Anne Imhof’s Angst

One comes away from Anne Imhof’s Angst III, well, a bit angsty—or at least antsy. The four hour long performance, which recently took place for two consecutive nights at Musée d’art contemporain Montréal as part of La Biennale de Montréal’s “Le Grand Balcon,” consisted of a smoky room, young women and men in graphic T-shirts and sportswear, falcons wearing blinders, tubs of Vaseline, cases of Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, razors, shaving cream, sleeping bags, iPhones, spray paint and later, even drones. As materials, they were an odd combination that somehow fit, but with Imhof setting it all in motion—to a score composed by Billy Bultheel—they became unsettling tools for an ultra contemporary opera.

Angst III is the third act of Imhof’s Angst series, which began at Switzerland’s Kunsthalle Basel in June and had its second installment at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof in September. Imhof met nearly all of her tight-knit collaborators, who perform the piece, in Frankfurt, Germany (where she’s based) over the past three years—the group even includes Imhof’s fiancée, Eliza Douglas. For Imhof, beyond the framework she stages, “It’s basically the thoughts of the people that are performing in it that, in the end, shape it.” For Angst III, everything took place in one room, with a runway like stage at its center. The performers acted out a series jarring images: they shaved each other’s backs or their own stomachs repeatedly; they ran themselves into walls as though on a loop in a maze; they seemingly carried out their own deaths, falling off of the stage into the hands of others. They also sat and stood, embracing stillness—occasionally staring back at the audience intensely. Imhof says the work is intentionally “abstract on the whole” and the result is a disquieting, unclear sense of what exactly one’s witnessed. 

“This coming together in these spaces is, in a way, creating something really new for me,” says Imhof. “People are not used to that or are sometimes offended, and not able to figure out what comes from who. But that’s so interesting. It’s not even an authorship question, it’s a danger question: that you can’t track it down to a person’s history,” she continues. “There are rules and you feel the rules are there to break. These possibilities can be dangerous or intimidating, but that’s something that this work has—that it reaches out from the space that it’s shown in.”

While Imhof doesn’t foresee restaging the series, when we met in Montréal she spoke of what she hoped the audience took away and explained how Angst continues to inform her work.

HALEY WEISS: Angst is a broad emotion that is often applied to youth, but what is angst to you?

ANNE IMHOF: I liked the word in the first place. [laughs] I think I’ve wanted, for a long time, to name a piece this. The word implies, of course, this kind of very cliché station in youth or in growing up, but it’s also about the broader feeling that it has, like seeing something that’s greater than you are.

I think if you are creating a piece like this together you need a point to start. I think we build up on things that we worked on together, or on time we spent together. But in a way, it’s more that it’s under this big word—it’s only a big word in the beginning. It’s like with a painting; there’s something that the title does not immediately refer to: a feeling or something that has to be in there. I think it’s very ambiguous in terms of there’s no message that’s been taught.

WEISS: Even in a more interactive space like what you’ve created, where the audience is among the performers, there is this reverence for the stage. People will only come so close to this unspoken boundary. It’s like they want to be a foot away. Do you actively try and break that?

IMHOF: Yeah. Angst III is working like an enclosed space where there’s no escape. In an opera, this would be like the death of the protagonist, but in here it’s more the room where there’s no escape … I like that, when boundaries blur. Also, the pieces are never rehearsed; they need the people that see them to actually be there in the first place. That is something that sometimes I think nobody knows, in a way. They are quite rich in terms of what you can see in the movements and people. When we performed Angst II at Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin there were so many people involved and it seemed like it had a master plan, it had things happening at the same time. There is one in a way, but the piece has never been rehearsed, it happens only the first time when we go on stage, which I personally like a lot.

WEISS: The lyrics in the first song that’s performed mention the books of K. Dick—that’s Philip K. Dick, I assume—and being lovesick. And then there’s this phone directly on one character’s arm, it’s centered on the vein. I know that you’ve used phones to communicate with performers during the performances, but there’s also this criticism of even feeling the need to go on the phone and be directed. There seems to be a tension there, in using it as a tool but also being critical of going into that space because you’re lovesick.

IMHOF: [One of] the lines in the song is, “Let’s find brand new gods here;” it’s also referring to that. But it’s also very serious in that sense. The song I did not write especially for Angst, it’s a song that I brought in because it’s a song that I just released this year but that I wrote a couple of years ago. It’s of course some dependency that is offered there. Communication wise, it was a method for me to transfer the different chapters on the music. When Billy, my collaborator, and me talked about this piece, we wanted to do an opera. He composed very classical pieces for this, so there’s an overture, there’s a march, there’s a ballet for different people—for the models, for the trumpets—there’s an aria for the lover. Different pieces have different connotations. But we wanted them, especially the pieces that are very orchestral, to not have a master that is guiding through the whole piece and structure. This would not fit with the open structure that it has. So we decided on playing the music on the phones so that they’re all split into different tracks. I have about 70 tracks of different instruments. The pieces are played with people syncing their phones and composed so that even if they don’t sync right in time, it gives a delay but still works as a piece of music. Then people can have agency over it and can put a loop or a track and take it away. It’s these constant negotiations about where the piece can go.

WEISS: You just described characters, like the lover. Do they have these roles in your head, where you see it as, “This is this character”? Do you look at their arcs as a whole or the arc in the act?

IMHOF: I think as the whole, honestly. In some of the characters… Actually, the characters are played by everybody. Everybody has a part of the character, but they’re assigned to certain people. Franziska [Aigner] and Eliza are both the lover, so they’re both one person, actually, that is meeting the other one in this act. There’s a development in-between the acts so that relationships were established in the first one, and the second one as a confrontation with the outside, and the third as becoming this enclosed space again. And the aria for the lover, for example, is based on this poem and I wrote it together with Franziska and Billy. It’s a very romantic song that then in this environment drops off and it’s this moment that I really like.

WEISS: You call them collaborators and you’re very close to these people, but have you always been this open to performers having agency within your work?

IMHOF: I think the work is not possible without it being that way. Some things, you can’t do them alone. I work most of the time alone in my studio so it’s a very different practice; it almost feels like two artists. But I’m very excited about what comes out of this also for the other work I’m doing. … There are good things that come out of it. I’m planning, for example, a collaboration with my fiancée for next year. I’m really excited about this, it drops in another field; we’re doing a painting show together, so it opens up. It seems like a whole world or something, but most of the time I’m alone in my studio.

WEISS: I want to talk about the branding of it. You have Vaseline, Diet Coke… The Vaseline has this texture, and obviously the soda does as well, and the sound of opening it is very specific. Is it more about that texture or is there something about the brand itself that adds a depth to it for you?

IMHOF: It’s really about the color of it and how it appears. It’s the easiest thing to use to smash against something else, in that it opens up and makes beautiful noise—that’s the main thing. Of course it’s Coca-Cola and Pepsi, but in a way it’s just nice to have blue and red. In Angst I it was that we were going towards the grey color of the Diet Coke and Pepsi. And then the Vaseline is blue. But I like them also to be packed, in a way. It’s not about the inside so much. In a way it comes out, but it’s also about the content of the whole thing.

WEISS: I think that when you have brands, it allows for some very specific reads of the piece. Someone could say, “It’s a comment on consumer culture. Everyone’s on their phones and they have these products.”

IMHOF: I think that’s so obvious. People should dig deeper to have some criticism. [laughs] I think I’m very inspired by things, and things end up on my paintings that are very close [to me] and have surrounded me. The way I work is very immediate and fast. I think that’s one of the things that ends up being there and becoming this signature in the piece. With the movements, it’s like Eliza and I joking around about me giving her the middle finger. There was this moment in Basel in the first act where she turned at the top of the stairwell and we were joking that her arm, which makes this operatic gesture, is like a stretched out middle finger. And then it comes out that I saw a situation once, it was a couple fighting in the [London] Underground and the guy was running after his girlfriend. The train had left the station already a long time ago and he tried to get his fingers up to give her the middle finger and he couldn’t; he was against the wall with this half-up middle finger. So I developed all of these movements this way and then copy them a few times and they become the thing that is done.

WEISS: The birds of prey—I know you’ve worked with animals before, but can you talk about the decision to incorporate them, and what it is about falcons that felt particularly important to this piece?

IMHOF: I think because it’s the best animal in seeing. Their eyes are the best.

WEISS: But you blind them!

IMHOF: [laughs] In Angst II they were able to see. The blindfolding of course gives this very strong image of discipline that I think for these animals, if they are up in the air, they must be the most self-determined being that could be. … They’re very strong, [but] very deferential to a certain power, I think. We were talking about how there’s a state between death and life that interested me, and these birds have that when they sit on their stands; they have this sort of discipline down to a state in which they don’t move, they breathe but very lightly. You respect them.

WEISS: Have you used the same falcons in each performance?

IMHOF: We’ve worked with the same birds, and we even named one.

WEISS: What’s the name?

IMHOF: He’s called Overdose.

WEISS: Because you also paint, do you find that you’re interested in the same ideas no matter the medium? Or do you have an idea and know, “This has to be the form it takes”?

IMHOF: I think that painting and these performances pieces go very close together. It’s mainly these two things that I’m interested in practicing. These performance pieces are almost paintings for me in the process of making them, but then it’s like making an abstract work with a lot of minds—it’s different. But they’re very similar in terms of how I put the things together or how I compose the image. A lot of the lines, for example, come from drawings I make. It comes back to certain compositional questions I have with a painting.

WEISS: Thinking more largely about Angst, you said you would hope people dig in past the consumerist reading of Coca-Cola or that they find something else there. Do you have hopes for what the audience comes away with? Or do you want them to just stand there, deal with it, and then interrogate their own feelings? 

IMHOF: I think that everything is possible, really, with something like this. It sounds cheesy but it’s not cheesy the way that I think of it. Always for me the most fulfilling thing of these works is that I experience them as a viewer partly because I’m also with the audience, but when I see that thoughts are aligning suddenly there’s a power that only comes through this, it doesn’t come through the outside of where we are. It creates something that makes sense, in a way, for very different people that are in the room. That’s just something that I think people feel when they’re in there.