Opera took its first stumbling steps in the early 17th century as a form of entertainment for European courtiers. Sonic beauty and Baroque virtuoso ornaments were privileged over dramatic narrative. A comparable focus on performative or powerful trappings of contemporary life takes centre stage in German artist Anne Imhof’s exhibition-as-opera: Angst II. Instead of a progressive plot, this work thrives on images of accelerated walks on runways, dancing (camera) drones, design, and shrill, semi-clad bodies. As Imhof recently stated in an interview in Mousse: “In a sense opera, like painting, has a long but also shady history. To use this, like the way I do, points to the authority of arrogance. I like that.”
Anne Imhof is a trained photographer, a former employee of the nightclub Robert Johnson in Frankfurt, and in 2010 she graduated from the city’s art academy, Städelschule. Over the course of the last years she has formed a close-knit collective around her practice – comprising modern dancers (from the companies of William Forsythe and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker), models (including Eliza Douglas who has campaigned for Balenciaga), and artists. Reflecting this, her new, seductive Gesamtkunstwerk Angst is produced as a choreography accompanied by an evocative soundscape, centred around a series of almost photographic arrangements – living sculptures – featuring her ten-person performance troupe supplemented by a couple of tightrope performers and a group of young and edgy beauties hired from a modelling agency in Berlin. Without being guided by a specific libretto or script, these tableaux change over the course of many hours – shared co-ordinates are retained, dissolve or replace each other, offering scope for individual improvisation.
Having presented the first act of this Gesamtkunstwerk, Angst, at initating venue Kunsthalle Basel this summer (curated by Elena Filipovic), the second act, Angst II, is currently taking place over the course of nine evenings at Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin (La Biennale de Montréal will host the third part later this year). Created to mark Imhof’s receipt of Preis der Nationalgalerie der Kunst 2015, the act takes place outside the museum’s regular opening hours, and for this occasion the institution offers free access to its vast main axis. Thus, this former railway station – its arrival and departure halls framing Imhof’s performance with their huge iron girders and arches from 1846 – returns to its original nature as a public agora. On the opening night the performance attracted audiences on such a scale that the excited visitors flowing in and out of the former railway station created a tremulously vibrant rush, an intense buzz that spilled into the late summer night in a scenario more akin to the outdoor area in front of a night club than a museum entrance.
This is exactly where the second part of Angst differs most radically from the first act of the work. Whereas the skylight space and small adjacent side galleries of Kunsthalle Basel created a focused, concentrated interior that worked ‘as exhibition’ within a museum codex, and within which we, the visitors, could remain reasonably withdrawn from the performative gesture, the controlled tableau is blown up at Hamburger Bahnhof. This is exclusively after-hours territory. The unruly public holds sway.
In Basel the intense experiences crystallised around a series of mythological, Matthew Barney-inspired objects: a huge vat filled with cola and whisky, curved ballet barres and paintings. The strong visual elements created clear sightlines in the exhibition space, framing the intense and at times almost intimate experience of the performers – an exemplary moment arose when the beautiful young bodies suddenly froze in slow-motion right in the middle of a thundering march; a captivating image with genuinely hair-raising impact.
In Berlin, however, Imhof works with the naked architecture of the railway station in a far more diffuse set-up: most artwork objects have been abandoned in favour of few, minimalist yet effective elements. A central tightrope cuts through the length of the huge arrival hall, elegantly raising our eyes within this otherwise oft-misused space. The hall is also filled by a dense, scenic smoke that blurs the spatial depth and curls around three free-standing staircases, a row of hanging punching bags while dissolving near the lounge-like seating.
Together with the performers’ outfits these scattered elements create a precisely executed aesthetic universe of “mall goth” – a rough mixture of transit and covetousness, hoodies and high fashion. And all this sportswear and the Vêtements®-like garments superimpose themselves on top of the individual, typecast bodies. The beautiful looks are concurrently exposed as empty (for which we may read: weak) shells and as strong campaign images for our affective economy of brands. Efforts have been made to de-individualise the stereotypical characters of opera. For example, the bodies of individual performers are repeatedly shaved and cleaned using vast amounts of white Gillette® shaving foam; the performers blow smoke from Marlboro™ cigarettes into each other’s lungs, or they open endless quantities of silver cans of Coca Cola® and Pepsi® featured in the display.
Not unlike DIS’s Berlin biennial, but using entirely different and highly effective means, Angst points towards a distinctly contemporary tension between (visual) consumption and collectivity. This is not yet another filmic narrative presented on a surface and accompanied by dedicated seating. Nor, however, is it a distanced view or comparative analysis. Rather, Imhof actively employs the seductive surfaces of the powerful products. She incorporates them directly in pulsating, radical sequences formed by the performers’ alluring groupings that surround us. In repeated choreographies, this collective carry each other forward, stumble, come apart. The work showcases the hopeless atomisation of our communities in selfies and an equally strong desire for solidarity. And at Hamburger Bahnhof this aesthetic soon extends itself to large parts of the audience members – especially, of course, the many dancers, hipsters and club kids flocking here – implicating them in this matrix as they seamlessly blend into Imhof’s tableau.
As suggested by the term ‘opera’, Imhof uses music to accentuate the dynamics of the piece. Parts of a march open and conclude the many hours of performing, and in a potential dynamic high point a grand choir piece, lip-synched by the performers, blasts through the hall. As counterparts to these overarching compositions each of the main performers have their “own” musical leitmotif accentuating their character’s distinct properties (e.g. the diver, the clown, the spitter, the lover). These leitmotifs are played via their own separate iPhones – a frisson-inducing moment arises when one of the performers sings a monotonous Velvet Underground-like solo (aria) – with each body wrapped up in wires, connected to microphones enhancing these personified signals.
Concurrently with this, mobile technology is also employed to remote control the performers by means of various instructions sent to their devices, with Imhof as a subtle conductor acting via text messages. Thus, technology constitutes the unspoken, but deeply embedded infrastructure of the work. This constant communication evidently institutes an underlying power metaphor, partly as a registration and regulator of individual performance and partly as a wider-ranging paranoid analogy to Orwellian surveillance or even to technological warfare. A powerful moment arises in a series of interwoven, almost erotic movements of (camera) drones and dancers. As mythological and historical counterparts to Imhof’s deployment of drones, living falcons take part in Angst, cast in the role as “prophets” – the all-seeing birds that inscribe the piece in the ancient story about mastery of the pathways of information.
If the first act of Angst presented the premise and dramatis personae of the work, the second act, following tradition, unfolds the confrontation or conflict. The misty transitory space of the railway station is the scene of slow, tottering tightrope walking, of the inebriated or blind dancing of a clown. In an age when transparency does not by any means equal free speech or movement, such lack of clarity, such invisibility is potentially emancipatory. The mist constitutes an attempt at avoiding total tracking, of securing a place outside the reach of CCTV – a place where the drone disappears. Yet paradoxically, Imhof’s performance simultaneously sees us enter the mist in an absolutely physical sense – our bodies literally become part of the cloud. In this fog-shrouded gloaming visitors cannot survey or focus.
Angst II thus constitutes a scenario of walking dead, a choreography of slow, pathetic departures or goodbyes, a half-dead romantic state, the gothic twilight zone. There is no privileged POV – no good framework for navigation. It is impossible to fully take in all the many performative images created in parallel in different areas of the hall. Our daily FOMO gets intensified. Visitors are forced to find their own way through the work, which disappears and reforms over and over again in a gossamer cycle, a movement formed by and in the network of performers, indefinable and, outside this sensorium, essentially indescribable.
The master of German opera, Richard Wagner, would probably call Imhof’s long, hypnotising sequence an “endlos fließenden Melodie”, an endlessly flowing melody where words, music and art meet. In Anne Imhof’s work this takes place within an inexhaustible series of variations: each live moment is different as the malleable arrangements slowly appear, reshuffle, and reappear, changed. If Tino Sehgal created a shift in performance tradition by staging “situations” which, in spite of his exact directions and role as auteur, opted out of documentation and records, Imhof uses our contemporary era’s ceaseless spill of images to create immersive, modular and technological tableaux vivants – changeable, serial images inspired by equal parts (still) life and instagram poses, surveillance and modern dance, the entirety activating a physical experience of a hysterical (Western) life in the cloud with the drone as companion.