Rebecca Horn (1944)


Rebecca Horn was born in 1944 in Michelstadt (Hesse) and grew up in post-war Germany before starting at the Hamburg Academy of Fine Arts, from where she graduated in 1970. But she was severely poisoned by handling resin and solvents during a stay in Spain in 1964, and had to stay in a sanatorium for a year. This experience of isolation and suffering would prove decisive in the direction her artistic work first took, forming a compelling part of Body Art which was in vogue in the 1970s. As though compensating for her own physical deficiencies, she created imaginative body extensions, sported by her or by members of the general public during filmed performances, which created a new relationship of the human being to space. Directly inspired by The Broken Column (1944) by Frida Kahlo – also a suffering artist – she walked in nature with just white straps for clothing and a long vertical horn fixed on her head as ornament. This Unicorn (1970) associates mythology and fantasy which are often found together at this time: Cornucopia: Seance for Two Breasts (1970) shows black tongues coming out of her mouth that descend as far as her nourishing breasts, whilst the Finger Gloves (1970) extend to the ground, prosaically serving to pick up a piece of paper from the floor, but also Scratching Both Walls at Once (filmed performance, 1974)...! And her approach is not a stranger to Surrealism or Dadaism when she invents an Overflowing Blood Machine (1970), when she is filmed cutting her hair with two pairs of scissors simultaneously (1975), or wearing a mask spiked with pencils (1972) that draw on the wall in rhythm to the lateral movements of her head. These challenges, which come from a search for 'trans-humanism' - aiming to improve this body that is judged imperfect – are also expressed in connection with the animal world that is capable of flying: White Body Fan (1972) shows a human being transformed into a butterfly, an insect that would often reappear in her work. It is also true for the bird: she lengthens her fingers through feathers so that "the hand becomes as sensitive as the wing of a bird"; she conceals her naked body in an immense fan of ostrich feathers Feathered Prison Fan (1978), or in a cocoon of black feathers, Paradise Widow (1975-77), a chrysalis out of which a new being can emerge.

She then replaced the body with kinetic sculptures symbolising human behaviours, particularly in amorous relationships: machines endlessly reproducing movements that are constantly interrupted, evoke the desire of love that is never satisfied (The Twin of the Crow), danger (Between the Knives the Emptiness 2014), the creative drive (mechanical 'dripping' in The Lovers 1991), ardour (electric arcs producing a spark), the destructive violence of passion or war (High Moon, 1991), or the wearing effect of the couple (Tailleur de Coeur, 'Heart Cutter', 1998 where two soft stones eventually destroy each other through the force of their rubbing together). These repetitive movements may recall the daily routine, but Rebecca Horn also shows great concern for the fate of man, through that of Buster Keaton: Time Goes By (1990) appears as a metaphor for his artistic fortune, likened to the fate of the coal-mines that were themselves abandoned for other technologies; but there is hope of rebirth, suggested by the spark of energy produced by the copper snakes that are either in confrontation or in love, and suspended above the black landscape. "The world with a soul is of no use to him, that is why he breathes a soul into machines", she said of the famous actor who was relegated by talking pictures; words that proved perfectly matched to her own inventions. Did she not call a fan of sheet-music displayed like the tail of a peacock precisely Floating Souls (1990)? It really seems that in this way the artist expresses the fragility of situations, indeed the fragility of the human condition, even beyond death.

Rebecca Horn gives music an important place in her work, whether this is virtual (she uses musical scores – Floating Souls, 1990 – and instruments such as the violin and piano) or real (sound), like the murmur of mixed voices that escape from the horns that top the copper shoots of a tree spreading up from the ground in Les Ombres des Soupirs (2000) or again the 'concrete music' generated by the mechanical parts themselves. The piano that is slowly eviscerated and then retracts like a snail in Concert for Anarchy (1990) seems to echo The Moon, The Child and the River of Anarchy (1992), the school desks suspended from the ceiling like the instrument: do these two works evoke the childhood of the artist and her desire to escape the rigours of school and a musical education..?

The sonorous dimension of the installations becomes all-important in Chorus of the Locusts (1991) in connection with the Gulf War and the debates that it provoked, where the intertwining of the off-beat rhythms of typewriters suspended from the ceiling, and the clink of thousands of glasses knocking together on a moving floor destabilises visitors to the point where they make faltering movements. In a stairwell in Naschmarkt, Vienna, violins hung from stepladders and moved mechanically emit plaintive sounds evoking the struggle for survival of refugees from the Balkans (Tower of the Nameless, 1994).

This sensitivity to contemporary events goes hand in hand with her concern to pay homage to the victims of Nazism in installations from the end of the 1990s. On permanent display in the synagogue in Stommeln, Mirror of the Night (1998) perpetuates the memory of the Holocaust and resistance through writing, something dear to People of the Book; whereas Concert for Buchenwald (1999), displayed in a former tram depot, displays ash and silent musical instruments whilst a wagon moves noisily along the rails. The theme of History is taken up again in Rebecca Horn's urban sculptures. Shooting Star was put on permanent display on the beach in the Barceloneta district of the Catalan capital in 1992 as a monument to commemorate the 'xiringuitos', the old-fashioned but charming shacks selling food and drink, that were torn down to satisfy the organisation of the summer Olympic Games: four steel and glass modules are dangerously piled on top of each other to a height of ten metres. In 2002 she surrounded the enormous Piazza del Plebiscito in Naples with energy from multiple rings of light sweeping above the space where cast-iron skulls – like those from the city's catacombs – had been scattered, and through which the visitor moves about.

In Ombre du Coeur, émeu (Shadow of the Heart, moved) (2003), the artist continued to work with phenomena of optics and light: the play between two circular, tilting mirrors, a projector and an emu egg create moving shadows, giving an image full of poetry and the mystery of the cosmos, of the origin of the world and of life.

Forces of Nature, whether cosmic or terrestrial, mineral or organic – that the artist praises with romanticism in the poems that sometimes accompany the works (Belle du vent, 2003) – are intimately associated with divine power in Buisson ardent, ('Burning Bush', 2001), inspired by the Bible; its copper branches, which tremble slightly due to pistons linked to a motor, are equipped with glass funnels filled with ash, resulting from an energy driven to incandescence. Whereas Le Calvaire (2001), with its rose branches covered with thorns and protected by a glass case sprinkled with gold paint, really does seem to 'mysteriously' renew Christian iconography.

Having thus symbolised the weaknesses of the human condition in a way that is at the same time playful and modest, Rebecca Horn seems - through repetitive movements - to bring about the transformation of the vain spiral of our lives in successive cycles, allowing man a spiritual elevation.

with literary and cinematographic references, Rebecca Horn's metaphorical work combines both technical mastery and artistic beauty often derived from nature (particularly birds, their feathers and movements), to serve a highly philosophical poetic vision.

(Martine Heudron)

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