Anne Imhof Orchestrates a Performance Troupe and Her Audience through Kunsthalle Basel
As the show’s music quieted and 11 performers retreated into the adjacent room, some of the visitors exchanged puzzled glances. Moments later, a handful of them decided to walk out. Those who remained, not knowing what else to do, turned to their mobile phones, either to surf the net or take photos of the rest of the exhibition.
It was not the initial audience reaction one expected to find at “Angst,” the latest and the most ambitious project of the award-winning German artist to date. Making its debut to the public at Kunsthalle Basel last week, the show had been raved by the media as one of the “must-see” shows during Art Basel week, even before it opened on June 9th.
Much of this hype was drummed up by the fact that the Gießen-born, Frankfurt-based artist won last year’s Preis der Nationalgalerie, a recognition that is generally considered Germany’s answer to the Turner Prize. The jury, comprised of directors of some of the best-known museums in Europe, praised the overall oeuvre of the painter, sculptor, and performance artist.
Dubbed an “exhibition-as-opera,” “Angst” is certainly a bold attempt, and does more than integrate performance into an exhibition of paintings, sculptures, and installation. It is an “opera” in three acts—not an opera in the classical dramatic sense, but rather tracing back to its Latin origin, the word for “work,” and the “durational experience” conjured by the marriage of sound and vision. The show at Kunsthalle Basel is only the first act, with others to be staged later this year at the Hamburger Bahnhof-Museum für Gegenwart-Berlin and at La Biennale de Montréal.
The opening week of the show featured 11 performance sessions running from June 9th, with a finale set for June 19th. Each performance, taking place in the rooms of the exhibition, evolves from a different theme, or a character taken from the large-scale paintings that hang in the show. Imhof intended to pose questions of control and power—themes the artist has explored in previous works—to the audience, through the performances and the exhibition as a whole.
The performance on Tuesday afternoon at Kunsthalle Basel was titled The Clown. Upon entering the main and largest of the three rooms the exhibition spans, spectators encountered an eerie atmosphere conjured by the unusual arrangements of lighting, life-size paintings in subdued shades, and installations of punching bags dangling from the ceiling. In the middle of the room lies a sculptural pool or a trough filled with whisky and water. Audiences eagerly waiting for the performance took a seat on the floor against the wall.
Performers, mostly young and exceptionally good-looking, marched into the main room as music beats began blasting from loudspeakers. They gauged the audience’s attention with their body movements; recurring lines like “Put my hand up for fun” filtered through the experimental music.
But as the room went silent and the performers exited from the room, some curious visitors decided to remain for the rest of the show, and followed the footsteps of the performers and the metal rails at the back of the main space to move deeper into the exhibition.
Upon venturing into the show’s next room, a sculpture resembling the structure of a balcony blocked the way. After maneuvering this obstacle, audience members encountered the performers again in a small room, which led to an even smaller, connecting room, in which a falcon stand was erected in the center and on a floor piled with white mattresses. Performers were seen lying on the mattresses and staring at their mobile phones. In one scene, two female performers confronted each other as if they were battling on a chessboard; rather than chess pieces, they used cans of Pepsi.
While the audience attempted to establish an emotional and perhaps even an intellectual connection with the show, Imhof was manipulating all the characters participating in the show—including the audience—behind the scenes. She was sending instructions to performers via text messaging. Despite this sense of control, performers could choose to ignore Imhof’s directives—and so could the audience, given the freedom to leave at any time.
Audiences were reminded not to read too deeply into the performances—after all, most people could only see a fragment of the elaborate performance program spanning the week. The loaded text in an eight-page exhibition introduction told audiences not to expect any character development or narrative like in a conventional opera. “Imhof’s characters are without character,” it read. “They are attitudes or sensations rather than fully rounded psychic beings.” And apparently to those who walked out, 30 minutes of this were more than enough.
Nevertheless, if the audience is required to read a large chunk of text in order to understand what an art exhibition is all about, there is certainly a big question mark regarding the show’s ability to communicate through the language of art. That, perhaps, is where “angst” lies.