Moving to a mechanical beat

Rebecca Horn’s Body Fantasies at the Tinguely Museum and Theatre of Metamorphoses at the Centre Pompidou-Metz

« Everything is interlinked. I always start with an idea, a story which develops towards a text, then from the text come the sketches, then a film, and from all that the sculptures and installations are born. »

Rebecca Horn
Rebecca Horn, White Body Fan, 1972. Photography Rebecca Horn Collection
© 2019: Rebecca Horn/ProLitteris, Zürich

Since the early 1970s, German artist Rebecca Horn has created an ever-evolving oeuvre of film, performance, sculpture, spatial installations, large-scale paper works and drawings which explore the human body and its movement. Two exhibitions running concurrently at Basel’s Museum Tinguely and the Centre Pompidou-Metz offer complementary insights into the work of this 75-year-old artist whose capacity for invention constructs both exquisitely sensual and disconcerting art.

Horn’s Body Fantasies show in the Swiss art capital presents early performance works and later kinetic sculptures, setting out the developmental flow of her work and its emphasis on the transformational relationship between body and machine.  It’s a good fit amongst the energetic, dada-inspired metamechanicals of Jean Tinguely which are housed in the adjacent rooms (Horn’s creations are decidedly more feminine and refined).  

Running in parallel in Metz, the Theatre of Metamorphoses focuses on the diverse process of transformation, from animist, surrealist and mechanistic perspectives paying particular attention to film as a matrix within Horn’s work.

Rebecca Horn, Zen der Eule, 2010. Rebecca Horn Collection
© 2019: Rebecca Horn/ProLitteris, Zürich

The Basel show is organized thematically and traces the development of the artist’s works as “stations in a process of transformation”. Beginning with a space devoted to flapping wings, Horn explores the human fascination with winged and feathered beings.  In White Body Fan (1972), the artist straps a pair of semi-circular ‘wings’ onto her body which she opens and closes in Icarus-style experimentation.  In Horn’s case, the feet remain firmly rooted to the ground. Other pieces have been directly developed from this choreographed performance; Mechanical Peacock Fan (1981) is a showy, white train of feathers which courts the viewer with its elegant, automated mimicry. A revolving circle of owl feathers hypnotizes in meditative resolutions and in Schmetterling im Zenit (2009), an iridescent blue butterfly beats its wings intermittently in a glass cage, its bid for freedom thwarted by invisible yet escape-proof walls.

Symbolic contradictions abound in Horn’s work, so too does a textural physicality. Restrictive props operate in an omnipresent openness, soft feathers mingle with cold, metal machines, and adagio tempos vie with urgent, clicking flurries. Yet, in amongst these immersive, multi-sensorial layers, the human body remains at the core. Horn’s intent to make the body the focus of her work is influenced by a challenging early life.  In 1964 at the age of 20, she contracted a serious lung disease from working with fiberglass. She was forced to halt her studies at the Hamburg Academy of Fine Arts and spent a year in a sanitorium. At the same time, her parents passed away. From the confines of her bed, and in an attempt to escape the isolation, she began creating sculptures or ‘body extensions’ using soft materials and coloured crayon drawings.

Rebecca Horn, Finger Gloves, 1972. Photography Rebecca Horn Collection
© 2019: Rebecca Horn/ProLitteris, Zürich

Her body extensions continued as she developed performance art. At Harald Szeemann’s documenta 5 in 1972, she presented Einhorn, – a cross between performance and installation which featured a friend wearing a fabric unicorn horn strapped to her head, (Horn was famously the youngest participant that year). The Basel exhibition includes Finger Gloves from the same year. Crafted from balsa wood and black fabric, the structures extend Horn’s own arms, mantis-like, to probe the surrounding space.  Later, the human body is replaced by kinetic sculptures using everyday objects from brushes and hammers to a pair of powder-blue high heels tapping out a rhythmic life-like burst seen in American Waltz (1990). At the flick of a switch, their precision-timing brings the viewers conscience back to the present. 

Left: Rebecca Horn, Untitled (Overflowing Blood Machine), 1970. Drawing. Rebecca Horn Collection © 2019: Rebecca Horn/ProLitteris, Zürich
Right: Rebecca Horn, Overflowing Blood Machine, 1970. Tate Collection, London © 2019: Rebecca Horn/ProLitteris, Zürich

Other pieces explore the theme of circulation in different forms. Overflowing Blood Machine (1970) is a medical-looking contraption, alarming in its blood-red vitality presenting the human individual as a hydromechanical structure evoking the historical machines used as a model for scientific insights into the body. Here, the body becomes immobilized, a mechanized object, restrained by its pulsing exterior. In a similar vein, Horn gives visibility to emotional energy flows, deliberately humanizing the sprawling mass of pipes and glass chambers entitled El Rio de la Luna (1992). Its entire system flows with liquidy, moonshine-coloured mercury.

Markings and drawn lines created from body movements are explored in another theme. Pencil Mask (1973) is an unsettling body extension piece relating back to the days of Horn’s self-imposed isolation. Tight straps fixed onto the head secure pencils which mark the surrounding walls to the rhythm of Horn’s back and forward movements. As protagonist, she is semi-concealed yet communicating with the outer world and it is both fearful and comical in true Horn style. In contrast, Les Amants (1991) is one of two automated painting machines shooting paint onto surfaces where physical movement is equally an expression of emotion.  As its title implies, there is a touch of the erotic in its action. Horn’s machines have soul.

Amongst drawings and photographs, film clips and her inventions which clink and clunk, tap, pulsate, revolve and flutter, Horn’s ability to ensorcell her audience stands the test of time. Her universe is one of poetic vitality, and above all, it is resoundingly moving. 

Rebecca Horn, Pencil Mask, 1973 (Filmstill) 16 mm (digitised), color, sound Rebecca Horn Collection
© 2019: Rebecca Horn/ProLitteris, Zürich
Rebecca Horn, American Waltz, 1990. Daros Collection, Swiss
© 2019: Rebecca Horn/ProLitteris, Zürich
Vernissage, Ausstellung « Rebecca Horn. Körperfantasien » im Museum Tinguely, Basel

Rebecca Horn Body Fantasies at the Museum Tinguely until 22 September and Theatre of Metamorphoses at the Centre Pompidou-Metz until 13 January 2020.

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