The word “angst”’ in German carries a certain weight – as most German words do – that is less evident in its English appropriation: it denotes fear or anxiety on a more concrete scale than the melodramatic and unfocused “teenage angst” of its loanword. Anne Imhof’s latest instantiation of her three-part “opera” by the same title, Angst, plays beautifully with this ambiguity in language. Imhof is a German performance artist, recently awarded the Preis der Nationalgalerie, who has created the piece for an international audience, with a previous performance in Basel and upcoming finale in Montreal. For the second edition in Berlin, which ran through Art Week, Imhof authored a nightmarish durational work, taking over the main hall of the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum of Contemporary Art.
Angst II is staged as a series of anxiety-inducing images or tableaus, ranging from hovering drones as a metaphor for terror on a world-political scale, to double-edged shaving razors as potential weapons of self-mutilation. On the opening night, a live, hooded falcon perched forebodingly on the arm of a long-haired, skinny health goth. It feels a bit like you’ve entered a Berlin nightclub, with young people draped casually over armchairs, drinking cola light or smoking cigarettes. A rush in the crowd will signal action in a certain corner of the room, possibly unseen through the thick fog, and the audience is carried to and fro like a flock of sheep.
It’s these bursts of action that best reflect the generational angst in its anglicized connotation; the supremely Instagrammable spectacle pulling people around the room promises some kind of relief from a generalized boredom. The urgent sense that we are doing something, that something is happening, temporarily overrides the idleness at its core. The performers are worked to exhaustion in the pursuit of these carefully choreographed images, spending four hours a night being followed around the room in anticipation of their every movement. Yet, ultimately, what they produce – beyond a collection of cigarette butts and a mess of spilt pop – is about as fleeting as the Snapchats documenting it.
It’s in this holistic approach that Imhof seems to tackle the real roots of contemporary angst, which complexly encompasses both the urgency born of concrete fears – of a Trump presidency, drone warfare, climate change – and the futility of widespread existential malaise. A tightrope bisects the smoke-filled hall, at intervals bearing the weight of a performer with a baseball bat or paddle-ball racket in hand for balance. Three white spiral staircases with precarious lookouts, and several white punching bags comprise the sole architectural elements of the space. Somehow, the more obvious markers of fear in the piece – heights, birds of prey, flying robots – are less effective in spreading anxiety than the pervasive tone of purposelessness. Branded elements like Coca Cola, Pepsi, and Gillette shaving cream are sad anchors to reality, coloring Imhof’s hazy nightmare with mundane commercial signifiers that make the scenes eminently relatable.
The question of work – or its flip-side, idleness – is conceptually integral to the piece. Imhof describes Angst as an “opera,” both for its dramatic musical composition and its relationship to the Latin root of the word, meaning work or labor. The scene approaches what French philosopher Maurice Blanchot called désoeuvrement, or unworking: at the heart of the efforts to produce a work (whether political or artistic) is always something that resists the totality. For Imhof, this stubborn resistance is crucial.
Everything seems laborious in this performance, even the audience’s efforts, wading through the layers of smoke in pursuit of different, seemingly spontaneous “pop-up” events. On many occasions, we find ourselves huddled in an expectant semi-circle around a group of slouching performers, who are blatantly ignoring us, staring at their phones. The labor generated in this piece represents a means without end, which – in a capitalist society where value-producing, waged work dominates – might be the most unnerving kind. The contemporary “society of the spectacle” is critiqued in Imhof’s work through considered image construction; she presents a familiar social scene – for some, tedious in its proximity to reality – mirrored back as a foggy hallucination.
Tense musical registers reinforce the images, and are interspersed with low, choral chants. A few of the performers have microphones taped to the crooks of their arms, like IV drips of sound; they sing into their elbows as if gently nursing a wound. Lyrics rhyming tragic and lovesick penetrate the room from suspended speakers. At times, when the pathos becomes particularly performative, it’s even funny; the way you might laugh at memories of your own teenage angst, despite or in recognition of its near-fatal gravity in the moment. The performers are not teenagers, however, and an implicit commentary on extended adolescence is legible. The critique is a structural one, though, leveled not at individuals but at the socio-economic reality fueling a mass epidemic of anxiety and depression.
Imhof’s performance is aesthetically simple, seemingly unscripted, and without firm direction. A pattern emerges after multiple viewings, but less as a teleological progression than a repertoire of images drawn at random. By addressing the multiple dimensions of anxiety in contemporary culture, Imhof manages to lay bare our fears in the structure of the piece, as well: the quest for images she orchestrates acts as a performative screen, covering over an infinite idleness.