PRINT Summer 2019



Anne Imhof, Sex, 2019. Performance view, Tate Modern, London, 2019. Eliza Douglas. Photo: Nadine Fraczkowski.

IN 1792, Robert Barker, the Irish painter and inventor, exhibited a 360-degree view of London as seen from the roof of Albion Mills, a flour mill roughly five hundred feet west of where Tate Modern now stands. His “panorama” and others like it were technological marvels, popular attractions that rendered sweeping landscapes—both foreign and domestic, historical and contemporary—from the standpoint of an all-seeing visitor, the sublimity of the ungraspable world translated for ready capture by the centered individual. London from the Roof of the Albion Mills triumphed in Leicester Square before touring the Continent.

The panorama—as a machine designed to picture the world for consumption and figure the perceiving subject as the measure of that world—haunted Anne Imhof’s latest work, animating its bodies and making familiar rhythms feel strange. Though the German artist’s piece, which she titled Sex, is self-consciously, precisely of the contemporary moment (from its haute-streetwear costumes and vaping performers to the real-time dissemination of stage directions via WhatsApp to the work’s very siting at Tate Modern, making it one more instantiation of the recent phenomenon known as “dance in the museum”), it also elaborated many features of the late-eighteenth-century technology. It manipulated vision, playing with scale to confound far with near, big with small; it also positioned and shaped its audience through the interplay of architecture and choreography. The merging of the late-modern viewing device with a bleeding-edge contemporary performance produced a collision between usually distinct modes of conceiving subjectivity; the result provided an unusual vantage on our post-digital condition of interconnected atomization. 

Anne Imhof, Sex, 2019. Performance views, Tate Modern, London, 2019. Josh Johnson, Mickey Mahar, Enad Marouf. Photo: Nadine Fraczkowski.

Imhof says the roundness of the two Tate Tanks where Sex took place—subterranean, 100-foot-wide, 230-foot-high cylinders that held fuel when the building was a power station—provided her point of departure: “I used the architectural panorama of the curved wall, so that the pier extending in the South Tank opens up an implication of landscape.” In the South Tank, a T-shaped steel ramp constructed by Imhof led from the entrance to a viewing platform about ten feet off the ground, positioning the audience above the performers. Only the first three hundred of the eight hundred nightly ticketholders could ascend the platform to find a spot before the show began; of those, only the lucky first fifty or so fit onto the viewing platform at its end (the top of the T). We were elevated, but packed tightly enough that a true 360-degree survey was impossible. Nevertheless, there was an implied “landscape” against that curving wall: Imhof’s dancers, illuminated by a sharp white glare as bright flashes continually recast the vista of light and shadow. Looking impossibly hip and preternaturally cool, these figures glowered, pouted, and puffed from various vaporizers, while alternately standing, sitting, or reclining on raised platforms. Their exhalations commingled with the steady emissions of fog machines, the cumulative mist lending a clammy humidity to a half-empty room encircled by cold concrete but shot through the middle with a thick column of spectators.

Soon, a slow but propulsive electronic dirge began to emanate from speakers, and Eliza Douglas (an artist, model, musician, and core member of Imhof’s troupe) intoned a matching aria. As Douglas sang from atop one of the platforms, perched like a stylite saint—and projecting a thousand-mile stare that cut right through the spectatorial mass—dancers converged from around the South Tank. Several couples undertook simultaneous duets, their movements part waltz and part Greco-Roman grapple. Each duet ended when the grapple overtook the waltz and one or both partners fell to the floor. The performers then assembled for an en bloc audience stare-down before exiting to the East Tank through a doorway only they could access.

Anne Imhof, Sex, 2019. Performance views, Tate Modern, London, 2019. Sacha Eusebe. Photo: Nadine Fraczkowski.

To keep up, the audience had to reverse course down the ramp, return to the lobby (where it became clear how many people had not been admitted to the show’s first scene), and enter the East Tank. This Tank could accommodate us all, though the roughly five hundred people still lined up to enter the South Tank did not know the action had shifted to the East. They would have to glean from our movements that they should follow; this dynamic of deliberating where one should be—by trailing, as best one could, both the dancers’ actions and the mood and flow of the crowd—suffused the project’s four hours, which involved a host of other actions and experiences, including constant electronic music, occasional singing, and ensemble dances that looked like ritualized stage diving or variations on a dervish’s whirling.

There was always and everywhere something to see, something to feel, but was it the thing?

Elevated walkways in the East Tank reversed the spatial and optical order of the South Tank, with performers looking down on the audience. But there they also moved through the crowd, sometimes slowly, sometimes aggressively, bumping shoulders with anyone who didn’t or couldn’t clear a path; the whirling offered particularly fraught moments of sudden compression. Additionally, there were slower set pieces—one dancer emptied bags of sugar from a platform onto a supine partner below—and lots of static ones, wherein performers stood against a backdrop of Imhof’s paintings, which figured abstracted horizons on black reflective grounds rotated ninety degrees. Some were badly, though intentionally scratched. They looked like iOS screens frozen in a Barnett Newman death mask.

View of “Anne Imhof: Sex,” 2019, Tate Modern, London. Photo: Oliver Cowling/Andrew Dunkley.

The task of deciding where to go only became more difficult as the performers and the crowd dispersed throughout the Tanks and the adjoining exhibition spaces. Many of the scenes unfolded simultaneously—one performer burned a bouquet of dried flowers in the East Tank as another stalked its perimeter behind glass barriers spraying cans of beer against the panes, all (perhaps) while a duo in one of the smaller rooms blew clouds of vapor at each other across the surface of a half-pipe metal sculpture affixed to the wall, the sickly sweet-smelling plumes clinging to the cold surface for a few feet before wafting upward. Each of these acts was typical in producing both arresting imagery and some kind of traveling miasma, at once attracting crowds and clearing space. There was always and everywhere something to see, something to feel, but was it the thing?

IF BARKER’S MACHINE sold the fantasy of visual mastery, total self-possession in absolute surveillance, then Imhof’s take on the panorama traffics in occlusion, short-circuiting any such sense of security. By manipulating access and exclusion, Imhof foregrounds that very contemporary sensation of not seeing it all. Instagram’s crowd-generated content fills in the gaps—not only after the fact, but sometimes beforehand as well. It’s no accident, then, that phones are ubiquitous: Phones connect the performers to the director, and audience members constantly use phones in one way or another—to record repetitive set pieces, snap pics of stunning tableaux, or aid vision in a crowded moment, their screens hoisted overhead like periscopes. Given the frequency with which commentators have noted the “grammability” of Imhof’s work, it is remarkable that such critics—though often contextualizing her work’s virtuosic bodies and alluring surfaces by citing places such as the club, the catwalk, the showroom, and the boardroom—rarely invoke the internet.

The internet, like the panorama, brings the far near and translates the sublime to human scale, but it does so with such frequency, ubiquity, and rapidity that the imbrication of global and local has become a presumed environmental surround, the transit between the two seemingly frictionless rather than a spectacular feat of scalar transformation. Sure, there is always more to see, to know, to experience, but having enough time—not the structuring interface—often seems like the only impediment to total access. The world is imagined as flat, homogeneous—all points equally amenable to access and vision from wherever we are; the mediating apparatus eludes our view. But by bringing the internet into the panorama (and vice versa), Imhof foregrounds the apparatus, emphasizing the ways it produces perspective, shapes space, and guides one’s sense of what is worth seeing in the first place. As a work of performance, it made the deceptively fluid digital movements of bodies, images, and information slow and deliberate by siting itself over and again at the place where those transportations occur—where an image becomes an action, a feeling shades into a thought, and, crucially, where an individual blurs into a crowd. A cloud of exhaled vapor limns a private space of experience just as much as it contributes to a literally inspired atmosphere.

Deciding where to be is something individual viewers have to work out for themselves, but one’s position is also determined by who one wants to follow and what one is able to see. All the pic snapping and posting extend the physical boundaries of the work, as one’s online self-representation interacts dynamically with multiple crowds’ moods and movements, the on- and off-line meshing to the point of indistinction. These elements speak to profound cultural and technological pressures that alter, if not existentially threaten, the very notion of the individual: Think social media “bubbles,” surveillance-capitalist algorithms that not only track but also predict and guide behavior, the contemporary museum’s need to account for and calculate “publics.” Against such a backdrop, the act of overlapping the panoramic and networked subject positions forces a confrontation between the individual and the mass and points to the mediating interface as the nexus of a continual dialectical contest.

Sex insists on the interface as a productive force, a site of transformative work. By making viewers chart their own paths between visual mastery and immersive dissolution, Sex negatively suspends the dialectic between individual and crowd, refusing its resolution. It’s not that individuality will save us; it’s not that it’s bad to be part of a crowd. Ultimately, Sex asks us to confront how our technologies of world picturing position us and how we fashion and support those same apparatuses. This is a posthuman work that nonetheless asks us to hold ourselves accountable for how we conceive our interconnectivity. The result is the idea, or maybe the feeling, that a new configuration might be wrought, that some other relation between figure and ground might be possible.

Chapter two of Sex runs from May 30 to July 7 at the Art Institute of Chicago; the third chapter will premiere in 2020 at the Castello di Rivoli, Turin.

Jonah Westerman is an assistant professor of art history at Purchase College, State University of New York.