- Image and Infatuation
In the darkness, the crowd turns in pursuit of Anne Imhof’s iconic cast of performers (dancers, musicians, models). The audience has just heard, if not seen, the opening moments of Imhof’s four-hour live work, Sex. Building from acclaim at the 2017 Venice Biennale, where Imhof was awarded a Golden Lion for an earlier piece entitled Faust, this installation and performance constitutes the artist’s first major UK exhibition. Later chapters of the work will be presented at the Art Institute of Chicago and Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Turin, but for now, it is here in Tate Modern’s industrial Tanks that visitors jostle to see the hooded figure of Eliza Douglas. As the lights pulse, Douglas’s voice reverberates against a soundtrack of rhythmic crashes, announcing that something is happening, though the set-up is such that many spectators cannot see the determined, dance-inflected gestures that accompany the sound. Minutes earlier, visitors thronged into the two circular Tanks. Those entering the South Tank filter up a ramp and onto a viewing platform. Installed by Imhof, this scenographic intervention raises the audience above the action and is received by many viewers as implicit permission to film the performers.
It is the performers that they are filming, somehow, and not the performance. Something about how they look—the contemporary coolness of their athletic wear, the striking directness of their stares—and how they do what it is that they are doing: slowly, deliberately, aesthetically. The operation in which they are involved associates Imhof’s ensemble, and the images shaped by their movements and inhabitings, with particular props and objects, as well as with Tate’s concrete setting. In the South Tank, the elevated structure is reminiscent of an observation deck in a wildlife park. This platform, along with related architectural constructions in the East Tank, primarily a wooden dock-like scaffold, stands as the installation-based component of the work encountered by daily visitors to the gallery. During performance times, the opening into the East Tank is policed [End Page 49] by a security guard and barricaded by the glass panes that frame this adjacent space. At first, those of us in the darkened South Tank are well-placed for the show. Douglas chants from a white podium at the farthest reach of this chamber. Faces peer through the glass panels, straining to see the spectacle promised by the heightened score. We, in the larger Tank, are in it even if we cannot see it. We are in the right place at the right time. Then the performers turn to exit and if we don’t follow they will leave us behind, at least for a short while.
In contrast to previous live events presented in the Tanks, Sex takes up the full potential of these spaces for performance. Where other practitioners have installed a stage, and thereby sought to delineate a bounded theatre within these vast rooms, Imhof’s performance ranges across the full complex of Tate’s subterranean level. Within these confines, the behavior of the crowd is shocking. My first instinct is to congratulate Imhof on such a thorough manipulation of an art-world audience, but there is more than that at stake. The force with which the audience chases the performers is disorienting. The will to photograph these figures is blinding. It is such that for a time some small number of us cannot participate or share in the consensus that this pursuit is the way to be with the performers or the images they create. My sense is that if we follow them we might miss everything. After the intense opening scenes of Sex, with their pulsing lights and sounds, remaining in the South Tank is like suddenly being backstage at another event. The music, composed by Douglas and fellow performer Billy Bultheel, is now next door and we are missing out.
Shortly, the logistics and orchestration of the piece—managed by Imhof and her facilitators who move among the crowd, sending instructions via headphones and tablets—ensure that...