GETTING UNDER THE SKIN
Rebecca Horn's Sensibility Machines
When Harald Szeeman invited Rebecca Horn to participate in the 1972 international showcase Documenta in Kassel, she was a virtually unknown twenty-one year-old artist. To select her for Documenta was marketable vote of confidence. At the time, Horn lived in Hamburg where she made body sculptures and staged performances, XXT she recorded on film and video. Sigmar Polke performed in of her pieces, and it was through him that Szeeman heard of her Szeeman had clearly picked a winner. She was invite
two subsequent Documentas, in 1977 and 1982. By 1977 a show of her drawings, objects, photographs, films, and videos traveled to Cologne and Berlin, and an International exhibitions of her work toured Geneva, Paris, Zurich, London, and Chicago in 1983-84. Although she lived in New York on and off for years, had solo exhibitions there, and had a retrospective of videos at the Museum of Modern Art in 1974, until recently I was much better known in Europe than in the United States. In 1988, she won the Carnegie Prize at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, for her literally electrifying installation known as Hydra Forest: Performing Oscar Wilde.
The mystery of Rebecca Horn's hypnotic mechanize objects synesthetic installations, surreal performances, videos films has an irresistible draw. Entering her exhibitions is like onstage, transported into another reality-a transcendental elusive reality of the artist's personal cosmology, experience through cryptic symbols and themes. These symbols have evolved gradually out of her interest in sensitivity. Initially in the late '60s and early '70s, Horn's work was introverted, concentrating on physiological awareness; in the mid-'70s, it expanded to interpersonal perception; and since the early '80 has addressed universal themes that underlie our existence. Despite these life-encompassing questions, Horn's sculpture films have a direct impact. She infuses a dramatic tension
Rebecca Horn Overflowing-blood-machine, 1970. Courtesy the arrest.
Rebecca Horn, Comucopla, 1970.
in into her work through oppositions: male and female, and pause, sound and silence, and aggression and gentle which captivate both mind and emotions. Her work features precisely crafted objects, which are elemental, and ethereal, distilled symbols originating from the depths of the artist's psyche. Favored symbols, such as the spiral, reappear in different installations. Indeed, Spiral Machine,
Included in her last New York exhibition, An Art Circus (1988), an apt metaphor for the artist's career. A giant silver needle, attached to the ceiling, repeats its meditative coil from a horizontal to a vertical one, pauses, and then re-ascends. Horn's oeuvre itself evolved like a spiral, addressing the same ideas but at different levels and in different media. While her drawings, videos, and films are independent works objects, performances, art, they are also building blocks toward a Gesamtkunstwerk. With recurrent themes and symbols hidden in references to zoology literature, myth, and alchemy, Horn has built an opus that is densely interrelated and ultimately self- referential.
When one sees her work, one imagines a tall and robust artist, but in fact Horn is petite, soft-spoken, intense, and feminine. She is a renaissance woman, an artist- inventor, an alchemist obsessively documenting her devices in the tradition of Leonardo da Vinci and Marcel Duchamp. Her work is quirkyI and dead-pan like Keaton's, to whom she is paying tribute in her -third movie, Buster's Bedroom. Born in 1944 in Odenwald, Germany, where she now lives, Horn is a war baby, like Anselm Kiefer and R.W. Fassbinder. She led a disrupted childhood, in and out of boarding schools, occasionally traveling on business trips with her father. These extreme conditions and dramatic juxtapositions of national chaos and private fantasy spurred her own imaginary world and an interest in the extraordinary that has flavored the surreal quality of her work.
By age five Horn loved to draw and drew for others in school. Later, when she decided to become an artist, her parents were unhappy and advised her to study something practical. After a year at the university in Hamburg, in 1963, where she studied economics and took art classes on the side, she enrolled full-time at the Hamburger Kunstverein to study painting and sculpture.
Hamburg was one of the two best places in Germany to study Hart in the '60s, the other being Diisseldorf, with Joseph Beuys. Horn liked the atmosphere of the academy, where Allen Jones, Richard Lindner, and Joe Tilson visited as guest professors. The program was unacademic and open-minded. Her teacher Kai Sudeck gave her a copy of Jean Genet's The Thiefs journal, saying "Don't worry about all that art history, just read this."' Although Horn's imagination is not as macabre as Genet's, she, too, is attracted to the extreme, the obsessive, the erotic, and to transmutations among people, objects, and animals. Among the writers and filmmakers she admires, besides Genet, are Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, Heiner Muller, as well as Genet, Luis Bunuel, Luchino Visconti, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Also important was her openness to new directions explored by artists in the '60s, including performance and environmental art, the use of synthetic materials, and film and video. In 1968, Horn was making large sculptures with polyester when the contraction of tuberculosis forced her to stop for six months.
Horn's critical bout with tuberculosis changed her life: it imprinted a permanent awareness of the delicate balance between life and death and the sensuality of feeling alive. "That experience made it totally clear what I wanted. " In 1969, while still recovering, she began to make new works, body sculptures-biological, pseudo-medical devices designed for physical and sensory awareness, such as Overflowing-blood-machine and Cornucopia: Seance for two breasts, both from 1970. Built for her friends, these kinetic objects were strapped to the body and called attention to simple movements of the arms and legs. Overflowing-blood-machine is a blood-circulation device. Four horizontal belts hold eight tubes attached to a glass base, on which the model stands. Blood, pumped from the base, pulses rhythmically through this exterior vascular system. For maximum effect, the outfit was to be worn without clothes. The other device, Cornucopia, resembles black exterior lungs connecting the mouth to the breasts. Multifunctional, the body sculpture can be used to breathe life into oneself, preserve body heat, talk to oneself, and nourish oneself. Autoeroticism is suggested by Horn's own description of the device as a 'way of concentrating "on one's own breasts-feeling intimate with them ... touching them in silent consciousness."
Horn's second chance at life and new consciousness triggered a personal cosmology, in which her own name plays a major role. The horn motif reappears in various guises, as sharp, dangerous, cutting objects, including knives and needles. Yet what looks like a set of blackened lungs in Cornucopia, Horn regards as "a reenactment of a curved horn, but soft, covered and reversed angled,"' calling attention to the Latin meaning of the word, "horn of plenty." Horn actualized that symbolism of nourishment and abundance in the multifunctional nature of her piece.
Rebecca Horn, The Hydra-Forest; Performing Oscar Wide, 1:988, Electrical devices, glass, mercury, coal chips, shoes. Installed at Camegle International, Camegle Museum, Pittsbufgh. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery.
A mythological correspondence to her name is in Unicorn 1971). Traditionally, the unicorn symbolizes purity and chastity. The elusive, legendary creature lived in secluded meadows-and could be lured out only by a virgin. Horn staged her own unicorned-virgin scenario in a beautiful park in Hamburg. Because finding a virgin was almost as difficult as finding a unicorn, she listed a bride-to-be. but it all happened in a chance encounter, which her brief text Of this fairy tale describes.
When I saw her first on the street, walking by-(me dreaming my own I unicornian" dreams)-her strange rhythm, one step in front of the next ...
All was like an echo-shock of my own imagination. Her movements, a flexibility: (knowing how to use the legs entirely), but the rest of her: frozen in ice, from head to hips, and back again.
Drinking coffee, talking politics and me, (how to express to a person, ready to marry at 21 and buying with all her money a bedroom set, my own beliefs in life?)--And the complications and explanations, that I did wish to build a certain instrument, a stick made "only" out of wood, for her head, to pinnacle her way of walking.
Next weeks, finding right proportions, body weights and object heights, distances and balances. . . 4
The performance is only part of the process, the grand finale. Equally important are the preparatory phase and the psychological relationship that the artist develops by involving the subject-character from the beginning, cultivating her trust and -doing something very personal for her. Horn builds the dramatic tension inherent in the relationship into the climax of the performance, "when the person presents what I had given to her." The ritual was staged at six in the morning, when the grass, wet with dew, and the intense sunlight were perfect for a mirage-like occurrence Semi-nude, the young woman wore her white unicorn outfit -and walked around Jersek park, in conservative Hamburg, followed by a small audience of some ten to twenty people. Her innocent enchantment with her new self and her interaction with the audience magically reenacted A modern-day unicorn legend.
Unicorn was a seminal piece, a source of future ideas and themes. It was rooted in myth and alchemy (as opposed to biology) and although awareness of self still played a major role, it was no longer physical but now psychological and mythical. Also significant is the interpretation of the unicorn- and virgin legend as an allegory of the five senses.'
Ultimately, eroticism is at the core of Horn's work. With Unicorn there is the union of the male and female, as well as another recurrent tendency of Horn's: the transmutation of human and animal as signified by an object, in this case the unicorn tunic. "An animal can be a typewriter," she says, "can be this or that. So something can stand for something else, and again this stands for something else. There is always this irony involved, that it is something else, or I give something a name that is something else, a surrealist way of thinking." The male and female polarity is played out with humans and animals, particularly birds and to some extent snakes, with sharp and soft objects, and with aggressive and gentle moods and situations. Finally, with Unicorn, the artist's introverted rituals become interactive with others. Whereas previously Horn's body sculptures were self-contemplative, the new direction called for "intense interpersonal perception" and dissolution of "barriers between passive spectators and active performers. "6
It was inevitable that Horn should begin working in film, for only that medium is a match for her incessant, multilayered, demanding imagination.
Headextension (1972) is a good example of such interactive rituals. This time the horn motif was a black antenna-like garment with a six-foot pole that covered a man's head and shoulders, requiring him to rely on four other participants to guide him by means of wires attached to the top of the pole. Through the tension of the straps, they balanced the pole and silently synchronized their movements in an outdoor procession at Documenta in 1972. While previously only ten to twenty people attended the rituals, at Documenta hundreds of spectators watched.'
Horn continued to explore sensory awareness and movement through body sculptures, such as Finger-gloves: an instrument to extend the manual sensibility (1972). The gloves are black, spiky finger extensions with which she could "feel, touch, grasp, anything," but keep "a certain distance from the objects."8 In the film and video Feather-fingers (1974) (1 will use " fv" from now on to indicate the performances that were documented on both film and video), she made a similar work with goose feathers that covered and elongated the fingers of her right hand. The still-natural left hand, she observed, was "suddenly as unconnected to the other as two altogether unrelated beings, and the resultant behavior patterns, both sensual and psychological, become the final extension of the piece."9
Feathers feature prominently in Horn's work. Indeed, her bird and feather imagery is obsessive. The feather is the tactile opposite of the horn. Unlike the hard, penetrating, and virile horn, the feather is soft, pliant, and feminine. A horn suggests aggression and violence, a feather gentleness and vulnerability.
Throughout her oeuvre, Horn displays a propensity for psychological and tactile polarities. Pencil-Mask (fv 1973) records a performance in which the artist wears a banded mask with rows of sharpened pencils sticking out from her face. Standing only a few inches from a wall, she moves her head back and forth, marking the wall. The implication is that any form of movement leaves a physical or psychological mark. The scratchy scrawls, the spiky headdress imprisoning her head, and her -claustrophobic proximity to the wall infused the performance with violent tension.
By contrast, the act of touching is caressive and sensual in Cockfeather-mask (fv 1974). In this performance a vertical strip of feathers covers the middle of Horn's face. She stands close to a man and in order to see him clearly moves her bead from side to side, like a bird, caressing his head with the feathers an, prompting an aggressive reaction." Horn illustrates how love can provoke fury.
Horn's mechanized Peacock Machines exhibited tenderness and violence as two sides of the same coin, but now without per performers. The zoomorphic Mechanical Peacock Fan (1980), in the movie La Ferdinanda: Sonata for a Medici-Villa (1981), slowly unfolds its gorgeous tail plumage in a semicircular fan and later closes it back. The Peacock Machine, shown at Documenta 7 11 1982, without feathers, was transformed into a threatening mechanism with long, glistening metal pins. Stirred by the "cries of the courting male peacock," it spread its "feelers fan-like with extreme concentration into the room," Horn wrote. The soothing sounds of a gurgling waterfall accompanied the closing down the tail.ll
Horn has also made intimate enclosures with feathers, in Cockatoo-mask (fv 1973) and Paradise Widow (fv 1975). In Cockatoo, the mask completely encloses the artist's head. Another person softly caresses the feathers, then opens the wings. Horn explained that "the spread wings stretch like long bird wings, and softly enclose our heads. The feather enclosure isolates our heads from the surrounding environment and forces us to remain intimately alone, together."' In Paradise Widow, a nude woman stands in a thirty-meter-high feathered column. Tall, black, an, phallic, this mechanized environment opens and closes, revealing and concealing her naked body. It is an ultimate sex machine suggesting voyeurism and the eroticism of dressing and undressing, and caressing, engorging, and uniting the two sexes in a inverse relationship, the woman inside the man. She calls attention to the battle of the sexes, and the thin line separating pleasure and frustration. Eroticism interests Horn as a universal form of communication, and she portrays a range of effects, from arousal to violence.
The psychological and physical intimacy of Paradise Widow is equally strong in Horn's published excerpts of love letters. The is a collage of a passionate transatlantic dialogue between Horn in Berlin and a New York poet.' Dedicated to Proust, the letters convey the lovers' intense psychological yearning for each other in rich metaphors, vivid sense-imagery, and evocative memories.
With Paradise Widow, dialogue became an important expressive device. Although communicating-silently with oneself, in Cornucopia, or with others, as in Headextension, or with taped sounds and voices in other installations-had always been a part of her art, from now on it was like the advent of the "talkie! She created dialogues, monologues, and narratives for and with everything, with images and with words, sounds, or music, in feature films.
It was inevitable that Horn should begin working in film, for or that medium is a match for her incessant, multilayered, demamnding imagination. She began making movies in 1978, with Der Eintanzer (The Dancing Cavalier), followed by La Ferdinanda in 1981.
Film offers Horn more possibilities to develop themes and ideas on numerous levels, which have triggered new sculptural metaphors The red dancing shoes in mechanized sculptures, such as Lola; (1987), the kinetic twin swings, and the suspended ostrich egg 'in An Art Circus, all originated in Der Eintanzer The Unconsciousness of Feelings (1983), in which two mechanized hammers meet in a kiss and then fall away from each other, comes from La Ferdinanda.
In Horn's complicated surrealist movies the subcurrent of events counts more than the apparent story. Der Eintanzer takes place in her former NewYork studio apartment overlooking Madison Square Park, and revolves around the chance encounters of various people there: a pair of twins, who are temporarily staying at the apartment; an unwelcome character, Max, with his toy piano; a sushi chef with his sharp knives; and a ballerina, who has sublet the apartment for the summer to teach ballet to young girls. The instructor also has an unusual student, Mr. Frazer, a distinguished-looking blind man, who takes private tango lessons. Significant as well are a number of objects, including a large ostrich egg, hat pins, a swing in the middle of the studio, and a device called The Feathered Prison Fan.
La Ferdinanda is a longer movie and more abstruse. The setting is a Medici villa in Tuscany owned by a retired diva, Caterina de Dominicis, who supports the mansion by renting it out for weddings and other events. Every summer she visits the estate with an entourage of illustrious friends. Staying over from the diva's last visit is her friend Doctor Miguel Marchetti, who is writing a book about his ornithological studies. He is assisted by a uniformed nurse, who sometimes does a headstand when the doctor walks by. Two local twin girls have nestled their playroom in the villa, too.
Caterina arrives with her young lover, Mischa Boguslawsky, a gifted Russian cello player, and Simona, her fragile, twenty-one-year-old niece. Simona's mother died when she was very young. Under Caterina's care Simona blossomed into a successful prima ballerina, but she suddenly stopped dancing and became peculiarly withdrawn. As a last resort, Caterina has brought Simona to stay at the villa under the doctor's care.
Also invited are Richard Sutherland and his boyfriend from New York, Larry Jones. The latter flirts with the gardener, and on their first date in the woods Jones is fatally beaten by ruffians. That happens the same day of a catered wedding at the mansion with over a hundred guests.
While the main characters engage the viewer on a narrative level, a hidden plot takes place with birds, objects, and Horn's mechanized sculptures. Bird references are pervasive, with live and mechanized white peacocks, pigeons in the attic, and plucked pheasants and eggs prepared for the wedding feast.
These rough outlines of Horn's movies make their plots appear misleadingly linear. Far from it-, they are fraught with digressions and interruptions, with strange stories and the neurotic behavior of the characters. Although the incidents seem unrelated and accidental, repeated viewings show an elaborate collage of transmuted ideas and images regarding life, death, and rebirth, eroticism, and the uneasy communication between men and women.
Horn displays a propensity for psychological and tactile polarities. The implication is that any form of movement leaves a physical or psychological mark.
Rebecca Horn, Cockfeather Mask, 1974, 16mm film, videotape. Courtesy the artist.
Rebecca Horn, Still from the film La Ferdinands: Mechanical Peacock; Courtesy the artist.
Rebecca Horn, Unicom, (1971), performance In Jersek Park. Courtesy the artist.
Rebecca Horn, Finger-gloves (an instrument to extend the manual sensibility), 1972. Courtesy the artist.
Rebecca Horn, Pencil Mask, 1973, with 27 two-Inch-long pencils reproducing the profile of the artist's face In three dimensions. Courtesy the artist.
Rebecca Mom, Still from the film Der Elntanzer (1978): Mr. Frazer speaking to the twin, who had quietly slipped off the swing, leaping to her death through the window.
Rebecca Mom, Still from the film La Ferdinanda. Sonata for a Medici-11,711a (1981), showing Simona reading aloud the story of the blue bird to her aunt In the car ride to the villa.
Both movies feature feathered objects and bird stories as a means to a heightened awareness through the sensuality of touch and movement particularly dance. In Der Eintanzer, one of the young ballerinas dances magically with an ostrich egg balanced on her head. Another ballerina stands inside The Feathered Prison Fan.' Enraptured by the inner space of her "feathered sanctuary," oblivious to the outside world, she watches the beautiful feathers circling around her, barely touching her, stopping and starting, folding and spreading, as birds do their plumage. In fact, Horn calls attention to the birdlike movement and physique of the ballerinas.15 15
Choreographed movement, as a universal language is a primordial theme underlying Horn's work. That choreographed movement is arousing even for animals, the artist illustrates with a funny ostrich tale in Der Eintanzer. Over the loud clacking of their typewriters, the twins tell each other the story, which is based on an incident the artist witnessed in the Milan zoo." An
ostrich fell in love with its zookeeper. Isolated from his mate, the ostrich observed the keeper entering the cage daily, not only clean, but also "like a teasing gigolo" to rub and scratch act, the ceiling with an outstretched broom. "The ostrich," we told, "watching this ritual attentively, repeatedly imitated the rotation movements with his outspread wings, until the two came enjoined in the same, mutual rhythm, and suddenly, at the height of his excitement, rushed madly at the keeper who, jumping just barely escaped . . . and left the ostrich deserted and completely confused in the frenzy of its violated ecstasy." 17
Violated ecstasy also takes place as one of the twins who has previously described the ecstatic sensation of swinging, shows off the swing and through a window to her death. In La Ferdinanda fatal bliss occurs again when the gay couple rolling in embrace is brutally attacked in the forest. La Ferdinanda pronounced morbidity, with references to the suicide of Simon, uncle in the villa, to broken eggs and grilled pheasants, and Doctor Marchetti's alleged murder of thirteen patients. He is seen twice holding a rifle while looking at a peacock, and shoots at the end of the movie, but it reopens its eyes. Indeed, Horn weaves into the movie references to the continuity of existential death and rebirth, through bird tales.
The bird stories in La Ferdinanda are puzzling and illogical. They are interjected with equally baffling juxtapositions of images The movie opens with Simona, the fragile ballerina, reading along the strange story of a blue bird, during a car ride through the beautiful Tuscan countryside. "The poor bird submissively down his neck on the book and willingly suffered his head to cut off by one of us. This death went to our very hearts. ,18 La Simona continues the story in a voice-over, as we see him playing his cello in a room with a fireplace and Blue Bath, a box with a blue liquid.
In this room we prepared a bath for the bird with white powder so the water was like milk. We let it cool before the bird was placed in it. The bird was happy in the bath as he drank, and sports about. The water warmed up through lamps, so we put a cover and could hardly bear to keep the bird in the bath. We allowed his head to come out of the kettle and kept him there until he lost all feathers and became as smooth as a person. The bird's feathers were destroyed in the bath, they colored it blue, and then we let him free. He sprang from the kettle, glittering smooth, a pleasure behold. Meanwhile the bath was boiled and distilled to a b...stone.
Intermediary scenes feature a grill ventilation mechanism with stone ball on a chain ascending and descending through a hole in the kitchen floor; cooks in the kitchen plucking a pheasant another cook breaking ninety eggs in a bowl; Mischa passionate playing Richard Strauss's Don Quixote; a truck unloading doze of refrigerators; white peacocks, which Horn describes as reincarnations of the Medici; and then six-foot-high penguin do emblems of the refrigerator manufacturers who have rented the villa for the wedding of their children. Several times during the movie, the nurse carries a peacock egg to Doctor Marchetti with his afternoon tea. The latter then injects the egg with a [ser] and places it in an incubator. More visual juxtapositions follow until a voice-over explains that the blue stone was ground into pigment
pigment and then rubbed onto the bird's body, leaving its head white.
These bizarre sequences, interrupted with the comings and goings of the main characters, are clues pointing to alchemy. Alchemy has always been coded, concealing its lessons in esoteric texts and enigmatic emblems. These esoterica describe the alchemical process whereby not only base matter is turned into gold, but also whereby psycho-physiological "consciousness is radically altered and transmuted from the ordinary . . . level of everyday perception to a subtle ... level of perception," in search of enlightenment." Hence the two narrative levels in La Ferdinanda.
Indeed, the goal of alchemy and its transmutative processes helps explain the complex symbolism of La Ferdinanda. The goal of alchemy is to concoct a Universal Medicine that cures all ills and brings about immortality. An ordinary substance is chemically transformed through increasingly purified stages. The difficult initial stage of obtaining this Elixir of Life is the intricate production of the Philosopher's Stone. The stone is then pulverized, and hermetically sealed in a vessel or in the Philosophic Egg, which is placed in Athanor, the furnace of the Philosophers. The temperature must be carefully regulated over a long period of time to unite successfully within the egg the male and female components. Destruction and death of the first natural forms are necessary and produce blackness, known as nigredo; then comes the Peacock's Tag, a stage with beautiful colors; next is albedo, the stage marked by whiteness; the following stages are citrinitas (yellow), and rubedo (red). The operation culminates in the final Philosopher's Stone, which involves the royal wedding of mercury and sulphur. 21
Although the parallels between the above sequence and the perplexing juxtapositions in Horn's movies are not exact, there are many similarities. We have the medicine man, Doctor Marchetti, a bird chemically transformed in Blue Bath, a stone distilled from the bath and then pulverized, an egg injected with serum and placed in an incubator, refrigerators and grills signifying temperature controls,. a mechanized peacock tail, and a wedding. The alchemical process, however, is ongoing, and no one as yet has been able to produce the Universal Medicine.
Why would Horn refer to alchemy? It relates to her quest for the meaning of existence through self-awareness, and to the enlightening purpose of art. Ultimately, for Horn alchemy is metaphor for gaining essential knowledge about life, which begins with the self." In alchemy, she found an ancient tradition dedicated to attaining such heightened consciousness, and expressed through archetypal forms and symbols. The alchemical process is also transmutative, finding correspondences in meanings and situations that link the physical and transcendental, and an important part of the operation is the union of opposites. Both of these operational aspects characterize Horn's work as well. Alchemical lore, like the unicorn legend, is another rich source that Horn adopted into her private cosmology.
Particularly appealing to the artist must be alchemy's emphasis on the animistic nature of objects, that matter has soul." In Horn's movies even inert things, such as doorways, walls, and windows, acquire an animated presence through visible or audible dialogue with something else. Take for instance the doorway in several scenes from La Ferdinanda in which Mischa practices his
Rebecca Horn, Peacock Machine, 1982, Installation at Docurnenta 7, Kassel, 1982. Courtesy the artist.
Rebecca Horn, Paradise Widow, 1975. Courtesy the artist.
66 MAY 1989
cello. The full body of his music transforms the doorway into a tunnel of sound. Mr. Sutherland makes the mute walls speak by tapping his hammer against their surfaces and interpreting the sound in careful diagrams. In Der Eintanzer, Horn enlivens the windows as openings to other worlds, to the outside, to another consciousness, or to death.
The swing, mentioned earlier within the context of violated ecstasy, is a metaphor for change from life to death. Horn heightens the contrast of feeling alive and sudden death through strong sensory description by one of the twins, who talks about the euphoria of swinging, and of drifting off:
. time suddenly ceases to matter ... To forget about everything else . . . And sometimes I think I could go on swinging forever ... And then suddenly I can lean way back. . . -1 And , wrap my legs around the ropes until I'm completely upsidedown . - - And let my head hang all the way down until it's almost touching the floor. . . And just sort of stay that way . . . And then begin again to swing ... slowly ... all upside down ... With your eyes closed' ... and your mind so far away it cannot even remember where..
And then, suddenly, you get so incredibly dizzy that you have to get untangled right away ... And you get your legs free just in time, and pull your head up as if you just missed getting run down by a speeding train ... and then you roll off sideways from the swing, and you land there, panting, completely dizzy ... stretched out across the floor ... And still you keep your eyes closed. . - And everything goes racing by ... Did you ever swing like that when you were a child?"
A few scenes later she loses control, does not roll off the swing in time, and leaps through the window to her death on the street Later, Horn makes the swing into a sculptural entity, as in 'hell 1979 installation of the silver Twin Swings at the Salvatore Ali Gallery in New York, and in La Ferdinanda.
While La Ferdinanda is an allegory about the alchemical process, Der Eintanzer, with its vivid sensuality expressed it dialogue and visuals, is a contemporary allegory of the five senses Many of the objects in the movie symbolize the senses: mirror for sight; music, dialogue, and street noise for hearing; feathers hat-pins, and knives for touch; and flowers, fish, and peaches for taste and smell. Perhaps the most sensually developed character in the movie is Mr. Frazer, the blind man, who carries a small feather fetish with which he plays discreetly At one point, while waiting for his tango lesson, he notices the aroma of peaches in the room and slowly begins his rhapsodic description of them:
You understand that for anyone to just eat a peach takes no imagination at all ... But just to save this incredible aroma, this deep exotic aroma ... It's like a lullaby ... A perfect sonata! ... On really shouldn't taste a fruit like that until one has truly . . ~ - had that extraordinary experience ... just to smell-then ... but only then, I find, can I move on to that flesh and the juice on the tongue ... in the hollow of the cheek ... on the lips ... you know ... then! ... Then one can afford to become the animal again ... To gulp it down ... To swallow ... I ... un ... I beg your pardon ... 25
When he delivers his monologue, one of the twins blindfold herself, to increase her sensuous pleasure, which ultimately
Rebecca Horn, Still from the film Der Eintanzer (1978): The Feathered Prison Fan.
... And then again the fans resume their circling motion; closing; until the girl Is once again Imprisoned In her soft and feathered sanctuary . Courtesy the artist.
Rebecca Horn, Still from the film Der Eintanzer (1978): rhe Great Egg Exercise. 'Me smallest girl, alone and not observed at all, runs to the mantelpiece and tries to reach for the ostrich ... sets It carefully atop her head ... and assumes the same ballet position she had learned before." Courtesy the artist.
Rebecca Horn, Still from the film La Ferdinanda: Sonata for a Medici-villa (1981): The mute dialogue of the swings.
Rebecca Horn, Still from the film Der Eintiinzer (1978): Mr. Frazer learning the Tango.
comes erotic. Frazer's pristine white summer suit and hat and his sensory refinement bring him close to being a true gentleman. When he finally masters the tango and dances it perfectly with his teacher, the two are a picture of perfection. Horn abruptly cuts to the Mechanical Tango, performed by a four-legged table. The voice-over describes how the mechanized table displays "the precision of its capricious, solitary life-with the deftness and accuracy of a machine. The agility of his movements presents the actuality of his personality--that of an extraordinary gentleman ... that, in fact, of the 'Eintanzer' !,,26 Eintanzer means "solo dancer," and the word refers to dandies who came perfectly dressed to the dance hall. Completely selfabsorbed, these narcissistic men would actually dance by themselves, with eyes only for themselves. Narcissus is also a symbol for a self- contemplative and introverted attitude that in Horn's earlier works, such as Headextension, was a requisite for being in touch with oneself.
Horn's prize-winning Hydra Forest: Performing Oscar Wilde features the quintessential dandy. Here the artist combines two literary references. While Hydra Forest is based on the short story "Hercules 2 or the Hydra," by the East German writer
Heiner Muller, 8 Horn casts Oscar Wilde as the protagonist, relating him to Hercules, who is a primordial symbol of man's quest for immortality, atoning for his sins and wrongdoing through excruciating sufferings. Despite many opportunities to escape from England before his trial for homosexuality, Oscar Wilde decided to "stay and do my sentence whatever it is." 30 He was condemned to two years of hard labor, and after-wards suffered ostracism from country and friends. When Wilde fell from the summit of celebrity and wealth to the inferno of ignominy and destitution, he came to believe that "the secret of life is suffering."" The character in Muller's story feels a forest moving about him, closing in on him, threatening him from all sides; the line between reality and fantasy blurs, even the ground is moving. He becomes frightened as he feels more and more entangled and realizes that the forest is an animal-it is the hydra. He fights back against this invisible force until he realizes that he is fighting against himself.
Inspired by Maer's synesthetic portrayal of a man who is lost in a forest, Horn devised an inferno that transferred the existential agony of life onto the viewer. She created an oppressive environment whose "pressurized energy is meant to frighten, entangle, and nearly strangle."
Hydra Forest lured the viewer with unnerving sounds, audible from a distance. Set apart from the open layout of the rest of the exhibition, the narrow bent-axis approach to the inner sanctum, combined with the swelling sound, intensified the tension and the drama. Being inside the dimly lit, all white private chamber was frightening, as the sound and spectacle of 460,000 volt electric arcs hissed through open air and created a distressing physical and emotional environment.
Seven electric devices hung from the ceding. Each fixture bad a pair of vertical steel bars and black cords brought together with two white porcelain insulators. The steel rods ended in undulating copper rods, spitting their high-voltage dialogue into the gaps between their raised heads. While the electric sparks felt Physically assaultive, the sound was surprisingly musical.
Rebecca Horn, Drunken Deer, 1.987, from An Art Circus. Electric motor, twigs, wire bracket, 16 1/2" x 26" x 1.01'. Courtesy Marian Goodman Galiery.
"Especially in our time, you have to have a jolting
attitude and then afterwards caress."
Electronically regulated, each of the seven pairs of hanging snakes emitted different pitches at syncopated intervals, and in changing combinations of twos or threes, and up to all seven fixtures simultaneously. Aligned beneath the hanging snakes on the white floor were seven items, six inverted glass cones containing mercury and a pair of men's shoes filled with crushed coal chips spilling out and soiling the white floor.
The absence of the wearer of the shoes and the presence of threatening circumstances such as snakes and high-voltage electricity evoked a death chamber. Horn, however, described the room as a "womb in a metal cage," evoking the truism that "Worlds are built up of suffering: there is suffering at the birth of a child as at the birth of a star."" The simultaneous symbolism of death and rebirth, and other clues-the union of opposite sexes; mercury in inverted glass cones; sulphur in coal, whose black color represents nigredo; the whiteness of the room, which symbolizes albedo, an egg, or a furnace--point to alchemy. In Hydra Forest, Horn synthesizes the Hercules myth, which symbolizes for the alchemists the spiritual struggle that leads to immortality, 33 with the important alchemical concept of destruction and regression to the womb, regressus ad uterum, 34 and Wilde's tortured last years, to state that the existential struggle is' part of the purification process toward a higher consciousness.
Sensitization is the common thread spiraling through Rebecca Horn's oeuvre. While the artist has been interested since 1969 in awareness of self and others on a physical level, what has changed is the psychological intensity and intellectual scope of her work. The impact of her sculptures and environments is bolder because she creates synesthetic works that affect all our senses. While her early body sculptures also focused attention on an inner space, the mood was contemplative and peaceful. Now her sculptures, unattached to the body, are psychologically and physically jarring. For Horn it is
very important to go under the skin, to journey beneath The surface, to scratch about in search of something, to liberate a certain energy, to simply shake people, and wake them tip. Especially in our time, you have to have a jolting attitude and then afterwards caress. It's very important to commit oneself, even to destroy certain existing values and through this destructive process discover something more meaningful and build something new.
Unlike many contemporary artists, Horn does not shock the viewer in a nihilistic way, leaving him empty and depleted. She uses shock to make the viewer vulnerable and removed from his daily context. She has refined her tactics over the past
decades and knows how to induce psychological and physical awareness, through either claustrophobic environments, such as Hydra Forest, or unexpected movement and sounds, such as the sudden lashing of a whip in An Art Circus. Horn provokes the audience to recognize, through her archetypal symbolism, the
interconnectedness of our existence.
1. Author's interview with Rebecca Horn conducted November 4, 1988 in Pittsburgh. Biographical information comes from this interview unless otherwise indicated, as do all rions from Horn unless otherwise noted.
2. Rebecca Horn: Zeichnungen 'Drawings, Chicklel Objects, Videolllideo, Filme/Filrn, exhibition catalogue (Cologne: Kolnischer Kunsrverein, 1977), 29,
4. Ibid., 32.
5. The unicorn - and-virgin iconography of the Cluny Museum tapestries in Paris has been interpreted as allegories of the five senses.
6. Rebecca Horn, "Personal Statement," Contemporary Artists, eds. Colin Naylor and Genest, P-Orridge (New York: St. Martin's Press. 19 1977 421.
7. Horn's performances reached even larger audiences through her videos and films, which began with Unicorn. The super-8 film of the performers turned out poorly. When Horn tried to reschedule, the magic was gone. "She [the virgin] couldn't do it anymore," Horn recalls "She couldn't walk anymore, the whole tension of her relating to me with the piece, the fascination was gone. She was suddenly like an actor, so I couldn't repeat it. That's how I started to work with film, to have it as documentation. And then I suddenly thought, Oh, my God, I could make a scenario, to write and plan from the beginning on with text and music
Horn's first videos and films -were thus documentation of her performances, which retained their personal and intimate moods. 8. Horn, Cologne Kunstverein, 41. 9. Ibid., 93.
10. Ibid., 101.
11. Rebecca Horn, exhibition catalogue (Zurich: Kunstbaus Zurich, 1983), 77. 12. Horn, Cologne Kunsrverein, 99.
13. Interview with Timothy Baum conducted January 4, 1989, in New York.
14. This is another form of feathered environments, which Horn began with Cockfeatbers (1971).
15. She confirms this in her book on the movie, under the subheading "Beating One's Wings' "In front of the mirrors, tripping along on one's toes, tapping along on the hard wooden ,!,-n floor-the tap of the tip-toes like small, fast-moving hammers; dipping the torso, then
again-turning in circles with wide-spreading arms." Rebecca Horn: Der Eintanzer, exhibition catalogue (Hannover: Kestner-GeseDschaft, 1978), 73.
16. Baum interview. The ostrich and zookeeper story was also featured in her latest installation, A Rather Wild Flirtation, at the Galerie de France, in Paris, 1988.
17. Eintanzer, 83.
18. La Ferdinanda:SonalefiireineMedici-l,'illa, exhibition catalogue (Baden-Baden: Staarliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, 1981), no pagination. the story of the blue bird is based on a medieval tale by Johann Andreae, The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz. Nena Dimitrijcvic, Rebecca Horn, exhibition brochure issued for the artist's traveling exhibition in 1983-84, n.p.
19. La Ferdinanda.
20. Stanislas Klossowski de Rola, Alchemy: The Secret Art (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1973), 7.
21. The alchemical process is so secret that no one knows exactly what it entails. The stages are outlined in Alchemy, 11-12, and Mircea Ehade, The Forge and the Crucible, trans. Stephen Corrin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 149, 167.
22 . The redemptive purpose of alchemy is to cure "all ills afflicting humanity" explains Stanislas KJossowski de Rola, by transmuting 'the obscurity of ignorance into the light of wisdom ... How can man escape from the prison of his own imperfection? ... This is the question that ultimately confronts us when we consider the riddle of alchemy. He who would find the answer, not only intellectually but as a way of Life-- must begin by taking 2 long, hard, unblinking look at himself. He will, if honest, see that the root cause of all of his troubles lies in his almost total ignorance of that which matters most: his true self." Alchemy, 13-14.
23. Eliade, 149-152. 24 Eintanzer, 103.
25. eintanzer, 97.
26. Eintanzer 128.
27. Baum interview.
28. A preeminent contemporary author, Muller recently incorporated this story, which he had written many years ago, into the script for the opera, The Forest, a collaboration with Robert Wilson and David Byrne.
29. in addition to Oscar Wilde's name in the title, he can be identified by the pair of characteri 'tic beribboned patent-leather shoes.
30. Richard Ellman, Oscar Wilde (New York; Vintage Books, 1988), 456.
31. Ibid., 514.
32. Quoted from Wilde's story of Moses and the Pharaoh; Ellman, 519,
33. T. E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, trans. Jack Sage (New York: Phdosophical Library 1962), 138.
34. Eliade, 149-156.
Mina Roustayi is a free-lance writer living in New York.