Performing Art

Rosalind Krauss

  • Rebecca Horn: The Glance of Infinity edited by Carl Haenlein
    Scalo, 400 pp, £47.50, January 1997, ISBN 3 931141 66 7

On one wall of the gallery a fan of black feathers slowly parts in the centre and folds back like a bird on a perch stowing its wings. From the lower area of another wall, 11 black stiletto-heeled shoes project outwards in a sparse cluster, while high above them a mechanical device suddenly jerks two extended ladles upwards against two metal arms so that with each repeated spasm a clang directs the viewer’s attention to the great splatters of blue paint that have been thrown by the device, spraying not only the wall behind it but defiling the shoes and floor below.

The first machine is called Black Widow and about it Rebecca Horn, its maker, has noted: ‘The Black Widow stretching awake/staring at the opalescent moonriver/spreads out her black wings/yawningly.’ The second is Horn’s Prussian Bride Machine, which the same group of notes describes as ‘one-armed/three-legged/ejaculating russian blue/all over the brides’. Both these kinetic sculptures were included in a small group of mechanised works that made up Horn’s 1988 gallery exhibition, A Rather Wild Flirtation: Invitation to Dance. They embody three principles of her art: they are surrogate performers; they are fixated on a version of the fantasy of erotic encounter announced at the beginning of the century by Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even: and they are deliberate contributions to a repertory of signature Horn imagery: the feathered fan, the abandoned shoes, the ‘ejaculated’ paint.

Perhaps it is because of her determination to lay claim to this visual vocabulary that each of Horn’s recent museum exhibitions has resulted in a mammoth catalogue in which the entirety of her production is fully displayed, regardless of what aspect of the work is actually on show. For however repetitive and expensive such an editorial procedure might be, the container it forms is not only obedient to the law of completeness, but organises its contents as self-sufficient, owing very little to the aesthetic world around it. Not surprisingly, then, Rebecca Horn: The Glance of Infinity, produced for her exhibition at Hanover’s Kestner Gesellschaft, nearly replicates the Guggenheim’s catalogue for its exhibition, Rebecca Horn: The Inferno-Paradiso Switch, four years earlier.

The essays presenting her work are different, of course, and a few new pieces, executed in the interim, have been added. But this does not (apparently) preclude the necessity to rehearse in glossy, full-page technicolour the whole career, from its beginnings in the early Seventies – Horn’s performances with bodily prostheses strapped to her own or her performers’ heads, arms, fingers, breasts – through the feature-length films of the late Seventies and early Eighties, to the subsequent interest in sculptural detritus from these spectacles: props and elements of sets, turned into gallery installations or mechanised in their own right. The 1990 exhibition Diving into Buster’s Bedroom was typical: footage from her film Buster’s Bedroom (1990) was piled like so much waste in a corner of Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art and a hospital bed to which motorised butterflies were attached was set up in an adjoining room, a fugitive item from the sanatorium in which the film was set.

This kind of installation was characteristic of Horn’s approach to sculpture throughout the Eighties, with her machines offering a spectacle of relative autonomy – the Kiss of the Rhinoceros (1989), for example, whose enormous curved metal arms bring the rhinoceros horns appended to their tips into startled confrontation, or the Peacock Machine (1982), with its metallic fan simulating the spread of the bird’s exorbitant plumage – but often interacting with the walls and ceilings of the room in which they are displayed, splattering paint on the surrounding surfaces or sending electrical sparks jumping from one object to another or slowly releasing droplets of liquid to disturb the surface of pools on the floor below.

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