Anne Imhof: Sex, Tate Modern, review: modish, angsty performance art with the odd burst of beauty

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A scene from Anne Imhof's Aqua Leo, 1st of at least two (2013), staged in Frankfurt
A scene from Anne Imhof's Aqua Leo, 1st of at least two (2013), staged in Frankfurt Credit: Anne Imhof

When Anne Imhof won the Golden Lion award at the 2017 Venice Biennale for Faust, she went from little-known performance artist to “the future of art” overnight. Even if the protagonists of Faust didn’t do much beyond strumming guitars, crawling around under a specially constructed glass floor and standing about looking sulky, you still got a potent sense of witnessing the birth of a new kind of angst-ridden romanticism for the social media age.

The feel of this eagerly awaited new work, which takes place each evening in the concrete bunker of Tate Modern’s Tanks (this year’s contribution to the gallery’s annual Tate Live exhibitions), appeared very similar, and used many of the same performers – young, thin and wearing expensive trainers – who appeared in Faust. It was, however, more clearly choreographed, with a pre-recorded score.

The work’s title, Sex, referred less to sex per se (the programme informed us) than to “fluidity between binaries”, a modish concept that extended to the piece’s promenade format. We followed the performers between the Tanks’s two circular windowless chambers – which can be viewed free as an installation by day – one of which was dark, often with brain-hurting strobing, and the other brightly lit. The performers wandered among the onlookers. The demographic was so similar that it was hard to tell who was taking part and who was a fashionable young art lover.

Many of them didn’t stay for the four-hour duration. And who can blame them? There’s a limit to the amount of time you can spend watching someone peel an orange or aimlessly whipping a wall. But, just as it seemed as though the evening would peter out, things suddenly cohered with an aggressive energy: a sequence where the performers started to career into the audience had an electrical excitement. There was an exquisite, chilly beauty in seeing two women singing in tandem on either side of the audience platform. But is it the function of visual art to provide decent choreography or lovely melodies?

At times, Sex felt less like performance art and more like a catwalk show that had dramatically over-extended itself – or a shoot for some pretentious jeans advert. Fashion was clearly a point of reference throughout, but was Imhof critiquing the way that fashion objectifies people, or was it all just an exercise in style and attitude? Imhof may be 41, but she perfectly captures the youthful sense that you’re suffering simply by existing. However, with the world outside in turmoil, this self-conscious display of emotional insularity no longer felt like the future of art.

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