Rebecca Horn Unicorn-1970

Rebecca Horn: Body Art, Performance & Installations

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Since the beginning of the 1970s, Rebecca Horn has been creating an oeuvre which constitutes an ever-growing flow of performances, films, sculptures, spatial installations, drawings and photographs. The essence of their imagery comes out of the tremendous precision of the physical and technical functionality she uses to stage her works each time within a particular space.

In the first performances, the body-extensions, she explores the equilibrium between body and space. In later works she replaces the human body with kinetic sculptures which take on their own life. Her new works define and cut through spaces with reflections of mirrors, light and music.

The unicorn was a medieval symbol for purity, chastity and innocence. This work was designed for a performance by a friend of the artist. Horn wrote: ‘the performance took place in early morning – still damp, intensely bright – the sun more challenging than any audience… her consciousness electrically impassioned; nothing could stop her trance-like journey: in competition with every tree and cloud in sight…and the blossoming wheat caressing her hips’. This account emphasises both graceful movement and the element of self-exposure that is often found in Horn’s work.
Rebecca Horn

White Body Fan 1972

Mechanical Body Fan 1973-4 by Rebecca Horn born 1944

Mechanical Body Fan, 1973‑4

Horn’s machine evokes medical apparatus, though its function remains unclear. Horn says of this piece, ‘the performer is tied up on top of a glass container (more an aquarium), tubes surrounding his body. Blood pumps, slowly, circulated through the glass container through the plastic tubes; enclosing his body like a pulsing garment of veins [it] forces the evolution of the motionless person into being an extension of the mechanism itself’.

Rebecca Horn

Overflowing Blood Machine, 1970

Overflowing Blood Machine, 1970

Arm Extensions 1968 by Rebecca Horn born 1944

Arm Extensions 1968

Her work is bound together by a consistency in logic; each new work appears to develop stringently from the preceding one. Elements may be readdressed, yet appear in totally different, divergent contexts.

Rebecca Horn

Finger Gloves, 1972

Ideas of touch and sensory awareness are explored in this work. Horn has described how wearing these gloves altered her relationship with her surroundings, so that distant objects came within her reach: ‘the finger gloves are light. I can move them without any effort. Feel, touch, grasp anything, but keeping a certain distance from the objects. The lever-action of the lengthened fingers intensifies the various sense-data of the hand; …I feel me touching, I see me grasping, I control the distance between me and the objects.’ Implicit in the work is the idea that touching makes possible an intimacy between our own body and those of others.

Finger Gloves 1972 by Rebecca Horn born 1944

Finger Gloves, 1972

Pencil Mask, 1972

Strapped around the face, this mask transforms the wearer’s head into an instrument for drawing. Horn has described wearing it: ‘All pencils are about two inches long and produce the profile of my face in three dimensions…I move my body rhythmically from left to right in front of a white wall. The pencils make marks on the wall the image of which corresponds to the rhythm of my movements.’ The spike-like pencils make this one of Horn’s more threatening works. However, it is linked to the feather masks, as feather quills were also once used for writing.

Pencil Mask, 1972

Horn has described how this mask alters her interaction with others: ‘With the feathers I caress the face of a person standing close to me. The intimate space between us is filled with tactile tension. My sight is obstructed by the feathers. I can only see the face of the other when I turn my head looking with one eye like a bird.’ Through her mimicry of bird movements, Horn suggests the use of plumage as a device for communication and sexual display.

Cockfeather Mask 1973 by Rebecca Horn born 1944

Cockfeather Mask, 1973

Cockatoo Mask 1973 by Rebecca Horn

Cockatoo Mask 1973

Horn described using this mask in a performance exploring ideas of sexual availability and intimacy: ‘My face is covered by two intertwined, closed feather wings. The person standing before me touches the feathers delicately, then separates and opens the wings. The spread wings stretch like long bird wings, and softly enclose around [both] our heads. The feather-enclosure isolates our heads from the surrounding environment, and forces us to remain intimately alone, together.’ The use of the mask is deliberately ambiguous and the performance implies a tension between tenderness and aggression.

Keeping Those Legs from Touching Each Other 1974-5 by Rebecca Horn born 1944

Keeping Those Legs from Touching Each Other, 1974‑5

Rebecca Horn The Feathered Prison Fan, 1978

The Feathered Prison Fan, 1978

Following the physical experience of her performances with body extensions, masks and feather objects of the 1970s came the first kinetic sculptures featured in her films such as The Feathered Prison Fan in Der Eintänzer (1978), or The Peacock Machine in La Ferdinanda (1981).

The objects used and specially made for her installations such as violins, suitcases, batons, ladders, pianos, feather fans, metronomes, small metal hammers, black water basins, spiral drawing machines and huge funnels together build the elements for kinetic sculptures that are liberated from their defined materiality and continuously transposed into ever-changing metaphors touching on mythical, historical, literary and spiritual imagery.

In the 1980s and 1990s huge installations were created out of and dedicated to places charged with political and historical importance. With her kinetic sculptures, the artist releases and rediverts the weight of the past on these physical spaces: as for example in Concert in Reverse (1997) in Münster, where an old municipal tower turns out to be an execution site for the Third Reich: or in Vienna, with the Tower of the Nameless (1994), where she sets a monument to the refugees from Balkan states in the form of a tower with mechanically playing violins. In Weimar, Europe’s city of culture 1999, the Concert for Buchenwald was composed on the premises of a former tram depot. The artist has layered 40 metre long walls of ashes behind glass, as archives of petrifaction. In Mirror of the Night (1998), at a derelict synagogue in Cologne, she uses the energy of writing, textured to counter historical amnesia.

Rebecca Horn, Concert for Anarchy 1990

Concert for Anarchy, 1990

A grand piano is suspended upside down from the ceiling by heavy wires attached to its legs. It hangs solidly yet precariously in mid-air, out of reach of a performer, high above the gallery floor.

A mechanism within the piano is timed to go off every two to three minutes, thrusting the keys out of the keyboard in a cacophonous shudder. The keys, ordinarily the point of tactile contact with the instrument, fan disarmingly out into space. At the same time, the piano’s lid falls open to reveal the instrument’s harp-like interior, the strings reverberating at random. This unexpected, violent act is followed between one and two minutes later by a retraction as the lid closes and the keys slide back into place, tunelessly creaking as they go. Over time, the piano repeats the cycle. A mounting tension to the moment of release is followed by a slow retreat to stasis as the piano closes itself up like a snail withdrawing into its shell.

Concert for Anarchy is one of a series of mechanised sculptures Horn began making in the late 1970s. Dancing tables, a suitcase trying in vain to climb a pole, startled hammers pecking against their reflections: machines that mimic the mechanisms of desire, they betray the longings beneath the surface of everyday things. Often erotically charged, these works express anthropomorphic anxiety and sensuality.

To work with energy in this way can also mean to set the turbulence of passion as a magnetic flow into the space as we see in High Moon (1991) in New York or in El Rio de la Luna (1992) in Barcelona.


Rebecca Horn Lenny-Silvers-Dream

Lenny Silver’s Dream, 1990

Rebecca Horn

Dreaming Stones, 2006

Rebecca Horn Installation

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