There is a certain difficulty in applying words to a show by Anne Imhof, and whether words are of any use whatsoever.
The awe induced by the German artist’s work is accompanied by niggling frustration – a sense of almost grasping, but of always missing something. The answer is just out of sight, earshot, and comprehension - forever swimming in your peripheral vision no matter how hard you squint at it.
‘Avatar II’, Imhof’s latest show at Sprüth Magers London, is navigated in a fight-or-flight mode of apprehension, which ranges from curiosity to paranoia. Are we safe here? Safe from harm, maybe, but certainly not safe from the surrealism of contemporary reality.
Imhof spent her formative years in Frankfurt am Main, where she taught herself to draw and compose music while working as a nightclub bouncer. For the last decade, she has been probing the intensity of isolation, fetishising contemporary consumer culture and sampling the motifs of nebulous neoliberalism to divisive effect.
She is a self-described painter but is best known for choreographed endurance performances, or tableaux vivants, such as Faust which secured the artist and the German Pavilion a Golden Lion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. The controversial piece involved four live Dobermans and a cast of cool, streetwear-clad performers who chanted, gyrated, mutated, and engaged with props to an uncanny soundtrack, confronting power dynamics between performer and viewer, leaving the latter wondering what’s dictated and what’s improvised, and what on earth just happened.
For ‘Avatar II’, Imhof has turned Sprüth Magers’ London gallery into a psychological thriller, with a plot that excavates the dark underbelly of contemporary culture. Continuing where the artist’s recent shows left off, ‘Avatar II’ is a lesson in reality and artifice, staged as fragments, or avatars, of the artist’s self. From locker rooms to gym equipment, sparely rendered drawings to scored aluminium paintings, Imhof’s show is a journey of physical and mental strain, to make you wince and wonder.
On the face of it, Anne Imhof’s art and Sprüth Magers’ Georgian Mayfair townhouse make for strange bedfellows – a jarring fusion of the hyper-contemporary and sentimentally historical. As we learnt in the first iteration of ‘Sex’ (2019), which dominated the entirety of Tate Modern’s Tanks, and the acclaimed Palais de Tokyo carte blanche last year, Imhof’s work needs space to orchestrate itself, and viewers need space to digest it. Although she is the first artist to dominate all four floors of the Sprüth Mager’s London, her work bursts from the building’s seams like a feral captive. Yet somehow, it works.
We are first confronted by a labyrinth of benches and breezeblock-filled lockers, the former offering an illusion of respite and comfort. On the wall is the Halloween-esque painting Jester (2022), which sets the tone for a rollercoaster of tricks and treats to come. We’re coerced through Imhof’s maze like the vanquished prisoners of Beckett’s abode, at once apprehensive, and cynical, yet resigned to the foreboding dystopia of it all. For the viewer, it’s self-conscious and alienating, and morish - are we the spectators or spectated?
Imhof uses the building’s vaulted basement to amp up the hardcore. A new film, Avatar, stars Eliza Douglas, an artist, Balenciaga model and longtime Imhof collaborator who epitomises the androgynous Euro-cool of Imhof’s work. She’s standing, melancholy yet otherwise emotionally absent, in an austere, sterile vista accompanied by more lockers and a bench. It’s silent, the sort of silence you only experience during snowfall. Then she screams. A curdling, visceral scream that impales the senses. She slaps her cheek, then keeps slapping her cheek at 10-second intervals. Blood begins to seep from her pallid lips, and she spits the excess into the snow-fluffed ground.
‘Avatar II’ epitomises Imhof’s ability to take viewers to the brink of understanding, only to rip the rug of expectation from under their feet. It’s rare that an art exhibition so readily confronts the dissociation, disorientation and isolation so often experienced in viewing art exhibitions – few artists are able to crawl so artfully under the skin with so little warning.
If you can’t see any live performance in this show, think again, then look in the mirror. We are all Anne Imhof’s performers, whether we like it or not.
Anne Imhof: ‘Avatar II’, until 23 December 2022, Sprüth Magers London.
Harriet Lloyd-Smith is the Arts Editor of Wallpaper*, responsible for the art pages across digital and print, including profiles, exhibition reviews, and contemporary art collaborations. She started at Wallpaper* in 2017 and has written for leading contemporary art publications, auction houses and arts charities, and lectured on review writing and art journalism. When she’s not writing about art, she’s making her own.
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