The two most prestigious prizes at this year’s Venice Biennale both went to Germany. Franz Erhard Walther won the Golden Lion for best artist for his large-scale textile work in VIVA ART VIVA, and rising star Anna Imhof’s bold, unsettling performance piece, Faust, scooped the award for best national participation — with good reason. The German Pavilion this year is widely acclaimed as the highlight of the biennale. Patrolled outside by barking Dobermans, it was no more hospitable within. Imhof has installed a sheet of thick glass a metre or so above the ground, on which visitors are obliged to walk. Beneath it, young dancers seemingly trapped in some nightmarish inferno writhe and flounder, escaping to climb towards the ceiling, only to fall back down to hell.
This striking, disturbing performance piece lasts upwards of five hours, meaning visitors see just a fraction of the whole. Trapped beneath the glass, which represents “a room, a house, a pavilion, an institution, a state,” they have nowhere to hide from the prying eyes of their audience. Accompanied by a screeching black metal score, this torturous performance is lent an added dimension of power disparity between performer and viewer by the glass, which means the audience is literally looking down on the dancers, treading them beneath their expensively clad feet.
Themed around ideas of power and capital, it’s a work that confronts audiences at a show synonymous with wealth and privilege. Collectors coming to scope out artists to watch are likely to be at once repelled by and drawn to Imhof’s work, which defies the market while highlighting her as an artist who is going places, and is thus likely to be seen as a savvy investment. Irony aside, the work resonates powerfully in a surveillance-heavy world, at a time when it’s becoming increasingly clear that technology has failed to stem the unstoppable global tide of violence, displacement and division.
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Biennial & Museum Acquisitions #41, pages 74-75.