Icarus Redeemed: Rebecca Horn

Rebecca Horn. Still from performance of <em>Körperfächer</em>, 1972, from <em>Performances II</em>, 1970-73. Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York.

Rebecca Horn. Still from performance of Körperfächer, 1972, from Performances II, 1970-73. Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York.

Performances II (1970-1973)

Rebecca Horn

Video documentation of various performances

“WACK! Art and The Feminist Revolution” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), and The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., 2007

“White Body Fan” (1972)

She stands facing us, arms reaching above her head, a translucent sky behind her. Three horizontal straps cross her torso. Giant white wings of fabric tremble with her effort to hold them up as she slowly moves them. It is like being above a massive, white, resting butterfly; she closes the wings towards us, hiding herself, and reopens. As she tips the fan from side to side, we see her figure/the white sky/the wing-like body fan.

In a wider view she is full figure, standing on sand, unfurling the body fan from a resting position to form a perfect circle around her inset body, further held in place by four straps on each leg. Straps segment the looser fabric of her blue shirt and jeans, making her body caterpillar-like from the side.

“Feather Finger” (1972)

Soft gray feathers have been pushed through key rings onto the fingers of a hand. The feather-hand begins tucked under that same arm, then starts to auto-erotically caress the performer’s other hand. The flat tipped pigeon “fingers” of the modified stroking hand appear to be the kind of feathers that have a strange smell to children. The feather fingers move up the hand to caress the opposite forearm, then that inner arm, and finally come to rest folded beneath that underarm.

“Cockfeather Mask” (1973)

A vertical glossy mass obscures her features, except for eyes visible at each side. A view of her head in profile reveals the feathers, like a fuller cock’s tail, extending down the front of her face. Straps bound across her face keep the feathery ridge in place. Eyeliner masks her eyes. She begins pushing the feathers insistently from side to side across the hair and profile of a man facing her. The motion causes their profiles to slowly alternate between female and male in the frame.

“Pencil Mask” (1972)

Many short green pencils poke into the air, mounted on green straps to form a mask crisscrossing her face. She faces a wall. For the first time in the Performances sequence we hear sound—the drag of pencil lead across paper as she draws her head from side to side. She blinks rapidly, doe-like, and precisely repeats the side-to-side motion, again and again. The pencils spring out stiffly each time she completes a stroke. It looks like it hurts a little to draw this way. In the next shot, the sound has grown fuller and many more pencil marks line the paper, which has become loose. She moves more slowly, then stops.

Rebecca Horn. Still from performance of <em>Körperfächer</em>, 1972, from <em>Performances II</em>, 1970-73. Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York.

Rebecca Horn. Still from performance of Körperfächer, 1972, from Performances II, 1970-73. Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York.

“He gave a never to be repeated kiss to his son, and lifting upwards on his wings, flew ahead, anxious for his companion, like a bird, leading her fledglings out of a nest above, into the empty air. He urged the boy to follow, and showed him the dangerous art of flying, moving his own wings, and then looking back at his son … .

“… the boy began to delight in his daring flight, and abandoning his guide, drawn by desire for the heavens, soared higher. His nearness to the devouring sun softened the fragrant wax that held the wings: and the wax melted: he flailed with bare arms, but losing his oar-like wings, could not ride the air. Even as his mouth was crying his father’s name, it vanished into the dark blue sea”

—Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by Anthony S. Kline

The film Performances II serially demonstrates nine sculptures that temporarily attach to the human body, each extending the body’s form and function. Horn assembles her bodily extensions with basic elements: straps and feathers, cloth and wood. Most shots in the film closely track movement without showing extraneous detail, serving to emphasize Horn’s economical vocabulary of sculptural construction and gesture. Slow pacing gives the film the feel of an earlier era, and allows enough time for the audience to fully absorb and understand how each sculpture works.

A fruitful line of thought runs through the film as one project flows into the next. Shapes transmute among sequences, as when the shape of the unicorn head extension is echoed by negative space above Rebecca’s head in the subsequent “White Body Fan” performance. Actions from one performance also reappear, transformed, from one to the next. The caressing of another’s back in “Finger Gloves” leads to self-stroking in “Feather Fingers.” In “Cockfeather Mask,” the drawing of feathers across another’s face leaves behind the invisible trace of sensation, while the same side-to-side motion in “Pencil Mask” creates a drawing on a wall. The actors—Horn and friends—sometimes are in close and deliberate proximity to each other, adding a distinct sexual energy to the film. At times, the human form suggests the animal: “Pencil Mask” recalls the delicate movements of elk rubbing velvety antlers against trees; “White Body Fan” transforms its wearer into a giant butterfly.

Rebecca Horn. Still from performance of <em>Hahnenmaske</em>, 1973, from <em>Performances II</em>, 1970-73. Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York.

Rebecca Horn. Still from performance of Hahnenmaske, 1973, from Performances II, 1970-73. Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York.


Something moves towards us through an arcade of trees, visible only when passing through pools of light, at regular intervals. As the figure walks closer, we see that its head is elongated, pointing towards the sky, an otherworldly human unicorn. Allusions to the fantastical in the film parallel the seemingly magical projection of tactile sense and attendant touch that extend beyond the physical limits of Horn’s body during her performances. This sense of expanded body schema and peripersonal space, which Horn has described feeling while demonstrating her sculptural extensions, has been known and studied by the scientific community for a century. Recently, Princeton neuroscientists pinpointed certain neurons that give us a sense of our bodily selves projected beyond our physical boundaries, enabling us, for example, to sense the edges of our cars while we drive.

It’s easy to imagine how the desire to extend the useful functions of the human body fostered the invention of early hand tools. In this primal context, it’s possible to trace all manmade objects—sculpture at its most broadly defined—back to the human body, made for and by it, even when constructed at an industrial remove. Relating sculpture to the body in a different way, the artist Orlan, Horn’s contemporary, stages public plastic surgery sessions, incorporating distinct facial attributes from female figures of Grecian mythology and other history into her own body. A Google search of the words “body” and “sculpture” predictably returns an abundance of plastic surgery and liposuction sites, permanent body alteration, marketed as readily available perfection. Cars are the other dangerous apotheosis of the body extension urge. Today’s Icarus is the teenage driver who overestimated his extended tactile body sense of car, and at high speed “became airborne for 100 feet and hit a concrete overpass pillar on a sharply curving exit ramp” (The New York Times, Dec. 6, 2007). And he is also the elective surgery patient who, failing to achieve bodily perfection, and tortured by his mistake, kills himself after the surgery fails.

Horn’s removable prosthetics in Performances II are more forgiving. The Icarus-like wings of “White Body Fan” are not meant for risky flight—instead they can be used for sensing the movements of the surrounding air. These are mostly playful temporary body sculptures, created in the spirit of experiment, which present new possibilities for viewers to metaphorically try on.

Even so, the work’s genesis lies in illness and loss, which the film visually alludes to but never directly addresses. (The wrapping around the head and body in “Unicorn” immediately suggests bandaging.) In a 2005 Guardian interview with the author Jeanette Winterson, Horn said, “In 1964 … I was working with glass fibre, without a mask, because nobody said it was dangerous, and I got very sick. For a year I was in a sanatorium. My parents died. I was totally isolated. That’s when I began to produce my first body-sculptures. I could sew lying in bed.” To recover, Horn found redemption in tactility and touch. This work is both gift and example to us.

The film Performances II represents early work in Rebecca Horn’s career. Horn has moved on to create living machines. Born in Germany, and based in Paris and Berlin, Horn lived in New York from 1972 until 1981. “Rebecca Horn: The Inferno-Paradiso Switch”, was on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1993.

“WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” will travel to P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York City, Feb. 17 through May 10, 2008, and then will be at the Vancouver Art Gallery Oct. 4-Jan. 18, 2009.

In memory of Colin Thomas Dorrian, who flew too close to the sun.

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