Art Seen: Chicago

ANNE IMHOF: SEX // THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO

By Jill Danto

There is a beginning somewhere, but it is unclear where to place it. It can start inside of the gallery—realizing each performer, standing at their perch or lying on a mattress elevated above the crowd. Or, it begins with Jacob Eilinghoff, dressed in all black, and Stine Omar, in an oversized Grateful Dead t-shirt, walking heavily with washed-up swagger from one side of the gallery towards the windows of the space, leading other performers behind them to join as a united front. The room is nearly silent until their march reaches midway and the hand-held speaker from Eilinghoff’s grasp begins to pound a soft beat. Maybe it starts here as a sonic unveiling, the dream ballet in a musical theater production without a defined form.

Sacha Euseube in rehearsal for Anne Imhof, Sex, 2019. Photo by Nadine Fraczkowski. Courtesy of Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/ Cologne/New York.

As I stand and flounder around a swath of onlookers, Anne Imhof’s Sex is now being performed for the second time at its second venue. Each performance is approximated to be around four hours long, touring the world from its debut at the Tate Modern, London; on to the Art Institute of Chicago, curated by Hendrik Folkerts; and ending at Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin. Perhaps it is most fitting that this would be the location of a great middling: the gallery is small and non-aggressive in its architecture. A glass wall takes up the light side of the venue, while the rest is enclosed within a texture-less backdrop, adorned with acrylic panels which fade from black to yellow on the west side of the space, carved with the artist’s initials in each panel’s corner. Warholian prints of artist-performer Eliza Douglas occupy the east side of the exhibition, prominently cascading, untouchable.

From the central white bed, Douglas sits on her knees and begins singing a hymn without an articulated language. Between this scene and what can be considered the next, there is a clumsy two-step between Eilinghoff and Omar, without any hands touching to create a sense of waltz, and another drag across the gallery by the group, diagonally, accompanied by only a few chirps of violin notes. The lights dim and the strobes start. It feels like a prediction—emulating the rogue performance documentation which the current condition of social media frenzied art enthusiasts implies. Does anything exist if it is not documented? Will the strobe allow for a fine photograph, or will it destroy the clarity of the moment? It is a brilliant problem to have. As on-the-nose as this performance can lean into—the very clear critique of problems of a binary relationship between good and bad, light and dark, inside and outside, life and death—the subtleties of the performance seem to present the real action of how the clarity is never so crystalline.

Anne Imhof, Sex, 2019. Art Institute of Chicago. Photography: Nadine Fraczkowski. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York.

This leads into a scene which could be considered a “death orgy,” though there is not a defined sexual act or killing which occurs. Instead, the entire gallery darkens, and the strobes become the only form of light flickering away. The music blasts a bass-heavy sonar, a heartbeat guiding the performers who pull their bodies across and on top of one another, orbiting nothing but the limits of themselves. From where I stand, the strobe pointed directly in the direction of my sight, and next to a speaker half as tall as myself, I fall into a trance-state, unable to move. The constant switching between light and dark creates a red half-tone reaction, like experiencing a momentary epilepsy. Imhof’s transference of Berlin’s club scene ethos to this sequence feels intentional without heavy construction. When in this state, even if not intimately involved in the mosh pit associated with the allusion presented, the disorientation can turn watcher into prop, losing the limits of who is performing what.

It is maybe an hour and a half into the performance at this point. The music ceases and is taken up again by Bluetooth speakers carried by the performers, first with isolated bell sounds, which transform into a soft rock guitar ballad with touches of reverb. The lights rise and the strobes stop. There is a scene in which Nomi Ruiz climbs the ladder of the central pier and trust-falls backwards into the other performers arms, to then be carried away before restarting the sequence again. After that bit, Eilinghoff climbs to the top of the central white bed and conjures a bullwhip. He uses it flaccidly as a display rather than a weapon, without enacting the signature striking noise. A similar moment occurs on the opposite side by Josh Johnson, on top of a black perch, dressed in a dark grunge getup—both of whom stare blankly forward while performing the task at hand until it is time to move on. There are songs sung about manhood, the passage of time, and a ballad on inability to go backwards at different points from therein out. There is a bag of sugar spilled entirely on the floor, and a profane amount of La Croix cracked into a kiddie pool lined with tall candles in the dark.

My notes are extensive and nonsensical, marked with acronyms for performers I would have yet to research extensively from the comfort of my laptop. Each are profoundly successful in their own artistic careers, and worth some consideration as agents of a collaborative process between Imhof’s vision and their own experience. The first day of the performance was filled to the brim, and my plan of attack using a notepad and pencil to jot down the happenings failed as soon as I realized that we would all behave as sardines, following the action and muscling about as politely as one could.

During my revisit of the second day of the performance, my notes exist on my phone—marking my journalism as compliant to the tech-savvy performers who periodically turn on musical accompaniment from their own devices, sometimes switching and trading with other performers. This collapses the ownership of something which feels personal. As underground circles continue to turn towards socialist-idealism (perhaps exemplified by the Antifa flag waving in the corner of the Sex installation), the phone as an object seems to be the most divisive: something which is made to connect and protect all at once. Following the usage of each performer’s phone, it seems that this claim to ownership can be at times temporarily abandoned, but always taken up again. The critique meets its match as soon as the reality hits and the performance ceases. By the end, the audience roars in applause and the performers take a collective bow.

Eliza Douglas in Anne Imhof, Sex, 2019. Art Institute of Chicago. Photography: Nadine Fraczkowski. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York.

Between the three days of live performances and the month-long exhibition that follows, not only do the performers fall away from activating the presence of the beds which loom overhead—split into a aforementioned light and dark sides by an imposing pier, like an insecure spinal column rarely used to the extent that one may expect—but also many of the objects are suddenly gone. There is no longer a shrine of unopened Modelos around the legs of the pier or riding atop of a small trophy. The bucket of flower arrangements is removed as well, and the fragments of vape equipment, BDSM accessories, and Cubs lighters on a floored mattress are all missing from the site. The speakers only exist as a neat stack on the west wall of the gallery, booming music which seems different than what was presented in the performance and is perhaps more polarizing by its autonomy in the space without much else.

The removal of such activation mirrors the removal of sex, as in sexuality, from the interpretation of the word itself. Whereas the name may conjure the act, Sex feels sexless in its call to technology as a source of detachment. The kink gear lies on the floor unused; the afterimage of the four-hour long epic becomes as neutered as the live performances. Conversely, the combination of the installation and performance outlines the places where sex cannot go unless dreamt about, or dissociated into during the act—a throbbing sensation abstracted into tragedy. As a holding cell for such hallucinatory states, the Art Institute’s installment of Sex reifies the measured confusion of Imhof’s craft, the detail in each step allows for further speculation, engulfing the body beyond its limits.


Anne Imhof: Sex runs at the Art Institute of Chicago until July 7, 2019.

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