Rebecca Horn Artworks
German Sculptor, Filmmaker and Performance Artist
Progression of Art
Einhorn (Unicorn) is a white wearable sculpture intended to be worn by a female performer. A cone-like structure, akin to the mythical creature's horn, is attached to the performer's head as an extension of her body using a series of horizontal and vertical fabric straps that run from the head, to the neck, and down the naked body. This is one of Horn's best-known works, as well as one of her earliest. Exhibited both as a sculptural object and in her influential film Performances II as part of a series of documented performances, the work challenges how we think about sculpture. Horn states that Unicorn was performed near Hamburg after having spent a year in a sanitorium following lung poising caused by glass fibres that she had inhaled whilst making work at Art College. As Horn had lived in total isolation for a full year, independent curator Sergio Edelsztein suggests that Unicorn, and other related 'extension' works, act as the artist's attempt to reach outwards and "restore communication with the outside world". Horn has also said of the work, "When I got out [of the sanatorium], I made that piece for one particular girl in a class of mine, Angela. It's dedicated to her. She had a very strange, stiff way of walking".
Architect and lecturer, Charles Holland, contributes that Horn's "early prosthetic extensions - gloves with foot-long fingers, a mask with numerous tiny pencils attached - take a simple bodily action and subject it to elongation and distortion. Supposedly straightforward functions, such as drawing or touching, become difficult and compromised, but are also given new meaning." Indeed, Unicorn extends the body and imbues the performer with an at once otherworldly and robotic quality. Although it is unlikely that Horn was familiar with Frida Kahlo's work at this time, the resemblance between this sculpture and Kahlo's 1942, Broken Column painting is uncanny. Both artists visualise trauma that they have experienced and transform this into meaning. As such, these art works move beyond individual traumatic experience and become instead ciphers for dealing with some of the most difficult and universal experiences of both physical and emotional pain, and the subsequent necessity to re-build.
Wearable sculpture - Tate Modern, London
The Gigolo (Der Eintänzer)
The Gigolo is a 45 minutes feature film set in the artist's New York studio. Interweaving fantasy and reality, the film begins with Max (performed by Timothy Baum, Horn's long-term partner) playing the theme tune of the film The Third Man on a toy piano. After a ballerina arrives, and an argument breaks out between her and Max, twins enter the film, providing the haunting and mirror-like qualities of doubling and divided identity. Horn sets up an opposition between the genders, for instance in the creation of an argument, and by showing the capacity of the female twins to attract the attention of the male characters, Max and blind Frazer. When one of the twins is drawn to objects that she has found in Horn's studio, fantasy returns to reality and refers back to the artist herself again. There is a moment when one of the twins notices some hatpins and her attraction to these seems threatening. The ending of the film memorably involves one of the twins becoming tempted by a mechanical swing, then jumping to an image shot of a dead girl in the street outside Horn's studio.
The film features one of Horn's important sculptures, The Feathered Prison Fan. The work thus introduces an important and recurring material and theme for the artist, that of the feather. The feather and wings are long standing motifs associated with melancholy and the expression of creative anxiety. Since Albrecht Dürer's famous engraving of a large 'melancholy' angel, many artists have since re-visited this subject. Francesca Woodman made a series of photographs called On Being An Angel (at a similar time as Horn did this piece). There is a sense in both of these oeuvres that the artists are attracted to a more celestial (out of this world) existence, but at the same time attempt to manage and negotiate an everyday, earthly life. With the 'wings' looking like a cocoon but also being referred to as a 'prison', there is a simultaneous message that this way of being (highly thoughtful and imaginative) can be at once protective and restrictive.
Overall, as an abstract, surreal, and fantastic narrative, Horn's film helps to bring her body sculptures to life using a highly impressive melange of different media and styles. The curator, Valentina Ravaglia has described how in The Gigolo Horn's "mechanical sculptures serve as actors in the film whilst actors play their roles like dysfunctional machines." Here, the symbolism of Horn's moving sculptures standing as revealing replacements for the actual body becomes clear. In the film, the fragility of human life is exposed and the absurd nature of human relationships is suggested. The Gigolo, like Horn's other feature films, evokes strong psychoanalytic interpretations, and for some, possesses an alienating quality because characters are built of the imagination and do not necessarily make sense socially or rationally.
45 minute feature film
Exercise 8: Cutting One's Hair with Two Scissors at Once
Cutting One's Hair with Two Scissors at Once is the eighth part of Berlin Exercises: Dreaming under Water (1974-75), a series of recorded performances. In the first part of the color film, German actor Otto Sander is seen reading out the following text to camera: "Tongues flickering, their heads move back and forth until the scaly skin beneath the throat is touching. The instant physical contact is established, they begin to entwine. The aggressive fighting dance of the two partners is characterized by a gradual, mutual loss of momentum and the beating against each other of their forebodies. The jerkily undulating bodies wind so tightly around each other that the two snakemen merge into a single body whose two heads move back and fro in parallel. The fight is decided when the stronger animal has pressed his opponent down against the floor."
After this, Rebecca Horn emerges holding a pair of scissors in each hand, simultaneously cutting both sides of her long red hair. A tense atmosphere is created by the loud and constant sound of the scissors, as well as by Horn's fixed stare into camera. The intensity of Horn's gaze is challenged by the closeness of the scissors to her eyes, and here; the suggested struggle might be between the scissors and Horn's clarity of vision, or it could be between violence and human resilience. In the last part of the film, a window in the room seems to open by itself, and text overlaid on this image translates as: "When a woman and her lover lie on one side looking at each other, and she twines her legs around the man's legs, with the window wide open, it is the oasis."
The words spoken at the start of the film create a powerful description of a physical fight; these are followed by the implicit battle between the two pairs of scissors to remove Horn's hair. The bluntness of the cuts deliberately reject notions of an ideal feminine appearance, and her stare suggests an attitude of defiance in the face of constraints placed on the body and mind. Overall, the act of hair cutting, as both the voiceover and end text also suggest, is always connected to romantic relationships. Frida Kahlo cut her long locks when she divorced from Diego Rivera, and such is a recurring theme for women as they suffer loss in love. Taken in comparison to Marina Abramović's classic performance Rhythm O, who aside from this performance made many works that dissect the dynamics of relationships with her partner Ulay, Horn commits the act of hair cutting unto herself, whilst Abramović submitted herself to the will of an audience. The theme and act also share meaning and tension with other key performance works by female artists at a similar time, for example Yoko Ono's documented live performance Cut Piece (1964) and Martha Rosler's Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975).
Film - Tate Modern, London
Concert for Anarchy
In Concert for Anarchy a grand piano is hung upside down from the ceiling, high above viewers' heads. Every few minutes, the keys spring out from the piano with a sudden, unnervingly loud motion, leaving them splayed, like fingers protruding from the space where the smooth and ordered keyboard would usually be. Meanwhile, the lid of the piano falls open to show the instrument's inner workings. After a few minutes, the keys retract and the lid closes, and the piano is then ready to repeat the same clumsy and unpredictable cycle once again. Appropriately for this work, Horn has said, "I like my machines to tire...They are more than objects. These are not cars or washing machines. They rest, they reflect, they wait." Despite its repetition, the operation of the work fails to become familiar; its capacity to render viewers uncertain persists.
In this way, Horn has here personified the piano, opening up its interior for dissection as one would a body under operation. Horn wants to get to the innards of things, both physically and emotionally. The experience for the viewer, with the heavy thing precariously hanging, is always one of impending threat and risk. Whilst music usually brings lightness, the object shows its heaviness and thus reveals the artist's continued interest in reaching a balance between these two states. Indeed, prior associations with pianos are disrupted and their intended effect, to produce sweet music, is literally turned on its head as proposed 'anarchy' serves to challenge the symbolism we typically recall upon seeing this object. The symbolism stretches deep, for Horn herself has spoken evocatively about this work: "the piano in my installation Concert for Anarchy... embodies the purity of a music which the artist is no longer able to create within the bounds of his real life. It is the concerts of the imagination, which still embody freedom and the ideal - in the reality of his artistic life the artist seeks out disruptive factors which will preserve the purity of musical experience in his inner self. This represents a form of total rejection of the surrounding society, enabling anarchy to be lived out in the imagination." Thus the object is fuelled by both poetry and anxiety, the typical marriage found in artwork by Rebecca Horn.
Mechanised sculpture - Tate Modern, London
Tower of the Nameless
Tower of the Nameless consists of a complex and precarious installation of ladders and violins that reach up from floor to the balcony of a private house in Vienna. The work was made in homage to the victims of, and the refugees created by the war in former Yugoslavia during the early 1990s. Horn described how, "attached to the ladder tower were nine violins, mechanically playing to themselves in a manic, melancholy sigh...I called [named] it...after a small cemetery on the banks of the Danube just outside Vienna, which is populated by the unidentified bodies of those found floating lifeless down the river." Horn also exhibited the work at the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hanover in 1997, and it is one of many monumental works that the artist has made to commemorate horrific struggles experienced by people in war.
Art and architecture historian Carl Haenlein, has described how, "the form this work relates to the ancient Babylonian dream of the artist touching the heavens by erecting a columned house whose roof reaches high above the clouds." While Haenlein connects this to the "speculative utopian architecture" of artists like the Russian Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin, the evident fragility of Horn's installation additionally suggests threat to viewers below and thus implies that any idealistic search is precarious and usually compromised by discord. Following the break down of the Balkan states, Horn comments that: "Vienna's underground was populated by the refugees war. These abandoned people were hiding in doors and subway tunnels....This [music] was their only way of expressing pain; they couldn't speak German, they had no passports, no identity, they were on the run." Reflecting on Horn's statement, the placement of this installation in a richly decorated private home brings the displaced refugees inside from doorways and tunnels and ironically brings music used to communicate nameless status inside a high brow Viennese home.
Indicative of her wider work as a politically passionate artist, Horn has spoken of being influenced by major world events including the Gulf War, and of course, the Holocaust.
Site-specific installation in a baroque stairwell - Naschmarkt, Vienna, Austria
Concert for Buchenwald
Rebecca Horn produced this major site-specific installation in response to the victims of the Buchenwald concentration camp, and specifically to confront the legacy of the Holocaust more widely. The first part of installation was located in a disused tram shed in Weimar, a city near the site of the death camp. Inside, a section of train track stretched from one end of the room to the other. At the far end of the track a wagon, brought especially from Buchenwald, moved up and down in a short section of track periodically hitting the wall and setting off an electrical charge that would run up a glass tube; for Horn this symbolized the exit of souls. The rest of the train track was covered with piles of broken musical instruments and their cases, all of which Horn had collected from different European cities, and which represented the barbaric instruction to leave all treasured personal possessions outside concentration camps. Glass walls covering the length of both sides of the room, on either side of the track, were filled with wood ash. For Horn, victims were not only killed but also disappeared, and so the ash represented 6 million handfuls of ash, one for each victim of the Holocaust.
The second part of the installation took place in a castle at the foot of the hill on which the Buchenwald camp was built, a location that referred to Weimar's rich cultural history. Looking at the castle from the front, viewers could see three lit windows and one dark window. In the one darkened room there was a conducting stick and a cello playing by itself. In another part of the installation a collection of large sculptural beehives were hung from the ceiling and illuminated by searchlights, which were then in turn reflected in rotating mirrors. A rock periodically crashed from the ceiling on rope, landing on a pile of mirrors and detritus, suggesting sadness, violence and impending doom.
For Horn light and shadow was important to this work, and contemporary conflicts, such as Kosovo, became equally as important as the historical starting point. Horn has said of Germany and of the German people, "we don't know where we go". Her work suggests that there is now a national responsibility to reflect deeply, to warn future generations of potential catastrophes, and to actively work towards the prevention of heinous crimes. The work can be discussed alongside that of other artists and filmmakers who also endeavor to communicate the trauma of the Holocaust, such as Christian Boltanski, Rachel Whiteread, Michael Haneke, and Elfriede Jelinek.
Site-specific Installation - Weimar, Germany