When discussing the performative range of Anne Imhof’s works, vocabulary seems an appropriate starting term. Imhof’s performances are complex, intimate studies in movement, gesture and action, mostly silent and tending to span several hours. The works accumulate as a private corporeal lexicon shared by a small group of performers – often the artist’s friends and peers – whose ongoing rehearsals collectivize characterizations of being a ‘non-person’ (and have even incorporated animals such as a live donkey or rabbits). ‘Body language’, a key component in Imhof’s pieces, is after all physical communication.
At points in Rage 1, which debuted as part of Imhof’s self-titled exhibition at Deborah Schamoni in Munich last spring, fractured snippets of speech and spoken word were combined with nonverbal interactions, all performed under harsh, sodium light. In the work, performers moved carefully around the space, seemingly intent on their own activities while appearing almost apparitional — expressionless, in non-descript, casual attire. At times they came together in pairs or as a group. Watching this, one began to sense a loss of time – duration without peaks or culmination. Communication is broken down and formalized in Imhof’s static works too, from her objects to her drawings and paintings. In the same show immateriality was given heft, the works taken as a whole creating an abstract poem of sorts. Several two-dimensional pieces were simply titled after letters from the alphabet, such as Y (2014), in which the character is etched in reverse onto the black surface of dibond like the impression of a key across the side of a car. Curiously, the etching’s stick-like form bears a passing resemblance to the rune Kaun, from the Younger Futhark runic alphabet, which stands for ulcer, wound or opening and in rune-casting can represent ‘insight gained by suffering’.
While runes are attributed as the root of Germanic languages, certain works in the exhibition also alluded anatomically to the mouth as a point of origin – of speech and of action. For example, the toothbrushes and orthodontic headgear that figure in the sculptural assemblages Untitled and Cobra Toothbrush (both 2014) signify regularity and practice (the brushing of teeth), and self-improvement through surgical restructuring. Installed in the garden behind the gallery, a clay tongue protruded from a surface of buttermilk, the liquid filling a concrete basin in Unten Unten Unten Hollow Whale (2014), and for Tongue (2014) the muscle is carved out of a slab of alabaster and rested disembodied and mute on the floor. Through this Imhof extends the role of performativity to the materials usually seen as the remainder or by-product of performance itself – props like stacks of energy drinks or filmed documentation and slideshows. As such, the vocabulary of the discipline, which usually focuses on ‘liveness’, is broadened to cover a range of materials and media.
When I spoke with Imhof about DEAL, her most recent and ambitious long-form performance to date which took place over two days and across two separate spaces at New York’s MoMA PS1 in early 2015, the artist talked of ‘infection instead of infinity’ in reference to its duration. Incorporating elements from previous performances the work unfolded in time at a slower pace than the individual works had been performed. In DEAL, performers transport buttermilk between two concrete basins similar to Unten Unten Unten Hollow Whale, which this time functioned more like a trough than a purely sculptural object. The gelatinous white liquid passed amongst the participants, stuck to their clothes, got in their hair and dripped from their fingertips – infecting them. Like language the work relied on transference from one body to another. It spoke to symbolic exposure, of contagion and protection; of physical receptacles and of orifices for contamination.
Given their durational aspect, how would one situate Imhof’s performances in terms of endurance, a persistent staple of the medium, and in light of recent disputes among its established practitioners? In 2011, Yvonne Rainer penned an open letter to former LA MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch calling Marina Abramović’s plans to install rotating naked performers in the middle of tables for the duration of a fundraiser a ‘grotesque spectacle’. In Imhof’s performances, tolerance is less about putting the body under duress or pushing it to limits that border on abuse, but rather about involving others in the choreography of her works. One is affronted by clandestine actions – a repeated shaking of a clenched fist or a body bent over – and the nearly private language of the performers’ gestures. While labour-intensive for those involved, Imhof exploits the expectation that activity means production, generating instead a feeling of ‘wasted time’. As such, the works seem as if they would continue regardless of an audience. Ongoing improvisations evolve within these pieces in place of a rigid structure. In a sense, their participants are more akin to a self-organised troupe, company or band working together instead of being ‘employed’ as workers. Whilst it might be applied as a subtext in her work, Imhof broaches the expectation of performance – the ‘promise’ in its delivery – as it has been canonized. Hers is a physical language broken down and cut loose of its historical restraints.