PRINT September 2017


Anne Imhof, Faust, 2017. Performance view, German pavilion, Venice. From the 57th Venice Biennale. Eliza Douglas. Photo: Nadine Fraczkowski.

THE LINE to get into Anne Imhof’s German pavilion takes two hours. Dobermans roam behind a twelve-foot-high welded-wire fence. We wait impatiently, a procession of docile tourists, shapeless and slouching in tired linens, sweating in all the wrong places, drawn down by tote bags spelling out the names of other artists, other nations. For those in the know, Germany’s swag is hardest to get and better than the rest—a black polyester drawstring knapsack printed with a topless photo of Eliza Douglas, artist, model, Imhof’s girlfriend, and star of Faust, this stylishly cryptic show.

Inside, the old Neoclassical art temple has been stripped to basics. It’s the kind of minimal only money can buy: Thick glass walls and an elevated glass floor joined by stainless-steel brackets carve up the space, not unlike a Bohlin Cywinski Jackson–designed Apple store. A central chamber contains the bulk of the action, while two antechambers—one near the entrance, one near the exit—offer views down onto performance arenas decorated with large canvases screen-printed with repeated images of again-topless Douglas, mouth agape.

On press day, Imhof surveys her work from the pavilion’s edges. She wears black jeans and black boots and a black Nike zip-up and a black baseball cap with BALENCIAGA written in white letters above its bill. The blasé-hot performers, six or seven or eight at a time, glide among us on the glass floor or perch on eye-level canted glass shelves or stand on a glass walkway hung twenty feet above the crowd.

The piece takes maybe four or five hours. There’s a set path with room for improvisation. Many eidetic images: Douglas, early on, moving to stand behind the tall glass sheet at the pavilion’s rear, removing her shirt, looking above and beyond the crowd. The performers screaming and marching stridently back and forth among us, runway style. Douglas singing a plangent song into a microphone.

We move around as we please, snapping and spreading photos of the Instagram-ready performers as they stare back at our cameras in blithe disregard. Imhof and crew communicate via WhatsApp on their iPhones, giving feedback, retooling. We watch, rapt or frustrated, excluded from the codes as they spiral or headbang or skid along the ground or crawl beneath the glass floor and raise their fists toward our feet. They vibe and menace. They lounge and shoot slingshots at bronze cloches. They ignite fires on the marble ground beneath the glass: The day they win the Golden Lion, they spell out LION in ethanol and set it aflame.

Much has been made of the brilliant architectural interventions, the pastiche of expressive movement, but the performance—cast by an artist who once worked as a doorperson at the famous Frankfurt-adjacent nightclub Robert Johnson—also embodies another, more intangible quality: selectivity. There’s Imhof’s beautiful Douglas, the steely Franziska Aigner, the arrogantly handsome Billy Bultheel, the mesmerizing Mickey Mahar. Faust testifies to the power of setting a scene, then giving things over to great performers in hip clothes.

The style is the man himself. In Faust, the sad/sporty models are giving us Steven Meisel for CK One circa 1995, by which I mean Richard Avedon’s “Factory” photos circa 1969, or Demna Gvasalia’s Vetements circa 2016, by which I mean Gvasalia’s Balenciaga circa 2016. Bohemia becomes grunge and heroin chic becomes health goth or maybe just knockoff Margiela and all this attitude becomes . . . an image-repertoire of insouciant rebellion for rebellion’s sake, all effect and no cause.

Maybe cause is overrated. Maybe fashion is underrated. I think Douglas looks as good walking for Imhof as she does for Vetements and Balenciaga. Imhof leans into the vacuum, striking familiar yet quality poses, her Venice catalogue illustrated with photos of her gang vamping it up in a gloomy concrete studio. Faust is a work of supremely entitled cool. And yet there’s heart here, too. It’s a sprawling love letter—a delirious, epic tribute from Imhof to Douglas, and, I like to think, an haute fuck-you to the tyranny of great men. Faust, at least as Goethe most famously told it, was such a man’s story, Heinrich and Mephistopheles on a tear to remake the world in their own image, the women (Gretchen, Helena, that poor Walpurgisnacht witch) mere props on the road to salvation. Now earth is again at the mercy of some fool who made a deal with the devil. Screw redemption. I’ll hedge my bets on sapphic devotion.

Faust is on view at the German pavilion in Venice through November 26.

David Velasco is editor of and of Sarah Michelson (Museum of Modern Art, 2017).

Visit our archive to read Victoria Camblin’s article introducing Imhof’s work (October 2013) and Kerstin Stakemeier’s essay on the artist’s performance Angst, 2016 (September 2016).