A Review of Anne Imhof: Sex at Tate Modern, London

 
Copyright © Tate Photography (Oliver Cowling/ Andrew Dunkley)

Copyright © Tate Photography (Oliver Cowling/ Andrew Dunkley)

 
 

Anne Imhof's third solo exhibition, Sex, a highly anticipated followup to both Angst (2016) and Faust (2017) was unsurprisingly in keeping with the artists known aesthetic and mimicked the uneasy atmosphere of both her previous endurance performances. Elevated platforms, serpentine movements, dead-eyed stares, smoke and the odd bit of fire connect all three of Imhofs performances to date. The artist even selected many of her previous performers to return in Sex, allowing for a vague familiarity between spectator and performer that only serves to reinforce Imhof’s growing predictability, or at minimum, her increasing reliance on a previously employed visual language. Sex ran for ten days and five nights (22-31 of March, 2019), for approximately four hours, with the built-in expectation that viewers would move between the performance space and the bar only a few feet beyond.

The tanks in the Tate Modern served as the ideal wasteland for Imhof’s unsettling vision, with the subterranean concrete caverns having originally been used to store oil. I could almost picture the dark, sticky and flammable substance forming an infernal lake of inky black in the place where I now stood. Combined with the metal platforms, which either elevated the crowd or the performers depending on the tank, one really could feel trapped in a hedonistic underworld. 

 
 
Courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

Courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

 
 

This particular concept, of being imprisoned in a deviant otherworld, occurred to me as I watched one of the male performers, clad only in black jeans, furiously polishing a pair of dress shoes while crouched in the corner of the tank. He spat noisily and used his saliva in lieu of polish and a scrap of fabric in place of a proper cloth. Not ten feet from him laid a black leather whip and a pair of gleaming metal handcuffs. This particular scene, out of all that I was still to see and experience, is what most connected me with the title of the exhibition. Imhof, whose studio is in Frankfurt’s red-light district, was evoking connotations of sex that are rarely discussed. 

Rather than sex meaning a romantic, freeing or casual act, the performance dares you to withstand making eye contact with the images and notions of sex that are dark, obsessive, intoxicating, and predatory. The insidious forms of sex that we know fester in the underbelly of seemingly polite society and often in the murky reassesses of our own minds. Sex meaning mania. Sex meaning damnation. Sex meaning delicious drug-induced self-destruction. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given her previous work, Imhof artfully juxtaposed both tanks using lighting. The approaching spectator was met with two massive concrete doorways, one glowing with a warm yellow light and the second being a dark portal erratically illuminated by stark white flashes. Without a hint of direction as to which door was meant to be entered first, I felt Imhof almost daring us, the audience, to choose between what could only be described as overdramatised gates to heaven and hell. 

 
 
Courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

Courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

 
 

The golden-lit tank, or ‘heaven’ as I interpreted it, was where Imhof cleverly placed her performers above the mass of spectators on industrial scaffolding; so that through the shimmering fog of the smoke machines you, as the viewer, would be forced to look up at the figures who stood backlit often with their arms in pseudo-crucifixion poses. As thundering organ music played, one of the female performers began to sing an unintelligible opera solo, while sporting a sweatshirt with the official congressional portrait of Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What exactly does the theme of sex and the image of a strong female leader have to do with one another? I suppose everything and nothing at the same time. 

The black rave-like tank, or ‘hell’ as I experienced it be, by contrast, had the audience in the elevated position. As I climbed the ramp upwards, I unnervingly found myself staring down at the performers from behind a metal barrier comparable to the ones found in the London Zoo. The performers were illuminated with blinding white light which was fired at them from varying angels; resulting in a dizzying display of demonic shadows and shifting forms. The performers were cornered, like trapped animals, against one of the towering walls of the tank within which we all stood. There, they mounted with exaggerated movements, a single white platform reminiscent of the top bunk in a prison cell. I couldn’t help but wonder, as two black men sat atop it and stared blankly out at the sea of spectators, that perhaps Imhof was more political than even she had anticipated. 

 
 
Courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

Courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

 
 

In both tanks, Imhof had her performers vaping, roaming aimlessly, executing seemingly manic choreography and lighting flowers on fire. Additionally, the hairstyling of all the performers was androgynous and dishevelled, which paired appropriately with the mixture of acid wash jeans and recycled t-shirts that paid homage to 90s grunge and tragic sex icons like Kurt Cobain. When combined, these stylistic choices suggest the influence of Imhof’s partner Eliza Douglas, Balenciaga’s muse, as the attire also echoed the 90s frump made fashionable in Balenciaga’s Spring/Summer 2018 collection. Moreover, several of the press images could double as fashion ads, and the choreography often reminded me of a Kanye West Yeezy show where the models stand frozen in staggered rows. 

Imhof channelled the symbolism of anxiety-riddled millennials and injected her typical counter-culture aesthetic with the inclusion of props like cigarette packs, matches, playing cards, empty beer bottles, basketballs, and a singular motorcycle helmet. The question remains as to whether Imhof was creating a time capsule of an area gone by, the often romanticised 90s, or if she was demonstrating the influence of that decade on today's privileged generation searching from something morose to identify with. 

Overall, as is Imhof’s prerogative, her exhibition confused, startled, annoyed, and hypnotised me all at once. It is perhaps fitting that an experience which was like tumbling down the proverbial rabbit hole, now eerily lingers in my mind. Whether Imhof is building an identifiable brand that connects her solo body of work or is slowly sinking into the quagmire of predictability remains to be seen.

 
 
Copyright © Tate Photography (Oliver Cowling/ Andrew Dunkley)

Copyright © Tate Photography (Oliver Cowling/ Andrew Dunkley)