Anne-tagonism in Imhof’s Faust at the 2017 Venice Biennale
by Inneke Taalman
Earlier this year I attended the 2017 Venice Biennale ‘Viva Arte Viva’ (broadly translates to ‘Long Live Art’), a theme agreed by many critics to sound vacuous, a generic rally-cry that references art upon the world stage as a revolution strangely detached from a cause. Anne Imhof, the German Pavilion artist and winner of the 2017 Golden Lion for Best National Participation, adds weight to this theme in her sculptural installation and performance work, Faust. Despondent in nature, yet directly engaged with the social and political structure of ‘the pavilion’, Faust demonstrates the power of antagonism. If art is a commodity re-workable for any market, then it has been proven so with subversive irony in Faust.
Imhof has ‘undressed’ art as we expect to see it, exposing the bones of architectural and social structures that leave no room for ideological interpretation. The viewer is an observer and incidental participant; a wanderer in a demarcated, transparent interior. The elevated glass floor simultaneously reveals and limits movement, abruptly ending at certain doorways and entrances with more glass acting as the barrier. The barricaded entrance and guarded exterior of the building serve to disorientate and intimidate the viewer. The offset gallery spaces (which you cannot enter but only view from a glass platform) are unreachable, revealing sparse installations of objects and images heavy with metaphor in a sterile and clinical interior. The performers are present but simultaneously disengaged from the audience and each other. The whole work operates as a controlled meditation on space and in/activity, exploring layers of chaos and order that exist within even the most contrived environments.
Are we in the trauma of the past, present or future? Imhof is not the first Venice Biennale artist to cast these sorts of reflections upon viewers but there is obviously something in the nature of this work that resonates strongly with collective experience. During one of the live performances, a performer literally ‘sits on the threshold of institutional presentation’ by straddling the constructed security fence around the perimeter of the pavilion, reminding us all that fence sitters are neither here nor there – ambivalent towards their position. Faust operates as a sanctioned event performed in the style of an unsanctioned event. This awareness and the context in which we are viewing the work has determined it a spectacle, not a political event, but the revelation exists within the social experimentation.
However the arts might be greeted by the capitalist class, however they might be contained and consigned to spaces of relative predictability, the conceptual experimentations of the visual arts remain a genuine resource – especially as so many artists and art collectives move beyond lingering modernist interrogations of the nature and subject of art, and simply enact scenarios and carry out social investigations to see what these might reveal or produce.
— Cultural theorist Imre Szeman on Globalization and the Politics of Culture
Faust as a live performance runs for one time-slot per day and whilst it also exists recorded on YouTube, it is important to note that the exhibition serves to function without the live performance as well. The transformative subversion of architectural space, photographic prints on the wall, and various installed instruments, speak of bodies in space even in the absence of the performers. The installation incites visions of a prison cell, a science laboratory and a contemporary art space.
Not surprisingly, an exhibition like Faust stirs up strong reactions. I would suggest that such an ‘abhorrent’ and ‘banal’ exhibition, as it has been reviewed by some critics, reveals the sort of emotional response you could expect from feeling antagonised.(2) However, it is exactly this ‘tension between art and society conceived of as mutually exclusive spheres’ to which the ‘antagonism’ in Faust responds and demonstrates its power.(3) This is not entertainment, it does not have a beginning or an end. Our political environment today falls nothing short of divided and is constantly in flux. The willingness of Imhof to explore this territory without offering resolution is what distinguishes Faust as art of our immediate times, a mirror into which we ought to feel uncomfortable staring into.(4)
Marc James LÃ©ger, Neoliberal Undead : Essays on Contemporary Art and Politics, Chapter 9, Globalization and the Politics of Culture: An Interview with Imre Szeman (John Hunt Publishing, 2013).
John McDonald, ‘Venice Biennale Review: Mediocrity Suspended between Poles of Earnestness and Silliness’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2017
Claire Bishop, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, October, 110, 2004, 51–79.
Ibid. pp 51 – 79.
Bishop, Claire, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’,October, 110, 2004, 51–79
Berlin Art Link, ‘Anne Imhof’s “Faust” at the 2017 Venice Biennale - YouTube’, YouTube, 2017
Gogarty, Larne Abse, and Simone Leigh, ‘“Usefulness” in Contemporary Art and Politics’, Third Text, 2017, 1–16
LÃ©ger, Marc James, Neoliberal Undead : Essays on Contemporary Art and Politics, Chapter 9, Globalization and the Politics of Culture: An Interview with Imre Szeman (John Hunt Publishing, 2013)
McDonald, John, ‘Venice Biennale Review: Mediocrity Suspended between Poles of Earnestness and Silliness’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2017
Pfeffer, Susanne, ‘IN A SOLIPSISTIC CHOIR’, Deutscher Pavillon, 2017
Polera, Justin, ‘Review: Anne Imhof’s “Faust” at Venice Biennale’, DANSK Magazine, 2017
Ruffolo, Mattia, ‘Breaking down the German Artist Anne Imhof’s Astounding Venice Biennale Pavilion - I-D’, I-D Vice, 2017
Snaith, Tai, ‘Sporty Doom Wins in Venice’, Art Guide Australia, 2017
VernissageTV, ‘Anne Imhof: Faust / German Pavilion, Venice Art Biennale 2017 - YouTube’, YouTube, 2017