Dialogue between Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Anne Imhof

This is the first major museum exhibition that you’ve made that doesn’t start with a performance. There will be a performance, but it’s more connected to the end of the exhibition. It celebrates the return of Caravaggio’s Narcissus to Rome, having been on display along with other historical masterpieces at Castello di Rivoli as part of the exhibition. But even though you’re starting without a performance, you’re filling the exhibition with incredible new drawings that are like performers. And the characters in the paintings, like Narcissus, are also like performers.

I love the idea of these guests entering the room in the form of the characters in the paintings. Having the Caravaggio in the show is an absolute dream of mine.

You once told me that you didn’t sign up for only making performances. So there was a feeling right from the start that you were struggling with this identity.

When I said “I didn’t sign up for this”, I meant I didn’t sign up for one kind of art. I just want to be an artist. I’m only willing to embrace the performance aspect of my work as a counterpart to the drawings and paintings and sculptural parts. And I really like the idea that we’ll start the exhibition without a live event for people who come to the opening. Instead, it’ll come slowly in the form of the two people who enter the space as the guards of the show, and then more and more.

So you’re suddenly making a big museum show without one live person in it. That’s a big choice. It’s like the human body disappearing in a way, but it’s also not disappearing, because it’s there in the representations that are haunting the space. The body is a big deal right now, in this time of Covid. Everybody’s afraid of this disease. Is the body disappearing in this show because you were afraid the performers would get sick?

Of course, partly – but there is more  – there’s something about appearance and disappearance of the body that’s so strongly connected that we can’t think of the one without thinking the other. So I think there is an absence and a presence of the body in the show. The sculptures that overlook the space suggest imagining or dreaming or give you the sense that you’re being watched. This is a very strong image. And with the drawings, I bring some of that in, but I don’t formulate it in the same way. It’s a very big loss right now that we can’t be together in the same way as before. The images in my works are images of touching and togetherness. It’s not always tender or about the touch itself; it’s like dancing, like tearing the other down to the ground, being super physical and super close. And I don’t think that image means the same thing that it meant before Covid, so I don’t want to make a performance right now that says, “I’m not distant, I’m super close, I’m not interested in being controversial today.”

You mean you don’t want to create a performance that suggests people are super close and touching?

Yes. I don’t want this togetherness to be the image in a world that isn’t about that right now. And I’d like to avoid suggesting a transgression.

You mean that within this moment of social physical distancing requested by the law, if you present an image of physical closeness, through a performance, it would become a kind of superficial image of transgression? 

Yes. What would it mean if I allowed the kind of physicality that involves sweat running down from one performer onto another? It would be as if the performers were arrogantly making up their own rules. I still need to understand how to make these images of togetherness work in performance. Because I think it can work, but togetherness isn’t something that you can suddenly create over a digital medium or as an encounter in two rooms over a device. I feel I can make better art right now through the media of painting and drawing. 

But we’re going to do the performance: by bringing the Caravaggio painting back to Rome. It’s like an exchange in a way. 

It’s like almost like bringing it home in a funeral march.

So the image of togetherness is the funeral march. It’s a different kind of togetherness that’s bound up with the absence of the body, because the body is dead. So it’s togetherness, but the loss of togetherness at the same time.  Something that always seems to happen in your performances, particularly in Faust at the Venice Biennale in 2017, is that they go crazy on the Internet. Everybody wants to take pictures and post and post and post. So there’s this huge image production using the tools of other people’s cell phones.

I think there’s a mood of nostalgia right now that has to do with wanting to preserve something from the past. It’s this need to hold something, and people taking images of Faust is almost like keeping something for themselves to take home. It’s like the work of Félix González-Torres, where you can take something home from the show. We’re seeing the disappearance of actual materiality, so people make this archive out of all of the images that they take on their cell phones and with their own framing. 

When you make the performances, you use your cell phone, right, to give indications, instructions to people? You send messages?

I do, and people often like to point this out because they want to get the notion of the artwork back to the creator, to the “sole author”. But in a weird way, I’m not the creator anymore when we do performances, in the moment when it happens. I think that’s why I like doing the performances, because they keep themselves open. And so there’s a moment of possibility where anything could happen, a loss or slip of control. The communicating over text messages is really communicating in both directions. You could almost write out what’s communicated in those chats and it would be the piece. It’s really like it happens both ways. But people want to identify the Author.

I understand. People want the author hidden in the background as the deus ex machina. But it’s still a way of talking to each other through the hands. I mean, it’s literally touching. Something I wanted to ask you about, that relates to this, is the hands in your drawings. You often draw these really big hands and sometimes they’re making a grand gesture. That’s unique. There’s nobody in history who’s made drawings like that. We’re always holding our phones and they’re called “touch screens” and they have more to do with our hands than with our eyes, in a way. They’ve become our antennas. It’s like Beatrice Colomina says: we’re the Homo Cellular. We’re becoming like insects because we have these antennas permanently in our hands. Is this part of your thinking?

I think this does somehow manifest itself in the images of the hands. But when I put a hand in a drawing, it makes the image very flat. So sometimes these hands are about how they connect to each other and flatten out the image. As soon as they point at one another, as soon as they connect with another figure or another part of the image, it’s as if the pointer and the one that’s pointed at are on the same level. Maybe this is true for all images where hands and eyes are present. They guide the viewer to the image. In the images of the figures and constellations, I’ve always thought hands and eyes are the things that give perspective.

And you also scratch the paintings. They give you a feeling of the hand as a tool.

The touch of the artist is there in these gestural painting works, but it’s not really what’s important in the performances. In the performances, other people create the image, and it’s almost as if the artist figure is eliminated, because I’m not participating in them. But the paintings and the performances are very strange opposites that kind of need each other. One can’t be there without the other.  

  1. Anne Imhof, Sunset, 312, 2019
  2. Untitled, 2019.

Courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York.

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