imprison his subjects are echoed in Imhof’s glass structures within the pavilion. She was drawn to the fragility and hardness of glass, its liquid quality as well as its capacity to adapt to the two-dimensional status of painting. “The glass gave me the possibility to have something that reflects and works as a surface itself,” Imhof said. “It reflects what’s in front of it and takes what’s behind it.”
Glass also produces an intimidating corporate ambience of power. Far from furthering intimacy among people exchanging gazes, the glass in the pavilion in Venice emphasizes barriers—between inside and out, above and below, and, especially, expressionless performers and increasingly hostile spectators who shove each other to get better viewing positions.
At the end of the Serpentine talk, the Royal Academy’s former head of exhibitions Norman Rosenthal asked Imhof what she brought to the sound of the word “Faust”—which means “fist” in German while also referring, of course, to Goethe’s celebrated literary work. “It’s not like I want to change Faust,” Imhof said. “I wanted to be a little knife in that, maybe, but it still means ‘fist,’ and that was why I chose the title. It would be my greatest wish in the reception [of the work] if people would also not be too sure that the position they’ve taken. In Germany, especially, it’s not good to be very sure of your position.”
Does she see herself as a Faustian figure, Rosenthal asked? It was the only moment in the evening when Imhof looked disconcerted. “Me? Oh no! I just used that name.”