Anne Imhof Wave

1 October – 6 November 2021

Beacon is delighted to present Untitled (Wave), a video work created in 2021 by the German artist Anne Imhof (b. 1978). Imhof’s practice encompasses complex performance cycles, choreography, painting and drawing, music, installations, and sculpture, most of which develop from the perspective of painting. Her work draws on allusions to mythology, subculture, fashion, and body culture to reflect on the contemporary condition.

Untitled (Wave) (2021) can also be perceived as a painterly symbolic image, appearing to us, in the truest sense of the word, as a powerful gesture of anger that verges on longing. Here we see the artist Eliza Douglas, her upper body naked, her long hair blowing in the wind. She stands on a concrete slab on the Atlantic coast of Normandy, swinging a long, heavy whip in rhythmic, circular strokes. This visual image is accompanied by cyclical, overlapping layers of sound: strings, mainly violins, a harp and wind instruments, their tonal qualities modified and augmented by computer-generated sounds. They culminate in the rushing of the ocean, in free waves of sound that are at times reminiscent of Debussy’s La Mer.

Douglas forcefully lashes the incessantly returning waves, her self-forgetfulness contrasting with her determination, as jolts repeatedly pass through her powerful body. To us, she seems an enigmatic presence, typical of Imhof’s choreographed “durational performances”: poised where physical presence and mental absence converge, she seems to act in accordance with an unseen code of coolness. Thus each stroke risks loss of control over the dynamic of the whip: intrinsic to every blow is the potential vulnerability of the performer’s naked, still unscathed, upper body. This woman is both Imhof’s recurrent avatar and a well-known model, as well as the artist’s partner and artistic collaborator. At times, Imhof’s camera closes in on her unscathed back, her neck, an armpit, an erect nipple. It travels in circles, tracing the movements of the performer and her whip. In an interplay of blurring and sharpness, it brings her body into focus as a gestural surface: the windblown hair that at times obscures the performer’s vision, her open mouth, the foaming waters of the Atlantic, the setting sun between her legs.

She stands there in isolation but is nevertheless reached by the incessant waves – only what or whom she symbolises is left open. Is she the androgynous counterpart to foam-born Venus, reflecting the brutal dynamic of our present? Or, more precisely, its sadistic power relations? How close are these to the boundaries of masochism? How close to humiliation is the pleasure gained? The figure of the naked Eliza Douglas might evoke Greek mythology, but as an athletic antithesis to images of Andromeda chained to the rocks. Like Xerxes, who had the waters of the Hellespont punished with three hundred lashes, she is enraged by the sea. The Atlantic is a field of projection on a gigantic scale. And at least since Paul Gilroy’s book The Black Atlantic appeared, it also bears the burden of having become a complex unit of analysis for production of an intercultural perspective. Among other aspects, it thus draws attention to the role of slavery in the West in the modern period. So is Imhof’s figure flogging our failed global-historical interconnectivity projects? For Douglas’s body at times turns slowly in our direction, until the lashes of her whip are directed at us, and we, on our white leather mattress, are ourselves immersed in the symbolic image. Is whipping the waves that come to us from the past, that continue to catch us up, a form of confronting the present? Art does not wish to provide us with an answer, but with its unending Sisyphean labours it creates space for a state of mind between rage and immersion of our present, thus demonstrating how vital its role can be. Because, as with Imhof’s complex symbolic imagery, as viewers we can both immerse ourselves in art and remain alert to what reaches us now in the present or what is catching up with us from the past.

Julika Bosch
translated by Anna Grant

Anne Imhof lives and works in Berlin and New York. She has achieved international recognition with extensive exhibitions and performances, in particular the cycles Rage (2014-15), Deal (2015), Angst (2016) and Sex (2019-21). In 2017 she was awarded the Golden Lion at the 57th Venice Biennale for her contribution in the German Pavilion. She also received the Venice Absolut Art Award (2017) and the Preis der Nationalgalerie, Berlin (2015). Her work has been presented in international solo exhibitions, including at the Palais de Tokyo (Paris, 2021), the Art Institute of Chicago (2019), Tate Modern (London, 2019), the Hamburger Bahnhof (Berlin, 2016), Kunsthalle Basel (2016), MoMA PS1 (New York, 2015), and the Carré d’Art – Musée d’Art Contemporain (Nîmes, 2014). In addition, she has participated in numerous group exhibitions, including at the Julia Stoschek Collection (Berlin, 2021), the MMK Frankfurt (2019 and 2014), Tai Kwun (Hongkong, 2019), La Biennale de Montréal (2016), and the Centre Pompidou (Paris, 2015).

The Untitled (Wave) (2021) video work presented at Beacon can also be seen in the A Fire in My Belly exhibition at the Julia Stoschek Collection and in Natures Mortes, Imhof’s monumental solo exhibition, at the Palais de Tokyo.