Putting Out a Fire With Gasoline

Anne Imhof’s new exhibition at Galerie Buchholz in Berlin makes a tantalising theatre of the zeitgeist. But what happens when the vape runs out of battery?

Anne Imhof, Imagine, installation view, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin. Courtesy Galerie Buchholz Berlin/Cologne/New York.

Sunsets are daily explosions – so posits a new suite of works by Anne Imhof currently on view at Galerie Buchholz. The melodrama of it! Three large un-stretched canvasses line the wall. The painted sunsets are vertical so as to look like abstractions. It is when I see Untitled (Imagine) (all works 2019), two not-well-made paintings of a beautiful androgynous youth hung on top of a likewise tilted mushroom cloud, that I realise the visual kinship between the subjects. This is to say, something of the high stakes Imhof finds everywhere in quotidian life. Hers is a world of leather and lace, diamonds and pearls, but expertly adapted to the present: pipes as well as Juuls, a gorgeous guy in Ferrari trackpants posing beside what else but a crown of thorns. It’s so sexy you lose your breath.  

I once wrote that Torbjørn Rødland’s photographs are all death drive; it was easy to pin this assessment on Roland Barthes’ theory, and argue that the pictures are all punctum and no studium, a kind of impossibility. With Imhof’s work – in the case of Imagine, a hybrid of wall-mounted and found objects, sculptural plinths, and live performers lying and lurking around – it’s more difficult to determine where exactly the absence resides, and whether the effect of the full-throttle death drive is productive or not. I’m not sure it’s useful to try and answer this question definitively, but what I will say is that the lifespan inside such a paradigm is short; the fire burns itself out, and when it’s over, the fear is, there’ll be nowhere else to go.    

Imhof’s work is successful because it stages this fear of meeting the horizon as a collision – The Truman Show moment, where you take a sailboat to the edge of the world and you find out the sunset is not an explosion, but an image. At this point, there’s nothing left to imagine, and the exhibition title’s imperative must rather be taken literally to mean the production of pictorial surfaces: imaging.

In the now-familiar ‘scratch-works’, here also Untitled (Imagine), aluminium boards with gradient clouds of orange have been scratched into, in one iteration, with the artist’s initials. What would otherwise seem like spacious pictures full of smoke or light are marked as flat planes. As such, they function as keys of sorts to the rest of the objects by pointing to all of them as surfaces. The bongs, the single dollar bill, the languid performers are already like images, though some of them move. The items appear as props in a memory theatre, but arranged by colour and form. A live chameleon is a sublime match for a poster of a young semi-nude Cindy Crawford, just as a neatly folded ANTIFA flag is for a yellow can of Lipton. But how empty our memories become through these constellations, how far away. In Imhof’s rendition, the most prominent feature of this fear of flatness, or existential void, is how saturated it is with desire. To dissolve into her choreography looks like a pretty heavenly way to die.  

Anne Imhof, Imagine, detalje, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin. Courtesy Galerie Buchholz Berlin/Cologne/New York.

I appreciate Imhof’s work for instantly sparking such emotions. It really does something to me. I love the melodrama, the tension, and the weird humour – the sense that underneath it all, everyone is suppressing a laugh. But the feeling of sadness and loss that arises from this blend of death and desire to lend her work its gravity is of a hollow sort, not profound or particular, but generalised and frenzied. It’s the kind of emotion generated in a crowd that vanishes when the masses disperse, only these masses are wearing Balenciaga. 

Orange constructions function as both viewing platforms and plinths for the performers. At the base of one is a collection of objects: two beautifully crafted wooden pipes and a pack of darts adorned with a sticker that says “Anarchy.” Is this to say, unlike Magritte, this is a pipe, but a real pipe is also just an image, and anarchy is just a word? As Kerstin Stakemeieralso writes in her more or less incomprehensible exhibition text, these are not “metaphorical repetitions”; “Imhof’s art does not want to be critical.” I don’t necessarily want Imhof’s art to be critical either. But at the same time, I am unsure as to what other potential is yielded by this meaninglessness. It’s too depressing to watch language and desire not turn into attachment or significance, but burn up in their own abundance. As I see it, there are two solutions: stop looking at Imhof’s spectacle, or come to terms with your continued viewership as a form of masochism.  

Anne Imhof, Imagine, installation view, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin. Courtesy Galerie Buchholz Berlin/Cologne/New York.