‘This is how you make the meaning, you take two things and try to define the space between them,’ writes Richard Siken in ‘You Are Jeff’ (2008), a poem linking motorcycle crashes with sex and death. I think of these lines during Anne Imhof’s Sex (2019), a four-hour performance across Tate Modern’s vast subterranean tanks, not only because of the motorcycle helmets scattered about, or the duo-chrome paintings in the yellow-and-black of a speedway, or the lingering scent of oil in a dark antechamber, but also because, watching two of the fifteen performers joined in an after-hours waltz, I find myself considering the energies that join opposing forces.
At the onset of the event, the crowd moves anxiously through these circular ex-industrial spaces, hunting out performers. A long pier cleaves the first tank in two, raising the audience above the action. Distant club music resounds, strobe shatters the atmosphere, and three white beds mounted atop thick beams act as stages and resting places, hosting Eliza Douglas as she delivers an opening dirge. At the room’s exit is a photograph of black mountains and a burning horizon, tipped on its side. The unearthly, vulvar image anchors Imhof’s inquiry into the physical and psychological properties of the sublime.
Eliza Douglas in Anne Imhof, Sex, 2019 Tate Modern, London. Photo: Nadine Fraczkowski. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York
In the second tank, the audience roams below another pier as if trawling Brighton Beach, but the steel catwalk, security turnstiles, and encircling glass partition creates an atmosphere of incarceration rather than leisure. The score shifts between the two spaces: composed by Billy Bultheel and Ville Haimala, with contributions by Imhof and Douglas, it lilts into meadowy folk song or dips down into liturgical chanting. Some actions seem spontaneous – one performer smothering another below a gutter-like steel sculpture – while others – a slow whirl or a vicious, twisting dance – recur. At intervals, members of the company seem to swarm as if controlled by a collective intelligence. Choreographed in part by iMessages sent from Imhof, who circles the performance incognito, the play between direction and improvisation combines with constantly shifting sightlines to heighten our awareness of power as imposed, received, or wrested back.
Engaged in sliding eye-contact and glancing blows, circling before coupling, her performers bring to mind missed connections and dead relationships, intimacies as brittle as they are sweet.
Everyday objects – things that spritz, foam, burn and catalyse – litter the space. Squeezy bottles of Heinz tomato ketchup, cans of London Pride and a graveyard of cracked iPhones create the sense of having entered into a videogame where enchanted items lie awaiting activation. For all that they suggest the raw possibilities of fucking, these objects imbue Sex’s spectacle with a sense of intimacy. From another elevated bed, a woman pours a ribbon of sugar between the legs of a boy vaping cotton-candy smoke below. Lifting a burning bouquet like a tired Olympian, Josh Johnson – identifiable from Imhof’s celebrated performance of Faust at the Venice Biennale in 2017 – pauses his loose jog around the room’s glassed-in perimeter to drink deeply from a can of Guinness, using the remainder of its contents to extinguish the flame.
Nomi Ruiz, Frances Chiaverini, Mickey Mahar, Enad Marouf, Josh Johnson, Eliza Douglas, Maoro Bultheel, Billy Bultheel in Anne Imhof, Sex, 2019 Tate Modern, London. Photo: Nadine Fraczkowski. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York
From the three-act Angst (2016) to Faust, Imhof’s performances have been marked by their overarching sense of dread and eroticism, and Sex is unexpectedly melancholic. Engaged in sliding eye-contact and glancing blows, circling before coupling, her performers bring to mind missed connections and dead relationships, intimacies as brittle as they are sweet. As the troupe wars with padded poles and Bultheel wields a bullwhip dressed in business casual, Sex, it seems, is violence. Yet, as the performance unfolds, an underlying softness is revealed. Emotion surrounds politics like the bloom around a bruise.
Anne Imhof: Sex, Tate Modern, London, 22 – 31 March
From the April 2019 issue of ArtReview