On September 14th at 8pm, the Hamburger Bahnhof opened its main doors to a smoke-filled room for the opening of Anne Imhof’s Angst II, the second in a series of three opera-inspired performance pieces.
As you wandered in, the outline of figures emerge, their young bodies lying or sitting with effortless grace upon white boxing mats among a variety of seemingly unrelated objects: Pepsi and Coke cans, shaving cream and razors, cell phones, suction cups, water pipes, and sitting elegantly atop their perches, two white falcons. Somehow suspended in time and space, the ‘characters’ seem bored yet dreamy, their eyes glossed over, perhaps from post-rock concert lethargy, or maybe post-breakup depression. Your eyes barely have time to settle upon their faces before an operatic overture directs them, where a tightrope walker glides gracefully above, stopping briefly to smoke a cigarette mid-air.
Imhof’s piece is a wonderland of melancholic apathy – where winding staircases lead to nowhere and fairytale creatures clad in Adidas shorts or skeleton-print shirts wander among the spectators, sometimes emoting the bold resilience of a boxer (further pronounced by the boxing mats and elongated punching bags which hang from the ceiling) others singing softly, submitting to the unwitting surrender of unrequited love. Often they engage in ritualized gestures, at once mundane and otherworldly: the subtle poetry of an outstretched finger, the listless lighting of cigarettes, the blowing of smoke into one another’s mouths, singing in unison, wandering gracefully or marching with purpose. You walk where they walk, terrified of missing something, you crowd around as they writhe on the floor or follow them as they carry one another across the room. It’s unmistakably performative, yet every moment unfolds as somehow painterly, the performers sculpting the space into poetic snapshots. Some gestures evoke madness: the shaving of the palms, eyelids, stomachs; carving into the walls, mindlessly pouring soda onto the floor, and the dystopian environment is further pronounced when suddenly operatic overtures layered with techno beats or guitar riffs usher in drones that fly ominously above the crowd.
A total of 37 performance hours over the course of two weeks produced an unforgettable piece that slowly disappeared as the hours unfolded. Such is the nature of performance, unmaking itself just as it’s being made. What remains now are the stunning photographs of photographer Nadine Fraczkowski, who has been working together with Anne Imhof for many years, capturing moments as tender as they are harrowing, who was kind enough to share a few with us. In them, you see only small snapshots of the bigger picture, yet such is the beauty of Imhof’s masterpiece: you never get to see everything that’s happening, but you always manage to catch something that takes your breath away.