Artipoeus Episode 21 – Paper Planes & the Fear of Flying

Angst II | Anne Imhof 2016
Angst II | Anne Imhof 2016

…in which your host remembers Kid Courage.


This week, Artipoeus visits Anne Imhof‘s installation “Angst II” at Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin.

One of my brothers and his wife run an infant care and preschool in Northern California. On a summertime visit a couple of years ago, I was helping out while the kids were outside making paper airplanes. A thunderstorm suddenly rolled in — one of those summer storms with no lightning, but booming thunder that rolled across the Sierras, announcing the coming rain.

Everyone ran for cover on the porch, but one little boy was verging on hysterics. He was terrified of thunder, and in his panic he had left his plane in the yard — about 50 meters out from the safe porch. He was so proud of his plane, but so convinced the thunder would surely kill him, he was painfully torn. My brother decided this was a good time to teach the kid about responsibility, and told him if he really wanted the plane, he was going to have to go get it himself.

And now this little boy — couldn’t have been more than four years old — was suddenly faced with what was probably the biggest decision of his life so far. Poor kid. He thought about, took a deep breath, and he ran out into the rain, screaming all the way: I’m so scared I’m so scared I’m so scared I’m so scared…

When he got back to the porch, he was almost silent from the shock of his own stunt, and he turned to me. “I was so scared,” he said, breathless, his face red and wet with tears and rain… but the little paper plane was clutched tightly in his hand.

Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin was originally built as a train station between 1846 and 1847, but the city’s population and transportation needs quickly outgrew the building’s capacity and it was closed as a rail station in 1884. Like the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, it was quickly turned into a museum. So the museum has a great central hall – the main station for travelers, that this past week has been occupied by the second part of a 3-part, long-form multimedia installation by the German artist Anne Imhof, called “Angst “, or, since it’s the second part, Angst 2.

You step into the great hall and descend stairs — they are a part of the original architecture, and always lead to a pretty dramatic entrance. The hall is filled with a fine gray fog that blurs the edges of the walls, the floors, the ceiling, creating a two dimensional space that disappears into gray, and which makes other people appear to be in hyper 3D as they emerge from the fog, move around in it, and disappear again.

I visited with the Israeli artist Roey Heifetz, who was just as curious as I was to see what, exactly, Angst would look like on a grand stage.

You discover things as you enter the fog, things that are hidden from view at the entrance, like the long black bags suspended from the ceiling, or the spiral staircases, painted white, that lead to nowhere. Or the little pods of beautiful people, positioned around the hall, not acting like the other beautiful people there — they are intimiate, contained, separate. These are the performers.

Angst is incorporates performance, audio, visual, and audience participation in four-hour long presentations. Individuals or groups appear, apparently all controlled by synchronized iPhones. They sway, they listlessly climb the stairways to nowhere, they langourously perch on the high walls of the DJ booth, smoking cigarettes. They move as if on drugs, blank-faced and beautiful – each one of them slim, in skinny jeans and flannels or baggy tank tops and work boots, hair mussed just so, pouting lips, creamy skin. Really they’re gorgeous, and they position themselves around the hall and complete predetermined actions. They are infinitely Instagrammable, and it’s hard not to believe that they are meant to be just that… and only that.

When we were there, the actions were shaving. Singles, couples, and groups of three or four were shaving themselves or each other. One guy was shaving his neck without a mirror, which was a little disconcerting, but the rest of them were shaving rather innocuous body parts: the inside of a forearm, an inner thigh just by the knee, the back of a hand. Someone’s own stomach. They weren’t using straight razors, and they weren’t dry shaves — there was a lot of shaving cream, glops of white shaving cream like drops of water forming out of the mist. And there were enough of these shavers that the whole central hall had a slight l’air de Gillette hanging on the fog too.

It all seemed a little ridiculous to me, and to Roey too. It’s a false kind of fear, to shave or allow someone else to shave a body part that is neither life threatening if it’s cut, nor particularly shocking if it’s shaved bald. All I could think of was the discomfort the shavees would feel when that particular patch of hair started growing back. And it’s hard not to scoff, if this is what is fear for this group: shaving a body part with a safety razor. Right about the time I was thinking this, one of the shavees – a beautiful, disenchanted girl with pouty lips and heavy eyes, turned her head and looked right at me, as if she read my thoughts and dared me to say anything, dared me to challenge the validity of this performance — the entire installation — as art.

The hall itself was relatively quiet – full of onlookers, or participants – it was hard to tell who was who at times — but conversation was kept to a murmur. Ambient music and sound filled the hall, along with the occasional hissing sounds from the fog machines. The poeple looked great, though — all that fog makes everything so cinematic, and you end up taking a thousand photos… which has the end effect of experiencing the installation mostly through your smart phone. The representation of experience, instead of experience itself.

Roey and I ourselves became disenchanted, and decided to leave. We just weren’t sure whether it was superficial art school nonsense, or we just weren’t getting it – the angst of being out of touch, of growing older, of being left behind. Nevertheless, we decided to drown our angst in some Riesling at the bar in the courtyard.

As we were walking out, I happened to look up. I hadn’t noticed the thick cables stretched across the hall earlier, but now I did… because another disenchanted girl was stepping onto one. A tightrope walker, heading into the middle of the hall and onward, disappearing in the shifting mist and fog. This, I thought, was finally an excellent representation of fear – if a bit literal. And she had a safety cable clipped to her belt, so she wasn’t taking an actual risk. Close enough, though to feel something for her — that’s what I ultimately was looking for, I realized. I wanted to feel something – fear, anxiety, worry… but so far, I had felt nothing at all. Not even a mild anxiety at walking into the fog, although to be fair, that’s because I’m near-sighed and usually can’t see that far in front myself of anyway, so I’m used to walking into the blurry unknown.

Back to the girl on the tightrope: I was relieved there was some movement, there was some escalation at least… until I noticed that — remember that security cable clipped to her belt? She was also holding onto it. She wasn’t balancing a rod or an umbrella or walking the tightrope with empty hands, she was holding onto the cable, despite already being clipped to it. Ok, I thought, maybe that’s also on purpose. When you’re afraid, you do hold on to anything that keeps you safe, maybe unnecessarily. But you still go forward… head boldly into the unknown, the unseeable future, the thunderstorm.

Right?

The girl made it halfway into the hall above our heads…. and then turned around and came back. She didn’t plunge into the unknown, and the people on the other side of the hall never even knew she had been on her way. She went halfway, holding onto the security cable holding onto her…. and then she came back, to the huge platform of the DJ booth, to the lighter end of the hall, to what is already known. To safety.

There was no paper plane clutched in her hand. I was so disappointed.

As we were leaving the hall, two drones took flight, flew down the length of the hall. THEY disappeared into the fog, their technology that’s still hard to swallow, their weird alien shapes and implications of spying — these two man-made machines were sent into the unknown, and no one really wanted to see them come back at all.

Roey said, maybe it’s honest. Maybe this really is what angst looks like for them.

Them. Them, being Millenials, the generation everyone else is constantly scratching their heads over — the generation that is still trying to figure itself out.

Out in the courtyard, Roey and I got a drink and shared a table with a group of people in their 60s. I wanted a different generational view of the installation, so I asked them what they thought. Well, they loved it… because they happened to be Imhof’s parents. So: biased… although delightful people.

And interesting to learn Imhof’s background, where she comes from, what her parents and world was like growing up… and what informs her definition of Angst. Part of the role of art is to remind us of ourselves, give us a channel into our own emotion and humanness, the artist being the willing explorer of all the deep chasms and scary corners and intense lava pits of what it means to be human. How much of an artist’s background – family, economy, race, gender, environment – forms their vision and ability to explore?

I wonder, because among the people I’ve spoken too, no one’s really sold on Angst 2… On the other hand, since it’s caused so much discussion — deep discussion, about Millenials, about the environments they grew up in versus the realities of the world — maybe this indicates the installation’s value…and validity as art.

The discussions I’ve been having with Millenials who feel that the installation is superficial, and feel a little gipped by it all, have been centered around their dawning self awareness that most of them grew up shielded from bad news: from global conflicts, from environmental disasters, from poverty and racism and death, fed instead a steady diet of high praise, encouragement, unwavering support and belief from parents and schools and advertisers and… well, and Apple. I mean, everyone’s a genius on Apple products: everyone’s a photographer on Photoshop, everyone’s a filmmaker on FinalCutPro, everyone’s a graphic artist on Adobe Illustrator, everyone’s a technological genius on their iPhone. At least, everyone who grew up with this stuff already existing when they were born.

But all those products, those functions, those toys and concerns, the instant messaging, the Instagramming, the snapchats, the apps the apps the apps… has Millenials tearing their hair out, looking for moments to step away, think about things, take a time out. They are constantly bombarded with images both positive and negative, and they have no time to digest, to explore, to plumb the depths of the world around them, of art, politics, music, love, what it means to simply be alive. At least, that’s what they tell me. They have no time to go beyond the surface, and Anne Imhof’s installation, in that way — stretched over four hours, the performers executing slow, drawn out movements — forces them to slow down, to contemplate, to simply be (if they can put their iPhones down).

There’s a flip side to this, though, because to slow down and really look at things — really see things for what they are, past the dreamy poses and the beautiful mist — can cause a lot of angst. What if you don’t like what you find?

Anne Imhof, is not, strictly speaking, a Millenial. She was born in 1978, so she’s 38 years old, making her… I’m not sure what, but certainly born before Millenialism — or Millenialismus, as the Germans like to put things — which is generally accepted as starting in 1980.

So it’s unclear whether she identifies as a tail-end Gen-Xer, suffering angst over the future of our world in the hands of these damn kids, or an early-starter Gen-Yer, keenly aware of the specific concerns and anxieties Millenials face. Part of the angst comes from not knowing exactly what she’s commenting on, from which perspective, and what it is she’s saying.

But of course, this is also the definition of angst: a vague fear or anxiety, an undefinable fear that creeps in and slowly fills up a space in your life, as seductive and romantic as a mist, as disorienting and potentially deadly as a fog. Imhof has in her very presentation – and her silence on the subject thus far — given us a physical embodiment of angst in full 360, from the work, to the artist, to the message. The undefinable, the unknowable… *shudder*.

If this is the point of the installation – to give us a visceral, immersive experience of angst — and particularly the angst of a generation — she has succeeded with elegance and genius. It would be nice to say that — but… it’s also really hard to shake the feeling that you’ve been conned, that someone — Imhof and her friends, the curators, someone — are settling for the packaging and not looking at what’s really inside.

Which again, could be another aspect that is brilliant, but there’s still that nagging… angst… that it’s not.

Back in Northern California, on that stormy summer day of paper planes and thunder, there was another kid on that porch, a little girl who saw the praise and admiration the brave little boy got, and she wanted some too. So she suddenly ran out into the rain, grabbed an abandoned toy, and brought it back. “I’m brave!” she claimed. And the little boy looked at her, a little surprised, and a little offended. Was she really brave? Because it didn’t look like it – she had risked nothing, and retrieved a toy from the rain for no other reason than to get praise. And if she really WAS brave, then wouldn’t this act of bravery kind of mean nothing anymore? They both looked to me, and I had to make a Sophie’s Choice: hurt a four year old girl’s feelings, or take away the boy’s accomplishment for the sake of democracy.

But hey, they weren’t my kids and I was going back to Europe the next day anyway, so I said “yes, you are brave, but not as brave as this guy. Because he was really scared, and he did something that scared him anyway. He pushed past his fear to do something that meant even more to him, and that is what being brave really means.”

And that little girl grew up to be Hillary Clinton. Ha ha — no. I’m not that old. I think she’s in third grade now, and so is the little boy, and hopefully both of them — even if they’re holding someone’s hand — are learning to walk that tightrope all the way, no matter how foggy and grey the future looks, trusting the rope beneath their feet and their own footsteps along the way. To be afraid, even disenchanted, but to grope their way through the fog anyway, let go of the safety cable and live life. Because that’s the only cure for Angst that I know.

Tonight is the final performance of Anne Imhof’s Angst II, and I have no idea if the artist will sum everything up with a gesture, bring the story together into a meaningful statement or just let it fade out into the mist of the Hamburger Bahnof. I’ll guess, just like everything with the future, we’ll just have to wait to find out… I’ll tell you next time, on Artipoeus.

The third installation of Anne Imhof’s “Angst” will be performed over Le Biennale de Montreal, taking place from the 17th of October to the 15th of January 2017, located at 1407 rue St Alexandre in Montreal, Canada. You can find more information and a schedule of artists and events at the Biennale’s website at www.bnlmtl.org.

Brought to you by Susie Kahlich


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