CHICAGO — Anne Imhof’s work has generated a good deal of buzz since the artist won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2017. Her performances are renowned (or notorious) for the way they capture a certain ultra-hip, nihilistic aesthetic. Performers in chic streetwear are scattered throughout a given space, vaping and staring vacantly; sometimes, they erupt into dance, music, or ritual. Sex — Imhof’s museum debut in the United States — both confirms and complicates the hype surrounding her work. Based on reviews of the show in its previous, somewhat different iteration at Tate Modern in London, one would expect a long, durational performance, largely without action, à la Marina Abramovic.
In fact, Sex is rife with action; there is hardly a dull moment. When one first enters, the performers are mostly still, reclining on mattresses or platforms distributed throughout the gallery, but things quickly start to heat up. At one point, several performers climb onto elevated structures and pour sugar out of boxes in streams that recall waterfalls. The image is surreal and elegant, material and meditative. In another striking moment, a performer stands atop the bier-like structure that runs the length of the gallery; several other performers gather below, steal their colleague away from the architecture and hoist the performer through the space like a crowd-surfer or a battering ram. This action is repeated several times. Each time, the procession travels slightly further, toward the opposite end of the room. The effect is startlingly dramatic — especially when coupled with spine-tinglingly haunting music.
Some of the more dance-like sequences essentially repeat the tropes of 1960s avant-garde dance, especially the everyday movement and rule-based work of the Judson Dance Theater, as when performers shuffle sequentially and turn around whenever they happen to intersect with one another. What Imhof adds to this art historical lineage is purely aesthetic; she dresses Judson up in a very Berlin circa 2019 look. More original is the sonic dimension: the performers carry cell phones, all of which play a piece of prerecorded music, starting at the same point. At first, these seem to be in synch, but as the performers move around, sometimes abandoning a phone on the floor, it becomes clear that the tracks in fact are not the same and do not line up. It’s a kind of low-tech surround sound that makes the space into an echo chamber. Imhof developed this technique with her performer and collaborator, Billy Bultheel.
Art historian Benjamin Buchloh has pointed to the strong current of 19th-century German Romantic aesthetics that runs through Imhof’s work: her frequent use of evocative symbols like hawks, as well as the general sense of moodiness and disaffection that permeates, can all be traced to the German movement, which has a troubling history in its appropriation in 20th century fascist art and propaganda. But through music, a possible camp element modulates the romanticism everywhere in Sex: for instance, artist Eliza Douglas, Imhof’s star performer and her real-life partner, sings a slowed-down cover of Divine’s 1980s hit “You Think You’re a Man.” (Another ditty Douglas sings, at a similarly hypnotic low speed, is the folk classic “O Death.”)
Imhof has explained that the title Sex refers to new, emergent frameworks for rethinking sex and gender identity, rather than to having sex, reproducing, or having sexual desire. Indeed, when one of her troupe members slipped off his shirt, donned a black mask, and descended a column like Saint Symeon the Stylite, I was initially fascinated: his was an ideal male body, like the ones I see and admire in magazines. But as he passed by, the lack of erotic charge was palpable; like the other bodies in the arena, this one felt a bit plastic. Sex is dramatic, even melodramatic, yet its drama is not sensual; it removes bodily urges from the mix. According to researchers, millennials are having significantly less sex than many previous generations. Teen pregnancy is down. Perhaps other forms of erotic activity or fantasy or interpersonal connection have taken priority. With her signifiers of millennial hipness and downplaying of carnality in favor of blank-faced ritual, Imhof has given this generation exactly what they deserve, which is also exactly what they want: a picture of themselves.
Sex, then, powerfully reflects its times. The political claims the work makes — namely, to broaden contemporary understandings of “sex” and incorporate a range of gender nonconforming, non-binary, and anti-normative subjectivities — are a little overblown. In particular, it is striking that the bodies of all of Imhof’s performers are beautiful in a normative sense. You could see them all on a fashion runway, whatever their sex or identity. Can the project of revolutionizing gender and sex really succeed without also exploding received notions of what constitutes physical beauty? If not — and the answer is surely no — Sex does not so much undermine or deform as confirm older notions of sex. A part of me identifies with the pretty, affectless performers on view, while another, warring element of my consciousness wants to push against this desire, to be something different. If I am transfixed by Imhof’s performance, it is the morbid transfixion of being faced in the mirror with visions of the body, of sociality and of subjectivity that are at once desirable and disconcerting. Yet I do want to rest — like a dying star in the orbit of a black hole — in the flicker of Sex’s burnout.
Anne Imhof’s Sex, an installation based on the performance, continues at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through July 7.