I was not in the audience for Sex, Anne Imhof’s spring 2019 performance in the Tanks at Tate Modern. Following my visit to the artist’s film of the same title, which premiered at the X-room in the National Gallery of Denmark (SMK), I wonder if that’s a good or a bad thing. On the upside, I have no reference to the live event that forms the basis of the film, and I am therefore forced to approach it as a self-standing piece, reflecting the works’ ambition. On the other hand, had I seen the performance live, would that have opened up a softer space for me to take in this new mediated form?
The thing is, I am left irritated and speechless by the work; an unusual form of numbness accompanies my impatience towards it. Sex (the film) is the fourth chapter of a performance cycle in three iterations co-produced by Tate Modern, Castello di Rivoli, and the Art Institute of Chicago. It brings together footage from the live performance at Tate with further scenes staged and recorded without an audience. The images are stitched together by a powerful and original music score composed by Imhof in collaboration with Eliza Douglas and Billy Bultheel.
A good hour into watching the 3.5-hour film, sitting on the gallery’s bare floor, I think to myself that if I see one more slow-motion scene, I am going to scream. Footage of the performance has been repetitively slowed down, soaking long dull sequences in dramatic effect. This application of slow-mo, together with the right soundtrack, would bring a sense of depth to even the most banal imagery of me mopping my kitchen floor at any miserable moment of my day… if only I were wearing the right clothes.
As consumers of contemporary images, we are used to the effects of this filmic device from the world of advertising, especially of fashion and lifestyle brands. The general problem with this manipulative use of emotional trickery grows wider when I am left struggling to put my finger on what exactly the content of Imhof’s film is.
A lot of the film’s iconography is part of a vocabulary of objects and signs that Imhof carries with her from work to work. Aside from recurrent props such as beer and soda cans, her typical sculptural daybeds, glass wall dividers, e-cigarettes, and other objects suggestive of BDSM and club culture, she has also been working for years with the same group of young androgynous performers.
In 2017, when Imhof won a well-deserved Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale with the excellent Faust, I left the German Pavilion with a sense of vertigo induced by the glass floors and the performance’s seductive ambiguity. In that case, the operatic elements, so central to Imhof’s artistic strategy, hit against the cold hard surfaces of the scenographic set-up. Power dynamics were at play between the performers, the artist, and the audience, and an enigmatic relation between tenderness and dominance unleashed a weirdly erotic tension. The experience was charged, and I would have been happy not to see any more art for the day.
In the Danish iteration of Sex, none of this kind of productive tension is left. The exhibition is centred around a giant free-standing screen in an otherwise nearly empty space in which two of the artist’s drawings and a daybed sculpture play a supporting role, but disappear in the face of the film installation’s scale and duration. Delivered with monotonous emotional intensity, most artistic weight is placed on the two-dimensional plane of the film. The musical score, despite its own quality, can be overly dramatic in connection with some of the scenes. It’s all good with pathos, but where exactly is it pouring out of? How is this dramaturgy connected to anything other than a romanticised vision of numbness and purposelessness?
When the bodies of the audience and the performers are detached from each other, and the sculptural materiality of the scenography is removed, we are left with the flickering image of a feeling rather than the friction necessary to release any earnest emotional response. The existential anxiety that seems to afflict these characters is like the skin of fat that forms on top of warm milk: it sticks to the lips, but has no taste.
In Imhof’s previous works, such as the above-mentioned Faust, or the version of Angst performed at the Hamburger Bahnhof (2018), one could risk a vague fantasy that this bunch of beautiful, young, and seemingly lost characters might be, behind their cool attires, nesting some form of subversive action. In Sex, any naïve hope of a punkish take on this landscape of imagery, which fluctuates in and out of conformism and counterculture, is erased by a sense of flabby, self-harming generational moaning.
Since my visit to the National Gallery, I have watched several online videos documenting Imhof’s performances and concluded that her works do not translate well into moving images, especially when the footage is overly post-produced. Video flattens out the works’ ambiguity and tips it towards a specific contemporary visual aesthetic, the kind that aims – in a paradigmatic move of capitalist strategy – to eat up any idea of freedom and spit it out as expensive consumer goods.
Unless there is a form of irony beyond all the romantic seriousness of the work. Something addressed to the initiates of a secret sense of humour that I have no access to? I develop this suspicion during a scene in which a young woman lazily pushes beer cans through a hole in a glass wall, as if caught in an unbearably meaningless endeavour. Surely this can only be meant to be funny!? So, I decide to play along and let the characters’ dulled engagement with their surroundings spill onto my keyboard like the white beer foam they spread on the floor. And then, just like magic: I can’t be asked to write any more.