PRINT December 2021


Anne Imhof, Natures Mortes, 2021. Performance view, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, October 15, 2021. Levi Strasser and Florine Olufs. Photo: Nadine Fraczkowski.

THE TL;DR OF ANNE IMHOF’S monumental “Natures Mortes” exhibition at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo is that it was a requiem for twentieth-century subculture—if not for the twentieth century, full stop. 

In its institutional grandeur alone, the setup already evoked earlier art systems: Curators Emma Lavigne and Vittoria Matarrese invited Imhof to participate in the Palais’s “Carte Blanche” series (inaugurated by Ugo Rondinone in 2007), offering the German artist open use of Europe’s largest center of contemporary art (236,806 square feet). Imhof asked for no less than stripping the venue down to its beams and structural walls; the dismantling and transportation of the graffitied glass facade of a razed Turinese factory; support for some thirty performers and crew (including local skaters, a falconer, and members of professional boxer Ibrahim Konaté’s K-Team, who opened each performance by pulling up en masse to the Palais’s posh sixteenth-arrondissement address on motorbikes). There was original scoring by Eliza Douglas, with further sound design and production by Amnesia Scanner’s Ville Haimala, as well as a text by Paul B. Preciado, who stipulated that, as a writer, he would be “part of the exhibition as a living entity” rather than as a critic merely writing about the art. Additionally, Imhof asked for the aggregation of works by twenty-eight other artists, including stars of early-modern media (Géricault, Delacroix, Muybridge), iconic postwar painters (Sigmar Polke, Joan Mitchell, Cy Twombly), and beloved late-capitalist mentalists (David Hammons, Mike Kelley, and Sturtevant). Not since Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the Reichstag in 1995 has there been such a symbiotic pairing of artist and building. Rarely have such colossal cultural resources been put to such stunning use. 

Anne Imhof, Natures Mortes, 2021. Rehearsal view, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, October 9, 2021. Photo: Nadine Fraczkowski.

To be on the ground in Imhof’s exhibition was to see a premium cross section of the modern era, a viewpoint that resonates with the still-life (nature morte) format’s core flex: one-shot display, an exquisite selection of high-quality items extracted from disparate worlds. (There is a reason still lifes were the favored style of seventeenth-century Dutch merchants, who, suddenly cash-rich from colonialist expansion, wanted to document and tastefully flaunt their new wealth and network reach.) 

But there is another aspect to the still-life form—its elements are almost always nonliving, clearly perishable, or newly dead. This is true literally of its subjects—a book, a flower, fish freshly caught. But it is also true figuratively, in the sense that to place something in a frame is to reify it, to distill it as image and leverage its symbolic currency for clout, a lesson Web 2.0 social media imparts all too well.

Anne Imhof, Natures Mortes, 2021. Performance view, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, October 18, 2021. Josh Johnson. Background: Eliza Douglas. Photo: Nadine Fraczkowski.

It was this latter sense of “reducing life to images” that most profoundly underpinned Imhof’s “Natures Mortes,” particularly the exhibition’s free-to-the-public, four-hour-long performance element, which, characteristic of her work, was wildly mediagenic. From every angle, vignettes—tableaux vivants—presented themselves for viewers’ consumption. Take, for example, the pack of performers who led the audience through the entrance hall at a pace so slow it was hard to accept that the scene was not being filtered through some video app effect but was actually happening IRL; or when another performer, just as slowly, mounted this surreal human raft and was carried some distance across the floor. Hitting the nostalgia solar plexus hard, Imhof’s cast was styled in uniforms of ’90s subcultures (black metal/skater/hardcore retro-aggro), like a premillennial gang of suburban American teens, the kind since collated and aggrandized in the dreamscapes of Raf Simons, Demna Gvasalia, and Sam Levinson. 

Rarely have such colossal cultural resources been put to such stunning use.

But don’t forget that the cast (which included such virtuosos as Frances Chiaverini; Chantel Foo; Josh Johnson; Kelvin Kilonzo; Mickey Mahar; Karl Ruben Nöel, aka Rubix the Grizzly; Tilman O’Donnell) brought with it decades of professional movement work. The twenty-two performers postured and processed through the Palais’s cavernous, concrete halls (and, in one wet, mesmerizing scene, across the outdoor fountain), headbanging, baptizing themselves and one another with hot candle wax and water from plastic jugs, vaping, tweaking, loitering, stage-diving, spin-kicking, and windmilling, accompanied by Douglas’s haunting vocal and guitar performances as well as intermittent, panic-inducing blast beats provided by founding Sepultura drummer Igor Cavalera. It was virtually impossible to fight the impulse to reach for one’s phone to capture, post, distill (i.e., kill).  

Anne Imhof, Natures Mortes, 2021. Performance view, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, October 15, 2021. Sihana Shalaj, Carl Hjelm Sandqvist, Eliza Douglas, and Tilman O’Donnell. Photo: Nadine Fraczkowski.

Imhof rules the purgatory between the image world and the real—in the case of “Natures Mortes,” the ultraromantic glass-and-steel repertoire of the twentieth century and an ambient silage of teen nihilism whose principal spirit is still pop culture. Imhof served the predigital fantasy of “Natures Mortes” to viewers as already dead, reified as an “impossible bouquet” (or Spencer Gifts haul) with symbols cherry-picked from disparate sources—T-shirts from hallowed ’80s bands Master and Bathory as well as, anomalously, the early-’00s “Down with the Sickness” bro-metal band Disturbed (whose mascot, “the guy,” has become a memey trope among edgier 2020s graphic designers); a hardcore, straight-edge-friendly shirt reading DRUG FREE YOUTH and another emblazoned with a GameStop logo. Poignantly, the performers spent a lot of time on physical platforms: bare mattresses, “diving boards” made from raw building materials, stages (both fixed and mobile, including the 126-decibel Bluetooth Soundboks speakers that became a fixture of Covid-era raves), and various configurations of the hands and arms of one another. 

Anne Imhof, Natures Mortes, 2021. Performance view, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, October 22, 2021. Iggor Cavalera and Eliza Douglas. Photo: Nadine Fraczkowski.

But if there were platforms, there were no individual profiles. Despite singular actions by Douglas and other members of the virtuosic cast, it was as if the show featured only two distinct bodies—the ones forming the image and the ones consuming it. (That the former were masked and the latter were not further dramatized the rift between pre- and mid-pandemic subjects.) Being in the latter group could easily feel like an immersive digital experience, an MORPG where you were the protagonist and Imhof’s crew the nonplayer characters, each carrying out scripted actions to guide you along a narrative arc. 

Anne Imhof, Natures Mortes, 2021. Performance view, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, October 16, 2021. Mickey Mahar. Photo: Nadine Fraczkowski.

But to settle into that position was to fall into a trap—as did the four-hundred-plus outraged commenters on @artforum’s Instagram, whose assessments of the show were mostly variations on “WORST EVERRRRR,” angry accusations that Imhof “lazily” leaned on fashion and youth culture. (“Just go to a punk show,” one user advised.) Some lamented that this was clearly cosponsored merchtainment and denounced this publication’s blind validation of it as capital-A Art. But the digital commentariat seemed not to see that it was the audience members (@artforum and the authors of this text included) who were the real NPCs, helplessly programmed to respond to charismatic stimuli with the botlike command of “capture, post, distill.” Notably, audiences are granted a great deal of freedom within Imhof’s works. In gaming parlance, it’s open-world (think the seductive expanses of Death Stranding or Grand Theft Auto’s unrestricted dystopian roads), and side quests and other “nonproductive” activities are supported if not outright encouraged. 

Anne Imhof, Natures Mortes, 2021. Performance view, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, October 23, 2021. Eliza Douglas. Photo: Nadine Fraczkowski.

Taking one such excursion near the end of the performance, we found ourselves in front of a monitor looping Klara Liden’s 2006 video Bodies of Society. In it, the artist beats the crap out of a bicycle with a metal rod. The work has diegetic audio but, at this moment, was inadvertently being soundtracked by activity on and around the nearby central stage—Douglas’s vocals, Cavalera’s machine-gun rhythms, and bodies rushing, cat-walking at a killer pace, cutting lines through the crowd. The sheer power all these lives appeared to contain (the performers and Liden, too) made one consider what is being voided by our impending metaverse—and just who, exactly, in all this might be the real natures mortes.

Caroline Busta is a writer based in Berlin. Lil Internet is a director, music producer, and cultural critic based in Berlin. Together, they run the media community New Models.