No compromise

Anne Imhof will use the Absolute Art Award to create a work she has wanted to realise for a long time.

Eliza Douglas in Anne Imhof, Faust, 2017
German Pavilion, 57th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia
© Photography: Nadine Fraczkowski
Courtesy: German Pavilion 2017, the artist

“In a society that conceives guilt not in religious terms, but as a matter of individual responsibility, that considers ill health not as divine punishment but as a personal failure, the body becomes capital and money the measure of all things. Capitalism brings the reign of money to its highest stage. Like in Goethe’s play Faust, we trade something that does not exist. The soul does not exist, the products of the financial sector do not exist and yet — or because of all this — the human system functions.” This is the conclusion of a text by the curator of the German Pavilion at La Biennale Venezia, Susanne Pfeffer. She is writing about Anne Imhof’s work Faust, which was presented in the pavilion.

Faust, in his different guises, strikes a bargain with Lucifer. In exchange for more time on earth to gain more knowledge, the devil will own his soul. However, Faust comes to different destinies. In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus Mephistopheles comes to collect Faustus’ soul and Faustus is dragged off the stage to hell, even though Dr. Faustus tries to repent and beg for mercy. In Goethe’s version however, Mephistopheles loses the bet, and Faust goes to heaven. Angels arrive as messengers of divine mercy, and declare at the end of Act V: “He who strives on and lives to strive / Can earn redemption still”.

What both Marlowe and Goethe’s Faust have in common is that they stand outside society. They interact with people, their actions have consequences for other people, but with the help from Mephistopheles Faust himself can move on from the consequences. As a result, he is not part of the society he affects.

The separation between actors and public, the individual and society, is striking in Imhofs performance Faust. To see the performance a visitor must pass two Doberman dogs. Under normal circumstances a clear message from the owner to potential visitor not to enter. Within the pavilion Imhof has built glass partitions between the rooms and a raised a glass floor which the audience walks on. It creates a second layer of separation between the viewer and the performer. But the most striking feature is the gazes between the performers.

Mickey Mahar, Franziska Aigner, Ian Edmonds, Billy Bultheel, Frances Chiaverini, Lea Welsch in Anne Imhof, Faust, 2017
German Pavilion, 57th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia
© Photography: Nadine Fraczkowski
Courtesy: German Pavilion 2017, the artist

The performers in your performances interact with each other, but they do not seem to have any eye contact. Are they like Faust individuals who are not part of a community?

Faust is German for “fist” so for me the title alludes to a gesture of resistance while also poking at German high culture in a slightly megalomaniac sort of way. The gazes are something we have worked on very intensely in the past. There is a lot of eye contact in the team during the performances, it is necessary to develop ways to communicate to be able to create these images together live. Also, when the faces are blank it estranges people and leaves things open to the audience. I guess you could say that facial expressions are not so important to me when I conceive a new work, but then again, I am not doing theatre.

Now Imhof has won the Absolut Art Award in Stockholm, an award associated with the company Absolut who over the years has collaborated with artists to strengthen the brand.  It is easy to think of this as a Faustian pact between the artist and Absolut, but Imhof will have none of it. Her winning proposal is a new piece, set in a desert in the U.S. state of California. Till now her work has taken place in art institutions, but this new work will be the first public performance outside the walls of a museum or gallery space. Imhof has been wanting to realise this since she started out as an artist.

‘When you receive money from an art institution there are always constraints. I think funding is important for an artist to be able to do work. The prize enables a somewhat different way of working, and allows me to realise something outside of the white cube.’

But before she embarks on the new piece she is still busy with Faust in Venice. Showing at the German pavilion she also points out, that even though Faust are concepts or mythologies mired in a German Cultural history, there is not much German in her art.

‘Because of the rather outdated model of national pavilions at the Venice Biennale, there is always the risk of your work becoming overdetermined by its relation to the country you are supposed to represent. This is especially true for the German pavilion given the country’s history and the way it is embodied in the pavilion’s architecture. I tried to confront this head on in Faust. However, I generally do not see my work as being particularly German at all, and I do not think of it as being this Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk people have described it as.’

She points out that she is drawn to artists from different fields of art, but they keep changing over time.

‘I admire artist like Francis Bacon and Jean Michel Basquiat, but also Michelangelo. At different times, you require different role models, but I generally like artists that do not compromise.’

Portrait Anne Imhof
© Photo: Nadine Fraczkowski


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