The artist gives expression to human yearnings and the futile quest for refuge—against a frenetic soundtrack spanning Vivaldi to Nirvana.

“Clown and natural peoples: negation of inner impulses and the body’s core. A new integration of clothing, tattoo, and body…Following this logic, the discovery of a potential for profound expressiveness: the man sitting in a chair remains seated after the chair is pulled away.”-—Walter Benjamin, Fragment on Negative Expressionism

The first thing you see when you enter the cement South Tank at Tate Modern is a long black runway into the darkness lit by flashing strobes. Constructed of stadium flooring, it slopes to a stage several feet above the ground. From this stage you peer into an empty tank where only a trinity of white metal structures each support a single twin-sized mattress. The room, otherwise in shadows, is made otherworldly by epileptic bursts of light, a signal of the convulsive beauty to come. You have entered the universe of German performance artist Anne Imhof.

Imhof has skyrocketed to artworld stardom since representing Germany in the 2017 Venice Biennale with her landmark work Faust, for which she won the Golden Lion. Born in 1978, she first came to prominent recognition in 2014, with a museum solo show in Frankfurt only one year after she graduated from Städelschule—a rare feat for a young artist. Imhof’s work advances the highly influential 90s movement called ‘relational aesthetic,’ which sought to link art to human interaction and social context. Her work gives expression to human yearnings and the often impossible quest for refuge, often taking place within the imaginary paradise of nightclubs where time is suspended—and through which she weaves references encompassing Renaissance masters, Caravaggio, Egon Schiele, minimalists, and Helmut Newton.

Imhof’s new show is titled Sex, an exhibition and live performance taking place at the Tate through March 31. It’s opening night, and the crowd rushes to fill the aforementioned runway leading to the viewing stage. A perimeter lined with steel guard railings evokes police-state crowd control at a red carpet or a rock concert. Architectural interventions and guards (or bouncers) dictate where you go and if you get there. Those left out gather desperately to get in. Inside, you are engulfed in a stroboscopic effect which appears to freeze or even reverse the motion of the performers below. It captures our current abject reality by way of mimesis: a capitalist junkspace littered with terror-filled politics. Oranges inside of shiny metal BDSM accessories get peeled, packages of Tate & Lyle sugar are poured from above onto a performer below, black reflective motorcycle helmets are pounded with loud percussion against windows, iPhones are lined up three in a row and smashed, pipes and drug weight scales are strewn about, beer is projected out of cans across the floor, paint is splattered on glass, all while performers vape and blow smoke into each other, and dried red roses are dipped in ignition fluid lit ablaze with fire.

All around you, people take out their smartphones to capture the chaos, redefining the spectator as part of the process of co-creation in an open-ended work that is truly an engagement with live art. “She takes elements of the language of performance art, as a radical break in art practice in the 60s and 70s,“ explains co-curator Catherine Wood. “Elements of dance, elements of fashion photography, and everyday mundanities such as sitting around and waiting. She puts these in a single continuum of space. I love that texture. You see flashes of beautiful trained dance as well as an aspect that is genuinely improvised, and she creates a framework where those things exist as a community.”

That community includes the viewer-participants who flood social media with images of the collective spectacle. Like with the performers, together, the group becomes greater than its individual parts. “I think throughout the whole performance we move as one. From personal experience, at least, I’d say that I feel at all times connected to all the other performers,” said the composer, musician, performer, and principal collaborator Billy Bultheel.

A dialectical play that is always both/and is core to all of Imhof’s work. She renders binaries ambiguous: ”individual vs collective,” “male and female,” “top and bottom,” “light and dark,” “protrusion and orifice,” “contagion and protection,” “human and inhuman” (she often works with live animals), “public and private,” and perhaps most abstractly, “sacred and profane.” The installation itself punctures the symbolic and imaginary order that structures our social lives: the holy cross cathedral atmosphere of South Tank becomes a night club, the corporate glass architecture in the East Tank is pierced with glory holes for pouring liquid through, the transformer gallery is a teenage bedroom full of trash and band t-shirts; a spectacle of subcultural drug and sex scenes.  

If the utopia of Pre-War was the modernist dream of universal (international architecture made with transparent glass) and the Post-War utopia was consumerism, Imhof subverts both as she looks to the underbelly of the shadowy, but “real,” dystopia below.

The first “image” we’re confronted with is that of a lean but powerful woman, Eliza Douglas, reaching with elongated limbs to climb up a ladder. As Imhof’s longtime collaborator and partner, almost no one is more central to the work than Douglas. She stands on top of the central bed with a microphone in hand, marking the beginning of the performance with this single solitary image, and giving most of the vocals to a work which is otherwise unspoken. This is new for Imhof, who usually includes at least some Dadaistic dialog. (The only other vocals in the work are from the star Nomi Ruiz, who sings a mournful and erotic solo in the transformer gallery.) A recurring leitmotif is Douglas kneeling on the bed with her hair cascading down in front of her and then flicking her hair back. It’s the movement of headbanging, but performed on in slow-motion, becoming simultaneously sexual and ritualistic, and creating a metaphysical anxiety. Douglas is a musician and Balenciaga model, and like many of the collaborators, has a strong relationship to high fashion and music subcultures.

Music is core to entering, understanding, and being swept away by Sex. As Douglas makes her heart-stopping entrance, the silence is broken by a booming score. Inside, the music is a collage of sonic references. The Italian Baroque is displaced by Nirvana (and the tragic self-annihilation of Kurt Cobain), Marylin Manson (the anti-hero), and Nine Inch Nails. “Eliza’s vocals overpower a classical take on this music and instrumentalize it to bring a more subcultural power to the front, as Vivaldi gets chopped and screwed and used as an accompaniment for grunge,” states Bultheel. “The opening of the piece starts with this overbearing heavy metal waltz. Eliza shouts a haunting melody and a couple starts waltzing and almost press each other’s faces against the ground. Something between a waltz and a wrestle. We wanted to create a dark ballroom atmosphere, loaded with aggression.”

Dance—and specifically, a specter of the late German master Pina Bausch—is everywhere and nowhere in the work. “It became clear that we wanted to work with different power relations in dance,” Bultheel continues. “Waltzes and tangos next to pogo, slam dance, and mosh pits…The theme of Vilvaldi’s ‘Cum Dederit’ is quoted, taken out of place and overwritten with vocals that allude more to grunge. ‘Nisi Dominus’ is one of Vivaldi’s canonical works, therefore it holds a significance as a pillar of high culture, as a symbol of power, educated versus uneducated. We didn’t want to shy away from this gesture, but rather overwrite it with our own subcultures and own it.”

High and low culture are self-consumed to obliteration. Viewers are also caught up in this cycle, seduced into the four hours that speed by and sweep you away. You arrive not only at the “the real,” but at realness—a queer term full of camp, artifice, and artificiality as it is used in drag culture. One of the most moving moments is when Douglas signs a dark rock revision of the cross-dressing Devine anthem “You Think You’re a Man.”

Everywhere in Imhof’s work, “realness” breaks open registries of allegory to disrupt the symbolic. In one breathtakingly beautiful instance, a performer sticks their head inside the bottom of a “pisseur” painting (the symbolic) and blows smoke from a real vape. Smoke is also blown between the fingertips of hands that over cover other performers’ mouths in censorship, protection, and caress. The individuals are part allegory—post-gender and peculiar as well as stereotypical.

“They are not theatrical characters as such, they are exaggerations drawn from their own individuality. They are performing a certain persona,” says Isabella Maidment. Bultheel says he returns most to “the clown” and to “the Pied Piper of Hamelin” from the German fable. This fairytale also crosses the borders of fiction and fact, having been written in a time of mass German emigration—and interpreted as a reaction to the epidemic of “dancing mania“ in which groups of people, especially children, danced erratically until they collapsed from exhaustion. This historic disease of excess and exacerbation is mirrored in moments of frenzied movement in Imhof’s work.

One such situation is the beautiful coupling of two classically trained dancers, Josh Johnson and Mickey Mahar, who move among the flashing lights as one. What could easily be an embrace of passion resists easy interpretation. The dancers’ hands stay down to their sides and they do not hold each other. It’s an almost animalistic clash of chest and shoulders, as if beasts are locking horns but either and both play the male and female roles.

Another searing image is Ian Edmond, who is among the most iconic Imhof performers. Standing shirtless with his back to the crowd, he aggressively bullwhips his own shadow in a reflection and projection resisting his own subjugation. Bertolt Brecht, a friend of Benjamin, is called upon as Douglas sings a direct quote: “In the dark times Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.”

The club as a universal rite of passage where you can “Come as you are,” and dance as you wish, sums up the freedom in the work. And in the club, there is no action more directly related to attachment security than a “trust fall“ into a crowd. (The avatar of a rockstar who crowd-surfs above his adoring fans resembles Christ followed by his entombment.) In a moment of trust early during the night, a crowd of performers stands below the wooden pier and among the viewers. It is hard to tell who is performer and who is audience. For certain, Douglas is kneeling above singing with microphone in hand. Performers below lift their hands, arms bent not in reverence but perhaps “hand up don’t shoot”—one of them, Josh Johnson, is dressed in a black hoodie, deconstructing racial stereotypes precisely by evoking them with such simulacrum. From below, Frances Chiaverini, a trained dancer and feminist activist, climbs the ladder to reach Douglas, repeatly chanting the Vivaldi passage. Nearing the top, she leans far backwards, the hands of the below performers reaching up to her back. She falls and they catch her, carrying her away from the pier like a wave receding into the ocean.

This trust fall is repeated over and over, with the performers alternating who catches whom. Imhof finds beauty in such situations of abuse—sometimes painful to look at, impossible to turn away from. This is “the next step in her work, it is definitely a progression from her earlier works.” explains co-curator Maidment.

The next stop for Sex is the Art Institute of Chicago, where the second chapter will be on view for more than six weeks, curated by 35-year-old rising star Hendrik Folkerts. “Different elements of the project as a whole will manifest in the respective chapters,” Folkerts says. “For instance, at the Art Institute of Chicago, Sex will take place in one single gallery and we will show the large wooden pier as a central exhibition architecture… the object will encapsulate the entire gallery and invoke an eerie atmosphere of being under the pier, as well as highlight the qualities of that particular space.”

Perhaps, in the end, it is not the performers who have the chair pulled out from under them but remain levitating in mid air—it is the viewers who navigate this proximity and distance, danger and comfort, or pleasure in the face of death. Imhof deflects the task of understanding her performance to the spectator—she includes herself among us. Each night she moves among the crowd, as much directed by her smartphone (like all of us) as she directs the performance.