Featured in
Issue 233

Anne Imhof’s Deserted Locker Rooms

At Sprüth Magers, London, the artist transforms the galleries into a labyrinthine changing room dripping with anticipation of future performances

BY Juliet Jacques in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 08 NOV 22

From the entrance on Grafton Street, Anne Imhof’s solo exhibition ‘Avatar II’ looks like a changing room in a gym. There are rows of lockers and a board that you might expect to be used to display information, but is, in fact, the back of Pacific (all works 2022), one of Imhof’s ‘scratch’ paintings on aluminium panels, which punctuate the space. Some of the lockers, left open, contain concrete blocks; a few have posters of 1990s film stars lending just a little humanity to a space that feels, on first glance, incredibly sterile. A figurative painting – unusual for Imhof – breaks the tension: Jester shows collaborator Eliza Douglas in performance at Imhof’s ‘Natures Mortes’ exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, last year, in an outfit recalling early-2000s nu-metal subculture and Todd Phillips’s film Joker (2019). The image suggests the dark, disaffected clown is an archetypal figure of our age, with little interest in the imperative to keep themselves healthy and far less in partaking in a society that they know to be a sham.

Anne Imhof
Anne Imhof, ‘Avatar II’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, Sprüth Magers and Galerie Buchholz; photograph: Ben Westoby

Douglas appears again in a video in the basement, digitally rendered into a virtual locker room. Avatar offers little action – mostly Douglas sitting and standing in a long attempt to familiarize herself with her surroundings. Another video on the top floor, NY Minute, does something similar, this time showing Douglas outdoors in winter: a compelling environment that suggests far more possibilities for human interaction. If the scratch paintings and the imposing oil on canvas Cloud II – which turns the inoffensive, ‘motivational’ landscape imagery that you might typically see in a gym into something more like a volcanic eruption – make the recreational setting seem strange and threatening, this video breaks out of it entirely, to powerful effect.

Anne Imhof
Anne Imhof, ‘Avatar II’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, Sprüth Magers and Galerie Buchholz; photograph: Ben Westoby

The same is true of the ‘Not Yet Titled’ drawing series installed on the gallery’s upper floors, which feels incongruous with the rest of the exhibition but is arguably its most intriguing element. The accompanying text states that the drawings, like the videos, can ‘be understood as preparatory gestures for future performances’ but are also ‘artworks in their own right’. This assertion about the drawings’ purpose ties into a fascinating ambiguity about to what extent we should read them as telling a narrative: using a German Expressionist style reminiscent of Käthe Kollwitz, they occasionally veer into explicit religious imagery (one depicts a woman carrying what looks like a cross) but more often show people holding each other, or a giant and mysterious hand descending to bless them. Perhaps Imhof is challenging herself to build something out of these fragments or giving the viewer a glimpse into her creative processes; maybe she is asking us to find our own storyline.

Anne Imhof
Anne Imhof, ‘Avatar II’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, Sprüth Magers and Galerie Buchholz; photograph: Ben Westoby

Either way, these pictures bring far more substance to the exhibition, even if the incongruity with the lower floors feels somewhat jarring. The figurative paintings and drawings emerge as the most provocative and expansive element, but not an unwelcome one: the locker room conceit is site-specific but only momentarily intriguing, and the simplistic video works never come close to compensating for the absence of performance. But the depictions of the past and, most vitally, future performances are pregnant with possibility, and I hope that Imhof realizes them more fully over the coming years.

Anne Imhof’s ‘Avatar II’ is at Sprüth Magers, London, until 23 December.

Main image: Anne Imhof, Avatar (detail), film still. Courtesy: the artist, Sprüth Magers and Galerie Buchholz

Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic. Her short story collection, Variations, was published by Influx Press in June 2022. She lives in London, UK.