ANNE IMHOF’S first institutional solo exhibition, “Parade,” opened in July at Frankfurt’s Portikus with a performance of Aqua Leo, 1st of at least two, 2013. “Coded Conduct,” a group show at Pilar Corrias in London, kicked off several months prior with a presentation of Imhof’s School of the Seven Bells, 3rd of at least three, 2013. These performance works’ titles contain an indeterminate promise. The “x of at least y” formula commits to the reproduction of the work, reveals where we are in a sequence, then inserts a “maybe” that suspends us somewhere within an incomplete process. At Portikus, made-for-film and slide-show versions of these pieces were screened in the space, and School of the Seven Bells was staged againfourth in a series that had promised three. It is via such thematic reformulations, across multiple platforms, that Imhof begins to unravel the very modes of performance she engages.
The Portikus press literature described Imhof’s practice as one that takes on the history of performance art, a legacy fraught with the paradoxes of its own documentation. Performance has enjoyed a revival in mainstream museums in recent years, attracting pop-cultural visibility for many of its practitioners and highlighting some of their most persistent topoiquestions of re-presentation and endurance, gendered bodies and public/private boundaries, and the genre’s own relationship to mass or institutionalized culture. Imhof is more than equipped to engage these terms. Yet, deploying a variety of mediaincluding video, sound, installation, works on paper, and sculptureshe is equally quick to transcend the established aesthetic and vocabulary of the discipline.
Aqua Leo, 1st of at least two is titled with terms from an encrypted code used by bouncers at Robert-Johnson, a club in the Frankfurt suburb of Offenbach known for its roster of DJs’ DJs and cult atmosphere. The work cast a group of nine female performers alongside two donkeys in the deconstruction of the club’s nocturnal communicative rituals, designed to covertly indicate who is “in,” for instance, and who is “out.” The performers were young and mostly untrained as dancers; all were current or former employees of Robert-Johnson and some were Imhof’s fellow alumni of Frankfurt’s Städelschule, where the artist studied under Judith Hopf. The women drily led their donkeys through a delineated segment of Portikus’s main gallery. By isolating, then perturbing pared-down, quotidian gestures, Aqua Leo results in a Teutonic echo of the neo-avant-garde performance developed by the Judson Dance Theater in the early 1960s. (A recent reworking of Judson that also involved equine players comes to mind as wellMike Kelley’s 2009 The Judson Church Horse Dance.) Minimal, task-based, multidisciplinary, and liberated from the constraints of mastery and technique, Imhof’s choreography is nevertheless private, as community-specific as it is democratizing.
On the ceiling, looking down on the exhibition, was a large-scale, abstract charting of the movements executed in the gallery below. Still above that arrangement, drawings culled from more than a decade of studio sketches hung on Portikus’s upper floor, where words scribbled across one rough diagram read I’D LIKE YOU / TO TAKE PART / I PROMISEyet another iteration of Imhof’s open-ended approach, and a suggestion of intimacy between the artist and her performers. With its many layers, “Parade” successfully undermined the linear, cause/effect trajectory between the performative act and its archiving: Execution, conception, and documentation were collapsed and then restacked. Imhof’s repetition is relentless yet evolving, approaching a point of excess well suited to the context of the club scene: Aqua Leo not only shines a strobe onto a social model, it mirrors the pulse of an electronic beat.
Music is central to Imhof’s practiceher dark tracks, like her performances, swell into various other formats, from the audio for videos and screenings to live sets with her band, Beautiful Balance. But Aqua Leo uses silence equally loudly. Red Bull cans are opened and red Gauloises lit to re-create a sound track typically drowned out by Robert-Johnson’s loudspeakers. The energy drinks appeared in piles around Portikus and were imbibed during the performancea mischievous nod, perhaps, to body art’s tests of endurance, and one that effectively dislodged the cliché of that practice’s discipline and orthodoxy. Imhof’s work deals with stamina, but her version is fortified by late-night “performance” enhancers: Going to the club is about “letting go,” and here the ostensible rigor of the Judsonesque improvised gesture is nudged toward a caffeinated, youth-cultural counterpart.
School of the Seven Bells is also the product of social research, though Imhof’s embodied method doesn’t so much resemble the approach of a cultural anthropologist as it does that of a private eye: agile, furtive, vaguely lawless. Named after an urban- legendary school for vagabonds and thieves, and taking Robert Bresson’s 1959 film Pickpocket as a starting point, this sequence of works stretches across multiple settings and media, stylizing another elaborate, secret set of movements: that of thieving, a delicate, underground system that holds together despite incalculable variables and risks. A video incarnation that was shot outdoors, SOTSB Skies, 2013, links together a serpentine network of seemingly unrelated locations. In the peripheries and housing projects of Frankfurt and Paris, Imhof’s performers discreetly exchange cylindrical aluminum bars, “bells” whose two-toned rings punctuate the otherwise silent rite.
Imhof splits her time behind and in front of the lens. In 1st of at least two, 2011, photographer Nadine Fraczkowski, a frequent collaborator who also worked on SOTSB Skies, can be seen roller-skating in circles around the white cube, brusquely passing the camera back and forth with Imhof; each artist intermittently films and is filmed. It is Dan Graham’s Body Press, 1970–72, but less sober, more vertiginousan expressionist doubling rather than a concentrated lesson in documentation, performance, or identity. Working with other artists and performers is another way in which Imhof surrenders controlshe directs the pieces only to a point, leaving the rest to circumstance, and in so doing destabilizes the arithmetic of the structures in question through the potentially unwieldy movements of the group. School of the Seven Bells enacts a kind of decelerated anarchy: Its slow, deliberate motions stultify the choreography of pilfering, protracted here to ritualistic ceremony. What is left are the communicative structuresor games?that underlie and materialize communities in general. Like Aqua Leo, the work is a study of grassroots language, its development, its exchange, and its appearance, but not its content.
It is fitting, then, that for “Freak Out,” a group exhibition at Greene Naftali Gallery in New York concurrent with “Parade,” Imhof contributed Freund I/II and I Remember, both 2013: two stoic, tongue-shaped sculptures. Cut from alabaster, they sat among the other objects like headstones, frozen in the act of retelling.
Victoria Camblin is an art historian and an editor at 032C.