From Kyiv to Amsterdam: Exploring Anne Imhof's 'Youth' as a Multicultural Experience of Nostalgia and Identity

Anne Imhof is a world-famous German artist known for her cutting-edge performance pieces which often reflect the contradictions and hidden codes of contemporary culture, so when I heard she was bringing a solo exhibition to Amsterdam I promptly added it to my calendar. Finally, the opening date arrived. Upon my arrival at the Stedelijk Museum, where the show took place, I was faced with a magical-like atmosphere filled with red neon lights, pulsating rhythmic music, and people with champagne glasses. A huge-scale poster with Anne Imhof wearing a VR  headset decorated the hallway. It all felt like an alternate or interplanetary reality considering how the world is on the edge of collapse. I first visited the pre-opening, and it was quiet, only a few people were there including the one and only Marina Abramovic. Later on, the opening became increasingly chaotic. It was filled with mixed scents of bougie perfumes, it was also noisy and people were trying to talk over each other so it was time to leave.

While I was strolling through the labyrinths of the 1,100-square-meter installation by Anne Imhof, I felt cozy surrounded by polished metal structures which, while looking rough and unwelcoming for some, provided me with a feeling of protection and nostalgia. The red neon light involving the whole space was so soft that I wanted to stay for longer in some of the corners but I saw other visitors approaching me from the back so I kept moving forward and exploring. At one point I was so immersed in admiring the identical helmets that were part of the show,  that I almost stepped on someone’s shoe. During my visit, I was also attracted to the music beats and I stopped to watch the videos portraying Eliza Douglas riding or walking topless through Moscow’s Khrushchev-era concrete apartment complexes once built to create a consistent architectural image and standard of living throughout the Soviet republics.

Perhaps contrary to Imhof's intentions of creating an unsettling immersive atmosphere, the entire display felt real to me and it brought me a feeling of yearning. Particularly, the exhibition transported me to my teen years growing up in independent Ukraine after the Soviet Union broke in 1991 when alternative and underground cultures, to which I was attracted, flourished and when Western media was welcomed. For example, the cityscape shots of the installation’s videos brought me back to the beauty of the heavy brutalism buildings I saw from my best friend’s window, while the music reminded me of the Rock, metal, and alternative songs we used to hear or that he played with his guitar when I visited him and we talked on his balcony till 3 am. Imhof’s vivid videos, featuring snowy-looking scenes, also brought back our early morning strolls through the mist and snow as we made our way to school carrying our heavy backpacks.  To say the least, the exhibition so fittingly titled Youth reminded me of a memorable era of my life and it also spoke of the end of it.

The show left me with many questions regarding how the imagery that relates to my Eastern European background has ended up being used by Anne Imhof, one of the most influential contemporary artists of our time, and is suddenly popular. Does this speak of cultural appropriation or of the long overdue appreciation of a culture that the Western world views as “exotic”? While perhaps these questions will be left unanswered I am thankful for having been able to revisit one of the most important chapters of my Youth, one that I will try to never forget again.

Author Dima Bondarenko

Editor Constanza Ontiveros, Art History PhD

March 24, 2023

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