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.

According to the essays in the Guggenheim catalogue, much of the imagery developed in these machines and the installations to which they are attached is ‘alchemical’: piles of pulverised ore (coal, sulphur, pigment), snakes of copper tubing, basins of inky liquid, funnels of steel or glass, and vats of mercury produce variations on the theme of the alembic and the transformation of base matter. Some of the essays trace Horn’s invocation of alchemy back to Duchamp, whose Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even has itself been frequently decoded with reference to esoteric texts. Others want to see it as an allegory of transformation independent of direct art-historical influences. Indeed, the claim increasingly made for Horn is that she has neither forebears nor peers, the only admissible sources of her work being writers (Dostoevsky, Roussel, Villiers de l’Isle Adam, Kafka, Artaud) or figures from cinema (Buñuel, Buster Keaton).

There is much talk of this sort in The Glance of Infinity. Bruce Ferguson, one of its contributors, writes: ‘Dependable explanations are circumvented by her work’s material and conceptual complexities which resist the very foundations of any disciplinary knowledge. No art-historical parameters, no sculptural stylistics, no performative affiliations, no cinematic genre, no intellectual or political affiliation can hold this body of work easily and comfortably.’ This pronouncement falls into line with Horn’s own disclaimers, which admit an interest in Duchamp only insofar as he opens onto the fantastic literary world of ‘bachelor machines’ that includes The Penal Colony and Roussel’s Impressions of Africa. In fact, in the four years that separate the two catalogues, Horn’s solipsistic stance has hardened: her own texts and notes – sometimes inelegant, sometimes wildly pretentious – have filled much of the space previously given over to historians and critics, and her former willingness to connect her allegorical procedures at least to her own autobiography (if not to the examples of others) has retreated into inscrutable ‘explanations’.

Asked about the impulses behind her earliest performances, for example, she told Germano Celant, for the Guggenheim catalogue, of her lengthy stay in a sanatorium as a result of lung poisoning contracted by working with polyester and fibreglass without a mask at art school – hence the bandages, the soft materials, the chemicals, the body-swathing. To the same question posed by Carl Haenlein in The Glance of Infinity, however, she merely says: ‘All my early works were concerned with the relation between space and the body. At that time I developed a sharpened sensibility for light and spatial energy, an innate sense of the moment when a certain action in a room should start; from these considerations I evolved a new dialogue between spaces and sculptures.’ Between the body in the hospital bed imagining its capacity to expand into the space around it and the wooden recital of a recipe for the phenomenology of perception, the loss of explanatory nuance is obvious.

That Horn should have elided this autobiographical detail is particularly arresting, given the parallel it suggests between her career and that of another woman artist equally engaged in producing myth out of her own self-projection and its oscillations between pain and eros. In late adolescence Frida Kahlo was involved in a hideous bus accident that drove a steel pole through her uterus and spinal column, confined her to a hospital bed for months on end and resulted in a life both of continuing suffering and artistic self-mythologising.

Kahlo’s body flayed, her veins exposed to view as radiant coral branches; Kahlo’s body lashed to the metal grill of her hospital bed, her life’s blood flowing in rivulets across the surrounding floor; Kahlo’s body bandaged in papoose-like rigidity, only her face and breasts exposed; Kahlo’s self-lacerating despair over erotic disappointment expressed as snakes of her own black hair shorn from her penitent head: all of this finds its echo in the performances that first brought Horn into the public eye as the youngest contributor to Documenta V in 1972.

Horn’s obsession with the bandaged body that begins in the late Sixties and has its issue in Unicorn (1971) – in which a naked young woman is harnessed in white strapping so as to support a long horn-like appendage on top of her head – this, and her use of facial masks and feathered armouring, recall Kahlo’s imagery. Even the somewhat androgynous young man who stands on a glass pedestal, within which a machine circulates blood through the surplice of tubes he wears, in Overflowing Blood Machine (1970), looks startlingly like Kahlo, with his jet black shoulder-length hair and the thick swathe of his black eyebrows. Berlin Exercises, the series of performance pieces she filmed in 1974, not only continues the theme of bandaging and the sense of the immobilised body centred (like the patient in the hospital bed) in a space radiating around it yet just out of reach, but in the sequence called ‘Cutting one’s hair with two pairs of scissors simultaneously’, it once again reproduces Kahlo’s imagery of self-attack.

That much of Horn’s mature production is elaborated from these initial themes – the bedridden body submitted to the mechanical prosthesis (River of the Moon, 1992), the hospital setting providing the stage for erotic fantasy (Buster’s Bedroom), the tangle of tubes rushing life-giving fluids through spaces like so much waste (Missing Full Moon, 1989 and The Moon, the Child and the River of Anarchy, 1992), the slow rhythm of a medicinal drip (The Keep, 1987 and Black Bath, 1985-6) – and that the themes themselves, however personal, are also shared with Kahlo at their level of artistic expression, leads one to a certain scepticism about the explanatory construction being built for Horn’s work in these increasingly hagiographic volumes. For, as the word ‘metaphysical is thought to be the only adequate term to describe the work’s reach, the emphasis on its autochthonous birth and development becomes more and more insistent – as in Bruce Ferguson’s catalogue essay:

The traditional masterful humanist needs for conclusions, purity, progress and identity are found wanting by the very nature of Horn’s projects and their receptions. To an art cumulatively committed to an unlegislated process of incurable discovery such as Horn’s is, modernist homogeneity is menacing at worst and is always a liability to another level of experience. Her sculptural machines, camera performances, embellished drawings and photo-collages, films and their characters and kinetic site-specific installations are, instead, all overwhelmingly infused with unbounded signs and mesmerising emanations of a determined appetite – a constant hunger which yearns greedily for a fundamental anarchy.

The fact of the matter, however, is that Horn belongs to the generation that bred the sub-genre of performance art, itself given a powerful early impetus by such older artists as Joseph Beuys, Jannis Kounellis, Marcel Broodthaers, Robert Rauschenberg, or by Vienna Aktionists such as Hermann Nitsch, or practitioners of happenings such as Claes Oldenburg, all of whom felt the need to attack the autonomous work of art. Far less overtly political than many of their exemplars, the performance artists of Horn’s generation were often engaged in developing elaborate allegories from scraps of personal experience (Meredith Monk, Joan Jonas), weaving the naked body through a world of charged theatrical props (Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson) and exploring sado-masochism reminiscent of Surrealism (Gina Pane, Valie Export). Given the ephemerality of ‘performance’ as a medium, it was natural that these artists would either turn to a recording medium like video or film, or attempt to commodify parts of the performance space by turning its props into quasi-independent works, a practice brilliantly mastered by Matthew Barney, a relative newcomer to this field.

Within this context it is fair to make certain criticisms. For just as one might begin by asking how interesting it is to recycle an already invented iconography of pain (Kahlo’s), one might go on to ask how Horn’s allegorical world compares in visual inventiveness and poetic economy with that, say, of Robert Wilson or Meredith Monk. It is equally legitimate to disturb the claustrophobic space of ‘Horn exegesis’ by asking how seriously we should take the laxness with which she makes the kind of memory box ineradicably associated with Joseph Cornell: in this case, Ocean Library, Sylvia PlathThe Bell Jar’ (1991), which scatters the pages of Plath’s novel within the box’s interior; or how formally inventive we should consider Horn’s group of body fans, given the dazzling memory of Rauschenberg’s Pelican, during which he roller-skated with an open parachute billowing behind his back; or how evocatively intense we might find her wall splatters, in the light of Hermann Nitsch’s earlier spectacles.

Even if the answers in each of these cases were in Horn’s favour – a judgment I would certainly not share – simply to ask the questions would enormously aid the readers of catalogues such as these. For if it would sacrifice the idea that Horn arrived like a lightning bolt, from nowhere, it would produce a historical backdrop against which her profile could be drawn with greater resonance.

Such a backdrop would situate the international drive towards ‘performance art’ during the early Seventies within the general collapse of the two touchstones of High Modernism: the idea of aesthetic autonomy and the notion that each artistic medium has a ‘specific’ logic that should be revealed as part of the content of any serious work – a collapse given a final push by the events of May’68. As a variety of cultural spaces were then requisitioned and occupied by their users – students at the Sorbonne, for example – and as the authorities began to move against these occupations, two things became clear to the participants. One was that the ‘neutrality’ of the institutions of cultural knowledge was a fiction and that there were no ‘autonomous’ preserves within the social field: neither within the walls of the lecture-theatre nor within the framing edge of a painting. The other was that a very effective way to expose the ideological contamination of these ‘framed’ spaces was to become a protagonist in a kind of theatrical restaging of the framing process itself. This is what Marcel Broodthaers did when, immediately after 1968, he assumed the ‘directorship’ of his own fictitious museum.

As Broodthaers displaced his field of operations from the artist’s studio to the ‘museum’ offices, the conceptual categories with which he worked shifted. The separation between mediums that was thought natural to the arts – painting as distinct, say, from sculpture – was replaced by bureaucratic divisions between ‘departments’: public relations, on the one hand, v. curatorial or financial cadres, on the other. With the erasure of earlier distinctions, between ‘high’ and ‘low’, between reproduction and original, between text and image, the basis for any grouping of objects became the institutional or administrative boundaries of a given agency. It was to this conceptual-cum-architectural site that art practice would be ‘specific’ rather than to any aesthetic medium.

Broodthaers is by no means the only example one could use to make this point. To choose him, however, is to help to situate Horn’s practice chronologically and theoretically. For by 1972, when she made her debut at Documenta V, Broodthaers had already installed parts of his fictitious museum there: Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, Section Publicité and Section d’Art Moderne. Thus the notions of site specificity, of disobedience to Modernist notions of ‘purity’ and obeisance to the laws of the medium triumphantly claimed for Horn in The Glance of Infinity – ‘a fundamental anarchy’, ‘conceptual complexities which resist the very foundations of any disciplinary knowledge’, ‘unbounded signs’ – were in wide circulation by the time she arrived on the scene.

Yet if Broodthaers’s exhibitions theatricalised the space of the museum, directly acknowledging the viewers – through the directives of signs, arrows, barriers and mirrors – and pointing up the spectator’s phenomenological experience, his work adamantly took away with one hand what it had given with the other. For everywhere in the field of the visual, in the realm of the immediate, there was only the mechanically reproduced: printed signs carefully protected by stanchions bearing velvet ropes but fatuously declaring ‘private property’ or ‘Echanger/faire Informer Pouvoir [sic]’. Everything, down to the artist’s signature, was submitted to the law of industrial production which dictates that everything will be turned out in series, even the ‘individual’.

Rebecca Horn gladly accepted the notion of site specificity, rather than the specificity of the medium, and the disturbance that results in the china shop of Modernist decorum, but she has been unwilling to acknowledge its corollary: that the erosion of autonomous spaces and their ‘frames’ would henceforth take place within the spectator, too, whose private experience had been theoretically protected by the notion of an indivisible ‘now’ within which the work blossomed on the interior screen of his or her sensorium. To enter her theatre is not, then, to encounter the blanched experience of the multiple, even though her actors are, themselves, machines. It is to find a celebration of the immediate present in an idea of machines that leap-frogs back over the sterility announced by Duchamp’s ‘bachelor machine’ and retreats to an Enlightenment position, in which the mechanical and the human are unproblematic analogues for one another.

Machines in motion caress, dance, explore, grope, flutter, falter, hesitate, shudder, stroke, tickle, whisper and waver; all tender articulations of the deepest preoccupations of human subjectivity. Brushes paint expressively, copper snakes hiss blue electricity at each other, and small hammers touch and deftly kiss their doubles.

What does it mean to invoke ‘the deepest preoccupations of human subjectivity’, as Bruce Ferguson does, when the human subject who produces them has so obviously copied them from someone else? What does it mean to submit to the admonitions laid down by an artist (or any other cultural producer) as against discussing her work within a historical or theoretical context that does not assume her operations to be sui generis? What does it mean to make a textual product which is so self-enclosed that almost no reference to earlier critical studies of its subject can enter, and no attempt is made to introduce the reader to the simplest facts of the subject’s development? The Glance of Infinity is the answer: curatorial irresponsibility at its most voguishly abject, bowing to the imperious narcissism of its subject’s wishes with 4 ¾lbs of flamboyant mystification.