Performance art has a bad rap in the contemporary art scene. For many, the need for a clear shock value usurps the beauty of technique that grounds classical practices, such as painting. Anne Imhof’s Faust, the winner of a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale (equivalent to a Grammy for Album of the Year) proves that the classical values of technique, intricacy and pure talent live on in contemporary acts of performance art.
The Venice Biennale is the paramount event of the contemporary art world. The event takes an Olympic-like approach, convening dozens of countries represented by artists and curators in their respective pavilions. This year, the 57th edition, was full of instagramable, video-rich, installation and performative pieces.
Imhof’s Faust was a perfect blend of photogenic, thought-provoking and just plain weird. The pavilion’s fascist architecture was covered by glass panels that created a 3 foot tall underground in which the actors crawled and sprawled under the audience. Glass perches and semi-mirrored walls created the sense of a zoo–the sense of surveillance on both the part of the actors and the audience was inescapable.
Lead performer Eliza Douglas struts past ensemble cast
The 5-hour long performance was filled with images commonly associated with angst, some of which are motifs from her previous show under the same name. Hottie androgynous models and dancers thrashed their heads and wrestled in slow motion, only interrupted by the occasional musical performance or dance. Eliza Douglas, Balgencia model, walked around topless for much of the performance. BDSM harnesses and beds in the underground added to the already sexual vibe of the already palpable erotic energy.
Franziska Aigner sings while crowds surround the performers, snapping photos
Anne Imhof herself is immersed in the audience and texts the actors instructions via her iPhone, creating both a sense of our absolute necessity of technology and a sense of spontaneity as no script guides the actors’ actions.
The sheer difficulty of the performance was striking. There was not a single line of dialogue throughout the piece–rather, the performers remained completely deadpan for 5 hours, with the exception of one performer having to escort a rude audience member out of the space. The first three hours were incredibly slow-moving, creating the constant question of how the actors were keeping track of timing. During one of the final sections in which one performer does an extended interpretive dance, bouncing and flailing about the room at will solidified the feeling that the crowd of people was a true obstruction to the actors.
Perhaps the most successful part of the performance was the absolute plethora of potential meanings. Some garnered a message of the social media age where even actors sitting still in silence cannot avoid the peering eye of the audience’s iPhone. Others found an anti-nationalist message, citing the marching runway walks and dobermans patrolling the pavilion. Regardless of the message, the intense piece left the crowds at the Biennale buzzing, and minds haunted by its beautiful imagery.