Text by Vittoria Matarrese
In a text titled Sur l’image qui manque à nos jours (On the Image That Is Lacking Today), Pascal Quignard shared his thoughts about an extract from Plutarch, On the Fame of the Athenians, V, 1, in which he announced that, since antiquity, a difference had developed between the art of depiction and that of writing. He then quotes: “Painters show actions as being on the point of becoming, narratives tell of them as having become.” His comment is as follows: “On the one hand, the germination of an epiphany, on the other, an evocation of the completed lives of the dead.” The title of Anne Imhof’s exhibition at Palais de Tokyo, Natures Mortes (Still Lifes), was chosen by the artist because it implies more than her own personal work, or those of the guest artists: it is the description of a genre of painting. Thus, this title, which covers a multitude of images and works from different time periods, includes both the timeframe of the living and that of the other works. So, how are the works and timeframes linked together, how do they work in an exhibition? The title probably acts as an interpretative key, an opening, as a moment when these different timeframes can be described in just one expression: still life.
In the plural, Still Lifes, implies this proliferation and raises questions about the genre, but also an examination of how to position ourselves in terms of the history of painting, how to revisit the genre, in particular when the life in the work in question is anything but still. Tableau vivant, a work by Picabia reproduced in the exhibition, in which the artist approached the still life, while calling for a questioning of all aesthetic and political conventions, is thus extremely explicit about Anne Imhof’s intentions. Still Life (or Stillleben in German) seems to function as an enlightenment of the artist’s work in general. In her latest essay, Pour en finir avec la nature morte, Laurence Bertrand Dorléac sees the genre as the ideal site for a dialogue between the living and the non-living. Anne Imhof’s performance pieces, from Angst to Sex, including Faust, often include a moment which can be considered to be a still life, that instant when temporality becomes an image, when “action is like on the point of becoming.” And, even if this image has a temporality that is different from a painting, it is strongly connected with the idea of hanging a living work of art. For Anne Imhof, there is a moment in the live appearance of this image, in front of us, and in which an audience participates in, which is almost like a still life per se, a way of staying in the moment, in an endless loop. By composing images in a space onto which visitors may have multiple points of view, performed actions have the power to put us into a loop and keep us trapped in it. This idea of repetition can be seen in Anne Imhof, from her earliest works, in which often a certain sequence or a piece of music, cries or laughter, are sampled in their own temporality, isolated and are parallel to the rest of the performance. Never a simple repetition, this procedure produces an accumulation of meanings, and sometimes reveals other presences, other images, which are almost ghostly.
Anne Imhof’s sculptural pieces, ranging from Stands in Faust, High Beds in Sex to Stages in Still Lifes, bear witness to an absence, while waiting for the performers to take possession of it all, that duality between life and its absence, between what has occurred and what will be. As though the former presence of something made its absence even more tangible. Sculptures that are suddenly transformed into a staging. A change of form that evokes a middle ground: whether a body is present or not, it is always lurking in the background. A multitude of moments is then formed, in which images are not yet fixed, and everything is still possible. In the same way, the bodies in her drawings are never finished. These not entirely drawn bodies escape with their fragile lines from a fixed image. They prefigure images or sequences, while leaving behind empty spaces, tinged with every possibility. They escape from their destiny, because staying in a loop means staying alive.
In all her projects, Anne Imhof plunges the visitors into a sort of “stream of watching,” in which it is always possible to change positions or perspectives, to look at something from other viewpoints. Different axes in Still Lifes are like separated scenes in the two tanks of the Tate Modern, where it is impossible to get an overall view. And, while we look down on the action in Faust and sometimes in Still Lifes, we are below it in Angst. In fact, the public is sometimes included inside the image and the crowd creates the framework of the action. In her video piece Deathwish (2021), in which Eliza Douglas performs a solitary waltz, a final dance wavering between appearing in light and fading into darkness, or in her Sunsets, paintings in which darkness advances or withdraws, and in which an atomic explosion testifies to the changing violence of our moods, we are at the heart of this dichotomy, plunged between life and death. Sculptures, installations, drawings, sound compositions or performances all participate in the “germination of an epiphany,” in the sense that Pascal Quignard meant: a narrative supposes that the end can be recounted, while an image belongs to the world of the living.
After Language / Post Society
Natures Mortes, rehearsal views, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2021 Cast: Marius Courcoul, Eliza Douglas
Photo: Nadine Fraczkowski Courtesy: the artist and Palais de Tokyo
Natures Mortes, installation views, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2021 Photo: Andrea Rossetti
Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Buchholz, Sprüth Magers
(b. 1978, Gießen, Germany) lives and works in Berlin and New York. Her paintings, sculptures, and performances have been shown internationally in numerous monographic exhibitions including at Palais de Tokyo, Paris, Castello di Rivoli, Rivoli-Turin, the Art Institute of Chicago, Tate Modern, London, and the German Pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia. Her second album of music, SEX, written with Eliza Douglas and Billy Bultheel, is now out on PAN.
graduated in architecture and urban planning in Paris, and is currently Director of Performing Arts and Cultural Program and Curator at the Palais de Tokyo. She has held various positions, including Artistic Director of the Villa Medici in Rome. Throughout her career she has worked at the intersection of several artistic disciplines–from cinema to dance and theatre–in different countries. This polysemy is now at the center of her research on performance in contemporary art, a subject which she also teaches at Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University.