Announcement without Resolution:
On Anne Imhof’s YOUTH
by Vincent van Velsen
On Anne Imhof’s YOUTH
by Vincent van Velsen
January 25, 2023
YOUTH is Anne Imhof’s labyrinthine solo exhibition on view at the Stedelijk from 1 Oct 2022 until 29 Jan 2023. Before the exhibition opened, Stedelijk Studies invited Katya Inozemtseva and Andrea Faraguna to discuss the plans, visuals, and stories behind the exhibition. In this essay, Stedelijk Curator of Photography Vincent van Velsen reflects on the parallels between YOUTH and a Stedelijk labyrinthine exhibition that was cancelled in 1960.
How does YOUTH’s distinct combination of both artistic elements and props generate the intense physical and mental sensations felt by many of its visitors?
During a conversation over dinner with artist Anne Imhof, architect Andrea Faraguna, and Stedelijk director Rein Wolfs, we touched upon the institutional history of the Stedelijk in which all three of us are at that time embedded in one way or another, myself as curator. Specifically, a show that never happened: Die Welt als Labyrinth. Initiated by the Situationist International (SI) and slated to open in 1960, it would have addressed the “anxiety over rapid modernization in the 1960s” through “artists’ responses to technological advances and industrialization” and “critique of social norms”, but was canceled due to a disagreement about roles and remuneration. In dealing with the ludic quality of life, a labyrinthine structure would have allowed visitors to rove around a world submerged within the museum. Constant, for instance—the artist who was spearheading the Dutch section of the SI—”contributed a plan for a labyrinth intended to disorient the viewer using light, sound, and climate conditions”. If it had taken place, the feeling of movement, coincidence, and free association, or dérive, would have been brought into the isolated, sterile environment of the institution.
The exhibition Dylaby (1962, short for Dynamic Labyrinth), which had the same fundamental basis as the SI show, was ultimately realized due to a better understanding between artists and institution and a more pragmatic process. In a 2018 piece for this journal, also quoted above, art historian Janna Schoenberger described Dylaby as “an exciting mix of visual, physical, and psychological sensations”. The same could be said of Anne Imhof’s dystopian labyrinthine underworld of water tanks, car tires, and other myriad objects in her exhibition at the Stedelijk, YOUTH, whose constraints concern social structures, expectations, and anxieties, and the claustrophobic feelings these can arouse. The exhibition references identity and body dysmorphia, with, for instance, dominating the first part of the exhibition, high school gym lockers many will remember and that are also found in changing rooms at work or the gym—transition areas in which we get ready to tax the body or mind, and which address the possibility of change or the malleability of identity. How much freedom do we actually have to shape our identity, and how much of this is already contained in the structures around us? The architectural straitjacket of the installation seems to suggest that this freedom is becoming increasingly limited. While appearance, often through external physical characteristics, creates expectations, since these can be adapted, there is an opportunity to change ourselves—in the eyes of the outside world—depending on what is demanded of us and the occasion.
The entire installation can induce a sense of claustrophobia, forcing the visitor along a predetermined route wherein the layout informs the visitors’ passage and occasionally and imperceptibly steers them with the assistance of light and sound. Imhof tries to induce the experience of being kept in line, which is amplified by objects that symbolize education and approved rituals, as well as the system’s resilience through the use of heavy-duty materials like steel and concrete. These objects that include drawings and paintings, some of which were used in Imhof’s work before, all have metaphorical meaning, such as ablution (water tanks); the absorbing capacity of a crash and/or the resilience of societal structures (car tires); the obscuring of structures or visual and physical (in)accessibility (smoked glass walls). Only at a few moments when walking through does one come across suggestions of an exit. Moreso, in one of Moscow situated films that are part of the exhibition, titled YOUTH (2022) the feeling of restriction and freedom feed the image of a sweeping plain where an individual could move about unencumbered, like a wild horse in its unbound, free, and natural habitat. In the background linger remnants of bygone utopian ideals that, although noble and well-intentioned, have proven as unattainable as they were undesirable. The grey concrete structures, like the social structures that frame our daily lives, bear similarities to the lockers. These stand as a metaphor for oppressive systems of education, instruction, and general social structures that restrict understanding of and possibilities in life.
Throughout the exhibition there is a suggestion of presence. Many of the objects and props are appliances that appear to be awaiting activation, or perhaps have been deserted. Accustomed to seeing such objects in use, within their inactivity we can envision the possibility of movement and human action—yet here, the potential action is delayed. By filling a space with such lifeless, yet potent utility objects, Imhof imbues the installation with an eerie air of anticipation, creating an atmosphere of tension that may or may not ease. This tension seems to be heightened by the presence of elements that are animated, particularly the haunting soundtrack. Sound is conceived as a constantly mutating creature in this exhibition, hovering above us like an autonomous entity that “chooses” to call attention to various parts of the installation, and, when it does, seems to flick a sonic switch that fills these places with life.
On the one hand, the vocal parts of the soundtrack seem to suggest life. On the other hand, it is this purely sonic presence that confronts us with the absence of physical people, questioning human relation to and intimacy in the digital age. That is, what distinguishes mechanical from organic movement, live sound from digitally recorded voices, avatars from human beings? The individual characters in Imhof’s earlier films and performances have frequently been seen as representations of the artist’s own disparate mental states and considered her avatars who perform in a staged environment. These seemingly alienated and exhausted characters hang around the performance space, activating themselves at predetermined intervals to interact with one another and the audience. The continuous performance in YOUTH of sound wandering in and above the narrow passages of the labyrinth could render the speakers performers, whose captivating sonic presence emphasizes the absence of humans in space. The constantly changing and shifting presence leaves the visitor with only the temporality of fading sound waves and fleeting moments.
In Imhof’s work, music and the culture related to it is not a mere aesthetic reference, but critical to the work. For the soundtrack of YOUTH, Imhof joins forces with her long-term collaborator, the artist, model, musician, and performer Eliza Douglas, to compose a site-specific choreography on location. Imhof and Douglas have in the past combined an array of genres to create divergent atmospheres, and here use the workings of machinery as the starting point for YOUTH in which repetition, loops, and automation are key. As part of the sonic constellation, two array speakers that also serve as sculptures emit music by UFO361 and Arca commissioned for this exhibition—the first time that Imhof has extended invitations to other contributors to be part of her own solo show. Other sound sources move along a rail installed in the ceiling, and with the fixed speakers constantly interact as if they were conscious entities. This intensive sonic experience in which the speakers are protagonists or artificial performers, whose sound and movement is in dialogue with the exhibition architecture, guides the visitor through the exhibition.
Like in the 1960s, at the tail end of the nineteenth century industrialization was rapidly developing, particularly in European cities. The corresponding increase in the mechanization of daily life, along with the accelerating pace of life, and the revamping of labor incited many artists to seek out ways to reconnect with both nature and their inner worlds. Such efforts included the Arts and Crafts movement in England and Romanticism in Germany, both of which held that imagination, intuition, and poetry could provide a remedy to the rationalism and ugliness of industry. In our current digitalized and efficiency-driven world, we see a similar interest, with many creators once again finding refuge in nature and emotional expression.
Imhof shares that penchant for the poetry of nature, and relationships based on intuition more than on rational exchange, through engaging all the senses in a total installation where power dynamics are addressed through strict architecture and (in)visibility as well as hyper individualism and loneliness, desire and greed, saturation, and prosperity and the fear of missing out.
The exhibition is also a passive storage space of objects that limits movement, creating an uncertainty as to whether the objects have already been used, or await activation. This waiting is a feeling we have become all too familiar with in recent Covid years, amid the perpetual state of readiness that came with repeated cancelations. With this, Imhof addresses the sense that something is about to happen, at any moment, but that it will be just as likely to be postponed—and possibly cancelled. That state of alertness is as energizing as it is exhausting, and possibly a metaphor for the solo exhibition Imhof was meant to have held in Moscow this year: an announcement without a resolution.
Vincent van Velsen is a curator, advisor and writer, who works as Curator of Photography at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. He has an academic background in art and architectural history. Van Velsen is a contributing editor to Dutch contemporary art magazine Metropolis M and often writes for different platforms, catalogues and publications. Prior to his time at Stedelijk he curated various group and solo exhibitions at different small and mid-scale institutions around the Netherlands – amongst which a solo by Sammy Baloji and group shows No you won’t be naming no buildings after me at TENT Rotterdam and Even if it’s Jazz, or the quiet Storm at Nest Den Haag. Van Velsen was previously a resident at the Jan Van Eyck Academy, Maastricht, as well as a guest resident at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, Amsterdam. He frequently sits on juries and advisory committees and for four years was a chair of several committees at the Mondriaan Fonds. He is also a member of the Stadscuratorium Amsterdam (SCA) and departing board member of De Appel. Most recent he curated YOUTH by Anne Imhof and currently he is working on solo projects with Nan Goldin, Nora Turato and Ellen Gallagher.
 My thanks go out to Dr. Sven Lütticken and Dr. Maurice Rummens who both generously guided me toward the right references of the exhibition history of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in relation to the Situationist International. Janna Schoenberger, “Ludic Exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum Die Welt als Labyrinth, Bewogen Beweging, and Dylaby,” Stedelijk Studies Journal 7 (2018). DOI: 10.54533/StedStud.vol007.art06.
 The exhibition was initially meant to debut at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow. However, in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine, the Garage Museum suspended its entire exhibition program with immediate effect. The preparations for this unrealized exhibition inform the show at the Stedelijk