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An evolution of her earlier music concerts, the German artist’s performance pieces are based on non-visible communication, with a voyeuristic desire to create an image using non-scripted encounters of bodies.

 

How did you begin working with other people?

I’ve always been interested in my immediate environment. I’ve always drawn portraits and was fascinated by the idea of working with bodies in time and space. It started with a desire to create a connection between the image and the present. I wanted someone to look while I was creating images, but it didn’t work to have people watching me make drawings. What did work was playing concerts and inviting people to attend. Something happened then; images emerged in space.

I like the fact that the people with whom you develop your pieces also become, or already are, friends. You’re not concerned solely with their bodies—you care about their autonomy, their thoughts. You draw on the individuality of each performer; everyone has his or her own motion sequence.

It would be difficult to determine whether I create these sequences or they create themselves. It all depends on whether everyone accepts being part of a system that enables real and non-scripted encounters. I want to conjure an image, and while some things solidify immediately, others just don’t cohere. This is why I often come up with a title prior to the actual performance, as with Angst. We must find a language in which we can all communicate.

Do you distinguish between individual and collective moments of movement? Do you conceptualize these differences?

It’s hard to say, because our way of working is often very fast-paced and rather intuitive. For instance, I say things like, “Here, it would be good if everyone did everything.” I am intrigued by the equalization that results from that process. Of course, there is some sort of script, but we often disregard it, like violating a law that only we know is there. For me, those are the most captivating moments.

It seems significant that during the performance, you do not give any indications—performers communicate via text messaging. It’s all non-visible communication.

Well, it was only after we used them for other purposes that we started to employ smartphones for communication. Initially, we integrated them into the piece in order to play music on them. In Angst, the phones actually transmitted the main part of the opera—the march, the models’ ballet, the interlude, the overture—and to me, they seemed like the most obvious tools to communicate with each other as quickly as needed.

 

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What is your relationship to dance?

While I have always liked the idea of dance—I’ve obviously seen William Forsythe’s work, for instance, which impressed me—it’s not really my domain. I draw and paint, and it’s there that my artistic projects originate. But precisely because I’m not familiar with dance and its devices, a productive tension arises.

I was always struck by the fact that there is no universal notation system for dance. There are notation systems for almost everything, but with movement, there is nothing comparable to an alphabet or a score. It’s interesting, then, that you’ve approached dance from the perspective of drawing.

Indeed. In my work, I use notation for the creation of the pieces. This is the one time that having notes makes sense to me in communicating with my collaborators. Notations are a fetish; their only other use is for restaging a performance after the artist is dead, so obviously I don‘t do them. Some of the drawings I make are like sketches. I fetishize them as part of something bigger yet to come or almost over or long past. If I had to come up with a notation for Angst beyond those initial drawings, it would be something like, “Person X will have to learn Eliza Douglas’ way of performing with grace and anger. Person Y has to breathe and speak like Mickey Mahar.” It would instruct a third person Z to hurt person X by slowly stepping on her hand with all her weight while gazing at one of the spectators and being looked at by everyone—as Franziska Aigner did to Eliza Douglas in Angst without prior arrangements.

Sound has played an important role in your work right from the start. How would you define the relationship between sound, space and movement?

The concept of movement is treacherous. It seems to denote an external, natural movement, whereas movement in my work is as much about how people project into the future, considering what they might do, how they will do it, why and with whom.
Time plays a big role for me, as does space. As far as sound is concerned, I like it when it is traceable. A baseball bat hitting a piece of metal, highlighting the space’s presence, or hearing the fizzle of cans being opened simultaneously, which you normally couldn’t do in a smaller space, without the hall effect. Some of my songs convey something that can at times also be very ordinary: a love song, a paean to someone. But it’s important to note that the various movements and images are mostly tailored to a particular person; there is a strong focus on their inherent traits and qualities. It almost becomes a portrait or something totally obsessive, as if I were in the presence of a muse, which happens when I work with Eliza.

I find it remarkable how consciously you use sounds as well as non-sounds to pervade a non-sound-space. In those spaces, the absence of sound is extremely present.

AI   Silence deserves to be treated the same way as music that fills a room. A temporal delay is introduced when silence is present—time stretches differently, passes more subjectively. Someone who knowingly produces sounds, either through singing or saying something, knows that the sentence will fill the space. In some way, that person hears the sentence before she even utters it. It all changes according to who does what, which is not always entirely clear. Some possibilities are deliberately left open. It all depends on the decisions that are made and on the direction in which a piece is going.

 

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What about the animals in your performances? Are they a vector of movement? Or do you think of them in terms of images?

I think of them in terms of what they represent and what they come to stand for. That is very important to me. For instance, they can replace something. People never replace anything in my performances. More importantly, they cannot be replaced: one performer cannot substitute for another, nor can they pass on their roles to somebody else. Whereas the animals, for their part, play a similar role to the insect in Kafka’s Metamorphosis—a  creature with which one associates certain metaphoric qualities. In Angst, the falcon was a prophet, a mascot of sorts. First, I wanted a person to be the seer. But in my head, the human being gradually morphed into a falcon. The falcon was better able to express the lifelessness and discipline I envisioned.

Yes, the falcon channeled a palpable violence; all of a sudden, we realize how trained we are ourselves. How important is that training aspect for your work—for the individual performers and their bodies, but also as a collective predicament?

There are certainly elements of discipline and violence. But it is fractured and called into question. Control precedes the collapse. It can underscore the feeling that there are no rules.

I broach the subject because it alludes to power structures that are not necessarily visible. The underlying script, if there is one, is beyond reach.

Yes, there are certain images about which I’ve been thinking for a long time. The navel as a symbol of origin, for instance—what does it mean to remove it? In Angst, there was something almost surgical about the performers shaving her navel. At the same time, it could be seen as tenderness. I wanted to engage with that, perhaps even with the act of acquiescing to violence. But where does the violent act occur? In the image itself? In its creation? In the willingness to introduce sexual innuendo? Or perhaps in the simple desire to observe?



Photography by Nadine Fraczkowski

Anne Imhof (German, b. 1978) is an artist who lives and works in Frankfurt. She is represented by Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/New York. Imhof has been selected to represent Germany in the 2017 Venice Biennale (13 May–26 November). In November, she will have a solo exhibition at Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.

Susanne Pfeffer is artistic director of Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel, and curator of the Germany Pavilion in the 2017 Venice Biennale.