It’s surreal,” says Anne Imhof as she and her partner Eliza Douglas walk me through to the lounge of the South London apartment where they are staying. The artist couple have just emerged from a day of rehearsals in the Tate Modern’s gargantuan Tanks – used in the building’s former life as a power station for storing oil – and their eyes are still adjusting to the light.
On Friday, Imhof’s already sold-out solo show Sex opened to the public at the British gallery, before it travels to the Art Institute of Chicago and Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Turin over the course of 2019. During the day, visitors can explore the installations – two full-size wooden piers and silk-screen canvases depicting Douglas mounted on the walls, alongside a pyramid of band T-shirts she’s collected over the years – while in the evening, the space will take on new meaning as Imhof’s 15-person troop performs her latest collaborative movement piece, with music by Douglas and Billy Bultheel. Sex marks the first time the Tate has dedicated the Tanks to a single project, usually taking a group show approach to connect visual arts with other disciplines – Imhof, however, does that all on her own.
The show’s curator Catherine Wood describes the 40-year-old German artist as “one of the leading figures in the broader approach to performance in visual art of the past decade”. Sex, she tells Vogue, is as much “about money and power [as it is] Imhof’s fluid approach to the question of ‘binaries’. While the work’s aesthetic – black and white – is melancholic in mood, in its compositional beauty, and moments of epic scale, it brings a sense of hope or uplift.”
Wood felt compelled to give Imhof a Tate show after seeing her works Angst, at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof in 2016, and Faust, at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Occupying the German Pavilion, the latter earned Imhof the top prize – the Golden Lion for best national participation – which is given to the strongest of the 85 exhibitions in the Giardini della Biennale and across Venice.
Before even entering the German Pavilion – which was built during the Nazi era – visitors got a sense of the atmosphere Faust was going to create. The grand front entrance was sealed over, so guests had to file in through a small side door, past barking Dobermanns held captive behind tall wire riot fences. The interior was stripped bare and a suspended glass floor had been installed leaving nowhere to hide. Underneath, around and above on plinths that protruded from the walls, Imhof’s cast – with Douglas at the centre – performed a four-hour sequence comprising sound and movement that was alluring and eerie in equal parts. Were the figures overhead benevolent or malevolent? Were they surveilling viewers or watching over them like angels in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire?
“[Faust] gives a very transparent view on [my country’s] past, but for me it stands against what we associate with that past,” Imhof said in her Golden Lion acceptance speech. “It stands for the future for gender nonconformity and the pride to be a woman in this world. We will have to make decisions in the future… of what to stand up for and to know when to raise our fists.”
Fashion has played an increasingly important role in Imhof’s performances since she met Douglas in 2015 at the Texte zur Kunst 25th anniversary gala in Berlin. As a teenager in her native New York, Douglas modelled briefly for Helmut Lang, but walked away from it all after being repeatedly rejected by designers and casting agents. Twenty years later, now aged 34, she has become something of a muse to the creative director of Balenciaga, Demna Gvasalia, after they were introduced by a mutual friend when he was casting his first show for the fashion house. “I really didn’t think it was going to come to anything, like the first time around,” Douglas says. “I’m just an older version of myself. But then Demna doesn’t have traditional casting ideas.”
Douglas honed the unisex uniform of athletic wear worn by the performers in Imhof’s works, blurring gender boundaries to desired effect. She has also acted as a conduit for introducing new talent. Imhof has her core team – friends who have worked with her since the early days in Frankfurt, while others were absorbed from The Forsythe Company when its founder, the choreographer William Forsythe, closed his studio in 2015 – but Douglas has brought in the likes of Sacha Eusebe, who she met on the set of the SS19 Balenciaga video campaign shot by the Canadian artist Jon Rafman.
“We had to pretend to run into walls or pretend to fight and I just saw that he was really open to trying physical stuff,” Douglas says of Eusebe, before Imhof picks up where she leaves off. “It’s all in the connection they have to their bodies, a certain style or way of moving. There are a lot of high-class dancers in the group, so if you’re a non-dancer it’s very challenging to communicate in the work.”
Sex, Imhof explains, is more choreographed than her previous works. “It has to be,” she says. “We have to create ways of moving through these vast spaces and connect what is happening in one room to another.” That said, the origins of many of the movements can be traced back to the earlier productions, like the one in a video Imhof and Douglas show me of the rehearsals, where two people – counteracting each other’s weight – spiral in a downwards formation until they both melt into the ground. Imhof is clearly making some kind of commentary about interpersonal relationships here, but what is that statement? Is she painting a picture of the kind of relationship so many people dream of – two individuals standing side-by-side for a lifetime until they are ready to enter the earth together? Or is this about falling in love, the addictive, obsessive kind that Susan Sontag wrote of – the kind that leads to the “paralysis of other interests and activities”?
“I don’t want to project an experience, it’s more that I want people to visit and come away with these images of what they have seen,” Imhof replies simply. And so, as the performers rise and shift into their next sequence, the audience is left, alone with their own interpretations.
The BMW Tate Live Exhibition Anne Imhof Sex exhibition is on at Tate Modern, London SE1, from until 31 March; it then travels to the Art Institute of Chicago (30 May to 7 July) and Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Turin (early 2020)