Courtesy the artist and CIRCA

YOUTH: How Anne Imhof’s apocalyptic artwork came to life

Shot days before the outbreak of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the acclaimed artist’s Moscow-set film has become a symbol of freedom, hope, and mourning for lost futures, broadcast worldwide via CIRCA

In Anne Imhof’s video artwork YOUTH, a herd of black horses gallops through Severnoye Chertanovo, an area on the outskirts of Moscow where the “dystopian, dysfunctional” landscape is shaped by the remnants of Russia’s progressive experiments with mass housing in the 1960s. Against a backdrop of socialist housing blocks, the horses kick up pure white snow and scatter flocks of pigeons. Over the last decade, Imhof has drawn international acclaim for performance art centred on human bodies and their relationships, but here there are no humans in sight.

YOUTH was one part of a group of four film works shot in February 2022, just five days before Russia invaded Ukraine. Tanks were already gathering on the border. “We were aware there was a threat that a war could break out while working on those films,” Imhof tells Dazed, but she and her team had an unwavering belief in the “power of diplomacy” and an “unbreakable hope” that the tanks were just what they appeared to be – a threat. At the time, a full scale invasion was unthinkable. “Then the unthinkable happened.”

“We left the country in a rush,” says Imhof. Artworks were left unfinished, and a gallery show at Moscow’s Garage Museum – where YOUTH was supposed to premiere, just a few miles from where it was filmed – was shut down mid-installation. Of course, these problems paled in comparison to the devastation in Ukraine and the political fallout. “I was in a state of shock like the rest of the world,” the artist adds. “I got calls from people we worked with in Moscow that fled because of relatives being Ukrainian, and their political views.”

The outbreak of the invasion also imbued the film with unexpected and politically-charged meanings, beyond what Imhof could have originally envisioned. “The material we watched a couple of days later in Paris was unbelievable,” she says. “It had it all inside, like a premonition.”

Alongside filmmakers Lola Raban-Oliva and Jean-René Étienne, Imhof edited the footage to highlight this new sense of significance. Soundtracked by Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the empty buildings and deserted cities became an eerie glimpse into the apocalyptic future forecasted in daily news cycles. Inspired by the Przewalski’s horses that thrive in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, the film’s black horses and birds hinted at how life could go on in humanity’s wake. “It became a piece that conveys freedom and hope,” the artist says, “even though there is a mourning about a lost future.”

When YOUTH was eventually shown at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum in late 2022, it was planted within a labyrinth filled with storage lockers, energy drink-strewn mattresses, and disorienting dead-ends, soundtracked by Arca and Ufo361. Visitors noted that the familiar themes of an Imhof show – violence, anxiety, the dynamics of power – felt particularly poignant given the artwork’s genesis and the ongoing violence in Ukraine. On top of that, Imhof may be the last international artist to work on Russian soil for years to come. “Maybe even in my lifetime,” she notes.

Now, as we approach twelve months of conflict in Ukraine, YOUTH is getting an even wider audience, screened throughout February on a global network of billboards in collaboration with CIRCA. On February 24, a special extended screening and fundraiser will mark the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion.

“What works on the streets doesn’t necessarily work in a museum or movie theatre, and vice versa,” Imhof notes. “But the image of the horses galloping through the snow in the dystopian, dysfunctional housing area of a megacity’s suburbs works universally... as if it is a window looking out on an unknown future.”

Imhof herself admits that art like YOUTH “can’t really raise awareness” of global political issues like the invasion of Ukraine – that’s the work of activists, NGOs, and charitable foundations – but hopes that it can help shape people’s emotional response. “It’s paranoia, depression and angst that surrounds us,” she says. “Everyone is dealing with this in their own way, it’s on their minds. These minds are important to me and I want to make art for them, for a generation that is asked not to speak up and expected just to dive into capitalism’s cradle. It’s easy to get numb and still in their angst.”

“I hope this work will continue to move people and raise questions like, ‘What if freedom, hope, and peace are possible? What if we start believing in it, because we all wish for it and need it so bad?’”

CIRCA 20:23 presents YOUTH by Anne Imhof is showing at London’s Piccadilly Lights, as well as billboards in Hong Kong, Berlin, New York, Milan, Seoul, Los Angeles, and Tokyo until February 28, at 20:23 local time. From 15 February to 6 May 2023, Sprüth Magers will host the largest presentation of the artist’s work in the United States to date and her first solo exhibition in Los Angeles.

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